by Joann Smith
“My God, it’s the church,” Mary Ryan cried as she and her neighbors Dora Amato and Eddie and Carol Edmunds turned the corner onto the Grand Concourse.
Mary Ryan had been lying in bed when she heard the sirens nearing. She caressed Mike’s side of the bed, just once, her hand wide and slow along the clean sheets. He died there the day before, lying down after dinner, saying he didn’t feel well and suffering a heart attack, while Mary was in the kitchen cleaning the vegetable drawers of the refrigerator; she changed the sheets after coming back from the hospital that night, not wanting to get into a bed where a dead body had lain. When the smell of smoke wafted through her window, she got up and looked out, then dressed and went downstairs, as several of her neighbors had, in search of the fire.
Carol Edmunds pushed through the gathering crowd to the police barricades, beckoning the other three to follow. A fireman in a cherry picker flooded the smoking roof with water, and the crowd gasped collectively when the flames shot through and he had to be reeled away. The three-quarter moon had settled above the church, and the black smoke off the tips of the flames twisted toward it. An exploding sound jolted Mary back onto the toes of a woman behind her: a stained glass window blew out. A newspaper photographer took several shots of the gaping opening where the window had just burst then scanned the crowd for appropriately mournful faces. Carol Edmunds managed to get his attention. “I was baptized here,” she told the photographer who was wearing an I.D. from The Daily News. “So were my husband and our three children.” Mary Ryan said nothing. She had been baptized elsewhere in the Bronx, as had Mike and their daughter, Aileen. And though Mary had attended the 7 A.M. Mass at St. Philip’s almost everyday since they’d moved here twenty years ago and was in the church just that morning, and though Mike’s funeral was supposed to have been held in the church two days from now, and he read The Daily News every day of his life, Mary would not pander for sympathy or attention. She discretely patted the tears from her eyes.
Just your luck, she said now to Mike. He would have liked hearing that: he had spoken about his “bad luck” as if it were something romantic. But Mary had never allowed him his “bad luck.” “You have the same luck as everyone else,” she told him over and over. “Disappointments, Mike, not bad luck. They’re a part of life. Do you think you’re some kind of privileged character who shouldn’t have his share of disappointments?” She cringed now under the scathing of those words. He would have liked it so much better, been able to bear it all easier if he could blame it on bad luck—a trip over his own two feet that left him with a bad back; fired from his job at the insurance company because everyone else in his department was taking bribes to set the claims high, and he had not only never taken so much as a penny but was up for a promotion; not being left the money he was promised by a great aunt; not winning the 50-50 at Church. He could manage to smile about it when he considered it bad luck–the bad luck of having bad luck—as if it were almost charming. But Mary wouldn’t let him have it. “Disappointments, she told him. Just like the rest of us.”And then none of it was as easy to smile about. Why, she asked herself, had she been so harsh? Why, she wondered, was it so important to her that he acknowledge disappointment? What would their marriage have been like if she had been able to say “poor Mike,” and then take him in her arms, instead of telling him to stop feeling sorry for himself?
The photographer took a photo of Carol and moved on.
“Do you see this?” Father Ahearn, the pastor, asked coming over.
“It’s awful,” Carol answered, taking his hands in hers.
“Our beautiful church,” he grieved. Then he gently pulled his hands from Mrs. Edmunds and reached them to Mary. “How are you, Mary?”
Now she took his soft hands in hers. “I’m so sorry about this, Father.”
He shook his head, turned to look at the burning building then back at Mary. “And Mike,” he lamented. “Poor Mike. I’m afraid we can’t have his funeral in the church now.”
“No, I see that,” Mary said, and they both regarded the stone steps down which a rush of water poured.
“But don’t worry,” Father Ahearn reassured her. “We’ll set up the auditorium in the school for Masses. We can do the funeral in there if you like.”
“You mean the gym?” Mary recalled the room that served as auditorium, dance hall, and basketball.
