Copyright © 2003 Tim Cockey
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the Publisher.
For information address:
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New York, New York 10023-6298
First eBook Edition: February 2003
Other books by
The Hearse Case Scenario
Hearse of a Different Color
The Hearse You Came In On
To Rick and Ann
Ray Ghost sidled up
to me in the middle of a funeral to tell me that an old flame of mine had left her husband down in Annapolis and was back in Baltimore. He had an insanely huge grin on his Howdy Doody face when he told me the news, the kind of look a dog’ll give you when he’s dying for you to throw the stick.
“You’re at a funeral,” I reminded him. “You might want to hide your teeth.”
Ray drives the panel truck for the Church Home and Hospital Thrift Shop, picking up old furniture and clothes and books and whatever various knickknacks people want to unload in exchange for a little tax write-off. It’s where Ray gets most of his clothes. The man is a sartorial miasma. Today he was sporting a chocolate-brown suit that rode on his lanky frame like a pair of pajamas. Either the sleeves of the suit coat were too short or the sleeves of his yellow dress shirt were too long; the cuffs came out over Ray’s hands like bells. Ray planted his feet and put a heavy scowl on his face. He jammed his hands into his pockets then yanked them right out again and, mimicking me, clasped his hands at his crotch.
“Saw her yesterday, Hitchcock,” Ray murmured tersely, his eyes fixed on a spot on the ground in front of him. “Bolton Hill. Didn’t look so good. Asked about you.”
I brought a finger to my lips and quietly shushed him. Ray reset his feet and coughed into his hand.
I was keeping an eye on the widower. A backhoe operator from Dundalk. Young guy. Deeply tanned and looking uncomfortable in his suit. We were burying his wife. She had just stepped out of Finklesteins the previous Monday with an armload of new jeans for her boys when an ambulance racing down York Road had veered to avoid hitting a turtlebacked old dearie who was caning her way across the street in full oblivion—deaf, it turned out. The ambulance jumped the curb, taking out a wooden bench, a parking meter, two newspaper boxes (
The City Paper
The Towson Times
) and by far the saddest fact, the backhoe operator’s wife. The couple had three boys, each one exactly a head taller (or shorter) than the next. They were standing with their father, staring holes into their mother’s casket, which was suspended above the grave. I had come across the eldest of the boys earlier in the morning, outside the funeral home. He had one of those thermometer-style tire gauges with him and he was scrabbling around the hearse on his haunches, testing the tire pressures. The boy had insisted on wearing the new jeans his mother had purchased for him. He looked to be around twelve. That’s the age I was when I lost my parents and my unborn baby sister to a charging beer truck at the intersection of Broadway and Eastern Avenue. Not the driver’s fault, by the way. Just a case of really, really bad timing.
The widower summoned me over. I told Ray to hang tight and stepped over to the graveside to be of service.
“I’ve changed my mind,” the man said to me. He indicated his three boys. “They don’t want me to do it after all. Is that okay?”
The number-one laugh line in my profession is
It’s your funeral
. May I go to my own grave having never uttered it.
“No problem,” I said. “Whatever you want. We’ll take care of it.”
I glanced down at the boys. The twelve-year-old looked like he was ready to kick the next person that spoke to him. I decided not to be that person and stepped over to a nearby mausoleum where Pops and his crew were cooling their heels. Pops has been digging graves in Greenmount Cemetery since before they invented the shovel. I spent some time myself crewing with him in my strapping youth, during my growth spurt. It was the summer I was trying to grow sideburns. Pops had a pair of muttonchops back then that held me in awe; they came right to the edges of his mouth and were black and bushy and thick enough you could hide toothpicks in them. My painstakingly cultivated crop of peach fuzz was dismal by comparison. I’d rub dirt on my cheeks to see if I could get some of it to cling to the silky down. Pops taught me how to chew tobacco that summer, which made up a bit for the nearly inert facial hair. I came out of the summer nearly a foot taller than when I’d entered it, with arms like steel, dirty cheeks, and firing off tobacco juice with machine-gun regularity. Come Labor Day my Aunt Billie put a stop to it. I washed my face, bought a bottle of mouthwash and shaved off my phantom sideburns.
Two of Pops’s crew were playing checkers, kneeling on the grass with a faded checkerboard between them while the third, a fellow we all called Tommy Haircut, was leaning against the mausoleum James Dean style, chewing gum and blowing a gargantuan bubble.
“You’re back on,” I said to Pops. “He’s changed his mind.”
Pops sent a missile of brown juice into the clover. “Good. I didn’t like it.”
