“My heart hurts,” Joe replied when asked how he was feeling by his doctor and long-time acquaintance, Farnsworth Banes.
Blinded by the light being shined in his eyes, Joe thought about what he was going to eat for dinner when he got home, his mind wandering off as Doctor Banes pressed his hand firmly against his chest and asked him to breathe in.
“Any other unusual symptoms? Dizziness? Difficulty breathing?”
“Blurred vision? Slurred speech? Excessive sweating?”
“So it’s just the mysterious pain in your chest.”
“My heart,” Joe corrected.
“Right,” Banes muttered as he placed the end of his stethoscope over Joe’s heart. “Breathe in, deeper this time.”
Something with chicken, Joe thought. “Breathe out.”
. . . And spicy; he was in the mood for something a bit more flavorful and daring than usual.
“Well, Joe. I don’t know what to tell you. Your blood work came back fine. Everything seems to be in check. You’re in perfect health, probably better health than any of my other patients. Physically, there isn’t a thing wrong with you.”
Joe’s thoughts of food came to a sudden halt as his mind scrambled around in a final attempt for an explanation.
“Are you sure? Maybe you could run some more tests? Maybe there was a mix up with the blood? There could have been a mistake . . .”
“Joe,” interrupted Banes as he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Now I’m not one to get into the personal lives of my patients but damn it, I’ve known you since you were five years old. I’ve been a friend of the family for over twenty years. What I’m getting at is, you’ve been through a lot in the last year, what with your mother and now the passing of your father. The mind can react in certain ways under trauma. Sometimes, stress can cause physical symptoms that aren’t really there. It’s the brain’s way of coping with emotional pain. Different people handle stress in different ways.”
“Are you saying that the pain I’m feeling is all in my head?” Joe fired back. There was a subtle tone of offence in his voice.
“I’m saying that maybe all you need is a good rest, maybe take a little vacation. Give yourself some time to grieve. Bob has been working in that funeral home with your father from the day the two of them got out of high school; he’ll hold down the fort while you’re gone. ”
“I’ve only been back in town for two weeks.”
“You know, when you were a kid I used to be able to get you to do anything with one of these,” Banes said with a subtle grin as he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a ruby red lollipop.
Joe smiled, for a second forgetting the pain in his heart as he recalled the many times a single piece of candy on a stick made getting a needle seem like nothing frightening at all.
“It’s cherry . . . your favorite, Banes taunted, waving it slowly back and forth.”
With a subdued chuckle under his breath, Joe snatched the lollipop from his hand and jumped up on his feet. “Maybe a couple of days won’t hurt.”
A couple of days to do nothing at all — he thought about it on his way home gazing almost trance-like through the windshield of his late father’s orange single cab early eighties Ford pick-up truck. But what would he do with that kind of free time? Thinking about it, he had never really taken a vacation of any kind in his entire twelve-year working history away from this town. Things were different in the big city. There were always people dying; always bodies to prep and mourning family members to comfort. It just never dawned on him to take a day or two off; it just didn’t seem right to leave the dead in hands less capable than his.
The flashing lights of a police car caught his attention up ahead. He quickly rolled down his window as he came to a stop at the waving request of an old schoolmate, John Toler, who had earned a badge and now stood in the middle of the road in his path dressed in blue under an orange rain poncho rather than his past grunge rock attire.
“Sorry Joe,” said Officer Toler with a concerned look on his face. “You’re going to have to turn back and take Lakewood back your way. This road's blocked off.”
“I was going to the café,” replied Joe, somewhat shyly.
“Well, wherever you’re headed you can’t go this way, not tonight.”
Joe nodded slightly as he placed his hand on the column shifter to put it in reverse.
“I heard that you were back in town,” continued Toler. “Running the funeral home now, right? Damn shame about your father. He was a good man. You have my condolences. A bad ticker will get the better of any man no matter how strong. It got the better of my dad. Your father took care of it, did a great job on the whole thing, open casket, beautiful wake. He was a gifted man, and I sure hope that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree cause you got your first body laying right over there.”
He pointed over the hood of Joe’s truck just across the road to the crushed rear end of a Chevy Malibu mostly hidden in a thick cluster of oak and maple trees.
“There’s going to be a lot of people counting on you to do this one right. Mary Shultz . . .”
