The Acolyte and the Undertaker
A brisk wind was blowing, sending scores of dead fall leaves skittering across the pavement one late October afternoon. It was chilly, Bradshaw noted, even for late autumn. The air itself seemed uncharacteristically brisk--alluding, perhaps, to a cold winter coming on. As he trekked the few short blocks from the Sacred Church of Christ to the town mortuary, the wind tore at him from behind, cutting through the thin material of his suit to his skin. He shivered, drawing his suit jacket more tightly around his body in a vain attempt to fend off the chill, as he turned the corner and reached his destination.
Callaway Funeral Home sat on the corner of Blackwater and Chapel Road, not too far from the center of town. Bradshaw straightened his suit--force of habit--as he headed up the steps to the door. There was a light on in the front parlor, which meant that, presumably, the undertaker was still there. At least, Bradshaw hoped he hadn’t left yet. The minister at the church had sent him to the mortuary on late notice with a message for the mortician, regarding one of his parishioners who had recently passed. The viewing of his corpse was set to be first thing the following morning. He only hoped that he hadn’t arrived too late.
Peering in the front window, eyes searching the parlor, Bradshaw saw no immediate sign of life within the mortuary. This meant Callaway, the undertaker, was most likely in the back somewhere--doing what, exactly, Bradshaw preferred not to fathom. A chill tingled at the back of his neck and shot down his spine. Whether or not it was from the cold was entirely debatable. Ascending the stairs to the stoop, he raised a hand to press the buzzer, and waited.
No answer. Bradshaw paused a moment before ringing again, holding the button down longer this time. Still, no answer. Shoot. It’d be just my luck if I missed him. In a last-ditch effort, he opened the screen door and knocked loudly against the heavy wood, calling out.
“Mr. Callaway?” Knock. Knock. Knock. “Mr. Callaway, it’s John Bradshaw, from the church.” Still, no reply came. So it’s come to this, thought Bradshaw. The inevitable. He stepped down from the stoop and paused a moment, considering his next move. Knowing well what it would be, he swallowed hard and forced himself to collect his bearings. If he remembered correctly, there was another door around the back of the building, one that led to the basement and the embalming rooms. Perhaps the undertaker was below somewhere, and he hadn’t heard the buzzer, or the knocking, or Bradshaw’s shouting. (Were it the case, thought Bradshaw, the man might well be deaf.) Was it worth it? He could leave a note on the door. Alas, the minister has asked him to deliver the message in person. Lord, help me.
He made a right turn and headed around the side of the building. As he passed, he glanced at the carport where the long, black Cadillac hearse was parked. He noted that Callaway’s Harley-Davidson Lowrider was parked there as well. An unconventional mode of transportation for an undertaker, thought Bradshaw. But then again, Mark Callaway was not your conventional undertaker. There was nothing typical at all about the man; to say he was unorthodox would have been an understatement.
Around the corner and toward the back of the building, there was a short and steep embankment, and Bradshaw nearly slipped on the slick, decaying leaves as he headed for the back door. He reached for the doorknob, turning it slightly, finding it unlocked and--against his better judgment--let himself in.
The room he found himself in on entering was a dark area sectioned off from the rest of the basement by a cinderblock wall. There was a sink and a large basin opposite where Bradshaw stood, and several ten-gallon buckets full of God-only-knew-what on the adjacent wall. Blood. Organs. Severed hands and body parts, good Lord. A sick sort of dread washed over Bradshaw, his stomach dropping down to his toes. The smell of formaldehyde hit him suddenly, nearly flooring him. I gotta get out of here. He shook his head, steeling his nerves, forcing to the back of his mind the little voice of his subconscious, telling him to run, run and get the hell out of there while he still could. Take it easy, Bradshaw, it’s only a stiff shop. He took a deep breath and ventured further into the darkness.
“Hello?” His voice came out thinner, a little shakier, than he would have preferred. There was a light emanating from the doorway of the next room over, and Bradshaw headed toward it, peering around both corners for good measure before entering. “Anybody down here?” The stench of death and formaldehyde was suddenly pungent, and Bradshaw instinctively raised a hand to cover his nose, only to realize it didn’t help to quell the odor any. “Mr. Callaway?” Still, as before, no answer. There was no sign of the undertaker. The only man in the room--which Bradshaw was quick to notice--was under a sheet on a gurney in the center of the room.
