The stainless steel cart, piled high with an array of food-crusted cafeteria utensils and serving pans, rolled into the scullery under its own power, it seemed, rattling with its load, a clink and clack of multiple small contacts of steel on steel. But it wasn't a ghost cart, of course; it didn't ride in by itself. A cook had pushed it; and Eliot Stubblefield, the man in the pot shack that day, saw a potential calamity with its trajectory. He reached out and stopped it before it could bump into big metal box of the dishwashing machine, a collision that judging from the cart's speed and the careless stacking of its load would have resulted in a cacophonous and messy avalanche.
Take a deep breath, Eliot, the pot washer, told himself. Now take another. Think about something pleasant the beach at sunset, a burbling mountain stream. This was how his psychologist had said he should deal these aggravations.
And don't let the negatives slip into your mental wordplay; don't let the word "asshole" peek around the corner of your thoughts, no matter what those asshole cooks pull on you.
Oh shit! He'd just done it. Let the word in twice. A pulsing in his neck said his blood pressure was on the rise, damn it!
"SPECIAL DELIVERY, STUBS!" Berkman the cook called out, announcing the arrival of another cart, rolling in out of the kitchen from another too-hard push.
"ASSHOLE!" Stubblefield called back; because this cart was angled away from his reach, and piled high with a stack of smoking-hot sheet pans encrusted with the blackened drippings of a hundred and eighty pounds of glazed chicken. Pans that would require a half-hour soaking followed by another forty minutes of serious elbow grease with a stainless steel sponge. The cart crashed into the dishwashing machine. Sheet pans slid from it and hit the tile floor in a metallic explosion that sent of spray sticky hot chicken glaze onto Stubblefield's white pants. He balled up his fists. A steam pipe snaking along the top of the dishwashing machine hissed, sending a plume of white steam shooting up toward the ceiling; and Eliot Stubblefield closed his eyes and did his damnedest to envision the smile of a beautiful woman; tried to slow his breathing, to relax the muscles in his jaw, because there were four hours left in the workday, and the only part of it that he could control so said his counselor was his reaction to the events.
Life for Eliot Stubblefield was hard. He had to adjust. Just two years earlier he'd been on easy street, designer in charge of perfecting a small but essential component for a new smart missile system for the Department of Defense. Big bucks, six figures a year. Then Congress got another wild hair and cancelled the job, and Stubblefield, for the fifth time in a twenty-five year career, was unemployed.
The defense industry was a fickle mistress. But something of a wanton whore, and she always wanted him back again.
No sweat, he'd thought. I'll take it easy for a few months, and then jump back in. That how it'd always worked.
He failed to factor in his age, and how the people who made the decisions on hiring might perceive him at this stage of the game ...
"Stubs, I got a little favor to ask, man."
Stubblefield rose from his lean into the deep sink, from one of the endless string of sheet pans, to face his boss, Danny Lopez, the guy who'd taken him in here at the hospital after two years of no job; the guy who got him into a deal with precious health benefits again.
"What do you need, Danny?" Stubblefield said, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the dishtowel he kept tucked into his belt. He noticed a gleam in Danny's chocolate brown eyes, and added, "Who you fuckin' with now?"
Danny's forehead creased up as a look of hurt-etched lines around his eyes. "Ese, do I look like the kind of guy who'd fuck with somebody?"
"You look," Stubblefield observed, "exactly like that kind of guy, Danny."
Indeed he was; and didn't Stubblefield know it. He and Danny Lopez had grown up together in this low-rent town, high school buddies the connection that landed for Stubblefield this crappy but better-than-nothing job. Danny was the guy who put the tack on the teacher's chair in grade school; the guy who flattened the high school principal's tires and spiked the Senior Prom punch with 151 rum; the guy who paid three drunk college girls to streak naked through the reception of Eliot Stubblefield's first wedding to give the groom three big sloppy kisses.
That was the kind of guy Danny was.
"OK, ese, so I'm fuckin' with someone," Danny admitted. "Some dumb-ass just came to the door in back lookin' for a body."
"A body ... ?" a confused Stubblefield began.
"Danny grabbed his wrist and said, "C'mon, ese, he ain't gonna hang around forever. We gotta move! I'll explain while I'm gettin' you ready."
"Ready for what?" Stubblefield wanted to know.
