Mort

Vast Chasm Magazine 22Q1 Cover Art: black and white photo of ice melting around a rock that holds a leaf. A black V cuts through the image; inside the V, the image appears in vibrant watercolor, the earthy rock and yellow leaf coming to life.

Lena McCuskey took Danny’s virginity on a hot Friday afternoon an hour after last period. He’d pulled his car into a shady corner beneath the cherry blossoms at the edge of campus, his car half-hidden by the dumpster situated next to the back door of the gym. It was all thanks to the car that he found himself splayed in the back, Lena pulling down his pants with one hand while managing to yank up her t-shirt with the other. He was sweating and trembling, his hands shaky as they reached up and cupped Lena’s sides. Her mascara was running, not because she was sobbing with regret or fear but because of the melty heat; it grabbed her hair and slapped it against her face, like tendrils of dense, rotting seaweed. The car’s interior was already humid like a greenhouse, the windows gathering condensation, which Danny could barely see thanks to their dark tint.

Danny drove a hearse.

When his parents bought the car, surprising him on his eighteenth birthday, a heavy snowstorm came through in the middle of the night. They brought him outside in the morning, blindfolded. He could tell his parents were proud of themselves, both grinning above their steaming coffee mugs, wearing their matching pajama suits and puffy slippers. They stood in the jaw of the garage while Danny tiptoed out into the driveway, his feet crunching through the chunky, ice-slicked snow. He uncovered the recognizable humped vinyl roof.

“Really?” he said.

His mother frowned. “It’s what we could afford.”

“The driver’s seat is actually really luxurious,” his father said. “It’ll make you interesting and different.” 

Danny resisted the urge to say, It’ll make me a freak. He knew his parents cared, that they worked hard. His father managed a Walgreens, and his mother worked at the local university’s health center doing medical coding. They must have saved and discussed and searched and searched to buy him this car. 

As if reading his mind, his father said, “We got a good deal.”

“Thanks,” Danny said. “Really. It’ll be, uh, unique.”

“That’s the spirit,” his parents said in tandem. They drank their coffee. His mother said, “Now let’s get inside. It’s cold. I’m pretty sure you have a snow day.”

That cold was gone as Lena pulled off his underwear. Danny was semi-hard, and she took it in her hands without a word. When he’d first shown up in the hearse, his classmates had guffawed and elbowed him in the ribs, making jokes about how the goth kids would love it. Danny’s parking spot—he’d paid for one at the start of senior year in the hope that he’d have a car before school was over—buttressed the walkway between the school’s two buildings, and word of Danny’s ride spread fast. The popular kids made jokes about Danny’s parents changing careers (not that any of those kids had any idea what his parents actually did for a living) and one of the football players started calling him Mort.

“Get it?” he said one day, sidling up next to Danny at his locker. “For mortuary.”

“Yes,” Danny said, shoving his physics book into his locker. “I do.”

“Oh, come on,” the beefy red-headed linebacker with bloated arms and a beer belly said. “It’s funny.”

“Ha,” Danny said.

The football player wandered into the scrum of students. Scuffed lockers opened and closed, students laughed and jawed one another, sneakers squealed against the tile floor. Danny threw himself into the din, marching toward his AP English class, where his teacher tried to get them to discuss Timequake, asking what they would do if they had to relive the last ten years of their lives without being able to change anything, knowing exactly what was coming.

“Be pretty awful for everyone who died,” Lena McCuskey said. “Imagine getting on an airplane you knew would crash.”

Lena was the leader of the goth group. They all wore dark, monochromatic pants with t-shirts that looked like they’d been sucked through a wood chipper. Their lips were black, their eyes heavy with mascara. Lena’s backpack was strangled with safety pins. She was smart, the English teacher’s favorite despite the deadpan delivery of her conversation-halting comments. Danny had been paired with her as a junior in their college composition course. They’d written a partnered research paper on the Pennsylvania Turnpike murders, leaning over microfiche machines to read four-line blurbs from ancient copies of the New York Times. She’d been studious, not one for chit-chat, and had driven them to the St. Louis Public Library off Lindbergh because their suburban dinker, while full of paperback romance novels and a vibrant children’s section, suffered a dearth of archival materials. 

