by Tyler Wells Lynch
The wrecker was a converted pickup with blue-silver trim sapped beneath a spread of rust. Its jury-rigged A-frame towered over a bed of dusty orange j-hooks, snatch blocks, and collapsed beer cans, all tumbling in submission to the precess of a flatbed hauler. The straps and rusty ratchets quivered in a silent pitch as an old man with skin like boiled leather coerced a screwdriver into the latch of a corroded wheel chock. The whole scene unnerved him—the herniated engine block, the jagged smear of burnt rubber along the road shoulder, the twisted spires of metal caked in blood. It was enough to set the old man’s teeth on edge. A slip and his gnarled knuckles cracked against the hard plate of the wheel chock, cold metal chipping flakes of skin revealing pink. He snapped his hand and swatted the pain and shouted, “God damn!” His partner, along for the ride on his day off, asked what was wrong but didn’t demand an answer when none was given. The old man sucked the wound.
His haul was just a remnant now: a once stunning four-cylinder 999 sport bike with gold piping and fractal decals, and he swore he recognized it. The old man couldn’t know this, but the engine held but a few parts from its assembly in Kyushu some decades ago, when a microscopic shift in torque would doom the cam chain to snap and send the pistons crashing into the valves. That would happen some fifteen years later, just days before the old man himself lay prone before a heart bypass machine pumping blood and oxygen through his veins. Both he and the engine would survive, returned anew to the divergent paths of wear and tear and renewal, weighed down by doses of ethanol and petroleum, propped up by medicine and mechanics. Now it was the battery’s turn. The owner’s makeshift lead connecters had failed to draw enough voltage from the terminal, causing the engine to jerk and putter, the suddenness of which must have startled him, sending his machine careening over a barricade with him over it. A rag doll in an instant, then nothing.
Now the road was dark save for a few streetlights and departing strobes. The tumble of the wrecker’s snapping pistons cut the air like tiny war hammers, and the old man held an eye on the delicate haul as he pulled the wrecker off the shoulder onto the road. “It’ll stay,” his partner muttered, his own skin redder than the sun setting some fifty miles west.
“The day I listen to you about load safety is the day I win the lottery.”
The partner released a raspy laugh and told the old man to go to hell.
The ride was slow and bumpy, and the two-man wrecker crew spoke freely about friends of friends and the town they grew up in, just a crow’s flight away, a place where concrete was poured horizontally instead of vertically, and where honking horns would puncture the night, not blanket it. The partner stared vacantly into the oncoming headlights and told a story about the $800 he had lent a friend and how he didn’t expect to see it again, which is fine, isn’t it? He’d lived too many graceless years to become a loan shark at 58. “He’s a heroin addict,” the partner explained. “Or was. I think he cleaned himself up.”
“Boy I’ll tell you,” the old man said, “I been around a lot of drugs in my years, but I ain’t never touched the stuff.”
“Seen too many kids turn a slave to it.”
“Sad thing is it’s never been cheaper, amiright?”
“That’s right. I got this friend works at the cemetery? Buried a girl last week died of a overdose. Twenty-two years old, she was. Can you believe that?”
“Fuckin’ shame,” the old man said.
“Twenty-fucking-two… Goddamn it, you haven’t lived! I did some dumb shit when I was twenty-two, spent my time on the streets, lived a little hard. But my bad habits didn’t have no expiration date on ‘em.”
“Except the one thing.”
The partner laughed. “Except the one thing.”
“Reminds me of that kid by the overpass, just now. Riding a bike that fast? Just a matter of time, really.”
“How you know he was a kid?”
“Who else rides a bike like that?”
“Good point. How old you think he was?”
“Oh I don’t know. How old are you?”
“Sixty-seven.” The old man smiled. “Ever think that’d happen?”
The apprentice turned the latch and rolled out the tray to reveal a black plastic bag in the obvious shape of a body. The decedent was pristine, he noticed, even for a corpse this young. Her muscles were stiff in the middle stages of rigor mortis, and her eyes were mercifully closed. From head to toe, the skin was without blemish, save for the black fractals of disease branching from her forearm. If it weren’t for the unnatural pose she might only appear sleeping. But this thinking only made it harder. A clean corpse has a way of seeming alive, as if it were merely paralyzed and enslaved to the whims of a voyeur. And yet, here he was, an intruder among fresh bodies, a mad sawbones carrying tools and chemicals to the dead. He wondered if his father had ever felt this way: tasked with the duty of stealing sons and daughters away to the cold earth, but not before decorating them for the bereaved to inspect. Could his father have known he would never earn that privilege himself, destined as he was for the cruelty of a closed casket?
