Dead Bodies in Chelmsford
The bodies come into the first floor of the house, spend a little time there, and then go right into the ground. I live on the second floor. I come down and work with the dead bodies all day, then go right back upstairs.
I've been doing this since my Dad fell down the stairs on his way to work. "Good thing I only had to travel up and down the stairs. Imagine if I had to drive to work every day. All the crazy Massachusetts drivers, I'd be six feet under for sure," he says. He's lived and worked here his whole life, and so did my grandfather.
Three weeks before I was to leave for college in California, he had his fall. Once in a while I'll ask him when I can leave. "When people stop dying," he answers.
When he says that, I get close to walking out on him. But I can't. I have to carry the frail man up and down the stairs every day. I carry him in my arms, and then settle him down in his wheelchair. Each day, whether we joked, fought, or gave each other the silent treatment, he grabs my hand, waits for me to look him in the eyes, and then says, "Thank you, son." He holds my hand until I nod, then he lets go. I can't leave until he gets better.
Chelmsford is a little crappy town by the Merrimack River, just north of Boston. I have no idea how they crammed so many ugly rectangular box houses, metal-sided machine shops, and dirty gas stations so close together in one town. It looks like a cemetery with the first six feet of topsoil washed away. Coffin after coffin with neat little paths in between. Sometimes I wish a group of oversized gravediggers would fill the town in with dirt, plant grass over the top, and let everyone start fresh.
In the middle of Chelmsford, next to a box house, a metal-sided machine shop, and a dirty gas station, is Peabody Funeral Home. I live in above the funeral home with my father and a bunch of dead bodies.
Chelmsford is one of those towns where if you were lucky enough to go to college, you never came back. And if you didn't go, you never leave.
Laurin and John were going to be different. John used to stop in the Legion after work and tell us about their plan for getting out of Chelmsford. Their plan was to buy a 60's Cadillac convertible and spend a year driving around the country. He would bring the 1988 National Touring Handbook to the Legion and show everyone where he was going. Wyoming, California, Texas, Delaware — places I could only dream of. Then after the year was up, they were going to drive to Coronado Island off the coast of San Diego, order two Corona's, open the book, and drink beer until they decided where they would spend the rest of their lives. "And it ain't gonna be Chelmsford," he would always say at the end. Everyone in the Legion would laugh. Then there was always a silence. Each man would reach for his beer and wait for the moment to pass.
I hated the Legion. The place had no windows. It had a bar with a bunch of scattered tables. The wall held up flags, medals, and pictures of guys with stupid hats who had already made the trip through the funeral home. My dad buried most of them.
One old timer, Mr. Franklin, still drinks here every night. He drank here with my Grandfather, and my father. About once a month, like a broken record, he tells me the same story. "I remember when your Grandfather opened the Home. He put in the first neon sign in the town. I saw the glow, and ran down the street thinking the house was on fire." He is always so excited to repeat this to me, as if it were the only eventful thing that ever happened to him in his life.
Sometimes I look around, afraid I'll have to bury some of the stiffs that hang out here every night. I wouldn't miss any of them. I would only be sorry that they would die here, in Chelmsford. I picture washing and disinfecting old man Franklin; closing his mouth, nose and all other openings to prevent any excretions; injecting embalming chemicals through his arteries while his old fluids drain out through his veins. He's coming through my home. Surer than shit.
If it weren't for John, I wouldn't come here at all. At least I could look at him and know I'd never have to stick him in the Chelmsford Cemetery.
Two days ago Laurin came into my house. She was dead. I see dead people every day. This one was tough. I've listened to so many stories. And now it was my job to bury her, right here in Chelmsford.
"Why didn't you get out of here when you had the chance?"
My father heard me from the office. "Talking to dead people again?" he asked. I didn't bother to answer.
I held her up. She was already decomposing. I worked my ass off to preserve her and restore her the best I could for the wake the following evening. All I could do was delay the decomposition, and make her look like she was almost alive.
John came in the back door right before closing time. I told him how sorry I was. Then I left him alone with her.
I went to the office and carried my dad upstairs. "That's the guy who's going on that cross-country trip," I told him as I sat him down on his wheel chair at the top of the stairs.
"How long has he been planning that trip?" he asked.
"I don't know. Five or six years."
"He's not going anywhere," he said. My dad. Sometimes I really hate him. He tried to grab my hand, but I pulled it away before he could thank me. He called me back from the stairway. I stopped and listened to the old man call after me. I wanted to leave him there, calling aimlessly, but I went back up. He asked me to take a seat. "I never told you this, but when I was nineteen, before I met your mother, me and my friend Tommy had a plan."
I got up. I didn't want to hear another story. "Can we talk later? I want to catch John before he leaves."
"Fine. We have all the time in the world."
I went back downstairs. As John was leaving, I invited him into the kitchen for a beer. We talked and talked. He told me why he never went on that trip.
* * *
The duckpin bowling alley was where all the high school kids hung out in the summer. It was below the hardware store downtown. It was not air-conditioned, but because it was underground, it was cool. There was no natural light, making it hard to tell whether it was day or night. The walls were lined with pictures of Chelmsford's best duckpin bowlers. There were six lanes at one end, a snack bar at the other, with scattered tables in between.
