We’d gotten hung up an extra half-day and which made us late retrieving the body. Us meaning me, and my half-brother Harlan who’d recently turned seventeen. I was three years older, and the house, for better or worse, fell to us. As did our dad’s hard-used, one-ton Chevy flatbed with the homemade driver’s side running board, and those cherry red, spray-painted wheel hubs. The chariot, as he’d dubbed it, and although I hadn’t yet called to double check, he assured us we were flush on the insurance front, registration up to date. Everything still in his name, of course, but ours for the time being to do with what we could, at least until he made early release. I didn’t bring up the issue that one week earlier all privileges had been revoked for reasons thus far undisclosed to us, and serving out his full sentence at Camp Pugsley, a high security corrections facility in the Upper Peninsula, seemed, at least to me, the just and inevitable outcome.
“In the meantime,” he instructed us, “sign no papers. Admit nothing. Choke it back, every last word, and be careful what you say on the phone. The bastards, they’ll be listening, they’ll be watching up close from somewhere, like a goddamn keyhole peepshow.”
Followed by a couple of sideways glances before he leaned closer and whispered his cellblock number, as if revealing the final coordinates needed to mastermind some mission impossible, bust-him-out of prison plan. “I’ll send updates when I can,” he said, and I imagined him pacing his cell in circles as he jotted down notes and codes only his two sons could ever decipher. “But for now you boys put your heads together and figure things out. Fend for yourselves as best you can, whatever it takes, just bear down and do it.”
Heeding his advice, Harlan—unlike me who’d always pulled good grades and attended consecutive semesters at the community college—hated school, and a few years back had fallen a full grade behind. No surprise, given that he’d been truant half the time anyway. And not withstanding my responsibility of being the older sibling, I hinted at but did not outright object when he ditched on his junior year so together, we could jumpstart our new business by dump hauling for a man named Mr. Armentrout. Liberating the contents of a dozen or more storage units, as he described the job, the locks drilled out, and the spring-loaded doors opening slowly above our heads into what looked like the square dark entrances of abandoned mineshafts.
The insides smelled musty and rank, like bats, but nothing exploded into our faces. And once our eyes adjusted, we could see each unit contained little more than another cache of worthless packrat salvage you couldn’t, come hell or high water, ever resurrect or resell, or, for that matter, even give away. Load after endless load. “But sometimes,” Mr. Armentrout said, “every once in a while, a find of a lifetime right there under your nose. A crowning glory,” and which thus far in our lives going forward had gotten us exactly nowhere, the minimum wage he dickered down to barely putting a dent in the growing stack of threat letters and IOUs. And as for that latest patch job on our roof: flattened soup cans and gobs of bucket tar, where the water at its worst geysered down into a rusted washtub.
Not to mention the interminable winter ahead, the propane bills about to triple, and last year’s window plastic shredded and flapping in the late fall wind. Supervising our every move, Mr. Armentrout, his eyes squinty and dime-sized, helped us lift nothing, no matter how heavy or unwieldy. A watcher who shuffled from foot to foot as we dragged or carried every last fleabag item by him for a final inspection, his bare hands buried in his armpits to prevent his fingers from going numb. Occasionally, he’d bend at the waist, stare for a few seconds, shake his head and motion us forward. All business.
One morning first thing, a clapper from a church bell, and half a pew with the cracked, plastic kneeler still attached, and I flashed on how my mom who, for a full week before she secretly vacated in the middle of the night, would stand stock still in front of that deep, upturned claw-footed bathtub, the interior painted a cloudless blue, a shrine without a saint, or a Virgin Mary statue. It’s as if she’d been dazed or struck blind, eyes upraised, and her shoulders stooped like a cursed and wingless bird. And go ahead, tell me I should have gone to her, and you’d be right. I agree. But I was young and frightened, and felt put upon even then to utter words and assurances so foreign to me that trying to comfort anyone I loved might likely have been misconstrued as an act of cruelty.
Not that it changes anything, my lack of faith in miracles, but I did all these years later pray, and pray hard for a bonus for me and Harlan after busting our balls all week without ever once taking a lunch break, or so much as an occasional five-minute breather. But all Mr. Armentrout offered, as we’d wrangled a wooden rowboat heavy with floor rot, and rusted out oarlocks onto the flatbed, was a final nod, a tight-lipped smile, and a “Tally fucking ho, gentlemen, sail it away.”
