Ray was chief of police and Sue Ellen was his wife; Duane was their only son and Sandra their only daughter. When he was younger Duane had learned how to keep himself company while his dad worked for long stretches of time. He took up hobbies that didn’t require a playmate, such as coin collecting and building model cars, which he pursued while he waited for his dad’s day off. When that day came, Duane hoped they could play catch or, better yet, that his dad would pitch to him. If the latter was the case, they would drive over to Veterans Park and his dad, in his undershirt and smoking a cigar, would throw batting practice until his right shoulder was stiff. Those were the best days, but there weren’t that many of them.
When Duane became a teenager, his mother worried that he wasn’t social enough and encouraged him to join a club at school or go out for a sport so that he’d meet new people and make some friends. Duane said no, he was fine.
“You oughta get a job, you’re old enough,” his dad said, but Duane had a different idea.
“There’s an ad in Model Car Science where you can send away and learn how to raise chinchillas in your basement. I’d like to try that.”
His mother didn’t like the idea of a bunch of rodents in the house, even if they were locked in cages.
“We never go down there anymore,” Ray said in support of the boy’s idea.
“Maybe you don’t. I have to do laundry every day.”
“We could move the washer up into the room off the kitchen.”
It had been one of Sue Ellen’s hopes for a long time that they could eventually afford to move the laundry upstairs so she wouldn’t have to walk up and down the basement steps everyday, so she agreed that Duane could turn the basement into his chinchilla farm.
Duane sent off the money to the address in the ad, which read “RAISE CHINCHILLAS AS A HOBBY. Fabulous profits. Small space in your basement, garage, or extra room is all you need.” Two weeks later he received a male and a female in a cardboard box with airholes in the sides, and put them in the pen he had built in the basement.
“I figure I can keep up with them,” Duane said when his dad would come down into the basement to see how he was doing with the cages. “I can swing a hammer pretty good,” and his dad thought, yes he can, unlike some of the guys he had worked with when he was a line manager out at the recreational vehicle plant before he became chief of police. He had to let a lot of them go after a week or two.
Sandra didn’t like the smell from the very first. She complained to her mother that she couldn’t have friends over for cheerleaders’ practice or yearbook meetings. “It stinks up the whole house,” she complained, and her mother had to agree, it certainly didn’t stop at the basement door.
“Maybe he could open up the windows down there,” Ray would say when his schedule gave him a chance to have dinner with Sue Ellen.
“They’re little basement windows. I don’t think that’s going to get the smell out of there.”
“Then he just needs to clean the cages more often.”
“You talk to him.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s down there now.”
Ray went down the stairs and found Duane building cages. “Hey there,” he said.
“Hey,” Duane answered.
“How’s it going?” his dad asked.
“Pretty good. I’m up to 12.”
“Wow—that’s great.” He didn’t know whether it was good, bad or indifferent.
“I want to get up to 200.”
“And then what?”
“Sell ‘em and make a bunch of money.”
“Sure—that’d be terrific.” He paused, then asked “What are you saving up for?”
“I want to buy more.”
Ray considered this for a moment. “I don’t know that we’ve got that much room down here.”
“I can put a wall of cages in the furnace room, too,” Duane said.
“We could do that, I guess.”
“I need some more plywood and screen wire. Can I charge it down at Cash Hardware?”
“How much is it gonna be?”
“I figger forty dollars.”
“All right. But let’s set that as your limit.”
“I don’t want you getting in over your head.”
His dad walked back upstairs and said he’d talked to Duane.
“And he understands?” his mother said.
“Yep,” his dad said, and settled down to read the paper.
Two weeks later there were nine more “chins,” and the new cages that Duane had built were full.
“It smells worse,” Sandra said to her mother.
“Can’t you just go down and yell at him? I want to have Cindy and Donna Lee over for a slumber party Friday.”
“That’s fine. I’ll talk to your father.”
When Ray got home Sue Ellen lit into him before he even took his jacket off, asking him what his deal was with Duane.
“We set a limit. He was gonna build some more cages then sell them off.”
“Well take a whiff, would you?”
Ray sniffed and admitted that the smell couldn’t be ignored.
“I’ll talk to him,” he said.
He picked through the mail, looked out the window over the sink, and headed down the basement steps.
“Hello there,” he announced when he was about halfway down and could see under the basement ceiling.
“Hi,” Duane called back as he continued hammering.
“What’s the update?”
“I’ve got 28, and I’m making a maternity cage to keep the males out after the babies are born.”
“Why do you do that?”
“Otherwise the males get the females pregnant again and wear ‘em out.”
“Oh.” Your mother would appreciate that, he thought, but now wasn’t the time to tell her an amusing anecdote about the sex life of chinchillas. “So who you gonna sell these things to?”
“I sent away for a list of places.”
Ray was silent; that didn’t sound too promising. “Are they pet stores or what?”
“I don’t know—I don’t have the list yet.”
“Well, you’d better get busy on it. The idea was you were gonna sell ‘em.”
Ray went back upstairs. He knew he’d have to start pushing harder, but he felt guilty that the chinchillas were all Duane had. Ray decided he’d do some research on his own. The town library was only two blocks from the police station. Maybe he’d walk over there on his lunch hour—the exercise would do him good.
The next day he went over to the Carnegie Library and asked the librarian for some materials on chinchillas. She picked a few books out of the pets section, showed him the Index to Periodical Literature, then showed him how to do a search on the computer. To get him started, she typed “chinchilla” into a little white slot on the screen, then clicked on a green “go” button, and a list popped up. Ray said thanks to the woman, put his reading glasses on and went to work.
It didn’t take him long to figure out that Duane had been duped. The first article he read was by a state agency in Minnesota that warned people about buying animals to raise for a profit. The attorney general got a cease and desist against one company, and they had to pay a pretty big fine.
