In anticipation of October and Halloween (empirically the best month/holiday of them all), here's a short story called "Rigor Mortis." Enjoy!
The body lay pointing downhill, head lower than feet, which were just to the left of the hill’s crest. Given the bulky shape and proportions, it had to be a male, although in truth it was hard to tell. The head seemed simultaneously pale and dirty, with slicked-back hair nearly the color of the face. The clothing was drab, like a faded gray mechanic’s uniform, the shirt untucked and the long sleeves extending fully down to the wrists. Most noticeable were the feet, which, in addition to being near the hilltop, were obviously bare and filthy even from a distance.
Carl and Wanda sat in silence, looking at the body from the cab of Carl’s truck. They were perhaps a hundred yards away across the large green expanse of a disused city park, with decrepit, peeling-yellow football goalposts and a weedy walking track. A lone walker talking animatedly on a cellphone had earlier meandered around the track’s nearer half toward the hill in question but then gave up and cut across the green center, the prospect of tepid exercise no match for an apparently magnetic phone conversation.
“The fuck ya think it’s there for?” wondered Carl, gesturing at the body with his Newport.
“MmmMMmmm,” Wanda intoned. “Maybe he’s got a drinkin’ problem” she said and laughed huskily, pulling a fifth of Beefeater out of a brown bag. “Lemme get one of them.”
Carl plucked another cigarette out of his shirt pocket, lit it with his own, and handed it to Wanda, his eyes studying the body through wispy smoke. “Never seen nobody lay like that before. Head downhill and shit,” he said and snorted a kind of laugh.
“Ain’t moved at all, has he? Looks stiff as a board. Like he got nigger mortis,” Wanda observed.
Carl snorted another laugh, looked at Wanda, and laughed harder when he realized she was serious. “‘Rigor,’” he said, articulating each letter’s sound. “It's called ‘rigor mortis.’ Why the hell would it be ‘nigger mortis’?” he said and laughed, more openly this time.
Wanda studied his face patiently and smoked while he laughed, then scrunched up her face and replied, “Well, it don’t make no less sense than ‘rigor.’ ‘Rigor mortis’? The fuck’s that mean?”
Carl laughed harder and then coughed gutturally, spewing smoke. “It’s Eyetalian. REEgor MORtis,” he announced in an exaggerated approximation of Italian. “Means ‘death’ or somethin’.”
Wanda blew out a long plume of smoke and grinned. “Shit. You about stupid.”
“Psssssshhhhh. Right. You think he’s got ‘nigger mortis,’ but I'M stupid,” he said and wagged a come here gesture with two fingers, asking for the bottle.
Wanda passed it. “You work today?”
Carl swallowed a mouthful of gin, wincing slightly at the burn and exhaling. “Naw. Lady called wantin’ some rooms painted, but she can’t pay cash.” He drank again. “Need to get somethin’ soon, though. Life o’ luxury’s ‘bout run its course,” he said and handed the bottle back.
“Hah,” Wanda blurted. “Could always work with me,” she offered.
“Shit,” Carl grunted. “I ain’t no pimp.” He gazed out the windshield, grinning, pulling on his cigarette.
Wanda threw the bottle cap at him, eyes rabid. “And I ain’t no whore. Fuckin’ asshole.”
Carl giggled. “Not anymore,” he said and laughed outright.
“Not ever,” Wanda fired back. “I clean houses. Reg’larly. The fuck do YOU do, motherfucker?”
Carl smirked. “I sit here. Getting’ fucked up. Same as you.”
“Uh-huh. Yeah. You ‘n me ‘n REEgur MORtis over there,” she said and chuckled half-heartedly, trying to re-lighten the mood. After another belt of gin, she smacked her lips, rasped “Ahhhhh,” and said, “‘Death,’ huh? Think he’s really dead?”
Carl took the bottle from her. “Hell if I know.” He drank. “Ain’t moved. Might as well be.” A car pulled into the ridged and crumbling parking lot where Carl’s truck sat, rolling slowly behind them and then exiting the lot again, going the same direction it had been originally. “How ‘bout you go see?”
