by Benjamin Sobieck
They decided to bury him next to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The location made sense for two reasons. A graveside service had taken place hours before. No one would notice a companion corpse with the recently bereaved. And the site was far from the road. No passersby would see them shoveling dirt.
The holiest, most celebrated woman in all of Christendom gazed down to the hell beneath her as the two men dug. Work in the softened earth came easy. The waxing moon bore witness only to the sounds of kwoosh and thump. Together, they formed a steady, chugging rhythm like a coal-fired train.
Bound to rail ties in the path of that oncoming train was a third, motionless man. He lay silent a few feet away. A spongy batter of blood and mud enveloped his tattered body. The cool Nevada night crisped the edges of any distinguishable features.
“I need a break,” the older of the two men said. He fell back into the soft mound of dirt they had made. A salty sea bled through his pleated khaki pants and Hawaiian shirt. Hand-shaped streaks of mud formed on his bald, egg-shaped head as he wiped away the sweat. The fingers were narrow and pale like his bony face. “You’ve got a young, 20-something back. You keep digging.”
The younger man bobbed his head in nervous agreement. He plunged his shovel into the fresh grave. Thick ropes of muscle in his tan arms flexed as he heaved. Dirt from the shovel fell back into the grave as he brought it up.
“Hey, what’s with the shaky hands?” the older man asked. He propped himself up in the dirt with his elbows. “You afraid of getting dirty? Don’t worry about that. This is dirty work. Dirt feels nice and cool on my hot head.”
The older man picked up two handfuls of dirt and threw them up into the air. He smiled as the sprinkles of earth rained down back on him. “Just dig,” he said and chomped his teeth together in two quick, bony taps.
The younger man let the shovel drop to the ground. His bulky frame sagged. “Can’t,” he said. “Can’t.”
The older man hopped to his feet. “And why not?” He pointed to the third man. “You did that, didn’t you?” The older man planted a quick kick in the motionless man’s side. “And you did this, and you also did…” He paused as he raised his right foot above the man’s head. “…this.” The older man brought down his foot with the full force of his weight.
“Yeah,” the younger man said. His foot played with the edge of the shovel.
“Look, if it makes you feel better, the guy was as good as dead when we got to him. We just sped up what coke would’ve done in a few years,” the older man said. “And the world is better for it.”
“Sure,” the younger man said.
The older man picked up the shovel and placed it in the younger man’s hands. “You’ve already done the hard part, the killing part. I am so damn proud of you. But we can’t just leave this piece of shit laying out here. There’s no going back.” He moved the younger man’s hands so the shovel pointed at the grave. “There’s only going down.”
“Need that stuff first,” the younger man said.
“You can have more Bluegrasse when you finished digging. It’s in the car anyway,” the older man said.
The younger man dug at the grave with renewed enthusiasm. After a few minutes, he said, “Hit something.”
“That would be the coffin,” the older man said. “That means it’s time for our friend to join the six-foot club.”
They dragged the third man over and dumped him into the grave. He landed with a muffled thump atop the coffin. His body lay limp and illogical like a haphazard mannequin.
The older man chomped his teeth twice at the younger man. Dirt tumbled down into the grave.
“It’s funny,” the older man said as he helped fill the grave. “People all over the world knew this guy from the movies he made. He made millions of dollars, won tons of awards and more Americans can name him than the president.
“And after all that, he gets buried under the name ‘Johnathon P. Doughe.’ Like John Doe, get it? Now he’s the epitome of nobodyness.”
The younger man kept pushing dirt. He glanced at the car parked on the other side of the cemetery.
“A name gives you an identity. But a name also controls your identity,” the older man said. “We took a famous guy and took away his name. Made him anonymous. We now control his identity.
“That’s only fitting, because he made his living as a Hollywood hack by stealing other people’s identities. A celebrity like him demands adoring fans replace their identities with his own. Put his face on their walls. Wear the clothes he wears. Become him in as many ways as possible. You follow me?”
“Good. This identity drain can only lead to populations of people with no true sense of themselves. They have defined their entire existence with Hollywood bullshit. And since Hollywood is full of lowest common denominator mediocrity, you get a society of mediocrity. Then the world goes in the shitter.
“It’s so simple, it’s incredible I even have to say it.”
After mixing any bloody clots of dirt into the grave, they headed back to the car.
“You’re OK, kiddo. I think I’ll keep you around,” the older man said. They approached the rusty, beige Cutlass Supreme.
“Have some Bluegrasse now?” the younger man said.
The older man smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Just be yourself.”
Sydney Grey’s pixilated image giggled in black-and-white on the TV. The dusty monitor hung loose in the corner of a stained ceiling panel. It looked down on a nearly deserted diner.
“Make every day a Lovingful one. From bracelets to bandanas, the online Lovingful store has everything you need to look your best – like me. Log on now and receive a special offer...”
“How goes your 2 a.m. breakfast?” the waitress said.
