James Johnstone CC
YOUNG EDDIE'S WAKE
"This is it," my father calls. His breath hangs on the January night air like a ghost for a moment, quickly fading away into nothingness. Dad turns onto the path to the bleak two-story brick house. I take my mom's arm and quicken our pace. The sign on the lawn reads Jonathan Martin and Sons Funeral Home – Estab. 1962.
Young Eddie fell into a deep funk the week after Uncle Eddie died. A classmate told him that losing his father made him a bastard. Eddie was sitting on the ottoman by Big Eddie's chair when I came into the living room. He looked up; tears filling his blue eyes. "I don't want to be a bastard," he said.
"Eddie, you're not a bastard. A bastard is a kid who never had a father," I told him.
Eddie considered that for a moment. A weak smile formed on his lips.
Inside the funeral home, the lobby air is thick and warm, with a hint of flowers in it. An unsettling odor oozing from some hidden room pierces the flowery scent. Though perhaps that’s my imagination. In the lobby, situated on a rust-colored tapestry rug and bracketed by two sofas, a round walnut coffee table holds a vase filled with winter greenery and pinecones. Across the lobby, to each side of a white mantel fireplace, a tapered floor vase displays leafless twigs dotted with buds, and a few blossoming white-pink flowers. An archway reveals a broad, gray carpeted hallway leading to two sets of double doors; the second set of doors stand open. A tall, heavy-set man in a proper black suit greets us. He walks stiffly, very upright, like an oversized butler. His voice is soft, deep, mournful. He leads us through the archway to the open doors. We sign a book there, a remembrance for Aunt Mae of a day she would as soon forget.
Eddie and I slipped through a chain-link fence into an empty lot next to a red brick building. We gathered twigs and lit a small campfire before two men from the building nabbed us. One wore a blue work shirt, the other a white shirt and tie.
"Show me your identification," White Shirt said.
“I don't have any," Eddie lied.
White Shirt looked at me.
"I got none," I lied.
He took a small notebook and pen from his shirt pocket. "What’s your name?” he asked Eddie.
“Billy Thompson,” Eddie told him. White Shirt jotted that down.
“What's your name?" he asked me.
Eddie burst into laughter.
"What's he laughing at?" White Shirt asked Blue Shirt.
Blue Shirt stifled a chuckle. "They gave you fake names."
Anyhow, they let us go with a warning.
We are the first to arrive in the Visitation Room. A shiny mahogany casket commands the front center of the room. From each end of the casket, flowers stretch to the walls; white lilies, red roses, yellow carnations, silvery dusty miller, all surrounded by greenery and set up on easels. A white silk ribbon, emblazoned with the words “Beloved Son,” lays across a large spray of all white roses, lilies, and waxflowers. Plush white velvet lines the raised casket lid. Seating for the mourners occupies the middle of the room. The first row has twin beige sofas with carved wood accents, maybe ten feet from the casket. Behind the sofas, four rows of Mission Back chairs wait for the mourners to arrive. Armchairs, a couch, and two small tables with lamps are positioned along the side walls. To the right of the casket is a closed door. Aunt Mae waits behind it.
Mom takes my hand. "Say a prayer with me for Young Eddie." She kneels, and lowers her head. While she prays, I ponder the lifeless body in the coffin. Is this the cousin I grew up with, played with, and fought with, who spent our carfare on two girls we met on the Coney Island boardwalk, who I walked with all the way home that night?
Now his face is too pale, the cheeks a phony, made-up rosy pink, and no freckles show on them. A rosary drapes across the pale skin of his hands. His hair is different, combed straight back so he looks like the schoolboy in the picture Aunt Mae keeps on her dresser. Did Eddie's finger just twitch? Was there a slight movement in the corner of my eye? Part of me thinks he’ll come walking through the door.
The big kid skated right up to me in the street. "Give me the chalk," he demanded.
On even ground, he would have been a head taller than me. On skates, he was Frankenstein. I gripped the stick of pastel blue chalk tightly.
“Give it to me,” he growled.
“No! It’s mine.”
“Give me the chalk.”
He stared down at me, the threat evident in his eyes. “Give it to me. Now!”
Eddie was down on all fours behind the big kid’s legs, motioning me with his head. One hard shove and the big kid’s skates flew out from under him. He tumbled backward over Eddie, eyes the size of silver dollars, arms flailing, feet kicking at the sky. He landed hard on the pavement. Thwack! We ran. The big kid struggled back up. He started after us but soon gave up. Maybe his head hurt too much.
