Billy-Rae leaned over the hood of the hearse and vomited a torrent of something green and chunky.
I felt the bile rise in my throat and quickly turned away. Unlike Billy-Rae and Merle, both of whom never broke a sweat during the embalming process, bodily fluids never greased my wheel. But averting my gaze didn’t ease the frustration. “Goddamn it, Billy! If you spewed on––”
“Relax, Davy.” Despite hanging over the chrome grill, he managed a dismissive wave. “I got perfect aim.” He used a dirty sleeve to wipe driblets off his chin.
Holding my breath, I walked around the front end. “You splashed the sidewalls.”
He grinned. Like a zombie in a B movie, bits of undigested food remained wedged in his teeth. “No problem,” he said. “I’ll run through a few puddles on the way to the boneyard.”
Shaking my head, I returned to my seat on the steps of the church. Merle gave me a bemused look before spitting tobacco juice against the crumbling foundation. “Messy?”
I tucked an errand stand of blonde hair behind my ear. “Must have been a slow night. It’s half the usual amount.”
Merle chuckled. “Your father would tan his hide if he dirtied that car.”
The 1954 Cadillac Landau had shuttled the county dead to their final resting place for three generations. It listed and belched like an old sailor but could probably make the trip without a driver, not that Billy was much of a driver. His talents started and stopped at the local Legion.
A white picket fence surrounded the clapboard church, and beyond that, the meandering road crept westward until it disappeared behind a wall of evergreens. I knew every pothole and crevice, every dip and turn like the back of my hand. Ever since I was old enough to carry flowers, I helped Pa with the business, just like he had helped his dad.
“I hear they’re finally going to repave it,” I said.
Merle smiled, revealing a set of brown-stained dentures. “They say that before every election. Truth is the road was smoother before they slapped asphalt on it. The dirt got packed down and even in rain we had grooves to follow.”
“Pa remembers when caskets were hauled by horses.”
Merle leaned back. “Really? I recalls when your granddaddy used to hook up two plowhorses to a wagon. After a spell, he painted the wagon fire-red. Now that was a sight.” He paused. “Reckon you’ll be looking to take over the business at some point?”
I shook my head. “I got plans for schooling in the city.”
“Ah.” His eyes twinkled but he said nothing more.
As the noon hour sun beat down and mosquitoes searched for the next blood meal, we listened to the off-key musical notes leaking out the dilapidated front doors. Later, as the congregation spilled into the weed-infested churchyard, we pulled solemn faces and silently loaded the casket. Billy started the engine while I jumped into the back seat with Merle. After a night out, Billy’s breath could be registered as a lethal weapon.
I swear he aimed for every pothole. The casket jumped and lurched like a rabid coon. We could hear the body flopping against the padded wood.
Halfway to the cemetery I asked Merle, “Why do they call it the Green Mile? I measured it last week and it’s almost two miles.”
Merle spat of wad of tobacco juice out the half open window. “I asked your granddaddy the same question years ago. He said the road was straighter back then, before the river floods.”
“But why green?”
“Comes from the saying, grass is greener on the other side. In this case, the afterlife. Hence, Green Mile.”
I gripped the seat as the car bounced over a particularly deep rut. “Billy, we still on the road?”
He flashed a smile in the rear-view. “Almost there. Say, you want to come to the Legion tonight? I’m flying solo.”
“Thanks, but I’m only sixteen.”
“So, I started when I was twelve. That was, uh––”
“Forty years ago,” I said, not wanting to see him struggle. I glanced back at Merle, but the old codger was gently snoring.
The paper called it a terrible tragedy. Ten-year-old twins found by their mother in the backyard pool. Whole county turned out for the funeral. The parking lot was filled with everything from Audis to rusted Chevy half-tons.
“That settles it, I ain’t ever getting a pool,” Billy-Ray declared as he fiddled with his collar in the Caddy’s side-view mirror.
“You mean if you could afford one?” Merle asked, snickering.
Billy-Ray eyes narrowed. “Laugh if you want, old man, but no one ever drowned in the local swimming hole.”
“They say the second twin probably jumped in to save the first,” I said quietly.
Merle shifted his gaze to me. “Then it’s a double shame, Davy. The deaths, and the fact them were good kids.”
We listened as the mass came to an end. Under the red-rimmed eyes of the congregation, Merle and I squeezed two small caskets into the hearse. The parents looked whiter than the sun-bleached tombstones in the cemetery. I watched Pa walk up to the father and whisper something in the man’s ear. The father‘s shoulders straightened, like a small weight had been lifted. Pa’s gaze fell on me and he nodded toward the mother who was sobbing quietly behind the hearse. On instinct, I picked a flower off one of the bouquets and placed it in her trembling hand.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Billy-Ray led the procession down the Green Mile at a tight five miles-an-hour. Pa took the front seat, and for the first time in years, Merle didn’t fall asleep.
Billy died on my seventeenth birthday. The doctor wanted to do an autopsy but the sheriff said it’d be a waste of taxpayer money. Everyone knew it was the booze that killed him. I drove Billy down the Green Mile and even shed a few tears on his tombstone.
We advertized in the local paper but few townsfolk applied for Billy-Ray’s job.
“Most aren’t cut out for this business, Davy,” Pa told me as we hung up our suits after an afternoon funeral. “Modern folks have lost the compassion God gave them.”
“Last fella seemed to be doing okay,” I pointed out. “Why’d you let him go?”
Pa placed his polished black shoes on the closet floor. His hooded eyes and sad expression reminded me of the night mom left. Back when I was eight.
“There’s a certain compassion that’s required for this job,” he said. “An ability to listen and answer questions that have no answers. Most folk spit out the wrong words at the wrong time, or worse, mumble sentences that have no meaning. I swear they should teach a course in school.”
“You never took a course, Pa,” I said. “How’d you learn?”
He looked me up and down. “Some people are simply born with it, Davy. It’s just there.” He tapped a finger against my chest. “And believe me, it’s quite a find.”
Puzzled, I rubbed my chin. “So, you have to find it?”
“Oh, no,” he smiled, shutting the closet door. “It finds you.”
A stroke killed Pa the week after my high school graduation. Merle sat beside me in the front pew of the church while the priest read the benedictions. He kept a calloused hand on my shoulder as I drove the hearse to the cemetery.
That summer I ran the business and made a dozen runs up the Green Mile. Old Merle and I worked like a well-oiled machine. He took care of the embalming and Griffen, the new fella, did the grunt work. I began to look forward to the drives. At a strict pace of seven miles an hour, I found the rides peaceful, even soothing, the road unwrapping like a Christmas present on a snowy morning.
It was amazing how families hung on my words, the pale utterings of a naive teenager who had never stepped foot out of the county. And yet I could measure their effect; a cool balm on an open wound. Steadfast reassurance for tortured souls. I pressed a fresh flower into the palm of every widow, hugged grieving parents, and waited until the last mourner had left the gravesite before driving back to the funeral home. The business flourished.
On the last Sunday of August, I passed a comb through my short-cropped hair as the notes of the final psalm seeped out of the church. Griffin stood and opened the back door of the repainted black Landau.
“Come Monday, it’ll be September,” Merle said, chewing on a weed. He sat on the steps, watching me intently. “Whatcha gonna do?”
I shrugged, gazing at the heat waves rising off the cracked asphalt. “I think I’ll stay another month, till Halloween, and then decide.”
Old Merle’s eyes twinkled like liquid sunshine. “Good answer,” he said.
updated by @americymru: 11/22/16 12:10:47AM