Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Sterile

“It’s about time.”

“I must say he’s never looked better.”

“Haven’t seen him out of cargo shorts in a decade.”

“Good riddance.”

By midday, the gathering around Bill Thorton’s coffin had grown to the size of spectacle. Guests peered over each other’s shoulders, craning their necks to compete for a glance at the man. His suit had been tailored to perfection with cufflinks to match, emerald set against silver, glimmering every so often in the afternoon light. His face had a touch of makeup, and someone had clearly gone to great lengths to tame the few patches of hair that formerly stuck out at odd angles on his scalp. His brawny hands, usually clenched in fists of rage, were gently folded on his chest.

Mr. Thorton had been murdered three days prior. No one was particularly bothered by it. He was an older man, recently retired from three decades in the “home hauling” business. He worked for Henry’s House Haulers, a local business aimed at people who don’t like change and have far too much money to spare, who would rather strap their house to the back of a truck to be carried cross country than putter about choosing between new kitchens. Bill Thorton drove the truck, and after years of taking up far too many lanes of traffic and getting convicted in several road rage incidents, he had developed a bit of a mean streak.

“The road didn’t do it to ’em; he was always a bit of a jackass,” remarked Tommy Owens, who was quickly scolded by his wife. He soon had an audience by the snack table.

“I’m serious,” Owens said, “I knew ’em since we were in elementary school over on 

James Street. We caught a seagull in the parking lot one day after school. Before I knew it he took out a pocket-knife and started hacking the poor creature to bits.”

Mrs. Wilson rolled her eyes. She lived down the street from Mr. Thorton on Culver Road. He lived alone in a house inherited from his mother, a mid-century one story that he kept in good condition. He had a temper, and was known to take it out on the children who played tennis down by the cul de sac. If the ball came anywhere near his front lawn, Mr. Thorton would come barreling out from the garage, snarling and shaking his fists. His nostrils would flare as he bellowed at the children, who shrieked and giggled in fear as they turned on the spot and ran, throwing their rackets down in a clatter. Mrs. Wilson had witnessed the act one time when she came to call the kids home for supper. As he emerged red-faced and spitting, she caught his eye. His mouth curled into something that resembled a smile, and she could have sworn he gave her a wink. 

“The man had his troubles, but he was no sadist. Not like whoever the devil did him in.” replied Mrs. Wilson.

“Well, better ’em than me.” smirked Owens, 

“Who knows Tommy, you could be next!” called out Jim Ford, drunkenly, from across the room. 

Everyone flinched at the suggestion. Mrs. Thornburry, who always cried at these sorts of things, burst into tears. 

“I hear they’re looking for somebody over in Plymouth.”

“That’s what they said about the last one, but I thought the guy they were checking out was out of state last week.”

“That’s what they think, but maybe he popped back over for one last hit.”

“Gentlemen, perhaps now is not the best time for this kind of talk.” said Andrew Doyle, appearing with a tissue in hand for Mrs. Thornburry, who accepted it gratefully. 

“‘Ay, Doyle, how much you makin’ off these services?” replied Owens.

“Not nearly enough, Mr. Owens” said Mr. Doyle, the owner of the funeral home, as he scoured the floor, picking up discarded napkins and a cheese cube that had dug itself into the oriental carpet. 

 

This had been the third funeral in the last two months where the guest of honor had met the same untimely end. A rather un-liked member of the town’s population would go to sleep one night, not knowing it would be their last. They would be found—days or weeks later—lying in bed with their throat cut in a perfect U. “Precise, deliberate, and immaculate,” the police called it. 

Every so often that afternoon a child made their way up to Mr. Thorton’s coffin—standing on their tiptoes to get a better view—searching his newly polished corpse for any signs of the horror it had experienced at the end. The body was, at first glance, perfectly ordinary. It was only if you looked a little too closely, stuck your head far enough toward the coffin at just the right angle, that you might catch a careful bit of stitching midway down the neck. There lay a second smile: the spot where, with absolute precision, Mr. Thorton had been cut open. It was a rather tempting sight, and several times that afternoon Mr. Doyle had appeared just in time to scoop up a child about to topple in.

“Well, Thorton’s in much better shape than Ms. Furman. I heard she didn’t have an open casket because the cats ate half ’er face off by the time the police got to ’er,” Owens 

guffawed. His wife elbowed him. But he kept going.

“Somebody here knows somethin’ they ain’t lettin’ on, right Jim?” 

