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San Casimiro, TEXASSHORT STORIES
By Mario E. Martinez
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Mario E. Martinez
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Little Friendly Competition
Nadine Peckings had the house clean for her husband's arrival. Their son, Elias Jr., was outside playing with a stick, chasing the sparrows out of the bushes. She pushed her auburn hair from her face and scanned the front room and dining room. Everything was satisfactory. She watched the clock from the couch, waiting to hear the rumbling of her husband's truck and trailer. He'd spent the day at the Refugio Farmer's Market, where vendors from three counties gathered to sell their homemade preserves and cakes, their odd birdhouses and marmalades.
Elias sold none of those things. He was a mortician by trade, and Elias Peckings' Funeral Services had the market cornered in Refugio and most of San Casimiro. But, on the day of the Farmer's Market, Elias threw off his mantle of mortician, cleaner of the dead, and took on another. He'd made hamburgers and ribs for the past six years, a staple in lot eight at the end of the market grounds. For Elias, it was the day people could look him in the eye without malice or anger. He often saw most of the area's residents at work, but there, understandably, they were not the friendliest. A lover, a son, a father, had passed, and no amount of good wishes on Elias's part could break the moods his business seemed to exude.
But, filling the market grounds with the smell of charred beef and fresh cut vegetables, people laughed with him, looked him in his rather odd face. One eye seemed on the verge of shutting while the other was open and vibrant. They'd stand and converse with him about mundane topics, but they were conversations not interrupted by tears. Selling burgers, Elias felt like he was a member of the community, someone not just kept around because of a sad need, a dire reality, but because there was something he could do that could bring joy instead of misery, instead of a dignity in death.
Nadine thought about the smiling face Elias wore every year when he walked through their front door. She thought about it so hard she wondered if the sounds of his truck and trailer were merely something in her own imagination, but a moment later, she knew it wasn't.
Elias pulled into the driveway, dragging a large trailer converted to house three grilling units complete with charcoal pits and compartments for seasonings and condiments. Nadine looked out the window and smiled as the truck door opened, but something was different. When Elias put his foot on the ground, it looked as though it weighed an astronomical amount, as though the mere movement of the appendage were a trial Elias had to endure. When she caught sight of his face, Nadine's hand crept up toward her mouth. True, one of Elias's eyes was incapable of opening fully to reveal anything, but the other eye was just as closed. No smile could be traced along the edges of his mouth, just a deep scowl and distant look of contemplation.
He moved up the driveway slowly, not even bothering to retrieve any remaining food from the truck. He was a thin man of light skin with longish hair circling his balding head like a Chaucerian monk.
Nadine opened the door for him, asking, "How'd it go, honey?" Her smile was forced, but she thought it the only thing she could do.
Elias didn't immediately answer, only walked past her and into the living room. A thick aroma of smoke and cooked beef followed him. He collapsed on the couch and pushed back his head with both his hands. He sat like that for a moment, silent and stretching.
"Is something the matter, dear?" Nadine asked.
"Where's Eli?" Elias asked through his hands.
"He's playing outside," Nadine said.
"Good," Elias said slowly. Then, he screeched into his hands. The note was shrill and lasted longer than Nadine would've preferred. She's seen the pose before, heard the moan of anguish in her husband's voice, but usually, it was after a busy day at the mortuary. The last time she'd seen him so flustered was when the Miller family lost control of their sedan and all four of them were killed in the roll-over crash. Elias had to work two days to have the bodies ready to be viewed and buried. But, the mortuary was closed that day on account of the Farmer's Market. As far as she knew, no one had died.
"Elias, what happened?" Nadine asked.
Elias dropped his hands to his sides, but left his head tilted back so that he could fully take in the popcorn ceiling. "Robert-god-damn-Fennerman is what happened, Nadine," he said and sighed. "I got there at eight, like I always do. My lot was ready for me, so I set up. The charcoal took a bit to get going. I mean, the whole market was already going by the time I got the fire ready. And, you've seen me sell those burgers. I've got people ready to claim the first one before I unwrap the patties. So, naturally, I thought it was weird that no one was there yet."
"Maybe they just saw you weren't ready," Nadine offered, thinking that was the trouble with her husband. He was normally a sensitive man, but even he knew the fickleness of customers, especially ones so removed from cities.
"That wasn't even it, Nadine," Elias went on. "I got the fire going, and I was so into making sure that I had everything going, that I didn't notice the smell of burgers."
"I thought you said you hadn't cooked them," Nadine said.
"I hadn't," Elias said and shook his head. "Fennerman was. He set up at lot twelve. He was making sliders. Little hamburgers with some onions and a little cheese. I saw those things, paper thin beef patties and stringy onions. But, I was at the end of the Market, so I got to watch him sell overpriced little burgers and buns the whole day. I'd be sold out by noon, usually. Now, I have to go to the shelter in Refugio to drop off what we've got left. That son of a bitch—"
"It's true!" Elias shouted. "He knew I sold hamburgers every year at the market. People talked about it, Nadine. People would come up to me for a month and ask about those burgers. Today, I couldn't even sell half. By the time anyone got to me, they'd filled up on sliders and beer. I even asked the Willis kid to buy one for me so I could see what the fuss was about."
