The last mortician on a post-burial earth is vilified as a social
deviant as he stubbornly persists in trying to deposit his beloved
wife's corpse in the ground.
The Ground Under Man
by Daniel Pearlman
102 Blackstone Blvd., #5
Providence, RI 02906
Tel.: 401 453-3027
THE GROUND UNDER MAN
a short story
When Gordon Mundley's wife Lena passed away at eighty-seven, the whole
family threatened to boycott the funeral if he went ahead and _buried_
her, as he had declared he would. His sister-in-law Hannah had barely
spoken to him for thirty years, but on the day of Lena's death she called
him three times. Her purpose, as soon became clear, was not to comfort
him but rather to advise him on the proper disposition of the still-warm
"Are you forgetting," said Mundley, "that I am the mortician, not you?"
"You _were_ a mortician," replied Hannah. "You retired twenty years ago.
You haven't had enough business to _stay_ in business for thirty years or
"I have never officially retired," Mundley protested. "Now and then I
still get a client, you know. Perhaps I haven't needed to make a _living_
from my profession for ... some time now, but I do serve the needs of the
"Occasional who?" she challenged. "In ten years, who?"
"--of the _very_ occasional individualist for whom the old-time practice
of a Christian burial still offers the grace of a merciful finality."
"Christian burial!" Hannah snorted. "Tell me what's so Christian about
burial! In fact, when you think of it ..."
"I know, I know," said Mundley. "'There was only one true Christian
burial. And that only lasted three days.'" Her platitudes were as
predictable as the platters of red-and-green sprinkled cookies she had
been sending over to Lena for fifty Christmases.
"Freeze-Frame used to put that in their advertising a good many years ago,
when they still had a little competition from die-hards like me."
"I was not trying to be original, Gordon."
"Have I ever accused you of being original, Hannah?"
"Gordon," she said ominously, "there isn't a single town in New England
that has a practising mortician anymore."
"Yes, I'm aware of that," Mundley sighed. "The mortuary arts seem as
destined to oblivion as were the secrets of mummification in ancient
"There are no working _cemeteries_ anymore, Gordon. The eyesores they
were have been turned into parks, like the old landfills."
"Now there I must take exception, Hannah." Fixing the band of the
headphone more securely behind his ears, Mundley strolled out of the den
into the living room, from there into the office, and from his office into
a barely furnished workspace off the main "parlor." There lay Lena on a
long slab, her scrawny arms straight out along her sides, her bare body
covered with a white sheet as she waited for Mundley to dress
her--_simply_, as she had asked; for the journey, not for the
"The Newbury cemetery," said Mundley, "does offer the superimposed
delights of a lovely park, but legally it is a cemetery as long as anyone
still has title to an unused burial plot anywhere on the grounds."
"Come on, Gordon, you know that no one has exercised such an unspeakable
'title' for over ten years--and that caused such an uproar, thanks to you,
that Newbury became the laughingstock of the county."
"Anyway, Hannah," he continued, stroking Lena's white hair and smoothing
down her eyelids, which had begun to crank open as if she could hear her
sister's voice, "_I_ have such title to a family plot in which there are
still six unused grave-sites. One for you, if you're interested."
"Don't be disgusting, Gordon," she shuddered. "Don't humiliate the entire
town, as you did to us ten years ago! Newbury Park has become a major
regional tourist attraction, as you know. The first week of June it will
host one of the biggest arts and crafts fairs in the state. The Fair is
only one month away, Gordon."
"Don't try to blackmail me, Hannah!" To his embarrassment in front of the
ever even-tempered Lena, Mundley heard himself raising his voice. "If
there are fools in this town who wish to make public outcry about a
perfectly private thing like an old-fashioned burial, then let them again
call the attention of the local media to Newbury! Let the burden of
responsibility for any financial damages that ensue fall squarely on
"The news of your atavistic agenda could not be suppressed, Gordon. An
announcement of the barbaric ritual you intend has been viewed on this
morning's Public Notices. It has also come to my attention--since I still
function on the Town Council, even though sciatica causes me to miss a
good many meetings--that the state's largest news organization has gotten
wind of the profanation you propose to visit upon the park."
