A Firing and a Funeral
As July moved into an unpleasant hot streak, we complained to each other, but only Hanks was on vacation. No one ever mentioned him.
One morning when I came in to work, I encountered in the waiting room a face that was vaguely familiar. It took me a minute to place its owner, and then I remembered. It was that of the company's special agent, the one who had fired Wallace Stimson at the railway station. This, I realized, must be the day that Sam Hanks was due to return.
In our office there had always been an understanding that the first day back to work was an easy one. One could come in at any time during the day to start catching up with everything that had accumulated. When I ducked into David's office and reminded him of this fact, he smiled and replied,
"Mister Maxwell doesn't mind waiting. He'll wait as long as necessary."
"You can't leave him in the waiting room for hours. There isn't even anything to read except the Journal."
"No. We can fix him up more comfortably."
With that, David marched authoritatively out to the front and addressed Maxwell. The latter stood up immediately and deferentially. After a minute's conversation, David led him down the corridor right past me. I understood that one isn't introduced to the executioner until one's own time has come. As Mr. Maxwell passed, he repeated the same little discreet nod that he had given me at the railway station immediately after firing Stimson. I wondered whether he had recognized me. More likely, that nod was part of his standard procedure for dealing with female colleagues of those pushed off the cliff.
Consumed with morbid curiosity, I followed them discreetly down the corridor. David pushed open the door to Hanks' office and led the visitor in. He left the door open, and, as I passed slowly, I saw Maxwell about to sit in the plush visitors' chair in front of the desk. David said loudly,
"You might as well take the desk chair."
Maxwell actually grinned, albeit ironically, and moved behind the desk. When David came out, he said to me,
"Let's go have a second breakfast, Adrienne. No need to come back until Hanks has come and gone."
After we were comfortably settled with omelettes and coffee, I said,
"I wonder if Hanks has arrived by now to find a strange man sitting at his desk telling him he's fired."
I said it humorously, but meant it to sting a little bit. David replied pleasantly,
"With luck, when Hanks can't find me, he'll go and unload on Bret, or even Janey. I'll call in a while to make sure the coast is clear."
David was at his most affable, and was, in fact, rather good company. There was no talk of marriage, and it seemed that he had simply backed up, as far as I was concerned, to the point where he had been a month or so previously.
Having finished our coffee, David called the office. Hanks had, indeed, come and gone. He hadn't cleaned out his office, and had told the receptionist that he would come back the next day to do it. David told her to pack all Hanks' belongings into boxes and put them out by the front desk.
When we got back, there was a message for me to call Constanza. The receptionist said she had just called, and that it seemed to be urgent. The minute Constanza answered, I knew that something was terribly wrong. I half knew, even before she told me, that Scuzz Flats was dead. It had happened only a short time before as he was going out to play a round. He had apparently had a stroke. She had been right beside him. It had been quick and without much pain. The doctor had come immediately and certified the death. The undertaker was on his way.
It was no surprise to me that Constanza had cared much more for her husband than she had let on. What did surprise me was that she seemed to have no woman friend closer than myself to turn to. I offered to come out immediately, but she said that she'd like to get away as soon as possible, and would come to our office. She then asked me to call Heston. I did so immediately.
Heston sounded sad, but not particularly shocked or disconcerted. Hiram was in port, and he would tell him. He also asked about funeral arrangements. I said,
"I'll find out. If it's not immediate, she'll probably want to see both of you first. I'll let you know."
I was looking out when Constanza arrived in the parking lot. It was a measure of her grief that she hadn't gotten herself fixed up, but was wearing an old skirt and a bandanna wrapped around her head. I was out to her before she was half way to the building, and we embraced. I drove, and she didn't ask any questions. I took her to the coast road, turned left, and parked just before the bridge to Erika's island. We walked slowly over the bridge, myself still in my office shoes. I explained about Erika, but wasn't sure how she would react. In the event, she came slowly up to the bridge and stood at the end of it as we approached. When we reached her, she gave no sign of greeting, but fell in silently behind us as we walked.
