“He’s here, sweetie.”
“Thank you, mother,” Alister answered, lowering the gas flame under the soup pot. He turned and surveyed his prep table. Each tray, dish, and serving utensil was arranged in geometrical pragmatism, aligned according to the order in which each would be used from right to left.
Alister could hear his father greeting their guest.
“I’m not sure why we couldn’t have held this meeting at a proper eatery?”
Alister flexed his arm in an attempt to work out the spot where his father had clamped down moments ago. He’d gripped his elbow, leaned in and hissed, “Don’t miss this mark, son. I’ve done a lot to get you to this spot.” His mother had looked aside taking a sudden interest in the flowers by the door.
“I am honored to be invited,” said the guest.
Alister touched the tips of his slender fingers to a silver tray set atop a bowl of ice. He calmed at its damp chill. Alister pushed through the kitchen door.
“Mr. Mullen,” Alister said, extending a hand. “Welcome to my home.”
“Alister Primmings,” Mullen said. “I’ve been anxious to meet you, son.” Mullen took Alister’s hand and gave it a quick pump. “I’m honored that you would host me.”
Alister properly introduced his mother and father and invited the entire group to move to the dining room table. There wasn’t really anywhere else to move. The flat was almost entirely taken up by the table and a long sideboard. The space would have made a fine sitting room, but Alister refused to relegate eating to a corner table in the kitchen. He had turned his sharp eye for detail into transforming the room. The hearth housed an iron swivel arm and blackened cauldron. The mantle was decorated with a teapot and two steins stocked with fresh flowers. Two paintings hung on opposing walls—one a yellowed cornucopia, the other a freshly slain duck on a serving tray flanked by winter squash.
“I’d like to freshen up a bit,” Mullen said. “Straight from the office, of course.”
Alister showed Mullen to the small washroom and then quickly moved to the kitchen.
“Seems like a very nice man,” mother said.
Father pursed his lips and stood behind a chair at the table, anxious to sit.
Alister came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a tray with tumblers and a full pitcher.
Mullen emerged from the washroom. “I know it might be odd to say, but that is quite the stout towel rack you have there. And hinged too.”
“Isn’t it though,” Alister said, filling the tumblers. He moved to the washroom.
Mullen stepped to the doorway looking over Alister’s shoulder.
“I installed it myself.” Alister pulled the towel free and fully exposed the thick ebony bar. It was capped on either end with a circular brass rosette. Two rods connected the molded brass to hinged posts that were bracketed to the wall. The posts, also brass, were carved wreaths. Alister lifted the black bar and the hinges whined with a deep-seated creak.
“A Beautiful piece,” Mullen said.
“Exquisite,” Alister said in way of agreement. Before its present employment, the towel rack had been used to heft the dead weight of Randolph Schummer. If Alister remembered correctly, and he was cursed to do his remembering no other way, what held his washroom hand towel was the left front handle of Mr. Schummer’s fine oak coffin.
Mr. Mullen was ceremoniously offered a spot at the head of the dining table while Alister seated himself opposite his parents and closest to the kitchen door.
“My son has done most of the decorating himself,” mother said proudly. “Only on his own since university for three months and he’s managed so much.”
“Thank you, mother.”
She smiled. “It’s his eye for detail.”
“His prodigious eye for detail,” father added.
“Indeed,” Mullen said, raising his glass. “It’s your management of details that has us interested in your services, Alister. I’m fully versed on your accomplishments at university,” Mullen said. “You sampled quite a menagerie of disciplines.”
“I encouraged him to focus on the business end of things,” father broke in. “But he was determined to try it all—botany, chemistry, art history—he had top marks in all.”
“As I said, I’ve seen the school records. There’s no doubt of your son’s skill for mastery. My firm is curious about Alister’s application of these skills.”
“You’re undoubtedly referring to my recent volunteer work,” Alister said.
“Well, landing a job at a cemetery is quite a change from the university setting,” Mullen said, swirling the ice in his tumbler.
“I believe my father can best inform you as to how I arrived in the services of our local cemetery,” Alsiter said. “He was the one that arranged my part.” Alister rose from his seat. “Father?” He slipped into the kitchen.
