Potion Magazine - Poetry + Fiction
Ron Riekki
Novel Chapter

     Chapter 4: Cräig

     Here's the blah blahblah blah:

     I live in the U.P. "You pee," as in piss.

     Ishpeming-my hometown begins with "ish." It's like being from Yuckville.

     Hollow told me Ishpeming's Indian for "Heaven." If that's true, heaven sucks.

     There have been times our house was so covered with snow I had to dig a tunnel for my dad to get to the mailbox. That don't happen in heaven.

     The only thing to do up here is get in trouble. Or ice fish.

     It's like the houses are made of boredom. My mom says it's peaceful, but death is peaceful.

     Which reminds me. I was born in Germany, lived in Colorado, down state, and now here, by Negaunee. Hollow looked up "Negaunee" in the dictionary and it means nothing 'cause it's not in there. He said it would be between "negativity" and "neglect."

     I grew up in Detroit. Or as Antony calls it—Destroyed, Michigan.

     We switched between Detroit and the U.P. Ishpeming, Detroit. Detroit, Ishpeming. When the mines had layoffs, we moved to Detroit. When Detroit's auto factories had layoffs, we'd move back to Ishpeming. If Michigan isn't building cars, it's digging up shit to make 'em. At one point nobody anywhere was hiring, so we moved to Colorado. 1977. I don't remember anything about Colorado except hate. My mom says we're up here for good now. I'm not sure that "for good" is the right term.

     Between Ishpeming and Detroit, you'd think Ishpeming is safer, but I talked with this crew-cut cop. I said, "Must be nice being up here." He asked what I meant and I said, "In the U.P. Not all that crime." He said, "You’d be surprised." He explained in Detroit you knew backup was minutes away. But here in the U.P., on a call you could have to go back in the redneck woods of Champion, to some isolated deer camp driving out on dirt roads with bumps deeper than Detroit potholes, skull-rattle bumps that knock mufflers off, and you'd realize if you needed backup, it'd take hours for them to get there, if they could find you at all. Plus all these people out in the woods, you know they have guns. These are northern hillbillies, ice hicks, snow Confederates. Some can't afford heaters, so they light candles until their shacks smell like shrines and haul firewood until their backs cave in, but the fireplace doesn't heat all the way to the toilet so every time they sit down, they get more and more ornery, and if it's an outhouse I don't even wanna talk about it. They definitely don't want some troll pig coming around messing with them. That's why they live above the bridge. The Mackinaw Bridge separates the U.P. from Lower Michigan, so anyone that lives, or lived, "below the bridge" is a troll. And the only thing worse than a troll is a damn pig cop troll. He said he felt safer in Detroit, the cop said. I never looked at my hometown the same again.

     My mom prefers it here though. She says the cold keeps out the riffraff. We don't have any homeless, because if you are, you die. I told her it doesn't keep out all the riffraff 'cause Antony's up here. She laughed, which is rare 'cause she's one of those moms who have mastered the crabby face-baggy eyed, beady eyed, black eyed, like decades of anxiety gone straight to the eye sockets. Antony's my bud. We're cousins. My mom hates him 'cause he says the f-word in front of her. A lot. I use other words in front of her, but not that one. Once it slipped out and her eyes glared up like Clash of the Titans' Medusa, like she was going to strangle me with the spaghetti. Makes no sense, I said "cock" in front of her before and she never even flinched. She even sort of smiled. Maybe it's an inside joke. God, I don't even want to think about it.

     Antony's short but stocky. He's one of those ripped up cut Pygmy shrimps. He'd look impressive if he wasn't such a midget. But don't call him that 'cause he'll flip! And I mean, flip. Like a lunatic twig, Antony snaps. This sixth grader with one slaughter of a name—James Upton Eaton—called Antony a 'cockschmock' in fifth grade, so Antony held him down on the cement hopscotch recess area and punched until Upton 'I-want-to-be-a-politician-when-I-grow-up' Eaton needed corrective dental surgery. Antony was like, "It’s no big deal, his dad’s an orthodontist." Antony got suspended four weeks and got taken to court. He kept bragging, "Man, I’m getting sued. How cool is that?" The suspension was a vacation. "It’s like being in jail and stabbing someone and the warden goes, 'For this infraction, we're letting you out of prison for the next four weeks.'" America's biggest problem is it doesn't know how to punish people. Upton's family realized this 'cause they moved back to England; those lopsided tooth Brit bastards won't know what to do with an orthodontist. To this day, we call Antony "Cockschmock." No one knows what that shit means, but Antony says it means, "Will you please give me a thorough beating?"

