Dan Alatorre’s Word Weaver Writing Contest
the first of four honorable mention awards
* Honorable Mention *
The Stainless Steel Coffin
by Scott Skipper
I enjoyed this story tremendously, and I think you will, too.
Sit back and prepare to laugh and have a good time.
I’m not sure if it’s better knowing this was all based on actual events or not. It’s bizarre either way!
This story and the other Honorable Mentions, along with a profile of each of their authors, will be featured on the blog. They are really good.
DON’T FORGET: ALL contestants not winning first, second, or third place will be put into a drawing for other prizes!
HERE are some of the AMAZING AUTHORS whose books will awarded:
Allison Maruska, Project Renovatio. Author of the runaway bestseller The Fourth Descendant, Allison Maruska offers an audio book version of her latest hit, Project Renovatio.
With over 550 reviews on Amazon, The Fourth Descendant established Allison as an amazing breakout author. I read Project Renovatio. It is a brilliant, thrilling YA novel that grabs the attention of readers and holds them until the very end.
Hugh Roberts, Glimpses
28 short stories that will take your mind on a rollercoaster of a ride into worlds that conceal unexpected twists and turns. You REALLY wanna win that!
Dana Wayne, Mail Order Groom, Secrets of the Heart
Dana Wayne is all about the romance! Mail Order Groom is a historical western romance. Secrets of The Heart is a contemporary romance. Both are amazing!
Curtis Bausse, Perfume Island, One Green Bottle
One Green Bottle, set in Provence, is the first in a series of Magali Rousseau detective stories. Perfume Island is the second book in the amazing series. You’ll love it!
T. A. Henry, Scripting The Truth
Any story that takes place in post-WWII Britain and has the phrase “She’ll try to do it all while trying to keep the seams on her stockings straight” has to be read. You’ll agree.
Joanne R Larner, Dicken’s Diaries, Richard Liveth Yet
One reviewer called Dicken’s Diaries “a ‘diary’ with lots of amusing stories and indeed it is a cleverly written, humorous book.” Richard Liveth Yet is Richard III as you have never seen him before! Great stories from a great writer.
Yecheilyah Ysrayl, Renaissance: The Nora White Story
In 1922 Mississippi, Nora White has graduated high school and is college bound, but she is fascinated by the prospect of being a famous writer in The Harlem Renaissance – and decides on a change of plans. Techeilyah will amaze you with this one!
and of course, ME
A few folks will be selected to receive a copy of Poggibonsi: an Italian misadventure,my hilarious sexy romp through Italy (definitely a hot commodity, so to speak) as a signed paperback or as an eBook. Don’t even ask me if I’ll sign the eBook. Just. Don’t.
And now, the third of four Honorable Mention winners in Dan Alatorre’s Word Weaver Writing Contest
* Honorable Mention *
The Stainless Steel Coffin
by Scott Skipper
The odd story you are about to read is mostly true.
It is based on something that happened to a business associate.
Naturally, the names have been changed to protect the author as there are no innocent.
“Did you get the front money?”
“This guy’s all right.” Lou Martinez was suddenly defensive. He had forgotten the certainty of catching Hell for taking an order from a private individual without getting a deposit. Lou rallied a small defense. “He’s not really an individual—he’s a doctor.”
“Do you ever remember me saying anything good about doctors?”
“Couldn’t we just open an account for him?”
“Since when does opening an account guarantee getting paid?”
“We can check his credit.”
“Accounts are for repeat customers. How much repeat business do you expect from a guy who wants a stainless steel coffin for his mother?”
“Maybe his father is still alive.”
“Then don’t you think his father would be buying the coffin?”
Martinez slumped a little in his chair. “Do you want me to tell him we can’t do it?”
“No! I want you to get a deposit.” After Martinez was gone from his office, Joe Fox reflected that he forgot to specify getting the front money before the work began. No one who wanted to put his mother in a stainless steel coffin with a glass lid should be fully trusted.
Martinez drove to Paramount after lunch. The same old black Chrysler Imperial was parked in front. He thought that was the kind of car that a doctor who hadn’t remodeled his office in forty years had to drive, and seeing it, he felt relieved since he had not thought to phone.
