portion of the artwork for Paul Smith's short story

Paul Smith

Mike’s boss was waiting for him when Mike came in.

“I got a call from the funeral parlor,” he said. “The festoons aren’t right on those curtains. You gotta go see them this morning.”

Mike hated problems. Mike hated questions. He hated showing up and, as soon as he did, having his boss tell him something went wrong. The funeral parlor was down in Oak Lawn. He hated Oak Lawn. It was full of Irishmen, who, as everybody knows, are Catholic.

“What’s the matter with the festoons?” he asked. “I checked them right after I put them in. They looked fine to me.”

“The lights in back are showing. They’re not supposed to.”

“I know that.” Mike shrugged. “I’ll go have a look.”

There were two ways to go to Oak Lawn—by the Dan Ryan and then west on 95th Street or on I-294, which pretty much took you right there. If Mike was in a good mood, he’d take I-294 because it was quicker and he could move on to do other things, like the curtains at the hospital. But he suddenly found himself in a funk, so he took the Dan Ryan and 95th Street. This was a lousy way to start a Thursday.

When he got to the funeral parlor, McNally wasn’t there, plus they were having a funeral, so he couldn’t really look at the festoons with a coffin right in front of them. It looked like an Irish wake to Mike. There were tons of people and none of them were crying. They talked low and seriously, like they were discussing family and weather. An assistant came up to him and Mike explained he wanted to see McNally. McNally wasn’t there, so Mike would have to come back. Mike hated coming back. He should have called. He took a last look at the funeral going on. Now the people, who Mike imagined were all working-class people like himself, in suits, were laughing, telling jokes.

“Catholics,” he thought to himself.

If he was in a good mood, he could swing by the hospital and measure for the curtains. But he wasn’t in a good mood. His niece had died suddenly last week, nobody was sure why, and he felt lousy about it because there was going to be an autopsy. The police thought it might be a drug overdose or maybe even a drug interaction because some of her drugs were actually legal. Her mom asked Mike to help with all of that. He had agreed reluctantly. Luckily there was no funeral because his branch of the Jewish faith didn’t believe in funerals. He didn’t believe in autopsies, either. But the police did, so that was that. He went to the hospital anyway.

His boss was sore when Mike got back, sore because McNally wasn’t there.

“You should have called first,” his boss said.

“I should have called first,” Mike said, “but there was a funeral going on. So it probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway.”

“McNally would have told you that,” his boss said, “and saved you a trip.”

Mike called the next day and spoke to McNally. McNally would be there, plus there was no funeral in the A parlor, so things would work out. Mike took I-294 this time and paid the tolls himself. He was ready to wrap up this festoon problem. But McNally wasn’t there. There was an emergency, so his son covered for McNally. Together they looked at the drapes behind where they put the coffins.

“Looks OK to me,” Mike said.

“Looks OK to me,” said McNally’s son, a big Irish fellow in a suit that fit his girth. They shook hands. Mike left and drove back on I-294, didn’t mind paying the tolls at all. Catholics were all right, he guessed. They had their funny ceremonies and rituals, just like the Jews, and had their odd sayings like “The meek shall inhibit the earth” or something to that effect. All in all, they weren’t bad people. Being Jewish was worse, he thought, because they were still waiting for the savior, while the Catholics claimed they already had one. At least, in his brand of Judaism, they didn’t waste time on funerals. Or money.

When he got back to the shop, his boss had bad news. “How come you didn’t take care of those festoons?” he asked.

When Mike explained, his boss said, “Well, McNally Senior wants to see you, not his son. So go on back there and see Senior, OK? He’s very concerned about those lights.”

Mike hated going back. He hated going back worse than he hated his job, his niece’s mom (his sister), the police department, autopsies, and I-294. He took the Dan Ryan, because frankly, he was in no hurry. He’d installed hundreds of festoons in his day, all of them properly. Nobody had to tell him how to do a festoon, least of all a Catholic.

McNally met him in the A parlor around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The funeral parlor was rather quiet, a small ceremony in B parlor. “Someone without a lot of friends,” Mike thought.

McNally was a big man, like his son, only more round and with a slightly better suit and the bluster of an accomplished person who has shook many hands and feigned sincerity his whole life.

“Thanks for coming back,” he said. “Let me show you.” He walked Mike to the festoons. Still, nothing was wrong with them. The drapes Mike installed had all their graceful loops and folds billowing like perfect little clouds. Then McNally did something unexpected.

There was a pew-like thing with a kneeler in front of where they placed the casket. McNally knelt down on it. He motioned Mike to do the same.

“What?” Mike asked.

“Kneel down.”

“Jews don’t kneel.”

“Well, we do that here. Kneel down.”

This was against what he believed in, but he reluctantly bent his knees and took his place beside McNally. He would not call it kneeling. He could see parts of the lights on the wall. Instead of gently flooding the casket with a Catholic-like heavenly aura that might appeal to working-class Irishmen who drank a lot and told stories at wakes with the full expectation of meeting their Savior plus all His hand-picked saints, he saw the sides of light fixtures behind the festoons. It gave him the impression of being in Ace Hardware. He had to admit something had to be done.

“Do you see what I mean?” McNally asked.

“I see it.”

“Can you do something?”

“I can lower the festoons. I’ll move the brackets down and patch the holes where the brackets are now. Then I’ll paint the wall so you’ll never know.”

“So I’ll never know,” McNally repeated, tapping Mike’s shoulder. “Perfect.”

Mike took I-294 back, not to the shop, but home. Traffic was snarled. Drivers honked. Mike should have been pissed, but he’d learned something. Kneeling there, in front of where the casket should have been, he thought of his niece. He thought of his niece getting cremated without any kind of ceremony at all by a bunch of Jews so cheap they would not pay for a funeral, and camouflaged it in some counterfeit orthodoxy. He wanted his niece to have that heavenly light shine on her at least once on this miserable planet, at least once in this miserable city where people honked for no reason, got pissed off for no reason, and should have a proper funeral when they died because their life meant something to someone, even if that someone was a savior who hadn’t showed up yet.

So he would do that for her. He would. But not here, not in Oak Lawn. Up in Glencoe, maybe, where they had some nice Jewish funeral parlors. Mike paid the tolls himself and was home by 5 o’clock. Ace Hardware had a color-matching machine for that wall paint. He’d have to go back to Oak Lawn on Monday to get a sample of the color.

Paul Smith’s Comments

Inspirations for my story “Festooned”? That would be my friend Mike, who, like the narrator, used to install drapes, curtains, festoons. Mike told me about an incident where he installed festoons (curtain-type things) at a funeral home. He got called back, just like our narrator in the story. The festoons weren’t right, and you could see that only by kneeling down in front of where the coffin went. Not exactly a great story—until he told me that, being Jewish, he doesn’t ever kneel. Now, there is a story because the point of the tale depends on his ethnicity. I happen to be Catholic, which is perfect! Now I can have a contrast to his Jewishness with a character who is Catholic to highlight the differences. What could be more Catholic than Irish? There are quite a few Irish down in Oak Lawn, a southern suburb of Chicago. I (and Mike) live in Skokie, a northern suburb, which is pretty Jewish. I picked Oak Lawn for the location of the funeral parlor because I used to work around there. It is far away from Skokie, and the commute is a pain. In my story I try to make a point that just getting to Oak Lawn is an inconvenience for Mike.

As writers, we are always on the outlook for material for stories, the more exotic the better. But there is often material at hand, close at hand, if we keep our eyes and ears open. I have never told Mike he was a “source” for a story. He might think about it too much. Who knows? He might give me more ideas sometime in the future.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 53 | Spring/Summer 2019