Which was Harlan’s fantasy exactly, to wherever, as he said, the rivers glowed silver and gold, his head pressed against the rear window as if we’d throttled up and left in our wake that fucked-up defeated feeling of forever finding ourselves flat busted in this steady beat-down of a life, and where, against seemingly insurmountable odds, it might lead us next. Half a step closer to break-even was the way I’d framed it, and then provided Harlan with a detailed run-through of what I’d signed us onto, and how our luck might be fated, finally, to change in our favor.
Like clockwork phase one of the operation, had gone off without a hitch, though you’d have guessed otherwise by the way Harlan sat there close-mouthed, and I said, “You’re up for finishing this, right? What we started? Hey,” and I reached across the bench seat and confiscated the bottle of NyQuil from his hand as he half nodded off, the day already dying into twilight, and the heater laboring under the dashboard.
Eyes half-lidded, he said, “You know I’m no quitter, Jimmy. No way I’m going to fold on this, I’d never do that to you. But I’ve been rehashing the whole thing, and I don’t think we’ve thought it through all the way.”
“And so I vote we shit-can not the whole operation, that’s not what I’m saying. This one gig is all. Just to be on the safe side. Give back the money and be done with it. Not rush into stuff, because this here what we’re doing… it’s loony tunes times a thousand, and my gut feeling—it goes bust it could take us down bad before we ever even get started.”
“Worst case, that’s possible,” I said. “But for starters, stop sipping this shit,” and I rolled down and poured what remained of the Nyquil out the window. “You’ll sleep better without it. Plus, it muddles your mind, and, just so you’re clear on this, we’re sucking wind big time on the cash-flow front. It’s not like we’re in a position to turn away business? And your plan is to do what? Pack it in and forfeit a frigging grand?”
As I’d reminded him a dozen times over already, legal or not, we’d come this far. We’d already dug the grave, and covered it over with sheets of plywood, and tarps to keep snow off the dirt mounds, to keep them from freezing.
“The heavy lifting, it’s behind us,” I said. “It’s all upside from here, a couple more hours max, and boom, we shake free, and for once with some half-decent scratch in our pockets.”
“To Miami you mean? Or Corpus Christi like we talked about? Getting out of here for the winter for once? See the ocean, what it looks like? Maybe get a whole new start on this frigging life?”
“Depends, but yeah, there’s a decent chance of that,” I said, “but first things first, so just center back for a second. First off, we gave our word, correct? And we’ve been paid up front, in full, and so, if it’s all the same to you. I get what you’re saying, but I’m telling you straight up, no one’s going to find us out, or throw down on us. No one involved wants that. No one.”
“And if he’s still kicking? What then? What if this whole deal goes psycho, and you and me we end up in pieces in some planter or backyard compost pit? What makes you so sure he’s even dead?”
“Whoa,” I said, “slow it down? Take a deep breath, Harlan. The old boy stopped eating days ago. That’s a fact. Wouldn’t last the week is what I was told, and that timeline, it’s already expired.”
“Meaning the funeral’s on us? What in God’s name do we know about that?”
“Well, for one, it’s called a green burial. It’s simple. Cost effective for all parties, including us. You probably don’t remember, but there was a segment on ‘60 Minutes’ about it a while back.”
“More like ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not,’’ he said, “and I don’t mean to throw a damper on things. But . . . ”
“It’s a little out there, fair enough. But trending—that’s the word they used. Catching on, and more to the point it’s what he wanted. It’s what we fell into, and it’s going to give us a leg up, change everything. Economics 101, Harlan, you follow the money, and money makes more money. It’s called investment capital, and one way or another, somewhere along the line, there’s going to be some risk involved, like it or not. It’s the way it works so don’t kid yourself. Circumstances set the terms, not me, okay? Plus, it’s what she wants too when her time comes, to be laid to rest right there beside him. Sixty-three years married, and still fanning the flame.”
