The Horror Zine
Garrett Rowlan

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Garrett Rowlan
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Garrett Rowlan

by Garrett Rowlan

It took Hector Shoe a lifetime to become a funeral crier. You couldn’t hire some twenty-year-old to do it. You needed technique, which is why they called on him.

“You’re requested this evening,” Kenny from Eternal Flame said on the phone.

“Requested,” Hector said. “Anyone I should know?”

“Some old-timey movie star, he played Dracula. The person who called said that you knew him slightly.”

Hector took a moment to think. “Wait a second, it’s not Festus Robinson?”

“Yeah, that’s the name. Someone connected to him asked if you could be there. You know this Festus?”

“I worked on his last film,” Hector said. “Sometimes I thought he took the Dracula thing too far. I know he could barely stand the studio lights. Some people even said he slept in a casket.”

“Well, he’s sleeping in a casket now.”

“Let me tell you, from what I knew of the man, the world’s a better place. He was old and bitter and could not escape the shadow of Lugosi.” Hector pinched the bridge of his nose. The temporary interruption of air seemed to stimulate his memory. “Wait a second, the last time I saw him we had words. Are you sure it’s him?”

“Someone called and said you should be there.”

After given the time of the funeral, Hector drifted off for an hour and then rose, showered, ate, and sat in front of the television. Later in the afternoon, he dressed in a black suit and a thin tie.

He would go to mourn. It was a second career. It had started after he had quit the film business. Having been a technician, running a video playback machine, the long hours of working on shoots got to him: coffee, Red Bull, and pills got him through a shift but woke up bad habits like chewing his fingernails and twisting his eyebrows until the nails were raw and his brows plucked. The Wellbutrin helped, but made him listless.

He made it to age sixty and left. Back to sleeping nights and a regular, if paltry, pension, his symptoms vanished, he cut down the coffee to a cup a day and slept late and the nervousness and repetitive behavior gradually stopped. They were replaced by a state of financial restriction and occasional melancholy that found an objective correlation in visits to the cemetery, a cleansing self-pity—he was alone, poor, and divorced—in sitting by an open grave or in the pews while the organ moaned or the preacher intoned.

Crying came easily. It ran in the family. Hector’s father had bawled in New York galleries before the paintings of Abstract Expressionist, something in the non-figurative canvases called to some sadness deep inside him. He wept for mankind too, sobbing over Cronkite or the morning paper, and he would have done well in this era of environmental and financial collapse. Global warming, terrorists, overpopulation, habitat loss, homelessness: a man like Walter Shoe would have sobbed himself into perfect shape, his stomach muscles flat from spasms.

Hector’s triggers were tawdry. He needed the presence of the sentimental, funerals and movies. One afternoon his sobbing presence was noticed by Kenny, who ran Eternal Flame in a mixture of dignity, restraint, and Showbiz, and why not?  Hollywood was just down the road a few miles.

“I see you around,” Kenny said. “I guess you have—had—lots of friends.”

“I don’t have any friends.”

“But I see you here. You seemed very emotional.”

“I get emotional,” Hector said. “But I don’t get involved.”

“I see,” Kenny said. He had looked at Hector as if seeing a stray five-dollar bill, which was the amount he offered for Kenny (plus a Starbucks’ card periodically refilled) to appear at selected funerals, usually for emotional decorum at the services of those who might not have sufficient attendance otherwise, or to counteract the impression of someone whose demise might be more a cause for celebrating than otherwise. “Heighten the experience,” as Kenny put it. 

Thus the phone call this morning about Festus Robinson. But why he should be called to cry for someone he didn’t like, and who didn’t like him? Hector pondered this as, having no car in Los Angeles, he left the small room he rented and took the bus across town to the cemetery, whose services were advertised on television.

He stepped off the bus across from the entrance. Brock at the gate leaned forward. He was a bulldog-faced gatekeeper to the land of the dead.

“Crybaby, my man,” the guard said. “Who is it going to be today?”

Hector read from a piece of paper. “The service is at the Little Chapel of the Fallen Angels, that’s all I know.”

“I don’t know that one.”

Frowning, Brock consulted a map. Eternal Flame was more than a cemetery. It was part of the cultural landscape of southern California. Its five-hundred square acres on rolling grounds included several small chapels for funerals, marriages, and baptisms. Hector was evidently heading for one of the more obscure ones.

