First in Line (part 2)

Part two of a short(ish) story. Part one is here

Drawing nearer to the casket even Irish Americans from North Jersey start keeping their voices down, so they joked in hoarse whispers, except for Grandma, who was past the age of caring.

“God!” said Grandma, “I’ve been to so many funerals lately I should get my own flag!” She meant, of course, the chartreuse funeral pennants that marked the procession of cars following the hearse from the church to the cemetery.

Megan liked the idea. “You’re right, Grandma! After retirement the number of funerals you attend every year increases exponentially… before mysteriously dropping off somehow…” Joshua gave off a “Haw!” and got his mother’s elbow in his ribs.

Megan was on a roll. “Hey Grandma, let’s start a business selling funeral flags to seniors!”

Grandma loved it: “Great idea, Meg. We could advertise in AARP magazine with those little cut-out coupons. We’d make a fortune!”

“I can see our slogan now, Grandma: Always first in line!” This time Joshua tried to suppress his laugh – big mistake – and something came out his nose.

“Crap! Mom, I need the tissue!” Mom unclipped her purse invoking Jesus, Mary and Joseph. His sisters’ six eyes all lit up, leering at him as he stood there with his hands over his face.

“Well I think we see where our daughters get it from, Dear.” said Dad, nodding to grandma.

“Now if only we could figure out where we got him.” said Mom.

“Mom! Hurry up!” Mom was getting rusty. When the kids were small she could whip out a used Kleenex, hock on it, and spit shine the four faces little faces in sixty seconds flat.

Angela, typically, started the attack: “Marie, do you remember the night mom and dad left us to babysit, and Josh was jumping on his bed in his underwear, then fell off and hit his head on the nightstand?”

“Oh my God, the blood! He wouldn’t stop screaming all the way to the hospital!”

“Lots of kids fall off the bed.” Said Joshua, wiping himself.

“Yeah, but you were fourteen and weighed two hundred pounds.”

Ouch. “Impossible! I don’t even weigh two hundred pounds now, and I wasn’t jumping, I was playing air guitar, and if you hadn’t walked in without knocking…” He got his mother’s elbow in his ribs a second time. “Aunt Catherine!” she hissed.

Aunt Catherine, elder sister and next of kin to Uncle Al, was the acknowledged matriarch and patron saint of the family. As a girl she had wanted to be a nun and entered the Dominicans at seventeen, only to wash out with pneumonia a few months later. She healed up in time to catch the eye of Jack Sullivan, who was fresh out of the Marine Corps and anxious to start making babies with a good Catholic girl. They married, settled in Hackensack, raised up six kids, and organized the solidarities, living rosaries, perpetual novenas, Corpus Christi processions and Lenten missions in St. Bridget’s Parish for almost half the twentieth century. All the while, Aunt Catherine prayed for, reprimanded, and mothered her reprobate little brother Aloysius, whom she now commended to God.

The Campbell ladies began to express their sorrow and even Grandma softened up for her sister-in-law’s sake. Jack Sullivan gave Joshua’s hand a double pump. “How you doing boy!”

“Great, Uncle Jack!” He had to speak loud, even this close to the casket, since Uncle Jack had been pretty much deaf ever since serving in an artillery battery in Korea. Jack Sullivan was Joshua’s favorite uncle. Uncle Jack’s favorite things, besides Aunt Catherine, were God and blowing stuff up, things Joshua could relate to. Old Jack for his part was disappointed that the burly Campbell kid had not gone into the Corps, but was happy that he had chosen the next best thing.

“Br. Joshua,” said Aunt Catherine, taking his hand, “I’m so glad you could make it.”

“I was praying for Uncle Al, Aunt Catherine. I started a novena to the Sacred Heart as soon as I heard he was in the hospital.”

