J. P. DONLEAVY
THREE o’clock in February. All the sky was blue and high. Banners and bunting and people bunched up between. Greetings and sadness.
Great black box up from the deep hold, swinging in the air high over the side of the ship. Some of the stevedores taking off their caps and hoods. With quiet whisperings, swiveling it softly on a trolley and pushing it into a shed.
Cornelius Christian standing under the letter C. The customs man comes over.
“I’m sorry sir about this. I know it isn’t a time you want to be annoyed by a lot of questions but if you could just come with me over to the office I’ll try to get this over as quickly as possible. It’s just a formality.”
Walking across the pier through the rumbling carts, perfumes, furs and tweeds, the clanging chains, and into the little warm hut with typewriters pecking. Tall dark customs man, his fist with a pencil on a piece of paper.
“I understand this happened aboard ship.”
“And you’re an American and your wife was foreign.”
“And you intend burial here.”
“It’s just that we’ve got to make sure of these things because it can save a lot of trouble later. Don’t want to burden you with anything unnecessary. Do you have any children traveling.”
“Just my wife and myself.”
“I understand. And are all your other possessions your own property, all personal effects. No fine art, antiques. You’re not importing anything.”
“Just sign here. Won’t be anything else and if you have any trouble at all don’t hesitate to get in touch with me right away. Here’s my name and I’ll straighten out any difficulty. Just Steve Kelly, customs’ll get me. Vine funeral home phoned here just a while ago. I told him everything was all right and he says you can go see them at their office, or phone any time this afternoon or tonight. You take it easy.”
“Thanks very much.”
Customs man giving Christian a pat on the back.
“And say, Mr. Christian, see the stevedore, guy with the fur jacket. Just tell him Steve said you’d help me with my stuff. OK? Don’t worry about anything.”
Out through the grinding winches, clicking high heels, the stacks of gay baggage and colored labels. The great tall side of ship. And coming out to it as it sat on the sea in Cork Harbor. A stiff cold vessel. All of us bundled up as the tender tugged us out on the choppy water. And left the pink houses on the shore twirling early morning turf smoke in the sky. Black rivets on the ship’s side. And I climbed up behind her. On the stairway swaying over the water. And now through this jumble and people gathering each other in their arms. This stevedore with fur jacket, a hook tucked under his arm. Hard muscles across his jaw.
“Excuse me, Steve said you’d help me with my stuff.”
“Oh yeah, sure. Sure thing. Got much?”
“Three small trunks, two bags.”
“OK. You just follow me all the way. I’ll put the stuff down the escalator. Meet me the bottom of the stairs. You want a taxi.”
Under the roof of girders and signs. No tipping. Escalator rumbling down with trunks and crates. Crashing and crushing. The treatment they give things would break open her box. And they shout, This way folks. Five bucks, Grand Central. Three fifty, Penn Station. The stevedore has scars on his face, keeps his hands on his hips, “Mr. Christian, this guy will take you wherever you want to go. Stuff’s on.”
“No no. I don’t want any money. I don’t take money for a favor. You’ll do the same for somebody, That way it goes round the world.”
CORNELIUS Christian opening the door into this gleaming cab. Horns honk everywhere. This driver with a green cap turns around.
“Where to, bud.”
“I don’t know. Have to think of somewhere.”
“Look, I haven’t got all day. I want to catch another boat coming in.”
“Do you know where I can get a room.”
“I’m no directory bud.”
“Place is full of hotels.”
“Do you know anywhere I can get a room.”
“Boardinghouse for a guy like you? Just sort of dumps I know. This is some time to start looking. Everybody want me to find a room I’d be starving. As it is I make peanuts. OK. I know a place West Side near the museum.”
Taxi twisting away. With smiles and arms laden with coats others get into cabs. The trip is over. Some made friends. And we go up a hill to the roaring highway.
