The Dead Are Smiling

By Melissa R. Mendelson

Johnny Cash battled the static, but he was losing, fading in and out.  The screen door to the diner wasn’t helping.  It screeched opened and clattered shut, and the swearing of the cook in the kitchen was louder than the small radio over the counter by the pies.  Even the buzzing of the flies drowned Johnny out as they dodged the swatter from the waitress, and her sigh was eaten up by the static.

“Miss the flies again?”

“Yeah, How weird.  I missed the flies again.”  The waitress tucked the fly swatter under one arm.  “What it be?  The same as usual?  Bull’s eye omelet with a soda?  You know that’s disgusting, right?”  She gnawed on a piece of gum as she hovered close to him.  “How about a grilled cheese sandwich?”

“No.  The same, and it’s Howard.”

“Right.  How weird.”  She stormed away from him.

“How about fixing the lights in here?  It’s so damn dim.”

Howard watched the waitress disappear into the kitchen.  He fidgeted on the brown cushion, his legs sticking to it.  Why was he wearing shorts?  He was going to have to change once he got to work, but he didn’t like to walk in his dress clothes.  Sometimes, assholes would drive by and kick up dirt to spray over him.  Sometimes, it was water or whatever fluid they had with them in the car.  Why couldn’t the people of this town just leave him alone or at least say his name right?

Howard reached down on the seat and picked up a folded newspaper.  He didn’t care what was happening in the world.  He just flipped to his favorite page and pulled a blue pen out of his shorts pocket.  He drew smiley faces next to the Obits.

“Why do you do that?”  The waitress dropped his breakfast down in front of him along with his soda.

“Do what?”  He made another smiley face this time next to an old woman, and her expression seemed like she was happy that she was dead.

“Make the dead smile.  Can’t you leave those people alone?  They’re dead.”

“I’m just giving them my condolences.”

“Sure you are.”  The waitress blew a small bubble of gum out of her mouth.  “You could also give me a Thank You as well as a good tip.”  She walked away as a guy sitting near the counter chuckled.

“Something funny, friend?”  Howard put the pen away and closed the newspaper.

“No, and I’m not your friend.”  The guy turned his back on Howard.  “Weirdo.”  He deliberately said that aloud.

Howard poked at his omelet with his fork.  He loved watching the yolk spill out over the plate, drowning the hash browns near it.  He forgot to order a slice of bread.  He loved drenching the bread with the yolk and then shoving it into his mouth.  He was running late, though, so he had to hurry up.  He scooped up the hash browns and eggs and shoveled them into his mouth, then reached for his soda, threw the straw aside and downed the liquid.  A few droplets escaped, tracing down his chin and falling onto his shirt.

“Jesus, you eat like a pig.  Your mother ever teach you manners?”

“Don’t talk about my mother.”  Howard wiped his mouth with a napkin and placed it in the plate on top of what was left of the yolk.  He turned toward the man sitting at the counter and let out a belch.  He wiped his mouth with his sleeve as the waitress glared at him, and he flashed her an ugly smile.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash.  They were all singles, and he counted them out, stopping at sixteen.  He threw the money on the table but not in the plate, and he moved away from the booth.  But then he stopped to pick up a garbage bag that had been lying under his feet.

“Laundry day,” the man at the counter asked.

“No, sir.  Work clothes.  Have a good day.”  Howard stormed past him.

“You gonna touch his money?”  The man at the counter watched the waitress pick up the cash that Howard had left for her.

“Money’s money,” but she did not hide the disgust on her face.

The screen door slammed shut behind Howard.  He held his head up to the sun and drew in a breath.  A car sped by and kicked up dust and dirt covering his legs.  He cursed under his breath as he heard the driver laugh.  This was why he had put his work clothes in the garbage bag.  He could not afford to look like some creature especially where he worked, and he moved down the road.  He was about a mile away from work.  At least, the weather was nice, and he always loved to walk.  It was just him and the road, and hopefully, no people.

The road that stretched outward from the diner to his job used to be quiet, but not lately.  Now, there were cars pulled off to the side of the road.  Some of the drivers were lost.  Others had car issues.  Some were stupid enough to run out of gas.  Last week, there was a car literally on its side with the tires still spinning.  He thought that someone was calling for help, but maybe they should not have been speeding.  It was their problem not his, and now there was another car pulled off on the side of the road with the driver looking under the hood.  Too bad, that hood didn’t slam shut, decapitating him.

“Scuse’ me?  Hey, kid.”  The driver turned away from the car to look at Howard.

