When I was 12, the little old lady down the street gave me 20 dollars and a root beer to cut weeds in her flowerbed with a pair of sewing scissors. Every 15 minutes, she brought me an ice-cold soda.
“George, used to do that,” Gertrude said. “But he sat too long in front of the TV and got too fat, and eventually had a heart-attack.”
She was old, and her husband was even older, so I didn’t think much of it. He used to ride his Harley Davison around the neighborhood. Then I noticed a finger, sticking-up, out of the topsoil. At first, I thought it was a carrot, but this didn’t make much sense, because it was a flower garden. I uncovered two hands in a fully-dressed suit, and eventually a head.
“Pete—why don’t you come inside for another root beer?” Gertrude asked.
Her orange and yellow cat ran out of the house as fast as it could. I didn’t blame him. Gertrude’s husband was buried in her flower garden. When the police questioned her, she said he died of natural causes—later, the coroner discovered that he did. I guess, she didn’t want to let her husband’s body go to waste. A flower garden is as good as any place, to lay a body to rest.
The reason I’m telling you this, is because it stuck in my mind like a piece of chewing gum, when I got a divorce, and my life was falling apart. All I could think about was Gertrude’s husband buried under 3 inches of topsoil.
When my wife took my kid to Klamath Falls—I decided to chase after her, and be a dad, because that’s what good dads do. I was only able to get a job at Burger King—talk about boring. So, I looked through the wanted adds, and thought, what is a job nobody wants? Nothing stood-out. There just wasn’t a lot of work in Klamath Falls. I flipped through the yellow pages, found a local funeral home, and decided to call on it.
“Is this Mister Salem?”
“Hey, my name’s Pete. My x-wife and kid recently moved here, and I’m looking for a job. Do you have one? Maybe—grounds keeper?”
“You moved here without a plan?”
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you the bad news. People just aren’t dying much these days. Business is slow.”
I went to the unemployment office, and stood in line, waiting for a fat, mousy-haired man to process my unemployment check.
“Mister Wade—it says here, that you worked in a dentist’s office— building molds?”
“And you want to work in a funeral home?”
“I like peace and quiet. I’m practicing my silicon skills. There might be something I could do with dead bodies… like getting them ready for burial or burning.”
“That’s quite enough—you don’t have to explain it to me.” He looked like he needed a drink. “Okay, here’s your unemployment check. Come back in one week, and if you don’t have a job, I’ll write you another one.”
My heart was set on working with dead bodies, so I kept thinking about Salem’s Rest. I decided to call on it again, just in case someone had died.
“Hello, I’m looking for work…”
“Who is this?”
“Oh—you again. We just had a position open up. We need someone to pick-up dead bodies and transport them to the mortuary. The catch is, you need to pass a test. I don’t offer this position to just anyone.”
“Is it a drug test?”
“No—your stomach needs to be tested. Would you like to come down to the mortuary and watch me prepare a body for burial?”
“Would I!? I’ll be right over!”
“I must warn you—I won’t be able to pay you, unless you pass the test.”
I drove down to the morg and knocked on the door.
“You’re the man interested in the job?”
“I’m Mister Salem. Follow me.”
His white coat was smeared with blood and decomposing flesh. The smell of death made me expel my lunch, like a disobedient student, running out of my trachea…
Well, you get the picture. He was a collector of antiques. I saw my face in one of his mirrors, and I looked like death.
“Down, into the basement,” Mister Salem said.
When we got to the bottom, Salem turned on the lights. They were unnatural, and made a humming sound. Sterile. There was a woman lying there, nude, mid-thirties, and well-endowed.
“I shaved her,” Mister Salem said. “She didn’t come that way.”
“Oh—it just gives me something to do in my spare time.”
He was a weird one. Salem looked a bit like a homeless man.
“Do you perform the autopsies?” I asked.
No. The coroner does that. I keep thinking about going to medical school, though. Do you see her breasts?”
“They’ve been used. I would say, she’s had two kids.”
Mister Salem reached a whole new level of sick…
“Watch this,” he said. He slit her open like a fish. Then reached inside, and squeezed her bladder. It went all over the floor.
“You got the job, if you want it.”
Time moves more slowly, in a funeral home. I picked a woman up from the hospital—from one of those filing cabinets in cold storage. I had to turn her body onto her side. Then she gasped for breath, like death was too much for her. It scared me up the walls. The doctor told me later, oxygen left her lungs when I moved her.
Transporting bodies from death to burial became as normal as driving them in a limousine to weddings. Fall turned into winter, and it was cold in Klamath Falls. The back roads were shiny black. I could feel my tires sliding to the left. I turned my steering wheel to the right, but nothing happened. A few seconds later, I was moving in the opposite direction. I corrected, and wound up in a snowbank. When the officer arrived on the scene, I had to explain why I had two dead bodies in the back. It’s strange to carry bodies in a van, until it becomes normal—then, you think about all the serial killers on the highway.