“It’s none of my business but what’s a guy like you doing coming all the way over here with nowhere to go. You don’t sound like a guy got no friends, don’t look it neither. OK. Takes all sorts of people to make a world. Keep telling my wife that, she doesn’t believe me. Thinks everybody’s like her. Across there long?”
“Went to college.”
“Good education over there. Don’t you feel lonely?”
“No, don’t mind being alone.”
“That right. Got a right to feel that way if you want. But look at this, how can you feel alone. Everything looking like it’s going to explode. And I got a face looks like a monkey. Know why. Because I used to own a pet shop till a relative got the big idea to make a lot of money. So what happens, I lose the whole thing. Now I’m driving a hack. Kick in your teeth and every guy after a fast buck. What a life. Keep going, keep going till you can’t stop.”
Christian folding white gloved hands in his lap. Cars stream along the highway. The wail of a police car zooming by.
“Look at that, some guy murdered his mother for a dime. Guy like me got to drink milk all day, live like a baby. I tell you, it’s a crime. Sweat our guts out. Something awful. Goddam place jammed with foreigners. Think they’d stay in Europe instead of coming over here and crowding us out. You foreign?”
“You could pass for foreign. It’s OK with me mister if you’re foreign. My mother came from Minsk.”
Clouds come gray and east. Ice down there on the edge of the river. Smoky red weak sun.
Taxi turns down off the highway. Between the pillars holding up the street above. Serve beer in there. Bar stools and sawdust. Stevedores with hooks. They say keep your mouth shut and you won’t get hurt. Safe in a crowd. Close in there by the elbows, next to the sleeves where all around me are just hands to shake and squeeze.
“OK mister here we are. Give me five bucks.”
Red graystone. An iron fence. Where the rich lived years ago. Tall steps up. First five dollars gone.
“Mister ring the bell downstairs and I’ll take your bags, never get rich this way but you look lonely. Mrs. Grotz’ll take care of you. She’s crazy, but who isn’t.”
Mrs. Grotz, cross-eyed, wrapped in a black coat and a collar of silver fox, standing in the door.
“What’s your business mister?”
“He’s all right, Ma, just back from college over in Europe. Just ain’t got no friends.”
“Everyone ought to have friends.”
“How do you know he wants them.”
“Friendship means a lot, you crazy cab driver.”
“My wife thinks I’m crazy too, but my kids think I’m God.”
“Go home you crazy cab driver. Follow me mister, I got a nice room.”
Carrying the bags behind this large bottom shifting up the stairs. In the onion smell. And scent of dust.
“Stairs for me is work mister. Got to do everything myself. Since my husband. He drop dead right in his underwear. Right while I was watching. Such a shock. Go to turn off the lamp and drop dead right on his face. I’m nervous and shaking like this ever since. So all husbands drop dead sometime. You think they have manners and do it quiet in the hospital.”
A room with red curtains high on the windows. Double bed like one I saw in Virginia where once I was walking down a street and climbed in a train standing in the hot sun. Always wishing I could save the heat for the winter.
“Four-fifty dollars a night or twenty dollars a week. Look what I supply, radio, shelves, gas stove, hot water. Don’t play the radio loud.”
“Could I let you know in a day or two how long I’ll be staying.”
“Give you till Friday and you got to make up your mind. You got a funny voice, you English? Learn to speak at college?”
“Just a bit.”
“Was that the accent you was born with?”
“I don’t know.”
“Give me four dollars and fifty cents.”
NEW world. Opening up the suitcases on the bed. Turn on the oven. Out into the hall past another brown door. Everything in the dark. And cars go by in the street like boats and soft bubbles.
Find the switch for the light in this bathroom. Green towel crumpled on the floor. Lift the seat. All gentlemen are requested. When little you never lift the seat and Mommy tell you lift the seat. Pick up the towel. Go back. This door has a name on it under the cellophane. And now the only thing I can do is wait and wait and wait. It’s got to go away. She could never pack things and her bag’s a mess. I told her she was sloppy, why don’t you fold things up. And I’ve got to go down there. To a funeral parlor. Come all the way here to a funeral parlor. Just wash my face. No one to be with her. And I was so full of dying myself. I hope I know how to get down there after all these years. How much is it going to cost. Just end up being buried among a lot of strangers.
