First in Line (part 1)

Since my last two posts were works of fiction, I figured I would dig up out of my hard-drive the only other piece of fiction I’ve ever tried writing as an adult. I wrote this about four years ago while studying theology and was trying to wrap my head around the notion of eternal life, which, frankly, I still find difficult.

As a side theme, this piece explores aspects of Catholic ghetto culture in the United States, with their ethnic peculiarities, big families and tribal loyalties. The main character, Joshua, is a composite of some American seminarians, both diocesan and religious, that I met in Rome, except for purposes of the story he is dumber than average. His character, family background, and stories about all him have some basis in the tales told me by those friends (or their sisters). The O’Toole family is a composite of Irish-Americans I’ve known from Boston to New Orleans (including, of course, the Monahans).

Artistic flaws abound: it is too long, with too many diversions, and over populated with too many characters for a short story. It is a tad sentimental. But then, the subject of extended family invites these flaws. My advice is to read it as more of a philosophical and cultural reflection. It is broken into two posts.  

First in Line

Brother Joshua Campbell, of the Little Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, watched northern New Jersey roll by the passenger window, and missed Ohio. New Jersey made him fidget. On the rare occasion that New Jersey was hilly, the rocks were pointy and menacing; where flat, it was ridiculously so, and swarming with strip malls and threatening cars. Why no gentle hills, rolling out to blue horizons? Where were the amber waves of grain?

“What are you thinking, Josh?” asked Dad from the driver’s side.

“I’m thinking that if it weren’t for funerals I’d never come out here.”

“Funerals and weddings, Josh. Don’t forget the weddings.”

That was not quite it. Joshua would skip the loud New Jersey weddings if he could. His head had felt stuffy and sore since their plane landed in Newark. Could he be allergic to New Jersey?

“Mom,” he called to his mother in the back seat, “do you have a tissue?”

“I have a used one.”

“Never mind.”

“Hey Josh,” said Dad, “did I ever explain to you the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral?”

Only, like, a billion times. “No, Dad, what’s the difference?”

“One less drunk.” said Megan, who was in the back seat with Mom. “How could you not know that one, Josh? Dad’s only told it fifty times this week.” Megan was the third of the Campbell girls. Marie and Angela had already been taken into custody by marriage and childbirth, but Megan remained at large.

“I wouldn’t know what Dad’s been saying all week, Meg, I’m not twenty-four and still living at home.” Joshua said, fiddling with the air conditioner. Besides the stuffy head he was sweating in his roman collar and black sport jacket. Why did Uncle Al have to die in August?

“Ha! Nice one Josh.” She let that one go easily. Joshua figured she could afford to be generous, having reinforcements in the form of two older sisters waiting at the funeral home. “Speaking of drunks,” started Megan after a pause, “I guess I’ll miss Uncle Al.” He was Mom’s uncle, Aloysius O’Toole, a friendly, sodden bachelor who invited a sort of sympathy.

“We all will, Dear.” said Mom. “Though he didn’t do himself too many favors in life, did he?”

Something was bothering Joshua: “Didn’t Uncle Al always say he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread in Vegas?”

“Well Josh,” Dad went into explanation mode, “you know the Pope allowed Catholics to be cremated just a few years back, the reason was…” Dad was a convert to Catholicism, the enthusiastic kind who reads papal encyclicals. Mom cut him off.

“Well, I’m sure your Aunt Catherine wouldn’t allow it anyhow.” Aunt Catherine was Uncle Al’s protective older sister.

Megan chortled: “I’m sure the fire department wouldn’t allow it. They’d be afraid he’d blow up.”

Joshua liked the joke, but had a better one: “No, he wouldn’t blow up; he’d just give off a blue flame for a couple of weeks.” It made a nicer mental image.

Mom tried not to smile. “We can’t bring you two anywhere! Just behave for Aunt Catherine when we get to the funeral home.”

New Jersey was worth an Irish funeral.

The parking lot was almost full by the time they pulled up to the funeral home, just as Marie and Angela were helping Grandma O’Toole out of their rental car. The passing of Great-Uncle Al was not momentous enough for Marie and Angela to drag along husbands and small children, so the bare nuclear family was reconstructed for a weekend at Grandma’s house for the first time in years, except for Timmy, the youngest, who was in Boot Camp on Paris Island.

Angela tapped Joshua’s black clerical shirt. “Hey Josh, you look good in black. You almost look thin.”

“Yeah Angie, I learned the black trick from you.” A weak comeback. Angela took after the O’Toole side, an angular blonde. It was Joshua who had to watch his weight. Unencumbered by husbands and children for the weekend, there was no need for the Campbell girls to put on any front of matronly dignity, and it was three against one. Marie was the oldest of his sisters, and therefore the nicest, having nothing to prove. She had even been so nice as to name her second son ‘Joshua’, securing her position as his favorite. Angela and Meg, the first two years older than he, the other three younger, preferred to express their affection with sarcasm. Joshua would have to face the henpecking alone. Had Timmy been there, he would not have been any help, being an imbecile, at least in his big brother’s eyes.

