A Necessary Sadness

By Caroline Misner

 

The mourners queued beside the casket that held the body of Gene Paloni, each one pausing to gaze into his lined face before moving on.  Some commented on how peaceful he looked, as though he was merely sleeping; others dipped their heads in deference when they passed.  Even in death the old man’s presence commanded respect.  His son Arthur eyed each mourner warily, even as they murmured their condolences, allowing few to approach the casket.  They handed Arthur flowers and he laid them on the altar that creaked under the weight of so many wreaths and garlands and bouquets.

 

He glanced across the viewing room at Gene’s widow.  She sat in the first pew shrouded in black, a costume she had resigned herself to wearing the rest of her life.  She was flanked on either side by Arthur’s wife, Natalie and his daughter-in-law Magpie.  They held her gnarled fingers and tried to comfort the old women who wept silent tears behind a veil lowered over her eyes.  He saw the wetness on her withered cheeks glisten through the dark lace and his heart bunched with grief. It pained Arthur to put his mother through such an ordeal.  She was getting on in years and her memory was beginning to fade; she didn’t deserve to have her husband of almost sixty years snatched away from her so suddenly and deliberately.  She had sworn never to forgive Arthur for not holding the funeral in the Church of the Holy Trinity.  The old woman was as devout as Mother Superior.  Though Arthur’s own beliefs had abated over the years, even he could not bring himself to do that.  It would soon be over, he thought; soon his parents would be on a plane bound for Europe and the family could put this whole ordeal behind them.

 

The crowd around the casket dwindled and people milled about in clusters of two or three and spoke in whispers to one anther.  Arthur’s son Danny approached the group of grieving women, temporarily abandoning his post where he was stationed to guard the entrance with his cousin Vince.

 

“How’s Nonna?” he asked his wife.

 

“Poor Nonna,” Magpie lifted the veil and dabbed the old woman’s cheeks with a wrinkled tissue.  “She’s not good.”

 

Danny patted his grandmother’s arm, as frail and wizened as a broken twig, and forced a smile.

 

“Be brave, Nonna,” he said.  “This will all be over soon.”

 

“Danny!”  Arthur barked through his clenched jaw and beckoned his son over.  “What are you doing in here?  I told you to watch the door with Vince.”

 

“No one else is coming,” Danny replied.

 

“Chino’s boys still outside?” Arthur asked.

 

Danny nodded.

 

“They’re not doing anything.  Just standing around and watching everyone come in,” he said.

 

“Stay away from them,” Arthur cocked his head in the direction of the women.  “You got a big mouth on you and I don’t want you to spill the beans to your mother till this is all over.”

 

“I won’t tell,” Danny promised.  His father patted him on the cheek, though to Danny it felt more like a soft slap.

 

“Go back to the door,” he said and patted his left breast pocket where he kept his walkie-talkie.  “I’ll call you if I need you.”

 

Danny nodded and left.  Arthur watched his son thread his way through the crowd and slip into the foyer to join Vince.  He was a good boy for the most part, Arthur decided, but he was still so young and undisciplined.  With Gene gone, he was closer to inheriting the family business and he needed to be toughened up.  He was privy to the scheme and had agreed with his father and cousin not to tell the women until his grandparents were safely on their way to Cyprus, but Arthur couldn’t depend on him to keep mum.  At the moment Danny was distracted, his head filled with the naïve musings of his new wife.  There were times when Arthur admonished himself for allowing the boy to marry so young.  But they were madly in love and she was so sweet and alluring.  Most importantly Magpie came from a good family.  Her father owned the funeral home and the family connection could come in very handy for times such as these.  It took very little persuasion to hold Gene’s funeral on his own terms.

 

He joined his mother and wife in the front pews.  The old woman was by now pinching her rosary between her leathery fingers and muttering prayers through her shriveled lips, the veil lifting from her face with each breathe.  He longed to tell his mother the truth, but he knew to do so, especially now, would put the entire family in jeopardy.

 

The walkie-talkie buzzed against his chest and all the nerves in his body seized on the precipice of panic.

 

“Excuse me, ladies.” He tried to sound casual as he rose from the pew and held the walkie-talkie to his ear, turning his back to them.  “What is it?”

 

“You’ve got to come out here, dad.” Danny’s voice crackled through the receiver.  “We’ve got a problem.  Spinoza’s here.”

 

“I’m coming.”

 

Arthur slipped the walkie-talkie back into his pocket and nodded toward the guards who were queued along the far wall beside Gene’s coffin and keeping the mourners at an appropriate distance. Several of them nodded back and fell into step behind him as he headed toward the foyer.