Watery syrup dribbled down the younger man’s chin. His eyes fixated on the plate in front of him.
The older man looked up and smiled. He set down a glass of orange juice next to an empty coffee cup.
“The sign out front don’t lie,” the older man said. “This really is the best damn hand-squeezed orange juice in all of Nevada.” He licked his lips. “Excellent.”
The waitress smiled. “You guys must work the graveyard construction shift. Comin’ in here so hungry and dirty.”
“You could say that,” the older man said. He pointed a slender finger at the younger man. “My friend here is a hard worker. He needs another round of pancakes.”
The younger man looked up long enough to give a nod.
“OK, be right back,” the waitress said. She scurried off to the dingy inner domains of Pete’s 24-Hour Pancake Emporium.
The older man leaned across the table. The restaurant was dead, but he still kept his voice low.
“You eat as much as you want. You deserve it,” the older man said. “Now you keep that mouth full and ears clear. Understand?”
The younger man nodded. A thick slug of sweat hustled fell from his nose into his meal. A side effect of the Bluegrasse.
“You seemed a little shaky back there. Just remember this. We. Are. Saving. The. World,” the older man said. “We. Saved. Lives.” He hung onto each syllable as if they were dangling from a cliff. “We. Saved. Minds. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Sure,” the younger man said.
“That was a rhetorical question. Keep your mouth shut,” the older man said. “These Hollywood types, they sell sex, you know? And these kids eat it up. Kids who are still shaping their identities.
“Now that guy we just put in the ground, he was 33, and he was in a ‘family film’ a few years back. In that ‘family film,’ he flirts with a character who is supposed to be 18. But she’s actually 16 in real life. Also in real-life, he gave her a ‘promise ring.’ The movie makes number one for four weeks. Next thing you know, every prepubescent girl in the fucking country is trying to seek their own ‘leading man.’
“So it was no surprise last week when cops found little Caylee Noriega dead in a ditch. Dressed up like a whore for the ‘movie star’ she met online.”
The older man searched the younger man’s face for outrage. He found only syrup.
“How could anyone think this isn’t sick?” the older man said. He began to scratch at his left eyebrow. “They rated that movie PG. Damn near everyone saw it.
“Hollywood sells sex to little girls. Think about all the stores that made a killing selling Daisey Dukes in the junior misses section. Don’t think for a minute they weren’t in on it, too.
“Do you know what we call people who use minors for sex? Pedophiles. Fucking pedophiles.”
The scratching of the older man’s left eyebrow turned maniacal. Scars of past lectures had left a streak of baldness. His finger ground the ditch wider, turning the skin red and white.
“But what’s sicker is that these pedophiles aren’t locked up. No, we wouldn’t do that. We treat them to millions of dollars. That guy back at the cemetery, he was one of them. Justice was finally served to that pedophilic piece of shit. His movies won’t be hurting little girls any more.
“And remember, it all starts with celebrities demanding their fans become them as much as possible. Talk the way they talk. Walk the way they walk. Think the way they think.”
The patter of footsteps came into earshot. The older man dropped his hand from his left eyebrow. The waitress set another plate of pancakes on the table.
“I brought you the check, too, unless you think this guy’s got room for another plate in there,” the waitress said.
“No, I think that’ll be all,” the older man said. He placed a $100 bill on the table.
“Sorry, sir, we don’t take cash larger than $20. It’s policy.”
The older man scooted the bill toward the waitress. “Keep the change. Otherwise, I’m sure I have the exact amount in my wallet.”
The waitress blushed.
“Well, I guess I can break policy just this one time,” she said. She pocketed the bill beneath her apron. “You guys have a great rest of the evening – or morning, I never know what to say this time of night, er, morning. OK? OK. I’ll leave you two be.”
The older man watched the waitress until she disappeared into the kitchen. The younger man gorged himself on the second plate of food.
“Bluegrasse makes you hungry, doesn’t it?” the older man said. “Digging makes me thirsty.
“You know, movers and shakers like us are always hungry, are always thirsty. But that’s why the world is ours. If you’re full, if you’re quenched, why should you seek change? How can you even see what needs to be changed? Answer me that one.”
The older man plucked the fork from the younger man’s hand.
“That’s why I must thirst. And you must hunger.”
The older man chomped his teeth twice.
News traveled fast in the offices of Ce!eb, cable television’s third most watched celebrity-centric channel. Always fast, never slow. Otherwise, what’s the point?
That was the speech reporter June Routledge heard from her boss when the monthly ratings arrived. It was a ritual at the offices of the “Ce!eb News” program.
June’s mind was far from ratings and demographics this morning. Her small frame hunched over a notepad. She scribbled semi-legible short-short hand. Her auburn hair danced over the notepad as she wrote. June brushed it away with ink-stained fingers.
June fought off cramps in her neck as she cradled a phone. The daily drudgery of unnatural neck positions haunted her vertebrae.
This is what you wanted.
She propped up a stack of papers ready to fall with her remaining hand. She looked like the dominant fish in a can of sardines.