So Duane was never going to be able to sell his chinchillas, and Ray would have to come up with a way out of the mess Duane had got himself into. He knew better than to try and press charges against the company that sold the animals; it wasn’t like a breaking and entering case, where the guy was in jail and all he had was a court-appointed lawyer for free. He checked–the company was a long way away, and would have lawyers they paid for. They would wear Ray down, and he didn’t need that at this point in his life.
When he got home that night Ray told Duane he needed to talk to him, upstairs in his room. He sat down in Duane’s desk chair and Duane sat on his bed.
“I did a little research on chinchillas today, which you probably shoulda done before you got started.”
Duane just sat there, taking it in.
“You’re never going to be able to sell those things. I checked into it today.”
“Dad I can sell them . . .”
“I went to the library and read up on ‘em. It’s a scam.”
“A what?” Duane asked.
“They take your money but they don’t come through on their promises.”
“You’re not going to be able to sell them for a lot of money.”
Duane was silent. “I don’t need to sell them. I’d just as soon keep them.”
“We can’t keep thirty critters in the basement. They’ll eat us out of house and home. Plus they’re breeding all the time.”
“I’ll get a job.”
“You should be saving your money for college, not to feed a bunch of rodents.”
Duane said nothing for a moment.
“I’ll work with you to get rid of ‘em,” Ray said. “I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do it, but we’ll figure out something.” Ray got up and as he moved past Duane into the hall, patted him on the shoulder and said “Live and learn, son—live and learn.”
Ray didn’t see it but Duane started crying once he was gone. Duane felt bad that he was crying—he was too old and his dad hadn’t yelled at him. He didn’t do anything dramatic, like throwing himself on his pillow or slamming his door shut, but he couldn’t stop crying, and it showed on his face, so he couldn’t deny it when Sandra walked out of her room, stopped, and asked why he was crying.
“None of your business,” he said.
“Dad told you to get rid of those stupid rats, didn’t he?”
“They’re not rats.”
“I told you so.”
“You didn’t tell me anything.”
“I told you to get rid of them—same difference,” Sandra said as she walked off.
Duane got on his computer after he had calmed down and started searching for people who would buy chinchillas. After ten minutes he gave up and began to write down the addresses of places that would adopt them. He didn’t know what he was going to do if he had any left over; maybe he could sell them at school.
He decided to take a card table to school and set it up in the cafeteria at noon time for a week. One girl was interested—she took the chin out of its portable cage and held it up close to her face—but the next day she told Duane her mother wouldn’t let her. There was one kid dressed all in black who said he might be interested, but Duane didn’t want him to have one—he thought he’d kill it for fun.
By Friday the curiosity of Duane’s chinchilla enterprise had worn off and no one even stopped to talk to him. When his dad got home he greeted Duane with a “Howdy, partner,” as if he was expecting to hear great news. “How’d it go today?”
“Not so great. Still didn’t sell any.”
Stay positive, his dad thought. “Well, you might offer to give a few away, just to drum up some interest. Lots of stores do that.”
“I don’t think it’s gonna help. The kids go home and ask their parents and they say no.”
Ray had known for a while that it was going to end this way. “Let’s go down in the cellar,” he said as he got up, and the boy went ahead of him. Ray reached under the sink and took a trash bag out of the box and followed.
It would be a hard lesson to learn, but it was one he had to teach, he thought.
“We won’t do this all at once, but we’re gonna have to start getting rid of these little fellas,” he said. “Empty out a couple of cages into this bag.”
Duane’s eyes misted up, but he did what he was told, lifting eight chins out of their cages one by one and dropping them into the bag. When his dad said “That’s enough” they went upstairs and into the garage, where his dad took a spare brick, put it in the sack, tied the top in a knot and put it in the back of his pickup truck.
They drove in silence a few miles to a bridge over a man-made lake, out beyond where the houses ended. Ray turned on his emergency flasher, stopped his truck, got out and walked around to Duane’s side. “Get out,” he said as he pulled the trash bag over the side of the truck.
“Here—take this,” Ray said as he handed the bag to Duane.
Duane took the bag and held it in his hand.
“Drop it in.”
“Do I have to?”
“You brought ‘em into this world—you’re gonna have to put ‘em under.”
Duane took the bag and walked over to the rail. He looked down into the brown-green water, felt the life within the bag, lifted it over the rail–and let it drop.
The bag hit the water with a softer sound than he expected, then sank out of sight as the brick pulled it down. Duane watched it for a few seconds, then turned around and looked his dad in the eyes.
“Better get used to it,” his dad said. “We got quite a few to go.”
They got in the car but before they could get started another truck pulled up beside them and the driver rolled down his passenger-side window.
“Hey Ray,” the driver yelled. “Whatcha got there—a cat that needs an operation?”
“Hey Vern. Naw–something more exotic.”
“Chinchillas,” he replied, with an emphasis that made Duane sink down in his seat.
“Oh—can’t you make your wife a coat out of ‘em?”
“Naw—I’m no good at sewin’. This here’s my boy, Duane. He raised ‘em but we got too many now.”
“Oh—okay. Well, I can’t use ‘em neither,” the driver said with a smile. “See ya.”
“See ya,” Ray said as the man pulled away from them.
Ray turned the ignition, put the car in gear and, after checking his rear view mirror out of habit, drove off.
“We’ll come out here every night after I get off work until we’re rid of them,” Ray said.
“All of ‘em?” Duane asked.
“You can keep a couple of males if you want, but you better make sure ‘cause I don’t want no procreatin’ once we’re done.”
When they got home Ray went to the living room to watch the news and Duane went down into the basement. He looked at the stacked cages, and counted the chins that remained—twenty of them. He watched their little cheeks chewing away, and thought of them sinking into the water, which they never would have felt before.