On this second visit, the ambience of his surroundings grew clearer. The neighborhood was nearly all residential—old single story wooden houses with this isolated commercial building containing Dr. Noble, a shoe repair and a vague looking business that might be selling lampshades. The building was a sun-faded beige stucco with a kind of marquee, actually more of a conning tower, that held Dr. Noble’s name in neon script above several decorative neon bands. The dirty glass tubes were protected by a grille of hardware cloth. The same wrinkled receptionist in an old-fashioned nurse uniform with a starched white hat pressed a button on a brown Bakelite intercom to announce his return. She let him into the doctor’s office. He seemed to never have any patients.
“Yes, Mr. Martinez? Did we forget something?”
“No, not really. It’s just that after I started checking on these materials I realized how expensive they were, and it’s our company policy in cases like this to get a deposit to cover the cost of the material.”
“Surely you had to know the cost of the materials when you quoted the price to me.”
Martinez felt his face get red and he had to concentrate on not squirming. “Well, to tell the truth, I forgot to tell you when I was here before.”
“I see, and your employer reminded you.”
“Yeah, you might say that.”
“I want there to be no delays, nor do I want you to have any concern about being paid. If you’ll just wait a moment I’ll have Miss Evans prepare a check. Is a thousand dollars enough?”
Martinez stared at the ancient carpet striated with hazy winter light falling through the wide, fly blown slats of the venetian blinds. He didn’t hear Noble talking to the old woman. The only sound was the gears grinding in an electric clock on the desk. Noble was gone for a very long time and when he returned Martinez started at the sound of the door.
Nobel held an envelope with green security paper visible through the glassine window. “Here you are. Now, please no delays. You understand, I hope, how important it is to me that my mother be laid to rest as quickly as possible.”
“We’ve already started,” he lied. Then he grabbed the envelope and went to a dark and smelly beer bar for the rest of the afternoon.
Alice found the envelope stuck in the keys of her typewriter when she arrived at work. The fact of there being not one word of explanation attached twisted her face in contempt for the always irresponsible salesman. Mechanically she reached for her rubber stamp to endorse the check. She hesitated. She read it two times then took it into her employer’s office.
“Have you seen this?”
“What?” She laid the check face down on the calendar desk pad in front of Joe Fox.
“Jesus Christ! Where’s Martinez?”
“I haven’t seen him. This was on my desk when I got here.”
Fox took the check and stomped into the shop. Martinez was talking to the foreman, José, by one of the old wooden layout tables. José had an electric heater under his bench. They huddled over it gesturing at a piece of yellow quadrille paper.
“What’s this shit?” He held the check in front of Martinez while the foreman grabbed the sketch and turned away from his boss’s wrath.
“It’s the deposit you wanted.”
“Did you read what he put on the back of it?”
He read it, shrugged and said, “It just says what we have to do.”
“You mean you agreed to this?”
“All I agree to do was hermetically seal it with nitrogen inside.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
“It’s simple. We just glue the glass down with bathtub caulking. Then we put the nitrogen in through a fitting in the side.”
“Then how do they get the old lady in?”
“Oh, well, I guess she’s gotta be in it when we put the lid on.”
José stiffened. He said, “Wait a minute. You mean we’re gonna have a dead person in here when we’re working on this?”
Martinez said, “It’s no big deal. We’ll take it to the funeral home. Maybe we can get the undertakers to put the lid on.”
“You’re out of your goddamn mind if you think an undertaker can do all this. How would we know it didn’t have leaks? How would we know he got all the air out before he capped off the nitrogen? And how are we going to cap it off? Are there going to be valves sticking out of this thing so some asshole can come along later and give grandma a little fresh air?”
Martinez thought for a second. “We’ll have two fittings. We’ll put the nitrogen in one and test what comes out of the other. When it’s all nitrogen, we put a plug in it. The other end, we gotta have a valve. There’s no other way. He’ll understand that.”
“How did you say you were going to test for pure nitrogen coming out? Doesn’t it say here ‘the internal atmosphere is to be 99.99% nitrogen’?”
“All nitrogen comes out of the bottle that pure.”
“Right. And does it stay that pure after you shoot it into a box full of air, formaldehyde and old lady gasses?”
José made a face as Martinez said, “I’m sure there’s some way to test it.”
