Burn is another story published with Necrology Shorts. Most of the imagery comes from my experience as a mortician. One of the characters is loosely based on a friend of mine who worked for years in a crematorium. He was a hard working man who served a tour of duty in Vietnam. Even though Bill (my friend) had a heart of gold, you didn’t want to fuck with him. And that got me wondering…
James thrashed out of bed as though he were drowning. His phone screamed at him from the night stand where the clock showed 2:15 am. Even though he had been at Strenk Funeral Home for the past six months, he wasn’t used to these damn night calls. He answered the phone, his eyes feeling dead in his skull. It was Burning Bob.
“James? I need your help pronto.” Bob was breathing hard.
“Can’t it wait? You’ve never needed me before.”
“We got this four hundred pound indigent. Strenk tell you about it?”
“Yeah, Al something.”
“Ahlwell.” Bob corrected.
“Whatever—-what do you need?” Bob was good friends with the owner. James had to be careful here.
“Old pucker ass decided to get stuck on the rollers. Something’s jammed and I just need a little help getting big boy in the oven,” Bob said.
James dropped the phone to his lap clenching his teeth. Why was Mr. Strenk keeping this decrepit veteran on the payroll? The poor guy had quadruple bypass surgery seven months ago and still smoked like a chimney. Any other funeral home would have bounced his ass to the curb by now. He put the phone back to his ear and tried to remain calm.
….I had the surprise of my life last night. I was watching TV in Uncle Bob’s bedroom and heard someone yelling like the place was on fire or something. I didn’t know if I was allowed to be there (since Bob’s boss pays for the place) so I didn’t answer. But then this gorgeous guy comes crashing through the bedroom door—looking real serious. Have you ever seen a dog tilt it’s head when it hears a whistle? Well that’s what this guy did. He just stood there like a dopey dog, head tilt and all. I guess he never thought a girl would be in Bob’s bed…
James put the phone to his ear, his tone emotionless, “Why are you burning this late Bob?”
“Tomorrow is gonna be a busy one Jimmy. We got four that need processing and I was up anyways. Just hoping to get a little ahead since this one will take awhile to burn. You don’t wanna use a lot of heat cause once the flames hit it’ll be like one big grease fire. Just a lot of mopping up you know?”
James knew. In his short stay with the firm James had learned how Bob liked to repeat himself. He wanted to tell the old man to go to hell and climb back into bed, but that wasn’t an option. Being the new guy meant you were on duty every other weekend and dealt with calls that came in after hours. Unfortunately for James, it also meant babysitting Burning Bob.
…All I could think to say was “you looking for Bob?” (which was pretty obvious) and he just nodded. Then he sort of snapped out of it and asked where Bob was. He was talking real fast and I could tell the poor guy was embarrassed. Imagine that? I’m the half naked one and HE’S nervous. I told him I didn’t know—and that was partially true. I knew Bob was out getting some pills for his sore legs—just didn’t know when he would be back. That seemed to satisfy the guy and he apologized a gazillion times before slamming the door behind him. Got to find out who this tall stranger is…..
James sighed. “Give me ten minutes. You have the retort ready?”
“You know me, always ready for a burn,” Bob cackled like an old sea captain.
James fired the phone to the floor before throwing on an old sweat shirt and jeans. He wanted this little errand over as quickly as possible. It had been one hellacious week for him and he needed some sleep. James was running for the door when everything stopped cold. He grasped the door knob shaking his head.
…Well I found out who the guy was….and it sucks. He’s the son of Bob’s boss. Seems uncle Bob was supposed to be on duty last night and had forgotten to burn up a body. (I guess that’s what he does anyways???) Bob told me he got it bad from Mr. Strenk—boss man. But I guess uncle Bobbie isn’t helping his case out getting high when he’s on duty and all. Oh well—at least he’s giving me somewhere to stay until I can save up enough to get my own place. More than I can say for mom!!!!!…
Lizzy was some relative of Bob’s who was always hanging around the crematorium. She and James had gotten friendly over the past few weeks—even screwed around in his car. But Liz was half his age so he had ended it before things got too serious. James had avoided the issue with Bob . Who knows how the old sea captain would take to him messing around with his little niece? What if Bob asked about her tonight?
“Screw him,” James said to himself while walking out of his apartment and into the depths of Strenk funeral home.
