A six-foot brown Indian man, with one blue eye, one nostril, full lips, and dishwater blond wispy hair, is dressed in denim jeans and shirt. His sleeves are rolled to the elbow, exposing blond hair on his peach-colored forearms. Cracked, leather-topped, diner stools separate him and another man from each other and from me. The other man has cotton candy pink skin uniformly visible, although there is no telling what his red flannel shirt and overalls cover. His build is nearly skeletal, except for an incongruently large right arm that bulges in his shirtsleeve. “What are you staring at?” He glares at me.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” I say, puffing my chest, so he can see the insignia on my jacket. “I’ve seen more interesting patchwork.” He backs off.
An elderly man and woman, physically proportional monochromes, occupy a booth together. They wear identical see-through rain ponchos. We are all momentarily frozen, as though in a photo-realistic painting.
On a plate in front of me, a ball of margarine melts to the side of pancakes before I stop it and push it around the top. Several sausages around the edges of the stack look like plugs of aerated grass. A waitress with too much dyed black hair that emphasizes her shrunken doll-sized face takes the old couple’s meal order. Their speech is slow; her writing is slow.
The kitchen and customer sections are separated by a serving shelf. I eat and watch the pony-tailed, mottled cook pull off his chef cap, toss it toward a coat tree, and leave the kitchen. Sunny-side up eggs and a rasher of bacon sizzle on the grill. Batter sits on an open waffle press. I inhale the cooking aromas. They keep at bay the malodorous job that awaits me.
I leave the diner and cross the wind-whipped parking lot to my pickup. The wind gusting at 45-miles-per-hour has already scattered outdoor chairs and debris in the town I drive through. Makeshift plywood panels cover most windows. A stronger gust could blow away the shabby wood houses. Children are indoors. In fact, no one is visible. A rutted dirt road connects the town to a highway that runs parallel to the ocean. I pull a resigned breath loudly and turn onto my route.
My job is to pick up hitchhikers. Those who have been run over. And anyone else who is dead on the roadside. I hate it, of course; I have scruples. I say a prayer, a blessing—I don’t know what to call it—for each body I take. Not for the dead. The prayer is for me. For forgiveness. I’m glad to have this job, even though I know that what I do sucks. At least it doesn’t involve running over anyone. Those drivers have battering rams on their front grills. By the time they do their work, there are no hitchhikers left standing.
I cruise the shoreline road for ten minutes before I brake and stop. Some joker is standing on the sandy shoulder, making a liar out of me. “Brother,” he says, through the open window. “Can I ride with you?” His body looks like mine, more or less from the original mold, and he’s wearing a neon vest, like a crossing guard. That’s rich. I can’t see what he’s like underneath his pants and shirt. Skeleton costume, flashes in my mind.
“Didn’t anyone try to run you off the road?” My grumpiness is habitual. “What are you doing here?”
“I came around the sand dune and saw a big truck drive by. You think it was after me?” A smirk follows his question. Not disbelief, exactly. Arrogant invincibility. “So, can I ride with you?”
“Yeah. But you’ll have to wait for me to collect the dead.” He looks around and makes a show of just noticing the bodies scattered around him. I climb out of my pickup. It’s not mine; it’s like a school bus; I only drive it. I connect a metal ramp to the bed. My equipment is a motorized snowplow that scoops and lifts corpses into the truck bed. It bumps down the ramp. The skeleton-crossing guard leans against the passenger door to watch.
“So how did you get here? And why?” I touch the start button on the plow and give it a moment to warm up.
“Headquarters sent me,” he says.
The hair on my neck bristles. “Did you see the truck hit these people?”
“No. I never see what I don’t need to see.”
The plow scoops a woman holding a big child in her arms. I reverse a few yards before I lever them into the truck bed. Three other corpses await. Vultures always get to some. Frequently, I vomit my pancakes before I haul the second body. Today, I zone into my task, fueled by anger toward this jerk I’m stuck with.
When the roadside is clear, I drive the plow up the ramp—unavoidably over some of the bodies. I look over the hitchhiker, surlier than when I started and ask again, emphasizing each word. “Who dropped you off in the middle of nowhere?”
