It's a Monday night in December at Malone's, which means Colleen and I are meeting for drinks to discuss last week's funerals. At the far end of the bar there's a game on the telly, and all the men are crowding around it, drinking longneck bottles of beer. It's an after-work crowd—men with rolled up sleeves and loosened ties, women in skirts and trainers. The Giants are down by seven, and their play-off hopes are on the line, the announcer informs us. A shrill whistle interrupts play, and three men in caps and striped shirts converge. The crowd hushes for the ruling. The call appears to go against the Giants as a collective groan is heard from the bar. Nick is hunched in his chair at home, no doubt, waving his arms and swearing at the picture like the little man behind the glass can see and hear him. I don't pretend to understand American football, or men, or Nick. Nick is a Giants fan. He is drunk and on his feet by now. He is a son-of-a-bitch when he's drunk. He is a son-of-a-bitch period. Which is another reason I'm drinking whisky sours on a Monday night with my sister Colleen.
How many this week? she says and lights a cigarette.
Three, I say. And I wish you wouldn't smoke. She ignores me. You've had a haircut, I say. Looks nice.
Thanks, she says. At forty-six, men still gawk at her. In fact, there's a man at the bar with a mustache grinning our way, and I know he's not interested in me. Colleen got Mum's good looks. I got Da's height and strength. Which I'd be happier about if I were a man, I suppose.
The mustache smiles and ambles over to our table. Asks if he can buy us a round. Colleen takes a pull off her cigarette and says, Piss off! Blue smoke issues from her nose like exhaust from a tailpipe. She turns away from him and drains her drink. The mustache blinks and sways a little. You can see the wheels turning ever so slowly in his head. He's working on a comeback, but nothing's coming. Well, go on then, she says. Get back to your game. The boys are waiting. The mustache looks perplexed, but does as he's told. I have to smile because I could never do that.
Dickhead at home watching the game? she says. I nod. She frowns and takes another drag off her cigarette before rubbing it out. She stares at her empty drink and reaches in to grab the maraschino cherry by the stem. Her eyes are dark tonight, and her face has a hard look to it like all the joy has gone out of it. If she weren't my baby sister, I know I'd be afraid of her.
The new waiter with the piercing blue eyes comes our way and gives my heart a flutter. Colleen orders another round without asking me if I'm ready for another. I've still got half my drink left. It's not easy keeping up with Colleen when she's like this.
Her hard face reminds me of Thursday's funeral: St. Anthony's Church in Brooklyn; Boraccio & Sons, the undertakers. Big turnout. All those Italians with the dark eyes and the hard set jaws. One man in particular stands out. Brother of the deceased, I think. A face like carved stone. It's tough to lose a brother. Handsome man, but too short for me. He leads the widow up the aisle. She's a wreck, he's composed. Not a black hair out of place. He comes back for the four foot eleven grandmother. She's old, but there's something timeless about her—like she was always that age. So compact, she looks like she could go on forever. There's one at every Italian funeral. It's always the short ones who go on forever, isn't it? Never the tall ones. At six-two my days are numbered. I'll never make it to her age, I think, as she takes her seat in the first row next to the widow. Her legs barely make it to the floor. The man with the stone face slides in next to her. His hard profile exudes both dignity and sorrow. Losing a brother is tough. But losing a son is harder.
Monday is an open casket: Westchester, St. Mary's Church; Claxson & Sons. The mother tries to climb in with her son. Has to be led away. Nothing is harder than burying a child. I should know.
Colleen lights another cigarette. You're addicted to death, she says. I should deny it, but she's right. So I am. And you're addicted to cigarettes, I say and lift my glass. Since Kathleen went off to college, I've been to literally hundreds of funerals. I know all the funeral directors and their partners in the city and outside within a twenty-five mile radius. Most of them are gay. Colleen knows all this by now, of course. She takes another gulp from her drink and swishes her tongue across the front of her teeth. Tonight something heavy is upon her, but after three drinks, her eyes are not so dark. She's working toward the sparkle, and so am I. The game goes to commercial, and it's all trucks and beer for two minutes.
The waiter brings more drinks, and Colleen stirs hers with one of those red swizzle sticks and looks up at me with those hard green eyes and says, So what happened this week? This is the cue I've been waiting for, and I launch right in like I'm giving one of those book reports to the nuns at St. Catherine's. That was long ago. Before America, before Nick, before Kathleen. Before burying Declan, poor soul. I tell her about the child on Friday who started to sing during the interment in Far Rockaway. This brings a smile, and her eyes look a little brighter. I'm glad I've made her smile, but I tell her, No, this isn't a funny story.
The waiter is bringing another round, and we're still in Far Rockaway with the singing child. The poor thing doesn't understand her mother's gone. Ee—aye—ee—aye—oh! she says when her father drops a handful of dirt on the coffin. He gives her a tender look, and suddenly we're both bawling. The waiter wants to know if he should come back later. Our cheeks thick with tears, Colleen says, Don't be ridiculous, leave us the damned drinks! He looks nervous and sets a stack of cocktail napkins between us. I blow my nose, and so does Colleen.