He’d never been that close to a corpse before. Well, an unfinished one, anyway.
He felt the back of his neck prickle, felt the hairs there standing on end. Morbid curiosity, along with simple human nature, quickly got the better of Bradshaw. He took a cautious, measured step toward the table, split-second debating whether or not it might be wrong to take a peek at the dead man beneath the sheet. What could be the harm? He took another step forward, and another, and still another, until he found himself no more than a foot from the table. This, he realized, would be the moment of truth. Dare I…?
He moved his hand toward the top of the sheet, his fingers barely an inch from the dead man--nothing separating him from the body but less than a millimeter of cheap cloth. He hesitated a moment, hand shaking, half expecting the corpse to sit up off the table or something equally absurd should he draw the sheet back. Come on, now, John. It’s only human remains. Get a grip.
His fingers found the hem of the sheet.
And a large, heavy hand promptly found Bradshaw’s shoulder.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s impolite to stare at the dead?” A deep voice boomed out of the darkness at Bradshaw, nearly frightening the poor acolyte out of his skin.
“Sweet Lord Almighty!” He leaped a foot in the air and cried out, whirling on his heel, heart pounding, fear surging through his nerves--feeling immediately foolish the moment he did so. There in front of him stood Mark Callaway, the undertaker--a man of imposing stature--arms crossed over his chest, one dark, pierced eyebrow quirked in question. There was an expression of mild amusement on his face as he eyed Bradshaw, looking down at him as if awaiting an explanation. Presently, Bradshaw was working on regaining the ability to speak.
“Good God,” he gasped. “You…you scared the hell out of me.” He beheld the spectacle of the man before him almost in disbelief--he’d heard tell of the legendary undertaker, but had yet to meet him face to face. To see him up close, he was a sight to behold. Well over six feet tall he stood, with long, jet black hair falling past his shoulders. His massive arms were bare, decorated from shoulder to wrist with tattoos--images of reapers, demons and headstones. Fitting, Bradshaw thought. The man looked more like a wrestling gimmick than a funeral director.
The undertaker offered a smirk in reply as he moved into the room past Bradshaw, removing his heavy leather trench coat.
“Chilly out there, isn’t it?” he remarked, rather offhandedly. “Cold winter coming on.” Bradshaw didn’t answer. Callaway was walking toward the metal sink in the corner, pulling on a pair of purple latex gloves. “You know, you shouldn’t just go around, barging into mortuaries,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re liable to frighten somebody.” Bradshaw suppressed the urge to laugh out loud, maniacally, at this point.
“I knocked,” he replied, “a few times. No one answered, but I saw the light on, and--” He was moving toward the corpse, pulling the sheet back. Bradshaw drew in a sharp breath involuntarily, found himself unable to look away.
The man on the table looked to be in his eighties, shriveled and bearing the pallor of death. He had died with his eyes open, rolled back into his skull so that only the whites were visible. Bradshaw’s stomach did a flip-flop; abruptly, he tasted bile.
“Whew, boy.” The undertaker frowned, just slightly. “Talk about a fixer-upper.” Bradshaw’s mouth went dry.
“I’m sorry?” he managed.
“Nothing a little makeup won’t fix. A few stitches and some tissue glue, if worst comes to worst.” The undertaker shrugged, smiled pleasantly, and turned his gaze toward Bradshaw. “So, who are you, and what can I do for you?”
“My name is John Bradshaw Layfield. I’m the pastor’s new assistant at the Sacred Church of Christ, I believe you’re familiar with Reverend Simmons--” The acolyte trailed off again. The undertaker was pulling the sheet the remainder of the way to the dead man’s waist. Bradshaw’s gaze drifted, unwarranted, to the meticulous Y-shaped incision on the man’s torso. The surgical cut gaped open just enough for Bradshaw to catch a glimpse of stuffing in the man’s hollowed-out insides. “Organ donor?” He had to ask. The undertaker nodded.
“Ever carved a jack-o-lantern?” he asked without skipping a beat. “It’s sort of the same premise.” Reach in with your hand, and pull out all the guts. Bradshaw felt as if he might be sick. “You all right, Mr. Layfield? You look a little pale.” You have no idea.
“I’m fine,” Bradshaw answered, rather unconvincingly. “I’ve been under the weather lately. Must be the cold snap.” He watched as Callaway took a long, hooked needle and a spool of what looked like fishing line from a tray on the counter behind him.
