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Syndic Literary Journal

Fourth of July 1968


Roger Netzer


If I cleaned up the church fast enough, I might still make it to the fireworks on time.  Provided the threatened rain did not cancel them. 

Most afternoons I would be glad to serve at a funeral.  The deceased’s family almost always tipped.  But on the Fourth of July?  Debbie Carr and I had a plan to meet at the fairground.  I was hoping to kiss her while the rockets burst overhead, like we had done at the seventh-grade dance last week.

True, this particular Mass held unusual interest.  The corpse was someone I knew a little.   

Ten years senior to me, Brendan Coyne had cut a dashing figure in our little high school.  Although not particularly handsome or smart or athletic, a big appetite for girls bought his personality to life.

The girls liked him back.  Once when Holly Hollinger was babysitting, Brendan had turned up at my house on his motorcycle.  After Holly put me to bed, I crept half-way down the stairs.  Sure enough, there she was on Brendan’s lap.

Although making out was not one of my interests — I was six — it was worth spying on.  But then, as Brendan turned his face up to Holly’s puffed lips, he looked straight at me.  

I was summoned to the easy chair they occupied.  Holly showed me her braces-enhanced smile, and did not budge from her perch.  Brendan good-humoredly offered me a quarter to go back up.  So I did, but then came right down again, on account of he had not demanded that I stay in my room.

I grinned to show I had outwitted him, and also to join their mischief as an accomplice.  Brendan’s friendly manner did not change.  He reached

into his pocket and dispensed another quarter.  This time I honored the bargain and went to bed.  

Now I was twelve, it was 1968, and Brendan was dead.   So were Martin Luther King  (shot in the face three months before) and Bobby Kennedy (one month; back of the head).   Just before Bobby’s murder, another man who had begun to interest me was severely wounded when someone shot him in the abdomen point-blank.  They still were not sure whether Andy Warhol would recover.

Getting shot was something Brendan hadn’t experienced and now never would, even though he had served as crewman on a PBR in the Mekong Delta.  On leave from the Navy that  June, Brendan could be seen tearing around town on his motorcycle.  He looked cool in the leather jacket, yet for some reason I did not think about, he had become a pitiable comic figure to me.  Maybe it was because he was in the service, a transformation that in 1968 was looking less and less like advancement.

It was the motorcycle that killed him.  He was coming down Fleet Hill   in the rain.  The black asphalt was slick, and Brendan swung his cycle into the arc of a descending curve.  Despite the cleansing downpour, a rumor circulated that they had to hose his ‘splattered’ brains off the road.     I had gotten a look at Brendan before they closed the casket.  Makeup had gone a ways toward filling out his gaunt, pitted cheeks, the feature that, in life, gave his countenance its character — that and the nose, which was handsome but too big for his face.  The mortician had worked up a good likeness, except of course that whenever I had run across Brendan Coyne in life, his blue eyes had been open.  You could not tell by looking into the coffin that the back of Brendan’s head, like Bobby Kennedy’s, had taken the traumatic impact.  

The coffin, which they had shut when Mass began, would never be reopened.  Now and forever, the back of Brendan’s head would only be imagined, not seen.  God alone could see the invisible.  Brendan’s family,

along with the priest and me and the rest of those gathered, had just finished affirming that out loud.

Now the priest swung  the chains of the incense burner over the coffin, sending a pungent cloud of acrid smoke in every direction.  It was me who handed the complicated apparatus — called a thurible — to Father Rooney and took it back from him when the incense had done its job, whatever that was.  

It was time for everyone but me to leave for the cemetery.  They wheeled the coffin out and the congregation followed in silence, except for Brendan’s sobbing sisters and mom.  Once the church had emptied,  I got to work snuffing out the altar candles using a  brass pole with a conical cup attached to the far end, open side facing down.  This was my favorite chore as altar boy, both because of the height I could reach and also on account of the feeling in my hands when I pulled on the snuffer to make the big candle enter it and be smothered.

The empty nave answered my steps as I turned out the lights.  I washed the cruets in the vestry sink, stashed the half-full wine bottle in the cupboard, took off my white surplice and black cassock, and hung them in the corridor hidden behind the altar.

All that remained was to extinguish the smouldering incense.  When the rain started, the ecclesiastical smoke became, or seemed to become, even more pungent.  The rain accelerated suddenly and began lashing the vestry’s stained-glass windows.  Shit.  There went the fireworks.



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