As soon the name entered Joe’s left ear everything around him came to a sudden halt. Mary Shultz — oh, how vivid her face was in his mind even after all these years. How could he forget; how could anyone forget, Mary. She was the town gem — home coming queen, cheerleading captain; beautiful from head to toe with heartwarming charm and talent to match. With wavy blond hair and a figure unlike any other girl back in high school, she was envied by her peers and longed for by every teenaged boy. The entire town loved her from the time she was able to walk. But even though he had never even spoken a word to her all those years, Joe had always felt that he loved her most of all.
“Yep,” grumbled Officer Toler with a tired sigh. “There’s going to be a lot of tears in town when this gets out.”
From the air above came a sudden downfall of hail the size of baby peas. Toler quickly threw the hood of his poncho over his head and stepped back as Joe began to roll up his window gazing at the tiny ice pellets as they bounced off the hood of his truck.
“Here comes the hail,” blurted Toler. We haven’t had hail here since we were kids. Strange, ain't it?”
“Ya,” Joe replied, distracted by the unusually heavy spectacle of nature.
“You have a good night there, Joe. Have a safe drive back and welcome home.”
He drove slowly to fetch his dinner and even slower the rest of the way home. The hail came down harder the further he drove, so hard that the old worn out wipers on the truck could barely keep up. Even as he pulled into the driveway, it continued to pour down from the sky relentlessly, twenty-one minutes and counting — the longest falling of hail that Joe had ever seen or heard of. He had no idea that hail could rain down for so long, and he wondered just how long it would keep coming down as he sat in the dry safety of the cab with the engine idling.
The food simmering in a white plastic bag on the passenger seat beside him wasn’t getting any warmer. With a grumbling belly, he turned the engine off and just as quickly the hail came to a sudden stop. His hand still clutched around the key as it sat in the ignition he paused slightly basking in the glory of a suitable coincidence. A gentle smile curled to the one side of his face as the mouth-watering aroma of deep fried chicken wings and fried rice danced within his nostrils. Chow time!
“Charlie, I’m home,” he hollered as the front door closed behind him.
There was a peculiar silence within the house — no warm pitter-patter of tiny clawed paws prancing through from the living room; no warm fuzzy greeting against his right leg. First the hail and now a silent welcome; it seemed a rather unusual day so far.
The door bell rang quicker than he could slide his shoes off from his feet. He placed the food on the floor next to the old worn out brown welcome mat and answered it with a delighted smile before he saw who it was standing on the other side.
“Hello. My name is Wilbert Finkle and I . . .”
“Yes, Wilbert. I know who you are. You were here yesterday and the day before that and my answer is still the same, I am not interested in buying any encyclopedias.”
Joe was somewhat courteous to Wilbert. After all, who with the slightest shred of heart couldn’t be? Wilbert was nothing short of a frail soul. He showed up at Joe’s door each time as dimwitted and nervous as the day before never seeming to realize that the two of them had already met. His overall appearance reeked of pity wearing the very same black polyester suit and tie matched with a faded white dress shirt buttoned all the way to the top where it was capped by a ravenous case of yellowish-brown sweat stains. His dark brown eyes embedded into his clean shaven slightly chubby long face were dazzled by a pair of black thick-framed glasses. Atop of his head sat a black bowler hat that seemed to sit far too straight and perfectly for his jittery and timid character.
“B. . . But I think if you just took one look . . .” he said, holding up his black leather case before Joe interrupted him again.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t need a set of encyclopedias. I have internet.”
“Oh but . . .”
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Finkle. I’m just not interested. Goodbye,” Joe said as he politely closed the door as Wilbert was still talking.
“O . . . Ok then.”
“Charlie?” he called out once more as he made his way to the kitchen, food in hand.
He gave his head a scratch, stretched his arms over his shoulders and then opened the fridge door in search of a cold beer. As he twisted the cap off and swallowed back a long hard chug, he turned around to see none other than his black and white spotted furry friend, Charlie, sitting as still as a statue next to the counter. The beer went down smooth and as Joe looked downward, he was greeted by a pair of beady green eyes that seemed to lock onto his and so he replied with a smile and declaration of tonight’s meal.
“Charlie, there you are. Look what I’ve got . . . Chicken!”
