JACK COEY - TOMBSTONE BLUES
Jack Coey learned what he knows from reading & writing. (and living too.)
In a chill, light drizzle from a gray sky mixed with fog, he looked down at the headstone surrounded by roses above a freshly – turned earth, and realized his father didn’t know he was dead. Head on at fifty-five by a drunk driver; his father had an instant before eternity. The irony was at any other time his father would have been the drunk, but fate, for his last moment, made him the victim. Lyle lived with the man for twenty-six years, and as he looked down at his tomb, he felt a possibility he never expected. His father was an angry drunk who fought life rather than lived it; for Lyle after failing at two marriages, and losing several jobs, he thought, maybe I can bury what he taught me with him?
Father Paul was the priest of The Sacred Mary Church on Euclid Avenue. He was twenty-six and energetic and enthusiastic. He spent much time thinking about his sermons because he really wanted to be a force for good in the lives of his parishioners. On Monday night, he would go to the Lucky Strike bowling alley, and bowl a few games for relaxation. Sometimes parishioners would talk to him, mostly being friendly, but sometimes someone might ask for a blessing or advice. There was a woman there by the name of Vivian who cooked hamburgers who, one time when he was sitting at the counter drinking a coke, told him about her ex-husband, Lyle. She told Father Paul how he used to yell at her, and would slap her (always with an open hand, she qualified) and she asked the priest why he acted that way.
“I’m afraid I can’t explain it,” he said, “we can only pray for his soul.”
Vivian wanted more than that, and if the priest couldn’t explain it, well, what then? She asked Father Paul if he would talk to her ex-husband if she could get him to go see him. He agreed to that, but made Vivian understand there was no guarantee of any result.
Lyle used to bowl in a league on Wednesday night, but since his father died, Vivian hadn’t seen him. She saw Boniface, and asked him about Lyle and all he knew was he’d been fired from the garage for yelling at a salesman. Lyle’s father’s house was up for sale. Boniface wasn’t sure, but thought Lyle might have a girlfriend over on Western Avenue.
“If you see him, tell him to come see me, all right?” she asked.
Boniface shook his head.
“I would think you’d had your fill of him,” he said.
Father Paul was in his office thinking about how he needed to hire a handyman. The grass was getting long, and there was painting that needed to be done. He got out a sheet of paper, and was composing an ad for the newspaper, and started thinking about women. Women were exotic, and oh yes, erotic to him, but he’d never been with one; never experienced the feelings of that pleasure. Oh, when he was a teenager, he made out with a girl in the movies, and one time, touched a girl’s breast, but since he was a priest, and spent time listening to couples, it was his impression men were stupid. For the most part, men were self-absorbed, and overlooked the needs of their women. But then again, he thought, how could he know never having the experience himself? He noticed the more attractive the woman the greater his contempt for the man. That’s why he didn’t like this part of his job; it created conflicting feelings in him, and that made him uncomfortable. Last Rites or Confession were straight-forward; his feelings had nothing to do with it, and he liked that better.
Lyle sat on a bench near the bandstand, and the sun was warm on his forehead. Since his father died, he felt he didn’t have to live up to anything anymore.. He surprised himself by thinking about Vivian, and that confused him, so he got up and walked around. He walked several blocks, and saw the sign “Eli’s Pub & Grill.” He went inside, and was blinded until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was no one in front or behind the bar. He was about to turn around when a voice said,
He followed the voice to a dark corner, and answered into the darkness.
“Mind if I take a seat?”
That’s a female, he thought as he walked over to the stools, and sat on one. She came around the end of the bar, and in the weak light, he saw she was blond about five and a half feet tall. Suddenly some lights came on, and he could see, she was pretty. After a few more minutes, she came over to him.
“What will it be?”
“12 or 16?”
She poured the glass, and placed a coaster in front of him, and the glass.
“One dollar, please.”
“Sorry, no tab.”
