When Aaron finally emerged from My Lai, it was very dark and he was very drunk. The streetlights in Viet Town seemed to require environmental moisture to effectively conduct electricity up their trunks, and the afternoon heat had seared the humidity out of the air leaving it warm and staticky dry. He steadied his legs underneath him and began searching for a cab. Chicago cabs rarely strayed into this section of Chicago, but an entrepreneurial family in the neighborhood had seized this opportunity and begun running a cab service that trolled Viet Town for fares but made only phone-in pickups anywhere else in the city, to avoid anyone checking for a livery license. They operated a half-dozen or so unmarked cars and in the grand tradition of semi-covert taxi services like this having semi-racist names like black or gypsy had named their company Yellow Cabs.
On West Argyle and Magnolia, Aaron flagged down a Mazda Protégé and tossed himself into the back seat. The driver, who sported a faux-hawk and a cigarette behind his ear, balked when Aaron gave him an address on the Lower West Side.
“Seriously, Pilsen?” he asked. “I can take you better places for a taco. Last month I ran a fare into Pilsen and some spic kids stole my antenna.”
Aaron scanned the back of the driver’s head to see the scar the theft of his antenna might have left. He offered a extra twenty to ease the unique kind of racism that occurs only between two groups already discriminated against by an established majority, a kind he’d learned growing up in Boston in the early nineties and listening to his mother’s Jewish friends continue to kvetch about forced bussing. With some grumbling, the driver agreed and the cab lurched southward. The radio strained to play a current pop hit whose beat and hook were lifted whole cloth from a song Aaron remembered blasting out of dorm windows when he and Jaime were in college.
“Any chance you could switch it over to K-Hits?” Aaron asked.
“You into all that rocket from the crypt stuff, some moldy oldies?” he said. Aaron leaned back his head back, looking up out of the back window. “Kind of a Drag” by the Buckinghams crackled out of the speakers on either side of him and he could hear the driver humming along from the front seat.
The funeral home was a hold out on one of the better blocks in Pilsen, full of galleries, bakeries and shops, all of them closed for the night. Its rusted signage looked out of place surrounded by glittering gentrification. A moldy oldie, Aaron thought to himself, a rocket from the crypt. Despite the late hour, the lights were on, so Aaron asked the cabbie if he’d wait. Aaron tried the door, but it was locked. He knocked sternly a few times, and waited. When there was no answer, he turned and started back towards the cab. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, then walked slowly back and stood pressing his weight against the door. Without knowing why, he started hammering on the door with his fists. He wanted to yell something, but couldn’t come up with any words, a raw chunk of verbiage clogged his throat.
The cabbie got out of the car and called to him, “They’re closed, man.”
“I know,” Aaron said, leaning his forehead on the door and gasping for breath. Executing contracts for his clients, notifying those friends of the deceased who had been close without ever being proximal, who’d known the deceased only through MMORPGs, or InterEm chats, or message boards to support new mothers, or online craft exchanges, Aaron thought of himself as being intimately acquainted with grief. But he experienced it at the strange professional distance of funeral director; his reaction to death was driven by function, powered by scripts. Pounding on the door of a funeral home in the middle of the night, Aaron wasn’t sure if he was hoping to be let in or hoping death might throw his friend back.
He turned slowly away from the funeral home. Rolling the rock away from the tomb wasn’t, apparently, his role in Jaime’s death. The cabbie watched him warily, and Aaron thought he might drive off. As Aaron opened the car door, he heard the door of the funeral home open behind him, its hinges protesting loudly into the quiet of the street.
“Enough with the pounding,” said a man said from the doorway, “I’m working here.” He was small and balding, with a spattered apron over an Elton John tee shirt and Buddy Holly glasses over a pushbroom mustache.
“I want to see my friend,” Aaron called to him. The five feet of sidewalk between them seemed like a chasm. The man looked at him blankly.
“Is it Mr. Martinez?” he said after a moment.
“Yes,” Aaron said.
“No. He was my roommate in college. My friend.”
“You look a little too pale to be family,” said the man. “Of course, at the moment, he looks a little too pale to be family.” The man laughed, a low huffing noise. He wiped one of his gloved hands on his apron, leaving a dark streak whose exact color Aaron couldn’t determine under the streetlight.
“You squeamish?” the man asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Aaron.
The man nodded. He looked both ways down the street, but it was empty. Aaron could hear the music coming from the tiny earphones that hung over the man’s apron, “Stepping Out” by Joe Jackson, small and tinny.
“Pay your cab and come in,” the man said quietly.