Qwerky Fiction: Coffin Fishing

Coffin Fishing

by CB Adams

Late Sunday night after attending a gun and collectibles show in St. Louis, Bill Burmeister - Burr to everyone who knew him - was trying to find his way home. Guiding his truck along one confusing detour after another: washed-out bridges, submerged highways, collapsed levees. There were patches of fog thick like anesthesia. Headlights - set on high beam - plowed through banks of insects, their sounds still audible over the whir of the air conditioning and the drone of the engine. Next to him, secured with a seat belt: a framed portrait of a Confederate soldier - a boy really - with the black stalk of his rifle resting against his right shoulder. His eyes defiant, clear, scared. On the radio two professors debated whether this was a 500-year or a 1,000-year flood. Burr shook his head. He had stood above the flood and stared at the water. He had felt - and could still feel - the river wasn't done rising. In the car he turned to a station playing Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight."

He finally reached the intersection of routes T and Y, just outside Boville. A crossroads Burr recognized. In fifteen minutes he'd be home. He passed through the town of Common, drove over the Missouri River at Turner's Bridge, and nosed his truck around the loping bend in the road at Scotsman's Bluff. Then onto the gravel road that led to his house. The road sloped gradually between a field of corn standing taller than a man. The land was Burr's, but the corn was raised by a local man who leased property and farmed it. Burr's house - a double-wide mobile home he had bought four years before - sat in a hollow, surrounded by trees. It was cool there in summer, and protected in winter. Tonight it was underwater. 

Burr ground the truck to a halt. The headlights caught the top few inches of his trailer that were still above the water. He got out. The water's voice was quiet, yet immense and strong. Burr watched as the double-wide squirmed in the current, pulling against the tie-downs like a great, white, restless whale. He imagined the river washing the photographs from the walls and darkening their sepia tones to the flat color of mud. When he couldn't stand to look any longer, Burr pounded his fist on the hood of the truck and turned to leave. He wasn't sure where he would go. He had friends - acquaintances really - but none he would impose upon. So he drove back to Turner's Bridge, parked, and walked slowly out over the river. He looked down and listened to the water splash against the pylons. 

Burr remembered being a boy and climbing along the supports under this bridge. He used to sit on a girder and watch the water going by. If he stared too long, it seemed like the bridge was moving and the water stood still. Burr thought about Libby Bittlemeyer, his eighth grade history teacher. She came from St. Louis to Boville when her husband got a job as a towboat operator. She was not the youngest or prettiest teacher Burr knew, but he fell in love with her anyway. He fell in love with her the first day of class. He fell in love with her the moment she chalked her name in sad cursive on the blackboard in a way that said she had lived her own history. He fell in love with Libby Bittlemeyer even before she introduced herself and said: "Class, if you remember nothing else this year, remember that history is not a place. It's not museums, monuments, or the Gettysburg Address. No, history is time. It's like the river. It flows around you. Stay in one spot and history will become you, just as the sunrise gives you a new day."

Now forty years later, thinking about his own history made Burr feel tired, like he was swimming against the current. Arms pulling, legs kicking, yet staying in the same place. He walked back to his truck then drove to the Bobber Truck Stop and Cafe. He stayed up the rest of the night drinking coffee. A Red Cross 
volunteer came by and asked Burr to help with the sandbagging efforts. Burr 
declined because he had back problems, a disc that easily slipped him into agony. So the volunteer gave him a flyer about the temporary shelter instead. 

At dawn, Burr watched the indigo of night rise like a window shade, revealing the pink light of day. Titty Tevis came into the Bobber for breakfast. When he saw Burr, he walked over and squeezed himself uninvited into the booth where Burr was sitting.

"Heard about the Corps' levee collapsing?" said Titty, vigorously scratching his chest through his white v-neck T-shirt. "How's your place?" 

"Gone, I guess. They say the whole area is under," Burr replied. 

"Helluva thing, this flood," said Titty. 

"Yeah, like you could just up and leave and never come back." 

