Listen to this story on the podcast.
“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;” — William Cowper
Eli and Vernon Browbridge rolled The Fat Man’s bloated body from the trunk of their 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix into the hole in the ground they had just dug.
Eli spoke first. “I wonder if a dead fat guy smells worse than a thin broad that’s been roasting in a hot car trunk?” He grabbed a dirty handkerchief from his back pocket, blew his nose and wiped the sweat from his face. Dirt and snot streaked his cheek.
“You got me,” Vernon replied. “Ain’t never had no dead broad in my trunk. But The Fat Man sure stinks.”
Eli put a hand to his chin. “Makes you think.”
Vernon nodded, but he paid little attention to his brother. He was enjoying the cool breeze drifting down from the North Georgia Mountains. As a child, he’d spent nights in the hammock on the back porch falling asleep to the sound of chirping insects. Even with the skeeters, Vernon preferred the view of Mount Yonah to the room he shared with his brother, who would spend half the night asking him questions he had no idea how to answer.
“Vern,” Eli asked. “How we gonna get The Fat Man into this little hole?”
Vernon circled the overstuffed grave. He tried bending Fat Man’s legs, hoping the stiffening limbs might snap off. No luck.
“We gotta dig more. That’s all there is to it. We gotta push The Fat Man on his side and dig this hole deeper.”
It was hard work digging through the roots and hard Georgia clay that passed for soil in the mountains. When they finally pushed the body towards the deeper side, Eli wondered if that was enough.
“No,” Vernon said, the body still stuck up on one side. “We gotta fit him in and cover him up good or we won’t get paid.”
Eli spit a mouthful of dirt. “Why’s Georgia dirt get so hard in the sun?”
“Iron,” Vernon said. “Georgia soil’s got a lotta iron in it.” He felt proud when he had an answer to one of Eli’s stupid ass questions. “That’s why it’s so red. The iron rusts when it mixes with rain and that turns it hard.” He paused to let Eli appreciate his smarts.
While Eli dug some more, Vernon took a breather. “I sure like the way these woods smell when there ain’t no Fat Man stinking it up.”
“Yeah. Me, too. Remember how when we was kids we’d run through the woods nekkid after a rain? Give Mama a fit.”
They continued digging. The midday sun took no pity on them. Their T-shirts stuck to their bodies; their jeans felt like they’d have to be scraped off.
An hour later they had dug The Fat Man’s grave about three feet deep. There was still a little hump along the middle of the hole where they had dug around a big rock, but the brothers decided it would do. They laid out The Fat Man’s body until he looked almost comfortable and began shoveling dirt and leaves over him. A mound, formed by his belly, remained visible, but they covered it with more leaves until it evened out.
“You think we should say a prayer or something, Vern?”
Eli was back with his damned questions. “Wouldn’t do no good,” Vernon said after a few seconds. “Only prayer I know is ‘Now-I-Lay-Me-Down-to-Sleep.’ I reckon it’s too late for that one.”
“Vern,” Eli had on his serious face, the one where his forehead wrinkled and his eyebrows met. “Are we bad people for doing this?”
Vernon answered immediately. “No, sir. The man deserves a grave, don’t he? We’re giving it to him. We didn’t kill him. Now that’d be wrong. We just doing a honest day’s work for a honest day’s pay, just like Mama always says.” He leaned on his shovel. “When we get the money, we’ll give her some and she’ll give part of it to Reverend Atwater. So the way I see it, we doing God’s work.”
Proud of himself, Vernon topped off the grave with more leaves and tree branches. “I reckon this here’s as fine a grave as The Fat Man deserves.”
The two brothers stepped back to admire their work, threw their shovels into the back of their car and drove off to collect their pay.
In less than two hours, a pack of dogs happened on the shallow grave and uncovered most of the body. Soon after that, a young couple searching for wild blackberries saw the mangled corpse and called 9-1-1. An hour later, Sheriff Erskine Calloway identified what was left of the body as Horace Latimer, aka The Fat Man, a local loan shark. He specialized in loans of twenty to one hundred dollars to illegals and gamblers, demanding twice that if the loan wasn’t repaid within twenty-four hours.
