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Chapter Three

The hearse was fun to drive. Inside with the windows up, waiting for the garage door to open, Archie couldn't even hear the big V-8 idling. Once he got it out of the driveway and onto the open road, he opened it up a little and the car responded, like the thoroughbred Cadillac it was. McCloud had put some money in this car. Engine options, interior options. The finest frosted glass all around. The newest electric/hydraulic lift.

Archie took a cassette from the glove box and shoved it home. Beethoven's Fifth swelled from the speakers. Music to soothe the soul. Not a bad way to go, he thought, long as you weren't making the one-way trip—on your back in back. He tooled along, deep in thought. If he took the long way to the hospital, he could hear all of the first movement.

The morgue was hardly worthy of the name. It was tucked in as an afterthought in a back corner of the little county hospital, almost as if to say that dying wasn't a real part of the hospital's business, only a sometime thing, a way out when the problem grew too big to be solved by what passed in Waldren for modern medicine.

Archie leaned on the counter. He was feeling like an established part of an important routine. A couple of the Filipino attendants were telling dirty jokes in rapid Spanish and the morgue smelled of sun-warmed cigarette smoke. It hung in several layers, another wispy affirmation of life in a death-place.

Lou, the head orderly, ran a routine check on a sheaf of records on an aluminum clipboard. Archie waited patiently, relaxing in the memory of the Beethoven and feeling a little lazy from the heat. Lou's cigarette bounced up and down like a conductor's baton as he spoke, shedding ashes on the paperwork:

"Archie, what's the vault I.D. on this?"

Archie consulted his transfer slip, reading slowly so the Filipinos could pick it up the first time:

"North eight, thirty-seven oh nine, fourteen." The attendants slunk from the room, like a couple of lizards who've been in the sun too long.

"Organ donor number?" asked Lou.

"I don't think she was a donor," Archie replied.

"Is now," said Lou, reading from his clipboard. "Kidneys 'n corneas. Nine this morning. Snip Snip." He drew deep on his chest-buster, a dangerously short Pall Mall. His eyes danced in a macabre sort of way. Archie wondered if he liked his work.

The gurney rattled down the corridor and smashed through the double doors. The Filipinos danced around the blanket-wrapped body like a well-rehearsed vaudeville team, commenting in sharp-edged Spanish as they checked the toe-tag in tandem, a queer sort of tweedle-de-dum.

Archie signed for Gracie Whitlock, Lou lit another Pall Mall, and the gurney whooshed through the automatic outside doors and along the loading bay to the hearse. Archie popped the heavy door open and the three of them loaded her up. She weighed a ton. Well, maybe half a ton. All dead weight though.

Gracie Whitlock, gone at last. If you took a poll in Waldren among kids, or anybody who'd once been a kid and chanced to pass anywhere near Gracie Whitlock's ramshackle Victorian downtown, chances are you'd find damn few people who were unhappy about her passing. She was the town witch. A sad old crone caught up for the last forty years of her life in the idea that there was no good in the world, only mean children who wanted to tramp across her weedy lawn and throw rocks at her unrepaired windows. It's hard to say which got started first, Gracie's hatred of children or the kids' hatred of Gracie, but the years of mutual torment were past at last. She died of meanness. Meanness and old age and obesity, combining to tear her organs apart.

________________

Archie got kind of a sick idea as he tooled the hearse away from the hospital.

"Hey Gracie," he said, "dig this." He replaced the Beethoven with something a little more bouncy: His Best of the Beach Boys tape, Papa Om-Mow-Mow. The loud and raucous version with the live crowd going crazy in the background. It segued into another of Archie's favorites:

"There's a time for joy, a time for tears,
A time we'll treasure through the years.
We'll remember always, Graduation Day."
It was a little bit of heaven there on the open road. The perfect mating of man, machine, and corpse. Archie swayed the hearse back and forth slightly, in time to the music. It felt a little heavy and mushy in the rear; new shocks?