The two men were the same age and had grown up in Boville. They were distant acquaintances at best, yet their lives shared many echoes. They each lived alone, and neither had children. Burr's wife, Cassie, had divorced him twelve years earlier. She said she blamed him for having sperm with the motility of concrete. She said she had to leave while there was still time for her to have children. Nora, Titty's wife, had died after a long fight with cervical cancer. They had been married only a few years. Before she died, she gave Titty permission to marry again, a privilege he neither asked for nor intended to use. 

"You could come stay with me," Titty said to Burr. "I've got a guest room that's just takin' up space." Titty lived in an old farmhouse on the edge of an abandoned quarry, the former Tevis Stone & Gravel Works, an enterprise begun by his grandfather and closed by Titty when he retired after the death of Nora. Titty smiled, waiting for Burr's answer. Burr noticed Titty had the biggest, whitest teeth he'd ever seen on a man. They looked strong and wide enough to grind feed corn. 

"Naw, it wouldn't feel right," Burr replied. 

"Bullshit," said Titty. "That tin can you were living in is three counties away by now and . . . it ain't coming back." Titty looked at the Red Cross flyer near Burr's coffee cup. "Where else you gonna sleep, some cot at that shelter?" 

"I don't know..." 

"Jesus, you'd think I was gonna bite you," Titty said. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled a key off the wad at the end of a chain that was hooked to his belt loop. He slapped the key down. "Come when you want. Go when you want. Just let somebody do something for you, would ya?"

When Burr pulled up to the house later that day, the bare-chested Titty was waiting for him on the front porch. Like most people who grew up in the area, Burr knew how Titty got his nickname. In high school, Theodore "Teddy " Tevis developed a severe case of eczema that made his chest and nipples painfully dry and itchy. He scratched and rubbed them constantly. Whenever he wore shirts, he pulled the pocket buttons to get the material off his skin, giving him a full-figured appearance, like Jane Russell in those "Cross Your Heart" commercials. So everyone called him Titty. After a dermatologist in St. Louis cured the condition, Titty continued playing with himself for no other reason than sheer habit. Now 53, he could have earned his nickname all over because of the near-prodigious size of his flabby pectorals. 

"See you found the place," Titty said, helping Burr carry in the four bags of new clothes and other essentials he had bought at Wal-Mart. 

"Yeah, I got the pea gravel for my road from you, back when I bought my place," Burr replied. 

"I remember that." 

"Lot quieter around here now." 

Titty was about to agree when he noticed the photograph of the Confederate soldier strapped in the seat. 

"Itn't he something?" Burr asked. "Bought him at the gun show in St. Louis." 

"Who is it?" 

"Believe it or not, he's my great-great-grandfather on my mother's side." 

"You don't say." Titty thought he could see a slight family resemblance around the jaw line, or maybe the curvature of the eyes. "And you bought it at a gun show." 

Titty led Burr into his house and showed him the guest room. The two-story house was almost 100 years old. It was clean and well-maintained. It smelled of lemon wax and Murphy's Oil Soap. The guest room was furnished with an antique rope bed, an oak bonnet chest, a rolltop desk, and a brown corduroy recliner that looked out of place.

"After Nora couldn't get up the stairs any more, I made up her bed in here," Titty explained. "Toward the end, every movement made her hurt more. I couldn't bear not to be upstairs, so I bought this recliner to sleep in." 

Burr nodded. 

"And don't worry," Titty added. "That's a brand-new mattress." 

After Burr was settled in, he found Titty waiting for him on the wooden wrap-around back porch. The steep face of the limestone quarry rose behind the house like an amphitheater. It captured the light of the setting sun and amplified the dark noise of crickets, cicadas, and locusts. Between the house and the rock face sat a quarry pit filled with blue-black water. A narrow wooden dock extended from the back porch into the water. Two white Adirondack chairs sat facing the quarry from off the porch. 

Titty poured Kentucky Gentleman into two shot glasses. He handed one glass to Burr, who wasn't much of a drinker. Titty leaned his head back and downed the bourbon. With a bang he set the glass on the arm of his chair.

Burr sipped the bourbon and let it warm him slowly while Titty poured himself another. The two men watched without speaking as purple martins swooped across the surface of the water in the fading sunlight and Titty asked, "Hungry?"