Lena’s Buick LeSabre smelled of clove cigarettes and McDonald’s fries. She didn’t speak while they drove, nor did she play music. Instead she rolled the windows all the way down despite the cold that spun her hair into her face. She didn’t push it away from her eyes as she navigated I-270, passing cars left and right, engine rattling as she broke eighty, eighty-five miles an hour before at the last second, at the Olive Boulevard exit, careening off. Danny had expected her to perhaps relish in the grisliness of the Turnpike murders, the mystique, but no: when she spoke, it was only to call out roll numbers and dictate how the order of events should unfold in their paper. They received an A.

She approached him months after he started driving the hearse, after his new nickname had spread like an infection. Everyone was calling him Mort, as if he were old and balding and clammy. Lena stood next to his locker just like the football player had, slouchy against the neighboring steel grille. Her hair was glossy in the hard light, so dark it looked like a wig, her pale skin like porcelain. 

“I like your car,” she said.

Danny blinked at her. It was the nicest thing she’d ever said to him.

“Could I check it out?”

“There aren’t any dead bodies.”

“Well that’s disappointing.”

Danny shut his locker. They started walking toward English.

“I think it suits you.”

Danny wasn’t a jock, though he did go jogging on weekends and grunted through pushups and crunches every morning, so he was in better shape than anyone would have guessed. He wasn’t a band geek, or a drama nerd, or a gamer. He didn’t count himself among the stoners, and definitely wasn’t among Lena’s goth crew. Danny liked to read, but he didn’t carry thick tomes into the cafeteria. He had a smattering of friends from various cliques. His best friend went to the private high school a few blocks away, and on weekends they sat on one of their back porches, playing cribbage.

“After school, then?” Lena said when they arrived at the classroom door. 

Danny nodded.

She said little that first time, looking over the interior, which was clean: beige leather seats, onyx accents on the dash and radio consoles. The casket rollers and bier pins were still installed, but Danny’s mother had helped him cover them with some blankets and had even made jokes about him bringing girls back there; that’s why she’d chosen a muted gray color: “We don’t want the back to be too romantic.”

Lena fiddled with the evergreen air freshener dangling from the rearview and then toyed with the radio, letting staticky whisper fill the interior.

“I expected it to smell like embalming fluid.”

“I think they cleaned it pretty thoroughly before it went up for sale.”

She stretched out her long legs. “Lots of space here, at least. What’s it like to drive?”

“Like steering a boat.”

“You’ve steered a boat before?”

“Metaphorically, I guess.”

That made Lena McCuskey smile.

On their second afternoon together, Lena said, “Do you ever wonder about the bodies that have been in here?” She looked around as if doing an appraisal. 

On the third occasion, she turned to look in the back and said, “Can we sit there?”

“Sure, I guess.”

A stud winked in Lena’s left nostril, and Danny asked about it.

“New,” Lena said. “Did it last weekend.”

“Did it? Yourself?”

Lena laughed. “I have a cousin who works in the mall. Does it all for free.” She pointed up at her right ear, which was a panoply of stones and tiny gold hoops that munched all the way up to the cartilage at the top. 

“Tough time getting through airport security.”

“I’ve never flown anywhere.”

“Really?” 

She shook her head. The interior of the car was warm thanks to the sun. Lena’s upper lip was dotted with the lightest bit of sweat. “My parents are homebodies. They went to fucking high school here. They live in the house my dad grew up in.”

“Wow.”

“What about you?”

Danny shook his head. 

She kissed him then. Danny could taste the perspiration on her skin. Her breath was warm and smelled of strawberry. Her tongue plied at his lips and he opened them just so. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he kept kissing her, his hands pressed against her sides, where he could feel trim, sinewy muscle. 

When she gripped his erection, he shuddered and said, “Do we need—”

She shook her head. “I’m good.”

“Good?”

She blinked at him. “I’m on the pill.”

“Oh. Okay.”

It was over quickly, which made Danny feel sheepish. Lena tilted her head and said, “That was your first time, wasn’t it?”

He felt a flare in his cheeks, which were already flush from the heat inside the car, their bodies’ mingled sweat. He could smell his natural aroma: salty and fuzzy and faintly tart. 

“You were gentle,” Lena said. “Boys stop being gentle fast.” Her voice was different as she spoke, as if she was holding back something that she didn’t want Danny to hear, a bit of broken glass in her throat. Maybe it was her real voice. Or maybe it was an invention. He didn’t know for sure whether she was or wasn’t who she made herself out to be. Lena pulled on her clothes and smiled at him, her teeth bright and clean. Danny was still naked. He tugged his pants to his crotch in a ball of denim, his underwear tangled in the legs. 

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You were fine.”

“Fine?”

“Trust me,” she said. “That’s a positive.”

