Dad parks the hearse at the curb under a pink-petaled dogwood, in the glory of that first balmy April Saturday afternoon. We’re on Castor Avenue in front of a tan brick apartment building, treeless courtyard, three stories high, a block long but invisible, a place that marks the edge of our Philadelphia neighborhood and the next, a structure populated by pensioner bachelor mailmen and mothers and toddlers learning English together. At the rec center baseball diamond across the street, screams of “Go!” follow an aluminum plink. At the corner, tulips in yellow, red, violet, planted to partition the sidewalk from a tiny row house lawn, salute a crew-cut man in a tank top, gold crucifix swinging as he soapy-sponges his four-wheeled stereo. The fried onions from the grill at the steak shop a block away whisper that the cold and dark have passed and we’ve been delivered somewhere
better, and yet inside our little brick houses these last six months a secret part of us wondered: is this the year winter doesn’t end? A girthy old woman in her sleeveless summer housedress, sunlight warming her arms for the first time this year, hoses the dirt under her rosebush. She looks like a Helen. She might be a Carol. An ambulance lines up at the red light like all the other cars, in repose, maybe coming back from an oil change.
Dad and I leave the car and walk into the courtyard where a man in a fishing hat and a yellowed V-neck T-shirt, maybe sixty-five, sucking a cigarette, raises a hand. “I’m the brother-in-law,” he says. It’s sunny, humid. Dad is fifty years old, solidly built, clean-shaven, glasses, gray hair shiny and wavy like a trial lawyer’s. He cuts his own hair in the bathroom mirror because he knows he can do better than any barber left in our neighborhood. I am a head taller than he, gangly, a day past clean-shaven, with glasses, and, though not balding or a mental patient, I keep my hair in a self-inflicted buzz mostly because I assume I would screw up a scissor cut. If the brother-in-law had met us in different circumstances, when he wasn’t in shock, he might’ve noticed the same long nose on both of these removers. Or at least he would’ve noticed the sweat beading on our foreheads. Or my polyester suit: a fledgling. Or how sharp Dad looks—suit of lightweight wool, loafers polished and tassled, white pocket square, as if he’d slid dressed like this out of the womb. But the brother-in-law doesn’t really see us. He says hello, of course, and thanks us for coming, but the living parts of him have retreated far away behind the corneas. I recognize this kind of distance.
Besides, the brother-in-law has never seen us before and will never want to again, these who’ve shown up on what I guess is the worst day he’s had in a while. Maybe ever. We are nobodies. Strangers. We aren’t the funeral director who perches every Sunday in the front pew at mass. We are men made to be forgotten, here to take away the shell of his brother-in-law. He’ll never think on us again. I feel right away a rush from this. We’re paid to be invisible. And yet there’s another part of me—reasonable, accountable, button-down—that likes how useful this work makes me. The brother-in-law says, “Carl lived alone. We hadn’t heard from him for a few weeks, which wasn’t strange, but the neighbors called the cops today about a smell.” He opens his eyes a little wider and shakes his head. “He’s been in there awhile.”
Just as I had dismissed my dad’s assurances on my first removal, I brush aside the brother-in-law’s warning. He’s not used to these things the way we are, I think. I assume I’ve seen and touched and smelled the limits of the job’s gruesomeness. By the time we’ve walked the few paces to Carl’s front door, I know I’m wrong again. His windows and the door are shut, but what awaits us seeps out. At the first whiff my heart feels like it might come bursting through my armpit. Dad looks at me and says, “We’ll be okay.” When he opens Carl’s front door I have never smelled anything worse—imagine being waterboarded on the hottest day of summer with the maggoty brine dripping from the back of a garbage truck—and we’re still fifteen feet from the closed bedroom. We move to the back of the apartment, wheeling the stretcher, breathing through our
jacket sleeves. We stop just outside his room. Dad and I don’t speak, but share a look. I know, in my eyes at least, there’s terror. How bad will it be in there? What will this guy look like? But there’s also an element of disbelief: Have our lives really brought us here? Is Dad the guy with a book of poems? Am I the kid who won a full ride to college a few years ago? A split second where the job’s simple awfulness brings into focus the downward trajectory of our circumstance.
