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Fathers and Sons

July 16, 2014

The funeral parlor was up the street from the boiler room where Jed Engine and the others stayed on winter nights to escape the cold. But winter’s icy grip was a distant memory this warm June night, and Jed Engine, dressed in a borrowed navy blue suit, waited in the crowded viewing room along with the others to pay his last respects to a man he never really knew. Although, he knew the man’s son.

Bruno was a musician, like Jed. They met at school. Both played acoustic guitar.

The viewing room was quiet except for the sobs of the grieving family and the whispered condolences of relatives and friends. The only wake Jed had attended was his grandmother’s when he was eight years old. Back then, none of this had registered.

At eight, he hadn’t noticed the heart-shaped floral arrangements, the welcome sparkle of color from the dozens of carnations and roses and chrysanthemums aligned across the front of the viewing room. Nor had he noticed the room’s respectful hush and long faces. But more than this, he hadn’t noticed what lay inside the casket.  Although back then, he might have stolen a glance as children often do when something piques their innocence, until realizing what’s there, and they turn away.

As the mourners proceeded slowly toward the front, and Jed’s attention went from the casket to his friend’s solemn face, his eyes started to tear. He blamed it on a lack of experience in these matters. That had to be the reason. After all, he hardly knew Bruno’s father, hardly knew Bruno at that.

It was his turn at the kneeler facing the casket, his turn to say a silent prayer for this man’s soul, for strength for the grieving family. Eyes closed, he tried to pray. All he could think about was his own father and what regrets there would be when the time came.

He got up. Wiped his eyes. Waited in turn to offer condolences to the family.

“I’m so very sorry, Mrs. Segamonte, for your loss.”

He moved one step to the left. Bruno stood up. The two friends embraced. “Seg, I’m so sorry, man.”

Outside the fresh air felt good. Traffic along the avenue was loud and steady. Famous and some of the others were leaning against a car, having a cigarette. Jed loosened his tie and joined them. He lit a cigarette. He couldn’t believe how much he enjoyed such a bad and stupid habit. It was the best tasting cigarette he’d ever smoked.

“Well, if it isn’t the Engine,” Famous said, squinting at Jed’s outfit.

“Don’t even,” said Jed. “It’s all borrowed. I own nothing. Not a suit, shoes, tie, nothing.”

Silvie smiled. “That’s smart. Why take up space with clothes you wear once every five years?”

“Funerals and weddings,” said Blind Garrett, and he shook his head. “I went to three funerals last year. Two uncles and an aunt. Boom. Boom. Boom. One after the other.”

Silvie scratched his head. “They get rubbed out?”

Blind Garrett waved his hand. “Heart attacks. Well, two heart attacks and one, well, no one’s sure what’s happened to aunt Henny.”

“Aunt Henny died?” Silvie seemed surprised.

Blind Garrett nodded. “Apparently.”

Famous started. “Apparently? Don’t you know if the woman’s dead or alive?”

Blind Garrett shrugged. “We think she’s alive but who the hell knows.”

“How can you not know?”

“Well, her house is a pig sty. She could be living underneath stacks of old magazines for all we know.”

“Old magazines. Some family you got.” Famous tossed his cigarette at Blind Garrett. He wasn’t really blind. Famous had given him the name after Garrett’s near-miss with a subway car.

“But the point is,” Blind Garrett continued. “You never know when you’re going to need a suit. Or three.”

“Or a search team to visit your aunt,” said Jed.

“Anybody hungry?” It was Silvie. He could be counted on to eat around-the-clock, his stomach operating on an hourly timer similar to the timer that triggered an equally vital male organ, although with greater frequency.

“You’re always eating and yet you never gain weight,” Jed commented.

The consensus among his friends pointed not to how often Silvie ate, but what he ate. He wasn’t big on cookies or cake or soda, and only indulged in pizza and Carvel once in a while. He preferred meat, in all the meat industry’s glorious and creatively wonderful forms.

He wouldn’t hesitate to open a can of Spam as a mid-morning snack, or a jar of Vienna Sausages before bed.

“If nobody’s hungry, I’m going to stop by Dunn’s. His mom made wiener schnitzel Sunday. If I’m lucky, there’s still some in the fridge.”

Blind Garrett joined him.

“I’ll go. What the hell is wiener schnitzel anyway?”

“You never had wiener schnitzel? Dunn’s mom makes the best.  You’ll think you died and went to heaven. Or in Aunt Henny’s case, under the TV Guides.”

After Silvie and Blind Garrett left, the others, except for Jed, decided to head out.

Jed lit another cigarette and leaned against a white Cadillac, an El Dorado. Perhaps not the smartest thing considering the funeral parlor had four viewing rooms and any one of the mourners might be connected.

But he leaned anyway.

