A short story by Alan Balter
“Funeral homes,” “funeral parlors” or “funeral chapels”—whatever they’re called, people are dying to get in. Hah!
I was 12 years old at the time, almost 13, in the seventh grade at school. It was April; the last of the dirty snow had melted, and it was getting light enough for the neighborhood kids to come out after dinner. Even better, the softball season was starting, and I was ready to take my position in left field. The first time out there in the spring meant the end of winter and the joy of running free again.
I got to school in the morning and joined a group of my classmates who were standing in a circle talking and waiting for the bell to ring. Someone passed around some Chiclets, little pieces of gum with mint flavor. Vincent Abbinanti was practicing “Rock the Cradle” with his Duncan yoyo, and Frankie Schmidt was spinning a metal top. He could bring it up and make it spin on his hand: To me a very amazing trick.
Lorraine Lucas, who wore lipstick and eye makeup and had a fine rack by the end of sixth grade, stopped cracking her gum for a second and told us that Carmine Bellazinni’s father had passed away.
“Yep,” she said, “my mom told me he ‘expired’ yesterday while he was changing a flat tire on his car. Probably a heart attack.”
“Do you mean he died?” I asked
“Yeah, like deceased,” Lorraine said.
“What’s with the fancy words?” I asked. “Dead is dead, y’know? And it doesn’t matter what you call it.”
“Yeah,” Vincent said, “especially to the person who croaked.”
“Well anyway, some of us should go to the funeral parlor,” Lorraine said. “Carmine is our classmate and friend, so we should go and tell him we’re sorry that his father expired. That’s what you’re supposed to do, y’know? Like, pay your respects to the family of a deceased person.”
At the dinner table that evening I told my parents what had happened. They agreed that going to the funeral chapel would be a nice thing to do.
“You’ll need to take a bath, put some Brylcreem on your hair, and wear clean clothes and your new shoes,” Dad said.
“Well, what am I supposed to do when I get there?” I asked. “I mean, am I allowed to talk, and how long am I supposed to stay? Do I sit down or just stand around with the other kids from school who won’t know what to do either?”
“Walk in quietly with your classmates and look for Carmine and his mother,” Mom said. “When you see them, go up to them, shake their hands, and tell them how sorry you are for their loss. Stay for just a few minutes, and before you leave, you might tell Carmine that if he needs help with anything, like the schoolwork he’s missing, he should ask you.”
The next morning eight of my classmates were wearing their new shoes, too. They would be going with me to visit Carmine at the funeral parlor after school. The rest of the kids took a pass. My guess was that they were planning to pay their respects after Carmine got back to school or maybe send him one of those sympathy cards that tells a person how sorry you are for their loss.
During class, Mrs. Peppin, our teacher, asked if any of us were going to the funeral parlor. When a few of us raised our hands, she said, “It’s nice of you to go; be on your best behavior, and don’t stay long. You might want to tell Carmine we’re all praying for him and his family.”
I’d never spent much time praying, but I thought old “Peppy,” the nickname for our teacher, gave us some good advice. I liked her even though she had buck teeth and put on too much perfume every morning.
When the bell finally rang at three o’clock, we headed out together on the four-block walk to the funeral parlor on Madison Street. For the first three blocks, we were playing around like kids usually do. A few of the guys were teasing Rosita Contreras and pulling her hair. A couple of other girls were giggling and whispering secrets, all the while checking out their reflections in the store windows. The guys were mostly talking about baseball, except for Billy Comforti, who was making fun of Peppy, who couldn’t hear very well and once told him to, “put it on the blackboard,” when he asked for permission to go to the restroom.
As soon as we saw the funeral home, though, everyone got real quiet; I think “mute” is the word for it. And, when we got to the entrance, each of us waited for someone else to open the door and walk in. Finally, Linda Ciccelli took the lead and the rest of us followed. Inside, the lights were dim and some soft organ music was playing. A few people, relatives and friends of Carmine’s family I guessed, were milling around and talking in soft voices. There were bouquets of flowers all over the place giving off a real sweet smell that almost made me sick. A bunch of chairs were arranged in neat rows, even though no one was sitting. A priest was there too, with the black suit and backward collar, talking to Carmine’s mom and some other folks.
Carmine was off to one side looking uncomfortable, kind of stiff I’d say, in a suit and tie. He was standing next to his mom whose eyes were red from crying. I went over and told them how sorry I was for their loss, like I was supposed to do. The rest of my classmates did the same, and that’s when I should have said “Arrivederci” (“goodbye” in the Italian tongue) to Carmine and his mom and gone home. Instead, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dark wooden coffin with Carmine’s dad all stretched out on his back with his hands folded over his chest. He was decked out in his own suit and tie, and he looked very gray. He was the first dead person I had ever seen, and I didn’t want to look at him too much, but I couldn’t help it.
Eileen Spiegel, Larry Farkus, and I walked over to the coffin, got down on our knees on some soft cushions, and stared at Mr. Bellazinni, who was looking more and more gray with every passing second.
An adult standing behind me, a relative I think, who was fat and smelled of booze, said, “He looks so peaceful, almost like he’s asleep. Surely, he’s with the angels now, in a better place.”
All the time I was thinking that Mr. Bellazinni wasn’t sleeping at all. He was as dead as a brick, and he was never going to wake up from any kind of peaceful slumber, either. Maybe he was with some angels in a better place, but there were a whole lot of better places that I’d rather be, including left field, religious school, a piano lesson, cooped up in the library on a sunny day, or even the dentist’s office when he’s coming at me with his drill and his hand is shaking. Fact is, the whole thing was starting to creep me out, so I gave my place on the cushion to the fat guy who smelled of booze.
Finally, we said goodbye to Carmine and his mom and headed out into the sunlight. A few of us, including me, were scared. Actually, I’d say that all of my classmates were scared, even Vincent Abbinanti who was usually not afraid of anything, but none of us wanted to admit it.
When you’re scared because you’ve just seen your first dead person, you want to get home as soon as you can. So, I walked as fast as I could, even ran some, in order to make sure I made it home before dark. All the time I was thinking that I should have given the whole thing a pass like most of my classmates did. Carmine wouldn’t have cared much if I hadn’t shown up at the funeral chapel to stare at his dead father. Fact is, he probably wouldn’t have missed me at all, and his mom wouldn’t have given it a thought either.
Truth is, I had nightmares for months. In most of them, Mr. Bellazinni and his gray face were chasing me. One time he caught me, and when I looked at his face, it was me. Another time I was back on the soft cushion again, and Mr. Bellazinni sat up in his dark wooden coffin and pointed a skeleton finger at me.
Of course, I’ve been to many funeral parlors since my first visit. I’m always relieved when the coffin is closed, and when it isn’t, I stay in the back, as far away from the gray person as I can.
Vincent Abbinanti and I are still friends after all these years. I meet him for lunch almost every week, and we both remember going to Mr. Bellazinni’s funeral. I told Vincent that if he doesn’t come to my funeral, I won’t go to his. Hah!