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Chapter Nine

Monday dawned hard and bright and real. All of them were outside Freeman High, the whole student body. The wind caught Dwyer's voice and carried it up past them and past the domed roof of the building and out and beyond the river, which flowed on as if everything was the same.

Only the kids in the first ten rows could see that Dwyer had heavy bruises on his face, and that he stood there uncomfortably, as if in pain. There was more than enough pain to go around.

Dwyer's blue serge suit looked as if somebody had tried a rush cut-rate dry clean on it and blown the job. He spoke with difficulty:

"To everything-rything-thing-ing-ing-ing there is a season."

The echo and feedback in the p.a. system was annoying. A geek from the Media Club twisted knobs to smooth it out, but it was still too loud. It was Dwyer, after all.

"A time to be born. A time to die. And—may I suggest—a time to win. A time to lose."

Lots of kids were sniffling. Dwyer went on, with difficulty.

"Sudden death overtime came abruptly Friday night, but the final score is not ours to count. The final score in the Game of Life is for the Official Time Keeper to know. Win, lose, or draw…."

They shuffled through their classes. A lot of people avoided other peoples' eyes. And that afternoon, as if to challenge the cruelty of fate, Archie went back to work.

________________

Lester Franklin fingered his orange Stilson wrench. He was a sturdy—if gaunt—old man secure in the mastery of his craft. The wrench had been a present from his wife, one of a whole set commemorating their thirtieth anniversary. If ever there were a plumber's helper, Lester figured, Agnes had to be it.

He switched his large wad of Beechnut chewing tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other, gazing at the mass of plumbing before him with sharp old gray eyes. Old Agnes had put up with as many middle-of-the-night calls as any doctor's wife, never complaining. She was a good old girl.

He smashed an expert blow at the rusted pipe in McCloud's refrigerator, thinking goddamn army surplus shit. The pipe refused to budge. He hit it harder. Queenie, who'd come back inside, tracking water all over the prep room, barked excitedly in her high-pitched little way.

McCloud, on the phone with the florist, glanced at the mess on the floor and the plumber and his dog in exasperation. He covered his free ear against the din they were making.

"Well goddamn it, Harvey, take a look at the order!" His blood pressure was rising rapidly. He shifted the phone to his other ear, the good one, and turned his mostly-deaf gunner's ear to the noise in the room. "Freaking faggot little twerp, " he muttered to himself.

Archie wheeled a squeaking gurney into the prep room. The door rocked back and forth on it hinges, modulating the solemn organ music which floated out of the chapel.

Franklin hit the pipe again and again, threatening to shake loose the whole refrigeration unit. Queenie barked louder, as if somehow that would help.

McCloud covered the mouthpiece of the telephone and blustered: "Will you kindly shut the eff up for a second?!" Queenie barked at him, baring her tiny little teeth. "Archie, turn off that goddamn spook music!"

Archie leaned across the work table to reach the stop button on the cassette deck. He pushed the fast-forward instead, and the music echoed through the building at high speed. It hurt Queenie's ears. She howled in canine agony.

"Off! Off! Off! Turn it OFF!"

Old Franklin shook his head sadly. Life could be so easy if you just smiled your way through it. Archie hit the stop button at last. McCloud resumed his conversation, couching his anger in lisping little phrases for the benefit of the florist.

"Harvey, sweetheart, I have to call you back. I'm goin' nuts…just cancel the Whitlock order…No, CANCEL you idiot!" He slammed the receiver down. "Jesus D. God! What a fruit!"

Archie had wheeled the cart next to an open vault drawer. Not without difficulty, he was transferring Palumbo's tuxedoed corpse onto the tray.

"No no no!" screamed McCloud. "Plastic first, Archie!" He snatched a sheet of polyethylene from the work table and rushed over to swathe the body.

Franklin watched McCloud and the boy wrestle the cadaver. He'd seem some weird stuff in his time, but this act definitely took the biscuit. Agnes would've split a gut over this one. He ducked back inside the vault to his Stilson.

