Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone
The bagstench was hellacious, even doing 60, doing 80, passing to ventilate the lanes—the fume felling cyclists, withering the weeds.
I was already late stopping by my apartment—the duff had turned, bruised brown. Its slit, at belly, seeped raw along the seat seams. No Creole and no Jeffs. No soap in the bathroom. They’d taken the toiletpaper too. But they hadn’t touched my bed.
I stripped its only covering, a sheet. Its head still fitted, foot all thrashed. Unraveled, inelasticized, flat.
Anti-anti-trendy Ts, unflattering jeans that’d fitted too uncomfortably between ironic and not, notebooks marbled and spiralbound, boombox, watercolor set, heels and flats and flipflops—I ravished the closet for everything of Sara’s, all the skins she’d left behind as consolation. On the floor, drafted under the door, her book. I tucked that too. Even wrapped her missing pages.
Having hauled all that life across the river, to the middle verge of Brooklyn, already midway to the grave—Queens. That borough both everyone and no one can afford. The most diverse, that most peaceful democratic melter. The steamy grave of Queens.
I knotted the tips, dragged the sheetlump to the car, unzipped the duff and forced it to chew, gross bits of sheet stuck between the zipperteeth—a mouth engorging, swollen. I prayed for absorption. Prayed that the wound at bottom be stanched.
Sruly wasn’t waiting, as arranged, outside the foodstamp office off Broadway, but on Broadway itself, flailing at the taxis. He got in raving—until the olfactories turned both our moods to willed asphyxiation with Sruly even indicating the turns, onto Pennsylvania, onto Atlantic, with just a finger’s crook.
Thumb down, slow down. Take a Conduit, lash the trusty Belt to Springfield.
I’d forgotten how ugly it all was—Queens. Ugly in how it grew, matured but only to banality. Revealed the process, the progress. History. To the west, foreigners squatting in autobody scraps. To the east, their offspring lazing native in prefab loungers on autosprinklered lawns. Separating the two, only parkways and decay.
128th Drive, 128th Road, 128th Avenue, 128th Street. Four choices of access, consecutive.
Necropolitan derangement. But all ways led to death.
A gate. A Mexican stood sentry under the barbs. He was precolumbian. Immovable. He’d pried off the brim of his cap to simulate a yarmulke. Another yarmulke might’ve been under the cap.
Sruly went to greet him distracted from what I was schlepping out. A duff hopefully clumsy weighty enough to be convincing.
The flow had soaked the sheet, would soak the weft again. Even the handles were damp, or my hands were, but also they were burning. Surgeons use chalky gloves, would’ve advised me to use them. But still, from the flap, no drip.
A car, livery, slid to a stop to let a wall out, a veritable prewar brownstone, a blackstone, an indifferent immuration murmuring psalmish on the phone. Aharon.
He didn’t return our nods. He paced around the livery being spoken to and speaking.
Sruly came close, held prayerbook over mouth, “they can’t agree on what means critical—nothing is predictable, in general—he’s talking either about his brother or his stocks.”
A small short school van for the disabled poked into the drive and only one passenger stepped off. The brother mumbled, paced, took a kerchief from a pocket, polished himself in the chrome.
The wife spoke to no one, just stood imposingly still like she’d been starked out of rock to mount another religion’s tomb, a Virgin Mary idol, like was sold by the monument businesses as sideline.
A short small woman for such a husband if her husband resembled his brother. A tough one. She only listened, stared, but in the way of an evil pet. She didn’t acknowledge even Sruly, or pretend to be doing anything but hearing, glaring, clenched.
The van reversed, left.
Nobody but me would admit the fester, and the breeze didn’t even blow in our direction.
Sruly tucked the book into his pit, grabbed a handle, and nodded to the Mexican, who unclasped the gate, “veinte minutos.”
We went ahead together. A sepulcher takes two.
The family followed, but obliviously—ghostly floaters indisposed.
The phone was lost in the brother’s chin. His moustache alone was a roof of antennas.
The wife stayed on the pave.
The brother hovered, haunted between the plots, over the plots, always trying to get behind the wife, I guessed, but I didn’t want to turn around and the wife was always stopping, this ridiculously dramatic chapstick and breathspray stopping—I hadn’t wanted to turn around—Sruly’s face was pursed.
The Mexican, who’d closed the gate behind us, dashed past us toward the shovel as if in a rescue operation—as if it were about to fall from its shallow dig and he’d lose it forever and be illimitably miserable and fined.
The mound was round and rough, inconsequential soil. It’d been dug from out of a landscaping isle, scattered rainbow mulch, a hole between two hedges.
We lowered the duff, a godsized limb shrinking lighter and below us.
The brother hung back at the vale of tar, covering an ear and lisping furiously. The wife had installed herself at rear, turned her back on all of us. Kaddish was too rushed. But Sruly’s voice was decent. He shut the covers, swayed another though silent prayer I was fairly sure for what. The brother slunk over—rega, rega— palmed his phone, paid cash, and only then did the wife come up with the other half, which Sruly passed to the Mexican, who filled.
The wad bulged from his pocket like a replacement heart.
The family was waiting alone at the gate, though it wasn’t locked, for me to open it.
A tip would’ve been gratuitous.
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