Pieter had the following prompts to choose from:
Amy – An art museum or an amusement park…which do you prefer and why?
Wendy – The Northern Lights and alien abductions.
Cameron – You had me at “Good-bye”.
Jen – A wine bottle, a can-opener, and a pack of matches.
Erika – Drivers wanted.
I picked Erika’s. I’ve always wanted to be a Driver (with the capital “D”). Here’s what I came up with, before it got away from me…
The sign was taped to the blacked out window of an old Lincoln. A beautiful car. The old, old one with the suicide doors, only this one was converted to a limo for the funeral home. It grinned at me from the front drive.
I remember thinking to myself, what sort of driver are they looking for? Someone to shuttle the grieving widows around? Or maybe they needed someone to ship the bodies? The latter would be a bit creepy. I could see why they might have a job opening. But if was the former, and the lucky employee got to drive that car, I definitely wanted in.
My interview was on a Friday. I wore my best khakis and a blue polo. Pretty much the nicest clothes I owned. I wasn’t exactly well-off. I was dreaming about what sort of uniform I might have to wear – pressed white shirt, jaunty cap, and leather gloves – when the undertaker (mortician, funeral director?) greeted me in the lobby.
He was a slight man, impeccably dressed in a dark suit. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back and greeted me in a smooth, soft voice: “Mister Hayden?”
I stood with a smile and shook his hand. It was limp and silky, like trying to shake a neck-tie.
“Please, call me Casper. It’s nice to meet you, Mister Hirsch.” He gave a thin smile and a nod.
I liked that, all business. Like an adult. Nobody ever called me Mister. Of course the only other jobs I’ve had were bussing tables at a diner and cleaning toilets at a gas station. I was kind of surprised I even landed an interview. Maybe they hadn’t checked my references.
I followed him to his office.
It was a sparse room, full of simple oak furniture. Nothing much on the walls except a painting of an old church and a couple of framed degrees and certificates. Under the painting was a little gold plaque that read: Ecc. 9:5-6.
I didn’t know the verse. Although I’d grown up religious, none of it had really stuck. I had been the kid at church who doodled in the hymnals and couldn’t keep his hands to himself. The one who explored the vestry after service, whose parents were always yelling for because the pot-luck was starting, or the sister had a soccer game we were late for. They would find me back behind the pulpit, behind the wall with the big wood cross, tapping away at organ pipes as big around as my fist, or trying to leave the perfect fingerprint on the perfectly polished hand-bells.
I think maybe I was too curious for Sunday school teaching. And maybe it was that same curiosity that had led me to try and get a job as an undertaker’s driver.
Mister Hirsch saw me looking at the plaque, but didn’t say anything, just sat behind his desk and made a steeple with his fingers.
“So the job is a bit odd, I’ll grant you, but the pay is good. You’ll be on call, but most of the work is done at night. I hope that’s not a problem?”
I shook my head. “Not at all. I’m a bit of a night-owl.”
He nodded again. “Good. Good. And you can start soon?”
I was a bit taken aback. He was talking like I already had the job. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of candidates.
“Yeah, definitely,” I replied. “But what exactly will I be doing?”
“It’s more of a courier job, to be honest. Not very interesting. Don’t worry, you won’t be driving any corpses or coffins or anything.” He twittered a little laugh like he’d made a joke, but I was actually relieved.
“You’ll have the same route every night, when we need you,” he continued. “Between here and our warehouse on the river. Many of our customers leave behind personal effects, and part of our service is storing such effects until the family comes to claim them. It’s fairly monotonous work but, as I said, we will compensate you well for your time.”
My heart sunk a bit, but I tried not to show it. They probably had some sort of cargo van in the back that I’d be driving, rather than the Lincoln. No tie, no hat, no gloves.
But at least it was a job.
“Does this sound like something you are interested in?” Hirsch asked.
“It does. Thank you for the opportunity.”
“Great!” he exclaimed. Literally. His whole face lit up, like he was surprised I wanted the job. “Let me get the spare keys to the Lincoln. You can’t take it home of course, but I’ll give you a set just in case.”
“The Lincoln?” I sputtered.
“Yes, the one out front. You do have a driver’s license, right?”
