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Vol. 7, No. 3

They Rise, They Rise!
by Pauls Toutonghi

They Rise They Rise

See, the world is divided into two types of people: Public Breakfasts and Private Breakfasts. The two mingle and mix. They can date each other or marry or have pleasant conversations, but ultimately the line is drawn. You’re one or the other, and you can’t be both.
          That whole winter—and into the spring of 1969—I ate breakfast with the Russian mafia. It’s not something I’m proud of. It just sort of happened. I was helpless before it, pinned and wriggling to the window table, Table 12, at the 186th Street Café, Belmont, the Bronx.
          At the time, I was a twenty-two-year-old Public Breakfast living at home. At the time, I was also working an awful job: general assistant to the director of the Saratov Funeral Home. Not that I had any experience in the funeral business. But the Saratov wasn’t far from my house, and my dad knew a Serbian truck driver who knew a Ukrainian cabbie whose brother-in-law was a Montenegrin coffin maker, and there you have it: my Slavic pipeline to employment.
          My folks were, and still are, Russian immigrants—and resoundingly private in their breakfast habits. My mother would often loom in the bathroom doorway as I shaved, holding her apron in her hands, wringing it slightly, for effect.
          “Why, my little Jacob, why you waste your money and go out, when I make nice meal for you, make it nice and warm and with love for you right here in kitchen? In my opinion you are breaking my heart.”
          But I love the clatter of the restaurant dishes, the view of the street through the broad window, the walking and talking, the hot coffee, and the greasy potatoes. A bowl of cereal and a quiet conversation? No thanks, I have somewhere to be.

 

Unfortunately I chose, as this somewhere, the 186th Street Café. It was an empty place, but conveniently located on my walk to work, and I wondered at first how it stayed in business. I soon realized that the only other regular customers were a group of men—five or six of them—who sat near the kitchen, backs to the wall, eating omelettes and speaking rapid Russian. Of course, I could understand what they were saying, and it became obvious that something wasn’t quite right. They’d leave out key parts of their sentences, substituting them with long pauses.
          “Last night,” one of them would say in Russian, “we went to pause. We took the pause with us. pause was there, and pause. It got ugly. I thought we’d have to pause all of them. It worked out, but for a while I was sure that . . . lengthy, meaningful pause.”
          One morning in February, a few weeks after I started at the Saratov Funeral Home, I was walking to the restroom at the 186th Street Café, hurrying past the knot of Russians. One of them was telling a joke about Soviet life. I lingered in the doorway, curious to hear the punch line. When it came I laughed with the rest of them, a full, stomach-shaking laugh. This was my first mistake. When I finished laughing, I realized they were all looking at me. One of them raised an eyebrow.
          “Zdrasvetya,” he said. “Funny joke, yes? You speak Russian?” Then, in Russian, “Welcome to our table.”

 

Work was difficult. I will not detail the grisly procedures. Okay, I will detail a few. Today, you could learn these details in college, in courses established specifically for the Bachelor’s of Applied Mortuary Science, as offered by our nation’s finest universities. You could read about them in textbooks such as Robert Mayer’s Embalming History, Theory, and Practice (Appleton & Lange, 1990). Or in classes, such as this one, offered at the University of Southern Illinois:

Embalming 225-B

Lab sessions: Each lab session will be worth 5 points. Grades will be evaluated on participation (both with dissection and cleanup), attitude, proper dress, and attendance. Following any embalming preparation, individuals who participate will be re-quired to shower. (Individuals will be responsible for providing their own towels and soap.)

You could learn about—without having to experience—the draining of the circulatory system through the slits in the ankles. Or about the long metal table that swung on a pivot, positioning the body so that it was ready to drain. Or about the emptying of the abdominal cavity. Or about the fierce stench that clung to everything, that wouldn’t relent, even after twenty washes.
          I loved driving the flower car.
          Every so often I would drive the flower car, the lead car in the funeral procession. This was pleasant. The perfume was enchanting. I would listen to the radio and drive. Once, accidentally, I drove to the wrong cemetery. The O’Reilly funeral dutifully pulled up to the Long Island Jewish Cemetery and, God bless them, followed me right through the gates.
          My boss, Eugene Saratov, was unhappy. To compare his temper to a rampaging boar would perhaps be unfair to the boar. When word got around about the O’Reilly debacle, he hauled me (by the collar of my shirt) into his office. He screamed and turned a moist red color. Did I want to lose my position? he wondered. Was I a complete and utter idiot?

