Sonny’s hand shook as he took a drag from his cigarette. Rain drops from the eaves above bruised onto Sonny’s faded grey scaly cap. He watched on as his lifelong friend Daniel reached the walkway to the funeral home. With his head down, and hands in his rain slicker’s pockets, Daniel walked down the cobbled path. “Sonny,” he said with a nod, as he reached the tall, twin hinged doors. The two men shared a moment of a silence, backs toward the funeral home, long faces towards the rain, as Sonny’s cigarette began to fade.
Outside the viewing room, three Boston Firefighters stood reverently in their Class A uniforms. Shoulder to shoulder they stood, with their white-gloved hands crossed at their wrists; posture broken, sullen bags around their eyes, speaking softly to one another. Sonny recognized them from Paulie’s firehouse, but could not recall their names.
“How are you holding up, Marty?” Daniel asked, patting Lieutenant Marty McKenna on the shoulder. Marty was a Lieutenant alongside Paulie on Engine Ladder 7, and had known Daniel for some time.
“Seen better days, Dan.” The Lieutenant replied matter-of-factly. The two men shook hands with dry eyes and heavy hearts.
“Marty, you know Sonny?” Daniel asked, unsure if they were acquainted. Sonny removed his cap and greeted the Lieutenant.
“Of course, Paulie spoke highly of you.” Lieutenant McKenna praised. Sonny half-smiled and dipped his head.
“Thanks again for doing the honor guard, Marty. I know Paulie didn’t exactly…”
“Wouldn’t have it another way,” Marty declared, interrupting Daniel. “Thirty-six years of service.” He stressed each syllable of the proud words that rolled off his lips.
Daniel sighed and reflected on the length of Paulie’s tenure. His thoughts shifted from the dead, to those he left behind. “It means a lot to Janet and the girls.” Daniel continued, as if Marty needed reminding.
After a long moment with no words passed, Sonny, eager to press on, spoke up, “Let’s go pay our respects.” Daniel nodded, and they excused themselves from the group. Together the pair slowly walked into the viewing room, towards the line of Paulie’s loved ones, the honor guard, and the shinning rosewood casket in which Paulie lay.
Side by side they proceeded down the line, shaking hands with Paulie’s brothers, and hugging his tear-filled daughters. Last in line was Janet, shell shocked and hazy eyed. Daniel was the first to reach her and moved in for a hug. Her bones were tense and locked, her world was frozen.
“He was the best friend we could ask for.” Daniel said as he kissed her cheek. “Stay strong Janet.” He solemnly implored before moving towards the casket. He kept his head down buried in prayer, not able to bring himself to see Paulie. Sonny approached Janet, shook her hand and nodded his head. He recognized the look of emptiness in her eyes. The blank stare of paralysis, not sure how to grieve.
A slight breeze whispered over Daniel’s shoulder. He fought the urge to recognize it as Paulie’s ghost. Daniel rose from the kneeler and headed towards the periphery of the viewing room. Sonny followed at a much slower clip, as his days had worn hard on his knees, hands, and hips.
Daniel and Sonny waded through the saturated room, full of friends, family, and what seemed to be all of Boston Fire. Daniel smiled at the turnout, for Paulie deserved a proper goodbye. Familiar and unfamiliar faces seemed to mesh in the crowd. Occasionally, friends who recognized Sonny would stop him to share a word about Paulie.
“A hard way to go,” an older gentleman echoed from a nearby corner as Sonny walked by. Quick witted Sonny replied, “There are few easy ways,” and pressed further into the crowd. Sonny tensed as the older man grabbed him firmly by the arm. “I taught you better than that. I did Paulie anyway. You never could learn.” His biting brogue and raspy tone shed light on who he was, and Sonny couldn’t help but smile. “Daniel, look who’s got a hold of me!” Sonny exclaimed, grabbing the attention of Daniel who was a few paces a head.
“Father Collins? Where is your collar?” Daniel asked, surprised to see their old headmaster out of uniform.
“They’ve had enough of me at the old school.” Father Collins exclaimed. “It’s a shame about Paul. He was a good lad.”