He started at the top left-hand cage–unhooking the latch and opening the door. He moved his hand to the right, undid the hook that secured the door, and continued until all of the cage doors were open. He walked into the furnace room, banged the metal bolt of the bulkhead door to the right, and opened it up. Some of the chins were out of their cages by now, scurrying around without any sense of which way to go. He took them one by one and walked them up the steps to the back yard, where he put them down on the ground and watched as they ran off.
From “The Flight of the Wicked.”
Dewey Myers had been working at Forest Lawn Cemetery since he was in high school, twenty years before. He had started out cutting grass on weekends and after school; it was easy since he lived right across the street. He had been the youngest on the crew but now everybody was under him but Bill Cassing, the sexton.
There was a newer, nicer cemetery on the southwest side of town, where the new housing developments were going up. Forest Lawn had been laid out shortly after the town was founded in the 1800s; it had been on the outskirts to the north and the east, then the town grew out to where it was and surrounded it.
The little houses that lined the streets running away from the cemetery had been built for the families of the men who worked in the railroad shops. The people who lived in the neighborhood kept their properties up, with a few exceptions. Still, if you wanted a nice home you would buy one on the southwest side of town, and if you wanted a nice funeral when you died, you didn’t think of Forest Lawn.
There was only one synagogue in town, over on the west side, but the Jewish families tended to have their plots in Forest Lawn. Anybody could be buried in either cemetery, but the country club wouldn’t admit Jews for a long time, and people thought of the southwest area, where all the new homes were going up, as “the country club district.”
When Bill Cassing got the call from Mr. Greenblatt to say that his son Stephen had died in a car crash driving back to college Saturday night it had already been raining hard for two days. “He needs to be buried within twenty-four hours,” Mr. Greenblatt had told the sexton, who was more a manager than a gravedigger. “I understand,” Cassing had said, although he hadn’t until it was explained to him. As soon as he was off the phone with the father Cassing called Dewey. “Mr. Greenblatt from the department store, his son was in a car wreck. We need to get him buried by the end of the day under Jewish law.”
“We can’t bury him now,” Dewey said.
“Why not?” the sexton asked.
“Ground’s too wet. The casket will float right back up.”
Cassing was silent for a moment as he thought about this. “Can’t you just bury him deeper?” he asked.
“Same difference,” Dewey said. “When the ground’s sopping wet like this it don’t matter how deep you put them down.”
“Well, these people own a family plot and they’re entitled to bury their son according to their religion. You’ll just have to start digging and hope the rain stops,” Cassing said.
“All right,” Dewey said, and hung up.
Dewey called Bird Dog, a lanky black man, to see if he wanted some overtime.
“It’s Sunday and it’s raining,” Bird Dog said.
“Sexton’s in a hurry cause the boy’s Jewish and has to be buried quick. You’d get time-and-a-half.”
“I don’t see why I got to do it,” Bird Dog said.
“You don’t have to, Dog,” Dewey said, a little irritated. “I just thought you might like the extra money.”
“Not this morning,” Bird Dog said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right,” Dewey said. After he hung up he put on his rain gear, got in his truck and drove to the cemetery maintenance shed.
He looked up the Greenblatts’ plot number, opened the garage door, and drove the backhoe down to where it was located. The digging took longer than usual because the ground was wet and heavy, and the sides and corners weren’t as sharp as he usually made them. When he was done he stood over the grave and looked down into it as it filled up with rain. “Nobody listens to me,” he said to himself, before driving the backhoe to the shed.
He made himself a pot of coffee and called the sexton. “The grave’s all set,” he said. “I suppose you want me to stick around.”
“If you could. I don’t know what time they’re gonna get there. I’ll come over once I hear from them.”
“Okay, I’ll sit tight.” Dewey had a television set in the shed, and he turned on a baseball game. It was getting close to noon, and he took a sandwich he had brought from home out of the refrigerator. He turned on the space heater to burn the chill out of the shed. Might as well get comfortable, he thought.
After he finished the sandwich he fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until the sexton called close to one thirty.
“I just heard from Mr. Greenblatt,” Cassing said. “They should be there shortly. I’ll head on over.”
“Okay,” Dewey said. He was still a little groggy as he spoke. “Is there anything I can do?”
“You can get down to the gate and wait for them,” Cassing said sharply.
No need to snap at me, Dewey thought. He poured the rest of the coffee into his thermos, opened up the door to the garage bay where the pickup truck was parked, backed it out and headed down to the main gate. He parked the truck and left the engine running with the heater and the radio on. Every now and then he had to roll down his window because the windshield would get fogged up. The third time he did it he saw the funeral procession winding its way up from the stop light at Lamine to the entrance, and he got out to unlock the gate.
“We’re the Greenblatt funeral,” a short man with a beard and a hat, dressed in black and holding an umbrella, said to Dewey through the gate after getting out of the passenger side of the hearse.
“Okay,” Dewey said. “Let me get this gate back then y’all can come on in.”
Dewey opened the gates, the hearse drove in, and Dewey came around to the driver’s side. “You know where you goin’?” he asked the driver, who was also wearing a hat.
“Mr. Greenblatt says he does.”
“Okay, go on ahead.”
Dewey got in the cab of the truck and waited until the cars had passed through the gate. He was about to put the truck in gear when he saw Cassing drive up. “I’ll follow them down to the grave site,” he said, and Dewey drove behind him.
Dewey didn’t know what everybody was in such a hurry for. If the boy was buried right away he would sure as hell float up to the surface. There were ways around it; you could put bricks or stones on the coffin, but he figured the family wouldn’t like that. Since Cassing seemed to want to be in charge, he figured he’d just leave it up to him.
After the eulogies, the family sat while some of the mourners came forward to fill in the grave. They seemed superstitious to Dewey, each one holding the shovel in a certain way, throwing in three shovelfuls of dirt, then sticking the shovel in the ground instead of handing it off to the next person. The way they went about it meant he couldn’t have loaded down the coffin if he had tried.
