The Only Sure Thing About Living
The supermarket jammed thick with people quickly like a massive school of wriggling salmon all trying to make it through tiny streams of cash line-ups towards the shining horizon of automatic sliding doors at the exit. Everyone boiled slowly, and soon enough before reaching sweltering heights a new cashier appeared to flick a light overhead so everyone could see cash number 7 was open and ready for business. People began buzzing against each other, swarming into a new line; all dying to be checked in.
At first glance the new cashier appeared ancient, like some king or pharaoh from time of Solomon. He stood at an odd angle. The top half of his body seemed to sit on the lower half at a peculiar angle. People could tell he was shied away from them as they approached. His body turned, eyes and face to the floor, to the side, he mumbled enough to form a word or two, shuffling himself around the square of floor beneath him by the register, checking in groceries. The seemingly antique man nearly crumbled to pieces at his own feet each time an item swung through the red sensor, BEEP, every one of his nerves BEEP shattering and falling about him.
This is when a mushy glob of skin slipped free from his fingers and splat thick, wet, against the check-in counter, how sour cream a tad past its expiration stretches downward instead of just slopping off a spoon. Before it hit, the skin passed through the check-in sensor, for a moment glowing red against it like a comet plummeting to toward the earth. It made one final, deafening BEEP, punctuating the fright of those in line for cash number 7.
Horror. Repulsion. A young boy started bawling and ran towards his father's kneecaps, begging to be cradled. One lady vomited chunks into her shopping cart all over her groceries.
This new cashier, his name is Derek. He's been dead awhile.
He can't wait to retire. Again.
“We've a job to do, man,” a voice jabbered on in the darkness. “Now look alive! Christ.”
Out of black shadows materialized a man of what can only be described as slumpy posture with a bulldog face and turkey neck, but a happy, wide smile. Sweat poured from his brow and upper lip like someone had wrung a hand towel out over his face. Hooping breaths wheezed from his thick throat. The owner of the voice in the darkness followed shortly after. He looked the opposite of his apparent partner: scruffy, slim, the clothes over him almost slipping off how a chicken's skin does from its bones, his eyes sank into his face and the shadow around them looked like two seasoned plums.
The two men scrambled quietly through two massive gates hanging ominous over them, inviting people into the museum of death beyond. Rows of them, the dead that is, they were lined off in formation, ready to raise up and march off into uncertain horizons. Some headstones crumbled gently, in silence. Others stood strong and broadcast whoever it was that slept beneath them. Only a few trees reached towards dark sky. It felt, to the two men, nothing could ever grow in such earth. In such close proximity to death.
“How are we s'posed to find the right one?” asked the fatter of the two.
“Whichever Jesus looks bloodiest – start there.”
Only a couple small waves of light lay across the graveyard from off the highway nearby. Both men walked side by side, two shadows in the ground. Not a sound. The bleak, dismal night air spread everywhere. It was a humid night. Not a night for any of the work ahead.
They came upon a separate section of the cemetery from where they'd been walking. In front of them rose toward the black overhead a towering, marble Jesus, moaning, hanging from the cross, in all his glory.
“We just roams 'round this part?” the fat man questioned his friend.
“Yeah. Last name is Foley.”
Each man went his own way now, though the heavier of the pair looked uneasy. Name after name. Every so often one headstone popped up with a funny, some times interesting, inscription: “I see dumb people”, “This ain't bad – once you get used to it”, “Victim of the Beast 666”, “She was never meant to be understood only loved”, and the terribly unsettling death of a man in the year 1867 who was “eaten alive by mountain rats”.
“Think they feels us walkin' 'round up here?”
The skinny fellow, his pants slipping slightly over ragged, bony hips, fired off a sour look that shut the fat one's face.
There were but a few moments of fleeting light now and then amongst murky dark and the muddy ground. At times, the larger of the two men lost sight of his smaller counterpart, only to regain sight of him hovering about some graves like a ghoul.
And then he found it.
It'd been there some time. Maybe six months or more. A few cobwebs hung from the lonely stone like drapery in the night. In places there were strings, thick ones, of moss like fuzzy green garland. A small crack had already started in at the top of the stone, looking like it may travel further eventually; a cheaply made piece of work.
