Down by the Greenwood Shady
It was Tuesday so Don stopped at the funeral home. Szekely the undertaker was smoking a joint and sitting in his underwear and top hat in the dead room when Don came in with his wallet in his hand.
“Hello Don” said Szekely.
“Hello Szekely” Don said.
On top of a file cabinet in the corner a little camp television was playing a football game. Don didn’t recognize the teams. Szekely was drinking coffee and balancing his joint on the edge of the table when he wasn’t holding it.
“Coffee?” said Szekely.
“Looks like” Don said.
“Don how long have you been paying me to let you come here every Tuesday and look at the dead bodies?”
“Half a year maybe” said Don. Don was a flat-eyed plumber of gunmetal cheek and broadening tonsure. Szekely looked older but wasn’t. He had a thin face like a greyhound, and Don could see Szekely’s skull.
“Yeah that sounds about right.”
“I just look at them” said Don.
“I know that” Szekely said. “But you’ve got to admit it looks pretty bad.”
“You know it’s nothing low Szekely.”
“I just like to think about them.”
“Most people never do. It’s a public service.”
“And yesterday you thought about Miss Carbero for how long Don?” Szekely was projecting like Hamlet even though he wasn’t holding a skull, although there was one next to him on top of the television.
“Where’s the camera?” Don said.
“I’m drowning in it Don. I had to sell the blue beast tires and all. I’m picking up shifts at the reservoir. I wouldn’t have let you peep in the first place if I didn’t need to. And it’s only gotten worse.”
“I’ve only got this week’s cash on me. If I get more then Forces will find out and we’ll both be in water.”
“People aren’t dying like they used to Don. What would you tell a fisherman if the seas dried up?”
“Stop fishing.” Don turned the skull upside down to see if the camera was inside, but there was only a bag of marijuana and a set of boathouse keys.
“You wouldn’t understand Don. People will always need toilets. Even if everyone stops dying forevermore. But in an ideal world I wouldn’t even exist. How do you think that makes me feel Don?”
Don was opening and shutting the refrigerated drawers one by one but they were all empty or filled with household necessities like bar soap and paperclips. “Where did you say the camera was Szekely?”
“I’ve been re-burying the same body for a month. Another one before that until it was a xylophone. Eventually someone’s going to notice.”
“What if I killed someone? Then you could bury them.” The pockets of Miss Carbero’s yellow muumuu were empty but Don combed through her bushy white hair and mustache for bug microphones just to be on the safe side.
“Could work but I would never ask that of you Don. What do you think I’m doing at the reservoir? But people don’t turn out in numbers for canoeing these days and most of them can swim anyway. It’s a humiliation sitting there dumb and dripping while the prom king wades back to his car through two feet of mud just as alive as he started out. Just put the money on the table.”
“What if I killed you?”
“You think I didn’t think of that? If I don’t enter a certain secret passcode on a certain keypad after you leave this room then the video automatically gets sent directly to the President of the United States and they pop you like popcorn.”
The skull winked at Szekely.
“Want a puff?”
The next day Don sat in his car outside the hospital with a baby’s-breath blue surgeon’s mask and a needle full of air in his pocket. It was a cruel day and the windows were open. Don was feeling low and needed air to fill him with something, even if something was just air.
Everyone needs air. It’s like killing someone with love.
Don practiced on the upholstery of his sedan. For a moment he worried about sterilization. There was a rap on the door. It was Gruenwald who was a doctor. She had taken Don’s kidney and put it into his twin brother eighteen years ago.
“Hal” said Doctor Gruenwald.
“It’s Don. Hal’s dead” said Don.
Doctor Gruenwald was looking at the baby blue mask and the coat. “You’re a plumber Don. Isn’t that right?”
“You’re a doctor Doctor Gruenwald.”
They were both correct and they both knew it.
“What’s in the needle?”
Don showed her.
The funeral parlor was in the shape of a gigantic granite headstone, which helped with advertising. In the dead room, which was underground, Szekely was dressing the body of Albert Einstein, the last person ever to die, in a clown costume for tomorrow’s service. He had already exhausted all of the outfits he owned and had resorted to plundering the costume shop across the street. Szekely had bought Albert at a celebrity auction a month before and had soon found that he looked best in summery colors and bold patterns. Today he was inhabiting the role of Jud Sax, a justice of the peace currently on a fishing trip upstate. Szekely hoped that the Jud family liked clowns.
The skull, which was the skull of a very famous dead actor and which Szekely had bought at the same auction, continued to be.
The doorbell rang which was Bach’s organ fugue in D minor which also helped with advertising.
“Hello Don” Szekely said.
“Don’s dead” said Doctor Gruenwald. She was carrying something of a size wrapped in brown wax paper.
“You’re thinking of Hal. Hal’s dead. Don is a plumber.”
“That is correct” said Doctor Gruenwald, “too.”
“Oh.” Szekely was also the pumphouse engineer for the County reservoir, which is why he was wearing the uniform of the pumphouse engineer for the County reservoir.
“The doctors are drowning too Szekely. People aren’t getting sick like they used to.”
“It’s a global catastrophe” Szekely said.
“There is nothing at all we can do” Gruenwald said.
“Nothing” Szekely said. “At all” he agreed. “Nothing.”
“But first I brought Don” Gruenwald said.
“Thank Jesus. I was running out of clothing to bury Al in. What’s he wearing?”
“I burned his clothes at the hospital morgue.” She handed Don to Szekely, who staggered like Atlas under the ex-plumber’s paunch. She had wrapped him in wax paper from the rolls in the hospital canteen.
“I’m sorry. I’ll bring some clothes tomorrow. Maybe some hospital gowns or scrubs.”
“That would be nice” said Szekely. “Al isn’t much more than a skeleton now but the hair is very famous.”
“Meanwhile we might ruminate on each other’s not unconnected dilemmas. This is an undetectable untraceable poison that only doctors know about. It is poisonous and untraceable and undetectable.”
“How interesting in a purely scientific way” Szekely said.
Szekely took the burning cigarette from the mouth of the skull on the television where he had put it so he could talk to Gruenwald. “Would you like a joint? I mean like a joint cigarette and not like a bodypart from one of the dead bodies.”
Doctor Gruenwald flicked her eyes in disapproval. “You must not do things like that anymore if we are to be engaged professionally. It’s low.”
“All right” said the skull.
“Good” said Doctor Gruenwald.
Daniel Galef's first book, Imaginary Sonnets, is being published in 2023 and can be ordered from Word Galaxy/Able Muse Press. It is a collection of persona poems each from the point of view of a different historical figure, literary character, or inanimate object, including Lucrezia Borgia, Wernher von Braun, Paul Cézanne, and a chicken taco. His poetry has been published in the Atlanta Review, First Things, and the Saturday Evening Post, and his short fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review, the American Bystander, and the 2020 Best Small Fictions anthology.