The Closers

by Lorna Garano

The questions I have no right to ask come to me mostly when I can't sleep. Why did he get in the car? Why was he not suspicious of what looked like a family picking him up for a job interview? Who meets in person for the first interview in this day and age? I have no right to them, still they make the responsibility his and lessen mine sometimes long enough for me to drift off. At times I feel flares of anger at him for not asking even one of them. Anger—undeserved to the point of being offensive—lives in me like a squatter. 

I realize now that I relied on Brandon to question, to blow up the whole insane plan, but Russ was right when he said, “He'll go like a puppy.” It wasn't because he was dumb, though, which Russ had also said (“These codeheads are morons away from the computer.”) It was because he was desperate. Being let go from Aventa after 12 years gave him the kind of despondency that made him seem like an immigrant wrenched from his homeland by sudden disaster.

I saw that in his eyes when he reached for the door handle and got into Cecily's boxy little car with the broken sunroof.  When Russ pulled him in by his arm, even though he was going willingly, fear flamed over the sadness in his eyes. Russ zapped him and his mouth silently opened as if he was trying to blow a smoke ring. The car shook, Cecily screamed, and I reflectively jammed on the brakes. “Drive,” Russ shouted. And I did. A steady 43 miles an hour in a 45-mile an hour zone. Russ injected him with the Blexinalcholine. A quick stab to the thigh, right through the beige gabardine dress pants that still had creases from being folded in thirds and stuffed into a retail cubicle. The smell of his bowels being voided announced his death. Russ rolled down the window and Cecily started to gag.

“Still think this was unnecessary?” Russ asked her as he sprayed lavender mist into the air. He wedged Brandon's body into the backseat floor and covered it with a blanket.

The night had just begun to dim the sky when I turned off for the farm. Our new logo, the black and white graphic of an androgynous robed figure with arms flung out, hung above the row of mailboxes on a repurposed real estate sign. This was the unassuming catalyst, the virtual plink that had pushed Russ from years of quiet resentment and anger into first commiseration then into planning, and finally into all-out insurrection. That we, who had been mourners for decades, had started hiring ourselves out for corporate functions that didn't even involve death—at least not in any literal way—was bad enough. That made us performers, clowns, catharsis machines for the newly laid off, the downsized, the jettisoned. But a logo made the rot official. We were now an unabashed corporate entity, a fucking LLC, as Russ often railed. It had been Renip who had initiated it. Of course it had been. Renip had ascended as gently as steam among the mourners and took control with only a few feeling usurped and their anger could be easily dislodged from anything he did. Russ could be angry at Mother's death. Cecily at an unremarkable life that was edging past its midpoint. Keller and Sandoval were young with no direction so anger gave them something to do.

I drove up to our door. Keller came out first and took the three front stairs in one leap.  He held up his hand for me to stop even thought I already had. Sandoval came out after him grasping her long hair at the back of her neck and holding a rubber band between her teeth. They both wore only white to symbolize the blankness of death, the way we did when we were mourners, before we had costumes customized to the event and sewn under Renip's supervision. Blood now ran from Brandon's nose and ears and his pants were soaked. Cecily wobbled as she got out of the car, and Russ steadied her. “The first time is bound to be difficult, Darling,” he said.

Sandoval and Keller carried Brandon out of the car, up the steps, and into the house.

I parked the car in the garage and headed back to the house. Our home had gone to seed since mother died. The tiny details that had once made the Victorian look regal—the curlicue moldings on the main doorframe, the scaled shingles around the pediment—were now edged with grime and chipped. For the first time I attributed the decay to something other than mere laziness or indifference.

The other houses jutted up like gleaming teeth from the grounds of the farm: clean, cared for, and, today, vacant. It was Renip's wedding day and every mourner, but us, was off celebrating. 

They were filling the refrigerator that Keller and Sandoval had gutted, torn the door off of, and lain on its back in the living room with ice. Cecily was, as always, the most efficient. She slashed the blue plastic 5-pound bags of ice with a box cutter and then poured the cubes into the wide maw of the refrigerator, making a sound like amplifier feedback. Slash, pour; slash, pour until the box was halfway full. Her curly hair had gone frizzy, as it often did when she exerted herself.  She was at her best with monotony. It even made her cheerful, as if she never forgot that boring tasks were the atoms of every grand project. Peel back the flight to the moon and you had millions of small jobs. When Cecily first married my stepfather I had thought, foolishly, that she could never be unhappy because of this.

