Upon graduating high school, I existed in a virtual state of limbo; mindlessly drifting through life with no discernable direction. I was a helium balloon which some small child had carelessly let go after a birthday party. But the party was over long ago, the candles all extinguished, and I was still drifting through space, carombing off the clouds and whimsically floating on the wings of the wind.
I had no direction and no desire to apply myself to any endeavor whole-heartedly. The very concept of committment frightened the bejeezus out of me, which is why I never followed through with my half-assed plans of going to college or enlisting in the military. Not only did these paths require discipline and committment, but they were also just plain hard. So I found work in a number of factories around town, doing everything from putting golf balls into boxes, to putting greeting cards into boxes, to even putting small boxes into bigger boxes. Once, they even let me work on the loading docks, loading entire stacks of boxes into the back of a truck, which in itself was also a box. I was fired from most of these factory jobs. I suppose they didn’t appeal much to my artistic sensibilities. Later I found employment at a pizza parlor, which required me perform a wide variety of tasks, all of which also seemed to do with boxes. I would open up boxes of ingredients to make the pizza and then put the pizza into the oven (which is essentially a very hot box). When the pizza was ready, it would go inside a box and sometimes I would be called upon to make deliveries, which would require me to carry a box of pizza to someone’s house, which of course, is nothing more than a very large box with windows. I would have had a stellar career in pizza-making had it not been for my proclivity towards reaching over to the passenger’s seat, opening up the box containing someone’s pizza, and rearranging the toppings so that they spelled out obscene words.
My last resort was Holy Family Cemetery, where I was hired as a gravedigger. My primary duty was to dig a hole and lower a box containing someone’s dead grandmother into it. Yet again I found myself working with boxes.
For some odd reason, I took a liking to this job, and ended up staying on as a gravedigger for quite some time. Maybe I was happy to be working outdoors. Maybe I enjoyed the solitude. But either way I enjoyed the job immensely, even though I could’ve earned more money by jerking off into a Dixie cup and selling it to a sperm bank.
The pace at Holy Family was very relaxed, which suited my slacker nature. I guess there’s no need to work all that expeditiously in a graveyard. It’s very doubtful that your customer will mind waiting around. I worked with two other guys, Ed and Dave, who were both my father’s age, but every bit as unenthusiastic and apathetic as I. Considering the imposing expanse of space which Holy Family occupied, it was very easy to go off and do your own thing without invoking the ire of your boss. Truthfully, I wasn’t even sure who my boss was; it might have been Ed or Dave, but they were usually asleep inside the maintenance building.
My workdays were from eleven at night until eight in the morning, which was appropriately called the graveyard shift. Anyone who has ever been to a cemetery during those desolate hours can attest to the otherworldly peacefulness of it, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed working there. Granted, it sometimes included some actual hard work, such as digging holes with backhoes or shoveling dirt; but for the most part the job entailed sitting around the maintenance building playing cards and listening to the radio.
The cemetery was also a popular make-out spot, and about once a week we would have to go and interrupt some couple’s make-out session. We all enjoyed this part of the job, so we would usually draw straws to decide who would get the honor. There are few things in life as rewarding as sneaking through the rolling fog and the cloaking blackness of night, tip-toeing up to a parked car, flicking on a flashlight and shining it through the steamed up windows and scaring the shit out of a few horny teenagers. If you were lucky, you might actually get to see some tits.
After a few months of working at Holy Family, it became clear to me that only people with a sick, depraved mind and a twisted sense of humor could do our jobs. When it came to sick bastards, nobody could hold a candle to Ed. Edward J. Heinz was a tall lanky fellow; skinny and wiry yet toughened from years of manual labor. His one weakness, however, was his morbid sense of curiosity and a famous lack of moral character. He would have made a great Boy Scout leader. On slow nights, he would go over to the large stone mausoleum, which sat on a large plot of cemetery ground across from the reflecting pool. Using a screwdriver, he would remove the heavy bronze plaque which concealed a small steel door. To remove someone’s coffin, all one had to do was open the door on the mausoleum wall and pull on the handle of the casket. The casket, which was laid atop a series of metal rollers built into the crypt, would easily roll out. Ed would open up the casket and examine the condition of the corpses. Some were fresh, but most had been inside the crypt for decades. Ed wouldn’t bother with the fresh ones; they stank to high heaven. Corpses that had already reached a certain level of decomposition ceased to stink. Systematically, Ed would remove rings and watches and other jewelry from the corpses and then would go to a pawn shop in Lancaster or York to cash them in. Dave turned a blind eye to Ed’s plundering, and I followed suit. Sometimes I would even go with him on these "treasure hunts". I would often hold the flashlight while he set about his work.
