By S. A. Hartwich
The day two burly boys delivered our first human body was also the first anniversary of my hire date at “All Dogs Go To Heaven,” a pet crematory and funeral home on Sauvie Island, outside of Portland, Oregon. I didn’t know it was human at the time because the box was dog-shaped, the paperwork said “Charley, Great Dane, 220 lbs”, and the Burly Boys said they’d prefer if my boss, Tommy the Leprechaun, handled this one. I put “Charley” on a long wire rack in the walk-in refrigerator—or refer, as we called it—between Mrs. Robinson’s Shih Tzu and the Nguyen family Beagle.
We were based in a bungalow set on an acre of scrubby lawn patrolled by a two-hundred pound boar named Shamus who loved to charge visitors and pull up short a few feet away, tapping his little hooves and grunting until Tommy made introductions. Services took place on the first floor, behind a pair of pocket doors that led into the Viewing Room, which consisted of a dozen folding chairs, a podium, and a viewing platform decked out in silk and velvet and set at kid height. The basement was reserved for storage, beautifying and cremation.
Later that morning, Matteo, Master of Ceremony at all the memorial services, and Tommy the Leprechaun’s longtime companion, made me steak and eggs in the kitchen of our little funeral home.
“You been with us a whole year already?”
“Crazy,” I said. First job I’d stuck with longer than a few months. It didn’t hurt that my bosses let me live with them upstairs for three hundred a month—utilities included—and fed me regularly.
A year earlier Matteo and Tommy pulled me and my bike out of a Sauvie Island ditch where I’d decided to sit back in mud-water and nod the night away. So far so good, and the worst I’d had to put up with was my nickname: RC. Reclamation Project. As in “RC, did you burn the beagle yet? Andersons need the ashes today.” So far, so good, although the sirens sang to me sometimes, their melody so crystal-clear and full of promise I had a hard time not listening.
“Congratulations,” said Matteo. “But don’t get too comfortable.”
“You don’t want to take anything for granted.”
“I never do that.”
“I’m just saying. ”
“I have no idea what you’re saying.”
Matteo shrugged. “I’m telling you things are tight, so keep an open mind about your future.”
Right on cue, The Leprechaun opened the back door and walked over. Clapped me on the back. “Hey, RC. Happy anniversary.” He opened a bag and threw some fancy bike shoes and clipless pedals next to my plate.
I eyed the gifts. “Thanks, Boss, but if business is this slow...”
Tommy rolled his eyes and looked at Matteo. “You gotta share everything with the help?”
Matteo shrugged. “Maybe if you stopped with the ponies.”
“What ponies? I don’t bet on horses, you dipshit.”
Tommy and Matteo loved each other but they went at it a lot, like a Chihuahua ankle-biting a mastiff. Matteo, as my old man would have said, was “built like a brick shithouse”: six-two and wide like a bulldozer at the shoulders, with a decent gut and a face like Babe Ruth’s, all pug and ruddy cheeks. Tommy weighed ninety-six pounds and stood a hair over four feet and his features were knife-sharp. He’d jockeyed back in the nineties, until his drinking cost him his license. So far as I knew, he and Matteo were teetotalers now and had been for ten years.
Matteo put his hands up. “Take it easy. He deserves to know where things stand.”
“Looks like you scared the piss out of him.”
Matteo noticed me scratching my healed tracks, something I did when stress levels shot up. I dropped my hands into my lap. Then I remembered the morning delivery and explained the details.
“I can do the burn, Boss,” I said. “They don’t have to know it was me.”
“Tell me about the delivery boys,” said Tommy.
“Russian accents, cheap suits. Not real broken up about Charley.”
Tommy nodded and smiled. “How about you two take the day off? I’m outta practice anyway. Few hours with the oven might be good for me.”
He stood up and headed downstairs, yelling into his cell phone.
“Well, shit,” said Matteo. “That’s a first.” He punched my shoulder. “Wanna hit the big city? Grab some lunch and a matinee?”
I thought about it. “Last time didn’t go so well.”
“So you got a little worked up. It happens.”
“It was a close thing.” I remember pounding on the door of my ex-dealer and getting no response.
“Suit yourself.” Matteo stood up and started clearing the dishes.
I took the bike out instead and rode up past the houseboats, all the way to the lakes dotting the north end of the island, then around to the heron rookery, where a person could spend as much time as necessary watching ungainly birds fly into and out of their cottonwood nests. At six-four and a buck-fifty, I felt a certain kinship.
On the way back I stopped just short of the Sauvie Island Bridge and looked across the Multnomah Channel. It wasn’t far, but it was far enough.