Keller and Sandoval carried Brandon out from the bedroom and placed him in the refrigerator. It was when I saw how his legs dangled, like superfluous tendrils, over the edge of the hollowed-out refrigerator that I lost my balance and an acidic taste bloomed in my mouth. I ran to my room and collapsed. Today, this is my comfort—that something that lived in me as quietly as sinew or cartilage was repelled, aghast at what we had done. It may have been roused late—too late—but it was triggered all the same.

Here's where it all becomes aural, the event that broke my life into two distinct parts wasn't seen. I heard them screeching and ripping their gowns—reverting back to the pre-choreographed, explosive mourning that Russ and Cecily had pined for and that made Keller and Sandoval curse their post-Golden Age birthdays. Occasionally the walls shook and depending on the magnitude of quaking I guessed it was either Russ who had grown flabby after Mother's death or one of the lighter ones ricocheting off a living room wall as he or she flung herself against it in blind anguish. Mother had said that in the old days, when they had taken their mission seriously, the mourners looked like comets flying across the room, but that's too pacific an image. I heard burbling and retching as if they were being scraped out. That's when I started the frantic packing up. I grabbed things like an old gymnastics leotard, but nothing so useful as socks, ran down the hall, down the basement stairs, and fled.

I made my way to the Midwest after that, which I thought of as both benign and exotic, the blank heart of the country, a place where good manners canceled out curiosity and I would be left alone. I was in a motel room in Des Moines when the story broke. “Cult Killed So They Could Mourn,” written in a splash banner across the screen of the old TV, with its back end that looked like a mountain range. Then the stills of Russ and Cecily in prison jumpsuits; the unearthing of Brandon's body on the farm surrounded by men made puffy and slightly ridiculous by winter police coats and ear-flapped hats. The shrouded body elevated from the ground with a quick cut to Renip saying “We had no idea they would do something like this.” The news announcer said Renip was in the process of evicting the “renegade sect” from the farm.

 I stayed in Des Moines after that.

They could have told them about me and surely my participation amounted to culpability under the law even despite my age, but they stayed silent. I doubt it was some proximate parental obligation that kept Russ and Cecily quiet and Keller and Sandoval were too close to my age to feel anything but resentment at me getting away with something they hadn't. They kept quiet about me because I knew too much, and some of what I knew they couldn't even have imagined. If I reveal, for example, how I overheard Cecily and Russ plan Brandon's death as part of their mission to “restore our integrity (Russ); “not to mention our dignity” (Cecily) in between slurping the noodles that Cecily had served me in my room and then dispatched into two bowls at the kitchen table for her and Russ. I could tell them exactly how the setup worked; how they had lured Brandon with a job offer; how Keller did the background research that showed that Brandon lived alone, had no real friends, no girlfriend, belonged to no organizations, hadn't voted ever, bought gallons of chocolate milk every week; how Sandoval had calibrated her voice so that it was soft enough to be enticing and authoritative enough to be professional when she made the call pretending to be a recruiter with a job.

Worse, I could explain how Brandon, in his hapless desperation, had drawn them to him, how his despair had made him prey.

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Aventa sprawled across a campus that housed twelve restaurants, a bowling alley, a statue garden, three movie theaters, four fitness clubs, and a hotel. Every building had “Aventa: Curing the Impossible” scrawled somewhere on it with each letter of “Aventa” in a different primary color and the slogan in one of the letter's colors. On the fitness clubs it was written in red and when we passed by one Russ pointed to it and said “Everything that's wrong with these people.” Cecily shot him a complicit look and Keller and Sandoval smiled. Renip and the others pretended they didn't hear him.

The path we were on came to a four-way intersection and in the middle stood a crisscross of signs pointing to the various campus locations, which I then realized also included a dry cleaner, a childcare facility, and a tennis court. Additional signs reading “Inspiration” pointed in every direction and embedded in the pavement beneath them was a ring of mirrors the size of coasters. The words “genius,” “innovator,” and “dreamer,” encircled them in carefree cursive. 

