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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Passing of Willie Monahan
The Passing of Willie Monahan
by Harry Buschman

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Part 1 - The Grieving (Click to go to Part 2, Part 3)

Willie Monahan dropped dead in the Hollow Leg Saloon. It was five years ago in the middle of the third quarter of the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants football game. He died with a glass of bourbon in his hand and there are some who say he drank it off before his passing.

He went the way he wanted to go -- in the friendly atmosphere of Clancy's place and the warm conviviality of his companions. His wife Lily, and his grown daughter, were at home watching the Monday Night Movie and were spared the melodrama of his final moment. We, at the bar, were not.

His final moment was theatrical. Just as the Giant quarterback was sacked, Willie raised his bourbon as though to drink. Instead, he slipped backwards off his stool, held his bourbon high and placed his left hand on his chest. We thought he might break into song, for the pose was similar to that of an Italian opera tenor. Some of us thought he might propose a toast to the Pittsburgh tackle for sacking the quarterback, and others thought they might enjoy one of Willie's rare attacks of largess and be stood a round of drinks, for it was not long until Thanksgivings Day.

It was, in fact none of these things. Willie was already dead -- though still on his feet. We watched him with anticipation, and as we did, he sidled to his right still holding his glass high. The toilet was in that direction, and it seemed plausible to assume he was headed that way. His face revealed neither pain nor anguish, but there was a puzzlement upon it as though some one had asked him a question to which he had no answer.

His path brought him quite close to Lotte. Lotte resorted to a jigger of gin occasionally to ease her chronic back pains. She had no interest in football, as we did, but some of us maintained she had the hots for Clancy. Lotte was an unpredictable person -- she could be volatile, and she carried a cane. "It was a cane me Grandfather carried," she would often say. She would display its horse's head handle and warn us that the first turkey who tried to get smart with her would bear its imprint "up the side of his head."

As Willie sidled within range of Lotte, she put her glass down and reached for her cane. She lashed out at him vainly as he fell at her feet. Had she connected she may well have blamed herself for Willie's demise, for at heart she was a gentlewoman, and would not have clubbed a dying man. All of us, by now, suspected something was seriously wrong with Willie.

Our attention was equally divided between his curious behavior and the football game but two or three of us went to his side.

"Look, he's still holdin' his glass."

"Who's 'e starin' at?"

"Can y'tell if e's breathin'?"

"Why'nt we try sittin' 'im up."

So, we tried sitting him up and Bob Hollister tried to get the glass out of his hand.

"He ain't lettin' that go," says Bob, "Feel of his wrist, see if y'can get a pulse."

None of us knew where to feel for a pulse. One of us felt the side of his neck for a pulse but quickly shrugged his shoulders.

Then Helmsley walked over to the bar and told Clancy he'd better call 911. Clancy tipped his derby to the back of his head and put his cigar down. He gave the information to the night operator and told him it was Willie Monahan. Willie was a regular in emergency for various bar related accidents and had been a frequent week-end visitor to the hospital. None of Willie's previous problems had required immediate attention, and this may well have been the reason why the ambulance didn't arrive at the Hollow Leg Saloon until the middle of the fourth period.

Just before the ambulance arrived, somebody realized that no one had called Willie's wife, and it was pointed out to me that since I had been sitting next to Willie, it was my place to do it. I couldn't follow the logic, but I turned and looked at Willie and thought, -- well, if it had been me, wouldn't my wife want to know? Clancy was a first class bartender and kept all our telephone numbers in a little black book behind the bar under the salted peanuts. Time and again he would find it necessary to call someone to come and get us if we were unable get home alone. He dialed Mrs. Monahan for me and handed me the phone.

"Hello"

"Mrs. Monahan?"

"No, this is Sally . . . Ma! somebody on the phone."

"Hello"

The stage was set for me to break the news. I took a deep breath and cast a final look at Willie with his back to the wall.

"Mrs. Monahan I'm calling from the bar downtown, you know, the Hollow Leg? I'm afraid Willies' took a spell down here. We've called emergency and they should be here any minute."

"Is he drunk?"

"Oh no. Nothing like that. He's fainted, and we thought you oughta know, that's all."

"Well I ain't comin' down to no bar. I'll meet him at emergency."

"Okay, Mrs. Monahan. It'll be St. Stephens -- that's what 911 told us."

What she lacked in solicitude, she made up for in experience. She had spent many a tiresome week-end waiting for Willie to be released from emergency after being patched, pumped or splinted. She was like the farmer who refused to answer the call of the little boy who cried wolf for the third time.

The ambulance arrived midway through the fourth quarter and by that time we had thrown his coat over him. Some of the customers had left, stepping over Willie's outstretched legs as they made for the door. The medics quickly determined that Willie was no longer with us in substance and there was no hurry to get him to the hospital. I told them that his wife would be waiting there.

"I ain't tellin' her, that's not my job. I'll radio the desk, they can get a priest . . . he was Irish, huh?"

I wondered how Mrs. Monahan would take the news, would she be inconsolable? Contrite? Calm, more than likely, as though she knew it would come some day.

Willie left in a heavy plastic bag still clutching his bourbon glass. It seemed fitting he should take it with him. No one was able to take it from him while he was alive.


