I’m a gravedigger.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But don’t be lookin’ down on me, because someday, hey, I may be lookin’ down on you!
Lately I’m kinda famous. The attorney general wants to talk to me. I’ve done two TV interviews. Girls from my high school, mostly the divorced ones, find me on Facebook, asking if I’ll take them out. It’s because I knew everyone involved in the cemetery thing: old Miss Thorobane, Nicky, even Butchie Russo. He used to beat me up in high school.
I should tell you how I ended up here. I was all right until junior college, when Nicky and I started doing heavy shit. We’d cruise around Walnut and Olden in his Camaro. It’s easy to cop in Trenton.
Nobody messed with us because the dealers knew Nicky’s old man was connected, but Nicky never used his muscle. I didn’t find out until the time he borrowed his old man’s Caddy and I felt something goose me in the ass: the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. By our second year we were both whacked out and flunking out. My old man cut me off. Then we got picked up doing a buy and thrown in lockup. Nicky’s dad owned a cop bar, so he made it all go away for him. He got Nicky back in school in the mortician’s program and set him up at a local parlor. I wasn’t so lucky. I did serious time at Mercer Correctional and, when I finally got clean, nobody wanted to hire me, except for what I do now.
It’s not so bad. I’m out in the fresh air and they let me use the backhoe, which is fun. Nicky came to my rescue, because we’re kind of in the same line of work. When he bagged a big funeral, he’d hire me as a pallbearer. I’d put on a rented suit, haul the stiff out of church and give him his dirt nap.
Then Nicky and I would go back to his office, toke a little in the basement, and count on the formaldehyde to cover the smell. Nicky was always cracking wise about his job, talking to the corpses while he worked on them. “All my customers are satisfied,” he’d say. “When I’m done there’s a smile on every face.”
So life was good, or at least as good as it was going to get. I even made a strange friend, old Miss Thorobane.
She was a sweet lady, real Princeton proper-like. Her house was across from the cemetery, so I’d see her out on the porch with the old curved wooden chairs. I guess she saw me too, because one spring day she asked if I’d like lemonade. I checked to see where the boss was, hopped the fence and ran over.
From then on we’d have lemonade every day, sitting in her cane chairs with the canvas covers that smelled like mummy’s rags. First I told her about my family, or my lack of family, and finally she told me about hers.
Her story was sadder than mine. She was part of an old Princeton family that disowned her because they didn’t like her boyfriend. Then he ran off and married someone else. No big surprise, right? Except she still kept a picture of him in a silver frame on her mantle. Now all she had left were her three cats . . . and me.
Then she started to read poetry to me. She really got into that romantic stuff. I can still hear her voice say, “I have loved thee, Senora, in my fashion.”
But mostly she loved this Scottish poet named Bernie, and this poem he wrote about death, I guess because she was so close to it herself and I sure had the smell of it on me. She would almost sing the lines at the end:
“And hand in hand we’ll go;
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.”
Then this one time she looked at me and asked, “What’s it like?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s it like to sleep with someone. I mean make love to them? It’s never happened to me. I’m going to die an old maid.”
Well, I’m no expert. The last girl I had was in high school. Since then it’s been Trenton hookers when I have the money, which isn’t often or much.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s OK.” I guess I was embarrassed.
“I always thought I would be buried with my husband,” she said. “Our plot is right over there, near the big Cedars of Lebanon tree, not far from Grover Cleveland’s tomb.”
She grabbed my hand so hard it hurt. I didn’t think an old lady had such strength. “Will you promise me that I will be buried properly? And my money. Will you make sure it goes to the shelter to take care of my cats? That way I know they’ll be provided for.”
I gave her the usual BS about how she wasn’t going to die, but she knew better. Finally I said I would do it to shut her up. I’ve ducked responsibility every time it reared its ugly head, and I figured I could do it again.
But then the shit hit the fan. First there was a problem with Nicky’s business. Nicky’s dad had a bad-ass named Butchie Russo collecting for him. Butchie had gone from slam-dunking kids like me for their lunch money to tuning up street-corner coke vendors.
When he couldn’t find one dealer, he went to the mother’s apartment, beat the crap out of her, and then took her Christmas tree, lights and all. Butchie would shake down dealers for more than they owed and pocket the rest, which pissed them off and pissed off Nicky’s dad even more.
Finally Butchie and Nicky’s dad had it out at the after-hours club when they both went after the same bimbo. Each of them capped the other one, Nicky told me, and while nobody died, it was clear somebody was going to die.
After that, every time I worked one of Nicky’s funerals, all the guys were packing, and Nicky would be riding in the bulletproof limo.
Then Miss Thorobane got sick. I saw the ambulance come and take her, the IV dangling overhead. I hitchhiked to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, and that seemed to perk her up for a few days. She made me promise over and over that, yes, I’d bury her and, yes, I’d make sure her cats had a home.
I let Nicky handle the funeral. He told me he put her in his most expensive metal coffin. It sure felt heavy enough when me and five of his boys lugged it to the plot under the Cedars of Lebanon tree and ratcheted it into the concrete bunker. No family showed up. The only mourner, apart from me, was Grover Cleveland.