After the people left Dewey set to work, and the rain turned to a drizzle. Bird Dog showed up when he was almost done.
“You got good timing,” Dewey said.
“I figured I’d come on over since the rain slowed down.”
“I ‘bout got him covered.”
“I’ll finish him off,” picking up a shovel.
“I bet Cassing don’t pay you the minimum.”
“How’s he gonna know ‘less you tell him?”
“He was here for the service.”
The two men finished filling in the grave and built up a little mound on top to allow for settling.
“That oughta do it,” Bird Dog said.
“Good for now. Unless I miss my guess, we’ll be back here soon enough.”
“Don’t say that. I don’t mind burying ‘em but I don’t like to think about ‘em comin’ back up.”
Dewey went home and fell asleep on his couch, then woke up around eight o’clock not knowing at first what time it was or why he wasn’t in bed. He had a hard on, and when he got up to go to the bathroom he had to bend forward to piss.
He fixed himself a dinner of fish cakes and beans and had a bottle of beer with it, then watched TV for awhile. He felt like he should try and go back to sleep rather than stay up late, and so he had another beer and went to bed.
He woke up at five a.m., earlier than usual, and saw that the rain had stopped and the sun was burning off clouds to the west, like it was blowing them away. He made himself breakfast, then drove over to the cemetery. Rather than stop and make a pot of coffee, he went straight down to the Greenblatts’ plot to check things out.
As he drove down the hill and got closer to the plot he saw what he expected but still felt a shiver when he realized he’d been right; the casket had floated up; the mound of dirt had expanded like a bubble, and the end where the boy’s feet lay was sticking out.
“Goddammit to hell,” he said as he stopped the truck and got out.
He went over to the grave site and gave the coffin a little push with his foot; there was too much water in the grave, and it didn’t give more than about an inch.
He drove back to the maintenance shed and called Cassing’s number.
“You got to get down here, the boy’s floated back up,” he said when Cassing answered.
“I told you he wouldn’t stay down with all this rain. Now he’s floated back up and one end of the casket is sticking out.”
“I never heard of such a thing.”
“Well, you heard about it now. I told you it was gonna happen.”
“I can’t get down there for a couple hours, I got to take my wife to the eye doctor.”
“Well what do you want me to do?”
“Call the family. The number’s on my desk. Somebody’s got to look at it and say the corpse wasn’t disinterred—otherwise we got to report it to the police. Tell ‘em as soon as the ground dries out we’ll bury him again.”
“All right,” Dewey said, and Cassing hung up.
Dewey called the number on the family’s forms and a girl answered.
“Is this the Greenblatt residence?”
“This is Dewey Myers—out to the cemetery?”
“Who am I speaking to?”
“This is Debbie—I’m Stephen’s sister.”
“Is your mom or dad there?”
“No—they’ve gone over to Columbia to get my brother’s things.”
“Oh. When do you expect ‘em back?”
“Not till late tonight. They have to do the paperwork to get a tuition refund.”
Dewey hesitated for a moment. “Well, uh, because of all the rain, your brother’s casket floated back up.”
“Floated back up? What do you mean?”
“When you try to bury people too soon after it’s been raining the water gets in the grave and the air in the coffin makes it float back up.”
“It’s okay—we just have to wait ‘til the ground dries out a little.”
The girl was silent.
“I need somebody to come out here today and inspect it. Are you old enough to drive?”
Dewey got the impression the girl was proud that she was there to take responsibility. “How soon can you get out here?”
“Fifteen minutes maybe.”
“Okay. My boss should be here pretty soon. I think he wants you to sign something.”
“All right. I’ll be there in a little while.”
Dewey walked down to the gate to wait for the girl. She drove up in a little yellow car that hadn’t been in the funeral procession. “Hi,” Dewey said after she rolled down her window. “You know where it is, right?”
“I’ll ride down with you and then we’ll go over to the office after you take a look at it.”
He got in the car and they drove to the grave site. “This wouldn’ta happened if he was buried up on a hill,” Dewey said. He thought if he made conversation the girl might not start crying.
“It’s a little late for that, I guess,” the girl said.
They reached the gravesite and got out on the asphalt path. “Can you see it okay?” Dewey asked.
“How much do I have to see?”
“I guess enough to say nobody dug it up.”
“Well, I can’t see that from here. And I don’t want to get my shoes muddy.”
Dewey thought for a moment. The girl was short, and didn’t look like she weighed much. She had on corduroy pants and a coat that came down to her hips. “I could carry you down there—piggyback.”
The girl looked at him, then looked down into the little hollow where the newly-dug grave was located.
“Can’t you drive your truck down there?”
“No–it’d get stuck.”
The girl considered the situation for a moment, then said “All right.”
Dewey turned his back to her, and she jumped on. He grabbed her legs and she threw her arms around his shoulders. Dewey started walking, and the ground was firm enough to hold them as they headed down to the grave.
“I could’ve kept your brother from coming back up,” Dewey said as they walked down.
“You put stones on top of the coffin, that holds it down,” he said.
“I don’t think my parents would have liked that.”
“I know, but when you get as much rain as we’ve had here the past few days, it’s what you gotta do.”
Dewey’s pace slowed the nearer they got to the coffin as the ground got softer.
“See there,” Dewey said as he stopped, afraid to go further.
“It just looks like a mound of dirt.”
“See there the corner of the coffin’s stickin’ up higher.” He walked a little closer.
“It’s okay. I just need for you to see it ain’t dug up.”
“I can tell you didn’t.”
“Not just me—anybody.”
“That’s what I meant.”
“All right. Let’s head on back.”
Dewey lifted his right foot and tried to turn, but the girl’s weight made his left foot sink lower, and he nearly fell forward before regaining his balance.
