Fiction · 02/19/2014

Brilliant People Gone Haywire

The bodies forced themselves out of their refrigerators, but we wrestled them back in. It would go on like this all night. It was not fun but it was how I made ends meet. I couldn’t think of too many jobs that were better for me. I needed the physicality of the thing. I’d have fallen asleep and maybe never woken up doing most jobs. The bodies kept me alert and alive.

The bodies usually tried to say things. So you had to have a thick skin. It was terrifying, with their bodies so cold and the words they’d try to push out from between their tight dry lips. But it never spoiled my appetite. I was able to chow down on, say, a steak sandwich I packed for midnight lunch. A modest slab of meat snug and delicious in a Kaiser roll, brown mustard for more flavor. Sloppy, but not too sloppy. And I always had plenty of napkins, which I kept in my footlocker.

We played cards to pass the time. Or I’d read something. I liked a lot of books. I liked to read about the high seas and how the pirates did things when sailors were manly pirates, in olden times. And when men stayed dead when they died. Not just in the briny deep. When they sank and drowned they were out of sight, sure, but I mean even when the bodies had been recovered. We had all the bodies. They weren’t lost to us. They were on land where they did not stay dead, not without a little struggle.

Sometimes I had to use my lunch pail to beat them back. Sometimes they got me while I was in the middle of my midnight lunch and it was only the lunch pail that was strong enough to pound them to submission, disorientation, and back again safely behind the refrigerator door. I don’t think they were hurt. They rarely said anything to indicate pain, nothing like, “Ouch, ouch, ouch, ok I’m going back in and I’ll stay dead for good.” It was hard enough to speak much less shout out in pain in their deadened bodies that probably doesn’t feel the pain a living body does. I mean, it’s hard to shout out in pain when you can’t feel it.

There was only one time things really went badly that I can think of, and that time was when a body, rather than wrestling me to escape its refrigerator, told me a few lines. He got me to believe he was a dead pirate. I don’t know how he knew my biggest weakness, but I remember he said, “I was first mate on a little schooner gone by the name of Little Dame of the Sea.” He said there were scary things running rampant about his ship, all over the deck and in its bowels, too. So the name was meant to, you know, disarm people.

He got me dreaming with his stories. I’d pull him out of the refrigerator every night, sit him up, let him thaw and then ask the questions I knew only he could answer. He spoke slowly and kept asking intermittently for me to let him out into the world and not put him back in the refrigerator, which I knew I couldn’t do and decided not to lie and tell him I could. He seemed sad. and he told me I’d have to wrestle him back in to get him there, in the refrigerator, and that he was pretty thawed out. It would be hard, he explained, now that he was so thawed. And it was harder to get him back in than it would have been if he were still frozen instead of mostly frozen but still stricken with rigor mortis. And once back in the refrigerator, he shouted for a long time about how painful and freezing it was, until he became frozen again or too exhausted to shout out, because of all the shouting.

One of the nights, following thawing him, he told me of Pirate Pete. He himself was Pirate Greaves. Pirate Pete had only one weakness: being stabbed in the eye with anything sharp.

“And I was close to besting him, exploiting that very special weakness,” Pirate Greaves said. “And if he hadn’t known mine, I’d have been successful. I’d have ended him. Instead, the opposite was true. And they brought me here for refrigeration. If only he hadn’t known that my one weakness was having my throat slit!” I noticed Pirate Greaves did have a slit-scar on his throat. I looked it over and came to the opinion that it could have been self-inflicted, but I didn’t care. I wanted to hear more.

“I could be dead and decaying underwater so this is better than that, I suppose,” Pirate Greaves said, after thinking for a moment.

+

At the outset of every new shift I would ply Chris, the other night attendant, with booze. Got him so that he couldn’t hold his head up. Then I’d get Pirate Greaves out of the refrigerator and we’d talk. But of course zonking Chris out had the negative effect of putting me at a disadvantage when things went haywire with the bodies, as they often did. Chris was somewhat aware of my doings, what I was up to, why I was keeping him completely out of his sober mind. But he didn’t care because of the drink.

For me, it was a game of whack-a-mole. I threw my body right at the refrigerators when they tried opening and the corpses tried getting their bodies out of there. Except I let Pirate Greaves out, same as always. He had me hooked to his stories. He had an actual hook. He was bad at using his hook. He cut deeply into his wizened, receding face and was never aware of his having done so.

Then there were budget cuts that became problematic to my whole setup of letting out Greaves. They started stuffing way more bodies into each refrigerator. The units were designed to hold one body and one body alone. It was a difficult adjustment for the bodies, and it made it harder to stuff them back in. I don’t know if most of the bodies gave a lot of thought to what they’d do if they got out. I only knew what Pirate Greaves would do.

He wanted to get his revenge on Pirate Pete. I had this strange feeling I could use him for my own purposes, whilst he pursued his own monomaniacal goal.

The management wanted to help Chris and me with the problem of multiple bodies to each refrigerator. They provided us with long metal poles roughly equivalent in size to those holding up street signs and attached extra large plungers to their ends, so we’d have an easier time gaining leverage closing the refrigerator doors when the bodies tried to escape. Our fighting them back was beginning to look a lot like the ramshackle antics of a Three Stooges episode.

During one particularly challenging night of fending off bodies, Pirate Greaves stared at me somberly. Chris laid unconscious in a corner with an empty bottle of Tito’s at his side. “I need to get out of here,” Pirate Greaves said.

“Well, not yet. But maybe we can work something out,” I said, struggling and finally successful at closing the refrigerator.

“I’m not going back in there. I’ve been in there for the last time,” Pirate Greaves said, referring to the refrigerator. And I picked him up and again shoved him back in.