Willie's funeral was set for Friday. There was room for him in the plot his mother bought many years ago, and that was where Lillie wanted to put him; down there with his mother and father. She said he'd be better off with them than in an empty grave of his own. Her reasons went deeper than that. Willie Monahan was a drinker like his father before him and his mother could bend an elbow with the best of them. It meant, of course, that when Lillie's time came she would not lie in the same patch of earth as Willie.

Lillie wanted no part of Willie after death, and she felt no guilt because of it. She took a vow for better or worse, but only until death. There was no talk of an extension to the contract. Willie would have to take care of himself from then on. Looking back on it now, he wasn't much of a husband -- and if you looked around the Hollow Leg Saloon the night of his passing, there wasn't much you could say for the rest of us either.

O'Dell picked him up at the hospital on Tuesday morning. The bathroom window in my apartment overlooks O'Dell's parking lot and I noticed his black van by the receiving door. As much as possible, O'Dell tries to be discreet, but some things are unavoidable. He has a three sided canopy by his receiving door, and if you're curious, you can see who or what goes in and out. Under my breath, I said "good morning" to Willie, noting with due penitence the heady aroma of my alcoholic mouth wash.

I've heard it called, "the curse of the grape," and few Irishmen escape its clutches. It is our national pride, and our national shame. It has loosened the tongues of orators and the pens of poets. Well, Willie was not a poet, but he had a way of saying things that made you think he was; and in the end, isn't that what poetry is all about?

With the wake a day away, I found myself thinking about Willie Monahan. I know, if he wanted, he could have been the same person at home, as he was with us at the Hollow Leg Saloon. There, he was affable, friendly and eager to please -- you could rarely raise his dander. I suspect he was not like this at home.

He had the pinkest skin and the whitest hair and the bluest eyes of any man I'd ever seen. He looked like you'd expect the president of Aer Lingus to look. "The drink," they say, "It's the drink that makes them pink." But I like to think Willie would have been pink without it.

I suppose you've been to wakes. You see one wake, you've seen 'em all -- at least that's the way I feel about it. It's like seeing "Hamlet" every week with a new cast, the words are always the same but the people are different.

Lotte tottered in wearing black -- "I'm very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Monahan." Then she smiled to reveal her two remaining bicuspids and tapped, tapped her way to a corner seat. She sat there holding her horse's head cane across her bony knees. It was only a day or two ago she tried to brain Willie with it as he collapsed in front of her.

Tim Clancy, the bartender, used the identical words when he paid his re spects, and so did Bob Hollister. It sounded as though we all got together and rehearsed it. I found myself thinking of something else to say when it came my turn.

"He was a great guy, Mrs. Monahan, we'll all miss him." As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I'd made a mistake. She knew who his friends were, each and every one of them. If it hadn't been for his friends Willie might not be stretched out there . . . and been a better husband to boot. She said this with her eyes as she looked at me, and I wished I had taken the safe way out and said what the others said.

Father Stanley walked in. "I'm very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Monahan." (He wasn't taking any chances.) He looked much smaller without his Sunday robes . . . it's difficult for a priest to achieve stature in a Sears and Roebuck suit.

His homily was a fanciful description of where Willie was going and how he'd get there. He went on to say we would all be together again some day, and explained how Willie had sailed from this shore to another, more distant shore and how Willie would be waiting for us to sail after him. It might have been more effective had we been seafaring people.

Lillie and her daughter Sally were dry-eyed throughout the evening. Occasionally Lillie would escort a guest to the casket and look at her husband as though he were a stranger. Guests who attempted to comfort her soon realized it was unnecessary. Thirty years with Willie had not yet made her an old woman, she had garnered many a whistle from the boys at the bar as she walked by the Hollow Leg Saloon. As soon as Sally could be induced to leave home, Lillie, with a little luck might start afresh.

I stopped in to see Willie the next morning before the laying in. I wanted to see him alone for a minute. After all, I was the one sitting next to him that Monday night. He didn't get to see the end of the football game and we had a bet going. Willie had given me a point spread on Pittsburgh and I didn't make it. I could have forgotten all about it I suppose, but I knew Willie wouldn't, and a bet's a bet.

I called O'Dell over.

"Charlie," I said, "is there anything wrong with putting a five dollar bill down in the bottom of the coffin? We had a bet going that night and Willie won -- I owe him."

"That's okay," said O'Dell, "nobody's ever gonna know. I got something I wanna show you anyhow."

We were alone there in the grieving parlor, so O'Dell opened the bottom part of the lid. Willie wasn't wearing shoes or socks; no need for shoes and socks where he was going. Between Willie's pink feet lay the bourbon glass. Tears sprang to my eyes immediately.

"That was damn thoughtful of you, Charlie"

"It was in his bag of belongings when I picked him up at the hospital. I knew Lillie would throw it out, and who can tell . . . ".

O'Dell took my five dollars, folded it four times and stuffed it in the bourbon glass. "There," he smiled, "if it's a cash bar, Willie, you're all set."


Part 2 - The Layin' In (Click to go to Part 1, Part 3)

There were six of us from the Hollow Leg Saloon and we all wanted to go to Willieís funeral so we hired a town car for ourselves. There was Lotte of course, up with the driver, Clancy to my right, Bob Hollister to my left, and me in the middle. Charlie Spivak and Ed Donahue sat on the jump seats facing us.