He took out his wallet and gave her a dollar. She rang the cash register, and walked down the bar; through the swinging doors which he guessed was the kitchen. He was alone and sipped his beer. The door opened, and in walked another man. He wore a black top coat and black pants with black shoes.
Mortician? guessed Lyle. He took a stool about four away from Lyle. The woman came through the doors.
“Hi Paul,” she said.
“Hi Monica,” Paul said. Monica, thought Lyle.
She took a rocks glass off the bar; put a handful of ice in it, and poured two inches of Jack Daniels. She placed it in front of him wordlessly.
“I thought you said no tabs?”
“Mind your business.”
“I will when I’m treated fair.”
“Is there a problem?” asked Paul.
“Jesus,” Monica said, “it’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and I got more problems than Saturday night at twelve-thirty.”
“Have I done something to offend you?” asked Paul of Lyle.
“No. Monica has.”
“Listen mister, you haven’t been here ten minutes, and already you’re causing me grief. If you don’t like it, there’s plenty of bars in this town.”
Lyle threw his glass at the cash register; beer flew and glass shattered. Monica had blood on her cheek and a phone in her hand.
“Bitch,” growled Lyle as he walked toward the door.
He was several streets away and heard the sirens. He smiled to himself, and then, felt sad. This is what he wanted to change; his father wasn’t dead yet. He stopped walking and looked at the sky. Maybe I should go back and apologize, he thought. I have to do it differently this time. He walked slowly back toward the pub, and when he saw the cruiser, he stopped. He talked himself into it all over again. He walked into the pub, and there were two officers talking to Monica who had a bandage across her cheek. One officer got on either side of him.
“I came to say I’m sorry.”
“After you pay for damages,” yelled Monica. Paul went to Monica to calm her. The officers led him out to the sidewalk. One of the officers told him what Monica reported while the other officer watched him. He didn’t argue what happened, and said he wanted to say he was sorry to Monica. The officers didn’t know if they trusted him, and Lyle didn’t want to have to explain himself.
“What do you think, Brian?” one of the officers said to the other.
“We’ll be on either side of him.”
They led Lyle back inside. Monica, Paul, and another man Lyle guessed was from the kitchen sat at a table. The three men stood in front of them.
“I’m sorry Monica for what I did. I would like to make it up to you,” said Lyle.
“I’ll have to talk to the owner,” she answered, “he’ll be in around eleven.”
“I think he’s making amends,” said Paul.
“In case you’ve overlooked it, this is a barroom, not a church.”
Paul’s face got red.
“He better not let me get him alone,” said the kitchen man.
“I’d be careful there,” warned one of the officers. The kitchen man stood up, and stalked off, the door swinging behind him.
“Good place for him,” commented one of the officers.
“Listen guys, I appreciate your help, but the cruiser in front of my door is not real good for my business.”
“Are you pressing charges?”
“He’s making amends,” repeated Paul.
“Thank-you officers. Sorry to take up your time, but I think we can work this out between us.”
“Alright, we’ll file the report as such. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
The two officers walked out, and after the cruiser pulled away, three or four men scuttled in as a bunch.
“What’d I tell ya,” said Monica.
Now all he had to figure out was how to get the money. He and Monica agreed on a hundred and fifty dollars for damages – that and he couldn’t come back to Eli’s as a patron until the money was paid. He knew, of course, all he had to do was never go back and that would be the end of it. But he’d swore to himself over his father’s grave he wanted to be different than that. He liked Monica; he thought she was a classy broad. She kept the cops out of it which she didn’t have to do. Now it was his turn to do something he didn’t have to; he wanted to be classy like Monica. Only he didn’t feel badly enough about what he’d done; wasn’t remorseful enough, and he wanted to feel worse about it to motivate him to change. He tried to think of people who were good at feeling shitty, and right away, he thought of Vivian. She was always anxious, at what she did, or didn’t do, and problems were always her fault which he enjoyed because she was easy to abuse. Things started to change when she went to that woman’s group at the Y. She went to confession and talked about the shame of telling another person about her sins. Lyle thought if he said it out loud to someone else he would feel the full impact of how badly he acted. Catholics were good for that,he thought. He remembered the sign in front of the church: Confession: Tues & Thurs at 11:00 p.m.
