Shimmy blew into his hands and grabbed the shovel.
“A body is a body. A body is a body.”
He mumbled the line over and over again, till it seemed like a mantra, something a quarterback might shout before breaking up a huddle. “A body is a body. Now let’s stick it to those sons of bitches!” But this wasn’t a football game. It wasn’t anything that exciting, really, just a funeral, though he knew better than most that a funeral was always special to someone. Even if the rest of the world trudged on oblivious to the loss, cell phones buzzing, expensive coffees to sip, there was someone on Earth, maybe even more than one person, who truly, deeply gave a shit.
Except today. Larry Spinetsky had passed, and no one seemed to give a shit.
Rabbi Hertzberg turned to Shimmy. “I don’t think anyone’s coming. You can start digging. But, please, for the love of G-d, stop talking to yourself. Show some respect.”
Shimmy was going to explain that it was not out of lack of respect that he repeated his mantra, but that he was, in fact, so sensitive to the precariousness of life that he needed to shore up all emotion before attempting the awesome role of grave digger. The problem was, he was stoned off his ass, which meant any explanation would either be extraordinarily erudite, a thesis- level exposition on the transitory nature of life and death and what it means to be human, or monosyllabic. It was easier to shut up and dig.
Abe Warner, owner of Warner-Schwab Mortuary, had promised them it would become routine pretty quickly. The initial shock of being so close to death would give way to a grudging understanding that would, in turn, morph into calm acceptance. Then they would lose all sensitivity completely.
“You don’t think so now, but one day you’ll find yourself down there digging and a tune will come into your head. And like that – bam – you’re whistling the Sesame Street theme song or some other piece of dreck. It happens to the best of us. I’m begging you, though, think whatever ridiculous things you want but keep those songs inside your head, especially when you’ve got weeping mothers and children around.”
There were none of those around today, not for Larry Spinetsky. Shimmy could sing whatever the hell he wanted, he could shout the words to that old Nine Inch Nails song he discovered on Youtube, the one about having sex like an animal, but he stayed silent and concentrated on the dirt. A light rain had fallen earlier, and the ground had grown soggy, though thankfully, it hadn’t congealed into full-on mud. “And to think,” Shimmy thought to himself, “two weeks ago, I didn’t know there was a difference between soggy dirt and absolute, honest-to-G-d mud.” This was followed by an immediate, intense longing for muddy buddies.
The job was only supposed to last a day or two, a week at the most. That’s what Warner had said on that first day, when he fed them chocolate sandwich cookies and orange juice in the foyer, the door to the morgue just a few feet away.
“We just need you here till the union gets its act together. Those mamzerim think they can drag this out while the bodies pile up. Forty cents more an hour, that’s what we’re willing to give them, but no, they need forty-five. Standing out there at five a.m., waving signs around about what a piece of shit I am. Can you imagine the people we’re dealing with, willing to let dead bodies whither over a couple of cents?”
Shimmy couldn’t imagine, mainly because he couldn’t envision anyone getting up at five a.m., but yes, the five cents thing seemed strange, too. Before this job, all he ever knew about unions was what he gleaned from an old family story about a great-great aunt who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Her father, Lazer, had pleaded with her to stay home that Saturday, give up her job, do whatever she had to do to keep Shabbos, but poor Aunt Myrna had refused. Lazer then became a union activist, travelling from town to town with the same story in tow, the smiling 14-year-old girl confined to a sweatshop for 16 hours a day, still believing she would make it in the Golden Country, a hope that went up in flames when some careless foreman dropped a cigarette butt into a scrapheap.
When Shimmy’s mother told this story, pausing every so often to rearrange her bandana or contemplate the joint in her hand, she skimmed over the labor implications and went straight for the moral lesson.
“You see?” She inhaled a long drag. “If she’d only kept Shabbos, she would have lived. Shabbos isn’t just a nice little break at the end of the week. It saves lives!”
