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DEAD AND BURIED

Felix Goodbody

 

John Cohen was happy on Thursday. The sermon he had to prepare for the weekend was finished, a short reflection on how family areas important in times of happiness as in times of loss, and he stood on the porch watching the late afternoon sun ease into its evening phase and turning pinky red. He noticed the dust of the car before he saw the vehicle itself swoop from the stand of trees and brush at the front of the property, he instantly recognised the blue and white and raised an arm instinctively to welcome the visitor. The car pulled up next to his truck and a tall man exited and shut the door with a clop and began to make his way towards the porch.

“I'm sorry to call so late John.”

“Come on in and take a load off Elliott”

The two men walked off the porch into the kitchen; the taller of the two took a seat and laid his hat on the empty chair next to him whilst the other poured coffee from a large glass pot into two tin cups. They sat opposite each other and both faced slightly towards the open window, scanning the red sunset without.

“I take it you heard all about this business?”

“I heard about people getting killed, it's a dirty business”

“Dirty is right John; damn it's a dirty town. It's a dirty county is what it is - you got any cream?”

The man called John stood up and passed a carton of cream over to his friend from the refrigerator. The man called Elliott reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a cigarette without looking away from the window. He took some cream then handed it back.

“It doesn't get any prettier John.”

“You want to talk about it?”

“Hell.”

“Tell me about it. Get it off your chest, it don't do a man no good to hole these things up inside himself.”

“You know why I'm here John?”

“I can guess.”

“Three little girls were in there. You don't even want to know what he did to those children John. I wish I didn't know myself but it's my job to know aint it? Hell.”

“You want to talk about it?”

“It seems every time I come up here I got bad things to talk about John. Bad things.”

“I've seen some things Elliott, when I was working with a big-time preacher man up in Dallas we used to go into the jails and do faith programmes for the inmates; some of those men had done real bad things. We used to run confession sessions for them and some of the stuff I heard in those places I wouldn't want to go repeating to anybody even if I hadn't taken a holy oath to keep my mouth shut.”

“I aint taken no oath.”

“Then you can tell me what's on your mind. I need you to bury the three girls John.”

“I'll bury them Elliott, what about the family?”

“They didn't have no family.”

“I'll bury them Elliott.”

Elliott took a long draw on his cigarette and then went to stand by the window. A voice called from another room in the house and said that they better not be smoking cigarettes in the kitchen, the men relocated back to the porch. The house was like any other of its kind in that part of the state; a long porch across the approach that allowed a clear view over the front yard and drive, Elliott's patrol car with the word 'Sheriff' stickered onto it was pulled up in the shade of the horsebox hitched to John's truck. The two of them took a seat on the bench beside the front door and resumed their gazing at the setting sun, John passed his friend an old can for his cigarette ends that was kept under the bench for such use.

“Beautiful night.”

“Sure is.”

“There's something else John.”

“I thought there might be”

“We shot him down in the building. It had been an early call from one of the neighbours that said she smelled something funny coming from his basement, we got there about six a.m. and caught him still asleep in his shorts.”

“That's the way it must happen sometimes I suppose.”

“He reached to get his piece from the nightstand and I shot him in the belly. He cried a lot John.”

“Wouldn't you cry if you took a shot to the belly? Carrying your daddy's old peacemaker instead of those pretty little standard issue Glock pistols I'm surprised you didn't rip him clean in half. You got a nerve bringing that thing onto my property Elliott”

He nodded towards the imposing antique weapon at the sheriff's side

“The ambulance came to take the bodies of the children and the paramedics took one look at the boy and said he was more or less gone already. He was looking at me the whole time we were in that room, looking and crying.”

“You do a tough job Elliott. Don't think I could do a tough job like yours.”

“I want to give the boy a Christian burial John. Aint nobody came forward to claim him, hell nobody even came to identify him and we got no idea who he was. He was a bad man, hell he was just a kid John, and what he did to those girls was a bad thing but I can't stop thinking about how he looked after I shot him. I want to bury him proper, with a headstone and all. God forgives right?”

“That's what it says”

“Well aint it the truth?”

“That's what it says.”