“Preaching to the choir, Father.” Sonny concurred.
“A headmaster should go out first. Make sure things are set up, up there…” Father Collins looked down for a moment, still firmly grasping Sonny’s arm. “I’ve said that too many times over the years.” Father Collins’ mood shifted as he reflected on his own words. He let go of Sonny’s arm and sat down silently. Father Collins was rarely speechless. As the Headmaster of Boston College High School he always put his vocal cords to good use.
“Alright Father, it was great to see you.” Daniel said as he prepared to move. Father Collins looked away.
Despite his desire to sprint towards the door, Daniel knew they couldn’t leave. Apart from his family and his ladder, Daniel and Sonny were Paulie’s closest companions. They spent Wednesday nights together at The Cornerstone pub on West Broadway, and shared coffee at Mike’s Doughnuts on Tremont Street Sunday’s after church. They grew up together playing baseball at McLaughlin Park and roller hockey on the streets of Mission Hill. Together they made their way through the nuns of Saint Mary’s and the Jesuit’s of Boston College High School. They lived, learned, loved and lost within the confines of that city.
These distant, yet dear memories raced through Daniel’s head. He acknowledged that he was anxious to leave, anxious to learn about life without Paulie. He longed to go home and hold his wife and call his children. He was fifty-eight years old, had witnessed his share of losses, and knew that life was fleeting. Yet Paulie’s passing made the realization intimate; that someday he too would die.
Sonny was unencumbered by these thoughts. He had learned from his youth not to grow close and to keep his distance. He built a wall twenty-stories high over his heart, and let very few people in. Surprisingly, despite the sheer magnitude of time spent together, Paulie had not broken through. Sonny’s face was as cold and dry as it always had been. His broad shoulders were worn from constantly grappling with his past. His knees and hips were sore from years of carrying the weight. Daniel recognized these things about Sonny, and quietly understood.
Together Daniel and Sonny made their way to the back of the viewing room, were they wished to stand undisturbed. Unbeknownst to them, a classmate of theirs, George Skinner, was standing in the back doing the same. It had been sometime since George had seen them, and he felt badly about losing touch over the years. George excelled in sports at Boston College High School, and received a full scholarship to play football at Stanford. After receiving his degree in economics, George moved to Wall Street, where he spent many fruitful years.
“Sonny, is that George Skinner over there?” Daniel asked, turning his back to George. Sonny glanced over Daniel’s shoulder to the far corner of the room. “Could be anyone, haven’t seen him in years.”
“No, I’m telling you Sonny. That’s George.” Sonny looked over Daniel’s shoulder a second time, raised his brow and said, “That could be Skinner…”
Daniels face grew a shade of red. “It’s him, I know it. Can you believe that Sonny? After all these years, he shows up here?”
“Should we say hello?” Sonny asked, not wholly wanting to do so himself.
“I don’t know, Sonny.” Daniel said with a sigh.
“I can’t stand him.” Sonny confessed.
“I can’t stand him, either.”
“How’d he hear about Paulie?” Daniel asked with a pause. “Do you think he’s been in town?”
“Go ask him.” Sonny jabbed as Daniel crossed his arms at his chest. “Him and Paulie were close.”
Daniel listened on and anxiously bobbed his head. “Can’t he see us? He expects us to go talk to him, doesn’t he?”
“He doesn’t see us. We’ll be short. Just a hello.”
“But if he goes on about Stanford…”
“And the rolling hills of France,” Sonny said with a smile. “I know it, Danny. He won’t, not here. Not at Paulie’s wake.”
“Just a hello.” Daniel reiterated as he began to turn. There, two or three heads away, stood George Skinner, wearing a green corduroy jacket over a purple turtle-neck. As George noticed the pair walking towards him, he pointed his nose up towards the far wall.
“Surprised to see you here, George.” Daniel said with a rasping tone.
“Paul and I were close.” George smugly replied. He looked off into space, refusing eye contact. He stood a good four inches taller than Daniel and Sonny.
“It’s good to see you George.” Sonny chimed in, attempting to show interest.
