The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand

Daniel Denecke

Mel bent over good. It was painful to bend so. The belly never quite went away, even though he ate less now. You eat less when you get older. Hot dogs. A dill pickle. What else do you need? He could avoid bending mostly.

Once in a while he’d have a nice steak. Texas Steaks, used to have these great deals, mail them right to your door, pack them up in these Styrofoam boxes with dry ice, and seal them up so tight it doesn’t matter how hot it is out your steaks are going to be fine and frozen. As good as anything you get around here. They feed their cattle with that sweet corn’s what makes them so good. But they’re not such a great deal anymore. Want to charge you an arm and a leg unless you buy a year’s worth now. A little ice cream, just once in a while, like those ice cream sandwiches you get at Marvin’s. Twenty sandwiches for three bucks. Can’t beat that.

The boys will eat them quick, so you have to eat them quick or hide them in the garage under the meats. The boys used to love their hot dogs, but now they thought they should be eating better. Say they get stomachaches from all the hot dogs. Stomachaches are great when you can skip school with them, but it was summer. You don’t want a stomachache in the summer, because then you'd have to stay inside and miss out.

The little ones don’t care to know how you cook a perfect hot dog, but if anybody’s asking, you cut them up the long way, then three slices sideways, top, bottom, middle. You put your butter on, just about a finger’s worth is all you need.  Don’t need any more than that. Got to be the grill to get the flavor, broiler’s not going to do the job. Toast the buns on top, just half a minute. Any more than that will ruin them. The club makes them pretty good, though, buck a dog. For five bucks you can feed a whole family, and they give you that water with the melon pieces in it so you don’t even need to buy pop. You can’t give the boys that sugar water all the time, anyway.  It’ll rot your teeth.

Had the AC on, turned up high. It was all about making her comfortable now. Her head had fallen back against the cushion, legs propped up on the pillows underneath, the fan blowing on her good, and he was thinking what to do next. Her eyes were open, and it looked like that was how they were going to be. She'd said if he could send her boy off to do himself in, he could do her in too. She didn't need to say that, but you had to understand she was in a lot of pain then, and pain will make you say things you don't mean. 

He bent down to rummage through the cornbread molds, fondue sticks, the silver set wrapped in ruststained cotton socks: a sock for the spoons, a separate sock each for the knives, salad forks, soup spoons, meal forks. Not socks exactly, holsters really.

Old phone book in there somewhere. First, he unbent slowly. Here’s how he hurt himself last time. Then he unbent quick.

Didn’t the phone book used to be a lot bigger? Where’d everybody in this town go? Alright. Funeral Homes.

He paged through the listings. Bakery Goods. Department Stores. Doors and Siding. Florists.

Here we go. Funeral Homes / Funeral Services.  Hard to read the print’s so small.  Everybody’s trying to save a penny these days, so they jam everything together.

Funeral homes, two. Bob Jones Funeral Home and Friendly Days Funeral Center. What kind of name is that? Are they pulling his leg? Who the heck's gonna go and call a funeral home a center? Got to be some kind of racket, so he was going to call this Bob Jones.

Bob Jones Funeral Home. He picked up the receiver.

Where’d everybody go? he thought. There must be places getting bigger.

He dialed the number. They sure do make those buttons small. A cool voice answered, "Bob Jones Funeral Home." A real professional voice, nice and professional. He trusted this Bob Jones. He was going to give them his business. Didn’t know if there even was a Bob Jones. Sometimes these places will call themselves by a guy's name and never even have the guy behind them. If there was a Bob Jones, he never met him. Never met anybody in the business for that matter. Hard business, he imagined.

He could hear a digging outside the window. What are those boys doing out there, digging a hole to China? Not going to do much damage with that old rusty shovel. Handle's broken and the cracked plastic pinches your fingers if you don't hold it just right. Good stab in a ground dry as this, whatever you throw at it's going to come right back at you.

With the heat rising up off the pavement like that, the street in the picture window melted into some kind of mirage. Above her head, everything rippled, like nothing out there was solid, except a woman in a white dress and shawl paused in front of the house, then floated off. Must be Twyla Thrailkill under that parasol passing by, couldn't be anybody else. Last of her breed, parasol and all and white gloves on in a summer heat like this.

