This is something I heard in an anonymous setting: I said, “I’d like to steal this story” and was given permission to do so. “Just change my name,” Rick (let’s call him) said. “Maybe it’ll help somebody. Who knows?”
So, say, Chicago, 24 years ago, where Rick grew up. It is 1986 and on that city’s north side — not quite Rogers Park. Rick is in his apartment on Broadway watching MASH and not drinking the beers he has in his fridge. “It was an early attempt at abstinence,” he said.
“I got the call that night from my sister. We hadn’t spoken for maybe 15 years. My mother had died of a stroke two days earlier, she told me. The funeral was the next day, and Mom was to be buried that same afternoon in the graveyard across Lawrence Avenue, next to my dad. A ten-minute walk from my place. Nobody in my family, it seemed, wanted me around, but my sister decided to tell me. This was a Friday night.
“I hit the fridge and the six-pack of Hamm’s. It took me maybe an hour to kill the sixer and four brews to induce tears. Of course I loved her. You have to love your mother, right? My eyes dried up when I ran out of suds. Naturally, I wanted more — and not just beer — grief, it was an orgy of self-pity, the best excuse you could ask for to get hammered.
“I went to Stosh’s Tavern, paused under the lit-up Old Style sign, and rubbed at my eyes to get them red. Stosh’s wife was behind the bar, and she looked at me with sympathy. I choked back a phony sob and told her what happened. ‘Let me get you a beer,’ she said, but I asked for a Wild Turkey. I must have had at least six of ’em. I remember talking to some guys I knew; they bought me more whiskey. At some point I blacked out, or rather in and out ’cuz I remember walking out of there, over to Lawrence and across the street into the cemetery. I knew where the family plot was, more or less, where my dad was buried. I found my way there, apparently. But not before I seemed to have bought a fifth of Ten High at the liquor store.
“I do remember crying and standing over the open grave next to my dad’s. I wasn’t really crying for my mom but for myself, my own miserable ass. It started raining just as it got dark. I sat down on the newly turned dirt piled up to the side and drank from the bottle, crying — an orphan in the rain.
“It must have been 12 hours later or so. Everything was black. I was freezing cold and wet. It was still drizzling, and I was lying in a pool of mud. I felt around, and there was this board just above me, like a platform. I could hear a man’s voice speaking like he was reading something. My teeth were chattering, and I tried to move. I was stiff, shaking from the cold and all the booze, and this platform over me was pressing me down like a hand.
“I saw some light at the edges of the platform thing, just lighter strips against the darkness. I heard the man’s voice saying my mother’s full name, and I freaked because I now knew where I was and what had happened. I had passed out and fallen into the open grave, my mother’s grave. I writhed and squirmed under that platform and called out in a high voice, ‘Help! Help! I’m down here!’ More voices and an engine like a truck’s or a backhoe or forklift or something. I wasn’t making much progress trying to move, but after what seemed like an hour, one edge of this platform/board thing lifted up, and I could get out from under.
“The light was gray, dismal, cold, the drizzle fine and sharp like needles or rats’ teeth. Four cables were attached to the platform, and I steadied myself with one of them. I was covered with mud from head to foot; I ached with scrapes and sore muscles from the fall, I guess. Two guys appeared next to me in muddy work clothes. They had jumped down and tilted the platform farther up. Then one of them laced his fingers together and bent down. I was to be boosted up. I did it and clawed at the sides of the grave covered with canvas tarp over the edges. I stood there in front of maybe 40 relatives, family friends, and people I had grown up with. They were horrified, but not as much as I was.
“I didn’t drink again.”