The neighborhood around my church was poor. Still, when one of our own died, we’d scratch together cash from where there seemed to be none. You can’t let the dead languish away in some mortuary. They belong with God, buried proper. It’s like that line from True Grit, where an outlaw’s stabbed through the chest and, as he’s dying, he asks the lawman to write his brother. The lawman asks if he should tell the brother he died outlawing. It doesn’t matter, the dying man says, “I will meet him later walking the streets of glory.” Even those of us who have to steal their way through life believe in redemption and forgiveness. Deserve it too, probably. I mean, maybe they could have made it another way, but most days it seems like there isn’t enough to go around for those playing it honest.
One of the honest ones used to play the drums during Sunday service, at least before he got sick. He’d worked as a cement mixer his whole adult life. The factory loomed dull and gargantuan along the river, abutting the train tracks. Each day they’d load a few hoppers with cement and the train would haul it north to the city or beyond.
Sometimes he’d talk about the buildings the cement helped construct. “These huge, hulking things replaced the rowhomes we used to live in when we used to be able to afford the city,” he’d say with a sigh or a shrug. “But who needs a house when you can have an office?”
The cement mixer spent his days mixing dry product with liquid to make refractory product to fill buckets or drums with that mixture. His lungs, too, filled with twenty-some years of cement powder. They turned on him when he was fifty-three. Two years of sucking down oxygen tanks later, he died.
The following Sunday the church took a second collection for his service. There was no replacement drummer that day, only droning organ and our flawed, beautiful voices. We all knew the songs, but not like that. I spoke quietly with someone after mass. They said, “He was killed by being poor. A whole life at the cement factory and his family can’t even afford to bury him.” I looked up at the stained glass full of morning light.
It took two more weeks of passing the basket, but the church got the money together. At the funeral I sat in the back and left before they took the body out to be buried. It was freezing cold outside. I wondered whose job it was to get a body into that hard ground.
Sam Price lives in Philadelphia, PA.