How does a funeral home in this town stay in business anyway? Must have to work the farms and country roads. He imagined the slick black hearse on those endless white roads. Weren’t they gray once? and black before that? What makes a road go white? Fear, he thought. White with fear, white as a ghost, snow white. Speaking of fairy tales he’d better call Kenny soon as he gets this deal straightened out.

Black’s sure a funny color for hearses. Absorbs the heat. You’d think you want to keep them cool in there, cold as heck, like an icebox. Cold as those mail order meats you get in those Styrofoam sealed boxes almost, with strong air blowing all the time. Probably have special motors in the cars to make the fans blow harder. Maybe they put them on ice or have a sealed room in back like a meatlocker that’s colder than it is in front. Otherwise, how’s the driver going to keep from freezing?

He knew something was driving up the driveway not from the sound of an engine but because a bright light swept across the living room. The whole place flashed for a moment, then a slow second wave washed over the big wall from east to west lighting it up just like the big screen at the Empire when they pulled the curtains. He went to the window, but couldn’t see any vehicle, just a white hot glare of bright sunlight coming up the driveway. Then the white softened into something yellow and thick that lit up all the hanging dust in the room, then they were some kind of siren lights, orange-red, that lit up all the glass parts, picture frames and china hutch crystal. A whole lightshow, like something from that Close Encounters movie Kenny liked so much, crazy movie, then it was clear it was a pickup truck.

Who the heck was driving up his driveway in a pickup truck? Somebody must have just known, the way Sally Kauffman knew her boy’d been blown up dead that time. Or it was Nancy from hospice, was dropping something off for Grandma. But he didn’t know anyone with a truck that color, and one so haggard, like crazy Alma's coat with all those holes in it and handmedown patches.

Must be the boys coming in through the kitchen door, you hear the crack and then the heat just swamps you, rushes in like a dog that had been barking and whining and scratching at the door to get in he's so hungry and now you've opened it and he's in and so pleased he's got you pinned so you can't move.

Boys must be hungry themselves about now. "Shut that door!" Tracking in all that dirt and insects with them. "You boys digging a hole to China or what?"

"Poils," says Little Rick. Who on earth would know what that's supposed to mean except Tim says he means "spoils." Poils. Drops his s's if they're at the beginning of a word. But he's just two. It's nothing to worry about yet.

"Only spoils back there are grammy's rotting vegetebles."

"Show grandpa," the big one says, and it's a clunky old red race car in the little one's one hand and a one-eyed doll, buck naked, must have been Kenny's, in the other.

"Grandpa! Something's wrong with Ama," says the older one.

"You leave her be. She's just sleeping it off."

"Not 'leeping!" says the younger one.

Two year old's sharp. Tried to get everybody to call him Richard the Second since they thought him up before the second deployment. But that didn't stick, so they all called him Little Rick. Tiny Tim stuck on the older one, though. He was first deployment, fattest boy you'd ever seen. People always got them mixed up because it's confusing to call the bigger one Tiny and the smaller one Little.

Don't know how you can get up and leave like that, just pack up and leave your own flesh and blood, but it's like he always told Big Rick, that girl's got a frail constitution and she doesn't play by the rules. You have to think about that kind of thing when you're planning to marry someone. Sure, he's thinned out some, Little Rick has, but they'll be ok. They have meat to spare.

"I think she's dead," the older one says, matter of fact.

He doesn’t say anything in return because he’s got to go get the door for whoever this is with the pickup truck before the hearse gets here.

"What are we going to do?" the older boy asks.

"We're already doing it."

The doorbell rings.

"Shouldn't we cover her legs or something?" the older one says. She had her pantlegs pulled up over her thighs as high as they could go and still be decent, and you could see the sores on her legs. Had the fan blowing on her good. All the time she was hot, even with the AC on, she never could get enough air. It was all about making her comfortable now.

"You leave her be," but the boy just won't listen and closes her eyelids with his fingers the way he'd seen them do in the movies. The little one draws the pink throw over as much of her bare legs as he can get. On the porch, a gaunt, waxy man in a black suit stands there wiping the sweat off his glasses in little circles.

Must be Bob Jones. He looked out for the hearse in the driveway behind the pickup truck that just drove up, but there was no hearse there. When he opened the door, the heat rushed in, and there was an instant shine to the man that could blind you if you didn’t squint quick. The suit he wore had a glare to it that matched the shine in his greased-back hair, like the one on the lapels of the tux the emcee used to wear at the Empire back when it had some class. A hard smell followed him in, like rosewater and rotten nectarines.

