Funeral Games (Excerpt from Billy Boy)
From Chapter One…
(Click here an to hear an .mp3 recording of this excerpt read by the author.)
By seven o’clock there was already a group of Jinny’s friends gathered outside the funeral parlor, conveniently located across the street from the parish church. Patty Brodigan had showed up in a black miniskirt and tights that she sometimes wore to Manhattan discos. Mary Dempsey did Patty one better by wearing black peddle-pushers, a first for Roche’s. The funeral director and his granddaughter, a slim attractive blonde who graduated Holy Family Elementary a couple years ahead of Jinny, watched from inside the glass entrance door. Celia Roche had handled this type of funeral often enough to know what the course of the evening would be like: for the first half-hour the immediate family would have the deceased to themselves. Then uncles, aunts and cousins would start to arrive. Finally the dead girl’s friends would work up the courage to come inside, approach the viewing room nervously and at the first sight of the coffin all burst into tears. They were a nuisance because they disturbed the other rooms, though it was a rare night anymore that Roche’s had more than one body on view, much of the business having gone to the suburbs.
By the time Cathleen arrived, the sidewalk mourners had moved inside and were weeping quietly at the back of the room. The McCormicks were seated in the two front rows on metal folding chairs, whispering among themselves like wedding guests waiting for the bride to arrive. Jinny herself, what was left of her after she had been gutted and stuffed with excelsior, lay in her coffin, her lips looking redder than they should, her already full eyebrows heavily penciled over, making her seem as if she were pondering some question—how many Tuinols she had popped before her last jolt of crack.
Cathleen approached the casket and knelt down on the cushioned kneeler. But as she began her Hail Mary she found that what at first had seemed an authentic if badly made-up version of her childhood friend, up close was clearly a fraud. The rougey woman in the coffin was not Jinny but a chimera conjured up by the mortician’s art. The real Jinny had looked a good ten years older, and a hard ten years at that.
She fixed her eyes on the portrait of Christ at the back of the bier and kept them there until her prayer was over.
“I’m very sorry, Mrs. McCormick,” she said, taking the hand of a stout, black-draped woman who used to offer her milk and cookies when Jinny and she were in kindergarten. Mrs. McCormick nodded her appreciation without raising her reddened eyes, her two good teeth gnawing her bottom lip as if grief could be masticated like a tough piece of meat. Cathleen went down the line, recognizing all the faces, if not every name—father, brothers, younger sister, even aunts and cousins.
When she reached the last family member, her obligation was formally fulfilled. But custom required she spend some time keeping watch with them. She could park herself on a hard metal chair and kill half an hour chatting with one of the deceased’s gabby aunts. Or she could join her contemporaries sobbing quietly at the back of the room. Neither alternative appealed. She was not in a mood for pretending Jinny’s death was an act of God, and she had little in common with her old classmates since their paths had divided several years earlier.
Even so, she couldn’t sit by herself. That would only encourage the notion she was someone who thought herself above them. She decided on two former Girl Scouts standing apart from the others, little lace handkerchiefs pressed to their faces.
“She was so young and pretty!” one of them, a tall skinny girl who used to live on Milky Ways, greeted Cathleen as their cheeks brushed. Cathleen glanced back at the coffin and recalled the sunny pig-tailed Jinny who used to play tag with her in the schoolyard. When you saw someone a couple times a week, if only to say hello to, you didn’t notice the minor erosions that were draining vitality from flesh, the consequence of too many crack vials and barbiturates, not to mention the quickies in parked cars to raise money for the next high. Suddenly she found she too was crying. Whatever these young women had be-come, they were once full of hope like herself, and but for the grace of God she could have shared their fate.
But the mood of moist reconciliation was suddenly broken by a disturbance outside in the reception area. A moment later her brother Billy made his appearance in tattered jeans and dirty denim jacket, his hair scarcely combed, and at least a day’s growth of beard. Even from a distance, his eyes seemed unnaturally bright, with a familiar pinwheel look. At first, Cathleen tried to continue her conversation. But the exGirl Scout, like everyone else, was waiting to see what would happen next. Billy was impossible when he was high, sometimes impossibly sweet, but more often just plain impossible.
