“I”m sorry.” Shadow remembered the whispering thump the coin had made as it landed on Laura”s casket.
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“Sorry or not, I”m damned and I”m doomed.” He wiped his nose and his eyes on his sleeves, muddying his face into strange patterns.
Shadow squeezed Mad Sweeney”s upper arm in an awkward male gesture.
“Twere better I had never been conceived,” said Mad Sweeney, at length. Then he looked up. “The fellow you gave it to. Would he give it back?”
“It”s a woman. And I don”t know where she is. But no, I don”t believe she would.”
Sweeney sighed, mournfully. “When I was but a young pup,” he said, “there was a woman I met, under the stars, who let me play with her bubbies, and she told me my fortune. She told me that I would be undone and abandoned west of the sunset, and that a dead woman”s bauble would seal my fate. And I laughed and poured more barley wine and played with her bubbies some more, and I kissed her full on her pretty lips. Those were the good days-the first of the gray monks had not yet come to our land, nor had they ridden the green sea to westward. And now.” He stopped, midsentence. His head turned and he focused on Shadow. “You shouldn”t trust him,” he said, reproachfully.
“Wednesday. You mustn”t trust him.”
“I don”t have to trust him. I work for him.”
“Do you remember how to do it?”
“What?” Shadow felt he was having a conversation with half a dozen different people. The self-styled leprechaun sputtered and jumped from persona to persona, from theme to theme, as if the remaining clusters of brain cells were igniting, flaming, and then going out for good.
“The coins, man. The coins. I showed you, remember?” He raised two fingers to his face, stared at them, then pulled a gold coin from his mouth. He tossed the coin to Shadow, who stretched out a hand to catch it, but no coin reached him.
“I was drunk,” said Shadow. “I don”t remember.”
Sweeney stumbled across the road. It was light now and the world was white and gray. Shadow followed him. Sweeney walked in a long, loping stride, as if he were always falling, but his legs were there to stop him, to propel him into another stumble. When they reached the bridge, he held onto the bricks with one hand, and turned and said, “You got a few bucks? I don”t need much. Just enough for a ticket out of this place. Twenty bucks will do me fine. Just a lousy twenty?”
“Where can you go on a twenty dollar bus ticket?” asked Shadow.
“I can get out of here,” said Sweeney. “I can get away before the storm hits. Away from a world in which opiates have become the religion of the masses. Away from.” He stopped, wiped his nose on the side of his hand, then wiped his hand on his sleeve.
Shadow reached into his jeans, pulled out a twenty and passed it to Sweeney. “Here.”
Sweeney crumpled it up and pushed it deep into the breast pocket of his oil-stained denim jacket, under the sew-on patch showing two vultures on a dead branch and, beneath them, the words PATIENCE MY ASS! I”M GOING TO KILL SOMETHING! He nodded. “That”ll get me where I need to go,” he said.
He leaned against the bricks, fumbled in his pockets until he found the unfinished stub of cigarette he had abandoned earlier. He lit it carefully, trying not to burn his fingers or his beard. “I”ll tell you something,” he said, as if he had said nothing that day. “You”re walking on gallows ground, and there”s a rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder waiting for your eyes, and the gallows tree has deep roots, for it stretches from heaven to hell, and our world is only the branch from which the rope is swinging.” He stopped. “I”ll rest here a spell,” he said, touching down, his back resting against the black brickwork.
“Good luck,” said Shadow.
“Hell, I”m f**ked,” said Mad Sweeney. “Whatever. Thanks.”
Shadow walked back toward the town. It was 8:00 A.M. and Cairo was waking. He glanced back to the bridge and saw Sweeney”s pale face, striped with tears and dirt, watching him go.
It was the last time Shadow saw Mad Sweeney alive.
The brief winter days leading up to Christmas were like moments of light between the winter darknesses, and they fled fast in the house of the dead.
It was the twenty-third of December, and Jacquel and Ibis”s played host to a wake for Lila Goodchild. Bustling women filled the kitchen with tubs and with saucepans, and with skillets and with Tupperware, and the deceased was laid out in her casket in the funeral home”s front room with hothouse flowers around her. There was a table on the other side of the room laden high with coleslaw and beans and cornmeal hush puppies and chicken and ribs and black-eyed peas, and by midafternoon the house was filled with people weeping and laughing and shaking hands with the minister, everything being quietly organized and overseen by the sober-suited Messrs. Jacquel and Ibis. The burial would be on the following morning.
When the telephone in the hall rang (it was Bakelite and black and had an honest-to-goodness rotary dial on the front), Mr. Ibis answered. Then he took Shadow aside. “That was the police,” he said. “Can you make a pickup?”
“Be discreet. Here.” He wrote down an address on a slip of paper, then passed it to Shadow, who read the address, written in perfect copperplate handwriting, and then folded it up and put it in his pocket. “There”ll be a police car,” Ibis added.
