“I hate funerals,” I whisper.
“Who don’t, boss?”
Ah, Lomax. In his 5’2”, motheaten glory, he’s doughy as flapjacks and almost as aware.
“Assassins, morticians, beneficiaries of juicy wills, and we other lowly disciples of greed and grift. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”
Why whisper? Only four living people show up, including us on the periphery this blustery afternoon.
Amos Proctor’s widow is every sadness. Eighty. Frail. I could slip her into my pocket to join her husband’s obituary.
“Should you say that now, boss?”
It’s 1931. President Hoover admits a depression is on, yet Proctor’s mahogany casket glisters with yacht varnish. Tall and pink-cheeked, the minister squints like a four-under-par golfer, his Rolex flashing under a silk sleeve.
“Now more than ever.”
Of course, I’m no better than this Psalm-quoting snake handler, am I? That’s not commentary on religion, mind you. No. With me, it’s never about the hereafter. Just the moment at hand.
A scoundrel, you say?
Well, once I was quite the citizen.
Then came Belleau Wood, watching Chaplain Moynihan exsanguinate from a sniper’s bullet. What sick comedy: A third-generation Hoosier dies in a French wheat field.
Next? Mustard gas, withering Maschinengewehr fire.
All through it, the indifferent sun observed like a wet sock. Life, as they say, went on.
“Amos Proctor was a generous provider, loved by all,” Minister Hair Dye yammers. “He loved no one more than his cherished wife of 59 years, Effie.”
Fifty-nine years? That’s practically an eternity. I picture Jimmy Cagney hash-marking his cell wall.
Effie’s wet eyes show they flew by with, dare I say, heartbreaking speed.
Dollar signs twinkle in the minister’s eyes.
I hadn’t counted on a half-senile mark who didn’t understand that through newspapers we’d found her.
“Amos promised he’d send someone,” Effie chattered, answering her door.
Sure, why not. Her American Foursquare sparkled with luxury.
We settled things over meringues and sassafras tea.
“When that bat bit Amos, he said what must be done.” She leaned in to impart the secret. “A stake through the heart, of course.”
“Before he turns.”
Lomax nearly dropped his Pickard china cup.
“Won’t be cheap, missus,” I said.
“It must be done properly — the service first.”
“I’m to help.”
“I insist,” she said smiling. “More tea?”
Afterward, Lomax unloaded.
“Her money’s not.”
“But a stake through the heart? That’s murder.”
“Not if he’s already dead.”
“Let’s just go.”
“And lose easy money?”
I lift curses, chart horoscopes, commune with the departed — whichever pays best. I’d merely planned to help Proctor’s spirit “find the light.”
Kill so-called vampires, though?
Definitely a first. Then, again, Dracula’s been all the rage, even in these backwoods.
And a con is a con is a con.
Perched on high, the sun but gawked.
“It don’t look good, boss.”
“I said wear your overcoat.”
“That ain’t what I mean.”
I’ve got the heebie-jeebies, too. Disorienting, like—
Wait, the minister’s almost done bumping gums.
“Dust to dust.”
At his impatient scowl, Effie produces an envelope.
“Better count the money, your eminence.”
Everyone turns to me, Effie confused, Lomax wide-eyed, and the minister smiling as though seeing his reflection.
Before walking away, that sonofabitch blows me a kiss.
A fat cloud rolls over the sun. Lomax nearly leaps from his Buster Browns.
The air grows impatient.
“You want to do good,” Effie said, frocked in Sunday best. She’d waited outside the bathroom this morning, bright and early.
Lomax and I stayed in a spare room. Effie had even given me Proctor’s pajamas to wear.
“You lost your way.”
I was shaving with his razor. Up went my hackles.
“Trying to play me, missus?”
“You needed to hear it, Amos.”
Her on-and-off senility again, thinking I was he. But weren’t those real tears? Grifters spot sincerity like jackals spot feeble prey.
“You’re so handsome.”
“Look, let me shave.”
“I love you, Amos. Will you love me? I can’t do this for you if you won’t.”
Sigh. Ready for the happy house, this one.
“It’ll be alright.”
Outside, Lomax sharpened stakes.
“I believe you.”
I despised her for making me feel anything. Later I was ashamed. Ashamed! I hadn’t felt that in a long while.
Besides, when had anyone, crazy or not, last said they loved me?
Foulness chokes me as I open the casket — Proctor wasn’t embalmed. He could be sleeping.
I guide Effie over, hand on her shoulder. Lomax claps a stake into my other hand. I center it over his heart. Now that she’s here — and clearer-headed, at least for a spell — it’s not so easy.
“Please, wait,” she says, clutching her mallet.
Why put her through this when I already have her money? I should send her home.
“I can do it.”
“Amos swore me to,” she reminds herself.
I relent. Fine time to regrow a conscience.
Winds howl. Shadows dance on tombstones as daylight drains.
The sun has fled. Malevolence thickens the air.
“Hurry,” Lomax begs, lantern on.
He’d begged to leave, too, hadn’t he? More sick comedy.
What’s that? Breathing? Are my eyes playing tricks? Did Proctor’s cheek twitch?
He moans. Red eyes snap open. Fangs gleam white.
My heart jumps.
This can’t be happening — can it?
She’s sobbing, in position, still holding the mallet up.
Now, Effie, now!
But somehow my lips won’t speak.
She can’t strike.
She loves him.
Or maybe we’ve been the marks all along, outwitted by a crafty old grifter in dotty old woman’s clothing, to be fed to her undead, ravenous husband—
Does it matter? Hardly. I’m languid. Mesmerized. My feet root, arms leaden. I’m going nowhere, nor is Lomax.
And regardless, we’ll know for sure momentarily.
One bleak moment trickling away.
Practically an eternity.
Stephen Kyo Kaczmarek is a writer and educator in Lewis Center, Ohio.