Fiction: A Wake for Maggie Fagan
By Mary Ann McGuigan
The frayed fisherman’s sweater—humpbacked from months spent on a hook behind Maggie’s bedroom door—had been making the rounds among her sisters since the weather turned cold. Their father claimed he wore it when he came over from Derry as a boy. They all figured that was just another invention, a way to say life hadn’t been easy for him either. Kate, the oldest, wore it now, unbuttoned around her wide middle, as she stood on Maggie’s front porch, waiting for her sisters.
“What’s she doing out there?” Moira asked Bridget, who sat with her fists clenched in her lap, as she had the whole ride.
“I don’t know, but something’s wrong.”
They both knew Kate wouldn’t be outside if Maggie’s body were still in the house. She rarely left her bedside, not even to sleep. Moira jammed the car into the curb, and Bridget slammed her hand against the dashboard. A front wheel wound up on the lawn, the back end out in the lane. Bridget lowered the window and stuck her head out, calling to Kate.
Kate was hard to look at—mascara smeared, face pinched, as if she were saving her next outburst for her sisters alone. Their brother Conor, the youngest of the Donnegans, sat motionless in his car, parked across the lane, his face in the shadow of a Yankees cap.
White-haired and halting, Bridget made her way to the porch, her frame, once tall and imperious, now meanly bent, arthritis mocking her attempt to hurry. Kate, heavyset and perpetually breathless, her gray-rooted curls controlled by randomly placed clips, held her arms out to her. Like Mutt and Jeff, they embraced, their sobs indistinguishable, bodies swaying with the jerky motion of a grief too new to find its rhythm. “She’s gone,” Kate said, and Moira was certain she wasn’t telling them Maggie was dead.
Moira, thin now, barely more than a hanger for her coat, stood waiting her turn. It took a long time to come. Bridget broke away and Kate dutifully gave Moira a hug, a loose, awkward contact that lasted no longer than Moira expected.
“They came and took her,” Kate told Bridget.
“But Owen told me they’d wait for us to get here,” Moira said.
Kate shook her head. “She’s gone. They took her.”
“Who took her?” said Bridget, as if determined not to understand.
“The undertakers. They’ve come and gone.”
Gone. The word sounded ruthless. In the frenzy after the phone call that had awakened her from an uneven sleep, Moira felt only the urgency to get here. Now the fact of it came at her straight on. Months and months of knowing it would happen made it no less terrible. Maggie was gone, and Moira had lost the one person who knew what she’d done—how she’d almost killed their father—but never let it matter.
Conor remained in his car, and Moira wondered what was wrong. He removed his cap and the early morning sun made his fair skin even paler. His thinning hair looked almost blond again. The night before, when Maggie’s breathing had rattled the room like sound effects in a spook house, Kate fled from the bedside, sobbing, but Conor stayed, leaning over Maggie, his face near her cheek, gripping her hand, as if he could keep her from getting away.
Moira waved to Conor, but his hands remained on the steering wheel, and she wondered why he wasn’t coming out to greet them. Maybe it was just too much for him. He was close to Maggie. By the time he was born, things were so chaotic, she’d practically raised him. Maybe he was afraid it would show, the dark wish that one of the others could have died, not Maggie. She wondered if Maggie told him what she’d done. But that was impossible. Not Conor. He was never short on excuses for their father: He was old, he was blind, he couldn’t stay sober. Conor had even taken a leave of absence to care for him when the cancer got bad, came close to losing his job.
“Let’s go in,” Moira said. The door was unlocked as usual, the handle sharply cold. Maggie’s children and grandchildren stood in the living room, aimless, unwilling to sit, as if they’d been herded into some purposeless waiting room for news about something they already knew. One of the toddlers, a sturdy boy with hair still wet, as if someone just plucked him from a tub, had found a pair of Maggie’s boots and was traveling the room on all-fours.
For months now, Moira had entered the house without needing to knock and headed toward Maggie’s bedroom, the brutal center of gravity, to see how she would be that night. Now, her sister’s absence tilted the room, and Moira wasn’t sure where she was supposed to go. Bridget moved from one to another of Maggie’s children and grandchildren, embracing them, putting a hand on a shoulder, whispering regrets. Moira mimicked her sister but worried she’d say something wrong, because she couldn’t make herself agree to this. Maggie couldn’t be dead.
Bridget and Moira entered the dining room, where Maggie’s husband, Owen, sat at the table with two of his sons. Owen, a big man whose shoulders stretched his shirt, was petting the cat, who lay sprawled across the table, a transgression Maggie would never have allowed. His lips were moving and Moira wondered if he was praying silently. His older son, wearing a Yankees cap and a hunter’s vest that no longer fit him, was stacking cubes of sugar into an uneven tower. Owen glanced at Moira, but only for a second, as if the construction in progress were the only thing that deserved his attention.
