I'll tell you something about me. I'm not a rocket scientist. People have told me I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, a few fries short of a Happy Meal, and a few slices short of a full loaf for the past forty-two years. In case you're wondering, I'm forty-two years old. I couldn't tell you if those words hurt; they're just words. But they do get to a guy, you know? You hear them long enough and you start to believe they're true. I suppose that's why I've worked at a steady stream of dead-end dives as a short-order cook. One thing I do know is people really like my food. A pile of messy napkins, an empty bottle of Coke, and a full belly were all signs that I'd done my job right, and if the customer left with a smile, so much the better.
My last job was at a diner in Smithfield, Pennsylvania. Smithfield was a town that was grateful to have its own zip code. It consisted of a big hill and nothing else. At the top of the hill were a shoe repair shop, the post office, a pizza joint, and the diner. We were open from six in the morning till eight at night, and I toiled in that kitchen for fourteen hours a day, sweating off the pounds like a bad Richard Simmons video. Of course, I'd put them right back on when I sat down to eat a hoagie or a burger when I was on break. My weight was in a constant state of flux the whole time I worked there. I'd go to work skinny and come out a fat-ass.
My boss was this ancient woman named Geraldine. She chain-smoked and came to work loaded for bear. I liked her, but I'm not naive enough to think she had a soft spot for me. Geraldine had a heart made out of Kryptonite, and if you showed her any kindness she'd make you feel about as small as your dick. I still liked her, though, because she defended the cooks and waitresses if a customer started complaining. She looked after her people, but you didn't hear that from me.
The last month I worked at the diner was the coldest in Pennsylvania history. Temperatures hit twenty below in the morning with a daytime high of, say, two degrees. Factor in the wind chill and you're talking some bone-gnawing cold. I was finishing up a grilled chicken salad an hour before closing time on a Thursday when Geraldine entered the kitchen and tapped me on the shoulder.
"Go take the trash out to the burn pile," she said in her razorblade voice. "I'll finish this up."
"You want me to start the fire?" I asked her.
"Not tonight," she replied as I took off my apron. "Save it for Friday."
"Good deal." I laid my apron on a chair and collected the burnable trash--cardboard boxes, wooden containers, that sort of shit. I drug it out the kitchen door and around the back of the building to a round patch of brown grass with a rusty trash can in the center. Pieces of wood, shingles from the roof, and other assorted bits had been piled to the left of the can. I dumped that day's trash onto the pile as the Pennsylvania cold started to numb my toes.
When I walked away from the pile, a wooden container shifted and tumbled to the ground. I looked back and decided to leave it before I got frostbite. Something else caught my eye, though--a finger sticking out from the bottom of the burn pile.
I approached it, feeling my fingertips freezing up on me, and lifted the trash a notch. The finger was a charcoal black. I lifted the pile further, more trash tumbling off the top and onto the ground. The finger was connected to a blackened arm, which was connected to a blackened shoulder, and finally a blackened head. By the time I was done, I had uncovered the entire body of a man, burnt as black as chimney soot, lying naked on his stomach in the frosty grass.
"He stank like a sonuvabitch," Geraldine's voice spoke up from behind me. I whirled around and saw her standing at the edge of the grass, a cigarette in her hand and a big white sweater draped over her arthritic shoulders.
I didn't know what to say so I kept my mouth shut. This had pulled me through most of the things I'd experienced in life.
"His dick burned off first," Geraldine continued. "Serves him right, the prick." Geraldine took a drag on her cigarette. "I never got the chance to finish the job because of the fuckin' smell." She exhaled slowly through her nostrils. "Maybe you can do something about that." She flicked her cigarette into the grass and walked back to the kitchen, her hands jammed into the pockets of her sweater.
"You wanna stand out here all night and freeze your balls off, that's fine by me," Geraldine said from the kitchen door, "but some of us here have actual work to do. In case you didn't notice, that includes you, 'ya ass wipe." She entered the kitchen and let the metal door clank shut behind her. I stood out there, the cold gnawing at my flesh, and I wondered just what the hell I was supposed to do now.