It wasn’t going well with my ex-wife. I only got to see my kid on the weekends, for a couple of hours. We made a snowman together, and I tried to teach him some Christian values. Working in a funeral home, caused me to contemplate eternity. The social worker showed up, and didn’t like that I spoke to my son about God. She had a dough face, and several extra pounds. When I told Charlie that the man is the head of the household, she came unglued.
“Mister Wade—men and women are the same! They’ve been socialized to be different. You are an ignorant man, sir.”
“Lady—a naked man and a naked woman look nothing alike. Just because you’ve been brainwashed, doesn’t mean that I have to buy the bullshit that you paid 100,000 dollars to eat.”
After my little outburst, I lost custody. I went mad—slowly. Salem, was the only human being (if you could call him that) that I talked to. I tried to improve my social skills by reading self-help books, but they said, “You become like the five people you spend the most time around.”—and I was around dead people.
As my experience in the morg grew—my sanity declined. Perhaps, losing my mind, made me better at my job. I scraped out the incinerator with a wire broom. It had a hook on the end, so that I could pull the roasted skeleton out. If I brushed the black bones, they popped and cracked. There was usually a rib-cage, a femur, and a skull. This one time, there was no skull. I found that the flames severed the head. It had rolled back behind the incinerator, partially cooked. Those red eyes, were staring at me. They had seen the flames.
I slid the remains into the bone crusher, and they were ground into grape nuts. It cost families 10 dollars to get the ashes of their loved ones back, in a plastic container. I was only making 5.50 an hour, but Salem let me sleep above his garage, so I could afford living costs.
In February, I got a call on the radio. There was an accident. They wanted me to scrape the remains off the road. I got my wide-shovel, and put it into Salem’s truck. When I got there, the trooper didn’t look so good. I could smell blood, like copper, smeared on the highway.
“Best, I can figure it—she wanted to save time, and tried to pass on the left. It wasn’t a regular semi, but one with double cargo. When she tried, an incoming truck vaporized her mustang. I found her arm on the side of the road, and her son’s body, wrapped around the wheels of the rig she tried to pass. Damn shame—that kid was young—maybe 12 years old—the same age as my boy.”
I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Psychics call it a gut reaction. When I walked around the truck, there was my son, wrapped around the axil.
I didn’t cry, until both bodies were shoveled off the road. I drove home, not knowing what to do. I didn’t have anybody to talk to, and I didn’t care too much to talk to Salem. When I got to the mortuary, I had a cigarette. It usually calmed me down, but not this time. Salem walked out of the garage.
“Been lookin’ all over for you.”
“You found me.”
He didn’t notice anything was wrong. Working around dead bodies will do that.
“I told you to stop smoking those things. Don’t you remember the heart I showed you?”
“And the artery?”
“Salem, I just scraped my son and ex-wife off the highway. Will you give me some peace?”
“Oh—I’m sorry to hear that. I guess, that’s 50% bad.”
“You lost your kid, but you also got rid-of your ex-wife.”
“She was the mother of my child.”
“And a life-sucking bitch, am I right?”
“Salem, why don’t you go talk to your dead friends?”
“Okay—I’ll give you some peace, but if you want to raise them from the dead, give me a holler.”
“Sure. The catch is, they both have to be brought back to life. The souls of people who die together, get intertwined.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“That grave, in the left field, that’s always dug up—there’s a reason for that,” Salem said. “Anything we put down that hole comes back to life. I can’t keep it filled, because the bodies keep crawling out. I just gave up. I even put in a step ladder, so it’s easier for them to climb out.”
“Who have you been raising from the dead?”
“Pets—mostly. It’s funny, friends and loved ones believe a person has lived enough years, but they want to keep their animals alive forever. The problem is, I suspect those people I resurrect will never die. After someone is dead, and has traveled to the other side, they don’t quite come back. There’s always a far-off look in their eyes, like they are longing for the heaven or hell they’ve been to.”
“How many people have come back to life since you’ve been working here?”
“Salem—that’s no small number. How have you been able to do that?”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret. I was brought back to life in 1864. I died in the Civil War—took a lead ball to my heart. The undertaker who raised me, had to do some physical therapy with my body for about 6 months. Rigor mortis hardened my muscles and locked my joints into place. I do the same therapy for those bodies I resurrect. They come out of that hole like zombies, and stinking worse.”
“Can you raise my ex-wife and son from the dead?”
“I can, but they’ll out-live you. I know a lot of guys who pray for their ex-wives to die. You’ll never get off the hook for child support.”