"There's water dripping all over in there," continued McCloud to Archie. "It'll ruin those clothes. That's not a rental tux for the prom, you know. His family bought the goddamn thing Archie! For eternity!" He turned to Lester:

"Franklin, have you plugged that leak yet?"

Lester pushed himself back outside and straightened up. In his most laconic easy-going way, he tried to soothe McCloud.

"Can't really say till the pump's back on, Zachary. You gotta expect some condensation."

McCloud slid the body home at last and shut the drawer, glowering at Archie. He splashed back to the work table angrily.

"Condensation? This is a freaking flood!"

Archie quickly leaped to action: "I'll get a mop!"

"Actually, I could use another pair of hands here, son," said Lester. "For a minute."

"Fine," said McCloud. "Go Archie. Help this man, please, before we all drown. This place'll look like that cemetery out in California after the flood, stiffs floating out on the high tide."

He exited through the swinging door, a man definitely not at peace with himself. Queenie skittered across the floor after him, yapping at his sodden heels.

"And keep that mutt quiet!" admonished McCloud.

Archie turned helplessly to Lester, who tapped his gray temple quietly with his finger and pointed in the direction of the departed undertaker. Archie shrugged, agreeing.

"OK, Arch," said Franklin, leaning back inside the refrigerator. "Take a look in here."

Archie stood on the other side of the open drawer. Franklin shone his flashlight into the damp darkness. They could see the pipe with three wrenches attached to it. Fittings grew out from it at awkward angles. Lester strained to reach the farthest wrench, muttering something about jerry-built junk.

"Keep the light right there," he said, handing it to Archie. Holding one wrench, Franklin twisted the middle one in order to tighten the fitting. As he did, a hissing sound rose quickly all around them.

"Nuts! Hang onto this forward wrench!"

Archie leaned farther inside as Franklin struggled with the connection. Directly beneath him he could see the plastic-shrouded corpse of Joanie Snowland. Her lips were parted, it seemed, as if at the beginning—or in the middle—of a kiss. She seemed to arch upward, her breasts pushing at the plastic, straining towards him, a cadaverous reminiscence of their brief time together. Archie licked at the sweat which was rolling down past the edge of his mouth and falling on the polyethylene.

"Hey, watch where you shine that light!"

Archie redirected the light from Franklin's face, past Joanie's, to the work at hand. "Sorry," he said, for anybody who was listening.

Lester grunted. With great effort, he tightened the fitting. He backed out of the vault. Archie wriggled backwards out as well, sliding smoothly, wetly, sadly above dead Joanie. Franklin reached for the switch on the side of the cooler.

"OK, let's crank her up."

He flicked the switch and the compressor motor started to return, reluctantly, to life. It shook and bucked unevenly for a few seconds, and then it failed altogether, as did all the lights in the room. Franklin cursed the darkness, then sighed in disgust.

"Blew the circuit."

Archie flashed the light inside the vault, then back outside in time to see Lester grope his way across the room. "OK Archie," he said, "keep an eye on that joint and I'll reset the breaker."

Archie guided him out the door with his light beam, then turned it back inside the vault, peering apprehensively after it.

The weak thin beam played over four bodies in the dark. They had never looked more dead. A sad aching sense of life's fragility came upon Archie as he swept the light back and forth across the vault. Water dripped from sweaty pipes, plop, plop, plop onto the polyethylene shrouds. For some strange reason he thought of the second day at Woodstock.

The compressor started with a bang. Archie jumped back from the dead as the lights flickered on.

"It's running!" he yelled to Lester, who ambled quietly back into the prep room with Queenie snuffling at his heels. "I think the leak stopped."

Archie handed Lester the flashlight, hoping he would look for himself. Franklin examined his handiwork, chewing his cud of Beechnut thoughtfully. "So it has," he said. "Yup. Dry as a bone." He snapped his fingers: "Say, that reminds me…."

