|Biographical Fiction posted August 13, 2012||Chapters:||...40 41 -41- 42...|
Joe finds love.
A chapter in the book Falling Up The Stairs
Book of the Month Contest Winner
There will be an epilogue.
Before Alice passed away, she was in a coma as she lay in The Good Samaritan hospital in Watertown, New York three thousand miles from where Joe was stationed.
At the funeral, with both love and concern in his eyes, Joe walked over to his grandmother and hugged her hard. She had dark circles under her eyes and seemed as fragile as old glass, as weak as a kitten.
It wasn't a big funeral by any means. Twenty-five or so mourners gathered around the gravesite, all pressing close together to hear the final words from the rector.
It was April and a few cold raindrops hastened things along. No tent was provided to shelter the casket, nor the family seated near it. Beth and her children sat with Uncle Glenn, Aunt Betty and her grandmother, Lillian. Two more siblings, eleven-year-old half-sister Kathy and eight-year-old half- brother Johnny were there with a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Gaines who had been caring for the two children and now stood next to them. Joe had never met them as far as he knew.
Brothers Brian, Mitchell and Merrill were among the missing. There was no immediate explanation.
In addition to her only brother Glenn, Alice's sisters, Manie and Evelyn attended with their families. Some friends of Alice's were on hand, but most of the family didn't recognize any of them.
Joe felt strange. This was his first funeral and for the first time in his life he realized how permanent death is. Yet, standing behind Beth with his head bowed, he didn't feel the remorse that he felt he should. There were no tears forthcoming; he didn't feel as sad as some of the others in attendance. After all, he and his mother had not been close. He felt guilty for his lack of grief, but couldn't help himself.
This is what it's come to, Mom. I wonder what would have happened if Dad and you had stayed together all those years. They say you died of cirrhosis of the liver from drinking. I remember you and Gram drank that wine all the time whenever I was visiting. I remember Gramps being angry and warning you to stop, too. Why couldn't you listen? I wonder if you talked about us kids before you died. Nobody seems to know. I'm not even sure what love really is, Mom. I think I felt it whenever I was around you and the rest of our family, but you weren't there very much. I feel that right now, but it's not like it should be. I'm so sorry, Mom--I do love you.
Joe gazed away, at the rows of tombstones where the past was lined up. He saw the stone gate at the cemetery's entrance. Stately oaks and elms shaded most of the grounds. The wet grass was trimmed low and the shrubs were neat. Tulips were in bloom at every corner. His attention returned to the gravesite and the pile of fresh dirt soon to be thrown on top of his mother's casket.
The Presbyterian minister, Calvin Hornung, cleared his throat. Cal was a close friend of both Gramps and Uncle Glenn. A huge round ball of an old man who was married to the parish, he had absolutely nothing else to do but micromanage the church and a part-time secretary. Though only in his early fifties, he looked and acted much older, with no hair except matching white patches above the ears, and a grotesque stomach that bulged out and hung grossly over his hips. He spoke in soft slow words, hands clasped in front of him, as if waiting for every word to come from above. A Bible was tucked under his arm.
"Dear friends, we are gathered to bid farewell to our beloved sister Alice, whom God has called home. A year ago, Alice was diagnosed with a liver disease and it quickly accelerated to an advanced stage. In a few short months, we witnessed how her health deteriorated. In spite of it all, Alice took everything calmly and went about living as normal a life as was possible when she wasn't in the hospital. Her spirit was always there. Her mother, Lillian, told me that Alice once remarked that she would only be with us until the lilacs bloomed, but God had a different plan. Our times are in His hands. How do you say goodbye to a woman who loved life so profoundly? She was quite simply as generous a human being as God had seen fit to create. Alice was able to open her arms to the world. If you loved somebody, well...she did too. It was just that simple. She would welcome and hug and engage people in conversation and before they had a full sense of it all, she had a new best friend who knew he or she was welcome in her life."
Tears formed in Joe's eyes as the minister continued to speak. His mouth continued to move but the words disappeared as far as Joe was concerned.
The man is so wrong. He doesn't know. How could he? Why didn't such a wonderful woman keep us and take care of us no matter what? It seems like he's talking about some other woman--not our mother. Why didn't she take care of us somehow? I don't understand. I guess this man has to say these things though. What could he do?