In a strange way, it made the apprentice’s job seem all the more important. It was something he always knew, or felt, something his parents had relayed to him from an early age—not just about death itself, but about the delicate circumstances of the bereaved and the reverence required for the departed. It approaches godliness, he once mused. Hard to disagree with the sacrilege that death is the one true god, or at least the one immortal.
Boy, she was young.
He began the process of flexing and massaging the decedent’s muscles, allowing blood to enter its languid channels and readying the corpse for embalming. He dressed the body, combed its hair, applied a tight coat of makeup. The cosmetics scattered a pall of radiance across her skin, and despite a generous coat around the infection he took care to hide it when he positioned her for the final pose. Once the body was in the casket he injected the embalming fluid, which was a thin, deceptive pink.
It was his father who taught him the trade. As a child he wanted nothing to do with it, having been frightened of dead bodies in a way any parent could appreciate. But to his father the mortuary arts were more than just the execution of one’s final rights—they were also a livelihood, a family business. And that carried as much a burden as the dead themselves. In a way, the morgue was his home, and when his father died it became an office. Why that would bother him more than the home he couldn’t say. He still didn’t see himself as a mortician—only as an apprentice.
This day, the day of the funeral, was mercifully beautiful. But the apprentice had his mind on the casket lowering device. It was new and the brand well regarded, but its size and expense were difficult to ignore. It included a stainless steel telescoping frame with adjustable braking system, a feature the apprentice had trouble understanding, and the pit alterations it required seemed a bit excessive. He asked the sexton to double-check the burial parameters, to which he responded, “I’ve double-checked and triple-checked. It’ll be fine.”
And it was.
When the service finished and the bereaved were given the opportunity to drop flowers over the grave, an older woman, who could have been a grandmother as much as a mother, stumbled awkwardly to the pit. The apprentice read her movements quickly and was able to catch her arm just as her foot slipped on the grave’s edge. Still, the old woman dropped to a knee and stayed there.
The bereaved should never bear witness to the logistics of a funeral. His father taught him that. A director should be of sound mind and body, nimble. He must preempt all the clumsy spasms of emotion and catch any lapse in physicality before it has a chance to interrupt procedure, which is elegance manifest. To that end, on this day, he was less successful. But it was only a minor slip.
After the service, when the attendees had all left the cemetery, the sexton approached the director and said, “That lowering device is a real church mouse, isn’t it?”
“It was fine.”
“Top of the line, if you ask me,” the sexton said. “Before I forget, you see that young man over there? With the boyish face?”
“I see him.”
“That’s the girl’s boyfriend, I think. He was asking about you, says he knows you.”
“That’s what he says. Says he knew your father or something.”
The river was grey and swollen raising white ripples that slapped against the pickup’s undercarriage. A shiver crawled up the drunk’s spine and reminded him of his circumstances, rousing him from a spell cast by some earlier self, some stranger never met who cycles forward in fits and tantrums like a broken spoke, raining ethanol and bad decisions on chance or fate or whatever. But that’s just a copout, he probably thought, in some tongue-tied daydream. He would spurn all the excuses or die trying. This is what he told himself to reconcile his failings. And he bought it, too. Hook, line, and sinker. It was a clever trick that allowed him to forsake love and duty in the name of pride, only to abide that one final excuse—the excuse to drink.
Long before he had come to see himself as “the drunk,” he would take to long drives through the country, where the clatter of people and engines faded between silos of oak and pine. And he would wonder, passing through miles of thick woods and barren farmland, why he even had a “home” in the first place. What kept him returning to that godforsaken monument to neglect and disarray in the city? That palace of overgrown weeds governed by the most wretched of whores? Who was that woman, his wife? Home, to him, had always been a place of friction, just some echo chamber of cursing where people rubbed up against one another and fought for scraps. He had come from such a large family, and he was the youngest. Food, bath time, yard work, TV privileges, attention—they all bested him, even his sisters. Was he stupid? Weak? Unlucky? What monster would haul a soul into such scarcity? Only an alpha, a cruel tyrant ruling over a tiny kingdom. His father promised a bright future, even as his mother explained away each passing failure: “Your father is too busy for groceries this week, so you’re on your own for dinner.” Lies upon lies.
But that’s all family was to him, a Ponzi scheme designed to haul resources to the top of the pyramid. And when he abandoned his family he swore he’d never be a part of something like that again. That too was a lie. Alcohol made sure of it: a shotgun marriage in a tiny pink chapel that looked more like a cake than a church. He said his vows in a pair of cutoff jean shorts and suddenly he was old and broke, and at night he dreamt of killing his wife, running her down in a pickup truck with pink frilly lace and a frosting decal. In his better moments he understood her to be human, but they were never meant to marry, and he often found himself looking into her eyes and wondering who she was. And they’d only stare back at him, seeming to ask the same question, even as he swore there was once maybe something beautiful about her, or them. Or maybe he was just drunk.