Then she crawled over the center console and sidled out the passenger-side door, letting a burst of afternoon air in after her, leaving Danny alone with the sticky air and a shuffling feeling inside him. He sat still for a long moment before pulling on his pants, his crotch swampy. When he dragged himself into the front seat, his foot caught on one of the rollers underneath the blanket and he flew forward, nearly smashing his face against the dashboard. 

He gathered himself and turned on the ignition, leaning into the air conditioning that crusted the sweat on his forehead. Danny gripped the wheel, stared forward at the rotting wooden fence at the edge of campus that separated it from the neighboring private property. A strong afternoon breeze danced the branches of the trees that loomed above the fence. He felt spent, empty, tired. Instead of the starry endorphin-laced euphoria he’d always thought would come after sex, he felt a thick malaise, like he’d eaten too much.

He drove home in a daze. Every light was red. At each stop he felt the eyes of the drivers idling next to him sliding his way and—though he knew the hearse was the source of this staring—Danny was convinced he must look different, that the stink of sex must be vibrating out of him, illuminating his skin with a blinding alien glow. But when he glanced down at his hands, they were the same as always.

When Danny came through the front door, his father was slumped back in his Barcalounger, grumbling at the television while he played video games. Danny didn’t know any other parents who still dug Nintendo, and it was a seesawing point of both pride and embarrassment; sometimes Danny thought it was nice that his father felt youthful enough to navigate Mario and Link and Samus around on screen, but other times he thought he was the one who should be obsessed with those pixelated adventures. 

“Happy Friday,” his dad said. Danny’s father was a big man; he’d played football in high school, though he hadn’t been good enough for the college level. His face was always a shag of a full, thick beard, and he had hairy arms that seemed to go on for days. He appeared to have trouble finding polo shirts—that’s all he wore: endless polo shirts, even when relaxing in front of the television—that fit his barrel chest. Danny’s mom, on the other hand, was a petite woman, tiny with sharp features and close-set eyes. Danny didn’t really look like either of them but he knew this was how genetics worked: you were generally some weird amalgam of your parents. Even so, Danny looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t see a single trace of either of them, nor any of his massive relatives on his father’s side—he was lankier than any of his cousins or uncles—nor the more gnomish, stout members of his mother’s family. His hair was somewhere between his dad’s dark curls and his mother’s straight strawberry blond, and he had green eyes, unlike his parents’ blue and brown. 

“Some lucky recessive genes you got,” his mom had said when he mentioned this. He’d smiled, but Danny had felt even more at sea.

His father paused his game and asked if Danny was hungry for a snack. His dad’s schedule was a chaotic, unpredictable mess, constantly changing thanks to the unreliable twenty-somethings in his employ. He was perpetually on-call, forced to leap from the dinner table whenever some crisis came through on his phone. They’d once had to leave a Cardinals game in the middle of the fourth inning because his store had been robbed at gunpoint.

“No,” Danny said. “Thanks though.” He felt swampy in his crotch, the slime of sex still rotting on his inner thighs. He was sure his father would notice something was different; he was observant, good at catching sight of would-be shoplifters. He’d majored in English but had never managed to find a job where he could really make use of it. He had studied poetry and the Renaissance, even had a small bust of Shakespeare that he kept on the fireplace mantel next to a trio of family photographs. His father didn’t write much anymore, nor did he read, and Danny wondered if this was out of necessity or transformation, time and transition warping him into a different person than he’d been.

“Everything okay, bud?”

Danny nodded.

“You seem tense. It’s the weekend.” He finally seemed to realize that Danny had been late getting home. “Were you studying?”

“Some library research,” Danny said.

“Studious. Good for you.”

His father unpaused the game. His character, some kind of monk, stood in the middle of a dark forest, carrying a bo staff. Danny watched his father walk up to a lantern hanging from a tree branch and whack it with the staff, which started a small fire.

“Whoops,” his dad said, sending his character running away from the growing flames. “Any exciting plans for the weekend?”

Danny shook his head. “I thought I’d catch up on homework. I have work tomorrow night.”

“No parties or anything?”

“None that I’m invited to.”

His father pursed his lips. “You could always throw one here.”

“I don’t know who I’d invite.”

“Kids will come to a party even if they don’t know who’s hosting.”

“Ouch.”

“That did come out wrong.”