That’s it, he thought, that’s what I’m going to do.
In the meanwhile, he looked for a job. The idle men gathered in the morning by the bandstand in the common, styrofoam cups in hand, and passed the word about jobs or women or horses or starting pitchers. The word was usually
irrelevant, or down and out bogus, designed to keep idle men idle. One of the men told the others,
“Benson’s is hiring second shift.”
And if one made the inquiry, he was told, that yes, a week ago Benson’s was hiring. But it was close enough so idle men could tell themselves they were looking for a job without having the disagreeable consequence of actually being hired. Lyle didn’t mind it at all sitting on a bench, laughing and telling stories with a cup of coffee from the community kitchen.
“Not many jobs available,” he said.
The church was cold and dark. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light. He crossed the vestibule, and entered the nave, and saw several old women with their backs to him sitting in the last pew. There was a booth in the corner of the nave. He sat in the pew. None of the women made eye contact; the woman in the middle was fingering beads and moving her lips. A man came out of the booth. The woman closest to the booth got up and went into the booth.
“How long does it take?” he whispered to the woman next to him. She gave him a disapproving look and remained silent. Finally it was his turn, and he entered the booth. There was an opening with a curtain, and he sat in the chair.
“Yes, my son?”
“I’m here to tell you what I’ve done wrong.”
“Welcome. This is your first confession?”
“Yes, yes sir, it is.”
“Well, why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?”
Lyle knew he heard the voice before.
“I threw a beer glass.”
There was no voice for a beat.
“You confess your anger?”
“Is that what I’m supposed to do?”
“Well, yes, that’s a start. Is that all?”
“I thought a bad word.”
“You took the Lord’s Name in Vain?”
“No. The Lord had nothing to do with it. I called her a bad name, but not out loud.”
“But you thought it?”
“Man, you guys don’t miss a thing, do you?”
“Maybe you should come see me in the rectory, and we don’t have to take the time during confession. You seem unfamiliar with the sacrament and that’s not fair to the others.”
“But I want to change.”
“That is still possible and I can offer you guidance in a less formalized setting.”
“You sound familiar. You ever go to Eli’s Pub?”
“Yes. But I’ve got to finish up this sacrament. Please come see me though.”
Lyle stood up and said,
“Have a nice day,” and walked out. He decided to wait and sat in a pew.
He had to wait only for the last old woman when Father Paul came out from behind the curtain. Lyle turned around and made eye contact.
“Oh?” said Father Paul.
“I thought it was you.”
Father Paul came and sat next to Lyle.
“I’m sorry to cut you off during confession, but I thought we could save time if you came to see me in my office.”
“So you’re a priest?”
“Yes. I am a priest.”
“I want to change my life, Father.”
“That is difficult to do. Not impossible, but difficult.”
“I thought if I confessed my sins it would help me change.”
“In theory, that’s the idea.”
“You sound like you don’t believe me.”
“Saying it is one thing, doing it is something else.”
Neither man spoke.
“Monica was good to me,” said Lyle.
“Monica is a good person.”
“I have to pay her money.”
“That’s a start.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have problems with anger?”
“I want to get to a state of what-do-you-call-it? Grace?”
Father Paul smiled.
“Well, why don’t we start with a small step?”
“Where are you going to get the money you need to pay Monica?”
“I’m looking for a job.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Can you do plumbing?”
“Never tried it, but I could learn probably.”
“I need someone who can do plumbing, a small amount of carpentry, and mow the lawn.”
“I could do that.”
“The pay is only eight dollars an hour.”
“I’m afraid so. But eight dollars an hour is better than no dollars an hour. If things work out there’s no reason why I couldn’t offer you a room in the rectory. I would have to ask you for a minimal rent to satisfy my superiors, but you would be in a good position to pay restitution to Monica which is the first step in changing your life.”
