Gantlet

So, where the hell was Grandpa, anyway? Dad and some of the uncles had left about a half hour before to look for him while the aunts asked the director to hold the service until they found him. It wasn’t a question of what he was doing; he’d been pretty consistent with that. It was only a question of where he was doing it. He had his favorite places. They were checking them all. Only the in-law uncles went, the ones who had married sisters, all seven of them crammed into my father’s ’71 Gran Torino like circus clowns. The sisters had suggested, demanded really, that their brothers not go along, as it wouldn’t have done any good to bring Grandpa back all bloody and swollen, which is probably what would have happened.

We were all standing around on the sidewalk out front–cousins, siblings, the younger uncles and aunts, most of us teenagers, all at various stages in what would one day become our troubled history. We talked through the drizzle, preferring it to waiting inside where Grandma was.

According my friends, it was weird to have uncles and aunts around my age. To the less imaginative ones it was impossible. But it made perfect sense to me. Grandpa wanted to keep up with his breeding exercises and Grandma kept being Catholic about it and letting him, even after some of her kids were having kids of their own. I don’t know how she did it. I tried to imagine it and it always made me feel creepy. Grandpa staggering in after the bars closed, smelling of stale liquor and body odor, climbing under the sheets with sticky hands and half-waking her, then her pretending to be asleep until he finished. I have no idea if this is how it went, but it was how I imagined it.

We were still standing in front of the funeral parlor when Grandpa drove by waving to us out his window like he was surprised to see us. A few of the little kids waved back.

“Hey, kids!”

He was laughing and I started to but stopped when nobody else did. When he turned a corner and was out of sight, we all looked back in the direction he had come from and, after a brief tension, along came the clown car of uncles, my Dad at the wheel. We pointed in the direction Grandpa had driven and Dad gave it the gas. For years, he would tell the story of the capture and nobody would fully believe it, but we just let him talk. He was a good enough storyteller that you didn’t mind that he was lying, and he told the stories often enough that he was able to keep the details fairly consistent, having long ago convinced himself of their legitimacy.

“We saw his car out front,” he would start, “and I blocked it in, in case he got away from us.” He said that Billy and Arthur were afraid to go into the bar because Grandpa’s friends were there and what if some shit got started. It could get rough. “I thought they were being a couple of assholes, but I gave them the outside duty so they wouldn’t feel so bad. It was already a hard enough day. Your grandfather was sitting at the bar and he saw us all walk in–Paul, Jimmy, me and Larry. He says, ‘How ya doin’, George?’ And I says, ‘Fine. We’re leaving.’ And he says, ‘You’re leaving? That’s too bad.’ So, I says, ‘No, we’re all leaving. Let’s go.’ And he says, ‘But, George, I just got a beer. It’s a full glass.’ So, I picked up his glass and turned it over on the bar and then I said, ‘There. You’re finished.'”

Grandpa got up and they held his arms, an uncle on each side, like they were escorting a prisoner. Grandpa flinched once for his friends to see. The threat of a struggle. Then, nothing.

They brought Grandpa back with them in the clown car and parked right in front of the funeral home in the hearse load zone. My father and the uncles shooed us all away, telling us to go inside. We came out of the rain, the cousins, the siblings, the younger and the older uncles and aunts, the friends and neighbors, and all stood inside in the yellow light, in columns on either side of the casket, the smell of flowers all around. After we were settled, Dad and the uncles escorted him in, ready to grab him if he tried to bolt. He walked slowly between the columns, his head bowed, his hands crossed in front of him, his shirttail untucked beneath his wet coat. Some of us turned away, pretending to have other business, but still paying attention. When he got in front of the casket he stood for a moment, looking embarrassed and irritated, before he started to cry. He covered his eyes with a dirty hand and heaved his shoulders for a little while until it looked like he meant it. With that done, he hung around for a few minutes, mumbling things at his people, and then said he had to go get his car. Nobody saw him for a few days.

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