“Naw, I’m fine right where I am,” Wanda replied. At that moment her cell phone rang, with Toby Keith clamoring to talk about him for a change. Wanda cut him off in mid-chorus. “Hey baby. Whatcha doin’?”
While Wanda chattered, Carl sat in silence and smoked, staring ahead intently and taking occasional pulls from the bottle. After several minutes, he rolled down the window and flicked his cigarette butt into the nearby and overgrown grass. “You gonna talk or we gonna get down to it?” he said irritably.
Wanda looked at him and pointed at the phone by her ear, mouthing It’s Mandy with an expression of What am I supposed to do? “Honey, I ain’t made dinner yet,” she said into the phone. “I ain’t even home. When's your shift end?”
Carl exhaled exasperatedly. “Fuck it. I’m gonna check on our friend here.” He swigged some more gin and opened the door.
“…some hot dogs in there, I think—Carl! What the hell you doin’?” Wanda exclaimed, perplexed.
“I just told you: I’m goin’ see about our friend yonder,” Carl said and gestured toward the body with a new and unlit cigarette. “You can talk to tootsie-pop there and maybe you’ll be done when I get back,” Carl exclaimed histrionically before adding as an aside, “but I won’t be holdin’ my breath.” He started walking and was off the asphalt and into the grass in four long strides, lighting his cigarette as he went.
“Carl? Carl!” Wanda yelled as the door slammed. “Ugh. Dammit—What?.....Yes, Mandy. I'm with Carl again,” Wanda said with scarcely contained sarcasm. She watched Carl walk across the track’s green center, smoking as he went. “No……No……Now, w—No, you don’t know that. You ain’t never even been around him for any length of time……He’s like who?......In what movie?......The hell’re you even talkin’ ‘bout?” Wanda swigged some gin while her daughter ranted and then waited impatiently for her to finish. “Ain’t nobody ever said he’s yer daddy. This ain’t about you, Mandy!” She listened for several moments, studying her cigarette and her unkempt nails, and then rolled her eyes and groaned. “You know what? It ain’t none of your business anyway, girl!” She was fully absorbed in the conversation now, shouting and jabbing the air with two fingers and a cigarette. “Aw, shit, spare me the psycho talk! You ain’t raised nobody ‘cept the pup you spit out……Really? Well, guess what? I am a grown woman and I’m your mother! You don’t get to tell me what to do!......Yeah, well, when you been through what I been through, maybe then you can talk to me ‘bout ‘how a mother’s s’posed to treat her daughter’!” When she said this last, she tried to make the air-quote gesture with her hands and dropped her phone, which hit her thigh, bounced against the truck’s glove compartment, and fell to the floor of the cab. “Fuck,” Wanda spat, bending over to retrieve it. She put the cigarette in her mouth to search the floor with both hands, flush with anger, ash falling around her fingers, stringy dishwater hair hanging around her face. When she finally found the phone, she sat up and quickly put it back to her ear. “Hello? Mandy? Naw, I dropp—”
Wanda stopped talking abruptly when she looked out the windshield again. Carl was nowhere to be seen. She blinked rapidly three times, not understanding what she saw. She rubbed her eyes with the back of a thumb, squinted, and tried to focus on her field of view. Empty road, tall lone tree, grass, walking track, goalposts, body, hill, brush, trees, the grayish-orange almost-sunset above all. No Carl in sight.
Suddenly she whirled around to her left, eyes darting, then looked through the back window and past the bed, then all the way back around right to look out her window, certain that Carl was waiting to scare her. Nothing.
“Well……shit. Where is he?” she said, her voice loud in the cab. Calls of “Mama? MAMA?!” squawked from her phone. “Huh? Wha—Nothin’……No, it’s nothin’. Just, uh, go back to work, honey. I'll be home ‘fore long.” She pressed END and thought for a moment, then dialed Carl’s number. While it rang, she looked back out the windshield. The body did not appear to have moved. Still no sign of Carl. “Idiot. The hell you doin’ now?” The rings stopped, and a female voice explained that Carl’s mailbox was full. “Of course. Jesus Christ,” Wanda spat, ending the call.
