The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Fiction:
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 word play; don't let the word "asshole" peek around the
corner of your thoughts, no matter what those asshole cooks pull on
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
slide 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 that 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. "O.K., ese, so I'm fuckin' with someone," Danny
admitted. "Some dumb ass just came to the door in back lookin' for a
"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
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, 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?" said 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 O.K., you can load him up.
"Don't leave those God damned 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. "Kid?"
"I'll explain when I get home."
"It's a long story."
"O.K." 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 God damned 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...
© Dan McClenaghan 18.01 2005
I'm jazz journalist writing mostly for All About Jazz (www.allaboutjazz.com),
CD and concert reviews and articles. I've written short stories
for twenty years, publishing a few while collecting a big stack of
all rights reserved