They came to me in dreams, the animals I’d cremated: Corgi, German Shepherd, Black Lab. Siamese, Sphynx, Maine Coon. An occasional pot-bellied pig or goat or rabbit. But in these dreams the animals were full of life, barking and purring and generally carrying on. When I got them for real they were usually old and decrepit, often torn up pretty good. Sometimes I gave them a bath and brushed them out if the client wanted a viewing, but usually they were cremated straightaway. When they stank too badly I wore a surgical mask infused with peppermint oil.
A few days after my anniversary we did our first memorial gig in weeks—this time for Heisenberg, a fat black Lab.
“Heisenberg like the principle?” I’d asked Matteo.
“Nah, Heisenberg like Walter White. How the hell should I know?”
“How did he die?”
“Poisoned. But don’t tell the kids; they think he foiled a burglary and got shot in the process.”
I brought Heisenberg up just before the service and laid him out like he was taking a quick snooze. The family arrived at 11:00 a.m. and exchanged greetings with Matteo while I stayed in the background, wearing a dumbass smile I hoped came across as sympathetic. It was hard enough putting on khakis and loafers and wearing a tie, much less pretending to comfort strangers.
Pretty soon Matteo opened the pocket doors and herded everyone into the Hall of Remembrance. A basket of dog toys sat at the foot of the platform, along with a bowl of Nutri-Canine.
The oldest kid, a pre-teen boy, ran up to Heisenberg and touched his side.
“He’s so cold! Can’t you heat him up to make it more realistic?”
“No can do, Sport,” said Matteo. “Hasn’t been embalmed.” He offered no more details.
The other kids approached and pet their dead hero. Only the youngest cried at first. The parents came over eventually and the dad lost it and then everyone lost it. During these crying jags, I made myself think about football and the Tour De France, while Matteo handed out tissues and dabbed his own eyes. I’d been meaning to ask him whether the tears were real or just for show.
“Would anyone care to say a few words?” asked Matteo after the waterworks turned to sniffles.
Just then the front door opened and slammed and The Leprechaun staggered into the Hall of Remembrance, stinking drunk. He weaved his way to the platform, kissed the departed then collapsed on his butt.
“Sorry for your loss, folks. Lost a few myself. So sorry.” Then he started balling. Matteo went over and hauled all ninety-six pounds of Tommy to his feet.
“Apologies, folks. Mr. O’Brien recently lost his twin brother to lung cancer. Please excuse us.”
“Why is he so short?” asked the boy.
“I’m a leprechaun, son!” yelled Tommy, and moved from tears to cackles as Matteo led him out of the room and upstairs.
“That poor little man,” said the mother.
“Really puts things in perspective,” said the father, wiping his eyes.
“Bye-bye, Heisenberg,” said the youngest, sensing the service was over.
Tommy had no brother, of course.
The morning after Tommy’s meltdown, he sat at the table and Matteo slammed down a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage, then went back to the stove.
“Love you too, Pal,” said Tommy and winked at me. I kept my mouth shut and worked on my own plate. Matteo joined us a minute later and dug in. After a few bites he put his fork down.
“Ten years, Tommy. You and me. Ten years sober."
“Not like I got a chip to show or anything. And you really want to get into this in front of the RC?”
“You mean the heroin addict who looked up to us because we’d been on the wagon all this time?”
“Easy,” said Tommy. “Anyhoo, I got something to make up for it.” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. Slapped it on the kitchen table. “Voila. Ten grand.”
The Leprechaun leaned back and steepled his hands and grinned like he’d just put us in our place.
Matteo fanned through the money. “Damn. All our problems solved, just like that. My hero.”
“It’s gonna be a regular injection, so make the books seamless.” He offered no further explanation, and Matteo backed off, even as he put the money in his own pocket.
It didn’t take long to figure out The Leprechaun was getting paid to dispose of bodies. A few weeks after the first delivery the same men came by again, but this time the box was human-shaped and smelled like rotting meat.
“And of course,” said the taller of the two men, “we would prefer if Mr. O’Brien handles the cremation of Mr. Britches.”
“Customer’s always right,” I said, and transferred the box to our gurney.
“You have good attitude,” said the shorter man, and slipped me a hundred-dollar bill. They left and I wheeled the gurney into the refrigerator breathing through my mouth. Then I brought Matteo down to have a look. Tommy was out again, like he was most days now.
“Christ,” said Matteo, running his hands over the copious layers of duct tape. “It’s not even a dog-shaped box.”
“Smells different than a rotting dog,” I said.
“Same guys as last time?” asked Matteo.
“Yep. Well-dressed and buzz cuts. Tipped me a hundred bucks.”
