This is Part 2 of the passing of Wikkie Monahan
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The Passing of Willie Monahan
Part 2 - The Layin’ In
by Harry Buschman
There were six of us from the Hollow Leg Saloon and we all wanted to go to Willie’s funeral, so we hired a limo for ourselves. There was Lotte of course, up front with the driver, Clancy to my right, Bob Hollister to my left, and me in the middle. Charlie Spivak and Ed Donahue sat on the jump seats facing us.
Lillie Monahan wanted no part of it. “A quick and quiet funeral,” she said. Just the hearse and one car for her, her daughter Sally, and Father Stan. O’Dell said he would ride in the hearse with the flowers. Lillie told us she and Willie had a big wedding, “That was enough,” she said with a strong emphatic edge to her voice. She didn’t want to finish it off with a big funeral. Everyone knew they were not on the best of terms to begin with and there was no question in her mind that his drinking companions were a big part of the problem.
But friends are friends, and when you get down to drinking friends like Willie and we were, there are none more staunch and true – you want to be together until the very end of it – and even a little thereafter if you can work it. So in the face of Lillie’s displeasure, we hired a stretch limo to trail after the cortege. When it showed up at the church we were surprised to find it was white with gold door handles and grill, a vehicle more suited to weddings or prom parties! But it was too late to make a fuss, the parade was about to take off and the important thing was to be with Willie at the layin’ in. He was to be laid to rest between his mother and father, buried some twenty years before him on a windy hill in Greenlawn Cemetery.
“Them Monahan’s was big drinkers too,” Lotte said.
“Makes good company in the hereafter.” Bob Hollister said. “I’d be fair displeased to spend eternity between teetotalers.”
“Why don’t we make a pact between us then,” Clancy suggested, “to all be buried together.”
“I’m a lady,” Lotte said, “I sleep alone.”
The banter went on like this all the way to the cemetery. We opened the bar in the back of the front seat of the limo, and found it empty. “Hell of a note,” I commented to Benito our driver, a swarthy Italian with blue black jowls who smelled of cigarettes.
“Y’didn’t contract for no bar. Besides it’s a funeral – y’don’t drink on your way to the cemetery.” Nevertheless, we all agreed it was downright inhuman to provide an empty bar in the back of a limo, regardless of the occasion.
“I don’t think I been in this part of town before,” said Charlie Spivak, changing the subject. “This is Queens, ain’t it?”
The driver told us we were in Flushing; “Look real quick to your left at the next corner, you can just make out Shea Stadium.” Bob Hollister was not impressed. “Humph, how can they play baseball in such a little building” he said, “it looks bigger on television.”
In spite of our lightheartedness we had not forgotten Willie up ahead there in the hearse, but we were torn between the solemnity of the occasion and the exotic, shifting scene about us. The tragic day was mixed with the spice of being in a strange town. None of us got out much anymore, and I know for a fact Lotte hadn’t been out of Westlake Village in ten years. The signs on the store windows were in languages none of us could read and the bearded men were dressed in sheets and wore hats made of pillow cases – there were no women. “You’d think yer in Turkey,” Lotte piped up. “What kinda people are these anyway?” Benito told us they were a mix of Southeast Asians and Arabs, with a new flood of Russians who came over when they took the wall down. The neighborhood held our interest all the way to Greenlawn. There, however, the city of the living stopped abruptly, and the city of the dead began.
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Charlie said. In our group, Charlie is the most well read, and in an irritatingly professorial manner he makes the rest of us feel like inarticulate children. But his erudition is usually wide of the mark, he seems to know all the words but rarely uses them at the proper time.
The cortege stopped at a picturesque English Tudor style office to check in and get directions. O’Dell got out of the hearse, his black suit shining in the pale sun, and promptly dropped his homburg hat in the dirt. He went inside and came out with a manila envelope and a sober faced woman who pointed up the road with a bony hand. She described turns like a fish in the water, with O’Dell all the while nodding as though he understood every word. “Look at him,” Lotte laughed, “ain’t none dumber than O’Dell. I wager we get lost in this graveyard and never find our way out.”