Lillian began to wail. A dry, broken sob tore from her throat. She covered her mouth with a handkerchief and sobbed as Cal continued. Beth and Uncle Glenn struggled to hold onto her to keep her from falling forward on top of the casket.
As the minister's words came to a close, more sniffling could be heard from other mourners. Then the crowd began inching away from the gravesite. The service over, people wasted no time in leaving. Joe and Beth held back, however. They stood quietly with their arms around one another. The sun came out.
"Well, that's that, huh?" He stepped back but still squeezed Beth's hand. Her kids were getting restless.
"Yes." Her eyes drifted to the flower-covered casket. "God rest her soul, Joe."
"Yes. I guess she's not suffering anymore."
They caught up with Lillian, who was being supported by Uncle Glenn on her right and Aunt Betty on the left. Joe placed his hand on his grandmother's shoulder as they walked. Joe said, "Are you going to be okay, Gram?"
She turned slightly. "Not really, Sonny." She was nearly deaf and talked at full volume. She sucked on her dentures and said, "My God, I'm going to miss her so much." Her voice faded into a croak that was half sob, half hiccup.
They continued toward the parked cars, pausing briefly by Gramps' grave dated 1959. It was right next to Alice's grave. Joe stood quiet for a moment, looking at the way the sun filtered through the overhanging trees and danced on the various marbled grave markers. It would be a beautiful day, after all.
Later on, when they were alone on the porch at Uncle Glenn's house, Beth said, "I hate to say it, but Gram will probably be next. She's no good without Gramps, you know. And now she has nobody, except Uncle Glenn and Aunt Betty, but they don't live with her. She won't move in with them--never leave her place, and her health is not the best."
"Yeah, I know, but that's Gram. Aunt Manie and Evelyn both live in Baltimore, too, right?"
"So, you know they aren't going to change anything to be with her. They'd have to move all that way." He paused and sipped his iced tea. "I didn't even know they were Mom's sisters--did you?"
"I sort of knew we had some aunts living somewhere, yes, but I don't remember ever seeing them before."
Tears had ebbed somewhat and in Joe's case, his authorized Death-In-Family leave only allowed him four days and immediately after the funeral, he was on his way back to his base in California. He knew he would be back to visit someday---but when was another matter that he didn't dwell on with any enthusiasm.
There was so much, yet so little to leave behind.
Over the next six years, Joe withdrew into himself. His skin grew thick and his mind shut out the past. His attitude became "hooray for me--to hell with you." A hard-assed Marine, dedicated to the Corps . . . that was all. He didn't need anybody or anything else. On liberty, his relationships with women were fleeting-- never amounted to anything close to serious. His philosophy was get what you can, while you can and move on. He made no close friends in the barracks.
Yet, in the quiet of night every so often, while lying in his bunk, he did wonder about things: Dee. What became of her? What would have happened if he had married her way back when. The answer was always the same --he was glad he didn't.
Three years later, in 1964, when his hitch in the Marines was up, he decided he wouldn't go home to New York. After all, what was left there? Beth? Yes, he missed seeing her, but he needed to move on with his life. He had no idea where his brothers were and would not go out of his way to find out.
Buying a one-way bus ticket to Chicago, he figured it would be as good a place as any to settle down and start civilian life. He had heard a lot of good things about the city. "A fun place," said the guys in his outfit who came from there. "Easy to get a job there," they said.
He got an apartment on Surf Street, on the near-north side and went to work as a room clerk for the Sheraton Chicago Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Saving up enough money, he bought a '57 Chevrolet convertible and took a part-time job at Walgreen's as a stock boy to help pay the bills.
All he'd heard about Chicago was true. It was a fun place indeed. The people were friendly and his free time became a kaleidoscope of late nights, goofy buddies and anxious women. He took to the Chicago night-life the way a junkyard dog takes to pork chops, enjoying himself with very little thought of home or related matters. Serious relationships were definitely not on his bachelor's radar. He felt sorry for a guy at work named Claude who appeared to be stuck in bad marriage.
About twice a year, Joe did call his father, but their conversations were without warmth and understanding of any kind. His father never mentioned Alice's passing. She obviously meant very little to him. The man was abundantly full of herky-jerky political rhetoric. A self-proclaimed intellectual, Joe thought. They had nothing in common. Even the Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles, so baseball discussions weren't anything like they were so many years ago. Their conversations always seemed to be a struggle for both of them. Joe never tried to talk to Connie and her gang.