"To make like a dead guy," Danny said, as he led the reluctant dishwasher through the kitchen.
Stubblefield had heard the story before, or one just like it: The hospital's morgue and kitchen were both located on the ground floor, and the guys from the out-in-town mortuaries often sent their rookies to pick up the bodies of the recently expired, the greenest of their employees, young men a year or two out of high school, sweating bullets in cheap, shiny new suits as they wandered and lost themselves in the labyrinth of dim hallways. The kitchen, centrally located, was where they were likely to show up to get directions to the morgue that was tucked, of course, in a discreet corner. Danny's joke the one Stubblefield had heard about several times, from several sources, in his three-month residence in the scullery was to tell the hapless body-fetcher that the morgue guys put the corpses in the kitchen freezer to keep them fresh until the mortuary picked them up. Then he'd lead the guy back through the kitchen, open the freezer door from which a frosty cold mist would roll and lead him to a food service worker or cook, lying on a meat rack. The pseudo-dead dude would then rise up and say "BOO!" or something like it, and the mortuary kid would faint or scream or shit his pants or spin around and run like a scalded cat, depending on his personal temperament and/or the thespian skills of the rising dead.
So this is what it's come to, Stubblefield thought as he removed his shoes outside the freezer. First they lay you off, then you end up with a crap job, and the next thing you know you're playing a dead man for shits and giggles. Life, he mused, takes some funny turns.
"We're gonna really do it right this time, Stubbsy!" Danny Lopez said to his dishwasher. "I'm gonna let him wheel you all the way out to the hearse before you jump up at him!"
"All the way to the hearse ..." Stubblefield said. Then: "You got somebody coverin' for me in the pot shack, Danny, so it don't pile up on me?"
Danny, who'd been leaning over writing Stubblefield's name on one of the little manila tags the cooks used to date the meat in the thaw box, rose and said, "Don't worry about it, ese; I got Ferrante on it."
"Ferrante just dumps all the shit in the deep sink and goes out to the back dock to smoke," Stubblefield complained.
"Don't worry 'bout it, Stubb; here, tie this on your toe." Danny held out the tag by it string. It fluttered in the kitchen's exhaust system breeze. Stubblefield took it from him, read the writing, and said, "You misspelled my name."
Danny made a frantic, dismissive gesture, glancing back at the hallway door, where the kid awaited his body. Stubblefield sighed, bent to affix the tag, as Danny wheeled in one of the big metal carts that the storeroom guys used to haul the frozen meat in from the central freezer to the thaw box.
"Why can't I be the dead guy?" asked Batista, another cook.
Stubblefield was laid out on the meat cart, his hands folded on his chest; Danny had just begun to push him toward the hallway door. Danny stopped, spoke in an urgent, hushed Spanish to Batista. Stubblefield didn't catch it all, but the gist of the explanation was that the dishwasher was older than Batista, and made a better dead man; that they needed the best dead man they had for this time around.
Batista whined it was supposed to be his turn. Danny hissed at him, not this time; this time the dead guy's gotta look dead all the way out to the back dock. Danny told Batista he didn't think he could do it without cracking up and messin' the joke up.
Batista grumbled off, and Stubblefield, eyes closed, enjoyed the radiant cold of the cart--that had been sitting in the freezer loaded with eighty pounds of pot roast soaking into his aching lower back. He could, he felt, fall asleep, if his bare feet weren't so cold.
Movement resumed. Danny cried out "Here's your body, partner, ready to roll."
Stubblefield heard the kid gasp, then murmur: "Isn't he supposed to be in a box or something?" The voice trembled.
"You didn't bring one?" Danny replied.
"No," the kid answered in a whisper.
"You guys from the mortuary are supposed to supply the box, partner; didn't nobody tell you that?"
"I didn't know," the kid murmured, sounding to Stubblefield like he was on the verge of getting sick.
"Well, next time you will, partner; but I tell you what, we'll cover him up with butcher paper for the ride out on out of here, so you don't gotta look at his ugly face."
Stubblefield scowled, increasing the ugliness factor. Danny edged himself between the cadaver and the kid, before Stubsy could ruin a good joke. He told the young fellow to go wait out on the back dock by the hearse, that he'd cover the stiff up him up and roll him out himself, even if it wasn't in his job description, that's just the kind of a guy he, Danny Lopez, was a sweetheart. The kid was happy to comply, to put some distance between himself and this unexpectedly unboxed dead body.