"They didn't discover the notice by pure chance," Mundley replied. "You
know as well as I that Freeze-Frame leaked the news. They are trying to
put pressure on all of you to interfere with my rights as a citizen. They
view the performance of even one old-style funeral as an attack on all
they stand for."
"Gordon," Hannah pleaded, "will you please think of us? Who gives a damn
about who-did-what right now! Think of your _family_! This is a small
town, Gordon. Think of our hurt, our shame ..."
Mundley clenched his fists and yanked at the shreds of white hair that
sprouted over his ears. "Hannah, Lena's own dying _wish_ was to be buried
by my own hands, in the earth that she loved, rather than be turned over
for processing by Freeze-Frame." Tears sprang to his eyes at the sight of
Lena's knobby little frame, and he imagined it stiffening, like his own
resolve, minute by minute, under the loose cotton drape.
"Lena was my sister, Gordon, my sister! Don't you think that her own
flesh and blood should have a say in what's to become of her?"
Her own flesh and blood! sneered Mundley. They who had never forgiven her
for marrying an outcast, the sole surviving mortician in the entire
county--perhaps the whole state! He struggled to keep his temper.
"Gordon, you owe the family, at the very least, the opportunity to talk to
you, to share with you _our_ point of view. ... I am asking you, in the
name of all of us, to come to my house for dinner this evening at six."
Mundley tossed a shrug over at Lena--the way he always had when seeking
her advice. She was totally noncommittal. Should he be snide and ask
_directions_ to her house? he wondered. "Okay, Hannah," he said. "I'll
listen all you want. But I'll be damned if I'll change my mind!"
Mundley stared into the ice-blue eyes of his sister-in-law, who ushered
him into her large foyer with strained cordiality. She was three years
younger than her sister, but about a hundred and fifty pounds heavier.
Lena had explained it to him once--Hannah's belief that by puffing her
face out with fat she would prevent the formation of wrinkles: one had to
think of one's appearance long _after_ one's death--for _other_ people's
sake, if not one's own.
"Let me take your coat, Gordon," said Hannah, her little eyes protruding
like blueberries from a ball of muffin dough. "We've all been sitting in
the dining room, waiting."
No doubt discussing strategy for hours, thought Mundley. He handed her
his coat, then caught sight of the Krebbses' old poodle Sylvester sitting
politely out of the way, in the far corner of the foyer, patiently
extending his paw to be shaken, far more patiently than in the old days.
As Mundley reached over to shake Sylvester's paw, glancing into the old
fellow's beady unblinking black eyes, he remembered that the old days were
some twenty to thirty years ago, so that the Sylvester he was stooping to
fondle was only a quarter of his old self, having been freeze-dried by
Freeze-Frame to sit here and greet all who knew him for as long as they
managed to live.
"Be gentle," said Hannah, a smile twisting the corners of her lips the
first time since he'd entered. "Silly's a lot more delicate now than he
used to be."
"I can imagine," said Mundley, pulling himself up straight again and
patting at his dark gray suit. "Otherwise hasn't changed a bit, has he?"
"Not a tittle," said Hannah, preceding him to the left through the parlor
and into the brightly lit dining room.
All conversation died down at Mundley's approach. The table sparkled with
crystal and silver. Candles burned redundantly under a cut-glass pendant
"We've reserved you the seat of honor at the head of the table," said
Wilfred Spridge, a gray-bearded nephew of Mundley's and head of the local
C of C.
People cleared their throats and sat remarkably still as Mundley settled
into his seat, one of two high-backed, fake-antique end chairs that would
prevent him from slinging his arm comfortably behind him. At the other
end of the table sat the master of the house, Morris Krebbs, his lower lip
drooping and his wattled neck bent forward from a back humped with age and
a lifelong contempt for all exercise. Morris sat still as death and
regarded Mundley through the fence of pointless candles as intently as
Sylvester had in the foyer. For a moment Mundley checked himself from
greeting old Morris. What if Morris had died and Mundley didn't remember?