Lillie wanted no part of it. "A quick and a quiet funeral," she said. Just the hearse and one car for her, her daughter Sally, and Father Stan. OíDell said he would ride in the hearse with the flowers. Lillie told us she and Willie had a big wedding, "That was enough." she said, (with a good deal of emphasis). She didnít want to finish it off with a big funeral. She and Willie were not on the best of terms to begin with and there was no question in her mind that his drinking companions were largely to blame.

But friends are friends, and when you get down to drinking friends like Willie and we were, there are none more staunch and true -- you want to be together until the very end of it -- and even a little thereafter if you can work it. So in the face of Lillieís displeasure, we hired a town car to trail after the cortege. When it showed up at the church we were surprised to find it was white with gold door handles and grill, a vehicle more suited to weddings and prom parties! It was too late to make a fuss, the cortege was about to take off and the important thing was to be with Willie at the layiní in. He was to be laid to rest between his mother and father, buried there some twenty years before him on this windy hill in Greenlawn Cemetery.

"The Monahanís was big drinkers too," Lotte said.

"Makes good company in the hereafter." Bob Hollister said. "Iíd be fair displeased to spend eternity between teetotalers."

"Why donít we make a pact then," Clancy suggested "to all be buried together."

"Iím a lady," Lotte said, "I sleep alone."

The banter went on like this all the way to the cemetery. We opened the bar in the back of the front seat of the limo, and found it empty. "Hell of a note," I commented to Benito our driver, a swarthy Italian with blue black jowls who smelled of cigarettes.

"Yídidnít contract for no bar. Besides itís a funeral -- yídonít drink on the way to a cemetery." Nevertheless, we all agreed it was inhuman to provide an empty bar in the back of a limo, regardless of the occasion.

"I donít think I been in this part of town before," said Charlie Spivak, changing the subject. "This is Queens, ainít it?"

The driver told us we were in Flushing, "Look real quick to your left at the next corner, you can just make out Shea Stadium." Bob Hollister was not impressed. "Humpf," he said, "it looks bigger on television."

In spite of our lightheartedness we had not forgotten Willie up there in the hearse ahead, but we were torn between the solemnity of the occasion and the shifting scene about us. The tragic day was mixed with the spice of being in a strange town. None of us got out much anymore, and I know for a fact Lotte hadnít been out of Westlake Village in ten years. The street signs were in languages none of us could read and the people were dressed in sheets and pantaloons -- "Youíd think yer in Turkey," Lotte piped up. "What kinda people are these anyway?" Benito told us they were a mix of Southeast Asians and Arabs, with a new flood of Russians who came over when the wall came down. The neighborhood held our interest all the way to Greenlawn. There, however, the living stopped abruptly, and the dead began

"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Charlie said. In our group, Charlie is the most well read, and in an irritatingly professorial manner he makes the rest of us feel like fools. But his erudition is usually wide of the mark, he seems to know all the words but Iím not sure he knows when to use them.

The cortege stopped at a picturesque English Tudor style office to check in and get directions. OíDell got out of the hearse, his black suit shining in the sun, and promptly dropped his homburg hat in the dirt. He went inside and came out with a manila envelope and a sober faced woman who pointed up the road with a bony hand. She described turns like a fish in the water, with OíDell all the while nodding as though he understood every word. "Look at him," Lotte laughed, "ainít none dumber than OíDell. I wager we get lost in this graveyard and never find our way out."

If we did, we were not aware of it. Iíve learned itís almost an oxymoron to say youíre lost when you donít know where you are, and itís even harder when you donít care. We were six old friends of Willie Monahan, and we knew there was a place for him somewhere here at Greenlawn. "Letís stop at the first empty hole," Bob Hollister said. "This place gives me the creeps." The day had turned gray, with a lowering sky and off in the distance we could see the smoggy outline of Manhattan and the murky waters of the Gowanus Canal. Rolling down the window of the Limo, Clancy screwed up his nose and commented on the cloying odor of sewage that seemed to hang over the cemetery. "Iíve never been in a cemetery that smells like this -- is it my imagination -- where does it come from? -- is it possible?"

"Easy does it Clancy," I replied. "it used to be landfill. I think you smell the scent of history." At times I can be just as poetic as Charlie Spivak.

The road grew narrower, there were potholes, the weeds were higher and there were piles of dead flowers littering the roadside. We were evidently in an old part of Evergreen where the dead had been forgotten and left to fend for themselves. We came upon two men in overalls who sat smoking on the tailgate of a pick-up and they signaled us to stop. Again, OíDell got out, (this time without his hat) and the three of them chatted for a bit. OíDell walked back to our limo, opened the door and looked at us apologetically. "I wonder if a couple of you young blades wouldnít mind helping us with the casket?"

Ed Donahue and I, although long retired, were the youngest, so it wasnít surprising that OíDell looked at both of us in turn. "We have a rolling cart," he said, "but we canít get it up the hill through these weeds. Itís only -- oh, I would say, maybe forty yards at the most."

