The Burial Men
By Riley Passmore
My brother and I, we never really know who we work for. We never see their faces, we never hear their names. They’re ghosts--or might as well be. All I know is, my brother and I, we provide a service. A service without judgments. A service with no questions asked.
“So who do you think it was this time?” I ask. “Any ideas?”
“I dunno,” my brother says, his hand guiding the wheel of our pickup. “A housewife, maybe. A jealous ex. She comes home early, sees them in bed together. Blows her top, kills them both.” He gestures a pistol and fires twice, complete with sound-effects. “You?”
“A business woman,” I say. “She traveled a lot, you could tell. All those little soaps by her sink. The husband got lonely, found someone else. The other woman’s a coworker, I’m sure.”
My brother smiles. “Remember when this was difficult?” he asks.
I light a cigarette, and crack my window. “Not really,” I say.
We drive deeper into the wilderness for another half-hour, until my brother pulls us up to the base of an old oak tree and cuts the engine of our Ford. We’ve worked out here plenty of times, in the craggy hinterlands of northern Pennsylvania, but it’s by no means my favorite spot. This far out from civilization, and the darkness is absolute. An oil stain you can’t rub out.
“You ready?” he asks.
I twist out my cigarette, and take a swig from the silver bullet beneath the dash.
“Yeah, man. I’m ready. Just leave the lights on this time.”
“Sure thing,” he says.
We step out of our pickup and unravel the blue tarp in the back, revealing a pair of shovels and a pair of bodies wrapped in duct tape and garbage bags. It’s the husband and the other woman, the husband taller, the woman thinner. We picked them up late last night in the master bedroom of a perfect little house on a perfect little street, their bodies naked, sweaty, and full of bullet holes. The wife must’ve just pointed and fired when she walked in--or maybe she shook as she confronted them with the gun. It’s hard to say; I’m no detective. But what I do know is that when the wife finally made up her mind about Asshole One and Asshole Two, she made it up good.
I grab a shovel and we get to work, finding a nice quiet spot beneath the oak, a clearing free of roots and rocks and underbrush. In a couple hours we’ve dug two holes six feet deep, the dirt soft and muddy from the rain yesterday morning. We then pull the bodies out, one at a time, and throw them in the holes we dug. Then we cover them up with the dirt from the holes.
Pretty standard procedure, as far as burials go.
My brother pats down the loosened earth with his shovel, and rests his chin on the handle. “You think we should say something this time?” he asks. “A few words?”
I look at my brother, at his silhouette burning in the halogen headlights of our truck. “We’ve never done it before,” I say. “Why start now?”
“I dunno,” my brother says, wiping sweat from his brow. “We’ve been doing this a long time. Shouldn’t we start showing some respect? For the dead, and all that?”
I stare at the two mounds of dirt, at the man and the woman underneath.
The people who call us, they call us for a lot of reasons. There’s the legal reasons, sure. They want to get away with what they’ve done. But that’s not the real reason, the highest reason. These people, they call us because they want to forget. They want a pair of nobodies to come along in the night and scoop up their cheating spouses, their rapists, their molesters, just so they can forget. And the way I see it, let them forget. Let these people be forgotten.
“Maybe if they deserved it,” I say.
My brother looks away. He shakes his head. He mutters something under his breath, but I pretend not to catch it. Instead I take our shovels and throw them in the back of our truck, where I roll them up nice and neat in the tarp. My brother doesn’t say another word all the way back to the motel, his face obscured beneath the rim of his black baseball cap.
The first people we ever buried were our parents.
There was a trailer park fire in 1976, the same year as the American hostage crisis. The world was so hot that summer, and everyone had had enough of just about everything.
That’s why I think our father let himself fall asleep with a cigarette in his hand, still lit after downing a bottle of Crown Royal and fighting with our shit-show of a mother. He probably knew it was a bad idea, too, the 70’s and all that polyester, but I can see him now, lighting-up and crawling into bed without a care in the world. He had had enough, just like everyone else, and probably thought he was doing us a favor. An extended vacation from the shithole we called our home.
We were barely out of middle school, my brother and I.
