I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic the past few Thursdays, so as part of my soon-to-be-shortlived #TBT series I’m running some of my favorite flash fiction from the deepest archives of my writing room. Some of them have never before seen the light of day! Today, I give you “An Undertaker Walks into a Bar”, a story I’ve never published but which took first place in a semi-final heat in the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. Enjoy!
AN UNDERTAKER WALKS INTO A BAR
My job’s a total drag. It’s terrible and depressing and I don’t want to do it anymore. I know you don’t want to hear that when you’re surrounded by a maze of cubicle walls and right behind you sits a red-faced boss with his incessant chants for coffee and his impending coronary. I know you won’t feel sorry for me when the pages in your inbox pile up like cobs in a corn crib or when your bare knees scrape across the office carpet as you sort each precious document into a corresponding manila folder.
But you should.
At least you get to work with paper. My medium of choice is corpses. Yes, corpses. These people never stop dying and the bodies never stop coming. They pile up on metal tabletops in the sub-parlor like rigor mortis flapjacks, and those are nothing like the blueberry kind. Believe me.
And the living? They prefer me banished to the dark recesses of this cellar, to shrink away from sunlight and primp and prod and mask and mold these lifeless piles of meat into righteous slabs of granite worthy of personal worship. It’s not easy to put a smile on death everyday. But I do it, and it takes a lot out of me. Much more than, say, filing papers or fixing engines or serving drinks.
I guess it’s not surprising that I’m not the sunniest guy in the world. I try. I’ve even been working on a few jokes I might tell if I’m ever standing in a room without a dead guy in it—because it’s not easy to get laughs when people are huddled around a rotting corpse and Aunt Matilda is blowing trumpets in her tissue. They’re not bad jokes or anything, but I’m no Eddie Murphy. I’m just your average undertaker, I guess, but I’m hoping that’s not all I’ll ever be.
That’s why I emerged from the depths tonight. Why I grabbed the black coat from the coat rack in the main parlor and threw it on over my black suit. It’s why I pushed through the oak doors of the funeral home and into the night.
The sky is starless. A light mist descends from a heavy bank of black clouds. I flip my hood up over my head before my hair gets soaked and turns into scraggly, gray snakes. I hate when that happens because then people think I look spooky, like they’ve never seen a seven-foot man in a black cloak and suit walking down a desolate street before. Sheesh.
The bell in the steeple above St. Benedict’s explodes into midnight and clangs its twelve, measured beats in symphonic collaboration with my boot steps as they echo off the cavernous walls along Race Street. All else is quiet. All else is still, but for a bogged-down reveler slumped against a brick wall at the street corner. He pushes the crown of a bag-covered bottle to his lips. A stream of the amber liquid dribbles down his chin as I approach and my shadow drifts over him and encapsulates his stupor.
When he searches for my eyes hidden deep inside the hood, his cheeks puff out and the drink gushes from of his mouth like a geyser. All over my new suit. Then he starts shouting like a maniac. “I’m not ready! Please don’t take me! I haven’t seen the new Star Wars yet!” My eyes catch the dark reflection of a towering, hooded giant in the darkened storefront behind my new friend. I sigh, because I’ve gotten pretty used to this sort of reception. Apparently people still want to blame the world’s undertakers for all of their problems. So I flip off the hood and watch my reflection transform. One look at my honest, blue eyes and my Tupperware smile and the reveler exhales.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m not taking you anywhere. I just want to know if there’s a place I can get a drink this time of night.” He nods and points down the block to a flashing, neon sign. I squint to read the letters: The Rising Sun. And the dots in the I’s are cartoony, Aztec sun shapes. Cute. “Thanks,” I tell him. “And you’re not missing much with the Star Wars thing.” I hit him with a playful jab on his should with one of my bony fists and he raises his drink. Then he slumps back against the wall and starts snoring before I have my hood back over my head. I wouldn’t be surprised if I run into him again on one of my prep tables. In fact, I’m certain of it. But I didn’t escape my dungeon tonight to keep thinking about work, so I push it to the back of my mind and quicken my pace past lines of hibernating cars and slumbering shops—which are both second cousins of death. Geez, here I go again.
It’s a good thing I’m standing under the twinkling, orange marquee of The Rising Sun or I’d never shake this workingman’s complex I’ve built for myself. Right away I realize I must have driven past The Sun at least a dozen times in my hearse, and never with the top down, so I always thought it was an abandoned warehouse or a homeless shelter or a tool shed or something. During the day it’s just a cold body hidden beneath the pulse of the city. But under the cover of night it comes alive, and a shock of neon feeds the growth of lewd graffiti that crawls like ivy up the whitewashed brick. The faint sting of whiskey and the gritty tones of jukebox Thorogood drift over the transom and into the street.
I split the double doors like I just arrived in Tombstone. My face pushes through a plume of secondhand smoke as thick as cheesecake and emerges on the other side to a barroom of blank stares and stubbly faces. Half-lit cigarettes hang from half-open mouths. The record screeches in the jukebox and the place falls silent until a fork drop from a patron’s shaky hand and crashes against an empty plate. No one speaks. No one moves. No one breathes. And I have to shake my head under my damp head and cloak because people never change. The second I disrobe and place my gear on the coat rack by the door, the music cranks up to full volume and the drinks get poured and the cigarettes resume their burning.