After Mom finishes praying, she hurries off to be with Aunt Mae. Uncle Harry and Aunt Doris arrive a few minutes later. More family is coming in behind them. Our family is rife with huggers and kisses; I slip away, and drag an armchair to a back corner of the room. Eddie’s head and orange-red hair are partially visible from where I sit.
The fight between Eddie and Donnie Anderson started during the stickball game. Eddie was a lover, not a fighter; Donnie was older and tougher. He threw Eddie down on the street, sat on his chest, and pinned his hands to the pavement. Both teams gathered around them.
“Give,” said Donnie.
Donnie ground Eddie’s knuckles on the pavement. Implicit street laws held me back from jumping in.
Donnie grabbed Eddie by the hair and banged his head on the pavement.
My hands curled into fists.
Donnie sprang up, grabbed the stickball bat from Jimmy Dimitri, and whacked Eddie, who was still sprawled on the ground. Nothing could hold my rage back now.
Donnie cocked the bat again, froze mid-swing, and looked at me. Fear rushed into his eyes. He dropped the bat and ran, with Ali De Luca hot on his tail. I grabbed the bat. Ali caught him halfway up the block and doubled him over with a stomach punch. Then I swung the bat down viciously on the back of Donnie’s head. The bat broke. It broke! I stared at the broken pieces of bat, confounded. Somehow, my rage had drained away. I turned and walked back toward Eddie.
“It’s a good thing the bat broke,” Ali said, “I thought you were going to kill Donnie.”
A tap on the shoulder startles me -- Mitch signals me to follow him. He’s my cousin Beth’s husband. They got married the year after Uncle Eddie died. Young Eddie gave Beth away, and I was an usher. We were all just kids growing up together.
“I need a smoke,” Mitch says.
We should have grabbed our coats. It is cold, bitter cold on the porch.
Mitch lights a Camel, takes a drag.
“With her mom.”
“How’s she holding up?”
“Her dad, her kid brother. It’s hard,” Mitch says.
Mitch shakes his head. “Total mess.”
We both fall silent. Mitch is taking long drags on his cigarette, exhaling them slowly. He has something on his mind.
“Tommy, keep your cool here, right.”
“What are you talking about?”
Mitch’s eyes narrow on me, the corners of his lips pull back.
My hands open in front of me. “What?”
“If any of Eddie’s crowd show up, control your temper. Got it?”
This does not sit well with me. "Sure, whatever you say, Mitch.”
A sudden gust of wind chills me to the bone. I shudder, wrap my arms across my chest. “Damn, it’s cold.”
Mitch crushes out his cigarette under his shoe. “Too damn cold.” We hustle back inside. Mitch heads for the men’s room. I reluctantly drag myself back to the Visitation Room.
The rented rowboat and motor had seen better days; the dull gray metal hull might at one time have been shiny, and the 2.5 horsepower motor screeched like a wounded sea robin. Still, the old boat got us from the Coney Island back bay to our fishing spot off Sheepshead Bay. We had a good day. Mitch landed four king mackerel, I caught two, and Eddie got skunked; fishing was not his thing. The fish stopped biting around noon, so we called it a day. Mitch pulled the motor's starter rope: putt, putt, then nothing. He checked the gas tank, jiggled the choke, pulled the starter rope again, and the motor kicked in. But fifteen minutes later, the old junker stalled again.
Again Mitch jiggled the choke, and pulled the rope. The cranky motor sputtered back to life. Halfway back to the rental dock, it died again. Mitch cursed, and tried to restart it. His jaw clenched, his arm muscles bulged, and his hand struck a lightning blow to the side of the motor. He grabbed the rope and yanked with a vengeance. The rope broke off in his hand. Mitch stood there looking perplexed, the now useless rope dangling from his hand. Eddie burst into laughter. Mitch was not amused. Then, miraculously, the cantankerous hunk of junk putt, putted, and sputtered back from the grave. We made our way, knowing we had no way to start it again. The next death would be the motor's last. As we neared the beach by our bungalow, a quirky grin showed on Eddie’s face.
“Mitch, Eddie’s up to something.”
Eddie grinned, and Mitch just shook his head like a frustrated parent. Eddie kicked off his shoes, pulled off his shirt, and dove over the side, abandoning the ship like a rat.
“I’ll alert the Coast Guard,” he said when he resurfaced, then he turned and swam toward shore. Miraculously, the floating hunk of junk lived to reach the rental boat dock. Back at the bungalow, everyone had a good laugh at Eddie’s expense. Eddie laughed hardest of all.
Mom is waiting for me when I get back to the Visitation Room. “Aunt Mae asked to see you," she says. The thought of talking with Aunt Mae at Eddie's wake never entered my mind. Now it is here, and it worries me. What questions might Aunt Mae ask me? What will I say?