Daylight was slipping away, and as Wanda entertained the first thought of going to find Carl, she noticed his keys still in the ignition. Boy, that’d show him, wouldn’t it? she thought. Fuckin’ tryin’ to prank me and get his ass left. She knew he’d be irrationally angry at such a response, though, perhaps enough to tell the police she’d stolen his car. Nope. Better sit ‘n wait, she decided.
But looking around at the world outside the truck, she realized that daylight would be gone before long, and she had no interest in being there alone in the dark with a body (Dead?, she wondered once more) lying not far away.
She tried calling him again but got the same result. “Goddammit, Carl,” she said, the first splotches of uneasiness creeping into her voice. “This ain’t funny.” She rotated around to her right, used her bare hand to wipe some condensation from the window, and looked at the rest of the park. There was a pavilion with one demolished picnic table, an overgrown baseball field with dugouts that had no benches but plenty of trash, and a huge concrete swimming pool that probably hadn’t held water in years. Beyond all this she could see a basketball court with four backboards on poles but, of course, no rims or nets. She felt a tremor in her abdomen as aloneness presented itself in full.
Wanda jerkily faced forward again and pulled hard on her cigarette, as though she were shaking something off. She exhaled, thought for a second, and grabbed the bottle. “Nothin’ for it,” she mumbled and took three giant gulps of gin. She winced at the burn and coughed quietly. “Hoo-wee. OK, then,” she proclaimed, and opened the truck door.
She stepped down into the parking lot, slipped her phone into a pocket, and stood there thinking for a moment. Then she leaned back inside the cab and pulled Carl’s keys out of the ignition, pocketing them as she looked at the gin again. She grabbed the bottle and gulped from it while looking out at where Carl had been walking. “Asshole,” she grunted while setting the bottle on her seat. “Oughta know better’n to do this to somebody with a nerve condition. Shit.” She put the cigarette in her mouth and closed her eyes, trying to settle down. “Awright,” she muttered around the cigarette and shut the creaky truck door.
Wanda walked around the passenger side of the truck and saw what appeared to be Carl’s vague footprints in the dewy grass. Her eyes followed them toward the walking track where they ended only to resume in the track’s grassy center. She couldn’t see from there whether they continued or not, but Carl had obviously headed in that direction. Wanda began walking that way, feeling the cool dew on her sandaled feet once she hit the grass. “Carl?” she offered weakly, not aware until that moment that she was reluctant to be too loud. She cleared her throat and called his name again, louder this time but not enough to carry far. The fuck am I ‘fraid of? she wondered. This is about stupid. “Carl!” she called again and felt a small rush of courage at the growing volume. Her eyes went involuntarily to where the body still lay. “This ain’t funny, Carl. Cut the shit.”
She walked on, crossing the weedy track and continuing well into the center area, where she paused and turned around, surveying the end of the park from where she’d come. The pavilion, Carl’s truck, the backs of small old houses past the parking lot and across the road. Still no Carl. “Carl, I'm gonna leave without you. Not even jokin’. I got your keys,” she called. “I ain’t got time for whatever you’re doin’.” She waited for Carl to step from behind the pavilion or pop up out of his truck bed, laughing at her fear, the prank complete. Nothing. No sound at all.
Wanda exhaled loudly. “Bastard,” she muttered as she turned around. The urge to leave was strong now, but she looked down and saw more dewy footprints extending from where she stood toward the other end of the walking track, just past which the grass began its small incline to the hill where the body lay. Wanda realized she was more than halfway between Carl’s truck and the body, and without thinking about it, she heard herself say, “Hey…Hey, mister…Sir?” She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “Are you all right?” The body lay as it had. Wanda looked around nervously as if worried about being seen, and then she started slowly following Carl’s footprints again.
