It was quite a wait.
Well, I had known it would take a while. The burial had taken place as late in the afternoon as we had been able to arrange it, but the unburial could not possibly occur before nightfall. Cover of darkness and all, and absence of visitors to other graves. I was able to get my eye to the breathing tube, and while there was predictably little to see through six feet of narrowing tubing, I could tell that it was light up there at first, and later on I looked and it seemed to be a little darker, and later still I looked and it was black. That was as close as I came to knowing what time it was. I didn’t have a watch. I could have been buried with a watch – people get buried with watches all the time – but I hadn’t been wearing a watch to begin with, and it had never occurred to me to get one to be buried in.
“The important considerance is to relax,” Karp had said. “You’ll have some cheese, maybe a sandwich. Also a bottle of water. You will breathe through the tube. All the comforts. It will be dark. You could have a flashlight if you wanted to read, or for passing the time you could just stretch out and have a sleep.”
There was cheese concealed by my left foot and a ham sandwich by my right foot and a tiny flashlight in one pocket and a book in another pocket and a half pint of water between my knees. None of them seemed worth the trouble of trying to reach them. There just wasn’t that much mobility in the box, and I just wasn’t in the mood for eating or drinking or reading.
As for sleeping-
Hoo. Sleeping sickness. He ain’t dead, he’s only sleeping. You could just stretch out and have a sleep.
I haven’t slept since Korea. I was in the Army, and the Army was in Korea, and a North Korean shell exploded closer to me than I would have preferred it, and one of the fragments of the shell went into my head, which is no pleasanter than it sounds. Somewhere inside there it found its way into the sleep center.
The sleep center is a clever little rascal that makes you sleep. Doctors don’t know much about it, except that this is what it does, and that everyone has one. Except me, that is. I don’t have one, and consequently I don’t sleep.
This is mostly good, I think. I get a disability pension from the government in the amount of $112 a month. (I don’t know where they got the figure, or how.) And I have time to do all the things that people don’t have time for. Like learning languages (once you’ve learned eight or ten, the rest get very easy) and getting involved with political causes (like the return of the House of Stuart to the English throne, or the restoration of Cilician Armenia, or the propagation of the beliefs of the Flat Earth Society, or the destruction of the white supremacist government of Modonoland, or, oh, lots of things). When you stop to think about it, eight hours out of twenty-four is a lot of time to waste on nothing more interesting than unconsciousness.
But there are times when being awake is not that much of a joy. There are times, in truth, when the raveled sleeve of care could use a little knitting up.
This was one of them.
And it went on and on and on, until I felt that time simply could not be passing this slowly. Obviously I had lost my sense of time. I had also lost my sense of humor, and I only wished I could lose my sense of smell in the bargain, because the air holes in the casket facilitated a certain amount of seepage, and, not to put too fine a point on it, that casket was no bed of roses.
Until finally I heard footsteps, heard them very clearly through all that earth, and they came closer and closer, just a single set of footsteps, and a voice shouted out my name.
My skull started vibrating. The earth was a much better conductor of sound than I would have guessed. It was like a loud noise under water, only worse. I called back through the breathing tube, saying things like “Not so loud.”
More gently: “Evan?” It was Plum. “It’s Plum,” she said, unnecessarily. “I’m here,” she said, pointlessly. “ Plum,” she said, redundantly.
“Where is everybody?”
“They’re not here. Evan-”
“What time is it?”
“A little after eleven. Evan-”
“Eleven! What the hell happened? Where did everybody go? Why am I still here?”
Sounds of a girl crying.
“ Plum -”
“You won’t let me tell you.”
“They can’t, they aren’t, they can’t come for you.”
“The wake,” she said, and sobbed again. “There was a wake. For you. Your wake. A party after the funeral. At Armand’s house. A wake.”
“There was a lot to drink. There was, oh, there were other people besides the MMM people, and it had to be authentic, you know, and some people got very drunk. Because of having too much to drink.”
“That’ll do it.”
“Nothing. Go on. What happened?”
“I guess it was very noisy there.”
“Singing and carrying on, you know.”
“And someone – you know Armand doesn’t get on with his neighbors – and some neighbor called the police, and you know how the police feel about us all. And they came, and of course there were black and white together at the party, as a matter of fact that was the song they were all singing, Black and White Together, We Shall Not Be Moved, and the police came in.”
“And arrested everybody.”