Lotte can barely walk, what with her bad back and all, Bob Hollister has a bad heart, Charlie Spivak is literary, and pales at the suggestion of labor. Clancy is too short. So with Lillie, her daughter and Father Stan standing by, the three drivers, Donahue and I dragged Willie out of the hearse and started up the hill to the grave site. OíDell led the way, pointing with a handful of long stemmed roses and warning us of the bad footing. The forty yards turned out to be more like a hundred and forty and we had to stop once to rest and get a better grip on the cheap plastic handles on Willieís E-cono-style casket. As we got there one of the drivers breathed a sigh of relief and mumbled something under his breath about the dead getting heavier every year.

The service was short. Lillie, dry eyed and restless, kept looking at her watch, and Lotte, unable to stand, sat on a nearby grave. She folded both hands over the top of her cane and rested her chin on the horseís head handle, seemingly lost in thought. It was plain to see we were giving Willie short shrift, as though he was a tiresome guest who had overstayed his welcome. We each threw a rose from OíDellís bouquet into the open grave and Father Stan brought up the traveling analogy again -- about Willie waiting for us at the other end of the rainbow, so to speak. He might have gone on longer except for the cloying odor of garbage and the approach of the men with the shovels.

We left Willie up on the hill and made our way as quickly as we could down the weedy path again. Lotte required a lot of assistance on the way down, and she let go with a string of recrimination concerning the inconsiderate places some people choose to bury their dead -- this was spoken loudly enough for Lillie to hear. The workmen stayed behind with their shovels and watched us go. They mercifully waited for us to get out of earshot before they shoveled Willie in, for there is nothing so final as the sound of dirt on a coffin lid; a sobering sound which puts the lie to vanity and wishful thinking.

We got Lotte in the front seat again. Her backside was covered with burrs from sitting on the grave next to the Monahan plot, but no one bothered to tell her. "Let sleeping dogs lie," Charlie said. Our spirits lifted somewhat on the ride back to Westlake Village and I was reminded of the mood changes in New Orleans funerals where itís blues going out and rag time coming home.

"It ainít gonna be the same without Willie," Bob Hollister said.

Donahue had been staring out the window and jiggling his left leg to keep it loose. "Thatís the trouble with you, Bob -- yíalways want things to be the same. Things are never the same, even if Willie was here now it wouldnít be the same." He slapped his leg with exasperation. "Damn arthuritis! Gotta keep that leg moviní all the time lessen it stiffs up on me." I suspected that Ed Donahueís arthritis was triggered by thirst. Too long away from the Hollow Leg Saloon and the solemnity of the day had put us all on edge, I noticed my leg was jiggling as well and Charlie Spivak was drumming his fingers on the window. Lotte, even more irritable than usual asked the driver, "Is the traffic always so bad out here? How long before we get back?"

"Wonít take long, lady." Benito consulted the digital clock on the dash. "We should be back by two or so."

"Seems tíme you could break off from this dumb procession and make better time."

"Itís a funeral, maíam, we gotta stick together."

"Horseshit," she replied, and stared gloomily out the window.

I looked at my watch, it was only one oíclock. "What will we do with the rest of our day?" I asked. There was no answer -- but all eyes were turned on Clancy, even Lotte turned around in her seat to look back at him. We all agreed that it was too late to start anything and too early to call it a day. He responded admirably -- he thought it might be a good idea to open The Hollow Leg for the afternoon. "Just give me a half hour to air the place out, okay? It gets a little rank in there overnight."

Good to his word, Benito pulled up to the church at 2 p.m.. "Not including the gratuity, and beariní in mind itís a half day job, itíll be $135." He paused a moment and added, "We donít take plastic or personal checks -- no hard feelinís."

"Well, letís see now," said Clancy, who by the nature of his vocation, is well versed in division and multiplication, "Letís call that $150, including the gratuity, as you call it. As I see it that would be $25 apiece, unless, of course, we take the gentlemanly approach."

"Whatís the gentlemanly approach?" I asked.

"We cough up for Lotte," he explained.

"What the hell!" Says Bob Hollister, a champion of womenís rights. "Who says we gotta pay for Lotte? Sheís got as much money as any of us."

"Damn right," says Lotte. "I donít wanna be beholden to nobody, specially Hollister."

"Fifteen bucks is a pretty small tip," said Benito, whose jowls were growing darker moment by moment.

"It ainít so bad," says Clancy. "Besides, I had in mind youíd drive us over to The Hollow Leg, and Iíd stand us all to a drink or two."

We settled on that. We said our goodbyes to Mrs. Monahan and her daughter at the church and piled back into the limo. Itís only two blocks from the church to the saloon, (I must say it often seems much farther).

We stepped out of the long white machine and waited for Clancy to open up. I looked around me and remarked to the others how the mere presence of the white limo had magically transformed the normal dingy appearance of Westwood Avenue into a street of dreams, so to speak. It was good to be back in the warm conviviality of The Hollow Leg again. Clancy lit the lights behind the bar and turned on the beer pump, then he started the floor fan to blow out the dead air of yesterday. We gave Lotte first crack at the rest room, and the rest of us considered the empty stool of Willie Monahan.

"I wouldnít feel right sittiní there where Willie sat," Hollister said.

"Me too," Donahue agreed. "It ainít the stool so much as it is the place where he sat, yíknow? The stools can get switched around, and in the end nobodyíd ever know which one was Willieís. Itís his place, yísee -- he always sat in the third stool from the door."