Inside, Burr sat at the kitchen table as Titty completed their meal. The men talked. Burr was surprised to learn how much Titty knew about his divorce from Cassie, his towing service, and his land. Burr knew relatively little about Titty, but he noticed their lives had reached a similar crossroads - young enough to start over, old enough to bear the loneliness. 

Dinner was: pork chops braised in sweet cider, pink catawba wine, thick stalks of asparagus baked in tin foil with butter, a salad of field greens and fiddlehead ferns dressed in hot bacon drippings, white vinegar, and a pinch of sugar, angel biscuits. No dessert, but black coffee. 

When they were done, Burr said, "God damn, Titty. You sure can cook." 

"I didn't know how to boil water until after Nora got sick," Titty said and tweaked his right nipple a tweak. "Doctor said she had to eat, to keep her strength up. I tried fixing anything. Tried to make her take a few bites. I bought cookbooks, subscribed to magazines. I'd read the descriptions and list of ingredients. If Nora said it sounded good, I made it." 

"You're a good man," Burr said, surprised at his own comment. 

Titty got up and started clearing the dishes. Burr tried to help but Titty shooed him away. He watched as Titty cleaned each dish and pot carefully before putting it in the dishwasher. They made small talk as Titty neated up the kitchen. They had to raise their voices over the whoosh of the dishwasher. Maybe it was the bourbon and the wine or the fine meal, or the fact that practically everything he owned was now floating down river. But here - more than twenty years since his parents' death left him without family; twelve years since his wife floated out of his life; and exactly six months since anyone had even offered him a home-cooked meal with the promise of certain company afterwards - it was here with Titty that Burr wanted to talk about happiness. 

"You think you could ever be happy again?" he asked. 

Titty looked at Burr and shrugged his shoulders. "Happiness is a fire. You 
gotta keep giving it something to burn or it goes out." He said this, staring out the window over the sink. Moths fluttered against the glass. 

Burr watched Titty for a moment and looked away. He tried to feel whether an ember still burned within. Titty said goodnight and headed upstairs with the remains of the Kentucky Gentleman. Burr went to the guest room and laid on top of the bed quilt. He didn't undress. Titty had good air conditioning - quiet and cool and dry. The flood seemed far away. During the night, Burr dreamed that Titty sat in the recliner, watching him sleep. 

During the flood, the land changed. The water sought out and claimed its low places. It turned the hard earth into soft, compliant pudding and resurrected the dead. It unmoored the sealed metal coffins from their final resting places in Calvary Cemetery and sent them bobbing down river like buoys from the underworld, thudding against trees and the drowned barns and houses. It spun the coffins aimlessly in the current's slow whorls and eddies that formed across fields. In which weeks before these same fields had held rows of corn, milo, sorghum, and alfalfa. And people responded with panic. The dead had to be saved, they said, caught like wayward children and returned home. Many tried without success to lasso the coffins from the riverbank. Someone fashioned a harpoon from a piece of re-bar and a rope. The coffins repelled the harpoon, spurned it like a toy arrow. Two out-of-town volunteers drowned when their boat hit a submerged tree. They capsized as they were guiding a coffin to shore. The sheriff said no more trying to save the dead.

Burr awoke to the sound of a large splash and Titty whooping "Oh shit!" He got out of bed and walked to the window. Titty was swimming naked in the quarry pit. Burr showered and dressed in a pair of new jeans and a stiff chambray work shirt with large checkerboard creases. The shirt was itchy and Burr rubbed his hands over the chest and sleeves to loosen up the fabric. 

When Burr stepped onto the porch, Titty waved and said, "Come on in. No better way to start your morning." Burr shook his head. Against the deep water, Titty looked like a very large, bald-headed cork. 

"Have it your way," Titty said. "There's coffee in that Thermos by the chairs." 

Burr was on his second cup when Titty climbed onto the dock and dried himself off. He slipped on white boxer shorts and a pair of flip flops. 

"That pit's more than fifty feet deep," Titty said. "Even in the summer the water stays cool." 

"You got it stocked?" Burr asked. 