“So, Reverend Simmons sent you over.“ He measured a length of thread, snipped it with a pair of surgical scissors, and threaded the needle. He flipped his dark hair back over his shoulder and bent over the corpse, beginning to close the incision.
“I’m listening. I can work while you talk.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that, Mr. Callaway.” Bradshaw made an odd sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “I’m just questioning my ability to talk while you work.”
“Some of us find ourselves ill at ease among the dead.” The undertaker raised his eyes, lucid green, black-lined eyes that had the look of a man who knew and had seen far too much. His eyes met with Bradshaw’s, and the latter felt as if something had been stripped from his soul, a part of his subconscious perhaps being searched and scanned in ways he’d never fathomed possible. “How do you feel about death, Mr. Bradshaw? Do you fear it?” All right, time to get the hell out of here.
“No,” he answered evenly. “This life is all part of a grander scheme, a single blip on the screen of time and eternity. No, Mr. Callaway, I don’t fear death, because I serve the will of God, and I know when I die, I’ll ascend to His kingdom on high.”
“I admire your conviction,” Callaway seemed impressed. “But are you so certain? What makes you so sure of your fate in the afterlife, other than blind faith?” Suddenly, Bradshaw wasn’t so sure of himself, and it scared the hell out of him.
“Faith is all I need,” he answered quickly. “Now, Mr. Callaway, if we could get back to the matter at hand--”
“Ah, yes. I fear I’ve digressed, and I do apologize.” He offered a sincere smile and continued with his suturing. Bradshaw did his best not to stare at the corpse, its lifeless form being sewn up like some sort of macabre rag doll.
“Mr. James, a close personal friend of Reverend Simmons,’ passed away on Monday, and his viewing is set for early tomorrow morning. His family asked that he be buried with this crucifix and these rosary beads. Around his hand in some fashion, if possible.” He fished the gold crucifix and rosary from his suit pocket, set it on the counter beside the tray of surgical instruments and nodded at it. “They asked that his funeral be held after Wednesday morning services.” The undertaker nodded, glancing up at Bradshaw.
“Done and done,” he answered crisply. He finished his stitching with a flourish, snipped the end of the suture and dropped the needle back on the tray. “Anything else, Mr. Layfield?” He removed his gloves, tossed them in the sink, and turned on the water to wash his hands. Bradshaw glanced down at the corpse on the table again and grimaced.
“Why?” he questioned aloud.
“’Y?’” The undertaker dried his hands and turned from the sink, raising an eyebrow at Bradshaw. “Yes, I suppose that incision there does look rather like the letter ‘Y,” doesn’t it?”
“No, why?” Bradshaw fired the question point-blank. “Why on earth, Mr. Callaway, do you do what you do?” The undertaker smirked, those soul-penetrating eyes violating Bradshaw’s subconscious once more.
“Why do you do what you do?” he countered. “Why are you an acolyte?”
“My purpose,” answered Bradshaw, “is to serve the will of God.”
“I see,” replied the undertaker. “In that case, I suppose my purpose is to serve the dead. Hey, somebody’s gotta get these stiffs presentable to chuck into the Great Beyond. Why not me?” He grinned. “Hey. We’re all put here to serve somebody, right?”
“I guess so,” shrugged Bradshaw. “I guess I just don’t know what to make of an undertaker who enjoys his job so much.” The undertaker chuckled.
“Well, it’s a hell of a line of work,” he said matter-of-factly. “I make a killing.” At the look on Bradshaw’s face, he offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry. Just a bit of grave humor.”
“Please. You’re slaying me, here.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Bradshaw shook his head and laughed.
“On that note,” he said, “I’m afraid I must be getting back to the church. The youth group is having a jack-o-lantern carving at six.” Reach in with your hand…Bradshaw winced. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Callaway.”
“You’re welcome. Say, did you walk from the church?”
“I’ve got to drive into town to pick somebody up. I’ll give you a ride back in the hearse.” Everything about that statement struck Bradshaw as just plain wrong.
“Thank you, sir.” The undertaker grabbed his coat and headed for the door. Bradshaw raised an eyebrow, glancing back over his shoulder toward the gurney. “Wait. What about…”
“Don’t worry about him,” grinned the undertaker. “He’s not going anywhere.”