“And they can’t come, because they’re all in jail, all but me, and I don’t even know where to get a shovel, and I don’t think, I don’t, I don’t-”
She began crying again.
It was just as well. If she hadn’t cried I might have. Instead I set about reassuring her.
“Calm yourself down,” I told her. “There’s nothing to worry about. I’m comfortable here. In a sense. Uh. And I have food, see, and enough water, and I can breathe my silly head off through this tube, and it’s not that bad, really it’s not. If I have to wait here for a day, or even two days, I can manage it.”
She cried a little more, and then she calmed down, and I talked some more, and she talked a little, and I thought about things and started scrunching around for the bottle of water and the sandwich, and then the loudest noise in the history of sound happened.
I asked what it was.
“Oh,” I said.
“It looked like rain all day.”
And when the first drops of water trickled through my breathing tube, I realized exactly what was going to happen.
I was going to drown.
I closed my eyes, and I gritted my teeth, and I composed my spirits, and I waited for my whole life to flash through my mind. But it didn’t work quite that way. Not my whole life. Just the past couple of weeks-
Leaving New York in the middle of February was not exactly like the expulsion from Eden. There was one similarity – I was driven, by third-string devils if not by an angel. And there was one major difference – I was glad to go.
For a lot of reasons.
The weather, for instance. I live in four and a half rooms five flights above sea level on 107th Street west of Broadway, and the weather there is rather nice for about nineteen days in the year, and none of those days come in February. It had been a mild winter up until then, a deceptively mild winter, and it even seemed as though the winter was coming to an end, and then the groundhog did or didn’t see his shadow, whichever is the bad omen. I can never keep it straight. The groundhog supplied the bad news, and the heavens supplied the snow, and the municipal government demonstrated a blend of foresight and preparedness reminiscent of Pearl Harbor Day. The snow came down white, turned gray as it passed my windows, and blackened on the streets and sidewalks, where it lay waiting, like all the rest of us, for warmer times.
“Snow,” Minna called out when it first began falling. “Can I go out and play in it, Evan?”
“Do you really think you want to?”
“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” she chirped, and ran down the stairs.
She came back a few minutes later. “It’s all dirty,” she said. “What happened to it?”
“ New York happened to it,” I told her.
“Well, I don’t like it,” she said. “I’ll sit on your lap and we can read Alice, Evan.”
She sat on my lap and I let her do the reading. She picked out a German edition of Through the Looking-Glass, Hans Gebhardt’s translation, and read the chapter about Humpty Dumpty, which works beautifully in German. I couldn’t pay too much attention to the words. She squirmed around a little on my lap, and I kept hearing re-runs of a conversation I’d had a few weeks earlier with an old love.
“You’ll have to do something about Minna, Evan.”
“Minna? What’s wrong with Minna?”
“The whole situation. It’s not as if she were your daughter, you know. She’s just a child who lives with you. And she won’t be a child forever.”
“Well, only Peter Pan-”
“She’s growing up already, you know.”
“She is, Evan. How old is she? Ten?”
“Nine. She’s not exactly eligible for Social Security yet.”
“Nine years old. You know, children are growing up a lot faster these days, Evan.”
“You sound like a Sunday supplement.”
“I mean sexually. Do you know that puberty begins an average of three years earlier than it did a century ago? Do you realize what that means?”
“For a belly dancer, you’ve got a dirty mind.”
“You keep her out of school and you teach her languages and you take her to the zoo and drag her around to nut group meetings and it’s all very sweet and cute, and one of these days you’re going to take a good look at her and not be able to decide whether to change her diaper or take her to bed, and when that happens-”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“If you had children of your own-”
“I do. In Macedonia. Two boys. Todor and Benno.”
“Oh, Evan, don’t you see how chaotic this is? Don’t you see-”
“Let’s talk about something else, Kitty.”
And we talked about something else, something more cheerful, like an earthquake or a tidal wave or an epidemic. Now, while Minna read Humpfe Dumpfe’s speech about a word meaning precisely what one wants it to mean, neither more nor less, I thought about Minna and puberty, visualizing the little golden-haired angel against a background montage of Tampax and Clearasil ads.
I had found her three years before in a windowless basement in Lithuania. She was the sole living descendant of Mindaugas, the first and last king of independent Lithuania, and someday, according to her guardians, she would be queen. I took her out of that basement and brought her home with me, and ever since then my life had never been the same.