The first few chords of Do You Wanna Dance had sounded when Archie chanced to check his rearview mirror. He almost would've been happier had he seen a police car there, but instead—almost filling the mirror and moving closer—was Roger Davis's van. Davis was driving and he pulled up close enough for Archie to see Palumbo and Joanie and Roberta, all along for the ride.

Davis swung hard into the passing lane and pulled up alongside the Cadillac. The kids hooted and waved at Archie, and Palumbo rolled down his window, stuck out his big fat face, and pointed to the rear of the hearse.

"Hey Arse, pull over!" He said it like some kind of bad-dream policeman, jerking his thumb at the shoulder of the road:

"I think that stiff in the back of your car is moving!"

Archie accelerated, and the wind caught the last of Palumbo's words, distorting them:

"Better be care…fulllllll…!"

His move caught Rog by surprise, but the Deathmobile soon torqued its way back abreast of the hearse.

"Hey Archie," yelled Palumbo, "Whatcha gonna do with her when you get her back to your house?"

The kids yukked it up. Suddenly, with amazing speed, the Deathmobile patched out and fishtailed around a corner. Archie clenched his jaw muscles several times and drove on. He turned up the Beach Boys.

________________

Inside the Deathmobile, dissension was brewing. While Palumbo and Davis and Roberta chortled with stoned delight, Joanie sat stiffly in the back with her arms and legs crossed. She studied the Hieronymus Bosch reproduction that Monica's old man's artist friend had painstakingly chosen as suitable décor for the inside the van. The inside, where the action was. It was in color:

A knife blade stuck obscenely through a pair of severed ears, which were also pierced by a giant arrow. A bird with a blue lizard's body, wearing a cooking pot, devoured the torso of a man while a flight of starlings escaped from his asshole. Two dogs in armor ripped at the throat of a corpse. A pig in a nun's habit caressed a protesting figure who resembled Christ.

Joanie had very little idea what this was all about, but she'd tripped on it many times. Where once it had seemed merely fantastic in a crazy beautiful sort of way, today it seemed sick, like a twisted reflection of her friends, who passed a joint and continued to crack Archie and the stiff jokes.

Palumbo arced the doobie back to Joanie and she shook her head. Palumbo snorted and passed it on to Roberta, who pulled back her hair the color of the hell-fire in the painting with both hands before taking a hit. Rog glanced with macho apprehension in the mirror, repeatedly, until he finally caught Joanie's eye. His look was a challenge. Joanie had seen it many times, and this time she rose to it, defiantly:

"I'm sorry, " she said. "I really don't see what's so funny." Roger's eyes hardened. He took a pull on the joint. "I mean what'd he ever do to you?"

Roger inhaled again, deeply, then spoke as a thin cloud of smoke reached out for the windshield:

'Come on," he whined. "Come on."

Roberta lay her head against a wolverine's skull, through the eyehole of which a dead man was suspended in a huge key. A blackbird tore at his flesh. She was coming on real good—it was NoCal sinsemilla—but she felt she had to set Joanie straight:

"He's a dweeb," she said succinctly.

Joanie turned away from her. Rog caught the movement in the mirror. As if to pull them all together he said brightly:

"No, we've got to think of something. Something Special."

"What?" said Palumbo, who was tripping on some cows in a pasture, imagining them getting their teats pulled by a Devil with huge black hands.

"I mean a joke," said Roger, "A practical joke."

Palumbo warmed to the idea:

"Yeah, something fuckin' spectacular!" He fixed the joint in a roach clip embossed with a skull and crossbones as the van sped along the highway past Miller's filling station.

________________

Not so very much later, Archie hung a right, for gas, at Miller's. Both sets of wheels ran over the bell and his friend Charlie Washington came out, wiping his hands on a greasy rag.

Charlie was one of the few brothers in Waldren. He was a gangly good-looking kid who played a fierce saxophone but who gave the lie to the idea that all blacks are jocks. He couldn't dribble a basketball if his life depended on it. He had a keen sense of humor however, and he was a real friend to Archie.

