The Sorrows of Rueben Lee Chesser

Now you just know something bad’s going to happen to Rueben Lee Chesser, because he’s just sitting there in his favorite chair, note pad in his lap, with a silly grin on his face as he thinks about the funny look on Maryanne Gilman’s face as her daddy’s head went bumpity, bumpity, bumpity down the front steps of her front porch.  There’s no way this story can end without something horrible happening to Rueben Lee, you say.  And you’re right!

Because not only is Rueben Lee a murderer, but he has no feelings.  He doesn’t care about poor orphaned Maryanne.  And to make it worse, he thinks it’s funny!  He even wrote a limerick about it:

Why’d I hack off his head with a sword?

I can put it in one word.

Because, you see,

‘Twas due to ennui.

But now I’m no longer bored.


Limericks–that was Rueben Lee’s passion.  With some people it’s crossword puzzles or mah-jong or string sculpture, but Rueben lee’s sole leisure time activity was composing limericks.  Mrs. Chesser, or Claire, as we’ll cal her, looked down on Rueben Lee for this reason.  She had better things to do in her spare time, like counting blackmail money.  When ever her husband was sitting in his easy chair with his notepad, composing limericks, she would sneer and say, “Simple pleasures for simple minds.”

That always got a rise out of him.  Simple pleasures for simple minds.  How he hated that sentence!  How many times had he heard it? Whenever he heard it, he would recite to himself a limerick he had composed:

The disposal of Claire’s remains

Was a puzzle exceedingly strange.

Not even the flue

Was overlooked for a clue,

 But all they could find were her brains.


Lately he had been turning his talents to other deadly verses, he had been so aggravated by her remarks, such as:

The maid’s piercing shriek split the air

When she found what was left of Miss Claire.

There were goblets of ooze

On her clothes, on her shooz,

And puddles all over the stair.


And if truth be known, it was not only it was not only in fanciful poems that he pictured her dead.  He had begun to think of ways of accomplishing it in reality.

So Rueben Lee sits there in his chair, thinking about ways to murder his wife, even as she rummages around in the kitchen making wifely domestic noises.  What he doesn’t know is that she is looking for the biggest, sharpest butcher knife she has, because she has plans of her own for Rueben Lee.  And here she comes, walking up behind him on tip-toe, and–oops!  She trips on the edge of the rug.  But these things all work out for the best, because she falls with both hands holding the knife and doesn’t chicken out like she probably would have.  Rueben Lee had always told her she was a fraidy cat.  And had Rueben Lee ever chickened out?  No, he hadn’t, not even when Mr. Gilman said he was going to the police because he didn’t have any more money to pay blackmail, and besides, he’d paid his debt to society years ago, and if anyone wanted to spread the word that he was an ex-convict, well let them, and anyway little Maryanne needed that operation or she’d die of what her mother died of.

But Rueben Lee was adamant, and he didn’t chicken out, not even when old man Gilman pulled the gun on him and tried to make a citizen’s arrest.  Rueben Lee just jumped sideways and grabbed that old Japanese samurai sword Mr. Gilman had brought back from the war.

And he didn’t chicken out.  No, sir!  He just lopped off Gilman’s head with one chop, and it rolled across the floor and out the front door and down the steps, bumpity, bumpity, bumpity, thirteen times.  Those Japs sure knew how to make swords.

Well, likewise Claire wasn’t about to chicken out now, not with her 190 pounds falling ninety-two feet per second right into Rueben Lee.  But the worst part was that split second before she connected, when Rueben Lee turned around and saw her coming at him.  And he just had time to open his mouth with a startled O as the blade thanked into his heart, going straight through it and into his spine.

Well, he’d never write another limerick, Claire tells herself.  And Rueben lee looks back at her in outraged surprise and he looks so funny Claire has to laugh.  But Rueben Lee won’t talk, no more than little Maryanne who’d been struck dumb by the sight of her daddy’s head rolling down the steps like a rubber ball.

Now Claire has to make her husband’s death look like an accident, and this is the easy part.  She just sits him back in his chair and places around and about him his gun-cleaning supplies–oil, cotton wads, and so on.  And she stands his favorite shotgun between his legs as if he’s cleaning it, and she puts a shell in the gun, and she puts his hand on the gun, and she pulls the trigger, eyes averted.