"Okay," I said. "Iíve got an idea. From now on síposiní none of us ever sits in the third stool from the door. Wouldnít that be a way of rememberiní Willy?"

"I think you guys are sick," said Benito the driver. Clancy had just stood the entire crowd to a round of Ďwhatever.í The mellowness had yet to set in, that wouldnít come until the third round or so, but it flitted across my mind that perhaps Benito was not as hardened to Clancyís bourbon as the rest of us. He seemed to have passed through mellow to sullen before he got the first round down. It went on like this throughout the rest of the afternoon. Each of us in turn would bring up Willie and what he was and how much weíd miss him. This was his place, The Hollow Leg Saloon -- and I guess he was more honored and respected here than he was at home. It was our duty as his friends, to keep his memory alive.

We tried to convince Benito of our undying love for Willie, but he would have none of it. He was a lonely man and a fellowship of compassionate drinkers was foreign to him. "You wonít find no drunks in the Mafia!" he reminded us bluntly. He seemed to grow more muddled in his thinking and more erratic in his movements as the afternoon progressed. "Look around you," we beseeched him. "The Hollow Leg is not like other saloons. It is the meeting place of a rare and matchless people. We mean more to each other than family and friends. Even the church cannot drive a wedge between us." Charlie Spivak for once hit the nail on the head.

But Benito sank deeper and deeper into melancholy -- "You guys -- and you too, lady . . . youíre sick. This is nothing but a bar fulla drunks. Each an evíry one-of-yaís a lush. Iím gettiní the fuck outta here before I go crazy too." He looked more like Jean LaFitte the pirate than the driver of a stretch limousine, and in the late afternoon light his blue black jowls lent him a forbidding appearance. "I gotta gig tonight," he mumbled, "I canít hang around here in this crummy bar." He pulled back the sleeve of his uniform to look at his watch, drawing his arm in and out to focus his eyes on the time.

Without so much as standing us to a round of drinks or thanking us for the ones he got from us, Benito slid off the stool and got his cap from the peg on the wall. He set it at a jaunty angle and smiled at us with a set of almost blindingly white teeth. "Thanks fer nothiní, you guys -- itís been a hell of an afternoon."

"A bit of a wahoo, I believe," I noted as he headed for the door.

"A Philistine," said Charlie.

"Looked Italian to me," said Lotte.

Before we could comment further, Benito had settled himself in the giant white machine outside and without so much as a wave of the hand, drove smoothly off for the intersection of Westwood and Pine. At that point there was a c-r-r-u-m-m-p. Not a crash, mind you. Not a bang. A c-r-r-u-m-m-p.

I walked to the door and looked out, then came back and settled myself at the bar again.

"It was him, right?" asked Bob Hollister.

"Yes," I said. "Didnít see the stop sign at the corner. Went into the side of the M-22 bus for Castle Gardens."

"Hell of a thing," remarked Ed Donahue. "Poor guy could lose his license for DWI." He raised his glass and closed one eye, sighting through the amber fluid at the yellow ceiling light above our heads. "A man should not drink when he drives -- I gave up driviní a long time ago."

I tossed off the last of my drink and turned the glass upside down on the bar. "Thatís it for me, Clancy. As the man said, itís been a hell of an afternoon." My companions were deep in thought -- thoughts of the spirit -- enhanced by the amber spirits of barley and malt. It occurred to me that I should say something of consequence rather than the usual, "see y'later boys -- you too, Lotte," but I couldn't think of anything. It's not easy to think of something to say when life is through with you -- before you're through with life.


Part 3 - Odd Man In (Click to go to Part 1, Part 2)

Willie was dead a day short of two months and not yet out of our minds. We never let a day go by at the Hollow Leg Saloon without the mention of his name, nor did any of us forget the promise we made never to sit on the second stool from the door.

There were a few among us who considered erecting a plaque in his name to hang by the coat tree, and we even went so far as to leave a jar on the bar with a coin slot in the top to collect money for a suitable memorial. A noble thought, and had we been more dedicated to the project I’m sure it would have been done by now, but a casual glance inside the jar reveals more copper than silver. We are obviously more dedicated to the drinker’s life than to to the memory of one who has passed on -- it is why we are here in the first place, so we take consolation in the fact that had it been one of us, Willie would be just as remiss as we are.

I don’t want to leave the impression that we are maudlin in our grief. Our mention of his name is always spiked with humor; something he might have said or done that never fails to bring a chuckle of remembrance and a toast all around. It always ends with a ....

“Gee, I sure miss Willie.”

“Yeah, me too.”

But that’s as far as it goes, and when you consider that most of us have reached the age when faces and names are soon forgotten, Willie could not have asked for more, at least not from such as us in the Hollow Leg Saloon.

We have better things to do than mourn, and we take consolation in the fact that Willie couldn’t ask for more picturesque surroundings than his vantage point on the hill of Evergreen Cemetery. There he rests beside his mother and father in the landfill from which he can watch the sun set on the Gowanus Canal. There he waits patiently for Judgment Day, a bourbon glass between his bare feet -- ready to run for the bar when it opens at the first blast of the trumpet.

