A Grave Concern
by Jim Esposito
Mortimer mulled it over. Perhaps he’d been a little hasty assessing that last hallucination with a casual C-plus. After all, should automobile accidents be automatically relegated to average C ratings simply because they happen in cars? That was the basic question involved, and Mortimer realized his decision here might establish a far-reaching precedent.
The thing that kept sticking out in Mortimer’s mind was the terrified expression on the face of that 62 year old lady with the horn-rimmed bifocals who swerved head-on into the path of his classic black Volkswagen Beetle in her sleek, silver-gray Mercedes as he was driving to work at the mortuary on the freeway that morning. Supposedly it was one of the most hazardous, accident-prone stretches of highway in the whole country, and Mortimer drove it religiously every morning because he knew how lucky he really was to have it.
That rich old bitch had to be doing at least seventy-five to plow through the guard rail like that. And what a tank she was driving! Mortimer would’ve been killed instantly if the whole thing wasn’t merely a figment of his demented imagination. Really. An accident like that could’ve gotten featured in any Highway Patrol safety film in America.
Mortimer could still see the deeply etched lines of the lady’s face contorting grotesquely around her gaping jaw, and the pale, milky bleached whiteness of her bony knuckles instinctively tightening their grip on her steering wheel in a final spasmodic reflex of sheer terror. Mortimer remembered the miniature white plastic figurine of Saint Christopher on the dashboard, catching the glint of the sun’s reflection off her tarnished gold wedding band, and then meeting the lady’s startled, panic-stricken eyes for just the briefest instant a split mili-second before their two cars collided and the entire hallucination washed past Mortimer like a wave at the beach, everything dissolved back into reality, and there he was, driving down the freeway once again.
Mortimer wondered whether the lady would’ve gotten killed, too. Or maybe only maimed for life? And what was she thinking? Would she be selfishly concerned about her own precious life and limb? Or would she be wondering how this accident would affect her insurance rates? Could she really be that heartless? Would she feel the slightest pang of conscience or twinge of remorse for the poor, hapless clown who was simply driving to working, minding his own business, in a car that’s been on Ralph Nader’s shitlist for who knows how long when she decided to lose control, jump the median and swerve head-on into rush hour traffic? Could she really justify the abrupt, perhaps even overdue termination of 62 years of pretentious bourgeois mediocrity by squelching the very existence of a 23 year old apprentice mortician who hadn’t even attained his peek earning years? Or was she quickly trying to think up a good plastic surgeon?
Yes, Mortimer agreed with himself, perhaps he had been a little hasty slapping that last delusion with a perfunctory C-plus. It did have fantastic depth and detail. Then again, Mortimer reasoned, rationally, maybe if he upheld the C-plus it would spur his sub-conscious on to manufacturing even bigger, better and infinitely more exciting demises – at least until he gained conscious control.
Conscious control... If he only had conscious control...
Then Mortimer could create some really magnificent deaths, instead of depending on handouts from his own warped sub-conscious.
Getting killed in car wrecks was beginning to bore Mortimer anyway. It was approaching the point where a semi-tractor-trailer could jack-knife and roll over right in front of him, spewing its cargo across the highway as it disintegrated, and Mortimer would practically have to stifle a yawn.
This was getting serious. Almost all areas of creative expression had been exhausted as far as car crashes were concerned.
The only automobile accidents that were any fun anymore were the novelty wrecks – where overpasses collapsed, or earthquakes suddenly opened huge crevasses. But how many times do you get a really unique car wreck like that? Not many. Most of the time they were strictly run of the mill, like people jumping the median or pulling out in front of you.
Still, automobile accidents were Mortimer’s staple diet simply because he spent so much time in his car commuting into the city every day, He had to make the best of it.
Mortimer couldn’t live without his delusions of dying. If he had to listen to talk radio, he’d probably go crazy.
The only car crashes that really turned Mortimer on anymore, as a general rule, were ones with fires – and explosions were even better, though the odds against explosions took almost all the excitement out of hoping for them. Mortimer had come to look upon explosions as sort of a rare and special treat, to be savored for the moment like a good bottle of wine or a Michelob.