Joe stayed in touch with Beth more often, and they talked at length every month or so.
"Have you heard from Brian or the twins, Sis?"
"No. Gram says she hasn't seen them. Says they are still with the same people that took care of them ten years ago. You remember, the Matthews, Joe?"
"Yeah--of course. We all lived with them at the same time, until Mrs. Kellogg sent me to the orphanage. Why?"
"Well, according to Gram, the Matthews adopted the twins."
"Really? Hmmmm. Well, that's good, I guess. They have to be out of school by now though--I wonder if they went to college or what?"
"I don't know, Joe. I'm not sure where to begin looking for them. To tell the truth, I haven't tried too hard."
"How about Brian?"
"Last I heard was he was still on that farm." She paused for a moment. "When are you going to come home, Joe? I miss you. We've got a lot of catching up to do. Your nieces and nephew won't know you if you stay away much longer."
"I know, I know."
"Are you guys going to have any more kids?"
She laughed wearily on the other end of the line. "No, we're done--believe me. Are you serious about any particular girl yet, Joe?"
"Nah. I haven't had much time. I'm working so many hours between two jobs, and I'm taking some college courses at night. Right now, to be honest, I have been doing my best to put fun back in dysfunctional.
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line as if Beth was inhaling a cigarette. She audibly exhaled and said, "Dee still calls here from time to time."
Joe closed his eyes. Pressed the lids so hard he thought he might never open them again. "Oh Yeah? That's great, but why's she calling you?"
"I don't know, she just needs to feel close I think. She hasn't been the same since her father died, but I think she still has something for you too, Joe."
"I don't know what to tell you about her. That's all so far in the past, you know that. So does she, I hope. I realize I haven't been home in a while, but I plan on coming back there this coming spring. I actually wanted to make it for Christmas but they won't let me go. The holidays are a busy time of year for hotels. Will the spring be okay with you and Walt?"
"Of course, you know better than to ask that--come anytime. I'll sure miss you at Christmas, especially now that Gramps and Mom are gone. We do have some good memories of Christmastime, don't we?"
"I remember a couple of good ones, yes. It makes me miss you more just talking about them. Brings tears to my eyes. Look . . . I'll see you in April or May, though. I promise."
Joe went back to New York in May of 1965. He drove straight through and thirteen hours later, he was on the Long Island Expressway, barely moving in a sea of cars, semis and trucks. An hour later, after checking house numbers, he pulled up at Beth's place at five-thirty in the evening.
It was a small house set in the middle of the block, its identity lost in a crush of four-story walk-ups built cheek by jowl for the working poor. The front lawn next door looked like the place where old toys went to die. A blue '65 Ford Fairlane was parked in Beth's driveway. Joe got out and took a deep breath, letting his lungs fill with the scent of freshly cut grass. He went up the few steps, but didn't see a doorbell, so he rapped on the screen door. It rattled loosely. He held his breath--no barking dogs.
Beth came to the door. "Oh, Joe!" She swung the door open and throwing her arms around his neck, cried "Oh, I can't believe you're really here." Tears filled her eyes as she hugged him.
Three girls and one boy stood in a bunch behind her. Joe acknowledged them with a nod and smiled as he said, "Yeah, it's a long drive but here I am--ready or not. Great to see you, Sis."
"Well, come in--come in". She backed up and turned. "Kids, this is your Uncle Joe." She passed her hand over the top of their heads. "Uncle Joe, remember our oldest , Lori. She just turned fourteen. And Alissa here, is eleven, Steven is eight and last but not least is Linda. Linda's just turned five."
"Hello, girls. Hi, Steve. Glad to see all of you." He hugged them one after the other.
"Hello, Uncle Joe," they said in ragged unison.
They stood in a large living room, and he saw a kitchen at one end, a chrome-legged dinette table with four matching chairs. A couch and two easy chairs were in front of a small television. End tables and lamps on each end of the couch. A door to the right led to other rooms. A woman was on the couch.
"Your timing is perfect, Joe. I just got home from work. Come on in and have a seat. You must be exhausted after that drive. Did you drive straight through?"
"Yes. It wasn't too bad. I stopped and closed my eyes a few times though."