 

Vince was standing at the door to the funeral home, his broad shoulders blotting out the sunlight from the street.  He stood before Spinoza with his arms crossed over his chest and stepped sideways, blocking his entrance into the building.  Danny stood to the side, fidgeting with the walkie-talkie and trying to look authoritative, though he was half the weight of each man.  This was worse than Arthur had expected.  He knew Chino would be sending his henchmen to oversee the funeral from a safe distance across the street, but he never thought any of them would have the audacity to actually attend.

 

“Spinoza!” Arthur said and Vince stepped aside.  “I should have known.  What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”

 

“I’m here like everyone else,” Spinoza replied and smiled, stretching his arms in a gesture of innocence. “I’ve come with my wife and daughter to pay my respects to your father.”

 

“Don’t bullshit me at a time like this,” Arthur said and nodded toward the two women behind him.  “Pardon my language, ladies.”

 

Spinoza’s wife forced a weak smile.  It was evident she did not want to be there.  His daughter shuffled her feet beside her mother and glanced down at the floor as though the design in the tiles was the most fascinating thing in the world.  She was a chubby pasty-faced girl in her late teens.  Her hair was greasy and unkempt and dark shadows hung below her swollen eyes as though she had not slept in several days.  She wore a large loose coat too warm for the weather and carried and enormous bouquet of pink carnations in her arms.  She would make one of the soldiers a good wife someday, Arthur decided.  Homely and docile, she knew when to keep her mouth shut.

 

“What? You don’t believe me?” Spinoza said.

 

“I wouldn’t trust you if you were dead and buried,” Arthur said.  “Did Chino send you?  What does he want?  A death certificate?  He should be happy none of his goons is going to collect the bounty on pop’s head.  He just saved himself a bundle.”

 

“Now is that any way to talk at a time like this?” Spinoza grinned as he spoke and a gold tooth winked from below his moustache.  “I’ve come of my own accord to pay my respects.  You know my wife’s father went to school with Gene. You’re going to break her heart if you don’t let us in.”

 

“You think I’m stupid enough to let you in here?” Arthur asked.

 

“Check me over if you don’t believe me,” Spinoza offered and lifted both arms over his head as though surrendering to an advancing army.

 

Arthur nodded toward his guards.  One of them grabbed Spinoza and spun him around, shoving him against the wall.  The other pried Spinoza’s legs apart and shuffled his hands up and down the sides of his body.

 

“Arthur!”  Natalie called from down the hall.  She stalked toward him, her high heels clicking rhythmically against the floor.  “What is going on around here?”

 

“Get back to Ma,” Arthur said.  “This don’t concern you.”

 

“This does concern me,” Natalie shouted.  “This is my father-in-law’s funeral and I will not have of your boys showing any disrespect to such a great man.  Everyone here is welcome.  Let him go!”

 

“He’s clean anyway,” the guard said and stepped away from Spinoza.

 

“I’m terribly sorry for this disgusting display,” Natalie said to Spinoza’s wife.  She gathered the woman’s hands in her own and guided her through the foyer.  The girl followed, her eyes still cast down at the floor.  “Please come in and pay your respects.  We’re honoured to have you.”

 

“See what I mean?” Spinoza said.  He slicked his hair back and adjusted his tie.  “We’re innocent.”

 

“I’m going to be keeping my eyes on you,” Arthur warned and wagged a finger

in Spinoza’s direction.

 

“I have nothing to hide,” Spinoza said and followed his family down the hall.

 

Vince joined Arthur and watched the Spinoza family step into the viewing room.

 

“Don’t let him out of your sight,” Arthur said.

 

“He won’t get too close,” Vince replied and glanced at his watch.  “It’s almost time to go anyway.”

 

“I think we just might be able to get away with it,” Arthur said.

 

“You’re a genius, Art,” Vince followed him back to the viewing room.

 

Several people were preparing to leave.  Natalie was smiling and shaking hands with an elderly couple and accepting their condolences.  Magpie was still sitting with Nonna who had lapsed into a stupor of grief, her rosary swaying from her trembling hands. Arthur saw Spinoza’s daughter standing by the casket. She had somehow slipped past the velvet rope that cordoned the casket off from the rest of the room.  Unlike her parents, who had given Gene little more than a cursory glance before moving on, she paused and gazed down into the old man’s face.  The carnations drooped in her arms when she bent over and laid the bouquet over Gene’s chest.  A guard stepped forward, startling her.  She stared up at the man in terror, her red-rimmed eyes wide and glassy.

