Near-Death, Pt. 1

A short story.


“Listen you snapping otter, can’t you seen I’ve got a dead body to deliver?!” Paul croaked impatiently at the young man in front of him, who was attired sleekly in a black suit and white razored jaw. The man’s glossy black hair produced a nearly aquatic appearance.

“Ha ha, that’s a good one,” the man laughed nervously, then cut short, seeing that Paul did not approve of laughter. “So can I count on your support?”

“As much as you could count on me pulling you up a cliff. Fine, give me the pen.” The man handed Paul a scrawny notepad, seared in a couple places from the cigarette butts of less enthusiastic prospects. Paul jotted down a few scribbles and thrust the notepad back.

“Thank you so much sir, it’s really been a—”

A gruff “Good day” was all Paul said as he slammed the door shut. He took a long pause, then punctuated it with a deep groan: he had just given the sales rep his good pen. He would have given up his tie bar too if he could have five minutes of uninterrupted silence. A vintage car horn postponed that bargain. “I declare,” he hissed while taking a step back from the door, “that woman is the most impatient nag—”

There was a shattering sound and a dull thud, and now Paul was lying on his back staring at the ceiling. His forehead was wet. Presently he lifted his head up to see what his left foot had tripped on.

The article was a long wooden piece of furniture, similar to a trunk but shorter and lankier, about the size of a full-grown man. A clear liquid trickled down its hinges and was puddling on the carpet. Paul took a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped the water from his face.

By now his assistant had heard the accident and come to his side. “You alright, Herbert?” he asked with an outstretched hand. Paul only muttered something and pulled himself up.

“Bother, I upset the flowers. Well Scott, let’s get this guy into the car before his mother expires too. I’ve had enough services for one week.”

Snatching up the lily bouquet with one hand, Paul grabbed the coffin handle while his assistant lifted from the opposite side. They carried it out to the company hearse and shoved it into the trunk; the car was a Cadillac combination car, which doubled as Paul’s commuter.

“Go ahead and start the car.” Paul stepped back inside and tidied up the broken glass, then closed the front door behind him. Pulling out a ring of keys, he locked the door and was about to fasten the deadbolt. “Bother!” he muttered. It had never occurred to him before why anyone would want to break into a funeral home. Better to lock up, than to save up! rang his mother’s words; it didn’t matter to her whether the item was a house, a bike, or a cappuccino. But it couldn’t apply to a funeral home. One only locks up things they want, and Paul did not want it.

Still, the deadbolt was locked.

Down the ugly street the hearse drove—Paul had named this one-lane road himself: Paulbearer Street. What if I had named it something like Pallflower Way or Death Row? his mind wandered, but suddenly he clenched his eyes and shook his head: such names were entirely unsuitable and impractical.

An old woman checking the mail raised her hand to greet his passing hearse, but her face was expressionless and pallid as a full moon. Not till Paul waved back did she remember to smile.

“Maybe it’s getting to be her time,” Scott the assistant quipped from the passenger seat. Paul nearly laughed, but only frowned. What woman would know how to hail two men in a hearse?

A couple blocks down Main Street brought them to the town cemetery. The mother of the deceased was already far off at the gravesite, hugging a box of tissues like it was a gold nugget and the birds above were greedy prospectors.

Paul pulled up to the curb as a hefty figure in muddy trousers approached his trunk. “You need help here?” the man asked.

“Hello William. Yes, if it’s not too much trouble—I think I’ve thrown out my back, so I’d rather not strain it more.”

“Sure.” The man William threw down his spade and heaved open the trunk. To Paul’s surprise, he took the coffin up into his arms without Scott’s help at all, then half-tossed it to adjust his grip.

“Please be careful, his mother—” Scott began to plead.

“He’s dead. People like that don’t mind if you throw them around a little,” William grinned darkly then spit on the sidewalk. Paul did not like the man’s stingy remark or his grin.

“Oh—I don’t remember your name—” the man nodded to Paul “—grab my shovel, will you?”

“It’s Paul,” Paul said impatiently.

“Sorry. For the life of me…I know I’ve seen you somewhere. You work at…that funeral home, right?”

“Yes, and I’m here twice a week,” Paul muttered with an indistinct growl. Not even a gravedigger remembered him. He salved his aggravation with the thought of an early dinner.

The body delivered, Paul drove on to the outskirts of Woodstock. He puttered through the quaint little neighborhood to its only cul-de-sac. As he made a sharp left turn onto the crumbling driveway, his suddenly caught sight of a dark object.

A black cat crouching in the precise middle of his driveway. As Paul’s car neared, it stiffened into a more erect pose, those keen eyes fastened on him. He cautiously inched the car up to it, but the cat would not budge. Paul’s ear twitched. He climbed out of the hearse and stooped over the ominous creature, whose unblinking stare fixed upon Death’s personal chariot. The voracious lime eyes turned upward to him. Paul shrugged, backed off a foot, then kicked “kitty” out of the way.

The house was a fit companion for superstition—Paul hardly kept it in order. He had seen clean houses make nothings of old single men. It was two stories, with all the furniture upstairs in the bedroom or the office. (The office doubled as the kitchen.) “It doesn’t make sense to spread your stuff around when you only use two rooms,” Paul had reasoned when he first moved into the house.

Without changing out of his suit, he fell to writing at the desk while the kettle heated up his water. He scribbled out a flurry of musical notes. Sharps, time signatures, bar lines, written instructions, 8va brackets. 15va for the piccolo. Should the 1st violin double the flute, or would a solo oboe be the best color in that range? Liquid and transparent is what he wanted. Better double the flute with an oboe. Pianissimo timpani roll at measure 265, and perhaps triangle on beat 3? No, too much ornamentation. Clean and simple speaks best.

Paul knew his writing was hardly legible, the parts barely playable. Music was the wildcard in his reasonable life, the scratched-up window into his soul. It was the only regular practice of his that did not subscribe to habit, but frenzy.

“Bother, water’s cold already,” Paul suddenly looked up from the desk. An entire hour had passed, and before him were two sheets of manuscript burrowed and smudged through with illegible jots, shapes and lines. Beethoven himself couldn’t read it. But after Paul had reheated his water and sipped his cappuccino, his eyes again surveyed the lifeless ink blobs. There might be genius in them after all. He closed his eyes and began to hum. The lips wrinkled, the forehead curdled while some magical thought whirred through his brain.

“Stop it Paul,” he spouted and unclenched his eyes, “you’re only dreaming.” Paul pulled out a blank sheet of paper and fell to writing something else.

But the thought had once for all pinned itself to his fancies.