 

No one respected me, no one noticed me. No one cared, really. It was assumed, correctly, that I had this job for a little while, and that I wasn’t hired because of my qualifications. They all called me Greasy, mimicking my last name, Grishkin, and my oily skin. I took whatever assignments I could get, hoping each morning for the flower car, ending each evening as the embalming assistant.
          Then one day in late March, I was eating breakfast with the Russians. We’d become familiar with each other, though I was worried that they would soon request my membership in some sort of nefarious underworld organization. They were polite and curious about my family. They talked about Khrushchev and his legacy in the USSR. They mentioned sports from time to time. Mostly, they didn’t discuss business. Mostly, they told dirty jokes. Endless dirty jokes, none of which should be repeated in polite society:

Newly transferred to a remote outpost in Siberia, Comrade Ivanovich asks his sergeant if there are any local women to sleep with. Wordlessly, the sergeant points to the barn, where Ivanovich goes and discovers a stable full of donkeys. He’s dismayed, but he makes a mental note of it.

One night weeks later, the sergeant catches Ivanovich in the donkey stall. Ivanovich is naked. “You are a desperate man, Ivanovich,” the sergeant says. “Normally, we just ride the donkeys to the next village over.”

I was enamored, of course, and marveled at the way they’d mix whiskey with their scrambled eggs, or vodka with their coffee. How bad could it be, this criminal life?
          On this particular morning there were seven of us, so that we filled the back of the restaurant entirely: an abutment of portly Eastern Europeans and me, a young Eastern European who had not yet fulfilled his portly destiny. The door to the 186th Street Café swung open and there, quite unexpectedly, stood one of the other workers at the Saratov Funeral Home, George Fish. He was here for a bagel and coffee. He didn’t see me at first, but when he did, I could read the surprise on his face.
          “Greasy?” He paused. “Are these your friends?”
          I could tell that he knew them, or at least knew of them. I suddenly felt important. My eyes burned with a driving vanity, a reckless, shockingly powerful need for the respect that George was preparing to give me.
          “Absolutely,” I said, and smiled, my lips quivering a little as they stretched for the grin.

 

I never went back. It scared me too much. What if I developed a reputation, a persona, a rumored connection with the mob? That morning was the last morning I ate at the 186th Street Café. The next day, I walked four blocks over, to Julia’s Lunch, a little carbon copy of 186th Street, but without the mafia. My life would be much simpler, I figured, if I cut down on the number of places in which I associated with violent criminals.
          But it was too late. George Fish spread word around the Saratov that I was in with the mafia. Just what this association entailed, I came to understand, was unclear. But suddenly, I was given the privilege of choosing my work assignment each morning. For a whole week it was nothing but flower car, flower car, flower car. Then one fresh spring morning, I arrived at the Saratov to find George Fish, poised in the doorway, waiting for me.
          “Hey, Grishkin. How’s it going? Why don’t you ride with me today in the hearse?”
          Why not? I agreed. It was a cold day; the heater in the wagon was guaranteed to work. I was excited to talk with someone, anyway; the funeral home could get maddeningly quiet. The corpses hung a silence over everything. You didn’t talk much because it was disrespectful. But once you got out on the road—that was a different story. You wanted to entertain, to enliven, to make this poor stiff’s last ride a joyous one.
          George and I loaded the body, got our directions to the cemetery, pulled on our dingy black wool suits, and scuttled into the car. We merged through traffic seamlessly. New York drivers were surprisingly courteous, I found, when dealing with a hearse.
          Halfway to the burial site, George started talking. He commented on the weather. He mentioned the sunny, cloudless sky. He said that he was looking forward to the start of baseball season. On this point he lingered, describing, in some detail, his love affair with the New York Mets. Sure, they’d been losers in the past, he said. But this year was different, he said. This year they had a shot. I laughed at this. The Mets were an expansion franchise. In 1968, they’d been ninth out of ten teams in the National League. They were hopeless. Their pitchers were too young—practically rookies. Who’d ever heard of Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver?
          George shook his head. 
          “Some of your friends at the 186th,” he said, “they’d know how I could get a bet on the Series.”
          “The World Series? The New York Mets in the World Series? Are you kidding me? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
          “Do you know what the odds are? Do you have any idea?”
          I didn’t.
          “Two hundred and fifty to one. That means, for every dollar we bet, we get two-fifty back. That means, for a hundred dollars, we net twenty-five grand. For three hundred, we net seventy-five.”
          “We? What do you mean we? I’m not wasting my money on the New York Mets. You’re crazy.”        
          There was a lengthy pause. George reached into the front pocket of his paper-thin, processed cotton shirt. He took a cigarette from a crumpled soft pack of Camels, lit it with the dashboard lighter. His nails, I saw, were cracked and lined with nicotine stains.
          “I’m telling you, Grishkin, it’s a sure thing. If you don’t want a piece of it, at least place the bet for me.”
          Before I could say anything, George Fish was forcing eight fifties into my hand. It was more money than I’d ever seen. The nerves in my hand were suddenly enlivened. It was almost an erotic experience, holding that money. They were new bills, freshly withdrawn from some bank. They held the odor of wealth. They looked almost damp in the light coming through the windshield.
          “I can’t do this, George. I just can’t.”
          “What do you mean, can’t? Why not? Just give it to your buddies tomorrow morning. Cash up front. The easiest bet to make. We win, I give you twenty percent. We lose, well, so what? It’s not your cash.”
          He drew on his cigarette dramatically, exhaling with an equally dramatic sigh. The smoke shot into a cloud, a cumulus of smoke that expanded through the whole car.
          “Why? Why are you so sure about the Mets? And why are you so sure about me? What makes you think I won’t just take this and blow it all tonight, have a party for all my friends. You know: hookers and booze. Atlantic City in a limo.”
          “I don’t know,” he said. We were pulling through the metal gates of the cemetery now. “You live close by. Everybody tells me you’re a good kid. A real stand-up guy. A college graduate, for God’s sake. Now, I’ve got a hunch. Sure, why not? A hunch. Just place the bet and we’ll both get rich.”