“Right-y-oh Tommy,” slurred Jim Ford, who was on his sixth plastic cup of wine.

Mr. Doyle eyed the two gentleman, and Mrs. Wilson wandered over to the windows to join the group of gossiping mothers, who had begun to lower their voices.

“Did I tell you what Timmy saw that night?”

“No, but you let him out?”

“I had to—he’s been driving me crazy all cooped up. I let him take the dog out around the block.”

“Jesus, Karen, don’t you live right by Thorton’s place?”

“Yeah, I know. The police gave me hell for it, but Timmy swears the night it happened he saw a long, black car speeding down Culver.”

“What a thing for a kid to see.”

“The police pressed him, but Timmy swears it was some kind of a limousine.”

“A limousine? Whose getaway car is a limousine?”

“Beats me. Anyway, there aren’t any limousine companies around here. I know because Amanda wanted to rent one for the senior prom last year. We had to go all the way to Newport to find a service.”

“Who knows, maybe some nut-job went crazy driving those rich Newport folks around and came down here to burn off some energy.”

Mrs. Wilson sipped her tea, taking in the scene unfolding around her. Jim Ford had finished his seventh drink and was starting to teeter. Owens’ wife had completely lost control of her husband, and he began to froth at the mouth. 

“There’s somethin’ fishy goin’ on in this town, and I am not gonna just sit here ’n let it all go to hell,” said Owens as he threw his arm around Jim Ford to keep him upright.

“Yeah, one of you just ’fess up already,” slurred Ford in agreement.

“How do we know it’s not one of you that’s been doing it?” replied Karen Pinkerton, head gossiping mother and a woman whom Mrs. Wilson recognized from several PTA meetings—she had a knack for contributing at the most inappropriate times.

Owens didn’t seem to have a good answer prepared, and his cheeks flushed.

Jim Ford was now staring at his empty cup, perplexed as to where all the wine had gone.

A vein started to bulge out on the left side of Owens’ neck, and just before he sputtered out another profanity he was intercepted by Mr. Doyle, who suddenly appeared from across the room.

“I think you’ve had enough for this afternoon, Mr. Ford,” he said, taking the cup from the guest’s hand and setting it down on a nearby table. 

As the sun sank below the horizon the guests began to trickle out. Owens half-carried Jim Ford out the door, and they staggered together while his wife followed behind. The gossiping mothers took a final look at Mr. Thorton, sighed, and trailed after the crowd. Mrs. Thornburry let out one last heaving sob, then the room was empty. 

Mr. Doyle began straightening up, putting chairs back in their proper place and recovering discarded programs. He picked up one of Mrs. Thornburry’s tissues that had 

missed the bin, and as he stood up he caught eye of Mrs. Wilson, standing alone in front of Mr. Thorton’s coffin. He walked over and stood beside her, about to ask her politely to leave, when she spoke.

“Do you think he felt it when it happened? Do you think he knew it was the end?” asked Mrs. Wilson. Mr. Doyle paused, and then answered.

“I’m not sure. I’d like to think that whoever did it knew what he was doing, knew how to do it properly that is…so that it wasn’t a…struggle if you will.”

“‘They’ knew what ‘they’ were doing you mean,” replied Mrs. Wilson.

“I’m sorry?” said Mr. Doyle, perplexed.

“Well it could be a woman, you know,” chuckled Mrs. Wilson. “We can get as fed up as you lot, and oftentimes for better reason.” 

 

Mr. Doyle closed the windows and shut the blinds, wheeling the coffin to the back room, where it would be taken for cremation in the morning. He took off his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and walked downstairs to the garage. 

Parked inside was a long, black hearse. The back of the hearse was filled with coffins, stacked haphazardly, and Mr. Doyle reached for one on the bottom left side. He heaved it out and let it fall to the ground. He stuck his hand inside the wooden box, pulling out a pair of white towels, stained with red. He put one to the side and slowly began to unfold the other, pulling back the corners until they revealed small scalpel, painted with strokes of a similar color.

Mr. Doyle inspected the knife carefully, peering at the flecks of dried blood dotting the hilt, picking at the red splotches with his fingernails. Unsatisfied, he brought the coroner’s tool over to the sink and put on a pair of gloves. Filling the basin with hot water and various solutions, he began to scrub. Imperfections melted away as he dunked the scalpel in the tub again and again. The liquid turned magenta, and the room filled with steam. Long into the night Mr. Doyle worked, polishing and re-polishing the blade, lifting it up to the light until it shined.

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