It didn’t matter. Drunk or not, he was destined to end up here in this dilapidated hospice, struggling to stay awake as a storm surge threatened to sweep him into the cold arms of the river. And all he could think about was his old friend, a humble tow truck driver who had the decency to impound rather than salvage his old pickup. He had left the junker for the drunk to inhabit, knowing well he was too poor for a motel, too suspicious of family, and too proud to deliver himself to the refuge of the old man’s home, as offered. It was an act of mercy, the drunk had thought, or maybe the old man just didn’t care and saw the request as some sort of dying wish. And could he blame him?
Again, the drunk snapped back to the present. A heavy swell jostled the truck and the rear wheels skated sideways, spinning the vehicle on its axis and exposing a whole side to the brunt of the swollen river. He should get his ass out of this coffin, he reckoned, but the neurons didn’t align themselves in the right way, the kind of way that would triage fight-or-flight over drunken shut-eye. And so he lurched his body to the left, then threw his hand toward the door handle, but it missed and his head bounced off the dashboard: out cold.
He awoke to find himself alive with gravity all askew. A pain, dull and sharp-like, throbbed in his skull, and the first thing he saw was the road. It unfurled from beneath the hood and seemed to roll up into the horizon. The truck had been hitched from its rear axle with him still in it. He lay on the horn and the wrecker screeched to a halt. The rig jostled as he reached for a near-empty bottle of gin by his foot. He downed a good swill of it but knew by sight it wasn’t enough.
The door sprung open and there he was, the old man: “How many times you gonna cheat death like this?”
“Many times as you’ll allow it, cap’n.” The drunk chuckled and took another swig of gin. “Guess I owes you another one of them thank you cards, don’t I?”
“Jesus you’re a shame right now.”
“One with the little pooch go woof woof!” More chuckling.
“You may not realize this yet, but you owe me a lot more than a damn card. You owe me your life, and I mean to reap it.”
“Reap away,” the drunk said, swinging the bottle. “Reap away, ya grim old fart. Ha ha!”
“I aim to take this truck too, and your able-bodied self as payment.”
“You mean my able-bodied heart.”
The old man flexed his hand and seemed to stare through the drunk. “Yes, you sonofabitch, I mean your able-bodied heart.”
“How’re the benefits?” The drunk took another sip of gin and spilled some of it on his shirt. “Can you match my 401k?”
The old man snatched the bottle out of his hand. Then he downed the last of it and shattered the glass on the crumbled pavement. “Not while you’re on the clock, got it? You drink yourself to death on your own time.”
“Fuck your clock.”
“You still don’t get it. But that’s okay, we’ll get you sobered up.”
The light turned green and the rider scrolled through the gears until he heard a pop and the headlights blinked. Instinctively, he shifted down to find neutral but the green indicator light failed to glow. That meant the battery. He pulled onto the shoulder, hit the kill switch, and threw the stand. It’s those goddamn terminals. He knew it. Nervous about the fuss of cars scrolling by, he hastily unscrewed the seat and removed the battery lid. A few patches of electrical tape secured the connectors in place, but as soon as he started the engine again it returned: that shock of pain up his back splintering at the hip, drawing him back to that scene at the track…
At first he didn’t know what was happening. He seemed to flash into existence like a star, and would later compare the experience to being reborn: the lack of memory, the lack of self or anything personal, so fierce and complete as to stir panic, or rather terror. And its lasting was brief. One moment he was a conscripted soul staring up at an expanse of ribbons and bleachers on a humid night, a haze of dirt, cloudlike, and pungent gasoline. Then everything was loud: The rip of a dozen four-stroke 450s circling somewhere nearby, or maybe in the distance. The echo off the bleachers, feeding back. Then it returned to him, who he was, and a face appeared: Alarmed, focused, equipped with a neck brace and oxygen mask. A growing swarm of faces appeared and his identity trickled back into place: the best goddamn rider this side of the Mississippi, amiright? With it came the pain, a deep fire spiraling up his leg, rattling his spine and terminating at the neck. The shock of it drew the whole of his breath from his lungs in a raspy howl. A stretcher appeared, sirens somewhere in the distance in syncopation with flashing reds and blues. The pain was everything, so total as to exhume his identity and repurpose it for the sake of agony. He fell in and out, emerging from a void in a cramped ambulance with his girl at his side holding his hand, then back to the black. Again, in a large white room with scrubs all around, beeping consoles, stern orders and an IV drip. Drip, drip, drip, the pain dissipated so sweetly, he recalled. Then: black, timelessly.