It did Constanza good to get to a new place, and we walked all the way to the beach. There were a fair number of people around, and she occasionally made comments, never crying and never referring to her loss. I looked foolish in my business suit, but I took off my shoes and went down on the beach. Constanza kicked off her shoes, clutched up her skirt, and went wading in the low surf. She reminded me of a Sicilian woman wading in the pursuit of some ancient occupation connected with the sea. When she came out, she gave me a little smile and talked of the funeral arrangements. She said,
"If it were left to me, I'd have him cremated and scatter his ashes in the sea. However, he was an important man, and his friends will expect something elaborate. He hated the church, and I long ago promised that there would be no priest. It was Garibaldi that he loved."
"I've been to a couple of secular memorial services. But someone still has to lead them and say a few words."
"I can ask Don Tomasso. He's very old, but probably up to it. With luck, I can prevail on him to give the eulogy in Italian. Then, it won't embarrass very many people."
As she said this, Constanza gave me a little smile. Evidently, only the old guard understood Italian. I asked,
"Did your husband speak Italian?"
"Not a great deal, but I can say he requested it. It's a language with a nice sound, and Don Tomasso speaks it well. I guess I'll have to get the ballroom cleaned up and hope it doesn't rain."
"I can supervise that for you."
Constanza gave me a hug and said,
"That's all right. I'll need something to keep me busy, but I'd like some company in the evenings."
"Should I bring Heston and Hiram?"
Constanza urged me strongly to bring them. We then planned out the days until the funeral.
The things that make the Mafia conspicuous and fearsome most of the time allow them to blend perfectly and inconspicuously at a funeral. The black cars and black suits are entirely appropriate, and the grave expressions of men who are responsible for an alternative law and order create just the right tone. I was helping Constanza get dressed upstairs, and we watched the early arrivals give their cars to the undertakers' men and proceed to the front door. I, like our visitors, had only to wear my usual business suit. Constanza, however, had a special role to play. It included a special dress which I had helped her buy. As she had said,
"It's just like a wedding except that everything is black instead of white."
At present she stood, a little back from the window, in black underclothes and stockings, but with diamond earrings and a necklace worth a don's ransom. The undertaker's man tapped on the door, and Constanza called out that she would soon be ready as she stepped into a white taffeta slip. She then moved to the full-length mirror and spun slowly. She said,
"In the way that the bride must have something that's not white, the widow must have something that's not black. It will signify that I'm to be a virgin from now on."
I wasn't quite certain that Constanza was joking until she gave me one of her looks. The dress had to come over her head, and we had some difficulty in not disarranging her hair. It was tight around even Constanza's small waist, and I asked her if she was all right.
"Yes. It makes me stand extra straight and avoid uninhibited movement, but that's what's expected."
The last stage of dressing came when I pinned on Constanza's little black hat with the attached veil, and gave her the black gloves to put on. Since her skin was as white as any I have seen, and her eyes and hair as black as her clothing, the effect was almost frightening. It was transformed only by a modest, but definite touch of red lipstick. I was tempted to say that her husband would have been proud of the way she looked, but stopped myself. Her reverse wedding fantasy was doing well enough without any help from me.
I felt very much the page as the queen made her entrance from the top of the curved staircase. It was only after we had moved into the crowd that I realized that there was good reason for Constanza's arrogant bearing. If she had been anything less, the many assembled women would have cried and hugged her, and would have produced, in effect, a Sicilian peasant-style funeral. As it was, the women thought her cold and unfeeling, and tended to keep away from her. The men, on the other hand, showed the most elaborate courtesy, mixed with considerable admiration. The august Don Tomasso, a spare straight old man, kissed Constanza's hand and conducted her to her seat at the front.