“Or you can call one of the other churches.”
Mary hesitated. “I just want him to have a nice funeral,” she said. “He deserves that.”
“If anyone deserves it, it’s Mike,” Father Ahearn affirmed. “I don’t think anyone loved the church more than Mike did.”
Mary nodded but a familiar resentment rose in her. She was the one who attended Mass everyday, walking up the hill no matter the weather. But it was Mike whom everyone noticed because he made such a show of going on Sundays. In his blue wool suit in the winter, the seersucker in the warm weather, his face clean shaved and braced with aftershave, he’d attend the 9:00 Mass, locking his hands in prayer. After that, he’d join the choir for the 10:00 Mass, and later, for the 11 and 12, he’d usher and help with the collections, parading up and down that long aisle for all to see, greeting as many people as he could, lingering with the priests afterwards as though he wished Masses would go on all day.
“Maybe we should do it in the school.” Father Ahearn interrupted Mary’s silent condemnations of her husband. “I think Mike would want to be here in the parish.”
“I think you’re right,” Mary agreed, and then she bowed her head and asked God and Mike to forgive her unkind thoughts.
But that night her mind wrapped back to the old resentments—his refusal to share the responsibilities of the household and his confidence that his charm made up for it; the attention he got at church; the attention he got from neighbors whenever he took Aileen to the park on Saturdays while Mary cleaned the apartment. Later Mary would hear about it: “Isn’t he wonderful with her!” “What a good father.” “Oh, how he loves her.” No one praised Mary for the bathing of, feeding of, cooking for, dressing of Aileen. No one said, “Oh what a good mother you are.” No one noticed when she took Aileen to the park.
The next morning, Mary put on her brown and black striped dress, combed her short grey hair—Mike had always wanted her to grow it: “I miss your curls,” he used to say. But Mary didn’t have the patience for the unruliness of it. She walked up the hill at 200th Street, the smoke still pungent on her coat and on the morning air. The church had stopped burning, but it was smoldering and three fire trucks remained out front. On the school door was taped the top of a cardboard box with the words MASSES IN GYM printed in black magic marker. Inside, an unlit standing candle and two statues that had been saved from the flames were arranged in a greeting in a corner. A cloth-covered, collapsible table, which was to serve as the altar was set up in front of the stage. Mary took a seat in one of the folding chairs, and realized, as she started to her knees that, of course, there were no kneelers. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, her head bowed, and was unable to pray.
She fell into a fantasy about her marriage, imagining herself answering Mike without the sharpness in her voice. She lingered at the dinner table, chatting, instead of rushing to get the dishes done and a load of laundry in, suggesting a few numbers for his lottery tickets instead of complaining about the waste of it. He was different, too. He brought home strawberry ice cream, her favorite. After dinner, he cleared the table, then put dishes away while she washed, and they talked the whole time, laughed, even. He carried the garbage downstairs without her having to harp about it, and then he poured them a drink, always going a little past the point where Mary said to stop. It seemed that it would have been so easy, all of it, and yet, she had managed none of it. She reminded herself that one of them had had to take charge, one of them had to keep the apartment clean, get the bills paid on time. One of them had to say “no” to Aileen when she always wanted “yes.” And since he didn’t want to do it, she did. Still, she couldn’t stop wondering what it would have been like if she had let the vacuuming go once in a while. Or if she had said “yes” to a Saturday matinee, like she used to when they were first married, instead of insisting that she needed to bleach the tub grout or reorganize the kitchen cupboards. Maybe they could have gone to the Botanical Gardens to see the daffodils. They had done that several times early in their marriage and when Aileen was young. Mary would have liked to see the daffodils again. She wondered if all widows did this—went over their marriages as if they were stories they could rewrite.
Forcing her attention to Father Ahearn’s homily, Mary heard him persuade them that the essence of the church was not gone; it could still be found among them, in them. It was an appropriate sermon, one Mary expected, and she thought ahead to what Father Ahearn would say at the funeral. Surely, he’d talk about how much Mike loved the church.
