back to the beginning
If you were a bird stupid enough to live in some tree in the town of Waldren, New York, which is just a stone's throw from Nowhere on the road to Nothing, you wouldn't have to fly very high to be able to see all the way from the river—which is the Hudson, New York City's Toilet—to Willard Freeman Memorial High, out on the edge of town where the woodchucks used to roam but are now getting their asses blown to kingdom come by rich kids with air rifles and attitude.
When all of us were very young, Waldren was known as a great place to grow up in. Now that we almost have, it's not. Real estate values have risen so high so fast in Manhattan that even rich perves can't afford to live there, so they move here. And all their kids go to Freeman. In BMWs. In Land Rovers. In classic T-Birds in crazy colors. You drop a bomb in the parking lot at three-fifteen and the Gross National Product would never recover. Insurance settlements on the cars alone would be astronomical, but I'd be willing to bet that each and every one of those rich little boy and girl pervettes has a pretty high price on their head too. And what do you want to bet that maybe moms and pops wouldn't like to get rid of the teen-age liabilities just like that—POW!—in one easy strafing run on Memorial Parking Lot? At three-fifteen, right out of the sun that's falling gently into the Catskills, ka-pow ow ow. Think about it.
"Yeah," says Monica Montoya, who's trying to spread her berry-brown legs into a split on the wide grass meridian that runs between the parking lot and the athletic field. "Around my house it's strictly mutual hatred, you know?
Monica's old man is Meyer Montoya, who owns two galleries on Lexington and an island off the coast of Greece. He also has the world's largest private collections of El Grecos, so you know where his head is at. Monica's got jet-black hair and mahogany eyes and her curvy little body has been force-fed on fine foods in health spas in Switzerland and New Mexico for all of her seventeen years.
Joanie Snowland is there too, along with another fox, Roberta Eliot, whose father is into Irish Whiskey. He imports it by the barrel, and its high value in the states is responsible for the fresh blush of good health Roberta wears with Irish pride. Her hair the color of sunset shines bright enough to bring you to your knees.
Joanie is deep into her split. The grass beneath her buns has never been so blessed. Indescribably beautiful little mounds of flesh tease you at the tops of her thighs where her white shorts end.
"Just ease into it, Bobby," says Joan. "Little by little."
Roberta isn't having an easy time of it. Not that she isn't limber and everything, but it is an extreme thing to do to your body. "Ohmigod," she whines, "you've got to be kidding!"
"That's just what I said to Daddy when he took the T-Bird away," says Monica. She's doing better with the splits. She had some ballet training in the city and she has those heavily-muscled dancer's legs, not ugly, mind you, simply legs that look like they mean business.
"Owieeee, owie, owie, owie," says Roberta, bouncing up and down to get into it easier.
"That's good," says Joanie. She did a long swan-like stretch of her neck, twisting her spine ninety degrees to the right and extending her arm like Anna Pavlova or somebody. "You've got to feel the pull…and relax into it. Your body loves it, really."
My body loves a lot of things," said Monica, "but sitting home alone it does not." She stretched deeply, grasping her tennis shoe with both hands, her compact body perfectly parallel to her outstretched leg.
"Oh Monica," said Joanie, "You don't have it so bad. You know you can hang around with me and Rog in the Deathmobile." Joanie twisted back around the other way.
"Wonderful. Just what you guys need. A third for fun and games at the drive-in."
"I don't mind," said Joanie. "And Roger won't either." She got an evil look—a queen-bitch look that she may have learned from her mother—in her eye. "I have ways of making him come around."
"For sure," nodded Roberta sagely. "Where would we be without it?"
"What?" asked Joanie.
"You know. The Power. The feminine mystique. Supreme knowledge of all the little ins and outs of our relationships with men."
"Boys," said Monica.
"Whatever," said Roberta.
We have here a lovely picture of three young women in the full blush of their sexuality. It is their habit these afternoons to hone their talents, both physical and mental, for they have discovered—not by accident and surely not without resounding effect—the ancient power of their sex.
