Locks and Keys
Herbert Goldwell didn’t have any mirrors in his two story house. He stared out windows. If he lived in a suburban ant colony with painted front doors, he would have seen just that. Ants entering and exiting painted doors to enter or exit other painted doors. Some metal, wood, plastic. All of them separating a reality from another reality. Herbert didn’t live in a suburban neighborhood. He lived in a town that was small enough to inherit the graves of the not so distant larger city. The larger city was far enough away to not remind the living of their recently undead emigrants. “There is simply no other option,” said a pulpy red face atop a black suit collar on a glowing rectangle. “This is what must be done.” He said they had to dig up the dead and move them to another town. Another town that inhabited the living. They had to move the graves to the town because the city was running out of room. This was the same town Herbert had lived in his entire life. When Herbert thought about this he didn’t stare at a mirror, he stared out his windows.
The city had offered him twice as much money as the estate value in order to consolidate the expansive cemetery. Herbert wouldn’t sell. He said, “Money doesn’t matter to me. I never had any and I’m too old to want it.” Herbert sold automotive parts in a small store in the center of town. He had been doing so for twenty-two years. He hadn’t time left to start anything new and he hadn’t spent enough time at anything else to not sell automotive parts. He didn’t mind. He knew most of the customers by name. He instinctively smiled when he smelt motor oil in the recycling canister at the rear of the store and he would tilt his head to the left, cluck, then exhale when he heard a rod knock or a valve that tapped too loudly in a customer’s car. He had never considered himself to be a particularly good man, but he was. A man of his word, of his honor, of his intention. The people who knew Herbert never asked him why he stayed in a town that was only going to house dead townspeople. They thought that he must have his own reasons and it’s not their business to ask what other people do with their lives. It was that kind of town.
That kind of town had been demolished and flattened because it had been that kind of town. It was poor and cheap and moral. It was easy for the representatives of the city to convince the others to sell the worthless land for more money than the town had ever seen, cumulatively. Of course people were a little sad, jobless, and nostalgic at first, but then thrilled when they heard the sound of the ATM munching their government issued check for twice as much as their property value. One by one they sold, left. The scene was like watching a man ten years sober go on his first bender and start to vomit. At first there was a bit that evacuated, then a lot, then so much there was nothing left. The body of the town heaving and heaving until only the little chunk of a long ago meal, Herbert Goldwell’s home, remained in the teeth of the convulsing body.
Herbert lost his job because dead people don’t fix automobiles. Living people drive cars to visit dead people however, and those cars needed fuel. Herbert became a gas station cashier. The station consisted of two pumps in front of a small room that sold teeth rotting candy and soda to people about to visit their rotting loved ones. Once a young woman asked him a question unrelated to the cost of potato chips, fuel, or which freeway to take to get out of the town.
“Do you like living here?” She asked. Herbert had thought about his residence in this town before and why he still lived there. He had decided that it was home and that was reason enough to stay. He had never considered whether he liked it or not.
“I’ve never considered whether I like it or not,” he said.
“Really? It seems like it would be really depressing to work here. Surrounded by death all the time. This is my first time visiting my grandmother’s grave. It’s a pretty spooky place.” Herbert looked at the young woman who could have been between eighteen or thirty-five. His judgment of age had faltered because most of the people he saw were older than him, and he was more than half finished. He thought about whether he was depressed where he lived.
“Truthfully, people around me have always been dead. Now they can’t hide it.”
“Wow, that’s intense. What do you mean exactly?” She asked. He thought more about what he meant. He wasn’t sure whether or not he meant it anymore, but he felt that it came from deep inside of him. He felt the words revealed thoughts and feelings he’d never consciously known to exist. He contorted his face as he spoke to himself.
“I mean that most people are never really living. They never notice the color of the sky or how the grass looked like it was combed over the top of a giant head. They try their whole lives racing to the finish line when the finish line is a bullet in your brain and spirit and soul. Trying to outlast death isn’t living.” Herbert looked up at the woman and realized that he’d said something he’d felt his entire life. He wasn’t a brilliant man, but he was poetic. Fortunately for Herbert, he didn’t realize this until he was fifty-six years old standing in a gas station talking to a young woman who had just visited the bones of her grandmother.
