STEALING FROM THE DEAD
It's 1961 and the CIA has decided to ruin my life. It wasn't enough that they created Islamic fundamentalism to overthrow the Government of Iran, provoked, funded and then ignored insurrections in Eastern Europe, slipped LSD to unsuspecting dissidents, destroyed democracy in Guatemala to save United Fruit, masterminded a disastrous invasion of Cuba to prevent it from falling into the Soviet orbit half a planet away, etc. Now the alcoholic Yalies who run the agency have managed to convince new president John F. Kennedy that military intervention in Vietnam is an absolute necessity. Fighting International Communism is just an excuse. They really want to get me in their clutches.
I'm 18, a simple creature, one phylum above a paramecium. My moods travel between hunger, lust and dazed perplexity. During the day I snooze undisturbed in the overheated classrooms of Brooklyn College. At 5:30 I report to the Riverside Memorial Chapel across from Prospect Park. From 6 to 9 I direct visitors to reposing rooms. From 9 to midnight I load a Chevy panel truck with bodies collected from homes and hospitals and bound for the basement embalming room. Sometimes I am accompanied by Marshall, the night porter, a wiry black dude from the tobacco fields of South Carolina. Fastidious as an ancient Hebrew, Marshall refuses to touch a cadaver. He watches, arms folded, as I mummy-wrap two sheets around the deceased before gingerly helping me transfer it to a body bag.
My other partner is Rizzo, a limo driver working doubles to pay his shylock. By his own proud admission Rizzo is a gambler, adulterer and "cat boigler." He is shaped like an eggplant, his hairline begins a wisp above his eyebrows, his oft-broken nose zig-zags across his face and he smacks his thick lips with glee when recounting a sexual conquest.
But Rizzo is frustrated. "Didja ever wonder why there's no money on a stiff?" he asks me one night. "You go into a bedroom and there's no loose change on the night table. Look in a dead lady's purse. Nothin! A guy in a nice suit drops dead on the subway and his wallet's empty? That's not normal. Remember last year when the TWA plane crashed into the United over Staten Island? 100 bodies laying on the streets in Park Slope and not a dime on any one of 'em. Everybody's goes out with a little walkin' around money in their pocket, don't they? How comes stiffs are always clean?"
I confess I never thought of it.
"That guy who keeled over on the subway," Rizzo says." The passengers go through his pockets. Then the cops come and give him a toss. The ambulance guys have a look. And the vultures in the morgue pick the bones. By the time we show up there's nothin' left..."
Rizzo shakes his head at the perfidy of humankind. "You think they'd leave a coupla dollars for the sweepers..."
Rizzo brings little things to my attention. The indentation on a right ring finger where a heavy ring had undoubtedly lain for years before it was brutally yanked off. The faded circle on a left wrist where a watch had been. A broochless dress. "Didja ever see one of these old broads without a little pin or somethin'?"
He is especially incensed by Shultz, the morgue attendant at Jewish Chronic Diseases. Shultz is a scowling hunchback, who won't trade pleasantries and never helps take bodies off the slabs. "He looks like Rumplefuckin'stiltskin, don't he?" Rizzo says. "Betcha he's got a nice taste stashed away. Somebody's gonna hit his house one of these nights while he's workin, mark my words."
One night Shultz pulls open a drawer on a big, middle-aged man. Mound of fish white belly, crinkly gray hair on his chest. I've been told that people who die suddenly have their last living expression on their faces and this guy looks like he was really happy.
"Prick always puts the fat guys on the top row," Rizzo says as we horse the body out of the drawer.
On the way out Schultz hands us a shopping bag with the man's effects. In the truck, Rizzo looks at the crumpled suit, shoes, stained underwear with disgust. The jacket is empty, the trouser pockets have been turned inside out.
"No respect for the dead. They'd take the pennies off his eyes, but they'll leave the shorts where the poor bastard crapped himself."
He rips out the soles of the man's shoes..."Nuttin!" Shakes one sock out. Then the other...
"Hey look at this..."
A ticket has fallen out of the sock.
"It's from Belmont," Rizzo says. "The guy played the daily double for Chrissake..."
"Maybe that's why his pockets were empty," I say. "He lost all his money."
Rizzo snorts at my ignorance. "A guy don't hide a losing ticket in his sock." But then his eyes narrow and he puts the ticket in his pocket. "Ah, you're probably right."
An hour later I've smoked a reefer and am enjoying a meatball hero in the embalming room when Rizzo sneaks in. "Can I talk to ya for a second and drags me out to the garage. "Okay, you little prick, " he says. "I'm tellin' you because I don't want you to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time...That was a winning ticket. The guy hit the double--Handsome Teddy and Sayonara Baby."
"How much did it pay?" I ask.
He shoves me with the heel of his hand. "What are you, a big fuckin' handicapper all of a sudden? It paid thirty-eight hundred, but you ain't a full partner because I found it and you thought it was a loser. I'll give you a hundred bucks to keep your mouth shut. And..." He gets a shrewd look. "Another hundred plus gas money if you go to the track and cash it in."
As always my timidity trumps my greed. "I don't wanna get in trouble..."
He pokes me again. "No trouble. I'm just busy tomorrow...Alright, you little chickenshit, if you don't wanna make an extra C-note that's your lookout..."
The meatballs soon combine with the marijuana aperitif and I repair to the one of the reposing rooms to sleep away the rest of my shift. But I am shaken awake. Two shadowy forms are standing over me. My mind screams. Cops!
"Did you remove the body of Sherman Flinker from Jewish Chronic?"
"I don't remember the name..."
"What did you do with the ticket you found?"
I yawn and cover my fear with pretend drowsiness. "I didn't find..."
"Your partner says you found a winning ticket from Belmont," a cop says.
I calm down. Rizzo would never give me up because he knows I would implicate him. The cops have overplayed.
"I didn't find nothin'," I says.
"Mr. Flinker's wife says he called her from the track all excited 'cause he hit the double," a cop says. "But she couldn't find the ticket in his effects..."
Years of lying to parents, teachers and lately to girls have taught me to stick to my story.
"I didn't find nothin'," I say.
A cop grabs me by the shirt with a hard hand "Sit up..." He shines the lamp in my face. "You better not try to cash that ticket you little wiseass!"
Next night Rizzo sits in the truck bemoaning his bad luck. "I had to catch a pussy whipped husband," he says. "He's probably one of these guys who calls his wife after he takes a shit..."
I feel I have to defend the deceased. "Hitting the double is a big deal after all," I say.
"So you buy yourself somethin' nice," Rizzo says. "You spend the money on a broad. You never tell your wife nothin' she don't have to know."
He stares at the ticket. "We can't cash it at the track. No bookie'll take it for us...We got six months before it expires..."
"Why don't you just send it to the widow," I say. "It belongs to her..."
Rizzo is outraged. "Why? Because she married the bastard? She didn't pick the horses. What do you wanna bet she was humpin' the plumber while he was thinkin' about buyin' her a fuckin' fur coat to celebrate..." He shakes his head doggedly. "I got just as much right to it as she does. I found it, didn't I?" He gets that shrewd look again. "I could go over there. Offer to split it with her. Didja see her at the services? Nice-lookin' woman, takes care of herself..." But then he comes out of his reverie. "Who am I kiddin'? She'd want it all for herself, greedy hooer." He repeats in despair: "Who am I kiddin'?"
Rizzo never cashed the ticket.
It probably fell out of his sock when they were taking him to the morgue.
Causes Heywood Gould Supports
Leukemia and Lymphomia Association
American Cancer Society
St. Jude's Children Research Hospital