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Chapter Four

All too quickly they reached the circular driveway of McCloud's Mortuary. Archie drove as slowly as he possibly could, not wanting the precious moment to end. He glided to a stop, like an elegant ocean liner, at last before the garage door. He felt he had to say something, and though a simple sigh of contentment might have done, he said:

"Mr. McCloud would kill me if he knew I was doing this." Joanie Snowland stared at him, her eyes by turn wild and demure. "We're just going to stop for a minute and that's it."

"Yes, Archibald," said Joanie, snuggling impossibly closer. "I'll be as quiet as a mouse."

"In and out," said Archie.

"Anything you say." Her breath was very warm in his ear, like a wind from the pages of The Arabian Nights.

The door opened when Archie pushed the button in the ceiling, and he began to back the hearse into the garage. He had twisted in Joanie's direction to park the car and she watched him intently. She was an expert on people's faces. Archie's was smooth and unlined and kind and full of character. She felt a faint pang of regret that they hadn't gotten to know each other long before this. A thousand other thoughts went through her head as the car left the sunlight for the shadows of the mortuary garage. It came to the smoothest of stops.

"Well here it is," said Archie with a crooked grin. "My home away from home." Joanie hadn't taken her eyes off her new friend.

"I love it," she said as they sat there quietly. "I love it."

Archie couldn't believe he was sitting in near-darkness with the girl of his dreams. Typically, he couldn't see the forest for the trees.

"Annnnnd…watch this," he said. The garage door started to close, like at the hands of a genie. Archie shut off the engine. Not to strain a metaphor, but it was quiet as death. Archie prattled on. He was beginning to sweat a little.

"Gadgets everywhere," he confided. "The door's on a fifteen second delay. It closes by itself."

Joanie's lips were six inches away from Archie's. "What more could we ask for?" she queried.

Archie went on, too nervous now for anything approaching suave.

"Well, y'see, there's a little paranoia around here. Old McCloud has this place wired. He's really into security. He—"

Joanie placed her index finger over his lips. Moved it slowly from one corner of his mouth to the other.

"Archie…I think you're…very…sweet." She took his head softly in her hands, pulled him to her, and kissed him sweetly, gently, perfectly, as befits a young woman of her level of experience.

"Unh…."

"Shhh…," she said, kissing him again, her lips parted invitingly. It was hard for Archie to do anything but kiss back, so that's what he did.

At this precise moment, unheard most likely because of the heavy breathing going on inside the hearse, the Deathmobile slid to a slimy stop across the street from McCloud's. It paused there momentarily, then tooled around to the side of the building behind some bushes, as though it were driven by a Secret Serviceman with a dirty job to do.

Archie was getting the hang of it. Joanie tasted like all the sweet things in the world. She had worked her way over on top of Archie, between him and the steering wheel, which Archie had moved forward; factory option. Joanie's skirt was up around her waist. Archie could rub his hands along the fine blonde hairs of her calves, but he was torn between continuing in that delectable mode or chancing a move a little higher up.

Joanie stopped suddenly, her muscles stiffening.

"Oh my God! Archie!"

Gracie Whitlock was on her side in the back, her blanket all askew, with one arm and her head tilted toward the lovers in supplication. She had never looked fatter or more witch-like. Joanie showed remarkable poise for a young woman staring at her first dead body (unless you count the Junior Prom, when Rog had passed out before midnight and stayed that way till summer school).

"Unh, Archie…do we have company here?"

"Oh, yeah," said Archie, his breath coming in gasps. "Sorry about that." Joanie had raised herself a little higher, on her knees. Archie took the opportunity to gently unbutton her blouse. Her breasts were like Goldilocks's breakfast—juust riight. Archie whispered as gently as he could between them, as they fell moist and fragrant:

"It's Gracie Whitlock. Heart failure, I think."

"God," said the ever-unflappable Joanie Snowland, "and I thought little brothers were a problem."

Archie kissed her neck. Joanie liked it. He palmed her breast. It was soft.

"Sweet old Gracie Whitlock," Joanie said, mostly to herself and not without irony. "Hunh. At least her eyes are closed."

"Unh hunh," murmured Archie, kissing her, much more like an expert now. "Are yours?"

They continued kissing, but Joanie was completely taken with the corpse. At last she responded, somewhat nervously:

"I don't think this is right. I still feel like we're being watched." She leaned back away from Gracie and Archie, back against the steering wheel. She began to button her blouse.

"Why don't we go inside?" she suggested.

Archie sighed. The dream was over.

"OK." He adjusted himself as Joanie crawled past him back over to her side of the hearse. "Right," he said with conviction. "She really shouldn't thaw out too much anyway."

