Passing on

Idle hands or minds (I can’t remember which) are the devil’s workshop. My mom used to tell me that frequently. Years later I found that what she was really worried about was boredom. Boredom always led me down the road to mischief and usually resulted in some inappropriate behavior on my part, and she knew that.

Such was the case at my mother-in-law’s funeral. Now bear in mind that I had nothing against my mother-in-law and she never did anything to or against me so my behavior at the ceremony had nothing to do with her in particular. She was completely without sin and did not prompt what I did during that solemn time. I did what I did because I was bored.

My wife and her siblings were understandably upset with the situation that brought them together with friends and relatives. They lost their mother sooner than expected when a surgery went bad. To make the best of the situation they were busy reconnecting with long lost family members and old friends of their departed mother. Like all the in-laws you know, we knew our spouses’ mother but none of us knew her quite as long as her kids and relatives. So the atmosphere in the parlor was one of remembrance and reunion for immediate family and friends, but for the rest of us (the in-laws) it was mostly polite introductions and casual conversations. We smiled, listened to old family stories and tried not to offend anyone out of respect for the dead.

My mother-in-law was laid out in this big funeral home which had two parlors. Both parlors were occupied and two body showings were taking place simultaneously. She, my mother-in-law, a proud Irish Catholic, was laid out in the second parlor; while another dead lady, an Italian Catholic I later discovered, was laid out in the first. The main entrance door opened directly into a hallway to which the two parlors were perpendicularly attached. In order to get to our festivities one had to pass by the Italian lady’s parlor. So there, in the connecting hallway, both Irish and Italian celebrants bumped into each other.

In response to my position (as a fringe member in the dearly departed’s inner group), I was unable to participate fully in the many remembrances so I drifted away from the parlor area. After some time I discovered a “break room” (for lack of a better description) in which coffee and cookies were abundant. Close family and friends remained in the parlor commiserating while I swilled coffee and chowed down on cookies in the break room. While chowing, I mixed with other likewise fringe Irish and Italian participants.

After what seemed to be to be an eternity of sitting and smiling to unfamiliar co-occupants of the break room and with my fill of coffee and cookies, I wandered into the hallway connecting the two parlors. I noticed small clusters of older gentlemen outside the front door of the funeral home and decided to get some fresh air myself. When I exited, I discovered that most of the clustered were smokers. Nonetheless, I stood off to the side and listened to the conversation of a group of Italian gentlemen. This is when it all began.

You see my brother-in-law was the chief of police of the suburban Chicago city in which his mom was on display. Out of respect, and I suspect as more an opportunity to suck up to the chief, our parlor was visited by many police officers. Some were in dress uniforms and some stopped by during shift change in uniforms of the day. In any case, the Italians were confronted with streams of policemen passing in front of their parlor to get to ours. I heard them speculating about the person in the parlor and why the cops were there in such great numbers.

I turned to an older man near me and said, “Are you from these parts?”

He turned and said, “We are from out-of-town; came all the way from down south to the funeral.”

What could I do? Here was my opening so I said, “Well that explains it.”

“Explains what?” another gentleman of the group asked.

“Well it explains why you don’t know the lady laid out in the parlor next to yours.”

“She must have been somebody very important to have all these policemen visiting,” another man chimed in. The near group of about five, with others listening on in the distance, grew a little closer.

“Well you could say that.” I answered with a knowing smile. “She was the most famous madam in this area and the cops have been after her for years but she was too slick and well connected to get caught.

“How’d they finally get her then?” another asked.

“Well she just croaked. Old age I suspect. The cops, much to their chagrin, weren’t able to catch her in the act, so to speak.”

“But why are all the policemen here now that she’s dead?” one fellow asked a little suspiciously.

“That’s a good question and the answer is the cops are here to confirm that she is really dead.” I knew what I was doing but couldn’t help myself. Besides the men around me looked so interested in what I was saying that I couldn’t just stop. So I continued, “You see the cops in dress uniforms, the ones with the white gloves?”

One excitedly answered, “Why yes. Some are wearing white gloves.”

I stood with my back to the entranceway and with a nod of my head over my shoulder I said, “If you’ll notice the ones in dress uniforms with the white gloves usually stand with their hands together.” I stopped to let them look around down the hallway. “It is said that the powerful politicians sent them to verify that the lady is dead and to prove it, they all have straight pins.”

“Straight pins? What do straight pins have to do with anything?”

“Well I’m glad you asked. You see when they pass by the body, they give it a poke just to make sure she’s really dead.” I paused to let it sink in and then continued, “Only the men in dress uniforms poke. If they let everybody poke she might start to leak.” I looked around and smiled.

Incredulous, a man with a frown said, “Well why in the world would they have to do that?” Questioning my explanation he added, “From what I can tell, she looks dead all right.”

Avoiding eye contact with this doubting Thomas, I continued, “It’s because of her black book.”

Still skeptical, he asked, “A book? They poke her on account of a book?”

“Well just not any book. I mean it’s not like an overdue library book and the cops are here to collect the fine. No. It’s her black book containing the names of all her customers. If those names got out, many a political career would be over in a flash. You know Chicago area politics,” I said lowering my voice a little. “You see the cops are working for those high muckity-mucks and if that got known, much of the force would be faced with early retirement, if you know what I mean.” The group moved closer and I had no choice but to continue.

“But wait a minute.” My interrogator spoke up again, “If you’re a member or a friend of the family why are you telling us this?”

You see, here was another opening egging me on. Again I felt compelled to continue so I elaborated, “I’m not, in fact, friend or family. You see I was offered a deal to drive one of the working ladies here. She is posing as a long lost family friend.” I looked back down the hallway and noticed that the wake was nearing its end and our parlor was emptying into the hallway.

“What kind of deal?” someone else asked.

“Well now, you see all these women here. Not all are working ladies. Some are indeed friends and family and some are not. If you look close, you may be able to tell the difference.” I said as we all discretely looked the women over, “See that older lady?”

“Which one? There are several,” one man asked while straining to pick her out of the group.

About that time my dear wife waved at me, letting me know she was ready to go. “That one, with the snow white hair,” I said as I waved back.

As they looked my wife over I said, “I know what you’re thinking. She a little old but she’s still a looker.” I paused as they moved to let me to the front door. “To tell you the truth, she’s not half bad and, I dare say, under the right conditions she can set you off like a whole bunch of firecrackers on the Fourth of July. You could do worse.”

“You know you wouldn’t think she was a prostitute at first glance, but now I can tell by the way she walks she’s in the business,” an old man said while hiking up his pants.

“Anyway, since I’m a regular customer myself, I get a huge discount just for driving her. You understand, I mean how could I refuse?” I could see my inquisitor getting ready to question me again when my wife neared the exit door and he was cut off.

I opened the door as my wife walked toward me. She politely smiled at all the men near the entrance and when she joined me I took her arm in mine. I smiled broadly as we walked past the men on the way to our car. Just then, while the men still looked on, she dropped her glasses. When she bent to pick them up, I couldn’t help myself. I gave her a pat on the butt for the group’s benefit.

Now I don’t know if many in attendance at either wake were as bored as I was but I can tell you that I will not forget the time I spent with those Italian gentlemen and I earnestly hope I provided as delightful a distraction for those guys as they provided me. All in all I think I created a delightful memory for all of us and, who knows, maybe they’ll pass the story on to the rest of their families. However, all I really know for sure is that my wife is still pissed with me for patting her on the ass outside the funeral home.