On the table in front of him were official-looking documents, a mug of coffee, and the horseshoe-shaped pillow Maggie kept under her neck. Bridget dropped her pocketbook on the table with a thud, startling the cat and toppling the sugar tower. Clearly, she would not be sparing anyone’s feelings. To have Maggie taken away without a proper good-bye was an insult Bridget was not likely to let pass. Owen’s news the week before, that Maggie would be cremated, had been hard enough for her to accept. She’d been outspoken about it, at least with Moira and Kate. And she refused to believe it was Maggie’s wish not to be waked.
A wake is a time to honor the dead, Bridget insisted. Didn’t their mother’s wake go on for days, with crowds of long-lost friends and relatives—many better left that way, if their mother could have had her say—vying to get their Hail Marys in? And their grandmother’s wake was the last in the family to be done in the Irish way, at home in her brownstone in Brooklyn. The line to see her one last time stretched out into the street as far as Weisman’s Shoe Store, Bridget reminded them. The departed were not whisked away in those days, as if death were a social gaffe. The beer, of course, was plentiful.
Bridget stood beside Owen. “You could have waited for us,” she hissed, like kindling ready to ignite.
Moira backed away from them, headed down the hall toward Maggie’s room. The light coming from inside was different now. Someone had opened all the blinds. She heard movement, casual talk that was out of place. From the doorway she couldn’t see anyone inside, only the wide naked bed, stripped even of its mattress cover. The night table was bare, no medicines, nothing. The chairs kept near the bedside were gone. The voices were coming from the bathroom, in the far corner. She stepped toward them, looked inside. The hospice attendant was leaning over the counter. Maggie’s daughter Mary stood close. She was wearing her mother’s robe and her auburn hair was pulled back severely. They were emptying Maggie’s medicines into a plastic bag. “It’s the law,” Mary said, as if Moira had accused her of something. “We have to.”
The attendant stopped what she was doing. “I’m so sorry,” she told Moira.
Moira whispered thank you, and Mary stepped closer to embrace her. Moira knew it had happened before dawn, that her children were with her, and Conor and Kate. She wanted to ask Mary about it. She wanted to know the most secret things, the ghoulish things. Did Maggie open her eyes? Did she understand what was happening? Did death shove her around like a brute? And did she say anything about what Moira had done? Did she tell Conor?
Mary looked groggy, and Moira wondered if the attendant had given her something to keep her calm. She wanted to say the right thing, to convey somehow that she knew how she felt, but she wasn’t sure she did. Moira’s mother had died at ninety-one, as distant by then as a fondly remembered aunt. Maggie was different. She was in her children’s lives, at their dinner table, on the sand with them at the water’s edge. Mary’s loss was crippling, not some nostalgic sadness.
Someone entered the bedroom. It was Bridget. Moira saw her fists tighten as she took in the stripped bed, the cleared nightstand, as if steeling herself against the disrespect. She took Mary into her arms, said something Moira couldn’t hear. Then, as if remembering she had something to do, she let her go, pulled Moira aside. “I’m going to see her,” she whispered. “We called them.”
“Called who? I don’t understand.”
“The funeral home. I can see her. Owen called.”
They weren’t preparing the body for viewing, there was to be no wake, how could she see her? “I don’t understand.”
Bridget motioned her to come outside into the hall and they stepped into an adjacent bedroom.
“I made Owen call the funeral home. They’ll lay her out for me to pay my respects.”
Moira heard the satisfaction in her sister’s voice. “They’ll do that?” she said, although she didn’t really doubt it. Bridget had a gift for ultimatums.
“Yes, they completely understand.”
She’s gone, Moira wanted to say. Don’t you get it? There’s no trace of her left. Not in that bedroom, not anywhere.
“It’s just a viewing, you understand. Unadorned, you understand? They’re doing this as a favor.”
Moira nodded, trying not to imagine what Bridget meant.
“Will you drive me?”
That Bridget thought she had to ask her made Moira feel once again like a bit player. “Of course I will.”
Outside, Moira looked for Conor, thinking she’d ask him to come along, but he was gone. Her hands were trembling, and she wondered if she’d have trouble driving. She was afraid of what she might have to see, how death might make Maggie look? She voiced none of this to Bridget, whose unflinching readiness to be with their sister made Moira feel she’d already failed them both.
She knew she was being childish, but her encounters with death had almost all been a show, bodies dressed and prettied up, made ready for the living to tolerate. She was there when her mother died, but she’d been unconscious for days, so the difference when she finally passed was subtle, almost welcome after the torment of fearing she was in pain.