When I was old enough to know the kind of place we lived in—blocks and blocks of brick row houses dotted occasionally with a brick factory or a stone church, and cut through by train tracks and highways—one of my favorite things Dad would do was drive the two of us along Snake Road, a stretch he called “the country in the city.” Only a mile from our house, Snake Road runs through woods, the only such break in our part of town. Every few months in these first years of my awareness of the world, he would wind us through the trees. Every time, as we came back into the grid of the neighborhood, it felt to me for a finger snap of a moment that we belonged to that wilderness more than we did to our house, and belonged to each other more than we did to my mother and sister inside it.
It’s time to open the bedroom door. Never before have I felt anything as dreadful as what hits us when we enter. The windows are closed—his last night, probably at least a week
before, must have been a cold one—so the stench surges at us like a crashing wave, coating our faces and rushing into our nostrils and mouths. My stomach closes like a fist, shoulders jump toward ears. My scalp tingles. The odor is an exponentially more putrid relative of late afternoon low tide, when the summer sun has spent a full day cooking the rotten gunk on the bay floor. But that is an inadequate comparison. In the context of a stale, dilapidated apartment building, Carl’s stink screams an urgent and violent disharmony. We smell death.
Lying on his back, Carl looks like any napping retiree, except he’s purple. And gravity has pulled almost all the liquid in his body into his lower hemisphere—his back and ass and the backs of his legs—which makes him a head to toe bedsore, a seeping blister ready to gush. As awful as it is to look at Carl and smell him, being that close to him somehow shoos away any fear or hesitation. Pity fills the void. He’s just a poor soul who happens to be rotting in his bed. And it’s difficult, I’m finding, to handle an older man’s corpse with your father—a man, odds say, you will one day bury—and avoid thinking of your father’s death. And when the older man you’re removing lives alone in your neighborhood, and your father and your mother don’t get along, and you expect they could be living separately any day now, it’s hard not to imagine your father dying like this, in an anonymous building in Frankford, going rotten like a pack of chicken breasts forgotten in the trunk, and you playing the brother-in-law’s role, you letting yourself in and wading through the death smell to see him melting into his mattress. It’s strange, maybe inappropriate, to include my
fifty-year-old father in a thought like this, but I wonder if the two of us will make something of ourselves before that day arrives.
We know we can’t or, rather, don’t want to breathe near Carl, so we decide to work in breath-long shifts—one guy in the bedroom at a time—like kids in the deep end of a pool trying to grab a quarter off the bottom. But this strategy can only last so long. Lifting the body in its bedsheet, the norm for in-bed removals, is out of the question for Carl. If we hoist him like that, the pressure of his weight against the sheet will split him like an overripe peach, with fluids rushing through the fabric, leaving a mess we don’t want to witness or clean up. Instead we’ll have to fasten him to the plastic sheet we’ve brought along, a tool called the Reeves.
Lined with narrow boards, the Reeves is firmer than a bedsheet, and so offers a better distribution of support of the body when lifted, and since it’s plastic, no leaks. The drawback, though: using the Reeves requires not a small amount of handling the deceased. The man who taught me to throw a baseball now stands on the right side of the bed and reaches across for Carl’s left arm and left leg. “Like this,” he says through a grimace. When he pulls the limbs up off the mattress, I shimmy the Reeves under as far as I can. Then we switch. In Carl’s case, lifting him means loosing all the stink caught between him and the bed. It also means gripping his flesh, which, through rubber gloves, feels like squeezing a Ziploc bag filled with tomato sauce. We work like a pair of gymnast surgeons, summoning a precise mix of speed and delicacy that I have never imagined
within our genetic grasps. In a few minutes the three of us are outside in the fresh air of the courtyard. The brother-in-law has disappeared.