We know his life with Lillie had its ups and downs, but that’s all water over the dam. There were shortcomings on both sides I am sure, making one wonder why a little foresight before marriage wouldn’t be a good thing. But love is like falling downstairs I think -- all that’s on your mind is getting to the bottom as quickly as possible. Sadly, we are one less than we were before, and as I look around me here in the smoky interior of the Hollow Leg Saloon I sense the absence of a member who must be replaced somehow. There are eight of us now, (counting Clancy the bartender) where there was once nine. Nine, I think, is a better number than eight -- better even than ten. Charlie Spivak, our resident poet could probably explain that in a literary sense, but all I know is what I learned in architectural school. An odd number of arches presents a visual opening inviting passage through the center of a portico, and that’s the way it should be. When I begin thinking about things in this manner I know it’s time to turn my glass upside down and say goodnight to the Hollow Leg Saloon -- at least until tomorrow.

To say I slept restlessly that night would be an understatement. I sat up thinking, not of Willie so much, but of the gemutlichkeit -- I know of no other word that fits the aura of warmth and friendliness that pervades the Hollow Leg Saloon in the late afternoon. It is as though the ghosts of 130 years of drinkers have come to pass the time of day with us. Their voices can be heard in song and story and now Willie’s voice can be heard loud and clear above them all. May they sing forever! They are great company .... none greater than Willie Monahan. I finally got to sleep trying vainly to think of a replacement for him.

I dropped in to the Hollow Leg after my duties at the ‘Guardian’ the next afternoon. Spivak was there, (already on his third) so was Ed Donahue and Lotte -- bless her heart. Clancy the bartender was well into the story of the difficulties his father faced during the prohibition years. It’s a story that, by now, should be put to bed, but so long as Clancy tends the bar it will never be.

“.... they’d test the beer every week, me father said -- and an hour before they’d come he’d get a call from the revenooers office that they were on their way. He’d run down to the basement, see -- then he’d disconnect the valve from the good stuff to the one percent, then --- oh hi there, stranger -- what’ll you have?”

“The usual, Clancy -- how’s everybody? You too Lotte.” She took a firmer grip on her horse’s head cane and growled at me. Being a woman, she hates being noticed here at the Hollow Leg, she would like to be invisible if she could, poor soul. There have been better times. I know for a fact there have been three men in her life -- one of them important enough for her to marry. It was .... if I recall -- a Walter somebody, who left in a bloody huff after the birth after their second daughter. Then there was a Charlie -- a plumber if I’m not mistaken -- he left his bag of tools behind after a lucky weekend in Atlantic City. Who was the third? Something to do with stolen cars .... I can’t rightly remember -- except that he’s gone too. It hasn’t been easy being Lotte. We should treat her with greater respect. Looking at her staring into her gin as though it were a crystal ball I can sense there must have been better times, moments of ecstasy and abandon. Let us hope so, it would be tragic to think that this is the best she’s had.

Charlie Spivak sat on the stool next to the one on which Willie once sat. He smiled secretly to himself from time to time as though listening to the words of some long dead poet. Charlie’s our contact with the literary world and never at a loss to quote a line or two from Keats or Shelley to punctuate an event of the moment. He will roll up his eyes and make quasi quotation marks with his fingers -- an affectation that will someday drive me mad. It would be helpful if the quotation fit the incident, but it is always misapplied -- as when he stated Willie had “shuffled off this mortal coil.” He did no such thing! What he did was to drop dead in the middle of the Monday night football game.

Bob Hollister stood with a beer in his hand, it being a little too early in the day for him to drink bourbon. He was looking closely at the old yellowed photographs that hung on the wall next to the toilet door. Bob is the sentimental sort and loves to live in the past. To a greater or lesser extent it is an affliction all of us share, but Bob seems to be rooted there with both feet. Even when his head appears in the doorway of the present, it will suddenly duck back again.

“These pictures are great, Clancy -- this one here, the one with the soldier?”

“That was my grandfather’s first bartender, he lost his kneecap at Gettysburg -- wore his Union uniform all life long.” Clancy, while he doesn’t live in the past, can’t resist lecturing anyone who will listen, so long as the subject is the Hollow Leg Saloon. He has taken great pains to preserve many photographs of the place from its very beginnings 130 years ago when it stood alone on an unnamed street in the middle of Toad Hollow. He dried his hands on a towel and came out from behind the bar. He put on his glasses and hurried over to stand next to Bob .... “Now here, see this one? There’s curtains in the windas upstairs, you can see them blowin’ out,” he turned to Bob and in a confidential manner nudged him gently in the ribs. Those were the days when grampa would let girls operate up there. Sometimes I look at that pitcher and wonder if somethin’ was goin’ on upstairs when it was taken -- y’know? Even now there’s rooms up there, y’know?”

“Gee,” Bob said, obviously impressed. “You ever go up there, Clancy?”

“No. I did when I was a kid. Before my father put in the trap door and the plantin’ boxes on the stairs,” he raised his head to look in that general direction .... “it was spooky, lemme tell’ya. Dark and spooky -- smelled of mice, it did.”

You might wonder why, except for the spirits, anyone would waste an afternoon in the Hollow Leg Saloon. The clientele is about as dull as you’ll find at a senior citizen’s picnic and it’s rare you’ll hear an intelligent word or one you haven’t heard before. Nobody talks of today or tomorrow -- we’ve taken root in the past. It was Willie Monahan, the youngest of us, who taught us the beauty of today .... with no thought for tomorrow. I was about to bring up the subject of odd and even numbers again when in walked Dennis O’Dell.