"My friend, Lyn, drove us today. Walter took our car."
Joe glanced at the very attractive woman as Beth edged over to her. He tried to look casual, but he wasn't pulling it off. He felt his jaw drop, his eyebrows shot up into his forehead.
"Joe, this is my best friend--Lyn. Lyn-- my brother, Joe."
Lyn stood. "Hi, Joe, I've heard a lot about you."
"I hope you don't believe everything you hear." He smiled as he eased over and offered his hand. "A pleasure," he said-- his radar at full alert.
"Please, call me Lynie," she said. "Everybody else does, including your sister." They laughed and Lynie sat on the couch again.
She was in her late twenties, Joe guessed. His age. Five-foot-five, perhaps, with long auburn hair and a great shape. She had a beautifully pale Irish face and striking blue eyes. What a beautiful smile, Joe thought. Her voice was soft, sexy and musical, her laugh infectious. Both women wore white nurses uniforms with white hose, and white shoes.
"Lynie gives me a ride back and forth a couple of days a week when I don't have the car. We switch off and on. We both work at the nursing home over in Kings Park."
"Sounds like a good deal. That works out good, I'll bet," said Joe.
Lynie answered. "Yes, it sure does." She seemed to look at him for the first time. Right at him, not the least self-conscious, smiling a little with her eyes, a warm blue that showed glints of light. She brushed her hair aside with the tips of her fingers.
"When does Walt get home, Beth?"
"Oh, about six-thirty. In fact I have to start getting supper on the table pretty quick."
Lynie looked at her watch and stood. "Yes, and I have to be on my way too, Beth." She hooked her purse over her shoulder.
"I'm sorry you can't stay a while longer, Lynie. Sure you don't want to stay and have supper with us?"
"No thanks. I would but you know I have to go home and cook for Mom."
"I understand. But, listen, why not plan on stopping by Saturday during the day. We can take the kids with us and show Joe around a little. Walt doesn't need our car."
"That does sound good. I'll see. I can't promise right now. Joe, nice to meet you. I hope to see you again before you go back."
"Yes, same here. Good to meet you, too." When she was headed for the door Joe craned his neck to look outside. "Is my car in your way to get out?"
"No, you're fine, thanks." She draped her arms around Lori and Alissa. "Bye, bye girls. Have fun with your Uncle Joe. See you, Beth. I'll call you later, okay?"
"Yes, please do. Bye, bye."
Lynie paused at the door. "Bye, Joe."
After she left, Beth hugged Joe again. "I'm so glad you're here, brother. I've got to get supper ready though. Why don't you come out in the kitchen with me. I'll make a cup of coffee and we can talk. My god, it's been so long."
"Coffee sounds good," said Joe. He followed her and pulled a chair away from the dinette set and took a seat. The girls scrambled to sit in the chairs next to him. His attention moved from the kids to a spot on the floor. He pondered a full minute before raising his head to look at Beth.
"So, how's marriage treating you?"
"Oh, alright, I guess," she said it with the slight makings of a fake smile. "But, I swear, sometimes my job gets me down."
He smiled to show he both understood and appreciated the sentiment. "I can imagine it takes a lot out of a person, working there." He looked around. "You have a nice little place here though."
"Yes, well--it's small. Too small as far as I'm concerned, but what are you going to do. We can only afford so much, just like everybody else."
She busied herself making a pot of coffee and put two cups on the table.
"You take cream or sugar?"
"Nope, black's fine."
She giggled. "I hope you like macaroni and cheese and Hot dogs."
"Anything's fine, Sis. I'm so hungry I could eat a bear."
"Good." She filled two pans with water and after setting them on the stove, went in the living room to retrieve her purse. She pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims, put one between her lips and lit up. She sucked hard and squinted at Joe through the smoke haze. "This is the first chance I've had to enjoy one all day."
Joe described his job at the hotel as Beth poured their coffee.
"What made you get into that hotel business, anyway?" she asked.
"Okay, here's the Reader's Digest version," said Joe. "When I got to Chicago and left the Greyhound bus depot, I didn't know where I was going or where I would live. I had been traveling in uniform and when I walked into the Sheraton hotel, went to the front desk and asked for the head guy. Asked him for a job--any job. He looked at me like I was a one-eyed horse and said "Looks like you've already got one."