He turned to Queenie, who was up on her hind legs, nosing as far into the vault as her size would let her: "Have you been a good girl?"

Queenie pranced and pirouetted as Franklin dug through his tool box, a gift from his wife on their tenth anniversary. He found at last a large bone, a hambone, outrageously disproportionate to the little dog, and he handed it to Queenie, who immediately set to work, gnawing on the bone like there was no tomorrow.

Archie grabbed up his mop and went to work on the puddle, which was threatening to flow out under the swinging door.

Franklin began to coil a long length of hose that snaked across the room, down the corridor, and outside the building. Every now and then he glanced at Queenie, who seemed to be playing out some prehistoric canine role, attacking the great bone with gusto. Franklin rocked his narrow head up and down, his adam's apple working in a rhythm opposite to it.

"Yup," he said. "Makes her feel like part of the team. Good dog, Queenie."

At that moment, McCloud stuck his fat head through the door: "Finished?"

"Yeah," said Lester. "That should hold her."

McCloud took a step into the room, then eyed Queenie with a mixture of suspicion and anxiety.

"What the hell is that dog eating?"

Lester Franklin grinned. He arced a brownish stream of Beechnut spittle into a coffee can he kept handy and continued to coil the hose.

Archie was feeling like maybe he needed some air. He stepped carefully between McCloud and Franklin, who were glaring at each other like ancient adversaries. The hose slithered away as he walked alongside.

The oppressive silence of the hall gave way at last to the joyful noise of nature. The birds, the tress, even the sky itself seemed to breathe contentment. The setting sun was still burning very hot, and as soon as he was a respectful distance from the house, Archie allowed himself to sneeze. And then he was sad again. Even the momentary relief of a sneeze—the nearest thing to death, scientists tell us, since all bodily functions halt for a split second—even the silly kind of joy of a sneeze was beyond those poor jerks in there, who were cooling off again thanks to Lester Franklin.

Archie felt a kind of remorse building up inside of him, as if maybe there were something he could have done or should have done that might have prevented the irresistible custom van from crossing that thin white line and meeting the immovable oak tree for that fearsome jaunt into something, he guessed, like the Twilight Zone.

In movies and in books, this was the moment where the hero staunchly lights a cigarette, throws the match to the ground, and squints off to the horizon, looking for an answer. Archie didn't smoke, and instead he felt the beginnings of a tear at the corner of his eye. He swiped at it with a limp hand, blinked once or twice, then smiled at last as Queenie scurried under the garage door, which was slowly opening. McCloud's voice shook him back to earth:

"Franklin, you've got to be kidding!" Lester ducked under the door into the gathering dusk with McCloud close behind him. He heaved his toolbox into his truck, a real old Ford painted red and green, and then he unshouldered the hose and thew it in too.

"Ten days, Zachary," Lester said. "No more." He hawked a gob of tobacco juice onto the driveway. "You're lucky it's not C.O.D."

McCloud waved Franklin's invoice, the source of their latest disagreement, in the skinny plumber's face:

"This is a rip-off and you know it!"

"Don't yell at me about it. You wanna scream, call bookkeeping. We got fixed rates."

Lester rounded the rear of his truck and opened the door. McCloud pursued him like a rabid dog.

"You bet I'm gonna yell! You tell bookkeeping I got water damage! I can send outrageous bills too, y' know!"

Franklin climbed into the truck. "So I've heard. C'mon Queenie."

Neatly balancing her oversized bone, Queenie launched herself onto the running board, scurried around Lester's feet, and took up her customary shotgun position. As Lester cranked the starter, McCloud ran around to the door, pounding on it for emphasis:

"You must think you're the only plumber in town! Why be a wise ass?"

Lester let the engine warm up for a bit. He fiddled with the gearshift knob. He spit another goober of tobacco, chewed some more, and stared very hard and long at McCloud.