Christian steps down into the street. Gray tweed on his back. White gloves on hands. Street full of shadows. And dark cars parked. And straight ahead the stale stiff fingers of trees. After so much ocean. And I don’t know what to say to this man. He’ll be in black or something. Do I have to give him a tip or a cigar. He might think I’m not sorry enough and can’t concentrate on the death.
Gray tall windows of the museum. Down these steps to the subway. Chewing gum everywhere. Turnstile reminds me of horses. Coin goes in so neatly. Click through. Could step right under a train. Just let it roar right over me. What have you got to touch to get electrocuted. How would they know to take me and put me with Helen. It would have to be written down in my wallet. In case of death take me to the Vine funeral home and bury me with Helen. So slaughtered you could put me round her in the same casket. I just can’t bear for you to be cold and you said last thing of all to put you in the ground. And you always wore a green shadow around your eyes. Came near me in your silk rustling dress you sounded hollow inside. Listening with your eyes. And the first day at sea I didn’t want to see you spend the two dollars for a deck chair. Now I’d let you have it. I’d let you have anything now. Helen, you could have got two deck chairs or three and I’d have said nothing. It wasn’t the money, I didn’t want you to get cold because you looked so ill you’d freeze up there and no one knew how sick you were. And I pulled on the towel. Pulled it right out of your hands when you said you’d spend the two dollars. It wasn’t the money, I’d tear up two dollars here right on this platform. God, it was the money. I’ve lost you.
Head bowed. A white knuckle rubbing under an eye. A man steps near.
“Are you all right, buddy?”
“Yes I’m all right. Just a lot of dust blown up in my eyes.”
“OK, buddy, just wanted to make sure.”
Roaring train in the tunnel. Sweeping into the station. Train with the tickling noise under the floor. Doors growl shut. Then up, out, crossing each avenue, when the lights turn red and the cars slide up and stop. And it’s all so new around me and so old. When I was young and walking here I heard a car screech and hit a boy. Saw the white shirt on his shoulder. And I wondered if all the people would be gathering around and keep him warm and not like me running away.
Where the street slants down, further on, tall buildings and a river. Closer. There it is. Doublecurtained doors, two evergreens on either side. Push through. God, what a place for you. Soft carpeted hall, luxurious in here. Warm green light flowing up the walls. So soft everything. This isn’t bad. This door’s open. It gleams and I’ll knock. Man’s black shoes and gartered black socks sticking out from a desk. They move and shine. His hand in front of me.
“Good evening, you’re Mr. Christian aren’t you.”
“I’m sorry that you’ve had to come. I’m Mr. Vine, please sit down.”
“Will you smoke. Cigarette. Cigar.”
“Go ahead, make yourself comfortable. There are only a few little things here. Customs man who dealt with you telephoned after you left the pier. Very nice of him and I’ll certainly do everything I can Mr. Christian. Only these to sign.”
“I’m not just an ordinary man in this business. It means a great deal to me and if there is any special help I can give anyone I’m really glad to do it. So understand that.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“We can only do our best Mr. Christian. We try to understand sorrow. I’ve arranged burial at Greenlawn. Do you know New York?”
“Yes, I was born here.”
“Then you may know Greenlawn. One of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world and it’s always a pleasure to visit. My wife’s buried there as well and I know it’s a place of great peace. We realize sorrow Mr. Christian. I’ll take care of all the immediate details for you and you can have a chat with them later on. All under my personal direction. Arranged as soon as you wish.”
“Could it be arranged for tomorrow morning.”
“Yes. Will it give mourners time? The notice will only be in tomorrow’s Daily News, only give anybody couple of hours to get here.”
“I’ll be the only mourner.”
“No one knew we were coming to New York.”
“I can put you in our small suite there across the hall.”
“Just for a few minutes. I want to keep it very short.”
