Beetlejuice had “set up shop” in what you and I know as St. Louis.
That meant trouble so far as our region—best known for its conservative tendencies– was concerned, Howdy-Doody dammit. You had that aging population hunkered over its T.V. dinners in crotchety, hard-of-hearing sufferance as if formerly ram-rod straight, patriotic “better days” were gone forever.
Half river-town and sleepy asphalt pasture, it was a carnival candy-land for the itinerant cheater setting up shop.
This was the place. The swooping vultures gave the spot away, out by the dumpsters in the rear of the spacious parking lot.
And there he stood in a red, frilly coat-vest with his hands clasped solemnly before him. Two misshapen hench-men handed-out programs like tongue-hung jaundice and ill fortunes—as you thought of working-men shoveling lion shit down at the Depression-era circus.
How mid-afternoon hung hazy on the horizon with the breath of the river and bump of traffic—as chunky families waddled past in their Sunday’s finest.
Faded, toasted. . . . . like an even lower cousin of the Salvation Army church rummage sale. It brought to mind little, cute plastic puppy-dogs and lime-green butter dishes and the porcelain sweep of angels, as if buried in their last bad suit with Elvis mutton-chop whiskers and sentimental close-out savings.
But “you got what you paid for” in this run-of-the-mill survey of heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, and cancer like mortal affliction and gnarled-up, piss-poor feebleness.
Yes, the ole’ pine-box. . . . . or even a piano crate for “the large of carriage” as the corpulent lived and died “off the fat of the land”.
Tombstones of the very heartland sat in Jefferson Barracks Soldier’s Memorial in verdure memory as the mossy, dry earth and squiggling micro-bacteria rotted and lived throughout the gently rolling hills like natural process itself.
The clanging church bells, as if out of time as local city hall witnessed the timeless rituals of births, deaths, and marriages. No more, was the man of an earlier-age plowing the land with a mule.
How modernity was like a customer kicking the tire at one of the many auto-dealerships as the flapping, colored flags bespoke of the mostly played-out Midwestern frontier. Kneeling-down “and patching-up your wagon-wheel” before moving on.
You had the dollar show and box-outlet stores as the buildings must have seemed pretty up-to-date in the 1950’s with the shale, coral-stone walls. . . . . ancient footage of “Old Glory” flapping against the blue sky with the economic growth following World War II that anchored the century.
Lots of retirement homes out this way— aging infrastructure among misbegotten, cast-off suburbia where land was cheap and plentiful. You could say death was as American as apple pie.
Thing about funeral homes. . . . . “everyone was dying” to get there.
Attending a service “was mere dress rehearsal” for the real thing. Funerals were always for the living, At least giving a formal, grody send-off and trying not to think of death in all of its unappetizing manifestations. . . . . like a chill wind through a junk yard and the metallic screech of crows on the wing.
Death was coming—you could bet on it. It came for us all.
Or at least the local television crew filming a “60-Minutes” like exposé on the habits of sleazy business in the region. Like “Rent-to-Own’s” or “Payday loans” on the scavenger’s side of low-man’s quick-fix solutions with a contract and a single answer—that single answer alone as the media ambled up your way:
Death, taxes. (And exposés) Don’t mourn the value—unbury the savings.
“7 trumpets & 7 seals” like rusty, farting tail-pipes and badly-written paperwork. Over the breeze drifted the sour, muddy breath of the Mississippi river.
“Pleased to meet you. Hiya hija. So sorry about your loss” as our scurvy mortician and funeral director glad-handed with the deceased’s family, relatives, and friends.
His hands were fish-white, green-moldy, and cold as the ditch as two hateful, yellowed eyes peered out of the eye sockets like pure “Red State id”. His hair was in a wild, blonde, dirty tangle—below which his rotten mush-mouth twisted into an expression of greatest sympathies.
(– payable by the hour)
He took their hands and shook them earnestly—rings went missing.