Joanie Snowland, a young blonde princess, at court, of sorts, with her handmaidens, neither of whom—it must be said—can qualify strictly as maidens.
Into this bucolic scene worthy of a Constable or even a Vermeer saunters the forlorn figure of our hero, Archie Meader, whose dead father may once have consumed barrels of Irish Whiskey but never came close to importing it.
Archie's trek up the short hill to the parking lot is not accidental, nor is it an intentional intrusion upon the queens of Freeman High. Simply, his third-hand moped is parked on the grass near the girls. Without it he has no chance of getting to work by four.
Roberta has swung her legs out in front of her and is gently stretching away the pain.
"You'll probably be a little stiff for a while," says Joanie.
Roberta, speaking just loud enough for Archie to hear replies:
"That's better than Archie. He'll be a little stiff for the rest of his life."
She stretches deeply again and then says, too brightly, "Hi Archie!"
The three of them laugh as Archie fumbles with his briefcase and the bungee cords on the back of his machine.
"Hullo," he says. It seems he knows better than to hang around where he's not wanted. He throws a leg over the moped, pushed it off the kickstand, and starts to peddle into the lot.
"I just love your sweater, Archie," says Monica, her Jewish Andalusian eyes flashing in mock sincerity.
"Don't forget the dance tonight," says Roberta. "Be sure to bring Fred's leg!"
"God what a Dweeb," she says, turning archly away from the diminishing figure of poor Arch. Joanie, however, doesn't turn right away. There's something about Meader that intrigues her, the way strong silent working types have always intrigued a certain kind of rich girl. Then, on the other hand, maybe Joanie is just one of Fred's biggest fans. Poor Fred….
The Old Post Road winds lazily through the town, past Freeman High, and northerly in a rough nine mile arc till it bends again to the river. Archie enjoyed the twenty minutes it took him to travel this route more than any other part of the day. He loved nature's serenity, the way she could just lie there in quiet splendor and then, when you least expected it, shock you with the incredible beauty of a thunderstorm, or a sunset, or even—if you were sensitive and looked hard—with the burst of color of wild flowers off the side of the road, or in certain types of mushrooms even deeper into the forest that surrounded Waldren on all sides but the river's.
Given as he was to contemplation, the phrases of William Cullen Bryant turned over and over in his head as Archie's moped took him farther and farther from town and the taunts of the girls and the bad taste of the episode outside Dwyer's class.
"To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language…
"Go forth under the open sky and list to
"All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.
"Go not, like the quarry slave at night
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust approach thy grave,
Like one that wraps the drapery of his couch
About him and lies down to pleasant dreams."
Archie Meader could dream with the best of them. He figured the only thing that stood between him and all the things in the world that he knew he could accomplish were the dreams he had of even better things, of heavenly things, of unspeakable things.
Little puffs of wind—dust devils—whipped at the dirt at the side of the road. The day grew cooler; the sun was slowly being consumed by dark clouds over the mountains.
Archie's mind turned round the poem and, alternatively, around the poetry of woman, specifically Joanie Snowland, whose long legs in their white shorts taunted him, here, in day dreams like this along the lonely road, but also at night, at home, in his bed, where their effect was more pronounced, ringing him from his sleep as rain will bring the flowers from the fields.
He was imagining what it would be like, to ride to work with Joanie behind him, astride his faithful moped, her legs and arms wrapped tight around him when—WWWHOOSH!—like a blast of hot air from hell the awful black Deathmobile with Rog Davis at the wheel careened past him, zig-zagging from one side of the road to the other, music tumbling out of it like bats from a yawning cave. Two hands, one on either side of the van, stick-fingered him defiantly before the van disappeared, consumed in its own dust.
Next to Joanie, that van was Rog's proudest possession. His old man must've paid more than a fortune for it. There was six thousand dollars worth of paint on it alone. It was a heavily modified Chevy with a blown V-8 somehow fit into it, and Archie had to admit, as he put-putted along the Old Post Road, that the damn thing sure could fly.