I covered the dead guy back up with the burn pile's trash and left him there. What else was I going to do? I couldn't move the body without Geraldine knowing, and I sure as hell couldn't lift it, not with my extremities as numb as they were. So I left him there and went back inside, where Geraldine put me to work on a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a hot Italian hoagie. She acted as if nothing were wrong and nothing had happened between us, but something had happened--I was now involved in one of her problems, and she believed I was the solution.
* * *
Geraldine sent everyone home ten minutes early that night and locked the front door. She flipped the sign from "Open" to "Closed" and flicked the lights off. Then she came into the kitchen and gave me a look that said my shift wasn't over yet.
"Grab your coat," she barked. "Let's see what we can do with this sonuvabitch." She pulled her sweater around her shoulders and exited out the kitchen door, letting it clank shut behind her. I did as she asked, snaking into my overcoat and gloves and following her out to the burn pile. When I got there, Geraldine had a lung killer in her right hand and was puffing away.
"Get this trash off him," she ordered. I threw the burn pile aside, revealing the blackened, rotten flesh of the man she'd tried to burn. "Bring your truck around. Let's see if we can't get his rotten ass inside."
I removed my keys from my coat pocket and trotted back around the building to the parking lot. It contained six parking spaces and possessed graying asphalt and faded lines. I unlocked my truck and opened the door, but felt a pair of eyes watching me from across the street. I stepped out from behind the bed of the truck and saw a white two-story house with a small porch off the front door. Bundled up in a lawn chair was a thin, wiry guy with wispy hair who kept staring in my direction. I waved at him. He just kept staring. I cleared my throat. He just kept staring. As the cold started to slip through the fleece in my coat, I said "To hell with this" and got in my truck.
I pulled the truck down by the burn pile and backed it against the trash can. I let the truck run so it would warm up and climbed out to see a pissed-off Geraldine glaring at me.
"What the fuck took you so long?" she growled. "You takin' a piss or somethin'?"
"There was a guy across the street," I told her. "He kept looking at me."
"That's Eddie Upole," she explained. "He's blind."
"You sure about that?"
"'Cause he's watching us."
Geraldine looked back toward Eddie's house. Eddie had switched positions in his lawn chair and was now facing the burn pile.
"Fuck him," Geraldine said, flipping Eddie the bird. "He can't see shit." She turned back to me. "Get this prick in the truck and cover him with some of the trash. I'll be riding shotgun."
"Where we headed?" I asked.
"The cemetery," she replied. "You got a shovel?"
"Then we got a body to bury."
Geraldine climbed up into the truck and slammed the passenger door closed. The last thing I wanted to do was pick this guy up and put him in the bed of my truck, but I'd come too far to turn back now. I glanced back at Eddie's house. His eyes didn't move, but they were still watching me as I lifted the crispy dead guy and shoved him into the back. I picked up two handfuls of trash and sprinkled them over Crispy before climbing back in the truck and pulling onto Church Street.
The cabin of the truck was still freezing cold. My teeth chattered as we waited at the light across from the car wash and the pharmacy.
"So who was he?" I asked Geraldine.
"Does it matter?" she said, taking a drag on her cigarette and exhaling slowly. "He's dead anyway."
"How did you know him?"
"Jesus, are we really going to play this game?"
"I just--I have to know, Geraldine. For my own piece of mind."
"Fuck. All right." Geraldine finished her cigarette and stubbed it out on the dashboard. "He was a gigolo."
"A male hooker." She flicked the cigarette onto the floor mats. "And before you ask, no, I did not fuck him."
"I was gonna say..."
"He fucked me."
I swallowed hard as uneasiness rose in my throat and threatened to spill out of my mouth.
"What can I say?" Geraldine shrugged. "Some guys like it Granny-style."
"I may be seventy-five years old, but it's a young seventy-five."
"Yep." I swallowed again. "So what did he do?"