If our smoke alarm hadn’t gone off at just the right time, we would’ve never made it out the front door. Our trailer was already too thick with smoke to see through, our parents’ bedroom an inferno at the end of the hall, their bodies wreathed in curtains of brilliant orange flame. You’d be amazed at how quickly a body can disappear, at how quickly a life can vaporize. Once your body fat ignites, once your skin blackens and shrivels up from the heat, it’s like your whole being never even happened, like you’re nothing more than a nightmare from a terrible, terrible dream.
The fire department showed up soon after, sirens blaring.
One of our neighbors had called the cops when he saw the smoke, and a crowd had gathered to watch the blaze--other tenants, other neighbors, other kids still awake. We joined them in the gravel-paved street and watched, transforming in that moment from thing observed to thing observing. From tragedy unfolding to tragedy unfolded. Our whole unit was gone in less than twenty minutes, the cheap frame of our double-wide reduced to cinderblocks, the flame-retardant carpet and upholstery mandates of the 1980s not on the books for another decade at least.
The fire marshal would later call our survival a miracle.
If our mattresses had been in bedframes instead of on the floor, he said, the carbon monoxide in the rising smoke would have killed us in our sleep. We would have never woken up, fire alarm or not. It’s what killed our parents, according to the official report. They were just too drunk, and then too dazed, to notice they were being burned alive.
We received their ashes a few days later, in two plastic bags given numbers by the coroner.
The sheriff’s office offered us these nice wooden boxes to keep them in--real mahogany, they said--but I declined, even after my brother protested. We were headed to foster homes, I told him, with new parents and new rooms and new things. I said that we didn’t need anything wearing us down, that we didn’t need anything else to carry. So that night, after our new mother and father tucked us into bed, we snuck out into the woods with our parents and a couple of flashlights, deep into the forest behind the power lines in our back yard. We dug two holes in the dirt with our hands and then placed our parents inside, quietly, deliberately, the dirt as accepting of their deaths as we were.
So yeah, we buried them.
Even though there wasn’t really anything left to bury.
We get another call a few days later, a number with an area code eighty miles west. This is pretty local, given our line of work. We’ve had calls from all over the U.S. since we started, from men and women in every time-zone, from every major city on the map. We just don’t get to work this close to our last job this back-to-back. One week it’s Detroit, the next it’s somewhere in Albuquerque. We’re on the road just about every day, my brother and I, but we make it work. We’ve never had to turn anyone down just because of the distance, and we’d like to keep it that way.
My brother picks up our cell, and mutes the complimentary cable TV.
“You’ll have to speak a little louder,” he says, pressing the receiver into his ear. “I can barely hear you.” He gestures for me to get our book, a black Moleskine we got from one of our first jobs, so I can write down the address. This is pretty typical--him answering, me writing. Sometimes we switch, but he’s always been better with people. A real butterfly.
He continues with the person on the other end, listing the rules our clients are supposed to follow: no meet, no names, the clean-up is the caller’s responsibility. There can’t be any physical evidence that we were ever at the crime scene: no security cameras, no alarms, no motion-activated floodlights. But then my brother covers the receiver, and whispers real low. “Jesus,” he says. “I think this one’s a kid.”
I stare at my brother, a trailer park burning in the back of my mind.
“How old are we talking?” I ask. “Ten? Fifteen?”
“I dunno,” my brother says. “He just sounds young. Too young to be calling us.”
I hang my head. Sitting in my lap are the addresses of hundreds of callers, if not thousands, and not a single one of them belongs to a kid.
“Well,” I ask, “how’s he going to pay us?”
My brother pauses for a moment, unsure, but then repeats the question for the voice on the other end. According to the kid, his mother’s got a whole box full of jewelry waiting for us in their bedroom. Some diamonds, some silver, but mostly gold.
Sounds like a lot, if you ask me.
Back when we first started, we would always ask for cash. Cash, unlike credit, is untraceable. With no written record of our transactions, even if our clients were found out, we’d never get caught. But the thing is, most people just don’t keep that kind of money lying around anymore--not since the invention of debit. So now, my brother and I, we pawn stuff. Televisions and china sets. Coin collections and vintage video games. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it can be if you find the right shop. Gold is gold, you see. And diamonds are diamonds.
“You really want to do this?” my brother asks. “This kid, he probably just killed his parents. What if he messes up the clean-up? What if he’s lying about the jewelry?”
I close our book, and grab the keys.