     Antony's the perfect high school jock type pack-a-week smoker you'd think would have all the girls, but his attitude is so crappy they stay away, wisely. It's like he could screw them, but when they want to put out, they do their little girl oh-don't-move-so-fast horseshit and Antony says stuff like, "You whore-ass bitch, get your trout-cunt outta my face." And they do. It completely destroys the mood.

     When he's bored, he shaves his head. Even in winter. Which is stupid. Body hair and fat keep you warm. That's why so many Yoopers are ugly. It's the smart thing to be, fat and hairy. Bigfoots and lumberjacks never get cold. Beards are so prevalent in Palmer it looks like a North Pole ZZ Top convention.

     Antony shaves his head 'cause of premature male pattern baldness. As a teenager, that's gotta suck, to look like Gandhi's evil twin. Antony does it solo, his head. A pair of scissors, a razor, and "H2O." That's the way math teachers say 'water.' Playing Atari today, Antony said he had to take a dump. Twenty minutes passed and I was so sick of Kaboom! by the time that cockhole came back out-and there he is, top of his head bleeding and watery red droplets dripping down his cheeks like blood tears-and not a hair in sight, including eyebrows. And he did it all one handed. He hates hair. But I suppose if anybody should hate hair, a kid going bald is the perfect person for the job. If anyone needs to get laid, it's Antony.

     Antony was going to this record shop in the Marquette Mall with covers from rap albums, saying, "I want my hair like that" and it'd be something like dreadlocks, which he doesn't realize is impossible for white people to get, especially bald white people. Jesus X. Christ, if he had a brain on his shoulder he'd get a wig of one of those Bon Jovi perms that chicks spread their legs for like scissors.

     I used to think opera was the biggest horseshit music ever invented until rap came around and stole the crown. Antony's one of those types that takes rap way too serious, like he forgets it's just music, and shit music at that. So he acts black, when truth of the matter is he's white as the pissed-on snow. I'm darker than he is 'cause I'm twenty-five percent Greek. And seventy-five percent Finn, which means I'll drink the country of Ireland under the table and use their flag as a beer coaster. And since I was born in Germany, I'm basically German.

     Antony's Italian or Polish or some crap like that. Which mean he wishes he was me. But who doesn't?

     Antony really does though 'cause he’s a lowly IGA bottle boy. Sucks to be him.

     He's been employed there longer than is legal in this country. Antony's dad knows the owner, so he got him the job when Antony was like, I forget, twelve, thirteen. Bottles rattle down on a fossil conveyer belt with metal parts like a thousand tambourines to make the day as loud as possible, and you sort them. Or he does. Pepsi goes in the Pepsi pile. Coke in the Coke pile. Diet Pepsi in the Pepsi pile. Mountain Dew in the Coke pile. A&W has its own pile. Antony said it makes no sense and he's right. He used to think it was by company, but it's not. Mountain Dew goes in the Coke pile and that's that. He sorts from eight to close Tuesday and Thursday and if bottles are stacked to the ceiling, he comes in Sundays. But he only works once a month despite anything he says. I helped a few times. For free. Actually four times and I'm like, "Man, you owe me." He goes, "Yeah, yeah."

     Last night, after they closed the place, we hid in the basement 'cause Antony said if they weren't giving him the day off when he was in the hospital earlier that week, then they could at least make a donation to our stomachs. Antony brought a jacket 'cause U.P. nights are iceboxes. I sat there shaking a good hour, tucking my hands in my groin for warmth like coach taught. I didn't care about the crazy cobwebs, the dark peering corners, the collected rubbish in the one-foot gap under the stairs where snakes, rats, bugs lurk. I wanted warmth. After we were ninety-nine point nine eight percent sure no one was there, no footsteps, no creaks, we looted the place. Antony knows there are no security cameras. It was ghost-dark in there with the occasional headlight coming from US-41 causing us to duck like paranoia-heads. We grabbed Copenhagen and jerky and pop and anything we could put in those cheap thick paper grocery bags, which I swear they make cheap so you can't steal large amounts. But we still hit that place like The Price is Right. Antony said to not take too much, just a bit of everything. I stuffed Twinkies in my pocket, and we nose-held passed the shack size garbage bins, up the dirt bike hill, and crept the back streets to his house carrying Ragu and Bubblicious and Cookies & Cream and the shit was heavy and dripping. Going through Antony's backdoor, we put the stuff to be kept cold in this second freezer Antony's dad keeps for venison. Antony's job's cool, but I always thanked the high god above that Antony was the only one working 'cause nothing good comes from having a job. That blessing worked for quite the while.

