Welcome to the necropolis,’ I mutter into my sister’s hair as we hug in the doorway of the house we’d grown up in.
Mary and her husband, Paul, have flown from Seattle to New York for the funeral. Unfiltered Camels have finally done in Uncle Paddy, who died two days before.
Mary smells clean and alive, like the air near a brook. After days in the disinfectant-steeped hospital and nights in my parents’ potpourri-reeking living room, I am glad of my sister and her good smell. She stands back to appraise me, the 41-year-old baby of the family.
‘Jesus, Richard, you look like hell.’
‘Wait a day or so,’ I reply. ‘You will too.’
She rolls her eyes and turns to our parents, who came to the door once they realised who it was. Mom’s embrace is swift and mechanical, but Dad hugs Mary tight for an awkwardly long time. Uncle Paddy was Dad’s younger brother.
I help Paul bring their luggage up to Mary’s old room, then we rejoin the family in the living room. The only light is from the flickering television and the slow-fading August dusk. My parents and Mary are sitting on a U-shaped green modular couch. Muffled hi-ya’s issue from the TV, inexplicably tuned to a kung-fu movie. A steroid-enlarged blond man is getting the shit kicked out of him by a couple of wiry ninjas.
Mary hasn’t been home in two years, and I try to see my parents through her eyes. Like a sullen child, my mother’s doggedly going about her business. Right now she’s ignoring everything to work on an artificial flower arrangement, sticking large yellow blooms into a green base. Before marrying my father, Mom had dated Paddy; now she’s refusing to acknowledge his death. Dad’s hardly more reassuring. He has the earmarks of a gentleman alcoholic: flushed complexion, gleaming watery eyes, a dignified bearing won through intense concentration. He only started drinking heavily three years ago, but alcoholism seems a real treat for him. Apparently he’d been paying his dues, waiting for the chance to shut himself off from the world with a warm curtain of whiskey.
Dad is peering out from that curtain now. He looks like he usually does around ten at night, before he plunges into the swift, dreamless sleep that comes to the innocent and the drunk. But it’s five o’clock, and we’re due at Paddy’s wake in two hours.
The phone rings and Mary, slipping into my mother’s abdicated role of woman of the house, answers it in the kitchen.
‘That was Cousin Tommy,’ she reports a minute later. ‘He’s coming tonight and bringing his girlfriend.’
‘Good,’ I say. ‘We want as many bodies as possible at the wake.’
Nothing registers on Paul or our parents, apparently still engrossed in the kung-fu movie, but Mary looks at me and snickers.
She returns to the kitchen, this time to call her children.
‘What’s up with the kids?’ I ask when she comes back.
‘They’re fine,’ Mary reports. ‘But Stephanie-she’s six now-is a strange one. She asked why Paddy had to die, then she started grilling me about the wake. “Will there be a dead body there, Mammy?” As gently as I could, I told her yes, there would be. Do you know what my sensitive baby said then?’
“‘Want to borrow my binoculars?”‘
The five of us pile into my father’s old maroon Cadillac for the drive to the funeral parlour. Gazing out the window, I1 m reminded of why I moved from Long Island as soon as I reached manhood. Northern Boulevard is all strip malls and used-car lots, the epicentre of dreary bad taste, American style.
We arrive at the Hempstead Harbor Funeral Home, a concrete replica of the Parthenon set between an Exxon station and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Mary pulls the car into the lot and finds a suitably large parking space. We’re all reluctant to expel ourselves from the Cadillac’s leather-upholstered womb, but somehow we do.
The funeral home’s interior is thankfully devoid of references to ancient Greece, besides the oversized urns that serve as ashtrays. At every turn, we are either reassured or set straight by morticians in well-shined shoes and lintless black suits. In the hospital, we could do things to rescue Paddy from the dehumanisation that comes with demise. We brought him boating magazines, smuggled in cans of Guinness, made racy comments behind the nurses’ backs. But in death, Paddy slipped from our influence. He’s entirely in the hands of these greasily groomed Long Island jackals.
‘One day you’ll be dead, too, and some stranger will mash your limbs into your best suit and smear your cheeks with rouge,’ I say to the mortician standing outside Paddy’s room. A man used to the bizarre reactions of the grief-stricken, he just nods.
I push past him and enter the room. As I feared, the wake is sparsely attended. I count 13 people; a superstitious man like Paddy would take that as a bad sign. There are nine relatives, three guys who’d worked with my uncle in the boat-repair shop, and one man I can’t place.
‘Hello, I’m Richard Macardle,’ I say, shaking the man’s hand. ‘Paddy was my uncle.’
He grips my hand and claps me on the back.
‘Richard! I’m Fritz Holtec. Paddy was always talking about you. You and your sister were like his own kids.’
‘How did you know my uncle?’ Iask.
‘I was his butcher,’ he says. ‘He was a funny one, always accusing me of putting my thumb on the scale while weighing his pork chops. I think he was kidding, but you never knew with Paddy. He was always bragging about you and your sister. He’d show me pictures-Mary’s college graduation, your high school prom.’
I can’t think of anything to say.