“Right. A follow-up customer, a repeat,” Harlan said, nodding like some bobble head, shoulders hunched and hands folded in his lap. “And all we have to do is what, hang around, and keep checking until she kicks the bucket too? This whole thing, no kidding, it flat out spooks me. We’re not talking pet cemetery here. Hell, I’d volunteer to hang the collars and dog tags from the crosses, free of charge, but to dispose of a human body this way it’s stupid crazy. It’s asking for trouble. Like digging our own graves. Why not just have him cremated, and spread the ashes out back? That’d make a hell of a lot more sense all around, wouldn’t it?”
“It’s not what they want. It’s not why they hired us. They’re farmers for fuck’s sake, and his final wish—his last living-breathing request on this earth was to be buried on his own land, behind the very house in which he was born. Who knows how many sites are back there? No neighbors for miles, nobody nosing around. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their call, their gazillion goddamn acres of cow corn and sugar beets to do with whatever they please. Maybe I’m missing something, but where’s the crime in that? To work and live to a ripe old age and lie down happy? Seems harmless enough to me.”
“Well, you’re not the law,” he said, “and this isn’t petty, small claims-court bullshit either,” and he snapped open the glove box and reached for his pack of smokes, and what remained of the jumbo pretzel he’d shoplifted that morning from the 7-Eleven, his idea of cutting costs, another dinner on the run, minus the toppings.
I’d known him since the summer he turned five, and came to visit but stayed for good, and he hasn’t, not a single time since then, seen, or heard from his birth mother. Lexi Beach, if you can believe her. Probably faked up, though anyone speaks that name within earshot, the sound reminds me of how certain thunderstorms fly in under the radar, only to rumble and spume as they pause just long enough to piss down on their way through. On those like us, as our dad would say, been wronged so long it’s just another day on planet earth. I’m no crusader, got no dog in the fight. I’m just stating facts, and hedging our bets, wherever, and however we can, and not balk at a high-stakes gamble or two that might just provide us some traction.
Second week of November, that’s when our ad first appeared in the classifieds, along with a couple dozen others, snowplowing and the like, furnace repair, the usual suspects looking to drum up some action. I checked to be sure our contact information was correct, and envisioned potential customers circling our ad with red Magic Markers. Long hauls, short hauls, regardless the cargo. Family-owned and operated, and servicing round the clock, eight days a week, satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. Carrying capacity whatever the axles could bear. I waited by the phone, shuffled numbers in a spiral notebook that never added up, tweaking an already pared-back budget, and finagling and recalculating as best I could, how to pay down our inherited and forever-mounting debts. Exactly like I’d do most Sunday mornings while Harlan slept.
My thinking is basic, and direct: you live on a shoestring long enough, consider it a rope thrown over the garage rafter, and trust me, going forward you’ve got no room to be choosy, no recourse but one. You roll the dice. You dig a hole, simple as that. No pleasantries exchanged, no questions asked, other than an address we’d located on a county map: pines, and fenced-off fields, and a mailbox with a raised red metal flag, and inside, a sealed envelope containing ten newly minted hundred-dollar bills. A dead-end gravel road, the one and only house, no visible name or street numbers, case closed.
“Here, go ahead, count it,” I’d said, and switched on the dome light so Harlan could see the cash with his own two eyes, feel the heft of it between his fingers. “Think of it as reward money for having balls enough to do the right thing, the decent thing. It’s not a lot to answer for, Harlan,” but he only intensified his steely, straight-ahead stare as the windshield slowly ghosted over. He does that sometimes, detaches and drifts into some deep recess where I can’t reach him, his jaw set tight.
He’s smart, intuitive, and I confess that his silence that night did, for an extended couple of minutes, make me reconsider the outcome if we did tip over some line we couldn’t get back from. Like our dad, the maestro of brainstorms gone bust. Most recently the armed robbery conviction two towns over, an unregistered handgun, found on his person, and introduced into evidence as Exhibit A. Unloaded, as the public defender argued, no one harmed, no shots fired. And yes, a slew of misdemeanors, no argument there: DWIs, a drunk and disorderly, but for the record, no prior felony convictions or long-term incarcerations, though either way, guilty as charged. Bottom line, we’re talking serious time. I was there, in the courtroom, our dad wearing an orange jumpsuit, boots unlaced, shackled and cuffed. No admission or denial of guilt, no plea deal to consider, no visible remorse, or total bullshit, pity-play statement hoping for leniency. And as two-headed and naive as it might appear—given our family history—I’ve since doubled down praying that somewhere along the line those same anger genes might go dormant, skip a generation or two, and then give up the ghost for good.