The skinny man dropped a shovel he'd been carrying on the ground and rolled up his sleeves. He looked at his portly partner with a look wondering who would start the digging. He followed himself up quickly with a hearty laugh that suggested he get fucking real.
Ten minutes in, he stepped out of a small hole and passed the shovel to the pudgy one, who reluctantly, slowly, stepped into the hole. He had a sweat-on already.
Two minutes and some odd seconds later the skinny man was back down in the hole.
When the dig finished, it did so with a loud bang of shovel against old yet firm redwood. There, now, lay before them a casket.
It was the grave of Derek Pleman Foley.
“Pass me a handkerchief”, said the skinnier one.
“You want lavender oil? Brought some this time.”
“Where am I, b'y- up to the god damn rub n' tug?”
The skinny man grabbed the handkerchief from his partner's fat, outstretched hand, and covered his nose and mouth.
Fatty handed one over from a small duffel bag over his shoulder.
The skinny one tightened up his bandana, making sure it felt right, and then dove into prying open Foley's casket.
Easier said than done.
Dirt and mess and mushrooms were already wedged into the caskets edges, almost welding its cover forever shut. Six feet deep, the wet black earth soaked all around the wooden box and seeped into all the corners, every indent, each last crease.
But eventually the caked dirt and rock began to chip away. The casket cover rumbled slightly, as the crowbar bent under the skinny man's slight force. Finally, it gave way, bursting open with bits of wood and varnish chips, flecks of gold paint and pieces of metal flying out.
Followed came the smell from the very blackest depths of Hell, near Pandaemonium.
It reeked of wet cheese and mould. A staleness in the air pervaded the nostrils of both men. The fat one started to cough. His skinny friend looked disturbed, trying to waft the turgid scent out his eyes while it burned like chlorine. They both began hacking. Soon came the dry heaves. That awful, creeping, stench of rot hung about like fog. Fatty threw up a bit. Skinny did, too. Because Fatty did.
And so it went.
Some time later, after the skinny man lit a cigarette to try and clear the air, everything calmed down. Their stomachs settled; their rumblings ceased.
There lay Derek Foley. Or more so, he leaned back. Maybe best to call it laying down.
But there he was. Just the man they'd been looking for.
“You want to do the honours?”
“Love to”, beamed Fatty.
The bigger of the two stepped down into the hole, having himself another little cough from the stench of death rising off the freshly exhumed corpse. He knocked his fist, one two three, on the coffin like a little house's door. Like he was waiting on the man's porch.
“Hello,” bawled fatty, “Mr. Foley?”
“Foley!” Skinny joined in the yelling. “We're from the bank- we'd like to chat with you about the mortgage on your house.”
Out of the death box rattled a low throaty rumble, echoing off redwood and damp earth, shaking loose bits of dirt and flattened mud. The two men didn't look surprised, nor did they appear frightened. They'd done this before. After a few growls and grunts, the fat one and the skinny one both knew Foley would dust himself off, get up, and hopefully have a civilized chat with two civilized chaps who had a few questions needed answering.
Simple as that.
The men waited. They watched. Foley was stretching his arms. He bent them at all sorts of unholy angles, pops and twists and cracks coming forth. Dust whisped off the jacket he wore like smoke. The corpse, Foley, coughed sending bits of caramelized phlegm and a breeze of long dead morning breath out of the hole that once was a grave. He extended his legs, one at a time, until the kneecaps lodged back in place correctly with a shucking sound, how it sounded to stick your fist into a jar of mayonnaise. The fingers of each hand wriggled around, five little crusty worms, crackling and crisping. Then his hands gripped the box's sides. He hauled himself up slowly until his rigid frame sat upright. His eyes looked long at the two men who'd woken him up. They looked back at him; he seemed tired. He pulled his body onto the earth above the grave. It took awhile. Neither man wanted to offer help for fear of insulting him; the recently dead, in their experience, could be very touchy about being given help without having requested any. Pushing himself up to a position that might resemble standing, his corpsish body lurched on an inexplicable, unholy, unmathematical angle, and he tiptoed with the grace of the dead away from the hole where he'd been buried.
