Emily, Thrice Stoned
By Ed Lynskey
Ed Lynskey's short crime fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review Online, Plots With Guns, Orchard Press Mysteries, Crime Scene Scotland, and SDO Detective.
Her big toes seemed almost black. Recoiling, Rory left handprints smudged on the glass. He’d satisfied his curiosity. This latest one was an addict. She’d cleverly injected the spike into her toes to hide the telltale needle tracks. Shaking his head, he trudged back to his waiting tractor, a Gravely.
Before cranking the ignition key, Rory shot a final glance at the vaulted window. That now puffy but once fine-featured face had a familiar bent to it. Who might she be? He snapped his fingers. Yeah! Emily! Emily Something-or-other. Did Emily lie in that pine casket? He had to know.
His employer, Old Man Peabody gloated over how he kept this antique Gravely operable. Acres upon acres of grass needed mowing. Grunting, Rory shifted the bony balls of his ass on the metal seat, no back or cushion on it. After six weeks working at Saint Anthony’s Memorial Gardens, he’d hit a good, sober groove. He made it a personal goal to pile up the weeks with a perfect work attendance.
Rory unhitched the cell phone off his belt to call the house. His fifteen-year-old daughter Melanie picked up.
“How are you, honey?” asked Rory.
Melanie sighed. “Bored to tears.”
“Did you try the dial-up Internet connection I got you?”
“Yeah I did, daddy. Like I said, I’m bored to tears. When do you get off work?”
“Five o’clock, the same time as yesterday, the same time as tomorrow. It’s always five o’clock on the dot. Did anyone call me today?”
“Oh, I’m glad you asked because I forgot to jot it down,” said Melanie. “Your weird friend called up early this morning.”
“Uh, which one, honey?”
“Payne. Said he’d catch you this evening. He sounded half in the bag, too. I thought you didn’t hang with that crowd anymore.”
“I don’t,” said Rory. “But Payne is the exception. He’s not a bad bird once you get to know him.”
“M’m, I’ll take your word for it,” Melanie said. “I better go start fixing dinner. Can you pick up a half-gallon of milk? We’re out for breakfast.”
“Will do. Bye, honey.”
Rory clipped the cell phone back on his belt. It went between a pager and the leather strap holding a slew of keys. After depressing the clutch, he shoved the Gravely into gear, then prowled from the pool of shade cast by the ornate funeral home. Once the glaring afternoon sun fell into his eyes, he flipped down the aviator shades from his mesh hat. Pouring on the gas, he scurried over the turf laying trim and even as a gridiron on game day.
Where the swath of mown grass ended, he unhitched the Gravely’s scarred deck to lower it and engaged a toggle switch. The engine bogged down as the pulleys yanked the new belts. The two newly sharpened blades under him whirred into action. A spew of fresh chopped grass vented out the deck’s hole. He ran through a mental checklist and, satisfied all systems were a go, relaxed.
While the Gravely chewed through lush bluegrass, Rory mulled over things. Right now, for instance, he tried to figure out the appeal of Kid Rock. Melanie was a big fan. Damn if he knew why either. Besides needing a haircut and shave, didn’t the rapper go on about crack whores while ranting at the Super Bowl? Rory had seen a few unfortunate ladies in his day. Had Kid Rock? He was skeptical.
At the end of the row, Rory sawed the steering wheel. The Gravely responded like a champ. While completing the turn, he gazed over his day’s progress and swelled with pride. So what if this was a minimum wage joe job? He liked it, his first steady employment in over ten years. Casting any long view into his past life gave Rory the willies. It hadn’t been a pretty time. He’d hit the genuine rock bottom too many times. Luckily, he didn’t loose the bounce to spring back up.
As Rory started chugging down a new swath, he conjured the dead lady’s face. His inbred nosiness had gotten the better of him. Again. Every new client at the funeral home piqued his interest. When the coast was clear, he’d sneak up and peer through the chapel’s vaulted windows. Most of the deceased, as expected in this neighborhood, were upper middle-class whites.