“Christ,” he said again, and pulled a knife out of his pocket.
“What about Tommy?” I said.
“You wanna know or not?”
Two minutes later we had our evidence. Whoever it was wore only one shoe. I started in on my tracks, and Matteo noticed.
“You got choices to make, RC.”
The sirens beckoned. Sang path and destination, blowing rush into my blood.
I was Ulysses.
I was George Clooney.
“Hey,” said Matteo, slapping my cheek. “Snap out of it.”
I chose, and a few hours later cremulated what was left of “Mr. Britches” and put him in a plastic receptacle.
Tommy came home that night well after dinner, as Matteo and I chain-smoked on the front porch. Shamus came bounding around the house and snuffled Tommy’s crotch after he plopped down in a plastic Adirondack chair.
“Evening, Gents,” he slurred, and pulled out a fat cigar. Matteo kicked the box of human remains toward Tommy.
He picked up the box and shook it. Read the label. “Mr. Britches.”
“Mr. Britches wears loafers,” said Matteo, but Tommy didn’t skip a beat.
“Well, we still got jobs, right?” said Tommy, scratching Shamus behind an ear. “Plus your continued involvement is purely voluntary. I’m just trying to survive another day.”
“So it’s a loan shark thing?” asked Matteo.
“Debt repayment plus ten grand a month over the top thing. Plus I don’t get my legs broken.”
“Those guys were Russian mafia?” I asked, picturing the Burly Boys. Scratch-scratch-scratch.
“Ukrainian. But they sound Russian, don’t they? Same goddam accent.” Tommy reached over and grabbed my hand. “Stop it. You’re worse than the pig.”
“Jesus, can you blame him?” said Matteo.
“If we get caught,” Tommy said, “you didn’t know, you didn’t participate.”
I knew that was bullshit. Matteo knew that was bullshit, too, but it didn’t matter because Matteo wasn’t about to desert his old partner. Family’s a funny thing, and right then on the porch I realized this was mine.
Tommy put the money to good use, buying full-page ads in the daily and weekly newspapers and buying billboard space along the freeway. Pretty soon business picked right up, as if all people needed was a little nudge. We did services for purebred dogs and mutts and scabrous old cats and pot-bellied pigs (Shamus had no idea) and pygmy goats and alpacas (Tommy shaved off the fur to make wool) and a twelve-foot python, the mascot for a Goth scooter club. Herrmann (pronounced Hair Mahn), the Goth leader, made us cremate the snake on a funeral pyre made of old pallets while the black-clad faithful stood around drinking cheap beer.
Bodies came every two or three weeks, and Tommy insisted on doing the burns. “The less you’re involved, the better,” he’d say. They showed up so often we figured the Ukrainian mob had a side business importing fresh hits from other mobs around the country.
One corpse had a .38-Special tucked into his belt, which shot the hell out of the retort brick during cremation. No lasting damage, but Tommy gave the delivery boys hell the next time they made a delivery. All they did was double over in laughter. I watched all this from the grooming table, brushing the knots out of an ancient collie.
“You are funny little man,” said the taller one, once he’d stopped laughing. He tossed a few hundreds on the ground. “For any damage caused.” Then they left Tommy standing there, little fists clenched and face a shade of purple I hadn’t seen before. I thought he might follow, but instead he flicked his hand at the bills on the ground. “Help yourself,” he said to me.
One rainy afternoon, Matteo gone to town for groceries, the Burly Boys showed up with three boxes balanced on a gurney. Tommy answered the knock.
“You’re serious?” he said.
The taller man looked at his partner, then back at Tommy. “It’s been busy week.”
“I got six dogs, a dozen cats, and a pot-bellied pig in the refer. Where do you suppose I store…” He glanced at the tags. “Fido, Prince, and Lassie?”
“We have no fucks to give, Shorty. Maybe burn all at once.” They pushed the heavy cart through the door and shoved it toward me then turned to leave. Shorter Guy elbowed Tommy in the face as he passed.
Tommy put his hand to his cheek. “Last delivery, boys. Tell your boss we’re even.”
Taller Guy hesitated. “You are certain this is your message to Mr. Kovlenko?”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
Thirty seconds later we heard the pop-pop of small arms fire and what sounded like a pig being tortured. One more pop and the squealing stopped.
Shamus lay on his side a few feet from the porch steps, eyes wide open and tongue lolling. Blood seeped out of two holes in his side and one in his forehead and his hind legs still twitched. Tommy stared at the carnage then knelt down and put his forehead on the boar’s bristly back. I gave them space.