Fortunately, however, the Parkinsonian tremor of the lower lip revealed a
somewhat different state of affairs. (But did Freeze-Frame now offer a
package including lifelike movements of the sort observed in
department-store dummies? Mundley wondered. No. ... Morris croaked a
greeting, then dug into his salad.) Hannah trundled from the table to the
kitchen. Guarded conversation broke out around the table like sporadic
rounds of gunfire at the beginning of a battle.
The attack was not long in coming. Tracer bullets whizzed by Mundley's
head as he ingested in one forkful half of a Lilliputian chicken breast.
Fortunately, anticipating the Krebbses' hospitality, Mundley had fortified
himself at home with a tuna-fish sandwich.
Mildred Spridge, shapeless wife of the president of the Chamber of
Commerce, arrested a clot of potato in mid-air to declare how everyone
would "sorely miss our poor, dear Lena."
"But of course," said Jarvis Bryson, the Presbyterian minister, who was
some sort of cousin of Mundley's at some incalculable remove, "no one
really _has_ to miss Lena, if the wishes of all who have loved her are
taken into account."
"In fact," said Hannah, just as she waddled off again toward the kitchen,
"how uncivilized is the very _notion_ of spiriting her away from the bosom
of family and friends, both living and preserved, including her own
closest blood relatives."
"Her own flesh and blood!" belched Krebbs from the other end of the
In one quick swig, Mundley downed his evening's ration of wine that must
have been squeezed into his glass through a medicine-dropper. "She _is_
... dead, you know," he mumbled, absently twirling his glass.
"My dear Uncle Gordon," said nephew Wilfred of the C of C, "you talk as if
death implied some sort of end to all our social obligations."
"I should have thought so," Mundley nodded, thrusting out his glass toward
the center of the table, where the decanter of white wine had been shoved
behind a hedge of lifelike flowers. Hannah disapproved severely of
overimbibing at dinner.
"Well, my dear Uncle," snickered Wilfred, "you are simply cutting yourself
off from the whole social and technological _surround_ of the twenty-first
"When I die," replied Mundley, "do you think I'll miss this precious
surround?" He held out his glass more aggressively. Finally, Reverend
Bryson, regarding the decanter with pinched lips, nudged it a couple of
feet down the table in Mundley's general direction. (Thinking, Mundley
supposed, to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.)
Hannah stood filling the doorway to the kitchen, her fists sunk into the
taffy of her hips. "How is it _possible_," she sighed, "that my dear
brother-in-law can remain so detached from the progress of life?"
"_And_ the progress of death," added Mildred Spridge.
"Hear, hear!" said a chorus of voices, and a volley of spoons clacked
plates in righteous approval.
"Gordon," said the overly familiar Burgess Wort, a rat-faced young lawyer
related to Mundley at various removes through a long-dead (and buried,
thank God!) older brother. "Gordon, old man, look here, you mustn't stand
in the way of progress. You can't stop time, you know."
"I can't stop time?" he mused while watching the mousey-haired wife of
Wort, who had taken it upon herself to refill Mundley's glass, since she
sat closest to him on the left. "You're quite right. I can't stop time."
Wort's wife stopped pouring the clear liquid after decanting something
less than two ounces. Mundley grabbed her wrist firmly and bent it down,
filling his glass to the rim. "But don't you see? I'm not _trying_ to
stop time. _You_ people are the ones who have lost your common sense and
are determined to stop time. That's the whole point of Freeze-Frame, is
"Gordon, you are just playing with words," said Reverend Bryson. "I can
understand a loyalty to one's _métier_. I can imagine how the last maker
of chain-mail must have felt when there were no more orders for him to
fill. Here you are, a mortician--like a backwoods surgeon who still
practises bleeding despite the triumphs of modern medicine--and you want
to persist in your reflex habits even though society finds them both
disgusting and obsolete. Just try, Gordon, try for a moment to really
_picture_ what will happen to the precious body of your dearly beloved if
you stash her under a mound of earth. Can you hear the chomping of a
billion microbes eating away at her organs from within? Can you see the
worms winding through dark sockets that once held her lovely eyes? Can
you permit black beetles to gnaw at the flesh of her breasts? ..."
"Stop it, you disgusting sadist!" snapped Mundley, polishing off half a
glass of wine. His hand trembled as he placed the glass down. "In the
first place, Lena _loved_ worms. They enabled her flowers and vegetables
to grow. In the second place, Jarvis, as a man of the cloth you should
know what is meant by 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.'"