Every once in a while, however, one like this lady having the black big toes shipped in. Black big toes? Had Rory imagined that? After all, the lady slept in that pine coffin, her toes hidden from view. Well, he could read a wistful tragedy in her face. Some evil had dragged her down to a low, lousy place. Plus which, she’d been tagged for potters field. Old Man Peabody had told him as much earlier that day. They’d stood by the tool shed talking.
“Rory, you better get on potters field,” Old Man Peabody said in a quavery rasp. He was a short, wiry man with white hair and eyebrows. He scratched an armpit. “We’ve got a new corpse, a damn crack whore.”
“What’s her name?” asked Rory.
“What are any of their names,” said Old Man Peabody.
“When will the boys bring in the backhoe?” asked Rory. “Late this evening. Mow before their heavy equipment tramps down all the grass.”
“Not a problem,” said Rory.
“Why do I take in these indigents? I barely break even burying them. Any price adjustment negotiated with the city ends with their crying poor mouth. But I always get mine. Just before interment, I slip the corpse from the pine box and then recycle it. Naturally, I’ll charge the city for the box. Slick, eh?”
What a skinflint, thought Rory who voiced a suggestion. “A cremation might be simpler.”
“A cremation? Hell no, man. Turning ‘em into ashes costs more than sticking ‘em in the dirt.” Old Man Peabody lowered his tone to a conspiratorial murmur. “I embalm them with the cheap stuff, too. Then I stick it to the city for the full freight. Nobody gives a hoot in hell. Why should I?”
The rows of bronze plaques embedded in flat granite slabs to mark folks’ graves came into focus. Rory knew Old Man Peabody also stiffed the city for the price of a plaque and stone. Burials in Potters field had no plaques, only oblong depressions left in the ground. Stirrings of anger riled Rory’s nerves. He didn’t like feeling them. A forced swallow didn’t ease his throat muscles tightening.
Or did Old Man Peabody call it right? Who did care? Some penniless, homeless, shiftless bum died and disposing of their corpse became the city’s problem. They ended up in Potters field. No fuss, no muss. Except Rory disagreed. He’d always rooted for the underdog and this offended his sense of fair play. His employer cheating the city PO’d him, too. He struggled to reign in the rage.
Don’t make waves, he warned himself. You need the stability and structure this job offers you.
As the Gravely putted down a gradual slope, Rory shifted in the seat. Was the lady in the chapel the Emily he knew from his less-than-exemplary past? He timed his last swipe to coincide with the stroke of five o’clock. Old Man Peabody was a stickler about putting in a full day’s work but he loathed paying for a minute of overtime. Rory parked the Gravely inside the tool shed, locked up, and headed for home.
Melanie was a hopeless cook. Rory, keeping a neutral face, chewed and gnawed at the charred pork chops. He smiled at her hopeful look nodding his head. Having her stay over the summer was a pure joy. For once, he had the means to offer his daughter more than the occasional coffee-stained postcard sent from jail or a halfway house. Besides, she was a chip off the old block as far as her culinary skills went. He smiled.
When the phone in the den rang, Rory stifled the impulse to go answer it. Melanie screened their incoming calls. Certain old drinking pals always rang when Rory wasn’t at home. Most had ceased believing the pleasant girlish voice always giving out that same excuse. He never returned their calls and as the summer wore on, they got the message. Rory was no longer a happy-go-lucky barfly.
“Daddy, it’s Payne,” said Melanie, thrusting out the handset.
“Thanks, honey,” said Rory. “I better go catch it in my room.”
Melanie arched a demure eyebrow at this unusual display of secrecy. “Sure,” she said. “Sing out and I’ll cut this connection.”
Rory flushed. By the time he strolled down the hallway to his bedroom, however, the guilt had lost its sting. After hollering through the door, he heard Melanie’s crisp hang up to the den’s phone. “Payne, how’s it going?” he asked.
“Fabulous,” said Payne. “I’d invite you over to grab a beer but you’ve found Jesus or something.”
“Hardly. Call it acting like a responsible father,” said Rory.
“Whatever. Why did you buzz me last night? I was out seeing a man about a dog.”