“No doubt. Did you put the cost of the test equipment into your bid?”
“I got plenty of money in it. Besides, I bid it in ten gauge and I bought eleven gauge. He’ll never know the difference and the money we saved will pay for the testing.”
José was uncomfortable standing idle and wanted to leave before the discussion turned on him. He asked Fox, “Should I wait on this?”
“How are you going to start it? We haven’t got the material yet.”
“We got all kinds of eleven gauge.”
“Are you telling me that sketch doesn’t say that it’s stainless?”
Martinez said meekly, “I was gonna tell him.”
The foreman sucked his teeth then spit, “You mean this thing is stainless?”
“Would you bury your mother in a rusty box?”
A welder began backgrinding the first pass on a large pressure vessel. The vibrating scream of the grinder drove Fox into his office where he called Dr. Noble and found him to be a relatively reasonable customer. The doctor assured the owner of the metal shop that the atmosphere would be sufficiently inert if a slight vacuum were drawn in the coffin before purging it with two full bottles of nitrogen. However, no features could remain on the exterior; therefore, any valves had to be recessed and later sealed by welding covers over them and grinding the welds smooth, thus consigning the departed to eternity free of protuberances.
Fox clamped his molars and shook his head to free himself of his mental bent before he replied unctuously, “Very fine, Doctor, all that is feasible but how about the business of actually putting the body into the coffin?”
“Why should that present any problems?”
“Oh, no problems. We just want to make sure there aren’t any—accidents.”
“What do you mean—accidents? There had better be no accidents involving my mother’s remains.”
“Well, then I think it would be in everybody’s best interest if somebody other than an apprentice sheet metal mechanic laid your mother in her final repose.”
“I assure you that I will be right there to assist when the time comes. It can be no other way.”
A Modern Metals truck brought the polished stainless steel sheets the next morning, and in the afternoon, on one of his inspection tours, Fox noticed José developing notches for the inside corners of the coffin by cutting pieces of manila folder. The following afternoon the coffin had been sheared, notched and formed, and it was lying unceremoniously next to the welder who was completing work on the large tank for the refinery. The boss threw a fit at seeing hot balls of weld splatter falling on the PVC skin that protected the stainless steel’s brushed finish. In another day and a half all the coffin’s seams were welded. Fox insisted on assigning a journeyman to grind and polish the welds instead of the helper who would normally be stuck with the drudgery of restoring the grain to all the weld joints. It took two more days to complete the cosmetic work.
On Friday afternoon Joe Fox was examining the finished product with no little admiration. It was a beautiful fabrication. Double wall construction in the classic shape of coffins with the shoulder area wider than the head and feet. The fittings were set into tidy pockets with good fitting covers ready to be welded over them and the flange was recessed so the inch thick glass would fit flush. José had even thought to place the gas orifices where they would be hidden by the body.
Lou Martinez saw his boss with the casket and sidled close to fish for approval. “It looks good, doesn’t it?”
“What do you expect? How does the glass fit?”
“I don’t know. We haven’t tried it yet.”
“You mean to say that this box is completely done and nobody bothered to see if the fucking lid fits?”
It didn’t fit. It was too big and the man from the glass company was gone until Monday. Fox drove home muttering.
Three martinis into Friday night, when his rage at Martinez was starting to dissipate, the phone rang. Its bell jolted the full length of his spine. He let it ring but his wife answered it and, of course, it wasn’t for her.
“Are you the owner of Industrial Fabricators in Downey?”
Tentatively he said, “Yes.”
“This is Julius Schaeffer from Schaeffer and Steinman’s Funeral Home. You are, I believe, making a special casket for Dr. Noble.”
“Could you give me some idea when it’s going to be ready?”
“Well, the metal work is ready, but we’ve had a little problem with the glass. It should be straightened out in a couple days.”
“More like Thursday.”
Schaeffer groaned. “Isn’t there any way to expedite that?”
“Is there some problem that I don’t know about?”
“We’re extremely anxious to move the Doctor’s mother out of our mortuary.”
Fox was getting nervous. “Is there a reason why you’re so anxious?”
“Mr. Fox, the woman has been dead for three months and every single night Dr. Noble comes in and rubs her body with fish oil. He’s making our employees uncomfortable.”