When he held up the Eucharist, announcing “The Body of Christ,” Mary couldn’t bear not to kneel before it and awkwardly pushed a chair away and lowered herself to the hard floor.
At home, Mary Ryan set out the tuna and macaroni salad she had made during the night when she couldn’t sleep, and two plates, and waited for her daughter. She hoped Aileen would bring the children–Tara, with her chubby pink hands, and Daniel Michael, the baby, who would come to Mary now without crying. With them in the room, Mary and Aileen could speak without having to look at one another, and that might be helpful when Mary had to tell Aileen that her father’s funeral would be held in the school auditorium.
Aileen had taken the news of her father’s death badly, of course. She and Mike were so much closer than she and Mary were. Mary expected the anger. But she expected a little sympathy, too. Instead, she got accusations. “Cleaning a vegetable drawer while your husband was dying, while my father was dying? Do you care about anything besides a clean house?” And “Did it ever occur to you to go in and check on him? Or to call an ambulance when he said he didn’t feel well? Don’t you know the signs of heart attack? Everyone knows the signs of heart attack.”
She told Aileen she couldn’t have done anything. Mike always went to bed before Mary did. Should she have checked on him every night? And why would she call an ambulance when he only said, “I don’t well so well”? His back often bothered him; Mary assumed it was that. But the way Aileen put Mary’s cleaning of a refrigerator drawer and Mike’s dying right next to each other in a sentence made Mary question her behavior. Why couldn’t she have peeked in on him? It was because she had grown so intolerant of his neediness and his lack of awareness that she might be needy, too, that she stopped giving him what he wanted most—her attention. How different would their lives have been if she had not begrudged him his neediness, if she had been able to see it as just a desire for love, a desire for her? How hard would it have been for her to peek in on him with a simple “How are you?” or “Would you like a glass of water?” How he would have appreciated that.
Just before noon, expecting Aileen on time, Mary went to the living room, took two photograph albums from the hutch and placed them on the kitchen table by Aileen’s setting–an offering of some sort. While she waited, Mary flipped through the pages, recalling the circumstances of each photo. There were fewer, by far, of her and Aileen than of Mike and Aileen, and though that was only because Mary was better with the camera, and really didn’t like to have her picture taken, it reminded her of how obviously Aileen preferred Mike’s company and how much more of a history they had then Mary and Aileen had. And why not? Mike was the fun parent and Aileen had always been a daddy’s girl.
“Where are the children?” Mary asked when she opened the door to her daughter at nearly 12:45.
“You don’t bring children to a wake,” Aileen explained impatiently. “Danny’s watching them, and we have a sitter coming. He’ll meet us at the funeral parlor later.”
But no one ever said that Mary couldn’t be a fun parent, too. And Mike had tried to cajole her, telling her to leave the laundry and join him and Aileen in the park or at the zoo. But she would answer him with “Who’ll do it if I don’t?” If memory served her correctly, he hadn’t responded with “I’ll do it,” but only with “It can wait.” How was she supposed to let it wait? How was she supposed to let them go without clean socks and underwear? Plus, she didn’t know how to compete with Mike for Aileen’s affection, and that’s what it always felt like to her—a competition that she knew she would lose. So she accepted her role, and sometimes Aileen needed Mary’s steadiness and practicality but more often she wanted Mike’s lightheartedness.
Aileen didn’t eat but picked up one of the albums and leaned at the sink while Mary worked the salad around in her dry mouth. She glanced over at Aileen’s unused place setting on the table and understood all at once that from now on, she’d be eating alone, trying to swallow every night for the rest of her life.
“We should bring some of these to the wake,” Aileen said removing a photograph from its sleeve. “I want to put them out so people can remember him the way he was, not the way he’ll look in the coffin.”
