The Last Word by Michael Nugent

O’Connell Funeral Home

Tom saw Murphy and walked into the back row of folding chairs set up over to the far left of the casket. It was out of the way of the throngs that would be coming to see the dearly departed off on his final journey. It would be quiet, good for sitting and talking.

“About time,” said Murphy, looking up. “You’d be late for your own funeral.”

“Sure hope so.” Tom sat down. “And you, Murph? I bet you’ll be good ’n early to yours. Right? You’ll tell a few jokes. Lighten up the crowd. Goose the widow wife.”

“I don’t think,” said Murphy, “that the grieving widow will be showing herself at any funeral of mine.”

Tom looked out at the casket in the middle of the showing room. “I’m not going up there to pay my respects ’til the bitter end. I don’t wanna see what Jimmy and Mabes has done to the poor body this time. They’re losing their touch. They used to be artists.”

“Yeah, they’re slowing down. Jimmy and Mabes are still living upstairs, doncha know.”

“I know this, Murphy. All these bodies down here, all the ones in the back they’re prepping for tomorrow’s wakes. Jesus, what fucking company to have underfoot.”

“Not much different than the stiffs you hang with.”

“Present company included,” Tom sniffed.

“This wake is gonna last three fuckin days?”

“You bet, Murphy. They’re saying there’s a good many people who want to say their good byes. They’re already lining up.” Tom stood to take off his heavy winter coat. “Hot in here. But it’s gotta be twenty below outside.”

“I’m just hearing that wind howling loud. It won’t let up, Tom.”

“It’s not the wind, Murph. It’s the sound comin from all the dead bodies Jimmy and Mabes fucked up. They’re back to moan about how they looked at their send-offs. You’re supposed to look good, Murph. At least once in your life. At least when you’re checkin out.”

“When it don’t count a whit.”

Tom chuckled to himself. “You’re right about that,” he mumbled. “Ya can’t get laid when you’re in the grave.”

“Jimmy and Mabes drink when they work on the bodies in the back. You know that?”

“That I didn’t know, Murphy. You’re a veritable font.”

“They say it kills the smells. And when the gases in the bodies cause the dead to jerk around the table and to pop up like they’re about to shout surprise outta their open fuckin mouths? They say the drink makes it easier to laugh it all off and just smack the body back down. Jaysus Lord.”

“The drink don’t help much with the smell. You’d think they’d have incense or candles in here to cover up the stink of all those chemicals coming from the back. At least get a fuckin fan in here to suck the bad air out.”

“A whirlin sharp blade at a wake with all these drunks. That would not work out, my friend.”

Tom shrugged. “They got to do something.”

“You know they drain the blood out back there and then shoot shit into your veins and arteries to replace it?”

“Murphy, Murphy, shut up. Have some respect for the occasion, man.”

“They used to have big candles in the showing rooms until one time a grieving family got so piss drunk they knocked the candles over and those maroon drapes that Jimmy and Mabes had hanging all over the fuckin place back then caught fire and the body everyone had come to see almost burnt up right then and there in front of their damn eyes. The fire department had to hose the whole place down and they had to drag three, waterlogged bodies to the bone yard. Jimmy himself was so drunk he tried to piss out the flames.”

“They can do three wakes here at a time? Then they’re haulin in some money, Murph. That much I can tell you.”

“They got three rooms going right now. Some people showed up right here before you arrived. They had a good cry up front at the casket and then realised they had the wrong fucking dead guy and then they dabbed their eyes and wiped their cheeks and just walked outwithout so much as a drink in honour of the poor soul.”

“Where’s the respect these days. At least Jimmy and Mabes decided to toss the candles instead of the booze. No booze would be no good. They’d lose business.”

“This is the only funeral home in a 100 miles, Tom, maybe more.”