     Until now. Lemmy explain.

     I was antsy and bored, hating the summer, which was thankfully ending, when my dad did something cruel and unusual he thought was nice, but wasn't. He got me a job.

     I work at Ishpeming Cemetery. This would have been my dream job if I had convicted a felony 'cause I would be doing the only job I can stand: landscraping. That's what the convicts from Marquette Branch State Prison do—landscrape. I've seen them.

     Instead he got me a "respectable" job. I sell burial plots. The cemetery hires locals to go door to door frauding people into buying property. Good-looking kids that seem trustworthy cash in on old Yoopers. The owner tells me that!

     Ishpeming Cemetery used to be first in the region. Now we're last. He needs attractive guys and girls to sell plots. That's me, the Corey Hart of tomb selling. I know I’m a stud 'cause I lift like a son of a gun and have enough hate in my gut to feed Ethiopia. My motto: "It’s not the weight, it’s the hate."

     After the job news, I lifted. CC in me. 50 CCs of DeVille. At Harley's Gym on Main Street, I had a satanic power surge. The biggest logger in the U.P., Michael Salonen, is in his 40s and benches 550. I go up and say, "Spot me." No one asks him for a spot 'cause he's focusing on a screaming 125 lb. dumbbell bench. But I didn't ask, did I? He's like, “Look at this punk.” I put on 400. A 400-pound bench. And I never max. Maxing's for fags with tight shorts to their ass. I breathe heavy. Mike says, "Let’s go, Cräig." He knows my name. Hulking, breath to kill a rhino, old Sal. Slayer's in my head. Slay-hair, the opening, the scream, "Force is like avenue rocks frozen minds for your life work human minds for angel a death four hundred billion wanna diiiie!" The lyrics aren't printed. I hate that. I hate when they aren't printed. Pisses me off. Banging my back on the bench, I grind my palms on the bar like a motorcycle, winding, then touch my nose to the bar. Mike drips sweat. It falls in my hair. He steps back, "Get it, get-it getit." I bar-bang my forehead, think of fire, of the throned goat on the Reign in Blood album cover, commanding. If Picasso could draw and had talent, he'd have done the Reign cover. Red goat speaks and I listen, "Cräig, if you don’t get this, your soul is mine." I lift, Uh! The world falls flames fly flickering like sex tongues. The gym radio plays Journey which I won't have in my hell this inferno of orange yellow red larvae lava veins 400 lbs I control easy 'til a sticking point curve my back eyes slam shut heave last lyric line of "Necrophobic" and the word "control" is locked in my mind. I slam-drop the weight, open eyes to see Mike's wrinkled nodding flab-head. I ask if he helped. "No." "You didn’t touch it?" "No." He guided it. He leans, counts, too fast to be correct, says, "390." A little off. "Put that on the board," he says. I go, "Yeah, that goes on the board." Yeah. 400. Not 390. 400. On the board. 400. On the board that lists maxes. When Sal hit 550, they made a board just for him, SAL'S BOARD. Now my name's up there. Now I can die. Now I can do anything.

     For one thing, I can sell burial plots along with a bunch of NMU Greek letter Wildcat sales gigolos he hired, but you never see 'em 'cause the boss either gives them motivational one-on-one conferences in his secluded rattrap office or he's got us out giving presentations to dying fools, hitting up every crusty aging family member we know, calling up aunts in Dollar Bay we never met or even knew existed until mom says the words "just got a goiter" and we ask, "What? Who?" Or dad tips us off that some cousin to Uncle Leo's brother lost all his hair, and no tip's greater than mass hair loss 'cause that always spells gold, chemo gold. Unless you shaved that shit off to be a USMC jar-head or you're Antony, your ass is about to croak. Somewhere a busty blond saleschick is driving lake shore late night to Au Train to stumble through her reading of, "Whether or not cremation or traditional disposition is chosen, a memorial service is one of the very most important aspects of the coping process for the friends and family left behind." I asked the prick boss what "disposition" means and he said, "It's OK if you don't know, you'll relate to the public more, similar lack of education."

     He's one of those types that tells you about your faults so he doesn't have to deal with his own.

     "We’re also going to do trade shows, seminars, and malls," the boss 'tard says, "Selling crypts at the Marquette Mall. But the heart of our sales come from the door to door presentation." This takes fifteen minutes, no more, no less. We give a rehearsed speech we're supposed to memorize, but I write it in ink on my palms, in longhand. Boss makes us recite in his office, eyes piercing into us like Zulu warrior lip spears. How can you concentrate under those conditions? I always forget the part about pet memorials. "Craig, let's take care of this here and now, OK. Repeat the phrase 'Our ceramic marble pet urns are truly a work of art.'"