Maggie’s pain, when it came to stay, was brazen. It would transform itself, like a shapeshifter. In the last days, it entered the room in forms only she could see, dragged her back in time. “Get under the bed!” she screamed. “He’s coming. Get under the bed!”
Moira understood who Maggie was talking to and why, but Maggie’s children didn’t.
“She was hiding us from Grandpa,” Bridget whispered to them. “Me and Moira and Conor. She used to hide us under the bed so he wouldn’t find us when he was drunk.”
“We’re all right, Maggie,” Bridget told her, patting her arm. “Moira’s right here. See? She’s fine. We’re all fine.”
Maggie’s eyes widened, and Moira wasn’t sure at all whether bringing her back to the present was the kinder thing to do.
The directions to the funeral home were sketchy and Moira gripped the wheel, praying she wouldn’t get them lost on the bewildering rural lanes. By the time they found the building, Moira felt shaky, afraid to get out of the car. She wasn’t sure her legs would get her as far as the door. Bridget helped her out, took her arm as they navigated the paving stones that led to the front entrance.
Except for the wide double doors that hinted of purpose, the place looked too much like a house, and Moira didn’t know whether they were supposed to knock or just walk in. But almost immediately a man opened the door, and Moira realized he must have been watching from a window. She wasn’t sure why she found that creepy.
“Bridget?” he said.
“Yes,” she told him. “This is my sister Moira.”
He nodded. “I’m Thomas Dolan. Please come in.” His voice was nasal, annoying. He wore a white button-down shirt, opened at the collar, no tie or jacket, and Moira was reminded that this errand was outside the prescribed routines. Still, with the starch in his shirt and his cordial, practiced manner, he conveyed propriety.
They stepped inside and he closed the door behind him with barely a sound. The large anteroom was tidy, decorated with tastefully painted vases and bucolic landscapes framed in gold—props meant to disguise it as a place for the living.
“You’re here for Margaret Fagan?” he said. It wasn’t really a question, of course, but Moira couldn’t help wondering who else might be in the building.
“Yes. You spoke to Owen?”
“I did. I’m so sorry for your loss.” He said this expertly, and they nodded. Then he folded his hands in front of him, set his feet slightly apart, in what Moira assumed was his customary stance. She pictured the practiced way a shortstop gets ready when the batter is about to swing. Nothing would get past this man. “You understand she has not been prepared.”
Prepared? The word conjured images of Marie Antoinette attended by ladies-in-waiting, and Moira remembered she hadn’t gotten around to combing her own hair that morning, before she rushed out to pick up Bridget. Maggie would have liked that. The last time they stood on the boardwalk—Moira’s red hair wild in the salty wind, her body curveless compared to Maggie’s ample hips—her sister said she looked better with her hair undone, like a lit match.
Bridget nodded again, and Moira did the same, not wanting to hear any more about Maggie’s state of readiness. He invited them to sit down, said he’d be only a moment. Moira didn’t want to sit but Bridget headed for the loveseat, so she followed. “Are you sure you can do this?” Bridget said.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Because you don’t have to. No one will think any the less of you if you can’t.”
There was no one but the two of them, so Moira guessed Bridget was prepared to overlook Moira’s cowardice, even if she couldn’t resist telling the others about it afterward. “I’m fine,” she told her.
The excruciating wait that followed lasted no more than a few minutes. One of the double doors to the room adjoining theirs opened silently and Dolan appeared. Moira wondered if Maggie had been in there the whole time and didn’t know why this bothered her so much. “You may see her now,” he said.
The sisters rose as one and moved toward the room. Even before they went through the door, they could see the coffin against the far wall, most of it draped in a dark green cloth, the top half opened. Only Maggie’s head and shoulders were visible. Dolan held the door as they entered. Then, before closing them in, he recited his condolences again, whispering he’d be right outside if they needed him.
They stood very still, just inside the doors. The room was small, maybe twenty by twelve, with three rows of chairs on each side forming a center aisle. Closed off, the air in the room changed, pressing on them, like the breath of a mirthless headmaster. In the thick silence, their breathing became audible, and the sound of it, setting them apart from their sister, seemed to Moira like something they shouldn’t be hearing. Bridget gripped Moira’s hand fiercely, squeezing her knuckles together, and she was glad she wore no rings anymore. There was no sound from Bridget until they reached the coffin, at the top of the aisle, and knelt down. The kneeling was difficult for her, so at first Moira thought her moaning was from physical pain, until it gained a rhythm, and her slow pitiful keening became a soundtrack.