+

Manager Jim Browning was there at the start of my next shift. He wanted to talk. He wasn’t questioning my methods. He said so. He implored me to relax. He was just checking up. He was the consummate executive, in that he was not making me feel at ease but still smiling and saying that’s what he wanted.

Our conversation was long and awkward and I gave very little more than single-word replies to his questions. I’m not sure why I did that. It’s not like I truly felt interrogated. I think maybe it was because he seemed to be hiding something, and he was trying to decide if I knew more than I was letting on, and if I did know more, he seemed to be trying to decide whether he should just make mention of the elephant in the room. End the charade.

He finally cracked and said, “Ok, you know as well as I do that our business here is not to keep the dead at bay. These men and women aren’t dead. They are only ‘dead-like.’ And they’re ‘dead-like’ for a very important reason, which I can totally tell you have apparently figured out, because you’re not the average night watchmen / body retriever and body-being-put-in-danger preventer. So I need you to do something for me. Call it a favor. I need you to give the bodies’ a second dose of the deadening agent that keeps them deader than alive.I know it’s extra responsibility but think about it. Be logical. You’d have to work less at night. The bodies would be deader than they are now. No fuss, no muss. We avoided telling you this earlier because we were afraid you couldn’t be trusted. It remains true what we’re doing here isn’t entirely legal.”

“Not entirely?” I said.

“Not at all legal, no,” Browning admitted. “But I know I can count on you to be discreet. And let’s not mention this to Chris.” He winked at me and made a clicking noise while he aimed his finger at me as though it were a gun.

Before he left, Browning said one more thing, “Hey, one more thing. Keep in mind, these people we’re keeping like corpses here are in many cases pretty brilliant for all their crazy. keep that in mind, for safety’s sake.”

I waved goodbye, not saying anything. Browning stopped, staring at me with an instant’s worth of skepticism. He was probably weirded out by my waving and not speaking my goodbye. He shrugged, then nodded and went away.

I had not thought to ask why they were doing this to people, but it occurred to me I didn’t need to know. I knew already. They wanted to make lots of money, and there were plenty of people who didn’t need a person whose mind was not sane hanging around, cluttering up things. Better to keep them away. Better to have them kept.

So that’s when I realized Pirate Greaves was likely no pirate and probably just crazy, just a crazy man with a hook, who’d never fared a single sea. He no doubt believed what he said, which made him in so many ways, entirely a fiction.

But, he had successfully bewitched me. I was willing to believe two contradictory things. I was willing inasmuch as I had no choice, cognitive dissonance being the thing that it is. In my mind, though I knew he wasn’t, Pirate Greaves was a pirate. And he still needed his vengeance. And I still had a nice strong need of adventure.

Management delivered to me leather pouches with fresh syringes full of the deadening agent.

After I finished with the doses for all the other bodies I revived Pirate Greaves. “All right, friend. I’m going to finally let you escape. But there’s a condition: you take me with you adventuring. Make sense? You say yes?”

A drunken Chris wandered over to us. “Hey what are those syringes filled with?”

To show Pirate Greaves how serious I was and to remove Chris as a variable, I turned and injected a dose in Chris’ neck. “I have a strong desire for adventure,” I told Pirate Greaves.

“We’ll need to get my revenge,” Pirate Greaves said.

“Fortunately we know Pirate Pete’s only weakness,” I said. I handed Pirate Greaves a sharpened pencil, which he pocketed.

“I know exactly where to find Pirate Pete,” Pirate Greaves told me very matter-of-factly as we rode in my car. He kept pointing to the water tower. He’s there. He’s there! So I drove us toward the water tower. Pirate Greaves smelled worse in the open air, and I worried about what would happen to all his accidental facial cuts as he slowly livened up back to a regularly functioning human, and whether that was possible. I had no plans to give him his doses of the deadening agent, at least as long as he presented no danger. To me. I was unconcerned with the danger he might be to others, obviously. Especially where Pirate Pete was concerned. Pirate Pete who probably had this coming, if he were really real. I knew, though, that he probably wasn’t.

I had no choice but to believe Pirate Pete wasn’t real when Pirate Greaves began climbing the water tower’s ladder, mumbling expletives incoherently because he had the pencil in his mouth, like a real pirate climbs with a cutlass. He got to the end of the ladder and began his attack.

“Take that, Pirate Pete,” Pirate Greaves stabbed with his pencil. “Gotcha in the eye!” Pirate Greaves had only broken his pencil against the water tower’s outer container. He climbed down from the tower and told me he’d be the one doing the driving from now on.

He drove us straight into the ocean. I’d anticipated this happening and had already rolled my window down.

I dragged him with me by his shirt collar, swam up to the surface where the water undulated and sent us up and down.

There, I saw in the distance a boat. It could be the perfect corsair, I supposed. I waved, and Pirate Greaves waved, too, after he finished coughing up much salt water. “Not the first time I’ve ever coughed up a good deal of the briny deep,” he informed me.

A family of vacationers helped us aboard. “We saw you go into the ocean in your car and came to help as quickly as we could,” the mother of the family said.

Pirate Greaves waved his broken pencil at them.

I did one better and unsheathed what syringes I still had.

We were headed out toward the sun, which had risen high into the sky. The blood had returned to Pirate Greaves’ face, pouring out like thick syrup from his cuts. He smeared it all over his cheeks and chin and everywhere with his hands.

It was smudgy and slimy, but it made a fine beard. He was a pirate. It had always been true.

+++

Matt Rowan lives in Chicago, IL. Most days he imagines what it would be like to converse with Vladimir Nabokov and then concludes: pedantic, it would be pedantic. He co-edits Untoward Magazine and is the author of the story collection Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013). His work has appeared, or soon will, in NOÖ Journal, Gigantic, Booth Journal, Atticus Review and Pear Noir!, among others. More at literaryequations.blogspot.com.