How sweet it was, the warmth as it crawled over you, wrapping its soft hands over every inch of cold, bearing the gift of light in a vacuum. He needed it for the pain, the nights he woke in a screaming fit so fierce even dreams would bow. She’d be there to help him. She always was. How he wished he could have had the strength to stay awake the night she took her own taste—that first moment, that first high. Which night was it? Was he even there?
Months passed and the nights became manageable. His prescription ran out, and he thought it for the best, but that didn’t end the supply: Things went from white to black, oral to intravenous, plastic bottle to plastic bag. Day and night. It was a seasonal thing, she promised him. “When the winter’s done, we’ll just enjoy the weather. We’ll have no need for it because we’re better than it.”
“We’re better than it,” he repeated, as he tapped his forearm in search of a vein. “You know that park by the river?”
But she was already nodding.
“I wish we could live there.”
Summer came with its longer days but the sun didn’t wake them. The shades were drawn and they had raised blankets over the cracks of light that crawled beneath. He didn’t mind, though. He enjoyed the look on her face as the air walked in and out of her, a bushy tangle of hair sprawled across the pillow, the generous half of the bed she would annex. He didn’t mind.
One day he decided to go for a ride, and fate couldn’t have chosen a better place to break down: atop this hill, clear-cut forests for miles around, a sky so deep and blue it could spark vertigo to look up. The air was so thick with humidity, and the pressure had put a stillness to the river he had never seen before. With the old Japanese engine tumbling in tyranny over the sounds of birds and a distant rippling river, the pain now leaving him, he realized he could not return home. He couldn’t do it. And yet he had no other place to go—save for the park by the river. Maybe that’ll do, at least until he figures things out. At least until he fixes that goddamn battery.
She loved this, riding pillion. She loved the feel of her head bucking in the wind, the turbulent press of air streaming by in a windy purr, the chop of the engine rumbling between her legs. Sure it was scary. At first she wondered if he’d be able to feel the warmth of her bladder as it loosed its contents. But after a few minutes the fear had vanished. He was still a mere buffer in the event they should eat pavement, but his confidence was enough. So she loosened her grip and let circumstance have its moment.
As soon as he felt her relax he pulled back on the throttle. A generous dose of fuel and oxygen rocketed through the cylinders, creating little explosions that made kinetic steel from fire and translated into thrust. Oh yes, the mechanic had done a fine job on that cylinder head. Further from town the highway was quieter. It narrowed into two lanes, and the rider decided to speed up. Around the bend a hearse appeared and something about its lumbering hunchback shape made the rider chuckle. He pointed to it and his girl shouted something that he couldn’t quite make out. In a flash of horsepower he overtook the awkward black car and left it behind. Around a bend now, faster, bumpier, and a certain divot struck with enough force to loosen the battery’s negative terminal connector. The dash lights faded, the engine popped, and the rider found himself shifting down to find neutral, a shock of alarm vibrating through the tight grip of his girl. What was that?
Conscious of the rider’s recklessness, the hearse driver quickly noticed the bike’s sudden deceleration. He slammed on the brakes in time to prevent a collision, but the stupidity of the rider’s actions infuriated him. He allowed the young couple to pull their two-wheeler onto the shoulder, and as he passed them he was sure to slow down and deliver the most angry glare he could muster. “Fucking kids,” he muttered. He couldn’t see the faces beneath the helmets, but who else but kids would drive like that?
A steady haul in the slow lane brought the hearse to an intersection, and the mortician once again cursed the teens for making him miss the green light. The intersection was empty and the fading sun had scattered a polluted wash of red and pink across the tree line. Even the mortician could appreciate the eeriness of a solitary hearse at a vacant intersection before a bleeding sunset. Through the trees and across a cornfield, he could just barely make out the quiet rush of the river, which looked black in the blinding sunlight.
From the east, the drunk was approaching in a pickup truck he used to own, only he wasn’t drunk, not yet. At this moment he was merely angry, cursing and slamming the wheel as the words of his wife echoed through his head like a marble in a steel drum. In truth, he couldn’t even remember exactly what she had said, but once he heard the words “worthless” and “poor” he set upon a blind rage hurling pots and pans across the kitchen, certain through the thick of it that she would never clean it up. She would hurl herself off a bridge before being forced to tidy up after him. And so he bolted to the refuge of his truck with little more than a determination never to return. And why should he? He had his truck, his health (sort of). All he needed was a change of clothes, maybe a sleeping bag, a few dollars for sustenance. He could scrap those together doing odd jobs in whatever town he visited. He’d done it before, when he first left home. Why not again? He’s not that old. But it had to be out in the country. Oh to be out in the country again, with the wind spiraling orange leaves across vacant roads, his pickup hurtling through them as a sovereign current.