“You would be willing to do that?”
“If I believe you’re sincere yes. If I lose faith in you, then, things won’t work out.”
“Can we give it a try?”
“Sure. How are you going to learn plumbing?”
“I gotta friend who’s done some plumbing; I’ll see if he’ll show me some stuff. Sinks and toilets, I’m thinking.”
“Pretty much. You can start Monday by mowing the lawn.”
“What about the garden?”
“Oh Lord! The ladies of the parish tend to the garden. Stay clear of that.”
“All right. Monday then?”
“That will be fine. I hope this works out for you Lyle.”
Lyle remembered Boniface bowled on Tuesday nights. He went to the Lucky Strike looking for him, and of course, ran into Vivian. He was tempted to tell her he was a different man but restrained himself.
“He switched over to the automotive league on Thursdays.”
“Tuesday night too tough on him?”
“Naw, there’s some woman he’s sweet on.”
“How you doin’?”
“I’m working at it.”
“Really? You have a job?”
“I’m working at The Sacred Mary Church as a handyman.”
“Yeah, and I’m the Virgin Mary.”
“I’m not kidding, Vivian.”
“Father Paul comes here, you know?”
“Yeah, he’s helping me out.”
“I’m sorry about your father, Lyle.”
Lyle looked away. Several moments went by.
“Hey, maybe sometime we could have a bite to eat?”
“I get hungry everyday.”
“See ya,” he said.
He pushed the lawn mower about twenty feet before the front wheel came off. He looked at it, and saw it needed screws. He went to the church office to get some money from Father Paul, and went to the hardware store. He finished mowing the front of the church, and spent time picking up trash. Then he went out back, and mowed what little bit of lawn there was that wasn’t parking. He went to Father Paul’s office to give him the receipt from the hardware store.
“Could you mop the kitchen area in the basement, and when you’re done with that, I’m afraid that’s all the work I have for today.”
“Can I check back tomorrow?”
“Surely, although, I can’t promise anything.”
Lyle didn’t like the sound of that.
The following morning was raining and cool; the fog rolled across the graveyard as he stood looking down at the headstone. He couldn’t read the headstone, and then, it would momentarily clear, and he saw “Ernest Filton,
1966 – 2015, RIP.” before the fog obscured it again. He came here because he thought he had something to say to his father. He stood for ten minutes before he walked into the fog.
He went to the church looking for work. The woman behind the desk said Father Paul was out but he could wait. He watched her type. She ignored him until she asked,
“You mowed the grass yesterday?”
“I’m the new handyman, name’s Lyle.”
“Oh, hello Lyle, I’m Glenda, the church’s secretary.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Now maybe we can get that toilet in the ladies room fixed.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Leaks. Stall on the left.”
He sat in silence until Father Paul came in; saw him, and went into his office, and came back out again to get him. The first thing Father Paul said to him was there was no work.
What about the toilet? he thought. Father Paul held the door open and said,
“Check back tomorrow.”
The ladies were in the pew just like last time. One of the women was murmuring a prayer, and he smelt incense. When his turn came, he entered the booth.
“You lied to me,” he said to the screen.
“Lyle? I can’t talk to you now. Come see me.”
Lyle left the booth.
Boniface Bonhomie was near the bandstand sitting on a bench. He had straight black hair pulled to a ponytail; high cheekbones, and red complexion. He sat motionless and staring straight ahead. Lyle saw him across the way, and took the liberty of sitting next to him. They sat without speaking until Lyle asked,
“Hey, man, can I ask you something?”
Boniface flinched and turned his head abruptly.
“Oh, I didn’t know you were there.”
“Can I talk to you, man? Sometimes I don’t know if you’re in this world or not.”
“There are forces we can’t see.”
“My problem is in this world. Can I tell you about it?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Can you show me how to fix a leaking toilet?”
“Yes, I can do that.”