“Never mind about that,” Rory said. “At work today, a lady came in.”
Payne wanted clarification. “Vertical or horizontal?”
“Can’t you pipe down? She was dead. Her face struck a chord, though. So I rummaged in the old memory bank. Emily is what rang a bell. Didn’t we go to school with an Emily? Tenth or eleventh grade, if I recall correctly.”
“Strawberry blonde? Cheerleader? Built like a brick house?” said Payne. “Who could forget? Emily Crestwood.”
“Crestwood, yeah. Sounds about right. Whatever happened to Emily?”
“Beats me,” said Payne. “The last I heard she went off to college out-of-state up north. Then she married a bank lawyer and lived in hotsy-totsy Potomac.”
“Emily’s life must’ve taken a bad U-turn,” Rory said. “She looked like the devil. A crack addict, maybe she turned tricks to support her habit.”
“Everybody tells a sad story,” said Payne. “Why do you give a toss about hers?”
“Oh, I’m a sucker for sad stories,” Rory said.
“Man, you better quit that creepy place,” said Payne. “You’re turning into a ghoul.”
“We’re burying Emily in Potters field,” Rory said. “She was that destitute. That’s quite a fall from living in a mansion in Potomac.”
“It’s a toughie, all right,” said Payne. “Look, Rory, drop me a dime when you’ve worked all this out, okay?”
“You bet. Ciao, Payne.”
In the bedroom’s half-light, Rory balanced the rotary dial phone on his thigh. Biting the corner of his lower lip, he noodled around this new information. Emily Crestwood, an erstwhile brainy, rich socialite, tomorrow went into an anonymous plot he’d soon mow over. They’d donate her ravaged body back to the nitrogen cycle. Old Man Peabody had had Rory seed his “bone orchard” with earthworms, claiming they promoted faster cadaver decay. An icy shiver jolted through Rory’s skinny shoulders. He only concerned himself with visible landscaping. Whatever transpired below the grass roots was best kept out of sight and out of mind.
“Daddy, did you stop for milk?” Melanie asked outside his door.
“I did, honey, but I left the bag in the car,” said Rory. “It’s spoiled by now, I’m sure.”
“That’s no big deal,” said Melanie. “We can eat toast and strawberry jam. May I come in? I need to talk to you.”
“Huh? Sure. What’s on your mind?”
The door swished inward and the young woman’s curvy body, his daughter, silhouetted the threshold. He felt old. With a snap, the overhead light flashed into Rory’s flinching eyes. “Why are you sitting in the dark?” she asked. “Is everything copacetic? Did you have a crummy day at the cemetery?”
“No-no, I’m fine,” said Rory. “You wanted to talk?”
“I love it here with you but I’m going buggy,” she said. “This afternoon I walked down to the corner drugstore. They want a part-time cashier. I’m hired, starting tomorrow. With your permission, of course.”
“That’s a great idea, honey. Have you ever worked a cash register? I mean with handling debit cards and all that digital rigmarole?”
“I start out as a trainee,” said Melanie. “The pay is minimum wage but that’s okay, isn’t it?”
“Minimum wage is fine for starters,” said Rory, reminded of his own meager pay. “Just keep your eyes oriented on bigger, better goals.”
“Thanks,” said Melanie. They embraced. Rory wanted to cry but only sniffed a little.
That night Rory kept the overhead light burning, something he hadn’t done since drying out for his booze cure. He didn’t fear nightmares. Sleep was all but impossible. He kept threading possible scenarios about Emily’s tragic fate through his mind’s eye. First, she was stoned by her rich pals for some unforgivable transgression. Then, she turned to getting stoned on crack cocaine. Finally, Emily’s last resting in potters field place didn’t qualify for a stone marker.
Emily gets stoned three times, Rory thought. That sucked butt, as Melanie would say. An idea sowed its seeds in his fertile imagination on how to set things right for Emily.