The day after the 1988 Chelmsford High graduation ceremonies, John carried the 1988 National Touring Handbook down the stairs and into the alley. He sat down and flipped through the book. Laurin was done with her freshman year, and she was sitting with a bunch of her friends. They were all looking at John and giggling. Because of their ages, John didn't think much of any of them. But he made eye contact with Laurin. Laurin kept looking at John. John wasn't too interested, just intrigued by her stare. Finally, she came over and asked what he was doing.
"I'm planning my trip. I'm going to buy a 1968 Cadillac Deville convertible. Then I'm going to travel all around the country for a year. At the end of the year I'm going to drive to Coronado Island off the coast of San Diego, order a Corona, open the book and drink beer until I decide where I'm going to spend the rest of my life. And it ain't gonna be Chelmsford."
Laurin laughed with delight. She sat down next to him and listened to him talk about his trip all night. She would not leave his side. She told him that she wanted to go with him.
"No," he said. "I can't wait around for you to graduate."
This went on all summer. After they started sleeping together, she asked him again.
"Yes," he said. "But the day after you graduate I'll be sitting in your driveway revving the engine."
She would tell the story sometimes, but she didn't tell it as well. When she said the ending, she said it too soft, too passive, like she really didn't mean it. So when she told the story, he would wait until she told the part about Coronado and Coronas, and then he would blurt out, "And it ain't gonna be Chelmsford."
For three years, John waited. This gave them time to plan. He got a job at Hawkes Quality Products cutting stainless steel parts.
While they waited, they went through that book from top to bottom. Highlighting each back road they would drive, each mountain they would hike, each back-ass country town where they would get drunk with the locals, each river where they would skinny dip.
When Laurin graduated, they had enough money saved to go, but not in style. John and Laurin had grown since they first started to mark the book. Now they were thinking a little bigger. They wanted to go to more restaurants, stay at more hotels. Also, if they were going to do it right, they wanted a Cadillac that had already been fully restored. Something with less than fifty thousand miles, so they would be less likely to break down. There weren't many out there, but they were only going to do this once, so they had to have the perfect car.
They decided to move in together. It would be a setback at first, but it would save them money in the long run. John got promoted to inspector at Hawks Quality Products, and Laurin got a job as a waitress.
They kept saving, but their expenses kept going up. Laurin started working double shifts. On her day off she would lead him on all these wild goose-chases, looking at junk Cadillacs. She would tell the guy how much she loved the car right in front of the owner, totally ruining the negotiating edge. Then on the ride home, they would fight about whether the car was what they wanted. "I'll know the right car when I see it, Laurin," he'd tell her. She would argue anyway. John started spending more time at the Legion.
They found one in Billerica that wasn't bad, except the guy was asking too much money. Laurin was drooling all over it. She was acting like they'd already bought it. John didn't like the color, and there was no way he would spend that much money on that car. "We'll go home and think about it," John told the owner. Laurin wouldn't speak to him all the way back to Chelmsford. The car sold the next day, but not to them.
The very next night when he returned from the Legion, she had all these crazy ideas. She suggested that until they can leave, they should do things around Chelmsford like they planned on doing around the country.
She suggested going skinny-dipping in the Merrimack. "Are you crazy?" John asked. "The Merrimack is mucky and cold." Then she suggested going to this hole-in-the-wall in Tyngsboro and getting drunk with the weirdoes that hang out there. "That's why we're getting out of here," he told her. "We want to experience something new."
She acted stunned. Like she had no idea what he was talking about. "Well what do you want to do?" she shouted. "Tell me. What are we going to do?"
John, who worked all day, was in no mood for any foolishness. When he got home after a hard day of work, he wanted to relax. "You do whatever you want, I've had a hard day. I'm going to watch a little TV and go to bed."
Laurin had a chip on her shoulder from that day on. A week later, without checking with John, she drove into the driveway with a metallic-blue ‘68 Cadillac. The paint was dull. The top was filthy. The chrome was pitted. The stitching on the seats was ready to give. The driver's side armrest was split, and the wood-grain trim was starting to de-laminate. The engine had a hundred thousand miles on it.
John pointed out why the car wasn't going to work. Laurin wouldn't listen to him. He tried to reason with her. "Honey, this car will not make it across country. It won't make it through the Central Artery. If it does we'll have to worry about the car shitting the bed the whole trip. Does that sound like fun to you? What if the brakes go and we crack the car up? We could get killed; we could even kill someone else. Does that sound like fun to you?"
Laurin kept arguing. John didn't want to hear it anymore. Enough was enough. "You're ruining the trip. Now we are going to have to sell this car. You paid double what it's worth, so we are going to have to make up the thousands we lose. This was my trip. Now you're ruining it."
John stormed off to the Legion. When he got home, she was in the garage working on the car. She had waxed it and cleaned it. "It won't do any good," John said. He went to bed.
Laurin stayed up all night working on the car. When John left for work the next morning, she was asleep in the back seat.