That’s why Mortimer always buckled his seat belt – because he knew explosions hardly ever occurred instantaneously with the impact and his only hope was to get trapped in the wreckage. Then, if the car caught fire, and he didn’t burn to death or get rescued before the flames reached the gas tank – then maybe, just maybe, it might explode.
He sometimes thought about finding an old Ford Pinto, just to improve his chances, but he never did.
Now Mortimer knew, deep down, this constituted a strange quirk in his character, because explosions ended things quickly, eliminating torturous moments of excruciating pain that boosted ratings. Sometimes it was over so fast Mortimer didn’t even have time to see his whole life flash before his eyes and only got as far as the third or fourth grade.
But – gosh darn it – he couldn’t help himself... Explosions were just SO GREAT!
That’s why Mortimer constantly caught himself flashing back to that one special crash. It stood out in his memory, one of a very select group of maybe only three or four automobile accidents that merited Mortimer’s coveted Triple A Citation as death above and beyond the call of eternity. It was a karmic culmination of everything that constituted a spectacularly staged exit from the bonds of mortal existence.
Mortimer could even remember the date – Friday the 13th. In a sweltering June heat wave when thick greasy smog and soaring humidity made life absolutely miserable for anybody without an air-conditioner. Mortimer was driving his old Corvair back then. He really missed that car, sometimes. A true Classic, it crumpled twice as good as any VW, put the driver on a much better angle for flying through the windshield while simultaneously impaling his chest on the steering column. The only thing wrong with the engineering on the entire car were those crummy copper contacts in the horn-trigger mechanism that bent too easy and beeped just one short, sharp plaintive blast before buckling and becoming inoperative. The horn in the Volkswagen, on the other hand, locked – letting out this long, eerie wail which wouldn’t stop until the battery either wore down or got disconnected. Of course, the Volkswagen’s windshield did have that disturbing tendency to pop right out when your head hit it, whereas the windshield in the Corvair shattered into thousands of tiny razor-sharp splinters. Still, nothing rolled quite like a Volkswagen...
Mortimer, he felt compelled to confess, was really feeling pretty jaded toward the entire state of death at the time, coming off an agonizingly long string of strictly second-rate demises. Mortimer was almost looking forward to getting electrocuted by some of the faulty wiring in his dingy little studio apartment overlooking the old cemetery. Even falling down the stairs or slipping in the bathtub, knocking himself unconscious and drowning was beginning to seem like a refreshing change of pace, and Mortimer had even begun to consider the aesthetic possibilities of committing suicide – which he dismissed, ultimately, as simply a short-term solution, since he could only kill himself once.
Anyway, Mortimer was approaching the railroad tracks that morning when he felt those first faint rushes of adrenaline coursing through his bloodstream. Now the railroad tracks were always good for a few cheap thrills, but Mortimer somehow sensed he was really in for something special this time. His heart started pounding and his lungs gasped for air.
Mortimer was passing a huge, gleaming silver tank truck as he reached the tracks. In hindsight perhaps he should’ve realized something was happening when the tanker didn’t stop at the railroad crossing like they normally do. The driver must’ve been in a hurry. Suddenly with a great roar and a deafening crunch a runaway freight came barreling through, snapping the tanker in two like a plastic toy and blind-siding Mortimer’s tiny Corvair in a deluge of high octane aviation fuel. The Corvair crumpled like a tube of toothpaste. Wedged beneath the locomotive’s front wheels, the train’s tremendous momentum pushed the car’s smashed wreckage down the tracks with a sickening screech. For one ecstatic instant, Mortimer didn’t know whether he was gonna drown, burn or get crushed to death. Then, with the whole world swirling in slow motion, Mortimer watched in gleeful anticipation as one tiny spark generated by the friction of the Corvair’s metal body scraping along the twin steel rails darted in through an opening and dove into the highly combustible aviation fuel, igniting the gas, engulfing and eclipsing everything in a brilliant bright orange blast – WWHHOOOSSSHHHH!!! – which flashed through Mortimer like a delicious bolt of lightning, before it all washed past him like a wave at the beach and everything dissolved back into reality, leaving Mortimer feeling physically drained and emotionally exhausted.