After I put Shamus in the refer, we sat on the front porch and Tommy drank a pint of Jameson’s. Every so often he offered me a sip, but I turned him down. He tried Matteo’s cell a few times, but gave up after a while and concentrated on the whiskey. We didn’t talk. If Matteo had been there, Tommy might have calmed down and slept on things, maybe after we told stories about Shamus and discussed the smart way to respond, but I wasn’t Matteo and all I could think about right then was shoving a needle in my arm and nodding off.
After Tommy finished the pint he left me on the porch and went after the Burly Boys, checking the action on his Sig Sauer as he staggered to his car. I watched him go without getting up or saying a word because the sirens had me by the throat now. Instead, after he’d peeled out of the driveway, I went to the basement and turned up the stereo full blast and preheated the retort and loaded all three bodies at once, just like the Burly Boys suggested. Then I sat down and let them burn.
A few years earlier, coming off a two-day binge, I walked by a crematorium in North Portland and noticed flames shooting out the chimney. I’d stopped to watch until the fire department showed up and put it out and I felt like I’d been cheated, as if the fire in the chimney was scouring my own insides and the job was left half done.
I made a mental list of all the addicts I’d known who’d kicked the habit and backslid, kicked and backslid, people I hadn’t thought about in a year. The first names and faces came to me easily, but I never knew which ones got out for good because they disappeared the same way the ODs did. Me personally, I never tried to quit; I liked it too much, and until Tommy and Matteo came along, the only people telling me to stop were users.
I still don’t know why I gave it up; I never heard the “voice of conscience” or witnessed a violent death, never received an ultimatum from a judge or a tearful call from Mom telling me Dad just died. One night I was in a ditch and the next morning I woke up in a cozy bed with a pot of coffee and two Egg McMuffins on a tray. Then Mutt and Jeff came into the room and worked some kind of bizarro magic and that was that. I mean, apart from a few weeks of withdrawal and being held down a few times.
Matteo returned sometime after midnight and found me chain-smoking on the porch, still covered in bone dust.
“What the fuck happened to you?”
I told him about the multiple corpses and the holes in Shamus and Tommy leaving with the gun. Matteo listened to the details then went into the house and returned with another pint of whiskey, which he opened with a practiced twist. He plopped down on the porch swing next to me. “Here’s to ten years,” he said, and took a swig. I waited for him to pass the bottle, but he didn’t, which was a good thing because I would have accepted this time.
“Tommy ever show you photos from his riding days?”
I shook my head.
“That’s when we met. First time I saw him he was wearing green silks at Pimlico. I was training back then and he was riding some loser mount named Jersey Girl or Jersey Miss and he was so drunk he fell off coming into the homestretch.” Matteo laughed and took a swig. “Jesus. Twenty years later.”
He told me a few more stories and I tried to listen, but it felt like he was just getting through the bottle.
“I gotta go find him,” said Matteo once the pint was gone. “He’s gonna get himself killed.” After that it was like I was dead and looking down on the scene, knowing what was coming next, Matteo’s running monologue familiar and the conclusion foregone.
“I’m going with you,” I said because that was the script.
“No you’re not,” he said because that was the script. “I’ll call you when I know something.” Then he left me on the porch and drove away in his Jeep Cherokee.
I went upstairs and packed the few items I’d accrued the past year into a knapsack: two pairs of jeans, four t-shirts, khaki pants and navy oxford shirt for services, bike pants and jersey. Pulled on a Portland Timbers hoodie. Left the alarm clock and a half-dozen books and the parka I’d never worn and the new bike shoes and pedals. Grabbed the wad of bills I’d saved up for a year and shoved it in my pocket.
I crossed the bridge at four a.m. and rode down US Highway 30 for ten miles or so, then cut over to the Northwest District, passing dark gift shops and espresso bars and vegan restaurants and my favorite not-vegan deli, then rode down Burnside past the bookstore and the arched entrance to the International District and over the Burnside Bridge and north to my old haunts, where the 405 and 5 freeways came together above dozens of old warehouses. I hopped off the bike in front of a long wood-framed building and crawled through a window around back.
They sang welcome as I climbed the stairs. They sang to me, their voices deafening-sweet as I reached the third floor and walked among the junkies, smelling shit and BO and whiskey and the remains of a wood fire someone had made in a fender. My tracks glowed like runes in the pre-dawn half-light but I left them alone and sat down against a wall, listening.
Scott Hartwich lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he roasts coffee to make ends meet. His work has appeared in such venues as Apeiron Review, Colorado Review, and Thrush Poetry Journal. He received his MFA from the University of Montana in 2003. His pet peeve is tailgating.