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Fiction

Free Coffin

The coffin lies at the curb, tilted aslant on the strip of grass next to the sidewalk. Old Mr. Byerly spies it on an evening walk through his suburban neighborhood. It’s been put out alongside a pile of other discards—an old-fashioned lawn mower, a chrome-legged kitchen table, a bookcase with only one shelf. The stuff is from a house that’s under renovation after sitting vacant for many months.

The black finish of the box gleams under the streetlight. It’s a very old style of casket, an elongated hexagon, narrow at the head and foot, broader at the shoulders. Fine woodwork too, with mitered corners, a vaulted top, and three brass handles on each side. Mr. Byerly can imagine the thing borne on the shoulders of six pallbearers, their top hats hung with black crepe.

Normally, Mr. Byerly takes his walk in the afternoon—ten thousand steps. At 76, it keeps him reasonably fit and healthy, and it gets him out of the lonely confines of his house for an hour or two each day. On the last Thursday of every month, he delays his walk until after dusk. That’s because the next day is Big Trash Pickup, the time when townspeople get to discard larger items, such as furniture or appliances, that aren’t allowed in the regular trash. Most people place these items at the curb the evening before. It’s an opportunity for neighbors to help themselves to anything that might still be of use, such as a child’s dresser or an old croquet set. Mr. Byerly is past the age when he needs or wants much of anything, but he takes an anthropological interest in what his neighbors are throwing away.

It’s jarring to see a coffin here, lying exposed on a tree-lined residential street. A coffin is, after all, a furnishing that’s meant to accommodate only one person, a piece of craftsmanship intended to be viewed only briefly, then buried with its owner until the end of time. Who would throw one out, unused?

Mr. Byerly recognizes at once that this is something he can use, will need, sooner or not-very-much-later. It’s just a box, after all, and a rather elegant one, even if it’s been “pre-owned.” He walks home briskly to get his station wagon and pick the thing up before someone else claims it. (But who would do that? In the many years he’s lived here, this town has cycled through a generation of residents and, once again, become a community of young families).

The coffin is still there when he pulls his Volvo up to the curb. He folds down the rear seats and opens the back hatch. It’ll be a tight fit. He’ll have to leave the hatch open, but it’s only a half-dozen blocks to his house. He stoops to lift the head end of the box, reminding himself to use his legs, not his back. It’s heavy, probably solid ebony, and he’s struggling to lift even one end.

“Hey, Mister! What are you doing with my coffin?”

For an instant, the sparse hair on Mr. Byerly’s neck tingles at the notion that he’s about to meet the original occupant of the box, but the voice belongs to a boy, or rather a young teen. He steps from the shadows, pulling a red coaster wagon.

“What do you mean, your coffin?”

“It’s mine!” the kid says. “I saw it first. I got dibs! I just had to go home and get this wagon so I could take it.”

Mr. Byerly tightens his grip on one of the brass handles. “What on earth would you want with a coffin?”

“It’s almost Halloween,” the boy says. “This could be an awesome prank. Last year there was this kid up on Lockwood who made a cardboard coffin? It didn’t even look real, but he jumped out and scared the crap out of the trick-or-treaters. It’d be way cooler to jump out of the real thing.”

“Well, this is not a prank,” Mr. Byerly says. “It’s an expensive item, and it’s something that I’m going to need. I saw it first, and I’m sorry if you’re disappointed, but I’m taking it.”

“Need?” The kid gapes in disbelief. “You mean like, when you’re dead? You want to get buried in a coffin that somebody already used?” He backs away a step. Under the streetlight, Mr. Byerly can see that he’s a good-looking boy, or would be, if he didn’t have that stupid mop of hair combed over his forehead, probably to cover a crop of pimples. He’s maybe thirteen or fourteen, on the small side, with skinny arms sticking out of his tee shirt. The boy reaches out and grabs the brass handle on the opposite side of the box. “That’s just crazy. Come on, Mister; it was mine first.”

Mr. Byerly doesn’t relish the idea of an unseemly struggle with a boy on the side of this leafy street, but he’s not giving up. In his day, a kid would have surrendered by now, recognizing the authority of an elder man, but that’s not the way it works anymore. He gets a two-fisted grip on the coffin handle and jerks it toward his car. The kid staggers, goes down on one knee, but he won’t let go. Each of them yanks again, but Mr. Byerly pulls first, and harder. The box flips on its side. The lid swings open and slams the boy’s forearm. He cries out, a startled yelp.