And there he was once again, driving down the street, with the tank truck and the railroad tracks in his rear view mirror.
No... They certainly don’t make delusions like they used to, Mortimer concluded with a heavy, heartfelt sigh. A delusion like that made death worth living for.
Once again Mortimer found himself plunged into one of his deep, periodic doldrums when even the most depressing thoughts couldn’t seem to cheer him up. It was at times like these that Mortimer liked to work late at the mortuary, after evening services were over and the other employees had gone home. There in the damp, eerie antiseptic atmosphere among the shiny chrome instruments and the cold flat marble slabs Mortimer could embalm a cadaver, in peace and quiet, and think about life. His fingers worked over the cool, lifeless flesh, but his mind would wander...
For as long as he’d been alive Mortimer had been fascinated, infatuated, obsessed – with death. Wasn’t everyone? Death made life worth living. Religious people were living to die, and un-religious people were dying to live. Indeed, the history of mankind seemed dedicated to developing newer, better, and more efficient ways to die. Which was what originally interested Mortimer in undertaking as a way of life. He’d always figured if dying was the only reason for life, one could make a pretty good living out of death. After all, you could cheat on your taxes, but nobody ever Welshed on The Grim Reaper.
Of course, there was more to it than that. Death was the only mystery man would never solve. The ultimate frontier. One day man would stand upon the ocean’s floor, travel to other galaxies, exploring outer space. He’d franchise the secret of the Devil’s Triangle and put the Abominable Snowman in the Central Park Zoo. He’d communicate with other life forms on other planets. He’d travel through time and discover new dimensions. He’d find a cure for the common cold. But man would never know where he was going when he died as long as he was alive.
Many times, while he was working late, chain-smoking cigarettes, Mortimer would wonder how he was really going to die. Perhaps it would be from one of his own delusions. Wouldn’t that be a pisser? He probably wouldn’t even know it was really the end until it was over, and then it would be too late, because Mortimer could never tell a delusion from reality until it washed past like a wave at the beach and everything dissolved back into reality. Until he burst through the other side of his hallucination like a car through a paper banner in a TV commercial. Of course that’s what supplied the basic thrill behind every delusion, no matter how disillusioned Mortimer might’ve been at the time. Was it really just a hallucination? Or was it really happening? That thought flashed through Mortimer’s mind right before the two cars collided, or the gas exploded, or the meteorite hit him...
Long ago, Mortimer had learned not to react. Just sit back and enjoy. Enjoy...
Once, right after he first started getting the hallucinations, and he wasn’t used to them yet, Mortimer was walking downtown. He looked up and there was a piano falling right toward him. Not concerned for his own safety, Mortimer gallantly pushed two little old ladies out of the way.
And it turned out to be a delusion.
Everything dissolved back into reality and there he was, standing over two little old ladies on a city street. A crowd started to gather. The poor, frightened old ladies began to cry. People were staring at him. Nobody could understand why he’d just attacked the two old women like that.
Mortimer ran away, with people shouting “Pervert!” in the background, throwing stuff at him, and after that he never did anything when it looked like he was about to get killed. If it was really happening he was dead and that’s all there was to it. Better to die, after all, then to make a fool out of yourself in public.
In cars, it was even more important not to react. Mortimer always felt a twinge of guilt about the prospect of taking someone with him when he died. Suppose it wasn’t a hallucination? Suppose it’s really happening and he could do something to avoid it? But the other alternative was even worse. If it is a delusion and he swerved at the last moment, or took some action, it might cause a real accident. Mortimer had to go with the odds.
But that raised another question. When were those odds going to catch up to him? What were the odds of any given hallucination being reality? A thousand to one? A million to one? And how many delusions had Mortimer experienced so far? 999? 999,999?
Mortimer always thought it would be a pretty raw deal if he died and he didn’t even know it. If actually dying didn’t turn out to be simply the ultimate peak experience, Mortimer would be mighty pissed. In fact, Mortimer often wondered whether death would be able to live up to his expectations. Or would it be a big letdown? Wouldn’t that be the worst? He’d sure feel stupid then.