      I do. "Our ceramic marble pet urns are truly a work of art."

     "And smile, remember, their pet just died. You care."

     I do. "Our ceramic marble pet urns are truly a work of art."

     "Stand up straight. Think 'presentation.'"

     I do. “Our ceramic marble pet urns are truly a work of fart.”

     I do know how to stand with my arms behind my back with both middle fingers pressed against each other so boss can't see. Christ, it's like I have a brand new dysfunctional father, a worse one, another one ready to explode at the drop of a vase. Except this one's always around. Then after the incorrectly memorized speech with improper posture, we show the client a video of an elderly couple grinning Miss America hideous. I can't stand happy old people 'cause they look crazed. Sure, when they're frown-faced I can handle 'em 'cause that’s understandable, they know they're about to die from constant knee pain. But Christ, when they smile, it's like Jesus smiling on the cross, you feel gross. So these happy-go-dumb-ass washed up vaudeville 70-something actors turned cheap business video whores walk up to the camera hand-in-hand through a graveyard, mind you, if that isn't enough to give you the creeps, and it cuts to an ex-con comb-over round-faced used car salesman type who is too enthusiastic about life. He runs through prices so quick you have to rewind to understand how much money he's talking about. There's a lot of decimals and nines, and worse, the guy says "free" every other sentence. Free this, free that. For a few thousand dollars, you better get a lot of "free" stuff. He explains it may seem expensive, and he hung on the word "seem" for a half-year, stretching the e out like a dollar. He goes into how death is one of the most important parts of life and he uses the words dignity and plan and remembrance and security and simplicity and care and eulogy and pre-payment and loved and thousands and no interest. And if I could sum it up in two words, it'd be "no interest." No interest whatsoever. I avoid eye contact with customers 'cause I'll crack up or tell them, look, this is bullshit, start planning for death and you're heading full tilt for the grave. It's when you look down that you fall off the tightrope. That's how I see it. Then we chat. No choice, have to. This is where boss says to take interest in any nearby photos. Give their kids a good three minutes each, but ten minutes max, the boss says. Ask about: what college their kids go/went to; if they have/want grandkids; if it's a guy, talk about the Lions and how I play for Mr. Puletti; if it's a woman, compliment her house, "even if it’s a sty." Then go in for the pitch. Start with a joke. "Say we have 'lots of lots,'" the boss says, "Folks like simple humor, nothing complicated. No swearing." Stress how important it is to buy now. Prices only go up. They're low but won't stay that way. If sales are upcoming, never tell them. And last, the best answer if I don't know something: "Here's our card. My boss, Richard, can answer that more specifically." Always end sentences with a word at least three syllables long; "specifically" has four so it's perfect. Above all, stress that "prices go up annually." We have a chart. Show the chart. Its edges are bent to hell from hauling it all over Marquette County. But sure enough, the chart shows that the prices do go up annually. Just like every price on the goddamn globe. Christ, on my allowance I can't afford Butterfingers anymore. Tell the customer that if they unwisely wait until they die, the price could double or triple, maybe quadruple. If the wife is in the room, ask the husband, "Do you love your wife?" and lead in to how if they want to get spots close to each other, they need to act now. Love is expensive. We sell affordable cremation services and nameplates, top quality gravestones, plastic and real flowers, more than fifty types of flags and vases, "majestic" statues, even mausoleums—Boss says, "You’d be surprised how many people don't want to be buried in the ground anymore." I have to memorize the headstone types. Flat marble. Upright granite. We have this one cheap—well, cheap for a couple hundred—headstone where they take a nail and scratch the person's name in tinfoil. I saw the boss do it and I'm like, "What’s that?" He’s like, "It's our new Cursive Model." One hundred fourteen types of engraving. Full packages include everything from the lot and tombstone to the Guaranteed Family Placement Program including choice of casket, "not coffin, never coffin, it's always casket." Even thin expensive lace books with blank pages to put "important thoughts to be remembered, recollected, cherished, fostered, and shared for generations to come," including "MY FAVORITE PLACE," "I WISH I WOULD HAVE HAD MORE TIME TO," and "MY FAVORITE PLANT IS." Who has a favorite plant? How about "MY FAVORITE METAL TUNE" or "THE HOTTEST CHICK IN THE WORLD THE YEAR I CROAKED WAS." I get six percent on crypts, nine percent on niche, and thirteen percent on full packages. And zero percent on "At Needs." At Needs are people with no money who want whatever the city can give them, the absolutely cheapest thing available. "Burying At Needs is like burying garbage," boss says. When At Needs leave his office, I hear the boss call them cunts above his breath.