“Ah,” Brock said, “it’s off the beaten path. You got yourself a little walk.”

He showed Hector a map and drew a small red penciled line indicating the way. Hector thanked him and left, walking up the two-lane road, passing graves on a slanting hillside and looking below to where the valley of tombstones and markers cradled a small, artificial lake in its center. After a half-mile, he found the narrow spur road that cut through a copse of pines. After a quarter-mile walk, the one-lane road ended in a turnaround.

He stared at the map, trying to see through the day’s last light, blotted by the trees around him where perching black birds looked stuffed. He must have missed a turn. He couldn’t seem to get his bearings and had begun to walk back when he saw, after a few steps, a small sign near a footpath that said, “Chapel of the Fallen Angels.” He took the narrow walkway that led through some dark pines and emerged with a view of a small chapel below. He took the winding path down. There were no cars parked here, only a small open space that indicated the conjunction of a few other walkways that vanished into the foliage around the chapel.

Hector straightened his tie and entered. The seats were half-filled in a small chapel, little more than the size of an elementary-school classroom. The attendees were a couple dozen in number and old. Older crowds can be tough, Hector knew. Sometimes they were weepy, rendering him unnecessary; sometimes they were stoic; sometimes they were so far in their dotage that they hardly knew their reason for sitting in a cold church; and sometimes they secretly exulted in that they were not the ones being honored and were bemused by Hector’s crocodile tears.

Putting on his game face, he sat to the left of the podium that was strewn with flowers. To the right was a closed casket made of burnished wood.

On the podium, someone had leaned the picture of Festus Robinson in high collar, swept back black hair, and thick eyebrows. Hector supposed he was supposed to look like Dracula but to Hector the portrait suggested an aged Eddie Munster.

Organ music billowed. A minister dressed in black came up and said, “Today we celebrate the life of Festus Oswald Robinson, a person who touched the lives of those around him.”

The priest gave a short description of Festus’s life, one of the last stars of the Hollywood era, well-beloved in the film community, though looking around Hector didn’t see anyone famous, once famous, or wanna-be famous.

As the minister droned on, Hector tried to cry. He used cinematic triggers: the scene in Doctor Zhivago when Omar Sharif chases Julie Christie down a Moscow Street and falls dead of a heart attack; the feather lifting at the end of Forrest Gump; Shakespeare in Love where Gwyneth Paltrow, shipwrecked and washed up on American shores, walks toward land; Remains of the Day, where Anthony Hopkins watches the tear-streaked face of Emma Thompson as she departs on the back of a night bus; Jodie Foster meeting her long-lost father in heaven in Contact.

Nothing worked. His eyes were the Mojave in the summer.

He turned his attention to the picture on the podium, hoping that some memory of Festus Robinson might squeeze some liquid shard of sadness, but what dislodged was a different kind of memory.

Hector had worked the last film in the Dracula Rebooted series, Fang of Regret. In this production, an aged Count Dracula looks back on his life. Since the cost of his medical expenses no longer justified keeping him undead, he reviews his life as a vampire while waiting for the morning when he would be exposed to the sun and burnt to a crisp. Festus Robinson, as the Count, had needed little makeup to suggest an ill man. He needed a cane to walk from his trailer to the set, sometimes forgot or blew his lines, and slept between takes. He was an asshole to deal with. There was even talk of replacing him.

It was toward the end of the shoot when Hector had arrived on the set early one morning and saw a woman make a brief delivery to Festus’s trailer. It was a glass of something with a small towel thrown over the top. The woman left Festus’s trailer two minutes later, and that day Festus seemed like a different man: lively, not forgetting his lines, sitting and smiling patiently through the retakes.

“What was in that stuff?” Hector asked Festus at day’s end.

“What stuff?”

“Was it coffee, some Jesus juice, what was that drink that gothic-looking chick delivered to you this morning? It really seemed to perk you up.”

“Mind your own business.”

“I was just asking a question.”

Festus scowled. He’d often been cranky on the set. “I’m telling you to mind your own business.”

“Let me tell you something, since we’re giving advice. When you’re an old fart lucky enough to get a job, it’s best to be nice to everyone, because you want to be remembered as a nice guy, and not some bitter hack doing a half-ass imitation of Bela Lugosi.”

He did an imitation of me!”

It was the sort of vain comment that Festus had said all week. Hector had enough.

“I’m only saying this because what you drank really perked you up,” Hector said. “Say, do you ever drink that stuff before you beat your meat?”

