The recipe was simple:
Take one old guy with budding Alzheimer’s, a cast of characters who had never met a potato they didn’t like, and a dead body in a closed casket. Add accusations and recriminations to taste. Mix well and bake for two hours from either three to five or seven to nine.
Voilà. Once everything cools to a simmering rage, you have an Irish wake.
Maeve had set aside exactly seventeen minutes for paying her respects to her cousin Sean. Any longer than that and she’d be late for Rebecca’s soccer game, something she had promised her oldest would never happen again after last week’s embarrassment. Being late to the game was bad enough, but forgetting the cut-up oranges? Apparently, that was an offense punishable by death. Or at least the collective stink eye from a bunch of mothers whose greatest daily decision was grande
Traveling with an octogenarian with a faulty short-term memory was slowing her down; she was now down to thirteen minutes. Add to that the uncomfortable creeping of a pair of unruly Spanx and Maeve could feel her composure begin to crack. “Come on, Dad. Let’s get in line,” she said after signing the guest book. She looked at the names of the other mourners who had signed in before she did and noted all of the usual suspects: the McDonoughs, the Dorseys, the Trainors. All were people from her past, and all were people who, if asked, would say that they had helped raise poor, motherless Maeve. All were people who probably felt at least partially responsible for the meager success she had achieved in life. All were people who had turned a blind eye to her situation and who were therefore partially responsible for what had happened to her.
She spied her father heading toward the Giordano wake across the hall; she grabbed his arm and pulled him back. It seemed definitely more appealing as wakes went, what with the tiny yet vociferous mourners and the misplaced scent of salami wafting out, but it was not Maeve and her father’s ultimate destination. Now down to just ten minutes of meaningful visitation, she hustled him into the black-clad queue of visitors that had formed in the short time it had taken her to write her name and address in the guest book. In her head, she was listing all of the items she’d need to pick up from the store after this jaunt, spectating at a soccer game, and shuttling her dad back to the assisted-living facility. Sean Donovan’s death, and the scheduling of his wake, had proven to be incredibly ill timed.
As they approached the casket, which was closed—much to the disappointment of the gaggle of Irishwomen from the neighborhood who had turned out—Maeve surveyed the room, her eyes settling on two guys who could have been family members, their ruddy complexions and ill-fitting suits two defining features of the Conlon men. It dawned on her quickly: cops. She had been raised by one and had spent enough time around his friends that she could spot one a mile away. Two? That was easy. When they traveled in pairs, they really stood out in a crowd. The rumpled blue suits and worn cordovan loafers were a dead giveaway, no pun intended. She didn’t have to wonder what they were doing there; Sean had been found in his car in a deserted section of Van Cortlandt Park, a hole in his head that he really didn’t need, as he was prone to saying while he was alive. That his pants were around his knees and he had a glove box full of unopened condoms didn’t lend credence to his wife’s story that he had gone out for a gallon of milk, but it did lend a layer of sordidness to the story that Maeve found more than a little amusing.
“What’re the po-po doing here?” Jack asked, nodding in the direction of the cops. Over at the inappropriately named Buena del Sol, a landlocked facility for people like Jack, they watched MTV a little more than Maeve would have cared for.
She shushed him and pulled him closer. His were failing faculties, but he was in good physical shape; even still, his strength, as he tried to pull away from her, was surprising.
“Why are we here?” he asked for not the first time that day.
“Sean, Dad. He died.”
He gasped, as he did every time she reminded him of the fact. “From what?”
In the past six days, she’d made up a different cause of death every time he asked, and she was running out of reasons her healthy, a little-over-half-century cousin had passed on. “Chronic diarrhea.”
“I hear that’s a terrible way to go,” Jack said, shaking his head sadly. He seemed genuinely chagrined despite the fact that Jack’s nickname for Sean while growing up was “shit for brains.”
Funny. She’d always thought that Jack would kill him.
The widow Donovan, Dolores, rooted in her rightful place in front of the casket, beckoned Maeve forward; Maeve felt that she had to oblige. She pulled Jack along with her, his focus on Sean’s toothsome eldest daughter, a girl who apparently thought that wearing a low-cut cocktail dress was the way to go at her father’s wake. When they finally arrived to pay their condolences, Dolores threw herself into Jack’s arms, the old man not entirely sure what he was to do with a hundred and eighty pounds of soft, quivering, taffeta-encased flesh. Maeve interceded and wedged herself between the woman and her father, whispering her condolences while wondering how she could extricate herself and Jack and get the hell out of Dodge without attracting anyone’s notice.
Two minutes to go. She raced over to the casket and knelt beside her father, his eyes closed in prayer. He may not have known who was in the casket, but he certainly remembered how to say a prayer for whoever it was. Jack was a daily communicant at the assisted-living facility, not remembering that in his old life—pre-Buena del Sol—he was a shitty Catholic who hadn’t been to church since his beloved wife’s funeral almost four decades earlier.
Maeve took in the flower arrangements piled high around the gleaming mahogany coffin; Dolores had spared no expense. She looked at the photo collage that Dolores had undoubtedly implored her daughters to create on behalf of their beloved father. Sean at the beach; Sean at the Yankee game. Sean with his hand on the shoulder of his nephew Brian as Brian was confirmed. Dolores and Sean’s wedding day. Maeve eyed the rosary beads draped over the top of the casket, wondering if Sean had even known how to say a decade of the rosary while he had walked the earth. To anyone watching, Maeve must have looked like a grief-stricken family member whispering her last good-byes to a beloved relative. She was certain she heard the sympathetic clucking of the old women who sat in the row of chairs directly behind her, touched by her studied composure in the face of an unspeakable tragedy.
Truth be told, she had more feelings for old man Giordano, laid out in the room across the hall, going to his eternal rest amid the cries of more emotional mourners, than she did for the man who lay beneath the wood on which her fingers were splayed.
“Bye, Sean,” she whispered. “See you in hell.”
Copyright © 2013 by Maggie Barbieri
MAGGIE BARBIERI is a freelance editor as well as a mystery novelist. Her father was a member of the NYPD, and his stories provide much of the background for her novels. She is the author of books including Murder 101, Extracurricular Activities, and Quick Study.