 

“Step away from the body, Miss,” the guard said and pointed toward the door.

 

“It’s all right,” Arthur interrupted.  “Thank you for the beautiful flowers, Miss Spinoza.  Just leave them there.”

 

The girl’s head jerked around and she stared back at Arthur.  Her pale face was flushed at the cheeks as though she was struggling to hold back tears.  She cast her eyes away and scuttled past the velvet rope to join her parents who were chatting with a group of people by the door.  Arthur silently chastised himself for not watching him more closely, but the girl seemed innocent enough.

 

Vince beckoned Arthur over and tapped his watched.

 

“It’s time to go,” he said as Arthur approached. “Give your little speech and let’s do this.”

 

Arthur nodded and cleared his throat before turning to address the crowd.  Behind him Vince lowered the lid over Gene Paloni’s body.

 

“Ladies and gentleman,” Arthur began.  “My family and I want to thank each and every one of you for your generosity and support during this very difficult time.  As you all know, my father was a great man and he will be sorely missed by everyone who has ever known him.”

 

He shifted his glance to Spinoza who was standing by the door with his family, arms crossed over his chest.

 

“It’s a shame he was snatched away from us so suddenly,” he continued. “The community will suffer from the loss of such a fine person.  He was a good husband, a good provider for his wife and sons and grandchildren.  He was hard working and generous.  His death has made a big hole in our lives, a hole that can never be filled.  Thank you again for coming.  There will be refreshments served at my home this afternoon.  I will personally oversee his transport to the crematorium and I will join you all there later today.  God bless you all and drive safely.”

 

A fresh wave of tears erupted from Nonna’s eyes.  Natalie and Magpie lifted the old women to her feet and helped her shuffle toward the door with the rest of the crowd.  Arthur watched them leave and another surge of aguish gripped his heart.  He longed to tell his mother the truth, how necessary it was, how soon she would be on a plane bound for Cyprus where his parents could live out the remainder of their years among the olives groves of his uncle’s estate.

 

“You’re a great actor, Art,” Vince said behind him.  “That was an Academy Award performance.”

 

“Never mind that,” Arthur replied and waved Danny over.  “Let’s get this over with before we’re found out.”

 

***

 

Inside the casket, Gene opened his eyes and gazed into darkness.  He was vaguely aware of the scent of flowers and muffled voices that rose and faded from somewhere beyond the coffin.  He licked his pasty lips and tried not to move. The Rohypnol clouded his mind, but he knew that it was important he remain still and silent until Arthur and Vince got him into the hearse.

 

He felt himself being lifted, launched through the darkness and placed on the shoulders of his guards.  He felt as though he was flying as they carried his casket out of the funeral home and toward the exit where the hearse awaited them along with several limousines to take the family home.  Gene thought of his son, Arthur, and the danger he would be in if the scheme failed.  His heart swelled with love and admiration.  He would be a fine successor to the family business.

 

The coffin was sealed so that no sunlight could seep through when it was brought outside.  Gene felt himself slide smoothly into the back of the hearse and heard the doors shut behind him.  He knew Chino’s men were lined up at a respectable distance across the street, watching the procession.  They had managed to fool them all.  Gene smiled to himself.  Soon he would be on an airplane with his beloved wife.

 

The engine roared to life. Gene was jostled in the casket as the car lurched forward.  Now he could move.  His limbs were stiff and cramped from remaining in the same position for so long and he longed to stretch and walk about, despite the arthritis that plagued his joints from time to time.  His arms had been crossed over his chest and he moved them downward, feeling every muscle and tendon creak under the effort.  His fingers touched something soft and feathery.  The carnations had slipped from his chest and scattered down the sides of his body.  He ran his fingers through the moist corrugated petals and wondered which kind soul had brought them.  More flowers fell away when he moved his arm.

 

He felt something else, something warm and round bundled in a rough towel.  His heart froze. Instinct warned him that someone had place a bomb inside the casket, just to remove any doubt of his demise.  He was more frightened for the lives of Arthur and Vince and his beloved grandson Danny who he knew were in the front seat.  He raised his other arm to pound on the lid when the bundle moved.  A soft squeak emanated from the towel.

 

“What’s this?”  He whispered.

 

It was so dark within the casket he couldn’t see anything, and so cramped he could barely lift his head.  He groped at the bundle until the towel fell away among the carnations and he felt something velvety squirm around in his cupped hands.

 

“It’s a little bambino!” he gasped.  “What are you doing in here, little one?”

