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My father was late and supper wasn't ready. He was never late, even on payday, and supper waited on the stove. I knew without asking that something was wrong.
"How is he?" my mother asked even before he took his coat off.
"He can't stand the pain in his stomach, it's pretty bad I guess .... " He looked at my mother and shrugged. "I don't think he's gonna' make it through the night." This was 1928, and pain like that - doubling up pain that wouldn't go away - could only mean only one thing.
My mother put her foot down .... "Well, he's not coming here. I've got enough to do!" There was no question about it, he was not moving in with us. My mother did have enough to do, the apartment was already over-crowded, clothes hung everywhere. My father's brother and sister had moved in with us and I had to sleep in the parlor on a horse hair sofa next to an old upright piano.
Nobody had a good word to say for my grandfather anyway. The highest rung he reached on the ladder of life was weekend bartender at Shorty's over on Classon Avenue. He was a born part time man; part time steam fitter, part time fireman, part time drunkard and full time gambler. His wife, my paternal grandmother, had four children in the shortest possible time and died in the great flu epidemic of 1919 surrounded by her four kids while the old man was tending bar. He never remarried and left the upbringing of the four children in the hands of the older sister.
But my father was fond of him. Pop was the only one of the children with a son of his own. He was also the youngest, and he probably never got to know grandpa as well as the others did.
"I don't want him here neither," my father backed away defensively, "it's just that I gotta do somethin' -- I think we should put him in a hospital maybe. Is Fred home yet?"
Fred was his older brother, and a lot like the old man. He slept in the bedroom that would have been mine .... it was hard to get him to wear a shirt to the dinner table, and it was rare to see him without a Camel in his mouth, one behind his ear and a racing form in his back pocket. In an emergency like this he was no use at all.
But he was home and he gave my father some moral support. Together they walked over to my grandfather's flat to see what they could do about getting him in Saint Theresa's Hospital -- but they were too late. The pain in his stomach was gone forever and left the part time husband and father in peace. Fred nervously lit up another Camel, and my father re-lit his soggy cigar.
They sat down on the ratty sofa and decided they couldn't handle this on their own and they got the super. Supers could do anything .... fix a faucet, snake out a drain or speed the departure of a deceased tenant. By tomorrow afternoon somebody else would be living there -- none the wiser. In the blink of an eye, the man from O'Dell's funeral parlor was on the scene with a canvas bag, a coffin brochure and the medical examiner.
Within the hour the old man was in the hands of Brian O'Dell. Later, my father said the decision to have him 'laid out' in the parlor was Fred's, and he in turn said he had nothing to do with it. Then they blamed O'Dell. You know how men are -- a few of them get together and decide something and can't remember whose idea it was in the first place. One of them decided anyway, and that was the end of my childhood innocence concerning life and death. I was going to have a parlor roommate for a day or two. Old grandpa never got invited to our house while he lived, but now that he was dead he was going to share the parlor with me -- and the upright piano.
I put up a howl when I heard the news. So did my mother who never wanted him in the house alive let alone dead.
My father tried to put his foot down. "It's too late now damn it .... O'dell's bringin' him over tomorrow afternoon. It'll only be for a day or two."
"I ain't sleepin' with him," I bawled, "I never slept in a room with a dead man!"
"He's right, Henry .... you can't ask a child his age to sleep next to a coffin. You sleep in the parlor and he can sleep with me."
I could tell from the look on my father's face, a look I had seen many times .... a tightening of his upper lip and a sideways twitch of his jaw. He knew he hadn't thought it through, it wasn't going to work out well at all. I suppose he and Fred let O'Dell call the shot. It was late winter, all the funeral parlors were full and the only way he could handle grandpa was to lay him out at home.
The following day was a landmark day for
me. The day a dead man came to live with us. I couldn't wait to get out of the
house and off to school in the
It was the first time in my life I wondered what was going on at home while I was in school. I could see, in gruesome detail, O'Dell and his crew carrying grandpa up the stairs in a canvas bag, all powdered and rouged to spend a night or two with his family before taking off for Evergreen. I hoped he'd get there before I did, I didn't want to be there when they brought him in. What would it be like having a dead man in the living room? There would be relatives I had never seen before -- I didn't like it at all!
When school was out I dawdled, looked in store windows -- I even did my homework in the library. It was dark when I finally screwed up enough courage to come home. There on the vestibule door were the waxy black calax leaves we used to call the "dead man's corsage." Taking a long breath. I climbed the stairs and knocked timidly at the door.
"Is he here yet?" I asked.
My mother was wearing a black dress I hadn't seen before. She was wearing an apron over it and I could smell something sweet.
"Come on in, wash your hands and I'll take you in to see him -- don't be afraid, he won't bite."
The sweet smell grew stronger as we approached the living room. It was the flowers. There was a giant standing bouquet from the volunteer fire department. I forgot Grandpa was a volunteer fireman. Mother pushed me up to the coffin, but I was too short to see anything but the tip of Grandpa's nose. That was as close as I wanted to get but mother picked me up so I could get a better look. There he was in his fireman's uniform -- his hat was on the lid covering his feet. He looked the picture of health, much better in fact than most of us did this time of the year. It wasn't so bad, really. But I was glad when my mother put me down all the same.
"I'm hungry, Ma -- we gonna' eat soon?"
The five of us ate early. We got the dishes done and by seven o'clock we were all sitting in the living room with Grandpa waiting for the first visitors to arrive. There weren't any. My grandfather didn't have many friends and the ones he did have probably didn't know he was dead. Tomorrow night was supposed to be the big night. That's when Pastor Tremayne and a delegation from the fire department would be there for the wake.
We about gave up when my grandfather's sister arrived. She said she couldn't be there for the wake the following night. I don't think she saw my grandfather once since grandma died, but she put up such a show of grief that one might think they had been inseparable.
She had a cup of tea in the kitchen before leaving -- "What will I do without him," she sobbed, "I'll try and make the 'layin' in' .... day after tomorrow, you said, right?" Then she had to go.
It was nine o'clock and grandpa hadn't drawn much of a crowd. O'Dell came in with a little black make-up kit to check on his appearance, and said he'd be back again tomorrow night before the service and when he left, my father closed the lid on the coffin abruptly and said we should all go to bed.
I lay next to my mother and wondered how my father was getting along in the next room with grandpa. He suddenly began to sneeze and I nudged my mother to asked, "That's not grandpa, is it?"
She went in to see what was wrong and came back with my father. He got into bed, with me between them -- just like old times. He never realized he was allergic to gardenias. It took him a while to quiet down.
"Did'ja ever sleep between your mother and father, pop?"
"Shut up and go to sleep," he answered.
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