"Pasa, 'migo?" he smiled. "Want me to fill 'er up?" Archie nodded and got out of the hearse. As Charlie started pumping premium, both boys watched the Deathmobile make a squealing U-turn and then a hard left into the station. Charlie nodded towards the van:

"They giving you trouble again?"

Archie shook his head, disgusted.

"Nothing better to do."

Charlie wiped his forehead with his free hand:

"Silver spoons. Must be nice." He swiveled his broad black head hack on forth on his long neck. "Dad bought him that car. Sweet."

The clean smell of gasoline got caught up on the breeze.

"They had that dude paint them pictures on it." He rocked his head back and forth in time to some bouncy music in his head. Archie shrugged and walked into the office.

He took a can of coke out of the cooler and grabbed up a saran-wrapped hero sandwich. He stood there a while, smelling the good smells of the station and eyeing the Deathmobile out front. Charlie finished up, replaced the hose, entered the office, and went behind the counter. He rang up the bill on an old Burroughs adding machine.

"Watch out for those nice folk," Charlie said quietly. "They are bad news." Archie snapped open the coke.

"You're telling me?" he took a long swig and changed the subject. "Going to the dance?"

Charlie shook his head matter-of-factly. It was no big deal.

"Unh unh. I'm driving the truck. You?"

"You kidding? You think McCloud would let me off on a work night?"

That was a bit of an evasion. Archie had never even broached the subject to McCloud. What would be the sense? He didn't have a date anyway.

Charlie nodded, understanding. It wasn't something he wanted to get into.

Outside in the van, Rog, Palumbo and Roberta had put their heads together in the rear, tossing around some outrageous ideas. Joanie had given it a lot of thought, and they were all beginning to look very stupid to her. She had moved over to the front seat and was glancing over to the station office now and again.

"Come on," said Rog. "Think of something special." They were still working on the joint, or maybe it was another joint. Joanie neither knew nor cared. She took the opportunity to speak her mind:

"I've thought about it," she said, "and I think it stinks." Roger was getting tired of her attitude. He looked at her with mock surprise. More truthfully, he was getting pissed.

"C'mon Joanie, shine it on." His attitude made her bolder. Palumbo and Roberta were staring at her like she was crazy. They were really stoned. She turned around in her seat and let Rog have it:

"I mean, haven't you ever stopped to think how weird it is that here you are, just about to graduate to college, and all you can think of to do in your spare time is torment some kid who isn't privileged like you? Who has to put himself through college?"

"Oh for Christ's sake," said Rog. "I don't believe you're saying this."

"It's sick," said Joanie with finality.

"He's sick," whupped Palumbo. His eyes were two piss holes in a cowpie. He snuffled back some phlegm from his nose which had been broken at least twice in recent memory. "He works in a morgue with stiffs! Is that normal?" Joanie said nothing.

"He's a twerp, Joanie!" said Rog. "God!"

Joanie didn't want to hear it any more. She gave Rog an unmistakable warning with her eyes, but when he continued to gaze at her, hard and cold, like he owned her or something, she let him have it:

"At least he's not some spoiled little rich kid whose father bails him out of jail!"

She could have turned away from Rog at that moment, but she continued to stare him down. Something evil and automatic clicked on in Rog's head and he shot back:

"Shut up, Joanie!" There was an implied threat in the silence after her name. Joanie used the moment to turn away from the three of them. She spoke to the window between her and the gas station with feeling, as if it were something she'd been thinking about for a long time but had only finally drawn the courage to admit to herself:

"You guys are a waste."

Rog rolled forward onto his hands and knees, well within striking range and looking very angry.

"I said…dummy UP! Or get out."

He considered himself a past master of the bluff. It had always worked for him on the football field. He'd even got Joanie to put out on their first date with the technique. It was a very effective weapon. He rocked back on his heels and waited for a response.

Palumbo was doing as much thinking as his limited amount of gray matter would allow him:

"I think you like him," he said stupidly. Joanie didn't even have to dignify her response with a thought. She shot right back at Palumbo, that big fat jerk-off:

"He's sure better-looking than you!"