 

Enter Trinity Pulaski.
          Just over five feet tall, just under one hundred and fifty pounds. She was solid, a block of doughy flesh, ample and tactile and pleasantly odorous. She mixed sweat with Chanel No. 5 and Ban Roll-On. The elixir was intoxicating.
          There is a long tradition in American literature of dissecting and displaying women, of describing their legs or breasts or radiant blue eyes. I can’t take part in this tradition because to me, Trinity was nothing but a whole. Unmitigated and big, she wrapped herself around me on a spiritual—as well as physical—level. She was huge, metaphorically. Though I never told her so.
          By this particular April we’d been dating for over two years. She was getting impatient, I think, for a proposal. For something. For anything. I was almost twenty-three, right? Wasn’t it time I indicated that I wanted to have seven, eight, nine children? Starting immediately? Like the good Slav my parents knew I was?
          The day that George gave me the money for the bet, I was scheduled to go out to dinner with Trinity. Nothing fancy, just a meal at Taco del Mar, the Mexican restaurant down the street from her folks’ house. I met her, as always, at her front door. Trinity’s father handed her over to me—the whole thing stank of patriarchy—and we walked down the dirty little street, stepping over swirling newspapers and puddles of dubious liquid.
          I had my hand in my pocket the whole time, holding on to the money. It felt strangely cold, abnormally so, and it chilled the skin on the tips of my fingers. The coldness moved in shivers up my arms and into the rest of my body. I was powerful. I had control over the situation. Dinner and a movie? No problem. How about a hundred dinners and a hundred movies, night after night after night?
          At the door to Taco del Mar, I bowed deeply.
          “Tu primera, mi amor,” I said, surprising myself with the badly accented, Christopher Columbus High School Spanish.
          When George gave me four hundred dollars cash, I was going to place his bet. It was overwhelming, sure, but it wasn’t too much for me to handle. I was, after all, a stand-up guy, just like he’d said. And he did know where my parents lived. But then, the more I thought about it, the clearer it became. I didn’t really know the bookies all that well. I had no desire to get involved with these sums of money. And besides, the Mets would never win the Series. It was impossible. The money was as good as lost. And what difference did it make if, say, I kept the cash myself? None at all. Poor George, I thought. He’d be out four hundred either way. God knows how he came by it. Like this, I rationalized, at least the cash was going to someone he knew. And that was a good thing. Right?
          We sat down, ordered, sipped at our respective glasses of red wine.
          “Wine?” she’d said. “Are you sure?”
          “Completely,” Trinity, honey. Completely and absolutely sure.