"Look Zachary. I don't like your business. I don't want your business, and I don't like you." McCloud's pink and yellow eyes widened. "You're an asshole, Zachary. You want me? You just whistle, OK? Put your ass-cheeks together and blow."

He put the truck in gear and drove quickly off, leaving a little plume of dust in the thickening twilight. Queenie showed McCloud her teeth through the back window.

"You're making a powerful enemy!" yelled McCloud, mostly helplessly. He turned to Archie, who wished he wasn't there. "What're you staring at?"

Carefully choosing the one word that contained the entire spectrum of his emotions, and wishing he chewed tobacco so he could spit at McCloud's feet for emphasis, Archie said, very quietly, "nothing," turned on his heel, and walked through the garage back into the prep room.

________________

Half an hour later, he was morosely holding Rog's formerly strong right hand, the one that threw for six TD's against Albany but which would never throw again. It didn't really need to be done, Archie supposed, but somehow he felt that he had to do something just to keep from going crazy.

He neatly pared the quarterback's nails, as he'd watched McCloud do so many times before, pushing back the cuticle gently with an orange stick as he went. He had never noticed before, but Rog's nails on his right hand were longer than those on his left. Since he had some time to think about it, it gradually came to Archie that this was because old Davis had played guitar. Good—no, great—classical guitar. He was such a good player that his teacher in New York had used Rog's hands in the photographs for a textbook he'd published.

And Rog didn't just play Bach and Sor. He played rock n roll too. His dad had bought him a Gibson Les Paul Anniversary, and he had a big Marshall stack, authentic, with tubes and everything. And he sang. They all sang. Rog and Palumbo and Joanie and Roberta coulda been the Cowboy Junkies of Freeman High, probably, cause their little garage band rocked. Used to rock.

It was just another one of the infinitely talented Davis's sidelines, and now here he was, forever sidelined in the game of life, a renaissance man gone, way before his time.

Rog Davis lay, not so cold as he might have been, but pretty damn cold nonetheless, on a white porcelain drawer, half-sticking out of a refrigerator that had just been repaired by a tobacco-chewing skinny old guy with a dog.

Archie finished the pinky finger and was just about to shove Rog back with the others when McCloud shouldered through the door, all dressed up with somewhere to go. He spoke rapidly, with no regard for Archie's obviously morose state, nor concern over the scene that had just transpired outside. Archie didn't know if it was all those years in the army or what, but it occurred to him that McCloud could be one stupid unfeeling son of a bitch.

"OK Archie, listen up." McCloud placed his arms akimbo, an unflattering posture that revealed his too ample belly and a tarnished watch chain that stretched across his waistcoat like a shackle on a warehouse door.

"The security system is on," he said. "When you leave, go out through the garage. That's the only door you can use."

"OK," Archie nodded. "Garage door only."

McCloud noted that Archie seemed to be doing some detail work on the Davis kid. He gave what passed for a smile and went on: "The viewing is at eleven tomorrow, so straighten up the chapel, vacuum the foyer, unh…and make sure the music is cued up." He paused for emphasis, an old army schtick: "I want everything strac around here."

"Yes sir."

McCloud turned to leave, got halfway through the swinging door, then stopped and pointed past Archie to the vault.

"And call me if there's more trouble with the unit." Archie nodded. "And Meader, when I come in tomorrow, I want to see a complete set of books for last month. Ins, outs, holds and cash flow. Understood?"

"Yes sir," said Archie meekly. "I'll call if there's any trouble."

McCloud gestured lamely, like his jacket was too tight:

"'Night."

Archie listened to him pad heavily down the corridor, and then he hopped quickly to the coffin room, where he watched through the window as McCloud drove slowly off. He could hear the automatic garage door shut, and then he knew he was alone again. Sort of.

The last of the daylight bled slowly from the coffin room, leaving only a memory of the sun. As Archie opened the window, he caught the scent of rain on the cool wind that swept from the sky. Good old rain. It made things grow.


Next: alone in the dark with a dead rock band

Forward

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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