The ride to the funeral home is its own horror, especially at red lights, when the air stops moving. But breathing in the open-windowed car with the AC roaring doesn’t compare to breathing in Carl’s coffin of a bedroom. Unloading him from the Reeves onto the embalming table in the air-conditioned funeral home morgue is also a diminished echo of its mirror act. And then we go home and life is normal. I eat a forearm-size Italian hoagie leaky with oil and tomato drippings, without thinking of Carl’s seepage. I talk to my mother in the kitchen and watch her go silent and stiff in the shoulders when my father comes in. I go to Gazz’s apartment that night and we pound Miller Lite while his girlfriend and his baby sleep in the other room and we watch the Sixers on mute and he drags out his boom box and puts on “Couldn’t You Wait?” by Silkworm and then I play Todd Rundgren’s “We Gotta Get You a Woman” and he chooses “Dry Your Eyes” by Brenda and the Tabulations and then we play “Bobby Jean” and Bruce—Bruce, our beloved uncle (long lost, made good); Bruce, on our parents’ stereos since the crib; Bruce, patron saint of Philly white boys’ first sips of disappointment; Bruce, no last name required or ever, ever used—tells us we liked the same music we liked the same bands we liked the same clothes, and so begins another night of telling each other we were the wildest and pulling one gem after another from Gazz’s laundry basket loaded with CDs and cassettes.
Hours later I drive home drunk up Tulip Street hollering along to Pavement’s “Fillmore Jive.” “I need to sleep it off,” I sing. When it ends I rewind and do it again. I’m only a few weeks into this funeral business and already I’m feeling that a certain gift of mine—becoming okay with anything that happens even as I am powerless to change it—is being put to the best use possible. There are all sorts of careers that need active, aggressive personalities, but not this one. The remover affects a normal life and then the little plastic matchbox in his pocket vibrates and he goes and puts on his black suit and in half an hour he’s pulling your dead ass out of bed with his knees, not his back. The dead body picker-upper, he accepts what life brings. He’s not out evangelizing for salad greens and thirty minutes of cardio. He’s not caught up fighting the unfightable. He doesn’t turn his anxiety into fake-hustle like a New Yorker. He accepts. He’s a model phlegmatic, like William Penn. He is a Philadelphian by nature. You’re dead and you need a lift.
A month before my father and I picked up Carl, I was unemployed. I was twenty-two. I lived with my parents, who hadn’t spoken to each other for eight years, in Northeast Philadelphia, in a neighborhood called Frankford, in the row house I grew up in. On this night I was doing my usual thing of standing on the front steps after everyone had gone to bed, getting buzzed on a string of Camel unfiltereds. I waited for my parents to go upstairs because I didn’t want my mother
to know I smoked. My younger sister, Theresa, my only sibling, was living across town in a dorm at the University of Pennsylvania. Alone out there on the top step I became the star of my own movie, in my shearling coat, smoking my Camels, flicking away the butts, greeting passing cars with squinty tough-guy looks, though it was too dark for them to see my face. I liked to smoke six or seven in a row to feel light-headed, to feel different than I did in the house, to stain my fingers yellow. On this night I brought my Walkman out so I could listen, again, to Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I was looking for something in that album, some clue to myself that could be illuminated by the feeling its songs gave me—a sense of spiritual soaring. How could they grant me such lightness, I wondered, when every other minute of the day felt like lead?
Every fifteen minutes or so a bus pulled up at the corner. How odd for a lit room of strangers to appear out of the dark, stop, roll away. The J, the K, and the 75 all stop at Oakland and Orthodox. Each route starts in Frankford, the place where I had always lived, where my parents had lived almost their whole lives, where my parents’ parents had lived, where my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents lived back to when these blocks were farms. And these three routes all connect Frankford to the northwest part of the city: Logan, Germantown, Olney. Olney’s where I had ridden these buses to most often. As a toddler sometimes I would ride the bus with my father to La Salle College, where he taught English and from which he’d graduated in the early seventies. And
up until two years previously, I rode the bus there to go to class at La Salle myself. But I dropped out in the middle of my junior year. Not a huge failure, then again it wasn’t the flunking out that worried me. I used to be smart. Used to be funny. Now I was the kid who waited for everyone to go to sleep so I could smoke. I’m not a smoker. Now I was the Silent Kid, and Pavement’s singer, Stephen Malkmus, was the one person who knew how to talk to me. “Silent kid . . . let’s talk about leaving,” he says. “Come on, now. Talk about your family.” I don’t want to talk about my family, Malkmus. I practiced unsophisticated astronomy through the light pollution of streetlamps. Orion! I rarely ventured off the top step. I could have gone for a walk around the block or even up and down the street, but I didn’t want to risk it. There could be possums. Periodically I scraped my sneakers on the concrete to spook anything nocturnal that might’ve been creeping in the hedges. Also, I didn’t want to get jumped. I didn’t risk much in the daytime either. The sweep of my ambition was confined to dubbing mix tapes for Gazz and hunting in Salvation Armies and Goodwills for secondhand T-shirts I could see Malkmus wearing. The voice in my head that told me this was all wrong, that days and nights like this were sins against myself, I did my best to drown out with Pavement and sports talk radio. I was dreadful broke.
