Seana Graham

THE LIVING

           Roy’s Drive-Thru Burgers had at one time earned Roy a decent enough living, but first one of the fast-food chains had come in the next town over, and then the interstate had been built, cutting off the once thriving town of Allensford forever. The only visitors who came to Allensford on purpose now were hunters. It was hunters who were responsible for the day that everything changed.

           Roy had been sitting at the drive-up window on a fall afternoon, waiting for business. More just sitting than waiting, really, as he hadn’t had a customer since ten that morning. But the swivel chair at the window had the best view, and there seemed little point in moving anywhere else.

           A black Hummer drove past, then came to a halt right there in the middle of the road. After a few long moments, it did a frantic, tire-burning reverse and then swerved up to Roy’s window. A big elk was tied to the roof of the vehicle but appeared to be coming loose. Now, that’s the way accidents happen, Roy thought. But it turned out that one already had.

           “Can you tell me where the nearest emergency room is?” asked the driver, sweating and pale. At first glance, Roy thought that maybe the man had lost some blood—he looked that bad. This guy shouldn’t be driving, he thought. But his pal in the passenger’s seat looked, if anything, worse.

           “You won’t find any emergency room in these parts. Nearest hospital’s thirty miles away. I’m a paramedic, though. Took the training. What’s happened to you?”

           “Me? No, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s him.” And he nodded his head toward the backseat, though Roy noticed how he took pains not to look directly back himself. Roy opened the drive-thru window a bit further and leaned out. This put him in a little closer proximity to the lolling head of the dead elk than he liked, but he overcame his slight twinge of revulsion and peered into the car. In the shadows of the backseat, he could just make out a third person. Roy stepped down off the high swivel chair and reached up and grabbed his emergency medical kit from the shelf where he kept it handy for kitchen fires and other catastrophes and went out to the car. He half-expected them to tear off again in their panic before he reached them, but they seemed to have realized that they’d run out of options.

                        “Let’s take a look. We can call in the MEDEVAC if he’s really in as bad shape as all that.”

           But when he opened the door to the backseat and peered in, he saw that the man was in a little more than bad shape. In fact, he was dead. Roy took his pulse, though more to assure the others that he knew what he was doing than because he had any doubts on that score. For one thing, when he pulled away the hunting jacket that had been used to staunch the blood, the guy had a hole blown out of his gut. He wondered which of the others had shot him.

           “No need of any emergency room at this point. I’m sorry, fellas, but your friend here has passed.” They both looked around then, all right. The one in the passenger seat started crying.

           “He’s our guide, not our friend,” the driver said, his own voice shaky. “Which is why we can’t find our way the hell out of this place.”

           “What happened, hunting accident?”

           “I guess so,” the fellow said. His friend got out of the car and walked unsteadily over to the edge of the asphalt, where he promptly bent over and puked.

           “Is he the one who shot him, then?” Roy asked, nodding sympathetically.

           “Shot him? Nobody shot him.” He seemed incredulous that Roy could leap to such a conclusion, though it was the obvious one to draw.

           “Beg pardon, but someone did.”

           “No—I mean, Griffith shot himself. We were trying to get the elk stowed when Griffith said he needed to take a leak. He went off and before too long, we heard a shot. At first we thought he’d had some luck. We had our hands full, so we didn’t go to investigate at first. But by the time we were finished he still hadn’t come back, so we went to see what had happened. Found him lying on top of his gun. He must have tripped. But he was alive, and he was still alive by the time we got him back to the car. At least, I think he was. We’ve been talking to him, telling him everything was going to be all right this whole time.” He watched as his friend came back wiping his mouth and looking generally wretched. “Jesus, what are we going to do?”

           “Well, there’s not a whole lot of point in moving him any further now. County coroner just happens to live about fifteen minutes from here. I’ll give him a ring. See if he can pronounce death and get you on your way.”

            They both nodded, shell-shocked. Griffith might be dead, but they still seemed in need of a guide. It appeared that Roy had been appointed.