Rog couldn't let that go and he didn't. No woman of his was getting on his best friend's case, even if it was true that Palumbo represented an inbred water buffalo.

"Get out of the truck," he said. "Take a walk, Joanie."

Joanie didn't have to think about that either. At least it had come from him and not her.

"With pleasure!"

Roger opened the sliding door because of the finality of its whoosh, but Joanie tossed her hair and opened her own. Rog held out his hand:

"Gimmee the ring."

"You can have your ugly ring! Take it!" She threw it at him and climbed out. Slammed her door. She grabbed the handle on the sliding door, rocked it back to the left, paused for a beat and said:

"And get fucked while you're at it!" She slid the door home with a crash. Rog leaped to the passenger window as Joanie clattered away from the truck.

"Don't beg, Joanie!" he yelled after her. She stopped, turned and said:

"Prick!" And she continued walking around the van, headed for the highway. The Deathmobile laid a strip of rubber twelve feet long and sped past her.

Charlie and Archie had seen all of the last part of it.

"Looks like they're having a fight," said Charlie. Archie stood there with his coke in his hand. Charlie turned back to him:

"I think Joanie and Rog are breaking up." Archie feigned indifference, slugging down some more coke before speaking.

"Looks that way." He crunched the can, tossed it in the wastebasket and, pocketing his change, headed for the door.

"You know, Arch…I think she likes you."

Archie walked quickly to the hearse. He glanced at Grace Whitlock a sec, climbed in, and pulled out into the street. Joanie walked along the shoulder up ahead, proudly, he thought. Certainly, from the rear, beautifully. Archie reached over, slid down the window, and—when he had pulled up even with her—he asked:

"Are you ok?" She kept walking. Archie stayed abreast of her. "Where are you going?"

"Home," she said simply.

"Hop in," Archie heard himself saying. "I'll give you a ride." Joanie paused, glanced deeply into Archie's eyes, which were very bright, and opened the door. She climbed in, the most beautiful passenger in the history of that Cadillac, smoothing her skirt over her knees.

Archie accelerated, not daring to speak. He was taking it all in. Joanie smelled like summer. The Beach Boys launched into California Girls. He adjusted the volume perfectly. He felt as if he'd never been more in control of himself. The hearse changed gears effortlessly. They drove about a mile before he spoke:

"I thought Rog was driving you."

Joanie dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She wasn't crying. It was just something that needed to be done. She looked straight ahead.

"We broke up."

"Oh." Archie drove a while. Then he braked slightly and turned to her, "I'm sorry." Joanie dabbed at her eyes again. Then she flipped down the sun visor and checked out the mirror. She looked good.

"I guess you were going with him for a long time."

There was no immediate reaction. Joanie curled her hair around her fingers thoughtfully. Finally she spoke:

"Since he joined the football team." The hearse picked up speed. Archie was swaying it in time to the music again.

"Three years," said Joanie. "Wasted." Archie thought for a piece of a minute.

"Well, you're eighteen now. There's plenty of time."

Joanie started to nod, but suddenly there was a horn blast from behind them. The Deathmobile pulled right up on the hearse's tail, then swung wide and started to pass. Rog was on the passenger's side. Palumbo drove like a maniac, swerving within inches of the hearse. Rog leaned out into the slipstream screaming:

"Pull over, boy!" Palumbo let the van skid almost into the Caddy, then pulled abruptly away again.

"Don't look at them," said Joanie. "Pretend they're not there."

The Deathmobile sped ahead of the hearse. Palumbo jammed the brakes. Archie almost hit him, managed to slow in time, fought for control as the hearse started to fishtail. Gracie Whitlock rolled back and forth in the rear. The van moved left and slowed.

"They're nuts!" said Archie.

"Pull over!" commanded Rog.

Palumbo feinted towards the hearse again. Archie pulled right, throwing gravel into the wheelwells. Archie struggled with the heavy machine. Once it got going in the wrong direction, it was a bitch to bring around.