The fat one smiled, staring. His skinny partner, hands on hips, looked at Foley with a listener's face and sceptical eyes.
“You fucking woke me up”, the rotting man, once named Derek Foley, yelled. He rubbed his sunken eyes. Bits of crusted tears and skin crumbled off.
“Well, like my friend here told you,” explained Fatty, “we're with the bank, Mr. Foley.”
Derek stretched some more. Months of dead skin shed like little flakes of snow, falling all around him.
“Look,” Skinny began, “we haven't got time for his, Foley. You owes money. Ton of it. When you died, the mortgage on your house wasn't even close to paid. You think you can just go ahead and die on us, buddy?”
A grunt came from Derek's walking corpse, a grunt that said fuck off.
Fatty sweat at a rate not normal for humans. He didn't like confrontation.
“You been gone awhile,” continued the skinny one. “Maybe you don't know- there's new legislature. This government is empowering ye old folk.”
was old. Now I'm just dead.”
“You're not dead. You were deceased – now you're receased! Off the dole, back to work.”
Finally Fatty broke in, too nervous to let Skinny pursue the rotting corpse so aggressively. “Mr. Foley – sir – please, we're not tryin' to be stand-offish or nothing, it's ju--”
“Mr. Foley!” Skinny exclaimed. “Fact is, this government's decided debt shouldn't be heaped onto families after their loved ones passes. You got to get back to work. A'right?”
“Facts are,” Fatty went on, “you can't die. Not yet.”
Derek, the man formerly known as Derek now known as Derek Pleman Foley who died August 7th, loving father, loving son, looked as if his head had swollen up with a headache. Though it could have simply been a maggot or a worm tunnelling its way to better ground.
“Mr. Foley – Derek, can I call you that?” the fat man continued. “Basically, what we're tryin' to say, is you needs to go back to work.”
“What?”, yelped the not-so-fresh corpse.
“You heard the man!” said Skinny.
“Yes, I'm afraid we'll have to send you out to work tomorrow morning,” Fatty explained.
Derek reeled from the news. He wobbled a bit, not because of the fact he'd been raised from the grave, and raised from it to head back into the workforce, but due to the fact his ankles felt only half-connected and rolling around. Moving away from the fat man and his skinny partner, he sat on a log; a dead one, just like him.
The skinny one approached Derek, sitting down. “Look, guy – I get it, okay? You been under the ground for what – six months? It's gonna take some adjustment, we understand. And we're more than willing to help you, every step of the way, my son. You're not alone.”
“But, I don't get it,” Derek moaned out his sludgy throat, “why now?”
Fatty laughed a little, attempting to sit next to his skinny friend and the decomposing senior citizen, only to tip the log slightly, frightening them. He composed himself, standing and walking away, as if he meant to do so. “Well, Derek – can I call you that? - well, you see Derek, it just takes time, y'know? People dies everyday. Adding up taxes and interest and percentages, sifting through peoples finances, it all takes a load of work. Not to mention all this diggin'! Lord jesus, I can't remember the last week where I didn't find m'self out here, diggin' up some poor sou;, movin' em out to pasture, back to work again. Terrible business. Things can pile up... so to speak. Can't get to everybody right away. But it's the way things work now, and who am I to be arguin'?”
“Who are we?” the skinny one joined in.
They both smiled. Fake smiles. Like melted cheese.
Derek looked at the two men through the index and middle finger, his mushy skull in his hands. He saw them both, the fat one and the skinny one, like two shakers full of salt and pepper; one there to soothe the other, to balance out the flavour of the awful meal of shit they were there to feed him.
“Anyways,” rambled Fatty, “we found you a decent little spot to work, not far from here, so you can make it to and from without much shaggin' around.”
But Derek didn't hear much else either of the men from the bank were trying to tell him. He thought all this was over. Down there, for six long months, he'd slept, fairly peacefully save for whenever his daughter or his son would show up, or less often his wife; he would hear their footsteps, heavy yet respectful, pacing here and there overhead, sometimes they would say things, other times it was only the sound of their breath on the air or the heaving sounds of sobbing chests. Sometimes kids beat around the graveyard at night, drinking, smoking, fucking, not knowing there were people down below still clinging to their senses, for the most part, listening to everything and living again through them.