"He got rough." Geraldine shook her head. "I don't like it rough."
"I keep a gun in the bedside table. After I kicked him in the nuts, I grabbed it and shot him."
"I don't remember how many times. Four, five, six maybe. Hell, it might have been seven."
I swallowed a third time. My stomach was churning and the cab was suddenly very, very warm.
"Anyway," Geraldine continued, "he fell down the steps and broke his neck. Served him right for not respecting his elders."
"You don't say."
"I wrapped the body up in trash bags and had my son-in-law put him at the curb for trash pick-up." Geraldine looked at me. "Can you believe those fuckers said I had one too many bags at the curb? They put a big orange sticker on him and everything!" She sighed. "So I had my son-in-law drag his ass out to the burn pile. I tried burning him, but it stank up the whole neighborhood and took at least two days for the smell to go away."
"How'd he get out?"
"The burn can."
"Oh, that. I flipped it on its side and rolled the bastard on the ground. He came out eventually."
"So now what?"
"So now we take him down to my plot at the cemetery and bury his lousy ass." She frowned. "That okay with you?"
"Do you hear me complaining?"
"No, I don't."
"Then I'll do it."
"You'd better, 'ya ass wipe." Geraldine reached inside the pocket of her sweater and removed a pack of cigarettes. She pulled a lung killer out, put the pack away, and lit the damn thing without another word. After a few moments, she spoke.
"I have a question, ass wipe."
"How many of these lights are 'ya gonna sit through?"
I looked up at the light. It had just turned green for the fifth time. I gave the truck some gas and juked it onto Route 119, riding down the opposite side of Smithfield's titanic hill. About half a mile down I made a right turn and entered the cemetery. There was a lone florescent light that shone from a telephone pole at the edge of the property. Geraldine told me to park the truck there, and so I did.
"Where's your shovel?" she asked. "I'll get started while you unload this prick."
I climbed out of the truck and reached inside its bed. I felt around for a bit until I found the handle to the shovel. I tossed it to Geraldine and she caught it with surprisingly agile hands. She made her way down toward her plot as I unlocked the tailgate, tossed the trash aside, and pulled Crispy out by his feet. I carried him under my right arm, since he was as stiff as a piss-boner, and dropped him next to where Geraldine was standing. There was a graying stone in front of us with the names "Christopher K" and "Geraldine D" on it. Christopher died fifteen years ago and I didn't want to know how.
Geraldine had the shovel under her foot and was pushing it into the ground, trying to break the frozen soil and spitting out every expletive she knew. I wrenched the shovel from her hands and showed her how it's done. We took turns shoveling the raw dirt from her side of the grave. Crispy laid there, not even offering to lend a hand in his own burial. I think I knew why Geraldine called him a prick.
It took at least two hours to find the depth Geraldine wanted. By then I had shed my overcoat and was sweating with Richard Simmons again. Geraldine lit her last cigarette as I hefted Crispy's body and dumped him down the rabbit hole. She nodded in satisfaction and we took turns covering his body up. It was plainly obvious that somebody had disturbed the grave, but I figured Geraldine had a solution for that as well.
Instead, we drove back to the diner and let ourselves into the kitchen. It was close to midnight and Geraldine asked me to cook her a grilled cheese sandwich. My body ached and my head was swimming in a sea of burnt bodies and rotting corpses, but I obliged her request and made one for myself while I was at it. We sat at a table in the dark, the only light coming from the single florescent lamp above us, as we drank some Coke and filled our stomachs.
"What's with that look?" Geraldine finally asked me.
"What look?" I said back.
"The look on your face."
"I don't have a look."
"Yes, you do. You're wondering what's gonna happen next." Geraldine sat her half-eaten grilled cheese down and narrowed her eyes at me. "Nothin's gonna happen. We're gonna go back to our everyday lives."
"So we just keep this a secret?"
"What the hell did I just say?"
"I mean, just between you and me?"
"Who would you like to include, ass wipe? The police?"
