Dennis Must is the author of two novels: The World's Smallest Bible, Red Hen Press, Pasadena, CA (2014), and forthcoming Hush Now, Don't Explain, Coffeetown Press, Seattle, WA (October, 2014), plus two short story collections: Oh, Don't Ask Why, Red Hen Press (2007), and Banjo Grease, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000). His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He resides with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. For more information, visit him at dennismust.com. This is his third appearance in Amarillo Bay.
"Jess, did you happen to see Tom?"
"Yes, ma'am. He was wearing his summer straw."
"Oh, downtown was he? Shaking hands with the passersby?"
Best she fabricate pictures in her own mind, their handyman thought, for that morning, as the sun rose over Sixth Street Bridge, he'd witnessed Tom Hubbard veer his black Packard Phaeton into the Allegheny River. Attired in a straw hat, stiff white collar, and regimental braces like he was out for a Sunday drive, the mortician sat stoically poised, hands on the wheel as the automobile drifted toward the Ohio—the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela one hundred yards south at Gateway Point.
When the policeman showed up at the door, she listened in shock to him.
"I hollered, Mrs. Hubbard, I swear I did. 'Tom, God Almighty, Tom, jump out!' He didn't move a muscle, kept staring at the road—except now it was the river road—and the water rising up his cheeks. Then his boater floated into the Packard's backseat.
"It was the most peaceful passing I've ever witnessed. Tom always admonished the survivors of the loved ones he buried, 'We'll all be showing up in that splendid land one day.'"
Oh, she'd heard her husband repeat it so many times. So often that she believed it too. "But why did he go alone?" she wept. "Why didn't he take me along?"
Tom had always provided the answers.
# # #
It wasn't the tranquil suicide but metaphor of the joining rivers that haunted me.
Years earlier I'd taken a high school aptitude test.
The warp and woof of eager fatalism our parents and ascendants had sustained was being given the lie by science, we were advised: "This multiple-choice examination pretty accurately suggests what occupation or career you are most likely suited for," the high school principal said to those of us who weren't going on to college, a destination in those days for only a handful of students, mainly the offspring of doctors, bankers, lawyers, and mill owners.
The day he summoned me from class to discuss the results, I passed Larry Murtaugh, who wore a big shit-eating grin. "I'm gonna be a pilot!" he whispered while taking his seat. Fred Alexander spread the word that he was suited to be a train engineer.
My father dipped dinner plates in glaze vats for a living. His father painted crosses on church steeples, and my maternal grandfather had served time in Leavenworth Penitentiary for railroad theft before making a living raising roosters for cockfights. The prognosis wasn't so bright for me and my kid brother, Jeremiah.
"Ethan, I've gotten the results back from your test. Please sit down."
The principal wore a severe mien.
"Yessir, Mr. Hennessey."
Was I going to buy a tenor saxophone from Donati's Music Store, because I was destined to join Harry James's band on the Hotel Astor's roof garden in New York City? Would I catch the next train to Hollywood? Or maybe after graduation I'd run for City Council, since I was marked to be elected our dink town's mayor?
"Son, the test can't predict with absolute certainty the one occupation a student is best suited for following graduation. Generally it suggests that, say, you could be an auto mechanic or a shoe salesman. But in your instance the graphs all point to one career."
"What is that, Mr. Hennessey?"
"A mortician," he replied.
"A funeral director, Ethan. It's your God-ordained calling."
Back in the classroom my friend, Pete LaRosa, anxiously looked up at me. He was next to be called in.
"What is it, Mueller?"
"Actor," I lied.
He shot me a thumbs up signal.
I didn't tell a soul except my mother. "Ma? I mean, what kind of answers did I give that indicated I should end up burying stiffs the rest of my life? Jesus, what the devil was the test reading?"
"Your subconscious," she replied.
The paper Principal Hennessey handed me read: "The purpose of the aptitude test is to facilitate your fast track toward a happy and productive life." Mortician was circled in carmine.
Embalming the deceased and having a happy life seemed more like sarcasm to me. Furthermore, in church I'd listened to Reverend Rose in his black garb dourly preach the doctrine of predestination.
It all sounded too similar.
Years later, one holiday night while Jeremiah, who had grown into a handsome, strapping male of twenty-two, and I lay in our boyhood bed, he confided, "Ethan, I'm in love."