Nobody knew. Until now.
Now they'd all be dug up, those dead foolish enough to go in the grave with debt still on their backs. Foolish, silly people who thought death would bring eternal darkness. Those ridiculous souls who imagined being dead might feel like rapturous sleep, the ultimate gift after a lifetime of challenging, tiresome relationships and meaningless jobs and looks with judgements attached like flies sucking the blood out the living and ruined expectations and all the other things which make our heads fit for the neverending pillow.
Of course death used to be like that. Once upon a time. Until the government realized death was just that: a deep, long, perpetual sleep. Just a few knocks and bangs and “hello in there”s and sometimes a shake or two, maybe a slap in the face depending on the state of decomposition, and up spring the dead, alive, or close to it, well, or somewhere near it, and ready for work.
So Derek, with not much choice in the matter, followed the skinny man and his fat partner out of the graveyard and back to their car. There, the skinny one took a bag out of the trunk and handed it to Derek; it contained a toothbrush, some toothpaste, mouthwash, several Wet Naps, a razor with shaving cream, a hand towel, and a uniform with a name tag, already with his name etched onto it with black marker. He looked through everything with a depressed look of familiarity on his face; he never imagined having to shave his face again.
“Tomorrow morning,” said the fat man, “be at this address. Ten, sharp.” He handed Derek a piece of paper. “Any problems, our numbers is on the back, hey b'y.” He winked and cocked the hammer of a gun made out by a thumb and an index finger. Gestures of kindness. The little things count.
The two men bumbled off into darkness again. Before long their shadows, a lanky and slim one alongside the wide, thick one, disappeared from sight into nothingness. Even their voices were gone.
Only Derek remained.
He stared solemnly into the bag of items they gave him. He quietly debated suicide before remembering how futile it would be, seeing as how he'd already died of a massive coronary and been revived. Painfully clear now, there was no way out of death, life, any of it.
The next morning Derek woke earlier than usual. He crawled slowly out of the grave and stood up tall. Pieces of his spine and ribs snapped back into their appropriate places. He took his new bag of items with him, walking off into the woods by the cemetery.
After a short walk there came a river. Derek made his way down next to it, setting the bag on bunch of dead leaves piled together. He splashed a little water on his face. It felt normal against his cold, dead skin. Bits of gravel and dirt washed off. A little skin, too. Then he sprayed some shaving cream into his mouldy hand and wiped it over his face from ear to ear, covering his cheeks and mouth. Each time Derek dragged the razor across his deathly beard, chunks of festering flesh came along with it. He had no mirror, so it never dawned on him. The razor clogged up, jamming with strips of green-grey skin, black blood spreading all over the blade. It continued on like this until Derek decided the hair on his face was trimmed. Instead, it wept blood; thick and glue-like blood, black as midnight. But it wasn't as if Derek felt anything.
At quarter to ten in the morning Derek made it to the local grocery store. He figured it was the right place, judging by the address Fatty had given him. The dead giveaway being the employee uniform they left for him in the bag, with the store name stitched into the breast pocket.
The sliding doors were open. Outside, it was sunny and warm; one of those days where humidity rises up off the pavement like steam from a warm meal. Derek walked inside. Eventually, after an awkward encounter with some teenager mopping throw-up out of the entrance, he found a way to the office, where a nice, surprisingly young gentleman quickly figured out who he was.
“Derek!” exclaimed the man, evidently his new manager. “So glad to finally meet you.”
He reached out a hand. Derek shook it. The man pretended not to wipe away a soggy, slime-like residue left in his palm, and continued to smile one of those corporate espionage smiles that says “I'm going to love figuratively bending you over, you old, decaying fuck.”
“Just follow me. I'll introduce you to the staff.”
The rest of his day played out like any first day for an employee: training, signing forms, explanations of common sense employee and store policies, and so on. He did various things throughout his shift. Plus, there was no need to give him a break because the dead, they don't need breaks, now do they?