"I'm just saying..."
"Then don't say anything. The world's a better place when you don't speak."
I shut up and ate my grilled cheese. I couldn't really taste it. My brain kept telling my mouth it was Crispy's rotten flesh.
"What about Eddie Upole?" I asked.
"What about him?" Geraldine replied.
"You sure he's blind?"
"Is he deaf too?"
"Aren't they all?" she said with a scoff. "You worry too much, 'ya ass wipe." She finished her grilled cheese, sipped her Coke, and reached for her pack of cigarettes. It was empty. "Fuck," she muttered. "Must've smoked the last one at the cemetery." She threw the pack over her shoulder. "You got any on 'ya, ass wipe?"
"I don't smoke," I told her.
"You oughta. It's the best damn stress reliever in the world."
"I'll stick to cooking, thanks."
Three knocks came at the diner's front door. A flash light beam blazed into the darkness and landed on Geraldine.
"There they are!" an official-sounding voice shouted. "Open the door, ma'am! Police!"
"Fuck the police!" Geraldine shouted back, standing from her chair. "We're closed! Can't you dumbasses read the sign?"
I stood from my chair and watched as the police broke down the door to the diner and came storming inside. There were four officers, three male and one female, all of average height and weight and dressed in uniforms. They aimed their pistols at us and ordered us to get on the floor. I complied with their commands, but Geraldine stood her ground, defiant to the end.
As the female cop jerked my arms behind my back and slapped handcuffs on my wrists, I saw two of the male officers force Geraldine onto her knees, shoving her hands behind her back and locking the cuffs on her wrists. She had a look on her face that was pure and unbridled hatred, and all I could think of was how she didn't like it rough, how physical the officers were being with her, and I wondered when her temper would explode.
* * *
I was sitting in a small eight by ten room lit with a single florescent bulb. It had brown paneling on the walls and white ceiling tiles with those annoying dots. I counted the dots as I waited for the detectives to come in and tell me what I'd done wrong, although I already knew I'd done plenty.
The door to the room opened and two detectives entered. One had a goatee while the other was clean-shaven. Their clothes were wrinkled and their eyes had dark circles hanging under them. They looked like worn-out paper dolls as they sat down across from me and placed a cup of coffee and a box of donuts on the table.
"I'm Detective Massey," Goatee said. He pointed to Clean-Shaven. "This is my partner, Detective Steele."
"Howdy," Steele said. "You want a cigarette?"
"I don't smoke," I said.
"You want a donut?" Steele offered, pushing the box toward me. "Everybody likes donuts."
"I already ate," I told him.
"You ate a grilled cheese," Massey said, "and you've been here for an hour. A man your size needs to keep his metabolism up."
I gave him a dumbfounded look. He nodded toward the box of donuts. Steele opened the box and let the sweet aromas waft past my nose. If this was some kind of torture, I was all for it. I reached inside the box and snagged a sour cream glazed. I took a bite and instantly spat it back out--the donut was way past its expiration date.
"What the hell?" I growled.
"Drink some coffee," Massey said.
"It kills the taste of the donut," Steele added.
I ripped the lid off of the coffee cup and gulped it down, trying in desperation to wash the rotten donut taste out of my mouth. It was quickly replaced by the taste of rancid coffee. I spat it out on the floor and slammed the cup on the table.
"You guys trying to kill me here?" I managed to say.
"Have a donut," Massey said.
"It kills the taste of the coffee," Steele added with a grin.
"Look, what do you two peckerheads want?" I demanded to know. "I already gave my statement to the officer that arrested me."
"Yes, you did," Massey confirmed. "The problem is we don't believe you."
"Come on, man," Steele said. "A seventy-five year-old woman fucking a gigolo? You really expect us to believe that shit?"
"She's a young seventy-five," I stressed.
Steele let out a bark of laughter and then stifled it.
"Let's be honest for a moment," Massey said. "You were the one fucking the gigolo, weren't you?"
"What?!" I exclaimed.
