Andrew Bertaina: “A Good Day’s Work,” a Haunted Passages short story

 

THE MAN THREADED HIS WAY down the long rows of bodies with an old wheelbarrow, careful as he rolled, to avoid an outstretched hand, a folded leg, the acrobatics of the dead. The light bore down on his back, harsh and unrelenting as he worked in the tree-less, thankless cemetery. Velvety beaked crows lined the chain-link fence, hopped sometimes, ducked head beneath feathers, and emerged again, keenly eyeing the man’s work. He wasn’t in a particular hurry to bury the body as one body led like a line of ants along the cement to another body. Then the paperwork, depth of hole, name of deceased etc. The crushing formality of things.
The problem with the afterlife was capitalism. The crows said it hadn’t always been so insidious. For a long time, people used to sit around and drink steaming cups of ginger tea while marveling over sunsets, which appeared as ribbons of variegated light, the likes of which not a soul had witnessed on earth. Sometimes the ocean would appear and slosh around just so people living inland could relax while gigantic sea horses with merman astride them did dressage. The general consensus was that it hadn’t been perfect but had some virtues relative to the current set up, like eating at a steakhouse instead of the Sizzler.
But then a committee of higher-ups, self-important mid-level manager types who never met a spreadsheet they didn’t adore, decided the afterlife lacked a certain aspirational quality. More groups and subgroups were formed, until a whole bureaucratic system of managers developed, each essential to maintaining the business of the afterlife or so they’d tell you if they cornered you in a meeting. There was a lot of discussion about improving facilities and a lot of resources had been funneled that way. Building projects for future residents got underway, but the current residents were displaced or forced to work on them. As such, a whole system of rewards had been developed promising the work would bring everlasting happiness, which was a promotion to middle management.

 

The man was thinking about whether he wanted to move up at all as he dug slowly, throwing fresh clods of dirt over his shoulder. A butterfly of exquisite beauty landed on the outstretched palm of the body, flexed its wings, then flew into the wind-battered light. What did it mean? Wasn’t there a parable about a butterfly who dreamed it was a man?
Lately, the man had decided that he needed a plan to end the crushing uniformity of days. He needed the crows too, or it probably wasn’t going to work. He’d talked to them the past few evenings, when the foreman had gone home, as they were idly pecking at bodies, about the need for solidarity. They’d agreed. In part because he promised them entrails. Crows were like that. He’d miss them if they left.
Lot of bodies today, a crow offered, burying its beak in its feathers.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and leaned against the fence.
I think we should do it tonight, the man said. He wasn’t sure he really believed that, but he was so tired and full of work.
He took the body down the line and dumped it into the hole. The body had his face, the same tattoo on the right arm, the same slender legs. As he tossed dirt onto his own surprised face, the crows cheered him on.
You’re burying the hell out of yourself.
I’ve never seen someone bury a body like that. Well, except yesterday, when that body was burying you. Are you sure you’re alive?
Most days, the man missed his wife. She had always been tender and kind to him. It seemed a shame that she hadn’t joined him in the afterlife. When he walked back along the fence line, taking his sweet time, the foreman leaned out of the small house and yelled at him to hurry up.
And even though the man knew he should have knocked on more doors first, set up some sort of organizing principle for a strike, handed out flyers and tried to convince his neighbors that they didn’t all have to work and work until they too were ground down into bone, he didn’t have the strength. The days were so long and blisteringly hot and other people were tired too. Instead, he brought his shovel down on the foreman’s head.
The crows were on the foreman in moments, a dark blur of wings. Maybe he hadn’t needed them after all. Maybe he’d just wanted the moral support. He hadn’t gotten any further in the planning than this moment, so he stood there, smelling the bright and clean air, feeling alone. He wove gingerly through the bodies and left the cemetery plot, paused at a large fern-like tree he’d admired and smelled its pink blossoms.  The fragrance was sweet and mild. It reminded him again of his tender wife, who’d watched him get carried away that day into this version of the afterlife, a small smile creasing the edge of her mouth.
In the distance, he heard the sound of thunder, and the crows looked up suddenly, then flew as a murder into the sky. Something was coming, and its arrival was bending down the crowns of trees, lashing them with lightning. The whole earth seemed terrified, grass bending low, branches clacking together wildly in some insane fright. The man stood there quietly though, at peace. After all this time, he was finally going to get to talk to the management.

 

 

Andrew Bertaina received his MFA in creative writing from American University. His work has appeared in many publications including: The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and Best American Poetry 2018. More of his work is available at andrewbertaina.com.

Image: pinterest.com

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