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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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?”
“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
“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
“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?”
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
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
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
“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.
I didn’t respond.
I was staring straight ahead, assiduously dissolving the cemetery by unfocusing
“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.
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?” 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
Jacob,” he said. “So good to hear from you. I thought you might be calling.”
“You did? Is something
He paused before
“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
“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?”
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
“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
“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
“Yes, sir, Mr.
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,
“No, you clearly
find something funny. What is it about this situation, Jacob, that you find
He turned away from me.
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.”
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.
about this, Jacob. Nothing at all. It’s sad all around, don’t you think?”
I waited for a
“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.
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
“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
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
“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,
“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
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
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