by Pam Jones
In Christianity, the translation of relics is the removal of holy objects from one locality to another.
T-Bo slipped the skull over his fist and made it sing. “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with youuu…”
Mary-Blue kept one hand on the wheel and slapped at him with long, free fingers. She snapped, “Don’t go touching that.” She maneuvered to reach the dials. As the hills fell away, the radio became articulate, with only a little static. “It’s liable to have mange. Or you’ll break it.”
In the passenger’s seat, T-Bo had the skeleton on his knee and bounced it. It was meant to be stored in the box that lay across the backseats, but T-Bo insisted that he take it out for an airing. “And as long as we’re driving, no one’s likely to see. Just let me know when we’re about to stop, so I can cram him back in.” From stem to stern, its factions were held together with tiny wire and screws; you could hear the creaks. It was a man’s frame, though its hips were wide. It was for that reason that they planned to sell this bag of bones as the remains of a most illustrious female.
For the first hour on the road, T-Bo and Mary-Blue threw names around.
“Goll. That sounds like a cocktail. Sacrilegious.”
“So? There isn’t a patron saint of cocktails, as yet.” T-Bo chucked the skull under the chin. “How you like that, friend?”
They were like a couple preparing for a baby—or at least, they sounded like it. However, they could not become sentimental. It was horrifying to think (and so soon after having acquired it) that attachments could be formed, like sticky webbing between its ribs. But, once in a while, when the road was long and they thought they might never stand the sight of one another again, T-Bo or Mary-Blue were wont to break the barrier that separated the sentient from the static. Sometimes the lid from the box would slip, and the skeleton’s empty eye would peer out from its layers of wrapping. It could be full of sympathy, when the road was long.
Neither Mary-Blue or T-Bo had talked to it yet.
It was going to a little chapel in El Velo, miles from its last resting place in San Antonio. The chapel was small, but the Church was rich, and neither of them questioned the source of their fee.
In its heyday, you could make a career of ghouling. You could open a grave, rich man or beggar man, and, provided you left the family gold in its place, whisk the body away to a university. New doctors needed new bodies. And, bereft of life, stealing a body could not be compared to stealing the family gold. A body, bereft of life, was no one’s goods. Per head, you could bring in what amounted to a month’s rent. A hundred years ago, people looked at death for what it was. Now, the cemeteries closed before dark and a patrol car sat at the gate. Now, cemeteries were Memory Gardens, Chapels of Rest.
At this rate, ghouling would be the next thing to die out.
T-Bo had been ghouling long enough to laugh at what he dug up. By that point, Mary-Blue guessed, it was all you could do.
Mary-Blue’s father was a ghoul. He went to prison for it once, a decade’s sentence, parole after two years with the promise that he would never do it again, and he was back to work his first night home. Mary-Blue was fifteen by then, old enough to come along; Daddy Ed had figured it would keep her out of trouble.
T-Bo and Mary-Blue always said that they were in the funeral business. And in T-Bo’s case, this wasn’t far from the truth. Years ago, he had a job working for the state. He was the one who went through all the paperwork of folks who passed without next-of-kin. He was the one who called friends, executors, trustees. Good afternoon, this is Thibeau from the coroner’s office…
Was that how Mary-Blue had come to know him? Had she heard him before she’d seen him?
Enough time had passed that neither of them could remember, though it could not have been very long. The day-in-day-out of it had the miracle of turning years into centuries. For better or for worse, they had not (it seemed) aged a day since. Mary-Blue would be seventeen, T-Bo would be seventeen until the other of them died.
Outside, a cutting rain; it was springtime. In the passenger’s seat, T-Bo was wailing, and the skull’s jaw cracked as it opened and closed. T-Bo sang better than Bob Dylan, Mary-Blue thought. The skeleton sang better than Bob Dylan. “All I really wanna do-ooo…”
“Cut that out.” Mary-Blue slowed. She was a good driver; T-Bo and her father maintained that she drove like a grandmother. That meant she was a good driver.
The Polo belonged to her, in full. The caravan that was its burden belonged to T-Bo. The caravan was their home, an address that moved from port to port, though it was heavy. In the cutting rain, which thickened by the minute, it would be easy, with one too-quick turn, to swing one way, the Polo the other. And then where would they be?
Better to drive like a grandmother.
T-Bo could be a caution. An infection, too. Perhaps that was the golden of him; he never did know how she could get so worked up over it. Look at how they earned their livelihood. You’re never serious at seventeen. A poet said that, so it must be true, and T-Bo was always saying it.
Mary-Blue looked at him, there, her passenger, for the car was hers.
He looked at her, his ward, for the caravan was his.
The skeleton had been put away, face down and naked and swaddled in plastic. They could hear it thump against the cardboard when the Polo went over splits in the road. As though it were a baby, Mary-Blue and T-Bo told it to shush. They nearly remembered that it could not hear them.
In time, the rain let up, and from the ground its moisture rose as a hot mist. They were in a flatter part of the country, having wound around the worst hills when the rain was at its thickest. Mary-Blue felt her hands relax; she could no longer see her bones around the steering wheel. T-Bo fanned himself with his hat. Outside, there was no sun, but yellow sky. There was at least one hour left to them of daylight.
Mary-Blue peered over the steering wheel. “What was that little rhyme? How did it go?”
T-Bo knew what she meant. With his head against the window, he intoned, “Red sky by night, sailor’s delight. Red sky by morning, sailor’s warning.” He righted himself to glance into the back. In the darkest rain and when the car and caravan were at their slowest, he had unwrapped the skeleton yet again, placed it upright, legs crossed, twiggy hands folded daintily in its lap. He’d even fastened its seatbelt. The legs remained crossed, though the hands had loosened and dropped, palms up, on either side. It could have been asleep.
It was meant to be a saint. That’s what they would say in El Velo, at least.
Pam Jones lives and writes in Austin, Texas. She studied creative writing at Hampshire College, and is the author of the novella, The Biggest Little Bird. Her novel, Andermatt County, will be released Fall 2017 from The April Gloaming.