     So far I haven't sold a thing, except one At Need. I'm rich. Yeah, right.

     The only bonus I get is a family discount. If anyone dies in my family, I get fifteen percent off anything listed in the catalogue. I wonder if the boss realizes he's encouraging me to go on a killing spree.

     I remember when dad came in my room and asked, didn't I want a job at the cemetery? I did. I wanted to be a gravedigger, my calling. Last year I went to the public offices by the library and cop station and climbed the steps to talk with some mustache of a guy who "works" for the city on the third floor behind a wooden desk chopped down from a gigantic Redwood and I said I wanted to dig graves. He joked I'd have to commit a felony first 'cause that job's for prisoners on work release. I asked if there was a felony he recommended. I went home and cranked "Mandatory Suicide" off South of Heaven 'cause what else was there to do?

     Dad says he knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a creep who works at the graveyard. My mom told dad I wanted to work there and things are shattering to pieces quicker than my mom can open up her pie-hole. Dad drives me to Ish. Cemetery. Conveniently, the bowling alley is across the street so dad can kill time by renting clown shoes to underhand balls into the gutter that is his life. We walk into a shack. Dad smiles and I smile and the boss guy with his shiny gold tooth smiles and my dad says he’s gonna look at grandmom’s tombstone while I talk with my new boss and new boss smiles and I smile and dad smiles and dad closes the door and I look at the boss and he's not smiling. "Take a seat." I do, but he motions that it's not the right one. I move to one closer to his desk and he lets loose. I have to work hard, get out there, I look like a hard worker, but I gotta get out there. He knows about my "past police incident," a vandalism joke from a year ago that got blown way outta proportion. He says he doesn't mind, he likes kids with energy, kids with get up and go. All I hear is he likes kids. And I sure the hell wanna get up and go. "What does this say?" he asks, points to his WE SELL nametag. "Weasel," I say. "We sell," he says, "This is the selling business. Our dream is to sell." His weasel head yammers away. I daydream about digging ditches, if I can work my way down to it. He keeps on the sales, how he was made for sales, how I look made for sales, and I wish a gale force wind would come through and blow me the hell out of this hate shack, twirl me outta there like Dorothy and Tonto, up up and a-goddamn-way, but the U.P. has never had a tornado and never will have the luck to get one vicious enough to destroy this death shack. A diploma is misplaced on the wall 'cause it can't be his. Gogebic Community College. Sales. 'I'm thinking, Sales? This is a cemetery. Isn't rotting free? It's sure the hell not. America's got a price for everything. I try to make out the certificate, careful not to let him catch me. Hotel Management. All work and no play makes this guy a nutcase. He says I start right away, and the most important thing is this . . . He doesn't say anything, so I look at him. The gold tooth flashes. "This. This is the most important thing"—he points to his smile, his constipation face.

     I have to smile. On command, I can't. Every family photo has me with my eyes closed, wincing. I hate to be told what to do. Even if it is just to say cheese. Especially to say cheese. If a K-mart cameraman said, "Say 'pussy,'" I’d have a grin the size of a fist on my face, but instead boss goes, "Come on, if you can't smile, you can't work." Promise? Dad opens the door—the alley's closed—and as he does a burst of my prayed-for wind kicks in ten minutes too late and papers go up in the air like young employees wanting to escape. Boss slams his forearm on the table, the most work he's done all day, protecting his piles of shit and this makes me smile, seeing old gold tooth's work disorganize, this makes me smile big. Boss looks up, sees me, and says, "Better!"


     I wish I had the jobs ugly people get. Ugly people never have to smile. What would be the point? Ugly people get to work in great scummy bars and have the freedom to dig graves. That's what I want. Graves. Dig graves. With my Walkman on. Listening to Slayer. In heaven.

     Ugliness. Disfigurement. I should look into that.

Ron Riekki is a Ph.D. student at Western Michigan University in English/Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing/Playwriting. His poems appear in Michigan State University Press's The Offbeat. His play Labor Day recently was chosen by Charles Smith of Victory Gardens Theater for the 2005 WMU Playwriting Award in the Graduate Category and a shortened version received a staged reading at WMU June 20. Two monologues from his play Atheist Comedy will be included in Smith & Kraus' Audition Arsenal for Men in their 20s: 101 Monologues.

Copyright 2005 Ron Riekki.