"Keep still, you dumb ass," Danny scolded Stubblefield. "We got this kid scared shitless."
Stubblefield relaxed as Danny rolled him down the hall. He held onto the butcher paper to keep it from blowing away with the movement. The paper didn't quite cover his feet. The toe tag fluttered out behind him as they rolled, and when Danny elbowed the button to open the automatic sliding door to the dock, a gust of hot October wind and a half a dozen black horseflies blew in, snapping the little square manila piece of paper back toward the kitchen like a flag in a hurricane, as the butcher paper folded away from his torso at a crease at his waist, and rattled, in the dry breeze, like a dying lung.
The kid, seeing Stubblefield's face again, gasped. The pot washer had assumed an expression (a bit overdone, perhaps, but the victim was buying it) suggestive of rigor mortis, with one eye half open, mouth slightly agape. The kid moaned, "Oh," and staggered off the dock and threw up by the big dumpster. Ferrante, the cook, out for a smoke, sniggered at the scene. Danny gestured for him to zip it, as he called out to the kid: "We'll put him in the hearse for you partner, since you don't seem to be feelin' so good."
Still leaning over the mess he'd made, sucking in big gulps of air, the kid waved to them that it was OK, you can load him up.
"Don't leave those Goddamned pots and pans for me, Danny," Stubblefield hissed at the bossman as he slid himself into the plush velvet confines of the back of the hearse.
"I'll get someone to cover for you; don't worry 'bout those pots and pans."
"When you plannin' to blow your cover, Stubs?" Ferrante wanted to know.
"Maybe at the mortuary," Stubblefield replied. "He opens the door, I'll jump up and say 'Booga, booga!'"
"Shut up, man, he's comin' over," Danny whispered.
"He still on the clock, Danny?" Ferrante wanted to know as he took hold of the off-loaded meat cart.
Danny jerked a hand up and stabbed his finger to his lips and glared at the cook. Ferrante mumbled something about it wasn't right, Stubblefield getting free vacation time, as Danny strode over to detour the pale-in-the-face hearse driver, to steer him up to the driver's side door and give him a hearty but sympathetic hi-ho, it's off to the mortuary with you, and no need to thank us for the help, I'll close the back door for you so the stiff don't slide out.
From Stubblefield's resting place, the hearse drove like a dream, like floating on a cloud. A Cadillac, he believed, though he didn't get a good look at it. The big V-8 purred, and the kid up front handled the car like an old lady out for a drive to church: twenty-five miles an hour, easing into the turns, slow but steady acceleration, a smooth application of brakes.
And the restful pot washer, lying on his back on black velvet with his hands folded over his stomach, his eyes closed ...
Damned if he didn't drift off to sleep.
The chirp of the cell phone affixed to his belt woke him. He opened his eyes to darkness; or near darkness, a world of deep grey dusk. He blinked, gathered his wits, shook himself and rallied out of his initial confusion, recalling the joke, the ride on the cold cart, slipping into the back of the hearse, the lulling sensation of the smooth ride.
He sat up, leaned toward the square of muted illumination the small window set into the hearse's back door. The cell phone twittered again. He unclipped it from his belt, brought it to his ear and said, "Hello."
"Where are you? I've been worried sick. You're not at the bar again are you?" It was Marsha, Stubblefield's wife.
Stubblefield rubbed his hand over his eyes, gazed out through the parted curtains at the deep lavender of the eastern skyline at coming of night. "You wouldn't believe where I am," he said.
A silence lingered between them. Stubblefield wiggled the toe where the manila tag was tied, and Marsha, in a small, small voice, said, "You're not at some woman's house, are you?"
Stubblefield laughed. "Not even close, babe."
She took an audible breath. "When will you be home?" she asked.
He leaned further forward, turned the handle to open the back door. "As soon as I find the kid," he said.
"I'll explain when I get home."
"It's a long story."
"OK" She sounded worried.
"I love you."
She hesitated, then said it back to him, and he clipped the phone back in place and slid out and dropped on his bare feet to the cold ground, looked at the path that the hearse sat on, then at the rise of a rounded hill to his left, a rise studded with small rectangular headstones.