“At least we won’t have a problem finding folks who wanted him dead,” the sheriff told his deputy. He sniffed at the body like a bitch in heat. “Sure is getting ripe out here in the sun. Don’t reckon he’s been dead too long, though. Can’t see no gunshot or stab wounds, but it’s hard to tell with all these dog bites. The man’s so fat he just might have ate hisself to death. But I doubt seriously he buried his damn self.” Sheriff Calloway looked at his deputy who was writing furiously in his ever-present notebook. “You getting all this down, son?”
“We won’t know nothing for sure till Doc Robbins has himself a look-see. Probably won’t know much then, if Doc already drank his lunch.” He turned to his deputy. “It sure ain’t like that CSI show on television.”
Eli and Vernon collected their five hundred dollars for a good day’s work and visited their mother. LuAnne Browbridge had the sturdy, no nonsense look of a woman who raised two boys by herself after beating her drunkard of a husband nearly to death with a frying pan. Nothing surprised her, least of all Eli and Vernon. When they handed her one hundred dollars in twenties, she asked no questions. She just reached under the top of her faded house dress and stashed the money safely into her bra.
“You boys gimme that kind of money, you got plenty more. Hand over another hundred.”
The boys complied without a word.
She separated twenty dollars from the money. “This here’s for Reverend Atwater. I’ll ask him to pray for your sorry asses. Now y’all wash up good. Supper’s almost ready.”
The next day, Dr. Robbins said he couldn’t determine cause of death for sure until the autopsy, but it seemed natural enough. The dog bites, at least, were post mortem. “From what I can tell it looks like his heart gave way,” the doctor concluded.
“Well,” Sheriff Calloway said to his deputy, “we got ourselves a di-lemma. If The Fat Man here died of natural causes, why’d someone go to the trouble of burying him in the woods?”
The deputy wrote the question in his notebook, adding three question marks.
Sheriff Calloway waited for an answer. When none was offered, he spoke. “My guess is someone didn’t want us to know they was with him.”
The deputy nodded.
“Off-hand, I don’t know anyone who’d want it known they was with this sad sack of human feces. So we got ourselves a whole mess of folks to question. Or we could look at it another way.” He paused for the deputy to turn the page in his notebook.
“If you had a dirty job you wanted done, like burying a body, who’d you get to do it?”
The deputy looked up, his eyes flashing wide. “The Browbridge brothers.”
“And who would do the job so half-assed, the body’d be discovered before the devil had time to cart it off to hell?”
“Eli and Vern.”
Sheriff Calloway smiled. “What say we have ourselves a little chat with the brothers Browbridge?”
Mrs. Browbridge wasn’t the least surprised when she saw the sheriff’s car pull up in front of her house. “Eli! Vernon!” she shouted to her sons who were watching stunt bowling on ESPN. “The po-lice is here. I don’t know what y’all did this time, just keep me out of it.”
Sheriff Calloway and his deputy removed their hats as they entered the surprisingly cozy Browbridge abode. “Ma’am,” the sheriff nodded. “Your boys home?”
Eli and Vernon were trying to figure out how to record their show, but operating their mother’s TiVO system might as well have been rocket science. They were pushing buttons and cursing when the sheriff walked in.
“What you boys up to?”
Vernon and Eli looked up from the remote. “Nothin’,” Vernon said.
His brother added. “This danged recorder don’t work.”
“You boys trying to record this here bowling show?” the sheriff asked. When the brothers nodded, he took the remote and pressed the red record button.
“There. Now y’all do something for me. I got The Fat Man’s body in the morgue. Found it out in the woods.” He looked Eli and Vernon in the eye. “You boys know anything about it?”
“No, sir,” said Vernon, speaking fast So Eli didn’t say something dumb.
Eli still managed to get in a few words. “We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout buryin’ no body.”
“Who said the body was buried?” He turned to his deputy. “You taking this down? We’ll need this when we go before the judge.”