"Oh sure. Catfish, bluegill, crappie - and no trash fish, either." 

At the sound of gravel crunching on the driveway, Titty and Burr followed the wrap-around porch to the front of the house. Franklin Hobbs, owner of Hobbs Construction over in Common, stepped down from his red, long-bed Dodge truck. The door closed with a solid, manly thunk. 

"Ain't you a sight, Titty. You never change," Franklin said. "Hey there, Burr, didn't know you was out here." 

"We're about to have breakfast, you son of bitch," Titty said. "You want some?" 

"Nope. I just had the Big Plate over at the Bobber." 

"Well, at least come in for coffee." 

Franklin walked up the porch steps and set his hand, as big as a catcher's mitt, on Burr's shoulder. "Hated to hear about your place, Burr. If you need -" 

"Thanks . . . I know," Burr said, stepping back. 

In the kitchen, Titty pulled from the oven a large casserole dish of baked cheese grits. Thick slices of bacon popped and sizzled in a black cast iron skillet on the stovetop. Mr. Coffee chugged on the counter. A wire whisk lay across the lip of a glass bowl like a skeletized chicken drumstick. Inside, several eggs lay beaten. 

"That bacon smells awful good," Franklin said. "Think I might just have to have a slice or two, after all." 

"Got that from Burgher's Smokehouse," Titty said. "They sure know how to smoke a hog." 

Titty dished up a plateful of grits, bacon, and scrambled eggs for all the men.

"So what brings you out here?" Titty asked. 

"Well, sir, I'll tell ya. I've got a proposition," Franklin said. "It was originally for you, Titty, but since you're here, Burr, I'll bring you in on it, too. I call it coffin fishing." 

Franklin said it worked this way: First, you send a spotter in a boat upriver. When a coffin surfaces, the spotter radios back to a foreman on Turner's Bridge, a half a mile down. As the coffin rounds Scotsman's Bluff, a crew in john boats helps guide it to the bridge, where one of Franklin's construction cranes is positioned. Dangling from the crane is a net of woven cables. The water is fast under the bridge, but even so, if you drop the net at just the right moment, you can snatch a coffin from the river. He was sure of it. Even the sheriff had given him the go-ahead. 

"Franklin Hobbs," Titty said when he was done explaining, "you're a goddamned hero." Titty slapped a damp kitchen towel on the counter for emphasis. 

Franklin agreed Burr should be the foreman due to his back and disc problems. Titty said he preferred not to have a job title, that he would find his own way to make himself useful. 

The next morning was hot and hazy, even in the early light. Franklin Hobbs was away, trying to save the Chrysler dealership in Common from drowning. Burr leaned over the upstream railing of Turner's Bridge and waited. The walkie-talkie dangled from his belt, its antenna black and knobby as a Doberman's cropped tail. The diesel-powered winch crane was running and periodically hacked up black smoke; its operator dozed on the seat. The steel cable and net swung slowly over the brown flood waters. Below the bridge, two john boats tugged at their bow lines like catfish on a stringer, and four men murmured nearby on the river bank. They smoked and scuffed their work boots in the softening black earth. Parked behind Burr on the bridge was Jake Sansone's pickup. Jake drank coffee from a Thermos and stared downstream. There was no wind and the river stank up the inescapable stagnant, humid air.

Then, Waymon Dakin's voice on the walkie-talkie: "Burr? You there?" 

This was the moment Burr had been waiting for. The crane operator sat up with a start, the volunteers looked toward him. Burr put the walkie-talkie to his mouth and said, "Yeah." 

"We got one."

"We'll be ready." Then Burr yelled to no one in particular, They got one. No hurry, though." 