"Mmmmm." Joanie leaned back over for one more quick but remarkably passionate kiss. "It's a hundred and ten in here," she said, brushing him casually across the front of his jeans. "And rising."

Archie shot from the hearse like the space shuttle Columbia. It was either all over or it was just beginning, and his curiosity was getting the better of him. Throwing open the rear door, he hastily got Gracie Whitlock together, heaved her on a gurney and—in less time than it takes to tell about it—he and Joanie and Gracie were making their way down the corridor to the prep room.

It was cooler inside the house, and it was dark. The gurney had a squeaky wheel, and the way Joanie clung to his arm in mock terror made Archie smile.

"Velcome to my castle," he drooled in his best Count Dracula impression. "Vould you like a drink of blood? Muah ha ha hahahahah!" Joanie clung tighter to him, which was the general idea.

"Archieeee! Comeon," she whispered. "Why don't you turn on some lights?"

"Just a little further," Archie whispered back. Squeak squeak squank went Gracie's gurney. Archie stopped abruptly. So did Gracie's gurney. "Joanie!" he whispered.

"What?" she whispered. "What's wrong?"

"I have a very important question to ask you."

"What?"

Archie opened the door to the prep room. It was flooded with light from the tall windows.

"Why are we whispering?" he whispered.

Joanie laughed and hugged him, making a smacking noise on his ear. Archie pushed her gently away. Work before pleasure.

Joanie watched intently as Archie prepared Gracie for the transfer to the refrigerator. He pulled back the blanket. Gracie looked like she was finally glad to get some place where she could relax. Her former stern face had assumed a resigned, almost peaceful quality. Archie noticed the stiffness of Joanie's posture. Her eyes never left Gracie's face.

"Have you ever seen a dead person before?" Joanie continued to stare silently at the old hag.

"She looks," she said, "IT looks as if she's sleeping."

Archie rolled Gracie as gracefully as possible onto the refrigerator drawer. She was quite a heap.

"When we get them from the hospital we put them in here. Then when McCloud gets here, he prepares them for burial."

"It must be strange…to be dead," mused Joanie watching with fascination as Archie replaced the blanket with a translucent sheet of plastic. He rested his hands on the tray for a moment, contemplating the huge mound of flesh before him.

Joanie walked over to the prep table. McCloud's tools were neatly laid out on a tray. A large plastic container filled with liquid hung from a stand, spouting several rubber tubes. She picked up the tube with the metal probe on the end of it. It looked like a knitting needle.

"What's this for?"

"That's the embalming needle. It goes in the neck and…." Archie crossed over to her, standing very close. He reached under the table and flicked a switch. There was a pulsating noise as the hollow tube in Joanie's hand began to spurt rhythmically. Archie provided a flask to catch the fluid. It was a funny kind of turn-on for both of them, and they stood there much too long, watching the tube pump. And pump. And pump.

"The pump replaces the blood and other bodily fluids with formaldehyde." Archie watched Joanie's face, fascinated, and turned off the pump at last. He reached for another needle-and-hose arrangement.

"This goes in the inner thigh," he said. "The blood drains out through this guy and down the tubes."

He replaced the tube and walked over to a small cabinet, beginning to warm to his task. He'd never given a guided tour before. It occurred to him how much he'd picked up.

The cabinet contained a complete collection of theatrical makeup, cotton wool, putty, lacquer, and the like.

"Here's what McCloud uses for the heavy stuff. Like a complete facial reconstruction. He can rebuild anything with wax, a coathanger, a bit of hair here or there. It's art, actually. Kinda."

Joanie was fascinated. It was a little sick, but it was so real, you know?

"McCloud goes to a lot of trouble for an open casket," said Archie. He removed a compact and a camel hair brush and playfully dabbed a little "blush-on" on Joanie's cheeks. "But most of the time it's a little dab here and a little dab there…." Joanie giggled.

"Don't worry. It's hypoallergenic."

He tried to kiss her but she turned her head coyly—all part of the game—and escaped through the swinging door to the kitchen.

"Archie, that's terrible!" she said, over her shoulder. "Hypoallergenic!"

"No," he followed her. "Really. Dead people can get rashes."

Joanie kept right on going through the kitchen. She was getting frisky, but Archie liked it. He could hear her squeal with delight by the time he got to the door. Rounding the corner, he could see that she hadn't turned left into the foyer, but right—into the showroom. Meaning the place the wares were exhibited, not the place where the guest of honor lay in state. The place where McCloud's mark-up was most in evidence: Twelve thousand dollar caskets. Two thousand dollar cremation urns. Discreet racks of slumberwear. Tiny cotton-candy caskets for tiny little corpses. McCloud's was a full service operation.