"You must be Bob Jones. Fooled us with that pickup there. We were expecting the real deal."

"Broken down," the driver says, "just last week, I'm afraid," in a soft, cool voice, just like the one that answered the phone. Couldn't be the same, though, you could never make the drive in time.

"Pew! You smell," Tim says, pinching his nose.

"Poo!" The younger one parrots.

"Don't mind the boys. Couldn't be any hotter. Bright sun. You sure she's going to hold up back there?"

The driver kneels down on one knee by the sofa and he's trying to get a fix on her pulse, but it was too late for that.

"Oh, she’ll be fine," says the man, getting back on his feet. "Better in some ways, if you ask me. She'll get lots of air."

Not even a mattress back there, from what he could tell. He didn’t feel right about it, but what was he going to do? Nice enough guy. "Sure didn't take you long to get here."

“No worries," he says. "I'll take her to the home, direct, from here.” He liked hearing the word home there.

"Hard business, I imagine."

“Not too bad. I know there's worse. It does take a certain disposition, though.”

Is there a real Bob Jones he works for? He was being friendly.

"There was once. But he's a happy customer now. They're still family run, though. Name's Pelzel. Not one of those big chain outfits like Friendly Days."

“Is that the one that calls itself a Funeral Center?”

“Yes sir. I worked there for a stint.  No complaints, per se. But I do have to say it just didn’t seem Christian to me. Once you got the body in the door, it was like an assembly line in there. Pure Henry Ford. I might be a little rough around the edges, but I try to be mindful of what we’re dealing with. It's got to be about a person's dignity or what are we in it for, right?”

He pulls a pair of white cotton gloves out of his suit pocket—"They do do a nice job dressing, though. I will say that"—and snakes them over each finger separate, then snaps each in place with a tug.

As he prepares her for the move, the driver eyes the medical supplies on the table. Four syringes, a small pile of dirty swabs and a neat stack of clean ones, a few IV bags, a couple of prescription bottles and the bent spoon, still wet, with the milky drops in it. Next to those, he spots the bottle Nancy, the hospice nurse, had left for Grandma for when she felt it was time, no bigger than a cube of billiard chalk, and the eye dropper it came with. He freezes up for a second and looks up. Then he looks over at the two boys, who were doing Lord knows what with a box of cigars, and cocks his head like he’s trying to hear something just out of range. Then he shakes it off. Says he imagines they'll want him to dispose of those too. "Oh. Sure we do. That's a good deal. Sure. Good deal." So he sweeps the whole lot up and drops them in a big sac hanging off the belt under his coat like an ammo bag.

"We're burning right?" he asks.


"I’m sorry, sir. Got knocked off my game there for a second. The deceased wished to be cremated? Is that right? We wouldn't want to go the wrong way on that."

"Oh, right. That's right."

They had talked about what they wanted to have done with their bodies at the war museum that time, which was hard, because it was right after the boy's funeral, same afternoon, and it seemed like the only place to go. Whatever she had wanted to say about the whole deal with Big Rick she’d already said by then, she wasn't the type to go round and round about it. Mel was leaning toward a full casket at the time, thought it was more Christian, like somehow if you didn't have all your parts on Judgment Day you'd be left behind because they'd say, ‘look, we tried, but there was nothing we could do, you know, because you chose the burning.’ He knew it was childish to think it, but it's hard to get these thoughts out of your mind once you believe them. Anyway, she didn't want to succumb to the slow decay, she wanted it sharp and punctual. She called it the fires, which sounded to him like hellfires, but she said it beat the thought of long onion-yellow fingernails growing out and curling up around each other and digging into her decomposing flesh. And that sweet rotting meat smell calling up all the worms and whatever else gets in down there seemed a like vision of hell to her if there ever was one. A funeral pyre, on the other hand, always struck her as about as dignified and holy a thing it could ever be, she said, with the soul's smoke rising up to the sky and the ashes of the body falling back to the earth the way they should. Said she wanted half the ashes scattered over the plains so she could always take in the air and sunsets. She never could get enough air. The other half, she said, could be put to rest with the family plot, since that was always about the amount of her she was ever willing to give them all when she was living.