Jarvis Bryson tugged for a moment at his clerical collar. "That was in
the Middle East, where the sand and the air were dry. No moisture, no
worms, no degrading invasions by beetles. Why, sometimes archeologists
there discover the most remarkably preserved individuals. What a contrast
to soil conditions throughout the _civilized_ world, don't you think?"
Mundley drained off his wine glass at a gulp.
"Would I have let my dear _brother_ decay into filth like that, instead of
keeping Thurston with us forever, as we have?" said Hannah. A shudder set
all her flesh ajiggle. "Would you want me to let my dear _Morris_ rot away
like that into a mound of dribbling garbage? ... Oh, come on, everybody,
it's time for dessert and coffee. Shall we retire to the Family Room?"
"The Family Room? Why the Family Room?" Mundley objected. He wanted to
sit tight over another glass of wine.
"Because we _always_ have dessert and coffee in the Family Room," Hannah
retorted with incontrovertible logic. "Isn't that right, Morris?"
"That's right, dear," gargled Morris.
"It's too ... crowded in the Family Room," Mundley protested.
"Nonsense!" replied Hannah. "It's been enlarged. When were you last
there, a quarter of a century ago?"
"I think I'd rather skip dessert and coffee," said Mundley, staring at his
empty plate. He should have suspected that Hannah might resort to the
cheapest imaginable tricks. Resolved to resist communal pressure, he
finally consented to go plodding off with the others through a large pair
of doors that led from the parlor into the climate-controlled Family
In the center of the room a table was set with an old-fashioned silver
coffee dispenser, gold-laced antique china cups and saucers, and heaps of
home-made cakes and cookies (with sprinkles on them; everything had
sprinkles). The family were cozily scattered about the room. Hannah's
mother and father occupied armchairs arranged beside the crackle and
flicker of the artificial fireplace, knitting needles poised in the hands
of one, a newspaper in the other's. The unlit pipe in father Krebbs's
mouth was the one whose burning ash he used to dump out on his wife when
he lost his temper. Since they had rarely ever spoken to each other in
life, the tableau they now presented to Mundley's view seemed
In a group to the left of the fireplace an old uncle sat hunched over a
deck of cards while his wife stooped opposite him picking up a hand he had
dealt. She had always _hated_ cards, and Mundley remembered how her
husband would snap and snarl at her and accuse her of cheating on the few
occasions she could not avoid winning a hand. From the sofa next to them,
her lovely hands laced across her lap, their daughter looked patiently on.
Mundley's heart leaped to see Miriam, who had drowned forty years ago,
looking as young and fresh as in those days long gone when he had nursed a
secret passion for her--the only Krebbs he had known, apart from Lena,
with a zest for life. The space on the sofa next to her still remained
vacant. The shrewd Hannah caught him staring.
"Poor Miriam," sighed Hannah. "Her husband Timothy won't ever sit beside
her because his third wife has placed him with _her_ family, you know."
"No, I didn't know," said Mundley. Taking his seat, he was overcome with
nausea at the thought that he would rather be sitting with Miriam.
"Don't you agree, Uncle Gordon, that Hannah takes wonderful care of the
family?" said Wilfred.
"Wonderful," Mundley conceded. In another corner of the room he spotted
an old cousin of Hannah's. Beer can in hand, he sat in his Red Sox cap in
front of an antiquated TV watching a pitcher wind up to throw a ball that
would never leave his hand. The image was forever locked in
"Whenever I go puttering around them with a feather-duster," said Hannah,
"I make sure to bring them all up on the news. They're very concerned
about you, Gordon. They want to know all about you and your ... plans."
The coffee Mundley was about to sip never reached his lips.
"Even Grandma and Grandpa are worried about you," she said, watching his
eyes drift off to a window to his right where the ancient sparring
partners stood propped in matching rockers. "Don't you remember, Gordon,
how they always loved just sitting there and peacefully watching the sun
set over the sycamores?"