Moira forced herself to look at Maggie’s face. The expression was stern, accusatory—as if she understood now the kind of person Moira was. The look was completely unlike Maggie, who found humor in the worst, most hopeless things. The day of Moira’s divorce hearing, when she felt so broken, Maggie got her laughing about the lawyer’s mismatched suit and the smell of banana coming from his overstuffed briefcase.
Closing her eyes, desperate for the Maggie she knew, Moira recited in silence a prayer that had become meaningless long ago. The tears helped, because they made it difficult to see. Bridget stroked Maggie’s hair. Then she stood up, saying Maggie’s name as if she expected an answer, leaning over her, touching her. Moira didn’t understand who Bridget thought she saw there, what she recognized. She remembered her aunts, keening at her mother’s wake and wondered if she was witnessing in Bridget the last of a breed, a woman not repulsed by the lifeless, not angered by their silence. The hulk in the coffin only made Moira angry, desperately lonely. Maggie had gone, broken their connection, leaving her uncertain and afraid.
Moira put an arm around Bridget, guided her to the back row to sit down. Her sobbing was softer now, but she couldn’t seem to look away from the coffin, as if the dead woman might at any moment agree to put an end to this awful business. Moira wanted to kneel, close her eyes in silence, but there were no kneelers. This was not a church. There would be no rites. It was an artificially chilly little box of a room where Maggie’s handlers had agreed to show something that Bridget could pretend was the person they’d known. For Moira, death hadn’t left behind the slightest reminder of who Maggie was. It had left her nothing.
The door opened behind them, letting in a bit of warm air. It was their brothers Peter and Liam. Moira could see Bridget was happy they’d come, that they too had decided to defy the rules, to do things properly. But where was Conor?
The brothers went directly to the coffin, stood with heads bowed. They were like bookends—the same height, both gray-haired, lean, nearly identical in appearance but destined to remain opposites, one responsible, successful, the other incorrigible, free. They made quick work of it, and as they headed back, Moira looked for signs that seeing Maggie this way had had the same effect on them. But it was impossible to know. Her brothers’ feelings were never clear to her. And their actions, especially Liam’s, had often been so bizarre she couldn’t interpret them as anything other than anger at a world that made sense only for others.
They took seats in the row in front of Moira and Bridget, turning the chairs, their backs to the coffin. Peter put his hand on Bridget’s shoulder, and Moira felt invisible, as if he saw no other grief but Bridget’s. “They might at least have called in an Avon lady,” said Liam, and Moira wondered if he was drunk already.
Bridget let out a sigh of laughter and Moira hoped that having them here would ease things for her.
“That’s Owen for you,” said Bridget.
“He probably got a discount for going with the natural look,” said Liam.
Moira could almost hear Maggie’s voice then, coming back at Liam with something quick and sharp.
“Look who’s talking,” said Peter. “You wouldn’t even spring for coffee this morning.”
“Why should I pay for something that’s supposed to be on Owen’s tab?”
Moira heard deep voices outside. Again the door opened, this time to a parade of male cousins—their sons—most of them born within a single decade. They were all large—and nearly all carpenters, a vanishing breed of union members who could still afford to keep their views narrow and their wives at home. The room filled with a nervous, unpredictable energy. They formed an uneven arch around the coffin, their heads bowed. After a moment, one of them stepped away, then the rest, only a few making the sign of the cross. She was glad to see that her sons had come too. Maggie was their favorite. She would giggle at Easter Mass during the consecration, belch joyously at the Thanksgiving table.
Greetings and exchanges got louder, changed to edgy teasing. Liam’s son, Kevin, almost forty now and burly, imitated Dolan’s nasal greeting, mimicking the undertaker’s stance. A cousin in a faded Giants sweatshirt stood beside him, making comments Moira couldn’t hear as Kevin’s face reddened from suppressed laughter. The room had the closeness of a tiny pub now; they’d stayed beyond last call, emptied their mugs, the walls were ready to absorb some tales. Liam began a story about Maggie.
Their talk filled the gloomy room like a sweet, familiar tune, and for the first time in years Moira felt comforted being with them. Their hair had thinned and their skin sagged now, distorting the faces they’d had when she was a girl, but their voices hadn’t changed.
Dolan, who’d been standing just inside the door, cut the story short as he approached Peter, asking to have a word. They stepped out of the room, and as the door opened Moira heard a voice outside that sounded like Kate’s. Bridget didn’t seem to notice. She was busy describing the time she and Maggie went to the track and found a hundred dollars in the bathroom.