“Judge?” Eli asked. “Why we need a judge?”
“Because murder and kidnapping and burying a body without a permit are crimes, that’s why.” The sheriff went silent, giving Eli and Vernon time to understand.
In less time than it would take a hungry fox to devour a chicken, the boys told him how Missy Taggert had hired them to put The Fat Man’s body in the trunk of their car and bury him. “He was already dead,” Eli explained. “We was just doing Miss Missy a favor.”
“How much she pay you for this favor?”
“A hundred-and-fifty dollars,” Vernon said. “We already give it to mama.”
The deputy wrote furiously.
Sheriff Calloway took one look at the death stare LuAnne was shooting at her boys and figured they’d be punished enough. “Don’t go spending that money or leaving town,” he said, as he and the deputy walked out the door.
Missy Taggert had been good-looking enough in her youth to have made a comfortable living as the town prostitute. When her looks went south along with her other assets, she married Darnell Grimes. Still, everyone in town knew her as Missy Taggert, especially the men. Darnell worked construction when he could get on with a road crew and fixed cars when someone felt sorry for him or Missy. He wasn’t home when the sheriff knocked on Missy’s door. Since Sheriff Calloway had a personal relationship with Missy dating back to her former line of work, he had arranged for his deputy to meet him at the stationhouse.
Missy knew by the expression on the sheriff’s face that this wasn’t a friendly call, but she tried stalling. “Erskine, I haven’t seen you since Tina Mae had her baby. How old is your granddaughter now?”
“She’ll be two this coming winter, Missy. But I ain’t here to talk family or old times.” He wished he hadn’t mentioned old times. “It seems we have ourselves a di-lemma. The Browbridge boys tell me you hired them for a certain job not long ago.”
Getting Eli and Vernon to confess took more time than it took Missy to explain how she had been doing sexual favors for The Fat Man to hold her over while Darnell found work. This time his heart couldn’t take the excitement. She didn’t want her husband to know, so she did what everyone in town did when they had a cesspool that needed unclogging or snakes under the porch that needed killing. She called the Browbridge boys and paid them with half of the money The Fat Man had in his wallet. She kept the rest.
“A hundred and fifty dollars?” Sheriff Calloway asked.
“Is that what they told you? The boys may be smarter than they look.”
After coffee with a shot of rum, he agreed to keep the incident on the hush and hush if the final coroner’s report confirmed it was a heart attack. After all, The Fat Man had no family and no friends who’d miss him.
Sheriff Calloway had one more point of business to take care of before this whole mess could be wrapped up.
“Vern. Eli,” he said, wrinkling his forehead to look as paternal as possible. “Missy told me the truth, so it looks like you boys are in the clear this time. There won’t be no murder charges against you.”
In unison, the boys blew air out of their puffed up cheeks. Eli wanted to shout “Yehaw!” but he thought better of it.
“But we still got ourselves a di-lemma.” The sheriff rolled his tongue inside his mouth for a moment. “It seems Missy says she paid you five hundred dollars and you say one-fifty. Since I believe her, that makes your statement to me–that my deputy had wrote down for the judge–what we call lying to a officer of the law. Now that can get you jail time.”
Eli and Vernon just stared at the Sheriff. Even Eli couldn’t think of anything to say.
“But we can work something out. Say you give me two hundred. You boys keep the rest and we won’t talk no more about this.”
The Browbridge brothers readily agreed. Vernon reached into his boot and took out a wad of wet, smelly twenties. He counted out two hundred and handed it to the sheriff.
Sheriff Calloway took the money. Before walking away, he said, “You boys stay out of trouble now, y’hear? I can’t always be bailing you out.”
As he slipped into his car, he smiled and put nine twenties in his wallet. The other one he placed in an envelope on which he scrawled, “Rev. Atwater.”
Feeling the spirit, he mumbled, “Aw, what the hell,” and added another twenty to the envelope. “Somebody got to do God’s work.”
Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He’s published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories. Wayne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.