“I understand. In the way of flowers?”
“I’d like something simple. Perhaps a wreath with My Helen.”
“Of course. Something simple. I’ll see to it myself. We try to make friends with sorrow Mr. Christian. That way we come to know it. You’d like us to use glass. For permanence.”
“That’s all right.”
“And where are you located.”
“Near the Museum of Natural History.”
“I’m pleased you’re near there. There’s much to reflect upon in that building. We’ll send our car for you.”
“Is that anything extra?”
“Included Mr. Christian. Shall I make it nine thirty, ten, whenever you wish.”
“Nine thirty is fine.”
“Mr. Christian, would you like now to have a little drink before you go. Some Scotch.”
“Well I would. Are you Irish, Mr. Vine.”
“My mother was. My father was German.”
Mr. Vine’s little snap of the head and blink of the eyes, crossing his soft canary carpet. Puts a neat white hand under an illuminated picture. Sunlight filtering through mountain pines and brass name beneath says In The Winter Sun. Panels drawing apart. Shelves of bottles, glasses, and the small white door of a refrigerator. He must drink like a fish. Pick him up like a corpse every night.
“Soda, Mr. Christian.”
“Now, the way you said that. Just one word. I can tell by your voice that you’re an educated man Mr. Christian. I also like your name. I never had very much in the way of education. I was a wildcatter in Texas and then became the manager of an oil field. Wouldn’t think of it to look at me, would you. I left school when I was nine years old. I’ve always wanted to be in this business but I was thirty before I got a chance to do a high school course. Did it in the navy, then went to morticians’ school when I came out. It makes you feel closer to people. It’s dignified. And art. When you see what you can do for someone who comes to you helpless. To recreate them just as they were in life. Makes you able to soften things. You’re a man I can talk to, a person who’s got a proper mental attitude. I can always tell. There are some of them who make you sick. Only thing I don’t like about the business are the phonies and I get my share of them. Here, have another, do you good.”
“Some people think I’m outspoken but I’ve given a lot of satisfaction and people put their whole families in my hands, even in a big city like this. I opened up another branch in the West Fifties. But I like it best here where I began. My two little girls are growing up into big women now. You meet people from all walks of life. I’m a bit of a philosopher and I feel anything you’ve got to learn you’ll learn just through what you have to do with people, in that way I never miss an education. It’s a fact, I never graduated. It’s especially sad when I bury those who did. But everything is how a person conducts themselves. That’s how I know all about you, customs man said over the phone you were a real gentleman. Would you like now for me to show you the establishment. If you don’t it’s all right.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You’d like to feel that she was somewhere where she’s really at home. Come along, we’re empty now, there’s just two at my other branch although it’s a busy time of the year.”
Mr. Vine rising. Gently bent forward. Flicks his head and bends one shoulder up to his ear. Frown around his eyes and hair sticks straight up on his head. Holding door ajar. Smiling with his tilted face.
“I never want to have an establishment of mine get so big you lose the personal touch. It must be warm and intimate to make people feel at home. I call the other branch a home, bit of an expense to change here because parlor is in the neon sign. I feel parlor is a word that lets you down. Something poor people have. I like the word home. I don’t gloom at people, I smile. Death is a reunion. And it’s a pause in the life of others.”
A low corridor. Mr. Vine touches Mr. Christian slowly through the soft lights, soft step by soft step.
“These are the various suites. These two have their own private rest rooms. Which has been of great success. I wouldn’t say it to most people but certain functions get stimulated at the passing of a cherished one. You’ve noticed how I’ve used green light and how it glows from the walls, it’s a special kind of glass that makes it do that. Only kind in New York. You don’t mind me showing you around.”
“No it’s all right.”
“In a few years I’m opening a branch out in the country. For some people the country signifies peace. You saw that picture, the forest, In The Winter Sun. Looking at that gave me the idea. It’s not conducive to peace to come in off the street. And you hear that elevated train out there. Thinking of tearing it down. Won’t be too soon for me. Shake the teeth out of your head. And in here is our chapel. I thought I’d make it round just like the world and again green is my motif. And out here again there’s the door to our workrooms. We call it the studio.”