…Guess who came by again today? And he wasn’t looking for Bob this time. Once again he came in unannounced as I was just getting out of the shower (with my ‘do a mess!!!!) Good or bad timing???? He didn’t stare this time—just introduced himself real sweet saying his name was James and how sorry he was for surprising me before. Is this guy clueless or what? Anyways, sweet and good looking!!!!! He didn’t stay just asked how long I had been living with Bob. I said I was only around for weekends—which was an obvious lie. He didn’t seem to care. I caught him sneaking a peek at my boobs like five times while I was talking to him. Clueless AND obvious—HMMMMMM. I think I’ll be seeing more of James…
The crematorium was down two flights of stairs in the basement of Strenk funeral home. It took James only minutes to descend the steps and meet Bob. When he arrived the old man was waiting in the dark. A glowing cigarette danced as he spoke.
“Morning buddy? You awake yet?”
“Lets get this over with,” Jim said.
“Hope you brought a strong back,” Bob replied, his voice sounding like grinding gears. “He’s right over there on the gurney.”
Bob pointed his callused finger towards a flat wooden tray sitting partially inside a cremation chamber. The tray looked tiny compared to what lay in it.
“Jesus! You weren’t kidding about Ahlwell,” James said. “He’s enormous!”
He walked over to the mountain of decaying remains. By the looks of his sloughing skin, Ahlwell had been dead over a week.
…Pretty pissed off right now. Bob had a total meltdown when I mentioned James. Said that I was putting his job in jeopardy and all–which is bullshit!! If Bob spent half as much time LOOKING for a good job instead of getting high he’d be living in the city somewhere. The guy has a master’s degree for chrissake! I don’t know what the degree is in but you would think he could do a little better than living in a funeral home? Guess I’ll have to keep my exploits with James on the down looooow…
Bob lit up another cigarette and began talking. “Fifty two year old trucker found dead of a heart attack in his trailer. Nobody knew he was there until the smell. No relatives came forward and since we have the indigent contract—
“We have to process him. I know Bob. So how do we do this?”
“Just get back here with me and give it a shove. That should do the trick.”
James joined Bob behind the stinking body. His head was beginning to throb.
“That’s it cupcake!” Bob said. “Now push on my mark—-PUSH!”
Both men lowered themselves like NFL linemen and hurled their weight forward but the tray didn’t budge. They tried three more times. Gutteral grunts echoed against the brick walls of Strenk Funeral Home yet the results were the same. Bob waved James off before flicking away his cigarette.
“Were you pushing at all?” James asked trying to catch his breath.
…All I can say is UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!! James I mean. The boy came by unannounced AGAIN! But I didn’t mind since I was dressed this time. He was not at all nervous like before. Just came in and asked if I wanted to get some lunch. Pretty slick that one. Bob was gone on a funeral service all day and James was left in charge so we had a few hours to kill. We never made it out of the apartment (if you know what I mean) But we didn’t do it or anything. (Hey I have some pride! ) This guy’s gonna have to work a little for it. He pushed the right buttons though—just hope he doesn’t ask Bob my age…
Bob whipped out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. He squatted and searched under the gurney like a seasoned car mechanic.
“Why ain’t she moving? I can’t figure it. There’s nothing in the way and we got two strapping lads here.” He peered up at James. “What do you make of it?”
James stared blankly. So far his experience as a mortician was limited to tracking down death certificates and picking up indigents from the coroners office.
…It’s been busy for Bob. Seems as if the big boss man is keeping him longer everyday—which is awesome since James and I have been able to get together more. I think I’m going to do it with him. I don’t care what mom says about “saving yourself” James is way different than all the other guys I’ve been with. For starters he’s gorgeous AND has a good job. Plus he’s older so he’s got things together. (And that cute ass of his!!!) Anyways I’m getting hot just thinking of him. If James comes over tomorrow I think I’ll bring the subject up. Okay that would be stupid…
James was still trying to catch his breath.“Why can’t we just get on both sides and push him in that way?”
“There’s nothing to hold onto. This ain’t your standard tray. He wouldn’t fit in one of them so I used the bottom of an old shipping crate. The problem is, it don’t have any handles to hold onto.”
“Shit,” James moaned. If only this were his weekend off.
Bob pointed beside the cremation oven. “See that small step ladder? Put it in front of Old Burly Balls and climb into the retort. Give her a few pulls from the front to loosen things up and we should be good to go.”
“I don’t think anything will be able to budge this lop of shit.”
