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Your Afterlife Tour Guide
“I’m here for Barnes.”
I glanced down at the name that Gideon had scrawled on my little notepad, to make sure I had gotten it right. Right there, in Gideon’s nearly indiscernible chicken scratch, was “Barnes.” Thank God I hadn’t screwed this up.
The mortician must’ve been around middle age, but he looked older. He straightened his glasses and gazed at me, expressionless. “Ah, yes. This way.”
He led me past the Victorian furnishings, gold leafing, and earns on pillars, the well-groomed face of the funeral home, to a white door beneath the staircase. This white door, beneath the staircase with its perfect molding, led to another staircase, a concrete one leading to the underbelly of this business. The mortician flicked a light switch, and the harsh glow and distinct hum of fluorescent lights started over us. I followed him down the stairs, my backpack slung over one arm.
The basement of a funeral home is where the pleasantness and decoration comes to an abrupt stop. All the creakiness and grumbling of regular basements was present, but with the lights on, there was little creepiness. There was a large boiler and an overfilled fuse box on the wall. A door separated this area from the embalming room, but I still knew very well of the embalming room’s location. The mortician’s feet dragged slightly on the ground as he walked.
We ventured deeper into the depths of the place until we came upon them: the fridges. Giant metal boxy things, about five of them, each fitting probably three or so bodies. It reminded me of a human filing cabinet. Some people might’ve been freaked out, but I was intrigued. I would not have taken this job otherwise.
There was a metal folding chair in front of the second cooler. Set out for me? Courteous.
“He’s the only one in here right now,” the funeral director said, straightening his glasses again, though they hadn’t been crooked. Probably just a nervous habit.
“Thanks,” I said, walking up to the chair and setting my bag on the floor. I wondered if he had known how much easier he made my job by keeping Barnes alone. If there was more than one body, I would be required to open up the cooler and look right at the one I was supposed to be watching. I had done that once before, and it felt odd, staring at this gray dead guy who I had never met, wondering what his story was for hours on end.
“The toilet’s upstairs, down the hall, on the right,” the mortician told me. “Uh, there’s a futon by the basement stairs, maybe you saw it walking in…you’re staying overnight, right?”
“We’re closing up in…about ten minutes, but if you need something before then…” he trailed off.
“Thanks,” I said again. Even though it was my first Friday night job, I knew could handle this, no problem.
In the Jewish religion, we believe that the soul departs the body immediately upon dying. However, until the body is buried, the soul is not at rest. It, for lack of a better word, hangs around. It stays with its body, but not on the inside. This out-of-body experience is a very distressing time for the soul. So, from the time of death until the burial, there must be a watcher, a shomer, with the body at all times. Usually the shomer is a family member of the deceased, but not very many people find the thought of sitting with their dead relatives for hours at a time to be the least bit appealing. When somebody kicked the bucket and nobody cared to stay with them long-term, their family called Gideon, and Gideon called one of “his boys.” He called all his shomers “boys,” even though some were girls. I was one of “his boys” since a little while after my sixteenth birthday.
“Think of the mitzvahs,” my father said when trying to get me to take the job. The mitzvahs were good and well, yes, but I was particularly interested in the money. It was ninety bucks a pop. That’s ninety bucks to hang around with a dead guy for a few hours, until I turned him over to his family or a mortician or whoever for the funeral. Not too bad, I thought. Becoming a shomer was not a hard sell for someone like me, who preferred not to spend too much time with the living and liked making money.
Friday jobs paid double, a hundred eighty bucks. That was because you had to stay from Friday evening, until Saturday night, after Shabbat ended. I had never had a Friday job before, as they usually weren’t given to people as young as me. I was thrilled.
What were other teenagers doing on their Friday nights? Having keg parties in the woods, staying home to play video games, hanging around in front of 7-11, stuff like that. What was I doing? Sitting in a metal folding chair in a dank basement, keeping a soul company.
I was alone with Barnes, my first Friday night dead. I pulled out my Tehillim quietly and looked around. There was a label on the cooler: Barnes, Abraham. I was tempted to open it, but I didn’t.
“Gut Shabbes, Mr. Barnes,” I said to the empty room. “Your afterlife tour guide is here.”
I was hardly an afterlife tour guide. More of a pre-burial companion, and not a great one at that. The truth was, I wasn’t sure there was even a soul in that room. There were no auras or spooky feelings, no indications that any presence was there aside from my own. If there had been a soul, he must’ve thought he was screwed. “This is who they send to help me into the afterlife?” he must’ve remarked, as I sat on the chair, Tehillim in my lap, considering whether or not to eat my sandwich.
Sometimes I talked to the soul, sometimes I didn’t. I often found myself wondering whether or not souls exist, and if my watching was just a waste of time. On the other hand, if souls didn’t exist, getting paid to do nothing didn’t sound half bad to me. I figured if the soul was floating around that room in malaise, it might want me to say something, just something small, so that it could be sure I was really there.
