ASHES
by Mike Stickel

     Brank picked through the warm cremains with a shovel, placing the titanium hips and ball joints in one 25 gallon trash can, the ashes and bone fragments in another. Just as he had been instructed by Mr Pizdenka.
     After a six-month sentence in the county jail for his latest DUI, Brank went to live with his half-cousin, Grape, a level three sex offender and his wife, Nickelette. For money, Grape paid him $25 a session to video him and Nickelette having sex, so they could sell the tapes to an amateur adult video distributor in California. Brank wondered who rented these tapes. His brother looked like a typical scrawny junkie with prison tattoos and a warty pencil dick, while Nickelette was at least as wide as she was tall. To make them even more appealing; they shaved their pubes and had herpes sores on their mouths and genitals that never went away. They would usually pick-up another couple at church on Sunday morning, and Brank would get an extra $25 to video Grape jerking-off on the face of a fifty year-old retarded woman or Nickelette getting butt-fucked by a guy with cerebral palsy. 
     One Sunday night, after videotaping Nickelette's antics with their pastor, who had balls that looked like they belonged on a pig, Brank took the bus to the Frigate. Lately, it had become his favorite bar because they hired 14-15 year-old runaways as nude dancers. At closing, he bought a couple bottles of sloe gin and waded through the foot-deep carpet of pull-tabs to the door.
     It was dark when Brank woke-up. He tried to figure out where he was. He seemed to be laying on rough plastic someplace where it really stank. Harsh sunlight suddenly appeared above and a bag of trash fell on him.
     "Hey!" Brank struggled to sit-up among the bags of garbage.
     A startled face appeared over him, did a double take, then flashed a grin. "Hey Buddy, need a job?"
     That was how Brank met Mr Pizdenka, owner of Pizdenka's Funeral Home. He pulled Brank out of the dumpster, brushed the maggots off, and took him inside where he gave him a suit of approximately his size taken from a crematorium-bound loved-one.
     After dark, Brank helped Mr Pizdenka load a van with heavy cardboard coffins. Mr Pizdenka didn't say where they were going, but earned Brank's dying gratitude when he stopped at a liquor store and bought a case of sloe gin, then went to a McDonald's drive-thru. Bolting down three Quarter Pounders with Cheese and two Super-Size fries, his first meal in days, Brank lost all interest in where they were going. At least he would never have to look at Nickelette's huge pimpled ass anymore.
     They finally arrived at an unpainted, windowless cinderblock building with a wide, squat, smoke stack, at the edge of an industrial park somewhere in the outer suburbs. The only entrance was a garage door that opened when the van approached. Illuminated by a single 40-watt bulb, Brank saw two aluminum trashcans next to a steel door, a broom and dustpan, and a five-gallon plastic bucket next to a WW2 era army cot. Everything was coated in a thick film of gray ash.
     He and Mr Pizdenka carried the cardboard coffins through the metal door into a firebrick-lined kiln. Latching the steel door, Mr Pizdenka lit the burners and set the timer, telling Brank to check the thermometer after the burners shut-off and open the door when it got below 80. He was to sweep-up the cremains, putting the titanium body parts into one can and everything else in the other can. He would return tomorrow and exchange the full cans for empty ones. Any questions?
     "Can I keep the case of sloe gin?" Brank asked, desperation in his voice.
     "Of course."
     Brank took a few long pulls as he watched the van back-out and the garage door close. He sat down on the cot the roar of the burners and smell of roasting flesh filling the air. Grape and Nickelette didn't know where he was, his ex-wives, probation officer, and bill collectors didn't know where he was. Clouds of ash swirled around him. For the first time in his life, Brank felt completely free.

the end