Mary gave up on the salad.
Aileen took several other photos from the book and placed them on the table; only one included Mary. “I want them back,” Mary said getting up and scraping the remaining salad off her plate into the garbage. Aileen sat down, while Mary put her dish and the one Aileen didn’t eat from, in the sink and began to wash them.
“Leave those for now,” Aileen said.
“And who’ll do them?” She immediately regretted the harshness of her habitual refrain and added more gently, “Look at your pictures. I’ll be right there.”
Aileen huffed then stated, “I’d like to keep some of these.”
“I don’t think I want you breaking up the albums. You can come and look at them whenever you want,” Mary answered.
“I want to take them with me. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Mary looked up at the wall and then back down to the sink. Aileen had visited once or twice a month, but with Mike gone, she wouldn’t be making that kind of effort.
“Remember his harmonica?” Aileen went on pretending not to know that she’d just given Mary an emotional body blow. “Does he still have that?”
“He never played it.”
“He’s playing it right here in this photo. He played it for me,” Aileen stated.
Mary took that blow, too. “Did he? How nice.”
“I think he used to keep it in his top drawer. Can I go look?” Aileen got up before Mary answered.
Mary finished the dishes and walked to the bedroom behind her daughter, then stood next to her as Aileen slowly pulled open the top drawer, and the smell of Mike escaped.
“His Sunday smell,” Aileen whispered.
“Yes, his aftershave,” Mary said. “It’s like he just walked through the room.”
Aileen picked up and regarded the various items in the drawer that Mary knew by heart: his wallet, from which she had already removed thirteen dollars, the broken-handled coffee cup that held his pennies, papers that Mary had gone through, his cuff links and tie clip, a medal of St. Joseph that he never put on a chain, palm from last year’s Palm Sunday service, the harmonica; a deck of cards and his Old Spice.
“Here it is,” Aileen said, taking up the harmonica. She blew through it barely making a sound. I’d like to put this out at the wake, too. I like the idea of having something personal there, something that was special to him.”
Mary didn’t see the point but she didn’t argue. “Just make sure I get it back.”
“I’d like to keep this, too,” Aileen answered. “I might teach myself to play.”
“Fine. You think about what you’d like, and we’ll discuss it. But I don’t want you ransacking your father’s drawer now.”
“I’m not ransacking. I want a few of his things. What do you care about the harmonica, anyway? You didn’t even know he played it. You’ll probably just throw everything out.”
Mary wanted Aileen to know that she wished she could have done things differently, better. But she couldn’t say that without crying, and she didn’t think Aileen wanted to see her cry; she wouldn’t have believed that Mary’s tears were sincere.
“Take whatever you want,” Mary said.
“The photos and the harmonica. And maybe that holy medal.”
Mary nodded. “His St. Joseph. I bought it for him when you were born. He loved being a father. St. Joseph was his favorite saint—the father of Jesus. You should have that.”
Aileen reached into the drawer, took the items she wanted, and then said she needed to put on some make-up for the wake and went into the bathroom.
Mary stood looking into the open drawer after her daughter left the room. She decided she’d keep everything just as it was. She knew Aileen was right and she could be unsentimental, and in the right or wrong mood throw just about everything out. She picked up Mike’s wallet and took the time to examine the items in the pocket behind the credit card sleeve. She found a card identifying him as Catholic and requesting that a priest be called in case of emergency; a card stating his O+ blood type; his lottery tickets—she’d check them, just in case; (wouldn’t that really be Mike’s luck); a faded, folded rectangle of construction paper which she opened carefully, and on which Aileen had written “All All My Love.” It was a Christmas present. Aileen had given each of them one when she was six-years-old, though Mary’s message only contained one “All.” Aileen had wanted her father to know she loved him more. Mary still had hers in the bottom of her jewelry box. She took Mike’s out deciding to give it to Aileen. Then she pinched out a small, blue velvet pouch; she recognized it right away—the case he kept his caul in. He was born in “a sack,” he used to say. A membrane covered his entire body; the doctors told his mother it was a very rare occurrence and they carefully cut it, dried it, and gave it to her in that pouch. His mother told Mike about his unusual birth when he was a child, convincing him that the caul made him very special, very lucky. Mary had enjoyed the story when she first heard it but grew tired and even disgusted by it in the many retellings. She had no idea that he kept the caul with him; if she had, she probably would have told him to throw it out, that it was a ghastly thing to carry around. But now she was suddenly teary at the thought that he carried the caul believing that at some point, the good luck it was supposed to bring would finally kick in. But you had good luck, Mike Ryan, she whispered to him. Everyone loved you. Mary put the wallet back in the drawer, went out to the kitchen and put the pouch and the love note in her purse.