‘Anyway, it’s good to meet you,’ Fritz adds, shaking my hand again. ‘I’ll pay my respects now.’
He walks over to the casket and I sit down in a row of empty hard-backed chairs and think about my prom picture. It’s 23 years old, but hard to forget. I’m in a tan tuxedo with wide lapels, a white-tipped pimple threatening to erupt near the corner of my mouth. My snaggletoothed date, whom I never saw after that summer, wears a green stretchy gown that makes her large, remarkably uneven breasts look like mismatched gourds. Envisioning Paddy fishing that photo out of his wallet and passing it over the butcher-shop counter, I feel like sobbing.
The priest is late. Most of us have been at the wake for two hours now – plenty of time to look at the body, greet each other, say what we can about Paddy and the hereafter. There’s nothing left to do but offer a prayer and go home. But we can’t do that until the damned priest shows up.
Aunt Katie, my mother’s sister, walks up to me with her husband, Mitch.
‘Good of you to come,’ I say, kissing her on the cheek.
She accepts my peck. ‘We all loved Paddy, you know.’
Those words might be comforting coming from someone else – say, Fritz the butcher. But from Aunt Katie, they’re a reproach.
‘I know,’ I say. ‘It’s great for Mom to have you to lean on.
‘Your mother seems to be doing fine,’ Uncle Mitch says, his mean little chin jabbing in her direction. Mom’s bent over a book, making marks with a pencil.
‘What’s she up to?’ I ask as breezily as Ican.
‘She’s got one of those word-search books,’ Mitch says with a scowl, his eyes scouring my face for shame, or complicity in his contempt.
Father Marconi’s arrival at that precise moment seems like divine intervention.
He’s a twitchy young man with acne scars and an unnerving way of rubbing his thin, hairy hands together. Mary speaks to him briefly, then sidles over to me.
‘Is he as bad as he looks?’ I ask.
‘Well, I wouldn’t enroll my son in his catechism class,’ she says, laughing quietly.
Mary takes my arm and guides me toward the front of the hall, where the priest is lining us up for prayers. We take our places in the first row of chairs, right in front of Paddy’s open walnut coffin. He’s wearing a dark green suit and his hands are clutching a rosary, something I never saw him do before.
Father Marconi rubs his oversize skeletal hands together, then makes the sign of the cross. ‘Death is the most solemn of occasions,’ he begins.
He reminds me of Nosferatu in that silent movie, only he speaks-and with a Long Island accent. Realising that we’re in a moment when laughter would be unforgivable, an affront even our indulgent uncle might not excuse, Mary and I exchange glances and start to crack up. She puts her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter that most people would take for grief.
I’m a half-hour late picking up Aunt Katie and Uncle Mitch at my parent’s house the next morning. When I rush in the doorway, they greet me with accusing glares.
‘Traffic out of the city was a nightmare,’ I say.
‘We have to wait for your father, anyway,’ Katie says. ‘He’s shut himself in the den. To write Paddy’s eulogy, he said.’
We go into the kitchen and have a cup of coffee with Mom, Mary and Paul. My father comes down five minutes later. His black suit, which he hasn’t worn since his retirement party, hangs on him. His hands shake as he folds a page marked with spidery handwriting into his breast pocket.
‘I’m ready,’ he says. His voice is raspy and a single tear hangs on his haphazardly shaved upper lip.
We file outside to the two cars. Mary, Paul and my parents go in the Cadillac; I take Katie and Mitch in my Corolla.
‘Did Dad spend much time on the eulogy?’ I ask after a few minutes, mostly to break the silence.
‘Let’s see,’ Uncle Mitch says. ‘He started an hour before you were due to arrive and finished about 20 minutes after you were supposed to show up.’
‘Oh,’ is all I can think to say. No other conversational gambits are launched.
Inside St. Joseph’s, I find myself looking around for somebody. I’m not sure whom, since I know the turnout for the funeral mass will be even thinner than the wake. Then I realise I’m looking for Paddy. My eyes adjust to the naked light blazing in through the modern church’s clear windows, and I see the open coffin, set back in an alcove near the altar. I know what the rest of the family had done last night. Stupefied ourselves with strudel or Scotch or Andy Griffith reruns. But what had Paddy been up to?
The funeral mass is a reassuring ritual for the eight of us there. We’re all at a stage when it’s a relief to be told when to sit, stand and speak. The only difficulty is Father Marconi’s stutter. ‘Paddy’s in another place now,’ he intones, ‘and that place is…is…’
The suspense is painful. All of us are very curious on this point.
I’m relieved that the news is good, disappointed that it isn’t very plausible.
Dad is upnext. He stands at the lectern and starts outstrong, like the father I thought I had in childhood. He praises Paddy’s eccentricity, warmth, love of family.
‘Death, where is thy sting?’ he quotes.
He pauses and looks up from his notes.
‘I’ll tell you where it is,’ he says, pointing to his chest.’In here.’
One hand comes upto cover his face; the other is directed outward, to Paddy’s eight other mourners. ‘And here,’ he says, his voice breaking.
Mary nudges me.
‘He’s lost it. You’d better take over,’ she whispers.