Dennis is our mortician, and since his father died, the sole proprietor of O’Dell’s Funeral Home. It was the very same O’Dell who mortified and buried Willie, and barring natural or man-made disasters, will bury all of us. I couldn’t remember him dropping in the Hollow Leg in the afternoon, but then, I’m wasn’t there as often as the rest of the crowd. It occurred to me that Dennis O’Dell might be a logical contender for our odd man in. He was Willie’s age and best of all he had a steady job -- which can be of some importance when the Social Security checks are overdue and a man has a dry throat.

Dennis was a small man, smaller even than Willie was. Clancy’s bar stools were a stretch for him and he had to step on the bottom rung before his rump cleared the cushion. He did it with a minimum of fuss -- I’ll give him that. He was pale in complexion and somewhat scarce of hair. Were it not for the fact his eyes were always open, he resembled many of his clients, and when speaking to him you got the impression he was studying your face for future reference. I have never seen him in anything but a black suit, white shirt and a tie of celestial blue -- he has no leisure time and I think he dresses for work day and night.

I tried to break the ice. “It’s good to see you Dennis. May I congratulate you on the job you did on Willie, he never looked better.”

He turned to look at me and smiled. “Mr. Monahan was a textbook subject,” O’Dell refers to the dead as Mr. or Mrs., “Pull up a stool,” he said, “what are you drinking?”

I held up my beer as evidence. “Just a beer, Dennis. I have to get back to the paper.” O’Dell is one of our steady advertisers. “It’s rare to see you here, Dennis.”

“Both slumber rooms are empty.”

“Ah, well,” I observed, “winter’s coming.” Then I thought when winter did come we probably wouldn’t see much of him and perhaps the consideration of Dennis O’Dell as the odd man in wouldn’t be a good idea after all. He looked at me sadly and shrugged a bit as he contemplated the head on his beer.

“Yes, I suppose it is -- I love it here at Clancy’s place, you know.” He made an all-inclusive gesture with his hand which then found its way to his glass as though it had eyes of its own. He lifted his beer in salute to the Hollow Leg Saloon and then drained it down. He reached under his coat to get a handkerchief from his rear pants pocket and gently dabbed his lips. “If I could,” he said, “I would spend more time here.” He looked at me joylessly. “The life I lead -- there is nothing sadder than watching them go one by one -- no one to share it with.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“No one does, no one. The dead don’t care you know. It doesn’t matter to them -- it matters to us.” He grew more animated. “Willie could have been a Saint or a potted palm. There’s no difference once you’re gone.”

I thought to myself, Dennis is as nutty as a fruit cake, but he’s certainly the right man for the odd man in. Think of the discussions we could have! The mysteries of life and death.

“It’s for the living,” he went on. “Whether he parted his hair on the left or the right -- whether he should wear his glasses. Think about it a minute.” He signaled to Clancy for another round. “Give me one Goddamn good reason why a dead man needs glasses!”

“It might help if you leave the eyes open ....” I ventured. He looked at me as though I had lost my mind, then he turned and looked at the bottles on display behind the bar.

“It’s too much for one man,” he said quietly. “Do you know I’m 53 years old and I’ve never been married -- I have no heirs -- at times like these when there’s no one stretched out in the slumber room, I am the loneliest of men.”

I was about to continue the conversation when I was jabbed sharply in the small of my back with Lotte’s cane. “Move over,” she said “I’d like to have a word with the Doc.”

You don’t argue with Lotte when she’s in this kind of mood, nor would it have been wise to point out that Dennis O’Dell went to embalmer’s school and not a college of medicine. I moved over two stools, for to move over one would have put me in the second stool from the door which will forever be Willie’s seat. I had no intention of overhearing Lotte’s conversation with Dennis O’Dell but Lotte’s voice would carry in a gale, and because of her lack of teeth she tends to be sibilant in her speech -- spraying the room with a gin flavored aerosol.

“I just wanted to tell’ya what a fine job y’did on Willie Monahan, O’Dell. I had my doubts when I seen him stretched out here on the floor, but you sure know yer onions.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

She leaned a little closer to him and made every attempt to keep her voice down. Clancy, who was listening in as I was, turned the television down a bit.“I been meanin’ t’ask you, ever since the layin’ in, er -- I’d like t’sign up y’know. Pay up front I mean.”

I don’t think O’Dell got it right away because, as he mopped the font of his shirt with his handkerchief, he stared blankly at Lotte as though he didn’t understand her.

“C’mon O’Dell! I wanna pay now fer when I die.” She banged the edge of the bar with her cane in frustration. “Dont’cha get me, Dummy. I got nobody t’handle the details when I go.” She began to count on her fingers. “I need a plot. I wanna pick a nice knotty pine casket -- I love knotty pine -- I’ll need flowers, and I gotta nice powder blue taffeta dress I never wore yet. Then there’s Father Stan -- the hell with him and his sailin’ away stories -- I want Bishop Jaeger over at the Diocese.” She had one finger left over and she stared at it with knitted brows. “Oh, I almost forgot! A stone! I’d like a nice stone. Not a big one -- but tasteful y’know? It should say -- Here lies a lady, Lotte Gemstone by name, a credit to her neighborhood .... and .... I got it writ down home on paper, I’ll bring it to ya.”