Derek finished out the shift watching a 60-year old woman bag groceries while a 19-year old checked items in on the register. His manager offered up congratulations on a successful first day back to the workforce. Derek told him to fuck off under his breath while leaving through the automatic doors. Except instead of opening they stayed firmly shut while he walked right into them, cracking his nose and bending it down towards his upper lip. One of the young bag boys had to come and manually open the door. Derek thanked him and headed home.
Back at graveside, he slipped himself over the grassy edge and back down to the open coffin. For hours Derek lay awake in there, staring up into a cloud covered sky. Greyness reached from one edge of earth to the other, a massive canopy above everything. All was dark.
When you're dead it's easy to sleep. Your mind, it shuts off.
But then they wake you up, tell you that retirement is over. They dress you up, wash you, say that life goes on, it has to, or else we'll all just give up and lay down.
When you've been woken up, and so abruptly, it's hard to block everything out. It all comes flooding back. When you die, the first time, all the terribleness of life, all those memories of the dark and dank corners in your life, all the misery, the heartache, the struggle, all that hurt and envy and brooding hatred and jealousy you kept inside and all the cobwebs in your heart, the stones in your guts – it all goes away. But once you've come back, it's part and parcel, all that dread and blackness; it washes over you like a burning house.
The next day got tougher for Derek.
The pimply young manager put him on cash, said there weren't enough people trained to do it. Derek pleaded, begging to be put him somewhere in the back of the store, away from the customers.
“But, Derek,” he told him, “I can't put you back with all the food, now can I?”
Derek wanted to say something, maybe like how it made no sense for him to be in a grocery store to begin with when half his skin looked ready to flop off like a partially peeled banana, he just didn't think it worth the trouble.
He shuffled through the rest of his day, angry, tired, waiting for sweet second death to come and take him. But second death wasn't a heart attack away, it didn't wait in a natural cause or a drunk driver not paying any attention to the road or a stray bullet from a police shootout. No, second death came only when the debt he owed would be dead as him.
Crawling back to the graveyard that night Derek felt the weariness of his bones set in deeper than ever. When he reached the grave there were sounds in the night, feet shuffling, a shovel digging, voices whispering up from within the deep darkness. He followed the noises awhile, just for curiousity sake, when low and behold there they were: Fatty and Skinny.
The fat one was sweating. He delegated most of the work to his smaller friend. The two were lost in conversation; some meaningless government drivel about this nonsense and that bullshit. A twig cracked, or maybe it was one of Derek's bones, who knows. Both men swung round to see if they could spot somebody.
“Well Christ on a Pride Parade float,” the skinny man yelled out into the night, “look who it is- Derek Foley!”
The two men stopped what they were doing and moved towards him, extending hands for a shake or two. Derek obliged them both, though he was not pleased to see either of them.
“What are you two ghouls doing back so soon?”
The fat one laughed heartily. “Now, now – the kettle looked black last I checked.”
“We told you, Derk,” Skinny chimed in, “we've been doing what the new legislature requires.”
“Yes, sir,” reassured Fatty, “we are putting more of you back to work.”
Derek looked sad. Not just for himself, for whoever it was below the earth these men were shovelling out, about to be reemployed, whether they liked it or not.
“This is too depressing,” said Derek, “I've got to go.”
The two men called after him, but Derek had made up his mind, and wandered slowly, like a ghost, back to his grave. He stopped a moment to look at his headstone. He took a sharp stone from nearby, put it to the date of death etched beneath his name, and scratched it away.
The insects all seemed to come alive when Derek lowered himself back into the grave, sliding both legs into his coffin like a sleeping bag; they frothed at the mouth soon as he came near. Like the two men, Fatty and Skinny, the government they worked for, the maggots and worms couldn't wait to get their hands, their mouths, on him. It didn't matter he wasn't fresh, either way they'd have a feed.
As night lay still and heavy across the cemetery, darkness swallowed everything. Derek tried to cry, he did, with no real result. Except how his eyelids weighed heavy, a little moisture welling on one of the eyeballs, and one tiny dirty tear ran like mud down his cheek, drying just below what was left of the chin.
He fell asleep after some time, slipping into a dull, pale, and lifeless dreamland.
It isn't only the living who dream. The dead, they dream most.
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