"Hey, I bet you're a faggot," Steele said. "A big fat-ass faggot."
"You've got to be kidding!" I said back. "I'm as straight as they come!"
"Sure you are," Massey said, "but everyone experiments now and then, right?"
"I bet you just wanted to see what it was like, didn't you?" Steele asked. "And when you found out you liked it, it scared you, and that's when you shot him."
"Oh, for the love of God," I muttered, hanging my head. "What's it going to take for you guys to believe me?"
"Listen, man, we've got latent prints on your gloves that were transferred onto the shovel," Steele explained. "Somebody didn't wash their hands after handling all that cooking grease."
"Someone also didn't pay attention to their neighbors," Massey pointed out. "Eddie Upole may be blind, but he isn't deaf. His hearing works just fine and he heard your boss order you to load the body into your truck."
"Now, look at it this way," Steele said, leaning across the table. "The old lady goes to prison, she'll be dead within a month, tops. No small loss to the planet Earth...but if she were to stay alive, she might have another five to ten years before she punches out."
"So what're you trying to say?" I asked.
"We're telling you to do the right thing here, man," Steele said in a soothing tone. "Take the rap for the old lady. We know you're only an accessory, but the prints on the shovel are going to get you fucked in court." Steele leaned back in his chair. "You look like a decent guy. Maybe you have a good head on your shoulders. Maybe that head's telling you what you already know--if you send the old lady to prison and she dies, you're responsible for her death. God will hang that on your head when you punch out." Steele tapped his fingers on the table. "And trust me, man, there's no way you're going to get to your happy place if the old lady's haunting your soul."
I looked out the window behind Massey and Steele. It led to a hallway, and through its dirt I could see Geraldine being led down the hall in handcuffs. She looked weak for the first time since I'd known her. Her eyes were closed bitterly and she wore a look of shame on her face. I couldn't begin to fathom Geraldine having any emotion except grouchiness, but now that I saw her like this, old and vulnerable, I realized the point Steele was trying to make. Geraldine wouldn't last a day in prison, and the diner still needed its manager.
"Well?" Steele prompted. Massey looked at his watch. "We don't have all night, you know."
"What do I have to do?" I asked.
* * *
0The trial was swift and uneventful. My public defender tried to pin the blame on Geraldine, but nobody believed it. The prosecution painted me as a closet homosexual who liked to experiment now and then. One time it went bad, and the next thing you knew, it snowballed into a disaster. The jury barely took an hour to deliver a unanimous verdict of guilty. I don't remember what the exact charges were. I forgot them a long time ago.
I've been in the joint about a year. The food sucks. I've tried to convince them to let me cook, but the warden says they don't need a homicidal faggot preparing their meals. I think I called him an ass wipe when he told me that. Geraldine would've been proud.
Speaking of Geraldine, she came to see me the first week I was incarcerated. She said the diner's customers were complaining that the food wasn't the same. They were losing business, she said. I told her it was a real shame and that I was sorry. She didn't seem so grouchy anymore, like her kryptonite heart had been put in lead so it wouldn't poison anybody. I know it poisoned me.
Before she left to go back to the diner, she thanked me for taking the rap for her...and then she did something I'd never seen before.
The wrinkles on her face curved and twisted until there was an honest-to-God smile on her face. I smiled back and told her not to worry about me. She thanked me again and left. I haven't seen her since, and I heard from the guards that the diner is closing next month. I guess that's how the beans roll sometimes.
I honestly couldn't tell you why I helped Geraldine bury that crispy gigolo at the cemetery. I know it wasn't because I'm a rocket scientist. Maybe it was because she was my boss and I always did what my bosses told me to do. I think it goes deeper than that, though. I think I always wanted to see Geraldine's smile. Don't get me wrong, I didn't love her or anything like that, but I just wanted to know that she had the capacity to feel and she would someday validate all the hard work I did for her. When I saw Geraldine's smile, that was my validation, and all the payment I would ever need.
Available from Dead guns Press