It's always interesting to see what happens at a funeral or wedding when, for some reason, the traditional forms cannot be followed. Jackie's wedding had been minus, not only parents, but the respective religions in which the couple had been raised. However, a Unitarian minister had officiated with perfect aplomb, and everything had gone swimmingly.
I quickly learned that a Mafia funeral minus Roman Catholicism is a much trickier matter. For one thing, the women didn't like it. An outsider like myself didn't have to strain either her eyes or ears to detect signs of their disapproval. It seemed to be the consensus of the women that, whatever the wishes of the deceased, a priest should have been present.
The men may well have had some brothers in the priesthood and some sisters in convents, but they weren't the sort of Catholics who live in the shadow of the church. Still less, do they raise money for missions in the Congo. On the other hand, they're politically Catholic. I could detect among them no sympathy for the atheistic violently anti- clerical republicanism of Garibaldi. These were highly conventional men in whom hardness and respectability were easily mated.
Apparently realizing that I wasn't prepared for this, Constanza murmured in my ear,
"My husband was an unusual man. He also made them nervous when he was alive."
To me, Scuzz had been a rather cuddly teddy-bearish old man. It was Constanza, not her husband, who had at first alarmed me. I now began to realize that he had been a greatly feared figure, the subject of myth as well as history. There were present many men who, now that Scuzz was finally dead, allowed themselves sighs of relief.
To me a preferance of Garibaldi to the Pope, or even to Jesus, was not unreasonable, particularly for a man in that line of work. However, from the point of view of the present audience, Scuzz Flats had acted in an extremely unwise way. In rejecting religion, he had dared fate. They may not have really believed in Hell, but they were superstitious. They couldn't understand a man who intentionally walked under ladders and crossed the trails of black cats.
In this atmosphere, one might wonder what sort of service could possibly be performed. Indeed, Constanza had wondered, and had asked me. I had suggested a Unitarian minister. The man who now came out in robes and strode to the podium was probably the first Unitarian minister the majority of the audience had ever seen. He didn't look in the least like a priest. Rather, he looked quite a lot like the minister at Jackie's wedding, a big man, about forty, with a beard and a pleasant look. I took him for the sort of liberal who believes that members of the Mafia, at bottom, are not so different from other people.
The readings were from the speeches of the great revolutionary who, but for the treachery of Cavour, would have delivered Italy from tyranny. The minister had a good voice, and used it powerfully and persuasively. And then, like all Unitarian ministers, he knew when to stop. He drew no parallels between the life of Garibaldi and that of Anthony Tertulli. He didn't say that the latter had been impelled by the highest motives, nor, for that matter, that he had been a gentle man who loved children. He simply announced that the eulogy would be given by Don Tomasso Castiglione.
Since Don Tomasso spoke in Italian, I had no idea what he tried to make of the life of Scuzz Flats. But, by the mere act of speaking on such an occasion, he put to rest the anxieties of the men. The women were perhaps not satisfied quite so easily, but the looks their husbands gave them were sufficient to carry the day. When Don Tomasso finished, the minister rose and thanked us all for coming. After she had thanked the minister and Don Tomasso, Constanza said quietly to me,
"You gave me good advice. That was just right."
As the crowd began to swirl around the large room, one of the undertaker's men found me and asked me to stand in the receiving line with Constanza. This was a last-minute change at the urging of Don Tomasso, who now stood with the widow. As I joined them, I saw Heston and Hiram for the first time as they were brought up to form the rest of the line. Hiram didn't have on his fishing cap, and was wearing a dark suit which was suspiciously loose around the mid-section.
There were three of us in the back of the limousine on the ride to the cemetary, Constanza, Don Tomasso, and myself. Constanza told Don Tomasso that I was the young lady on whose advice her husband had made so much money. He gave me a cool grave look and asked a few questions. He had brokers, mutual funds, and trusts, but was somewhat at sea in the world of finance. He didn't quite say that he was sorry he had shifted most of his money to legal enterprises, but he obviously had difficulty trusting people whom he couldn't lean on in the traditional ways.