“I wouldn’t be waked in a funeral home with no drink, Murph. That ain’t gonna happen.” He pulled a fresh pint out of his blue blazer’s inside pocket and took a long swig. “I’d offer you some but now’s a bad time for you to fall off the wagon.”

“Jimmy and Mabes call it Our Lady of Perpetual Waters.”

“What’s that?”

“The shrine in the lobby where you grabbed your bottle. The table with the votive candles and the memorial cards and the signature book. With our Lady of Fatima and her outstretched hands standing like Vanna White over the rows of pints you can either pocket for the evening or slop into the paper cups if you’re doing shots.”

“I paid a visit to Our Lady, Murphy.”

“I hope you signed the book, Tom.”

“That I did. You know that room off to the right next to Our Lady? When you come in off the street?”

“The Cry Room? With all the tissue boxes?”

“Where the spouses go and wail after seeing all the debt, the mistresses and the gigolos their deadbeat mates left behind. It was pitch dark when I came in.”

“That means just the kids’ll be coming, Tom. The ex- ain’t gonna be setting foot in here.”

“She won’t be comin because she knows her work is done.” Tom nodded up at the casket. “There’s no more suffering she can supply.”

“There’s no more sufferin anyone can supply. It’s done and over.”

A clutch of people walked up to the casket, paper cups of scotch in their upraised hands. One by one they stood over the open casket. One by one they all did down the hatch and walked away to grab a folding chair and some more hooch.

“See that, Murphy? They’re toasting a life well lived. They came here to say thanks and well done. And they’re saying sorry that life with all its pain sucks worse than the love that breaks your heart.”

“Is that what they’re saying, Tom? They’re damn eloquent, aren’t they. You feeling okay? You gettin misty?”

Tom was hunched over naturally. His back and his neck were crooked so that he was always looking down at his feet and the terrain he trod. He had to force his head up to see ahead, to see the sun and the stars. He pushed back a shock of his stiff white hair popping out of the thicket atop his head and at the end of that motion held back his head. He watched the toasts ripple through the growing line of mourners.

“How long have we been friends, Tom?”

“Well, let me see. We met at the American Bar fifty-five years ago. You were the waiter then. You told me to look up and stop staring at my shoes. You said if I looked up I might notice all the pretty ladies around me. I might even behold the delicious brand of scotch you always brought me so I wouldn’t have to ask you its name all the time.”

“You claimed you had a physical condition. Some shit like your spine curved.”

“And you shot right back at me,” Tom snorted. “You said, well then, my man, pull the stick out of your ass and slap it on your back. It’ll all work out.” He snorted louder this time as he shook his head in memory.

Florence, the funeral home attendant in her shiny black jacket and her strangling black tie, looked over at him. She frowned, and shook her head.  He whispered “sorry.” She squinted back. It took everything he had to keep from snorting one more time.

“Me all bent over,” Tom managed when he had his urge to laugh under control. “And you, with that bloated, fat belly of yours that you’ve had since the days you found the tap at the American.”

“Doctors call it malabsorption.”

“That stomach? I knew you were maladjusted. But malabsorbed, you say. Maybe that’s it. The prime of your life lasted, what, four weeks back in ’53? Like a shooting star in the night sky that faded away.”

“Shooting stars don’t fade away, Tom. They run out of room to run. And folks remember the shooting stars. They stick with ya once you’ve seen one. Tell me one you’ve forgotten about.”

Tom craned his neck. “Lookit all the fuckin people coming, Murphy. The line’s out the door and they keep comin. Lookit their faces, mourning what they’ve dressed up to come and see on a night like this.”

*

On the second day of the wake, Tom saw Murphy again and returned to his seat in the back row.

Tom settled into the folding chair, his head down as usual. He started studying his pants, trying to find a crease. He thumbed his blue jacket at the spot where yesterday there was a button. These were the things he wore to church, and to the town hall sing at Christmas, and to the funerals. These were his best things.

“The kids are here,” said Murphy.

Tom looked up. “So they are. Little Jenny and Jonny. They’re the twins?”