“My name is Asa Berkowitz. Asa, the boy’s name, and Berkowitz like David Berkowitz, Son of Sam. I’m sixteen year old, if you were curious,” I said.
Nothing stirred. Some nearby pipe let out a low hiss.
I liked to introduce myself to the soul, at the very least. Maybe it had been expecting a family member to be its shomer, and I was a surprise. If I were in its place, I’d want to know who this strange boy was.
Gideon called me up about this job the day before it happened. “I know you’re young, but you do good work, and I think you’re ready,” he proclaimed.
He gave me a little more information on the guy I was watching than usual. I guess he told me all this because it was a Friday job. “Yeah, this guy Barnes, over in Brooklyn. He was devout. In his early fifties, died of a massive coronary. Family calls me up, they’re looking for a shomer through Shabbat. I say to them, I got just the guy.”
I smiled big when he said I was “just the guy,” grateful that nobody could see me.
“You taking the job?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, without hesitation. I hung up before realizing I needed to ask my parents whether or not it was okay to stay overnight at a funeral home.
I did approach my mother, who was quietly reading on our living room couch.
“Ma’me,” I began. She gently dog-eared the page she was on and looked up at me. “I will not be here for Shabbat tomorrow night.”
She shut her eyes tight enough to crinkle her face a bit, and put her left hand on her temple. “What are you doing?”
“Gideon has a job for me. I’m staying over at a funeral home in Brooklyn.”
She opened her eyes, looking slightly relieved that I had not planned to skip Shabbat for a trivial reason. “Next time, ask first,” she said. I nodded.
“It…it pays double,” I shared.
“No earthly money can compare to the mitzvahs,” was my father’s response.
“You’re my first Friday job,” I said to the room, or to Barnes, whoever was there. It seemed appropriate to talk to Barnes. He was important to my career. Plus, he had a tragic death. Perhaps he was looking for a bit of conversation to lighten his spirits.
I glanced at my watch. It was already eight o’clock. My stomach growled loudly. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. I skimmed through the pages of the Tehillim, deciding what to read.
“Well…I guess I should read from this Tehillim, but…Gideon told me you were very devout. Yeah, very devout. More so than me, I think. So I’ll bet you know all about this already.”
I started to root around my backpack for the plastic baggie containing my sandwich. Then, I paused. You are not supposed to eat in the presence of the body. But then, I remembered what Gideon told me: if the body is inside the fridge, it’s okay for me to eat or drink.
It was tuna on rye. I did not tell Barnes that I was eating, just in case.
I dragged the futon in front of the cooler around eleven o’clock. I brushed my teeth using a plastic cup and bottled water that I had in my bag, because I didn’t want to leave Barnes alone by brushing my teeth in the upstairs bathroom. That might’ve been a little weird of me, but like Gideon said, I did good work. As if I really even had to do anything for this job. As if he had supervised me.
By then, I had thrown my coat across the floor and lied back on the futon with my pillow, staring at the cracked ceiling. Bits of fiberglass were exposed here and there. It was brightly lit still, because I knew of no way to dim the lights without turning them completely off.
“Are you mad that I didn’t do any Shabbat stuff in here tonight?” I asked the void. I felt like he would be, since he cared so deeply about this.
“Well, I prayed. Just a bit. Maybe you couldn’t tell.” I had prayed. Just a bit. That was not a lie.
“Better than nothing, right?”
I did not turn off the basement lights. They were bright, and I groggily gazed up at the ceiling. It was hard to sleep with those harsh lights so close. I draped my coat over myself as a blanket. I kept talking to Barnes, nearly unintelligible, trying to talk myself to sleep.
“You probably miss your family, I think. Well, you know something? They loved you. They still love you. I bet your whole entire family got together to mourn for you, with Kaddish and everything.”
“The reason I’m your shomer is ‘cause they didn’t want to miss Shabbat. I’m sure that’s why. Otherwise I bet one of your sons would be here, or daughters, or whatever you had. I don’t know you, man. But I’m getting to know you.”
“Was your coronary a congenital thing? If it was, that sucks royally. Is it okay for me to use that terminology with you? ‘Sucks royally?’ Even if it wasn’t congenital, though, it still sucks.”
“I’m always the shomer for other people. I sometimes wonder…who’ll be my shomer…who will…”
It wasn’t long before I fell asleep.
I checked my watch. Ten o’clock, morning. I had slept a long time.
“Excuse me, Mr. Barnes,” I said quietly to the room. I sat up and stretched, groaning a little as I did so. “I’ve been sitting here for as long as I could, but now, I really need to use the bathroom. So I’m going to be right back. Don’t freak out, I’m still in the building, just in the upstairs. You’ll be okay, alright?”
I picked my toothbrush, comb, and change of clothes from my bag. I cracked my knuckles, rolled my head. I stood. “It’ll be fine,” I kept on saying as I left, until I was sure I was out of earshot even for a soul.
I tried to do homework, but I couldn’t focus. I guess Barnes wouldn’t have wanted me to work on Shabbat, anyway.
