What makes a town. What makes a town is the people in it. Look upon the town of Craddock, Texas. See who lives there. See what it is.
The anatomy begins with the head, for without it there is nothing else. The mayor sits in the highest office in town hall behind a great wooden desk; captain at the helm. He charts forth and sets direction. He sees fit to what needs seeing to. From his words and ink flow edicts to and through his municipal authorities. The nervous system. There are his judges in the courthouse, and his tax collectors in the office below his. His councilmen and councilwomen. The police force and the waterworks and the records clerks. The town without a head would be nothing, but a lone head is for no good other than to hear itself talk, if that can be called any good at all.
These commands must be carried to a terminus. They cannot merely fizzle out into the nether if there is to be a town to speak of. For this we look to the musculature. The flesh that twitches and jumps to synaptic impulse. In a word, the townspeople. They are its substance. With their presence comes a strength and red vitality that transforms thought into being, life into living.
The head, the nerves, the flesh; all must be arranged and borne upon a structure, and that structure is found in the representatives of the town’s institutions. They are its skeleton. Its bones. The devoted religious figures of the many faiths, the educators of the schools, the proprietors of the bank and the diner and the department store. They give the town stability, support, and constancy. If not for them we would find Craddock to be a confused mass of electro-pulsing jelly.
These are the components of the town that make it natural. That make it alive. And yet. And yet.
And yet there remains a constant function of the town, like that of all living bodies, that has not been examined. It is reserved for last because it is the most unsavory natural task. Disposition of byproducts. The elimination of waste. This is common to all systems, and in the natural organs paralleled here we find, through a peculiar run of circumstance, a three-shop block of adjacent buildings that house those dealing in and only in disposal.
The barber, the beautician, and the mortician.
The barber stands tall and portly, in crisp, clean whites and a pocketed smock of the same color with the tools of his trade at hand. His combs and scissors, his creams and talcs. The flashing metal and deep brown blush of the barbershop chairs warm in the rising sun that shines through the plate glass window. The window reads, in arcing golden letters from the inside, “REBRAB.” A tall glass canister of Barbicide sits atop each mirrored counter, blue and cool. Electric clippers dangle from hooks hung along the edges of the counters.
As the first of the day enter he greets them with a hearty laugh and an easy smile. He is bald and alludes to it constantly. The black-and-white tiled floor, as waxed and sterile as his own pate, soon becomes carpeted in all manner of cut hair. Blonde and brown and black and red and shades of grey and silver thread—a prickly, itchy carpet. He sweeps it into a waste bin in the corner between the comings and goings of those he serves.
And to all of them he says, “You’re beautiful.”
The beautician is aged and faded, but outward appearance belies inner spirit. In lilac-tinted, form-fitting scrubs she steps sprightly between a long, lighted counter where she performs her manicures and the row of beige salon chairs where she sees to the pedicures. At each station she has clippers and files to deburr ragged nails and thorny callouses. The morning sun grows brighter and reflects on the vials of polishes that adorn the shelves of her shop. They glisten like precious stones: exotic jades, deep plums, and brilliant vermilions.
She bustles about as her customers arrive, working not just hands and feet but mouths and minds. In this regard, form betrays function. Her provocative lips and agile tongue take naturally to the task of supplying gossip as her broad, forward-facing ears are well-suited to receiving it. From time to time she sweeps aside the nail clippings, and when not speaking her mouth works over a wad of gum with gusto. But she is never silent for long.
Because there is much to say, not the least of which is, “You’re beautiful.”
The mortician is a bent wisp of a man in a black suit. Shorter than most, he is stooped lower still by old age, but it is becoming because those he bows before and tends to so lovingly are those who will lie in the dirt beneath his feet. Consider his posture an act of solidarity.
His workspace lets in no sunlight because it is beneath the decorated and venerable stations of the funeral parlor. It consists of hard metal, white tile, and electric lights that burn with chemical fluorescence whether it is night or day. In this light glint surgical instruments, vast glass tanks of embalming fluid, and a bank of man-sized, refrigerated, stainless-steel drawers. Even the wooden table wedged in a corner seems made of plastic, and the record player atop it sits motionless and silent between cold candles.
Here, in the cavernous basement of the morgue, he tends to his clientele. Scalpels slice, scissors skin, stiches sew. Blood and bone are drained and hollowed; pastel and powder lend life borrowed. Bent forward with such concentration on his face, a face as shriveled and pointed as the pit of a peach, he makes the once-living alive again. This is no easy task, and it is only done when the dead appear merely to be asleep, such that a startling noise would disturb them into waking life.