Charlie seemed unimpressed by Joe’s display of a warm styrofoam tray dangling high in his right hand. Not responding at all, the cat remained seated and motionless, staring at a thirty-two-year-old grown man who seemed a cheerful ball of joy over a twelve-dollar take-out dinner.
Joe served up the meal in two almost even portions; the largest on a plate and the other in Charlie’s small round orange paw print covered dish which he placed on the arm of his father’s old favorite reclining chair. Together they sat in front of a tiny thirteen-inch television watching the evening news.
“You haven’t touched your rice,” Joe said with a mouthful of food, looking over at the still cat perched firmly in the center seat of the brown and beige suede.
Charlie didn’t so much as return a polite glance. He stared off into the boob tube as if in a trance of some kind. Joe brushed his silence off with light grins and petty giggles but deep down inside his feelings were somewhat hurt and he wondered what had come over his old feline friend.
“Oh well, more for me.”
The local news suddenly shifted its attention to a breaking top story. The anchorman sat above a red banner across the bottom of the television screen, reading Mary Shultz’ name.
“Change the channel, Charlie,” Joe said with a shaken tone, noticing the remote control on the arm of the cat’s chair.
Charlie didn’t reply.
“Turn it off, Charlie.”
Joe’s voice grew from nervous to angry in the blink of an eye as the details of Mary’s crash echoed through the living room. His eyes began to squint as he struggled to hold in both his tension and his rage. When Charlie refused his request with silent ignorance once again, Joe jumped from his seat and tumbled into the chair spilling the cat dish full of rice as well as his own on the beige burlap carpet.
A single click of the power button on the remote and the room was quiet. Charlie stood on the floor staring up at Joe as he stood over him, slightly relieved, his hands and legs fidgety; voice furious and loud.
“See what you did, Charlie! Now no one gets any rice!”
Dreams of sugar cookies and donuts danced around in Joe’s head as he lay there in his bed silent in a deep slumber. He could almost taste the sweet frosting of a glazed French cruller on the tip of his tongue as it slowly crept towards his mouth by way of his hand. Just as his lips gently touched the deep fried dough, his eyes began to flutter as the muffled sound of Charlie’s voice echoed in his ear.
Suddenly, his mind broke from his forty winks and his head rose from his pillow in a startle. There, sitting on his chest in the dimness was Charlie staring down at him with his beady green and black eyes.
“Did you see it, Joe? Did you see the hail?” Charlie stammered on with what looked like a smile on his furry little face.
Joe’s only response was a quick jerking nod of his head as he lay there with his jaw dropped and eyes wide open with surprise.
“The hail, Joe! The hail! It’s a sign of things to come!”
The receiver had been against his right ear for more than an hour. His fingertips were tingling from repetitive punching of the number buttons on the corded white and grey phone. Despite overpowering desperation, every attempt he made to get through to the other line had failed with the answering machine of Doctor Van Corsing.
Charlie was chuckling softly from the other end of the couch where he sat staring at the wall.
“What are you laughing at?” Joe asked with an anxious voice.
“Are you sure you dialed the right number?” Charlie replied with another giggle. “Try using only your thumbs.”
“I don’t need your smartass remarks, Charlie!” Joe fired back.
Charlie spat out a wicked hiss and jumped down from the couch, scurrying away across the living room floor. His childish fit of rebellion went unnoticed by Joe as he was too focused on taking one last shot at getting his call through.
“Hello?” answered the voice of a man with a very subtle Eastern European accent.
“Doctor Van Corsing?” Joe replied anxiously.
“Yes, this is he.”
“It’s me, Joe Mesh. Do you remember me? I’m a patient of yours . . .”
“Of course, Joe. Slow down. Take a nice deep breath and relax.”
“It’s been a while, how can I help you, Joe?”
“It’s happening again.”
“What, Joe? What’s happening again?”
“I can’t stop eating. I have chest pains, headaches . . .” Joe rambled on, his voice growing more erratic and charged.
“Now Joe, remember what we worked on. You’re using food as an escape from the visions that you believe are reality. You can control this. You’ve been doing fine for three months now. Just focus on what is real and not what you see in your mind. Remember how we distinguish between the two.”
“But there was a sign, Charlie saw it too.”
“Is Charlie speaking to you again?”
Joe paused for a moment with the phone snug against his ear and a tightly clinched fist clamped hard within his jaw. “Yes.”
