Bartering For A Burial



Jerome Turken


There was another roll of thunder and lightening flashed in the darkened sky.

“Game called!” cried Frankie, the umpire, and he doled back our dimes.

All the Zephyrs hurried off to Miller’s for sodas, but I decided to try to make it the five blocks to Uncle Willy’s.  I liked to sit just inside the door of his store when it rained and smell the wet trees and watch and listen to the

drops spatter the puddles in the yard.  It was early June but the temperature had must have hit ninety.  The rain held off and the cool pre‑storm breeze felt good when I got there.  Kuznetzov was outside fast asleep in his old office arm chair, his mouth wide open, his pipe hanging from his bottom teeth.  He had a little smile on his face, as though even in his sleep he was enjoying the coolness of the breeze after the stifling heat of the day.

“I had hunch Markie would show up,” Arnie said.

I got my stool and sat down just inside the open doorway.  Arnie brought his over and placed it next to mine and we waited for the downpour. It had gotten dark as night and the thunder kept rolling and the lightening kept flashing and cracking.

“Hey, Kuznetzov, you better come inside!” Arnie called.  And down it came, so hard that in just seconds the drops were spattering in huge puddles in the yard.  When Arnie leaped out of his chair it was like I was snapped out of a daze.  Then he was in the yard standing in the rain about six feet in front of Kuznetzov.

“Come inside, Kuznetzov!” he yelled. “You’re getting all wet!”  And then he wasn’t talking anymore.  He was ooing, his drenched shirt clinging to his body and water dripping from his chin.  “Oooo, Kuznetzov is getting all wet!”

Uncle Willy flew past me then both of them were standing in that downpour staring at Kuznetzov, the three of them soaked to the bone, with Arnie ooing like a sonofagun and Kuznetzov, still with that peaceful little smile on his face, sitting there like he was enjoying the whole thing.  The bowl of his pipe was filled with water now instead of tobacco, and it appeared his mouth was filled with water too.

“Let’s pick him up and bring him inside, Arnie,” Uncle Willy said.  They lifted the chair with Kuznetzov still in it and carried him inside.

“I’ll be right back,” Uncle Willy said.  He ran back out into the rain and out of the yard.

Arnie kept ooing, and confusion was in his face.  Kuznetzov, still

smiling, was slumped in his chair in the middle of a huge puddle, which was widening as the water kept dripping off him.  Arnie was dripping too, but he wasn’t staying in one place long enough for any puddles to form.  He kept on moving around the store, swaying and ooing.  Finally he went over to Kuznetzov and just stood there staring at him with eyes that looked extinguished..

Uncle Willy got back about twenty minutes later and ten minutes after that Al the cop and a young cop who I never saw before came jogging through the yard dodging the puddles, followed by Mrs. Silverman, who was trying to get their attention.

“I asked you a question,” she was saying.  “Nobody answers anymore.”

Al stopped and turned. “What is it, Mrs. Silverman?”

”Did you finally catch a crook?” Mrs. Silverman said.

“Not yet, Mrs. Silverman,” Al said.  “Didn’t I say I’d tell you as soon as I caught one?”

“First put him in jail,” Mrs. Silverman said.  “Then tell me.”

“Hello, Willy,” Al said. “It’s Kuznetzov, eh?”

Mrs. Silverman came to the doorway and craned her neck inside and gawked at Kuznetzov.  “What’s the matter with him?” she said. “He ain’t moving.  He looks drunk again.  I told him he could get arrested if he keeps on getting drunk.  He never listens.  Ts, ts, he’s terrible.”

The young cop went over to Kuznetzov and put his fingers on his wrist. “He’s gone,” he said. “No pulse.  He’s cold already.”

“Oi, don’t tell me,” Mrs. Silverman said.  “I can’t even look.”  But she

took another step inside and widened her eyes and craned her neck further.

“I’m going out to call the medical examiner, Willy,” Al said.  “We have to wait until he comes.”  He and the young cop went jogging back out dodging puddles again.