“Have you gone to see him?” George asked. Daniel and Sonny nodded. “I haven’t been able to bring myself to.” George’s voice crackled as he spoke. He licked his lips and discretely bit down on his tongue. After a long pause, George turned to Sonny, narrowed his brow inquisitively, and asked, “Are you still working for the T?”
“Oh no, I retired a few years back.” Sonny replied.
“It’s been a few years since we’ve seen you.” Daniel huffed, hoping to get a rise out of George.
“Several.” George replied placing his hands in his corduroy coat pockets. “It’s good to see you boys.” He said with a tinge of sincerity. “It’s a shame it has to be like this.”
“Paulie always had a way of bringing us together.” Sonny half-joked, lightening the mood.
“Isn’t that the truth?”
“It was good to see you George.” Sonny said as he framed his shoulders for movement. Daniel, hoping to cut the conversation short, did the same. “Take care George,” he said as he took steps towards the door.
As they turned to leave, George called out, “Wednesday night at the Cornerstone?” Daniel stopped dead in his tracks. “Yeah, how’d you know?” He asked over his shoulder, hardly turning back to face George.
“Paulie…it’s all he ever talked about,” George recounted in a sober tone.
Daniel grumbled and grit his teeth. “Take care now,” he said in a low voice, refusing George the light of day.
On their way out, Sonny and Daniel bumped into the Cleary sisters, who were fussing about the entrance to the viewing room. Mary Cleary, the younger of the sisters, a woman just over seventy, slouched upon the bannister of the lone set of stairs. Her head was in the crook of her elbow, and she was laughing uncontrollably. Sonny recognized her laugh, and recalled how infectious it was. Even in the darkest of times, Mary could light up a room with a laugh.
The Cleary sisters lived around the corner from Sonny and Paulie, and used to watch them when they were kids. Margaret, the elder sister, sat on the edge of the stairs, playing with the ends of her dress. Her knees and hands were all cut up, and blood slowly streamed down her shin.
“Margaret, I told you not to wear that dress!” Mary exclaimed, hand on her stomach, trying to hold in the laughs.
“Oh hush, now. You’re making a scene.” Margaret snapped back.
“I’m making the scene? Wasn’t it you who fell up the stairs?” Mary said bursting at the seams. In spite of the stinging pain from her cuts, Margaret managed to chuckle.
“Jesus Christ, Margaret. What have you done to yourself?” Sonny asked, examining her wounds.
“She fell up the stairs.” Mary answered.
“Up the stairs? Are you drinking again Ms. Cleary?”
“No help was this dress!” Margaret shouted, with her head down in her lap, hardly paying Sonny any mind.
“It’s too long,” Mary hollered. “Freddy O’Connor could have told you that.”
“Who? The blind boy?” Sonny asked, beginning to laugh.
“Mary, don’t be making fun of the dead at a wake.” Margaret chastised her younger sister.
“Freddy O’Connor’s dead?” Daniel asked curiously.
“Don’t you read your obits, Danny?” Mary asked with a grin.
“You two are the only ones who do!” Sonny teased.
“And that’s why we’re here…” Mary, face to face with Sonny, smiled wildly. A single tear rolled down her check. She looked away and focused herself on Margaret.
“Do you need any help?” Daniel asked, as several firefighters returned from the truck with a first aid kit.
“You truly did make a scene!” Mary said resting herself back against the bannister. She wiped the tear from her cheek, and caught another at the base of her eye. “I love you boys. You’re family.” She said, feigning a smile. In an attempt to distract herself from Paulie’s passing, Mary looked for a laugh. “That Paulie though, he was a shit. Who does he think he is leaving before us?” She placed her hand on Margaret’s shoulder, and left it there for her to hold.
Sonny squeezed himself in between the firefighters who were shifting around Margaret’s legs. Speaking loudly so he could be heard, Sonny bellowed out, “You’re in good hands now, Marge. Dan and I are off.”
“Take care of yourselves now.” Margaret replied, distracted by the crowd who gathered around her. As Sonny walked out the front doors of the funeral home, he felt a cool breeze press against his face. Sonny paused for a moment and pulled out a smoke. The rain fell as hard as it had before, and dark clouds still hovered overhead. Sonny’s hand shook as fumbled with his lighter.
