Marshal sat on the front row of collapsible chairs that had been set up for the viewing. Stifling a yawn, he stretched both arms over his head and looked around at the empty seats. Relaxing his arms, he dropped his hands in his lap and they immediately began searching for a cigarette. Patting pockets and dipping quickly in the top of each one to feel for a packet of smokes or the top of a lighter.
Finding none because he had stopped smoking when the man in the coffin in front of him had died after a life-time of inhaling carcinogenic chemicals from the filter end of a cigarette; Marshal found instead his electric cigarette and he popped the “filter” end into his mouth. He inhaled deeply and the damned thing cut out, just as it always did when you hit it too hard.
“Shit.” He flung the e-cig halfway across the room. It rebounded off a wall and rolled over to the coffin in front of him. Marshal just looked at it. Rubbed his lips with his hand and wished again for a cigarette. The funeral home did not allow smoking anyway. Not in the building at least. That had to be the ultimate irony. There was no way that a corpse was going to suffer from second-hand smoke.
Marshal chuckled at the mental image in his head of this asinine idea. He could picture an advert on the telly, “Don’t bury your loved ones smelling of ash, wait till you get outside to smoke. This has been a public service announcement.” Unfortunately, when the commercial played in his head, the announcer sounded like his dad. Or course his dad could not front any commercials nor could he do any type of voice over work because he was lying in the coffin in front of Marshal.
He couldn’t have done it when he was alive either, because dad had not been an actor or a performer. He’d been a mechanic; a damned grease monkey his whole life. He owned his own business and when the smoking ban had been made law, he just looked at the health inspector who told him he had to put a “no smoking” sign up. With a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his dad just looked at the guy. He drug deep on his smoke and blew a cloud of it into the inspector’s face.
“Sure pal, I’ll get right on it. It’s not like I have anything else to do; like fix cars or anything.” His dad never beat around the bush. The old man was stubborn and blunt, qualities that had made him a success in his chosen field. He was a “fixer” who never gave up on a broken car. Even if he could not fix the car immediately, he would never cannibalize the car by stripping it for parts. No, he would take the non-working carcass and put it behind his shop. Then with a bar of soap, he would write “in progress” on the car’s windshield.
Marshal sighed and got up to pick up the plastic cigarette. He knelt down, grabbed it and started to stand up. Instead he stayed where he was, at eye level with his dad’s corpse. He wondered idly if he should get a bar of soap and write “in progress” on the lid of the coffin.
He looked at his father lying in the fancy box that the insurance policy had paid for and he thought about how the man would have laughed at the idea of someone putting makeup on him to enhance his “lifelike” appearance. Marshal’s eyes immediately focussed on his dad’s hands and the pristine nails that in life would have been grimy with year’s worth of honest dirt under each one. He wondered if they’d used make up there as well or maybe bleached them.
He finally stood up to the sound of his ankles cracking and his knees popping. He walked back to the chair in the front row and stopped. He looked out over the empty room.
“I don’t know dad, do you think if I move that I’ll be able to get another seat?”
Not waiting for an answer, and to be honest it would have disturbed him a lot if he got one, he sat down in the same chair.
“Oh well, better safe than sorry, huh.”
The old man had told Marshal that when he died, he wanted a wake; just like they’d had in the old country. He loved to tell about his grandfather’s, “Your great grandpa,” he’d say, wake in Ireland. How his great-aunt Tillie had drunk too much stout and gotten hold of a bad cockle and threw up in the rose bushes “for hours.” And how he’d almost lost his virginity in the back room with cousin Rachel.
“A funeral should be an event, Marshall.” He’d said. “People don’t know how to do it now. You don’t just grieve; you celebrate the life of the dearly departed.”
He insisted that an all night wake should be held at the funeral home that he himself had chosen. It was specified that a “dry” bar be set up in a corner of the room and that the doors should be locked at closing time. The guests would then spend the night drinking and telling stories about Clancy O’Toole.
Marshal looked over at the portable bar in the corner. Bottles of sour mash whiskey and gin and rum stood like lost soldiers with no place to go. A grand total of ten glasses made up a circle to the side of the bottles and the countertop sat shiny and empty waiting for the soldiers to fill some them up and go to war with sobriety.
He stood and wandered over to the bar. One quick drink to celebrate the man who’d died after the rest of his family, bar his one son. The business man who had no friends to mourn his passing or to tell amusing stories about him; the man who raised Marshal to be more outgoing and friendly; the man who loved tinkering with broken cars more than interacting with other people.
Spinning the cap off of a bottle of whiskey, Marshal spurned using a glass and lifted the bottle to his lips. He sniffed the stuff and held the bottle in a toast, “Good bye dad.” He took a long leisurely drink from the bottle, feeling the fire scorching first his throat and then hitting his stomach like molten lead. His eyes watered and he took a deep breath only to blow it back out, like a kid struggling to blow out the candles on a cake.
He walked back with the bottle clutched in his right hand like a Bowery bum, plastic e-cigarette in his left hand between his first and second finger like a real cigarette. The long drink he’d taken from the bottle left him a bit dizzy. “Shit dad! I think I’m out of practise!” He chuckled. “I think I’m a bit tight already!” He took another long drink from the bottle, it didn’t burn quite so much this time. He also felt dizzier immediately.
As he looked at his dad’s coffin, he noticed that the old man’s head seemed to be nodding in agreement to his last statement.
Marshal stopped. “What the hell?” He took another couple of tentative steps toward the coffin. “Dad?” The head nodded again in assertion. Marshal’s heart jerked painfully. “What?” He moved closer and each step he took was registered by his dad’s nodding head.
Marshal’s eyes were focussed on his dead father’s face, willing himself to not look at the hands. He knew that if he did and the hands were moving, he would scream; a grown man’s scream to be sure, but a scream nonetheless.
Heart pounding, he moved right up to the coffin his gaze locked onto his father’s face. He was watching his dad’s closed eyes. He knew that they were going to open any second and then he’d either have a heart attack or a stroke. He moved one step closer and he saw his dad move slowly almost like he was going to take a breath.
“Fuck this!” Marshal whirled around and started to move away from the coffin, tangling his feet in his urgency he fell; right on top of the whiskey bottle. He lay still and felt liquid flowing under his chest, damn, he thought, I’ve just made a hell of a mess. He laughed shakily and felt pretty damn foolish. He also felt tired and for some reason sleepy.
I’ll just close my eyes for a minute and then I’ll ask someone for a broom or a mop and clean this mess up. Just for a minute.
At nine o’clock sharp Dennis opened up the viewing room of the funeral home. The first thing he noticed was the man lying on the floor. It looked like he had passed out or something. “Must have been a hell of a party,” he said. He walked over to the man on the floor and knelt down to give him a gentle shake.
As he reached out to touch the man’s shoulder, he noticed the smell. Whiskey and something else, the minute he touched him, he knew what the other smell was.
After the ambulance came and the police finished asking their questions and searching the “crime” scene, Dennis signalled to his assistant Stan.
“Let’s move the other dearly departed.” As they moved toward the coffin, Stan chuckled. “I hope you remembered to call a carpenter about these loose floorboards. Mister O’Toole there looks like he’s about to come out and help us.”
Michael E. Smith copyright 10/01/2013