Bob laughed at the remark which started a coughing fit. When he regained his voice he smiled saying, “Don’t worry governor, I’ll make sure he moves enough.”
…James…James…James….everyone knows your name. He was everything I imagined. Tender, sweet and kind. We did it in his car since neither of us wanted Bob to catch us in his apartment. James is so smart and funny. I can totally see myself with him forever!!!!…
Jim had never given Bob credit for smarts but the old fella had been doing cremations for over 30 years. Anyone in the funeral business for that long should know a few tricks. James trudged in front of the rotting giant and slowly ran his hand across the oven’s threshold.
“Look if you ain’t up to it, I’ll crawl over Mr. Fuzz nuts myself.”
James thought about that. A sixty nine year old with major heart problems doing a young man’s job. Mr. Strenk would surely catch wind of that sooner or later. He shook his head and grabbed the step ladder placing it at the head of the cremation tray. James looked deep into the retort. The brick walls and stone floor reminded him of a massive pizza oven.
“Just climb up there Jimmy, we’re wasting time!”
“Easy for you to say old man!”
…I know it’s a little premature but James said I would make a great mother someday. Who says stuff like that unless they see things as serious? I’m thinking of telling Bob about this. I mean how can we keep it from him? And if Bob finds out BEFORE I tell him? (I don’t even want to go there.) He wouldn’t do anything to me but I’m like the little girl he never had. Who knows how it would effect him. Just have to find the right time..
Jim had never crawled into a cremation retort. He wouldn’t be climbing in had the ovens been burning. The tray was clogging up the opening and the only way in front of it was to slide over a bloated corpse. Jim cursed Bob under his breath. Why couldn’t he have waited till one of the students was around to help? Why now? Why this damn late? His questions were forgotten as the body’s sickening stench hit him causing a gag reflex.
Bob chuckled from behind. “You gonna hurl Jimmy boy?”
“Just caught me off guard,” he said stepping over the head which resembled a weathered sponge. That’s when something occurred to James and he stopped with one leg in the oven. Once inside—how was he going to get out?
…Had a HUGE fight with James today. He freaked when I told him that I was going to tell Bob about us. What’s the big deal? I asked if he was ashamed of me and he didn’t answer. WHAT A FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!!! I guess I was just a piece of ass to him—that’s all. Mom was right–I should have waited…
James had a half second to react before 500 pounds of force came sliding towards him. His hands reached out in vain as the container knocked him off his feet and carried him into the cremation chamber. He fought to escape as brick walls quickly encased him with the corpse. When the harrowing trip had ended, James found himself face down against rotting flesh, his body pinned in place by the oven’s steel ceiling. He could barely breath let alone speak.
…James hasn’t been by for 2 weeks now. Guess that answers my question of “Does he want to be with me?” I’m okay though. I’ve been hurt before so this isn’t anything new. Just never thought I would give myself to such a total ass…
“I forgot all about that locking pin!” Bob said with a laugh. “You’d think after doing this for as long as I have it would have occurred to me to check it? Well this was an easy fix eh Jimmy boy?” His tone was cheerful almost whimsical.
…Bob was wondering what my problem is. Says I’ve been acting depressed. SO WHAT? I’ve been dealing with this shit since dad left….
James could hear Bob’s voice from outside the oven. “I got a call from my sister Barb today. She told me that my niece was in the hospital. I knew Lizzy had been feeling down lately but the girl had been taking her medications regular so I figured it was just a phase. Seems that she tried to OD with pain pills. My sister blames me since they were my pills……but I know better.” ”
…I’m such an idiot. What was I thinking? Like a 17 year old girl who lives with her uncle can have a guy like James?…
“I didn’t get it at first but then I came across Lizzy’s journal. For as long as I have known that girl, she’s always loved to write. Anyways, after she moved out I found it in my apartment. You’ll never guess what it says….
…The truth is he’s too good for me. I don’t deserve anyone like that. I always seem to screw things up in the end—even mom and dad….
Dials and buttons clicked overhead as the retort began to initialize. Slowly the chamber door closed leaving James paralyzed in complete blackness. Unable to move or speak his breathing became frantic. A sound not unlike the roar of a jet engine began to build from behind him.
“Just like a grease fire Jimmy!” Bob screamed. “Only nobody will know you and Fat Boy are sharing the grease
James squealed in horror as walls of flame blazed around him.
I’m so sorry Bob. You have always been there for me. You’re the only one who cares if I live or die. Please forgive me and love me always.