She had been pretty. Once.
They put her in the back of the car wrapped up in a white sheet; her arms tucked in front, fingers intertwined like she was praying. Eighteen years old. Embolism. Vein burst in her head while she was getting her nails done with her mom. Bad genetics, bad luck. Now that soft, angelic face that had been so vibrant mere hours ago hung down loosely off her skull, as if it were a mask slowly being pulled off the bone, the ligaments giving way during the seizure. All of her veins shown brightly on her pale skin, and the stale odor of death was beginning to accompany her.
“Fucking mess,” said the doctor as we closed the trunk. “ Her mom is still inside breaking down.”
I shook my head.“ Pity.”
He looked at me with tired eyes. “ Something like that.”
I walked over and hopped into the drivers seat.
“The Hilton Mortuary,” he said. “They’ll dress her up there.”
And with that, he shut the door, and I was off. Our conversations were usually curt—at a certain point you’re around enough death that you run out of things to say about it. “Life’s too short” lost it’s meaning a long time ago.
I pulled the hearse out of the parking lot and started on the winding, twisting road to the mortuary, the fresh corpse of this girl a few feet behind me, covered by a thin sheet (the last courtesy they were granted). Most people would be uncomfortable, but it suited me just fine...most nights.
I used to be a cab driver. Never wanted to be, but for that time in between me dropping out of college, checking into a mental hospital, getting clean and finding this gig, I fell into it. Anyone can drive, but only a few people have that special aggression and tenacity built for cabs. I enjoyed it for a time, and had it just been me and the road, I would’ve been fine.
But the passengers, they were a problem. You had your typical hurried businessman who yelled at you to go faster and then when you held out your hand for the cash, looked at you as though you contracted the bubonic plague. Sometimes people tried to rob you, and hell, one time a guy hopped in the backseat bleeding from the stomach, screaming at me to drive him to the hospital.
The worst was the time this drunk couple started going at it in the backseat—in the middle of me talking—like the plane was going down and it was their last chance to taste passion. For a minute or two I considered letting them have at it while I drove aimlessly, running the meter up to get a little extra and oh so useful cash, but that dream was over in two minutes when the guy came all over my backseat, his aim as steady a machine gunner with Parkinson’s. I kicked ‘em out hard on their bare asses, not even getting a goddamn nickel for the ride. I chauffeured their little fuck session and I didn’t even get a thank you, just a stain smeared on the backseat in the shape of Puerto Rico.
That’s when I left. I could deal with the pushy clients, the robbers, the crazies, but I couldn’t take people acting like I wasn’t there, like I wasn’t a human—especially with the long hours and dark, grimy nights. It can make a man lonely, desperate. It gets to you. It gets to everyone. I’d only worked body runs for a few months, but I could already say that the dead made much kinder company than the living.
It started to rain. I turned the radio on and found some old jazz standards to listen to softly. It calmed me. Not that there was anything to make me nervous, but quiet rides on long, forested roads get a man to thinking, and usually about stuff he would have rather forgotten. On these trips, I much preferred following notes than my own train of thoughts about death, and on this special occasion, how I would feel if my child died before I did.
I lit up a cigarette and inhaled deeply. I should’ve quit a long time ago, but I’ve realized through rehab that you never really get clean, you just trade one addiction for another—at least this one was legal. Like father, like son I guess. My dad used to smoke—used to say there were few moments a man could relax and get away from himself, and since he never took to alcohol, cigarettes were the next best thing. He worked as a gravedigger most of his life, and the smoking increased over the years as he realized he would probably be one till death. Eventually one too many left him gasping for air on a daily basis, and one hot day in July 1988 he just couldn’t catch his breath. He died of heatstroke in the middle of a cemetery, and fell backwards into the hole he had just finished digging. If he wasn’t my father I’d say there was some sort of irony in it, but I never did find the ability to look at it in a humorous light.
I took another drag. Kept me relaxed, kept me focused, kept me awake. Working this time of night ain’t good for your health, or especially your sleep. It took a lot to keep me together, alert, and too often I found myself nodding off in the middle of a thought, or daydreaming. Is it called daydreaming if it’s 2:30 in the morning? I don’t know. Maybe. If only I—
“ It’s cold in here.”
I turned around, and there she was, sitting up, arms folded on the back of the passenger chair, staring at me, shivering slightly like a small child. Her voice was as kind and as soft as I’d imagined, but I was too uncomfortable to look at her face for long.
“ Heat’s out.” I took a puff of the cigarette. “ If you want, wrap yourself back up in the sheet.”
“It itches.” She scratched her nose, or what I think was her nose. Where her nostrils were was significantly lower than the bone they should’ve been attached to, and her whole face sagged. “ Where are we headed?”
“ The mortuary.”
“Already?” She was upset.
“ Well, where else do you have to go at this point?” I asked.
“ I don’t know. It just seems so quick.”
“Society hates a rotting corpse.”
“ I’m not rotting.”
“You’re starting to smell.” I had an infinite supply of air fresheners for these late night trips, but rarely did they do anything. The stench of death sticks to a place.
“That’s not nice,” she said jokingly, before catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror. “ Jesus. You think they can fix my face? I really don’t want my dad to see me like this.”
“ I wouldn’t worry. I know the guy who works there, I—"
Silence. No noise except the pattering of rain on the windshield. I blinked myeyes a few times as if I’d just snapped myself out of a waking dream. I turned around and she was still under the sheets, perfectly still. She hadn’t moved. She wasn’t talking.
I shook my head, and then adjusted the rear view mirror.
I turned the music up louder, trying to drown out the now oppressive silence of the car. Maybe I did miss the passengers just a bit. I don’t know. It started the second night on the job and had been getting worse. Either tiredness or anxiety, or maybe just the bodies reaction to a whole shit-ton of lsd and shrooms I’d done over the past decade, but every other time I did this shift my mind started to slip a little bit. I wasn’t sure what to think of it. Sometimes it bothered me, scared me. Other times it was good to have the company.
Last week it was an old man. Died at 78. Lung cancer. Spent the whole car ride telling me I should quit.
“ It’s bad for you,” he said.
“ I know.”
“ Isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black?”
He laughed. “ Do you really want to wait until your deathbed, coughing up blood from your lungs before you realize you should’ve quit decades ago?”
“You lived a pretty long life,” I replied.
“Don’t be smart with me.”
He seemed like a good man, reminded me of my dad in a way. He’d been a farmer all his life, and with him dead the place would get passed down to his two sons, who would take care of his now widowed wife.
“She was a good woman,” he said. “She was my first.”
“First?” I asked.
“ There was never anyone else in my life.”
“So she was the only.”
“ You could say that,” he said, stroking his chin. “Though that sounds a bit...I
don’t know, desperate. Sad, maybe.”
“ I think it’s sweet.”
“Hmm.” A pause. “ Do you think she misses me?”
“ Everyone misses someone when they’re dead. It’s human nature.”
He sighed.“ I wish she didn’t.”
We drove in silence the rest of the way to the mortuary. I dropped him off, and when I went back to the car I couldn’t find my cigarettes. Sneaky old bastard.