It is only done when he whispers, “You’re beautiful.”
The barber, the beautician, and the mortician. This is their calling, and if it is not their calling then it is their function. This is what they do each day from when the sun rises until it looms low in the sky. But on Saturdays when the sun goes to die . . .
The barber hangs his smock upon a hook, and leaving the clean-swept shop behind he walks into his basement bearing a waste bin filled with cut hair.
The beautician folds her uniform over and places it neatly upon a shelf, and with a dustpan full of nail clippings she too descends into her basement.
The mortician, anticipating a particular rhythmic knocking at his padlocked door, wheels the wooden table on its oiled casters to the center of his basement. He lights the candles and places a record on the turntable and waits.
When the knock sounds, a new life begins. And with it, a new town.
The barber and the beautician enter through this door that connects their conjoined cellars. They are welcomed with genial warmth by the mortician. Together they open the man-sized drawers, and the corpses, the beautiful, living corpses, are brought forth. On this particular evening there almost a dozen. Some are made to slump upon low stools at the long ends of the table, while others are postured in corners or propped up by ropes and wire hanging from the overhead pipes. When the three take their seats in high chairs at the table’s head, the steaming food of some mourners’ leftover repast laid out before them, it appears as if all of Craddock waits by in service.
As the music plays and spirit flows their laughter grows louder and their joy more apparent. From dinner to dessert, from dessert to digestif, the candles burn still, and the long watch of the night winds towards its witching hour. Here, for them, there is no time. But in time, they come to dance.
They begin by dancing with each other, moving with dignity and grace through the sensuous light and symphony sounds. They smile at what they see; the closed or half-lidded eyes of the entire town, an endless crowd of partner hopefuls that stand back shyly or remain seated in their chairs, dreaming of a chance and too afraid to seize it. Inevitably, it is the three dancers who take the initiative.
They pair off, and silent admirers are pulled close to the breasts of Craddock’s belle and its two most eligible bachelors. As they dance they cut in and out, selecting new partners with the diplomatic ease of the popular, the powerful, the beautiful. For them, for once, there is nothing to it. In this strange limelight they steep and bathe, and it invigorates them.
The music swings wilder and the dancers follow suit. Genteel steps quicken, lank limbs flop, pressed clothing rumples, and makeup begins to run and smudge. A tremulous violin seesaws towards an eerie crescendo. Shadows cast by the candlelight twist and gyrate, not decidedly in pleasure or pain.
At the drawn-out screech of the music’s peak a hand from the whirling fray reaches into one of the receptacles brought in from the week’s work and dashes a handful of hair across the brow of a corpse and rakes it through the scalp, rendering the body an unsightly, hairy monstrosity. Another hand scoops a jumble of nails and with splatters of cosmetic adhesive crafts chitinous claws that stretch outward in a ragged run from the manicured edges of blue fingers. A third finds a scalpel and rips off a shirt, exposing the pale underbelly and chest neatly stitched into a capital “Y”. The scalpel unzips the seams and disjointed ribs burst forth with droplets of weak, watery blood and flashes of white bone, turning the inside out to show the empty ugliness hidden therein.
The frenzy continues until the dancers have exhausted themselves, until they are standing about in a winded daze with the mute record spinning and the first fingers of the Sunday sun reaching towards the town of Craddock. Around them are strewn a mess of bodies, all of them defaced and abhorrent, more creature than human. No longer beautiful, and in such a state that no one would ever believe they once were.
They clean up, unworried about opening their shops because on Sundays the closed signs do not turn over. The barber sees that the hair is neatly styled and arranged after the multi-colored excess has been dusted off. The beautician ensures that the nails are once more cut and smoothed and disposes of the brittle remains. The mortician nips and tucks and paints away, and by the time the last corpse has been laid back on its slab the whole affair appears to have never happened.
Come Monday morning, it never did. Come a new day that is the same for them as any other. The barber, the beautician, and the mortician. Hair to cut, nails to manicure, and dead to be made living. The three fulfill a function that allows the town to exist, and all the while they say to those they serve the words they have come to hear.
This is the town of Craddock, Texas. You have seen what it is.
Andrew Punzo lives near Newark, New Jersey and works in New York City. His short fiction has appeared online in Every Day Fiction, Tales From the Moonlit Path, The Sirens Call, and Theme of Absence. His short fiction has also appeared in the anthologies Mindscapes Unimagined (2018) and Crypt Gnats: Horror You’ve Been Itching to Read (2019), and will appear in a forthcoming, untitled psychological horror anthology from Dark Ink Books.