The day before this night on the step, I worked up the courage to ask my father if I could get a job at the place he worked part-time. It didn’t sound too hard. I had a driver’s license. I wasn’t physically disabled. There may have been some ques
tions about whether I was a good fit for this kind of work, but I’d reached financial crisis. I had no choice.
My father’s bedroom door was open and he was lying on his bed in the dark wearing headphones, listening to his Irish music. I stood there until he pulled one side away from his ear.
I said, “Do you think I could work for Livery of Frankford?”
He said, “I’ll ask.”
I said, “Thanks.” That was a big conversation for us.
Then I went back to my room to finish dubbing Gazz a mix, the format of which was an alternating pattern of what I’d decided were the greatest hits of the Silver Jews and the Shirelles. The next afternoon Dad came home from his other job as a college English teacher in Camden and dropped a paper bag in my lap. “I got it at Salvation Army,” he said. Inside was a black polyester suit that smelled of trapped sweat. “Try it on.”
People ask how I got into the funeral business, the underlying implication seeming to be, Why would you possibly choose it? The answer is that I had not yet developed any choosing skills. I was a broke dummy just as startled as anyone else to find myself picking up bodies. That was it. And without any sort of vision for myself, I took the job that came my way from someone I knew. That’s how everybody I knew got their jobs. They knew somebody who got them in. I could’ve just as easily become a guy who fixed ice cream freezers in corner stores, the way Gazz did. Guys he knew did that work and got him the job. Choosing didn’t seem to have much to do with it.
The next night, a Friday, I was horizontal on the couch in the living room taking in a first-run Boy Meets World when the phone rang. Dad answered it in the kitchen, and when I realized it was a work call I hit Mute. I heard him click a ballpoint pen, then repeat an address. When he hung up he called in to me, “Andy, you want to go on a removal?” “Yeah, sure,” I said. Nobody in the world wants to go on a removal. The real question is, do you want to make a little money? To which my honest answer would’ve been, “Eh. Whatever. I guess.” But I needed a job to justify all the time I spent in my room with my stereo on. I needed money to pay my phone bill so I could keep calling Gazz every night and playing songs back and forth over the four miles of telephone line between our bedrooms.
I went upstairs to my room and put on my new uniform: white oxford shirt from Salvation Army, an eighth of an inch too small at the neck so that I choked when I looked down; black clip-on tie; black, double-knit Botany 500 suit, the jacket of which had arms that hit just past my gangly wrists but was four inches too big in the chest; pants with a hole along the crotch seam and generous enough at the waist that I gathered the excess fabric in front of me, folded it over, and cinched it under a long black belt, creating the effect of double-breasted pants; and a pair of old brown boots that I’d smeared, in anticipation of my first removal, with black shoe polish. I was the special-needs Reservoir Dog. I was the lowest-ranking agent in the Latvian Secret Service assigned to walk the travel min
ister’s cats. Beneath my suit I wore an aquamarine T-shirt with Greek characters across the chest. The summer I graduated from high school, my dad’s friend CJ had given me this shirt with a tag attached explaining that the text was that of the Delphi Oracle: “Know thyself.” It went into my regular rotation. I valued the Greek letters’ inscrutability. After a few armpit holes, I’d retired it to the back of a drawer. It lay there untouched for a few years before I grabbed it that night to wear under my removal suit. It was perfect. In the mirror I saw the Delphic Clark Kent. I knew nothing about myself.
