The body was still in the house when we got there. Graciela saw it first and let out a sharp, “Dios mio!” She was the most senior local employee at the Consulate and had seen Americans in trouble before, but none as distressed as George McMahon. He was lying on a thin mattress on the concrete floor of his living room. A machete was planted in his abdomen, just below the breastbone. It had been put there by his girlfriend, according to the police, but they also said he was at the morgue.
George was–had been–a cook at the Sheraton Hotel. His graphic tattoos and hard-worn features suggested the choice of home in a run-down neighborhood was deliberate, a place to fit in and be left alone. Absent a hefty retirement package or inheritance, his meager paycheck would cover necessities with enough left over to keep him in rum and girls, and there was plenty of both in Santo Domingo. The place seemed to suit him, until now.
Our job, Graciela’s and mine, was deceptively simple. We had to verify George’s nationality, secure his valuables, and contact his next of kin, standard consular procedures. The first two would be easy. I already had George’s passport, courtesy of a disinterested cop at the front door, and a quick look around the bungalow confirmed a preference for consumables over collectibles. A few cardboard boxes should be enough for George’s belongings. Next-of-kin would be harder, in part because we only had two days, forty-eight hours under Dominican law, to either bury George or send him back to the States if we could find someone to claim him. Graciela, fully recovered now, arranged with the police to pick up the body for real this time and began sorting through his belongings.
I looked away from the machete and the bloody mattress to the small crowd gathering on the street. They were neighbors but not necessarily friends of the dead cook and seemed more entertained than concerned about the goings-on inside his house. A few of the gawkers turned their attention to me, someone different and maybe important, and I felt a twinge of unearned celebrity followed by a spasm of embarrassed self-consciousness. I was just a first tour Foreign Service Officer, nominally Graciela’s supervisor and still a rank novice. I doubted George would have been so easily aroused by the casual interest of strangers. Even his grisly death, a hard end to a hard life, projected rough integrity.
By the next afternoon, we had found no living relatives, friends or even creditors tying George to his previous life in the States, or none that would acknowledge the connection. Graciela, now his guardian angel, muttered “poor man” after every dead-end phone call and finally conceded George would not be missed. Dejected, she connected me to Darlin Reyes, the funeral director closest to the Consulate, who said there were several options for local burial and wanted to know if I would select the “Solemn Remembrance” program or settle for an expedited farewell. I chose the latter and promised to be at the parlor by noon tomorrow.
Reyes’ funeral home resembled a well-lit cafeteria. There was nothing soothing or subtle about its utilitarian purpose. Darlin met me at the door wearing a shiny black suit and sharply pointed oxfords. He showed me a price list and I chose the simple pine coffin and plain concrete cross for the headstone. It was not the payday he anticipated from the Americans and Graciela almost certainly was going to hear about it the next time she called. Ten minutes later, Darlin and his skinny associate, by appearances a teenager pulled directly from the street, hoisted the newly packaged George into the back of an old Dodge station wagon, slammed the tailgate, and accelerated out of the parking lot.
I chased after them, abusing my diplomatic tags to ignore speed limits and traffic signals. We presumably were on the way to the cemetery, although the expedited farewell did not include extras, like information. The Dodge was easy to follow. It was lime green and left a trail of noxious fumes. The gate to the cemetery materialized at the same moment the station wagon fishtailed toward it. I braked hard and turned, accompanied by horns and the kind of Spanish my State Department training did not cover.
The grounds we entered were enormous and surprisingly beautiful. Manicured lawns and sculptured hedges held family vaults and stone footpaths that stretched for acres. The indifference that might have appealed to George outside the gate was gone. Here it was precise order and meticulous attention to detail, a demonstration of what it could be like when there was no time left for regrets or excuses. If this place were the preamble to a final reckoning, the judgment would be harsh. It was unlikely the lives memorialized here were this perfect.
There was a two-story box-like structure a hundred yards in the distance and we headed for it. As we passed the rows of intricately carved monuments, I began to wonder if the standard U.S. Government fee we had paid Darlin would cover the cost of George’s new neighborhood. I was relieved when we pulled up to the building; we had arrived at the low rent district. The plaster façade was cracked and there was no glass in any of the windows. A half dozen scruffy young men in dirty T-shirts and basketball shorts loitered at the front door. They shared cigarettes and ignored Darlin and me as we walked inside.
The first floor was empty. Even the fluorescent light fixtures were dark and hung haphazardly from the ceiling. A chipped concrete stairway led to the top floor and we took it, entering onto a cavernous room occupied solely by a woman sitting at a card table supporting a manual typewriter and a stack of papers. Darlin handed her George’s death certificate. She tapped the information onto a form, dropped it into a box on the floor, and assigned George a plot number. It was the most efficient transaction I had encountered on the island in more than a year.
Once outside, Darlin told me to pick my crew from among the men we had passed on the way in. They were gravediggers and included in the burial package. Three of them balanced on the hood of the Dodge with their shovels as we bumped along the path leading to the pauper’s section. The graves here were identified by scarred plaques and flaking crosses. These were not monuments to real or imagined virtue. They were signs marking the place corpses, not memories, were buried and even the hand painted names were fading to nothing.
We stopped at a row of about a dozen partially dug graves, each assigned a number scrawled on a wooden stake. The trio slid off the hood, selected one of the holes and started digging. I joined Darlin at the Dodge as he opened the back and waited for a signal from the men at work. He abruptly straightened, pulled the box partly out of the wagon, and told me to grab one of the rope handles. Together we yanked George out of the car. He landed heavily on the gravel path and we dragged him, I presumed head-first, toward the finished grave. At that point, I decided Darlin’s payment was more than adequate.
With the coffin resting on ropes stretched across the irregular hole, the small party turned to me, apparently to offer final thoughts or prayers. After four years in a Franciscan seminary immediately before the Foreign Service, I should have been comfortable in the role. But I had refused ordination for a reason and anything I said now would just be a pretentious show. George deserved better than that, so I nodded silently to the men and they began lowering the box into the ground.
Three feet into the hole, the coffin abruptly stuck. The men raised it and tried again. Same result. Finally, one of the men dropped the rope, jumped into the air, and landed squarely on the lid. Box and gravedigger dropped together, landing with a splintering thud. Darlin shrugged and we both stared passively while the man’s friends hoisted him from the grave and began filling it. With the last shovelful, Darlin planted the concrete cross at what I still presumed was the head, produced a small jar of blue paint, and misspelled George’s name on the marker. I did not correct it.
Twenty years later, I returned to the Dominican Republic, this time comfortable with my diplomatic titles and status. My business was with Foreign Ministers, parliamentarians and civic leaders, the kind of people whose virtues, real or imagined, would be memorialized in sculptured gardens on manicured lawns. My control officer, the junior embassy staffer assigned to make sure my visit went well, was confused when I insisted that we detour to the cemetery. The side trip was not on his schedule, but it had always been on mine.
We turned through the same gate, past the family vaults and the building still without glass and stopped at a row of partially dug graves. The driver and control officer waited in the car while I walked past the open holes to an older section, looking for the marker that was still fresh in my memory. When I found it, the paint had faded, the misspelling less obvious with time. I stood at George’s grave and said the prayer I had refused before. I was not sure if I had been carrying George as a guardian angel or a cautionary tale. Maybe they were the same thing. It did not matter. I thanked him and went back to the car.
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