Fox’s reaction splattered the mouthpiece with saliva.
“Mr. Fox, this is a serious matter. I am appealing to you as a fellow businessman to help us get this off our hands.”
“Why don’t you just tell him to take his mother elsewhere?”
“That wouldn’t be ethical. Can you imagine how we would look if people thought we might put their loved ones out in the street?”
“I’ll do everything I can.”
“Oh, by the way, how did you find my number? I pay for it to be unlisted.”
“Mr. Martinez suggested I call you.”
In the morning, Joe Fox went to his shop when there were no union men around and tried to tweak the coffin with furniture clamps. He hoped that by some miracle the size was right and the problem was in the angles. All he succeeded in doing was nicking a corner of the glass.
The glass man told Lou Martinez it would take a week to grind the small discrepancy from the edges of the plate.
“Why a week?” Fox demanded. “Didn’t it only take three days to make it in the first place?”
“He says it’s harder to shave such a small amount off the edges than to cut a new one. Do you want to get a new piece?”
“How much would that cost?”
Martinez had to ask the office manager. “Seventeen-hundred and fifty dollars,” she said. “Should I order it?”
“Would you like to have a coffin shaped coffee table in lieu of a bonus?”
Wednesday afternoon Schaeffer called for Fox who was lingering late over lunch futilely wishing Lou Martinez had gone to work for his competition before running into Dr. Noble. Then he played with lovely visions of firing Martinez but it was not his true desire. Martinez was the same as all the rest and firing him would only necessitate finding, training, and ultimately hating his replacement. He never returned the call to Schaeffer.
Late afternoon clouds blew in from the Pacific and it was nearly dark when Alice buzzed him to say Dr. Noble waited in the lobby. Fox hesitated, slipping into his PR persona, most customers were a pain in the ass but one that rubbed fish oil on his mother’s cadaver had to be dealt with carefully. He must not forget that the objective was to first be paid and then be rid of him.
After shaking hands—Fox thought he detected fish oil—and a rather mechanical exchange of greetings, Dr. Noble came to the point. “There has been an unpleasant turn of affairs. I have been forced to move my mother’s body from the cold storage repository so you can imagine my relief when Mr. Martinez told me that all was in readiness on your end.”
“Well, he said that the glass was expected anytime and that everything else was complete.”
Fox glanced at Alice for support. She was staring out the window. “I’ve been out and hadn’t heard this about the glass,” he told Noble. “Please, have a seat while I see where we stand.”
Martinez was not at his desk. Fox kept moving steadily down the hall and through the shop door hoping to unload on Martinez before something defused his tirade. Of course, there was the possibility that the glass was ready ahead of schedule but that was way too fanciful to take seriously.
There was no Martinez in sight, only José and a helper, forming stair treads in the grunting old press brake.
“José, have you seen Martinez?”
“By any chance has that glass been delivered?”
“No, sir,” he chuckled, “but they did deliver granny.”
“The funeral parlor, they delivered the old lady.”
“You accepted delivery of a corpse?”
“You said we were gonna put her in the box, so now she’s here. Her receipt’s on my clipboard.”
“Where did you put her?”
“We put her up on the sheet rack so nobody would hit her with a forklift.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you could fit a casket on that rack.”
“I asked the hearse driver about that. He said we were supposed to supply the casket. They brought her in a bag.”
Dr. Noble didn’t like his mother lying on a pallet on the top tier of the sheet rack so José took her down with the forklift and placed her on his layout table. The Doctor unzipped the body bag to check her condition. That sent the entire crew running to the break area for an impromptu safety meeting. Fox felt his indirect labor rising.
He slipped away to call the glass company and they told him Monday was the best they could do. “Look,” he said, “I’ll pay for premium time if you’ll keep somebody over to finish it tonight.”
The manager of the glass company said, “I’d like to help but I don’t think I can get anybody to stay over. These guys never want any overtime. I guess they get paid too much.”
“How about this? Tell them I’ll pay whoever gets it done fifty dollars cash when I pick it up, plus I’ll pay you whatever your shop’s premium rate is. It’s a matter of life and death—mostly death.”