But who was in the mind to notice? Faces were twisted into grief and mortality’s somber stirrings over dabbed eyes, a lace handkerchief and the Lord ’s Prayer.
A cell-phone chimed with a mordant ring-tone and Beetlejuice answered it, half turned-away and listening as the throng streamed past.
“Yeah. Okay. Will be right down”.
He popped-open his red pocket-watch, noted the time, and then lurched into a half-hunched jog—waving his arms as he ran into the chapel like a screwball floor manager.
And quickly, he took his place at the registration desk were mourners signed the guest-book.
Drapes hung in the somber, golden light and an old-fashioned grandfather clock ticked-off the early evening passage. The overwhelming smell “was like hot dogs” with a chaser of formaldehyde. And you heard the scratching of a quill-pen, the yellowed pages inked with thick, red beetle-blood.
Just like the old Chicago pork factories, “they took everything but the squeal”.
Quicker than that, he was gone like a shot off to an undisclosed room where access was restricted.
And you could hear a rustling—a kind of thumping behind the wall—as a slot opened behind the eyes of a formal portrait—how the eyes seemed to follow you.
There Beetlejuice watched the subdued cries of mourners as they talked among themselves and bent over the casket, talking amongst themselves.
(– incidentally, you could say it was a shoddy job)
Hey, death was a business—as our ghoul ogled the wives, aunts, and daughters as they filed-on past.
Heh, heh, heh.
Another round of thumps and rustles as our red-ruffled ghoul reemerged in the side hall, reeking of cheap cologne and striding purposefully with vulgar, golden cuff-links and headed toward the fire-exit.
“Hey, this way—come here” he gestured. “Come here”.
You, the witness to all of this find no reason not to tag along as he shows you what it looks like “behind the scenes” of the mortuary life.
Beetlejuice halted in front of a book shelf and pulled out a volume—“Critters, Coots, and Hermits of Missouri” and part of the wall spun out to reveal a hidden staircase, winding down into the murk and lit by flickering torches.
Down to the crypt. . . . . winding around and around as Beetlejuice leads you. The smell was of mildew and cement as he walked you to his ruinous hole of an office. It was a thread-bare desk that might as well been the administrative head quarters of a creamed corn factory. A calendar on the wall, a mug of coffee, and an old, junky computer monitor and tower displaying a spreadsheet with the winking cursor.
Very Microsoft. . . . . very “Windows ‘95”. What else does the small, ratty semi-professional use—be this a scrap metal office or insurance appraiser’s office?
You could hear the ache of the working man as Beetlejuice leaned back in his squeaky chair and took off his shows with a grimace, rubbing the bunions and rotting toes wrapped in bandages and rags.
“Oooh, my dogs are barking. . . . .”
(– the stench was overpowering)
“Okay, let’s get down to business” as he flung away his dress shoes to the sound effect of a slide-whistle where they clanged against a cot and old socks soaking in a bucket.
The desk phone rang—Beetlejuice sprung forward to answer it.
“Last Gasp Mortuary—you stab ‘em we slab ‘em”.
A lawyer. Were those death certificates forged? The signatures look awfully suspicious.
Another call—a bill collector. According to our records, you’re falling behind on payments—but we don’t want to repossess the hearse. So will you pay up, please?
Next, the representative of a guns n’ ammunition company.
“No, we’re not just a funeral home—we do it all. Yes, sir—savings, savings, savings—we’ll sell you those corpses to test bullets on—my guarantee and free delivery for our V.I.P. clients”
Beetlejuice hung up the phone and laid back with a lazy guzzling sound. Roaches spewed out from the cracked and broken walls, scurrying over the land deeds, IRS rebate checks, and legal papers strewn across his desk.
Discounts or trade-in’s. . . . . . he owned your soul entirely.
His other names could have well been “Rumplstilstkin”.
Or even Beelzebub.
And those aching feet—he might have been crucified in another life by angry town’s folk he tried to pick clean or even had his head cut off with his mouth stuffed with garlic and buried at the crossroads.