Shimmy’s sister, Chaya, already deep into the atheism that will soon drive her out of the neighborhood and into a P.h.d in evolutionary biology, said, “I don’t know. Seems to me that story is more an argument for really good fire safety training. I mean, yes, had she not gone to work on Shabbos, she would have been saved. But if the foreman had just stubbed out his cigarette really well and dowsed it in some water, the whole building could have been spared.”
“Zeiskeit, you’re being too literal.” She passed the joint to Shimmy, who had managed, with the aid of a sheltered yeshiva existence and his natural aversion to risk, to make it to the age of 18 without trying a single mind-altering drug. He had become something of an enthusiast, though, once his mother got sick.
“I think if Shabbos saves lives,” he said, before exhaling a perfect ring of smoke, “then you should keep it, like, five times a week, Ma.”
He had meant it as a joke, but his mother got that moist look in her eyes then, the one that signaled imminent waterworks. She had just lost her eyelashes, and in their absence, the tears pooled in that little crevice where the eyelids meet, then ran down her cheeks in large droplets.
Chaya hit him with a pillow.
“Nice work, asshole.”
The men with the signs were out in full force today. Shimmy had thought about bringing them donuts, or maybe some lawn chairs, but Gershon, a retired public school teacher who carried his own shovel from home, put an end to that quick.
“You think you’re gonna butter them up with some pastry? Trust me, you’re wasting your time. I went on strike twice in my career, and as someone who’s been on the other side of the picket line, I can tell you that scabs are pretty much the lowest of low. I mean, we’re not of course, what we’re doing is heroic. But I’m just trying to put you inside their heads. They think we’re a bunch of cocksuckers, excuse my French, and you’re not gonna change their minds with a couple of danishes.”
Gershon was probably right, but there was something in the way he kept throwing around his union knowledge (“well, depending on the terms of their collective bargaining agreement, this whole thing could end in a couple of days or stretch out for weeks…”) that rubbed Shimmy the wrong way. Gershon seemed to delight in any occurrence that left an opportunity wide open to reflect on his strike days. For example, when the union guys started chanting, “hell no, no dead below,” he remarked in disgust, “we had much better lines, but then a lot of us were English teachers, so it’s not really a fair comparison. I guess these guys are doing the best they can with a high school education.” When Shimmy asked what kind of slogans the teachers had come up with, Gershon was vague. “I can’t quite remember, but you can bet your tuchus there was some sort of alliteration going on.”
Shimmy was going to ask what alliteration was, his secular education having ended in the sixth grade, but he felt embarrassed at not knowing. Gershon would think he was just like the strikers, and while he didn’t much care what Gershon thought of him, he also didn’t want to be perceived as intellectually equal to a bunch of guys with 80s-era facial hair. He had once been told by an Israeli soldier guarding his Birthright group to never trust anyone with a mustache. Though he was fairly certain the soldier had been referring to terrorists trying to pick up Jewish hitchhikers, Shimmy figured he could extend the logic to a group of disgruntled gravediggers.
Notwithstanding the occasional harassment from the strikers, he liked the work. There was something about digging a hole. Maybe the fact that it required so much of his body – his hands, back and legs were sore by the end of the day – yet asked so little of his brain. As a student of Chassidic philosophy, Shimmy often found himself overwhelmed by how much emphasis was placed on the mind. A person could do the exact same action – say, pour a cup of water – but if done with the intent of sustaining himself so that he may have energy to serve G-d, the act of pouring water becomes something bigger, a spiritual reaction wherein sparks of G-dliness trapped inside the water are released out into the world. On the other hand, if a person pours a glass of water to quench his thirst so he can do something mundane like play basketball, then that is the act of a human animal fulfilling a primal need. Nothing more.
Shimmy wanted to be the kind of guy who freed G-dly sparks trapped inside a cup of water, but he was constantly undermined by his own desires, even the banal ones. Every time he delighted in one of life’s simple pleasures – say, a cappuccino with the perfect mix of bitter and sweet, foam artfully whipped into a soft peak, a small bit of joy to momentarily transport him away from all thoughts of I.V. drips and clumps of hair in the shower – he felt a twinge in his heart that after all his years of Torah study, all the time spent wrapped up in prayer begging G-d to make him better, he was still just an animal. When the Alter Rebbe was served a bowl of inedible soup, so the story went, he ate it unawares because he was so removed from physical pleasures, yet here Shimmy was, practically orgasmic over a cup of coffee.
With grave-digging, though, it was different. Shimmy’s fifth-grade teacher had explained that burying the dead was Chesed Shel Emes, everlasting kindness, because you’re doing a favor for someone who can’t possibly pay you back. When you’re involved in something like that, Mrs. Mellenish said, it doesn’t matter what your intentions are, what stupid petty thoughts dart in and out of your head, because the act itself was enough. (She was there to teach them secular studies for half a day, but Mrs. Mellenish often digressed from math and reading into spiritual matters, a tangent Shimmy was grateful for given his difficulty with fractions.) When Shimmy felt his mind wander to thoughts unbefitting the funeral atmosphere, like, for example, the time Mrs. Mellenish knelt down to comfort Shlomo Kleinfeld when he skinned his knee on the playground, and Shimmy was able to see much further down her shirt than one would think possible with a crew neck, he heard her voice by his side, saying things like, “that’s right, Shimmy, you do what you need to do. Hashem is proud of you anyway!”
Weed helped, too, in alleviating his religious hang-ups. The one downside to stoned grave-digging was the immense hunger he felt at the end of the day. There weren’t any kosher restaurants near the cemetery, so he occasionally stopped at a deli for black coffee and a banana, and it was there that he saw the strikers one day, gathered in a corner booth. One guy, a redhead with a few days growth on his chin and a fisherman’s cap, was regaling the rest with a story that ended in a line Shimmy couldn’t quite catch but was apparently funny enough to send them all into a fit of laughter. At seeing this kind of camaraderie, Shimmy felt a pang of jealousy that he had nothing similar in his life, no group of fellow men, or almost-men in his case, to sit with in a deli. His peers were in exotic places now for their post-high school year, mainly Israel, and those who stayed behind usually did so because there was something wrong with them, or in Shimmy’s case, because there was something wrong with a family member. Or maybe, he thought, both of those things are true about me.
“Come over here,” the redhead said. Shimmy looked behind him. “Yes, I’m talking to you. Come on over, we’re not gonna put you in cement or anything.”
Shimmy had not assumed the strikers would do something like put him in cement, but now he wasn’t so sure. He sidled over to their table. A husky guy with an overgrown handlebar mustache – or are all handlebar mustaches overgrown?, Shimmy wondered, is that not the very point of a handlebar mustache? – slid over in the booth to make room for him.
“This isn’t about you. It’s important for us that you know that. You do know that, right?” The redhead took a sip from his coffee, then ran his tongue over a pair of dry, cracked lips.
“Yeah. I mean, I guess I do.”
“You guess you do?”
“I don’t think about it too much. I try to just dig.”
“You must have an opinion on us. You can tell me. You guys have a good laugh, don’t you? You stand there, you hear our shouting, then you make jokes about what a bunch of losers we are, right? Just some stupid gentiles going crazy over five cents?”
“No. We don’t really talk much about you guys.”
“Not much, so something then?”
“Well,” Shimmy surveyed the distance between himself and the exit. He could dash for the door if things got serious, but right now a part of him was enjoying the discomfort. Along with mind-altering substances, Shimmy had spent his youth avoiding fights, a choice that seemed smart at the time but now made him feel as though he had missed an important rite of passage. “Warner doesn’t understand how you can let corpses rot over a few cents. He thinks you’re a bunch of mamzerim. Also, a co-worker of mine says you need more alliteration in your slogans.”
“What are mamzerim?,” said the redhead.
“It means bastards in Hebrew.” Shimmy unpeeled the banana and took a bite. He was delighted to find that it had just the right amount of sweetness but had not yet devolved into mush. “Actually, if you want to get technical, a mamzer is the name you give to a child of an incestuous or adulterous relationship, but people just use it to mean bastard.”
“Well, you take a little message from us to your boss. You tell him that these mamzerim are not backing down. You tell him it’s not about the five cents. With this strike, we’re losing far more than we would make in a year with that extra five cents. But you know what? It’s not about the money. It never has been. It’s the principle. I want you to tell him something else, too. You tell him that he can’t treat people like animals, working in the dead of summer without a good shovel, without a water break, without the right gloves. You see these hands?”
The redhead raised his palms. Shimmy had to admit, they were the hands of a hard-working man: blistered and calloused, with thick veins that seemed ready to poke out of his skin.
“There are days when I can’t make a fist, I can’t keep change in my hand, because these fingers are so sore. I got a kid at home, a nine-month old. I was holding him one day-” He looked away for a minute, chin quivering, then contorted his mouth to keep the chin in place. “My arms just start shaking uncontrollably. And I think, Holy shit! I’m gonna drop my boy. Can you understand what’s going through my mind? The person I do this job for, the reason I’m breaking my back, bleeding out of my palms, the one face I look forward to seeing when I come home every day – I could have dropped him on the kitchen floor and cracked his skull open.”
“That would have been terrible.”
“Yeah, well, I told this story to Warner and he tells me to buy some padding for my gloves. Padding! That’s it. No, hey how about I give you a day off, maybe make sure we have enough people on one crew to space out the work, get you better shovels. Nothing.”
The redhead looked Shimmy in the eye.
“You tell Warner the longer this goes on, the harder it gets. Got it?”
On the train back to Crown Heights, Shimmy craved a soft pretzel and thought about Lazer, his activist ancestor. Would he be proud to know that 100 years after his daughter’s death, the grave diggers were able to go on strike because of the unions he helped create? Or would he be embarrassed at what the gravediggers were doing, shouting obscenities and harassing Shimmy and his co-workers? Would Lazer, pious Jew that he was, side with his fellow tribesmen, fulfilling their religious obligation to bury the dead as quickly as possible, or would he view his descendant with disgust, wagging his finger at Shimmy from his heavenly perch, dismayed that someone with the same blood running through his veins could cross a picket line and become a scab?
And what exactly did the union guys mean when they said things will get harder?
“Who cares? Those guys are all hot air.” Warner tapped a sugar packet against his coffee cup. They were sitting in his office, a chipper place with fresh flowers and photos of grandchildren everywhere – riding bikes, playing on the beach, smiling at their Bar-Mitzvahs. “You think this is the first time any of them have threatened me? I’ve had my tires slashed, windows bashed in. I got mugged and beaten up once by a masked man in the parking lot. Granted, that could have been random, but I would not be shocked if it were one of them. At the end of the day, they come crawling back when they realize they need to feed their families.”
“But they say it’s not about the money. Some of these guys, they’re not doing so well. One of them, a red-headed guy, said he almost dropped his baby once.”
“Colin told you that story, did he? He likes to spread that one around. Did he also tell you that he sneaks whiskey from a flask in his jacket while he’s on the job? His hands weren’t shaking because of the digging, believe me.”
“But don’t you ever feel bad for them?”
“Let me tell you something: I got guys going out on worker’s comp all the time, and unlike the other schmucks who own mortuaries, I don’t fight their claims in court. I understand that this is a tough job. I respect that. But this generation of guys, they don’t realize that sometimes, your job is just plain awful. That’s what you get paid for, to do an awful job that no one with any other skills would do. How many Jews are out there on that picket line? Zero. Because at some point in our history, we realized that if we just use our keppies, we don’t have to use our hands.”
Shimmy was going to point out that aside from his uncanny ability to analyze the hell out of 18th-century texts of Jewish mysticism, he, too, was one of those people with few skills beyond moving dirt. He could see Warner was impenetrable, though, so he grabbed a handful of starlight mints from the bowl on his desk and headed out to the cemetery.
Enya Schlossberg was to be buried today. Shimmy had known her a little from his mother’s time in the hospital. A 35-year old psychiatrist with a doting, consistently red-eyed husband, she had regaled his mother with stories about her upbringing in Moldova (“I often wonder what is worse: cancer or every single day I spent in that country”). The one conversation Shimmy had had with her was about Beaches. Enya had cried through that movie as a kid and dreamed of travelling to America one day to visit Atlantic City. She never did get there, though, and now she never would. “Only two and a half hours away, but there were always other things to do,” she said, between sips of apple juice. Though Shimmy had spent a year in yeshiva in Atlantic City and knew it was far from magical, it seemed sad to know definitively that you would never see a particular place on Earth. Kind of like if he knew he might go through life without ever getting an enema, he might feel a sudden longing for one.
Shimmy’s mother had planned to go the funeral, but at the last minute said she was too tired. He was relieved, as he didn’t think he could bear seeing his mother in such close proximity to a grave. He wondered if that was her reason, too.
“What’s going on?” Gershon shifted his shovel back and forth between his palms.
“I was just thinking about the woman we’re gonna bury. I knew her.”
“No, I don’t mean what’s going in your mind, you self-involved schmuck! I mean, where’s the body? Where are the mourners?” He waved his hand around. “They should have been here an hour ago.”
“Maybe the eulogies went long. You know how rabbis get in front of a microphone.”
“I don’t know. Something doesn’t seem right.”
It was another hour before Warner approached them at the plot and explained the whole story. The hearse was making its way down the Conduit when a pickup truck directly in front made a sudden break. There wasn’t too much damage to either car, but both drivers got out of their vehicles to exchange insurance information. While they were talking, another hearse drove up. The driver rolled down his window and said he was there to ensure the funeral happened promptly, as per Mr. Warner’s instructions, so they moved the coffin into the relief hearse and thought nothing of it. Then the driver sped off quickly, too fast for the procession to follow. The hearse hadn’t been seen since.
“Needless to say, I had not sent another hearse.” Warner was disheveled. His hair, normally neatly combed, looked as though he had run his hands through it several times, so much so that Shimmy could almost see a palm print in the grey tufts. “This was obviously planned by the strikers, though it seems pretty dirty, even for them.”
“Should I talk to them?,” Shimmy asked.
“What are you gonna say, exactly? Can you please return the body out of the goodness of your hearts, because you’re such sweet, salt-of-the-earth guys? You prepared to offer them something? Maybe give them some of the dope you’re on in exchange for a body?” Warner saw the startled look on Shimmy’s face. “Yes, I know you’re fried all day. If I wasn’t sympathetic to your situation, believe me, you’d be gone by now.”
Shimmy didn’t know why the words stung so much. Maybe it was the fact that he had not, after all, hidden his stoned state under a veneer of professionalism as he had believed, or maybe it was the realization that he had been hired out of pity, because everyone could see, even Warner, that his mother was not getting better, would never get better, so why not throw a bit of kindness at her sad-sack son. Those things hurt, but they were not the real reason Shimmy now burned with the kind of anger he usually reserved for the BDS movement. No, by implying that Shimmy was a less-than-stellar grave digger, a replaceable pair of hands, Warner had taken away the one thing Shimmy truly believed he was gifted at. He plodded away from Enya Schlossberg’s future grave in a mix of embarrassment and rage. His shovel dragged behind him, clacking against grass and stones in a rhythm that began to sound similar to the line playing in his head: “fuck that guy, fuck that guy, fuck that guy.” Even when the grass fell away, leaving only the clackety-clack of gravel, the sound only morphed into: “fuck that fucking guy, fuck that fucking guy, fuck that fucking guy…”
Why were there no heroes anymore? As far as Shimmy could tell, he was faced with bad choices on both sides. Warner was right from a religious perspective, bodies certainly needed to be buried fast, but why did he have to be such a relentless piece of shit? And what about the union guys, crying one minute about a nine-month-old baby, stealing bodies the next? Waving their un-poetic signs around about injustice, then shouting “kike” at Shimmy and the others as they passed?
As far back as he could remember, Shimmy had been mystified by conflict. When boys in his class would fight over a toy, he would interfere and offer up whatever he was playing with at the time. More often than not, the boys would reject his Mr. Potatohead or Etch-a-Sketch, making fun of his meager offer in the process. Sometimes, in making fun of him, the boys would find a common cause and bond over their shared disdain for this strange classmate who seemed intent on giving up whatever few possessions he had. When Shimmy grew older and acquired real friends, he became the kind of confidante who could pass between two sides in an argument and tell each one that they were right, not because he was a two-faced liar but because he actually believed they were both right. “Man up, choose one path, learn to make decisions – that’s what being an adult is all about.” He heard that line from parents, teachers, mentors, but it always seemed less like a motto to live by and more like a really good argument for not becoming an adult.
The strikers were at the deli when Shimmy arrived for his banana and black coffee. They seemed less boisterous than usual, sipping coffee quietly, their signs lying about haphazardly at their feet. Colin brightened a little at the sight of Shimmy.
“Hey, Jewboy! Come over here.”
He set down his coffee cup in a saucer, splashing a fair amount of liquid while doing so, and picked up a sign. Shimmy couldn’t help but notice the tremor in his hands. He searched for the smell of alcohol on Colin’s person but could discern nothing within the general deli stench of pickles and burnt garlic.
“So I took what your coworker said to heart and decided to throw in some alliteration. It was actually really simple. I got one of our signs, the one that said ‘Hell no, no dead below!,’ and changed it to ‘no bodies below.’ Easy fix.”
So that’s what alliteration is, Shimmy thought. Just a couple of words that start with the same letter. How stupid is that?
Colin was still talking. “I also had my five-year-old throw some glitter on. What do you think?”
The sign was a simple white cardboard poster with the message scrawled in all caps. Just black marker, no color other than the splattered bits of glitter. The simplicity of it, along with the occasional slant in the letters thanks to Colin’s shaking hands, made Shimmy want to cry. But then he remembered Enya Schlossberg. The thought of her slight corpse abandoned in a Brooklyn alley dispelled any feelings of sympathy.
“What do you guys think you’re doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“I get that you’re angry at Warner. Probably more than you realize. But stealing a woman’s dead body is one of the worst things you can do to another person. And she never did anything to you. How can you let her family suffer like that?”
The handlebar mustache got up from his seat. “We didn’t steal any bodies. And I don’t appreciate you coming in here and saying so.”
“Sit down, Frank,” Colin said. “Yeah, we heard about what went down today. I can understand how we might look guilty, but trust me, we had nothing to do with it.”
“Why should I trust you?”
Colin’s lips curved into a condescending smile, the kind Shimmy had seen on so many adults before they launched into some version of Ah, motek, how much you miss. “Warner’s been trying to offload that old hearse for years now. More likely than not, it was his own guy who made off with it so he could collect the insurance money. If I were a betting man, I’d say you roll in there tomorrow morning, Warner will give you a story about how the body’s been miraculously recovered but the car is nowhere to be found. Mark my words.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
The call came two hours later. Warner was breathless on the phone. The body had been found in Bushwick, the Chevra Kadisha was on the scene now, would Shimmy please head over there to help out and ensure a safe transfer?
“I don’t know. Are you sure you want someone who’s fried all day handling such important work?”
“No, actually, I don’t. But the woman’s family insists you accompany her body. I guess you have some kind of history with them? Whatever the case, they want you, so I obliged. But please promise me you won’t drive the hearse, okay? Let Gershon do it. He’ll meet you there.”
The scene in Bushwick was crowded, even for Brooklyn. You had the Chassidim of the Chevra Kadisha, tasked with ensuring that dead bodies were treated with the respect accorded them in Jewish law. The police were present as well to sign off on the proceedings and allow Enya’s body into the care of the mortuary rather than the city morgue. Surrounding the cordoned off area were hipsters with lumberjack beards and fedoras, women in plastic glasses and oversize sweaters, curious local shop owners, black and Hispanic kids on their way home from school, delivery boys with takeout bags in their hands. Shimmy made his way through the crowd and explained his job to the police, all the while feeling a certain thrill at being allowed past the yellow tape.
Gershon was waiting by the body. At the sight of Shimmy, he said, “Finally! Wouldn’t want you to rush.” Then he motioned him to the hearse. The two of them pulled out the casket and set it down on the ground. Four women from the Chevra Kadisha, two on each side of the body, gently lifted Enya and set her down inside. Gershon and Shimmy, along with a couple of the guys present, slid the casket into the hearse with minimal difficulty. How quick and easy it is, Shimmy thought, to dispose of the dead. A whole life lived, and when it’s all over, just this small thing wrapped in a sheet.
Shimmy had spoken, or rather, had thought, too soon. He heard them first, the familiar chants, though they now employed better rhyme schemes. Then he saw the crowd forming within the crowd, the signs in big block letters, waved around by Colin and Frank and all the other men whose names he didn’t know but were probably Jimmy or Vinnie or Rob.
“How the hell did they find us here?” Gershon turned to Shimmy. “Did you tell them what was going on? Have you been talking to them?”
“No, why would I do that?”
Gershon eyed him suspiciously. Shimmy did his best to look wide-eyed and unthreatening, a pose that was, he had to admit, fairly easy to adopt.
“Fine, I’ll go talk to them, see if we can clear a path out of here. You stay with the hearse.”
Shimmy climbed into the front seat and inhaled the smell of leather. Strange to think of people ushered out of the Earthly realm in something so shiny and new. He felt around in his pockets for a joint but was all out. Sobriety did not feel good. All it seemed to do was make him acutely aware of his uselessness, which is not to say he was not acutely aware of his uselessness when stoned. The uselessness just felt a little funnier, a little less hopeless. Here, in Warner’s brand-new hearse, Shimmy came face to face with the fact that he was truly, utterly incapable of doing anything for anyone. His mother’s cancer would proceed at its own accelerated pace and would claim her when it felt like it, though the drugs Shimmy’s earnings helped pay for might slow the process down or numb the pain a little. He could do nothing for the strikers or Warner, and he wasn’t quite sure he cared anymore how it all played out. He looked out the back window to check on Gershon’s progress, but his gaze fell on the casket instead, sitting there in silent reproach, so far removed from the madness outside. It struck him then that perhaps there was one person he could still help out, though whether she was capable of appreciating it was a question for theologians far more advanced than he.
Shimmy put the key in the ignition and switched on the engine. Warner was right to be enthusiastic about the new hearse, for it emitted barely a sound when turned on and proceeded so quietly that Gershon, immersed in a heated debate with the strikers, did not register at first what was happening. It was only after the crowd started parting to make way for Shimmy that Gershon attempted to stop him. He banged on the back window, but Shimmy had the Beaches soundtrack cranked up on his phone and could hear nothing above Bette Midler. She was singing about a friend who had been there for her but who apparently never got any fame or recognition, just had to be content with being supportive in the shadows. He had never heard this song before, nor had he seen the movie, but he figured it must have been quite an experience if little Enya had dreamed of Atlantic City for years to come. Though he felt guilt at the delay in burial this excursion might cause, Shimmy figured he could fulfill Enya’s dream and still get her back in time for the funeral tomorrow. Maybe he could even fit in a trip to that candy shop, if it still existed, the one that stocked kosher salt water taffy.
“Everlasting kindness, Shimmy,” Mrs. Mellenish whispered to him. “That’s all you need. Everything else will fall into place.”
He really hoped the candy shop was still there.
Tova Bernbaum lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn with her husband and children.