“Yes, um, I’m sure you know the circumstances,” father started. “It was well covered in the papers.”
“Absolutely,” Mullen said. “Relocation.”
“Correct. Some sloppy surveyor makes a mistake eighteen years ago and suddenly you’ve got 168 souls buried on the wrong land.” Father leaned forward putting his elbows on the table, the stiff shoulders of his suit coat bunching up to near his ears. “Of course the whole mess could have been resolved with a real estate deal, but as you know it didn’t play out that way. Those people had to be disinterred and reburied”
“On the surface, it sounds like work for men with shovels,” Mullen said. “How does a young man with your son’s talents fit?”
“I thought the same,” father answered. “That is until I heard about the mess the cemetery had with its records. And how there were no insurance funds to cover the reburying. Suddenly, you have folks whose only skill is planting people in the earth—“
“Darling, please,” mother said.
“I apologize.” Father took his elbows off the table. “Suddenly the cemetery has to track down lineage lines, realign crowded burial rows, delicately move remains, uproot and reset headstones, mausoleums. It’s a layered logistical endeavor that requires foresight and—“
“And attention to detail,” Alister said appearing beside the table with two small silver trays in hand. “My father thought it would be a fine way for me to help unravel a rather twisted situation.” Alister placed a tray onto the table. He motioned to three white balls evenly spaced on the concave tray. “Goat cheese rolled in toasted parmesan.”
“Wonderful,” mother said reaching for her blue silk napkin.
“Please help yourself to some toast rounds for sampling the cheese,” Alister said.
“It appears,” Mullen remarked, “that the culinary arts have not escaped your interests.”
“Any schooled chef will tell you that presentation is half the craft.” Alister placed the second tray on the table. His sliding fingertips could almost read the engraved letters on its underbelly. Gerald. And the cheese tray. Robert. Siblings burned together in a house fire and buried side by side. Their caskets had been constructed of economical pine. The parents had budget only enough to adorn each boy’s box with an engraved silver nameplate.
Mullen picked up his table knife, sawed off a piece from the cheese ball, scraped it onto a toast and popped it into his mouth.
Alister retook his seat. “Father realized early on that I have a unique way of seeing things. There seemed to be no puzzle or discipline I couldn’t decode once I gave it proper attention.”
“Alister used to dismantle everything in the house as a child,” his father said between chews. “I’d come home to find the clock or the radio in parts all set out in rows on the parlor rug.” He paused long enough to gouge a hunk of cheese. After coating a toast round, he scraped his knife clean on the edge of the sliver nameplate. “Dismantled before lunch and reassembled and working before dinner. Amazing.”
“And he applied the same skill to his schooling,” his mother said.
“Can you explain that, Alister?” Mullen asked.
“I find there’s nothing I can’t understand after I’ve studied it in detail,” Alister said. “Starting with the whole of a thing, be it a symphony, the construction of a cathedral, or photosynthesis is truly daunting. It can easily overwhelm a learner. But taken in bits and constructed to completion, makes a concept more digestible.”
He paused. “Excuse me. Mother, you have a bit of cheese.”
His mother lifted her napkin from her lap and gently wiped both corners of her mouth. The blue silk was still so radiantly blue. It had stood out so starkly in all that dirt and rotten wood. Nothing left in that hole that had been the final spot for Rebecca Shelling. Coffin wood and dirt melding together. The only evidence of Miss Shelling was a pair of femurs, the largest and thus the last bones to go. But covering it all was a long ripple of blue silk. Alister deduced it to be the casket lid’s lining, detached long ago and draped like a burial shroud over Miss Shelling. It almost pained him to put scissor and thread to it.
“Missed it,” Alister said.
His mother swept the napkin full across her mouth.
Alister smiled and she returned the napkin to her lap. Her opal earrings quivered a bit with her embarrassment. She and every other woman in her family wore their own set on special occasions. Weddings, baptisms, graduations. A handful had even been buried in their opal earrings.
“Aren’t you eating?” Mullen asked.
“I’m saving myself for the soup.”
Alister excused himself to kitchen once more.
“I’ll be honest with you Mr. And Mrs. Primmings,” Mullen said, “If not for your son’s work on the cemetery project, I may not have sought out this meeting.”