           “Why don’t you fellas come on in? I don’t suppose you should wash up just yet, seeing as how there’s been a death and all, but you can have a cup of coffee while I make the call. Fresh-brewed.” And then, though it went against his inclination, “On the house.”

***

           The coroner came, followed in short order by the sole squad car on duty that afternoon. The hunters, Carl and Howie, turned out to be brothers. They gave statements and then took the cops back to the scene of the accident. On their return, Officer Leonard told Roy that it all seemed to have happened pretty much as they’d said it had. It looked as though Griffith had tripped over a tree root, possibly too intent on his quarry to watch where he was going. For the moment, anyway, the brothers appeared to be in the clear.   

           There remained the problem of what to do with Griffith’s body—not to mention that of the elk. The brothers had lost all interest in their trophy, and asked Roy if he knew anyone who could take it off their hands. The idea of carrying a corpse on the top of their car for a hundred miles had become unappealing.

           Roy told them that his son-in-law Russell could butcher the elk for them, pack it in ice so it would travel, but they rejected the offer. They had apparently lost their taste for game. Carl told Roy that this was their first hunting trip for anything bigger than duck, which was why they’d hired a guide. As Roy helped Russ wrestle the elk off the car, he had to admit that the whole experience was putting him right off meat himself.

           “You all want to take a picture of yourselves with it before I cart it off?” Russ asked cheerfully.

           “No thanks,” Carl said hastily. Howie looked as though he might be sick again.  

           “Russ isn’t what you’d call the most sensitive soul,” Roy apologized after his son-in-law shrugged and went home to get his knives. Russ was planning to butcher the elk out back, regardless of who ended up with the meat. “I suppose Griffith’s family might like some kind of remembrance, though, seeing as it was his last trip.” Roy said. But he paused, unable to think what that might be.

           “Oh, I have a picture already—right here on my camera.” Carl said.

Roy took him into the office, where, after a little fiddling, they were able to download the pictures on to Roy’s computer. They scanned through the photographs quickly until they came to a shot of the two brothers proudly struggling to carry the animal together, and then one of Griffith standing alone by the slain elk himself. He was grinning broadly. It was hard to believe that this had only been a few hours ago.

           “Shit,” Carl said. “It was all going so well.”

           Though maybe not so much for the elk, Roy thought, as he turned the printer on to make a copy.

***

           The coroner took him aside with a somber look. “We got a bit of a problem, Roy.”

           “What’s that?” He still wouldn’t have been too surprised to find out that one of these chuckleheads had shot Griffith.

           “We’re full up at the morgue over in Weaverville. That family boating accident last Sunday? Won’t be releasing the bodies until after the weekend. Means having to take this one all the way to Bangor for the autopsy.”

           “Well, it’s not like he’s going to mind, is it?”

           “No, I guess not. Trouble is, they’ll have to send a van and it might take awhile. Might be the rest of the weekend, in fact.”

           “Like I said—I think his business will keep.” Roy was surprised to find the situation bringing out this streak of mordant humor in him.

           “Yeah, but he won’t. That’s the problem. It won’t be too long now before he starts to get a little ripe.”

           “Jesus,” Roy said.

           “Yeah,” the coroner said. “Worst part? Widow’s flying in sometime late tonight. I don’t like to think of her finding him in that condition.”

           “No,” Roy said.

           They both looked through the window at Griffith, who was lying peacefully now on a table in the back of the restaurant. The room hailed from an era when Roy used to do graduation parties and children’s birthdays. It was a long time since it had been used for anything at all. In fact, it had taken a while for Roy to remember where he’d put the key. Thinking about all that reminded him of something.

           “You know, I’ve got that second walk-in out back. Never use it—never have—I bought it just as business went south, wouldn’t you know? But it still works perfectly well. He should keep just fine in there once we get it up and running—we can adjust the temperature to whatever you say.”

           “And you really wouldn’t mind?” the coroner asked.

           “What’s to mind?” The truth was, this was the most excitement Roy had seen in a long time.

