The dancing Elvis clock’s hips and legs wagged side to side, seemingly blown by the freezing gusts of wind fighting their way under the office door, being kept at bay by the radiator heat listlessly hovering through the center of the room like a meandering spirit whose vague sense of purpose was overshadowed by its inability to transport itself to the next plane of existence. The clock, strung above the drafty door with floss and a garbage twist tie, read thirteen minutes to nine on Monday morning.
Nate Kerwin pulled his suit jacket tight around his midsection with his left hand, and typed sloppily with his right. Every blink stung his bloodshot eyes. When he could no longer endure the work at hand, he reached for the terrible black vinegar his partner called “coffee.” The Garfield mug stood on a coaster and ceremony, and he slugged it back. It was hotter than he anticipated and the pain in his eyes was matched on his tongue. Resisting the urge to hurl the fucking thing across the beige formica office was a Herculean task, but he knew full-well cleaning it up would be harder.
And god forbid he sop up coffee with the cocktail napkin on which was written Edwin Gallegos’ obituary, in desperate need of digitization if it was going to make tomorrow’s Tribune. In the chaos of the previous two days, he took the younger Gallegos’ dictation off-hours while tying on a coping buzz.
He’d gone into the funeral business honest with himself about the sacrifice. Some days, it was a 9-5. Other days felt like weeks. Nate had given his two partners this past weekend off and business boomed. If he’d called for help, they’d have come in, but Nate wanted a card up his sleeve for future bargaining.
Saturday and Sunday’s death calls were as follows: three grandparents, victims of time in nursing homes across Somerset county, a young man who’d ridden a crotch rocket under a box truck, and the stillborn baby of Karina Santiago.
The last written word on a man’s life was scrawled over the Sam Adams logo. Typing the email was the final step. The sun broke over the neighboring industrial complex, through the venetian blinds, and spilled over Nate’s chin. With the success of the weekend under his belt, he would be safe asking for next Monday off for Hannah’s birthday.
And then the phone on the desk chirped.
“This is Hector. Santiago. I’m with Karina and them at Saint Peter’s cemetery. I thought you said nine o’clock.”
That hot coffee and Mr. Gallegos’ napkin got real familiar as Nate rifled through the mess on his desk to find Baby Santiago’s paperwork. Hector’s labored, defeated breathing echoed through the receiver which Nate used to scan through the written arrangements.
‘Fuck,’ he repeated in his head. There it was. Staring him right in his potato face. ‘A god damn direct burial, Monday at nine. No wake. Do not pass go. Do not collect jack shit.’
Momentarily steeled, Nate intoned: “Mr. Santiago, I’m so sorry about the delay. We had an early death call this morning, but I am on my way to the cemetery as we speak. I sincerely apologize.”
Hector’s hollow voice rattled grief. “We’re waiting.”
The grace with which he handled a burnt tongue was no longer at his disposal. The phone and the receiver met with enough force to crack. He was stubbing out a smoldering filter before he even realized he’d smoked in the office. The dancing Elvis clock over the door said five minutes to nine.
The little body was downstairs, ready to go. He needed a death certificate from the Health Department. They were five minutes away. The graveyard ten. His suit jacket jumped off the rolling chair and over Nate’s shoulder. In the other hand were car keys, medical documents, his wallet, a new cigarette, a lighter, and his cellphone.
“Hey Nate,” Rasped John Carroll, the manager of St. Peter’s graveyard. “There’s a family here said they’re waiting on ya.”
He nearly began to cry as the engine of the hearse turned over. “I fucked up, John.”
Mr. Carroll spoke the way any father of troubled sons does. “Happens. Just bring me a death certificate. We’ll get it ready.”
Careening down Hamilton street with the Santiago arrangement pressed to the steering wheel, he almost rear ended half of Somerset. Double checking the data yielded another oversight: the doctor hadn’t listed a cause of death.
The hearse skirted the edge of the curb and popped a hubcap as Nate pulled up in front of the county offices. He wondered if Felicia could be bribed.
The newly-minted Somerset County Health Department Secretary Felicia Stone ran through her fourteen year old daughter’s Facebook pictures again, meticulously searching for punishable offenses. The coffee on her desk, caramel colored by half and half and honey, matched the fiberglass wooden paneling on the four walls of her workspace.
