They dressed him in a dark blue suit, starched white shirt, black tie, black socks and shoes. His hair, curly like mine, silvery white unlike mine. Clean shave, clean nails and trimmed mustache. Impeccable. Horizontal, hands folded holding the rosary over his groin. The door opens. Someone yells “get two” and the sounds of the schoolyard seep into the funeral home. Piretti’s is directly across the street from PS 106 on Wilson. I’m thinking about the game as Pasquale shuffles into the stillness of the chapel. He is dressed all in black, his eyes red and puffy. His best friend, my grandfather, Giuseppe Giarraputo, 84 years old has died. I’m 14, the person chosen to represent the family at the funeral parlor while the adults are working.
I didn’t ask for this job. I don’t want this fucking job. I’m not really comfortable around the dead. I knew it the first time, when they took us to Mary Anne’s funeral. She was 8. I was in first grade. Something with her heart. The wake, in the second floor apartment, she, laid out for viewing like a saint dressed in white. All the little Catholic school children filing past. You could smell the corned beef from the kitchen. I thought I would puke. Besides, I don’t speak Italian and my grandfather’s friends don’t speak much English. Pasquale offers his hand and his condolences. We make do with an assortment of grunts and gestures, he extends his cane and very slowly walks to the coffin. He says a prayer, humbly returns to my side, hands me three one dollar bills and leaves.
I get up to mark the $3 in the register and I think I smell the corned beef. I open the door to breathe. Memories flood my brain. He called me a bum again last month, because I went to the poolroom. I remember, he told my Mom. “I’m a tella you Rosa, he’s a gonna be a bumma. Poola room. Notta good for a younga boy.” I remember the cigars, pungent and wrapped in black leaf. Guinea stinkers. First thing in the morning with his breakfast. An off white, chipped bowl, filled with coffee, milk, whiskey and a raw egg. Can’t forget to mark the register. It’s important, so when Pasquale dies, my family will know how much to give his family. Records were kept for all events. Weddings, first communions, births and deaths. It feels tribal and I like it. In the same vein as an eye for an eye.
I now feel both nauseous and anxious. It reminds me of the day they took me to the chicken market. I must have been 6 or 7 and we went in the Buick. Willoughby Avenue, still the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, but closer to the city. Near Saint Barbara’s. More Italian, less Irish. It’s probably why my grandfather came, in case we ran into anyone from the old country. The same neighborhood we went to buy fresh pasta, tomatoes by the case, pastries. A square red brick building with a cement floor. A large garage door to one side. For both the customers and the trucks. We are greeted by the smell. Burning flesh. Wooden cages piled floor to ceiling. Dark and dank. Roosters screaming for a chance at the hens. Shivering fowl, screaming for another chance. A decapitated bird, blood squirting from it’s neck escapes the carnage. Momentarily there is freedom, until exhausted from the loss of blood and lack of oxygen, it collapses at my feet. I am not afraid. After being killed they are ready to be cleaned. Large cans that in a past life held olive oil have been engineered with little motorized fans and vacuum hoses. They suck the feathered birds in one end and release them out the other side completely naked. Its fascinating. From there they are dragged through a cold water bath, dried, butchered and wrapped. There are bunny rabbits cowering in a corner. I didn’t know we ate little bunnies. Aunt Marian cooks them for New Years, with olives says my father. Tastes like chicken. I try not to be afraid.
I can smell the flowers in the funeral parlor now. Red hearts and white crosses. In my family flowers meant death. My mother hated the smell. I hear my mother, my aunts. They hold onto each other. Leaning on my uncles, my brother. They are pleading, shrieking. No papa, no. Please don’t leave us. I think of the chickens. I’m scared, choking, my eyes fill with tears. I say to my uncle, “I need to go home now, please.”
Frank Gioia is a short story writer, actor and playwright. He is a second generation Italian-American whose grandparents emigrated from Sicily and Naples. Frank attended Catholic school, growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘50s. He has been reading his work at an open mic, In Words, Out Words, for the past five years. A staged reading of his play, 14 Holy Martyrs was performed in the Berkshires in 2016.