“Such a terrible thing,” Mrs. Silverman said.  She started back to her  candy store saying over and over: “Such a terrible thing.”

The young cop came back almost immediately with a piece of paper in his hand, a form of some kind. “Does he have identification?” he asked Uncle Willy.

Uncle Willy went to the back and came out with Kuznetzov’s citizenship papers.  “This is all he has.”

The young cop started asking Uncle Willy a lot of questions, most of which he couldn’t answer.

“You don’t know if he has any family, eh?” the young cop said.

“No,” Uncle Willy said.

Al the cop came back after a while, and a few minutes later an ambulance came and the attendant and the driver walked in.

“He’s gone,” the young cop said to the attendant.

The attendant put a stethoscope to Kuznetzov’s chest. “He sure is,” he said.  He filled out a paper and signed something and then some more papers were passed around and the attendant and driver left.

By the time the medical examiner showed up it had already stopped raining and the sun was on the verge of coming out again.  He was a thin, young‑looking man but he was already balding.  He was badly in need of a shave.  He felt Kuznetzov’s hand and face, looked into his eyes, felt his pulse and put a stethoscope to his chest.  Then he looked at the cops.  He didn’t say anything but his eyes pronounced Kuznetzov dead.  He looked exhausted.  I imagined he’d been running around the city all day pronouncing people dead with his eyes like that.

“Do you have a bed or a couch here?” he said.  “I have to look him over.”

“I have a mattress,” Uncle Willy said.


“On the floor in back.”

“Do you have a table?”

“I have a table.”

Uncle Willy went over to Kuznetzov and was about to lift him, chair and all.

“Wait a minute, Willy,” Al said.  “Let me help you.”

They carried Kuznetzov to the back, followed by the medical examiner. Five minutes later the three came back out front.  The medical examiner gave Uncle Willy another paper then left.

“Does he have any relatives, Willy?” Al said.

“I don’t know,” Uncle Willy said.

“Who’s going to take care of the burial?”

Uncle Willy didn’t answer.  He was thinking.

“Hey, buddy,” the young cop said.  “You’re going to need a mortician.” The way he said that made Al turn to give him a look that seemed to wither


“You’re going to need one, Willy,” he said.  “You’re going to need a burial permit and they’re the only ones who issue them.  We could have him taken to the morgue and let them take care of it.  Maybe that’s the best thing.”

“Sure,” the young cop said.  “That’s the best thing to do.  Let the city take care of it.  It’ll save you a big headache.  They’ll just bury him in Potter’s Field.”

“Shut up, Larry,” Al said.

“I’ll get a mortician,” Uncle Willy said.

“It’s up to you, Willy,” Al said.  He didn’t seem to be able to get himself to leave, like he had to say one more thing but didn’t know what.  “Well I’m sorry about this, Willy,” he said finally, and he and the other cop left.

Uncle Willy sat down on his work stool looking at the floor thinking for about five minutes.  Finally he raised his head.  “I’ll be right back,” he said.  He went out and I heard his truck start up outside.

Arnie had been standing next to me but now he was gone.  He wasn’t in the yard either.  I went to the back of the store to take a look.  He was standing next to the kitchen table, on which was the mound of Kuznetzov covered with a sheet, his bare feet sticking out of one end.  I had an urge to take a look underneath the sheet to see if he dried out.  I was worried he’d catch pneumonia, or something even though I knew he was dead.  In a hundred years I’d be dead too.  Everyone I knew would be dead.  I thought of the picture of Beethoven’s death mask that Schneider had hanging in his living room.  He died 111 years ago and was buried in some grave, but musicians all over the world were still playing his music and people were listening to it.

Uncle Willy got back about an hour later.  A half hour after that two men came in dressed in identical black suits shiny with wear.  One of them was carrying what looked like two chrome poles wrapped in navy blue canvas.  Uncle Willy led them to the back.  When they came back out it took me a few seconds to realize that what they were carrying was Kuznetzov.  He looked too small.  He was in the canvas hanging below the two poles, which the two men were holding clamped together, so that it looked like he was in a sack.  That’s the way a dead animal should be carried, I thought, not a human being.  When they were gone the three of us sat there in dead silence.  Finally Uncle Willy said:

“Isn’t it time for supper?  Why don’t you go home.  Mom’ll be worried.”