The funeral home interior was pastel and air-conditioned. Lace curtains and antique furniture were dim reminders that, once-upon-a-time, wakes were held in the next of kin’s living room. The home was full of mourners, if ‘mourners’ was the right word to describe the jovial, chattering O’Toole clan.

A wake is a vortex that draws men and women by their blood lines from across the nation to the parlors of nondescript suburban funeral homes. They enter the parlor, a large rectangular hall, by wide doors at the back, and spiral round the right-hand walls of the room towards the front, towards the epicenter, the corpse. As it spirals, the line of mourners funnels down from loose bunches to singles and pairs. Here, at this bottleneck, they stop to give condolence to the close kin of the deceased who stand before the casket (though after two hours of standing and being consoled, what the kin really want are lawn chairs and a couple of stiff drinks). Then the individual mourner finds himself suddenly alone with the corpse, in silence, for what feels like a long time, before being washed out of line and spun free to step outside to take a deep breath, smoke a cigarette, and tell a dirty joke before being summoned back in to pray the rosary.

Dad, the convert, was having a grand time taking it all in. “It’s the Catholic culture, Josh. Nobody is too sad, because the dead are not really dead, they are alive in God. Like C. S. Lewis used to say, ‘Christians never say goodbye.’” Dad was Irish by marriage, not by birth, and so he tended to interpret all of the O’Toole family’s good qualities that way. Joshua was not so sure; he had seen an Italian funeral once and had not been impressed: old ladies in black lace getting all worked up over the corpse of a seventy-two year old bambino. They were Catholics, weren’t they? Were the Irish so deeply Catholic, or just hard-bitten? A few centuries of hunger and oppression would make anyone breezy in the presence of a corpse.

“C. S. Lewis was protestant, Dad.”

“And had he lived a few more years, he would have become Catholic.” You couldn’t win with him.

The Campbells were towards the back of the line right behind the McMeniman sisters, Theresa and Margaret Mary, ancient spinsters who never missed a funeral, but whose exact relation to the O’Toole family was unclear, even to Mom.

“Poor Aloysius O’Toole.” Margaret Mary was saying, “Whatever else he did, he was always such a nice man.”

“He always aimed to please.” said Theresa.

“Yeah, you could put that on his grave stone;” said Grandma, “every hooker, barkeep and bookie in Atlantic City would agree.” Grandma did not sound like she was going to miss her brother-in-law.

Joshua soon found himself cornered by white-haired relatives whose names and exact relation to him hummed about the back of his memory like mosquitoes, just out of reach of his swats. He was trying to give a coherent description of his work at the high school (going great), his studies (not so great) and what life was like under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (more fun than you would expect). The men encouraged him with slaps on the back and the women with their high-beam smiles and glistening blue eyes, and he hoped he was making sense.

Since boyhood he always had a hard time talking to O’Tooles. They would go on in funny accents about parkways, turnpikes and Puerto Ricans overrunning what used to be decent neighborhoods until his head spun. That was why he always preferred the summer trips across the Ohio River to rural Kentucky, the ancestral home of the Campbell family, much to his mother’s horror.

Grandpa Campbell had emerged from Kentucky as a teenager looking for factory work, but left behind him a troop of siblings and cousins that remained attached to the old ways. If pressed to give an account for their existence, the Campbells would say they were Scots-Irish, that is, Redneck. Their dark completion was explained by the fact that they were descended from an Indian princess. Perhaps “Indian Princess” was a euphemism for collusions with still inferior races, perhaps not; no one knew for sure. The Campbells did not go in much for history, preferring to do stuff, like spotlighting deer or chewing tobacco, to talking. They kept most of their words to four letters.

So when it came to living, Joshua preferred the Campbells, but the O’Tooles had a leg up when it came to dying. Campbell funerals were pathetic: awkward, silent affairs in secondhand suits and rickety protestant chapels. O’Toole funerals were splendid in every way, from the florid Irish laughter to the brick and granite neo-gothic churches packed with family and old neighborhood friends.

And at home, after the wake or Mass, the Jameson and the stories began to flow. What stories! How Toby O’Toole came from County Mayo (yes Joshua, Mayo, just like the stuff in your sandwich) and arrived to New York without a penny to his name, only to be welcomed by Nativist Riots, “Irish Need Not Apply” signs, and yellow fever epidemics. And how his son, James O’Toole, was shot at Fredericksburg (probably by a Campbell), but still lived to ninety, helped build the Brooklyn Bridge, and moved to Patterson with his four children who in turn would go on to beat the Krauts, then the Great Depression, then the Krauts again, all with the help of FDR. After Grandpa O’Toole’s funeral, twelve-year old Josh went back to Ohio able to explain how to make bathtub gin and recite all the great stuff a nickel could buy you in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1938, but he still got a ‘C’ in history class.

As good a place as any to break. The second half is coming soon.

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