           “Well, that would be great. And I think we can send these boys on home. Police know where to find them . . . Pardon my saying so, but they both seem pretty useless.”

           Roy didn’t reply, but privately he had to agree.

           The widow flew in to the airport over at Presque Isle and then took a cab that brought her to Roy’s by around eleven. The coroner had told Roy that she was a writer, even a famous one. Roy recognized her name—it was different than Griffith’s—though she didn’t write the kind of book that he would be likely to read. Stepping out of the cab in her nice linen suit and Italian heels, she looked like someone from another world all together. He offered her a cup of coffee from the ‘Bottomless Pot’ featured in his ads. Bottomless pot? Bottomless pit,more like. Even with all that had happened today, financial ruin was never very far from his mind.

           It turned out that she’d been in the middle of a book tour, which was one reason for the glamorous look. When she’d had a chance to gather herself, she asked to be taken to see her husband. Roy hadn’t quite figured out how to tell her that Griffith was in the walk-in freezer. Well, he supposed she’d see that for herself soon enough. He and Russ had shifted him out there once they’d made sure it still worked. Roy’s daughter Gwen had brought in some fresh flowers just to disguise the fact of what it was a little. A little was about right. He was glad that at least it had never been used for meat.

           The widow gave him an odd look when they came to the unit, but she forgot about all that when Roy opened the door and she saw Griffith lying there among the flowers. “I’d like to be alone with him a minute,” she said, without looking back at Roy, though he nodded anyway. Wanting to give her some privacy, he started to pull the door shut after her, but stopped. It had been a funny old sort of day. He didn’t want to add to its oddness by accidentally locking the widow of the deceased into an airless room with no windows. So he left it propped open with a wedge of wood and then moved discreetly away. If she said any final words to her husband, Roy didn’t hear them. He thought he heard her cry a little—not all that much. 

            After she came out, she and Roy went back to the restaurant and she sat with him in one of the booths for a while.

           “Grif and I had sort of drifted apart—maybe you can tell,” she said. “All the same, I’d like to do right by him. See him off in style, if you know what I mean.”

           Roy didn’t exactly, but he nodded anyway. “Well, the van should come in from Bangor tomorrow. After they finish the autopsy, I expect you can take him wherever you want.”

            “Oh, I’m not taking him.”

           “You’re not taking him?” The thought of Griffith staying in the walk-in indefinitely while others wrangled over what to do with the body made his gut tighten a little.

           “No. I mean, I’m not taking him back to the city. He wouldn’t have wanted that. I think he’d have liked a simple service out here in the wilderness much better.”

           “The wilderness” wasn’t exactly the term Roy would have used, but he saw her point. “That’s fair,” he said. “Only problem is, the funeral parlor in Weaverville is going to be full up. Whole family drowned over the weekend. It was in all the papers.” He caught himself—it wouldn’t have been in any of the papers she knew.    

            “But isn’t there some other place nearby?”

           “Was once.” There had been a lot of things nearby, once. “But no—I’m afraid not.”

           She stood up and paced for a moment. Roy watched her, privately thinking that despite all the day’s rigors, she still looked pretty good. Her dress was only a little rumpled. He hated to think what he looked like now—wrestling dead bodies and elk carcasses all day. Hey, hold up there a second, he thought, catching himself—there’d only been the one of each, and moving them had hardly taken any time at all. But he was tired, and when tired, prone to feeling sorry for himself.

           “You know what I’d really like?” she asked.

            “What’s that?” He realized she must be hungry and groped around for a menu to hand her.

            “I’d like to hold the service here.”

           “Here?” he asked in disbelief. But then he saw it as she would. Burgers and coffee up front, dead body storage and elk butchering out back—all in a day’s work. Providing a small additional service like a funeral wouldn’t seem like such a big deal. Maybe it was the late hour, but at the moment it didn’t seem like such a big deal to him either.

            “I’d pay you, of course. Generously.”

           He nodded, but uncharacteristically, he wasn’t thinking about the money just then. He liked her—maybe even had a little crush on her. He was reluctant to see her go, and if providing a memorial service was a means of keeping her here a while longer, where was the harm?

