When she heard the job offer on her answering machine, her heart sank. Virgil reminded her – again – how much they needed the money. “But it’s the most depressing thing I can think of,” she said. He just snorted. “Naw. There’s worse.” Easy for you to say, asshole. You don’t have to do it.
Her first shift started at two the next day. She couldn’t eat lunch before; her stomach was a tight little fist. Instead she practiced her schpiel in the bathroom mirror: Hello sir or ma’am my name is Marcie and I’m with Tall Pines Memorial Gardens have you ever considered the benefits of pre– oh god, has it really come to this? She already wanted to cry.
Her interview had been at the so-called “call center,” actually the living room of a gloomy 1960s ranch house on a treeless, sun-baked lot, directly across the highway from the cemetery. Five corpulent women sat at folding tables, a phone in front of each. They chain-smoked while dialing numbers from note cards. Everything about them creaked and sagged. None of their calls lasted long. “At least it ain’t stripping,” he said when she told him about it later. She was pretty sure she would rather strip than go back there.
The four-mile drive felt like hours. When she got there, fourteen minutes early, there was already a sixth woman at the table, a woman who did not yet sag or creak. We tried to call, maybe catch you before you drove all the way out here, someone said. We kinda over-hired, and this time she did cry, once she was in her car. There is dignity in all work, Virgil had said before, but she couldn’t see it. Where was the dignity in that room? Where was the dignity in completely losing your shit in the driveway while six muumuus gawked from the living room window? She’d been back in town for months now, and the one thing she knew for sure was that dignity was a stranger here.
But he would never understand any of this. So she leaned back against the porch railing, arms folded, and gave him the most straightforward recitation of events she could muster. He was silent for a long time, appraising her from that ratty couch – he had this way of looking at her that had always made her want to pull off her own skin, ever since she was a little girl – and when he finally did open his mouth it was only to suck the last rinse of beer from the bottle. This isn’t even bottom yet, she suddenly knew. “I ain’t worried,” he eventually said, uncoiling himself from his roost. “You’ll find something,” and then he drifted inside, closing the front door behind him, leaving his congregation of empties on the porch with her.
* * *
When the weathered wood-frame bungalow they shared burned one night later that summer, the fire just about swallowed the place whole. Flames leapt from the kitchen into the hall and sprinted on toward the living room, where they found Virgil, passed out drunk on the floor. Not many mourned him; the consensus was that he’d been a wreck of his own making for a long time.
Nobody really expected Marcie to stick around after that; most folks couldn’t figure why she hadn’t lit out already. There wasn’t ever a thing for her in Tall Pines but heavy obligation and hot shame, and now that Virgil was dead, there wasn’t even that. She left two days later, everything she had left crammed into the trunk and back seat of her ten-year-old Cavalier, just like she’d been picturing for who even knows how long now.
On her way out of town, Marcie drove north on Highway 19 toward Atlanta, right past Tall Pines Memorial Gardens. She expected her father would probably end up there, in the section reserved for the county’s indigent dead. Do they even mark those graves? she wondered. Honestly, she kinda hoped they didn’t.