When he returned home from work, the car was running in the driveway. The top was down and the back seat was full of blankets and suitcases. Laurin was sitting on the hood of the car next to a can of Budweiser. She had her legs crossed, and she was smoking a cigarette. She told John she was leaving. She asked him if he was coming with her.
"Don't be ridiculous. We can't leave. The car's not right. We don't have enough money saved. We're right in the middle of a giant project at work and if I left, the whole deal would go haywire. I haven't had time to say goodbye to anyone. We need to get our security deposit."
She drained the beer, threw the can on the lawn, put out the cigarette, got in the car and started the engine. He tried to keep talking but she revved the engine. The 1988 National Touring Guide sat on the dashboard. He shouted, but she just kept revving the engine. Then she paused and asked again if he was coming with her.
She took out a red magic marker and wrote in the Touring Guide. She threw the book at him. "Here. You need this more than I do." She put the car in drive and squealed out of the driveway.
Laurin was found dead the next morning. She fell asleep at the wheel in upstate New York. She swerved into a ditch. The car rolled over, and she broke her neck.
* * *
"I tried to stop her, but I couldn't," John said.
There was a long silence. I wished he would do something or say something, but for a while he just sat there.
"I couldn't just leave like that. I mean, the car wasn't right. It was only fair to give at least a two-week notice at work, and I had to get my security deposit. You wouldn't have left, would you?"
"No. Not like that," I said. "I mean if everything was right, I would have, but not like that."
He patted me on the shoulder.
"Are you still going?" I asked.
"I can't. Not without her."
John was trying not to cry. He motioned as if he was going to say something, but he didn't.
"I'm getting out of here someday," I told him.
"Yeah?" He looked me in the eye. "When?"
"As soon as my Dad gets better."
He drained his beer. "I'll see you at the Legion." He got up and left.
After he'd gone, I went in to close Laurin's casket. I knelt beside her. Everyone in here looks dead, but she looked even deader than the normal dead person. "You almost made it. If you only would have waited until the timing was right. I'm getting out of here." I reached up to close the casket and noticed something stuffed between her shoulder and the lining of the casket. I reached in and pulled it out. It was the 1988 National Touring Handbook.
I opened it up to Arizona. The state looked square, flat, and lifeless. There was an arrow at the Hoover Dam with writing: "Spit over Nevada side, watch it go through to Arizona side." By the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was written, "Do naked rain-dance at Midnight." At Four Corners, "Piggy-back through four states at world record time." I flipped through state after state.
Each state had their plans laid out, except Massachusetts. This one had no arrows, no highlights, and no passages on what they were going to do. Written across the state in thick, red magic marker was, "Go to work. Go to Legion. Pass out in front of the TV. Repeat for the rest of your life. John, it is going to be Chelmsford. Goodbye, Laurin." There was a giant red "X" drawn right through Chelmsford.
I closed the casket, taking the Touring Guide with me.
I looked at each state, but I kept flipping back to Massachusetts. "John, It is going to be Chelmsford," I read it over and over again.
I went upstairs. My dad was sitting in front of the TV in his wheelchair, drinking scotch. "What have you got there?" he asked.
"Touring Guide. Maps of each state."
He placed his drink down and spun his wheel chair around. "I told you he's not going anywhere."
I stood up and got right in his face. "No he's not. But I am."
"You don't say. When you going?" I didn't like his tone. He almost sounded pleased.
"As soon as you get out of that fucking chair."
"What are you laughing at?"
"Do you want to hear my story now?"
"No. I want you to get up out of that chair."
"How do you know I can't walk? How do you know I haven't been faking it the last couple of months?"
"If you…. I swear, if I found out I would… I would leave you here to rot. Rot in Chelmsford by yourself."
"Leave. Maybe I can walk. Maybe I've been faking it this whole time. I've been giving you a legitimate excuse for staying. Go. Whether I can walk or not, I don't need you. Go. Right now. Pack your bags right now and go."
My fists were clenched. I was breathing so hard my spit was flying in his face, but he didn't flinch.
"Right now. Go. I'm set for life. I'll hire someone."
"I can't leave you. You can't walk."
"It doesn't matter. I'll get by. Go."
I grabbed each armrest of the wheelchair and tipped it over. He fell on his side and stayed still. I threw the chair to the side and it bounced off the wall.
He didn't move. I watched his legs. They were motionless.
He pushed his hands down and lifted his shoulders off the ground. His legs twisted, and he sat upright.
I leaned down and picked up the frail man. "I'm sorry, Dad."
He asked me to put him to bed. He wrapped his arms around my neck as I carried him into the bedroom. I put him down, and pulled the blanket over him. He placed his hand on top of mine and thanked me. I accepted his thanks with a nod.
"Do you want to hear my story now?"
"Not now, Dad. You can tell me later."
I went back to the living room. The Touring Guide was on the floor. I picked it up, but I could not open it. I went down to Laurin's casket, and put the Touring Guide back inside with her.
There was an empty, casket across the room. I opened it and felt the silk lining inside. I wondered who would end up in this one. Maybe Old Man Franklin. It didn't matter really. There will be more. One for everyone.
Copyright © 2001 by Barry Uicker.