Before I enlisted in the Navy, Eddie started hanging with a different crowd, a pack of neighborhood reprobates. When I came home on leave, Eddie and I always got together. Time passed, however, and I knew we were growing apart. When I came home from the Navy for good, Eddie was firmly entrenched with his gang. We bumped into each other often at the neighborhood hangouts, but had different friends, and clearly were headed in different directions. Still, on rare occasions, Eddie called me to get together. Maybe he was trying to find his way back. He never did. Those rare times came less and less. He started to miss family events, holidays, birthdays, weekend barbecues. More than once, when he did show up, he should not have. More than once, I had the urge to knock some sense into him. The situation was never right, though. Next time, I thought. Next time.
My mind fills with worry as I open the door to the room where Aunt Mae waits. What will she ask me? How will I answer? “Thomas,” she says softly. Aunt Mae always calls me Thomas. Today, her voice carries both her great sorrow and gladness at seeing me. Words clog in my throat. She motions me to sit beside her on the couch. Mostly she reminisces about Eddie and me when we were boys; family holidays together, summers at Coney Island, the silly things Young Eddie and I did, our frequent mischievous endeavors.
“When you were ten, you and Eddie wandered out of the neighborhood and got lost. A policeman brought you to my house in a patrol car. Do you remember that?” she asks.
I do remember. “Aunt Mae, we weren’t lost. Eddie told the cop to get us a ride home.” Eddie always did stuff like that.
Aunt Mae smiles and pats my hand. My time spent with her is good; I think it is good.
Young Eddie lost a bet at the bowling alley. His payoff was to stand on a table and sing a song. He climbed onto the table and belted out “One-hundred Pounds of Clay” from beginning to end. His voice was awful; off-key doesn’t begin to describe it. He flubbed the lyrics in so many ways. Yet, some nearby bowlers stopped bowling to listen, and a small crowd gathered around the table. They cheered, and laughed with him, not at him. Some sang along. The sparkle in his eyes and his boyish grin won them over. He finished to cheers, clapping, and cheerful shouts of "Encore! Encore!" So, Eddie did an encore, “One-hundred Pounds of Clay” from beginning to end again, and just as awful as before. When he finally jumped down from the table, people gathered around him, joked with him, congratulated him. Eddie had something, charisma, charm, whatever you want to call it. Eddie had that.
The family has gathered in the Visitation Room. They sit quietly in the folding chairs or stand chatting in small clusters around the room. Near me, Uncle Jimmy, Frank Donnelly, and Lou Barone chatter away. Uncle Jimmy is a teller at Aqueduct. Frank and Lou are ribbing him about all the bum tips they get from him.
Across the room, a conclave of aunts and uncles huddle together. Uncle Joe is doing most of the talking. Eddie called Uncle Joe the Family Capo, though only between us. Uncle Joe peeks over his shoulders to make sure no one overhears him. He reminds me of Uncle Jimmy touting a nag in the fifth at Aqueduct. I imagine what they are saying: "If Big Eddie was alive" -- "those friends" -- "Mae didn’t see that side of him" -- "dumped on the sidewalk" -- “I heard, Tommy fought with one of Young Eddie's friends" -- "last Thanksgiving when Young Eddie came to Mae’s with that boy" -- "they drove off" -- "mixed up with a bad crowd" -- "Tommy and Young Eddie were inseparable" -- "had a reckless side" -- "on the sidewalk in front of the hospital" -- "bad crowd." -- "bad crowd."
Uncle Joe looks at me. Whatever they are talking about is soon coming my way. Sure enough, Uncle Joe heads toward me.
“Tommy, what happened with Young Eddie?” he asks. Uncle Joe always gets right to the point.
I shake my head slowly and shrug.
“I know he had a wild side, Tommy. What did he get himself into?”
Eddie had more of a devil-may-care side. Not that it matters now. I shake my head and shrug again.
Uncle Joe scowls, presses for an answer. What is there to say? Then, unexpectedly, Uncle Joe transitions to small talk before leaving to rejoin his aunt and uncle's conclave. This is uncharacteristic. He knew the answer to his question. And my feigned ignorance gave it to him.
The Friday after Christmas, I ran into Eddie at the Bowling Alley. He had a shiner, and a bruised left cheek, and blood filled the corner of his eye.
I saw Victor Rossi and Johnny Dowd yakking with two other losers near lane twelve.
“Rossi?” I asked.
“It’s nothing. I can handle it,” Eddie said.
“It’s nothing -- nothing. I owe Vic a few bucks. That’s it.”
Eddie lowered his head.