Mundley gritted his teeth and glanced at the farther window. In front of
it sat Hannah's brother Thurston, who had repeatedly raped Lena when she
was only a child. The armchair next to Thurston's was empty.
"Don't you remember how Lena loved looking out at the birds and squirrels,
Gordon? ... She could _still_ enjoy them, Gordon. Even _now_. Thurston
loved nature too, you know."
Mundley pushed away the cookies Hannah was pressing on him. "Lena's
enjoyed all she ever will," he pronounced, "and that's that."
His indelicacy evoked a wheeze of insucked breath.
"_You_ could be sitting there next to Lena, instead of Thurston, said
Hannah, unwilling to desist.
"What? Intrude upon family bliss? Not on your life! And not on my death
"Where is your respect for the wishes of your remaining family?" Reverend
Bryson intoned with a sweeping gesture of the hand that took in all the
room's occupants, both free-moving and fixed.
"The family's remains have no wishes that _I_ can respect," countered
Mundley, growing angrier by the second.
"All right, then, Uncle," said nephew Spridge. "If your ears are deaf to
the claims of blood, then think of the town, Newbury's _image_, the coming
Fair, the tourist dollars everyone is banking on."
"As far as I'm concerned," said Mundley, "holding a fair over the heads of
the dead is sheer sacrilege."
"Don't make a public spectacle of yourself, Gordon," said Bryson. "You
will look like a fool standing at the grave-site if you are unable to
complete the ceremony."
"And why should I be unable to complete the ceremony? Will anyone here
dare stop me?"
"You will be unable," said Bryson, making a temple of his fingers, "to
find one single minister, of whatever denomination, in the entire
county--nay, in all of New England--who will be willing to officiate. Of
that, Gordon, I can assure you."
"I've already thought of that, Jarvis."
"I can do without all you fashion-conscious numerators and denominators."
"How so?" Bryson snickered.
"Henry Birdwhistle has promised to officiate. As chief of the Quampoag
Indians here, and a full-fledged medicine man sensitive to the intimate
bond between Man and the earth that bore him--"
"How dare you?" said Bryson. Everyone at the table gasped. "Do you wish
to pile insult upon injury? When you pulled Birdwhistle out of your hat
for your last funeral ten years ago, the family of the deceased didn't
object. They were apparently all atheists."
"Solarians," Mundley corrected.
"Pagans!" said Bryson. "But Lena is a Christian. You, despite your
anachronistic behavior, are still a Christian, Gordon! God may yet
forgive you for your earlier misconduct, but do not expect a blank check
from the Lord if you commit your foul blasphemies a second time."
"The Lord has never sent me any checks, Jarvis. I've never worked
directly for him, as you do. And if you really must know, Birdwhistle was
a _friend_ of Lena's. She met him many years ago when he gave lectures on
"Very well, then," said Wilfred Spridge. "We will _shame_ you into
abandoning this atrocious _idée fixe_ of yours. Ten years ago there was
only a handful of people out at the park protesting your barbarity. But
tomorrow, when you propose to throw Lena into the ground like a container
of solid waste, half the town will be out there to challenge your
inconsiderate and indecent--"
"But I've changed my plans," said Mundley, struggling to suppress a grin.
Silence descended on the table.
"The burial will not take place tomorrow. It will take place the
following day," he announced, "Saturday morning at ten. You will see the
change posted on Public Notices tonight."
"Saturday morning?" said Spridge.
"Yes," said Mundley. "When everybody will be attending the
Newbury-Bainesville game. A double-header, remember? Our first chance to
get back at Bainesville for beating our pants off the last two in a row.
Now who in Newbury's going to miss that to go on a protest march against
ancient funerary practices?" Mundley smiled sadly. It was as if Lena had
foreseen what they'd be up to and had timed her demise accordingly. "And
now, ladies and gentlemen," said Mundley, rising and making a sweeping bow
to every corner of the room, "I shall have to be going."
"Do you suppose you've managed to trick us, Uncle Gordon?" said Wilfred.
"You will not get away so lightly, Gordon," Bryson shouted after him. "I
guarantee you that on Saturday morning there'll be a massive demonstration
against your willfulness and pride, even if I have to call every household
in Newbury on my own!"