A brick building in the middle of a block of Fillmore Street row homes. You could have driven down this dreary, treeless stretch every day of your life and not noticed the livery garage. Not taller than the neighboring homes. Made of the same muted brick. And yet inside was enough room for a half dozen silver limousines, a mix of Cadillacs and Lincolns, and a half dozen hearses. It was built, Dad told me, as stables for dairy-wagon horses. He grabbed one of the garage’s wheeled stretchers and made sure it was equipped. He gathered rubber gloves from a box on a nearby shelving unit, then picked up a plastic brick and said, “This goes under the head.” He unzipped the cloth pouch fastened to the top of the stretcher and showed me a plastic sheet lined with boards and outfitted at each corner with heavy-duty nylon handles. “This is the Reeves,” he said. “We’ll need this if she’s on the second floor.” And last he grabbed a folded white bedsheet. “This is to cover her if they don’t let us take the sheet she’s lying on.” When these things were set, Dad swung open the back of the hearse and rolled the
stretcher up to it. “Look under here,” he said and showed me the lever underneath the stretcher that would unlock its legs. He squeezed it. The legs gave way so that half of the weight of the empty stretcher—maybe ten pounds—was in his hands. He rolled the stretcher in and closed the door. “You ready for this?” he said. Part of me was happy just to be spending time with my father outside of our house. Maybe picking up dead bodies together could be our chance to hang out. “Yep,” I said. He nodded and got into the hearse and I followed and he drove us away into the night.
Our childhood, my sister’s and mine, changed in one day. We were “normal,” happyish, and then in one afternoon a kind of violence occurred, and we became the opposite. In one little five-minute window when I was fourteen everything changed. And changed the next twenty years of my life.
My hands shook as we pulled up in front of a tiny row home on another treeless Northeast Philadelphia street. I was cold (no topcoats had been dropped on me), but much more so I was scared. I wasn’t so good with corporal realities, was cursed with far too many useless sensitivities. As a boy I had thrown up at the sight of a contortionist on The Merv Griffin Show. One lunchtime when I was maybe five I gripped the rim of the kitchen sink and gagged when my mother told me her sandwich was cold meat loaf and ketchup. As a toddler I vomited if I got too close to my
sister’s diaper changes. On drives to the Poconos I enjoyed getting motion sick and throwing up all over myself. I continue to be afraid of most animals with tails, including cats, rats, mice, monkeys, and especially possums. I hate the zoo. One winter night, when I was fifteen, while putting out the trash in the alley next to our house—I had backed out the door because I was talking to my mother in the kitchen and putting trash in the can was something I could have done blindfolded—I sensed something looking at me, and when I turned, the tips of my fingers, reaching for the can’s lid, were maybe an inch from the wide eyes of a possum. A cat would have scrambled away, but this thing stared, perfectly still. In the half second before I skipped frantically back into the house, I believe it made a claim on my soul. I collapsed on my side on the living room floor, kicking myself around in a circle. I came to rest as a tensed ball, the soft insides of my elbow and knee joints clamped tight, and I emitted little moaning cries while my mother stood over me. “Grow up,” she said. This is all to say I was one of the least likely young men to wind up among the inherent repugnancies of handling corpses. Even worse, my dad had told me about hazards such as loose bowels and the tissue-thin skin of old people that tore in his hands. And I had never seen this thing called a removal. I didn’t know how intricate or demanding it would be. I feared making my debut in front of a family I imagined as agitated and suspicious. I was a wreck.
Dad went into the house first, alone, to carry out some basic reconnaissance. This meant extending his and the funeral director’s condolences to the family, but, more important for us,
learning if the body was upstairs or down, whether the weight of the body was manageable for two men, were there excesses of blood or shit to deal with, was the body in bed, on the floor, in the tub, on the toilet. While he did this, I sat in the passenger seat of the hearse and tried to calm myself with the radio: “Hey, guys, great topic tonight,” a caller said. “My answer is, sure, I would let Iverson babysit my kids.” At twenty-two, I tried to spend every waking minute accompanied by noise. The sports talk station I listened to, 610-AM, had adopted its format when I was in the sixth grade, and from the first week I was a religious listener. Maybe once a month, Gazz, another friend, Wilbur, or I would call the others and say, “Turn on your radio.” The week before, I had alerted them like this and then made it on the air with Howard Eskin, the self-proclaimed king of afternoon drive time in Philadelphia. “Hey, Howard,” I’d said in a cartoonish mimic of the most nasal, vowel-shifted Philly accent I could manage. “Longtime caller, first-time listener. My question is this, it’s more of a technical question—”
“Okay,” he said.
“That yellow line across the field they put on TV to mark the first downs—”
“Yeah?” he said.
“Do the players ever trip over that?”
He hung up on me and, thanks to the station’s seven-second delay, I turned up the radio to tape my call.