“We’ve been through this, Joe. Charlie is only a cat. He can neither talk nor give you advice as another human being can. Have you been taking your medication?”
“Yes, yes I have been,” Joe sniveled.
“Have you been sleeping?
“Not very well.”
“I’m going to write you a referral to a colleague of mine not far from where you are. Get some sleep and if things progress I want you to see him immediately, alright.”
“Ok,” Joe replied with a paranoid sob. Goodbye, Doctor.”
“Goodbye, Joe and don’t be afraid to call me if you need to.”
As Joe put the phone down and whipped the mucus from under his nostrils, his eyes turned suddenly to the floor. There, sitting in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room was Charlie staring up at him with an agitated furry face.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Joe. You shouldn’t have fucking called him.”
The drive to the funeral home seemed extra long this morning. Joe hadn’t spoken to Charlie since the last evening, sneaking quietly out of the house an hour earlier than usual without breakfast. His mind was on a straight and narrow plane — it was the dawn of a new and very different day. Charlie’s human-like voice no longer existed under the rays of today’s bright sun. Although his stomach grumbled and groaned with starvation, he was no longer hungry. Yes, indeed, this was truly a new and promising day. This was the day he would become the problem-free man he longed to be for so long. Today he was a regular person just like everyone else; the new Joe Mesh.
What better way to start a fresh new day than with a fresh corpse; a clean slate in which to make the cold dead into a work of art. Of course, this wasn’t the city and therefore, pickings were slim. There were only two cadavers to choose from. The label on the first drawer read John Wyatt. The second read Mary Shultz.
“You’re in early,” said Fred with an overly friendly pat on Joe’s shoulder.
Fred Cole; he was born and raised in this town and destined to die here as well. A man who always carried a smile and cheerful mood, he lacked the ambition of most in his and Joe’s generation of youth who could hardly wait to graduate and move as far away from this town as possible in search of bigger things. After dropping out of high school, Joe’s father took pity on him and took him under his wing in Joe’s absence. He had been working at the funeral home ever since.
“What happened? Did you shit the bed?” he teased with a chuckle as he sat his mug of coffee on the stainless steel morticians table.
Joe replied with a straight face and a single word still staring at Mary’s drawer. “No.”
“Damn shame, isn’t it, that one? She was still a real knock out, just like she was back in high school. You remember, eh Joe?” Fred reminisced with a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Well, let me suit up and we’ll get to work.”
“No,” Joe replied without hesitation. “I’ll take care of this one.”
“Whatever you say. You’re the boss. But you better move quickly. Bob has been eyeing this one like a hawk.”
Bob Schwimer — his father’s long-time acquaintance and co-worker. A man who Joe didn’t know all too well, however, his dedication to the dead oozed from his every pore from the bottom of his short, stocky frame to the top of his balding round head. He worked well with the dead; even seemed to get excited at the very sight of a fresh cold project lying lifelessly upon his stainless steel table. Through his subtle smile and soft brown eyes that rested behind a thick-lensed pair of thin silver-framed glasses, you could see his desire for the dead — an almost form of lust if one were to look too deeply.
Fred sauntered off chugging back a mouthful of coffee as the phone rang. “I’ll get it.”
The first ring didn’t shake Joe’s focus on the black ink that made up Mary’s name on the little white tag. It was the second ring which startled him snapping out of an almost drooling daze and back into reality.
“It’s for you.”
Joe turned his head slightly with puzzlement, “For me?”
“Ya, for you.”
“Who is it?”
“May I ask who’s calling,” Fred inquired, taking another long sip of coffee. “I don’t know; he won’t say.”
Curious, Joe walked over to the phone and retrieved it from Fred’s sticky, sweaty hand. Placing it to his ear, he could hear nothing but a heavy breathing which seemed more put on than natural; almost taunting.
“Who is this?”
There was no reply.
Joe slammed the phone down in frustration. He had a suspicion about who it might have been almost subtly taunting him on the other line and it angered him.
“Who was it?” asked Fred.
“Wrong number I guess,” Joe replied as he stared off into nowhere, trying to keep his aggravation hidden.
“Ah well, Fred replied, sucking back his last mouthful of coffee. “I’m going to go drain the lizard.”