If we did, we were not aware of it. I’ve learned it’s almost an oxymoron to say you’re lost when you don’t know where you are, and it’s even less appropriate when you don’t care. We were just six old friends of Willie Monahan, and we knew there was a place for him somewhere here at Greenlawn. “Let’s stop at the first empty hole we come to,” Bob Hollister said. “This place gives me the creeps.”
By now the day had turned to gray, with a lowering sky and off in the distance we could see the smoggy outline of Manhattan reflected in the murky waters of the Gowanus Canal. Rolling down the window of the Limo, Clancy screwed up his nose and commented on the cloying odor of decay that seemed to hang over the cemetery. “I’ve never been in a cemetery that smells like this – is it my imagination – where does it come from? – is it possible ...?”
“Easy does it Clancy,” I replied. “this used to be landfill. I think you smell the scent of history.” At times I can be just as poetic as Charlie Spivak.
The road grew narrower, there were many potholes, the weeds were higher and there were piles of dead flowers littering the side of the road. We were evidently in an old part of Greenlawn where the dead had been forgotten and left to fend for themselves. We came upon two men in overalls who sat smoking on the tailgate of a pick-up and they signaled us to stop. Again, O’Dell got out, (this time without his hat) and the three of them chatted for a bit. O’Dell walked back to our limo, opened the door and looked at us with a sick apologetic smile. “I wonder if a couple of you young blades wouldn’t mind helping us to the grave site with the casket?”
Ed Donahue and I, although long retired, were the youngest, so it wasn’t surprising that O’Dell looked at both of us in turn. “We have a rolling cart,” he said, “but we can’t get it up the hill through these weeds. It’s only – oh, I would say, maybe forty yards at the most.”
Lotte can barely walk, with her bad back and all, Bob Hollister has a weak heart, Charlie Spivak is literary, and pales at the suggestion of manual labor. Clancy is too short. So with Lillie, her daughter and Father Stan standing by, the three drivers, Donahue and I dragged Willie out of the hearse and started up the hill to the grave site. O’Dell led the way, pointing with a handful of long stemmed roses and warning us of the bad footing. The forty yards turned out to be more like a hundred and forty and we had to stop once to rest and get a better grip on the cheap plastic handles on Willie’s E-cono-style casket. As we got there one of the drivers breathed a sigh of relief and mumbled something under his breath about the dead getting heavier every year.
From the promontory we were treated to a rare view of the Manhattan skyline, and although the day was hazy, the midtown towers stood out in sharp relief. It seemed ironic to me that Willie would spend a good part of eternity within sight of this vista and never know it.
The service was short. Lillie, dry eyed and restless, kept looking at her watch, and Lotte, unable to stand, sat on a nearby grave. She folded both hands over the top of her cane and rested her chin on the horse’s head handle, seemingly lost in thought. It was plain to see we were giving Willie short shrift, as though he was a tiresome guest who had overstayed his welcome. We each threw a rose from O’Dell’s bouquet into the open grave and Father Stan brought up the traveling metaphor again – about Willie waiting for us at the other end of the rainbow, so to speak. He might have gone on longer except for the cloying odor of sewage and the approach of the men with the shovels.
We left Willie up on the hill and made our way as quickly as we could down the weedy path again. Lotte required a lot of assistance on the way down, and she let go with a string of invective concerning the inconsiderate places some people choose to bury their dead – this was spoken loudly enough for Lillie to hear. The workmen stayed behind with their shovels and watched us go. They mercifully waited for us to get out of earshot before they shoveled Willie in, for there is nothing so conclusive as the sound of dirt on a coffin lid; a sobering sound which puts the lie to expectancy and wishful thinking.
