I need literary advice

A commenter reminded me of a short story I posted here in 2014 and which was first written in 2010 or so. I remember posting it with some embarrassment since I felt that it was a) sentimental and b) somewhat sprawling. It is basically a nostalgia piece based on my own recollections of Irish funerals with a composite character based on some seminarian friends of mine and their sisters.

I just went back and reread it and found it humorous and not at all too long, and that I should try to publish it somewhere. But here is the thing: I am a worse writer today than I was in 2014 or 2010, and your own farts never smell.

I’ve reposted it below and would appreciate some feedback:

  

First in Line

Brother Joshua Campbell of the Slaves 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, 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 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 paternal 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; 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.

“We can’t bring you two anywhere!” said Mom. “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 original 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. It was going to be a long weekend, three sisters against one brother. Not that Timmy would 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 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 mourners funnel down from loose bunches to singles and pairs. Here, at this bottleneck, they stop to give consolation 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 quirks 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? 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 McMenamin 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 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 doing 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.

 

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

Megan offered an idea: “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 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 barely 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 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, 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 McMenamin 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 McMenamin 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 McMenamins 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!

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 kneeled, looked down at the back of Megan’s head, and frowned. What was going on in there? His little sister had always been sour, 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 denture 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 turned on him: 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.”

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 and financial planners, things Joshua could not relate to. His world was teaching eighth-graders how to make a good confession and hit a breaking ball. 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 collapsed 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 a catered 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, 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.

One comment

  1. Haven’t finished reading yet, but I’ll be back later.

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