"You guys thought you were real funny, didn't you?"Stubblefield spun around. Off the front passenger side of the hearse, twenty feet up the incline, a silhouette sat against a black stone. "So Goddamned funny I forgot to laugh."
"Oh shit," Stubblefield murmured. It was the kid. "What tipped you off, guy?" Stubblefield said to him, trying to put a friendly vibe into his voice. He took a step toward the shadow, putting his hands in his pockets, trying to seem at ease.
"I looked in the rear view mirror when I was drivin' away; those asshole were laughin' and high-fivin' each other on the loading dock." He slid off the tombstone, slipped his hands into his pockets, brushing his coat back as he did. He turned his face toward the ground. Stubblefield wished it was lighter, wished he could see the kid's expression.
"Maybe we went a little over the line, guy," the pot washer said, "messin' with a guy who's new on the job."
"It wouldn't have worked if I wasn't new."
"I guess you're right," Stubblefield agreed.
Silence between the men filled up with the chirp of crickets, the croak of a tree frog, until finally Stubblefield said, "Hey, I'm sorry, guy, we took it too far, I guess, but right now I could really use a ride back to my car at the hospital."
The kid shrugged. Stubblefield couldn't tell if it was a gesture of refusal or just a shift of position, a stretching of muscles. The kid took his hands out of his pockets and drew a pack of cigarettes from inside his coat. He shook one from the pack, stabbed it into his mouth, fired up a small plastic lighter. The expression on the kid's face, the flat unthinking look in his eye as he gazed over the flame, chilled Stubblefield's blood to an icy red slush.
The way a rattlesnake looks at a mouse, Stubblefield thought.
"The only place you're goin', old man," the kid said, cigarette dancing between his lips, "is down in that hole."
Stubblefield turned in the direction in which the kid nodded. Just behind the hearse, ten feet up the slope, lay a fresh grave, a rectangular maw of inky blackness in front of a waist-high pile of dirt. The kid was going to push him into that God damned hole, over a stupid joke.
Stubblefield's stomach knotted along with a puckering in his bowels as he took an involuntary mental measurement of the weight of that pile of dirt; and when he turned back, the kid had loomed in on him, close enough to smell the cigarette on his breath and see, even in the gathering darkness, the ropy red veins in his eyes. The old dishwasher brought his hands up, reflexively, to push the kid back and regain some personal space. He never made contact. Quick as twin snakes, the kid's claws struck, grabbing fistfuls of Stubblefield's white shirt then driving forward, dancing the dishwasher up the slope, to the edge of the grave and over the edge of it, where the talons released him into a six foot free fall the ended with a dead thump onto hard moist dirt.
The impact knocked the wind out of Stubblefield. He opened his mouth and writhed, like a fish on the deck of a boat, his ribs pressing curved grooves into the soft tissue of his lungs, as a curtain of blackness slid across the rectangle of relative light above...
Something struck his chest, awakening him. He took a shallow breath, wondering where he was. The smell of wet dirt brought it back to him. Danny's joke, the wobbly ride on the meat cart, the smooth luxury ride in the back of the hearse. The potential of an unmanageable stack of encrusted pots and pans awaiting him back in the scullery. The youthful power of the glowering hearse-driver skipping him backwards toward the grave. Another something hit his chest, up high, near his neck. He reached for it as it rolled onto the bare skin below his Adam's apple. He grasped the sinewy rod, as big around as his little finger, and opened his eyes to the startling brightness of sunlight shaped into a rectangle, bordered by an infinite expanse of black. A rose fluttered at him, a white rose. It bounced off his shoulder. He brought the stem he'd grasped to his face. The white blossom quivered on its small green branching six inches from his face. Wordlessly puzzled, Stubblefield peered past the flower, and saw, in the bright rectangle, the face of his wife, a drawn expression behind dark sunglasses, her complexion blanched to the color of the pedals of the flowers that fell his way; and then his daughter, Kelli, her face slick with tears holding another rose. She held it out over the center of the rectangle, and then released it.
Stubblefield watched it fall, watched it as it drifted into a skewed time, slowing in its descent, drifting without earthly urgency through a viscous fluid, twisting, rotating, each pure white pedal coming into a crystalline focus as it approached him over the course of an eon, while the tiny vibrations of the relentless workings of the worms and insectile burrowers seeped into the large muscles in his back.
And then there was blackness ...