I grew up in a gin mill. My family owned Benny’s Grill and Lounge on Genesee Street in Buffalo, New York. I thought all kids grew up like me. My younger sister and I visited the bar frequently since it was down the street from where I lived.
Even though Bailey would be considered a busy street even by today’s standards, it was always filled with lots of people sitting on porches, talking across front yards, and kids playing on the sidewalks or in the driveways.
Narrow two-family homes nestled closely together, separated by narrow one car driveways, sat only feet from the sidewalk. A narrow strip of weed-studded grass separated the sidewalk from Bailey Avenue.
The back yards seemed so large when I was growing up. It was only years later when I visited the old house that I realized how small the yard actually was, but at the time, it was big enough for us kids. We had a chain-linked fence around the yard and it was grassed with a small flower garden in the back near the garage. That was another thing. We had a large two-car garage even though we didn’t own a car. It was used mostly for storage. Boxes, yard tools, and garbage cans littered the cracked concrete floors. My dad hung a rope and a wooden seated swing from the frame in the center of the garage door. The seat was made from a scrap of wood found in a pile in the corner of the garage under a small clouded glass window that strained to let any sunlight in. The rafters were filled with cob webs, dust, and the smell of old wood. My mom strung a clothesline across the yard. The ends were knotted to the corner of the back porch and pulled diagonally across the yard to the corner of the garage. Wooded clothes pins were piled in a semi-circular, duck clothe pouch, which was hung from a metal hook on the clothesline. The pouch could be pushed along the line as the clothes were clipped to the creamy woven rope line. Crisp white sheets were held by four clothes pins to flap freely in the breeze.
Laughing, my sister and I would run through the sheets, holding our hands up and pushing the fabric over our heads. Mom would stand on the back porch and yell at us to stop dirtying her sheets. We never noticed that our grubby hands were leaving smears of dusty clay and mud all over the lower edges of those clean white sheets. My sister and I would stop short and look with fear at mom. We would say nothing – not a peep. “Do you hear me,” she would snap and we would nod. “Then go pay and not by my sheets!” Off we would go to see what else we could get into.
Our neighborhood was filled with lots of kids, but near my house, lived my best friend, Michael. Young as we were, we always managed to get into some kind of trouble. Nothing serious. Just normal kid stuff.
My house was next door to Tehan’s Funeral Home. The house was a dark ruddy brown colored brick with a large sign across the front to the left of front door identifying Mr. Tehan’s building as a funeral home. The windows were long and shrouded in winter white sheers, which I am sure limited the amount of sunlight into the room where the body was waked. Mr. Tehan was an older gentleman, but everyone was older when you were a kid. He was tall with long thin fingers. His face was clean shaven and his dark hair was peppered with grey. He stayed to himself most of the time. I only saw him when he was “working.”
Mr. Tehan would stand in front of the funeral parlor and line up all the cars for the procession on Bailey Avenue. Then he would carefully attach little white flags with flue lettering to the front fender of each car adjusting the flag so that when the car was moving, the word “FUNERAL” printed on the flag could be read.
The black ominous hearse would be parked in the driveway so when the pallbearers came out the side door, they could slip the coffin into the back of the hearse without a lot of lookers. That black hearse was so shiny you could see your face in the side panel. I saw a lot of funerals living next door, but I had never been to one. So I guess I was curious about what really was happening inside Mr. Tehan’s funeral parlor.
Michael kept prodding me to take a look inside to see. He said they cut open the bodies and put them back together before they are seen by family and friends. I said, “That’s crazy. Why would Mr. Tehan do that?”
“Because he takes out all the insides and stuffs them, so they don’t look dead,” he explained. “Haven’t you even been to a funeral?” Michael asked me.
“No,” I said barely above a whisper. I hesitated. “Well, I don’t believe you. I think you’re joking!”
“I am not! It’s true. I saw it myself!”
“Where?” I challenged him. Michael always thought he knew everything.
“In Mr. Tehan’s basement.”
I stood there with my mouth wide open. “In Mr. Tehan’s basement?!” I gasped.
“Yes, I saw it. Do you want to look in his basement? I bet there’s a body down there right now.”
“Show me,” I said. I figured Michael would back down. Surely Mr. Tehan did not keep bodies in his basement.
On the side of Mr. Tehan’s house was a vent with a fan, which pulled air into the basement. Michael and I crept up the driveway, looking over our shoulders making sure no one saw us. He pointed to the vent. I hesitated. Did I really want to see? Did I really want to know if Mr. Tehan had bodies in his basement?
“What’s wrong?” Michael asked. “Chicken!” He paused. You’re chicken!” he emphasized in his whisper.
“I am not!” I snapped back equally quiet.
Michael motioned for me to follow. Gingerly, I methodically placed one foot in front of the other, brining me closer to the window next. The gravel that peppered the concrete driveway crunched under my feet, the sound magnified by the silence around me. In the background, I could hear a car whooshing past the driveway. I looked behind me just to be sure no one was there.
Michael was already at the window vent, stooping, his eyes fixed on whatever was happening in Mr. Tehan’s basement. “Come on!” his lips moved, but no sound was heard, only my footsteps cautiously approaching.
This was it. It was what I wanted to see – what I wanted to know. What happens when you die?
I stood next to Michael, my heart pounding. He reached up and pulled me down, his eyes riveted to the activity in the basement. “Will you look at that!” he whispered.
I slowly turned my head, my eyes wide. There on a metal table by the body of a man. His body looked firm and white like the paste we used in art class. Draped across his middle covering the private parts was a white towel. I stared. I couldn’t see his face. It was blocked by a shelf that jutted out from the wall under the window. A blinding white light hanging from the basement ceiling gave an unearthly brightness to the body. His arms laid next to his body, pale and soft. His hairless chest lay exposed to the harsh light.
With his back to the window vent, a man sat in blue scrubs, his delicate hands covered in these plastic gloves. I could see the hair crushed on his long slender fingers, his knuckles protruding through the opaque material. Next to the man’s body stood a cold-looking metal table with surgical instruments. They glimmered in the bright light. The man picked on of the instruments up. The tip was long and curved, like a hook. My eyes widened. He learned over the man and inserted the hook into his throat. I held my breath. Reaching over to the metal table, the man selected a short bladed knife, repositioned himself, and sliced through the sallow skin like butter. The skin began to separate revealing raw meat. I gasped loud enough to be heard by the man in the blue scrubs.
Suddenly he turned and glared up at me through the vent. His edge of his glasses steamed as his hot breathe slipped up through the mask covering his mouth and obscuring his identity.
“Come on,” Michael shouted. He grabbed at my arm. I didn’t move. My eyes were filled with the dead man’s chest cavity.
“You, kids, get out of here!” the man in the blue scrubs growled.
His deep voice pulled me from within myself. I jumped up and raced down the driveway after Michael. I heard the vent slam shut. I never went back for another look.