“My son will grow up, won’t he?”
“No. He’ll remain 12-years-old for the rest of his life. It’s not all bad, though—think, Peter Pan.”
I wanted my son back, but what kind of life could he have? “Salem—do you mind if I think about it?”
“Sure—but don’t take too long. There’s about a 7-day window. Anything past that, and well—it gets ugly.”
“What do you mean?”
“A soul transitioning, is one thing, but once they’ve taken up residence—they don’t want to come back. I resurrected a miner, once—10 days after he died. When he came back, the guy spent two years stabbing strangers with his pick-ax, before he committed suicide.”
“Is that even possible? I thought you said they couldn’t die?”
“He tried jumping off a cliff—and after he shattered every bone in his body, he set fire to himself. Fire is the natural element to release a soul into heaven or hell. That’s why they used it in the inquisition, and during witch burnings.”
I lit another cigarette, and thought hard. “Give me some more time,” I said.
“Okay—I’ll give you 48 hours. If you don’t make a decision by then, they’re going into the ground.”
“Don’t mention it—and stop smoking!”
“I’ll quit tomorrow.”
I took a day off and thought about it. I smoked three packs of cigarettes, and the Jack Daniels didn’t help me either. After 24 hours, I felt like a couldn’t play God. Some decisions aren’t meant for men.
“Salem, you can bury my family.”
Then I realized I had to clarify. “Salem—in a regular grave.”
“Oh—that was a close one.”
Fresh dirt was mounded over the bodies of my ex-wife and child. The next day, I went about my duties, in the same way, as I had before. I had nobody—and I couldn’t decide if it was worse to have an ex-wife as an enemy, or no ex-wife at all. The rains came—and I was lonely, in my apartment over the garage. Salem didn’t seem to have human emotions—perhaps, that’s because he died over 100 years ago.
My loneliness overwhelmed me—so, one rainy night, I decided to exhume my ex-wife and child, and bury them in the left field. Left field is where they put the worst baseball players. It’s where my coach always put me. I don’t know why I thought about that, as I reburied my family.
I was within the 7 days, so I thought all would be well, and in the early morning twilight, I watched them climbing out of the hole. I hosed them off and brought them fresh clothes. They couldn’t talk, but I didn’t worry about that. I bed them down, by the incinerator, where it was warm, and locked my bedroom door. After I had fallen asleep, I woke to knocking.
“Salem?” I asked the dark.
I opened it, and there was my ex-wife, naked, and wanting me. I tried not to think about her being dead. Since we were divorced, we had done it, but not since she was dead.
“Can you get stiff?” She asked.
“I’ve never had sex with a corpse before.”
“Well, there’s a first for everything.” Her body was warm, but not a regular temperature. It made me feel like I was outside my body, kinda like when you swim in a pool at body temperature. Pretty soon we were one flesh, and it was a one-of-a-kind experience, that lasted forever.
“How was it?” She asked.
We went about the next month, doing physical therapy, and trying to make life as normal as possible. My son had difficulty dealing with the trauma of being buried, and born again. I tried to reassure him. “Everything will be fine, son” But it wasn’t working.
My ex-wife started having morning sickness. Then she told me, “I’m pregnant.”
I told Salem.
“You had sex with your dead ex-wife?” He asked.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Man, you’re sick—and you said, ‘she’s pregnant?'”
“Yes. Has that ever happened before?”
“No. And it’s not supposed to. You may have just fathered the anti-Christ—neither living, nor dead.”
“Well—what do we do about it?”
“You’re going to have to abort.”
“But I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe in abortion.”
“You just had sex with a corpse. I don’t think this is the time to take the moral high-ground.”
He did have a point.
“Look—” Salem said. “Your son isn’t happy being brought back to life, and from what you tell me, your ex-wife was never happy.”
“Well—when they are sleeping, douse them with gasoline and fire. It’s the only way to release their spirits to the other-world, after they’ve been brought back to life.”
I did as I was told. Strangely, it was a relief to watch their bodies burning. Both of their eyes were open, while it was happening, but they didn’t get out of bed to protest. I knew I was doing the right thing.
“Is that your final story?” The psychiatrist asked me.
I noticed my arms were tied together. Funny, how a story transports you to a different place. I hardly even realized that I was talking to anybody, but myself.
“That’s my only story,” I said. “It’s the truth.”
“You won’t be tried in a regular court. You’re insane. Happy Acres will be your final resting place.”
I looked at the white room, as if for the first time, and my psychiatrist dressed in white. I was wearing a strait jacket. Everything was so sterile, just like my first day in the mortuary at Salem’s Rest.
*Dedicated to Pete Wade, the night custodian, who told me some strange stories about working in a mortuary in Klamath Falls, Oregon*