 

How did I spend the cash? Stupidly, easily, in ridiculous everyday ways. I’d buy the New York Times in the morning, just to look at the headlines. I bought every novel by John Dos Passos. I bought three cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and kept them under the bed in my room. But I had no true adult vices. I didn’t collect branded clothing. I didn’t chase women, or gamble, or sleep with whores. Also, the disposable culture wasn’t as refined as it is today. It wasn’t as easy to waste sums of cash on plasma-screen televisions or Internet pornography. 
          One notable thing did happen over the course of the summer: the Mets were bad, as usual. By the end of July they were nine games out of first place. Around the Saratov, George deployed a subdued, murky tone. He frowned a lot. He shuffled his feet. At one point I considered asking him if he wanted to get help, professional help, for his gambling problem.
          But then—in mid-August, with the Mets nine games back and the season six weeks from its usual dismal conclusion—a funny thing happened. They started winning. And the Cubs, damn them, started losing. The change in George was almost immediate. He started smiling and laughing and acting generally energetic. What could I do? The Mets were gaining ground. I checked under my bed, where I’d kept the money, among the dwindling cans of Pabst. Eighty-two dollars, even. One fifty, one twenty, a ten, and two ones. Damn.
          I tried telling George, but I guess some part of me held out hope that the Mets would fold. That this winning streak was a fluke. But they got closer and closer to first, and the number of games remaining in the season kept dwindling. In what was a remarkable stroke of bad luck, George told everyone at the Saratov that he was going to be rich, that Greasy had placed a bet for him with some bookie on 186th Street, and that he was going to be retiring, come October, to Sarasota, where it would be all dog track and oak-barrel bourbon. 
          Finally, on that terrible afternoon, on the afternoon of September 10, the Mets were in second place by half a game. The first-place team, the Chicago Cubs, had just lost three in a row at Shea. Now, the Mets were playing the Expos—those perennial losers—and the first pitch was set for one o’clock. George and I had a funeral, the McSorley family, scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
          “That’s a good time,” George said. “Because then we’ll get out of the service, load him back into the car, and we’ll hear the last few innings on the radio.”
          I can only reconstruct what happened next.
          The ceremony was sad; they always are. Despite the endless repetition of these things, nobody really seems to take it well. And why should they? But as employees of the Saratov, we try to stay out of the way. We unload. We collect. We wear muted colors.
          By the time we left the church—St. Therese, the Little Flower of Jesus—it was close to four. George immediately turned on the radio. The family was following us as we merged onto the new expressway. We were driving through the Bronx. Everything was fine.
          Imagine the reliable purr of the engine.
          The Mets were winning 8-2 in the ninth inning. Then, word came in that the Cubs had lost.
          The Mets announcer, Bob Murphy, bellowed this fact over the air and added that, for the first time in franchise history, the New York City Metropolitans were in sole possession of the division lead. I can still hear his voice.
          George turned a deep maroon color, one that I’d never seen before in human skin. He was bellowing, then, and you could really sense that here, here was a man who believed he’d just won the lottery. I knew what he felt like. If you don’t have money, if you do some stupid thing day after day after day, it just accumulates, builds up, weighs on you. And then it’s not just your personal history that’s there on your shoulders. It’s the weight of all the past poor slobs, every worker who’s ever gone through the door at the Saratov, day after day after day, and lifted heavy wood coffins, and swept the concrete floors, and cut little slits at the back of dead ankles. I was a jerk, plain and simple. I hadn’t placed his bet. But wasn’t he just as much at fault? Couldn’t he have done it himself? What was so damaging about approaching these guys on his own? Why had I become the middleman?
          Then, this happened: George reached down and adjusted the volume knob. It was beautiful, as far as knobs go, mother-of-pearl, shiny in a 1960s sort of way. I remember this shininess now with a particular weight of irony. Because this little action, this turning up of the volume, was just enough to almost get us killed. 
          Within seconds, the hearse was somehow departing from its lane, careening wildly, heading directly for the off-ramp divider. Other cars were honking. I was screaming. George, thankfully, managed to swerve. He missed the divider, slammed into the guardrail, and shot down the exit. There was a concussive, echoing thump—two thumps actually—and the roar of metal scraping against concrete. At the bottom of the ramp the light was green. George surged through the green light and back up the next on-ramp, which was arranged, rather conveniently, right in front of us. We merged back into the traffic and there—and this was a miracle, really—there was the funeral train. They hadn’t been able to follow us, happily, and we arranged ourselves, once again, at the front of the column of cars. Problem solved. I checked my pants to make sure they were dry. 
          Admittedly, the hearse was damaged. Later, we’d find that much of the chrome was missing, and that the paint had been badly wounded, with long strips of it peeling from a cavernous dent in the side panel. The back window was shattered, too—this I could see from the passenger’s seat—and long spiraling cracks silvered in the daylight.
          “Is that them?” I asked. “Right there behind us?”
          “That’s them, Greasy. Am I a great driver or what? We’re in the money, Grishkin. The Mets are going to come through and we’ll buy the Saratov.”
          Should I have said something? I couldn’t; he was jubilant. We listened to the postgame broadcast and continued driving along the highway. The traffic slowed down. We got stuck in gridlock. We waited for close to an hour in the thick cars. And not once did we think to look behind us, into the gut of the hearse.