“I’m not a kid,” Howard replied, annoyed at his walk being interrupted.  “I’m thirty…  None of your fucking business.”

“I was just gonna ask if there was a gas station somewhere.  That’s all.”

“Well, there’s a shitty diner that way.”  Howard pointed toward where he came from.  “There’s a small gas station that way.”  He turned around, pointing in the direction, where he was going.  “There’s also a funeral home near the gas station.”

“Funeral home?”

“Yeah, where I work, if you need some rest.”

“What’s with the attitude, kid?”

Howard gritted his teeth.  He tried to think of a comment, but you know what?  He didn’t have time for this, and he promised not to be late.  It wasn’t like the dead were going anywhere, but he could be fired.  And he was lucky that his mother pulled some strings to get him this job, so this guy that was wasting his time could figure out his own shit.  It wasn’t his problem.  He moved down the road.

“Hey, I’m talking to you,” the driver yelled after him, but Howard merely waved his hand as if he were swatting at a fly.

The funeral home was two floors with a basement.  It was just painted with a fresh coat of white.  Some of the black shutters were still broken, and the building itself looked like it was begging for retirement.  But this place was the only thing that was left to his “uncle,” who lived on the second floor.  If he ever decided to sell it, he would only get half of the money.

“You’re late.”  His “uncle” checked his watch.  “We have another service in ten.  Go downstairs and change, and please look respectful.”

“My clothes are clean, and I’ll fix my hair.”

“No, How weird.  You were smiling at the last service, and it made a lot of people angry.”

“It’s Howard.”  He made his way to the basement.  At least down there, the dead did not bother him.  They just rested quietly on the metal table, waiting to be dressed up and put on display.  It was really grotesque actually.  He would just throw them in a hole and bury them instead of going through a service and then putting them in a hole.  Too many people cried.  The service was long.  It was a waste of time, and lately, there were a lot of dead.  “Good,” and he slammed the basement door shut behind him.

Howard walked over to where Mr. Cleese was lying on the table.  He would be the next one for a service.  That was tonight.  The guy walked across the street, and bam.  Some asshole ran him over and kept going.  Everyone called it a tragedy, but not him.  He threw his garbage bag on top of the body and pulled off his shorts and t-shirt.  He opened the bag and took out a pair of black dress paints and a white dress shirt.  He hated this material, but he had to wear it.  It was better than a fast-food restaurant, and he cringed at that memory.

Once dressed, he tied the black bag up and dropped it into the closet, where his “uncle” kept the property of the dead.  It was mostly clothes and shoes.  There were some jewelry and watches, and also cell phones.  One of the recent dead had a few Baseball cards, which was weird, and probably won’t be missed.  His “uncle” didn’t seem to notice that they were gone, and he had to call him, “uncle.”  He seemed bothered by Howard calling him, Jim, but when he was a kid, Howard called him that.  He wasn’t sure what changed.

“You ready?”  His “uncle” called down to the basement.  “Service is starting.  Family’s in the private area.  Father’s in the small chapel room.  I need you to greet the other family and friends outside, and for Christ’s sake, do not fucking smile.”

Howard moved up the stairs.  “Greet them.  Got it.”  He smiled as he walked past his “uncle.”

His “uncle” stared at Howard’s gray sneakers.  “Have you seen the urn?”

Howard’s smile vanished.  “Urn,” he asked.

“Yeah, the expensive decorative one that was in the hallway outside the service room?”

“The heavy one?”

“Sure.  The heavy one.”  His “uncle” placed a hand on his arm.  “Did you sell it?”

“What?  No.  Why the fuck would you ask me that?  Did I sell it?  I don’t steal.”

“I know about the Baseball cards.  Your mother told me, but I promised her that I won’t fire you because God only knows that no one else is going to hire you.  So, be honest.  Did you have anything to do with the urn going missing?”

“No.”  Howard forced a smile.  “Can I greet the grievers now?  I can’t wait to hear them wail and cry like the last lot.”

He was surprised by his “uncle” placing a ten-dollar bill into his hand.  “Go make yourself scarce after the service starts.  No one feels comfortable with you around,” and he walked away.

“I didn’t steal the urn,” Howard yelled after him.  “I cremated it,” he muttered to himself.

Howard walked outside.  He would rather the peace and quiet and the warm sunlight.  Instead, it was another mass of mourners dressed in black.  Some were already crying, and he had no patience for them.  He held the door open and said, “Please, go inside.  Straight down to the large service area.  Pamphlets will be waiting in your seats.”

Most of the mourners ignored him, but one said, “I’m sorry wouldn’t kill you.”