“Great call, genius,” Eskin said. “You know what you call a guy like that?” he asked his audience. “A zero who wants to be a one. That’s what that guy is. A zero trying to be a one.”
After a few minutes Dad came outside. I got out of the car, and when he got close, he said, “It’s an easy one.” I dismissed this as a friendly lie. We rolled the stretcher out of the hearse, and as we neared the front door he asked if I was okay. I nodded yes. My voice would have betrayed me. The truth, though, was that no matter how scared I was, and no matter how little we talked anymore, no matter how much I resented him for how miserable our house was or however much I blamed him for my being a fuckup, I would have followed him anywhere. He was my hero and the man who had killed my mother emotionally. His was the screen onto which all of my love and dread were projected. Is his life now what mine will look like? If I have kids, will I fuck them up? Why does he keep living in our house? What does he think of me? What does he think I should do to get out of this ditch? Why doesn’t he just do something to make us normal again? Of course I could never really ask him any of these questions. Much better to keep them to myself and be satisfied with whatever comfort came from physical proximity. In fact this was the model our family existed on. We know we love each other, and we know we aren’t equipped to speak of messy feelings, so short of that let’s live together in this little house and let nearness stand in as its own form of talking.
My deepest wish, the thing I lived for without being able to articulate it to myself, what I should’ve outgrown sooner, the dream I held in the deepest corner of my heart’s vault, was that one day I’d walk into the house and my parents would be holding hands and tell me, “We’ve figured it out. We’re all
right.” I wanted this for them on the loftiest planes of spiritual health and romance and lost time redeemed. And, of course, I wanted it for me. I felt broken, that I might have been made permanently too sad by the death of their relationship to ever do anything with my life. The evidence of such was adding up. I couldn’t stay in school. I’d never had a real girlfriend. I mostly stayed in my room and I wasn’t a teenager anymore. Parents’ marriages go bad all the time and people adjust and move on, but there was a stillborn quality to my parents’ split. Because they hadn’t split. They’d lost that loving feeling in 1990 but stayed together. Instead they kept quiet. They shared a bedroom narrower than the sum of their wingspans. Joyless, they endured. I was certain I would never leave the orbit of their trouble. I had already tried and failed.
Dad was right. My first removal was a breeze. In a hospital bed in the living room, dressed in a nightgown and pink cardigan, lay an eighty-pound sliver of an old woman. Her hands were folded on her chest, with a set of glassy blue rosary beads spilled out between her fingers, pooling on her stomach like jelly beans. Her face had the look of someone fooling a toddler by pretending to sleep. It occurred to me that if Mister Rogers had made an episode about the death of a grandparent, he could have filmed a ride-along with us that night. There’s Fred, pervy McFeely, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, all in black suits, squeezed thigh to thigh across the bench seat of the hearse between Dad and me. To make things even more serene, Dad had convinced the woman’s family to stay in the kitchen while we worked—I heard murmurs and nose blowing—so only I
saw how he leveled the stretcher to the height of her bed, only I witnessed his technique of using her off-white flannel fitted sheet so we could lift her body without ever touching it. It was as if the corpse disposition gods were luring me in with the perfect removal. If it’s possible to be spoiled spending a Friday night picking up a dead body for thirty-five dollars, that first one did it. No overpowering odors. No gore. No wailing family. I was like a kid soldier seeing a Bob Hope show on my first day in Vietnam.
When I got home I called Gazz.
“Guess what I did tonight,” I said.
“Really?” His low, slow voice traveled higher and faster than I’d ever heard it.
“No. I picked up a body with my dad.”
“Ah, you did one?” he said, his voice back to normal. I had told him the day before about the black suit.
“Yeah, it was easy.”
“And you can keep this job when you go back to school?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, but I was lying. He rooted for me to finish college. He’d dropped out to work full-time when Kelly got pregnant three years earlier, when we were nineteen. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I wasn’t going back to school. I had been bad at it for so long. I was humiliated and confused by my failures. Whatever was wrong with me, I was beginning to understand, was bigger than school. I would walk around campus many days with a lump in my throat. I
couldn’t concentrate enough to write a paper, and so when a paper was due I wouldn’t write it, then not show up to class out of shame. And then I would stop going to the class altogether. But I wouldn’t withdraw. I would just let the F happen. I’d flunked out three times from two different schools the past few years. It all felt out of my control, that I used to be a good student and now I wasn’t, no matter my best intentions.