“You ever read ‘The Great Gatsby,’ Mr. Barnes?” I asked, throwing my copy of the book and notes I was supposed to be taking down on the futon. “They say it’s the great American novel, but I’ve read much better. Everyone thinks it’s so amazing. Just like ‘A Catcher in the Rye.’ Everyone thinks they’re so, so great, but they’re not even.”
I heard laughter behind me. My stomach sank as I realized the mortician was here, must’ve walked in to get something, and he had heard me talking to Barnes. I looked down, more embarrassed than I thought I’d be.
“Everything going okay?” he asked. I could still hear the chuckle in his voice.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “I’m fine.”
I had come so close to saying “We’re fine” that my face reddened.
Two o’clock, the afternoon. Still a few more hours. I was getting a little stir crazy. I had already paced around the room multiple times, bounced a tennis ball against the wall to play catch with myself, done a little of my homework, drew some cartoons in my notebook, eaten an apple, another sandwich, and a mini bag of Doritos, did some jumping jacks, and talked to Barnes here and there throughout the day. I was, frankly, bored as hell at that point. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready for Friday jobs.
So I told Barnes about my life.
“I don’t have any friends at school, by my own choice. I don’t like the people who go to my school. They’re…well, they’re assholes, for lack of a better term. Sorry if you don’t like cursing. It’s not kosher, I suppose, but it’s hard to stop once you get started.”
“My father is obsessed with us, my family, being good Jews. He’s always worrying about being sinful and following rules, and we’re not even Orthodox. It gets old. I’ve been a sort of disappointment compared to my brothers, since I’m not great academically or socially or religiously or anything. Up until recently, when I’ve gotten this job, Tateh hasn’t paid me much mind.”
“Ma’me misses her old life. She used to live in the Rocky Mountains, and she pretends to be happy, but I can tell she doesn’t really like her wife-and-mother existence up here in New York. I wish she’d just leave and be happy, but honestly, I think she sort of enjoys misery. She’s acquired a taste for it after so many years.”
“I guess I could be a better son. Am I an okay shomer, at least?”
It occurred to me at five o’clock on Saturday that I was going to miss Barnes. That’s a very strange feeling, missing a man you never knew. Missing a dead guy in a fridge. Missing, essentially, some room you just talked to for the past twenty two hours.
“Your afterlife will be sweet,” I told him. “Sweet and perfect, everything you’ve ever wanted. And while you’re up there, could you put in a good word for me?”
A middle aged woman, with graying hair and wet eyes, showed up at the home after six o’clock, night. The mortician led her into the room where I sat, already prepared to go. My coat was on, my bag was packed. She was Barnes’ wife. Her presence meant I could leave.
“Shalom Aleichem,” she said to me, nodding her head in my direction.
“Aleichem Shalom,” I replied.
“See you on the other side, Mr. Barnes,” I whispered, audible only to me as I left the room.
My mother picked me up in her car, something that rarely happens, especially considering she had to drive pretty far to Brooklyn from our place in Queens. The only reason she picked me up was because she thought I’d be too tired after this job to navigate public transit. I could’ve gotten back on my own just fine, but I didn’t object to spending a little time with her. We’d become so distant.
I sat down in the front seat of our beat-up Sedan, tossing my bag onto the floor. I leaned my head on my hand and stared out the window at the heavy traffic as we drove.
“How did it go?”
“It went fine.”
“Did you read from the Tehillim?”
“Yes. I always do that.”
“When are you getting paid?”
“I have to stop by Gideon’s tomorrow and pick it up.”
“That’s good, very good. You should call him.”
“I’ll call him.”
“Tired, boychik?” she asked me.
“Mm-hmm. Don’t call me ‘boychik’ anymore.”
I did not tell her that I was sad to leave Barnes, or that I wished I could go to his funeral. I never got attached like that to a dead before. I didn’t want my mother to think I was crazy.
One hundred eighty dollars, cash, in an envelope marked “Berkowitz, Asa.” I walked back home with the envelope planted in my left pocket, underneath my hand. That’s what became of my twenty three hours in the funeral home basement, just me and some dead guy in a fridge. My first Friday job. I handled it, no problem.
Shomer (shoh-mare) – Hebrew. Literally, watcher.
Mitzvah – Hebrew. Literally, commandment. Also refers to a good deed performed as a religious duty.
Shabbat (shah-baht) – Jewish Sabbath.
Tehillim (teh-hill-am) – Hebrew book of psalms.
Gut Shabbes (gut shah-biss) – Yiddish for “Good Sabbath.”
Ma’me (mah-may) – Yiddish for “mom.”
Kaddish – a Hebrew prayer, which is not explicitly about death, but is commonly recited by those who have lost a loved one (in that context, known as “Mourner’s Kaddish”).
Tateh (tah-tay) – Yiddish for “dad.”
Shalom Aleichem (Shah-lohm Ah-ley-khem) - Hebrew. Literally, peace upon you. Common greeting. Response is “Aleichem Sholem,” meaning "and upon you, peace."
Boychik – Hebrew. Pet name for a young boy.