“I mean tomorrow.”
“Oh, tomorrow I have to perform surgery at ten, then, argue a case before the Superior Court at noon followed by a guest appearance on Oprah Winfrey at five…”
“Come on, Boniface, I mean it.”
“Probably a gasket.”
“That’s not hard?”
“I’ll show you.”
“Go in Peace.”
Lyle waited for Boniface sitting on a bench in the front of the church. He saw him come up the street, and for some reason, he didn’t speak. He motioned with his hands and head. They went into the office, and Lyle told Glenda what they were doing. With mime, Boniface showed Lyle how to turn off the water; take up the toilet, and they went to the hardware store to buy a gasket. Boniface watched as Lyle put in the new one, and re-sealed the toilet. When they turned the water back on, no new water appeared.
“Hey, we fixed it!” exclaimed Lyle.
“No, you fixed it,” spoke Boniface.
Father Paul said he wanted the back of the church painted. Lyle figured it would take about a month, but that was all right, because it would do a lot toward paying Monica. He had trouble at first being up on the ladder, but got himself used to it. Then there was the bee’s nest he hit. He got stung good before he scrambled down the ladder. Matter of fact, he had to take a couple of days off to let the swelling around his eyes go down. But he was back at it. He got fifty dollars together, and gave it to Monica.
“I thought I’d never see you,” she said.
“You’ll see me again,” he answered.
Lyle was cleaning the windows in front of the church when he noticed a boy of about seven alone on the sidewalk. He continued to work, and when he looked again, he saw the boy was looking in different directions. He tried to go back to his job. He stuffed the rag in his back pocket, and walked down to the boy.
“Everything all right?”
The boy stared at him.
“I’m not going to hurt you, but you look lost.”
The boy said something Lyle couldn’t hear.
“Yeah, me grandpa.”
“Where is he?”
The boy looked around and put his arms out.
“You don’t know?”
“You don’t know where your grandpa is, is that it?”
The boy nodded.
“Do you live around here?”
The boy pointed.
“Can you show me?”
The boy shook his head.
“Will you come with me into the church?”
The boy shook his head.
“All right, will you promise me to stay right here while I go for help? Promise me?”
The boy nodded. Lyle watched him until he went inside.
“Call the cops and I’ll meet them outside,” he yelled at Glenda, and came back outside, and of course, the boy was gone. He ran up the street, and saw the boy in the distance. He ran to catch him.
“The cops will take you home,” he said.
The boy stared at him his eyes wide.
“Don’t worry. The cops…the police will help us,” said Lyle, “what’s your name?”
The boy looked away.
“Show me where you live?”
The boy shook his head. After five minutes or so, a police cruiser came slowly down the street. Lyle talked to the officer through a rolled-down window.
“He says he lives around here, but won’t show me where. He was with his grandpa.”
“We picked up the grandfather in Soldier’s Park.”
The officer got out of the cruiser, and went up to the boy. He took a lollipop from his shirt pocket, and gave it to the boy. Lyle saw fear in the boy’s eyes.
“Want to go see your grandpa?” asked the officer.
The boy cried and Lyle felt pain. It was the first time he felt this since his father died.
“You can sit in the front seat with me,” the officer said as he led the boy to the cruiser. The boy looked at Lyle. Lyle wanted to say something but the pain choked him. The cruiser moved slowly up the street. The following afternoon, Glenda showed Lyle the headline in the paper: “Man arrested for Indecent Exposure in Soldier’s Park.”
He couldn’t stop thinking about the boy; he wondered if he was all right. Father Paul mentioned his sermon at Mass on Sunday, and ordinarily Lyle wouldn’t have gone. He sat in a pew near the back. He listened to Father Paul. He talked about compassion, and for the first time, Lyle knew what he meant.
He couldn’t keep himself from going. He looked down at the headstone and said,
“I’ve buried you at last. I learned what you taught me, and was a loser for what you didn’t teach me, and in spite of everything, I love you still.”