The lunacy of the request gradually dawned on O’Dell and he began to laugh. It began as a chuckle and in trying to stifle it he began to choke -- he was forced to cover his mouth with the already gin soaked handkerchief.

“What are y’laughin’ at dummy? I got nobody. If I don’t do it nobody’s gonna do it for me.”

O’Dell, in the middle of his laughter, suddenly realized the poignancy of it all and tried to recover. “Sorry, Lotte -- didn’t mean to .... don’t know what came over me. Why don’t you come over in the morning, we can go over the whole thing and we’ll draw up a contract for you.”

I looked at the Budweiser clock on the wall behind me, although it was still early I thought I’d get back to the paper and do my Golden Years column. I had enough of my friends at the Hollow Leg Saloon for today -- there wasn’t a whole one among us. For one reason or another each of us could be declared certifiably insane .... and yet, the world in which we lived had made us that way. We were like wind-blown trees that grow crookedly on a barren moor, we are the human result of an unfriendly environment. We are beautiful only in each other’s eyes, to anyone else we are ugly and misshapen.

“Have a pleasant afternoon, everyone -- I’m on my way back to the mines.”

“Hold up a minute,” said O’Dell, “I’ll walk back with you.”

I was looking forward to walking back alone, it would have given me a chance to think about the column and I wanted to forget Lotte’s performance at the bar. Nevertheless, I waited outside for O’Dell to catch up. We walked slowly in the clear fall weather. The wind gusted up Westwood Avenue and the leaves fell like rain. We commented on the inexorable passage of time and the coming of the holiday season. O’Dell’s Funeral Home is a block further on than the newspaper office and before breaking off, we stopped under an ancient maple, now golden in the afternoon light. It is a misshapened tree, pruned daily by the delivery trucks that park at the curb -- it has always reminded me of the hanging tree in David Copperfield. Today, however, it reminded me of the old gang back at the Hollow Leg.

“You gonna do right by Lotte, Dennis. She’s putting a lot of faith in you.”

“Oh,” he grinned broadly, you don’t cheat neighbors, I’ll keep my end of the bargain all right.” He cleared his throat as we stopped at the front door of “The Guardian.” “ .... er, did you know Mrs. Monahan?”

“Barely. Met her at the funeral -- I don’t think she approved of me, or anyone else Willie hung around with.”

O’Dell picked up a maple leaf and studied it carefully. He put his hand on my arm to keep me from going inside and seemed to reach a decision. “I suppose she had good reason -- I found her very attractive.”

“Really? In her fifties I’d say.”

“Some women have an ageless beauty -- like .... er .... Marlene Dietrich -- or .... or ....”

“Lotte Gemstone?”

He ignored my clumsy attempt at humor. “I bought her an engagement ring,” he said tentatively. “It was all new to me, you see -- I’m not used to the proper thing.”

“....and?”

“She turned me down.” He looked down the street in the direction of the funeral parlor. “She said -- she said, she could never marry the man who buried her husband. I don’t understand, you know -- what’s wrong with me?”

It was getting out of hand and I wished he’d leave. “I don’t know, Dennis. Maybe you should let a couple of months go by then try again.”

“She’d be such a help at the home ....”

“I’d forget about that part of it, Dennis -- I think that’s the nub of the problem.”

He sighed deeply, “I just don’t understand.” He turned his back on me and walked off slowly in the direction of the O’Dell Funeral Parlor. He stopped once and I thought he was going to turn around, so I quickly ducked inside.I made my way to my desk and hung my baseball cap on the nail someone hammered in the wall years ago. As I turned on the computer and watched it go through the motions of booting up, I asked myself -- “We can bid the physician heal himself, but what will we tell the undertaker?”

Needless to say the Golden Years column was tinged with melancholy. Unlike some writers who, like Harlequin, can laugh on the outside while they cry on the inside, I am as transparent as glass and my weaknesses show through. My co-worker and confidant, Stacey Pomerance must have seen through me. She came over and sat in the rickety side chair next to my desk and asked me what was wrong. Stacey is twenty two years of age, as blond as only a natural blond can be and is blessed two of everything.

“S’matter Pops.” She crossed her legs -- my heart skipped a beat and a glow of warmth ran down my spine.

“The Willie Monahan thing, it’s done something to me. Did you ever have an operation, Stacey? It’s like when something’s been taken out of you that you know will never grow back.”

“You mean the guy who dropped dead in the bar down town?”

“He was a dear friend of mine.”

“If you don’t me sayin’ so, I’ve seen some of these friends of yours,” she shook her hand as though she burned it, “Sheesh -- what a crew. You’re not gettin’ any younger y’know, maybe you outta turn over a new leaf.”

“Be gentle with us, Stacey -- we’ve come a long way. Why do you know ....” I was on the verge of going into an old man’s monologue, but I looked at Stacey and realized there was no defense. My misfit friends back in the waiting room -- we no longer had anything to offer. A man more at home with the dead than the living, another who talks to dead poets that no one else can hear and still another who dreams of corseted ladies in darkened rooms.

“A new leaf you say?” I looked out at the falling leaves that drifted past the window. “I’ll give it a try, Stacey -- maybe tomorrow.”

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