Nate opened her door and they caught each other looking desperate. Nate was 34. Felicia was 32. Kids playing adults.
Nate lowered the paper over the selfies from the beach house. “Felicia, I hate to do this to you, but I need you to give me a death certificate on this body –” he looked at his watch – “five minutes ago.”
Her brow furrowed and she tensed her shoulders underneath a white blouse, scoffing, “And why should I do that, Nate?”
She thought about the first time they met. Two years ago, in the summer. Him, in a grey pinstripe suit and pink paisley tie. She liked how he’d flirted to get what he wanted. He wasn’t flirting today.
“Because they’re waiting with John Carroll at St. Peter’s. I fucked up, Felicia.” He wasn’t choking on tears anymore.
Sensing his urgency, she took the paperwork from him and scanned it closely. “There’s no listed immediate cause of death. You know I can’t – “
“You definitely can.” He hit the wall. Literally and figuratively. “It’s a baby. Come on.”
She was now confused and furious. “So, you want me to lose my job so you can keep yours?”
Nate remembered that summer day, two years past. How great she had looked in that low-cut sun dress. How quickly she had made him laugh. How easily they’d gotten along. Something told him he’d ruined all of that in less than a minute. And he was going to make it worse. “Are you gonna do this for me or not?”
Behind her deep brown eyes materialized an image of her daughter Milly in her private school uniform, elated, hugging a stack of books like it were a kitten only better. She handed him back the papers, resolved in her decision. “I don’t have a choice.”
Now it was Nate’s turn to scoff. His daughter was his world, and this transgression toward Baby Santiago felt like an affront to her. He was ready to burn down a building. Or at least a bridge. “I’ll forge it, then,” he said with his first smile of the day. It was crazed, but still a smile.
Watching him turn to leave, Felicia stood. “The fuck you will! Do not do that, Nate.”
His back facing her, he lingered in the threshold of the office. He half-asked, “You won’t help me, right?” He waited for her to stop him. She didn’t. He used the county office’s office center to type up and print the fake.
Her door stayed open long after the hearse rattled out of the parking lot. Felicia was still standing, rage coursing through her calves.
Baby Santiago was interred by quarter after. It was cold at the cemetery, but the clan took their time saying their goodbyes to a person they never knew. Afterward, the extended family processed to the line of cars. Hector and Karina held each other beneath a spindly bare tree, tears in their eyes and nothing else in the world but the person in their arms.
At a distance, up a hill and framed by two ten foot stone angels, Mr. Carroll eyed the death certificate, contemplating whether or not to bust Nate on a admirable forgery. Nate watched him, hoping for apathy. He got it.
After ultimately sitting down again, Felicia called her daughter’s school and asked the secretary to have Milly brought to the office to speak on the phone. The words exploded from her. “Camille, I love you more than life itself. More than any other being, any man woman or child. Everything I have done in my life is to make things easier on you.”
From the phone, Felicia heard Milly giggle. “Are you going to kill yourself, mom? You’re kind of freaking me out.”
“No. I just needed to tell you that. I don’t know why.”
“Usually when someone gets called down to the office, somebody died. But nobody’s dead right?”
“Can I go back to class?”
“Yes you may. I love –”
Felicia went home early on Monday to have dinner ready for Milly and read her the riot act about hanging up before saying I love you. Nate finished the rest of the week out, and did get the following Monday off, which he spent at the mall so his daughter could ride the indoor carousel.
Their disagreement ultimately led to a richer understanding of one another. The smiling eyes of two summers ago would prove to be the standard, not a regret.
Hector and Karina are trying to have another baby.
Kevin Seamon is a video editor, writer, and a stand-up comedian. He was born and raised in New Brunswick, NJ and lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s spent the last decade working in reality television. Prior to that, he managed a brunch place, drove a truck, worked in a funeral home, and pumped gas. Currently, he is an executive producer for “NYC Pads,” an improvised comedy web-series. He’s eternally grateful to and for his related and chosen family.
If you enjoyed Baby Santiago, leave a comment and let Kevin know.
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