They were blind to almost everything in the museum except for the fact that there wasn't a window in the place, and they knew that behind all that pomp and history and fine displays they were surrounded by cold earth, but he did remember when they got to the display about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand saying that he wished this war had had a Ferdinand since he couldn't make head or tails of what they were doing over there anymore or how they got into this mess in the first place and it didn't seem to be doing anybody any good. She knew what he meant but said that even then the assassination was just something people went back to later and said was the reason, because people always needed a reason for these big catastrophes, otherwise it's too great to bear. But the real deal, she said, was that there were all these other causes for the war back then if you read about it that just made it inevitable no matter what happened, and if it wasn't the archduke it would have been something else. People think the world doesn't have any meaning if you see it that way, she said, but that's not the way she saw it. It's just that we need to blow these little things we can grasp up into the causes and reasons for the things we can't. That's history, she'd said, pretty much. History, and show business, and everything.

Later, after she fell ill, he took the boys to the library, once, just to get them out of the house. Tiny Tim was in a book called The Great Plains Indians with smoking teepees and grazing horses on the cover, and Little Rick was looking at a book about a stubborn worm that just wouldn't come out of the ground. There was this tour guide to Kansas City there with an entry on the war museum. Said the whole business was about how everything started with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and then mushroomed out from there. He felt vindicated reading that because her take on the museum was just the opposite, but he didn't want to rub it in her face. Anyway, she might have been right. Books can get it wrong.

"I don't expect there will be any dressing, then? No special clothes for her? No viewing, right?"

"No. No viewing. No one left to view."

After rolling down her pantlegs, the driver lays her body out flat, then goes to prop the screen door open with some gizmo on top there. Then he comes back and cups his hands, one under each arm, and with one heave ho he pulls her up off the sofa and carries her headfirst toward the door.

"That's not the way you do it!," says the older boy.  "Grandpa, look. He's dragging her feet. Grandpa, get her feet." 

"Leave the man be, he knows what he's doing."

"Can't we at least put some shoes on her?"

"Too swollen. Won't take shoes now," says the driver in a strained voice, he'd broken a sweat and was plunging toward the door, when the younger one upturns the box of cigars he was messing with all over the floor and the older one cries, "Grandpa!"

"Leave the man alone. You go to your room, both of you, and let us finish this deal."

"It's not like you're doing anything," says Tim.

"Get out of here now and let the man do his business." Tim runs up and stretches out his arms and legs to block the way, and stares the driver down with a look you wouldn't wish on anybody.

"Well, we could wrap them up in a towel, I suppose, if you've got one to spare."

"Ok. Would you? That would be a good deal. Now we're in business."

So the boys go to fetch a towel, and sure enough they bring the best, the soft one, supersized, with the good cotton that doesn't mold up in the summer.

Once her feet were snug, he goes to it again, and there she was in a man's arms in her own home crossing the threshold on her way out just the way she'd been carried in.

They pass by the front of the house and head toward the driveway when the boys, just behind, see the truck and what's in store. The older one darts around and raises his hand, palm up, like a checkpoint soldier, and "Hold everything!" he says. "You're not putting her on that!"

And the man just ploughs right through him. Knocks him over into the bushes, and the little one screams. Timmy gets up and brushes himself off and charges from behind, first pulling the man's elbows back, to no effect, then jumping up, god bless him, on the driver's back so the whole lot of them come tumbling down into the grass. Behind them, you could see the heat coming off the steel where she was going to be laid out. 

"Mister. Please get your boys to let go."

"Oh, they're not my boys. They're their daddy's boys, that's for sure."

"My daddy's a hero," says Tiny Tim. "What are you?"

"Whosever boys they are, get them off me will you? It's going to be hard enough to get her up there without these kids here anchoring her down."

How do you just plough through little ones like that? 

"Well, the boys got a point about just throwing her up in the back of that pickup truck like she's just another load of cargo. Couldn't we sit her up in the passenger seat at least? I can't see what harm she'd do anybody up there."

"That would be against the rules." The driver pulls himself out from under the heap of boys and lays her body flat again on the brown grass by the side of the truck. "Besides, the AC in the cabin's not working, so she's really better off back there in the bed with all the air." Hearing the word bed there made Mel think that she might be more comfortable in the back after all since she could stretch out, and she did like the air blowing on her good, so it made some sense, he supposed. Wondered even if she didn't plot this all out somehow so on her last ride she wouldn't be closed up in some stuffy black hearse where you couldn't even see out the windows.

But Timmy won’t have it. "Grandpa, do something!” he screams.

"So what do you propose, smart aleck? Your father'd be ashamed, you causing all this mayhem on a deal like this."