Joan stood before a solid mahogany Perpetual, which—Archie knew from experience—weighed a ton. She was entranced by an antique gown that was so expensive noone had ever purchased it:

"Archie, this is beautiful!" she exclaimed.

She held the gown against herself, as though wearing it to the prom tonight were a real-life option.

It was an authentic Balenciaga, antique to be sure. A heavy ivory lace formal gown, cut on the bias with a daring neckline. Old fashioned. Joanie spread it theatrically before herself and intoned:

"And the dead shall be raised."

"McCloud's religious," Archie said, by way of explanation. "He worships money. That's a ten thousand dollar dress. Belonged to a movie star I think."

Joanie had no interest in the collection of overpriced caskets. She waltzed the Balenciaga into the foyer, to the foot of the sweeping staircase.

"What's upstairs?"

"An apartment."

"An apartment?"

It was turning into a very tasty game of cat and mouse. God, she could move so great. She took a step, as if to go upstairs, caught herself, smiled back at Archie and did a couple of pliés, back as straight as steel, using the banister as a barre.

"That's where McCloud stays when things get busy," Archie explained.

"I never heard of an apartment in a funeral home." Joanie flicked her tongue out insouciantly. "We should definitely check that out." Archie shook his head.

"That's McCloud's territory. He'd kill me if I went up there.

"Well he's not here now, is he?" Joanie turned and started up the stairs. Archie watched her fine round bottom as she climbed. She was killing him. He followed her. Who wouldn't?

________________

Roberta Eliot sat in the front seat of the Deathmobile, smoking a number by herself. She was wondering if T.S. Eliot was any relation, and if so, what he would think of the poem she was composing in her head this very minute: The Wasted Land, a song of drugs and sex in the key of teen.

Now and again she watched Rog and Palumbo, moving through the shrubbery alongside the funeral home. They looked like little boys, playing army. They too were stoned out of their gourds.

Gourds made her think of phallus. And phallus made her think of Rog and Rog made her think of roger and roger made her think of how much she enjoyed just lying there looking at the ceiling in the Deathmobile, and before she knew it, Roberta had forgotten her poem of teenage angst and was touching herself in a most intimate and familiar way, with fantastical baroque images of savage Roger, opening her soul to the universe.

As Roberta began to experience the first tinglings of the familiar waves of boundless pleasure (better living through chemistry), Roger and Palumbo worked feverishly at a window, expertly removing a screen.

________________

Archie lay on his back on McCloud's queen-sized bed, staring at the ceiling. His was an odd mixture of contentment and concern, but he was trying hard to play grown-up. He tried being nonchalant:

"What's taking you so long?" There was no answer. "You'd better hurry, or I'm going to start without you!" He could hear the toilet flush; then the sound of running water. He kicked off his shoes and nervously checked his watch.

Joanie appeared finally at the door. She was wearing the antique lace gown. It was as if a master had built the dress especially for her. Carved it out of one piece of magic cloth. It clung to her hips and her breasts as though it were a part of her. Joan Snowland, very definitely, had a body to die for.

"Oh my god," said Archie in amazement. She was so tall. So blonde. So smooth. So goddam beautiful.

Slowly, so slowly it felt like your heart was almost stopped, Joanie slipped out of the Balenciaga. It smoothed softly down past her waist, along her perfect hips. The silk lining kissed its way all the way down her incredible legs, with a sound nearly deafening in its specificity.

Joanie stood, one leg slightly bent before the other, the gown fallen in a heap on the floor. If Columbia Pictures ever wanted to update their logo, they need look no farther: Joanie Snowland was a cheerleader goddess from another dimension.

"I promise to be gentle," Joanie said, crossing over to the bed. She climbed up and straddled him. She unbuttoned his shirt, most expertly. She unzipped his fly.

Archie was sure he had died and gone to heaven. Joanie descended slowly to him, like the prima ballerina in some spectacular sexual ballet, with her gorgeous blonde hair like a shroud eclipsing the rest of the world, down she slowly came. Their lips met, and it was beginning to get very very good.

________________

McCloud's immaculate black sedan approached the funeral home. You could tell by the way he took too much care negotiating the corner that he was in a lousy mood. He pulled into the driveway, switched off the engine, got out and headed for the front door.

________________

Over Joanie's moan, honest and ecstatic, Archie heard the car door slam.

"What was that?" he asked, hoping against hope.

"God, Archie! Don't stop now!"

McCloud searched through his big ring of keys at the front door. Archie jumped from the bed and ran to the window. His worst fear was fumbling around down below.