We got Lotte in the front seat again. Her backside was covered with burrs from sitting on the grave next to the Monahan plot, but no one bothered to tell her. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” Charlie said. Our spirits lifted somewhat as we drove out through the cemetery gate, an affair of impenetrable iron. Diagonally across the street from the entrance stood the inevitable saloon for the grief stricken. The sun seemed to shine a little stronger on the ride back to Westlake Village and I was reminded of the mood changes in New Orleans funerals where it’s blues going out and rag time coming home.
“It ain’t gonna be the same without Willie,” Bob Hollister said.
Donahue had been staring out the window and jiggling his left leg to keep it loose. “That’s the trouble with you, Bob – y’always want things to be the same. Things are never the same, even if Willie was here now it wouldn’t be the same.” He slapped his leg with exasperation. “Damn arthuritis! Gotta keep that leg movin’ all the time lessen it stiffs up on me.” I suspected that Ed Donahue’s arthritis was triggered by thirst. Too long away from the Hollow Leg Saloon, and the solemnity of the day had put us all on edge. I noticed my leg was jiggling as well and Charlie Spivak was drumming his fingers on the window. Lotte, even more irritable than usual asked the driver, “Is the traffic always so bad out here? How long before we get back?”
“Won’t take long, lady.” Benito consulted the digital clock on the dash. “We should be back by two or so.”
“Seems t’me you could break off from this dumb procession and make better time.”
“It’s a funeral, ma’am, we gotta stick together.”
“Horse shit,” she replied, and stared gloomily out the window.
I looked at my watch, it was only one o’clock. “What will we do with the rest of our day?” I asked. There was no answer – but all eyes were turned on Clancy, even Lotte turned around in her seat up front to look back at him. We all agreed that it was too late to start anything and too early to call it a day. He responded admirably – he thought it might be a good idea to open The Hollow Leg for the afternoon. “Just give me a half hour to air the place out, okay? It gets a little rank in there overnight.”
Good to his word, Benito pulled up to the church at 2 p.m.. “Not includin’ the gratuity, and bearin’ in mind it’s a half day job, it’ll be $135.” He paused a moment and added, “We don’t take plastic or personal checks – no hard feelin’s.”
“Well, let’s see now,” said Clancy, who by the nature of his profession, is well versed in division and multiplication, “Let’s call that $150, including the gratuity, as you call it. As I see it that would be $25 apiece, unless, of course, we take the gentlemanly approach.”
“What’s the gentlemanly approach?” I asked.
“We chip in for Lotte,” he explained.
“What the hell!” Says Bob Hollister, a champion of women’s rights. “Who says we gotta pay for Lotte? She’s got as much money as any of us.”
“Damn right,” says Lotte. “I don’t wanna be beholden to nobody, specially Hollister.”
“Fifteen bucks is a pretty small tip,” growled Benito, whose jowls were growing darker by the moment.
“It ain’t so bad,” says Clancy. “Besides, I had in mind you’d drive us over to The Hollow Leg, and I’d stand us all to a drink or two.”
We settled on that. We said our goodbyes to Mrs. Monahan and her daughter at the church and piled back in the limo. It’s only two blocks from the church to the saloon, (I must say it often seems much farther).
We stepped out of the long white machine and waited for Clancy to open up. I looked around me and remarked to the others how the mere presence of the white limo had magically transformed the normal dingy appearance of Westwood Avenue into a street of dreams, so to speak. It was good to be back in the warm conviviality of The Hollow Leg again. Clancy lit the lights behind the bar and turned on the beer pump, then he started the floor fan to blow out the dead air of yesterday. We gave Lotte first crack at the rest room, and the rest of us considered the empty stool of Willie Monahan.
“I wouldn’t feel right sittin’ there where Willie sat,” Hollister said.