At eight o’clock that night, Fox couldn’t stand being with Dr. Noble any longer so he left him in his office and drove the flatbed truck to the glass company. They were still grinding the plate but he waited and an hour later took possession of the glass after giving the man his fifty dollars. When he drove the truck into the shop he found Dr. Noble fixing his mother’s hair.
The Doctor had a nice satin casket liner which he put under the body then Fox had to help lift her with the liner and put her into the coffin.
Something was bothering him. “Uh, Doc,” he asked, “is she going to stay nude?”
Fox went to find the pendant control for the overhead crane and with a vacuum sheet lifter he brought the plate of glass to the coffin. Thank God it fit. He lifted it again and extruded a bead of silicon sealant all around the flange. It concerned him that the weight of the glass might squish a drop of glue off the flange and onto the carcass. Surely the good Doctor would never consent to spending the rest of his days looking at his mother with a dollop of bathtub caulk marring her nicely oiled hide.
The sealing went well. “OK, Doc, we can go now. There’s nothing more we can do until the glue cures.”
“We can’t leave her.”
“Would you leave your mother unattended in a place like this?”
Fox had a couch in his office. He slept there. Dr. Noble drove his old Chrysler into the shop and slept on its back seat with José’s heater blowing warm air through an open window. Alice woke her employer at eight-fifteen the following morning and gave him a cup of coffee. He immediately looked in the shop and found Dr. Noble sitting quietly at his mother’s side. The crew had separated themselves from the little wake with a barrier of welding screens so Fox sneaked unseen back to his office to drink the coffee and prepare himself to face the day.
Martinez called Alice to say that he was measuring a big job at the Chevron refinery and would be out of the office all day. Fox was happy to hear it and didn’t even care if it was a lie. He had enough problems ahead of him without having to cope with Martinez.
Before wishing the Doctor good morning he confirmed his suspicion that nobody had secured the use of a vacuum pump. Alice got busy on the phone and after an hour announced her failure. No one in the greater Los Angeles area had a portable vacuum pump available to rent. He told her to keep trying and went to check on the nitrogen supply that was supposed to be kept on hand for the plasma cutter. There were two bottles of nitrogen on the loading dock but to reach them he had to squeeze behind the big tank which some dumb shit had left there instead of putting it in the yard where it belonged. The pressure vessel certification tag snagged his pants. He swore and wanted to fire whoever had so badly attached it. When he regained control he had an idea.
The tank was moved next to José’s layout table. It was a large vessel and the stainless steel coffin looked small and vulnerable beside it. Electric blankets that welders use to preheat heavy parts were wrapped around the tank. An apprentice was given a big rosebud torch and told to wave it over uncovered portions of the vessel and even José’s electric heater was commandeered to add a few calories to the job of raising a gallon of water inside the tank to the boiling point.
The surrealism of the scene with the menacing cylindrical tank looming next to Dr. Noble and his old Chrysler while he presided solemnly over the shiny metal coffin made Fox want to get out of the fabrication business. To divert himself, he got busy plumbing the tank to one port on the casket and the nitrogen bottle to the other.
The union steward walked by and said behind his hand, “Let’s see your union card.”
Fox made a promise to himself that he would poison the man’s burritos.
The apprentice had been told his job was to make steam come out of a valve on top of the tank and to tell them when it happened. The kid began to cheer. Fox heard the steam hissing through the barely open valve and wanted to cheer too but he was trying to maintain a little professional decorum. He ordered the blankets and heaters removed, closed the valve and had cold water sprayed on the tank. It made a mess on the floor and irritated Noble when it splashed the coffin.
A vacuum gauge registered a few inches of mercury as the steam in the tank condensed to water. Fox opened the valve on the casket and the needle jumped then settled at a modest vacuum. “Look, Doc, your mother’s in a vacuum. Now we add the nitrogen, right?”
“Actually, we should wait for several minutes to allow any gasses that may be trapped within her organs to escape.”
Fox wanted to vomit.
While the departed was purged of foul airs, he disconnected the tank and put a gauge on the output valve so he could test for leaks when the chamber was pressurized with nitrogen. At last Noble consented and Fox cracked the valve of the first nitrogen bottle. The high-pressure gas blasted through the small, perforated area that José had concealed beneath the cadaver’s shoulders lifting the body with a little convulsion.