"Shit shit shit! It's McCloud!" He grabbed up his pants. "Out!" he motioned frantically. "Out!"

McCloud tried a key in the lock. The wrong one. He cursed keys in general, tried another key. Didn't seem to be the one either.

"Archie!" he called. "Archie!"

Archie tried to be cool. At least as cool as you can be with one pant leg on and the other one inside out. Joanie fastened her bra in front and rotated it around to its proper position. Archie had no idea you could do that. God, she had great--

"Uh, I'm up here, Mr. McCloud!" he pushed the bedroom window open further and looked down, being careful not to let his hairless chest show.

"What are you doing up there?"

Archie looked at Joanie. She leered wickedly.

"Unh…cleaning. Cleaning up your apartment!"

Joanie mouthed the proper word loudly: "Screwing!"

"Well come down here and open this goddamned door."

"I'll be right down, sir."

He'd bought some time. He kissed Joanie—they were so sweaty—and motioned her into the bathroom. Be quiet he signaled. Please be quiet. She closed the door behind her, and Archie jumped into his shoes and flew downstairs.

He immediately ran into Rog and Palumbo, bursting out of the kitchen as though it were on fire.

"Wha…" started Archie, but they were already struggling to get out of the window at the back of the hallway. Archie looked at the kitchen, then back to them.

"What were you doing back there?"

"You're in Big Trouble, sucker!" chortled Rog Davis, with only his head showing above the windows sill.

"Archie!" yelled McCloud. The two jerks were gone. Archie ran to the window, closed it, then ran back to the front door. He unlocked it and McCloud huffed his way into the foyer.

"We're in big trouble," said McCloud. He was in an ungodly hurry. "Did you make the pickup?"

"Whitlock," Archie nodded. "She's in the cooler."

"Her son is coming over for a viewing." McCloud was perspiring profusely. "How does she look?"

"She looks good," said Archie. "Like she's sleeping."

"Go touch her up. Give her a little blush and make sure she's clean. I've got to try and stall George. Hurry!" He headed for his office

Archie, in the heat of the moment, had forgotten about Joanie.

"Ten minutes!" bleated McCloud. "He'll be here in ten minutes! Make sure she looks good!"

Archie chanced to glance up the stairs. Joanie stood there at the top, buttoning her blouse.

"Now!" Archie whispered. Joanie tore down the stairs and headed for the chapel.

"The door!" Archie hissed, deflecting her. Joanie stopped, returned, gave him a peck of a kiss.

"I love you!" she whispered.

"Go!" said Archie. He ran to the rear window, where Rog and Palumbo had made their escape. The Deathmobile was pulling away, with a long honk of its horn.

"Shit!" said Archie, slamming his fist against the window sill. He ran to the prep room and maneuvered a gurney up alongside the refrigerator. He pulled Gracie's drawer open and slid out the tray. It contained nothing but the translucent plastic. Archie picked up the shroud, unable to believe his eyes. There was a note on the tray, in large letters:

GONE FOR WALK.

"No," said Archie. "Oh no." He quickly opened several more drawers, but they too were empty. He stuck his head inside the cooler and looked around.

"Oh no. Oh shit!"

________________

All too soon McCloud opened the front door. There stood George Whitlock, fiftyish, a little drunk, a little stout, a lot concerned.

"I've come to see my mother."

"Good to see you, George," said McCloud. "How are you holding up?"

"I've been better," Whitlock said heavily. "How is mother?"

"Better than we can understand, George."

Archie crossed quickly and quietly behind them into the coffin showroom. He went desperately through each coffin, pulling up the lids, half-afraid of what he might find.

"Where did you put her?" he muttered. "Where did you put her?"

McCloud and Whitlock entered somberly.

"She was a great lady…" said McCloud, lying through his teeth. "Oh!" He noticed Archie.

"This is Archie Meader, Mr. Whitlock. Archie is my assistant."

Archie shook hands with Gracie Whitlock's bereaved and half-drunken son.

"How long?" whispered McCloud nervously.

"Ten minutes."

"Thanks," said McCloud, winking at him in gratitude.

"I think I caught you a little short here, " said Whitlock. Whatever he'd been drinking was beginning to hit him.

"No time is too short, George," said McCloud obsequiously. "Come on into my office, we'll have a little drink or something."

Archie continued ripping through the caskets. "You're in big trouble, boy…it's going to be jail, man…"

She wasn't there. He went back to the kitchen and dug through several closets. The cupboard was empty. Growing more frantic, but aware that there are only so many places to hide a great big fat and dead old lady, Archie hurried to the chapel.