"How were they?" Nadine asked.
Elias didn't answer immediately, only stared forward as though remembering the bite. "Good. Not as good as mine, but good enough to mess up my burger stand."
"It'll be better next year," Nadine said.
"It has to be, Nadine," Elias said. "I've got a year to do it. There's got to be something that'll put my burgers back on top. I just have to find it."
"Well, don't worry honey," Nadine said and kissed his balding head. "A little friendly completion never hurt nobody."
The thought of Robert Fennerman and his sliders infected Elias's mind the rest of that year. As he worked on the bodies of men and women, neighbors and acquaintances, that were carted into his funeral home, Elias smelled the grilled onions. He'd worked on so many corpses, seen his father before him work on so many, that most of the process was instinctual. He washed the bodies, draped modesty clothes over their dead genitals, and did the necessary tests his father had shown him. He worked the joints, moving them back and forth, making sure rigor mortis had set before he set at the task of working it out of the muscles. He then pulled the centrifugal pump and hose towards the work table. Afterward, it was just a matter of insertion and waiting. Insert the hose leading to the pump into the cadaver's neck. Once that was finished, inserted another hose across the corpse's neck to drain the old blood and body fluids. Without fail, Elias set the pump to work the mix of formaldehyde and other preservatives.
Once the process began, Elias thought of the Market and how to create a better burger, something so delicious no one would stop at Fennerman's stand. He pictured the sizzling meat, the thick smoke warming his skin, as he dressed the bodies in suits and hand-picked dresses. As he slid the mutli-pronged eye caps beneath the eyes of the deceased, Elias wondered if he should marinate the patties in a sauce or use the same dry-rub he'd used before. Massaging the forehead so the plastic eye covers could set naturally, creating the illusion of a peaceful slumber, Elias pretended he was rolling ground chuck into patties.
And, this was Elias's life for months. The bodies came out roughly dressed and only partially assuaged of their rigor mortis. At one funeral, one for a young man killed in a hunting accident, it seemed as though the corpse attempted to puff out its chest because its arms were too stiff to lie close to the body. At another, Elias only partially removed the innards, filling the viewing hall with the rank stench of preservatives and the faint smell of death. Even after some people complained about the state of their departed loved ones, Elias couldn't shake the constant thinking about the Farmer's Market, about Fennerman's sliders.
Soon, he was so consumed with the idea, that he brought a cheap hotplate into the preparation room so that he could experiment on the different ways to make a hamburger. As the embalming machine pumped synthetic preservatives into the corpses of the tri-county area, Elias hunched over his hotplate and skillet, working with patties formed from an 85/15 chuck ground up himself. He seasoned it with a bit more lemon zest, but the new flavor was hardly noticeable. He tried marinating the patties in Worchester sauce, but the sharp new taste wasn't enough. Yes, perhaps it would fool children into thinking the burgers were something to come running for, but they wouldn't be enough to beat Fennerman.
The answer came from one of Elias's best customers, Silvio Magaña, who died from a heart attack. Silvio was a large man, well over three hundred pounds of mostly fat and hair. Elias's father had taught him that with larger bodies, the embalming process could take twice as long. The arteries were usually so clogged that the thickened blood needed to be flushed slowly as to not pop any of the veins. Elias worked on Silvio as much as his wandering mind allowed him, but ultimately returned to thoughts of adding onions to his own burgers to enhance the flavor. He worked on two patties, one using his original technique, and another made with garlic powder and even less fat. He flipped both and watched them sizzle in their own grease, browning expertly.
Then, the sputtering began.
Elias turned in horror to see the pump flooding Silvio's veins with embalming fluid. From the drainage tube, the lumpy black blood splashed on the ground and whipped wildly, covering one wall with flecks of gore. Elias tried to get to the machine in time, but before he could shut it off completely, the drainage hose tore a hole into the side of Silvio's neck, releasing crumbles of congealed fat along with the blood. He stared at the torn neck and cursed himself. Elias knew the repair would take him most of the night to finish and the remainder to make it look like some mad experiment hadn't befallen Silvio. He sighed and listened to the sizzling burgers.
He returned to the hotplate and removed both patties. He bit into the one with garlic, but the spice overpowered the natural taste of the meat so much so that Elias simply threw it away. He bit into the other, awaiting the familiar taste of the burger he'd been selling for a decade. Yet, when he expected the same flavor to hit his tongue, it was flooded like Silvio's veins. Something was succulent about that burger where the others were simply reminders of his defeat at the hands of Fennerman. Something about that burger would have people passing lot twelve in order to line up in front of his burger stand. But, he couldn't tell what was different. He'd made it no different than any of the others. Formed it the same and spiced it the same. It was the consistency he'd used normally. Yet, there, next to the injured corpse of one of his best customers, Elias ate his burger as though it were the first one he'd ever tasted.