In Aileen’s car on the way to the wake, Mary informed her of the fire. “Then where’s the funeral?” Aileen asked.
“In the auditorium.”
“The gym?” she asked, incredulous. “Couldn’t you have gotten another church?”
Mary said she couldn’t, keeping Father Ahearn’s offer to herself, promising Aileen that they had done up the room nicely, respectfully, reminding her of how her father loved the parish, how he would have wanted the funeral there.
“He loved the church,” Aileen corrected her.
Aileen parked and rushed to get out of the car, away from Mary.
“Wait. I found this in his wallet.” Mary extended the love present.
“He kept it.” Aileen pressed it to her chest, kissed it and then put it in her purse.
Mary didn’t tell her that she had kept hers, too.
During the wake, people did glance at Aileen’s photographs and the harmonica that she laid out next to them, but for the most part, they talked about the fire. Danny came, as did his parents. Mary watched him find Aileen, watched the way she led him to the casket, the two of them kneeling together, shoulder to shoulder, their faces pointed towards Mike’s. Early in her marriage, Aileen had called Mary a couple of times to complain about how much more she did in the house than Danny did, and Mary thought they’d be good friends after that, bonded by the exasperation their husbands caused them. But Aileen didn’t want that kind of camaraderie. Now as Mary watched Aileen lean into Danny, she understood that her daughter’s marriage was nothing like her own. Aileen had forgiveness in her and a determination for happiness that Mary didn’t.
Mary watched as Aileen placed something in the casket. At the end of the night, Mary went up to say a last good-bye to Mike and saw that Aileen had left her love note on her father’s chest.
On Thursday morning, Mary sat in the limousine and looked out the windows as they followed the hearse from the funeral parlor to the school. Aileen sat next to her with the baby in her lap; Danny held Tara’s hand. Father Ahearn helped Mary out of the limousine, and quickly arranged a processional order. The baby squirmed, pulling at Aileen’s dress, bunching it at her hip, and Mary reached over and tugged it down. She would have liked to carry the baby or have Tara’s hand in hers, something warm and alive touching her.
At 10:00, with more light filtering into the school than had at the 7 A.M. Mass, the fluorescent lights on the shellacked yellow brick of the walls smacked Mary with the ungodliness of the place. This was not what Mike would have wanted. He would have wanted the dignity, the solemnity, the parade of an aisle in a church. Aileen was right. It wasn’t the parish he loved so much, but the church itself, and for him the church was not in the people, as Father Ahearn had instructed at Mass the morning after the fire; it was in the altar, the pews, the aisle. She knew this now with a sickening certainty. Passing the office where the phone rang, and the custodian lounged, Mary, for Aileen’s sake, pretended not to be bothered. A child, out of her classroom, cried at the sight of the coffin, and Mary realized, in horror, that school was in session.
They followed the coffin into the gym, and Mary watched as Aileen spotted the retracted basketball hoops. Between the rows of folding chairs, she found the black floor paint of foul lines. Mary was sure her daughter was also picking up the smells of perspiration, floor wax and rubber intermingling with the incense. Aileen glanced to the right, locating the source of the rubber–a gated cage in the corner where twenty or twenty-five variously sized balls were stored–and when she turned back to her mother, her eyes, doleful and brimming, Mary could only look away.