Peter came back inside, Kate and Mary just behind him. Mary was dressed now in a tailored black dress, heels high enough to keep her steps small and halting. Her younger brother walked beside her, his face pale, unreadable. He looked sober, and Moira was relieved. He kept his arm around Mary’s waist, as if they needed to join forces, tell their mother some terrible news. They reached the coffin, and the room hushed.
“Is Conor here?” Moira whispered to Peter.
“Out in the parking lot. Behind the building. He wants to talk to you.”
“Why?” Moira said, her chest tightening.
“I don’t know,” he said, but she didn’t believe him.
“Listen, we have to wrap this up,” Peter said, mostly to Bridget and Liam.
“Wrap this up?” Bridget repeated, spitting the words back, as if he might not understand how blasphemous they were.
He folded his arms across his chest. “Dolan says the okay was for one or two people to be here, not this many. So we’ve got to say our good-byes, okay?”
It wasn’t, at least not with Bridget, who straightened her back and sat rigid at the edge of her chair.
Peter leaned closer to Moira. “Conor is all wound up,” he whispered. “He wants to talk to you.”
Moira tried to read his expression, with no success. She rose and went outside.
Conor stood on the far side of the parking lot behind the building, leaning against their nephew’s truck, “Fagan’s Movers” hand-lettered in metallic green across its side, a shamrock for an apostrophe. His hands were hidden in his coat pockets. “It’s good you did this,” he said when she reached him, though he didn’t move to embrace her.
“It wasn’t right to let them take her away so soon,” she said, searching his face for clues of what was coming. Fatigue rimmed his eyes. He hadn’t shaved and she could see that his whiskers were mostly gray now. “Bridget needed to say good-bye They should have waited for her.”
“For all of us.” Conor’s jaw was rigid, his lips barely moving as he spoke. “I went out to clear my head, get some cigarettes. By the time I got back, even her fuckin’ fingerprints were gone.” He let out a breath, scratching the back of his neck.
“What was the big rush?” said Moira. “I told him we’d be there in an hour.”
“Owen. Fuckin’ Owen was the big rush.” He took his cigarettes out of his jacket and coaxed one from the pack. “Making a scene, saying he couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Kate says he wasn’t in the house when she passed?”
Conor cupped his hands around a match and lit the cigarette. “He wasn’t,” he said, taking a quick drag. “Out walking god knows where, cell phone turned off.”
“Did Maggie know it? That he wasn’t there?”
“I don’t know what she knew by then.”
Moira’s throat tightened. She wished he’d say what he had to say already, call what she’d done whatever name he wanted to give it. She wanted this over with. He could join the ranks of Peter and Liam and Kate, who’d been happy to ostracize her for something they would have celebrated had it succeeded. “So you’ve got something you want to say to me?” She saw this took him off guard. He let his cigarette fall, crushed it into the macadam. When he still didn’t speak, she said, “I’ll save you the trouble, okay? I wanted him dead.”
She was interrupted by shouting from the building. It was Liam, loud and angry: “We’ll decide that. Now get the fuck out of my way.” It didn’t surprise her—Liam spent most of his waking hours out of control—and Conor made nothing of it.
“Moira, what are you talking about?”
“You mean when the truck hit him?”
“Yes, what else?” Moira said, losing patience. She felt as if Conor was playing with her, dodging something. “I let him walk in front of a truck. It’s a safe bet I wanted him dead.”
Conor chuckled under his breath. “Join the crowd.”
Maybe he was offering a dispensation, a way to excuse what she’d done, but that had never worked for Moira. The worst memories she could summon didn’t excuse it. “You knew what happened? All this time you knew?” she said.
“Nobody knew for sure. Nobody really talked about it. We just assumed, I guess.”
“But you never shut me out. The way the others did.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You were in the middle of a divorce. You were a mess.”
Moira stepped closer to the side of the truck and leaned against it.
“So what happened that day?” he said.
“Dad was being a bastard, telling me the separation was messing up the boys. He wasn’t entirely wrong. They were cutting classes, their grades dropping. They quit basketball.” The worry made her shudder even now. “He kept at it.” She stopped herself then, hearing how it must sound to Conor, how unimportant, jibes she could easily have ignored.
“I know how he could be.”
“When we got to the corner, I wanted to cross the street with him to the bus stop, put him on the bus. Bridget was going to be waiting for him. But he insisted he could cross on his own. I think he wanted to make me feel worse for not driving him. But I was late. I had a client.” Moira felt queasy, like she was revisiting a place so changed she might not find her way out this time. “So there he was, with his cane and his dark glasses, passing himself off as needy. He asked if it was okay to cross. The light was green. I just said yes.”
Conor shook his head. “Jesus.”
“Maggie didn’t tell you any of this?”
