BY MATT MATTILA
Copyright is held by the author.
THE GRAVEYARD crawled with the dead.
The graveyard wasn’t on a misty hillside on the edge of a small village somewhere in Transylvania. It didn’t have tombstones that they could sneak through and cower behind. The living couldn’t be terrified of it.
If anything they overlooked it.
The graveyard wasn’t creepy. The dead never lay still. If they did they knew they’d fall down and rot. They paced, mumbled, smoked old cigarettes.
The real graveyard was a bus stop, beside the local grocery store, at quarter to seven in the morning. The dead flocked the one bench for the next half mile, the one under the flat roof that jutted from the side of the store. It was the only shade that could shield their bloodshot eyes from the sun creeping over the horizon.
The living had risen from sleep, setting off to start the day. They drove past in cars, talking on phones and sipping on coffee. They never glanced at the bench, or the wrinkled, melting people who stood around it, backs to a concrete wall, pacing back and forth and talking amongst themselves.
The living ignored them.
The dead didn’t care.
Some of the dead stayed silent. Some talked. All glared at the traffic feet away from them, their red eyes a uniform. The dead didn’t own cars. Well, some of them did. But the cars had been broken for months. They didn’t have a license yet. They had too many tickets. Their brother two states over was borrowing it. Most couldn’t afford one. In this graveyard they had jobs, but were too busy paying rent to save enough. The dead didn’t judge. They were the only ones who understood.
The cold was bitter. The new kid turned around on his heel, the old shoe straining under it. He shoved his gloved hands deeper in his pockets and pulled his hood over his head. The winter hat pretended to warm him. This was his first time here. Usually he’d walk home from a 10-hour shift.
The fat lady with the limp leaned on a column, cigarette floating through her fingers. The old man she was talking to flicked his stub at the pavement, watched it fold in half and die.
“Roseanne Barr?” His voice was raspy, even from this distance. “Yeah. Grade-A lez.”
An hour from now the language would be intolerable. But here in the graveyard no one gave a shit. Political correctness didn’t exist the morning after third shifts. Not even to the fat lady.
“I’m a lez,” she said flat. If the old man seemed embarrassed the folds under his grey moustache didn’t show it. His chubby wrinkled face showed no remorse.
“Oh,” he said. “Would you fuck her?”
The dyke thought about it. A gust of wind, the kid flicked his hood back up and went to sit on the bench. His eyes were bloodshot. The old man’s were. The fat lady’s might’ve been, but she faced away from the kid on the other side of the concrete column with the sign that promised prosecution if they littered. There used to be a trashcan under the sign but someone took it. The bench with loose boards and rusted nails was backed into the corner, hostage to cinder blocks. His bag sagged on his shoulder. An empty bottle of whiskey sat in a torn paper bag under the front leg’s arch, brown paper skin flapping in the breeze. The kid felt his bones rattle. He plopped down. The bench moaned under his 110 pound weight. The sidewalk around him was spotted with filters from a million different cigarettes. Flat, they stirred in the wind but never flew.
The kid looked down at the bottle — the bottom chipped, crack running diagonal, ready to slide off and shatter.
The drunk downed that in a second, the kid thought, almost remembering. Sat here when the world spun, stumbled off the sidewalk and down the hill to the only restaurant open at three in the morning.
The kid bussed tables at that restaurant — 10 hours, overnight. He lost track of the number of times he mopped up vomit when they couldn’t get to the toilet in time or scraped drops of coked-up noseblood off of tabletops. Last night somebody’d left ecstasy in the seat, staggering out and almost slamming headfirst onto the register as he paid his bill. The baggie was half open, chemical-scented powder floating inside, the italic pink and green pills floating inside stamped with smiling faces. The kid recognized them immediately. He didn’t throw them out until he was on his way here. If he tossed them in one of the restaurant’s trash cans he knew the dishwasher would find the baggie and pop one. Maybe even sell them to the cooks.
From this angle he got a better look at the fat lady and the old man. Her hair was tied up in a bun, loose strands popping out here and there. Her jeans looked a size too small. Her sneakers were falling apart. Her coat was patched up, covered everything so men couldn’t stare at her goods.
“Who? Roseanne Barr?” She fished in her pocket for the pack. Her teeth were crooked in places but not yellow.
“Yeah.” The old man’s were.
The kid checked his watch. 6:56. The bus was supposed to be here five minutes ago. The driver might’ve fallen asleep behind the wheel, slammed into the guardrail, flipped over, burned, died. If only he’d had his coffee.
The thought was almost funny.
The rich girl walking on the sidewalk grimaced. The old man’s smoke stabbed at her lungs, unfiltered. The brunette wore a long coat, fluffy round things (Some girl had told the kid what they were called once. He couldn’t remember.) around her ears. Her knee-high boots clomped nervous on the pavement. The girl tried to move through the dead in her skinny jeans. She readjusted her purse strap.
The kid put his head back onto the cold concrete wall, followed her eyes only. He forced his lids open, tried not to fall asleep. Maybe he already had. Her face was sharp, bright, blushing, beautiful. The old man looked at her with bug eyes (almost embarrassed, as though he’d never seen a pretty woman before) and skipped out of the way, yellow/jagged teeth smiling. She crossed her arms over her thin chest. He nodded at her. She walked past and disappeared into the sunlight.
The fat lady took a drag and blew it out her nose like a bull.
“Her?” she called out, reading everyone’s mind. “A bit stuffy but not bad.”
The old man shrugged. “Bit thin for me. I need my girls with meat.” There was a whistle in that last “s”.
“You?” He shot a boney finger at her. “I’d fuck you even if you were a bulldyke.”
She took a drag, didn’t look at him. “Thanks.”
It ended there. In the graveyard it wasn’t an advance. Just a casual observation.
The sky was red by now. The wind picked up, blew her smoke out, and sent it into the wall by the kid’s head like a fly. He heard it sizzle next to his head, familiar. The kid had quit smoking a month ago. Most of him wanted to grab the stub and suck it, feeling that twinge in his lungs again. Some part of him refused that rush.
His lips felt puffed now, like a bee had stung them, sagged fat and numb. The bus better get here soon.
Cars filled the lot in front of them, a frenzied wave of blinkers and horns and harsh carbon monoxide. They came out with their heads down, hands deep in pockets, ran to the store. They might freeze to death in the three seconds from car to door.
The dead had been standing outside for at least a half hour. Their jobs wouldn’t let them stay longer. They had no car to run back to. The job was killing them. They all knew it. The lack of sleep was driving them insane. The man with the red hat — one for winter, one ballcap backwards for the rest of the year — went home three months ago and OD’d on booze and sleeping pills. It might’ve been an accident. The bench was empty because the dead were saving his spot for him, in case he ever came back. The kid had no idea.
The living muttered about getting up. The dead hadn’t slept since three o’clock yesterday afternoon.
The dead kept the world in order and let the living rest.
The glint in the sunlight, the purring roar of the first morning bus, meant someone was saying thank you.
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