It would be a one-car funeral. That was all right with Mundley. On
Saturday morning, at precisely 9:30, Mundley slipped into the driver's
seat of the immaculately polished hearse. It was an old aluminum-fueled
electric model, dating from about 2045. With Henry Birdwhistle beside
him, he proceeded to wend his lugubrious way through the deserted streets
of town toward the cemetery, which lay one mile to the north. The grave
had been dug; the company that ran the "park" was sticking to the letter
of its legal obligation.
"Not a soul in sight," said Mundley. "They're all twenty miles up north
for the game."
"In a way that's too bad," said Birdwhistle. "I would have appreciated a
nice-sized audience. It isn't often I get to gussy up in full
medicine-man's regalia. Not too many of the tribe are still around, you
As Mundley slowly drove, he could not help darting an occasional glance at
his passenger. Birdwhistle's legs, between his mocassins and his knees,
were symmetrically painted in alternating white and red spirals. He wore
a girdle made of the fur of a silver fox from the borders of which dangled
hundreds of knotted leather cords. From his neck a great breastplate of
many-colored cylindrical beads hung over his chest, and his neck itself
was bound in a collar strung with bear teeth. Rays of red, black, and
white fanned back from his powerful nose, and his braided black hair
remained devoid of all ornament, waiting to be crowned with the enormous
mask that Birdwhistle cradled in his lap. It was a hawklike,
parrot-feathered mask of red-painted wood from which beavertails and
strings of little shells hung down on every side. To top it all off, in
one hand he held a pair of sticks tipped with brightly painted
Mundley felt that Birdwhistle, in spite of his ridiculous get-up, was a
good deal closer to God than Jarvis Bryson. In his spare time the chief
worked a regular four-day, ten-to-four week as a corporation lawyer off in
the big city.
"Great baseball weather, don't you think, Henry?"
"So far so good, Gordon. ... What's that up ahead?"
Mundley had expected to see a token group of protesters circling in front
of the cemetery gate. There appeared instead only a _Herald 3V-17_
newsvan, and out of it popped a young man who scurried up to the driver's
window with a mike stretched out in his hand. "Mr. Mundley, we're showing
this ceremony _live_," said the reporter. "Lots of folks in this state are
curious to know how an old-fashioned burial was conducted. Since we're
sure you too are interested in sharing your lore with the public, may we
ask that you not proceed with the actual physical _burial_ till the end of
the first inning of the Newbury-Bainesville game, which starts in just
"Get your hand out of my window, you idiot!" Mundley had slowed down on
passing between the great stone entrance pillars, but he had no intention
of stopping altogether. "What'd I tell you, Henry, not a soul in sight!"
"So far so good," said Birdwhistle, "but my damn arthritis is acting up."
"You don't really intend to go _through_ with this, do you, Mr. Mundley?"
said the reporter, skipping along beside the window.
"How'll I even get there if you keep your mike stuck in my face, you
fool?" Mundley sped up just a little.
"Do you expect to fly in the face of that whole huge demonstration up
ahead, Mr. Mundley?" the reporter persisted, sprinting sideways like a
"_What_ demonstration?" said Mundley. The grave-site would not loom into
view for another winding half mile or so of trees and laser-trimmed lawns
that were studded with old metal plaques that kids used for bases when
they played ball here after school. "Everybody's at the game! I don't
hear any screaming or scurrilous shouting or Protestant hymns."
"Tune in to our radio station, 103 FM."
Mundley bore down on the pedal a little, leaving the reporter
half-heartedly jogging behind. Up ahead on the left he made out five huge
cross-country moving vans in the parking area just before the final turn
to the grave-site. The drivers, asprawl on the sun-lit grass near the
trucks, guzzled beer as they watched 3V. They hardly looked up at the
hearse as it curved around beside them.
But as soon as Mundley spun around the bend he saw them all out there,
waiting for him, eloquently silent, a sea of white heads, the frozen in
all their finery crowding the grass in a multitude of chairs, some few
reclining on blankets on the ground, others standing up by means of props
at their backs. They had all been carefully positioned to produce the
greatest possible deterrent effect. As in a Roman phalanx, close-packed
squads of the dead were turned to face him at his approach. They had even
drafted men and women of the cloth. On Mundley's left stood old Rabbi
Kenner, bowed in eternal contemplation over his favorite biblical text,
the Book of Ezra. Close in on the right, fingering her rosary, sat Sister
Bernetta, gazing in rapture upon a fistful of holocards.