I’m named after him, James Willis Shotwell Jr. Same sharp features, broad shoulders, and standing back-to-back in our bare feet, we’re both pushing six-foot-two, not to mention that same thick, shiny black mane combed straight back. Harlan, not so much, red-haired, and wiry like a greyhound, a hundred thirty-five pounds max, and so skinny as a kid that shower-curtain rings would have wobbled loose on his forearms. Add to that, dyslexia, according to the school guidance counselors, the alphabet like some demonic, indecipherable concoction invented to jumble-up and short circuit the brain waves of misfits like him. Even now spit bubbles sometimes form on his lips when he tries to pronounce certain words. Though never in front of me who ten years ago extracted from his left retina two deer ticks with my mom’s left-behind tweezers. He’s trusted me in all matters, and in our household, from the day he arrived, I’d been his go-to, his protector, and, as I said, even if that includes eye surgery on the cheap.
Cross threads, that’s what the old man calls us. Same stud, he says, different breed mares, and it’s jokes like that I find infuriating, and sometimes I’d dead-eye him, glance over at Harlan, and exit the room. Any wonder why I never invite a woman back to the house? Leastwise not when he’s around.
But enough of that: I’d sealed the deal, taken the bait, as Harlan said, the bribe, bottom feeders, bloodsuckers, and returned with the same two shovels and pickaxe. Exactly as I’d promised we would, and the flatbed moving slowly in reverse, as if towards a loading dock, the porch light on, but the house otherwise semi-dark, and the front door already opening, the breeze gusting up and a woman’s hair as fine and white as snow. I killed the engine, locked down tight on the emergency brake, and said, “All set?” and Harlan, without a hitch, or hesitation, said back, “As long as he isn’t riding up front with us, I guess,” and I said back, “Come again?”
“That’s right,” he said, like he’d gone rogue, total last-second nutso, and I squared on him and said, “This isn’t a school night, Harlan, remember? So rein it in. Tune it out. Don’t bargain this away. Not now. I can’t do it alone, so meet me halfway, and help make it happen, okay? Exactly like we drew it up, and we’ll talk about it later.”
“Right, run it by the boss after the fact,” he said.
“First of all, I’m not your boss. I’m your brother. And under the circumstances, I’m just piecing this together as we go, hoping for the best. Apart from that, Harlan, fuck if I know.”
Just a week prior we’d driven into the back field to the burial site for the first time per our instructions, through the open gate, where we located a single, tiny, plastic red flag, marking the burial site. Measured both length and width, and then dug nonstop, trading off every ten or fifteen minutes. Easy digging. No sizeable rocks, or other obstructions, meaning no blown out tractor tires, or the decomposing ribcage of a cow. And the weather on our side for a change, though for days afterward I’d replay, over and over, how the low-hanging intermittent moon had illuminated Harlan’s face every time he straightened, and then, half submerged, heaved the dirt over his shoulder, each labored breath a slow-motion vapor that lifted and disappeared like spirits rising from the lips of the dead. The few times he squatted, out of sight, I wondered, would I ever see him again?
But there we were, getting out of the truck, and I braced myself just in case as we climbed the steps, and entered the foyer, me taking the lead, as if in another life I’d been there, a kind of déjà vu, and Harlan drafting close behind, and the old woman, reaching for the wall switch, said, “Through there, to your left. Into the parlor.”
The room, high-ceilinged, felt chilly, morgue-like I imagined, a cold draft seeping in from somewhere, and, on the floor, a simple, unadorned pine box, a lacquer finish so dull it reminded me of silt, as if the coffin might have floated up from underwater. The lid was in place but not yet nailed shut, the silver heads protruding a few inches, and half a dozen thin red candles on a sideboard, the flames wavering back and forth, and the shiny brass hands of a clock ticking on the mantelpiece.
A private, last-minute viewing for the hired help, I thought, and pictured the deceased’s head on a favorite pillow, the suit he’d chosen to wear, a portrait of her, a young woman in an oval frame, a rosary looped through his folded hands and fingers, and the tips of his best Sunday shoes pointed heavenward. I knew he’d built the casket himself, planned it a year in advance, as his wife had informed me. No velvet or satin, two wrought iron grips to hoist him upward, and down, bare bones all the way.