“Wouldn’t it,” Howard replied.

Most of the mourners were inside now except for a small, old woman.  She hung back, folding her hands together in front of her.  She even had a black veil over her face.  She approached Howard, lifted up the veil, and took his hand in hers.

“I am so, so sorry to hear about Susie,” and Howard shook at her words.  “That poor, poor creature.  Is she still in the big hospital in a coma?”

“Yes,” Howard forced the word out of his mouth.  “She is.”

“I’m sorry.  She was so good to you from what I’ve heard.  So tragic.  That was what?  A week ago?”

“Two.”  Howard felt sick.  Could this woman please just leave him alone?  “Two weeks ago.”

“So sudden.”  The woman dropped her hand away from him.  “You doing okay?”

“I’m fine.  Service is going to start, so you better hurry.”

“Well, I guess you’re right, and let’s pray that she wakes up soon.  I hope she does.”  She walked inside, and Howard closed the door behind her.

“Fuck,” he yelled out into the air, but then he noticed one last mourner having a cigarette nearby.  “What the fuck are you looking at,” and he stormed past him.

There were questions about Susie because they had found her unconscious, lying on the floor at the funeral home two weeks ago.  Why was she there?  What happened?  Why did she collapse?  He couldn’t answer any of it except that she was there to see him, and she collapsed. 

***

Howard liked walking to the gas station.  He just hated the two stoners that were always working there.  They were like rejects from a Kevin Smith movie, and he could not stand either one of them.  And both boys graduated high school, so did they ever hear the word, college?  No, they would rather fire off their brain cells and make life a living hell for him.

Howard enjoyed being inside the store.  He liked how the lights overhead bounced over the refrigerators, and he grabbed himself a soda.  He breathed in the smell of hot dogs cooking nearby.  He even liked the faint whiff of cigars, but he would never smoke one or cigarettes.  He had a clean living as his mother would say minus the sugar and cholesterol.  He was at peace in here, surrounded by sweets and silence.  If only the two stoners would stop staring at him.

“How,” one said.

“Weird,” the other replied.

One of the boys stood behind the register.  Howard would bet anything that he stole from the drawer.  His eyes were so fucking red.  Maybe, he couldn’t even see the numbers, but he never missed a beat.  How could the owner be such a fool to let someone like him handle the register?  Maybe, the owner was a pothead, but who the hell knows?  It was a miracle that this idiot and his friend didn’t explode into a giant mushroom cloud, wiping out the gas station and store. 

The other boy leaned against the counter near the hot dogs.  He followed Howard’s gaze over to them and grinned, and he quickly grabbed one for Howard.  And Howard hated that he handled his food with his bare hands.  He probably never washed them, but the boy didn’t care.  Neither did Howard, who just wanted his damn hot dog.

“Idiot,” Howard snapped at the one behind the register.  “Idiot,” he said to the one touching his hot dog, and he could’ve sworn that the boy rubbed his nose before he touched his dog.

“Come on now, How,” the one behind the register said.

“Weird, don’t be rude.  Want a dick?”  The boy laughed as he held out the hot dog to Howard.  “It’s fresh,” and that made Howard feel sick.  But he grabbed it anyway and brought his soda and hot dog over to the register.

“Dog and Soda.  Thank you.”  Howard slammed the ten-dollar bill on the counter.

“Fine.”  The one behind the register grabbed the money into his hand.  “Ketchup and mustard is extra.”

“Keep the change.  I don’t care.”  Howard watched the other one, making sure that it was just ketchup and mustard that he put on his dog.  “Assholes.”  He grabbed his dog and soda, and he stormed out of the store.  “I hate those two,” he muttered under his breath.

“Enjoy your dick,” the two of them yelled after Howard before exploding into fits of laughter.

Howard knew that he should not eat the hot dog.  They probably messed with it.  They always messed with it, but he was hungry.  And he had eaten worse like the hot dog, where they doped it up with something, sending him on a psychedelic trip.  He didn’t remember any of it, but whatever he did when his mind was gone scared the shit out of his “uncle.”  And his “uncle” still refused to tell Howard about it.  He just brought Howard home and told him to stay there for a week.  Fucking rejects, and luckily, it was before the whole Susie thing.  Otherwise, he might have woken up in a jail cell.

As Howard shoved the hot dog into his mouth, keeping his back to the rejects in the gas station, he watched a car pull up next to one of the two gas pumps.  One was always out of order.  It was such a scam, and most of the drivers looked like they were blue-collar.  But not this guy.  This guy looked like he never met manual labor.  What the hell was he doing here, and the driver looked at him, flashing a big smile.  “Howard,” and he flinched at hearing his name pronounced correctly.  “David’s boy,” and that hurt even more.