 

The baby was so small it must have been a newborn and most likely premature.  He slid his hand around the crown of the infant’s head where a patch of downy hair sprouted.  Sliding his fingers across the face his finger found a small moist hole.  He slipped his finger into it and felt a tiny tongue as the lips greedily sucked the tip.  He found the towel and wrapped it around the baby’s body before lifting it and cradling the child against his chest.

 

“There, there, little one,” he cooed.  “My boy Arthur will let us out soon.  We will be all right.”

 

The baby wriggled and Gene felt the little mouth open wide and gasp for breath. He was so startled to have found the child that he had failed to notice the air within the casket was growing increasingly thick and stale.  They would both soon suffocate if Arthur didn’t get them to the warehouse soon.  He lifted his head as best he could from his cramped position until his chin rested on his chest and blew a stream of air from his puckered lips into the infant’s face.  He felt the tiny mouth open wide and release a weak cry.

 

“Take care, little one,” he said to the child.  “Have some of my air.  I have plenty and I don’t need much.”

 

He had felt that same tingling sensation before, creeping up his arm and laying pressure upon his chest.  Gene’s head fell back into the plush cushions.  The pressure was stronger this time and the tingling sensation so intense it merged into the pain blooming from the centre of chest.  A cold sweat beaded his brow and upper lip, despite the heat and stuffiness of the casket.  He opened his mouth to call out but all that emerged was a feeble gurgle.  The pain tore through him and his body spasmed, almost knocking the baby from his body.  He tried to pound his fist into the lid but the pain pinned him down.  He shut his eyes and tried to will the pain away.  All he saw was stars, bright beautiful stars erupting behind his closed lids that danced and blazed in time to the waves of pain that surged through his very being.  Even when he opened his eyes the stars filled his field of vision in brilliant colours and shapes.  The infant on his chest curled its body into a hard little nugget within the towel and fell asleep.

 

***

 

“We’re here,” Danny called to Vince and Arthur from the driver’s seat.

 

They had arrived at a nondescript warehouse in an abandoned industrial neighbourhood.  Vince slipped out of the hearse before it came to a full stop.  He lifted a docking door with peeling paint and faded instructions on the unloading of cargo pasted to it.  The hearse rolled into the warehouse and the door slammed down behind it.

 

“Help me with this,” Arthur told his son. Danny shut off the engine.

 

They stepped out of the hearse, their shoes echoing off the cinderblock walls.  The warehouse was massive, stretching down long rows of abandoned shelving coated with dust and speckled with rat turds.  A pair of weak florescent lights buzzed and blazed from the high vaulted ceiling, rippling the shadows of the three men as they opened the back of the hearse and pulled the casket out, lowering it to the grimy concrete floor.

 

“We did it!” Arthur beamed, his face flushed with relief.  He pounded his fist into the coffin and leaned down to call through the crack.  “Hang in there, Pop.  We’ll get you out.”

 

Vince lifted the lid with a crowbar he had fetched from the back of the hearse.  The lid swung open with a muted creak and the three men knelt down and peered inside.

 

Gene’s vacant eyes stared up at the hissing lights.  The carnations had shifted during the transport and lay scattered around his body.  A knotted bloodstained towel lay on his chest.  Even through the mortician’s makeup that powdered his face and filled the creases around his eyes and mouth, they could see that he was dead.

 

“Pop!”  Arthur called and shook his father frantically, refusing to believe what he was seeing.  “Pop! Wake up!  We made it.  You’re safe Pop.  Wake up!”

 

“What the hell?”  Vince leaned over the body and placed two fingers against the side of Gene’s neck.

 

“What’s wrong?” Danny’s face contorted in anguish.  “What’s happened to him?”

 

Vince lifted his face and stared at Arthur and Danny.

 

“Jesus!”  he said.  “He’s really dead.”

 

“He can’t be.  That’s impossible!” Arthur shouted.

 

“Oh, Nonno!” Danny wept and clasped the old man’s hand in his own, pressing the gnarled knuckles to his face where tears beaded his cheeks.

 

“It’s that goddam bastard, Spinoza!” Arthur slapped his fist against the side of the coffin.  “I knew I shouldn’t have let him in!  How can I be so stupid?”

 

“You don’t know that for sure.”  Vince said, but he knew it would be impossible to reason with Arthur for the time being.

 

Arthur’s lip curled into a snarl of rage and grief.    He gazed into the old man’s lifeless eyes and tears plopped into the folds of his suit.

 

“Don’t you worry, Pop.” he said.  “I’ll get them back for you.  All of them!  They’re all going to pay for this!”