Archie didn't make enough in a week to pay Davis's gas bill. But the thing that really made him sick was the artwork: some freaky friend of Monica's old man who had a studio in Nyack had painted every available inch of the car with copies of Gustav Dore's illustrations from Dante's Inferno. One side had the harpies in the Forest of Suicides done in heavy earth tones. The other showed the severed head of Bertrand de Born, speaking to the mortified pilgrims. And on the back, bigger than shit, was Lucifer, King of Hell, brooding as he gnawed on the body of one of the Damned. Over it, in immaculate script, was the logo: "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here."
Rog must've thought that, in particular, was pretty clever. Archie gave him an A for imagination, but the fact remained, the Deathmobile was pretty disgusting. Davis had a hell of a lot of nerve getting on Archie's case for what he did after school, riding all over the place in that thing.
Archie could see that Rog had turned into Miller's filling station, up the road a good piece, so he slowed the moped to a crawl, not wanting to pass the Deathmobile and have Rog—and Palumbo, probably—razz him. It might make him late for work, but he didn't feel like another confrontation.
The Deathmobile, all gassed up, continued down the road at last and Archie gave the moped a tweak to make up for lost time. As he passed Miller's, he threw a wave to Charlie, who waved back.
It was a short jaunt up a hill and around a bend and then another two hundred yards or so to McCloud's Mortuary, which sat alone at the top of a hill overlooking the river, surrounded by brooding willow trees. Some county maintenance men were tending the grounds of the small cemetery across the road from McCloud's. Archie knew most of them. They were mostly black guys and poor guys who enjoyed working outdoors with their hands. They were pruning the trees and raking leaves and feeding brush into a large pulverizing machine that screamed and belched and chugged and generally destroyed the quiet of the place. The workers recognized Archie and gave him a wave as he hung a hard right and pulled into McCloud's wide circular driveway.
Zachary McCloud had bought the 200 year-old Patroon mansion about ten years ago on a G.I. home loan when he was mustered out of the army. Fabulous old houses with lots of acreage like this one were commonplace in the county, though they no longer went for a song. The moneyed New Yorkers had driven the price well over six figures.
Old McCloud was a shrewd fellow, and he'd made many improvements to the property. Indeed, Archie supposed, if you had to go, you might as well make your exit from a place like this, grand in the old style without being pretentious.
There was a carriage house attached to the main building, and Archie leaned his bike against the side of it and entered through the open double door, passing McCloud's big Cadillac hearse and the brand new black flower car that was parked next to it. Part of Archie's job was to wash both vehicles, and he was glad to see that they were clean, having been unused for a couple of days.
A broad unlighted hallway connected the carriage house to the showroom, that is, the salesroom, where there was a large display of caskets and slumberwear. Archie ran his hand idly over the smoothly polished surfaces of a row of coffins, breathing the uncomfortably heavy air. He made a mental note to open some windows if McCloud saw fit to leave for the afternoon.
McCloud had this thing about fresh air. He hated it. He'd been a gunnery sergeant for three tours in Vietnam and he was used to living in bunkers without windows. You could get killed in fresh air seemed to be his attitude. He was a queer bird.
"Archie?" McCloud's voice rang out gruff and too loud, like he was shouting over howitzers.
"Sir?" Archie paused by the big refrigerator door.
"Is there anybody else in the house?"
Archie considered that a weird question. He'd only just arrived himself.
"No sir. I'm the only one here that I know of." His voice echoed sharply through the high-ceilinged rooms.
"I thought I heard somebody in the chapel."
Right. Like people'd want to hang around here and not be dead.
"No sir. I didn't see anybody."
"Come here, Archie," bellowed McCloud. "I want to talk to you."
Archie rolled his eyes in disgust. McCloud always wanted to talk to him. He figured the old dude was lonely, but McCloud was always lecturing him on one thing or another, and it got to be a drag. He dutifully left the showroom, passed through another dark hallway, and entered the white enamel and stainless steel prep room.
McCloud was working at the far end of the room. Hazy daylight fell through the frosted windows which were located higher than normal behind him. Archie noted they needed cleaning, but he was hoping he wouldn't have to do it. He hated window washing. And he wasn't too fond of heights either.
