F Freelance Pallbearer

Editor’s Foreword

Forget the men in black–the man in beige always gets his man!

Mr. Beige?” the voice, feminine and husky, asked after my greeting.

I hesitated. “Speaking.”

“Mrs. Duckett here,” she said. “Jonquils Funeral Home gave me your name as a referral.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. “I always prefer to speak directly to the family.”

“So they told me. Why is that, sir?”

I shifted to sit on the toolbox in the Cable TV van. “It helps me do a better job.”

A silence lapsed over the fuzzy connection. “But all you do is carry the coffin.” I heard puzzlement weighing Mrs. Duckett’s words. “Am I missing something, Mr. Beige?”

“No-no,” I replied. “But next to the minister, my role is most pivotal in the service. All eyes fix on me. I have to do my very best.”

Mrs. Duckett coughed. “I see. An odd but commendable perspective. Now I have a couple questions. Mr. Beige, are you a spiritual man?”

“Very.”

“Good. All pall bearers will, of course, dress in dark navy blue,” said Mrs. Duckett.

“No ma’am,” I said. “I’m the man in beige. Always. I respect others’ grief and mourn as deeply. But I refuse to acknowledge the dark forces in my attire.”

“Dark forces?” Annoyance now edged Mrs. Duckett’s speech.

“My apologies. That was rather gauchely put. You see, I represent the notion of an afterlife and a redemption. If my dress seems too out of line, I can recommend colleagues who don the more conventional garb.”

“I hardly have time for that,” Mrs. Duckett said. “All right, let me give you the logistics.”

Later at the appointed hour, I showed up at a quaint, white clapboard chapel tucked in the shadows of skanky mid-rise apartments. A burly usher propelled me to my assigned seat on the front pew. My ultra-sensitive nose registered floor wax, mothballs, mouthwash, and of all things, Chanel No. 5. A finger poked me on the shoulder. I turned.

“I’m Mrs. Duckett.” Her voice still sounded husky. Then I whiffed mentholated tobacco and understood her. My breath caught–there she stood as a sculpturesque blonde. Gray eyes were a nice touch. “Mr. Beige, I assume?”

“Reporting for duty,” I said.

Mrs. Duckett’s delicate nose wrinkled. “The black dahlia in your lapel has to go.”

I made the compliance, then asked, “The three other pall bearers, I take it, will be family?”

“Yes, shadow cousins on my late husband side,” replied Mrs. Duckett.

“I see. Well, don’t mind me. I’m only a cog in the wheel.”

“Jock had many cogs in his big wheel,” said Mrs. Duckett.

“He died a happy man, then?”

She smiled in a grim, glum way. “Not really. His wheel fell off. For the past few years, he didn’t have an axle to turn on. Poor dear. I’d better go. Keep those dark forces at bay.”

Was Mrs. Duckett’s weird quip intended as a joke? Mortals. I gave a little shudder.

“Isn’t it drafty in this chapel? Chilly for April, too.”

I’d know that accented slur anywhere. “Viscount Moloch, you’re a bit late.” I twisted to the spot next to me on the oak pew where he sat down. More suave than your average devil, he came wearing seersucker, tasseled loafers, and a red carnation in his lapel. His impeccable dress struck me as extravagant since only I could see him.

“Yes but I’m pulling double duty this millennium,” he said. “Did you figure I’d forgotten this assignment?”

“There’s always hope. To review our ground rules,” I said. “No loitering within ten feet of the altar. No audible burps or sighs throughout the service. No morphing into human form. No pinching the widow’s tukus. Got it?”

“I don’t like these ground rules,” he said.

“Doesn’t matter if you do or don’t. My big boss carries a bigger stick than your big boss. Understand?”

“Do I look dense? Of course, I understand. Well, I’ll hang out in my customary place.” He flapped those webbed appendages and flew up to the church rafters.

“Is this my assigned seat?” a young man out of breath asked me. “I came in just under the wire. My car had a flat. Lucky for me, a Good Samaritan happened along to lend me a hand changing it.”

“Hi Keith,” I said, giving a prayer of thanks to my resourceful helper who’d come through again. “Yes, this is your place to be.”

Confusion lined Keith’s forehead. “Have we met?”

Catching my gaffe, I tried to recover. “Mrs. Duckett mentioned your name to me a little earlier.”

“Oh, I see.”

A short while later, their rent-a-preacher launched into a canned prayer recited in a sonorous, solemn manner. I made a mental note to provide her with some fresher material. After the run of murmured amens, I heard a coughing fit overhead. Snapping up my head, I caught Viscount Moloch’s roguish leer. He wiggled a few webbed fingers at me.

“Relax. That little stunt was for your ears only.”

Angry heat flushed into my face. “I’m warning you Viscount. Don’t push my buttons. Not today.”

“You’ve lost your sense of humor.” Rubbing his scales, Viscount Moloch offhandedly asked, “By the way, where is Mr. Duckett’s soul?”

“No call for you to sweat that detail,” I said. “He’s already on our team.”

“Oh, I’ll bet he is,” said Viscount Moloch. “Here’s some advice. Don’t drop the casket like the last time.”

“My foot suddenly itched and I had to scratch it,” I said in self-defense. “Besides the casket never struck the ground. My lightning reflexes saved it.”

Viscount Moloch chuckled a dry chuckle. “Do I make you that nervous at these funerals?”

“Not at all. I always get my man.”

“We shall see about that,” said Viscount Moloch, an ominous thunder behind his veiled threat.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

But he’d already vaporized through the roof. I’d meet him again at the gravesite. Our hottest altercations ensued there. In the end though, my big boss always toted the bigger stick. The spoils were divvied up the same. I got the soul. Viscount Moloch got the corpse set to rot in the cold, wet earth. That had been the power split through all eternity.

And yet, I found myself speculating, what if a paradigm shift occurred? What if Evil outshone Good? I shook off the idle thought. We’d arrived at the conclusion to the funeral service. On cue, we pall bearers trudged down the center aisle and out of the white clapboard chapel, lugging the bulky coffin between us.

Busy again indulging my reveries, I somehow managed to stumble a step. My clumsy maneuver tripped up the others. The coffin crashed to the grass. A collective gasp went up. Shocked, the widow shrieked. It was an ear-piercing keen.

Intentional or not, my mistake was grounds for immediate dismissal. By the next shameful moment, I wondered if I might switch sides. After all, Viscount Moloch and I were colleagues. Of a sort.

 

About the Author

Ed Lynskey’s creative work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Chizine, Black October, Would That It Were, Pedestal Magazine, Quantum Muse, Surreal Magazine, Martian Wave, The Fifth Dimension, Asiofe’s Kiss, Three-Lobed Burning Ear, Twilight Times, Alien Skin Magazine, Nocturnal Ooze, Kenoma Magazine, Star*Line, Atsoise, Full Unit Pickup, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, Mississippi Review Online, Planet Magazine, Demensions, In the Outposts of Beyond Anthology (Sam’s Dot Publishing), and Potter’s Field Anthology (Sam’s Dot Publishing).

 

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