“I know you did. Such a good boy.” She lowered her voice a little and pulled him closer. “Dear, there’s something I want you to know, something you would understand. Aloysius never wanted to see a priest, and I wanted to respect that, but when he went unconscious and the doctors said he didn’t have much time left, I had to call for a priest. And you know, when the priest came and started anointing Al’s hands, he came to! He opened his eyes,” (she opened her own eyes wide for emphasis) “and he said: ‘Jesus H. Christ.’” (She deflated) “so naturally I was upset. But then he closed his eyes,” (and so did she) “and he whispered: ‘Oh Jesus’… You know,” she looked up gave Joshua a wink, “I think the second one got his foot in the door.”

“Oh, I sure hope so, Aunt Catherine.” It would explain the Catholic funeral.

“I know so!” Aunt Catherine was radiant, mission completed. She gave his arm a squeeze and turned to greet the next in line.

The line now consisted of singles and pairs recollecting themselves before kneeling down by the casket to pay what respects could be still paid. The air was thick with the smell of flowers in the bubble of silence that always forms around a dead body. The elderly McMeniman sisters were kneeling before Uncle Al, rosaries in hand. Next in line were Angela and Marie, then Megan and Joshua, and Mom and Dad. Theresa McMeniman glanced about, turned to her sister, and asked in an unquiet whisper, “Where’s our flowers?”

Angela and Marie gaped at each other. Joshua smirked.

“What?” asked Mary Margaret.

Louder: “I said, where’s our flowers?”

Joshua snorted and reached for his tissue for fear of another blowout. He glanced around. Mom and Dad seemed not to have heard. Composing themselves, Angela and Marie knelt for prayer as the McMenimans shuffled off. Next came Joshua and Megan. Meg stepped lightly in front of him to kneel. ‘Always first in line,’ he thought, and he started to smile. No! Pray, Stupid!

Kneeling down next to Megan, Joshua managed a sincere Hail Mary. Uncle Al was looking elegant in a new suit. He must have lost weight in the hospital. So quiet! No red nose or glassy eyes. No dirty jokes. Stone dead.

Joshua looked down at the back of Megan’s head and frowned. What was going on in there? His little sister had always been tart, but lately she was downright reptilian. Did college ruin her? Why didn’t she get married like her sisters? She was a little chunky and brown like her brother, but pretty enough, not to mention smart. She was funny too: Always first in line… Joshua’s face twitched and he began to turn red. Stop it! Control! He pressed his face into his hands and started ‘Hail Mary, full of grace…’ but before his closed eyes he saw the full-page color spread in AARP magazine: a merry retired couple with Florida tans and pearly white smiles pulling their Cadillac out behind the hearse, personal funeral pennants flapping… he held his breath and began to convulse. Idiot! Buy one get one free!

He felt a gentle hand on his left shoulder and a whisper, “Josh, its OK…” He could not open his mouth, only glance quickly enough to see Megan’s running eye shadow, and the first look of tenderness she had showed him in years, which turned into revulsion when she realized her brother was not sobbing, but imploding with hilarity. She twisted away from the kneeler in disgust.

Joshua crossed himself and started for the door. I have to get out of here. Mom and Dad were about to take their place at the kneeler. Mom whispered, “Bob, where’s our flowers?”

He pushed through the door and onto the wrap-around porch of the funeral home and sucked in the summer night air. Damn it! God, why did you make me such an idiot! He kicked the wall a couple of times and leaned his head against it, listening to the crickets. In the quiet, he heard someone sniffing around the corner, and felt an old familiar wave of guilt. After almost a quarter-century of pulling her pigtails, teasing her boyfriends and breaking her clavicles, Joshua could recognize those sniffs anywhere. Megan always liked to weep standing, hugging herself, tears crying out to heaven for vengeance: Look what Josh hath done! He felt tired. Go back inside, Josh, he told himself. This one is not your fault. You’re not twelve and nine anymore. Leave her to whatever is bothering her.

Instead he took a breath and stepped around the corner into whatever ambush she was preparing. She was waiting as he had imagined her: fists balled, shoulders squared, accusing eyes.

“You ass! You asinine… ass!”

Joshua shrugged; nothing he could argue with there. He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked out into the night. “So… what’s eating you?”

