An ex-roadie and a ghost cop were in a cemetery. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The day had barely taken hold and it was still foggy, but a very thin fog, the kind that does not obscure but makes the world blurry like an aging movie star filmed through a vaseline-coated lens. They had met at the Victory Diner before dawn. Ghosts don’t need to eat, but a short stack of pancakes is delicious even to the dead; ex-roadies do need to eat, but not pancakes. They sat in his stomach too heavy. Both had coffee, black. Tipped too much and walked out to the curb. 1961 Lincoln Continental in triple black: the paint, the leather, and the ragtop, which was down.
South on the Main Drag. Mile or two. Left turn onto Chambers Street. This is the Downside, and it is waking up. Sidewalks are shiny and slick. Men and women with their first names written in script on the breast pockets of their shirts walk to work. There are no joggers or children. Paperboys lean forward over their handlebars and toss the Cenotaph onto stoops and steps. Head east, head towards the Segovian Hills. The sun is behind the range, peaking through the steep canyon that separates Pulaski Peak from Mt. Charity. Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Faith, Mt. Fortitude, Mt. Chastity, Pulaski Peak, Mt. Charity, Mt. Booth. The seven hills, left to right if you’re standing on the Main Drag. Foothills now, and the land is lumpy and bumpy and undulating like it is gathering the courage to become a mountain. Turn south again onto Carrier Place. Park the Continental and get out. Only the driver’s side door opens and closes.
“Told you to stop floating out of the damn car,” Precarious Lee says.
“Shitting in your pants is easier than finding the john, but that’s not the point.”
“Worry about yourself,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez says.
And they were in the cemetery.
Foole’s Yard was where Little Aleppo buried the decent. After the Wayside Fire in 1871, Miss Valentine was interred there under a white marble tombstone that had chubby little angels chiseled into it. Had her birthday on it, and the day she died, and a simple epitaph reading “Pillar of the Community.” The whores she owned were dumped into a mass grave in the southwest corner of the Verdance. The Pulaski were there, too, and so were the residents of the first Chinatown. Foole’s Yard had the Town Fathers, even the disgraced ones, and judges and businessmen and businessmen’s wives. Boat owners and sportswriters. Three generations of the McGlory clan. Dillon Kenny, Little Aleppo’s first Fire Chief, was in the far corner surrounded by his men, Dillon’s Dousers. Near the entrance was a fresh grave; the sod had not yet been laid in over it; bare dirt in a rectangle. The stone had Manfred Pierce’s name on it, and the epitaph was simple. “Hello, beautiful.” Below that it read “Seaman First Class – US Navy.”
Precarious had a grocery bag full of American flags, the size of 3 x 5 cards and made of thick, cheap cloth and affixed to a thin wooden dowel. He stuck one at the head of the grave. He had not been raised Catholic, so he did not cross himself, but he lowered his head and closed his eyes and then opened them and read the stone again and smirked. Manfred told the same jokes for 30 years, and one of them involved the phrase “first class seaman.”
“You know him?”
“Sure,” Precarious said. “Went by the Wayside every so often.”
Romeo cocked an eye and said,
“It was a gay bar.”
“I didn’t suck anybody’s cock while I was in there. I just had a beer.”
“Not my type of place.”
“Grow the fuck up.”
Precarious had his boots on. Thick leather, square-toed, mid-calf. Black. He had shined them the night prior the way he had been taught in the Army. The process involves spit, and a lighter, and more grease than an old man’s elbow should produce in one sitting; the joint throbbed now. Precarious had been wearing sneakers more and more lately, cushiony soles and supportive inseams. His knees chose his footwear in the mornings. No sneakers today, though. To the living, one owes respect, but to the dead, one owes a real pair of shoes.
He could see the boundaries of the graveyard. A fence, metal, spiked. Easily climbable by acid-soaked teens and raccoons scooted through the bars at will. The barrier between the living and the dead had holes in it, and it was simple to slide between the two.
Officer Romeo Rodriguez had a shopping bag the same as Precarious, and he read the gravestones. Beloved mothers, and cherished husbands. Babies. The Mackinack family, they all had the same date of death on their stones. There was a story there. He looked for the chiseled service records, stuck a flag in the soft ground. Romeo had been raised Catholic, so he crossed himself. He had not taken Communion since he’d been murdered, and he felt guilty about it; he had been raised Catholic.
Where are you fuckers? I came back, he thought. Where are all of you?
Flag for the sergeant, the petty officer, flag for the WACs and WAVEs. Flag for the Marines, hoorah the Corps, and Romeo planted them for the other, lesser services. The fog had lifted, but he was still slightly blurry. He had not shined his boots because they would not take a shine. Tactical footwear. Mesh and formulated fabric and laces and gel in the soles. Not a drop of leather.
“What’s a Hello Girl?”
“Oh, yeah. Louise Breton.”
Precarious had walked over to Romeo and now they stood at Louise Breton’s grave. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. 1897-1989. Hello Girl.
“World War I. We got in it in 1917, right?”
Romeo said “right” because he was good at reading vocal inflections, not because of his grasp of history. He knew that World War I came before World War II, but that was about it.
“Pershing. Blackjack Pershing. He said that wars were won by the side that communicated the best. At the time, France had their own way of running a telephone system. French got their own way of doing fucking everything. So he hires a bunch of girls to be switchboard operators. Connects the trenches to command.”
“Never heard about them.”
“Yeah. They were called the Hello Girls. Wore uniforms, got medals, and when the war ended, they got stiffed out of their benefits.”
“Welcome to the military.”