Howard dropped what was left of his lunch by his feet.  “You knew my father?”  He crushed part of the bun into the dirt with his shoe.

“I did.”  The driver pulled the pump out and slipped it into the gas tank.  “Good man.  For a short while.”  He watched Howard’s hands close into fists.  “Damn shame that he went crazy, and then he went off and killed himself.  You were what?  Ten?”

“Twelve,” Howard mumbled.

“Man’s age.  Damn shame.” 

“You said that already.”

“I meant you, Howard.  The way you turned out.  You’re worse than your father.”  The man put the pump back and returned the cap over the gas tank.  He looked over at the two stoners leaning out the door, listening to their conversation.  “Boys, put it on my tab.”

“Yes, sir,” they said together.

“I don’t know, Howard.  Maybe, your mother should have stayed with Jim.”  He got into the car and drove away.

“Fuck you,” Howard screamed after him, and he heard the stoners laughing at his response.  “And fuck you losers.”

Howard hurried down the road.  He kicked at the ground as a car sped by.  The driver yelled something at him, but he just ignored him.  Everyone in this damn town had it out for him, but they were the monsters.  Not him.

Howard looked up and was surprised to see a black cat walking ahead of him.  The cat was dragging one of their back legs.  He was surprised that the cat stopped to look at him, and he walked over to the cat, expecting it to hiss and scratch at him.  Instead, the cat lied down on the ground, and Howard picked up the poor creature into his arms.  He carried it over to the funeral home, but he would not bring it inside.  The last time his “uncle” found a stray cat, he drowned it right in front of Howard.

“Who broke your leg?”  The cat mewed.  “Fucking assholes in this town.  I wish they all dropped dead.”

The service looked like it was ending.  Howard did not want to run into that small, old woman again.  There was a garden behind the funeral home.  He brought the cat over there and laid it down on the grass, and the cat purred in response.  The sun came out, shining over the poor creature, and the cat mewed again.

Howard sat on a stone bench nearby.  The cat couldn’t stay here.  It was injured, and it couldn’t run.  His “uncle” would drown it like he did before.  Maybe, bringing it here was a mistake.  Howard noticed a large rock nearby, and he picked it up with his hand.  It had a good weight to it.  A few blows, and it would be over.  He was doing the cat a favor, but when he went to strike the cat in the head, Susie’s voice echoed out into the air.

“I got a job offer, Howard.  It’s in the city, though.”

Howard’s hand froze over the cat’s head, and its eyes moved from him to his hand.  The cat seemed like it knew what Howard wanted to do to it, but then Howard’s hand shook.  And the cat licked his hand.

“I’m sorry, Howard, but this is a rare opportunity.  It won’t come again, and I need to take it.  I’m sorry.  I really am, and who knows?  Maybe, I could come back to you afterward, but not now.  You need to let me go.  Come on, Howard.  Say something.  Please.”

“I loved you!” 

The sound of Howard’s voice rattled him.  His hand folded over the rock, remembering the urn.  It had a good weight to it too, but he thought that it would be light like all the other ones.  He thought the urn would just shatter against her head, but it didn’t.  She was the one that broke, and he dropped the rock.  “You’re on your own.”  He wiped his tears away as the cat tried to lick his hand again, but he pushed the cat back.  “You’re fucking on your own,” and Howard stormed into the funeral home.

When Howard got inside the funeral home, everyone but his “uncle” was gone.  He watched his “uncle” check his watch.  One last service, and then his “uncle” would drive him home.  Maybe, Howard would call in sick the next day.  He needed some time to shake this day off, but it was his hand that shook.

“How weird?”  His “uncle” watched Howard disappear into the basement.  “Last service in an hour,” but Howard did not answer him.  He just slammed the basement door shut behind him. As his “uncle” readied the service area, placing the pamphlets in the seat, Howard helped him, but he didn’t say a word.  His “uncle” tried to get him to talk, but he didn’t feel like talking.  There was nothing to say to him or anyone else in this damn town.  He just wanted to go home to his mother, who would be waiting for him.  He would eat his dinner and then call it a night, and then he would say a prayer for Susie.  Please, God, don’t let her ever wake up.