Franklin Hobbs had estimated it would take at least twenty minutes for a coffin to float down to Turner's Bridge. The crane operator revved his engine anyway. Burr was glad to be here, to be busy. He had no recent past, no distant past. He believed he had nothing now. Starting from the time he had been adopted as a newborn from a Catholic home for wayward girls, he had been pulled along by a current he could not fight. He had lost the parents who raised him in a house fire not long after he and Cassie were married. He remembered walking through the smoking ashes, searching for photos and mementos from the family who had tried to make him part of their history. That is why he was glad for this work here on the bridge. He hoped his mobile home would pass below. It may have been manufactured in Boise and brought to his farm on a flatbed trailer, but it was still his first new home. It had been filled with old photos of strangers he had collected which he thought looked like him - photos he claimed were his relatives. He felt the need to wave good-bye to his now, truly, mobile home and 
his fabricated past, within. And maybe he would see it. Just the day before, Lyle Kurtner had claimed his `76 El Camino came cruising by with only the rubber of its four tires under water. 

"Damnedest thing," Lyle said. "Made me think, if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn't walk on water, he'd drive." 

Nobody believed Lyle Kurtner, least of all Burr, but it was true that the flood had brought down amazing things - distended pigs and cows traveled down river like balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (some made great use of them for target practice), a satellite dish shimmered beneath the water like a giant lotus flower, trees surfaced like alligators then disappeared in the chocolate water. 

The CB radio in Jake Sansone's truck sizzled. Jake leaned into the cab of his truck and grabbed the handset, held it to his ear then dropped it to his waist. 

"Hey Burr, it's your wife. She wants to know - for lunch - do you want an albacore tuna in a whole wheat pita pocket or a smoked turkey with a...wait a minute." Jake spoke into the CB then resumed, "With melted brie?" 

For a split second, Burr thought Cassie might really have returned to him, forgiving him for his seedlessness. He waved off Jake's question as the other men chuckled. Jake walked over, still grinning. "Titty's been taking pretty good care of you, huh, Burr?" He stood close to Burr and put his hand on his shoulder. 

"Shit, I feel like I put on ten pounds living with him," Burr said. 

"Ahh, Titty. He means well." 

Studying the water, Burr knew Cassie had left him for more than what she claimed. She had grown to hate the odd hours that owning a towing business demanded. She was bored going with him to antique shows and auctions. She had no interest in history or in things old. She wanted a house full of new things, including children. Burr could only imagine at which point in their marriage she had begun to see her life with him as unwanted, as the past, as something ripe for discarding. 

Burr heard Waymon say he was just about to reach Scotsman's Bluff, which overlooked a bend in the river. Burr yelled to the men to get the john boats going. They hopped in, started the motors, and set off. A few minutes later, Burr saw them positioning the coffin with two-by-fours. He motioned for the crane operator to begin lowering the net. The coffin was listing to one side. Its chrome handles, pitted and tarnished, barely rose above the surface. It neared the bridge and Burr yelled to drop the net. With a little help from the men in the boats, the coffin entered the net. The operator began lifting the coffin from the river slowly. It cleared the railing and was lowered onto the bed of Jake's truck. Jake radioed the good news to Franklin Hobbs. Burr and some onlookers stared at the coffin the same way they would have stared at the body of a deer in the back of a hunter's truck. Jake drove the coffin to Heaven's Gate Mortuary in Boville for identification and to await reburial. Coffin fishing had saved its first soul. 

By dusk the coffin fishers had rescued nine coffins and lost three. Soon it would be too dark to continue since the sandbaggers had all the emergency lights. Burr was about to radio for Waymon to head back when he heard Waymon on the walkie-talkie: "Good God, here's another one." Burr alerted the crew to get ready. As they waited, Titty drove up and parked on the bridge. He had appointed himself the grubmaster. He had made the men lunch earlier. Now he was back. 

"I was over at the Bobber," he said to Burr. "Everyone's talking about coming over to watch tomorrow. We ought to sell tickets." 

"We got another on the way," Burr said. 

"You're gonna be a local hero," Titty said, milking himself with the dexterity of a dairy farmer. 

Burr waved off his comment. Titty looked nervously from the river to Burr. 

"You got somethin' on your mind, Titty?" 

"Naw. No," he said. "It can wait." 

"Go on. We got time." 

"Well, I was thinking. I don't know about you, but I think things have been good with you stayin' over at my place."

Burr nodded. He didn't want to tell Titty he understood what he meant. He remembered the night before, lying in the guest room bed after another of Titty's big dinners. Burr had felt almost at home in the house by the quarry. 