“It’s all very nice.”
“That makes me feel good. I’m pleased. And I hope you’ll be satisfied you dealed with me. I always want people to feel that. You can trust me and know I’ve got reverence for my work. To love your work is happiness. It means I meet someone like you too. I’m never wrong about people. I know the real tears of death and they don’t go down the cheeks. And this is my largest room, the first one I ever used. One or two personages been here. Mr. Selk the manufacturer. And we light a candle behind this green glass when someone is reposing. I think it gives, or rather, let me say, lends a sacredness to the occasion.”
“Yes it does.”
“You go home now. Put all bother out of your head. Get a good night’s sleep. And I’m here, remember that, for any kind of request. Our car will be there in the morning. Good night, Mr. Christian.”
Mr. Vine and Christian shook hands. Vine gave Christian a catalogue. Pushed open the door to the cold electric light of the street. A last smite, a wave.
THE windy canyon of Park Avenue. Crossing a winter city. Cold heels on the pavement. Doormen rubbing hands, clicking feet, looking up, looking down the street. Beginning to snow. Like the first winter I got to Dublin. When the skies were gray for months. And I bought thick woolen blankets at the shop and they smelled like sheep.
Christian, hands plunged in pockets, takes a lonely subway West and North. Back by the shadows of the museum. And along by the stone mansions. Where I live tonight.
Music coming from the door with the name under the cellophane. Dim light in the hall, a smell of wax in the air. Dust in the nose. Door slamming. Voice yelling Pipe down.
Must go in through this door and sleep. Pull aside the thick red curtain so tomorrow the light will wake me up. Snow streams down under the street lamp. Someone else’s house is more your own if it’s filled with strangers. Helen, I wouldn’t have brought you to a room like this. Makes me feel I’m casting some poverty on you because this isn’t the type of place you would ever be. Yours were bathrooms shining with gleaming rails and hot towels. All this plastic junk. Couldn’t have been in the studio while Vine and I were talking. Couldn’t talk like that. But that’s the way we talked. Like pies peaches or eggs. Helen’s not a pie, peaches, or eggs. She’s mine. Taking her away. Gone already. Where is she nearest to me. Asleep on top of my brain. Came with me all over the ship when I couldn’t stand them staring at me everywhere I went and whispering. Our table out in the center of the dining room. They were all thinking of the day when they had the gala occasion with the paper hats and balloons and Helen just sat there at the table and wept, pink handkerchief tucked up your sleeve and pearls like tiny drops from your face and none of them ever saw you again.
They even came up to my cabin door after you were dead to listen to hear if I was crying. And the steward who said they wouldn’t do your washing. He stuck his brown face in the door and closed it quietly when he saw me prostrate on the bunk. And he slammed the door in your face. Both of us utterly helpless, could do nothing could say nothing. I held the three dollars in my fist and watched his brown hand come up from his side and pull them out and leave quietly closing the door. The waiter who filled our plates with things we didn’t want and came over the second day and said your wife don’t eat no more and I said no. And lunchtime he came back saying he was sorry he didn’t know, the wine waiter just told him and he got me a plate covered in smoked salmon. He kept as far away as he could until the last meal when hovering for his tip he asked me if I was a refugee. Went out, looked down on the strange flat shore. And in that cabin, Helen, where you left your soul and I’ve got to lie a night here between these sleepless sheets without you.
Sound of snow-shoveling in the street. Ship’s whistle from the river. Tingling and banging in the pipes along the wall. Outside the wind blows hard and shivers the window. Knocks on the door.
“Mr. Christian there’s a man for you downstairs.”
“Please tell him I’m coming right away.”
Christian looking into the street below. A man in dark coat, green shirt, black tie. No hat over his half-bald head and gray wisps of hair. A black long car. Come for me. Can’t keep him waiting. Can’t stop them putting you in the ground under the snow.