Mortimer hated to admit it, but he was actually getting bored to death with death. It was a chilling prospect. It was his whole life. He’d died in automobile accidents and plane crashes. In fires and explosions. At the hands of advanced technology and natural disaster. He’d been burned and blown up, crushed and decapitated, hit by moving vehicles and all sorts of miscellaneous objects, buried under rockslides and eaten by sharks and barracudas. And Mortimer still didn’t know if death was really worth it.
Occasionally, just for a pleasant diversion, Mortimer would consider committing suicide, just to find out once and for all. But what happens if you just fall asleep and never wake up? He’d never know!
Then one day a funny thing happened.
Business was booming at work. They’d had one funeral in the morning and another in the afternoon, with two services scheduled for that evening.
Mortimer’s boss, Mr. McFarland, approached him.
Now, Mr. McFarland was a curious guy. He owned the mortuary – had built it up from nothing. And he’d always been nice enough to Mortimer. From the day he was hired there had always seemed to be some sort of unspoken understanding between Mortimer and Mr. McFarland.
One night, when Mortimer was feeling really down, and he’d stayed late, he’d gotten this crazy idea – to see what it was like to lie inside a coffin. So Mortimer had crept out into the showroom, climbed into their deluxe casket, and closed the lid. Mortimer still shivered slightly at the memory. It was like the ultimate sensory deprivation chamber. So peaceful and relaxing, Mortimer lost all track of time. But at some point he apparently drifted off to sleep. Because the next thing he knew Mr. McFarland was waking him up the following morning. Mortimer was extremely embarrassed, but Mr. McFarland merely dismissed the episode with a wry smile of paternal amusement.
After that, though, Mr. McFarland seemed to take a special interest in Mortimer. Whenever something interesting or unusual came up his boss came to him.
And so it was this one day.
Afternoon services had just concluded. Mr. McFarland approached Mortimer.
“Mortimer,” said his boss. “There’s a young lady left from the last service. She’s extremely distraught and apparently doesn’t have a ride home. She asked me to call a taxi, but I think it would be a nice gesture if somebody gave her a ride...”
Mortimer brightened. “Can I take the hearse?” he asked.
Mr. McFarland rolled his eyes to hear such youthful enthusiasm.
“I really don’t think that vehicle would seem quite appropriate,” he explained. “A simple black Cadillac sedan, I’m sure, would suffice.”
So Mortimer brought up one of the Cadillacs and ushered the poor, distraught young woman into the passenger side of the front seat. She was a frail, delicate creature dressed entirely in black, down to her high heels and stockings with her dark hair pulled back under a small hat and a veil covering her face. Simply beside herself in grief, she sobbed softly into a silk handkerchief. She didn’t even seem to notice Mortimer as he assisted her into the car.
With soft, soothing words Mortimer managed to coax an address from his grief-stricken passenger. She lived out beyond the airport. He eased the black Cadillac into the street and headed off down the road.
Pulling away the young lady began to compose herself, lifting the veil from her face, pinning it back against her hat, dabbing tears in the corners of her eyes.
“It was a beautiful funeral,” she sighed, finally.
Mortimer replied: “I’m sure the deceased would have wanted it that way.”
The young woman reached into her purse, took out a compact, inspected her eye make-up in the tiny mirror.
“This is the best eye shadow,” she told Mortimer. “No matter how much I cry, it never runs or smudges.”
Mortimer nodded silently in reply.
The girl asked: “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“No, no.... Not at all,” answered Mortimer, quickly fumbling for his cigarettes, holding his pack out toward his passenger. “Have one of mine.”
She considered Mortimer’s cigarettes momentarily, then declined.
“I have my own,” she explained, taking a pack from her purse. “Here. Why don’t you try one?”
She extended her pack in Mortimer’s direction.
Mortimer shrugged, accepting, took out his lighter, lit her’s first, then his own.
“These aren’t bad at all,” he declared, exhaling his first lungfull.
The woman nodded. “And they’ve got a lot more tar and nicotine than your brand.”
“Really?” went Mortimer.
They sat, smoking in silence for several minutes as Mortimer got on the expressway.
The young woman sighed, deeply, gazing off into the distance. “That sure was a beautiful funeral,” she exclaimed.
Mortimer nodded in understanding, before inquiring, discreetly: “Were you a relative of the deceased?”