Shadow went out back and got the hearse. Both Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis had made a point, individually, of explaining that, really, the hearse should only be used for funerals, and they had a van that they used to collect bodies, but the van was being repaired, had been for three weeks now, and could he be very careful with the hearse? Shadow drove carefully down the street. The snowplows had cleaned the roads by now, but he was comfortable driving slowly. It seemed right to go slow in a hearse, although he could barely remember the last time he had seen a hearse on the streets. Death had vanished from the streets of America, thought Shadow; now it happened in hospital rooms and in ambulances. We must not startle the living, thought Shadow. Mr. Ibis had told him that they move the dead about in some hospitals on the lower level of apparently empty covered gurneys, the deceased traveling their own paths in their own covered ways.
A dark blue police cruiser was parked on a side street, and Shadow pulled up the hearse behind it. There were two cops inside the cruiser, drinking their coffee from thermos tops. They had the engine running to keep warm. Shadow tapped on the side window.
“I”m from the funeral home,” said Shadow.
“We”re waiting for the medical examiner,” said the cop. Shadow wondered if it was the same man who had spoken to him under the bridge. The cop, who was black, got out of the car, leaving his colleague in the driver”s seat, and walked Shadow back to a Dumpster. Mad Sweeney was sitting in the snow beside the Dumpster. There was an empty green bottle in his lap, a dusting of snow and ice on his face and baseball cap and shoulders. He didn”t blink.
“Dead wino,” said the cop.
“Looks like it,” said Shadow.
“Don”t touch anything yet,” said the cop. “Medical examiner should be here any time now. You ask me, the guy drank himself into a stupor and froze his ass.”
“Yes,” agreed Shadow. “That”s certainly what it looks like.”
He squatted down and looked at the bottle in Mad Sweeney”s lap. Jameson Irish whiskey: a twenty-dollar ticket out of this place. A small green Nissan pulled up, and a harassed middle-aged man with sandy hair and a sandy mustache got out, walked over. He touched the corpse”s neck. He kicks the corpse, thought Shadow, and if it doesn”t kick him back…
“He”s dead,” said the medical examiner. “Any ID?”
“He”s a John Doe,” said the cop.
The medical examiner looked at Shadow. “You working for Jacquel and Ibis?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Shadow.
“Tell Jacquel to get dentals and prints for ID and identity photos. We don”t need a post. He should just draw blood for toxicology. Got that? Do you want me to write it down for you?”
“No,” said Shadow. “It”s fine. I can remember.”
The man scowled fleetingly, then pulled a business card from his wallet, scribbled on it, and gave it to Shadow, saying, “Give this to Jacquel.” Then the medical examiner said “Merry Christmas” to everyone, and was on his way. The cops kept the empty bottle.
Shadow signed for the John Doe and put it on the gurney. The body was pretty stiff, and Shadow couldn”t get it out of a sitting position. He fiddled with the gurney, and found out that he could prop up one end. He strapped John Doe, sitting, to the gurney and put him in the back of the hearse, facing forward. Might as well give him a good ride. He closed the rear curtains. Then he drove back to the funeral home.
The hearse was stopped at a traffic light when Shadow heard a voice croak, “And it”s a fine wake I”ll be wanting, with the best of everything, and beautiful women shedding tears and their clothes in their distress, and brave men lamenting and telling fine tales of me in my great days.”
“You”re dead, Mad Sweeney,” said Shadow. “You take what you”re given when you”re dead.”
“Aye, that I shall,” sighed the dead man sitting in the back of the hearse. The junkie whine had vanished from his voice now, replaced with a resigned flatness, as if the words were being broadcast from a long, long way away, dead words being sent out on a dead frequency. The light turned green and Shadow put his foot gently down on the gas.
“But give me a wake, nonetheless,” said Mad Sweeney. “Set me a place at table and give me a stinking drunk wake tonight. You killed me, Shadow. You owe me that much.”
“I never killed you, Mad Sweeney,” said Shadow. It”s twenty dollars, he thought, for a ticket out of here. “It was the drink and the cold killed you, not me.”
There was no reply, and there was silence in the car for the rest of the journey. After he parked at the back, Shadow wheeled the gurney out of the hearse and into the mortuary. He manhandled Mad Sweeney onto the embalming table as if he were hauling a side of beef.
He covered the John Doe with a sheet and left him there, with the paperwork beside him. As he went up the back stairs he thought he heard a voice, quiet and muted, like a radio playing in a distant room, which said, “And what would drink or cold be doing killing me, a leprechaun of the blood? No, it was you losing the little golden sun killed me, Shadow, killed me dead, as sure as water”s wet and days are long and a friend will always disappoint you in the end.”
Shadow wanted to point out to Mad Sweeney that that was a kind of bitter philosophy, but he suspected it was the being dead that made you bitter.
He went upstairs to the main house, where a number of middle-aged women were putting Saran Wrap on casserole dishes, popping the Tupperware tops onto plastic pots of cooling fried potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
Mr. Goodchild, the husband of the deceased, had Mr. Ibis against a wall, and was telling him how he knew none of his children would come out to pay their respects to their mother. The apple don”t fall far from the tree, he told anyone who would listen to him. The apple don”t fall far from the tree.
That evening Shadow laid an extra place at the table. He put a glass at each place, and a bottle of Jameson Gold in the middle of the table. It was the most expensive Irish whiskey they sold at the liquor store. After they ate (a large platter of leftovers left for them by the women) Shadow poured a generous tot into each glass-his, Ibis”s, Jacque”s, and, Mad Sweeney”s.