The first time I assisted Ed was during my third month working at the cemetery. It was a slow night, no one having died lately, and we were left with a good deal of spare time on our hands. On nights like these, Ed would go about his graverobbing and Dave would pull out a fishing pole from his truck and go fishing in the cemetery’s large reflecting pool, which he had secretly stocked with largemouth bass a few years earlier.
While Dave fished for bass, Ed and I walked to the mausoleum and went about exhuming a man named Bing Mortensen, who had gone to meet his maker back in ’72. "I hit Bing last year, got a nice pocketwatch and some cufflinks," said Ed. "But I didn’t have time to finish the job, and I could have used a helper. You got the pliers?" Ed removed the bronze plaque and dropped it onto the dewy turf, where it landed with a dull thud.
"What do we need the pliers for anyway?" I asked. Ed rolled out the casket; a gaudy powder blue affair with chrome handles and embellishments. For a moment I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a casket or the remains of a ’57 Chevy. "Bing here has a mouthful of silver fillings, and tonight I feel like doing a little bit of dentistry." Using his sleeve, Ed brushed away a blanked of gray dirt and cobwebs from the casket and then opened the lid that covered the upper hald of Mr. Mortensen. I had never seen a corpse before, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; but Ed went about his business nonchalantly, as if robing graves were as natural as mowing the lawn or reading the morning paper.
My first impression of the body was that Bing had teeth that looked about a mile long, like worn down ivory piano keys, yellowed with age. I then realized that Bing’s teeth weren’t excessively large, but that his flesh had shrunken and retracted upon death, giving his teeth the illusion of being longer than they actually were. The rest of the dead man didn’t look all that different from any other elderly being; the parchment skin was gray and stretched tight over protruding cheekbones and hollowed eye sockets. Had Bing Mortensen been buried wearing a blonde wig, he might have been able to pass for Joan Rivers. I handed Ed the pliers and shone the white beam of the flashlight upon the dusty corpse.
"Is this legal?" I asked, watching Ed tug on a molar.
"Of course not. But it’s sure alot of fun though, isn’t it?"
"But don’t you think it’s wrong to...you know...steal from the dead?"
Ed looked at me as though I had just uttered the most ridiculous words ever spoken by a human being. "Dexter, what is the difference between robbing from the dead and robbing from the living? The living need their precious trinkets and baubles far more than Bing here does. Besides, it’s not stealing. Christ, you make it sound so wrong." Ed shook his head disapprovingly, the way a father might if he had stumbled upon his son in the bathroom rubbing one off over a Victoria’s Secret catalog. I was having some difficulty following Ed’s logic.
"You see, Dex, stealing is only a crime when it causes grief or harm to the victim. Bing isn’t being hurt any. Why, if anything is wrong here, I say it’s being buried with something of value. You know you can’t take it with you when you go, so why bury it inside a coffin where it ain’t doing anybody no good? That, my young friend, is the sin. That’s wastefulness. And you know what the Good Book say about wastefulness."
"What does the Good Book say about wastefulness?" I asked.
"It says that he who wasteth...something about the rivers of Babylon...sayeth the Lord.....oh hell son, who do I look like? Jerry Falwell? Just shut up and hand me those pliers."
I decided not to argue with Ed. He was too set in his ways to change, and I concluded that we weren’t doing any real harm. And besides, the money was good...we both managed to earn hundreds of extra dollars that summer.