After I’d done those two removals with my father, I became permanent staff at Livery of Frankford. I was given a beeper and a key to the garage. I was in the general population of removal men, available to go out for a body with one of the fifteen or so regulars, or if the deceased were in a hospital or a nursing home, I’d have to go by myself. And I was available to work funerals, too.
My first was at the church I’d grown up attending, St. Joachim’s. I was assigned a job with a title that described everything about my present life. As the livery company’s secretary, an older woman named Genevieve, had told me on the phone the afternoon before, “You’ll be working as an extra man.” When I showed up, a group of black suits was gathered in a circle in the church parking lot: hearse driver, limousine driver for the family, flower car driver, and a few who would, like me, be serving as extra men. Several of them were in their seventies and even early eighties, and the older they were either the more beautiful or the more deformed their souls seemed. If the funeral business was indeed going to replace college
for me, then on this morning all the professors emeriti were accounted for.
Stosh: retired cop, gangly, liver-spotted, scab-nosed from “sun cancer,” equipped with a toupee seemingly made of corn silk. He told the story of being shot in a corner store holdup in the early fifties by a pack of niggers, and then watching in court as the judge, a banana-nosed Jew, let the supposed trigger man walk for lack of evidence. Stosh was vile. Stosh blustered like a gaping, blistered asshole. Stosh bought me a coffee at the corner store and asked after my father. I felt pangs of like for Stosh. I didn’t know what this meant for me. Maybe it was because he was old and harmless-seeming. Stosh made me feel like Neville Chamberlain.
Charlie Beck: jittery, whispery, shrunken. In his early eighties, with a sly sense of humor—he told a few stories that morning and laughed quietly at others with a look of great tight-lipped pleasure—but mainly he worried, mostly about his wife, Sheila. At one point he borrowed Stosh’s newfangled cellular phone and checked in with her. “Yes, I’m in the church parking lot. Yes. Well, I’m on a cordless telephone. Yes, that’s right.” My guess was that he’d been a drunk as a younger man and that over time they’d both come to depend on her short leash. But he worried about everything, not just her. He patted the pockets of his coat five different times to make sure he hadn’t left the keys in the hearse. He worried he’d spill water from the flower arrangements he was charged with carrying from the hearse to the altar, so he fairly sprinted them up the side aisle. He kept checking his watch, worried that mass
would run long and we’d hit traffic on the way to the cemetery, even though mass would be ending at eleven in the morning. In one of his few minutes of calm, he told a story about a long-ago removal.
He and his partner lift the woman out of her bed, onto the stretcher, she’s light, it’s no big deal, he zips up the stretcher pouch, everything’s set. They’re about to take her out, when in a moment’s whisker of stillness, Charlie sees the pouch rise. Ever so faintly. And it falls. Falling faintly and faintly falling. He puts his arm out for his partner to stop. They wait. The pouch rises again. Now he unzips it. The woman’s eyes are closed, but he puts his lips to her nostrils and feels the tickle of her breath. He calls the rescue squad. They come. They take her away to the hospital. The next night he picks her up there again. For good. “And you know, the gentleman only paid me once,” he says, eliciting from Stosh a cry of “Bullshit!” Charlie says, “Well, sure. Sure. She only died once.”
Benny Fogg: another retired cop, carried a miniature .22 on his belt. Just in case. He was cordial to me, and helpful, as were all the men, when I didn’t know what I was doing, which was often. Benny blamed the city’s unraveling squarely on the niggers, who also, coincidentally, were the problem behind the Eagles’ and Phillies’ poor play. The Sixers, who hadn’t existed before pro sports were integrated, i.e., hadn’t been ruined in the men’s lifetimes, were mostly ignored in the circle, a lost cause, even though they were the city’s most promising team in 1998 and featured Allen Iverson, maybe the most electric player the city had ever seen in any sport. The Flyers had no
blacks and were thus capable of stirring only the mildest complimentary conversation. Benny told the story of how a few years back his biceps muscle tore right in half one day while he was pallbearing. He’d never had it fixed, and on this day, for my benefit, he shed his suit coat and flexed the muscle, one lump contracting toward his shoulder and one drooping down to the elbow.