 

But the problem was this: we’d lost the body.
          In this situation—standing there beneath the heavens that had so recently seemed a neutral blue, standing at the mouth of a hearse that should have been carrying Mr. McSorley to his eternal peace, standing before the cluster of family and friends who had begun to assemble at the gravesite, to file solemnly forth and sob—I could do nothing but slam the doors shut.
          As a driver of a funeral car you’ll learn this fact: the pallbearers bunch. They’ll stand as close to you as they can get. It’s a preservation instinct, I think—the impulse to gather in a group when confronted by death. They’ll crowd so close to the wagon that sometimes you’ve got to ask them to step back.
          One of the pallbearers had already begun to lean forward. He was a narrow-boned, greasy-faced teenager—Mr. McSorley’s grandson—and as I swung the door shut, hoping he wouldn’t notice, the door caught the boy’s arm solidly, tearing his shirt and causing blood to leap to the surface of his skin. He howled in pain.
          “Routine procedure,” I said. “Back in a second,” I added. Did I look as terrified as I felt? I slid into the driver’s seat of the vehicle. George was surprised to see me. He’d been playing the radio very quietly, humming along to the sounds of Nancy Sinatra, sotto voce, pleased about the Mets. He saw immediately that something was wrong.
          “What happened?” he asked.
          “The body’s gone.”
          “Gone?” He paused. “Damn,” he continued. “What do we do?”
          “What do we do? What do we do? I’m new, George. You’re the genius. Why don’t you tell me?”
          The dead man’s son, of course, chose that moment to knock on my window. I lost all hope. We were going to hell for this, there was no doubt.
          “Everything okay?” he asked.
          I didn’t respond. I was staring straight ahead, assiduously dissolving the cemetery by unfocusing my eyes. 
          “You hurt Timmy pretty bad,” he added.
          “It looks like there’s a storm coming,” the younger McSorley continued. He seemed perplexed that I wasn’t responding to him in any way. But then George, bless him, leaned over and spoke to the man. George’s breath, I remember, smelled like fresh mint.
          “You’re exactly right, Mr. McSorley. Jake, here, he saw that very storm. And he was concerned for everyone’s safety. He noticed lightning in the distance, you see, and he wanted me to call in, to the Saratov Funeral Home, and send out the lightning car.”
          “The lightning car?” I said. “Right. The lightning car.” I looked up at Mr. McSorley. “It’s really much safer, sir, if we have the lightning car.”