Once seated, Mary tried to pray but again couldn’t. A cold practicality, she realized, had allowed her to give her husband this preposterous funeral, as if it were nothing more than an item on a to-do list. That’s what she had let her life become—a to-do list. And here is where that list of a life had gotten her and Mike. She reached out to pat the coffin but it was farther away than she estimated, and her hand swiped the air.
Mary tried to listen to Father Ahearn but an odor nagged at her attention, vague at first, then unmistakable. Fish cakes. The schoolchildren would be eating fish cakes for lunch.
After the Mass, Father Ahearn offered to show her the room where the church items that had been rescued were stored. “It’ll take a few minutes for everyone to get their cars lined up to follow to the cemetery,” he said. “You don’t need to wait out there.” He asked Aileen and Danny to come, too, but they declined saying the baby needed changing, and Mary was glad for a few minutes out of view of everyone who knew what kind of a funeral she had given her husband.
The smell of smoke was so strong in the small room that Mary put her hand up to cover her mouth and nose. The priest pointed out disfigured statues, a silver crucifix–the upper half of which had folded in the heat, sooty chalices, singed vestments. Mary viewed the objects with regret and shame. They seemed to chastise her, as if to say, “This is what it’s come to.” Father Ahearn picked up a small steel box for her to examine. “These are some remnants.” He held up a length of splintering wood the size of his hand. “This is from one of the pews. There’s glass from a window, and this is a tile from the floor. When we rebuild, we’re going to bury the box at the foot of the new altar–a kind of symbolic foundation, the new church built on the old.”
“That’s lovely,” Mary said.
He directed her attention to two gilded boxes. “We managed to save the relics,
too–a bit of bone from St. Philip, a thread from the robe of St. Francis.”
Mary came alive with an idea. She reached into her purse pretending she needed a tissue, discretely opened her wallet, and pulled the caul into her palm. After pointing out the surviving stations of the cross, Father Ahearn advised, “We better go. The cars should be ready by now.”
“Yes,” Mary answered distractedly, moving back toward the steel box. She wanted to do something to make up for this funeral, to make up for the stingy to-do list life she had given Mike. Something grand. When Father Ahearn turned to the door, she dropped the caul among the remnants.
Outside, a respectable number of cars had lined up to follow to the cemetery, and Mary was relieved. Worse than a funeral in a school gym would have been a burial no one attended. She settled herself into the limousine. Aileen was crying as she fed a bottle to Daniel Michael. Mary turned to her, about to announce what she had done, that one day Mike would be at the foot of the altar, a part of the new church’s foundation. But Mary wasn’t sure Aileen would approve. She’d wait, she decided, maybe until they rebuilt the church. Then she’d invite Aileen and her family to come for Mass–she’d have a Mass dedicated to Mike. And after Communion, after Aileen had stood at the foot of the altar, Mary would tell her. Or maybe she never would. Maybe it would be between her and Mike.
For now, she looked out the window, and cried for the loss of her husband.
About the Author:
Joann Smith has had stories published or accepted in The Halcyone, Two Hawks Quarterly, Emerald Coast Review, The Examined Life Journal, Whitefish Journal, Clockhouse journal; servinghouse journal; Chagrin River Review, New York Stories, Literal Latte, Best of Writers at Work, Alternate Bridges, Image: A Journal of Art and Religion, So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, The Roanoke Review, The Greensboro Review, and The Texas Journal of Women and the Law. Her story “Tuesday Night at the Shop and Shoot” was anthologized in Lock and Load: Armed Fiction, University of New Mexico Press; another story was selected by the editors of Best American Short Stories 2000 as one of the one hundred notable stories of the year. She lives and writes in the Bronx, where she finds most of her stories.