Far Rockaway, that's one I had to make up. No little girl, no song. No handful of dirt. None of it is true. I know, it's terrible to make up a thing like that. I shouldn't have, but I did. You see, the truth is, some weeks nothing remarkable happens, and there's Colleen starting to brighten, working toward the sparkle. And there I am with nothing left to tell.
Yes, sometimes I have to twist the facts a bit. But it's worth it just to see Colleen's eyes widen, to stop her mid-gulp as she takes a mouthful from her glass. Colleen does not sip, she gulps; so getting her to stop is like getting a baby boy to stop pissing when you're changing his nappy. It's next to impossible. But putting some of the light back in her eyes—well, I'd say just about anything to see that again. And so would you if you'd seen her smile as a child. A smile like Times Square at night, a million jillion watts of light. Believe me, you'd say just about anything to catch a glimpse of that—especially if she was your baby sister.
The last time I saw a really good Times Square smile was when I told her about the dropped coffin. Almost choked on her maraschino cherry, she did, and I didn't even have to make that one up. But that doesn't happen every day, now does it?
Colleen's no fool. She knows sometimes I have to lie, make things up—like the priest with the nosebleed. That didn't actually happen, but it should have. Maybe there was some blood, maybe he blew his nose—rubbed it perhaps—I really don't remember. But when I tell it, it's one of those bitter cold days when everyone's face is numb from a north wind, and the blood begins to seep down his lip and onto his chin. No one says a thing, but everyone notices. Finally, a balding young man offers him his handkerchief, and he gets the hint. Colleen likes that one, but not as much as the dropped coffin.
The thing is, when you get good at lying, I mean really, good at it, sometimes you start to believe—sometimes the lie is so good, you wish it were true. Colleen will look up from her drink, her eyes wide, and say, Did that really happen? And, yes, sometimes she'll even stop drinking—and I'll say, Yes. Honest to God's truth. Then she knows I'm lying, and I know she knows I'm lying, but I'll look her dead on and say, St. Catherine's word, which means I'm really serious. Sometimes I'll even place my hand over me heart for a more dramatic effect. But not too often or she'll really know I'm lying. You can't ham it up too much or they'll know you're lying. The trick is to underplay it.
Sometimes even I almost believe the lie, and the more I keep it up, the more real it becomes. I just keep rubbing and polishing it like some speckled old apple until it looks so shiny and delicious and real you could swallow it whole. Sometimes the lie gets so real it is more real than the things that actually happen. Because it should have happened. That's what all stories are, after all, aren't they— all the things in life that should or shouldn't have happened?
But the truth is, I've stopped going to funerals. Friday was it—the last one. A door slammed shut inside me, and I thought, well now, that's it, that's enough of that. I don't know why, really. Just had enough, finally, I suppose. Which leaves me with what you might call an ethical dilemma. Do I tell Colleen, or do I just go on making up stories? I'm pretty good at lying. She'd never really know, now, would she?
The truth is, I'm not sure I can stop. Lately, I'm not sure who I'm telling the stories for. Because when I'm at home and Dickhead's off at work and Kathleen's off at college, and I walk past that door I still can't bring meself to open—well, let's just say I'm beginning to think it's not Colleen who needs the stories.
It's Tuesday and we're in the Bronx, Orthodox funeral, and the seeing-eye dog has stolen an old man's yarmulke. The dog won't give it back, and there's a bit of a scuffle. A tangle of fur and black coats. The old man gets it back, but he's not sure if he should put it back on now. He stares at it doubtfully—as though there are teeth marks on it—or saliva—or both. Colleen is laughing now, and I'm laughing, and the waiter comes over, and neither of us can catch our breath. He tells us he's glad were feeling better, and then he's off with a tray of colorful drinks. A burst of cheers comes from the bar. The Giants must have scored. Men are hugging and high-fiving like mad. Nick must be dancing a jig around the telly. Colleen is reaching for another cigarette. In my head I'm already composing Monday's wake in Sunnyside. My heart is flapping against me ribs like a bird in a cage. I wish the waiter with the piercing blue eyes would come back again. We've caught our breath now. Let me have another look at those eyes. I really need the sparkle tonight. I really do.
The waiter brings another round of drinks, and I've had so many my tongue won't work. If I could see clearly, I'm sure I would see the fickle old light has returned to Colleen's eyes. But everything is swimming in my vision, an orgy of color and bodies and objects. I feel so light and free I think I could just soar right out the bar and down the street on one of Colleen's dizzying smiles. I'll be sorry tomorrow when the headache comes, and the door to his room is still shut tight, but right now the world is sparkling, giving me the old Times Square teeth, and everything is as it should be—if only for a moment. And for right now, that's enough.