“Twins? No. They’re a few years apart but you can’t tell from looking at ‘em. Them getting those names is a tragedy on top of it all.  It was the mother.”

“So, take this Jenny and Jimmy.”

“Jonny. Jenny and Jonny.”

“Yeah, ok. Jonny’s always getting you to laugh. He fuckin lives to bring the smiles out. And Jenny, she’s like the good Lord sprinkled his rosy countenance upon her. Good soul is written all over her ass. But she doesn’t have a clue what to do with it, right?”

“Soon she will.” 

“And the other two, Murphy. Look at ‘em. Willy and Wilhelmina?”

“For Chrissakes, Tom. He’s Phil and she’s Filomena.”

“What’s with the names in this family?”

“The mother, I tell ya.”

“Good ol’ Phil there? He looks like he’s fuckin scared of his own shadow. Look at those fuckin eyes. Darting this way and that.”

“He’s always seen the darkness out there,” said Murphy.

“And in here.” Tom thumped his chest. “You know all about that darkness that’s inside, doncha Murphy? Which is why you, too, just got to get the laughs going and the jokes flowing. You see what’s chasing us from cradle to grave. You know what it is at the end that takes us.”

“Easy on that pint, Tom. You’re practically gushing.”

“Lookit Filomena there. She’s the town mayor for Chrissake, always shaking the hands and patting the backs. But she’s never graced me with her lovely smile, despite me knowing her since the day she was fuckin conceived. Even before.”

“She’s smart that way. She knows who to keep at a distance.”

“They’re all lost. Their father let ‘em piss, but he gave them no direction.”

“Is that what you think, Tom? Is it? Well, time to stop talking ill of the dead. You got enough bad to say about the living.”

Florence disappeared and then came back with two open bottles of single malt fresh from Jimmy and Mabes’ special collection. Normally she opened it when a nun filled the casket, maybe if there was a good priest. The grateful mourners tonight recognised the solemnity of the moment, extending their thirsty cups.

“I always thought old Florence was sweet on the dearly departed.”

“You think so? Where’s that come from, Tom?”

“Just look at her. Standing watch. Reminding us to be sad.”

“It’s what she does, Tom. She’s a sad one by nature, always with that long face, always with that outfit no matter what or where. Even Friday night bowling night. She lets loose a ball like it’s the devil himself at the end of the alley thumbin his nose at her.”

“Those small beady eyes of hers just filled up when she peeked into the coffin. Yes, sir, I’d say she was smitten.”

Florence stopped her pouring and stepped into the centre of the room in front of the casket. She hefted her full cup to the casket. “And here’s to this good man!” she shouted above the hurrahs.

“Lookit the family over there, Tom. Watch em. They’re all alone now.”

“Don’t, Murphy. It only breaks the heart.”

“Like you should know, never having one.”

“A heart?”

“A family,” said Murphy.

“I didn’t because I wouldn’t. Look what mine did to me. Robbed me of hope and will while I was still in grammar school.”

“You always had the chance to shove that all behind you, Tom.”

“But you know what, Mr. Pull-Yourself-Up-by-Your-Own-Bootstraps? Sometimes you can’t. That’s the way it is. I’m bent this way, looking down but never out and never up, because this is the way I got built. I keep my eyes on my shoes so I can see where they’re leadin me. So fuck you, Murphy.”

“You keep your eyes on your shoes and you know what? You hit the wall again and again and you never see an exit.”

“An exit is simply a door into some other shithole.” Tom drained his pint. “It’s all ending now anyway, Murph. We’re here to say our good- byes and then we’ll leave and go back into that cold world with the mournful, unholy cries of the dead who couldn’t get their ugly mugs through the pearly gates because Jimmy and Mabes got too shit-faced to pretty them up. That’s life in a nutshell.”

“You’re fuckin pissed, Tom.”