“Aaaah,” he says, nods, and looks beyond the road to the white cap waves. He has no intention of answering my question. Something sleazy about him, but who am I to talk? He steps on the jump bar and hauls himself into the passenger seat. “Let’s get a move on.”
Pissed, I climb into the driver’s side and start the motor. It’s for me to say when we go. “Answer me!”
“Do you always get answers to your questions?”
“Cut the crap.”
“I thought you might need someone to talk to.” His voice insinuates he knows something about me.
“I talk to myself just fine. You talk to me.”
“I’m on assignment.”
I curl my lips. “What assignment?”
“I’ve already said too much.”
“Bullshit.” I pull off the road. “Get the fuck out.”
“Whoa! You have a lot of anger stored up, mister.”
“Get out.” I want to pulverize him and drown him in the surf.
“Hey, I’m sorry to rile you up.” He sits there. “My job is to see that you’re doing your job.” I still want to punch him. “It’s good of you to clean up after us,” he says.
Us? Does he mean he usually drives the killer trucks? Or does he mean us generically? He sits still, convening that he and other authorities own the pickup, the big trucks, and me. He won’t abandon the equipment or let me drive off with it. Without thinking, I shift out of neutral and steer from the shoulder back to the road. I bypass two separate bodies that I leave for tomorrow when there will be three or four more in the same spot. For one carcass, it’s not worth the hassle of getting the plow down the ramp.
Shortly, four piles of rags turn up on the shoulder. I pull over. Will this guy notice how careful I am with the scoop, leaving as much of the remains intact as can be expected of road kill? He gets out and stretches. I go about my business. When the plow is stowed again, I get back in. He is already in the passenger seat.
“Why am I being supervised?” I ask. “No one has ever complained about my work.”
“Ha-ha. Who could complain?” he adds another flat, “Ha-ha. Tell me something. In each run you make, how many bodies do you collect?” When I don’t answer right away, he adds, “How many deaths are you complicit in? If you include the two you left for the vultures.”
I sense him look at me, but I keep my eyes straight ahead. “Complicit? Are you pinning all this on me?”
“Ten to fifteen?” he speculates.
“Yeah. Any more than that, I’ve got to wrestle a tarp over the heap of them, so they don’t spill onto the road, like used furniture overloaded for a move.”
“Do you know what happens to the corpses you deliver?” he asks, his face toward the window, as though a pleasant view fascinated him.
“They’re re-cycled and reassembled,” I say. I want to call the staff who does this fuckers, but settle for a general comment. “They’re not careful about which parts fit together.”
He agrees with a nod. “Mixing and matching external parts is the least of it.”
“Why reassemble them? Isn’t it enough for them to be dead?”
“The authorities are vindictive,” he explains. “They use an algorithm to recycle every cell and scrap. Anything unusable is burnt to ash. Eventually, everything will become ash.”
“I welcome that. Living like this makes me sick.”
“We can’t let you die before your time.” The son-of-a-bitch laughs. “Anyway, we’re promoting you to re-assembly.”
“I don’t want to re-assemble people,” I bark. “I don’t want a promotion.”
He laughs his flat, “Hahahas,” and lifts his haunch to fart.
I gag. What the hell does he eat to emit such sulphureous gas. Rotting corpses are nothing compared to him. I lurch to a stop and jump out of the pickup, with my hand covering my mouth.
“Good luck dodging the killer trucks.” His voice lacks any wish for my good fortune.
I hurry over the sand toward the water, stopping to up-chuck along the way. When I get to the shoreline, I bend over to hold my knees while dry heaves begin. The pickup door slams, and I wait for the dude to come abreast of me. The dry heaves start again. It feels like I’m vomiting the roots of my hair.
Then I hear the motor of my truck driving away. Fucker is my first thought. So just a hint of resistance and I’m demoted, cut out of the herd. Then I wonder if dying has to be as ugly as living. If I move my legs, I can walk into the waves and swim until I can’t anymore or until sharks get me. A last chance to feel my own body parts attached to my own body. My retching won’t quit.