I am through with this motherfucker forever, she thought shrilly as she walked, the light slipping closer to dusk. Ain’t a damn thing he can say to explain this—but the thought was interrupted by her phone’s ringing. Wanda stopped abruptly and snatched the phone out of her pocket, dropping her cigarette and nearly light-headed with relief. It was Mandy. “No. No. Dammit,” she said, emotion rising in her chest like heavy foam. Desperately, she pressed IGNORE on her phone and tried Carl's number again. She held the phone to her ear and looked around as she waited. The dial tone began. “Come on,” she said quietly. “Please p—” but the words caught in her throat.
She could hear Carl’s ringtone.
Wanda held her breath involuntarily as she looked around to see where the sound was coming from. It was faint but definitely coming from up the hill ahead of her somewhere. She focused hard, listening for the ringing and still holding her breath, and when the voice came on to lament Carl’s full mailbox, it startled Wanda and she nearly screamed. Breathing rapidly now, she pressed END, closed her eyes tightly for a moment, and then dialed Carl again. Without raising the phone to her ear, she let it ring and walked toward the hill.
Carl’s bullfrog ringtone croaked tinnily. Wanda tilted her face down to the left and squinted with the effort of listening, the volume increasing slightly as she moved forward. What in the hell is goin’ on? she thought. When the automated message began, she ended the call and immediately dialed again.
Wanda froze. The ringing was coming from near the body.
Her scalp tightened and her skin prickled, and she stared at the body until her eyes burned. “Carl,” she pled, anger gone. “Please. You’re scarin’ me. This ain’t funny.” Beyond the body was overgrown brush, thick and impenetrable-looking.
The mailbox lady was talking again. Wanda silenced her and stood still, near tears. Without thinking, she redialed Carl and began slowly walking toward the ringing.
As she climbed the small rise, Wanda couldn’t keep from staring at the body. It was indeed a man, and he indeed looked stiff, the pale and dirty fingers fully extended and the palms flat on the ground. His clothes were filthy, and his feet were filthier, like he’d been walking in mud for years. His face, also pale and dirty, looked incongruously peaceful. He did not seem to be breathing.
“Oh God,” Wanda moaned, simultaneously relieved and shocked to see Carl’s phone leaning against the man’s leg. She impulsively walked faster toward the phone but pulled up short when she remembered it was leaning against a dirty corpse. Panting, tasting juniper and hot copper, rubbing her fingers and thumbs together expectantly, she looked at the man, wary of sudden movements. Then she looked back at the phone, took three cautious steps, and was at it.
Wanda managed to still her breathing and looked at the man without turning her head too much. He was gaunt, wasted-looking, so still. She stood near his waist and was just about to pick up Carl’s phone when the man grabbed her left ankle. Wanda screamed and looked at his face. His eyes were opened only slightly but looked directly into hers with a black and terrible ferocity. “NO! NO! LET ME GO! FUCK!” she wailed hysterically. The man’s grip was inhumanly strong. Her ankle felt like it was being crushed. She dug down with her right foot and tried to pull free but got no slippage at all. Then she frenziedly bent at the waist and pounded on his right leg as hard as she could, growling “GODDAMN YOU MOTHERFUCKER LET ME GO,” some part of her brain registering her fist’s sensation that the man’s pants were so grimy they were tacky and sticking to her hand with every strike.
In her fury to free herself, Wanda did not see the movement in the brush to her right until another body fully emerged, the small figure’s relative paleness stark against the green and brown foliage. She turned her head then in a panic, her heart almost shooting up through her throat, and saw a short, wiry man, naked and dirty, approaching quickly with something in his hand. She had time to take in his overgrown and matted brown hair, his misshapen forehead, his one remaining eye, his withered penis, and his bestial odor, and then he was upon her. She screamed for half a second before the stained lump hammer in his right hand went up and came down with awful speed and slammed thickly into her skull. Wanda’s eyes rolled up, and she crumpled onto her right leg. The naked man caught her in the armpit with his left hand and pulled the hammer out of her skull with a soft thock, the hammer head wet and pulpy with blood and tissue. The hand released Wanda’s ankle as the naked man dragged her away into the brush.