Ronnie: In his well-tailored suit and neatly parted bottle brown hair, he looked like an aging, more suave Pete Rose. He had made a bunch of money selling meat slicers to delis, and since he didn’t need the cash he never did removals. He drove limos “just for some action.” In a moment when the two of us had a few feet of private space he told me a story, the capsule version of which went: “I drove a kid to his prom last week and his mom gave me a blow job.” I didn’t solicit further details, mainly because I knew he and my dad were friendly and I didn’t want to think of my father alone in a car with any prom kid’s mom, but undeterred, Ronnie kept on, the two of us forming our own little circle a few yards from the shadow of the El tracks in the church parking lot where as a boy I’d played gym-class football. He asked me more about myself than any of those guys ever would again. I kept very much to myself, intimidated by the booming talk of the old cops. But Ronnie wasn’t put off by my quiet. “You gonna go back to school, And?” “What are you studying?” “You have a girlfriend?” “Why not? Good-looking kid like you.”
While the men stood there resolving the world’s crises, one or two at a time migrated out to park cars, to put orange paper
“Funeral” stickers on windshields or purple nylon “Funeral” flags with magnetic bases on car roofs, to check out newly arrived hotties in the valuable fifty-four to sixty-nine demographic, to give directions to the cemetery or hand out programs, to carry flower arrangements to the altar or to find the altar boys and give them their three-dollar tips on behalf of the funeral director, and when it was time, to bear the casket out of and later into the hearse, up the steps of the church and later down, and finally, out to the grave. All this executed, in perfect countertension to their downtime patter, with care and respect.
But the one constant was the circle the men formed, and the real conversational entrée, the provider of endless sustenance, was removals. “You wouldn’t believe how fat this motherfucker was,” Benny said. “We had to get him off the third floor of this hospice out in Lafayette Hill. House must be two hundred years old. No elevator. Just these narrow little winding fucking steps where you have to duck your head. Jesus Christ. I don’t know how we did it. We had to slide him down the steps on the Reeves. I’m backing down the steps, the guy’s head’s right up against my balls. We have a sheet over him but I’m drippin sweat. I drip so much his face starts to show through the sheet. It’s like the fucking Shroud of Turin. Jesus Christ.”
And then old Stosh picked it up: “We get back to the funeral home—do you know what she gives us? I told her how goddamned hard it was. I told her we could’ve used at least two extra men out there but we managed anyway. Do you know what she tipped us? Three dollars. An altar boy tip. Three dol
lars in bills. To split. How do you split three paper dollars? A dumb woman she is. And I like the woman. But she’s dumb.”
The circle noted which funeral directors wouldn’t dole out for breakfast sandwiches during a funeral, which ones called you too late at night for removals and asked you to drive too far without ever giving you more cash, which ones still hadn’t put in a ramp after fifty years in business so that on every fucking removal you have to bang the stretcher down the steps and hold the screen door open with your goddamned ass.
My father wasn’t there that day, but several of the men, in brief instances when it was just two of us, made sure to ask how he was. They seemed really to like him, and, in the context of the circle, I could see him more clearly. Gentle and not a blowhard like many of them could be. He had read more, but he also was alive to the world in ways many of them weren’t. He was a finely tuned sensualist in a lot full of puttering Buicks. If he were there he would have noticed birdsong, cloud shapes suggestive of the profiles of old character actors, changes in light, movie ads on passing buses, the arrivals of subtly sexy women. I knew because I noticed those things that day, and he was sharper than I was. He noticed when a rare bird landed in our yard, but he also knew its name. He kept an Audubon guide by the back door and had taught himself. He knew the names of constellations and when and where to expect them. He knew big chunks of Shakespeare and Whitman and Yeats by heart. But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you. This, though, is how my thinking about my father
went in these days: appreciation followed without reprieve by resentment, or vice versa. Never anything without strings. And so the next thought was: And all that for what? Into your sixth decade, slinging corpses to pay bills, still in Frankford, still with the low, murmuring gripes from other men about niggers and spics and the cheap Jew owner of the football team flooding like sewage into your little one-man library, an abettor to our degradation, just like twenty years ago, with no money in the bank, with a wife who won’t look at you? This is what scared me. Why would I pursue a lowly English degree when it seemed books had changed nothing for my father? Not for the better. We were all drowning.