“The hand still acting up, Sonny?” Daniel asked with concern.
“From time to time,” Sonny reported. He grabbed his left wrist and observed the oscillations of his hand.
“You should have gotten that checked out years ago.” Daniel reasoned, frustrated by Sonny’s unwillingness to seek help. Sonny shook out his hands at his sides and took a long drag from his cigarette. “Are you worried about Margaret?” He asked.
“Has she been falling a lot lately?” Daniel wondered aloud.
“Dunno.” Answered Sonny. “I haven’t been calling as much as I should.”
“It’s good you do call.”
“They watched over us when we were growing up,” Sonny recalled. “Remember how they use to chase us up and down Mission Hill? Marge would run after me with a spatula, and Mary would get Paulie with a rolling pin.”
“A rolling pin, huh?” Daniel chuckled a bit.
“That’s why he turned out so great. Me, I had it easy with the spatula.” Sonny said with a grin. “Ole Marge was too slow, anyhow.”
Daniel smiled and looked out into the crowded parking lot. “Where’d you park?” He asked, hoping to hurry Sonny along. But Sonny wasn’t in a rush. He took another drag from his cigarette and pointed vaguely in the direction of his car. He noticed Tim O’Donnell, the owner of the Cornerstone pub, and his wife Sherri, coming down the cobbled path. “Heading out?” Tim asked as he shook Daniel’s hand. Daniel smirked and shook his head, yes.
“Have you met my wife Sherri?” Tim simpered, pulling her closer to his side. Sherri’s large pink sunglasses contrasted with their all black outfits and overcast skies. Her make-up was overdone, and her breasts were spruced up in her tight fitting top. Maybe fifteen years ago she could pull that off, Sonny thought to himself, enjoying the last of his cigarette. They shook hands and huddled under the overhang.
“Yes, of course.” Daniel replied.
Sherri blushed. “Paulie was a great friend to the Cornerstone and the community.”
“Yes. We’re honored to have the chance to get to know Paul over the years.” Sherri continued with a plastic smile.
“Paulie loved your place,” Sonny spoke with his back pressed against the wall. “Won’t be the same without him.”
Sherri moved to flank Sonny and peered into stained glass windows. “I was worried about the turnout, because of the rain.” The wide-eyed, red-haired Sherri exclaimed.
“Rain or shine for Paulie.” Daniel resounded.
“It’s a shame about him. I was devastated when I heard the news. He had a big heart, he’ll be missed.” Tim kept his testimonial short, knowing that his audience knew well of the size of Paulie’s heart. Anxious to get inside, Tim and Sherri wished Sonny and Daniel the best. Tomorrow, they assured the men, they would be at the funeral services.
As they traversed the cobbled path, Sonny’s thoughts began to circle. He pushed it all away and focused on the fair weather wake-goers and their scantily dressed wives. Sonny wished his blood ran hot. He wished he felt the flush of heat on his face. Yet he felt nothing, nothing but the cool drops of rain that plopped on the back of his neck. Thoughts and rain drops and cobblestone steps.
With haste, Daniel made his way towards his car, which happened to be in the proximity of Sonny’s. He opened his car door, and looked over to Sonny, with the intention of saying goodbye, yet all he could do was stare.
“Something a matter Daniel?” Sonny asked, noticing Daniel’s eyes tuned in on him.
“Oh nothing Sonny.” Daniel replied.
“OK. We’ll see you soon, Danny.” Sonny turned his back towards Daniel in the direction of his vehicle.
Daniel swallowed as he mustered the strength to ask his friend a brooding question. “Do you ever think,” he paused, stumbling over the order of his words. “Do you ever think how Rudy’s life would’ve turned out?”
Sonny, taken back by Daniels words, froze. He felt his bones tighten, as his heart began to race. With clenched teeth and shaking hands curled in a ball, Sonny turned ever-so slightly towards Daniel and muttered out, “Most days, Danny.” He dipped the brim of his faded, grey scaly cap towards the ground, and moved away without words.
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