Danny left his father on the couch and slipped upstairs to his bedroom, a small space with robin-egg blue walls and a bare dresser where he left spare change in messy heaps. He pulled off his clothes and stared at himself in the mirror hanging from his closet. Danny’s pubic hair was matted, his thighs were chafed bright red. He poked at his stomach and the curve of his nascent pecs. Aside from his gluey groin, he looked normal enough. This felt both like a relief and a disappointment.

On Monday, Lena asked if they could drive around after school. 

“I have work at five,” Danny said.

She raised an eyebrow.

“I wash dishes.”

He’d taken the job after convincing his parents, who had wanted him to focus on school work, that his last semester of high school didn’t really matter; his college applications were in, and he had nearly perfect grades (junior-year chemistry his lone B) and had done well on all of his standardized tests. He promised he wouldn’t fail out in his last year, and he could use some spending money for when he went off to school. Danny hadn’t told them his real goal was to work his ass off, take as many eight-dollar-an-hour shifts as he could so that, by the end of summer, he could dump the hearse and buy something else. Anything else.

He told this to Lena as he guided them through the grid of neighborhoods behind the high school, where brick-sided ranches and vinyl split-levels with basketball hoops above their garages were arranged in neat, wide streets with ample room for curbside parking. The car’s acceleration felt heavy and elephantine through the gas pedal. Soccer moms unloading their kids and businessmen checking their mailboxes frowned at the hearse as Danny passed by.

“I can’t see you washing dishes for a living.”

“What can you see me doing?”

She shrugged.

They had sex again. Danny pulled up next to Lena’s car, the hood smattered with samaras from the blooming maples. He could see a skull-shaped air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. This time, she laid down in the back and pulled him on top of her. When she strummed her fingers down his torso along the small gulf at the center of his abs, she said, “These are a nice feature.”

He wasn’t in love with her; Danny knew that much. In fact, he wasn’t even sure that sex with Lena meant that much to him. When Danny tried to remember the feel of Lena’s skin beneath his fingertips, and what it felt like to be inside her, the way her body moved in response to his, it all felt like a distant memory. He could, if he concentrated long and hard, recall the fruity smell of her body and her sweat, the way the interior of the hearse almost went briny. But he didn’t pine for her when they weren’t together.

He kept waiting for something to happen: for Lena to disappear, for Lena to come sobbing to him that she was pregnant, for Lena to ask him to go on a real date. She continued sauntering the halls with her coterie of pale-cheeked, dark-lipped friends, their fingernails the color of tar, their eyelids bruised violets or violent, shrieking green, then meeting up with him after school. He would tootle her around like a chauffeur, zigging and zagging through town, making turns at random, always ending up back at the school, always moving into the rear of the car.

Graduation loomed. Senior superlatives were announced, and Danny braced himself for something ridiculous. None of the slots on the sheet that had been distributed in homeroom—Most Liked, Most Studious, Best Haircut—had seemed like a fit, but, he noticed, there was a space for miscellaneous write-in superlatives. When the class president’s voice buzzed through the intercom system and read off the list—the football player was crowned class clown, of course—Danny never heard his name (somehow, no one on the student council had thought of Best Car). 

He felt mostly relief, but bubbling underneath was a kind of sorrow. There weren’t nearly enough superlatives for everyone, he wasn’t alone in missing a wink of immortality. Watching his fellow unremarkable seniors, he saw not a trace of disappointment. They went about their business, slogging through the final days of the year with the same half-excitement, half-disdain as always. Danny wondered if he was the only one feeling the weight of anonymity, his unwanted nickname—even the horrible, half-senile AP history teacher had started calling him Mort—excepted.

On the last day of school, Lena said, “I don’t even know where you’re going to college.”

Danny told her: one of the cheap state schools, where half of their class was probably going, too. Twenty-thousand students, a sprawling campus, gargantuan lecture halls and TAs that didn’t care what your name was.

“What about you?” he said.

“I’m driving out to California for the summer.”

“To do what?”

She looked out the window, as if something interesting was happening in the nearby dumpster. “To be not here.”

“It’s that bad, is it?”

She smiled at him, which looked strange on her. “It’s just not somewhere else.”

“You don’t want to go to college?”

“Someday. There’s no expiration date. What are you going to major in?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

Danny looked down at his hands, surprised at their tight grip on the wheel as if he was in the midst of a high-speed chase. He relaxed his fingers. “I have no idea.”

“You could be a poet,” she said. 

“My dad wanted to be a poet.”

“What happened?”

Danny shrugged. “Life. Me, I guess.”

“You could write poems about driving a hearse without dead bodies inside.”

Danny chuckled.

“I’d read them,” Lena said.