McCloud's tired red eyes shot up from his work momentarily, measured Archie the way old sergeants will, and flicked back down to the job at hand.
He was trimming the fingernails of a very old female corpse. McCloud was a large man. Both the scissors he was using and the old woman herself were very tiny. The effect was weird, as if McCloud was working on a very large doll. The corpse was undraped and Archie noted the woman's shrunken breasts and the many wrinkles and folds her body had acquired during its life.
McCloud bent nearer to the woman. His large rough hands made quick work of her small and dainty ones. He was a man who took pride in his professionalism. In this trade—as in most others—time was money. When people ran out of time, their survivors gave McCloud their money.
McCloud had a big head and very large and ugly ears. He finished the manicure, raised his head, and his several chins composed themselves atop his thick neck. He was not a handsome man, nor was he healthy. His skin had the look of one who spends too much time indoors after spending most of his life outdoors. It wouldn't be too long before he'd be needing the services of a mortician himself, Archie thought, not without some gratification.
"Come here," rattled McCloud. Archie came closer and McCloud looked at him at last. "What was the last thing I asked you to do yesterday?"
Archie stared at his employer. The old woman stared at him too, though of course one would imagine she couldn't see.
"Uhhh…make sure the alarm is on."
Without standing, McCloud deftly reached over with his foot and flipped open a small cabinet under the sink. Archie opened the door wider, and what was left of several glass containers—like Dwyer's specimen jars—fell out on the floor.
The inside of the cabinet was a disgusting mess of broken glass and gray ooze. A sticky grayish fluid dripped slowly out and onto the floor. Archie reacted quickly.
"I'll clean it up," he said.
"I don't want you to clean it up!" McCloud roared in his best drill sergeant's voice. "I want you to look at it!"
McCloud's big head swayed back and forth slightly on his bull neck. The beginnings of senile tremors.
"I was going to clean it up myself, but I thought I should leave it here so you could see what happens when you get sloppy."
Archie stared at the mess. Whatever he did now would be wrong, so he did nothing. At last he spoke, quietly:
"I don't think I did that."
McCloud retorted irritably, the veins in his neck bulging grotesquely.
"You didn’t do that?! Sure you did that! You put too much glass in there. Christ, the first thing I taught you here was how to stack bottles. That's lesson one, for chrissake!"
Before McCloud could become totally apoplectic, the telephone rang, out in the office.
"Don't go away!" he ordered.
Archie watched McCloud pad out of the room, his eyes shooting daggers. "That bastard," he said softly to himself. He gazed down at the helpless old lady on the white porcelain table.
"He's an asshole," he said to her, staring into her dead old eyes.
Archie appraised the condition of her withered body, not without some professional acuity.
"You know he's got the hots for you, don't you?" The woman's mouth gaped death's silent rictus. "Geezus you're ugly."
He turned quickly away from her, took a sponge mop out of the closet and began to clean up the mess. Halfway through the job, McCloud reentered, chewing a meatball sandwich like a guy from Brooklyn who's been a prisoner of war. He watched Archie in silence, pleased with his thoroughness, but looking like he had something else on his mind. McCloud sat on the prep table near the old woman's head.
"I want to ask you something, Archie."
Archie put the mop away and leaned against the sink.
"I've been watching you, and I've noticed you're not very happy in this job."
Archie, cautious, said "I don't know…it's still strange to me."
McCloud chewed while he talked. He rubbed his gray and white brush cut thoughtfully. "Look at this," he said, pointing to the woman with his sandwich. "What is it?"
"It's a body."
"Right," said McCloud. "It's a body. So what's so strange about that? You've got a body, I've got a body. What's so strange about a body?"
The meatballs were hot and fresh and unpleasant to Archie. He squinted and swallowed hard.
"I don't know. I just get a strange feeling sometimes."
Still holding his sandwich, McCloud reached under the prep table with his free hand and pulled out a long needle mounted on the end of a length of rubber tube.
"Here," he said. "Take that canula."
"Archie hesitated. He was starting to not feel so good.