I slide onto a squatty, iron stool with multiple duct tape repairs on its red, vinyl seat. I order a beer. The bartender, a guy with oil-slick hair and a nametag on his white t-shirt that says ‘Chet’, pushes a full pint glass across to me. “You new here?” he asks, as if seven-foot undertakers walk into this place everyday.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “I needed a change.”
“You won’t find it here, I can tell you that!” The voice is garbled and it cuts through at least six conversations to interrupt me and Chet. At the end of the bar an old curmudgeon clutches the buttons on his wool cardigan and raises a gin and tonic in the air. He takes a swig.
“Don’t mind Larry,” Chet says. “He’s just mad at life.” I raise my glass to that and down half my beer in one gulp. Then I figure, since everyone in this establishment seems to have a pulse, now’s as good a time as any to try one of my new jokes.
“Hey Chet,” I say, “This girl I bumped into said she recognized me from the Vegetarian Club.”
“That’s real nice, pal.”
“But I never met herbivore.” I wait for wild applause but nothing comes. Then Chet’s nose wrinkles and one of his eyebrows raises and he reaches for my empty glass.
“Herbivore,” he says. “Hey, that’s pretty good.” He slides another beer my way and I take a healthy sip.
“It can use a little work.”
“No. I mean it. You keep cracking jokes like that and you might find yourself back here with the bottles like me.” He grabs a wet rag and heads for a secret cleaning mission behind the face of an antique cash register with brass plating and a million keys and levers. I bask in the warmth of the foggy, red lights and listen to cue balls snap corner pockets and feel my pale skin tingle when a paper napkin slides effortlessly from a tabletop dispenser. Then I think about the frozen rays of fluorescent that rain down on sterilized utensils in the sub-parlor and glare off the pallid flesh of the bodies. Always the bodies.
When Chet returns with a coaster for my beer I ask, “Were you serious? About what you said?”
“That depends on what you think I said.”
“I could be a bartender?”
“Sure,” he says. “One today.”
“How about today?” And he starts laughing like that was the best joke I ever told in my life—even better than the herbivore gag. “I’m serious,” I say, and then he suddenly standing upright and he’s struggling for words.
“I….uhhh…I don’t know—”
“I can handle it,” I say. “Trust me.” And then I do this thing I do where I lock eyes with a person and the next thing they know they’re just like Chet—looking at his watch, and then at me, and then at his watch as he casually unties his apron for reasons he’s not aware and moves through the bar’s trapdoor and hands me the apron and stands there like he’s waiting for me to give him a command or something. I don’t know how I do it, but it works.
“Got any tips for me?” I ask.
“Sure,” Chet says in a voice much slower than his own. “Don’t forget the customers. Make good drinks. Keep the place clean.”
“Try not to piss anyone off. And we close at sunrise.” Chet turns and wanders toward the door. He reaches for the knob, turns it, and then melts into the sleeping city to travel its unknown streets and pathways. I follow Chet’s lead and take my new post behind the bar and hope to shed my depression like a cloak.
I pour my first beer from the tap, and then one more—as two turns to three, and three turns to four. Then a bottle of chardonnay spills on the floor and what’s more is that bartending is such a chore when a Martini’s sour or the customers glower at you when their cigarette butts go untended because an ashtray was upended by a miserly drunk with a cane and a limp and the gall not to tip after twenty-three rounds of flammable drink and he puked some on the floor and some in the sink and as four runs to five and the moon starts to sink and I call for last drinks—the last think I may entertain these folks is if I finish off the night with one of my jokes.
So I say, “Hey Larry, I know a man who’s addicted to brake fluid.”
“Yeah, he claims he can stop any time.” Then the record screeches in the jukebox and the place falls silent and Larry’s eyes narrow to tiny slits.
“You saying I can’t stop when I want?” he growls. I don’t know what to say and I’m kind of scared so I stand there and wait for someone to defend my honor.
“He didn’t mean nothing by it,” says a chivalrous night seated at the bar.
“Stay out of this, Bob.”
“You gonna make me, Larry?” And as they rose from their stool and their faces moved to within inches of each other and a circle of eager patrons formed around them, I though of one of Chet’s tips: Don’t piss anyone off.
Then Larry clocks Bob right in the jaw with a right cross and I’m pretty sure I see a tooth fly past me. The barroom erupts like a box of fireworks. A wooden chair cracks over the back of a slumped-over brawler and splinters into toothpicks. A body crashes into a table and the glasses explode in a shower of diamonds. The front of Bob’s shirt is drenched in blood and all I can do is stand behind the bar and wish I was back in the cellar with the bodies. The dead ones.
The brawl kicks up and swirls into a violent sandstorm of fist and elbows that demolishes every square inch of The Rising Sun before it spills into the street. I rush out there just as the morning light peeks out from under the horizon and as Bob cracks a beer bottle on the bumper of a parked car and holds the jagged edge to Larry’s throat. And with one flick of the wrist and a dignified stream of red, the night gives way to day.
It’s closing time at The Rising Sun. Time to grab my cloak from inside the door and kill the buzz of the overhead neon and bolt the doors shut for good. The rain has stopped but it’s chilly , so I flip up the hood and the rind of onlookers parts like a see as I glide toward them and take one giant step over Larry’s body. Another body. I shake my head under my clock. “Well, I’ve got work to do,” I say to no one in particular. Then I head back to the depths, because that’s where I belong.