“No,” replied the girl.
“Then you must have known him very well,” said Mortimer.
“Who?” asked the girl.
“The deceased,” countered Mortimer. “You must’ve known him very well...”
“Oh...” declared the girl. “It was a man?”
“Yes,” went Mortimer, slightly puzzled. “I was under the impression you were close with the deceased...”
The girl giggled. “I didn’t even know the guy,” she explained.
It took Mortimer a moment to absorb the implications of that statement. Finally, he managed to articulate some response.
“Then why, may I ask,” inquired Mortimer, “did you come to his funeral?”
“Because I’ve never been to your funeral home before,” answered the young woman. “I’d heard it was nice, but I usually hang out at Baxter’s, because it’s closer to my home. Today, though, I felt like trying someplace new. You know – you only go around once in life... And, I must say, I was impressed. The decor is superb. It’s very clean. And I especially liked the way the man greets you at the door, escorts you to a seat. It’s really confusing, sometimes, at other funeral homes I go to, when there’s four different viewing rooms. I never know which one I should go into...”
The girl continued to rattle on in this fashion as Mortimer could only sit, staring at her in fascination.
Suddenly Mortimer felt a slight chill, the first rushes of adrenaline pumping through his bloodstream. He froze. He couldn’t have a delusion now! He had a passenger in the car!
Mortimer glanced quickly around, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Traffic was flowing smoothly along the highway past the airport.
Oh, no! The AIRPORT!
The realization burst upon Mortimer in a nauseating rush. Cold fingers of impending doom curled around his panic-stricken heart, started to squeeze, a queasy sinking sensation swelling up in the pit of his stomach. His heart started pounding maniacally and his lungs gasped for air. Mortimer could tell this delusion was going to be intense. With his last rational thought, Mortimer hoped he could retain his outward composure, so the young woman beside him wouldn’t suspect anything was going on.
Then he saw the plane.
It was a commercial jet liner, sweeping in low over the highway on its landing approach. But something was wrong – horribly wrong. The airliner was trailing a thick plume of oily black smoke, shuddering in mid-air. There was obviously no way the plane would reach the runway. It was going to come down across the road. The geometry was unmistakable.
If Mortimer slammed on his brakes he might’ve been able to stop the Cadillac before it intersected with the path of destruction the airliner was certain to leave as it crash landed across the highway, but he knew better than to react in any way during one of his delusions. He knew hold have to ride this one out and hope for the best.
And then – the girl screamed.
Her shriek of terror went through Mortimer like the blade of a guillotine. Mortimer’s blood congealed right in his veins. His insides clenched in quaking turmoil.
The girl could see it, too! It was really happening! It couldn’t be a hallucination!
By then it was too late to stop. But it didn’t matter. For the first time in his life Mortimer knew he was really about to die. And he froze, watching, as the whole world around him went into slow motion.
The jet liner hit the ground on the far shoulder of the road, its landing gear buckling immediately from the heavy impact, the belly of its fuselage striking the pavement with an absolutely horrific metallic crunch. One wing snapped off and its fuel tanks exploded. A ball of fire, the giant airliner skidded across the asphalt highway, its momentum sweeping luckless automobiles along in a flaming tangle of mangled wreckage.
Mortimer could only stare in horrified fascination as the Cadillac in which he was riding hurtled on toward inevitable destruction. Closer and closer it came. The girl screamed again, a terrible blood-curdling scream, a split second before the impact. Then there was a deafening collision, the bright orange flash of an explosion...
And the Cadillac burst out the other side of the delusion, which washed past them, like a wave at the beach, as everything dissolved back into reality.
There they were – Mortimer and the girl in black, sitting stunned and speechless in the front seat of the Cadillac, gliding easily along the highway past the airport.
It took several moments before the shocked couple could even comprehend the implications of what had just occurred. Then Mortimer turned to look at the girl beside him, only to discover she was looking at him.
Their eyes met. There was no need to speak. They sat perfectly still, feeling physically drained and emotionally exhausted, as their heartbeat slowly subsided to its normal rate and their breathing started coming naturally once again.
The girl spoke first.
“That...” she told Mortimer, “was a definite TEN!”