“Yeah, absolutely!” I exclaimed. Literally. My whole face lit up at the thought of driving that mobster car around all night.
It ended up being just as boring as Hirsch made it out to be, but I hardly noticed. The route between the funeral home and the warehouse was two hours round-trip, but I turned it into three. Not because I was milking the hours or anything (I got a flat rate per night), but because I just loved the damn car.
You know how they call all those old cars “boats”? Well I could see why. The car was wide and long and low and swayed with each turn, rocked with each bump, just sort of cradling me in its arms while it sang me a lullaby.
I took up smoking again just so I had an excuse to drive with the window down, so people could see me. I started listening to jazz stations. I bought the cap and the gloves with my own money because I wanted to do the car justice. It deserved a Driver (capital “D”).
I know I’m romanticizing it a bit, but please keep in mind that my regular car, my commuter, was a Chevy Cavalier. Not the smooth rounded ones of the late nineties, the ones that look like the Camaro’s sniveling little brother, but the jagged, blocky, snaggle-tooth earlier model.
I found myself waiting by my phone each night, hoping for a call from Hirsch or one of his many employees.
My work nights went like this: get a call (woo-hoo!), clanky, bouncy drive to the funeral home where I would park in the back, walk around to the Lincoln and wait for someone to bring out The Box.
The Box was like a miniature sea-chest, bulky and heavy and old. It was weathered from years of use, the brass clasp tarnished and gritty. Its edges were bound in iron strips, etched with all sorts of religious symbols; crosses and Star-of-Davids, and others that I barely recognized (maybe an Ankh?).
I peeked inside it once or twice (I think I mentioned that I was the curious sort?), but the only items I ever saw were an old, moth-eaten dress, and an old Elgin pocket-watch. Personal effects, just like Hirsch said. After that I didn’t bother, just hefted the box into the wide back seat, and drove my route.
The Lincoln had definitely been an actual limo at one point in its service. The bench seat in front was backed by a divider, complete with a blacked-out roll-up window. There was a little hex knob where a crank used to sit, so the driver could take directions from the passenger in back. But my only passenger was The Box, and I never had cause to ask it where it wanted to go.
Each night I drove The Box to the warehouse, where I would drive through a large loading door into a cavernous building. There were big orange light bulbs hanging high from the ceiling in wire cages, leaving most of the huge room in shadow. It was creepy, but I kind of liked creepy. I liked feeling like I was doing something mysterious.
I would stop the car, turn off the engine and give a quick honk. After a few minutes, sometimes as much as fifteen, a man would emerge from the darkness, dressed in coveralls. He would take The Box from the backseat and lug it off into the warehouse depths to be emptied and filed with all the other dead-people stuff. He never brought The Box back to me. I just left as soon as he took it, but every night at the beginning of my route the same Box would be carried out to me in the funeral home parking lot.
I never thought it was weird. Maybe I was enraptured by the car, maybe I just d didn’t care. Undertakers/morticians/funeral directors were supposed to be weird people with weird habits and a mysterious air. That’s why they’re drawn to the job, right?
But then one night, after my third or fourth month driving the route, The Box moved.
I was listening to a song off the album Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins, Impulse! Records, 1963. The song was Limbo Jazz (I was becoming something of an aficionado at this point). I tapped my gloved fingers on the edge of the huge steering wheel, one hand out the window, smoldering cigarette dangling between two fingers, when something thumped from the back seat.
I turned off the radio. As I said before, the car was smooth. Nothing ever bumped or jostled or jumped. So either the catalytic converter had fallen off, or The Box had slipped from its leather seat.
I pulled over, got out, and opened the back door. Sure enough, The Box had slipped into the gap between the seat and the dividing wall. Weird, seeing as how I didn’t remember hitting any bumps, but then again, who could tell? Again, the car was smooth.
I lifted the box back onto the seat and took off.
A few minutes later, thump again. This time, as I lifted the box back onto the seat I noticed the passenger doors had no interior handles. They’d been removed, as had the window cranks. Just hex bolts jutting from the doors.
What sort of limo has no interior door handles? I thought to myself. Were they afraid widows would throw themselves from the car in a fit of grief? Did that happen? Were all funeral limos similarly equipped? I’d have to look that up.
