Okay, now remember, this was my first foray into creative writing since grade school. I'm not sayin' this is good or anything. I'm just sharin' witcha. Ready?The Undertaker's Daughter
We watched them carry the large, black canvas bags into the barn below. This was our special place, high in the loft on top of the hay bales, where the tiny window framed our world. We could see all the way down the hill to the center of town. The best of times were when Stephen managed to sneak his dad's binoculars. Then even our principal making breakfast before school couldn't hide from our view.
It was a chilly morning. Stephen and I huddled close and wiped our steamy breath from the window glass. As the men carried the first body bag into the barn, Stephen grabbed my arm and said he could swear he saw the second bag, still in the back of the pickup, move.
"Not even," I replied. "Those guys are deader than doornails, that's what Dad says. They've been at the bottom of the rivah foah twenty-foah owas." I used my best southern accent, the way Scarlet O'Hara talked in Gone With the Wind. I loved to pretend I was from somewhere else.
I knew in my head that I was going to turn twelve in less than two weeks, but I felt in my heart so much older. For as long as I could remember, I'd dreamed of grown-up adventure. I'd dreamed of romance like I'd seen in the movies and made up wonderful stories of my own. One of my favorite pastimes was hiding up in the loft and daydreaming of what life would be like someday, and hopefully soon.
Sometimes I'd see myself in my dreams, though much sweeter and more delicate. At other times, I'd be someone else entirely. Caught up in a fantasy, I often mouthed the words, checking every few minutes to be sure no one was around. As much as I enjoyed spending time with my best friend, Stephen Weber, I needed my private time in the loft. I'd been lost in one of my make-believe worlds just that morning when Stephen had climbed the ladder and almost caught me talking to someone he couldn't see. I tried to hide it, but I was in an especially cranky mood for having been interrupted.
"Andy." Stephen never called me Andrea. "It's doorknobs, not nails, and have been, and it did move."
He was always correcting me, even my silly grammar, though he knew very well I was joking. And we rarely agreed on anything. Looking back on those times, I realize he simply enjoyed the playful banter. Stephen would always laugh when I'd get agitated with him, which was often.
We did have our serious moments too. Stephen was a year and a half younger and two grades behind me, but he knew a lot about the world for one so young. When we decided to become entrepreneurs and start saving for our future travels around the real world beyond the hills of northwestern Connecticut, Stephen knew just how to proceed.
"We'll have sign-up sheets," he'd instructed on the way to school one morning. "That way, everyone doesn't show up all at the same time. Then your dad would get suspicious. Everybody has to pay their nickel at the door. Ten cents for two bodies. And there's no free second turns or IOUs."
"You mean like with the grocer? Dad set it up so I can get candy and stuff every Wednesday after school, before basketball. All I have to do is tell the man to put it on our tab."
"That's Mr. Jacobs," Stephen once again reminded me. Though I'd grown up in that town of less than two thousand year-round residents, many familiar people were still just titles or significant features to me, without names or the rest of their stories. "And no, we can't do it like that," he said, "because then we'd have to keep track of who owes what and make sure they pay up. How are we gonna pay for our taxes or the boat if we don't collect?"
I was very impressed with the knowledge my fourth-grade friend possessed. I was sure that, someday, he would own an international company and travel the world. Once a year, Stephen and I would take a long trip on the boat we were planning to share. Neither of us had ever been on a boat before, except his uncle's canoe on Hatch Pond, but we imagined how exciting it would be to sail to foreign ports. That was one thing we did agree on. We would move far from this boring town where nothing ever happened, and have lots of great adventure. I would write books about all of the interesting people and exotic places. The folks back home would read my books and long for adventure like that, but they would never be like Stephen and me. Perhaps because I had been raised literally next door to the facts and trappings of the ending of life, I always dreamed of beginnings. New people, new places and experiences. New feelings of being deliciously alive.
The men came out of the door below our window to fetch the second bag. Dad watched as the Sheriff and deputy lifted it off the truck bed. As the two of them waddled sideways back to the barn, the bag sunk almost to the ground and the zipper bulged open in the center. I saw some red, plaid material sticking out.
The men and the body bag disappeared. Stephen and I couldn't see them now, but we could hear everything beneath us.
"Musta been pretty drunk," the Sheriff said, then cleared his nose. "Drove off the road just before the bridge, right into the river. Like a couple of popsicles by the time we got to 'em. Hunters from upstate."
"Put that one over here," Dad said. There was a grunt and a thud. "You'll have the families contact me, then, so we can make arrangements."
"Sure thing, Cliff," the Sheriff answered. "Well, have a good one. We'll see you and Ruthie for dinner tomorrow? We've got a roast."
Dad said he and Mom would be there, and walked the two men back to the Sheriff's new truck. New for him, that is. Dad had said the Sheriff bought it from a guy from Arizona who was passing through town. The man was moving to Vermont and wanted a "beater" like everyone else. I supposed that was true; the only people I knew of who owned new vehicles were the summer people from the city.