“Tell him we’ll be there in an hour,” I say. “But tell him too that he better get gone by the time we get there, the bodies cleaned up and everything, or the deal’s off.”
My brother looks at me like I’m crazy, but relays our offer.
So much of this can go wrong--the cops could show up, the kid could be too young to leave on his own, neighbors could see our truck--but I tell my brother the jewelry is worth the trip. We haven’t had a haul like this in a long time, I say. Too long. Even our last job only netted us a few hundred bucks, enough for a few nights’ rent, room service, and shitty pay-per-view.
Of course, I leave out the part where this kid reminds me of us.
We take an exit near Pittsburgh and land in the outskirts of an old manufacturing town, the smell of iron slag still heavy in the air. We’ve worked in neighborhoods like this before, in Birmingham down south, in Toledo west of us, the old smokestacks in the distance. They’re practically ruins now, ghost towns. But back in the day, they were the pride of American industry.
“I still can’t believe we’re doing this,” my brother says. “Jewelry box or no, I thought we wanted to work out in Tucson next week. Or maybe Boulder.”
I light a cigarette and watch suburbia roll by, rows of pre-stucco homes peppered between easements of pine trees, power lines, and kudzu. Swing sets and jungle gyms. American flags and those shitty plastic kiddy pools. We’ve landed in the America of Tomorrow, circa 1956.
“Tucson can wait,” I say. “Along with Boulder, Spokane, and wherever else.” I pull on my cigarette, and exhale through the crack in my window. “This kid, he ain’t got that luxury.”
My brother squeezes the steering wheel, gripping it tight.
“If this were anyone else,” he says, “I know for a fact we wouldn’t be driving out here. A man or woman without a reliable way to run, without a reliable way to pay us? Yeah right.” He half-chuckles, and turns onto a two-lane street. “Why the change of heart?” he asks. “What is it about this kid that makes him so special, that makes him so different?”
I flick the butt of my cigarette out the window, and watch its embers fly into the night.
“Just shut up and drive,” I say.
We pull up to the house at 1:00 am, a red brick standalone with a beat-up Cadillac parked out front. It’s an older home, obviously, a single-story ranch with faded paint and weathered trim. Pretty small, too, by the looks of it. A two-bedroom, maybe three at the most. My brother and I, we’ve seen houses like this all over the U.S., the remnants of the post-war boom. You’d be amazed at how many people still live out here, in the crushing poverty of northern Appalachia.
I take a swig from the silver bullet beneath the dash and crawl out of the cab, my brother following suit. This is where we gear up, getting on our ski masks and our gloves. Our denim jackets and our hoodies. It’s hotter than hell in this getup, but it’s better than no disguise at all.
“You grab the gear,” I say, referring to the duct tape and garbage bags. “I’ll go around and get the back door. We should make sure there’s a path large enough for a double.”
“Sure thing,” my brother says.
He walks around to dig in the back of our truck while I wander along a path through the bushes without a flashlight--too suspicious, otherwise. I stumble into the back yard after a moment or so, finding a rear porch with a couple of plastic chairs and a rusty hand-me-down bike. The back door is cracked open just a sliver, exactly as we asked, and the blinds have been drawn, the house dimly-lit. So far so good. This almost makes me think this kid isn’t that young, otherwise I doubt he would’ve been this coherent. Kids, teenagers, just about all of them still have their grandparents. Their aunts and uncles. They’ve never even seen a dead body before, let alone created one.
My brother joins me a minute later, the disposal gear in tow, and we walk up the porch steps to slip inside the house. The furnishings are rather bare, even for a house of this size, and nothing matches: an old plaid couch against a wall, a peeling pleather loveseat nearby. A CTR big-screen that takes up half the room, a wooden coffee table covered in stains. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were a meth house, given where we are. Would have smelled the acetone, though, were that the case.
“You think that’s it?” my brother asks. “Over there, on the kitchen table?”
He points to a tall wooden box through a doorway into the kitchen, a jewelry armoire with ring and earing drawers and folding panels on the sides for necklaces. The kid must’ve left it out for us, setting it out on the kitchen table so it’d be easier to find. Good on you, kid.
“Bag it and tag it,” I say. “I’m gonna hunt for the bodies.”
