Addicted to the Italian Lottery and knowing a bookie who crossed the Hudson to run numbers, my Sicilian grandmother and her four sisters found superstitious significance in addresses, license plates, and dates. Noting the funeral home address, they agreed it was lucky and should be played, though they’d played Grandpa’s hospital room number the week before, and that wasn’t lucky. After thirteen heart attacks, death won, not the lottery.
At the wake, smoking was considered fine near the living, but thoughtless and disrespectful near the dead, so my grandmother and her sisters took a cigarette break in the downstairs lounge. Still one of the living, the smoke burned my eyes. I returned upstairs and sat fidgeting next to my mom, her hand holding my leg still. Her botched platinum-blonde dye job made her appear dressed for Halloween instead of her father’s wake, her pale green hair peeking out from under a black hat, coincidentally matching the spray of green carnations on the casket: Grandpa’s favorite.
Given the New York gravediggers’ strike, the wake was unusually long: what was supposed to be three days turned into four. I overheard the undertaker suggesting to my mother, in slightly more than a whisper, that the stitches holding my grandfather’s lips closed were starting to separate, giving the funeral home no choice but to close the lid of the casket.
A jokester, Grandpa often swore he’d come back as a fly and “bug” us. After hearing about the life he’d led, one much harder than mine, I often wondered how he could find so much to kid about.
On a hot August day, just weeks before he died, we both sought shade under the ancient black ash in our front yard. The stench of his cigar smoke mingled with sweet honeysuckle and roses, their fragrant blooms heavy with rain from a recent thunderstorm.
He sat with his whiskey and cigars, popping nitroglycerine tabs as often as I pulled my candy buttons off paper. I asked him why he needed so much medicine.
“For diphtheria, most likely from being around corpses. It ruined my heart.”
Lying on my back on the lawn while balancing a long, paper strip of candy on my bent, grass-stained knees, I asked, “What are corpses?”
“Dead bodies,” he answered, biting off the end of another cigar, then spitting it in the grass by his feet. “Wars and marble orchards are filled with them.”
And even on that sweltering summer day I shivered.
Sipping his whiskey, he went on to tell me he’d come from Waterford, Ireland, as a young boy, huddled and seasick for three months in the filthy conditions of steerage, only to lose his parents to “consumption” soon after they arrived in New York. Homeless among countless other orphans, he ate from trash cans while stuffing newspaper in the soles of his shoes to keep out the elements. The orphans urged him to pickpocket, but he was too afraid to steal. Truancy, not stealing was the reason he was placed in The Catholic Protectory, forever changing his attitude toward getting on his knees for any man, priest or not.
Released at sixteen, with no friends or family, he was back on the streets again. For shelter on winter nights, he hid in an unlocked hearse. Nauseated from sharing food with rats, he reluctantly resorted to the trade he’d learned from the orphans, and he got caught the first time. Too old for the Protectory, he was placed in Reformatory Prison on Hart Island, where he no longer got on his knees for priests but was assigned a worse task of digging graves for Potter’s Field, the Island’s cemetery for New York City’s indigent, unclaimed, or stillborn.
After he served his time for stealing, the Selective Service found him and overlooked his criminal history. In their eyes, he was the perfect soldier: Poor with no family to support. And so he went from one prison to another, this one of mud-filled trenches and mustard gas, surrounded by even more death and corpses.
He returned to civilian life after Armistice Day. He was Irish in a city not so welcoming of his race, so he took work where he could get it, as custodian at Letchworth Village, an institution for unwanted, handicapped children, some severely deformed, where doctors told parents to forget them and move on with their lives. Dropping off children, they’d speed away, leaving behind some too young, to even know their own names when asked . When he’d rake leaves or shovel snow, he’d study the nameless, numbered T-shaped metal grave markers of all the young who died there, parents never knowing or caring about their fate.
“That’s how things were in those days,” he said. “Imperfect children, discarded like broken furniture. Out of sight, out of mind.”
When he said that, I sat up in the grass feeling fortunate to be born normal, this last sentence affecting me more than the rest of his story, even the part about corpses.
“But how’d you meet Grandma?” I asked, trying to get the picture out of my mind of all those nameless, unloved children and their metal grave markers with assigned numbers.
“When I was in my thirties, I convinced myself I’d die a lonely, old bachelor. One day while riding the subway, a young, dark-haired man sat next to me. I knew I’d seen his face somewhere before, but I couldn’t place him. We both minded our own business, never speaking to each other, but as he went to get off at his stop, he turned to me and said, ‘Don’t worry. You won’t be alone forever. You’ll soon marry a woman much younger than yourself.’ I wondered how he knew exactly what I was thinking at the moment. A man seated across from me overheard him and said, ‘The Amazing Dunninger just read your thoughts.’ Then I realized I’d seen the famous mind reader’s photo in the newspaper. And sure enough, a few months later, on the same train, I met your grandma, my future wife.”
* * *
On the morning of the fourth day of the wake, the gravediggers’ strike finally ended. Grandpa never cared much for New Jersey and wished to be buried in St. Raymond’s, a long trek across the river to his beloved borough of the Bronx. I stood by the limousines, watching funeral home attendants carry out wreaths and sprays and place them in the flower car. A fly hovered over the green carnations on top of the pile, then circled Grandma’s face, as she stood with her sisters, all wearing black and noting the digits on the hearse’s license plate. She swatted it away. Then the fly landed on my sleeve. I didn’t want to swat at it, in case it was Grandpa. The bug stayed there awhile, then eventually flew away.
After our procession crossed the George Washington Bridge, we arrived at the cemetery, entering its large, ornate gates, their metal twisted at the top into the numerals twenty-six hundred. I waited for Grandma to mention the address numbers, but she stared straight ahead, puffing on her cigarette while kneading a tissue in her left hand, saying instead, “When your number’s up, it’s up. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Outside the limousine window, rows of headstones stretched for miles. I now knew what Grandpa meant by “marble orchards.” I sat quietly, thinking about all those discarded children from Letchworth Village in their numbered graves, wondering if what Grandma said was true. If each of our lives ARE assigned numbers, what are mine?
At home that night, I studied an old, sepia-tinted postcard photo of Grandpa. He was very young, sitting sideways on a bench, wearing a cap, his feet crossed at the ankles. One hand was in his pants pocket, reminding me how he forever jingled the change that was in it, as if proud of the little currency he had. I turned the photo over and saw in faded ink that someone had written, “Who’s this handsome devil?”
* * *
I dreamed I was with Grandpa. We were both digging inside a very deep hole. He stood a few feet away, singing “My Wild Irish Rose” while lifting small, rectangular pine boxes. He passed the endless boxes to me, as I carefully stacked them on top of each other.
“They put that stone on top of you to make sure you stay down,” he said, never stopping to look at me, as he dug and lifted boxes, his khakis and white undershirt covered in dirt and sweat.
“What stone?” I asked. Then I woke to his song fading in the quiet house.