"Paid the man a grand and traded his old, beat up Chevy, too," Dad had told Mom and me, as we watched a bunch of guys look under the hood one afternoon from our usual booth at Miss Benson's Burger Bar. The Sheriff had stood there with his arms crossed above his big belly, looking so proud as each man took a turn sitting in the driver's seat and revved the engine. As we ate our fries, Mom and I had looked at each other with identical smirks and shrugged. We didn't see what all the fuss was about.
Stephen, though, he loved that truck -- a baby-blue, '61 Ford unibody with lots of shiny chrome. Not too practical for the Sheriff, I'd thought, but Stephen just had to run over and check it out every time he saw it parked in town. He'd stand on the runners below the cab doors and describe what he saw inside, right down to the polished silver knobs on the radio. I never looked in, though. Said I couldn't care less about the dumb truck. But I knew every detail.
The Sheriff and his deputy headed back down the hill, and Dad went into the house.
Part of my family's old but well-kept farmhouse had long doubled as our town's only funeral parlor. The kitchen was downstairs, and, every morning, I'd sit at the table and eat my Corn Pops while looking through the open door at the display caskets in the front room. Sometimes I would see people walking from casket to casket, running their hands over the outside of each one, then testing the cushion and softness of the interiors. Dad would describe the materials and quote prices, as the customers moved from one casket to the next. Then they usually went into Dad's office to do business. I never could understand why it mattered so much what someone was buried in. What did anything matter by then?
Sometimes I'd lie awake at night, thinking about death, then try to shake off the thought that someday I wouldn't be me anymore. I was anxious to make life mean something, to make my dreams real. I'd often dwell on that as I walked down the hill to school, until meeting up with Stephen at the corner. Then we'd talk about our future adventures till we heard the bell and had to run for it.
I didn't discuss death or Dad's business with my parents either. Mom and Dad would talk about the recently deceased at the dinner table, or as Dad read the paper in his favorite chair and Mom lay on the couch with the cat, but they always talked about what the person had done while he or she was alive, not what happened afterwards. I mean, there was no mention of Heaven or reincarnation or anything. I never knew what they thought about all that. I used to believe that maybe if I went to church like almost all the other kids in town and their families, I'd know what happened when someone died, and I wouldn't be so afraid. I wished I believed in something like a heaven, so it wouldn't be just an end.
I used to watch people walk to and from the stone church halfway down the hill. It was close enough to the house that I could usually tell who was who as they climbed the steps from the road. Then I'd watch everyone shake hands with the reverand as they left about forty-five minutes later.
There were six churches in town, and from the top of the hill in our hay field, I could see all of the steeples. It looked like one of those postcards you could buy at the drugstore. In fact, a local photographer once took a picture from that field, and that photo became a bestselling postcard. The summer people would send the cards back to their friends at home, mostly in New York City, to show them what life in the country looked like.
Stephen and I climbed back down the wooden ladder and looked around the messy barn. That was Dad's territory. With its tires propped against the wall, the old, rusty tractor sat on jacks in the middle of the floor. Definitely that machine's final resting place. And Dad's greasy tools lay just where he'd left them in the spring. Other casualties of time and neglect were scattered around the yard behind the house, and in the upper field, most of which were now hidden by grass, weeds and poison ivy. Dad knew where they all were, but once, when Uncle Greg was in town, he'd helped with some haying and busted a scycle bar on part of an old bailer that had broken down on the job half a decade earlier. Dad had left the bailer at the side of the field and just mowed around it. But he'd apparently neglected to tell Uncle Greg.
Dad still had three operable tractors of three different sizes and at least two of each of the necessary attachments. Plenty of equipment left to manage fourteen acres of hay fields.
Other than those fields, fifteen acres of pature for our one bull and four dairy cows, and a couple of acres around the house, the rest of the original two hundred-acre farm had been sold by my Dad's dad to a developer. Now there were more than forty two- to ten-acre parcels along the unpaved access road that divided what used to be our biggest hay field. Most of those parcels were still without houses and hadn't been sold by the developer, so there were plenty of woods left to play in.
Stephen and I had a bunch of forts back in those trees. The other kids would meet us at a designated treehouse, lean-to or other hideout, just before the five-cent -- and this time ten-cent -- viewings. Stephen and I would tell our customers stories about how we'd seen the dead person walking around the yard the night before, all stiff-legged with arms out straight, or some such nonsense to set the mood. Then we'd take the kids, no more than two at a time, to the barn.
The front room of that big, red building, just inside the sliding doors, was Dad's workshop, with the tractor in the middle and scrap lumber stacked along the walls. In an effort to get things organized in there, Mom, who kept the business areas meticulous despite Dad's presence, had insisted that he put hooks on the far wall above the work bench, for hanging his tools. That arrangement had lasted all of three days. The tools soon found their way back to the floor or into several overflowing metal chests.