And now nobody will ever find the hole in Rueben Lee’s chest made by the butcher knife.  Because Rueben lee doesn’t have a chest anymore.

We’ll pass over the tragic events that follow: the funeral, the weeping relatives and friends, the tender sight of little Maryanne presenting a single petunia plucked from an adjacent grave at Rueben lee’s coffin.

So Claire went home to bed and took a sleeping pill and a dry martini, and she read herself to sleep with a travel folder on Europe, secure in the belief she’d seen the last of Rueben lee and his limericks.

But, of course, she has not seen the last of him.  We wouldn’t let him off that easily, would we?

But of course before the corpse of  a murdered man can return to take revenge on its killer, there is one condition that must be fulfilled.  It must not be embalmed.

That’s the reason so few corpses take revenge theses days.  Embalmed corpses just don’t cut it as far as revenge is concerned.  They may have the will, but all that formaldehyde sure puts a damper on things.

Fortunately–or unfortunately, depending on who you’re rooting for–kindly old Mr. Meakins, the undertaker, decided that Rueben Lee was too far gone for that sort of thing.  There was just no point to it.  It was going to be a closed casket ceremony, and even if he did pump the body full of embalming fluid, it would just gush out the hole in his chest.  And do you know how much embalming fluid costs?

It costs a lot.  Especially if you’re poor like Mr. Meakins.

So Mr. Meakins didn’t embalm Rueben Lee Chesser.  He just stuffed a little cotton and sawdust into the hole in his chest and sewed him up.  Then he sealed the casket with an airtight seal and made sure it was doubly locked.

Why doubled locked?  Because, you see, when you seal an embalmed body in an airtight casket, there’s something you have to be on guard against.  The pressure of the gases of decomposition tend to build up, and sometimes the coffin explodes.  Mr. Meakins, an ardent student of the history of undertaking, was well aware of this fact.  For centuries ago, when the first Queen Elizabeth was laid unnamable inside a lead crypt, that very thing happened to her.  the lid just blew right off, and the poor Queen was never so shaken up in her life, so it was fortunate she was dead or she’d have died of embarrassment!

But knew the funeral was going to be a quick one, and there would really be no chance for Rueben Lee to decay to any great extent before he was buried under six feet of heavy dirt.  But he didn’t figure on an inebriated grave-digger, who decided what the hell, who’s to know?  And buried Rueben Lee under two feet of not so solid earth.

One night, about a week after the corpse had been planted, there was a sort of explosion in the cemetery.  It was just sort of whoomp! and not an ear-splitting blast.  Well, the next thing Rueben Lee knows is that he’s sitting up in a tree looking down into a black hole.

“How did I get here?” he wonders.  Then he remembers the last thing he’d seen–Claire lunging at him with the butcher knife.  That would make his blood boil–if he had any.  So the first thing he climb down and brush off his suit.  When he does this, the suit nearly comes off right there, because it’s all open in the back.

It’s not a real suit at all, Rueben Lee tells himself.  It’s more like those false suits old Meakins puts on the–

And now he notices the tombstone.

Why, I must be dead! He concludes correctly.

Naturally his heart–figuratively speaking–begins to swell with thoughts of revenge.  She can’t do this to me, he thinks to himself.  I’ll make her sorry.  Immediately a limerick occurs to him, the finest of his career:

The corpse returned from the grave

To get the revenge that he craved.

The mur’rer he slew

And flushed down the loo.

Although that was simply depraved.


Turning toward his home, Rueben Lee took a step forward.  And fell on his face.

See his right foot just dropped off.

Well, he was a rotting corpse, after all.

It took him quite awhile to tie his foot back on with his shoelaces.  And by the time he’d reached Babcock Lane, his other foot began to shows signs of looseness at the ankle.  And the mortification of his spinal tendons gave him a forward hunch.  His clothes weren’t in good shape either, being torn and dusty from the explosion.  And the colony of maggots in his left leg–well, it was a good thing his nerves were rotted away or the pain would be terrible.