"Aw, I don't know, Titty. I got my own land. And this morning, the insurance company said they were sending the pay-out check on my place." 

"I know. I know, But maybe, if you want, you could think about staying on, even after the flood?" 

Before Burr answered, he noticed Jake motion to the crane operator. He turned and spotted Waymon rounding Scotsman's Bluff. 

He said, "Titty, I gotta-" 

Titty said, "Yeah, I know." 

Burr turned and told the men to head upriver. As the coffin drew nearer, Burr noticed it was riding higher on the water than the others. In the falling light, he recognized it. The metal was new and shiny, a burnished copper color with bright chrome handles. It was Libby Bittlemeyer. There was a large fleur-de-lis on the lid. A bleeding heart pierced by puncturing thorns covered the lower part of the coffin. Burr knew it was Mrs. Bittlemeyer's because he'd been one of her pall bearers. The school's principal had called Burr and other former students because she had no family he knew of. The day of her funeral was the first of the many gully-washers that began the flood. Remembering the three coffins that had escaped, Burr climbed over the railing and onto the net. 

Titty grabbed his arm and said, "What the hell are you doing?" 

Burr pushed Titty's hand away and motioned for the operator to lower him.

"We can't lose this one," Burr said. 

Burr clung to the side of the net, his feet just above water, as the men tried to position the coffin toward the center. The men were having difficulty steering the coffin. Unlike the other, less buoyant coffin's Mrs. Bittlemeyer's required less manhandling. The coffin finally began to enter the net but as one of the john boats turned to move away, the bow tapped the coffin and it spun out. 

"Keep it straight," Burr yelled to the men. With his free hand he reached down and grabbed a handle as it floated by. "Come back here." 

The coffin and the current pulled Burr and the net under the bridge. Burr strained to hold on. He felt something pop in his lower back, and his legs went numb. 

"Help me!" he said in a hoarse whisper. "It's my bad back." 

The men turned the john boats to move toward him. The pull of the river was strong. Burr considered letting go of the net, of riding with Mrs. Bittlemeyer where the flood waters would take them. Instead, he released her. As the coffin pulled away, the men reached up and lowered Burr, bent like a grub worm, into the boat. 

"You okay, Burr?" one of them asked. "What were you doin'?" 

"Letting her go," he said, his eyes closed in pain. "You can't catch `em all." 

The men placed Burr in the net, and the crane slowly lifted him to the bridge.

 ~ 

The river began slinking back into its banks, returning to the air the bridges, highways, and levees. The land. The suffocated fields revealed finally that 123 citizens of Calvary Cemetery had been liberated by the flood. Most of the wayward dead were found. Almost half were fished from Turner's Bridge. A handful were located - surprisingly - within a few feet of where they were buried. One was found lodged high in a tree. Another was discovered in the next county, leaning against a headstone in another cemetery, as if to accuse "You buried me wrong." A man, 22 years old, was arrested for causing the breech in the levee that flooded several hundred acres of Common County. Said his only reason was to save his family's farm down river. Said by opening the levee he 
was relieving the pressure on the older, cruder levee farther south. Their loss was his gain. 

For days Burr had to lie still in bed. Even with the muscle relaxers and pain medication, the slightest movement - even breathing - hurt. The bed felt as hard and uneven as gravel. Dressing was torture. Getting up to pee took half an hour. But Titty was there. Fixing his meals, scheduling his medication, always asking if he needed anything like a manly nursemaid. Burr's doctor said recovery would take its own course. The drugs made Burr feel logy and unable to concentrate. Titty read to him The Jimplicute, the local paper, aloud, from front to back. Often, when Burr was alone, he was content to simply stare at the framed photo of the Confederate soldier boy, propped on top of the bonnet chest. 

Titty also answered the calls on Burr's pager. Burr had the only Jerr-Tram tow truck in Common County - the ramp type most people preferred over the old winch and pulley. The more the flood waters receded, the more calls Burr received to pull vehicles from their tombs of mud and silt. He became anxious to get back to work. 