“Let me tell you something about this business and about life,” Festus said, his lips contorted into a snarl. “People get along a lot better if they show some respect.”

“Only to people who deserve it, not some has-been whose B-movies they show to college kids who laugh their ass off.”

That remark had hit home. Festus muttered. The hate on his lips could have drawn blood. Hector walked away and they never said another word. The movie wrapped a few days later.

And then the old man died.

“Festus,” the minister said, and Hector’s thoughts were back in the present, “like the character he played with such conviction, believed in eternal life. And we believe that tonight Festus will find just a little bit of that resurrection.”

He droned on, Festus this and Festus that. Hector gave up trying to look sad. In fact, he chuckled when the minister said that Festus “…left a smile on the face of anyone who had known him,” and he coughed to conceal a laugh when the Minister said, “Anyone who knew Festus never forgot how kind he could be.”

Finally, the minister said, “And so we commend you to new life in the spirit of Jehu.” 

Shouldn’t that be Jesus? Hector thought.

If he remembered correctly, Jehu was a murderous King in the Old Testament. Not even attempting to coax a tear now, Hector looked around and noticed a curious thing. On the left elbow of the people whose arms were exposed, Hector saw cotton swabs and Band-Aids as if they had recently given blood. Well, why not? A donation in memory of a hack actor.

He recalled that the exchange they had made that day wasn’t the last thing that Festus had said to him. He recalled now what the actor had said to him at the modest wrap party, “I don’t forget assholes, you little punk.”

Yes, the world became a little better today, Hector thought. 

“Festus’s life is over,” the minister said, “but the blood will give him a last jolt of life before he goes to his eternal reward.” He reached into his robe and pulled out a cork-topped vial. He waved the vial to the small crowd like a magician exhibiting the banality of some object that was about to produce a miracle. “This is your blood, and your final gift to Festus Robinson.” He uncorked and lowered the vial. “Drink and rise, Undead One, and take one last bite of life.”

Hector knew that the services at Eternal Flame were non-denominational, but this seemed a stretch, even by those standards. He’d had enough. He stood up and walked to the back of the chapel. As he did, he noticed how the lights in the room dimmed. The doors were closed and locked and the organ music had started up again and played, unbelievably, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

“This is your seventh-inning stretch,” the Minister said, “and there won’t be an eighth or ninth.”

Hector looked for an usher to open the door. He saw how everyone stared at the podium, and everyone, it seemed, gasped at once. Hector turned and saw the black-suited corpse rise from the silk-lined box. It was Festus all right, though looking the worst for wear. His torso, stiff as a plank of wood, pivoted until he was looking directly at Hector.

“All right,” Hector said, swallowing a jolt of fear. “You win, you old fart! Hah hah, big joke. But you still were a poor man’s Lugosi.”

He imitated me,” Festus said, in a voice that Hector recognized but which sounded different, like it belonged to something that crawled on its belly and had a switching tail.

One side of the coffin opened and Festus stepped out of the box. Supported by a cane, he went up the aisle toward Hector, who had seen enough and kicked the door that didn’t open. He turned.

“Imitation of Lugosi,” Festus snarled. He slurred the words slightly, because his bridgework had turned to fangs, sharp long fangs that stuffed his mouth like the shards of a shattered window. “That’s what you said.”

“I misspoke,” Hector said, trying to keep his voice steady. “I was thinking you were doing more of a tribute.”

He imitated me!” Festus, as if to underscore that remark, raised a clawed hand, the one not holding the cane.

Hector turned and pounded desperately on the door. It was solidly built, and the other exits were blocked by the advancing crowd, who seemed to be participating in Festus’s ghoulish rejuvenation.

“I never forget that you called me an old fart. You should respect your elders. And I am your elder, by a lot of years.”

Hector tried to run but the crowd pushed him back to the point to which Festus was arriving, picking up speed as he did so. His clawed hand grabbed Hector’s shoulders and sunk fingernails into the skin. Hector screamed.

“You wanted to know what I drank that morning,” Festus said, his breath a cesspool in August. “Well, now you’re going to find out.”

Festus, his mouth wide, aimed for the jugular vein.

And Hector cried like a baby, like the pro he was.

Garrett Rowlan is a retired substitute teacher in Los Angeles. He has work forthcoming in Bacopa Literary Review, bioStories, and the ten-year anthology of the Cafe Irreal.