Mrs. Grotz at the door, hunched, breath steaming in the cold air, her hands rubbing. Watching Christian pass and meet the chauffeur halfway down the steps. A solemn soft voice and placing a black cap on his head.
“You Mr. Christian. I’m from Vine funeral home.”
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
Grotz edging her slippered feet out into the snow. Straining ears to listen. Her mouth open, eyes wide. “Hey what’s the matter. Who’s hurt. Some trouble. You from a funeral.”
Christian stopping turning. Pulling gloves tighter on his hands. Looks up the steps at Mrs. Grotz.
“It’s my wife.”
“What’s a matter, you got a wife? Where’s your wife? What’s a matter your wife.”
“Mister. Oh mister.”
The park ahead, little rolling hill in velvet snow. So white and Christmas. Birds taking white baths. Plows pushing it up. conveyer belts pouring it into trucks. I’ve no black tie. But a green one will suit Mr. Vine. People we pass look at this expensive car.
“You comfortable, Mr. Christian?”
“They’re shoveling salt. Then when the snow melts the guy’s tires in front shoot it up on your windshield. Some problem. They know it’s going to snow every year, you’d think they’d do something.”
A morning sun shining in slits along the crosstown streets and in shadows across the park. These tall hotels. All so slender women walk in. Where the lights glow. And everybody’s scared of everybody. And maybe Vine and his personal touch.
Vine Funeral Parlor, green neon sign. Sanitation department truck stopped outside. Bedraggled men filling it with snow. Mr. Vine waves his arm. Seems red in the face.
“Good morning, Mr. Christian. Had to tell these men to get this garbage truck out of here. Come this way, Mr. Christian.”
Vine pushing open the door, taking Christian’s coat. A firm handshake, nodding his head and twitching. Shaking water out of his ears after swimming. Now he beckons the way.
“It’s my favorite music I’ve chosen, Mr. Christian. She’s very beautiful. She’s waiting for you. And just press the button when you want me. All right?”
The room dark. Curtains drawn across the window to the street. And the green light flickering behind the glass. Casket gleaming and black. On a pedestal, the wreath illumined in green. My Helen written with the tiny white heads of lilies of the valley. A table with a Bible. Chairs along the wall for mourners. Even has my flowers lit up. He must rake in the money. I’m glad the casket’s black. I’d die if it were green. Now go and kneel. So soft and I can’t look at you. See just the tips of your knuckles. You don’t have to shake Vine’s hand, he almost broke mine. If you’d move. Encased in glass and you can’t get up. Forgive me because I haven’t got the courage to see you. Because I’d see you dead forever. What happens to all the flesh and blood. No child. You leave nothing except the pain of missing you. And I didn’t want the expense because a baby costs money. I wouldn’t part with a penny. Only reason I had. I knew you were begging me and I’d always say Let’s wait. And we waited. Your casket’s so smooth. Funny I put my hand along the bottom to see if it’s stuck with chewing gum. Vine would never allow that. And although he must be half crazy he’s given me comfort because I don’t feel you’re laughed at or joked over dead. Got to keep my head down or I’ll look by accident. Thought I would cry and I can’t. Helen, I wish we were different from everybody else. Scream for some sort of thing that makes us you and me. Neither of us nothing. And on the ship you said you wanted to lie down in the cabin. Those first Americans you met just tired you out. And I was so proud of bringing you back to my country. I wanted you to like them. And even after you’d gone, I didn’t want anyone to come and touch me on the arm and back with a pat or two and say I’m sorry about it, about your wife, have courage or something, but I did want them. I wanted someone to show something. Anything. But not a soul on that damn ship came near me except for money. And each second you get further away from me. Dig the hole with the straight sides and before it gets dark they’ve got you covered up. And all the times I wished you were dead. So I could be free. But they were black thoughts of anger. But I thought them. Must get up. Look out the window.