Beth laughed. "I can just see that."
"Yeah, after I explained I was just discharged he hired me right on the spot and made me a bellboy. From there, I just worked my way up to the front desk."
"Wow! Good for you."
"Yeah, it was weird, alright. Hey, Sis--what's the story with your friend, Lynie?" He watched her as she studied her cigarette, turning the tip of it in the ashtray.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I don't know--tell me about her."
Beth smiled. "You liked what you saw, eh?" She laughed. "Men love to look at gorgeous women, but nothing intimidates them more, I swear."
Joe thought about that for a few seconds, then a frown slowly spread over his face. He gave his head a small shake, "Nah, I'm just curious, that's all." He held his coffee cup in both hands, elbows on the table, so that he had only to dip his head forward to drink some.
" She married?"
"No. She just broke up with a real jerk about six months ago though. She dated him for a long time, I know that. No, she stays home and cares for her mother more than anything. Her mom's health is real bad. Heart trouble and diabetes, too."
"And she works with you, right?"
"Uh huh. The kids love her and she loves kids. In fact she says she wants a houseful of them someday."
"Beautiful, isn't she? And you know what, Joe-- she's beautiful on the inside too. You can just tell, can't you? With Lynie, what you see is what you get. Sweet and true. I just love her to pieces."
"Yes, I can see where you would. I think you're a lot alike."
"Oh, no." Beth laughed. "Interested Joe?"
"No, I just . . . Well, yeah. She's fine alright, but don't be doing any matchmaking, Sis. I can handle that stuff myself, you know?"
He saw Lynie a few more times when she visited Beth. Although they didn't date, they talked a lot and got to know each other. When he left to return to Chicago a week later, a forlorn Joe felt as though he had unfinished business in New York.
During the three years that followed, Joe continued to work in the hotel business. As he gained experience, , he went to work at four-star hotels, including The Drake and The Ambassador East on the north side of Chicago. Working days, he went to Columbia College at night under the GI Bill and took communications courses. He then became a disc jockey, working a few months for WRMN in Elgin and then country music's WJJD in Chicago for a year.
On Wednesday morning June 24, 1968 Joe got a phone call from Beth.
"Joe, I've got some bad news." She paused. "Dad died."
"What? How?" He felt all the blood in his body free-fall to his feet.
"They tell me he was on a fishing trip with his Uncle Ken near Canton, New York and had a massive heart attack. According to Ken, Dad was driving and he was in the passenger seat when it happened. He called Connie and Uncle Glenn right away, I guess and told them about it. He said Ken told it like this:
"I couldn't believe it. My goodness, Glenn, Joe was only fifty years old, you know. One minute he's laughing and just fine. Then his face turns purple and he's sweating and breathing heavy. He turns to me and says, 'you better take over here, Ken, I don't feel so good.' Well, he stopped the car somehow and I got out to go around and take over driving. By the time I got the door open on his side, he was head-down on the steering wheel--dead. Just like that."
Beth continued. "That's all I know , Joe. You'll come home for the funeral--right?"
"What? Yes, of course."
Joe couldn't believe it. He felt a wave of nausea slide through his stomach. His father had been too young. He felt numb all over. For some reason the news jolted him more than when his mother Alice died, years earlier.
"I'll leave as soon as possible. I have to clear things here with my boss and all, but I'll be there."
"That's fine, just get here as quick as you can. I'm going to need you, brother. Are you going to drive?"
"Yes. Meanwhile, Sis, why don't you see what you can find out about Brian and the twins. Maybe we can get them to come. We should at least let them know."
"How, Joe? I don't know where to begin looking."
Joe sighed. He glanced out the window, as if the answer were hovering there in plain view "Okay, wait till I get there then. I'll see what I can do. I'm going to hang up now. I love you, Sis." Beth sagged with exaggerated relief.
"I love you too, Joe. Hurry, but be careful."
Joe sat for a couple of minutes, collecting himself. Covering his face with his hands, he pressed his fingertips against his eyes. It was one of those gestures you do instead of jumping off a bridge or choking someone. Why? Why did this have to happen?
Sunlight slanted through a crack in the bedroom curtains. The air-conditioning unit, wedged in the living room window droned ominously, predicting another scorcher of a morning in New York. A little fan buzzed and oscillated on the night table. Joe opened an eye and squinted at a bedside clock.