Mignosa’s funeral parlor was busy for a Friday night. Watching the bereaved come and go in their posh outfits, Jed couldn’t help thinking how many good-looking girls attended funerals.  Not that this was any place to meet someone, but it seemed a waste, all those lovely babes, dressed for a night out and this is what they got.

The door opened and out came Bruno. He spotted Jed and came over.

“Everybody abandon you?” he asked.

Jed explained about Dunn’s mom’s wiener schnitzel. “The others just left for somewhere. I don’t know.”

“Got a smoke?” Bruno asked. Jed offered him the pack of Marlboros.

“What the hell is wiener schnitzel?”

Jed shrugged. Bruno flipped open the top. Jed was down to only two cigarettes.

“Finish them,” said Jed. “I should quit. I’m beginning to enjoy them too much.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” said Bruno. “Hey, remember that place I told you about in Poughkeepsie?”

“The dude ranch?”

Bruno nodded. He’d seen an ad for a dude ranch in Poughkeepsie that was looking for musicians to play weekends. Bruno and Jed were planning on going but then Bruno’s father passed away.

“I want to go. More than ever. I want to go.”

Jed had mixed feelings about it. But maybe it would be good for Bruno to get his mind off things.

“If you feel up to it, we’ll go, man.”

Closing his eyes, exhaling the smoke, Bruno lowered his head and started trembling.

“It’s okay, “Jed said. “Let it out, man.”

Bruno’s sobs seemed to drown out the noise of the traffic. Jed tried his best to comfort his friend. After a while, Bruno wiped his eyes, turned to Jed.

“You know how,” he began, his voice shaky. “Famous always saying his dad, they argue all the time? They never get along? Just fight and argue every time they’re in the same room?”

“Listen, man.” Jed tried to sound reassuring. “Beethoven’s old man used to beat him. Beat him, man. But you know Ludwig turned out all right. Because he had his music. And so do we.” Jed wasn’t sure he was helping Bruno. “I mean, I’m sure your dad loved you and, even if he hit–”

“You don’t understand,” Bruno said. “He never hit me. Not once. Never even raised a hand.”

“Well, that’s good then.”

Bruno shook his head. “Maybe, in a way. But when you don’t care about something, you just ignore it.  There’s no love, no hate, no feelings. You just flat out ignore it, like it’s not there.”

The stop light on the corner turned red and a car screeched to a stop.

“Like it’s invisible.”

Bruno nodded. “Exactly. Like it’s invisible.”

“Don’t even think like that, Bruno. Everybody’s got issues, man. Hell, if my old man and me speak two sentences to each other, it’s a lot.”

Bruno shook his head. “It’s not enough. At least that’s what I think. You need more. You can’t know someone, really know them, if you never talk to them, ask them questions, listen to what’s on their mind.”

Jed thought about Grumwald, his geography teacher. The man was a walking nag machine. He’d spot you in the hallway and ask how you were doing with your assignments, your workload, even your other classes. Interesting enough? You keeping up? And after class he’d call you over just to make sure you didn’t have any questions or miss any notes. Every chance he got, he’d nag you. Nag about this and that and everything in between. Why he’d nag you into tomorrow if he could.

But hadn’t Jed always walked away feeling, hey, here was someone who cared.

Jed looked at Bruno.

“You’re right, man. But you’ve got to keep in mind some people, they don’t open up. Believe me, I know.” Jed reached for a cigarette, realized he’d given them to Bruno. “It doesn’t mean your dad didn’t love you or never wanted you.  I know he did. Not that I knew him very well, but I know it’s the truth. Look what you’ve got going for you. Don’t you think he knew that from the beginning? From the moment he first saw you, and brought you and your mom home from the hospital? I’m telling you he was proud. I bet every time he saw you, his heart swelled with love and pride–“

Bruno’s eyes were dark and sunken and wet from crying. When he spoke again, his voice was hollow and unfamiliar, a stranger speaking.

“He never told me, man. He just never told me.”

It was after midnight when Jed got home. The house was quiet. There were no lights on. His throat was parched from talking and cigarettes. He went into the kitchen. By the light of the open refrigerator he drank from a carton of cold orange juice.

He and Bruno had talked most of the night, first at the diner then at Gabe’s Bar over a few beers. Gabe didn’t ask if you were seventeen, only if you had money. Bruno was going through a tough time, and the thought of something bad happening to his friend left Jed feeling scared and broken.

He slunked up the stairs, passing the bedroom where his mother and his father were asleep, and entered his room.

The album cover was where he left it alongside the turntable. He took it to the open window. The light from the streetlamp shone on the place on the cover where Bruno had signed his name. That was for anyone who tried to steal his albums.

Outside, endless dark and silent houses.

Jed rubbed his thumb across Bruno’s name. Of all the things in this crazy God-forsaken world to doubt. Bruno had to pick his father’s love.

A breeze came softly lifting the curtain with a sigh.

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