We headed to the Campus East Auditorium. The slogan there was painted in blue and ran across the sliding glass entrance doors. Cecily and Russ grasped hands as they parted the doors. Vinyl stretched across the wall to the immediate right and a basket of multi-colored magic markers the size of a planter sat next to it. On the top of the wall was written, “What is your greatness?”

Mariette, the HR director who had hired us, was saying something about Mexican crepes to the caterer, but when she saw Renip she flashed a perfect crescent of a smile, bypassed us, and kissed him on the lips. They made of their affection and insult and Russ was quick to see it. “Let's go,” he barked and we set out across the auditorium to find our way backstage.

We changed into the long tunics and leotards that reminded me of animal skin, and Renip has us run through another dress rehearsal. We had gotten better, our movement more fluid and confident. We were perfecting our craft, which, of course, infuriated Russ and when Renip suggested a second rehearsal he screamed “Enough.”

We waited backstage listening to the dispossessed workers fill up the auditorium. Their chatter was broken when Mariette tapped on the mic and asked the crowd if they could hear her. An affirmative mumbling followed and she introduced us.  This was the first time I realized we weren't called “Mourners” anymore, but “Closers.”

The music, which Renip had helped composed, began. It was all swooshes and swirls with no peaks or crescendos, the aural equivalent of wallpaper. Our movements too were loose and swirling. “Rebirth, transition, flux,” that's what I want you to think as you perform, Renip had said, and it's what sailed through my head as I twirled around and, fish-like, we moved in groups and then spun off and flowed between each other. It was a gentle performance and we were a few minutes into it when Mariette started ushering the crowd to the vinyl wall and handing out magic markers. I saw her mouth “greatness” a few times as she handed out the pens.

I couldn't make out what most people wrote and we were in the thick of our routine so I only caught glimpses when I faced the wall. I spied “creativity” and I had just seen what I thought I was “strength” when Brandon approached. He was thin and his hair so black and dull that it looked like someone had poured ink on his head. We lined up and came together to windmill around. That's when I saw him write the first massive “0” on the board. It was an arm-swing wide and when he brought his arm down it was on the shoulder of the person nearest his left, who jumped back. When we turned again toward the wall I saw that the crowd had separated into two clumps around him, still clutching their magic markers. His swinging, marker-wielding arm drew ‘0”over and over again and across the other writing.

Russ stopped suddenly when he saw what was happening, making a blip in our performance. He picked up again and looked at Cecily. I spun around a few times and when my eyes returned to the wall I saw Mariette with her arm around Brandon leading him out of the room and the other newly laid off looking at each other quietly. At least one woman sobbed.

Maybe I'm confabulating, maybe this is a detail I only added later, but as I look back now I remember Russ being lighter on the way home. He even thanked Renip for making the evening a success.

In the year after our story broke cold cases were reopened across the country. Whenever a missing person was brought under new scrutiny the media hacked up old footage of previously aired shows about us and repackaged it into a new segment. Earnest detectives and desperate family members stretched loose connections with Brandon's case. Another Aventa employee had gone missing twelve years ago; a local woman went for a run and disappeared around the time Brandon vanished; three towns over a teenage couple had left for prom night and hadn't been heard from in two decades.

Russ, Cecily, Keller, and Sandoval refuse all interviews. Cecily has reportedly been beaten up in prison, and I suspect that there is something in her unquenchable industriousness that angers other inmates. Russ is now nearly bald and walks with a cane. On one of the cable network shows I saw him hobble into the prison from the rec yard. A close up of his face showed a kind of resignation that I had never seen in him. The eyes that had so often squinted and the jaw that had for years been held tight had unwound, reminding me that Russ had been handsome when Mother married him. I imagine that this is because he is unburdened from the fraud that Renip's reinvention of us and his own clumsy resistance to it demanded of him. A certain integrity comes with prison.

I watch every TV and Web segment on us. My own integrity relies on not allowing any distance to creep in between me and my past, not allowing Brandon's killing to gain purchase only in memory where it can be diluted and obscured. When I watch these shows I hear the sound of Russ, Cecily, Keller, and Sandoval mourning Brandon and then I'm dragged into, caught up in the unendingly terrible moment that doesn't distinguish between that day ten years ago when I drove a man to his death and the present that I've keep as sparse and unpopulated as I can.