For the moment, then, Blue Henry had been the one to shoot Mr. Thomas Christian Cavanaugh while hiding in the darkness of a tree, though why he could not exactly say, the deceased now stretched out upon a table somewhere in the back of Cooper's Funeral Parlor, an absolutely round face, absolutely white eyes, black hair cropped close, though what Mr. Cavanaugh actually looked like, well Blue Henry couldn't say much about that either, and so it was only natural, wasn't it, that he wanted to fill in the gaps, to take a good look at the face of the man he thought he had killed, at the face of death, so to speak, to know death by looking at it, because death did not touch the young except remotely, that's the way Blue felt about it, like reading in the newspaper about earthquakes in Bolivia or a hurricane in Texas or Louisiana, because there was no other way to experience death and remain untouched. So Blue Henry made his way to the back of Cooper's Funeral Parlor and keeping as close to the white brick walls as he could, past the el-shaped row of dead azaleas and the hearse parked in the drive, and then he snuck inside.
For a long time he stood just inside the back screen door and he did not move. He was standing there, looking down a long, narrow hallway, a few doors open wide on both sides, the light of several rooms slicing yellow and white across the hallway floor. At the far end of the hall there was a burgundy leather sofa with brass knobs nailed to the frame, and a mahogany end table next to the sofa. Up on the walls, neatly framed, there were pictures of coffins, hundreds of carefully crafted coffins, walnut, maple, oak, a few pine ones for the poor folks, and a few that looked like they were made from brass with gold plated handles attached for generals or admirals or maybe a few mayors. But there were so many coffins that he really couldn't distinguish one from another.
Then Blue Henry heard the voices.
"Just a little more wax oughta do it," said the first. "If'n it don't get no hotter, you mean," said the second. "Why you weren't finished with him but an hour this morning when the wax it started beading up. Kind of like he was sweating, I said to myself, and I admit I felt like pulling out my handkerchief and dabbing at his forehead, only I didn't, and then the next thing I know'd why them beads was rolling off of his cheeks and onto the table. Damnedest thing I ever saw. Looked like his whole face was melting."
The men stopped speaking for a moment, the hollow silence of exhausted concentration descending upon the white-brick building, upon the dead chrysanthemums and the crumbling walk, upon the one working wax into the face of a corpse, shoulders stooped and stiffening, the wax of life he'd said when the other had come to work for him, the gift of rosy-cheeked immortality, and the both of them had laughed at the thought; and the same hollow silence descending upon the other one, him standing a step or so behind and always so, a bleary and bespectacled eye peeping up and over the stooped and stiffening shoulder with a mortified and yet heartily insidious interest in the vanishing art of funeral preparation; and there was a silence about Blue Henry as well, though a different kind, him still standing in the hall, leaning back along the edge of the back screen door and the door giving a little because the hinges were loose, listening, inhaling slowly, holding his breath, wondering if he would recognize the face of the man he had shot at and killed, if anyone could recognize a face which had melted once and might do so again, the young man still holding his breath, then the voices of the two men once again, and the young man exhaling, slowly.
"This one's been too much work," said the first.
"Them was my exact words," said the second. "You s'pose he'll keep?"
"He'll have to," said the first. "I'm through with him."
"Dont blame you none at all," said the second. "You want we should dress him up now?"
The first shook his head, smiled, and then the two began to clean up. Then the first started talking about a Mr. Peterson who had passed on the week before last and how Mrs. Peterson had come in and slipped him a jug of something not too dry about an hour before they closed the lid. For the journey to the promised land she had said, and then the first he looked to the second and burst out laughing with that, and the second he was nodding slowly, thinking about the promised land, a bit bewildered, and then the first started in again about how he had figured the only place Mr. Peterson was going to was into the ground, at least for quite a while, and how he was a practical man so he had just waited till Mrs. Peterson went home and then he had slipped it from out of Mr. Peterson's bony white fingers, meaning the jug, and stashed it back of his mahogany desk. Then the first stopped talking and the two of them looked at each other, eye-to-eye twinkling, and then the first again.
"No sense letting it go to waste."
"Them was my exact words."
So the two men stepped into the yellow and white light of the hall, their voices burning with an up-till-then unconscious thirst, the first one wearing an ill-fitting white smock over a blue serge suit, not tall, not thin, bulbous rather, with black bulbous shoes rounding up from beneath the smock, rounding up and then down and then up and down the hardwood hall, the second one following close behind, smockless, serge-suitless, a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles dangling from a gold chain around his neck, the two men walking towards the burgundy leather sofa, the mahogany end table, then the hall jig-jagging left, the men turning past sofa and table, and all the while the various and vividly-imagined possibilities of Mr. Peterson's sprightly jug dangling before them, the first recounting with insouciant admiration a time not too long ago when the venerable and possibly alcoholic Mr. Peterson had passed up the pleasure of attending his own father's funeral in favor of standing outside the church, a double-barreled shotgun in hand, him calling out for some sign that God did or did not exist, some reassurance, perhaps, that death was not just a carnival sideshow, as he had put it, the dead nothing more than freaks to be caged and then put on display and then forgotten, and receiving no answer, at least at first, he had turned his gun in anger upon the bell-tower bell and began firing away, the rain of bird shot rising up and then down upon the hidden nests of blue-gray kites, him then laughing uproariously at the sight of all those birds whirling round and round the tower in a shit-ejecting panic, a sign it's a sign a sign, he had cried, the bird shit falling down upon his head with every shot then shout, him firing until he had exhausted his supply of cartridges then sinking to a squat amid the gelatinous offal of this blue-gray whirl, the birds unsettled still but empty as well, him still laughing; and the second one nodding politely at the first, wondering not about the filth of so many birds roosting in the tower and what had been done to clean them out, nor about the impact of Mr. Peterson's penny ante tirade on the general populace of Pokalawaha, the town not the river, and how ever since that theologically oriented shooting spree a man could get a week in jail just for pointing a gun at the church, no not about the stench of birds or the shooting at church bells, but about how many other jugs had been buried, the two of them unawares, and how could they get at them before the liquor turned sour and whose grave were they going to dig up first.
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