SILENTLY crossing the room. Parting the thick curtains to the late morning light of the street. And people hunching by in the cold. Over there Murray’s best for bargains. Vine said press the button when you’re ready. Does he take ordinary lipstick and put it on the lips. Or take it out of a pot they use on everyone. And all sorts of lips. And make them the kind that gleam and don’t have cracks, and are red and now overripe. Vine had a green handkerchief in his pocket. What has he got against the color green. Most of his life must be whispering, nodding, hand rubbing, and the five words, we’ll take care of everything.
Christian turning from the window. Mr. Vine leaning over the casket wiping the glass.
“Must be a little condensation on the inside Mr. Christian. But I hate anything to mar such a lovely face. Woman’s lips are one of the most beautiful parts of her body. I can always tell a woman who looks at a man’s lips when he talks instead of his eyes. Are you all right.”
“Yes. Do you think we could leave now.”
“Yes, a few minutes. Our large reposing room is busy this morning. We never know in this business.”
“Mr. Vine I think maybe you’re telling me too much about your business. I don’t want to say anything but it’s getting me down.”
“What’s the matter.”
“I don’t want to know about the business. It’s getting me down.”
“Don’t get sore. I forget sometimes. I try to make everyone feel at home and not treat the funeral business as something strange. People ought to know about it. My own funeral is already arranged. But don’t get sore. When it happened to me and it was my wife I found I wanted some sort of distraction and because I arranged the services myself it made me feel better. And I thought you wanted to take an interest.”
“This isn’t distraction.”
“Take it easy son. You’re not alone in this, remember that. If I shot my mouth off. I’m sorry. I don’t want to do that with nobody. But getting sore isn’t going to bring her back. Beauty is the only thing you can remember. Try to remember beauty. Come on, I like you, be a sport.”
“My wife’s dead.”
“I know that.”
“Well, what the hell do you mean, sport.”
“If I understand you correctly Mr. Christian, you’d rather I didn’t conduct this any further. I can put you in the hands of an assistant if you prefer.”
“All right, all right. I’m not the kind of person who wants to start trouble. Leave everything as it is. I’m just worried about money and what I’m going to do.”
“Look. Listen to me. I want to tell you straight. I don’t cut cash out of nobody. I don’t conduct this business on those lines. You’ve got as long as you want and longer. Understand me. And if that isn’t long enough I’ll think of something. If you hadn’t come here alone from another country I wouldn’t take all this trouble but you seem to be a nice guy. I even thought you were a type for this profession and that’s a compliment as far as I’m concerned. You’re a gentleman. And when it’s over, if you want to come back and see me, I’d like that. There’s a place for you here, remember that. And if you make that decision, I’d like that. Shall we close it now, Mr. Christian. You’re ready?”
“You can wait with the chauffeur.”
“We’ll take care of you. Christian, remember this isn’t death. All this is life.”
Walking out of the hall. Through the curtained doors. Putting up coat collars. The chauffeur smoking a cigarette. One of his gray wisps of hair hangs and goes into his ear. Christian coughs. Chauffeur getting out to open the door. A flash of yellow socks with white stripes.
The car pulls across the road. The hearse draws up in front of the Vine Funeral Parlor. Three men step out, rubbing their green-gloved hands, stamping their feet on the hard snow. Elevated train roaring by on its iron trestle at the end of the street. The garbage truck has taken away its pile of snow. Chauffeur blows a smoke ring. And he turns around.
“Would you like this blanket, Mr. Christian? Put it round your legs in case you get cold. Always a few degrees colder when you get out of the city.”
“They are coming out now, Mr. Christian.”
Mr. Vine standing aside, holding back a door. Coffin on four shoulders. Like an elephant, four black legs. Vine twitches his head, bends his ear to his shoulder and rubs. Goes in again. Comes out in a black overcoat, papers in his hand, hatless, eyes bright. Crossing the street. Stepping gingerly with his gleaming black shoes over the ridges of snow. Leaning in the window to the chauffeur.