“Don’t drop me,” the girl said.
“I’m okay, it’s just sloppy down here is all.”
They made their way up to the asphalt road, Dewey’s footing improving as they struggled to increasingly higher ground. As they reached the road, Dewey turned around and allowed the girl to climb down on the asphalt. When he turned around, he saw Cassing driving up in the truck.
“Hello,” Cassing said evenly, although Dewey could tell he was angry and would have yelled at him if the girl hadn’t been there. “I’m Bill Cassing, the caretaker here,” he said.
“I’m Debbie Greenblatt, Stephen’s brother—I mean sister,” the girl said.
“I’m awful sorry about what happened,” Cassing said, taking his hat off as he spoke. “We’ll fix things just as soon as we can.”
“My mom and dad will be back tonight. You’d better talk to them. I just came out because Mr., uh, Dewey here said you wanted me to sign something.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to just write out a statement saying you examined the grave site and it appears it was disturbed by natural causes and not any human that you know of.”
“I guess I can do that.”
“Why don’t you follow me back to the office.”
Dewey got in the truck on the passenger’s side and Cassing made a three-point turn and headed back towards the gate.
“What in the hell were you doing with that girl?” he asked Dewey.
“She couldn’t see the grave, and she didn’t want to walk down to it, and I didn’t want to get her car stuck, and the truck sure as hell wouldn’t have made it down there.”
Cassing noticed that Dewey was breathing heavily. “So what did you do?” he asked.
“I took her down piggyback, she saw what she needed to see and we came back.”
“Jesus H. Christ.” Cassing drove on in silence, then stopped the car at the wooden office building next to the shed. “Just let me handle this from here on out, all right?”
“Suit yourself,” Dewey said. “This never would’ve happened if you’d listened to me.”
Dewey got out of the truck, went into the shed, took off his coat and started the coffee maker. Fuck him, he said under his breath. He saw the girl pull up to the office and get out. The only thing that was muddy was her short boots, the kind with the colored uppers that the kids were wearing. Cassing didn’t have to treat him like he was stupid, Dewey thought. His idea had worked.
Once the coffee was ready Dewey filled his mug and took it outside to drink it in the first sunshine he’d seen in a week. Cassing was talking to the girl over by her car, then shook her hand and said goodbye. Once the sexton went back inside the office the girl came over to Dewey.
“Thank you for taking me down there,” she said. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
“That’s okay. That’s how he gets his daily exercise—yelling at me.”
The girl laughed. “Kind of like Lazarus, isn’t it?”
The girl put her head down as if embarrassed. “Except Stephen isn’t coming back to life, is he?” As she said this her voice fluttered, and Dewey noticed she was crying.
“No, miss, I don’t believe so.”
“Well, thank you anyway.” She looked up at him, her lips pursed together in resignation. She walked to her car and drove away.
The next day Mr. Greenblatt drove into the cemetery as Dewey was collecting the larger branches that had fallen from the rain and the wind and throwing them into the bucket of a front-end loader. Mr. Greenblatt stopped his car and got out, his face compressed like a spring, crossed by tight lines ready to uncoil.
“Howdy,” Dewey said as Greenblatt approached.
“Are you the fellow who carried my daughter piggy-back down to my son’s grave without informing me or asking my permission, or having the common decency . . .”
“Wait a minute,” Dewey said. “The sexton told me we had to do it right away, or else call the police.”
“I’m the one who should be calling the police!” Greenblatt yelled. “And then she comes home telling tales of miracles!”
“It warn’t no miracle,” Dewey said. “It’s a natural thing any time it rains like that. You get too much water in the grave.”
“Where did she learn about Lazarus and Jesus then?”
“She mentioned Lazarus, but we didn’t talk about Jesus.”
“Then where did this come from?” Greenblatt snapped as he pulled a pamphlet from his coat pocket. It had cartoon drawings and words on it. On the back it said “Jews for Jesus.”
“I never seen that before,” Dewey said.
“My daughter came back from here that day and said she’d seen a sign. Must I banish her from our table because of what you have done?”
“I didn’t do nothing,” Dewey said. “I just took her down to the grave and showed her what happened. He’d risen up, just like I said he would.”
Re: Ronnie and me
Mom I have been calling and calling you but no one picks up. Are you down at the Cape and if so why didn’t you tell me? I wish you would get an answering machine.
Ronnie has moved out of the apartment and is living with his brother I guess. I gave notice at work and am going to move back in with you and Dad. I have had it with men and here are the “gorey details.”
The first few weeks living with him were just heaven. He would meet me every night after I got off work and we’d go out for Polynesian or Italian food in his car. I don’t mean we ate in his car, he would drive us to a restaurant on Route 1 for take-out and we’d bring it home. Then he’d take me to night school and pick me up when it was over. He always seemed to have plenty of money and wanted to be with me. That was nice.
He wasn’t interested in shopping with me on weekends for things for the apartment which didn’t matter it was furnished anyway. He said he needed to relax and go to the dog races and that was fine with me. I am not interested in dogs.
So first month he was late with his half of the rent so I covered the whole thing, he said he had his money tied up in an investment that he had to liquid date. I said that was okay, “Mister,” kind of wagging my finger at him so he’d get the message but in a nice way. I figured I really owed him something for all the driving he does for me and all the take-out food he bought, he always had cash.
So that was okay. But then he pulled the same thing on me the next month. I asked him what the problem was and he said that he had to put some more money into the business he owned with his brother, so that seemed okay. But then I started to ask him what kind of business it was. I thought it would help us understand each other better if I knew what he was doing with his time. “Oh,” he says, “we’re going to start breeding dogs.” Fine, I think, that gives him the dog business and the investment business like he originally told me, that should give him plenty to keep him busy. I even asked him “You aren’t spreading yourself too thin at both ends, are you?” Oh no, don’t worry about me, he says. “Ha” I should have said.