“No. Only what Dad said at the hospital, after it happened.”
Moira was confused. “What do you mean at the hospital?” Maggie had told her he’d said next to nothing.
“When Maggie and Peter got to the ER, the cop was in his room talking to him,” said Conor. “They had to wait. She said it was torture, because she knew there was at least one woman who noticed you were with him on the corner, waiting to cross. All Maggie cared about was what Dad might tell the cop.”
“So what did he tell him?”
“To go fuck himself, basically.” Conor stopped there, as if the rest might not be necessary, or wise.
But Moira could tell he was holding back. “What else? Did he say something about me.”
Conor hesitated, but not long. “After the cop left. He told Maggie, ‘You can’t count on Moira to get a job done right.’”
Moira felt as if she’d been picked up and spun around, shown things from a different angle, one that made her skin prickly. She placed her hands behind her, flat against the truck, and leaned back. “So he never believed it was an accident?” she said.
“That’s what we called it. Me and Maggie.” She remembered how her sister had grinned when she said it, insisting the word applied not only to what had happened to him but to his role in their lives.
Moira heard someone calling their names. It was Kate, her voice shrill, like someone escaping a fire. She was halfway across the parking lot, heading toward them in a roly-poly rendition of a run.
“What the hell’s going on?” Conor said.
Kate stopped a little ways from them, clutching her sweater, struggling to catch her breath. “You’d better come in,” she said finally, motioning to the building for good measure.
“Are Kevin and Liam going at it again?” Conor asked this without urgency, as if he’d expected it. Altercations between Liam and his son were infrequent now, but only because Kevin rarely attended family functions.
“Has nothing to do with Kevin. Liam’s arguing with Dolan. Bridget is too. You’d better get in there. I’m telling you. They’re getting crazy.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Conor said, clearly not eager to go inside. “Are they all off their meds, or what?”
“I’m just warning you,” Kate said, turning back toward the building’s rear entrance.
“Tell Liam I said to knock it off. I’m coming in,” Conor called after her. He rested heavily again against the truck, put a hand through his hair and let out a sigh of frustration that went back years. “Can I ask you something?”
Moira knew what it would be, but even now she wasn’t sure she had an answer, not one that could make anything right.
“Did you see that truck turning?” His tone was almost casual, as if whatever damage she’d done was to something useless even then.
“No.” She wanted to stop there, but the truth was like a rotten thing, ready to burst. “But I heard it.”
They could hear shouting again. Someone—it had to be Bridget—was screaming. “She’s my sister. Get out of our way!”
“For fuck’s sake,” Conor muttered.
“When did you talk to Maggie about this?” said Moira. She was exasperated with him now, impatient to go back inside and find out what was going on.
He shrugged. “Two weeks ago. She wanted me to talk to you.”
“So you want all the gory details? Is that it? Okay,” she said, hands on her hips. “He smelled like that aftershave he always used. That shit that made me choke.”
“And of cigarettes. He smelled the way he did when we were kids.”
“Moira, stop,” said Conor. “You don’t—”
“He was standing so close it made my skin crawl. And he made that sound, that hiss, the one he’d make when he came after us.”
“You don’t have to explain any of this.”
Maybe she didn’t. Maybe these were details he could have filled in himself. Maybe Conor, like her, couldn’t smell beer on someone’s breath without fearing the night would end in blood. Maybe a dark silhouette in a doorway was enough to convince him he’d done something terrible. “Maggie told you to talk to me about it,? Okay, well, here it is. I’m talking.”
“Not about that.” Conor gave her a furtive glance, and Moira could see he was having a hard time getting the rest out. “Maggie was worried about you. She thought it would help if you knew.”
“Knew what? What the hell are you talking about?”
“How he died.”
“How he died? Everyone knows how he died, eaten up by cancer, abusive to the end.” She never understood how Conor could stand it, taking care of him all those months. She figured he must have had some absurd idea that he could get through to him.
Conor looked past her shoulder and she turned to see Kevin heading toward them, half-running, a crowded ring of jingling keys in his hand. “What’s going on?” said Conor.
Kevin got the truck open and pulled at the knees of his pants as he climbed in. He was wearing a denim shirt and his dark blond hair met the collar softly.
“What’s going on?” said Moira. Kevin had trouble getting the ignition to cooperate.
“Ask your brother,” he told them. “I’m just driving the getaway car.” There was a trace of a grin. He seemed to be enjoying this.
They stepped away from the truck as Kevin revved the engine. He kept the window closed, blocking the questions they shouted at him.
Conor banged on the truck door. “What the fuck is going on?”
Kevin brought down the window as he backed the truck out of the space. His grin was broad, his eyes wet with merriment. “Things may have gone over the edge in there, even for this family.”