“I’ll handle it, Tommy, I promise.”
Eddie knew when to quit with me. “Forty,” he said.
“Rossi did that to you for forty lousy bucks!” I started toward lane twelve. Eddie grabbed my arm.
“Tommy, it’s nothing. I should have paid him back. I had the money one time. I had it. I should have paid him back. You always say I need to be responsible. Be a pal; I'll clear this all up right now. Bank me forty. I'll pay you back, Tommy. I promise I'll pay you back."
Eddie could wheedle Ebenezer Scrooge out of a sack full of sawbucks. He was suckering me. The money didn’t matter; I pulled bills from my pocket and slapped two twenties into his open palm.
“This is it, Eddie, next time, you’re on your own,” I warn him. “Next time, I’ll pay Rossi back in person. Got that?”
“I got it, Tommy. I learned my lesson this time. I’ll be responsible. I’m through with those guys. I’m done with them. I’m done with all of it. I learned my lesson, Tommy. I promise.”
That was the last promise Eddie ever broke to me.
From my chair in the back corner, the Visitation Room stirs like a miniature Grand Central Station. Family, friends, and neighbors arrive to console with other mourners, chat with acquaintances they last saw at a wake or a wedding, and check the flower sprays and wreaths to make sure theirs is among them. Some say prayers at Eddie's coffin. Most do not stay long.
Uncle Joe and Beth shepherd Aunt Mae into the room. It’s quiet save for Aunt Mae’s soft sobs. She breaks down completely as they near the casket. She stumbles toward it, would fall on it if Uncle Joe and Beth didn’t hold her up. “My Eddie. My Eddie,” she howls. Her sobs, her cries, are the only sounds in the room. I’ve never heard Aunt Mae cry before, I’ve never even heard her raise her voice. To me, she is like royalty, a stately, proper, imperturbable queen. Now her tears, red blotches, and a mother's most profound sorrow wear on her face. She looks years older than when I sat next to her just minutes ago. With effort, Uncle Joe and Beth steer her to a sofa.
Johnny Dowd and Victor Rossi walk into the Visitation Room. I bolt out of my chair; they must be nuts to show their faces here. They weave their way toward Eddie’s casket, stopping near the foot of it. They don’t notice me coming up behind them, and I don’t notice Mitch moving in behind me.
“Eddie was cool, man,” says Victor Rossi. His absurd drivel comes out slowly, syllables stretched, in a cadence I have heard too many times before from Eddie and his crowd.
“Truth. Cool, man. A bro. Aces,” Johnny Dowd adds.
Victor Rossi’s right hand swivels as if he is sculpting Eddie’s face. “They did him up swell.”
“Truth. He looks natural.”
“Yeah, real natural.”
Natural! Natural! The word explodes in my brain.
Mitch grabs my arm and practically drags me to the lobby.
I start to speak. Mitch cuts me off. “Not here. Not now. I need a smoke.”
We go out to the porch, no coats again. Mitch lights a Camel. He takes a drag while I seethe in silence.
“That hot head of yours will get you in a real mess someday.”
The frigid air on the porch does not quell my anger. "Those creeps shouldn't be here. Burned-out, braindead punks.”
“True. And cracking their heads on Eddie’s casket does what?”
“Makes me feel better.”
“And, makes a wonderful memory for Mae, too.”
Mitch made his point. Another time. There will be another time.
No matter what, every New Year’s Eve Eddie showed up to be with Aunt Mae at midnight. This New Year’s Eve, he showed up at a quarter to twelve with a friend. They should not have come. I gauged the other faces in the room. Was I the only one who saw? The urge to knock sense into Eddie right then, in front of the family, rumbled in my head. But I do nothing, not then. There are protocols, formalities, family feelings to consider. Perhaps I just lack the courage. Eddie and his friend didn’t stay long after the ball dropped. Next time, I swore to myself. Next time.
Johnny Dowd and Victor Rossi are leaving the Visitation Room. I follow them to the lobby and watch them put on their coats. On the porch, they pull their coat collars up against the cold and start down the porch steps. They walk away, their warm breath fading into the cold night air till they disappear around a corner. In my mind, I see Eddie lying on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, the needle still in his arm, as Dowd and Rossi speed away. It is bitter cold, freezing on the porch. I stare up at the winter’s night sky; it holds no moon, no clouds. It’s clear, crystal, sharp. I contemplate the heavenly specks of light amid the vast darkness of Hell all around them. Next time. Next time.
Robert Reh lives in Florida with his wife of 56 years. After a long career he finally has time to write, and is currently working on a book about his corporate business experiences, called 'Stupid Bosses.'
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