The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Former People

Another tale from the quiet town of Standish...

The Former People
          Gus was tall.  Not the kind of tall that invites compliment or admiration, or the kind of tall that mothers crave in the men who court their daughters.  His height was at least nine inches beyond respectability, and verged on the altitudes reserved for ladders or lamp-posts.  He had always been tall, since his abnormally vertical childhood, and the experience left him with a pronounced slouch, earned from years of stooping under ceilings and trying rather hopelessly to avoid notice.  He was thin to the point of transparency, bony and angular, reminiscent of nothing so much as a freakishly large praying mantis shuffling the streets of Standish in his immaculate dark suits.
          Few people spoke to Gus, even taking into consideration the relative distance between mouths and ears that impeded polite conversation.  He was shy, a trait derived from the altogether accurate perception that he made others uncomfortable.  No woman had ever been seen by his side, nor any men for that matter.  His intimacy was reserved for those whom he delicately called “the former people”, the recently deceased cadavers in the basement at the Stockton Funeral Home on Green Street.  For as long as anyone who cared to dwell on it could remember, Gus had worked in that basement, preparing the bodies of the departed for viewing by their loved ones.  He combed hair and applied cosmetics, buttoned shirts and tied shoes, and folded stiff hands into formal poses.  All the while he spoke to the former people in his oddly high-pitched, strangled voice.  If Mr. Stockton or one of his sons came downstairs, the flow of words would cease and Gus would melt into a shadowed corner until the intruders had gone.  The families never met Gus, and he never asked about the past lives of his cold companions, or read their obituaries.  He did not need to, for when he spoke to them, they spoke back.
          For years, for decades of memory, Gus had quietly prepared corpses, and Mr. Stockton never had cause to complain, for the quality of work was unsurpassed.  Moreover, Gus worked for a ludicrously small wage, and was never ill or on vacation.  No one could say with any certainty where he lived, or if he had any family, where he had gone to school, or any details of any consequence.  No one particularly cared.  Gus worked in the basement and the days wore on, and Mr. Stockton died and left his sons the funeral home.  No grey crept into the perfect black hair with the ruler-straight part Gus had always worn; he stooped a bit more, but somehow seemed taller than ever. 
          One day in April a woman died in town, for reasons no one knew.  She had been a beautiful, popular young woman with no shortage of suitors, the daughter of the well-respected and wealthy Tuck family.  Her name was Delia, and her death was a mystery.  When she appeared in the basement at Stockton’s, Gus found her to be the most perfect former person he had yet encountered.  Her body was flawless, with no signs of any violence that might explain her death.  Beyond that, even the dead white skin was pale in a beautiful, ethereal way, otherworldly, without blemish.  Her nude body on the table before him was of ideal proportions, long of leg and narrow of waist, with small round breasts and long blond hair in undulating curls.  Thin and elfin, her face was fixed in a troubled expression.
          “I love you,” Gus told her.
Delia did not answer, and Gus was upset.  His face betrayed pain and hurt as he covered her nakedness with undergarments and a demure, flattering green dress.  He fastened a thin string of white pearls around her empty throat and pinned matching stones through her ears.
          “I love you,” Gus repeated, his long bony face close to her ear, his tone more insistent than before.  Still she did not answer, and Gus’ face screwed up in quiet rage.  In all his years in the basement at Stockton’s, no former person had so rudely rejected his conversation.  It was a small town, with only two funeral homes, and Stockton’s was without question the favored of the two, and as a coincidence Gus had met a great many of the townsfolk.  In death they had been far politer than in their previous state, relieved of the burdens of class or reputation.  All had stories to tell of their lives, their secrets and their sins, and Gus always had listened without judgment, hearing tales of loveless marriages, unspoken infatuations, even crimes and more unspeakable acts.  Never had the former people lied to Gus, or ignored him.  Until now.  Until Delia.
          “I love you,” Gus gurgled into her perfect yellow curls, but again there was no response.  Long, thin, deft fingers balled into fists, and Gus shook with an impotent, unfamiliar fury.  He had never known wroth in all his long years, and it was unpleasant to him.  Even as a youth, back almost beyond remembering, the taunts of schoolmates had never roused him in temper.  His life had ever been one of placid reserve, of diffident disinterest in the living.  Their petty prejudices mattered little to Gus; rather he sought society with those former people who so eagerly befriended him in the clean, well-lit basement at Stockton’s.  Until now.  Until Delia.
          Gus drew a deep breath and unclenched his huge hands.  He knew himself for a fool.  She did not love him, could not love him.  His decades of friendships with the former people had encouraged him to forget his own hideousness, his utter unsuitability for any woman, let alone one of Delia’s beauty.
          He stared at her, the extinguished goddess on his worktable, the thought of worms and rot devouring her divine flesh filling him with a heavy melancholy.  He had never before thought about the fate awaiting his friends, not in all his long years in that basement.  Not once had his mind conjured images of wooden boxes in the cold earth, rotting, the bodies within, rotting.  With a shudder he tried to dismiss the blackness and despair, but neither would abate.
          A tranquility settled upon Gus then, a certitude, as he wrestled with the weight of all the future years in a world without Delia.  Stiffly, awkwardly, he clambered onto the table and folded his long body alongside hers.  Resting her head on his skeletal arm, he buried his nose in her abundant curls, smelling the life still in them beneath the heavy frangrances.  His other arm he draped about her hips, and he embraced her.  He was crying now, tears tracing the sunken lines of his hollow cheeks.
          “I love you,” Gus said one last time, and turned her lifeless head to face his, and then he kissed Delia.
          In the morning, when Mr. Stockton’s sons came downstairs, they found Gus and Delia still entwined on the work table.  Now it was him curled up in her embrace, still and cold.  His chest did not rise and fall, and his eyes did not open as she stroked his snowy white hair, her cheeks wet and rosy.
          “I loved him,” she told them.  

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