My brother nods and I leave to investigate the rest of the house, a confirmed two-bedroom with a small dining space and a hallway lined with nothing. No pictures, no mirrors, just paint. There’s a bathroom at the end of the hall, with a fork leading right and a fork leading left. The kid’s room and the master bed. That’s where I find them, actually, the bodies: a man and a woman--the kid’s parents, most likely--lying in a crusty mess of bloody bedsheets. He must have killed them in their sleep, two gunshots straight to the head, point blank. I swear, with the number of bodies I clean out of bedrooms every year, you’d think they were the most dangerous places on Earth.
My brother calls out to me, and I tell him where I am.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” he says, rushing into the bedroom, holding up a handful of jewelry in the light. “Look at this shit. It’s nothing but rhinestones. Plastic. Costume jewelry.”
“You’re shitting me,” I say.
I take a closer look, and sure enough: polished nickel standing in for silver, polished brass standing in for gold. Even the pearls are plastic--and cheap plastic, at that.
“I told you we shouldn’t have come,” my brother says. He shakes his head. “The little shit offered up his mother’s junk so quickly on the phone. I should’ve known.”
I clench my jaw.
Damn it, kid. This was supposed to be easy.
“Pack everything up,” I say. “We’re going home.”
“Roger that,” my brother says.
We leave the bedroom and gather our things, returning the jewelry for the police to find. We’ve left jobs unfinished before, but only a handful of times. The wrong payment, insufficient clean-up, there’s all kinds of ways a job can fall through. But even so, those other jobs, they were different. There’s a certain level of autonomy with adults, a certain level of self-sufficiency. They can take care of themselves, even if we can’t, or won’t, follow through. But a kid--a ten-year-old, a twelve-year-old, or however the hell old he is--that’s different. They can only do so much.
That’s why my brother and I are so surprised when we slip out of the kitchen to see a boy standing in the living room, his hands wrapped around a rusty .38 snub.
You just don’t think a kid is capable of such a thing.
“I’m sorry,” the kid says, his hands shaking. “But you gotta do this.”
“We ain’t gotta do shit,” my brother says. “You lied. We’re free to walk.”
I stare at the kid, at his face, his clothes, and his trigger finger. He looks about twelve, maybe thirteen, his face as white as a take-out box, his body just as rigid. He’s still in shock, I can tell. His ratty night-shirt drenched in sweat, his heart pounding through his chest. He may be just a kid, but he knows what he’s doing, what he did. He’d be tried as an adult, no doubt about it.
“I’m serious,” the kid says, raising his .38. “I’ll shoot you if you don’t.”
“Like hell you will,” my brother says.
He takes a step toward the kid, but I grab him by the arm. He looks at me like I’m an asshole, like he did back at the old oak tree days before this whole night even started, but I tell him to let it go, that this boy is just a boy, a kid looking to forget just like everyone else.
He shrugs me off, and curses under his breath.
“I’ll be in the truck,” he says, tearing off his hoodie, grabbing the duct tape and garbage bags. “If you’re not out there in five, I’m leaving without you.”
A week later we’re out in the desert beyond Tucson, throwing another nameless body into another nameless hole. We haven’t really spoken since we left that boy all alone, but this latest haul more than made up for the box of coin machine rings and dollar store junk.
Gold is gold, you see. And diamonds are diamonds.
“You know,” my brother says, “I still don’t think you told me the truth.”
I scoop my shovel, and throw in another heap. “Oh yeah?” I ask. “About what?”
“About the boy,” he says, digging deep. “I just don’t buy how you got the gun. You say you convinced him to give it up, but he was too wound up. And we sure as hell didn’t do his bodies, so, what happened? What changed between you and me?”
I stop, and wipe the sweat from my brow. Even with the cool night air of the desert blowing in from the west, the work is hard--backbreaking and gritty.
“That kid,” I say, “he was never going to shoot us. Maybe by accident, but never on purpose. After you left, he was pretty easy to calm down.” I start again, and toss in another pile.
“And that’s it?” my brother asks. “Nothing else?”
“Nothing else,” I say.
We scoop up the last of the dirt and throw it in, me first, my brother second, then flatten the loosened earth with our shovels. After we’re finished, my brother rolls them up in the tarp and I crawl into the cab to light a cigarette, having forgotten yet again that I had left my lighter at a house in eastern Pennsylvania over a thousand miles away.