It had been a long day and Joe had worked hard yet carefully on Mary Shultz’ body, taking care of all the dirty work before mapping out a plan for her facial preparation. At her family’s request, there was to be an open casket if it were possible to do so. Although she wore a dense mask of heavy bruises and mild scratches, Joe saw hope in reviving a once flawless face except for one gash which sat deep and crusted from the top of her left cheek bone all the way down to the tip of her chin. This was a wound that was sure to test his skilled hands.
It was home sweet home for another day and he could hardly wait to put his feet up and do nothing but relax with a cold beer on the couch in the company of his little tube television. He opened the front door to a greeting expected any other day except for today.
“I was hungry, Joe. You didn’t leave me anything to eat this morning,” said Charlie, sitting on the shoe mat in front of the door with his little fur chin up at Joe.
“Sorry,” replied Joe walking past him towards the kitchen.
“Sorry? Sorry? It took me all damn day to pour that food in my dish. I was so tired afterward I couldn’t even eat it.”
“I was in a hurry. I had to leave early,”
“A hurry for what? To see that dead bitch, Mary?”
In a sudden furious rage, Joe kicked over Charlie’s bowl of dry cat food, sending it flying across the kitchen floor.
“Don’t you ever speak that way about her!” he yelled with fury, pointing his finger down at the motionless cat. “You watch your mouth, Charlie! You watch your damn furry mouth!”
“Don’t take your anger out on me,” Charlie fired back. “You can’t deny the signs, Joe. You saw the hail and there will be more to come!”
The hours of the night crept by slowly. At one point, around three o’clock in the morning, Joe was certain that time had stopped completely. Needless to say, he hadn’t slept a wink from the moment the moon took its place in the sky to the time it traded places with the sun. It had been a long night and he had a feeling he was in for an even longer day.
He spread his toast with strawberry jelly in a daze and put on his shoes with the coordination of a mindless zombie. Even though he was operating with a head that felt like mush this morning, this time, he remembered to leave food out in Charlie’s bowl.
Reaching the funeral home around eight o’ clock, he was somewhat surprised to see Fred’s old maroon Buick in the parking lot. It was early for Fred; something inside had peaked his interest and Joe had a keen suspicion as to what it was. With the door already unlocked he subtly rushed in to find him before he laid a finger on Mary Shultz’ drawer.
It was quiet as if none was there at all but he could smell the ghost-like sent of freshly sanitized tools and the anticipation of a new project in the air that wasn’t his own. He made his way straight to the preparation room only to find Bob standing before Mary’s naked body carefully laid out upon the stainless steel table. Humming an unfamiliar tune he arranged his tools ever so neatly on his tray as he gently shifted his black rubber apron around his stubby pear-shaped frame.
He hadn’t even notice Joe standing there behind him until the door closed and his head spun back as if he were startled or broken out of a euphoric trance.
“What are you doing?” Joe asked with a mild tone of authority, standing there almost zombie-like as Bob nervously took a step forward.
“I was only going to prepare the body; that’s all. I was just going to get it ready for you.”
In silence, Joe walked towards him, placing his hand on his shoulder as he came to a gentle stop well within Bob’s personal space. He didn’t believe Bob’s blathering. This was the mumbling of a man with more conniving intensions. He only wanted the privilege of working on Mary, but she was Joe’s to be handled and Joe’s alone.
“I’ll take care of this one. Go prepare Mrs. Beudley in Room 1.”
Fighting to contain his disappointment, Bob complied with an ever so slight quiver of his bottom lip and a pair of shifting lowered eyes.
“Yes . . . of course.”
Hearing the door close at his rear, Joe was pleased to be alone with only Mary. He peered down her bruised and broken face, his eyes never once wandering to her nude physique laid out for any to see — even laying a clean white sheet over her body from the neck down simply out of respect. He always respected the dead and Mary even more so. He loved her once; at least he thought he had. Whether true love or teenage lust, seeing her here in front of him damaged and lifeless stirred up all those very same butterflies in his stomach. This would be his masterpiece. No matter how deep the wounds he would make her just as beautiful as she was back then just as he remembered her.
The hours ran late into the evening. Joe had slaved away at his craft without breaks, not even to eat or grab a cup of coffee. He stopped only to use the washroom which he did only twice and sure enough by dusk he finished what he had set out to do. There laid the old Mary he once knew staring back at him with closed eyes sewn shut with delicate care.
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