 

I ran to the nearest pay phone and called the Saratov. The receptionist transferred me directly to Eugene, who came on the phone with a buoyant chirp that I found unsettling.
          “Jacob, Jacob, Jacob,” he said. “So good to hear from you. I thought you might be calling.”
          “You did? Is something wrong?”
          He paused before answering.
          “Oh, no,” he finally said. “Nothing important. Except that I just hung up the phone with a very kind officer from the police department.”
          Here Eugene’s tone became more aggressive. He built his voice into a yell, until the words were barely intelligible.
          “Do you know what he told me? He told me this: He said that he was calling from a public phone, much like you must be. He told me that he and his partner had just responded to a call, a very interesting and unique call. He said that in the Bronx, not far from here, on an off-ramp of the new expressway, crews were working on clearing the remains of a coffin and a body that had somehow—who knows how—obstructed the road. He said it was a messy, terrible scene, that the body had spun out of the box and that parts were scattered everywhere. And so I told him: How did this happen, sir? I am amazed. And he said: Well, I thought that you might have some insight on that question, Mr. Saratov, since the coffin was from your firm, and I am calling you at the number listed on the nameplate. The splintered nameplate. Eugene Saratov and Company, Funeral Accessory Manufacturers. And do you know who’s going to call next, Jacob? The New York Times, Jacob, the police reporter for the New York Times. The officer told me to expect his call. Why, Jacob? How, Jacob, how could this have possibly happened?”
          Standing there in the overcast, slightly drizzly day, I explained it to Eugene. We hit the guardrail, I explained, and the coffin must have come out. That explained the loud thump, anyway. And neither of us had thought to check on the body. Poor Mr. McSorley. As Eugene yelled at me, as he hollered into the phone and agreed to send out a second, empty coffin, so at least the McSorleys wouldn’t find out the whole story immediately, as he spat and raged and gasped for air, as he eventually hung up on me mid-sentence, I couldn’t help but wonder: Did the body’s head come off, when the coffin hit the pavement and rolled?

 

We were very clever in our delivery of the new McSorley. Shielding ourselves with the wide-swinging door of the second hearse, George and I managed to transfer the casket without anyone noticing.
          As we slammed the door shut, the pallbearers began trickling over from the grave site. The other hearse peeled out and sped recklessly away, the driver saying nothing. I blanched. The McSorleys had been remarkably patient. Stoic, even. It was clear, however, that this patience would protect us no longer. The man whose son I’d injured spoke first.
          “What’s going on, fellas? Was that the lightning car?” He was clearly skeptical of the whole process. He continued: “You know, it looks like the storm’s blowing over. And what, exactly, does the lightning car do?”  
          “Yeah,” Timmy said. “And do you know if the Mets won?”
          Now this, this was a question I was prepared to answer.
          I placated the pallbearers with a short speech about the Mets, opening the hatch as I spoke. George helped us pull the casket out and get it lifted, and for one sickening moment, I thought it was going to topple to the ground. At the Saratov, you see, they hadn’t put anything in the casket. With bloating and weight gain, an already heavy McSorley weighed close to three hundred pounds. The pallbearers heaved too hard. The whole thing pitched precipitously forward. The priest, who was hovering nearby, crossed himself.
          But nothing happened. The wood was a different grain, I could tell, but no one noticed. They’d been at this funeral all afternoon.
          The drive back to the Saratov was sad and awkward. Though ecstatic about the Mets, George was worried that we’d both be fired. The Mets could still fold, after all. And then where would he be?

 