Graduation day came: sun bleary, humidity a thick gravy. Danny’s armpits went soggy fast thanks to the unbreathable material of his cap and gown. Parents assembled in the air-conditioned gymnasium while the senior class gathered in the parking lot, students’ faces flush, girls’ makeup starting to smudge, the boys smelly despite their deodorant sprays. Danny stood in his spot between two people who were essentially strangers even though he’d been in at least one class with each of them every year; they spoke over him, as if he were a hedgerow or a park bench, about a party that night. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and when he turned, there was Lena, ignoring that everyone needed to be in their proper spot because the procession would begin any second now.

“Oh,” Danny said. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Lena said. Her cap was fitted tight to her skull. Lena wasn’t wearing heavy black lipstick for once, and her eyes were bare; she looked like a completely different person. How easily, he thought, she could transform herself.

“I have something for you,” she said. “A graduation present.”

“You do?”

“Find me after, okay?”

“Alright.”

The ceremony plodded along, the principal and dean of students saying the things they were supposed to say. The valedictorian gave a brief speech that everyone applauded. Danny fanned his face with his copy of the program; his gown’s polyester was like a shroud. When he crossed the stage for his diploma, his parents whistled even though they weren’t the type. His classmates and the strangers in the audience clapped politely for him just the same as everyone else. When he shook the principal’s hand, Danny could tell the man had no idea who he was. He turned his tassel at the same time as everyone else.

At the end, his parents gave him a hug. His mother wore a plum-and-white dress, colors in vaguely floral slashes across her body. His dad’s tie was cinched too tight. They looked like all the other parents, proud of their kids, wearing their slacks and holding their purses, beaming. As they left the gym, Lena caught his eye and he told his parents he needed a second. They glanced at each other and smiled.

Lena stood by her car. If her parents had come, Danny didn’t see them. 

“Here,” she said, holding out a black picture frame. “Sorry it isn’t wrapped.”

“That’s okay. What is it?”

“Read it.”

He took the frame. Inside, printed on cream-colored cardstock, was a poem: “The Hearse Song.”

“It turns out there are a few hearse poems,” Lena said. “But I thought this one was funny.”

Danny read: Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by / For you may be the next to die. / They wrap you up in a big white sheet / From your head down to your feet.

“Thanks,” he said. “When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow, probably.”

“That soon?”

“No reason to wait.”

Danny nodded and held the picture frame to his chest.

“Thanks for this,” he said.

“No problem.”

“I guess I should go find my mom and dad,” he said.

Lena nodded. “Take care of yourself.” Then she got in her car and shut the door. Danny backed away so she didn’t run over his foot as she pulled out of her parking spot. She paused, rolled down the window, and said, “Bye, Mort.”

Danny should have hated her for saying that, but out of Lena’s lips, it wasn’t so bad.

Danny didn’t know it yet, but in just two weeks, the engine in the hearse will putz out. The cost to replace it will be prohibitively expensive. He will spend the rest of the summer working at the restaurant, sloshing dirty dishwater onto his torso, his hands drying and cracking from the blasting heat. He will bank enough money to help pay for a used Civic that will remind him of Lena’s clunker. 

When he arrives at college, he will join a fraternity. He’ll tell his new friends that, for a short while, he drove a hearse, and that his classmates called him Mort. His fraternity brothers will start calling him that, too, and, just like when Lena said it, he won’t despise them for it. He’ll tell them about Lena and the poem she gave him. He’ll find more hearse poems—by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Francis Beaumont, James Whitcomb Riley—and he’ll do what Lena said and start writing his own. His friends will find them odd, but magazines will publish them. He’ll wonder about Lena, but he won’t ever hear from her again. He’ll meet his first boyfriend. He’ll have sex with him, and when they share their virginity stories, Danny will tell him about Lena and the hearse and they’ll laugh. Danny will laugh and be warm and happy and he’ll know, finally, who he is, and when he graduates from college, headed off for graduate school—for an MFA, not to become a mortician—he’ll pull the framed poem down from its place on the wall where it has stayed with him for four years. He’ll bring it with him into the next place, and the next, and the one after that.

He watched Lena go, sunlight flashing off her car’s hood and windshield. He’d have waved, but he was holding the picture frame with both hands.


Joe Baumann

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Phantom Drift, Passages North, Emerson Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His first short story collection, The Plagues, will be released by Cornerstone Press in 2023, and his debut novel, I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, is forthcoming from Deep Hearts YA. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.

Header photograph by Deborah Hughes
Header artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

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