Instead of saws and wrenches and such, on each hook eventually was hung one of Dad's baseball caps, not with team logos but with the names of businesses in town, such as Patco's Mobil, the new service station and mini-mart built the past summer, and Bob's Towing. The remaining hats were on pegs in Mom and Dad's bedroom. The only hatless hook or peg was for the cap Dad was wearing.
Those hats were the only things my father kept organized and clean. The hat he wore most often was the day-glo orange one with Garrison's Bait & Tackle and a picture of a trout with its mouth open embroidered on it. That was Dad's lucky hat, he'd explained every time Stephen and I giggled at it.
Beyond the doorway behind the ill-fated tractor was the mortuary of sorts, a bare-walled room with a few long, wooden tables. The windows were covered with burlap, and beams of sunlight filtered in through the holes in the material. An exposed bulb in the ceiling was the only other source of light in the room, though it was rarely used.
I'd never seen another mortuary, nor did I wish to, so I had no idea that Dad's was at all different than any other. While some things in town, like the Mobil station and summer people's vehicles, were modern, our place and the business were much as they'd always been. Dad's dad had been an undertaker too, as was his father before him. And with the exception of new and fancier caskets, shag carpeting in the funeral parlor, and a copy machine in Dad's office, nothing much had changed.
When the kids arrived and paid their money, Stephen and I would lead them back into "the room," as we called the mortuary. I'd point a flashlight toward the object of their curiosity, as my partner unzipped the bag just an inch or two. Our customers usually stayed several feet away and leaned forward to peer into the dimly illuminated opening for a glimpse of someone they may have seen around town only days before. This time, though, it would be two strangers from upstate New York, a place most of the kids in our town had never been.
Once in a while, a bold soul would urge Stephen to unzip the bag all the way. I knew he couldn't bear to go anywhere near that far, so I would lie and say I heard someone coming, then usher everyone quickly into the front room and, once the coast was clear, out to the yard.
This time, though, I was not lying.
We'd broken our only rule and allowed four kids at once to see the two dead men from the bottom of the river. It was a Saturday morning, the day after the Sheriff and his deputy had dropped off the two bodies. As soon as the men had left and Dad had gone into the house, Stephen had run home and made some calls to drum up business. This was big news, and everyone he called wanted to see the frozen strangers.
I'd told Stephen in no uncertain terms that we needed to be very careful; Dad was always around on Saturday mornings, his favorite time to putter in the workshop. And Stephen had promised he would allow only one person to come over at a time. But when we met at the pipe fort, a large section of cement pipe in the woods near a house site that had been dormant for more than a year, there was a boy from my class and his three younger sisters already there waiting. Of course, they insisted that they had to go together. Then Stephen insisted to me that it would be okay. I was very nervous.
As we approached the barn, all was quiet. Dad's brown El Camino was missing, so I knew he must have gone to the hardware store. A creature of habit, my father never went anywhere else on Saturdays. Our time was limited.
We led the others inside, and Stephen proceded to unzip the first bag. The two youngest girls, twins not more than six, hovered by the door, and their older sister stopped a few feet from the table, but our other customer walked right up to it.
"Don't touch anything," Stephen ordered, then opened the bag barely two inches.
I didn't see any part of a body from where I was standing, and I doubt anyone else did either. He closed the bag after only a few seconds.
"Aw, you're a sissy," Joshua said. He'd said that to Stephen many times before.
"Hey," I whispered, "I think I hear a car." I felt the blood drain from my face as I realized I was telling the truth. "Stephen."
He turned to me and glared.
Joshua urged us over to the second bag, ignoring my warning. Stephen moved in that direction, but our over-eager customer was two steps ahead of him. Before I could say anything more, he was tugging at the zipper, which wouldn't budge.
"Come on," I whispered, but he kept tugging and pulling.
"I'm not leaving till I get what I paid for," he said, and pulled and tugged.
Stephen looked at me again, this time with his eyes wide. He heard the sound, too. Tires on gravel. "Josh, we gotta get outa here."
I clicked off the flashlight and retreated towards the door, motioning for the others to follow. But Joshua was still busy with the zipper, grunting with the effort. The bag and body in it had shifted and were now lying diagonally on the table, the feet hanging off one side.
"Hey, I think I'm getting it," Joshua announced, much too loud. "If you chickens would just relax a second." With an "rrrr" he grabbed the top of the bag with one hand and, with the other, pulled as hard as he could on the zipper.
And that's when a blue-ish hand and red, plaid cuff slipped from the gap in the middle of the bag, and the dead man's hand hit the table with a thud.
The twins turned and ran, screaming, out the door and through the workshop, with the rest of us close behind. Their brother couldn't get out fast enough and pushed Stephen out of the way, tripping over a tool box. There was a crash as the box turned over, and Joshua fell, tumbling a pile of scrap wood.
As we all emerged from the barn, with me in the rear, there was Mom coming from the back of the house, the remote control still in her hand. Just then, the El Camino pulled up and out jumped Dad, wearing his day-glo orange hat, with a can of WD-40 in his hand.
And that was the end of Stephen's and my first business venture, not to mention the end of my candy-on-credit too.
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