So then next month I figure he’s good for the rent but the end of the month comes and nothing. So I start dropping little hints like saying “Ronnie I’m gonna put my rent check in the envelope, you want to put yours in?” Naw, he says, remind me about it though. So I remind him about it and he says he’s gonna make a deposit as soon as he cashes in one of his investments. And it was about that time I found a $50 ticket stub on the car floor and I said “Uh, Ronnie, maybe you shouldn’t be spending so much money betting if business isn’t going so hot.” And he gets real red and mad and starts giving me this lecture about how he needs the dogs so he can “let off steam” because he’s under so much pressure with his investments and his business. Okay, I say to myself—back off, give him some room. But I said to him “You’d better start paying your share or I’m outta here.”
So then we’re about a week late with the rent and I find this note which says “verb atem”:
I’m sorry but I don’t think things are going to work out. I should of known better as I’ve always been a “loner.” I don’t know why that is. I just gotta be free and I gotta be me, like the song says. Really, you are too good for me anyway—you deserve the best! And I just can’t settle down right now, okay? So I hope there’s no “hard feelings.” Be good to yourself, beautiful.
I’m a loner, he says. What he should of said is “I’m a loser” you know why? I found out this whole time he’s never been in business at all. He goes to the dog track every day and makes his “investments.” Ha!
I called his brother after he left and said is Ronnie there, no he says. I say I’m interested in buying a dog, he says Ronnie hasn’t got a dog. I say I thought Ronnie was a greyhound breeder. He says you must of misunderstood. Ronnie bets on greyhounds, he doesn’t breed them. I say “Thanks for nothing” and hang up.
Mom what am I gonna do? I mean, I would call a lawyer I guess but what does that get me? Every man I meet is some kind of jerk and this one was the “frosting” on the cake. What did I do to deserve this guy? I just don’t know. Anyhow, I’m taking the Friday night bus back to Worcester so I’ll see you and dad then.
Can you make me an appointment with the doctor for when I get there? Because right now, I can’t breathe.
They had been playing the beer garden at the State Fair for the better part of a week, and were getting a bit tired of the routine. They played from noon until closing time at 10 p.m., a long day. In the morning they’d be in the shade, but all afternoon long the sun would beat down on the little riser that was their stage. Their throats were sore from singing.
“You guys should play more instrumentals,” Sal, the guy who ran the beer garden said. “Easier on your tonsils and on my ears.” They rarely spoke to him since he wasn’t the one who hired them. They still had to be nice to him since he was the one who okayed their daily meal allowance: one hamburger or two hot dogs, fries and a drink.
“Girls want to hear us sing,” Billy said, even though he only sang back-up. It was true; you never saw a girl looking all dreamy-eyed during “Telstar” or one of the other all-guitar numbers.
“You’re not playing for them,” Sal said, since the girls who were attracted to the band were too young to come in by themselves and would stand watching on the other side of the white fence that ringed the beer garden. “You’re being paid to bring people in the gates.” Sal could be gruff but he never was that hard on them. They were the least of his worries, between health inspectors, employees stealing from the till and carnies coming in paying a nickel for a cup of hot water, then putting free ketchup in it to make tomato soup.
They learned as the week went on that what Sal said was in their interests, too. They were supposed to play when the place was empty, to fill it up, and stop when it was full. It went against their instincts; they liked to play for people, even old people. It was more fun to play for a crowd than a bunch of empty chairs, but they’d wised up after a few days. You had to take every break you could if you were going to make it through a week-long gig.
“Thank you very much,” David said as they finished a song to applause. The place was a little more than half full, but it was still early. He looked at Sal who gave him the sign to cut it off. He wanted to turn the house again before the dinner crowd came in.
“We’re going to take a little break right now,” David said into his microphone. “But we’ll be back before too long.” With that he turned off his mike and amp and started to unplug his guitar.
“Aw, come on y’all. I just got here,” a woman said to him. She was fat and red-faced; she’d been drinking from the smell of her breath. She was holding a brown bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“Sorry, ma’am. Those are the rules,” David said.
“Union rules,” Billy said with a sly smile as he kept moving away from the bandstand so as to make a clean break.
The woman watched him go. Tony, the other guitar player, was still putting his stuff away carefully. “You still got you two and that other feller. You don’t need a drummer—come on.”
“Sorry, ma’am, but our contract says we get a 15-minute break every hour,” Wayne said. “You can come back and hear us play later.” He always spoke with an air of authority that seemed out of place given his age; it was because his father was caretaker of the fairgrounds, so it was like his home.
“Do you all know Bully of the Town?” she asked David. As she did, Wayne and Billy both broke out laughing, which they did nothing to stifle.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it,” David said. Tony was done with his gear, so he stepped off the riser onto the grass and joined Wayne and Billy off to one side.
“Aw, you know it,” the woman said, then began to sing. “Lookin’ for that bully, bully of the town,” she sang. She was drunker that she’d seemed at first, David thought. They’d learned a lot about adults in the course of playing for the first time in a place where alcohol was served. They weren’t all stiff like high school teachers. They would get unusually friendly, especially at closing time, when they’d offer to pay money for the band to keep playing.
The woman was dancing now, holding her bottle high in the air as she slowly turned around, blocking David’s way to the exit. “I asked Miss Pansy Blossom if she would wing a reel,” she sang, and David looked at the other three who were bent over from laughing. “She says ‘Lawd Mr. Johnson, how high you make me feel.’” The other customers were enjoying the woman’s antics, and some started to clap in time. “Yes I’m lookin’ for that bully of the town.”
“Go on and play somethin’ for her,” a man said, as he took out his wallet. “I’ll give ya two bucks to keep her dancing.”