Where their postures permitted, the deceased were fitted out with placards
which they held out like hex signs to block his advance. They forced
themselves on his attention as he drew near:
"DIRTy-minded Mundley/Go home!"
"Do not commit this GRAVE offense!"
"This is a PARK/Not a human LANDFILL"
"Isn't death insult enough?"
"Human worth/Does not mix with earth"
"Mundley, think twice!/Put Lena back on ice"
Mundley marveled at the reverend Bryson's organizational talent. In the
morning hours they had managed to plant here, like scarecrows, scores of
the county's deceased--most of whom Mundley had personally known! The
stares of their vacuum-dried eyes bore into his skull like shotgun
pellets. None of them _physically_ obstructed the way between the hearse
and the open grave. Bryson would be sure not to do anything illegal. No,
he was counting on the force of moral suasion, of social pressure--indeed,
even of supernatural terror, to make him back off. Ahead, at a
semi-respectful distance to the left of the grave, stood another newsvan,
cameras rolling, pruriently awaiting the neolithic ritual about to unfold
on the bright morning grass. Behind them waited an old yellow
earth-moving vehicle, the driver seated on the fender with his mini-3V.
"How do you feel?" asked Birdwhistle. "If you want to turn back, you know,
"No! Damn them all to hell! ... Looks like Old Home Week, doesn't it,
Henry? Bryson's got some sense after all. This is where they should all
have been gathered in the first place."
Birdwhistle began to mumble: "My knuckle-joints are killing me. ... Say,
you know what I think, Gordon?"
"Include them _all_ in your routine! Hear me, Henry? I'm feeling
expansive today. I'll pay you extra if you throw in a dance that covers
the whole bunch of 'em."
"I'll do that, Gordon."
Mundley did a perfect parallel park at the right edge of the gaping hole.
Mounds of earth bellied up around the other three sides. The press of a
button on the dash lifted the left side of the hearse like an awning,
revealing the wreath-covered casket to the newsmen twenty feet away. A
sudden cloud passed over the pit like an angry ghost. Mundley wriggled
his creaking body out of the cab, nudging Birdwhistle to do the same.
Standing at the head of the grave, he ran his hands down the sides of his
tuxedo jacket. He glanced around at the motionless semi-circle of faces,
many familiar to him since childhood. They had been arranged to confront
him all the way around from the newsvan to the other side of the hearse.
Here too they held up messages of rebuke to his face, and Mundley began to
shiver --not just from the cool breeze that whipped through his jacket,
and certainly not from the terror of malediction, but mainly from the fact
that the signs were fastened to the hands and laps of all of Hannah's
freeze-dried relatives! Not a single _living_ member of the Krebbs or
Mundley clan had seen fit to attend.
Hannah's mother and father jointly supported a sign that said, "Lena,
we'll never forget--and never forgive!" Across the knees of her seated
grandparents rested a card that read, "Leave our Lena in peace--in _one_
piece, Gordon!" Her despicable brother Thurston faced him too with
another bit of doggerel: "Gordon, what have you got/If you let poor Lena
rot?" But what wrenched him the most was the sign placed in the lap of
the fair-cheeked Miriam:
WHAT ARE YOU _REALLY_ BURYING, GORDON?
Not a living Krebbs to send Lena off! If they didn't see the burial, they
could deny it ever happened. They could keep perpetually vacant, for
Lena's eventual homecoming, the seat beside the window next to Brother.
... Weird sounds erupted at Mundley's shoulder. Birdwhistle leaped atop
a hummock of fresh-dug earth and began his keening chant in a language
known to only a few dozen people in all the world. A language of sorrow
and love and death. A chanting that echoed the voice that rose from the
open pit itself and reeked of finality. The Quampoag medicine man,
attired in blood-red mask and in feathers and tassels and streamers from
neck to knee, entered into his rhythmic dance, shook his gourds in
complex, varied patterns of syncopation, and his knees lifted and his body
twisted to the sounds from his lips and his rattles. The yawning earth
listened, the newsmen listened, the gathered dead paid keen attention, and
the sky--above all, the sky paid heed to the medicine man's incantations.
