/ Fiction

Get your free email address:  you@dowse.com

Back to
Fiction Hub



Daniel Pearlman got his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Columbia University and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Rhode Island. His ironical/fantastical stories and novellas began appearing in 1988 in magazines and anthologies such as Amazing Stories, The Silver Web, New England Review, Quarterly West, Semiotext(e) SF, Synergy, Simulations. His books of fiction to date are THE FINAL DREAM & OTHER FICTIONS (Permeable Press, 1995) and a novel, BLACK FLAMES (White Pine Press, 1997), a twisted excursion into the Spanish Civil War. His new fiction collection, THE BEST-KNOWN MAN IN THE WORLD & OTHER MISFITS, is now available.
Check out the cover art and details of Daniel Pearlman's books

Here is a story from THE FINAL DREAM AND OTHER FICTIONS. The Ground Under Man will stay with you long after you read it.

The Ground Under Man
Daniel Pearlman

When Gordon Mundley's wife Lena passed away at eighty-seven, the whole family threatened to boycott the funeral if he went ahead and buried her, as he had declared he would. His sister-in-law Hannah had barely spoken to him for thirty years, but on the day of Lena's death she called him three times. Her purpose, as soon became clear, was not to comfort him but rather to advise him on the proper disposition of the still-warm corpse.

"Are you forgetting," said Mundley, "that I am the mortician, not you?"

"You were a mortician," replied Hannah. "You retired twenty years ago. You haven't had enough business to stay in business for thirty years or more."

"I have never officially retired," Mundley protested. "Now and then I still get a client, you know. Perhaps I haven't needed to make a living from my profession for ... some time now, but I do serve the needs of the occasional--"

"Occasional who?" she challenged. "In ten years, who?"

"--of the very occasional individualist for whom the old-time practice of a Christian burial still offers the grace of a merciful finality."

"Christian burial!" Hannah snorted. "Tell me what's so Christian about burial! In fact, when you think of it ..."

"I know, I know," said Mundley. "'There was only one true Christian burial. And that only lasted three days.'" Her platitudes were as predictable as the platters of red-and-green sprinkled cookies she had been sending over to Lena for fifty Christmases.


"Freeze-Frame used to put that in their advertising a good many years ago, when they still had a little competition from die-hards like me."

"I was not trying to be original, Gordon."

"Have I ever accused you of being original, Hannah?"

"Gordon," she said ominously, "there isn't a single town in New England that has a practising mortician anymore."

"Yes, I'm aware of that," Mundley sighed. "The mortuary arts seem as destined to oblivion as were the secrets of mummification in ancient Egypt."

"There are no working cemeteries anymore, Gordon. The eyesores they were have been turned into parks, like the old landfills."

"Now there I must take exception, Hannah." Fixing the band of the headphone more securely behind his ears, Mundley strolled out of the den into the living room, from there into the office, and from his office into a barely furnished workspace off the main "parlor." There lay Lena on a long slab, her scrawny arms straight out along her sides, her bare body covered with a white sheet as she waited for Mundley to dress her--simply, as she had asked; for the journey, not for the valedictions.

"The Newbury cemetery," said Mundley, "does offer the superimposed delights of a lovely park, but legally it is a cemetery as long as anyone still has title to an unused burial plot anywhere on the grounds."

"Come on, Gordon, you know that no one has exercised such an unspeakable 'title' for over ten years--and that caused such an uproar, thanks to you, that Newbury became the laughingstock of the county."

"Anyway, Hannah," he continued, stroking Lena's white hair and smoothing down her eyelids, which had begun to crank open as if she could hear her sister's voice, "I have such title to a family plot in which there are still six unused grave-sites. One for you, if you're interested."

"Don't be disgusting, Gordon," she shuddered. "Don't humiliate the entire town, as you did to us ten years ago! Newbury Park has become a major regional tourist attraction, as you know. The first week of June it will host one of the biggest arts and crafts fairs in the state. The Fair is only one month away, Gordon."

"Don't try to blackmail me, Hannah!" To his embarrassment in front of the ever even-tempered Lena, Mundley heard himself raising his voice. "If there are fools in this town who wish to make public outcry about a perfectly private thing like an old-fashioned burial, then let them again call the attention of the local media to Newbury! Let the burden of responsibility for any financial damages that ensue fall squarely on their heads!"

"The news of your atavistic agenda could not be suppressed, Gordon. An announcement of the barbaric ritual you intend has been viewed on this morning's Public Notices. It has also come to my attention--since I still function on the Town Council, even though sciatica causes me to miss a good many meetings--that the state's largest news organization has gotten wind of the profanation you propose to visit upon the park."

"They didn't discover the notice by pure chance," Mundley replied. "You know as well as I that Freeze-Frame leaked the news. They are trying to put pressure on all of you to interfere with my rights as a citizen. They view the performance of even one old-style funeral as an attack on all they stand for."

"Gordon," Hannah pleaded, "will you please think of us? Who gives a damn about who-did-what right now! Think of your family! This is a small town, Gordon. Think of our hurt, our shame ..."

Mundley clenched his fists and yanked at the shreds of white hair that sprouted over his ears. "Hannah, Lena's own dying wish was to be buried by my own hands, in the earth that she loved, rather than be turned over for processing by Freeze-Frame." Tears sprang to his eyes at the sight of Lena's knobby little frame, and he imagined it stiffening, like his own resolve, minute by minute, under the loose cotton drape.