Right then he sloshed coffee in his mouth and spat it out into the corner, patting his belly and looking contented with himself. A bottom-feeder. The blast of fast, flying-money was, as a rule—like richly-rotted chaos at the local casinos as fortunes eroded faster than Beetlejuice could shake a pair of dice in a ghastly fist.
Even the foam-rubber gargoyles in the corner– apparently left over from a Tim Burton yard-sale– seemed to gag. “See no evil”, “hear no evil”, “speak no evil” as they all looked ready to wretch.
Apparently, this was too much even for the door-men of Hell.
It was once said that Hell was being frozen in the ice of one’s indifference. . . . . and you could just watch in fascination as Beetlejuice filled out paperwork like a kid doodling with crayons.
His personal assistant dropped by, a lady with languid mannerisms. She haunted the basement as the resident corpse-painter and wore a cracked “Phantom of the Opera” mask.
A monotone voice, lugubrious. The morgue, where the theater arts came to die. Where artistic license wasn’t all-revoked, yet with a degree in community theater and modeling.
You could say the work on the corpses “was a real shoddy job”. The deceased looked like a badly made-up dummy stuffed with saw-dust, decked-out in ill-fitting clothes.
And with the casket made from wood stolen from construction sites, it was bottom-dollar artifice.
“Whatever, you’re the boss” as she bobbed-off like an apparition in a Bram Stoker novel.
Going on a smoking-break. Lo, the mortification. And high rate of turn-over.
Meanwhile, off in another corner of the basement—his two lowly assistants were hosing down some stiffs, the bodies leaned-up against wall as water ran down the drain in putrid rivulets.
It was as if the south-side had vomited-up its secrets amid the old, gutted-out brick buildings and tangled river air—a humid stench—as you had escapees from a lunatic asylum.
One breathed heavy and shallowly like a diseased bat as he filled his tuxedo awkwardly, the short one of the bunch. Another—a bearded, muff-eyed man looked on with great distant presumption, his eyes partially rolled-back in his head on brainless auto-pilot.
They were paid with “room & board”—and leavings from the day-old bread-store. Busy hands—the dignity of work—at least not on the welfare system as state officials turned a blind eye, by golly.
A corpse lay “on ice”, covered in a sheet.
Beetlejuice put on magician’s gloves and came over to inspect, personally. He looked like a head waiter in his red, ruffled suit as he prepared, preening over it and drew back the sheet like a table-cloth.
It was dead, alright—with glassy eyes and mouth twisted into a rigor mortis grimace.
Beetlejuice lay his head on its chest, the gaseous smell like spoiled, sour pickles. He then proceeded to rub down the body with salve and gave it a punch to the ribs, like a fresh-spanking baby.
He took out a sharp trowling instrument and slit open the belly with one smooth motion.
A whistle blew—LUNCH TIME!
Beetlejuice took a sandwich from his pocket and unwrapped it, not thinking to clean his hands as he knocked back liquor from a hip-flask. He wiped down his mouth with the back of his hand.
The corpse’s eyes popped out with a poinky-pointy sound, as if in surprise to this level of squalor.
Meanwhile, the two hench-men were struggling to bring down a body from the stairwell like delivery men muscling refrigerator. It was strapped to a dolly as they tried to jimmy it through the doorway.
Beetlejuice came over to lend moral support—as if to help, chewing on his sandwich.
Just then the wheel slipped and rolled over his aching feet. Beetlejuice hopped up and down on one foot, cursing. All three of them fought to get a better grip as the corpses in the corner fell over.
He was neglecting his guests upstairs. . . . . back up there in solemn commiseration.
And as it usually ended, the consensus of everyone was to go to the Golden Corral Buffet & Family Feed-Bag. The vapors of a Sunday sunset. . . . . . hacking-up meat as they sat at the tables. Or scavenged at the food troughs like a pack of wild dogs.
It was better not to think about it.