The Doctor nearly shit. “You’ve disarranged my mother! Her hair is mussed! Her mouth is gaping! Open the glass immediately!”
“You’re out of your fucking mind. That glass is sealed for eternity. We’d have to cut through the side of the box with a plasma torch to get inside.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to complete the rest of the requirements of our agreement, you’re going to pay me and get your mother out of here.”
With thirty pounds per square inch of pressure inside the coffin, he waited half an hour without noticing any pressure drop. Then he opened the valve and continued with the nitrogen purge, trying to be gentle, but the inrush of gas made grandma hiccough again. The Doctor couldn’t bear to watch.
“Bring me a welder!” Fox called and set to disconnecting the bottles. As often happens, the escaping gas had chilled the fittings and frost formed on the valve and the wall of the recess. He wondered about that while the welder made the heliarc machine ready. Then he looked through the glass and thought he saw tiny beads of moisture on the inner wall of the coffin. The Doctor was sulking in his car so Fox didn’t say a word.
Being a conscientious welder who always made a job last longer than it should, the kid wiped the frost from the recess before tacking the cover in place. Then he proceeded to weld all around it. Fox averted his eyes to avoid being blinded by the arc. When he looked, the last two inches of weld was glowing cherry red. A scared feeling hit him in the diaphragm. He jumped to look through the glass and damned if the heat hadn’t radiated through to the inner wall and melted the satin liner. Worse! There were wisps of smoke rising from behind her head.
“What the hell is in there to burn?” he demanded while grabbing the welder by the arm and trying to keep his voice from Noble’s hearing.
“Maybe some PVC was left on the inner wall but nothing should burn in that nitrogen.”
Though he lacked the strength to explain, Fox understood that water, driven by the heat, had separated into its constituents and that little bit of oxygen allowed the plastic film to smolder just enough to darken the glass and drop oily wisps of carbon on the dear lady’s cheeks.
Noble sensed a problem. When he looked on the dirty face of his mother he wailed, “You’ll pay for this! Open the glass and let me clean her face. Open the glass, in the name of God!”
Fox’s avarice was shrinking in relation to his discomfort. “Doctor, if you want your mother, pay me what you owe me, we’ll stick her in your back seat and you can get the hell out of here.”
“I’ll not pay you a cent. You’ve desecrated the dead. You’re the one who’ll pay!”
“Then just get the hell out and I’ll put a lien on your mother.” When the reality of what he had said struck him, he felt sick then he felt scared. Finally he knew what to do.
Lou Martinez’s garage door was closed by a small padlock. Fox snapped its shackle with a bolt cutter and raised the door. He backed the flatbed to its threshold and lowered the lift gate with the stainless steel coffin on it. He slid it onto the floor as gently as he could but the old lady was already thoroughly jostled. Then he knelt beside the casket and wrote a note on the back of Lou’s final check:
The endorser accepts this as payment in full of all wages owed him and also accepts the stainless steel fabrication, herewith, in lieu of severance. All rights to collect the balance still outstanding from Dr. Noble are hereby assigned.
It has been my pleasure to showcase these amazing writers. Look for interviews and more on them in the upcoming weeks.
Why did it win? What spoke to me?
I liked this story a lot, and for several reasons.
First, you all know I appreciate humor, and this story had that. The end, especially, was funny.
However, it also had tension – and lots of it. And the tension kept building throughout the story. Did you feel it, now that I’m mentioning it? Weren’t you worried the doctor was gonna look over during the nitrogen process and have some sort of crazy issue? Or did you think the whole places was gonna explode because they were using gas and a heater?
I was. That’s good storytelling. Plus, telling a funny story is difficult, and Scott did a great job of that, too.
Join me in celebrating this moment with a very talented author, Scott Skipper
If you liked this story, please share it on StumbleUpon and other social media so our winners can get the recognition they deserve.
Tomorrow, the fourth of our honorable mentions in the Word Weaver Writing Contest, also winning a Special Honorable mention:
“An Encounter With A Suit Of Armor” by Robbie Cheadle
If you would like to sponsor our October 2017 Word Weaver Writing Contest and get this kind of exposure for your product or service, please contact me.