He stood for a moment, not quite steady, thanks to the quart of beer he had used to wash down some pills. He seemed not to recognize anyone, and for a brief moment, his sister dared hope he might simply walk out again. But then he sniffed hard, hunched his shoulders and lurched toward the open coffin.
Despite his disheveled state, she could not help but note the good-looking young man underneath the dirt and drugs. Handsome was too mild a word. He had been a beautiful little boy and had become a beautiful young man, though God knew you had to look hard to see it when he was in the condition he was in tonight. She didn’t understand how he could look like that and live the kind of life he did. Not just Jinny, but half the people she grew up with had become dissipated by the time they reached their twenty-first birthdays. Yet, Billy seemed to thrive. And he had the personality to charm the pants off virtually every woman he met and get around most of the men as well. Between his blarney and his looks, he could have gone far. Instead, he chose to become the social pariah she was looking at.
He hit the kneeler in front of the coffin with a thud. Then he stared intently at the face of the corpse as if expecting to begin a dialogue with it. Everyone watched the two dissolutes, one dead, the other still breathing, confront each other. Would he break down and cry? Would he try to embrace the corpse? But after a few moments he merely rose, took a shaky step backward, and, as if with a great act of will, focused on the line of black-draped McCormicks.
He started with the hefty alcoholic brother and worked his way down the row until he reached the diminutive grandmother, solemnly shaking each’s hand and offering an inebriate word of sympathy.
When he was done with the family he turned toward the other mourners, spotted a familiar face at the back of the room and stumbled toward her.
Rosemary Grady had arrived just as Billy finished visiting the bier. She had prepared for the occasion by downing a couple shots of Jack Daniels but hadn’t worked up the nerve yet to approach the coffin.
“Rosy, I’m sorry about last night,” he said loud enough to be heard at the reception desk. “I meant to come by, I really did, but I forgot I had a previous engagement.”
“That’s okay, Billy,” Rosemary said, trying to ease away from her sometimes lover. She actually hadn’t seen him in a couple weeks and, as far as she could remember, hadn’t made any date with him for last night.
“You know I’d never stand you up like that if it wasn’t something important,” he went on, putting his hand on her shoulder, as much to steady himself as to emphasize his point.
“Sure, Billy. But you gotta excuse me now. I need to pay my respects, you know?”
“Rosy, you’re a sweet girl,” he said, still not letting her by. “And you still give the best goddamn head in all of Brooklyn.”
Everyone heard. Only the oldest old woman did not know what he meant, and no one was eager to satisfy her urgent inquiries.
Rosemary began to weep with humiliation. But Billy mistook her tears for grief and decided to console her with a beery embrace.
Jinny’s oldest brother Mick gently raised his great bulk off his chair in front of the bier and quietly padded toward the back of the room, his face as blank as if he had nothing more on his mind than the men’s room. But when he reached the doorway he paused and, without saying a word, slapped his great paw on Billy’s neck. Then he gently turned him around and planted his fist in his face.
A gush of bright blood spurted from Billy’s nose. He staggered back to the wall where, with its help, he was able to stay on his feet.
“Get the fuck outta here,” Mick hissed at him, panting hard. He poked a blunt thick finger into Billy’s chest and added, “Next time I see you, you wish you was dead.”
Billy was tending to his bleeding nose but found time to reply, “Sure, Mick, sure,” as if the will of Mickey McCormick were all he ever considered.
Rosemary stepped forward and began attending to his injury as if he had sustained it defending, not impugning, her honor. But her gesture seemed to infuriate Mick all over again—he was a regular visitor to her “blowatorium,” Billy’s epithet for her apartment on 16th Street, but was unaware that so were half the other young males in the neighborhood.
Billy seemed to be paying no attention to the freshly erupting McCormick. But just as everyone was anticipating another, possibly lethal blow, he abruptly jammed his hand into the bigger man’s midsection and brought his knee up smartly into his groin.
Mick collapsed into a great ball of pain, unable to breathe, much less speak.
The mourners regarded the helpless giant writhing on Roche’s tasteful gray carpet, then looked up to see what Crazy Billy would do next. But they found that, like Jesus amongst the hostile Pharisees, he had disappeared from their midst.