The woman heard him and turned around to face him. “Why thankee,” she said. “If you pay the piper you’ve got to pay the singer, too.”
“Naw, they’s perfessionals,” the man said with a smirk. “You was dancin’ fer free, so just keep on doin’ what yer doin’.”
The woman didn’t take offense, she smiled and curtsied, then began her song and dance again. “It’s a good old song, you oughten to learn it,” she said to David. “Go on and play some,” she said.
His guitar was a hollow body, so he strummed a few chords and the woman began again. “When I walk this levee round, round, round,” she sang, and once again began to spin. David looked over at Sal, who just shrugged his shoulders as if to say he didn’t care.
“Every day I can be found, found, found.”
He felt ridiculous, but he kept playing three chords which bore no relation to the melody. “When I walk—this lev-ee round I’m a-lookin’ for that bully of the town.”
The woman’s face was growing redder, making it contrast more with her fat white arms. The man who’d offered the money was clapping louder than anyone, and David wondered how long the woman could keep singing.
“Woo!” the woman said, stopping to sip her beer. The dance had made her dizzy, and she began to fall in David’s direction. He caught her against his guitar and slowly righted her.
“You okay?” he said. He used the moment of her discombobulation to take his guitar off and put it on the stand.
“Yeah, I’m fine, don’t you worry,” she said. She gazed out over the tables and took in the customers, who had for the most part turned their attention back to their beers and each other.
“Do you all need a singer?” the woman asked David.
“No ma’am, we don’t,” he said politely, hoping to end the encounter without further incident.
“Because I’m a singer!”
“You sure are, ma’am. There’s another band down at the other beer garden, close to the midway. Maybe they need one.”
“They’s colored,” the woman said. “I want to sing with you boys.”
“Well, we don’t get paid enough to take on another musician.”
“I wouldn’t charge you. Hell, I’d sing for free.”
David looked over at the other three, who had made their way out the entrance behind the woman’s back and were giggling at him.
“We couldn’t do that, ma’am. You’re a professional—it wouldn’t be right.”
“Naw, I’d do it for the fun of it,” she said. She turned to throw her empty beer bottle in a barrel and David saw his chance to escape. He stepped towards the exit but she caught him by the arm.
“Don’t go nowhere,” she said. “Let’s put a quarter in the juke box and dance, you and me.”
He looked at Sal, who was laughing now, along with the fry cook and the bus boy.
“Do you like ‘In the Mood’? Do-da-doo-da-do-do, do-da-de-da-de dah,” she sang as she put her arm around his waist and began to lead him in a dance.
“I told you you should learn some instrumentals,” Sal said.
“Ma’am, I’ve got to go,” David said and broke her grip. “We only get 15 minutes, I’ve got to eat.”
With that he was out the entrance as the woman called after him. “Okay, I’ll come back and see y’all later, ya hear? You boys are the best thing at the fair.”
He hurried away and the other three caught up with him.
“You started a fan club!” Wayne said; just like him David thought.
“You guys weren’t much help,” he said.
“What were we supposed to do—she was drunk and blocking the exit,” Billy said.
“You could have distracted her,” David said.
“You two seemed to be enjoying each other,” Wayne said.
“Bite me,” David said, and went off to get a milk shake at the Dairy Building. His throat was sore.
I’d been looking for a job for a while when this guy Tom I knew said they were looking for somebody part-time at the music store where he worked. They sold sheet music and instruments and supplies like reeds for saxophones. Tom worked there because he played in a band and liked the employee discount for guitar strings.
I started working there Saturday afternoons until closing, when nobody else wanted to, then started getting more hours. In addition to Tom there was this little guy Charles who wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a goatee. He looked like Trotsky or some other Russian revolutionary–I wasn’t into Marx so I could never keep them straight.
Charles and I worked together Saturdays because our shifts overlapped; he was there the early part of the day, I was there from two to ten like I said. One day when things were kind of slow Charles showed me a tape recorder he kept under the counter.
“Listen to this,” he said as he pushed a button. A woman’s voice came on and started rambling on about something, how her father had a lot of property in South Boston when she was a little girl but somebody gypped him out of it and now she had to sleep in the subway station instead of living a life of “comfort and ease.” That’s how she put it–it sounded strange to my ears, real old-fashioned.
“Who is she?” I asked Charles.
“I don’t know, just some old lady who comes in here and talks. I’ve got a collection of ‘em. Harvard Square is like the disassociating crazy person capital of America.”
“So she didn’t know you were taping her?”
“Isn’t that . . . illegal or something?”
“I’m not a cop,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I’m not trying to arrest her.”
“What are you going to do with all your tapes?”
“I’m thinking of doing a conceptual art work. I’d have a room with like big blow-up pictures of crazies, and then these tapes droning on tables all around.”
“Sounds like it’d be a cacophony.” I wasn’t showing off using that word, it was just the right one, and anyway I didn’t want Charles to think I was just some dumb guy who hung around with Tom’s band.
“It’d have to be a pretty big gallery,” he said, thinking out his masterpiece. “I’d keep the volume low so each station would be like a little short story in a collection or a chapter in a book.”
“Cool,” I said, but more to be agreeable than meaning it. It sounded pretentious to me, the sort of low-octane posing that fakers try to pass off as art, as if playing a bunch of tapes of other people required the same amount of effort it took to sit down for a couple of years and write a novel.
“You’re here ’til closing, right?” he asked.
“There’s one guy who I really want to get on tape but I’m never here when he comes in.”
“This old black guy–he’s really crazy. He came in once before I started taping people. It’s like James Joyce stream-of-consciousness stuff. He starts stringing metaphors together, talking about Miss Sadie’s cabbage patch, how he caught a rabbit once, where he used to live in Roxbury when he was a kid. He’s my Great Black Whale.”
“So why don’t you just stick around and tape him?”