It was Saturday morning, and after breakfast, Beth and Joe sat at the kitchen table with their coffee. Walter had left for a half-day of work at the firehouse and the kids were still sleeping. For a little while the house was quiet.
"Where is he going to be laid out?" Joe asked. The steam from the coffee whispered up past his face. Beth's cigarette burned in the ashtray.
"At O'Connell Funeral Home in Huntington. They brought his body down from Canton. He died near there. The service will be Monday."
"I still can't believe it," said Joe. "Dad. He rooted for the Yanks, he wore Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear, and drove a '58 Dodge. Yet he was so cold. I don't get why. He was as normal as normal can be, I guess, but . . . sometimes . . . he must have felt like a train trying to drive down a dirt road. And now he's gone."
"I didn't know him as well as you, Joe, but he was still my father. I have to respect that."
"I know-- me too. Thing is, I still feel like we have to get a hold of Brian and the twins somehow."
"But how, Joe?" She took a drag on her cigarette, got up, went over to his chair and kissed him on top of the head. She stayed there, hunched over, her arm around his shoulders. "I've got no answers, Joe. Sometimes I really think I'm out of touch with the world. I'm running low on happy. And I hardly have any brave left at all."
"We just have to try. There has to be a way. I'll do some mental knuckle-cracking, we'll figure a way."
"After all these years--you really think so? We haven't even talked to them in years."
"I thought about it some on the drive here. I say we call information in Ellisburg first, and get Herb and Myrt's phone number. We'll go from there."
After he talked to Myrt, Joe got up, went over to the window, and looked out, his hands stuffed into his trouser pockets. "How's Lynie doing these days?"
"She's fine. Beth smiled. "She asks about you, too, mister."
"Really?" His neck was turning dark red.
Fifteen minutes later Myrt called back, and after talking to her, Joe hung up and clasped Beth's hands between his. His eyes revealed his excitement. "It's going to be alright."
"What do you mean? What did she say?"
"She says she knows how to get a hold of Mitch and Merrill. She will tell them right away. I asked if she could have them call--she said she would."
Mitchell and Merrill were both on hand when they called back and spoke to Beth and Joe. A very awkward conversation ensued. Joe's heart was beating a million times a minute. After all these years, it was his brothers, and they were no longer little boys . . . they were men!
"We don't even know the man, Beth," said Mitchell.
"I know--but he is your father, and this will be the only chance you will have to see him and pay your last respects." They agreed and said they would be there.
Brian, on the other hand, had read about it in the obituaries of the Watertown Times. He started doing some of his own investigating and somehow tracked his way to Beth. When he called, his reaction was much the same as Mitchell and Merrill's, but he told her he would be there for the funeral.
"You can't blame them," said Joe. It was the best he could do, with his brain twitching all crazy inside his skull. Events unfurling so fast now. He looked out the window again. "I don't think they've ever laid eyes on Dad."
"No, and I don't blame them either, but at least they know," said Beth. "I feel better."
Monday morning Beth, Joe, Brian and Mitchell and Merrill sat side by side at the funeral home. Introductions earlier had been clumsy at the very least:
"Hi, Brian--I'm your brother, Joe." And, "Hello, Mitchell, I'm your sister Beth." "Hi, Merrill, I'm your brother, Brian." It was awkward, but through it all, Beth was an island of professional calm in the ocean of chaos. She took charge and navigated things very well.
Brian was trim, with short hair and efficient eyes that took in everything. He was around 5' 10" and muscular with tanned skin. His grin was engaging, endearingly crooked, giving a boyish quality to his classic good looks.
Joe remarked, "Brian, you look so much like Dad." And it was true. For Brian, it was as if he was looking at a reflection when he lingered at the casket. Time was frozen.
Yet, there was something about the density of Brian's eyes, dark brown orbs where everything gets sucked in and nothing comes out, that suggested a hiding place for hurt.
There was a young girl with him. She was fairly attractive, in her twenties, with a head of puffed-up, sprayed-stiff blond hair, very short skirt, red heels, and a thousand-watt smile. Not likeable however, she was loud and seemed to openly argue with everything Brian said. It was embarrassing to witness, and Joe thought, a bit like driving past a car wreck and being incredibly grateful that it had happened to someone else and not to you. Even though you tried to keep your eyes averted and give the unfortunate victims some privacy, you couldn't help but peek and you couldn't help but be grateful that it wasn't your car wreck--it was somebody else's.