I'd heard him say it before but never with such gravity.
"Yeah? Who this time?"
As if a mass of tangled wires had been lying beneath the bed for a decade attached at one end to a light bulb, unlit. For years the wires had remained a mystery.
When Jeremiah muttered, "Glenda," the bulb glowed red.
She was the daughter of May and Tom Hubbard. He operated the ambulance service for the town of Harmony and owned a lovely twenty-room Tudor mansion on North Hill where the well off resided. Outside on its rolling lawn, Hubbard's Funeral Parlor crackled on a lime-green neon sign.
"Jesus Christ, Jeremiah!"
"Oh, she's a beauty," he said.
All I could envision was unclad Glenda Hubbard lying inside an open casket, her alba body illuminated against a backdrop of pink satin and taffeta, a blanket of rosebuds and white carnations pulled down to her ankles by my brother.
But instead of Paterfamilias Hubbard overseeing the idyllic scene, there I was, Ethan Mueller, officiating.
The fucking subconscious, I thought.
"She loves me too, Ethan. I think this is the one."
"What are your plans, Jeremiah?"
"I'm gonna work for her daddy."
"And become a mortician?"
"Can you believe it?" he said.
# # #
A week after Jeremiah passed his licensing exams, Tom Hubbard drowned himself in the Allegheny.
I surmised that in the back of Tom's mind rested the conviction that his earthly estate would continue to flourish under Jeremiah's watch. It still was the finest funeral home in Harmony, boasting the richest clientele, an exquisite Packard hearse with carved mahogany paneling around and under the oblong windows in its viewing compartment, and a brand-new, tomato-red Cadillac ambulance whose siren you could hear in the next county.
Jeremiah was happiest when he was alone in that machine, feral-eyed, barreling it over the country roads as though he were headed for a crackup. I cautioned that he was walking under a ladder. "You're showing disrespect for the sick and dead."
One had to take one's destiny seriously.
Not infrequently he got into laughing streaks around the grim business of embalming and detailing the deceased.
"It's like breathing with halitosis into the face of God," old man Hubbard would rebuke.
Jeremiah would snigger, pretending he was holding back a cough.
I didn't laugh. How could I let on to my brother that his fate was actually mine? And that he was going to be punished for something I'd reneged on?
"Are you interested, Ethan?"
"Now that Tom's passed, I've more work than I can handle. I'd teach you all that you need to know. Even let you drive the ambulance."
"You must be kidding."
"Well, soon most of this establishment will be mine . . . and I'd be more than willing to share it with you. I'll marry Glenda and one day we could get a new neon sign out there that says Mueller Brothers Mortuary. Whadaya say?"
Larry Murtaugh actually had become a pilot. Following graduation he joined the Air Force and was shot down by the Japanese over Guadalcanal.
I worked in the local steel mill as a night watchman, the 12 a.m. to 7 a.m. shift. It gave me the afternoons off to go trout fishing in the summer, deer hunting in the fall. I read a lot too, owned a battered DeSoto coupe, and occasionally I'd meet an old female acquaintance from high school for a night at the cinema. It was a good enough life.
"I can't do it, Jeremiah."
"Why? You'd wear tailor-made suits like me, meet some of the better women folk in town . . . for I tell you, Ethan, we're more popular than preachers and priests, 'cause we got real money in our trousers instead of lint."
I didn't want any part of it.
"Give me one reason why you won't take me up on my offer?"
"It's Tom Hubbard," I lied again.
"Man don't take his life like he might a Sunday drive," I said.
My kid brother looked glum.
"He'd everything a person could wish for, Jeremiah. Mansion on a hill, fleet of the finest automobiles for counties around, fine looking wife in May, and a nymphet of a daughter in Glenda—you lucky ass—and a steady supply of customers. He even drank bourbon like you and me. Nothing missing from his life as far as I could see."
Jeremiah didn't say a word, but tramped out into the garage where the hearse, family limousine, flower car, and the fin-tail ambulance sat gleaming. Early every morning he'd hose each one of the vehicles down, then towel them dry—the ambulance doors hanging wide open with its radio blaring music. When finished, he'd grab a cup of coffee from the hot plate he'd rigged up by the metal table where he washed and prepared the bodies, then slide onto the red leather ambulance seat to relax.