“I’ve got a party to go to. I haven’t worked here for three years to give up the privilege of Saturday nights off. Say–would you watch for him and tape him for me?”
“Uh, sure, I guess. I mean if he comes in and I’m not waiting on anybody else.”
“Great. I’ll put in a new tape, and you just press down on the ‘play’ and ‘record’ buttons at the same time.”
“Okay. Is there a tape in there now?”
Charles got up and went over to where the owner kept the blank cassettes. “Shrinkage,” he said as he unwrapped one and put it in his tape player.
Charles left when his shift was over and I was there by myself. Things were quiet. People who just wanted to buy recorded music didn’t usually come to our store, they went to Strawberries or the Coop or someplace with a bigger selection. A guy came in looking for sheet music for a saxophone quartet by Glazunov–we didn’t have it but I ordered it for him. A Japanese family came in with their kid–probably visiting Harvard–looked around for a while and, after thanking me profusely for nothing at all, left. I sold some violin strings. It was a slow night for some reason.
Then this old black man came in, wearing a long overcoat even though it was just October. He had a clean white shirt on, buttoned up to the neck. He had a hat on his head, the kind men my father’s age used to wear. He looked like a street corner preacher.
He looked around and when he saw me he walked over to the counter I was behind.
“Have you got it?” he asked–totally off-the-wall. I figured maybe this was the guy Charles was talking about, so I pressed the two buttons on the tape recorder to start it.
“Have we got what?”
“The record–have you got the record?”
“High John saw,” he said.
It was him all right–had to be–so I decided to play along.
“I don’t think so. How does it go?”
The man began to sing: “High John saw–the holy number, zig-zag lightning and the rolling thunder. High John saw–the holy number, way in the middle of the air.”
He had a deep voice but clear. When he was done he looked at me with a look that went right through me. “Have you got that record?”
“I don’t believe so. Who’s it by?”
“Soul Stirrers. Have you got it?”
“I can check.” I fiddled around with some papers as if I was trying to look it up. I figured I’d string him along for awhile. “Where’d you first hear it?”
“I first heard that song in church. It’s a revelation to me.”
“What was it like?”
“It’s like red gasoline oil. It’s like a burning sunset. It was like nothin’ I’d ever seen before.”
“You say you seen the song?” I asked, playing dumb. “How do you see a song?”
“It’s way up in the middle of the air, just like the song says. It’s like Ezekiel’s wheel.”
“I don’t know what that is.” I knew that was in the Bible, but I’d never understood it.
“It’s a wheel within a wheel, just like them bicycle spokes when that wheel gets goin’. Just like the wheels of a car when it gets goin’. You ought to read the Bible and learn that.”
He had sweat on his brow now–he was really into it. “You ought write the record company . . .”
“Okay . . .”
” . . . write the record company, see if you can git it.”
“Okay, we will. Have you got the address?”
“You oughta have it. You oughta have it in that big book thar.”
He pointed to the Schwann catalog. He was right, it would probably be in there if it existed, but I had my doubts whether there was any such song as “High John Saw the Holy Number.”
I thumbed through the catalog and looked for The Soul Stirrers. I knew Sam Cooke had sung for them so I looked under his name too. Nothing, but that didn’t mean the song didn’t exist; it just meant there wasn’t an album by that name.
“They don’t have it listed,” I said. “Sorry.” I really was sorry–I would have liked to find the song for the guy if it meant that much to him.
The man looked at me and his eyes wandered up to my forehead. He looked at me hard and his eyes rolled back into his head a little. “You’ve got the mark of the devil on you,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I see the number 666 up thar.”
I knew what he was talking about. I’ve got a scar there from where a football helmet cracked apart during a game and I got five stitches, and a scar where I hit myself with a tennis racket, and one where I got hit with a potato rake when I was working as a groundskeeper doing something stupid. Plus I had chicken pox scars and acne scars. I know it’s not a pretty sight.
“Those are all self-inflicted wounds,” I said. “The devil didn’t put them there.” I was trying to humor him, hoping he’d leave.
“It was foretold in the Book of Revelations!” he said, a little louder now. An older couple came in, a man and a woman, and they started looking around.
“Well, I can try to order it–you should come back next Saturday night, maybe it will be in by then.”
“High John saw–the Holy Number!” he began to sing again, causing the couple to look over at us.
“I think you’d better go outside if you’re going to sing, okay?”
” . . . zig-zag lightning and the rolling thunder.”
I got up from around the counter and tried to guide the guy outside. He was pretty cooperative for someone who was obviously out of his mind.
“I’ll bet people down in the Square would like to hear you sing.”
“Yez,” he said as he looked off into the night sky. “Yez they would.”
He started off towards the Square–I figured he probably knew it pretty well, knew there’d be a bigger crowd down there to listen to his preaching. I could hear him singing as he went, softer and softer as he got further away. The people coming towards the store parted for him, and for some reason I thought of that scene in The Ten Commandments where Moses parts the Red Sea. I laughed a little when I thought about what I was thinking.
The old couple was coming out of the store as I went back in, and the old man smiled and sort of laughed at me. “You must meet all kinds in there,” he said.
“Sure do–never a dull moment,” I said, although an eight hour shift was generally filled with eight hours of dull moments.
Nobody came in after that so about a half hour later I turned the lights off and closed out the register. As I was about to leave I remembered the tape player; the tape had run out so it was off. Just out of curiosity, I rewinded it and played the tape back. My encounter with the man wasn’t long, just a couple of minutes, but it was pretty intense. I figured it was just the sort of thing Charles would want for his conceptual work of art–the guy was definitely demented, although maybe if you were him, or someone who believed what he believed, you just thought he was inspired and filled with the Holy Spirit.
I put the tape in my pocket, locked the front door from the outside and headed off towards my apartment in Central Square. The first trash can I passed, I threw the tape into it.