Mr. Byerly fears the noise will draw the neighbors and require some embarrassing explanations, but no one comes. The boy stands up, rubbing his arm. He doesn’t seem seriously injured. Instead, he’s staring wide-eyed into the interior of the coffin. The lining is pale satin, with pleats along the sides. There’s a ruffled pillow sewn into the lining. Everything seems clean, but the pillow has been dented by the weight of a head, and there’s a faint shadow of a stain there. “Yuck,” the boy says. “What is that? Like, Dracula’s hair gel?”

Mr. Byerly doesn’t believe in vampires, but he is taken aback by the evidence that—at some point—this coffin really was occupied. Still, except for that stain, it’s like new. He wouldn’t be ashamed to be buried in it. What’s more, the kid’s squeamishness has offered him an opening, a way to strike a bargain. “Look,” he says. “You can see this is the real deal. It’s not a toy, and I’ll bet your folks wouldn’t be too happy if you brought it home, anyway.”

“My mom,” the kid says, now cradling his arm. “It’s just my mom. She probably won’t like it. She might not let me keep it.”

“Tell you what,” Mr. Byerly says. “Help me get this thing into the car, and help me unload it when we get to my house, and I’ll give you twenty dollars.” The boy looks dubious. “And maybe a tip,” the old man adds, “if you do good work.”

“I’ve got to take this wagon back,” the kid says, “or somebody might think it’s up for grabs, too.” He pulls the red wagon by its handle and disappears into the shadows. He’s back in just a couple of minutes, so he must live close by.

It’s a struggle for the two of them to lift the head of the coffin and prop it on the end of the station wagon. “Okay,” Mr. Byerly pants. “Now grab the handle on the end and we’ll tilt it up and slide it in.” The kid’s thin arms strain, but he’s stronger than he looks. Together they manage to shove the coffin securely into the vehicle.

Mr. Byerly gets behind the wheel, but the boy remains hesitant, outside the passenger-side door. The old man feels a flash of irritation at this. Kids today—you offer them good money to do a little work, and all they do is drag their feet. Then he realizes what the problem must be. He rolls down the window. “What’s your name, son?” The kid clears his throat, mumbles something. “What was that again?”

“Reggie,” the boy says.

“Okay, Reggie,” Mr. Byerly says. “I know you kids are taught never to get into a car with a stranger, right? That’s a good rule, too, but I’m not a stranger. My name is Mr. Byerly, and I just live a few blocks from here. I’ve lived here for 31 years, and everybody knows me.” To himself, he admits that’s no longer exactly true. So many people he knew have passed on or moved to assisted living. The new people in the neighborhood are a lot younger, and not much interested in talking to an old man. “Listen, Reggie. It’s okay. Come on and get in the car.”

The boy climbs in with an alacrity that Mr. Byerly hadn’t expected. He’s more talkative now. “Do you think this coffin is really old? Do you think it was buried in the ground somewhere, and the person who was in it just rotted away? Or maybe they were eaten by worms?”

Mr. Byerly drives with an indulgent smile. “I think it would have been pretty messy inside if someone had rotted away. And even if they were eaten by worms, the skeleton would still be there.” He’s always gotten along well with kids by taking them seriously, by not talking down to them. This Reggie seems like a smart boy. With no dad, he probably could use a man in his life, a grandfather figure and a mentor.

“You saw that squashed-down place on the pillow, right?” Reggie says. “That’s proof that somebody was lying in there. Why would you want to be in a box where there’s already been a body?”

“I’ll be dead myself by then,” Mr. Byerly says. “It won’t matter to me. I won’t know where I am.” This is the great thing about talking to a youngster. They’re so fresh and curious, not afraid to talk about the most basic things—life and death. It occurs to Mr. Byerly that there are worse things the box could have been used for, worse than storing a dead body, but they’re things that wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss with a young boy. What if the coffin were used in unholy rites, or as part of some perverse sexual practice?

“Do you have a job?” Reggie asks.

“I’m retired.”

“What was your job before?”

Mr. Byerly considers. How far back in his resume should he go? “Well, I was a guidance counselor, and then I worked for a company that leased construction equipment.” It seems to Mr. Byerly that neither job might be of interest to a kid Reggie’s age, but construction equipment would probably sound cooler.