As the last service started, Howard was surprised at the few people that attended.  Would his funeral be like this?  Would it just be his mother and his “uncle”?  Once Howard was finally out of the picture, there would be nothing stopping his “uncle” from being with his mother again, and that thought made him feel sick.  He thought about the rock in the garden behind the funeral home.  He could always make his “uncle” disappear, maybe cremate him like that urn, but now was not the time for that.  He would have to wait, and maybe it wasn’t even worth it.  As long as he was around, he would not let his “uncle” get that close to his mother again.

Howard was back in the basement, sitting beside the table, where the dead waited to be decorated and put on display before being dropped into a big hole.  He had the newspaper open to his favorite page, the Obit page, and he was once again drawing smiley faces next to the dead.  He enjoyed his solitude until the basement door opened, and he heard his “uncle” say, “Time to go home, How weird.”

“I’m coming.”  Howard closed the newspaper, leaving it and the pen on the table.  “And it’s fucking Howard,” but his “uncle” had already moved away from the basement door.

Howard hated riding in the truck with his “uncle” because he would smoke his nasty cigarettes, suffocating him with its smell.  At least, his mother knew that it was not Howard that was smoking.  It was his “uncle,” and a smile creeped over Howard’s lips.  And he said, “Jim.”

“I told you not to call me that.”  His “uncle” refused to look at him.  “What’s with you today?  You’re off.”

“I’m off?”  Howard was tempted to grab the cigarette and throw it out the half-open window.  “What does that mean?”

“Nothing.  We’re almost to your house.”

“You mean the one-floor poor excuse for a house?  Maybe, my mother should move into the funeral home with you.  I bet you would like that, but then again, you’d be stuck with me.”

“What the hell, How weird?”

Howard was about to ask what that meant when he saw the flashing lights in the small driveway leading up to his house.  One vehicle was a squad car.  He recognized the other car from the gas station, but what was that guy doing here?  And why were they in his house with his mother?

Howard rushed out of the truck and flew towards the front door, which was left open.  He found his mother sitting at the kitchen table with tears on her face, a cigarette tucked between her fingers.  The man from the gas station sat next to her with his hand on her arm.  Two officers stood nearby, and when Howard moved toward his mother, they grabbed hold of him. 

“Mom,” Howard shrieked.

“Oh, Howie, please tell me that it’s not true.  You must say that it’s not true.”

“Howard.”  He flinched as that man said his name correctly.  Again.  “You remember me?”

“From the gas station.”

“Yes, from the gas station.”  He nodded to the two officers to release him.  “I’m sorry, Howard.”

“Don’t say my name,” Howard yelled at him.  He watched his “uncle” walk over to his mother, placing a hand on her shoulder.  “Don’t fucking touch my mother!”

“You’re under arrest, Howard.  You have the right to remain silent.”  The man from the gas station handcuffed his hands behind him.  “You have the right to remain silent and the right to talk to a lawyer.”

“What did I do?”  Howard looked from him to his mother.  “Mom, help me.”

“Oh, Howie, I can’t.”  She turned away, pushing her face into his “uncle’s” shirt.

“What did he do,” his “uncle” asked.

“He’s being charged with negligent homicide.  You remember Macy Graves?”

“Yeah, she just buried her mother.”

“Well, Howard here walked past their car after a truck slammed into it, leaving it on its side with the tires still spinning.”  He noticed the grin on Howard’s face.  “She would have lived, Howard, if you had gotten help.”  He shook his head as Howard still grinned.  “Anyway, Macy recognized Howard here at the service in the funeral home.  She said that you were smiling.”

“I was just giving my condolences,” Howard replied.

“Jesus,” one officer muttered.

“Howie,” Howard’s mother cried.

“What?  Fine.  I like when people die.  There.  I said it.  Are you happy now, and the charge is bullshit.  It won’t stick because I don’t have a criminal record.  Right, Detective?”

“Right, but you still need a lawyer.”  He moved Howard away from his mother and toward the door.  “Oh, one more thing.”  He smiled at Howard, which made Howard’s grin disappear.  “Susie’s awake, and she’ll be talking to us very soon.”


Bio: Melissa R. Mendelson is a Poet and Horror, Science-Fiction and Dystopian Short Story Author.  Her stories have been published by Sirens Call Publications, Dark Helix Press, Altered Reality Magazine, Transmundane Press, Wild Ink Publishing and Owl Canyon Press.  She also won second place in the Writer’sWeekly.com 24 hour Short Story Contest. She has written two books “Better Off Here” and “Stories Written Along Covid Walls“, both of which can be purchased at Amazon, or found on our Bookstore page.
She has previously published the short stories “That’s Not My Face” and “Unprotected” on The Yard: Crime Blog.

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