“Me too,” Donahue agreed. “It ain’t the stool so much as it is the place where he sat, y’know? The stools can get switched around, and in the end nobody’d ever know which one was Willie’s. It’s his place, y’see – he always sat in the third stool from the door.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got an idea. From now on s’posin’ none of us ever sits in the third stool from the door. Wouldn’t that be a way of rememberin’ Willie?”
“I think you guys are sick,” said Benito the driver. Clancy had just stood the entire crowd to a round of ‘whatever.’ The mellowness had yet to set in, that wouldn’t take effect until the third round or so, but it flitted across my mind that perhaps Benito was not as hardened to Clancy’s bourbon as the rest of us. He seemed to have passed through mellow to sullen before he got the first round down. It went on like this throughout the rest of the afternoon. Each of us in turn would bring up Willie and what he was and how much we’d miss him. This was his place, The Hollow Leg Saloon – and I guess he was more honored and respected here than he was at home. It was our duty as his friends, to keep his memory alive.
We tried to convince Benito of our undying love for Willie, but he would have none of it. He was a lonely man and a fellowship of compassionate drinkers was foreign to him. “You won’t find no drunks in the Mafia!” he reminded us bluntly. He seemed to grow more muddled in his thinking and more erratic in his movements as the afternoon progressed. “Look around you,” we beseeched him. “The Hollow Leg is not like other saloons. It is the meeting place of a rare and matchless people. We mean more to each other than family and friends. Even the church cannot drive a wedge between us.” Charlie Spivak for once hit the nail on the head.
But Benito sank deeper and deeper into melancholy; “You guys – and you too, lady .... you’re sick. This is nothing but a bar fulla drunks. Each an ev’ry one-of-ya’s a lush. I’m gettin’ the fuck outta here before I go crazy too.” He looked more like Jean LaFitte the pirate than the driver of a stretch limousine, and in the late afternoon light his blue black jowls lent him a forbidding appearance. “I gotta gig tonight,” he mumbled, “I can’t hang around here in this crummy bar.” He pulled back the sleeve of his uniform to look at his watch, drawing his arm in and out to focus his eyes on the time.
Without so much as standing us to a round of drinks or thanking us for the ones he got from us, Benito slid off the stool and got his cap from the peg on the wall. He set it at a jaunty angle and smiled at us with a set of almost blindingly white teeth. “Thanks fer nothin’, you guys – it’s been a hell of an afternoon.”
“A bit of a wahoo, I believe,” I noted as he headed for the door.
“A Philistine,” said Charlie.
“Looked Italian to me,” said Lotte.
Before we could comment further, Benito had settled himself in the giant white machine outside and without so much as a wave of the hand, drove smoothly off for the intersection of Westwood and Pine. At that point there was a c-r-r-u-m-m-p. Not a crash, mind you. Not a bang. A c-r-r-u-m-m-p.
I walked to the door and looked out, then came back and settled myself at the bar again.
“It was him, right?” asked Bob Hollister.
“Yes,” I said. “Didn’t see the stop sign at the corner. Went into the side of the M-22 bus for Castle Gardens.”
“Hell of a thing,” remarked Ed Donahue. “Poor guy could lose his license for DWI.” He raised his glass and closed one eye, sighting through the amber liquid at the yellow ceiling light above our heads. “A man should not drink when he drives – I gave up drivin’ a long time ago.”
I tossed off the last of my drink and turned the glass upside down on the bar. “That’s it for me, Clancy. As the man said, ‘it’s been a hell of an afternoon.” My companions were deep in thought – thoughts of the spirit – children of the amber spirits of barley and malt. It occurred to me that I should say something of consequence rather than the usual, “see y’later boys – you too, Lotte,” but I couldn’t think of anything. Where are words of wisdom when you need them? The longer I sat there in the Hollow Leg Saloon the less likely it was that I would think of something wonderful to say. “I’ll think of it tonight – in bed, in the middle of the night it will come to me. I’ll forget it by morning, and the game will start all over again.”
©Harry Buschman 2000
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.