Then he ran into a low tree limb and found that it hurt.  Those nerves weren’t rotted!

But the hacking cough was the worst, he thinks.  The irritating tickle stays with him as he plods onward.  “It feels as though my lungs were filled with sawdust and cotton,” he says.

A further annoyance is that they did not bury him with his eyeglasses.  Did they suppose his astigmatism would regress spontaneously merely because he was dead?  A direct result of this is that his first choice of houses is wrong.

You can imagine elderly Mrs. Vetch sitting there with her tabby cat, Victor, enjoying a wee bit of medicinal brandy.  And the door flies open and in comes poor Rueben Lee.  And when he opens his mouth to apologize. his tongue falls out.

Let’s hope Mr. Meakins doesn’t neglect to embalm old Mrs. Vetch.

It’s the wee hours of the morning as Rueben Lee finally finds the right house.  Without his glasses it’s hard to be sure, but he’s finally satisfied because he ripped his rotting flesh on the thorns of Claire’s prize rose bushes.  He tries to open the door.  It’s locked.  He remembers the ladder behind the garage, and his putrefying lips curl into a wicked smile.  He walks around the house, pausing only to retrieve a loose rib that drops from his shirt, and beats off the dog who runs out to claim it.

It is difficult to position the ladder beneath his wife’s window with both his wrist and elbow joints threatening to go out, but even in death the tendons are tough, and at last it’s done.  Now comes the arduous task of ascending the rungs.  Rueben Lee applies himself diligently, but half way up–bad luck!  His right foot gives way again and falls into the flower bed.  At least it falls into her prize roses, he tells himself.

The taste of this small Pyrrhic victory spurs him on, and before half an hour passes, he has made his way to the top.  Thank goodness I don’t have any breath to be out of he sighs.  But it was the nagging cough that did him in.  Just as he was starting to work on the screen latch with a rusty screwdriver, the cough hit him.  Down he went, fifteen  feet in all, to smash into the driveway below.

There was a sickening snap as his head flew off and rolled across the driveway into a hedge against the Gilman house.  Rueben Lee was horribly aware of this, of course, and when his head rolled to a stop, he could, by straining his eyes, see his broken body lying at the base of the ladder.

The dog was back now.  Rueben Lee watched helplessly as it pulled a tibia loose and ran away with it.  As he lay there through the night, the dog came back again, bringing along some of his friends, and by dawn the body was almost completely disposed of, except for a few scraps of cloth and a metatarsal or two.

And the head, of course.

Ruben Lee’s head lay there unnoticed for a long time.  He was still horribly conscious.  He wondered how long it would take before he completely dissolved into dust.  He wondered if the hot summer air had preserved him like a mummy.

How many days was it before he was found?  Twelve?  Two weeks anyhow.  The dogs must have buried his body all over town by now, those parts they hadn’t eaten.

It is late afternoon as Mrs. Vetch’s orphaned tabby comes into the bushes where Rueben Lee lies.  The cat sniffs at him, then disdainfully kicks him away as it prepares to . . . well, we needn’t go into that.

Rueben Lee rolls onto the lawn, near the edge of the driveway.

An hour later a shadow falls across his myopic gaze.  Two hands reach down and lift him up and he discovers himself to be looking into the blank, dull-eyed face of little Maryanne Gilman.  What was she doing back here at her old homestead?  Homesick, probably.

It was the way she smiled at him that gave him the creeps.

He tried to call out, but it was no use.  There was no voice-box, and besides his jaw muscles had turned the consistency of old rubber tires.

Where is she taking me? He wonders.  Now he feels the vibrations as she climbs the steps.  He counts the jolts.  One, two, three . . . eleven, twelve, thirteen.  Now what?  Oh, no!

Bumpity, bumpity, bumpity . . . thirteen times.

Down the stairs he bounced, just like a rubber ball.  It hurt.  Those nerves hadn’t rotted away!

Then up the stairs again.

Yes, it didn’t take much to amuse little Maryanne.

Bumpity, bumpity, bumpity . . .

Not the way she was now.

Bumpity, bumpity, bumpity . . .

Simple pleasure for simple minds.





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