 

“Take it easy.”  Vince said and placed a firm hand on Arthur’s shoulder.  “We’ve got to stay calm.  I’ll make a few calls from the car and we’ll get Gene to the crematorium.  No one will be any the wiser.”

 

“Call a meeting,”  Arthur wailed.  “I’m putting a price on Chino’s head, twice what he put on Pop.  He’s not getting away with this.”

 

Danny covered his mouth with his cupped hand as though he was about to vomit.  He turned away and pressed his brow into the cold crumbling wall.  He didn’t want his father and cousin to see him cry.  Vince noticed the towel on Gene’s chest and reached into the casket to pick it up, certain that it was somehow involved in Gene’s death.  A weak cry, little more than a squeak, stirred the towel.

 

“What the hell is this?” Vince gasped when he peeled back the corners.

 

The baby released a long throaty cry that reverberated throughout the warehouse. Startled, Arthur and Danny turned and gaped into the coffin.  Vince reached in and gingerly lifted the baby from Gene’s chest, cradling it in his arms.

 

“This is some kind of sick joke,” Arthur gasped.  “Chino’s sunk to a new low.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Vince replied.  He was the father of seven children and he knew how to hold a weeping infant in his arms.  “I think this was meant to be.  I think this is a miracle.”

 

“This ain’t no miracle.”  Arthur said.  “That kid must have come from somewhere.”

 

“Wherever he came from, it doesn’t matter now.” Vince replied.

 

He gazed into the child’s pink wrinkled face.  The baby was so tiny he almost disappeared in the crook of Vince’s arm.  His thin fragile limbs flailed in all directions until Vince wrapped his body in the towel.  He noticed the umbilical cord still attached to the infant’s belly and sagging down between the legs, a ragged blue-white cable that looked as though it had been hastily severed by someone’s teeth.

 

“What are we going to do with it?” Danny asked.

 

“We’re going to keep him,” Vince replied.

 

“You’re out of your mind.” Arthur snarled.  “I’m not taking care of any kid that some sick bastard slipped into my Pop’s coffin.”

 

“Not you, Art,” Vince said and smiled over at Danny.  “You Danny.  You keep the baby.  Think of it as a final gift from your Nonno to you.”

 

“What?” Danny stepped backward and held up both hands defensively.  “I’m not taking that baby.”

 

“Yes you are.” Vince stepped toward him.  “You’re just the right age to start a family.  Give the baby to that new wife of yours, what’s her name.  Meadowlark?”

 

“Magpie.”

 

“Magpie,” Vince said.  “Tell her the truth if you like.  Tell her you decided to adopt because you just couldn’t wait to start a family.  Here, take him.  He’s yours.”

 

“I can’t.” Danny shook his head.  “That baby belongs to someone.  The mother will be looking for it.”

 

“The mother is long gone, Danny,” Vince replied.  “You know that.”

 

Danny’s eyes darted to his father, seeking admonition and reassurance.  Arthur nodded toward his son.

 

“Take him, Danny.” He said.  “Vince is right.  The mother is long gone.  Vince and me are too old to start another family.  It’s up to you.”

 

“I’m not ready for this,” Danny shook his head.

 

“Nobody’s ready when they first become a father,” Vince said and handed the bundle to Danny.  “But it grows on you.  Trust me.  You’ll make a good father.  Your Nonno would be proud.”

 

The baby was so light Danny scarcely felt his weight in his arms.  He had stopped crying and opened his eyes, squinting up into his new father’s face as though seeing a human being for the first time.  Danny smiled and stroked the dark downy hair on the baby’s head.

 

“You got a name for him?” Arthur asked.

 

“Yes,” Danny replied.  “Eugene Paloni II.”

 

“Good boy.” Vince nodded his approval and turned to retrieve his cell phone from the hearse.

 

“Good bye, Pop,” Arthur said and turned toward the casket.

 

He lowered the lid over his father’s body.

 

 

 

_____________

Caroline was born in a country that at the time was known as Czechoslovakia. She immigrated to Canada in the summer of 1969. Her work has appeared in numerous consumer and literary journals in Canada, the USA and the UK, most notably “The Windsor Review”, “Prairie Journal” and “Dreamcatcher”. Her work can be viewed on line at www.thefurnacereview.com, www.glass-poetry.com and www.millerspondpoetry.com. Her short story “Strange Fruit” was nominated for the

Writers’ Trust/McClelland-Steward Journey Anthology Prize in 2008. In the autumn of 2010, her poem “Piano Lesson” was nominated for The Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Georgetown Ontario where she continues to read, write and follow her muse, wherever it may take her.

 


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