I knew that already. Pops had told me ten times that he didn’t like it and I had patiently told him eleven times that he didn’t have to like it, that it was what the customer was requesting.
“It was a bad idea,” Pops said, running his thumb and forefinger along his white walrus mustache.
“It was a fine idea,” I said. “The man just decided against it.”
Pops smirked then turned to his crew. “We’re on. Look alive.”
Tommy Haircut popped his bubble and shoulder-shoved himself off the mausoleum wall. His blond pompadour wobbled on his head. The checker players folded their board. One of the two let out a sigh of relief.
I went back over to the canopy where the dozen folding chairs were set and gave a nod to the widower to let him know that everything was fine. He gave grim acknowledgment. His plan had been to climb up into the cemetery’s John Deere at the conclusion of the service and begin the process of filling in his wife’s grave himself. The thought had come to him the night before, during her wake. He discussed it with his sons, who had all gone along with the idea. Apparently something had changed. I suspected the twelve-year-old.
The service played out and each boy stepped forward to set a rose onto his mother’s casket. White casket with silver handles. Very feminine. The twelve-year-old paused after placing his rose and worked something out of his rear pants pocket. It was a scrunched-up Orioles cap. He glanced at his father—who nodded—set the cap on top of the casket then stepped back over to his brothers, accepting a grim low-five from each of them. The widower gathered them in like a mother hen—or father hen—and that pretty much concluded the affair.
I gave a nod to Tony Marino. Tony had been standing in his full Scottish regalia some thirty feet off, as stock-still as a statue. Despite the unique air conditioning afforded by his kilt, Tony was sweating like a frozen beer mug under his furry headpiece. The widower had made a particular request and Tony—God love him—had stayed up half the night working out a passable arrangement on the bagpipes. Tony carries the gold medal for lovelorn; there’s not a thing he wouldn’t do in the service of a severed romance.
Tony puffed up his chest. He checked the position of his fingers, then commenced to squeeze and wheeze.
That’s a song. It was recorded years ago by a group calling itself Bread. It has nothing to do with the Kipling poem. It’s what the backhoe operator wanted. On bagpipes it was bloody god-awful. Sounded like a herd of little lambies being slaughtered. Tony worked it bravely, his face going as red as a blood-filled tomato.
The backhoe operator collapsed into tears.
Ray Ghost had drifted over to Pops’s crew and was jawing quietly with Tommy Haircut, whose insane pompadour was wobbling on his head like Jell-O in an earthquake. I signaled to Ray and he shuffled over.
“Okay. So what’s this about Libby?”
Libby was fresh from
the shower when she pulled open the door. Well, nearly fresh; she was clothed. Her black hair was plastered to her head in wet ringlets and she had a towel draped over one shoulder. Her cheeks were wet. There was a bead of water jiggling on the very tip of her nose and it dropped off when she saw who was standing at the door.
“Oh my God. It’s an undertaker.”
I removed an invisible hat and solemnly placed it over my heart. Libby’s huge grin stretched across her moon-shaped face.
If Libby had aged a dot in the past six years it must have been on the bottom of her feet where I couldn’t see it. I didn’t ask for a look. She was wearing a blue-and-white-striped scoop-neck T-shirt and white slacks. She looked like an awfully sexy gondolier. The last time I’d seen her she had looked like an awfully sexy bride. Her skin was still as Kabuki white as I remembered, offset by dark arching eyebrows, a small mouth and a pair of large and lovely Pacific-blue eyes. Libby hailed from southern California but she was no big fan of the sun, rarely going outside without one of her army of large floppy hats. Libby was slim hipped; a trim girl-like frame. I had always felt she could have used an extra pound or two and she had always said she loved me for thinking so. Standing there in the doorway, we would have hugged, except that Libby had something balanced on her hip.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Libby shifted her weight. “This is my little monkey.”
I leaned forward for a better look. “You’re a cute little monkey,” I said. “You look like the kind of monkey they can teach to talk. Quick, what’s the capital of Alaska?”
The little monkey burrowed her head into Libby’s breasts.
“Her name is Lily,” Libby said.
“She’s cute. She’s got your nose.”
“She’s got no such thing. I’ve got this little ski slope. Don’t you be insulting my child.”
I tapped Lily on her shoulder. “I think your mother is a wee bit sensitive. Don’t you worry. Your proboscis becomes you.”
The child burrowed deeper.
“She’s shy around strangers,” Libby said.
I took a beat. “And they don’t get any stranger than me?”