He slowed the truck down as it got closer to the entrance of the building, then stopped and backed it up to the double doors. Mary came out of the building with one of her brothers, leaving both doors open behind them, and helped him slide open the back of the truck.
Moira and Conor hurried toward the truck, unable to make sense of what was happening. “Mary,” Moira called, but she went back inside.
“What are they doing?” said Conor.
“Maybe Bridget fainted or something? Maybe they’re taking her to the hospital?”
“Why would they back up a truck for that?”
Before Moira could answer, the coffin broke through the double doors like a great wobbly ship, borne on a tide of uneven shoulders. She couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing, couldn’t let it in. “Oh, my god,” she moaned.
“Holy fuckin’ Christ,” said Conor.
Liam and Maggie’s oldest son carried the front of the coffin on their shoulders, straining from the weight of it, their faces red, their steps small, unsteady. Close behind were Moira’s sons, each bracing the load with both hands. Maggie’s youngest sons had the rear, but the burden seemed too much for them. With no free hand to wipe them, their cheeks glistened in the sun. The pallbearers’ shoes scraped the walkway in stops and starts. The wind tossed their hair, leaving more than one balding scalp exposed, but jaws were set firmly, as if they were ready to tell the grim reaper to fuck off. The green drape that covered Maggie was in disarray, but Liam had an arm across the box, an embrace that kept the coverlet from falling away entirely.
As they reached the truck, Moira and Conor could hear Peter trying to reason with his brother. But Liam ignored him, positioning the coffin so they could slide it into the back of the truck.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Conor screamed.
“You can’t do this!” Peter shouted. “Are you out of your minds?”
“This can’t be happening,” whispered Moira.
Bridget and Kate stood outside the building now, and Conor asked them what was going on.
“He was trying to put us out,” said Bridget. “He refused to listen to reason.”
“Dolan,” Kate said to Conor. “She means Dolan.”
“We know who she means,” said Peter.
“We’re just taking her with us for a while,” said Bridget, waving her hand toward the coffin, as if this were no more than an impromptu family outing.
“Taking her?” said Moira. “Taking her where?”
“Maggie deserves a proper wake,” said Bridget, more firmly this time.
Dolan was at the door now. “I’ve spoken to the police,” he said.
Liam headed for the front of the truck, telling everyone to hurry it up. “We’re going to Mary’s place,” he said.
“He called the police!” said Kate. “For Chrissake!”
“You crazy fuck!” Conor shouted at Liam. “This was your idea, wasn’t it?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Bridget, “but that’s no way to speak in Maggie’s presence.”
“Well, I don’t hear her complaining about it,” said Conor.
“That’s a fine thing to say,” Bridget hissed. “And it was not Liam’s idea at all. It was mine.” She straightened the strap of her bag, like a shoulder holster.
“Come with me, Aunt Bridget,” said Mary, taking her arm. “We have to go.”
Bridget pulled free of her. “I’m going with Maggie.”
“You’re not going to be able to climb into the truck,” Mary told her. “Go in the car.”
“I’m not going in the car. I’m going with Maggie. I’m not leaving her alone.” Bridget’s face was flushed, and Moira half-expected her keening to start up again.
“I’ll go with Maggie,” said Moira. She wanted Bridget to see that she could do this, that she knew how important it was.
Bridget held her ground, trying Moira’s patience, then muttered something Moira couldn’t hear. She approached the truck, but then stopped, shaking her head, as if its size was an insult she couldn’t counter. “All right then,” she said. “Moira will go with her.”
Conor helped Moira into the truck, then jumped in behind her.
“This is against the law,” Dolan said to Peter. “I’m warning you. This is against the law and I’ve called the police.”
“Get in already,” Kevin called to Peter from the driver’s seat.
“I understand,” Peter told Dolan. “I understand. Just give me a little while to straighten this out. I promise you I’ll get this under control.”
Moira doubted control was a possibility. Inside the truck, footsteps pounded into the metal floor and echoed off the walls as the cousins scrambled for places to sit. Bridget, Kate, and Mary waved to them, calling instructions about the best route to take and where to put the casket when they got there. “The family room,” insisted Bridget. “It’s got the double doors to the yard.”
“I’m warning you,” shouted Dolan. “This is against the law.”
“It’s probably against a dozen laws, not to mention the health code,” muttered Conor. “Just get in, for fuck’s sake.”
Peter jumped into the truck and helped Conor pull down the door.
