The first in a three part story
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The Passing of Willie Monahan
Part 1 - The Grievin'
by Harry Buschman
Willie Monahan dropped dead in the Hollow Leg Saloon. It was all of five years ago in the middle of the third quarter of the Pittsburgh Steelers/New York Giants Monday night football game. He died with a glass of single malt in his hand, and there are some who say he drank it off before his passing.
Willie went the way he wanted to go. In the friendly atmosphere of Clancy's place and the warm conviviality of his companions. His wife and daughter were at home watching the Monday Night Movie and were spared the melodrama of his final moment. We, at the Hollow Leg Saloon were not.
His final moment was theatrical. Just as the Giant quarterback was sacked in the backfield, Willie raised his whiskey as though to drink. Instead, he slipped backwards off his stool while holding his whiskey high. He placed his left hand upon his chest. We thought he might break into song, for the pose was similar to that of an Italian opera tenor in full voice. Some of us thought he might propose a toast to the Pittsburgh tackle for sacking the quarterback, while others thought they might enjoy one of Willie's rare attacks of largess and be stood to a round of drinks, for it was not long until Thanksgivings Day.
It was in fact none of these things. Willie was already dead – though still on his feet. We watched him with anticipation, and as we did, he sidled to his right still holding his glass on high. The rest room was in that direction, and it seemed plausible to assume he was headed that way. His face revealed neither pain nor anguish, but there was a puzzlement upon it as though some one had asked him a question to which he had no answer.
His path brought him quite close to Lotte. Lotte stopped in for a jigger of gin to ease her chronic back pain. She had no interest in football as we did, but some of us maintained she had the hots for Clancy. Lotte is an unpredictable woman – she can be volatile, and she carries a cane. "It is a cane me Grandfather carried as an elderly gentleman," she would often say. She would display its horse's head handle and warn us that the first turkey who tried to get smart with her would bear its imprint "up the side of his head."
As Willie sidled up to Lotte, she put her glass down and reached for her cane. She lashed out at him vainly as he fell at her feet. Had she connected, she may well have blamed herself for Willie's demise, for at heart she is a gentlewoman, and would not club a dying man.
All of us, by now, suspected something was seriously wrong with Willie. Our attention was equally divided between his curious behavior and the football game, but two or three of us went to his side.
"Look, he's still holdin' his glass."
"Who's 'e starin' at?"
"Can y'tell if e's breathin'?"
"Why'nt we try sittin' 'im up."
So we did that, we sat him up and Bob Hollister tried to get the glass out of his hand.
"He ain't lettin' go of that," says Bob, "Feel of his wrist, see if y'can get a pulse out of him."
None of us really knew how to feel for a pulse. One of us felt the side of his neck thinking he might find one there, but quickly shrugged his shoulders.
Then Helmsley walked over to the bar and told Clancy he'd better call 911. Clancy tipped his derby to the back of his head and put his cigar down. He gave the information to the night operator at the hospital and told him it was Willie Monahan. Willie had been in emergency before for various bar related accidents and was a frequent week-end guest of the hospital. However, none of Willie's previous problems had required immediate medical attention, and this may well have been the reason why the ambulance didn't pull up to the Hollow Leg Saloon until the middle of the fourth period of the football game.
Just before the ambulance arrived, somebody realized that no one had yet called Willie's wife, and it was pointed out to me, since I had been sitting next to Willie, that it was my place to do it. I couldn't follow the logic, but I turned and looked at Willie sitting there on the floor and thought, "... well, if it had been me, wouldn't my wife want to know?"
Clancy is a first class bartender and keeps our telephone numbers in a little black book behind the bar under the salted peanuts. Time and again he found it necessary to call someone at home to come get us if we got rowdy or were unable get home unguided. He dialed Mrs. Monahan for me then handed me the phone.
A woman's voice said, "Hello"
"No, this is Sally .... Ma! somebody on the phone."
The stage was set for me to break the news. I took a deep breath and cast a final look at Willie with his back to the wall.
"Mrs. Monahan I'm calling from the bar downtown, you know, the Hollow Leg? I'm afraid Willies' took a spell down here. We've called emergency and they should be here any minute."
"Is he drunk?"
"Oh no. Nothing like that. He's fainted, and we thought you ought to know, y'know?"
"Well I ain't comin' down to no bar. I'll meet him at emergency."
"Okay Mrs. Monahan. It'll be St. Stephens – that's what 911 told us."
What Mrs. Monahan lacked in solicitude, she made up for in experience. She had spent many a long week-end waiting for Willie to be released from emergency after being patched, pumped or splinted. She was like the farmer who refused to answer the call of the little boy who cried wolf for the third time.
The ambulance arrived midway through the fourth quarter and by that time we had thrown Willie's coat over him. Some of the customers had left, stepping over his outstretched legs as they made for the door. The medics quickly determined that Willie was no longer with us in substance and there was no hurry in getting him to the hospital. I told them that his wife would be waiting there.
"I ain't tellin' her, that's not my job. I'll radio the desk, they can get a priest ... with a name like Monahan I suppose he was Irish, huh?"
I wondered how Mrs. Monahan would take the news, would she be inconsolable? Contrite? Calm, more than likely, as though she knew it would come to pass some day.