When I turned to her, without a word, she cleared her throat, and, through the fine spidery lace of her veil, said, barely above a whisper, “Yes, if you would, thank you,” and, dressed all in black, she handed me a hammer, and Harlan, improvising on the spot, put a knee down, and, with both hands, steadied the coffin while I did the rest.
Then we squatted and lifted from opposite sides like pallbearers, and, had it seemed fitting, or part of the agreement, we would have humped all the way to a canopy erected above the empty grave, and a daughter, perhaps, or a son, holding a Bible, and a favorite passage or two for those invisible, shadowy, faraway mourners of the night.
But we stayed on contract, our footfalls as light as possible as we padded from the house, across the doorsill, and where the porch boards creaked under our weight. “On three,” I said, and in perfect sync we listed forward and sidestepped onto the flatbed. No need for any straps or tie-downs, just a gradual U-turn from driveway to field, hearse speed ahead, and, in the rearview mirror, a miles long procession of emptiness. Behind us, I swear I heard a sliding deadbolt click into place.
“We’re good?” Harlan said. “For real? Holy shit, amen to that,” and, unless she’d sneaked out the back door on a beeline to beat us there, I figured we’d keep the engine running, and the low beams shining like floodlights as we lowered the coffin, and speed-shoveled and tamped the dirt down until the ground felt flat. No granite headstone to leverage and level into position, no engraved name or dates or epitaph that might in some way I hadn’t considered later implicate us in any of this.
There and gone, a high-five and a couple cold ones for the drive home, and so when we got stopped just east of town, on the far side of Kids Creek, I felt that same prickle in the small of my back whenever our dad poked me with his index finger, and said, “Stick ’em up.” And we’d both laugh, blood being blood, but there sat Harlan, scrunched low in the seat, pinching off the lit end of his Lucky Strike and cupping the butt in his palm, as if he’d been smoking weed. And my only thought, welcome to Kiss My Ass it’s been that kind of day, one more fuckup of a breakaway milestone not meant to be, and a long-lost bail bondsman cousin or uncle nowhere listed on the family tree.
I rolled down the window, though the sheriff’s department deputy took his sweet time, running the plate numbers, I figured, a traffic cop waiting for backup before approaching to pat us down and read us our Miranda rights, the two of us in handcuffs, the charge, in addition to who knew what else, unlawful internment.
No siren blaring, but his flashers stayed on, and I switched off the ignition, the gas gauge on empty, and gripped the steering wheel with both hands, where he could easily see them. Above us, I could hear the high-tension wires crackle and buzz, and up ahead, surrounding the four-way stop on Route 27, that scatter of small businesses: a coin-operated Laundromat, Gene’s Used Auto and Truck Parts, and a Domino’s from where, in better times, our dad would arrive home, open-shirted and sweaty, and surprise us with a large meat eaters pizza. He’d nod and call us his bodyguards, though back then whatever we were protecting him from we hadn’t a clue. After all, he held a steady, decent-paying job as a punch press operator at the drop forge plant in Millersburg. The inferno, that’s what he called it. Twelve-hour shifts, and my mom, as far as we knew, hadn’t yet, not a single time, barricaded herself inside the bathroom, or spoken in tongues. Hadn’t left to go stay with her sister in Cleveland, or Dayton, or Shaker Heights, distant cities in another state, and where, after the fact, the trail always went dead before it ever started.
All of which ensued shortly after the union troubles, our dad, a skilled and dependable employee, lower brass hoping for middle, but forever passed over. He’d get there eventually, he said. “Just gotta wait it out,” but which ended early, midday on a Friday, his bagged lunch not even opened as the plant manager handed him his walking papers minus any advance notice, nor explanation, and not a single word of regret or gratitude. There and gone after almost three decades, his safety goggles, as he said, still on for Christ’s sake. No severance pay or pension, hardly a sick day on his record, and still half a lifetime away from retirement. Like he said, try earning back even one goddamn second of what you’d given the place, and see if you get any younger. “And all for what?”
And followed by a full-in-the-face hardcore bitterness and fury I’d never before witnessed and hoped I never would again, from him or from anyone. As if overnight, he’d been recast into someone else, an afterthought, a discard.