“To expedite the journey, John, we’ll take the West Side Drive. Go up Park and cross-town on Fifty-seventh. You all right, Mr. Christian.”
Vine pausing, a car sweeps by. He looks upon the rest of the world as something he will bury. His gravel-voiced military maneuvers. I guess we’re going. No use fighting over it. He’s only trying to be nice. First time anyone ever offered me a job.
Hearse pulling out. Vine signaling with his hand. And we follow. To the end of the street. Another elevated train. Wake Helen up. Window full of refrigerators there. Say they’re giving them away for nothing, almost. Just step inside for bargains beyond belief. I feel like there’s nothing around me in the world. Highway on the curve of the earth. Everybody knows why I’m in this car and Helen in hers.
The two black cars swiftly moved across Fiftyseventh Street. Past the opera house on the corner where people huddle up under the marquee waiting for the bus. The sky opens up where the city ends and the Hudson flows by. Up the ramp and flowing out into the stream of cars on the smooth white highway. Towering cold bridge high up over the Harlem River. Further and the red-tiled roofs of houses behind the leafless trees. Along here the rich live down to the water’s edge.
Road curves up through the second woods. A lake behind in the valley, a swamp and golf course. Great chains hang from post to post. Tall iron gates. Monuments inside with stained-glass windows. Some with spires. Take you in here and lay you down. This cold day. Knuckles frozen. Breasts still. Where no love can taste. Tickle or tender.
Man in soft-gray uniform salutes. Mr. Vine steps out across the snow. Up the steps into a graystone building. Thin veins of ivy. Vine’s coming to speak.
“There’ll be a few minutes’ delay. Just a formality. John, just pull the car up in front there and wait for us.”
Chauffeur turning, ice crackling under the wheels.
“It’s nothing, Mr. Christian. Just identification. They have to check everybody who’s buried.”
Coffin on the four shoulders disappearing under the canopy and into the squat building into the side of the hill. Be looking at her again. They give us no privacy. They’d shout back at me if I object. If you own a bird and it’s flown away you run out to tell the whole world. And they tell you to shut up, you’re disturbing the peace.
They come out. Shift and slide it in. Engines purr and we move. All these winding roads and trees. People under the stones. So white and white. Branches frozen silver. Paths crisscrossing everywhere. Tombs on the hills. Heads in sorrow. Lightning in a sky in summer. A bronze woman melted and cold on a door. Cowled face with a hand on her cheek. Hold away the world from the rich bones inside. A white marble man and woman stand up out of their rock. Look out over a sea. Where ships die. And men slip below the cold water. And where are you nearest.
No trees here. Four men stand by the tent. They’ve brushed away the snow. Fake grass over the mound of earth. Norman Vine comes back to this car.
“Mr. Christian. I thought since you’ve got no religious preference I might read something. And I’ve just told John to give a few dollars to the gravediggers if that’s all right, it’s the average tip.”
“We’ll go then.”
Gently sloping hill. Snow lies for miles. Fades below the stiff dark trees. High gray sky. Know young girls you love. Take cigarettes from lips and kiss. A dance band plays. Grow up loving memories. Die leaving none. Except the Christmas Eves. When the whole year stops. These Polish hands who shovel on the dirt sit at poker tonight and drink wine. Downtown in the city. They take away a wife who clings to railings along the sidewalk and she screams and they lock her up. Can’t see her any more because she’s crazy. Love you as much as love can be. Cooking and washing. Mending and waiting. Each thread of body till it breaks.
“If you’ll just stand there Mr. Christian, I’ll read these few words I’ve got here.”
Cornelius Christian next to Norman Vine. Who holds out his little paper. Nods his head to the diggers. Straps stiffening under the coffin. Mist in the air from his voice.
“We are gathered here as brothers and we pray for another soul. The birds, trees, and flowers are life and they are around us to give birth in spring. This interment is life and for us the living, a beauty to ennoble our lives, to give us a kiss to caress us in our living pain. We gather to see the soil give one of us peace, to all love and remember her forever. We now give her to her God.”