The glamorous life you dreamed of in college.
“Look, Junebug, the producers aren’t going to roll the dice with Taylor Covenant unless she stops with the sleigh rides. Don’t quote me verbatim,” the deep, male voice on the phone told her.
Junebug. The fourth time today. Hollywood is full of clever people.
“But the casting list is already out,” June said. “Taylor was given a clean bill of health from the doctors.”
This is the news that matters now.
“Key grippers hear lots of things from lots of people. People who don’t think other people can hear them thinking out loud. They also find things in the garbage that haven’t really been thrown away yet,” the voice said. “I trust you’ll keep my name out of it. I just want people to know the truth. They deserve that. People really care about this sequel getting made the right way.”
No, people deserve to know what goes on at the White House. Which is where I should be. But this is where the jobs are. Celebrity bullshit.
June felt a tap on her shoulder. A piece of notepad paper fluttered down to her desk.
“Thanks for calling this in, I’ll let people know to adjust their lives accordingly,” June said. The dry Los Angeles air made her voice crack a bit. “We’ll touch base later. I have to get going.”
“Get going to lunch with me I hope.”
“Don’t you like my deep voice?”
“Get lost, fruitcake.”
Living the dream.
June set the phone back in its holster and picked up the note. It read, “Conference room.”
What marvelous speech will corporate dazzle us with today?
She navigated a series of gray cubicles toward the conference room. Rows of unmanned desks ignored the IV drip of information. Phones rang. Fax machines beeped.
June found her co-workers attached to the TV in the crowded conference room. Plushly, the latest piss-water perfume endorsed by Celebrity Hack X, seasoned the damp sweaty air.
“In case you are just tuning in, we have breaking news out of Los Angeles this morning,” the voice of Action! News’s vaguely metrosexual Tom Reese said from the other side of the digital divide. “Tucker Quinn has gone missing. The 33-year-old actor did not show up last night at an awards ceremony in downtown L.A., where he was scheduled to present.
“Repeated phone calls to his cell phone and residences have gone unanswered. Close friends told us they are stumped as to Tucker’s whereabouts. It seems as if he just disappeared.”
The words stuck like putty in June’s ear. Tucker Quinn was one of the rising stars of Hollywood. Following a well-publicized rehab, he was also one of the most stable.
The TV cut to B-roll as Tom talked. There was Tucker in disguise outside a rehab clinic. Tucker in a tux at a charity event. Tucker accepting an obscure award. Tucker over-emoting in “Lonesome Lighthouse.” Tucker in disguise again.
“Law enforcement tells us they are obligated by law to wait another 12 hours until beginning an investigation,” Tom said. “But one of Quinn’s close friends tells us it would be unusual for him to not check in. Both friends and family are calling for authorities to act immediately. We’ll have the latest as it develops. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.”
The local news show took back control of the TV. Pupils in the conference room became disengaged. “…president will address Congress tonight about the rebel crisis in…”
A boney hand turned the volume down to zero on the television.
“People, people, people,” June’s scrawny boss, Jim Johnson, said. He always talked to his employees like stock investors. Pitchy. “The real news here is that our biggest competitor, Action! News, beat us to this story. So get your butts back to doing your jobs.” He waved his hands toward the door. “But reporters stay here, we need to talk for a minute.”
Great. Another lecture.
June and her squad of fellow reporters stayed behind. Jim waited until the others left.
“Guys, this might be big,” Jim said. “Like big-big, got it? Action! News might’ve broke this before we did, but I want us to be the ones to report he’s dead.” Jim flashed his teeth. “That is, if he’s dead. If he’s not, well, who gives a shit. Then he’s just some ape who can’t return phone calls. But if he is, this could be gold. The kind of gold you can B-roll for the next 20 years.”
Living the dream. Repeat after me. Living the dream.
“I’ll do it, Jim,” came a female response from the left of June. “If he’s dead, I’ll check his pulse and get back to you.”
Great joke. You’re real clever. Especially with your big boobs, blonde hair and orange fake-and-bake skin.
“You take the lead then, Cindy Sue. But don’t let it take too much time from your anchoring duties,” Jim said.
Sounds like a great plan. Cindy Sue kisses ass, tells the reporters what to do and takes credit for everything without messing up her hair appointments.
Living the dream. Living the dream. Living the dream.
“Action! News won’t know what hit ‘em,” Cindy Sue said. She nodded to the television. Her implants bounced in time with her chin.
“I love it when anchors talk like investors. Kick the competition in the balls, that’s what I say,” he said.
“If they had any balls,” Cindy Sue said.
“Let’s discuss your assignment in my office,” Jim said. Cindy giggled.
“June, I want you to help Cindy any way you can with this. Give her the tools to make it happen,” Jim said as he left the room with Cindy. “I don’t want Cindy to feel underappreciated around here. She’s a leader.”
“Will do, Jim,” June said and smiled.
Underappreciated, huh? Then what am I?