Bleary-eyed, Rory arrived at Saint Anthony’s Memorial Gardens the next morning. A wavy sea of bluegrass motioned to him. But for how much longer? It was near summer’s end. Old Man Peabody would let him go. What was his backup plan? To go work security at a bank? A diesel’s throaty engine intruded on his reverie. Thick, black smoke shot out of the stacked exhausts as the tractor-trailer towed in a backhoe on a flatbed. Rory watched them chuff down the lane and, air brakes hissing, pull up alongside him. Two men hopped down from the cab. They were twins, both lanky and swarthy.
“He’s Moe and I’m Adam,” said the first, shaking callused hands with Rory.
“Rory Callahan. Are you boys digging in Potters field?”
Moe spoke up. “Yep. We’re swamped with jobs and couldn’t make it yesterday.”
“Where’s Old Man Peabody?” asked Adam.
Rory grinned a little. “He never shows up before noon.”
“That figures,” said Adam. “The cheap turkey probably lounges in bed counting up his money.”
“Well, standing around jawing isn’t how we earn ours,” said Moe. “I’ll offload the backhoe and ride down to the site. Coming along, Rory?”
“No, I’ve got a ton of stuff that needs doing,” said Rory.
“Aw, take five,” said Adam, winking at him. “You can give me a hand lifting the pine box onto the truck bed for hauling down to Moe.”
“Well, I guess that falls under my other landscaping duties,” said Rory.
“There you go,” they said.
After Adam and Rory situated the pine box in Old Man Peabody’s truck bed, they struck out across the cemetery’s lawn to crest the hill and go down a short ways to the remote potters field. Moe kicked back on the backhoe’s seat waited for them.
“Hey Moe, Rory tells me he’s also in AA,” said Adam, getting out of the truck.
“It’s sure been a godsend for us,” said Moe.
Adam caught his brother’s eye. “Today we do it by the book, too.”
Scowling, Moe held up a hand. “Don’t start up with that, brother.”
Turning to Rory’s quizzical expression, Adam elaborated. “Every time we dig here, I tell my brother we should leave the pine box in the hole.”
“It is the right thing to do,” said Rory. “The city government foots the bill for it.”
Not needing much encouragement, Moe said, “All right, fine by me. I’m sick of Old Man Peabody’s chiseling ways. It’d serve him right.”
“Something else, Moe,” said Adam. “Rory knows the deceased lady and wants to help her get to the happy hunting grounds.”
Snickering, Adam relished the moment. “We’ll bury the pine box with a lawn tractor. You know, Old Man Peabody’s precious Gravely.”
The goofy, boyish fun was contagious. Moe burst out in maniacal laughter to join in with the other two men. Tears drained down their cheeks. Rory bent over double at the waist thought he’d snapped a rib. Hoarse gulps for air ended the uproar.
“Man, that’s rich,” said Moe. “How are you going to pull it off?”
“We’ll rig it to look like a robbery,” said Rory. “Break the padlock on the tool shed and say some kids stole it.”
“The only thing is Rory will probably get fired,” said Adam.
Moe had a quick solution. “He can sign on with us. We have contracts lasting through the winter.”
“Hey, thanks guys,” said Rory. “I’d like that.”
Predictably at noon, Old Man Peabody tooled up in his cream-colored Lincoln Continental and parked in his designated spot. His sharp glance took in Rory seated on a wood bench in the shade. His mouth pinched in mounting disgust.
“Why ain’t you cutting grass?” he asked, stalking up on Rory.
“I can’t.” replied Rory. “Some low rents broke into the tool shed and made off with the Gravely. Should we report it to the police?”
Jagged veins pulsed in Old Man Peabody’s corded neck and reddening face. “No, I’ll take care of that. You should haul your skinny butt up off that bench and clear out of here. You’re fired.”
Rory nodded as a commando knife materialized in his hand. An intimidating snarl thinned his curling lips. “But first you’ll pony up what’s owed me along with a little something else.”
On his way driving home, Rory stopped by a convenience store. Patting the folded wad of banknotes in his shirt pocket, he had more than enough to buy the half-gallon milk. And the bronze plaque set in granite for Emily Crestwood.
Old Man Peabody had finally signed off on that pledge in his own blood.
Ed Lynskey ©2005
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