On a Thursday, he awoke and the pain in his back was gone, like flipping a switch. He stood up, stretched, and took a few steps. He felt stiff and a little weak from all that lying down, but this was the way it always was with one of his attacks. A sudden recovery. When Titty came home from the store, Burr was dressed and in the kitchen making coffee. 

"Hey! It's great seeing you up again." 

"Felt like I was underwater a long time." 

"Want to go for a drive?" 

"Where?" 

"I got a tip about another coffin. The way it was described, it sounds like it's Libby Bittlemeyer's." 

Burr's heart pounded. He couldn't believe he had a second chance to save her. Burr drove them in his truck. He wanted to feel mobile again. The two men set off, following the black river of highway. Titty picked a talk show to listen to on the radio. The announcer was taking calls to see how people felt about the man who had burst the Common County levee to keep his fiancé stranded in the next county so he could spend more time drinking and getting stoned with his friends - activities his fiancé did not approve of. 

Burr let his mind wander back to Mrs. Bittlemeyer's funeral. She had been light as a corn husk doll as he and five other former students carried her to the grave site. That day he tried to keep his thoughts on the old, dried-up version of Mrs. Bittlemeyer, the one who seemed to lose a little mass each day. It was easier that way, to remember the last time he had seen her before she had died. The week before, she had been at Kroger's, leaning on a shopping cart, taking slow, tiny steps in her brown granny shoes, one foot barely in front of the other. 

But it was no use. Burr could not keep himself from thinking about Libby Bittlemeyer, the younger. The woman who wove herself back and forth between the aisles of the classroom like stirring a pot. The woman who had brought history alive, as though it was the two of you sitting there in Ford's Theatre instead of Abraham Lincoln. The woman who made you believe you knew how it felt to get a bullet to the brain, to leave life hearing the sounds of screams. Libby, the woman who had, you noticed, that day, a dark red spot on the back of her floral dress. The other boys had snickered, but not you. You could not stop thinking about that spot, shiny and slick. You knew where it came from. You, who had seen a more personal history which you were not meant to see. You, who reached out and touched that red spot, trying to hide it. You, who had caused her look at the place you touched, and sent her running from the classroom with the back of her dress bunched in her hand as the class laughed. You, who had, later that night, climbed the railing of Turner's Bridge, gripped a cross-brace with one hand and unzipped yourself with the other, and let loose into the river a sudden and uncontrollable spasm of feelings you didn't fully understand. You, who, the next week, contracted the mumps that fell to your testicles, swelling them as big as tennis balls, rendering them nearly sterile. You, who had believed ever since that you were being punished left alone for what you had seen and felt and done and wasted. 

"Whoa there, Trigger," Titty said, tapping Burr on the arm. "You're driving a little too fast for comfort." 

"Sorry. I let my mind wander for a minute," Burr said, easing off the pedal. 

Titty didn't know exactly where the coffin was. There were still many detours along the secondary roads. Burr followed Titty's directions but felt lost. Several miles before, they had left Common County. Burr wondered how they would be able to lift the coffin and put it into the truck. Then Titty pointed out the turn off, and Burr steered the truck onto a gravel road. They drove for a few minutes, then came upon the coffin lying near a washed out section. The two men got out and approached it. Water dripped from a tiny hole at the bottom. 

"It's not here," Burr said "It's not hers." 

"Wonder whose it is, then?" Titty said. 

The two men stood with their hands in their pockets and looked around. A few weeks before, this area had been under ten feet of water. Burr noticed lodged high in one tree was a photo album, it's pages brown and curled like fallen leaves. Burr was relieved the coffin was not his old schoolteacher's. As he stood there, looking down at the unknown coffin, he realized that the flood had washed his life clean. He cleared away the old memories of the beautiful Mrs. Bittlemeyer who had come to Boville to baptize them with history, the Libby Bittlemeyer who had aroused him to lust with her womanhood and blood flow. He understood his land was now covered with a layer of another man's dirt. He could start over, or he could do nothing. He could accept Titty's offer, or he could move on. He thought of the dirt that the flood had scoured from his land. He wondered where it would settle, but he knew it no longer mattered.

Note: "Coffin Fishing" originally was published in the October 1998 issue of Zoetrope All-Story Extra