Billy Bob could never go home again. Not that he literally couldn’t, assuming he had the time and means, but figuratively he never could.
He went by Willian Robert Rountree III, nowadays, to try and distance himself from his Southern roots in rural Georgia. He had moved to “the left coast” straight out of college, and the more people he met, the more he realized that the bubble he grew up in was decidedly narrow-minded.
It wasn’t that he didn’t miss home. As he alway told everyone, “It was a great place to grow up and a great place to visit”. This still rang true. The sense of community and hospitality there was unequalled by anywhere he had ever traveled to. Sometimes he still fantasized about raising a family there. In fact, every night he would lull himself to sleep with the sweet harmonies of Southern-Baptist gospel. He thought it hilarious how people in Los Angeles would pay $18 for biscuits and gravy out of can, when he used to eat his Maw Maw’s from scratch, every morning for free.
Talking with a Southern drawl had become fashionable, and even Yankee aristocratic Congressmen used the term “Y’all” when they were trying to sound warm and friendly to their constituents across social media. Hipsters had taken over the slang and casual clothing that he and his friends wore growing up, not because of their fashion sense, but rather their poverty. Country singers had traded their pickup trucks for multi-million dollar contracts and leer jets, and Nascar had sky-rocketed into the billions for sponsorships. Atlanta had become the epicenter of the cultural juggernauts of the hip-hop and film communities. It had been inevitable, but the charm of the South was gone, along with his youth, forever.
It wasn’t all puppy dogs and ice cream either. Recent backlash against systematic racism had once again brought out the South’s struggles with equality, and as Confederate statues and rhetoric were being toppled, Billy Bob realized that the heroes he had looked up to as a child of the South, were deeply flawed. Although he agreed whole-heartedly with the current movement and banishing of their root causes, something still stung about pulling the flag off the roof of “General Lee”, or clumping him in with the KKK, just because he grew up in a small rural southern town. Nonetheless, he could easily get over these small infractions, unlike the countless minorities who had been ridiculed, tortured, or even killed. But now his home was the center of cultural trends in the United States, and celebrities wore baseball caps of teams they had never heard of, but which he had been a fan of by birthright; That was the salt in the wound.
As unfortunate as all these things may have been, they weren’t the true reason why William could never go home. The true reason was known only by four people and two of them were dead.
It all started back in the mid 80s, when Billy Bob’s then good friend, Ray, had asked him if he could spend the weekend moving some stuff, on their over-crowded property, to make way for some new equipment that was being delivered the following week. Ray’s father, Tommy, owned the largest crematorium in northwest Georgia covering clientele over a 500 mile radius, all the way into the reaches of Alabama and Tennessee. As both death and taxes were certain, business was booming. Also, the more that people discovered the then new-trend of Buddhism and holistic arts, the more and more they preferred to be cremated. Not to mention this was a much cheaper alternative for the highly impoverished tri-state area.
Ray had driven his rusty old forklift, past a dozen or so rusting cars to a large dilapidated aluminum shed. It was probably half the size of a football field, but was towards the back of the property. In typical Georgia fashion, it had rained in the morning creating an ankle-deep soup of red clay that only hardened as solid as concrete, once the afternoon sun started baking it in. Billy Bob wondered why it was so far from the main house and business establishment. It certainly wasn’t very practical. Regardless, he had promised Ray that he would help, and they spent all afternoon moving tractor parts, steel bins and barrels, along with all the various junk one might find in a third generation farm, junkyard and funeral business.
It was just past midday when the two settled down for a late lunch of bologna sandwiches and coca-cola out of the glass bottle. Ray also had some headcheese shavings, but Billy Bob didn’t know, for the life of him, how he could stomach the stuff. The boys talked about Mary Burrows, a mutual love interest. She had been a demure girl in their high school, and wasn’t the sexiest of creatures, but there was something about her that was wise beyond her years. They had heard rumors, too, that this also translated into her sexual maturity, which had been on display a few times under the bleachers at unchaperoned pep rallies. She had that lethal combination of the innocence of the girl next door, combined with her voracious appetite for boys; It made her irresistible.
Billy Bob had been halfway through a swig of coke and pop rocks, which they had always dared each other to ingest, when he saw something unmistakable out of the corner of his eye. He remembers not understanding why he hadn’t noticed it early, but there hanging from the rusted-out rear quarter panel of a metallic turquoise ’71 Oldsmobile Cutlass, was the unmistakable form of a pale human arm. A foamy geyser of lukewarm cola-flavored froth shot out of his nose and mouth as the realization hit him like a University of Georgia offensive lineman. Ray slowly raised up to his feet, in a defensive stance, not realizing the faux pas. He had known, though, in his heart of hearts, that it was only a matter of time, before his best friend found out; perhaps this was subconsciously the reason he had invited him here.