Palumbo edged closer, forcing Archie farther off the road. Steel cables whizzed past Joanie's door. Gracie Whitlock was bouncing on the floor as the right wheels caught four inch ruts in the shoulder of the road. Still Palumbo edged closer. Joanie leaned across Archie, yelling out the window:

"Hit us! Hit us! Hit us with your custom paintjob! See if we care!"

Archie flashed a dumbfounded look at Joanie, whose breasts were in his lap. She supported her weight with her left hand on Archie's thigh. He floored the accelerator and all 450 Cadillac horses surged as one. Joanie fell back against him, her hair—whipped by the wind—tangled in his mouth. The hearse pulled ahead, but Archie couldn't see a thing. He kept the wheels in the ruts on the shoulder and pushed Joanie away from him.

The two cars, hearse slightly ahead, sped past a state trooper at ninety-five miles an hour. The cop was so surprised he stalled his cruiser trying to pull onto the road.

Rog urged Palumbo to go faster, slapping his shoulder, screaming. The hearse was still pulling away. Davis leaned out the window. Joanie leaned across Archie again. She stuck her tongue out at Rog.

"I don't want to talk to you Joanie!" screamed Rog. "I want that little stiff-pusher behind the wheel!" The two V-8's growled at each other, pushing the cars faster still.

"Stiffer than yours!" taunted Joanie.

Rog heaved a milkshake at the hearse. Vanilla. It spattered across the windshield, and Archie strained to see through the creamy mess. He turned on the windshield wipers and the goo streaked from one side to the other. The Beach Boys were wailing Little Deuce Coupe as the Deathmobile accelerated away.

"Shit!" yelled Archie, as milkshake, caught on the wind, found its way inside the hearse and onto them both. Rog and Palumbo collapsed all over each other, pulling a full quarter-mile ahead as Archie struggled to keep the hearse on the road.

Suddenly a siren wailed. The cop sailed past the hearse, lights flashing. The Deathmobile slowed, pulling over at last to the side of the road. Archie, however, did something uncharacteristic—he just kept right on going, past the decelerating van and the confused cop. Joanie shouted at Rog and Palumbo as the hearse made its getaway:

"See you boys!"

It was beautiful. The beginning of a wonderful relationship. And what a ride for old Gracie Whitlock!

Archie turned to take a look over his shoulder at Gracie, but he never got farther than Joanie's downy forearm, which was resting very prettily on the back of the seat. He turned nervously back to the road. Joanie sat with her back to her door. She was smiling. She loved adventure. Archie could feel those blue eyes fixed on him. He wasn't sure of his next move.

After a silence which was both heavenly and unbearable, he turned into the sunshine of her smile:

"Unh, I have to stop by McCloud's…and then I guess I'm dropping you off someplace?"

Joanie slid over towards him. Her arm was around his neck now. It seemed a very grateful gesture, not much more.

"Mortuary?" she said, wide-eyed. Her breath was very sweet.

"You don't have to go in. I'll park outside."

"No," said Joanie, after beautiful reflection. "I'd like to come in, Archie. I've never been in one before."

She lay her head on his shoulder and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Of contentment. It was like in a fairy tale.

"There's a place where I can go
And tell my secrets to…
In my room. In my room…"
The Beach Boys had certainly found the range. It all seemed so natural, just like in a dream. Archie at the wheel of his Cadillac. The most beautiful girl in the world at his side. Even their chaperone was perfect.

Gracie Whitlock was still dead to the world.


Next: Joanie meets McCloud and Gracie's bereaved son pays a visit.

Forward


she ain't heavy, she's a mother
lying and sighing and beer, oh my!
and if your teacher is also a pervert?
the end of the beginning
telephone, for thee!
one thing you don't want is a thaw
our little life is rounded with a sleep
"Those suckers are alive!"
In the darkness the undead quarterback
highway to hell in a handbasket
fill 'er up and check the oil
hell hounds on my trail
are you on drugs or just having one of those days?
Freeman and me and the rest of the world

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