The place was ghostly. Eugene had clearly given everyone the evening off. Though I wasn’t sure, I imagined that this had never happened before.
          Eugene met us at the door. He was a behemoth—a titanic and broad-shouldered man—and his suits were much too small for his sweaty bulk. His tie looked like a dark string of dental floss, dangling along his tooth-white shirt. On this evening, his face was remarkably sad, a mask of grief and failure. He ushered both of us into the showroom, where he motioned for us to sit down in two folding chairs. He remained standing.
          “George,” he said. “George, you have a wife at home, right?”
          I was relieved that I wasn’t first.
          “Yes, sir, Mr. Saratov,” George said. His voice trembled. I could tell that he was trying to marshal words in his own defense, but that he didn’t even know where to begin.
          “And you were driving the car?”
          “Yes, sir, Mr. Saratov.”
          “I see.”
          Eugene was pacing now, and it was funny, watching him walk, swinging his bulk along, his stomach round and ant-swollen. I started to laugh, watching him walk like that, just the beginning of a laugh, the first breath inward. He spun around.
          “Is something funny, Jacob?”
          “No, sir.”
          “No, you clearly find something funny. What is it about this situation, Jacob, that you find funny?”
          “Nothing, sir.”
          Eugene nodded. He turned away from me.
          “George, listen. You can go. Don’t screw up like this again. You were the driver. Jacob should have checked to see that the casket was still in place, sure, but still—you should have double-checked. Get out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” 
          George started to say something but Eugene cut him off, waving him up and out of his chair. Within seconds he was gone, almost running through the door and onto the street. Now Eugene sat in the other folding chair. He cracked his knuckles. He sighed, leaned forward, kept his hands clasped, hung his head slightly toward the floor. 
          “Nothing’s funny about this, Jacob. Nothing at all. It’s sad all around, don’t you think?”
          I waited for a moment.
          “Well, no, sir, to be quite honest, I don’t. I think it’s kind of funny, actually. It’s really more comedy than tragedy, I think.”
          Reflecting on it now, from a more stable position, I have to wonder why I said this. I think that it probably had something to do with the day, and how exhausting it had been, and the looming admission, to George Fish, that besides being an incompetent co-worker, I was not to be trusted with money. So, for this one moment, I was honest. I laughed, laughed in a crazed and manic way, much harder than I should have, and small flecks of my saliva landed on Eugene Saratov’s face.
          After some period of silence he wiped them off. Then he stood.
          “Listen, Jacob. It’s been a long day. I’m going to go home, have a drink, and get some sleep. But, before I go, is there anything you want to say to me?”
          I didn’t say anything.
          “You have nothing to say?” Eugene asked. “Nothing at all? An apology?”
          I stared at the floor.
          “Fine, then, fine.” He turned to leave, then paused. “But, wait. One second. I just want you to experience something. I want you to feel something, a personal favor for me, a new model we have here, very plush, very similar to what Mr. McSorley was in.”
          I looked at him. “You want me to get in the coffin?”
          He had me by the arm and lifted me, forcibly, to my feet. He steered me toward the back of the showroom to one of the nicer models, the Peaceable Comfort. Clearly, he’d prepared for this ahead of time. There was a little stepladder set up at the mouth of it.
          “Just for a second, Jacob. For a moment. I do this with all the employees, really, so they get a better feel for the whole process. I should have done it with you earlier, but really, I haven’t had the time. It’s a privilege, really.”
          He was so large, and so strong, that I couldn’t fight it. He moved me. He physically took me and placed me in the box. I tried to sit up but he pushed me flat, one beefy palm pressing my back firmly against the satin. 
          “Are you comfortable, Jacob?”
          “I’m fine, sir. But I’d like to get out now, sir. It’s a little claustrophobic.”
          “Oh, don’t worry, Jacob, I would never do anything to harm you.”
          “I know, sir, it’s just that—”
          And even as I was explaining myself, searching for the words, preparing an apology for what had happened earlier, preparing to explain that the fault was really mine, that I just didn’t want to be working here, that the whole business scared and depressed me, even as I was thinking all of these things, Eugene withdrew his hand and shut the lid.
          A coffin is a small place. It doesn’t open from the inside. A coffin is also airtight. Someone, I could see, had carefully cut two air holes in the side of this one, just to the right of my temple. These holes admitted two slender beams of light, just enough light so that I could see my body, forced to lie there, just as it would someday lie for a much longer and more permanent period of time. I pressed my mouth against the two holes. I sucked at the air, drawing what I could into my panicked lungs. 
          “Mr. Saratov, sir? Eugene? Hello? I can barely breathe in here, sir. This isn’t fair, sir. I could die in here. Hello? Hello? Please, Mr. Saratov, don’t leave me here.”
          The janitor let me out in the morning. I’d fallen asleep, and dreamed feverish, fitful dreams about heavy clothing and compact cars. I’d awakened screaming. As the janitor opened the lid, I could hear a voice: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with You, blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb . . .” He was horrified, of course, but I didn’t explain myself, and he probably figured that the fewer questions he asked, the better.
          I staggered home. The world seemed bathed in beauty, every mundane thing miraculous and utterly outstanding. The gutters gleamed with joyous light. The trees rustled with a buzzing music. I never went back to work. The Saratov Funeral Home closed a few years later. I don’t know what happened to Eugene Saratov—though I’m sure he’s resting happily, well padded and wrapped in satin.
          Eventually I broke the bad news to George Fish, just before the Mets won the World Series. He did the best thing he could in that situation: he slugged me in the stomach, so hard that I couldn’t eat for days. When I came back to food, I did so at my mother’s table, at 7:30 in the morning, and I didn’t think about the 186th Street Café.

 

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