“Are you poor?” Reggie asks. “I mean, like no money?”

“No, I’m . . . , moderately well off. Why?”

Reggie turns to face Mr. Byerly, and his eyes flash green in the glow from the dashboard lights. “Why don’t you just buy yourself a new coffin then, like everybody else?”

That, Mr. Byerly thinks, is a complicated question, but he should give an honest answer. “Well, Reggie. My wife passed away almost two years ago.” He pauses, as he always does when mentioning his wife’s death, to give people time to express some sort of condolence. Reggie doesn’t seem to have learned that particular courtesy. “When Alice died,” Mr. Byerly goes on, “I was pretty upset. I mean, heartbroken, really. We were together almost forty years. And so, when it came time to make the arrangements for her funeral, I wanted her to have the very best.”

Owed her the very best, he thinks, for all that she had to endure—his job loss, the shame that forced them to move to this new town so many years ago.

“When I was in the showroom at the funeral home, I let the salesman talk me into the most expensive casket in the place. Did you know that some caskets can cost as much as a car?” Reggie has been following Mr. Byerly’s words closely, but his eyes widen at that. “When I came to my senses—as they were lowering that mahogany monstrosity into the ground—I realized that Alice would have hated the thing. She would have been so mad at me for spending all that money on a useless wooden box.” She would have been downright scornful, he thinks, the way she always was when he gave in to his weaknesses or spent their money foolishly. He’s queasy, just remembering it. “She would rather have been buried in a cardboard box than see that money wasted.”

Reggie shifts in his seat. “So that’s why you want to get someone else’s coffin for free?”

“Well, yes,” Mr. Byerly says. “It would kind of balance things out. Besides, it’ll be right here and ready for when I need it.” He’s pulling up in front of his house now, backing into the driveway. As soon as the car stops, the boy opens the door and hops out. “No need to get out, Reggie. The garage door is automatic.” Still, the kid stays outside, skittish. He closes the passenger door, leaving a void where he’d been sitting, So lively, curious, companionable. Mr. Byerly realizes that this is what he’s been missing, simple companionship. He needs it, more than he’ll need the black coffin that looms behind him. He pushes the remote door opener and backs carefully, about halfway into the garage, leaving room to remove his new acquisition.

This space is his pride and joy. He keeps it as neat as Alice used to keep the living room. The living room and the kitchen are a horrible mess now. Alice would be furious. But the garage is as clean and orderly as ever. Mr. Byerly’s carpentry tools are arranged on the back wall behind his workbench. The lawnmower and gardening tools have their places on one side. There’s an idea! He could hire Reggie to cut the grass, to shovel the walk in the winter. And he could show the boy how to build things, bird houses maybe, little projects they could do together. He looks back and realizes that Reggie is still lingering outside. It must be that same fear—reluctance to enter a stranger’s house.

Mr. Byerly walks to the front of the garage. The boy is standing in the driveway, diffident, shifting from foot to foot in his sneakers. He looks small and vulnerable, almost a reflection of Mr. Byerly’s own loneliness. “Hey Reggie! It’s okay, son. I’m not a child molester.” A hot rush of color flares in the old man’s throat and cheeks. Why did he say that? Stupid! That’s the fear that today’s children are taught to have of strange adults, but we don’t speak of it out loud. Child molestation. Inappropriate touching. Sexual abuse. At his age, Mr. Byerly rarely even has sexual thoughts anymore. Still, it’s not proper for a stranger even to say those words to the child. He chuckles, an effort to make light of what he just said, to make it go away, so the boy will feel safe and come inside. “What I mean is, I won’t bite you.” That’s weird, too, given the coffin that sits in the back of the car, but Reggie laughs. An uneasy laugh, but still, the awkwardness is broken. “Come in,” Mr. Byerly says. “Give me a hand with this thing, and then I’ll give you a ride home, so you won’t have to walk in the dark.”

The boy hustles inside, seemingly reassured. Mr. Byerly takes a pair of folding sawhorses from their place by the workbench and shows Reggie how to set them up. “You have to lock the legs in place, so they don’t collapse on you.” He shows the boy how to work one locking lever, then hovers close by as Reggie completes the task. In the bright light over the workbench, the boy’s mop of hair is a gleaming chestnut color, and the old man can’t resist the urge to touch it, to ruffle it a little when the job is done. It’s just an old-fashioned, grandfatherly gesture, but the boy shies away. Reggie’s cheeks and lips are a little flushed, and he gives Mr. Byerly a look from under his tousled hair. The old man remembers that look from long ago, an expression of what—desire? A certain hunger, and what else, disgust?