I hefted the box back onto the seat and drove off.
I still wasn’t weirded out at this point although, in hindsight, maybe I should have been. I pulled into the warehouse, the Lincoln rocking up the little incline and sighing to a stop under the caged lights. I got out, walked to the back, opened the door, and found The Box on the floor again.
I lifted it back onto the seat, listening for the coverall man’s footsteps. I was never told not to open The Box, but was still afraid the man would be mad if he found me rummaging through it. So I waited with the passenger door open.
Five minutes passed. Then ten. I smoked and waited while The Box sat quietly on the Lincoln’s seat, not jumping or falling or throwing itself onto the floorboards.
After fifteen minutes I figured I could take a quick peek. The lid creaked and seemed to whisper as it opened. Inside, nestled in a corner was a tiny pair of shoes. A child’s shoes, with little gold buckles and scuffed soles.
The hairs on my neck stood up and the room felt cold all of a sudden. Cold and sad. I’d been picturing widows, grown-ups and old men dying and leaving their watches or their dresses, maybe their desk-sets or old photo albums. But I’d been driving around a pair of kid’s shoes all night. Some dead kid who only wore a size 4.
I smoked again while I waited, thinking about how terrible it was. How did these people do this job? How did Hirsch put some kid on his table, put a kid in a coffin and sit and listen while people cried and wailed.?
I wondered who it was who drove the Lincoln before me. What had they seen in The Box and what what had they felt?
All of a sudden the Lincoln felt strange. More ominous. A carriage for the dead and I was some half-assed psychopomp, shuttling these spirits to their final end. It wasn’t rocking me in its arms, it was rocking the dead, soothing them, cooing them into the afterlife.
The coverall man still hadn’t come. In the quiet of the warehouse I thought I heard voices. Shouting maybe, a voice in ebb and flow, like a preacher leading his congregants in their evening vespers.
Maybe it was my imagination. All I knew is that I wanted to leave. I wanted to drive back to the funeral home and get into my snaggle-tooth Cavalier and drive back to my studio and watch some Family Guy. Maybe drink a beer or eight. Try and sleep. Try not to think about the dead kid’s shoes.
I lifted The Box and carried it deeper into the warehouse, trying not to jostle it. I followed the sound of the voices. They were real, but I had no idea where they were coming from. Some dark back room?
I walked past shelves stacked with cardboard boxes and manila envelopes. Maybe leftover stock from the warehouse’s previous life, or maybe all the objects the funeral home had collected over the years.
At the end of the warehouse, where it was darkest, I found a door. I knocked, but nobody answered. I could hear the voices, coming from somewhere beyond. They echoed strangely, a cavernous sound.
I opened the door to see a staircase, leading to a basement. I followed it down. It wound and wound. The sheet-metal stairs became iron, became wood, became stone. The bulbs along the wall became gas-lamps, became torches, flickering and weaving and casting furtive shadows.
The Box grew heavy. It seemed to fidget in my hands, like the little shoes inside were pacing, tapping and kicking. I almost dropped it. I wondered what was happening. What was happening to my mind?
The deeper I delved the more reality seemed to thin. The air cooled, took on a moist feel, a wet smell, like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
I swore I could smell water.
The voices grew louder and I followed them and then the staircase ended and I stepped through a stone archway onto a long platform. Water rushed to my left. Some underground canal. The torches led me on.
The Box slipped from my hands to clatter to the pressed stone floor, but the clasp held. The shoes didn’t spill out.
Ahead I could see vague moving shapes, little more than shadow. They were speaking in low tones. From the arched ceiling hung wind-chimes and as I passed they tinkled quietly. Hollow, throaty sounds.
I approached the figures. There were three men, dressed in black. They had a net stretched out between them, each holding a section so that it hung taut in the air.
One of the wind-chimes clattered and The Box jumped and this time, when it slipped from my hands, the lid opened and the shoes spilled out and when they did, all along the cavernous path, the chimes were answered by others, a chorus of wooden notes.
One of the men shouted something. I wondered if it was directed at me, but I didn’t think they had seen me yet. I was bent, trying to gather the shoes but they kept slipping from my fingers. I was trying not to look at the water, bubbling its way into the dark.