The next morning  it was sunny and cooler.  As soon as I opened the gate I smelled freshly cut wood.  Uncle Willy was working with the wood saw.  He must have been at it since early morning because the floor was covered with new sawdust.  On his workbench was Kuznetzov’s half finished coffin, the bottom and sides already put together.  Arnie was helping him, handing him the wood and the different tools as he needed them, and picking up the cutoffs and stacking them on the bench.  His eyes were still extinguished.  When it was finished Uncle Willy gave it two coats of shellac.

“When is Kuznetzov going to be buried, Uncle Willy?” I said.

“Later,” Uncle Willy said.


“In a cemetery on Long Island.”

“I want to go along,” I said.

“All right,” Uncle Willy said.  “You go to the schoolyard and we’ll come to get you when we’re ready.”

About two hours later, watching Leo Spitalnik’s pinochle hand in a corner of the schoolyard, I saw Arnie walk in and look around for me.  Uncle Willy’s red truck was parked right outside the gate.  Until then I thought the only way to get a dead person to a cemetery was in a hearse.  But there was the coffin with Kuznetzov in it right on the bed of the truck.  Arnie and I got in, me in the middle, and Uncle Willy drove up Union Avenue, over the Meeker Avenue Bridge and just kept going and going.  I imagined that we were taking Kuznetzov not to Long Island, but clear back to Russia where he was born.

We got to the cemetery about three hours later.  It was in the middle of what looked like a whole city of them.  A guard stopped us in the driveway.  He kept staring at the coffin.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he said.

Uncle Willy gave him a look that made him take a step back, then took some papers from his shirt pocket and handed them to him.  While the guard was looking over the papers he kept giving Uncle Willy screwy looks.

“Wait here,” he said, and walked into a white stone office building about fifty yards from the gate.  A few minutes later he came out and waved us in.

“Go inside the office,” he said.  “They have the papers.  They have to talk to you.  They explain everything.”

It took Uncle Willy about ten minutes to settle whatever had to be settled.  He got back into the truck and drove slowly up a narrow roadway to the right.  As we got to the section where the graves were he slowed down.  There were numbered isles leading off to both sides.  We stopped at isle number 49.

About a hundred feet in there were four grave diggers with shovels standing around an open grave with a mound of dirt next to it, watching us with half smiles.  Uncle Willy opened the tailgate of his truck and climbed up to the bed and pulled the coffin over the edge foot side first and he and Arnie lowered it to a dolly that Arnie had placed on the ground.  Arnie pulled and Uncle Willy pushed it up the isle, and carried it to the side of the grave without the dirt.

“Any service or prayers or anything?” one of the grave diggers said.

“No,” Uncle Willy said.

“Anyone going to say anything?”

Uncle Willy looked at Arnie.

“Kuznetzov was a nice man,” Arnie said.  “I liked him.”

Then Uncle Willy looked at me.

“Me too,” I said.

“Any first shovels?” The same grave digger said.

“No,” Uncle Willy said.

“You want to go away first?”


We watched the grave diggers fill the grave, tamp it down and make a mound.  Arnie went to the truck and came back carrying one of his pots of geraniums and placed it right in the center of the mound and we stood there for another ten minutes just looking at it.  I don’t know what Uncle Willy and Arnie were thinking, but there was nothing in my mind except the sight of that mound with those bright red flowers on top of it gleaming in the late afternoon sun, with Kuznetzov lying underneath them in the darkness of his grave.

It was almost seven when we got back.  For the next two days Uncle Willy was busy putting a new sidewalk in front of Shapiro’s Funeral Home and installing a new canopy on it.  Then it took him two more trips to the cemetery to put up new brick portals in their entrance.