They ease the coffin out of the car and onto the sawhorses. Before, under the streetlight, Mr. Byerly didn’t realize how truly beautiful it is. Sure, there are a few dings and scrapes, but the wood has a rich, dark sheen that seems to come from within. Side by side, they raise the lid. The satin lining is an uneven ivory color, white that’s been yellowed by time. How much time? The antique style of the coffin suggests it could date back a hundred years or more. The boy pats at the pillow, trying to fluff out that dip made by someone’s head. “It really is kind-of stained,” he says, “Maybe you can get a new one.”

“Or maybe we can just flip it over and sew it back in place,” the old man says. He wants to show the kid that there’s no need to be overly fastidious or fussy. Boys shouldn’t worry about a little mess.

The longer the coffin remains open, the more Mr. Byerly becomes aware of a smell. It’s . . . meaty. A faint carnal odor that he can taste on his tongue as well as in his nostrils. For a second, he imagines it must be coming from the boy beside him—one of those musky body odors exuded by adolescent males who are beginning to secrete sexual hormones. But those boy smells are warm, funky, tangy. This is cold, like uncooked meat. Mr. Byerly notices something else that’s disconcerting—lumps under the satin that covers the bottom of the box. A sign of hidden dry rot? Mold? Burrowing worms? He runs his hand over the shapes and feels a dry, granular shifting under the fabric. The boy, standing close, places his hand on the lining as well. The hand is lovely, smooth as a lady’s, paler than the satin. There’s something wrong about the fingernails, though. They’re mottled and gray, thickly grooved and gnarly. The boy’s hand strokes the lining in a familiar, almost affectionate way. “It’s just dirt.”

“What?”

“Just dirt,” Reggie says. There’s a sureness in his tone that wasn’t there before. “Soil. You have to have some native soil in the coffin, but you can’t just dump it in there. It would get all over your clothes. The best thing is to have it sewn into the lining.”

Mr. Byerly looks closely at the boy’s face, to see whether he’s joking or spinning some kind of fantasy. What he sees is a calm matter-of-factness, almost adult-like in its assurance. The boy’s green eyes gaze back at him knowingly. I know what you are. I know what you want. He’s so close now that Mr. Byerly can smell his breath. It’s oddly metallic, like rust. Reggie places his delicate hand over Mr. Byerly’s on the rim of the casket. “I know you like my coffin,” he says, “but this isn’t ‘finders, keepers.’ It’s mine. It’s always been mine.” The hand is cold where it touches the old man’s hand. Its grip is unnervingly firm. “But thanks for bringing it here, where it’ll be safe. And thanks for inviting me in. A lot of the stuff people say about us is just dumb, like saying we’re afraid of garlic and crosses? But some of it’s true. Like, we can’t come into your house unless you invite us, unless you want us here.” You know what I am. You know what I want. He smiles, and Mr. Byerly can see that the stories about the fangs are true, too.

• • • •

Halloween comes and goes, and trick-or-treaters get no answer at Mr. Byerly’s door. It’s not until weeks later, when the leaves lie thick and unraked in the old man’s yard, that any of the neighbors think to check on his welfare. A town policeman finds the body in the garage, too deteriorated to determine a cause of death. There’s nothing unusual at the scene, although the living areas of the house are dirty and cluttered, the sour-smelling abode of an aging widower. Because Mr. Byerly didn’t update his will after his wife’s death, it takes months before his affairs can be put in order so the house can be sold. On the last Thursday in April, the renovator’s crew hauls most of the furniture to the curb. Along with a curious thing, found in a corner of the basement. A coffin.

Corey Flintoff

Corey Flintoff

Corey Flintoff is a former reporter and foreign correspondent for NPR (Moscow and South Asia bureau chief), who covered the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Ukraine. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and other journals. His work has won the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award and the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. His most recent story, Collection of the Artist, took Second Place in the Masters Review Winter Story Contest. Flintoff now lives in a leafy Maryland suburb outside of Washington, DC, with his wife, the painter Diana Derby.