"You don't know anything about my dad," he says. "Come on, Rick. You, mister? You wait there if you know what's good for you." And he runs into the house and comes back not a minute later with the whole bucket of freezer ice.

"Well now what good’s that going to do?"

The boys empty the bucket into the back of the truck, and now everyone's got the idea, but no sooner do the cubes hit the cargo bed than the water they're made of evaporates. Ice cubes weren't going to do the job.

"Wait. I know," he says. “Rick!” A minute passes, then you hear the sound of the garage door lifting. Next thing you know Timmy's coming back with a porterhouse in each hand, and Little Rick's got a tenderloin in the one hand and one of those frozen bakeds in his other, Texas Steaks. "What in the Sam…?"  They run up and toss them in the truck, or try to--Rick misses and Tim helps him out--and then they head back to the garage for more, and before you know it they'd cleaned out the whole store. The older one climbs up into the truck and starts arranging them all to make some kind of bed for Grandma. He lines the steaks up and down the long way, then crossways where the arms and legs will go, with a few extra under the feet to raise her legs they way she liked, and sets a kind of pillow for her head.

When the boys are done, they step aside to let the driver do his job. That was about a year's worth of meats in there. Boy were they cleaned out now. Must have seen those ice cream sandwiches too while they were at it.

Couldn't stop shaking his head or shake this feeling of defeat as he signed the papers. "Ok, then. You'd better get a move on," Mel said. "Watch the bushes as you back out, they can get you."

The engine coughed and screeched and then started up with a billow of black smoke that hung in the air. He watched as the pickup backed down the driveway. In the corner of his eye, through the picture window, another subtler lightshow passed across the living room wall, west to east now, less dramatic this time around, like it was just the memory of the one before. That sun must be lower in the sky.

By the time he made it back inside, the boys had moved on. The lily stems in the clouded vase on the table where Grandma's medications were were stripped bare. A trail of cigars, some whole, some crushed, led from the living room through the kitchen to the back door. There, you could hear that digging again.

You'd think they were immune to the heat the way they carried on. "What are you boys digging up now? and what are you doing with my cigars?" They wouldn't answer back, it was like they couldn't even hear. On the ground beside them lay the empty cigar box and a pile of white lily petals they'd torn out of the bouquet Nancy had brought for Grandma. One by one they each picked up a single petal and laid it in the box, first Tiny Tim picked one up and laid it in, then Little Rick, then Tim, then Rick, until the box was full. They tested the cushion with their fingertips, then their palms. Next, together, they picked up that one-eyed naked doll of Kenny's. Rick got her feet and Tim got her head, as if it were so heavy it took two to lift it proper. They set her on the bed they'd made like they were putting a baby down for nap, and then together picked up the box just the same way and brought it over to the hole they'd dug, just about the right size for it, and set her in. All this without a tear. No sissies, these boys, who never cried more than a couple times their whole lives. Hard souls just like their grandma, and not even when they heard the news of their father. Not even when it was sure their mother'd left them for good. These same boys here started tearing up now, and wiping their tears with those dirty hands while they were laying the doll petal box in the ground. And then they just erupted into a full on bawl, mud all over their faces like some kind of savages or camouflage soldiers.

Mel pulled down the agenda from the corner shelf and dialed what he thought was Kenny's number, it was hard to make out, there was some kind of stain on the page that blurred the last digits, and waited until he heard what he thought was Kenny's voice.

Kenny, this is your father. I've got bad news for you. Your mother passed away today. She was in a lot of pain, you know. It was a bad deal. Give us a call. The boys'll be alright. But it was a bad deal. Give us a call if you have the chance. Thank you.

Couldn't tell how much of it would be there for him when he got to it. With these machines there's that beep that interrupts you after you've already started in, and then that longer one that breaks in before you're even half through. Kenny would take it hard. He's a soft one, not like Big Rick or these boys here.

There's the crack of the door again, they're coming in, he thought, but this time the heat that swarmed in on him and surrounded him felt good, and he realized what a chill there'd been in the house for so long they'd become accustomed to it with the AC on so high and the sun coming down now and the fan blowing hard on everything.

Daniel Denecke
Daniel Denecke

Daniel Denecke has taught literature and writing at Georgetown University, the University of Maryland-College Park, and the Johns Hopkins University, from which he holds a Ph.D. in English Literature. He currently works at a Washington, DC-based non-profit to improve and advance graduate education. He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota.