I heard sobbing that spring Saturday afternoon and walked down the back stairs to see who was crying. My downstairs neighbor—Jane—was sitting on the wood picnic table, bawling her eyes out and smoking a cigarette.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Oh Jesus, John,” she said. I had startled her, by accident, coming through the back door. “He went to that funeral and now he’s at the wake and it’s horrible.” Jane’s ex-husband, Frank, lived next door in a separate building that had been converted into four apartments. Frank lived in the rear apartment on the ground floor, with a view of the old apple orchard. Jane and Frank had been divorced for about 10 years. They made an arrangement to live near each other to help raise their 16-year-old daughter, Jenny. The court had determined that Jenny should live with Jane. Frank was a biker and a concrete worker, probably in his early 60s.
Jane held up her cell phone. “One of the cousins just called me. She said it’s awful.”
“Where’s the wake?” I said.
“After the funeral they all went to the Blue Flame,” she said.
“Can you go get him?” she said. “Make him come home.” She took a drag on her cigarette.
“Is he drunk?” I said.
“Well, what the hell do you think,” she said through the tears and the smoke.
“Last time he was drunk,” I said, “it was hard to handle him.” There had been an incident in the yard, where Frank had touched some woman’s ass and that woman’s husband had hit Frank with a two-by-four twice, once in the ribs and once in the head. Frank had come out of his apartment with a short, single-shot, break-barrel .22 and pulled the trigger, starring the other man’s windshield and sending a ricochet whizzing through the apartment parking lot. When the cops showed up, nobody said anything, and eventually they went away. I knew Frank owned several hunting rifles, so it could have been worse.
“Do you think it’s easy to deal with you when you’re drunk?” she said. A couple of times I’d been really lit in the backyard, around the grill. This was my first apartment since my divorce, and I had managed to get a decent job, running heavy equipment at the timber yard. Somewhere in my mind I held the idea that I would be seeing a lot of women in and out of this apartment, but it never happened, and I think it came out when I got drunk.
“Fair enough,” I said. “I’ll go talk to him. But no promises.”
The bar was only five miles down the road. The parking lot was full, probably 20 or so cars. I picked out Frank’s big blue van right away. I was glad to see only a couple motorcycles. I had trouble picturing guys navigating the bikes after a full day of drinking.
It was loud inside. People were wandering around, drinking and talking in groups of twos and threes. Some laughing, some crying. Frank was sitting at the bar when I went in, talking to a young couple. A girl with long straight brown hair and a guy with a home crewcut. It was strange to see Frank in a tan sports jacket and shiny black slacks, with a thin, black shiny tie.
“Yeah,” Frank was saying. “I just wanted to get right in there with him.”
“I bet,” the crewcut guy said.
“Do you know how light that coffin was?” Frank said to the girl. “And he was a damn big guy. Bust you right in two.”
Her eyes widened.
“But that cancer,” Frank kept on. “Cancer ate him from the inside. Hollowed him out. He could have fought six men by himself, before he got sick.”
“Sure,” the crewcut guy said. “I bet he would have. I only knew him as an old man.”
“He was never an old man,” Frank corrected. “My father, God rest his soul, was an old man. Couldn’t fucking feed himself. Richie was no old man.”
“Sure,” the crewcut guy said, sipping a beer. “Sure.”
“You should come for a ride on my bike,” Frank said to the girl.
She smiled. “What kind of bike is it?” she said. She tossed her hair over her right shoulder.
“Harley Shovelhead,” Frank said. “Nineteen seventy-nine.”
Before the crewcut guy could say anything, Frank saw me. “Johnny, my boy,” he said. He clapped his hand on my shoulder. He loud-whispered in my ear. “Do you know,” he said, “that his wife had the nerve to come over here and demand that table saw back from me. She wants me to deliver it to her house right after this.” He took a slug of whiskey and beer. “Maybe she wants to give it to his son,” I said.
“Then how come his son couldn’t come over here and ask for it?” Frank said. “He knows me—hell, his father and I took him fishing and hunting more times than I could tell you. He cost me a buck one year, wouldn’t shut up out in the woods and then cried once we got up in the tree stand. Richie had to take him back home.”
“I don’t know about any of this,” I said. “Can you keep it down? You’re really doing a number on these people.”
“Did she send you here?” he said. “Did Jane send you? To shut me up?”
“No,” I lied. “I came here on my own.”
“He and I were closer than brothers. Closer than brothers. Used to shoot dope, screw women—everything.” He jerked his thumb at Richie’s wife. “Lot more action than she ever showed him.”
“A little respect would go a long way here,” I said.
“Do you see her?” Frank said, still looking at Richie’s wife. “She’s not beautiful. Do you think she’s beautiful?” People turned toward Frank as he raised his voice.
“No,” I admitted. “I don’t.”
“Nobody here is beautiful or handsome,” Frank said. “Fucking fooling yourself. But that doesn’t mean you can’t smile. Doesn’t mean you can’t screw.” He downed his whiskey in one gulp and signaled for another. “John,” he continued, “she used to wait up at night to yell at him when we’d come in. Awful stuff, just awful.”
“You want to know what I did?” he shout-whispered.
“What’s that?” I said.
“I put a Playboy under his jacket,” he said.
“You did what?” I said.
“I got there early, and when the funeral director left the room, I opened the casket and moved Richie’s arm and put a Playboy under his jacket.”
“Where did you get it from?”
“I stopped at the gas station on 209 and got some beer. There was a guy getting a sandwich for his kid, so I had to wait and I started looking at the rack of magazines and thought of Richie. He and I had been in that gas station lots of times. So I grabbed him a Playboy.”
“Did you really put it in the casket?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. He finished his whiskey. “I did.”
Richie’s wife was standing about five feet away, with her brother. She was dressed entirely in black, as was her brother. I had seen him around before, an ex–prison guard. Most of those guys can retire early. He was a big man, but it had gone to fat and you could see it was hard for him to get around.
“You defiled Richie’s casket?” the wife said. “Did you really do that?”
Frank nodded and drank. “I did it,” he said. “Wanted my brother to enjoy himself in eternity.”
I thought she’d slap him. She turned away, and her brother followed her. The whole mood at the bar changed.
The conversation was so loud that people came over. Richie’s wife’s brother had three sons, and they, in turn, had four sons between them.
“Frank,” her brother said, “you’re out of line.”
“Fuck you, Melvin,” Frank said. “You’re too used to dealing with those cons. I speak my mind.” The bartender set a shot glass full of whiskey and a beer on the wood bar in front of Frank. “Here’s to Richie,” he said, raising both the shot glass and the beer bottle and winking at the young woman with straight brown hair. People on the other side of the room, who weren’t paying attention to the conversation, raised their glasses as well.
For a minute, the men seemed to back away from Frank. I relaxed a little too. But several of them came back, including Melvin, and suddenly grabbed Frank, dragging him off the bar stool, and headed for the parking lot.
“Don’t get involved, John,” one of them said. “We know he’s your friend.”
“Six on one isn’t fair,” I said.
Outside, they were punching Frank in the face, and when he finally got up, he punched a couple of them even harder. One young guy fell to the macadam and didn’t move. They tried to tackle him, but Frank kicked his way free and made it to his van. Already, his eyes were almost puffed closed and there was blood on his face. In one motion, he opened the driver’s side door to the van and came out with a flat, black semi-automatic pistol. He fired a shot in the air and everything stopped.
The men stood about 10 feet away from him, staring at him.
“You need to leave,” Melvin said. “This has been a mess, but if you go, we’ll forget about it.”
“Are you going home with me?” I said.
“No,” he said. “I’m staying right here.” He reached back into the van and pulled out a beer and twisted the cap off. Held the bottle up to his lips and took a long drink. “I belong here,” he said. “With my brother Richie.”
I looked at Melvin.
“He can stay in the parking lot,” Melvin said. “But if he does anything more, I’m calling the cops.”
“Okay,” I said.
Frank looked at everyone. “Those people that want to celebrate Richie will find that the ceremony has moved to the van,” he said. “I will share my beer with all you ugly people.”
The men moved back inside, and I started to walk away, toward my truck.
“Hey, John,” Frank said.
“Yes,” I said.
“I just wanted my brother to have some beauty and get some action. At least those women in those pictures smile,” he said.
“They do,” I agreed.
“Because it’s their job to smile,” he said. He pulled another beer out of the van and twisted the top off. “Nobody’s beautiful like those women are beautiful,” he said, “because it’s not their fucking job to be beautiful.”
“Right,” I said.
“Richie deserved that,” he said.
“I’ll see you at the house,” I said.
“Jane’s not beautiful,” he said, “but that doesn’t matter to me. She never knew that.” “Tell her,” I said.
He nodded and kept drinking. I walked to my truck and pulled onto the highway.
Jane was still sitting on the picnic table, smoking a cigarette, when I drove in.
“Where is he?” she said.
“He’s still there,” I said. “He wouldn’t come with me.”
“Was he okay?” she said.
“Not really,” I said. “Nothing I could do.”
“How’s he going to get home?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “People will probably give him a ride.” I walked back upstairs and turned the TV on. Sat watching the ball game, drinking a beer.
Deep in the night, I woke up to the sound of Frank’s motorcycle. He was riding around the parking lot in a slow circle. On the back of the bike was the young woman he’d been talking to at the bar. She had no shirt on. I could see, as he passed under the streetlight, his eyes were blackened. He pulled the bike out onto the main road and must have given the throttle a real shove, because the bike took off, loud as thunder, carrying him and the half-naked girl off into the night. I heard the bike breathe as he paused for the light at 209 and then made the left turn and headed up the hill, onto the miles of straight road that stretch to southern Ulster County and into Catskill Park. The roar of the bike was still clear, still screaming into the night, defiant. I listened to the roar for several minutes before going back to bed. From downstairs, there were faint noises and soft footsteps away from their front window. I didn’t know if it was Jane or her daughter. Someone had watched Frank take off.
The next morning, someone was knocking on my door. I opened it. Frank was standing there, wearing a T-shirt, leather jacket and jeans. Both of his eyes were black underneath and there was a small cut covered with dried blood on the right side of his face. The knuckles of his right hand were skinned and raw.
“Hey,” he said. “We’ve got to go do something.”
“What?” I said.
“Get that backhoe off your site and take it over to the cemetery for me,” he said. “You can’t be serious,” I said.
He sipped his coffee. “Look, it’s all legit. Her brother’s going to be there and we talked to the cemetery groundskeeper; he understands. It’ll be fine. Shouldn’t be more than three swipes with the hoe. I’ll jump down into the grave, open the casket, take it out, and we’ll be done. Then just shove the dirt back in the hole.” He took another sip. “You’re pretty good with that thing, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m good with it. I don’t know, Frank. This sounds crazy.”
“Well, we all agreed to it yesterday, after you left.” He motioned to his black eyes and his hand. “There was a little scuffle in the parking lot, and we got it sorted out.”
“I was there,” I said.
“There was a little bit after that too,” he said.
“Did you take her the table saw?” I said.
“Already dropped it off this morning and got a coffee for you on the way back. Come on, let’s get it over with,” he said.
“All right,” I said. “Let me put my work boots on.”
Frank drove us over to the timber yard. It took me three tries, but finally the backhoe started. I pulled it up onto the lowboy and shut it down. Then I took the ratchet chains and locked the wheels in place for the ride to the cemetery. I backed the cab up and hooked on to the lowboy. I followed Frank to the cemetery.
My main concern was leaving ruts in the ground. Fortunately, Richie’s grave site was on the edge of the cemetery, where new plots were being laid out. There were only three headstones in this section. I removed the ratchet chains and drove the backhoe off the lowboy.
Her brother was standing next to the grave. The earth on top was fresh brown soil. I pulled the hoe up to it and deployed the hydraulic pads. Frank stood close to it, drinking his coffee. The first bite of the hoe’s teeth was a little hesitant. I came away with half a shovelful of soil. The second pass, I made sure to get a full load.
“Can you see anything?” I yelled to Frank over the machine.
Both Frank and her brother stepped to the edge of the grave. I saw Frank shake his head and give me the thumbs-up. Her brother looked briefly at me and shook his head. They couldn’t see anything. I worked the controls and moved the hoe for another pass.
I heard the scrape and Frank screaming at the same time and immediately raised the bucket. Her brother was kneeling at the edge of the grave, shaking his head, holding his head in his hands. I shut the machine down, got out and walked to the hole.
Frank had already jumped down into the grave, on top of the casket. He was holding a large fieldstone, which he tossed onto the fresh grass. It was the size of a small toolbox. “Who the fuck backfills a grave with rocks?” Frank screamed.
Her brother was crying.
“What happened?” I said.
“You hit that,” Frank said, pointing at the stone, “and it pushed through the dirt and scratched the casket lid.”
He carefully brushed some dirt away with his hand, revealing gray metal. There was a white scar, about 10 inches long, down the face of the metal. A tiny dent ran the length of the scar.
Her brother was up. “Get the hell off the casket,” he said to Frank. Frank hoisted himself back up onto the turf. The brother’s face was red with tears. “I want you to drive to the gas station right now and bring me back a Playboy magazine right here.” He turned to me. “Fill that fucking hole and don’t fuck anything else up.” He ran his hands over his eyes. “I’m going to tell her we got it and it’s over. Is that clear?” He looked at both of us. “Never talk about this again, to anyone.”
Frank took off in his van. I started the machine up and put the dirt back in the hole, without digging up too much turf. I raised the pads and drove the backhoe onto the lowboy. I secured it with the chains. There were ruts where I had driven the machine onto the grass and depressions where I had put the stabilizing pads down. The brother was walking around, trying to smooth the ground with his feet. He wasn’t doing anything, wasn’t affecting the torn earth.
I pulled the lowboy down the cemetery road and back onto the highway. Dropped it off at the timber yard exactly as I had found it. The rain had just started to fall, and as I walked along the highway, it increased and the clouds became thicker and darker. I didn’t know what I would do if Frank pulled up behind me in his van. I hoped I could just walk home, soaked. I kept walking as the rain came down harder, soaking the ground and everything as cars and trucks passed. It was a longer walk home than I thought it would be.