Elliott took another cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it. John drained the last of his coffee and then took half a piece of chewing gum; Mary would give him hell if she figured he'd been smoking.

“You know who I got a call from this morning?”

“Who?”

“The Patton Proclaimer.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. They wanted to know my opinion about what to call this child murderer,”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, they wanted to know if I preferred 'Monster of Patton County' or 'Demon of Patton County'”

“What did you tell them?”

“I told them I didn't have an opinion on it, and then you know what they did? This reporter told me that on behalf of Patton County I had his sincere thanks and that I was a credit to the New Mexico law enforcement team.”

“Sincere thanks?”

“Sincere thanks”

“A credit to the New Mexico law enforcement team?”

“That's what the man said to me John. A credit. But you know what, after I put the phone down I couldn't get that image of the boy crying out of my head. The pathetic look on his face and that gaping hole in his belly bleeding out over his bed linen and onto the floor. That boy aint no demon John, and he aint no monster either. That boy must have had a ma and a daddy once in his life, or a ma at least.”

“His ma and daddy are probably long gone Elliott.”

“You mean dead?”

“I mean gone.”

“I sat there after the Proclaimer called and couldn't stop thinking about how this boy should have a good Christian burial and all the help he can get - he's going to need it if he thinks he can make a go of getting into heaven.”

“You believe in heaven Elliott?”

“I don't know John.”

“I'll bury the boy for you.”

“You can't tell nobody about it John, you know that don't you?”

“Mary'll probably know already, that woman's got ears like a bat”

“And a nose like a hound.”

“You said it. You worried the Proclaimer won't like the sheriff showing a bit of mercy to the monster?”

“Hell John. Thirty years ago I'd just made deputy in a little patch outside Santa Fe and this case came in of a real nasty man, raping and murdering and - just a nasty man. We went out to bring him in and he wouldn't come, chose to blow his own head off instead and who can blame him because he was going to the chair for sure. Anyway the time came to bury this poor son of bitch and his parents came out and put him in the cemetery of their local church next to the body of his dead sister, but he didn't stay in the ground long John - that night some hoodlums in town had got a mob together and they came out to the cemetery. There wasn't more than twenty of us based at that little station in town and by the time we arrived a riot had more or less broken out, and on church land and all, the people had locked the reverend in his own home and built themselves a bonfire next to the memorial chapel by the graves. They dug up the headless body of the killer and burned him.”

“Damn Elliott.”

John took the cigarette that was offered him and both men sat awhile and smoked.

“That's another one of them images that stays in my head John.”

“I can believe that.”

“Those people all dancin' around the fire like Indians or something, the smell of burning flesh.”

“Damn Elliott.”

“Damn.”

 

That night John sat up late with his wife.

“That man eats a lot of pie John2

“He's a big man Mary that's why, and you make a good pie. He thanks you kindly for it - he aint had it easy since Ruth died on him”

“He didn't have it so easy before she died either.”

“They had their share of quarrels that's for sure, but I never thought I'd see Elliott Brody cry a tear in all my life and that man was in pieces when I buried his woman, you remember?”

“I remember John.”

“In pieces he was. He loved that woman with a passion; I guess that's why they used to holler at each other like that - passion. Did you hear what we were talking about on that porch earlier?”

“I heard you.”

“He wants me to bury a child murderer.”

“Will you do it?”

“I told him I’d do it. Hell. If there were a few more men like Elliott Brody in this country perhaps we wouldn't have to worry so much about letting our children out at night. That man isn't even so godly as you might assume, he just has a strong sense of justice.”

“He's a lawman aint he? Justice is his business as much as anybody.”

“The child murderer didn't show much sense of justice towards those little girls. When Elliott shot him dead that put an end to the chance for justice for them girls.”

“The dead don't have any need for justice from the living John. And the living don't have any rights to ask justice of those dead either. I'd like to see the mob that could try and dig up the cemetery at our church.”

“You're right, but it's a thought all the same - people do things.”
“Times are changed John, aint nobody wants to dig up and string up a corpse no more.”

“You'd be surprised Mary.

I remember my daddy telling me about the days when a posse or a mob would hang a man.”

