by Marc Cozza
First, we headed downtown to Joseph’s Market for sopressata, canned peaches, Heinz Ketchup, bananas and some ground chuck. In the ketchup aisle, my eyes landed on a shiny glass jar of French’s Mustard that looked like candy. It hung over the front of the shelf and I reached. Bright yellow shattered across the linoleum. Strangers turned their heads. Then dad turned the corner and his face wasn’t red. He pulled my arm and hoisted me to his hip. I rubbed my face against his Brylcreemed black hair. The manager came over with a dustpan, looked at me and shook his head, then swept up the glass with hairy arms and a broom.
“It’s okay, Gene,” he said to dad.
“Sorry, Tony. I’ll buy you a coffee next time you’re in the drugstore.”
I imagined my dad having a coffee with hairy Tony, just because of me.
Next stop, dad’s drugstore. Closed on Sunday, so he let me play with plastic pill bottles. I counted Smarties on the pharmacist’s tray. They fit snugly between my pinched fingertips. He filled his bottle, put a label in his red typewriter and hit the keys fast like drums. A bell rang and he slapped the machine with his left hand and kept drumming the keys. He yanked out the label and stuck it to the plastic bottle and poured in the pills from his tray. We worked side by side. I poked some glossy buttons of an adding machine; one red, two brown, one red. They looked like M&Ms. I pulled a big knobby lever on the side of the machine. It chinged out some paper with numbers on it. Dad made me a chocolate milkshake at the soda fountain—Sealtest Ice Cream and Hershey’s syrup. He put it all in a metal cup and clicked it into a machine that made it soft and creamy. He gave it to me in a paper cup with a straw. I drank it in the car because the Pontiac had vinyl seats.
Dad gunned it out of the drugstore parking lot and the soft suspension rocked. We rumbled up the hill and veered into a lot behind a spired brick mansion overlooking Highland Avenue—Meehan’s Funeral Home. Dad opened the car door and waited for me to wipe the seat with my napkin. We ambled to the ornate door of the mansion. He knocked on the leaded glass. I saw movement behind lace curtains. A small bald man with a turned-up nose opened the door.
“Hey Gene, thanks for coming over today. Who’s with you? Is that Mike?”
“Mike’s twelve now. This is Marc. He’s five.”
“Hey buddy, what do you say!”
“Come in.” He snapped off his green rubber gloves and swung them toward the foyer leading us into a room covered in dark wood. It smelled like bleach and pickles. Mr. Meehan steered us away from a large archway. I saw him glance at my father with a raised brow, then tilt his head toward the archway like he was telling a secret.
“Don’t mind him. I was just working.”
Through the archway, a man sat stiffly on a white table, his legs stretched out in front of him, back upright and propped against the wall like my G.I. Joe tossed in the corner of my room. One arm hung straight down, the other rested on his lap. A spotlight washed across his face, raking his brow. Slightly opened eyes looked at me. He wore creased black pants, no socks and an untucked white dress shirt, open at the neck. His sleeve rustled—blown by a turning fan on the floor—making his arm look alive.
“I might have to break his back to get him down,” said Mr. Meehan.
I grabbed dad’s hand. He gave Mr. Meehan a white prescription bag.
“Thanks for dropping this by, Gene. Eileen can’t get out of bed with this fever and headache,” he said.
I wondered why the man was on the table. His skin looked cold like raw chicken.
“Might be the swine flu, Jack. She’ll have to wait it out. This should reduce the aches so she can sleep. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thanks, Gene. I’ll return the favor sometime.”
“I hope not.”
“Oh hell, not that!”
Mr. Meehan turned us around, away from the corpse, remembering that his job was creepy. I glanced at the stiff man, the fan blowing his gray hair like wind through a car window. Mr. Meehan patted my head. His hand smelled rubbery.
“I’ll see you later, Mike!”
I didn't correct him and neither did dad; but he was right, I would see him later.
They shook hands.
I squeezed Dad’s hand when we left, glancing through each window as we circled the mansion to the car: a small powder room, a cluttered bookshelf, a lace curtain masking the spotlit man. Clothing swung around like a tailor fitting a suit, heavy thumps rattled the glass like sacks of cement. When we reached the Pontiac, azaleas obscured my view.
Dead man. Dead man. Dead. Dead. Dead.
I don’t remember the drive up Highland Avenue. Dad probably smoked a Kent with the window open. We probably cruised like a boat into our driveway, me waiting in the back seat while he opened the garage and glided the rumbling car in place against the wheelbarrow. I probably smelled gas from our lawnmower as dad opened the trunk, lifting out grocery bags, handing me the bananas like always. I don’t remember walking through our side door, or up the steps, or the kitchen that smelled like baked beans, or the sight of mom’s back bathed in warm yellow light, her skin lively, pink and warm. Dad probably smiled and kissed her on the cheek as she busily pulled away. Little Marty probably played on the heat register, hot air inflating his pajamas, looking fat over his skinny body. But I don’t remember any of that.