Every time I grasped the shoes and tried to shove them back into the box, they kicked out of my fingers again. This was wrong. This was unreal. This wasn’t happening.
I gave up and left the shoes and dropped the box. I turned to leave, to run back up the stairs, but a low moan made me freeze. I looked at the shoes, looked at the water and, for some reason, crept closer to the men with the net. I wanted to see what had made that moan.
Remember that curiosity? This was one of those times it was a curse, but I think maybe I felt like I was dreaming. Maybe I was still in the Lincoln and it had rocked me to sleep while I waited for someone to come retrieve the box.
I kept to the shadows along the water and approached the men. They stood on a dock and at the end of the dock there was a boat tied. An old boat, like a Venetian gondola, with lanterns swaying at bow and stern.
The men were standing, holding the net spread out over something on the floor of the dock. It was a chalk drawing, like one of those Tibetan mandalas, but all white and crude and full of arcane shapes.
Lined up around their feet were jars, some clay, some alabaster or wood or brass. A shelf was bolted to the wall under another torch and it too was filled with those jars. All of them had runes and sigils carved into their sides.
What were they catching? What was this? What would they do if they saw me?
The moan sounded again and from the shadows another man emerged. He was old, his thin skin covering an impossibly bony frame. His brow was wet with blood and across his chest hung rope and chains. His hands were bound behind his back and the only thing he wore was a faded red loin-cloth.
He staggered towards the wall, trying to pass the men, but one of them turned and shouted. After a moment’s hesitation the man dropped his portion of the net and rushed to the old man, clouting him in the side of the head and dragging him back into the shadows. But as he did the old man saw me, his gaze locked onto me and he stretched out his arm, in supplication maybe, or shock, or just plain confusion.
The man who dragged him looked back over his shoulder and also saw me. He shouted to his compatriots. They looked over at me and let go of the net. It fell to the dock in a heap.
Behind me there was the little pitter-patter of tiny feet. Tiny shoes. I heard a tiny splash.
“Son of a bitch!” One of the men shouted. “That was a little one! We should have had that one.” He turned his gaze to me. At this point I had my hands up. I wasn’t going anywhere, and besides I worked for them, right? I was a fellow employee, although this part of the job was obviously above my pay-grade.
“You!” the larger of the men said. He was pointing at me. I took a few steps forward, tried to give my best, most innocent grin.
“What the hell are you doing down here?” he asked.
“I…I’m sorry. Nobody was upstairs to meet me, so I thought I’d…” I trailed off, not sure what I had thought I was doing.
“Where’s The Box?” the man asked. He had his right hand deep into the pocket of his coverall. The man behind him, who hadn’t said a word, was holding something in his left hand, low and in front, hiding whatever it was with his right.
“It’s back there. I dropped it. I’m sorry. I’ll just go and get it.” I turned but the man spoke up again.
“Stay right there.” His voice had taken on a nasty edge. This wasn’t a co-worker. This was the shadowy man in the corner office that you never wanted to see because if you did you weren’t going to be coming in to work the next day, or ever. “Did the box open?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah. It did. It fell. I’m sorry.” I was getting a bit shaky. My knees were doing their best to high-five each other.
“Do you know what you just cost us?” He asked with that same nasty edge. I got a glimmer from the other man. Whatever was in his hand glinted. I tried not to think about what might glint down here, where nobody else was around to see.
“No. Look….I’m sorry. I’ll just…”
“Too late for that, kid. You cost us a lot, and you’re going to have to pay up.” He slipped a long silver knife from his coverall pocket. The other man lifted his. Wicked, curved blades.
I turned and started running, calling back over my shoulder. “Please, I’m just the driver!”
That’s all folks. Hope you liked it. Now I just want to write more about the kid who becomes Charon, or something along those lines.
BTW, new band name: “Half-assed Psychopomps.” I called it. You know, for the record or whatever.
Anyway, my name is Pieter Van Tatenhove, but I write under Pieter Lars (because nobody besides my immediate family can spell my last name). I have a website where you can read some of my other stories and poems, some of them dating back almost eight years now. I’ve had a few things published here and there, am going to the Clarion workshop this summer, and am currently working on my second novel.
Oh, and I’m on twitter @pieterlars