Furniture pads were rolled up along the sides of the truck and dollies and ropes hung from hooks everywhere. Moira sat at the foot of the coffin, on some kind of tool case, knees together, legs pulled to one side, so she wouldn’t have to make contact. Her sons were an arm’s length from the other end of the coffin, seated with their cousins, broad shoulders squeezed together, on a long bench set against the cab of the truck. Her sons’ lips were pursed, their eyes squinting, and she wondered if they were trying not to cry. She thought of how effortlessly Maggie loved them.
Conor got down on his haunches beside her, one hand on the coffin to keep it still. Peter crouched on the other side of it, doing the same. “Okay, we’re good,” Conor called to Kevin, and the truck pulled away. Her youngest son caught her eye, the way he did when he was little, when he wasn’t sure she’d approve, so she nodded, to let him know that this was right, this crazy thing the family was doing.
From the cab of the truck, Liam called to Mary as she headed toward her car. “I thought you were taking Aunt Bridget?”
“She’s with Aunt Kate. I promised Aunt Bridget I’d stop at a bakery,” she said, waving her cell phone at them. “I’ll call you.”
Conor laughed at this and Peter mumbled something profane. There was nothing for a moment but the rumble of the tires gaining speed, the jerky motion as the truck turned the corner. The dollies and ropes rattled in place above their heads. Conor and Peter placed both hands on the coffin. Moira wanted to straighten the green cloth but couldn’t bring herself to touch it.
“So do we need to stop for beer?” Liam shouted.
Moira hoped he was joking, but with Liam, she could never be sure. She imagined the truck pulling up to a liquor store, Liam getting out for beer while the rest of them listened for sirens.
“No. We’re good, Uncle Liam,” Maggie’s oldest laughed. “I’ve got plenty.”
Out the window, patches of evergreens relieved the long stretches of barren trees, and Moira thought of Christmas, remembered the fabulous smell even their scrawniest tree gave off, of how Maggie, once she started working, made sure they each had something waiting underneath.
Moira wasn’t sure who started it, the pounding beat, but it was Liam who started the singing.
We’re on the one road
Sharing the one load
We’re on the road to God knows where
It was a favorite of their father’s. She’d heard it last at Mary’s wedding, one of those rousing, relentless thumpers that got even the groom’s father up to dance—a board of a man, barely capable of tapping his feet. Moira’s sons and their cousins joined in the roaring chorus.
We’re on the one road
It may be the wrong road
But we’re together now who cares.
North men, South men, comrades all
Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Donegal
We’re on the one road swinging along
Singing a soldier’s song
Kevin maneuvered the makeshift hearse helter-skelter through shortcuts of bumpy back roads and narrow lanes lined with rusting mailboxes and broken fences as their voices, compressed in the crowded truck, swelled raw and defiant, changing the complexion of the day. Moira didn’t have to imagine what Maggie would think of all this. She’d have been singing the loudest, making a joke of whatever morbid rules threatened to serve death up without relief, without humor.
“He used to sing this when he was sick,” Conor whispered. “The son-of-a-bitch could hardly breathe, but he’d try to sing.”
Moira wasn’t surprised. Maggie and Kate told her he’d sing to their mother when she went into labor. Moira believed it was his only constant, the thing that softened him. “What were you about to say back there, in the parking lot?” she asked Conor, taking care that only he could hear.
Conor busied himself straightening the green coverlet, although there was no need. Peter had already done it.
“How did he die?” she said, pressing him. “It wasn’t the cancer?”
“No,” said Conor.
The voices filled the space. Peter had joined in, his robust tenor floating separate, like cream, above the other rugged harmonies. They pounded the beat into the floor, drummed it into the plain wooden box, as Moira listened hard, waiting for the rest.
Night is darkest just before the dawn
From dissention Ireland is reborn
Soon we’ll be united Irishmen
Make our land a nation once again.
“He asked me to help him,” said Conor. “So I helped him. That’s how he died.” Moira’s stomach loosened. Frightening images came. A pillow over his gray bony face? A final pointless struggle? She wanted to know, but it would be awful to hear. Still, eventually Conor would need to tell it all, just as she had, and she’d need to be the one to listen this time.
Moira looked at Conor’s hands, bracing the coffin against the jostling of the uneven roads. She put her hand on his because that was all she could think of to do, the only way she could let him know she’d try to help him with this, the way Maggie would have, keep them both anchored, keep them from rising, weightless, into the brittle air, from separating little by little into countless, aimless pieces.
Mary Ann McGuigan’s fiction has appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other journals. Her collection Pieces includes stories named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Mary Ann’s young-adult novels, about teens trying to make sense of the chaos grown-ups leave in their wake, are ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her novel Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award.
A Wake for Maggie Fagan" first appeared in Pieces, published in 2017 by Bottom Dog Press.
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