           At two AM, though, after she’d left for her motel and he’d agreed to it, he lay in bed, sleepless, remembering just where the harm was. A funeral parlor might conceivably moonlight with a lot of other businesses, but a burger joint wasn’t one of them. God only knew what the Gazette over in Weaverville would make of the fact that he’d kept a body in cold storage on the premises. It wouldn’t matter that it wasn’t a freezer he’d ever use for food. No, he’d apparently passed some point of no return here without even noticing he’d gone by.

            Well, what better last act for the business? Hold the memorial service, then close shop and get out. He was maybe getting a little old to be turning a new page, but if there was one thing he understood better right now than he had yesterday morning, it was that he wasn’t dead yet.

            Unlike some.

***

            Griffith’s widow had promised that the funeral would be a small affair. It wasn’t—the restaurant was filled to capacity and they had to set up additional chairs outdoors. Still, Roy didn’t think it was a publicity stunt. A handful of hunters that Griffith had served as guide to showed up, but it was mainly the locals—and mostly women—who turned up, wanting to get a glimpse of her. No one from the media was there, except for a stringer from the Gazette, and Roy was pretty sure Griffith’s widow wouldn’t have contacted the local paper. It didn’t seem like her kind of thing.

            The service was definitely the right thing for a man like Griffith, though. It could hardly be more fitting that over the coffin hung an elk’s head with a twelve-point rack. Russ had shot it last summer. Roy had never cared for trophies of this sort, but Gwen had persuaded him to hang it in the dining area, saying that it was exactly the kind of thing tourists expected to find up here. (What he’d learned a little later, though, was that she’d forbidden Russ to hang one more animal head in her house. Getting Roy to take it was one of those compromises that do occasionally get worked out in a marriage.) And Roy had to admit that it did look very grand over the coffin, maybe even a bit triumphant, as though its species had gotten a bit of its own back over the fallen hunter beneath him.

            Afterwards, there was a barbecue in Griffith’s honor. They grilled the self-same elk that Howie—or was it Carl?—had shot that day. Though certainly neither of the brothers was anywhere in evidence now. Hightailed it, Roy thought. Sometimes he still wondered about what had really happened out there. But he always stopped himself before he got too caught up in speculation. It wasn’t likely anyone was going to turn up anything different now. Best give them benefit of the doubt and be done with it. Rest in peace, Griffith. You’ve had a hunter’s end, at any rate.

***

           Despite the lack of publicity at Griffith’s service, word got out and soon other hunters’ families were calling Roy and requesting this special send-off for their own loved ones. Coronaries and cancer were much more common causes of these deaths than hunting accidents, of course. But perhaps because of the precedent set at that first service, the barbecuing of some sort of game continued to be part of the package. Roy or Russ usually manned the grill, though Roy was increasingly unsure of how he felt about that. These days, he was practically a vegetarian, if you didn’t count chicken. But when you got right down to it, he supposed grilling game wasn’t really much different from slinging burgers all those years.

            Hell, Roy thought—it’s a living. And kept the barbecue in.

            The Gazette lampooned it as a gimmick, but even after going into the funeral business, Roy kept the drive-thru window. People seemed to like to drive up and begin the first arrangements from the comfort of their own car. Maybe it felt less scary that way. Maybe it gave them the sense that they could still make a quick get-away. From death? From grief? From him? Roy hardly knew.

           But his own motivation for keeping the window was simple enough. It was just that the chair there was still his favorite, still had the best view of the road. And he liked to look out and see what was coming—or, as was certainly more likely, see what was passing him by.

THE END

- - - - - -

Seana Graham’s short stories have appeared most recently in Ping Pong and Salamander, as well as the recently published horror anthology, Carpathian Shadows, Volume 2. Her story ‘The Pirate’s True Love’ was selected for The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and ‘Marina’ won the seventh annual Zone 3 fiction award. She has also co-authored a trivia book about Southern California. She lives in Santa Cruz, California where she works at an independent bookstore.        

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