It wasn’t until two years seventh months and four days after Herbert Goldwell realized he was poetic that he started talking to his neighbors. By then all of the houses surrounding Herbert’s had been demolished, the ground beneath them excavated, filled with remains, and weighed down with soil and stones surrounded by locked gates. One day he walked out of his house, walked to the gate and opened it. He walked around the cemetery until he came across a concrete angel pointing down toward him. He imagined the angel telling him something, “Talk to them,” it said. “Talk to them,” he heard the concrete angel tell him through sealed grey lips and blank eyes.
“To these past things? To the ethereally exited?” Herbert had read poetry and novels every moment of every day he wasn’t sleeping or helping a customer. Stacks of books walled his home. A secret drawer at the gas station allowed him to hide whatever book he was reading at the moment his corpulent boss pulled up to check on the dirt above his wife. The rate his vocabulary and eloquence blossomed would have made the most hardened and cynical tenured English professor raise his eyebrows if not in unison, then at least one in the shape of a gaff hook.
“Yes,” he imagined the angel say to him. “Indeed.”
Herbert would lie down parallel to someone, today it was Esther Pontiff, and carry on conversations, one sided of course. Herbert didn’t consider them conversations, he considered them soliloquys for him to express what had been buried deep in the earth of his soul that had yet to be excavated. Mute prisoners groping in the darkness for their mouths. In the same way bones and flesh and those creatures that eat them had been brought out of the abyss, so had Herbert’s soul. He could speak from it, and speak he did.
All day at the gas station he would wait until he could go out and lie next to a new person to hear his own philosophy bubble out of his mouth like an unwatched pot set to boil. They all listened with mild interest, as only the truly dead can, and they never spoke back to him, but Herbert was okay with that. He could barely understand his own thoughts. He wasn’t ready for anybody else’s.
Esther Pontiff’s one hundred and seventy-three year-old remains listened to the muffled words of Herbert Goldwell and said nothing. “Esther it wasn’t until the Renaissance, brought on by the Black Death’s demolition of the lower class, that peasants could demand more rights. This shifted the view from God and instead to him or herself. You can see that shift in paintings, sculptures, and architecture of the time. Isn’t that incredible? A global shift of thought carried on the disease ridden backs of furry marmots from Mongolia. Incredible.”
“It certainly is.” An old woman stood behind Herbert. He never noticed anything except his thoughts when he was reading or ranting.
Herbert stood then wiped his pants in the same way wings flutter. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you walking.”
“That’s quite alright. No one ever does.” She was older, Herbert could tell. Taught lines held her face in sharp detail. All of her features looked as if they had been whittled. “Would you like to take a walk with me Herbert?” He said he would.
They walked in silence for minutes, their eyes bouncing from gray to green to gray. “Do you know why you bury your dead?”
“It’s generally been thought for religious reasons. By burying your dead you show belief in preserving the present, including their possessions and status for the afterlife.”
“Astute and anthropological Herbert, but it lacks conviction.” She said it with such an air of authority he took it as fact.
“Then what is the reason?” She stopped and examined a pair of concrete cherubs on a headstone. It read, “I told you I was sick.”
“Humor has always been lost on me I’m afraid. As if any last words were remembered, humorous or not. They do say comedy is tragedy’s twin brother.”
“Herbert, the reason why you all bury your dead is simple. You don’t want them to come back. You place unwieldy rocks at their heads and pour tons of dirt over their bodies. You lock the doors in mausoleums and lock the gates around those entombed, just in case. You are deathly afraid of resurrection.”
Herbert stopped. He twitched his mouth to indicate his thought. With a tilted head he asked, “Who are you?” knowing the answer as soon as he had said it. He thought of his years fixing cars for dead people, and the months he’d been talking to them.
“But this is incredibly unfair isn’t it?”
The woman looked into his eyes for the first time. “Herbert, you cannot fathom how much I begged to give you even this. To give you a chance of a life examined. You mustn’t sulk.”
Herbert looked from her eyes to the sky. He looked to his house, to his windows. “I feel that I have just begun. That only now have I begun to live.”
At this her lips split and curled. “It has begun Herbert. It has.” She reached her hand to his and they walked past all of the graves to his own.
About the Author: Jake Zawlacki currently attends Stanford University studying an obscure Master’s degree. He has lived around the world but loves a California beach more than anything. He has been published in 101words, Riggwelter, Eunoia Review, Aphelion, Litro, and The Citron Review, with more to come.