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 e, 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 and 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 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.
From Murder In The Hearse Degree by Tim Cockey. Copyright 2003 by Tim Cockey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Hyperion Publishing.
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