"Take it!" ordered McCloud, leaving his mouth half-open to reveal half-masticated meatball.
Archie grasped the canula timidly, reluctantly. McCloud chewed a while in silence and swallowed.
"You know what to do with it."
"I can't do it," said Archie softly.
"Don't say you can't do it! Say you can!"
McCloud stood churlishly. Meatball sauce dripped from the corner of his mouth. He spoke with his mouth full:
"Do it! Do it now! The carotid artery! Jab it, for chrissake!"
Archie stared very hard at the old woman's open eyes. He though how kindly they must have seemed to her family. They were a mother's eyes. A grandmother's eyes. They had watched children take their first steps. Tried to read in candlelight while waiting for a fever to break. Archie felt the perspiration slide down the back of his neck. Like the corpse, he was having trouble breathing. McCloud was getting himself all worked up:
"Go! Go!" he screamed, like a football coach cheering a broken-field runner, pumping his sandwich up and down. "It's not going to bite you! She dead for chrissake!"
In a supreme effort of self-control and concentration, Archie managed to jab the canula into the woman's neck. Her old head rocked slightly away from him, then back, as Archie relaxed his grip on the needle.
"Perfect!" chortled McCloud triumphantly. He quickly switched on the electric pump, and all at once the whole deathly apparatus came alive, all save the old corpse, who lay there resignedly with the needle in her neck. The sound of the pump, along with the vibration of the rubber hose, was ghastly, as was the first tiny trickle, and then the rush, of amber fluid that shot into the sink.
McCloud stood there smugly, smacking his lips and cradling the old woman's head fondly in his arm.
"Look at me," he said. "I can sit here and eat a sandwich." He held it up for emphasis. "This is my job, Archie. It doesn't bother me any more."
Archie avoided McCloud's rheumy eyes. He watched the fluid swirl down the drain. McCloud continued, like he might have had he stayed in the Army and become a recruiter.
"If I hadn't gotten into this business, I'd be pumping gas right now, you know that? Hell, when I was your age, my parents didn't have a cent. I was begging for an opportunity like this."
He looked from the old woman to the boy. It is possible there were tears in his eyes.
"When the high school sent you out, Archie, I saw myself standing there, at the beginning of a long, full, satisfying life. I thought to myself 'OK, here's a boy who's going to follow in my footsteps.'"
Archie looked at him finally, wide-eyed. McCloud was finishing the last of the sandwich. The noises he made disgusted Archie. The slowing swirl of pukish pinkish liquid disgusted Archie. McCloud licked his fingers slowly and then, very quietly, almost reverently, he concluded:
"This may not seem to be an ideal job to many people. I don't hold it against them…" And then he whispered, so quietly, as if even the old corpse might hear: "It is a profitable job. Once you get a good house, drive a nice car, you're gonna find out why so many people wanna get in this business."
The old woman's last drop fell silently into the sink. McCloud held out his glistening clean hand:
"Congratulations, Archibald. Welcome. Welcome."
Archie smiled a weak semi-automatic smile. This was a lousy way to make a buck. He sighed.
"What else for today?"
McCloud placed his pink and meaty hand paternally on the boy's shoulder.
"Gracie Whitlock is ready for pick-up, so bring her in and fix her up a little." Archie nodded. McCloud made it sound so normal, like they were in some other business.
"Her son should be by around 1800. May want a peek. On your way back, get some gas…and a hero for me. One for yourself too, you like." He licked his chops thinking about it. "Oil, not mayo. I should be back in an hour and a half or so."
He held Archie's shoulder too tightly, fixing him with his undertaker's stare.
"Check," said Archie, who wanted just to get out.
The three of them, Archie, McCloud, and the nameless lifeless old lady were silent, as if they shared some secret. You could hear the sounds of summer birds, insects, a light afternoon breeze, and—as if to refute this death-place here—there were the lively sounds of the maintenance men at their tree shredder, somewhere farther down the road.
Next: Archie, Joanie, and the hearse (with Gracie Whitlock along for the ride) play chicken with the Deathmobile and the jocks.
a boy, a girl, a big fat dead old lady
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