After that things calmed down. Nicky and I went trolling again, and he told me how he’d fixed Miss Thorobane up real nice with that silver-frame picture of her lost love wrapped in her arms. That made me feel good, thinking of her smiling for eternity, knowing her cats were happy with all the money she’d left to take care of them.
But that money brought nothing but problems. When her family, who lived in Montclair, found out that she had left a hundred Gs to some cats, they hired a lawyer. He didn’t have any trouble breaking the will with me as her only defender. So the money went to the family and the cats went to the pound. And then the family decided to rebury her, far away from me and my cemetery.
Just Leroy and I were working the day we dug her up. I was surprised that Nicky didn’t show. Undertakers usually like to open the coffin and admire their work. But Nicky wasn’t there. Maybe that was for the best.
Being a juicer, both on and off-hours, Leroy jumps on the backhoe and begins to play sky pilot. “Watch this!” he yells as he whips it around. But he hits the wrong button and down goes the bucket – right on the coffin.
The first thing I realized was that this was no Sherman tank of a coffin because it split apart. I’ve seen terrible things happen to coffins that are pulled up after burial, but usually the cheap ones. Sometimes the water inside turns everything to soup. Sometimes heads pop off when they take a shot from the backhoe like Leroy did.
But this was much, much worse. There were two bodies in there. And the one with a bullet in his head was Butchie Russo.
First the local cops showed up. Then the state police, with the media right on their ass. The cemetery manager was telling everyone things like this never happen and everyone was laughing at him. Then the FBI arrived for a press conference just before the 6 o’clock news.
Power cables for the klieg lights and yellow police tape were all over the place. The governor even had his picture taken next to the coffin, which thankfully was covered with a plastic sheet. Leroy had run off to down a gallon of coffee and a tube of breath mints, so he was almost presentable, except when he had to pee behind the Cedars of Lebanon tree.
No one saw me leave. I took the bus to Nicky’s funeral home in Trenton. The doors were locked and the closed sign was hanging up, but I knew the back way to the basement.
Nicky was in the room where they took the bodies, staring at this fat moon-shaped corpse. “It’s easy to see why this geezer vapor-locked,” he said in a kind of dreamy way. “He was shovel-ready about 20 years ago. His veins were so hard I couldn’t even get the embalming fluid in.”
Finally he looked up at me. “Want to know how I could do this to you and that sweet old lady?”
I picked up a container and started eating his dinner. Nicky never minded. He’d share anything, even women. “Is this Curry-In-A-Hurry?”
He laughed. It was a strange laugh, echoing off the white stone walls in that cold room. “It ain’t Asian Fusion! You know, of all the sins I ever had to tell the priest, all the dealing, the drinking and the whoring, I get caught for what my old man made me do. He had to get rid of Butchie fast so I shoved him in with her.”
“I can’t do jail time,” he said. “I never told you, but they did some things to me when I was there. Bad things.”
“I know,” I said. “They did ’em to me too.” I got up to go and then Nicky grinned at me. For just a second he seemed like himself. “Remember our motto,” he said. “A smile on every face.”
That night Nicky took a shot of formaldehyde. The next day’s papers were full of it. The headlines read: “Two for the price of one,” “Double occupancy,” “Dead … and loving it.” But the worst was the local tabloid. Under the picture of Nicky it said, “Undertaker gets a dose of his own medicine.”
That’s pretty much the end of my story. I guess the moral is if you screw up enough you’re famous. But I got one more job as a pallbearer.
Nicky, being an undertaker, had left specific instructions about his own funeral. He wanted me to carry him to his final resting place, which wasn’t too far from where Miss Thorobane would have been.
So I put on my rented suit and go to the cathedral and there are the other pallbearers taking a butt break — five big weightlifter types in tight suits with shaved heads.
I’m eyeing them and they’re eyeing me, and it suddenly hits me: These are the guys who were dealing to the guys who had been dealing to me — the guys at the top of the food chain of which I am on the bottom of.
When we get to the cemetery, we take the coffin and walk down the slippery grass road, measuring our steps the way we always do. The coffin is heavy, but at least I know who’s in it and that it is — or was — my best friend.
Then I remember telling him how Miss Thorobane asked me how it felt to sleep with someone. And I remember what that coffin looked like after it was smashed open — how Nicky put Butchie face-down on top of the old lady and how he put a big smile on both their faces.
I start to laugh and cry at the same time. The funny thing is I can even hear myself laughing, but coming from far away, and I can’t stop.
And then I hear Nicky’s dad say, “The fucking kid’s on crack again,” and I got pushed so hard I went headfirst into a tombstone. Someone else must have picked up the coffin because everyone moved on. And I was left hugging Grover Cleveland, laughing and crying and thinking to myself: I need a new line of work.
Leefeldt is a former police reporter who has interviewed David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and other criminals. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his stories on vote fraud and how convicts scammed Social Security. He leads the writers’ group at Barnes & Noble in the MarketFair shopping center.