I talked about diversification. He had heard that before, many times. He believed in it, of course. He was a rational man. But he wasn't satisfied. I realized suddenly that, in the way Heston had originally invested in trains, planes, and busses, Don Tomasso wanted to invest in something he felt comfortable with. If he found such a thing, he would invest heavily in it, disregarding the advice of all his hired experts. Desperately casting around for the thing that would touch him, I very quickly hit on it. A Sicilian peasant would trust and value gold above all things. I spoke of gold.
Don Tomasso gave me the look he must have given Scuzz, back in the days when the latter had performed useful services for him. None of his high-powered financial people would have recommended that he hold gold. I recommended, not the stock of gold mining companies, but gold ingots and coins. He asked whether he would have the gold itself, or only paper certificates. I reassured him and recommended a large safe deposit box. I could see that I was making an impression, but it was only much later that I discovered how much of one I was making.
By the time we reached the cemetary, the sky had become quite dark and forbidding. The cemetary itself was a small rural one, on a ridge which formed an island in a small stream. As we crossed a little wooden bridge over sluggish water, there was a flash and almost simultaneous crack. It took me by surprise, and even Don Tomasso looked uncomfortable. Only Constanza remained calm, remarking,
"Nothing could be more fitting."
As the procession snaked slowly up the hill, I could see the rain approaching from the valley. We arrived at the freshly dug grave only a minute or two before the storm burst. The undertaker's men had a supply of umbrellas, and had them over our heads just in time. They did not, however, do a great deal of good. It seemed that there was more water than air in the atmosphere, and it was driven by a strong wind whose gusts threatened to turn our umbrellas inside out. Even though I held mine firmly with both hands, I had trouble both holding it and keeping my balance. My feet and lower legs were soon cold and wet as the rain bounced and splattered off the road. Then, when I moved on to the grass, I found myself standing in a little rivulet.
The crowd gathered in a hurry, and the minister, a man holding an umbrella over his head, managed to make himself heard. I will never know whether he had really finished when the weather finally laid Scuzz Flats to rest. Someone was attempting to shovel a little symbolic earth, in this case mud, on to the coffin when a much stronger gust of wind and rain took us from a slightly different angle. Constanza's umbrella blew inside out, and she stood looking at the useless object as she was quickly soaked to the skin. I lost my umbrella altogether. There were screams from ladies, and everyone, in a concerted movement, made for the cars. When I reached ours, my suit must have weighed fifteen pounds.
I think Constanza may have taken advantage of the situation to weep unobtrusively. Certainly the rain solved problems, equally for those ashamed not to be crying and for those in the opposite situation.
The ride back was necessarily uncomfortable. Don Tomasso looked like a drowned squirrel. It was only by degrees that I came to understand that the weather had personally offended him.
It seemed that Don Tomasso had intended, more or less on Scuzz's part, to personally bid farewell to each of the mourners. He was quite angry that he had been prevented from doing so.
Not only that, he seemed to feel that the storm, the subsequent indignities, and the improper ending added up to a very bad omen. Whether it was bad for Scuzz or himself I couldn't gather. I might have been amused if I hadn't caught a dangerous look in his eyes. For the first time, really, I got the feeling of medieval Sicily with its walled villages, its savage partisan warfare, and its odd and brutal code of honor.
Constanza and I, our clothes wet enough to wring, managed to say the right things to that austere old man. In fact, I found in myself some sympathy for him, murderous as he might still be. I was trying to build my own fortress, financial and otherwise, with the help of my friends. I would certainly have been upset by anything that threatened it. Those people had constructed a fortress that went beyond my wildest imaginings. Moreover, it was held together with quite different kinds of glue. Something had just gone seriously wrong. While I wasn't in a position to understand quite what had happened, I wasn't such a fool as to scoff.