Megan threw up her hands: “Oh I don’t know, I must be insane, I’m crying at a goddamn funeral!” He felt a headache coming on, and rubbed his eyes. “I mean it’s sad.” She gestured widely at the building, “his life… his everything. The way he wasted…” He sincerely tried, and failed, not to give her a blank look. “Don’t you get it?” She demanded.

“No.” Why lie?

“You wouldn’t!” She raised her fist. “You’re not twenty-four,” a whack on the shoulder, “and still living at home!” another whack.

She went back to sniffing. Joshua had not moved. He listened to the traffic and crickets a little, and then thought of a peace offering. “You want a tissue? Only had two owners.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, Joshua.” She spurted a little laugh.

“Joshua?” It was Mom, sticking her head around the corner. “Josh, there you are. It’s time for the rosary and Aunt Catherine wants you to lead it. Hurry up inside.”

“Ok, I’m coming.”

“Megan, what on earth are you crying about?”

“Nothing, Mom! I’m just crazy, I guess.”

The rest of the wake was merrily uneventful, and word got around that there was a good hotel bar about fifteen minutes down the road. There Joshua chatted long enough to be polite with his male cousins, who every year complained less about the Giants and the Mets and more about turnpikes, daycare costs, financial planners and other things Joshua could not relate to. His world was teaching eighth-graders how to make a good confession and hit a split-fingered fastball. He wandered off to listen to the stories. Grandma O’Toole and Aunt Catherine were telling the classic tale of the trip they took to Ireland with their husbands, and the hard lessons they learned there: that the real Irish are incorrigibly dishonest, and why you should Never Kiss the Blarney Stone.

Then Angela started telling about the trips to Indiana for the monthly visit to Joshua when he was nineteen and just starting out in the novitiate, with Mom nagging the girls: “Marie! No! Your skirt is too short. Below the knees! Meg, for crying out loud what are you thinking with all that make up, go wash your face right this… Angela! Spaghetti straps? For God’s sake these are seminarians! Sem-in-arians!” And how for revenge the girls opened the big chest in the attic and pulled out overalls, paisley blouses, Wicked Witch of the West stockings, grandma shawls and all things hideous. For Joshua it brought back the smell of mothballs, and the other novices’ double takes and smirks and their asking, “So, Br Josh, is it always Halloween at your house?” Angela liked to tell the story and did a good Mom impersonation. He imagined her telling it to her grandkids at his funeral.

Back at Grandma’s house, around two in the morning, Joshua sat heavily on the couch. As he lay down for the night he said a prayer for Uncle Al, and another for Megan, who had been strangely nice to him the rest of the night and insisted on giving him a hug before she went up to bed. He hoped she figured out what to do with herself.

Tomorrow would be morning prayers, then Mass, burial, and lunch before catching the flight to Cincinnati. He would spend the night in Ohio with Mom and Dad, then the drive alone to Indiana, to his prayers, the new school year, the rest of his life, eventual death, and eternal reward.

When he was a very small boy, Mom explained that going to heaven would feel just like coming home. He did not let on at the time, but the idea stuck with him, sank roots, and intertwined with memories of weekends in Kentucky with Dad, of being bounced awake after the long drive as the pickup pulled off the paved road and onto the dirt one, and looking up to see the afternoon sun filtering down through the foliage passing overhead. Off to the right glittered the waters of the creek, where there would be catfish and a rope swing.

As they bumped around the bend in the road, the cabin in which his grandfather had been born came into view. Smoke rose from the blackened chimney, and he knew that Grandma Campbell, whom he only knew from old photos, was inside frying chicken on the cast-iron stove. On the porch sat Grandpa and Jesus Christ, smoking corncob pipes. Grandpa was out of focus – overalls, potbelly, and a puff of smoke – but Jesus was sharp and unmistakable in his white robes, getting up and starting down the steps to welcome the newcomers.

Somewhere close by, the O’Tooles were having an Irish funeral in reverse, sprouting up like heads of cabbage in three-piece-suits and lace gowns, giving hugs and kisses. Someone broke out a bottle of Jameson smuggled from the other side, and the men were slapping Uncle Al on the back, asking him how the hell he got there.

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