Connie came to the service with her mother. She had aged horribly, Joe thought. Somewhere between fifty and fifty-five, her face was ravaged less by age than by hard drinking and radical consumption of cigarettes.
Just before everyone left for the gravesite, Connie abruptly crossed the room, her face reddened. With weary eyes and the rough voice of a longtime smoker, rushed to Beth and Joe like a charging tigress. Her eyes were wide-open the white visible all the way around the iris. Her lips pulled back in a grimace that showed gritted teeth.
"What are they doing here?" She pointed to the twins. "They're not Joe's kids!" She stood in a fashion model slouch, hand on her kidney with fingers pointing to her spine. She was breathing hard and starting to hyperventilate as she reflected on a truth learned over the years from Joe.
The twins reacted with total surprise and turned away from her.
Merrill said "Wow," barely above a whisper. They weren't entirely sure who the woman was and together, simply edged over to the other side of the room.
"I think that was Dad's girlfriend," Mitchell said out of the corner of his mouth.. Connie continued to glare at them, but they acted as if she wasn't really there.
Overhead, gray clouds rumbled across the sky like bloated sponges, filling up the blue bowl,shutting out the sun.
Much to the chagrin of the funeral director, Hector O'Connell, Joe's sons would be included as pallbearers.
At the cemetery Joe stood between Beth and Brian. He looked around to see if anyone was watching. Then he turned back, looked over at the minister, awkwardly put his hands together and finally let them dangle at his sides. At first he didn't even close his eyes, but then they just seemed to do so on their own. He felt the comforting presence of his sister next to him.
Past the bound flowers on top, inside the inexpensive casket, he could clearly see his father's face, the dark suit he had been buried in, the sparse, but black curly hair brushed to the side, the hands folded across his chest, the eyes closed. At rest. At peace. The limbs stilled much too early.
Joe focused on days gone by. He thought of his mother as well as his father. Neither one had shown, through their actions, that they cared about him or any of them. With head bowed, he placed his hands firmly together and started making his peace with his father below, and with whatever life lay above. He swallowed hard and inhaled slowly to calm his pounding heart. He couldn't silence the words that escaped his mouth as he whispered, "I love you, Dad."
Beth cried when Joe left. She squeezed him in her arms and asked, "When will you be coming back?"
He stepped back and held her hands in his. "Ordinarily, I would say that's like asking about the flight plan for an asteroid, Sis." He grinned sheepishly "But now . . . now, I think I'll be coming back here again real soon-- who knows, maybe for good."
"Oh, I hope so, Joe. I really do."
On the drive back to Chicago, a multitude of thoughts raced through his head. Before they parted all of the brothers as well as Beth, swapped addresses and phone numbers. They agreed to stay in contact with each other. Hopefully it would be the beginning of mending a union that never was, but most certainly should have been for so many years.
The funerals of both his mother and father made Joe realize that life was indeed too short. Through Beth's daughters he saw what a joy raising children could be. He promised himself he would teach his kids the right way to live without resorting to losing his temper, without beatings, without screaming--all those traumas whose aftermath lasted forever and still scarred him. He decided he wanted to settle down and have a family of his own. He needed that, and understood its importance for the first time in his adult life.
Deep in thought, he suddenly realized he had been on autopilot for a few miles? All sense of time and distance absent.
A good amount of his thoughts centered on the woman he coincidentally met at his sister's house --Lynie. He remembered every detail of their very first meeting. She was beautiful and charming, and made him think of nice things: the way grass smells after it has just been cut, the feel of crisp sheets against his body, window curtains billowing in a soft breeze, and the smell of something tasty baking in the oven.
Joe thought he was in love. Real love for the first time in his entire life.
Before he got to Chicago, he promised himself he would keep his quiet promise to Beth when he left. He would be back to New York and soon. Very soon.
Book of the Month
This is a fiction saga based on actual events that occured between 1939 and 1968. The picture of the children is the only one in existance of them all together except Kathy and Johnny. Thanks for your patience in waiting for this chapter and all of them before it. I will always be grateful. BobPays one point and 2 member cents.
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