Willie left in a heavy plastic bag still clutching his whiskey glass. It seemed fitting he should take it with him. No one was able to take it from him while he was alive.
Willie's funeral was set for Friday. There was room for him in the plot his mother bought many years ago, and that was where Lillie wanted to put him down; down there with his mother and father. She said he'd be better off with them than in an empty grave of his own. Her reasons went deeper than that I believe. Willie Monahan was a drinker like his father before him and his mother too. It meant, of course, that when Lillie's time came she would not lie in the same patch of earth as Willie. She knew that ...
Lillie wanted no part of Willie after death, and she felt no guilt because of it. She took a vow for better or worse, but only until death. There was no talk of an extension to the contract. Willie would have to take care of himself in the hereafter.
Looking back on it now, I’d have to say Willie wasn't much of a husband – and if you looked around the Hollow Leg Saloon the night of his passing, there wasn't much you could say for the rest of us either.
O'Dell picked him up at the hospital on Tuesday morning. The bathroom window in my apartment overlooks O'Dell's parking lot and I noticed his black van by the receiving door. As much as possible, O'Dell tries to be discreet, but some things just have to be done. He has a three sided canopy by his receiving door, but if you're curious enough, you can see who or what goes in and out. Under my breath, I said a hasty "good morning" as I spotted Willie going in, noting with due repentance the heady aroma of my alcoholic mouth wash.
I've heard it called, "the curse of the grape." It spares few of us Irishmen. It is our national pride, and our national shame. It has loosened the tongues of our tenors and the pens of our poets. Well, Willie was a passing fair tenor, but far short of being a poet, yet he had a way of saying things that made you think he was; and in the end, isn't that what poetry is all about?
With the wake a day away, I found myself thinking about Willie Monahan. I know, if he wanted to, he could have been the same person at home that he was with us at the Hollow Leg Saloon. There, he was affable, friendly and eager to please – you could rarely raise his dander. I suspect he was not like that at home.
He had the pinkest skin and the whitest hair and the bluest eyes of any man I'd ever seen. He looked like you'd expect the president of Aer Lingus to look. "The drink," they say, "It's the drink that makes them pink." But I like to think Willie would have been pink without the drink.
I suppose you've been to wakes. You see one wake, you've seen them all – at least that's the way I see it. It's like going to see "Hamlet" every week with a new cast, the words are always the same but the people are different.
Lotte tottered in wearing black – "I'm very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Monahan." Then she smiled to reveal her two remaining bicuspids and tapped her way to a corner seat. There she sat holding her horse's head cane across her knees. The very same cane she tried to brain Willie with as he collapsed in front of her.
Tim Clancy, the bartender, used the identical words when he paid his respects, and so did Bob Hollister. It sounded as though we all got together and rehearsed it. I found myself thinking of something else to say when it came my turn.
"He was a great guy, Mrs. Monahan, we'll all miss him." As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I made a mistake. She knew who his friends were, each and every one of them. If it hadn't been for his friends Willie might not be stretched out there ... and been a better husband to boot. She said this with her eyes as she looked at me, and I wished I had taken the safe way out and said what the others said.
Father Stanley walked in. "I'm very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Monahan." (He wasn't taking any chances.) He looked much smaller without his Sunday robes ... it's difficult for a priest to achieve stature in a Sears and Roebuck suit. His homily was a rosy description of where Willie was going and how he'd get there. He went on to say we would all be together in the sweet by and by some day and explained how Willie had only sailed from this shore to a more distant shore, and how Willie would be waiting there for us to sail after him. It might have been more effective had we been seafaring people.
Lillie and her daughter Sally were dry-eyed throughout the evening. Occasionally Lillie would escort a visitor to the casket and look down at her husband as if he were a stranger. Guests who attempted to comfort her soon realized it wasn't necessary – she was as composed as a statue. Thirty years with Willie had not yet made her an old woman, she still had her figure and when her daughter Sally left the nest, Lillie, with a little luck might start over again.
I stopped in to see Willie next morning before the layin' in. I wanted to see him alone for a minute. After all, I was the one sitting next to him that Monday night. He didn't get to see the end of the football game and we had a bet going. Willie had given me a point spread on Pittsburgh and I didn't make it. I could have forgotten all about it I suppose, but I knew Willie wouldn't, and a bet's a bet. I called O'Dell over.
"Dennis," I said, "is there anything wrong with putting a five dollar bill down in the bottom of the coffin? We had a bet going that night and Willie won – I owe him."
"That's okay," said O'Dell, "No one will ever know. There’s something I want you to see anyhow."
We were alone there in the grieving parlor, and O'Dell opened the bottom half of the lid. Willie wasn't wearing shoes or socks; no need for shoes and socks where he was going. Between Willie's pink feet lay the whiskey glass. Tears sprang to my eyes immediately.
"That was damn thoughtful of you, Dennis."
"It was in his bag of belongings when I picked him up at the hospital. I knew Lillie would throw it out, and who can tell ..."
O'Dell took my five dollars, folded it four times and stuffed it in the whiskey glass. "There," he smiled, "if it's a cash bar, Willie, you're all set."
©Harry Buschman 1998
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.