Raphael Darstoff never told people what he did for a living.
That wasn’t true. Raphael Darstoff never elaborated on what he did for a living. When people asked, he always said, “I’m a driver.”
“A taxi driver? A chauffeur?” they prodded.
And he would nod at any and all suggestions, leaving his conversation partners befuddled and giving him an air of mystery. His effervescence diminished as he got older, though. Now a man of sixty-four, there were permanent creases in the dugouts of his skin and his eyes were a soft, unassuming blue. But even still, he never talked about work in detail. Not to his wife Ellie, to his children, to his friends.
In truth, Raphael Darstoff was a hearse driver. He was responsible for bringing the dead to their final destinations. It was he who led the slow, dreary processions down the city streets, paving the way for a chain of grief. It was a job like anything else, except it wasn’t. Not for Ralph.
He started working for O’Connel & Son at the fresh age of twenty, out of high school and looking for work. His parents emigrated from Russia when he was a baby and in those days being the eldest son meant helping bring home the bread took precedence over education. He stumbled upon the place by accident riding his bike to get groceries. It was bright on the outside, dark on the inside, macabre. Ralph was oddly drawn to the building right away.
Jim O’Connel asked, “Can you drive?”
Ralph said yes, which was not a lie, despite the bicycle he had propped outside. His father took the car to work.
Some training and a commercial driver’s license later, Raphael Darstoff became a funeral driver, and did not stop being a funeral driver for nearly forty years. He was compassionate and understanding and strong (in order to lift the casket, of course) and the O’Connel family took to him immediately. And Ralph, barely out of his teens, considered wearing fancy clothes while driving around a Cadillac for pay quite the good deal indeed.
But here is what Ralph would never, ever tell you: his job was everything. To him, death was everything. It wasn’t the act of dying itself which captivated him, nor the rituals for it by which he was surrounded everyday. No. It was the people. The dead people.
Do not misunderstand; it isn’t what you think. No, Ralph simply longed for companionship, like any other human. The difference was he wished for it in people who no longer existed.
It began a few weeks into the job, two days after his twenty-first birthday. Ralph had a shaky grasp on the ropes at O’Connel & Son; he was in Parlour One helping set up a wake, which he often was asked to do, as Jim’s business was small and he needed all the assistance he could get from his staff. He was arranging a bouquet of flowers on a corner table when a woman approached him, looking sullen and gray. Ralph’s mother had always said he had the kind of expression people wanted to lay down their emotions to. He’d never understood that until starting at O’Connel & Son.
“My Mary,” the woman whispered, clutching a damp handkerchief between two white-knuckled hands. “My Mary was a lovely girl, you know. So beautiful. And so smart–she was off to Cambridge, you know. Cambridge, abroad in England, to pursue another degree. Oh, you would have loved her, just loved her.” She patted his arm.
Ralph clasped his hands in front of him and said, as he was trained to, “I’m very sorry for your loss, ma’am,” in the softest tone he could muster. Mr. O’Connel had told him it was a Mary McLeary who’d died at twenty-five of mysteriously vague causes that the autopsy probably deemed suicide but the family wanted to keep under wraps, but that was all he’d known about her until now–the rest was usually the Director’s business.
And then he saw her. The family put her pictures up all over, and soon the room became stuffy-full of sniffling family members singing her praises. She hadn’t been conventionally attractive by any means–thick glasses, crooked teeth, diluted coffee-brown eyes. But Ralph stood in the doorway helping direct guests to the signing book, and stories of Mary McLeary faded in and out of the front of his consciousness. She was going to become something. She had been interested in biochemistry. She had been a tutor for grammar school students while she was in college–for no charge. Mary McLeary had died at twenty-five with so much promise. Ralph watched her face across the room, above her closed casket. She smiled at him with her lopsided grin. So very, very warmly. Because she was warm, so her cousin Connor had related to Ralph. Warm and gentle and meant to be something.
He was in love.
Ralph drove her–his first drive on his own so far–and he cried. He imagined himself brushing his lips against the scars on each of her wrists. He pictured himself telling her she mattered, mattered more than anything in the world, and pictured her breathing, alive, tinted pink, in his arms and telling him she loved him. If she’d had someone like that–like Ralph–she would have been beautiful and alive. Beautiful, brown-haired Mary with the crooked smile. Oh, oh, he was in love.
Until the following week, when he helped bury a middle-aged doctor on the verge of curing leukemia, and felt his heart clench equally as much, if not harder.
It never stopped.
When Ralph was forty-two, he fell for the man he carried to church in his Cadillac who’d died of a disease on the rise they were calling the “gay virus.” Daniel had only been thirty-two. His partner, Benny, had not been allowed by the family into the ceremony. So he stood outside, leaning against Ralph’s hearse, sobbing. Ralph put an arm around Benny and silently wept too, imagining kissing that bright-faced Daniel and tasting a combination of sickliness and unyielding determination–for Daniel, said his friends to the O’Connels before the service, had been an activist, the gentlest of them who wished to achieve change without hate. Change without hate. Ralph would take that with him for the rest of his life.
Ralph imagined these people as their families remembered them–beautiful, flawless. And thus he loved them all fervently. In his silent ride with each one–sometimes accompanied by another driver to help him lift the casket, sometimes not–he spoke to them aloud or in his mind or through droplets of rain on the dashboard. When it was a child that died, Ralph imagined taking him by the hand to cross the street, or brushing her hair, or teaching him how to ride a bike, or telling her a bedtime story. Fatherly things. The worst were the elderly who had no more living relatives to attend their services. Ralph wished with all his heart, with every tear, to have been there with them at their final moments, to have kissed them on the forehead, to have known their deepest secrets and memories.
The first basic rule of working in a funeral home, said Jim O’Connel on Ralph’s first day, was to put your emotions on lockdown. Ralph had never been able to do that, of course. But in the privacy of his hearse, it was just him and the body, and he could fall in and out of love, be a father and a brother and a friend, behind tinted glass. No one ever needed to know.
He got married at forty-nine to a beautiful woman named Eleanor he’d met through his sister. She was tall and elegant and twenty-eight. She liked him for his compassion for hard work and the vague look about him she couldn’t place. She promised to love him forever at the wedding, and he promised her the same, though he knew she wasn’t stupid and could recognize the dullness in his eyes where hers were bright with feeling. They had two children–boys. But they could never be as perfect as 8-year-old Aaron was, who had died after a fall from a tree, or twelve-year-old Alyssa who’d suffered through cancer for over four years before her body could no longer handle it. Nothing in Ralph’s life could measure up with any of the dead ones he’d come to know deep within the leather seats of his Cadillac.
Nonetheless, Ralph lived his life and paid the rent and supported his family. They would never know the outpouring emotions he felt each time he stepped foot through O’Connel & Son, and would never understand. He felt too much. Too much, all the time. Heavy was his soul in carrying all the lost ones, only to come home and pack them away in the back of his skull, and he was tired. So very, very tired.
When Raphael Darstoff died at sixty-four, the procession went according to his will. Family and friends met at the Darstoff household–and walked. Walked two miles, his coffin in a carriage. The O’Connel family directed his funeral arrangements, of course. But Ralph would never, ever let anyone drive his Cadillac. Never let them be subjected to the sadness, the love, the anguish, the pain, the joy he experienced everyday on every different route. He made sure of that when he drove his car into the river, crushed and irretrievable as his body.
The Darstoffs walked, slowly and sadly, a clumped-up dirge. Somewhere else, Raphael watched them all and, despite everything, smiled, for he could feel Mary McLeary’s hand on his.