I said to Harlan, “Play dumb. Hang back and let me do the talking.” We hadn’t an alibi, other than killing time, the empty beer cans crushed, and boot-heeled under the seat, and yes, that’s exactly how it went down, I’d say, the entire crazy scheme mine, and mine alone, and so put it on me. Lousy judgment, and for which I take full responsibility. And my kid brother—he’s still legally a minor by the way—it’s got nothing to do with him, who was merely along for the ride. Never left the cab the entire time, the one and only eyewitness to such recklessness and folly. I’d testify to it under oath, and in most ways, I’d be telling, if not the whole truth, then truth enough to pass any goddamn polygraph.
I could tell by the slow bounce of the flashlight beam on the blacktop as the deputy approached, that he knew us, or knew of us, and possibly had even stopped us before. But who knows, maybe not.
“Evening,” he said, stooping low and hooking his elbows on the window ledge, legs spread wide, as if for a casual, small-town Friday night chat, a few stolen minutes on company time. He didn’t ask for my driver’s license or registration, never flashed the light on Harlan who’d likely already begun his silent countdown to our incarceration. I couldn’t place the deputy’s face under the wide Smokey the Bear hat brim. But a young guy, a local who might have graduated high school a couple of years ahead of me, and, as I had, decided to stick around.
I nodded and refocused on the sporadic line of oncoming traffic ascending from the hollow where the road dipped, and sometimes flooded and smelled like dead carp, and which we’d blasted through in the past, one time nearly blindsiding a school bus.
“Do you know why I stopped you?” he asked, and I shrugged, shook my head, a bitter, metallic tang spreading across my tongue. “Uh-uh. No sir, I do not. Where’d I mess up?”
“Your left taillight. It’s burned out,” he said, sounding bored. “You get it fixed we’ll call this a friendly warning, but next time… Until then, have a good one,” he said, and nodded, and, simple as that, he retreated a few backward steps, then turned and continued to his cruiser.
We’d gotten off easy, no bluffs or roundabout stories to make things worse. We’d gotten lucky for once, and to acknowledge it I nodded over at Harlan, who yanked back the hood of his sweatshirt, and said, “That’s it, fuck it all, Jimmy, I’m done. No kidding, so count me out. Any trade-off, whatever sack-of-shit soul-suck of a job, it’d be better than this. Nine to five, a factory rat on the graveyard shift? Why not, a guaranteed paycheck every Friday? What in the goddamn hell we even doing out here?”
It’s in his nature to wig out in spades whenever he’s frightened or confused, jumpy-eyed, and his mind unspooling nonstop in a dozen different directions. But I knew the hyper climb would peter down soon enough and he’d be fine, no plainclothes detectives pounding on our front door at midnight, no snipers in the backyard, no need to hightail it or take cover anywhere. And most of all no reason for him, at seventeen years old, to bail so prematurely, believing he could somehow pull it together enough to manage on his own. A high school dropout without a driver’s license and no plans or ambition as far as I could tell to someday consider getting his GED, and see where those prospects might lead.
I owed him that much at least, to keep him close for now. For as long as I could, and I said, “We’re good. Coast clear,” and, at liberty to continue on, I depressed the clutch, shifted into first, checked the side-view mirror, and hand-signaled out the window.
We were less than a mile from home, 24 Dogleg Lane. If need be, we could coast the rest of the way once we got rolling. We’d get some sleep. And the next day we’d fill up the gas tank at the local Sunoco, check the oil, and the tire pressure, and either pack a couple bags, or, regrouping yet again, conspire to somehow get a steadier leg up on our lives here. But either way, there was always tomorrow, even if the old man insisted no one was promised that. “Nothing’s forever. We’re always only one final heartbeat away,” he’d say. “Everyday the end of days. You got a game in mind, play it now. The odds, they only get worse going forward.”
Maybe, but we still had our whole lives ahead of us, and so why rush anything? If our luck held, a break here, a break there, we’d settle up on all fronts when the time seemed right. And, until then, steer clear if we could of all those invisible gathering forces intended to test us in ways we couldn’t possibly predict or anticipate. Win or lose, I figured we’d stay the course. Stay clean if we could, always weighing the risks, and maximizing our options.