"I think my best thoughts in here," he once told me. "It's where I get all my good ideas, too."
# # #
Weeks after my refusal to accompany him for "the rest of his life in the mortuary trade," my brother gave May Hubbard the sad news.
He never told me why.
Jeremiah placed the mortuary's set of keys on the vestibule stand, the one where a packet of his business cards lay for the mourners: Hubbard's Funeral Parlor, Jeremiah Mueller, Director. Alongside in a sealed envelope, a note to May. Tom never left her one.
I'm grateful for your and Tom's generosity. But I must regretfully decline this opportunity, the likes of which I'm certain will never pass my way again in my lifetime. The heart has its reasons . . . as you sadly have learned. I can't fully understand mine, but it has spoken.
I've left everything just as Tom would have wished.
I loved Glenda and was never unfaithful to her. She will make a fine mortician's wife.
He left no forwarding address and never showed up for the funerals of either of our parents. Before Mother took her final breath, she inquired if I'd heard from Jeremiah.
"I haven't," I replied.
Pap, whom I discovered not long after lying cold under the kitchen table one dawn, knew better than to ask.
I took it all to mean that Jeremiah had come by a circuitous route to the same conclusion I had long ago: that it was best to travel incognito about the land, to lay low—and hope to God your destiny would never catch up with you.
When I replied mendaciously to my classmate, Pete LaRosa, that I'd a certified aptitude to become an actor, I hadn't realized how prophetic I was.
May sold the mortuary, and Glenda married Leonard Perlman, who owned a thriving jewelry and appliance store in downtown Harmony. Once a year or so, I'd pass her on the street. She'd demurely nod, never stopping to inquire about my brother.
I could tell she missed him, because she wore the wan complexion and muted attire of a widow. Jeremiah and she had made love in the damnedest of places in the mortuary, he'd confided, whenever the spirit moved them. Many a time they rendezvoused in the gray upholstered interior of the hearse with all its discreet lighting and gold-plated screw-downs for the caskets, the ambulance radio accompanying them.
"You can't take this business too serious, Ethan," he opined. "Like our old man dips dinner plates into vats of glaze before they are fired in the kilns? Well, this here ain't much different. I hose down the corpses, perm their hair, add blusher to their yellowing cheeks, fix a smile on their lips, add some gloss to those, and shroud them in mourning weeds . . . prior to shoveling loam in their faces."
But if he really believed that, he wouldn't have run away. Nor would he have returned as he did.
I couldn't even bring myself to embrace him in his blue blazer with monogrammed buttons, a stiffly starched white oxford shirt with onyx cuff links, a regimental silk tie. His trousers and shoes were blanketed by baby's breath and yellow rosebuds.
They said he'd run a good mile through a field of dry grass in Iowa. Not making a sound. As if he'd planned to run to eternity and was never going to drop until he saw the Ohio.
At some point he must have.
The note accompanying him read: "I watched him trot like a mustang through that meadow, the fire leaping out of his pant legs and dripping off his hands like water into the dry stubble; it snaked across the meadow, that flame keeping right up to him, never getting ahead of him, trailing him as if it was how he ordained it."
Until he collapsed.
"It was as if a small aircraft had dropped out of the sky. How it all seemed to me when he stopped.
"Like the skeleton of the fuselage began crumbling under the intense heat, and the sides started to fold into the light.
"I can tell you one thing, mister, this brother of yours wasn't afraid. He wasn't screaming, trying to flee from somebody . . .
"Nossir. He knew where he was headed."
At the train station I helped slide his casket into the red ambulance, resisting Mr. Osgood's urging to have him transported in the black Phaeton hearse.
"We aren't conveying him to the hospital, Mr. Mueller," he chastened.
"I know," I said. "It would make him happy if you switch on the radio to some dance-band music."
"Oh, good Lord, I'd never do that!"
"Fine. But do you mind if I accompany him to the grounds?"
"Not in the least," he said.
That gray morning I lay alongside his bier in the ambulance compartment, whistling. We passed Perlman's Jewelry and Appliance and our old schoolhouse. The Tudor mansion on the hill, now Osgood's Bereavement Home. Finally into the countryside, where acres of corn rippled green for harvest. We were cruising now.
Jeremiah and me, sailing down the Ohio . . . headed home.