Quiet organ music played. There was an empty coffin there, its lid open for viewing. Archie scanned the shadowy chapel. Ten empty pews. But wait: there was a solitary figure, kneeling in a rear pew, head bowed. Archie approached.

"Hello," he said. "Are you here for the viewing?" There was no answer. Archie moved closer. The only light in the room came through the stained-glass window, a cheap one McCloud had imported from Taiwan. It depicted the last judgment, but if you looked closely, you could see all the angels had slanted eyes.

Archie approached the figure in the shadows. It was Gracie Whitlock, draped in a sheet. Around her neck was a sign that read:

KICK ME.

"She loved poetry," said George Whitlock, accepting another drink from McCloud, who was seated behind his desk. Whitlock took a long slug and gave a small shudder. "When I was a boy, she read it to me: 'I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.'"

McCloud nodded, switching into automatic now that Archie had things under control. "When our parents die, there's nothing that will replace them."

"When she was younger…you should have seen her," said George with a faraway look in his eye. "She was a beautiful woman."

McCloud tilted down the last of his drink. "Why don't we go and have a look at her now?" he said.

Archie struggled with the corpse. She was a bitch. After several tries, he managed to sling the body up over his back, like a sack of very large and cancerous potatoes. He half-carried, half-dragged Gracie towards the exit door at the rear of the chapel. He'd managed to get her ten or fifteen feet when McCloud and Whitlock entered. They didn't see him. Archie froze for a moment, the corpse half-on/half-off his back.

"You understand, George," said McCloud, "that your mother just arrived an hour ago, and we haven't had time to do very much for her."

They drew nearer the casket.

"But my assistant has done some preliminaries. He should be here any time."

Whitlock nodded. But then his attention turned to the rear of the chapel. Archie Meader was limping away with the body slung over his shoulder. It was a desperate, doomed attempt.

"I think he's here now," said Whitlock, with a magnificent grasp of the obvious. McCloud wheeled around, scanning the shadows.

"Archie?" he said, "What are you doing back there? Aren't you going to bring Mrs. Whitlock in?"

"I'm working on it sir," grunted Archie. "I'm having some trouble with her."

"Trouble?" said McCloud. "What does that mean?"

McCloud marched down the aisle like MacArthur reviewing the troops. Whitlock followed close behind.

Archie continued to struggle with the body, trying to hide her massiveness behind him. He perspired heavily; his hair hung down in front of his eyes. Gracie's hair hung down in front of his eyes.

Shocked and amazed, but also becoming skunk-drunk, Whitlock asked the obvious question:

"Is this how you usually move bodies?"

Archie grew desperate. The corpse was slipping. "Help me," he whimpered.

"What are you doing?" bellowed McCloud.

Aware of his predicament, Archie tried simple duplicity:

"She fell off the cart."

"Fell off the cart?"

"I was bringing her in for the viewing and she fell off." Archie wheezed. "I don't know how it happened, she just fell off."

"Where's the cart?" demanded McCloud.

"Unh…I took it back to the prep room. I think it's got a bad wheel."

"So you carried her on your back?" said Whitlock, both touched and frazzled and tending toward the stuporous.

Gracie started to slip sideways off Archie's shoulder. Whitlock reached out suddenly to help.

"Here, let me give you a hand. Take the feet," he said to McCloud. The three of them, with effort, carefully lowered the dead old hag back down to the floor.

"Careful with her!" warned Whitlock. He propped her old gray head up against a pew. "I wonder if there is any damage," he mused.

McCloud kneeled down over the body like somebody on a TV cop show. "She looks good," he slurred, stupidly.

"Maybe we should call a medical doctor," said Whitlock. "To see if there is any damage."

"Oh, certainly that won't be necessary," said McCloud quickly. "I can have the county coroner look at your mother. He's my brother," he added parenthetically.

"No, I think we need a doctor," said Whitlock, growing vehement. "We need an impartial judge in case there is any legal action."

"Certainly that's not necessary, is it?" said McCloud. "I mean this is a dead woman, and I am a mortician. Certainly I am qualified to take care of her."

Whitlock started to sob.

"Look at her, Zachary. She's not even dressed." He tried to regain her composure but then the reality struck him:

"I don't know what's going on here, but I do think it's disgusting!" He looked distractedly from Archie to McCloud, then stood and wheeled tipsily around towards the door. McCloud followed him, fumbling.

"I…I…I'm sure we can work this out, George." McCloud turned, livid, on Archie. "Get her under wrap, goddammit."

And then he added, significantly:

"And stick around."


Next: Getting ready for the prom, of course.

Forward


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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