Father gave mother the slightest of knowing smiles.
“As you mentioned, it was well covered in the news. Your son, who had no previous experience in such matters, brought order to the chaotic. I’m hoping his skills will come to assist the clients of my firm, who are very much more lively I can assure you.” Mullens and father chuckled together.
“There’s another, more personal reason my husband urged Alister to be at the cemetery,” mother said. “Alister’s nana, my mother was one of the unfortunate 168 to be interred in the disputed section.”
“I’m sincerely sorry to hear that.”
“We knew our son would take special care of his nana’s remains,” she continued. “Have them relocated with as much dignity as possible.”
Alister swung through the kitchen door pushing the smell of wood smoke with him. “Here we have plank-grilled Norwegian salmon. Not a large enough fillet that it will ruin you for the soup. I grilled it over flame earlier and then chilled it.”
Alister rested it in front of Mullen and offered him a knife. The plank had come from what the gravediggers called the “Shoeless Section” as the poor and unidentified interred there were buried in their socks. One digger told Alister it was easier that way because often the feet had to be twisted and even broken to rest inside the ill-fitting welfare coffin. The plot carried no name. Yet there was no question that it was a man. The shriveled jaw had a spider web beard that reached down to a maroon necktie.
“It’s said that the fish absorbs the flavor and spirit of the wood,” Alister explained.
“How did you take to the task?” Mullen asked between bites. “I’d imagine it difficult to keep up one’s spirits with such grim work.”
“I found it quite peaceful,” Alister said and eased into his chair. “It was miraculously uncomplicated.” He crept his hand onto the table and took a hold of his own blue napkin. “During the times that I left the caretaker’s office and went to visit the plots, I found it to be very calm.” Alister twisted the silk around his finger and fell silent.
Mullen’s chewing slowed.
“I guess it is a place of peace,” father injected.
Alister looked up from his working hands. “The deceased have no plans, no agendas. I believe cemeteries to be one of the few places void of scheming.” Alister’s gaze drifted to the painting of the duck, it’s limp neck bent with the curve of the platter’s edge. “Being that close to death is pure simplicity. It’s the first thing I haven’t had to unravel.”
Alister jerked when Mullen reached out and took his hand.
“You did some fine work, Alister.” Mullen gave Alister’s hand a light squeeze and let go. “I’m hoping you’d like to apply your skills and fine work to my firm. I’m sure many people say my building is full of bean counters and pencil pushers, but I have a collection of clients that I believe would benefit from your skills and vision.”
Mother smiled. Father froze, his fork halfway between plate and mouth.
Alister folded his napkin into a neat triangle.
“What do you think?” Mullen asked.
“I think it’s time for the soup.” Alister excused himself with a nod and pushed into kitchen once more.
He stepped in and steadied himself on the edge of the prep table. He concentrated on slowing his breathing and allowing his heart to calm in his chest. Behind that door, the maneuvers and shepherding were all converging into one path. His father’s every move had led to this juncture. Alister could feel every detail of it. Every handshake, pleading letter, admission form, false smile and promise.
He lifted the pot of soup and poured it gingerly into the tureen. Finding that bowl was the hardest part. He auditioned eleven different tureens before finding one that was the absolute perfect fit. He took a quick taste of the soup. Roasted eggplant with mint. He floated a sprig of mint on the top and gently nested the tureen into the skull.
He was lucky to have found one intact. In so many cases, the skulls he touched crumbled into nothingness like trying to retrieve a sheet of burnt paper from a hearth. This burial had spared little expense. A well-constructed casket and heavy vault box go far to preserve a body. The jaw had come off easily enough and he was able to carve off the crown without too much collateral cracking. He pretreated the parchment thin layer of skin with a coat of petroleum jelly to prevent flaking along the saw line. It was slow and detailed work. His strong suit.
He lifted the platter, careful to keep it level. The opal earrings oscillated on the desiccated earlobes. He put his back against the kitchen door.
Alister wasn’t sure if his father would remain heavy-handed. He wasn’t sure if he would be a part of Mr. Mullen’s firm. He didn’t know if his mother would faint. Alister Primmings did know one thing for certain. The soup was delicious.