Precarious took the north side of the graveyard and Romeo took the south; they’d meet in the middle, squabble, separate. Crosses, stars, crescents. Caduceus for a doctor named Proctor, Thalia and Melpomene for an actor named Shachter. Teachers and preachers and middlemen.
He did. Romeo was standing in front of a tombstone that read “Otto Dasch – Nazi Spy, Beloved Father and Husband.”
“What the fuck?”
“Otto. Yeah. Funny story: Otto was a Nazi spy.”
“I got that. What the fuck?”
“Well, this was before my time, but I heard the story.”
“Who’d you hear it from?”
“You know Holly, Wood, and Vine? The lawyers? Holly told me.”
“Lawrence Holly? You knew him?”
The law school at Harper College was named after Lawrence Holly, and so was a mud wrestling club far on the Downside.
“Sure I knew him.”
Cop habits die hard, even after the cop is dead.
“He was my lawyer,” Precarious said.
“Why’d you need a lawyer?”
“I claim attorney-client privilege. And stop asking so many questions. I thought you wanted a story.”
“Now I don’t know which story I want to hear.”
Precarious reached under his black vest to the breast pocket of his shirt and took out a soft pack of Camels. He had worn his vest because it was a formal occasion. He had a suit and tie for funerals, but that was for people who had died. These people, Precarious figured, had not died. These fuckers were dead. They got the vest. He popped a smoke out of the pack by twitching his wrist and pulled it from the pack with his lips. Replaced the pack in the pocket. Zippo from the change pocket that lay within the left hip pocket of his Levi’s.
And the lighter slid back into his jeans.
“This was ’42? ’43? Before D-Day. Germans are pulling all sorts of bullshit. I suppose we were, too, but fuck ’em. There’s submarines off Long Island and all kinds of saboteur nonsense. Undercover agents. Real fifth column type stuff.”
Romeo had no idea what a fifth column was.
“And Otto here? He got sent to Little Aleppo.”
“Why the fuck would you send a spy here?”
“Well, you know, the Nazis were a lot dumber than we make ’em out to be. They did lose the war.”
“And according to the story I heard, Otto might have gotten lost or confused, See, he was the worst Nazi spy in the world. You know how con-men don’t do too well in Little Aleppo?”
“They do seem to get caught quick.”
“Yeah. And being a spy is just like being a con-man. And Otto was just awful at it. Thick accent. Shit, he even had the little mustache. Plus, he’d get drunk and straight-up admit to being a Nazi spy. Brag about it.”
Romeo turned to face Precarious and said,
“Why didn’t anyone turn him in?”
“Well, think about it. If they got rid of the terrible spy, then the Nazis might send one that knew what he was doing. Then you got all sorts of insecurity. Every new person that comes into the neighborhood, you start wondering if they’re a spy. Better to have a spy you could keep your eye on.”
“That makes no sense.”
“In addition to being a bad spy, Otto was also a bad Nazi. He took to America hard. Grew up on Hollywood and now here he was in California. Decided he wasn’t going back his first week here.”
“But he was still a spy,” Romeo said.
“Yeah, but more of an unofficial double-agent. Him and his buddies down at the Buntz Bierhaus would come up with outlandish stories to send back to Berlin. They’d try to figure out what would cause the most confusion. Told ’em we were training chimpanzees to jump out of planes. Gonna shoot ’em full of tuberculosis and drop ’em into city centers with open wounds and rifles. That story got all the way up to Himmler. There’s memos and everything. It’s fucking history.”
“That’s kinda funny.”
“Funny as fuck. By ’44, the Cenotaph was running polls about what the next bullshit he should sen back would be. Otto became a bit of a local celebrity.”
“This fucking neighborhood.”
“Hey, who else had a honest-to-goodness Nazi spy? He made everyone feel a part of the war. Until he showed up, it was mostly profiteering and draft dodging.”
“There was no draft dodging in World War II.”
“There was in Little Aleppo.”
Precarious took one last drag off his cigarette PHWOO; he raised his left foot up to his right knee and brushed out the cherry on his heel. Crumpled the remainder into a little ball and shoved it in his back pocket.
“And after the war?”
“Otto settled in. Opened a shoe store. Collected butterflies. Married a black chick.”
“I told you: he was a bad Nazi.”
Romeo didn’t put a flag down for Otto Dasch, but Precarious did. The sun was higher in the sky now and from around the cemetery came work sounds. Crunching transmissions and the beepbeepbeep of reversing trucks and garment racks rolling along the sidewalk. In the southeast corner of Foole’s Yard, a gravedigger did just that with a Bobcat, The mechanized shovel pulled dirt from the ground with ease; the earth had no hold of its soil and it slipped away with no argument or protest, just the thrum of the diesel engine in the back of the ‘cat.
There is always a need for a fresh grave.
Marine and Soldier and Sailor and Airman and one or two Coasties. You get a flag, and you get a flag, and you get a flag. The Barkwith brothers, who fought for the Confederacy got flags. Precarious smirked as he stuck Old Glory at their feet. Korea and Vietnam. Various Middle Eastern locales. Hiram Creech was a Rough Rider. Veracruz and Nicaragua and Manila. Hawaii and Honduras. Cuba and China and Cambodia. You name it.
“What does this mean?”
Precarious walked over to Romeo and read the tombstone of a man named Guy LeFaun. 1918-1944. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
“It is sweet and proper to die for your country.”
The only noise in the cemetery was the Bobcat.
“I don’t know about that,” Romeo said.
“Yeah. Me, neither.”
They were out of flags and out of graves, so the ex-roadie and the ghost cop walked out of Foole’s Yard and back to the 1961 Lincoln Continental, triple black with suicide doors, and Precarious Lee glided the car away from the curb nice and smooth and none of the dead cared at all about Veteran’s Day in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.