Tom stood up. “Yes, and I’m gone. I’m grabbin a pint and I’m leavin.” He pointed at the kids in front of the casket, himself teetering back and forth before grabbing a chair back.

“When it’s over, when those kids are outside in this cold night and its wind, they’ll realise at last there’s nothin no more holding them together. The four of ‘em found the rest and the best of themselves in him in that fuckin casket. Without him? They are small. They are partial. Their little dream world he built for them cracks wide open and the darkness outside rushes in and it grabs them fuckin just like this.”

He pulled his arms tight against his chest. He fell back against the mourners behind him. They pushed him back on his unsteady feet. “Watch it, douche,” said one.

“Douche she calls me. At a fuckin wake. Of a fuckin great man. The darkness chasing us is here inside with us already, Murphy. And the body’s still warm, ain’t it.”

Florence came over. “Come on, Tom. Let me walk you out. I got a cab for you.”

“Fuck you, Florence. You never liked me.”

“Still don’t, asshole.”

*

The crowds were even larger the third night. Jimmy and Mabes had whiskey pint bottles lined up before a beaming Our Lady of Perpetual Waters. The raucous flock fought to drown out, or simply drown, the baying winds beyond the front door.

Tom was in his seat.

“Well, my friend. I’ll be back.”

Tom looked up. “Where ya going, Murph?”

“I need to take care of some business.”

“That you do.” Tom watched Murphy leave and then looked at his watch. Almost midnight. The funeral was early tomorrow morning and they were already two hours past the closing time. The family wasn’t showing up tonight. Tom shook his head at that.

Florence made the rounds with a last bottle of single malt, telling people to move on. She’d tried to limit him to one pint for the night but he snuck another one in his pocket when she wasn’t looking. She gave him a farewell mercy hit from the single malt anyway.

Tom counted up to fifty final toasts at the casket before he stopped. More than a bit of drink was sloshed right in there, and more than a few were poured into, and over, the casket’s occupant. Go with God.

It was, finally, time. Time to look him in his dead, fuckin face, and say his good bye. Florence was turning a fake key in a fictional lock, saying move it. Go with God.

He made his way up there, grunted down onto the kneeler, and looked inside. The face looking back at him gave him the shudders, as he knew it would. Collapsed, white, the poor man had lost all his ruddiness, those fat cheeks, he lost his spark that said life was indeed grand. Jimmy and Mabes did their best to get the old, familiar smile back. They showed some of their old artistry. But, in the end, the smile was a grimace of pain.

Tom gave the forehead a kiss. It stunk. It was damp from spilled drink, sweating. The lids of the eyes were opening some, their slits giving a bit of reveal into the soul.

“You had a good run, my friend,” he said. “Lookit all these people come to say their goodbyes. They’ll miss ya. I’ll miss ya even. We had a good run, too.”

There was a fuckin gleam in those eyes looking back. He heard him.

Florence snuck up behind him. “I got to close it, Tom. Get a move on, now. Say your finals.” She backed away.

“Good bye, ol’ Murph,” he said half aloud. “You’ll be back. And we’ll go at it again. What else do we do, but yack, right?” He waited, nodded, saluted, stood slowly, and then headed for the hallway, his back and neck bent, watching his shuffling feet.

Tom had no one left now. When you lose a friend like Murphy, a brother forever like Murphy, there’s a hole there. Along with all the other holes that rip you. You walk through a swiss cheese life.

Florence watched him leave. “I’ll see ya at the American, Tom,” she called out. He waved back at her, if a hand barely lifting up waist high can be called a wave.

She kneeled down at last and dabbed away with a hanky from her jacket some of the collected scotch. She patted Murphy on his clenched hands and held them.

“You were a sweet one, Murphy. I shoulda told ya that. We all shoulda told you that.”

She leaned over and gave him a kiss on his moist lips. “Thank you, Murphy.”

She got up, lowered the lid and turned out the lights.

*  * *

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