"Lena was my sister, Gordon, my sister! Don't you think that her own flesh and blood should have a say in what's to become of her?"

Her own flesh and blood! sneered Mundley. They who had never forgiven her for marrying an outcast, the sole surviving mortician in the entire county--perhaps the whole state! He struggled to keep his temper.


"I'm listening."

"Gordon, you owe the family, at the very least, the opportunity to talk to you, to share with you our point of view. ... I am asking you, in the name of all of us, to come to my house for dinner this evening at six."

Mundley tossed a shrug over at Lena--the way he always had when seeking her advice. She was totally noncommittal. Should he be snide and ask directions to her house? he wondered. "Okay, Hannah," he said. "I'll listen all you want. But I'll be damned if I'll change my mind!"
* * *

Mundley stared into the ice-blue eyes of his sister-in-law, who ushered him into her large foyer with strained cordiality. She was three years younger than her sister, but about a hundred and fifty pounds heavier. Lena had explained it to him once--Hannah's belief that by puffing her face out with fat she would prevent the formation of wrinkles: one had to think of one's appearance long after one's death--for other people's sake, if not one's own.

"Let me take your coat, Gordon," said Hannah, her little eyes protruding like blueberries from a ball of muffin dough. "We've all been sitting in the dining room, waiting."

No doubt discussing strategy for hours, thought Mundley. He handed her his coat, then caught sight of the Krebbses' old poodle Sylvester sitting politely out of the way, in the far corner of the foyer, patiently extending his paw to be shaken, far more patiently than in the old days. As Mundley reached over to shake Sylvester's paw, glancing into the old fellow's beady unblinking black eyes, he remembered that the old days were some twenty to thirty years ago, so that the Sylvester he was stooping to fondle was only a quarter of his old self, having been freeze-dried by Freeze-Frame to sit here and greet all who knew him for as long as they managed to live.

"Be gentle," said Hannah, a smile twisting the corners of her lips the first time since he'd entered. "Silly's a lot more delicate now than he used to be."

"I can imagine," said Mundley, pulling himself up straight again and patting at his dark gray suit. "Otherwise hasn't changed a bit, has he?"

"Not a tittle," said Hannah, preceding him to the left through the parlor and into the brightly lit dining room.

All conversation died down at Mundley's approach. The table sparkled with crystal and silver. Candles burned redundantly under a cut-glass pendant chandelier.

"We've reserved you the seat of honor at the head of the table," said Wilfred Spridge, a gray-bearded nephew of Mundley's and head of the local C of C.

People cleared their throats and sat remarkably still as Mundley settled into his seat, one of two high-backed, fake-antique end chairs that would prevent him from slinging his arm comfortably behind him. At the other end of the table sat the master of the house, Morris Krebbs, his lower lip drooping and his wattled neck bent forward from a back humped with age and a lifelong contempt for all exercise. Morris sat still as death and regarded Mundley through the fence of pointless candles as intently as Sylvester had in the foyer. For a moment Mundley checked himself from greeting old Morris. What if Morris had died and Mundley didn't remember? Fortunately, however, the Parkinsonian tremor of the lower lip revealed a somewhat different state of affairs. (But did Freeze-Frame now offer a package including lifelike movements of the sort observed in department-store dummies? Mundley wondered. No. ... Morris croaked a greeting, then dug into his salad.) Hannah trundled from the table to the kitchen. Guarded conversation broke out around the table like sporadic rounds of gunfire at the beginning of a battle.

The attack was not long in coming. Tracer bullets whizzed by Mundley's head as he ingested in one forkful half of a Lilliputian chicken breast. Fortunately, anticipating the Krebbses' hospitality, Mundley had fortified himself at home with a tuna-fish sandwich.

Mildred Spridge, shapeless wife of the president of the Chamber of Commerce, arrested a clot of potato in mid-air to declare how everyone would "sorely miss our poor, dear Lena."

"But of course," said Jarvis Bryson, the Presbyterian minister, who was some sort of cousin of Mundley's at some incalculable remove, "no one really has to miss Lena, if the wishes of all who have loved her are taken into account."

"In fact," said Hannah, just as she waddled off again toward the kitchen, "how uncivilized is the very notion of spiriting her away from the bosom of family and friends, both living and preserved, including her own closest blood relatives."

Continue reading The Ground Under Man


Back to Fiction Hub

Bonnie Mercure, your Fiction Guide at the dowse Fiction Hub, is a dark fantasy author. Visit her website


Search the web



Back to:

Dowse Fiction Hub Contents
Dowse Science Fiction and Fantasy Hub
Dowse home - Web Gateway for Creative Minds


We hope you have enjoyed this page. Please go back to the Fiction Hub Contents to read another story or for more information. We believe you will also find that the Dowse Science Fiction Hub has much of interest.


Computing & Internet
Fantasy art
Myths & Legends
News & Info
Science Fiction
Security online
Web Makers Tools
Writing & Publishing

. How to make
  your start page
. Your free email
. Message Bds
   & communities

. Suggest links
. Link to us

. About dowse
. Search the web


Copyright © 2001 dowse.com
all rights reserved


'The Ground Under Man' by Daniel Pearlman