Thick gray clouds tumbled out from nowhere. A lascivious wind licked at
the skirts of the dead. Mundley looked up and wondered if he should call
it all off. Interrogating the swirling cloudmass, he received for answer
a spattering of gloppy raindrops on his cheeks. Suddenly the sky fell
down and the earth was strafed with water.
"Get back in the car!" he yelled to Birdwhistle, clambering back behind
the wheel, slamming the door and raising the window. Birdwhistle didn't
seem to hear. He went on dancing his dance. What were they saying, those
newspeople? Mundley wondered. He remembered the reporter mentioning 103
FM and fiddled with the radio.
"--truckmen are dashing frantically around like chickens with their heads
cut off," said the excited newsvoice. "The demonstrators are getting
quite a soaking! Let me get out of the van and ask one of the movingmen
what all the panic is about." Mundley looked through his window, but it
ran with rivers of rain, and he saw only amoeboid blobs of the
still-rocking figure of Birdwhistle.
"--a disaster in the making, ladies and gentlemen. ... Sir, how many of
you men are available to hurry and--"
"It's impossible! We had a dozen guys, but they didn't want to stay, they
went off to the game. We figured it was all right, but now, my God ...!"
"The problem, folks, is not that the rain is soaking all these beautiful
garments. It's ... _yikh_ ... _melting_ the freeze-dried demonstrators!
Freeze-Frame's going to be in for a slew of law-suits. ... It's
absolutely disgusting! I can't bear to describe it. Don't the organizers
_know_ that New England weather ...?"
Mundley scrambled out of the car to see. The fingers! They were the
first to go. Diminishing stumps of hands dropped their hortatory placards
to the earth. The dead were alive with twisting motions of their arms and
heads. A handful of men ran with a body under each arm, snapping pieces
off their charges before they could haul them back to the sanctuary of the
vans. And now the faces! Mundley looked in awe as noses and chins
dissolved down the fronts of silk blouses. The beat of the rain was
torrential. Birdwhistle maniacally hopped and spun and continued to shake
his gourds while shoulders slumped and blouses sagged over breasts that
were turning to pulp. The truckers whirled around and cursed each other
and the sky. The jackets of standing patriarchs hung askew. Exquisitely
tailored pants drooped down over pitted thighs.
Mundley looked for Miriam. What was left of her head had rolled into her
lap. The bottom half of her face, turned toward him, had not yet
dissolved. He watched with fascination as her lips curled back over her
perfect teeth in an ever-widening smile.
"Stop it already!" he shouted to Birdwhistle. He grabbed him by a gourd,
but Birdwhistle shook him away. Mundley slipped back alone into the
hearse. When the rain let up, he would push the button that would extend
Lena's coffin outward and then lower it by a pair of straps into the
living, drunken earth. He opened his window halfway, liking the lick of
rain on his face, and breathed in deeply the smells of spring, the rich
dark odors of the earth.
At long last Birdwhistle returned to the hearse, his mask streaming rain
over his shoulders.
"What the hell were you _doing_ out there?" asked Mundley.
"First, a rain dance. And then the more solemn ritual of the final rite
of passage. ..."
"You worked a miracle!" said Mundley.
"Not entirely. I just hastened the inevitable. I _knew_ that a rain was
coming on. My arthritis ..."
"That mask of yours works wonders," Mundley marveled. "How many
generations has it been in the tribe?"
"None. I made it myself. From things I've seen in museums and such.
Represents a kind of pan-Amerindian eclecticism, from the Tlingit to the
"Take it off your head, Henry, or the flood will last forty days."
"And where'd you get these magical rattles?" asked Mundley.
"Maracas. Genuine. From Mexico."
Mundley grabbed them and gave them a shake while the voice on the radio
said, "--only a few drops out here in Bainesville, though, where Newbury's
already scored once in the top of the first."
Pearlman/ GROUND UNDER MAN 1
Copyright © by Daniel Pearlman
All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.