He knew the burger in his hands would be the one to lead him to victory, if only he knew why.
He noticed it once he cleaned the room. Silvio had been sewed up using a flesh colored thread and a suit jacket with a larger collar. Unless his wife thrashed the body around, no one would notice the puckered wound on the side of Silvio's neck. The mess was a considerable one, too. Blood had sprayed across one wall, contaminating a number of his clamps and scalpels. But, the worst was the congealed fat. He went over the room thoroughly, looking under tables and behind shelves, in order to find all the pieces. There were even some stuck on the ceiling, which he retrieved a ladder to clean. From that vantage point, with the fluorescent lights cascading down around him, he spotted another mark of fat hitting the walls.
Too his horror, the stain was above the hotplate.
He focused on the stain and moved down the ladder slowly, keeping it in sight. Elias stood next to Silvio's body and pointed at the wound with his finger. As though recreating the accident, Elias moved his finger to compensate for the drainage hose, then turned his finger, imagining the muck that flew as a result of the clogged veins. At one point, he completed a revolution with his finger and walked toward the hot plate, his finger tracing a trajectory in the air. He pressed his finger to the wall above the hotplate and found a small smudge, but no fat stuck to it. Then, he realized that the fat wouldn't have stuck to the wall in the first place. Silvio had been dead too long to keep the fat oily. By the time Silvio had been wheeled in, the fat had hardened to something like cottage cheese.
Elias looked at the spot and down at the hotplate, down over the spot where his burger had been. Part of him wanted to vomit, knowing what flavored the burger he knew could beat Fennerman, but another part simply thought and thought. For a moment, he almost considered it, the new flavoring. But, Elias put it out of his mind, knowing he couldn't do such a thing, Farmer's Market or not.
Two weeks before the Farmer's Market, Elias was at Rosita's, hoping to drown his anxieties with warm beer and cheap enchiladas. On the table across from him was a flyer, half dangling off the table, fluttering slightly with the circulating air tossed around by the ceiling fans. It would have passed his notice if he didn't see a large 'F' on the corner of it. He went and retrieved it before sitting back down at his table. Immediately, his hunger was gone. The flyer was for Fennerman's Sliders, to be sold at lot twelve in two weeks. They were quality flyers, colored and filled with pictures of glistening little burgers drooling American cheese.
Elias cursed his luck. He'd never even thought of advertising his burgers before, but, then again, there had never been a need to. Now, staring at Fennerman's flyer, Elias's hand shook as though truly realizing that failure lay a mere fourteen days away.
Once he returned to the mortuary, Elias couldn't fully concentrate on his work. The thought of Fennerman's sliders was too much for him. The name that he cultivated, the yearly ritual that made him less a social pariah and more so a pillar of the community, was slipping away. Soon, he'd just be another small town mortician, unloved by anyone other than his wife and son. No more were the days of sizzling meat and smiles shared under a summer sun. All that was left were the bodies on the tables, lifeless, to be cleaned and dressed for burial. He wondered if there was truly anything he could do, but there was nothing he could think of that didn't go back to Silvio's accident.
The thought lingered in his mind until the phone in the corner of the room rang. He picked it up, sullenly answering, "Peckings Funeral Home, this is Elias."
It was the sheriff. A collision occurred on the highway and three people were killed, all local.
"We're sending them over to you now, Elias," the sheriff told him. "And, you're going to have your work cut out for you, today. Ain't one of those people under two hundred and fifty pounds. Damn near gave the EMT a hernia just getting them on the gurneys."
Elias said he'd be ready for them and hung up. Again, he thought of the flyer. The small burgers that would run him out of the Farmer's Market. But, as he mulled over the images in his head, his eye caught hold of the bone scraper. A crude tool that was no more than a depressed trowel of stainless steel used to smooth out the lumps in the skin, to shear away any bits of organ that clung to the bones. He looked at it and thought of how easy it would be to collect fat with it, how easy it would be to take enough to cook with and sew the bodies up.
The smell alone had a line forming around Elias's burger stand. There he stood, smiling with his monkish hair, his good eye glowing, while the other seemed relaxed. He flipped the burgers and smiled at the aromatic sizzle that came off them. From between the crowding bodies, Elias watched Fennerman desperately try to sell his sliders to every passing person, but they only held up their hands and indicated that they wanted whatever smelt so good.
Old Mrs. Tandy went up and ordered one from Elias, who smiled and said, "Coming right up, Betty." He placed the burger patty on a bun and dressed it properly.
"You've got quite the crowd today, Elias," Mrs. Tandy said. "I heard you've got some secret recipe you're trying this year."
Excerpted from San Casimiro, TEXAS by Mario E. Martinez Copyright © 2012 by Mario E. Martinez. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA Little Friendly Competition....................1
The Grinding Business....................33
A Boy and His Mud Man....................39
Sins of the Father....................55
The "Paletero Murders"....................61
Tonight We Dine on Literature....................109