“The Klan?”

“The Klan? Hell. There were more strung up than the Klan could manage if there was a hood on every man in the state of New Mexico. Truth of it was that it was normal folks that was doing it - if there was a felon caught molesting a respectable girl in the community then the sheriff would have a job reining the town in, if the felon was black he wouldn't bother leaving his office is all.”

“Hell Mary.”

“It was a dirty time John. Times done changed.”

“Times change and people don't is what they say.”

“People that don't change with the times get themselves in trouble.”

“A lot of people are losing their faith, a lot harder to fill a congregation that it was thirty years ago I can tell you that. People going crazy at anyone trying to argue in favour of the church nowadays, I wonder if that dead boy would want an old Christian burial at all.”

“Damn hard to get into heaven without a Christian burial John”

“That's what I hear from the daddys of soldiers Mary. They ask me if their boys are going to heaven if they get blown up in a helicopter over Baghdad.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I tell them they died doing God's will”

“Do you tell them they go to heaven?”

“I just told you what I tell them”
“Do they go to heaven?”

I don't know. I don't think it's for me to say who goes to heaven and who don't, I just bless them and marry them then put them in the ground when they're done here and bless them again, I leave the rest up to Him.”

“Goodnight John”

!Goodnight”

He lay awake awhile longer and heard his wife sleeping beside him. He thought about his father, a rancher, and what he made of his son's career choice. After theological college he had drifted from town to town helping out at churches and doing outreach work with the homeless and prostitutes and inmates of prisons, the majority of whom didn't listen to what he said but took comfort in the way he said it.

Now he had accumulated a modest but dedicated congregation and did his best to minister them. Sometimes when he put Kiko in the trailer and took him to ride on the prairie he would look out over the big country and find affirmation of his faith. The dramatic scene of mountains, vast cloud formations and endless aqua sky reaching for a hundred miles still ignited in him a sense of something numinous, something transcendent. He could stake the horse and bathe in the river, a solitary heathen baptism, a physical immersion and escape from the daylight world above the surface.

 

Elliott arrived early at the church next morning in his own truck; they unhooked the tarpaulin covering the bed together and heaved the unmarked and surgical looking coffin off the vehicle, John had called the gravedigger after Elliott's visit and had him sort something out for the new arrival. Two gardeners noticed them struggling and the four of them interred the coffin, John said a blessing and the gardeners crossed themselves and left. The sheriff and the preacher went back to the truck and leant and smoked.

“Reckon he's in heaven now?”

“I reckon we've gone and done everything we can do to help him out”

“You know I said a prayer for him when he died John. He was lying in my arms. Hell he looked young, why did he do it do you think?”

“I bet he couldn't give you a reason if he was stood here now”

“It just seems so strange, don't you think? Some people do a thing like that and what becomes of them? You think some people are made bad that way John?”

“Made bad or born bad?”

“I don't know - I guess if they're born like it then they can't be blamed for being bad”

“What if they end up bad once they've been born good? There are a lot of men who started off just fine then went pretty bad.”

“Hell John, it isn't really within my jurisdiction to pass judgement on my fellow man, I save that for the magistrate and the preacher.”

“Here's a preacher that don't like to pass judgement on nobody. People come to me with a problem, no matter what it is or how bad it seems, I'll do my best to help them out - hell, I just buried a child murderer didn't I?”

“You did.”

“You know what Mary said? She said the dead can't get justice from the living, and the living can't get justice from the dead. She said that once people are dead and gone there aint no justice any more, just those that are left behind still living - it don't matter if the person that died was a saint or a goddamn son of a bitch, that story's over.”

“She's a clever lady.”

“She'd make a damn good preacher.”

“You think there's justice in this world?”

“Well the boy killed those little girls and now he's dead aint he.”

“Yeah but what about all those people who get killed before their time that aint killed no little girls?”

“You mean Ruth”

“That's what I mean”

The sheriff put his hat and sunglasses on then stepped into his vehicle and rolled the window down. Luminous tears slipped tentatively down from behind the lenses.

“Goodbye John.”

“Goodbye Elliott, God bless.”