The peace of it the road spared an immediate calm, and he thought: Maybe not tonight, if only because it’s tonight. Maybe tomorrow, when the sun is high and the promise of a full day bears hope for life decisions or whatever. He’d return home to grab some things, then slip away before sunrise, dumping the responsibilities of the house on that whore who he never wished to see again. It was a comforting thought, and it was enough to distract him as the pickup barreled into a hearse at 60 miles per hour, hurtling the carriage into the shade of a nearby forest where all was blind to the sun that had obscured an approaching streetlight. The airbags deployed and immediately everything went black, but not in a terminal kind of way. For the mortician, though, things were different. Over the course of a microsecond, splintered steel exploded across the anterior of the hearse and popped the airbags before they had a chance to deploy. A fractal spread of rusty doorframe was the first to inflict lethal damage as it sliced into the mortician’s gut, severing his esophagus from his stomach. Not that it mattered, because the collapse of the hearse’s roof as the pickup careened over the top of it was enough to fracture the driver’s skull and scatter brain matter over the contents of the wreckage. It was fast, and the mortician never had a chance.
The silent blue lights pierced through the dark like blades underwater. By the time the old man arrived the driver of the pickup was gone, whisked away to the hospital in a shock-induced painless daze. But he recognized the truck. He knew it. And his heart jumped at the thought of his old friend in a fight for survival. Then he saw the hearse driver, who was so plainly dead and woven between stitches of metal that no one had even bothered to check the corpse for a pulse. And so he remained there. Inside the perimeter, a crew of emergency personnel surveyed the scene and prepared to reopen the roads to traffic, this having gone on long enough. A couple stood outside the perimeter, a young couple in motorcycle gear with worried looks on their faces. The old man had a mind to scold the kids for putting their lives in the hands of a two-wheeled combustion engine, but that wasn’t his place. So instead of prying into the affairs of strangers he gathered a few chains and hooks and prepared the wrecker, his old friend at the forefront of his mind.
But, as he was latching the j-hook to the rear axle of the ruined pickup, something struck him. Or, really, something moved him: a pearl of chemicals wafting over from the loose insides of the mortician and crawling into his nose, a shock that stirred the effect of a punch in the stomach. It was repulsive, like all manner of compost and rotten fruit doused in a stew of malted sewage, then baked beneath a July sun. It was so fierce he began to dry heave, then his heart skipped a beat, then another. “That’s odd,” he thought, but soon forgot about it. A policeman noticed the commotion and began to laugh, but the old man ignored him, too, removing an oily black rag from his pocket and holding it to his nose. The crusty linen was caked with ancient hydrocarbons and smelled like soot and fresh gasoline, an odor he found familiar and machine-like, yet vastly preferable to the rot outside. The tow truck driver tied the rag like a bandana around his mouth and fell to his hands and knees to secure the j-hook to the rear axle. A few yards away he heard the chuckling of a police officer as he completed a report. He saw the worried couple link arms and walk into the deep night, the silhouette of a sport bike with gold piping beneath an orange streetlight. He tasted the drip of bile and lunch at the back of his throat, just now relenting before the commands of his nose and sinuses. He smelled the soot of carbon, rust, and steel, amalgamated by smoke in pockets of flax, some other order of life from a time before him and everyone else, itself a compost of malted sewage, just older. The j-hook latched firmly to the bent axle, which held firm and secure as he gave it a human tug to test the resilience.
After a short drive over a hill surrounded by miles of clear-cut forests, the old man reached a valley with a dark river that snaked through it. To him, this marked the end of the city, the place where the country began and the desperate affairs of urban folk withered before the primacy of calm. He drew the wrecker to a stop at the banks of the river, just downstream from the tow yard itself. He unlatched the ruined pickup and let the vehicle coast slowly into place as a weight began to bear down on his chest. Ignoring this, he thought of his friend, tangled up in a nest of oxygen pumps and medical tubes, the life burrowing desperately into him, clutching some lattice of flesh so as to furnish a pulse. And then a chill crawled up the old man’s spine, terminating at his neck.
He regarded the pickup one last time.
“Fuckin’ shame,” he said. “And such a fine machine.”
Another staggered heart beat, then another…