Ray hadn’t known why his father hadn’t properly disposed of the bodies. Sure it had probably started when the incinerator had been on the fritz, but that was a simple enough fix. Plus it wasn’t like the family of the deceased wasn’t paying the top dollar acceptable for their services. But something had snapped in his father, that coincided with the machines faltering. Tommy had seen it as “the will of God” and remarked, on more than one occasion, that the human body needed to be whole in order to reunite with its Creator and family in the afterlife. This belief dated back to Roman times. What they were doing — that is burning the bodies — was more immoral, in his eyes, than letting the corpses rot out in the open of the sweltering Georgia sun. Not to mention still charging the families and giving them cement mix, chicken bones, and kitty litter back in return. It was a paradox not easily understood.
The bottle of coke had dropped to Billy Bob’s feet in the tall cottonmouth-infested grass, as he robotically got up and made his way over to the corpse. He first touched it with a long stick, prodding the lifeless blue fingers like he might a rattler in a cage. The sun was actively burning through the muggy air. The sulphuric density of the swampy air had already infused the smell of long-rotting flesh, but the more Billy Bob’s senses became hyper-focused, the more he felt stupid for not knowing sooner. Ray’s mouth was a gape, and his muscles tensed, as he waited for his friend’s panicked response. It never came.
Ray and Billy Bob had shared everything. Crushes, food, bedrooms and secrets. There was an unspoken loyalty between them that even a rotting corpse couldn’t come between.
That summer, Tommy offered to pay the boys quite handsomely. Now that the cat was out of the proverbial bag, he could use the extra help to move the bodies. The hot Georgia summer was a killer, quite literarily, especially when it came to the elderly and infirmed, or the impoverished trailer park folk who couldn’t afford air conditioners. Business was booming. They were quickly running out of space. Billy Bob got used to the unpleasantries of body transporting and mutilation. The boys simply wore do-rags over their mouths, which doubled as handkerchiefs when the work got messy. He was amazed at how quickly one could adapt to the grotesque, and had no qualms about folding bodies unnaturally, or breaking off appendages to fit them in the backs of old car hulls or vintage farm machinery. Eventually the maggots and mice would make short work of the fleshy parts anyway, leaving only cleaned off bones in their wake.
Eventually they needed to recruit more help. Mary had been the perfect candidate for obvious reasons. As it turns out, she was way wilder than they originally expected. She was one of the earliest “goth” types and actually got off on all things dark and macabre. Raging hormones and hot summer afternoons soon took over. The sight of corpses, and the thought of doing something morally bankrupt and against the laws of man and nature, acted as an aphrodisiac on Mary. They would often take breaks to make out, or even have unbridled carnal sex, amongst the corpses. It didn’t matter with whom, as she offered herself freely to both of the friends, sometimes simultaneously. Billy Bob wasn’t proud of what went on in those fields, but at the time it felt right, even if society and Sunday school had told him otherwise.
The property backed itself up against several acres of woodland, and a wide creek, that filled up after each rain, with rushing waters and crawdads. It was a common watering hole for game and wildlife. One day the three youths had been half-stripped down, about to take it further, when they felt prying eyes focused on them. Just a few yards away, a hunter dressed in plaid and the obligatory trucker’s cap, was starring, mouth wide open. But he wasn’t starring at the half-naked boys or the topless teenaged girl. In fact, it was the broken corpse positioned not so far behind them, that had gotten his attention. What happened next was mostly a blur. He tried to let out a terrified scream, but instinctively raised his shotgun instead. As his forefinger pushed the nine-pound trigger, he managed to let out a guttural howl, just as Ray tackled him with a powerful blindside. It was too late. The shotgun blast had taken out half of Mary’s still beating heart and most of her stomach. The hunter had split his head open on a large boulder, on impact, and wouldn’t be making it home for his dinner of venison and shit-on-a-shingle. After what seemed like hours of crying and scattered thoughts, the boys pitched into full-practically mode. It was simple, there were merely two more corpses to add to the ever growing piles.
The summer went by, seemingly without a hitch. The two young men remained cordial and friends, but William, was now through with helping Ray and his father, no matter how much they had offered to pay him. The night sweats and always looking over his shoulder, just weren’t worth it anymore. This was when he decided to move out to California, and get as far away from the scene, and those memories, as he could afford. He didn’t know it at the time, but he and Ray would never speak again. Even though his infatuation with Mary was mostly pheromonal, he had felt a deep affection toward her, and would never forget the look on her face as she lie dying in the woods.
It turns out that hunter had been an off-duty Sheriff, and although no one had known of his weekend plans, eventually some trained professionals law enforcers had tracked his whereabouts. Many moons and many summers later, Billy Bob, now William Robert, read about his friend in the papers and on the internet. In fact, for a brief fifteen minutes of infamy, Ray had become a global sensation. Although state and federal laws were much more lax at the time, he had been charged with nearly 800 counts of varying criminal misconduct. The charges ranged from fraud, to abusing corpses and the obvious; tampering with dead bodies. Although he originally faced up to a thousand years in prison, he would get off with just a decade behind bars, and would change the face of the death-care industry, forever. In all that time, Ray never once spoke of William to the police or the press. And to this day, Mary’s family do not know of her sudden demise.
Ray remained loyal until the end, but one thing was abundantly clear… Billy Bob could never go home again.