“To bake a cake or have a baby,
With the taste of tar in your mouth
To wash clothes or fix supper
With the taste of tar in your mouth
Ah, but the grand funerals…”
The abandoned steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio are overgrown with tangled weeds and laced with barbed wire. A place once so defined by those hulking, smoke-spewing mills that housewives didn’t mind sweeping the soot off their front porches (not too much anyway) because it meant the men were working. Until that day in 1977 when the men arrived to work to find the mills padlocked and America’s backbone snapped.
So this one time one-industry town runs on multiple hustles now: the flower shop sells used furniture, Aunt Linda’s good broach, some dusty bars of Daffins chocolates (leftover from the school fundraiser) and the few wilting roses on display. The woman next door leaves her phone number on the whiteboard by the register, in case you want to buy one of her blueberry pies. She babysits too. Her son will cut your grass.
I’m here for a funeral. I never knew “Pall Mall Nana”, even though I’ve been dating her grandson Paul for years. I had only seen her picture; a steely-eyed woman smoking a Pall Mall with one hand, a long boney finger pointing disapprovingly at some unseen hooligan with the other.
A Youngstown funeral in early January is not a recipe for rosy memories. Dingy, dirty snow, deflated plastic Santas, and boarded up shops under grey skies. We drive past a church with a Nativity Scene, and notice that the Baby Jesus is missing. Paul points out his father’s barbershop. His barber pole was stolen last week. Maybe it will turn up for sale at the flower shop, along with the Baby Jesus.
We approach his parents’ ranch-style house, festooned with sagging string of Christmas lights that are half-lit. Paul wonders aloud where all the trees on this street went. There used to be trees. But that was a long time ago. Back when there were jobs. Somehow when the jobs left, so did the trees.
Opening the front door, we find his sisters on the sofa, scattered friends and relatives sitting on folding chairs, cross-legged on the floor, and wandering in and out of the kitchen. His father Tom sits in a recliner, eyes locked on the T.V. He nods hello, and points at the two local news anchors saying, “Nobody’s gotten the Queen of Hearts yet.”
Paul’s mom Connie rolls her eyes as she hugs her son. “Your dad’s obsessed with the Queen of Hearts.”
“What’s that?” he asks.
“Oh, it’s this stupid gambling thing at some crappy bar. Raffle tickets are a buck a piece, and they lay out numbered deck of cards. Face down. So if they pick your ticket, you tell ‘em which number card you want. If your number is the Queen of Hearts, you win.”
“The jackpot is up to a million bucks now,” Paul’s dad chimes in. “Nobody’s won in 32 weeks.”
Connie thrusts a thumb in her husband’s direction. “So of course this one keeps buying tickets, like a moron.” She twists her head. “You know you’re never gonna win that money, don’t you?”
“You can’t win if you don’t play,” he says, running his finger on the split seam of his chair.
Connie sighs. “Maybe it’s in the blood. Couple years back we inherited a chest of drawers from his Uncle Joe after he died. The top drawer was filled with losing lottery tickets from the past 35 years.”
Paul’s younger sister Marie points at the dog, giggles and says,
“Watch Rocky. He likes to hump Zoe.”
We all turn our attention to the beige mutt, who is furiously banging away at the stuffed Sesame Street character Zoe.
“That’s his girlfriend,” says Marie. “He does it all the time. Look–he’s panting!”
Connie frowns. “Rocky! Stop it.” She looks at Paul. “Zoe is my inner child. I saw her on sale at Target and something about her reminded me of being a little girl.”
Zoe stares up at the ceiling with her bulbous eyes. Her mouth is fixed in a perma-smile, unfazed by Rocky’s slobbery humping.
“Took me back to more innocent times, you know?” Connie says. “So I bought her. Only $7.99. Now my pervert dog is molesting my inner child.”
Everyone laughs and it feels like a party. The only hint that we’ve gathered together because someone has died is when we follow Connie into the kitchen. The counter is covered with mismatched cookware from neighborhood homes. They’re full of comfort food: pineapple upside-down cake, cheesy hamburger and macaroni casserole, chocolate sheet cake, sausage and peppers. The death buffet.
I take a seat at the kitchen table. Bored with molesting Connie’s bargain-priced inner child, Rocky joins us. He sits next to me, tongue out, tail wagging.
Paul’s mom smiles sadly. “That was Nana’s chair. She used to feed him little treats when I wasn’t looking. Thought I didn’t know. He’s probably expecting a piece of bacon from you.”
I shift in the chair, feeling uncomfortable. It’s as though I am sitting on her ghost. The scent of her Pall Malls hasn’t been aired out of the house yet, and with everyone sharing stories about her life, her presence looms large.
Plus, I have no bacon.
Connie starts chopping up more food, even though we clearly don’t need any. Waving a butcher knife around she says, “Now I get why we were supposed to stay in this house. We were gonna sell it, you know. But now I know we needed to stay here for Nana. She loved it here. Yinz don’t know how special it is to take care of your mother like that. On that last day, I was massaging her legs with cream, trying to get her circulation going and I could see them turning blue. Her skinny little legs were turning blue in my hands.”
We’re silent until Paul’s other sister Jen grabs a hunk of pineapple cake and says, “We should bury her with a pack of Pall Malls. Like the ancient Egyptians. Her favorite cigarettes for the afterlife.”
“Are you kidding?” says Paul, grabbing a beer from the fridge. “No way. She’d be pissed off that we wasted a perfectly good pack of smokes.”
“Remember when Nana told Uncle Bobby’s friend she’d slit him from his privates to his nose?” asks Marie, leaning against the doorframe to the kitchen.
“How about when she said Uncle Bobby’s taste in women is a taste for shit”? says Jen.
“Ask me no damn questions, I’ll tell you no damn lies,” says Paul, imitating Pall Mall Nana’s gravely voice. He puts down his beer and reaches up to the bag of Franzia that has been removed from its box. It’s resting limply on the top of the fridge, like a colostomy bag. He squeezes some warm white wine into a jelly glass for me.
“Here’s to Pall Mall Nana.”
The next day at the funeral, Paul’s mom is furious. For one thing, the florist screwed up. There are too many lilies and not enough carnations. Connie is getting headache from the sickly sweet smell. For another, she’d requested modern music for the service. Something lively, something up tempo. Something you might hear on Youngstown’s Y103 radio station. “That’s the kind of woman she was. She was a free spirit!” Connie says.
“Mom, she wouldn’t have even noticed the music,” says Paul. “When did she ever talk about music?”
“Well, she was my mother and she wouldn’t have wanted this boring elevator music, I’ll tell you that much. Hell, she barely ever set foot in an elevator.”
Watching mourners enter the front door Marie says, “Yes she did. Remember when she worked at that office after Youngstown Sheet & Tube shut down?”
Connie waves her hand dismissively, her hodgepodge collection of bracelets jangling. “Marie, I don’t wanna hear Nana’s work history right now.”
“Do elevators even have music anymore?” asks Paul.
“Uh oh. Look who’s here,” says Marie.
Connie glances over to see family members no one wants to acknowledge as family entering the funeral parlor. There is a stench that clings to them. No one wants to acknowledge the stench either, but it’s there. It’s a pungent combination of fast food, unwashed hair, and some dirty old car that asks far too much from the ancient air freshener. But at least it breaks up the scent of lilies.
They’ve brought an aluminum vat of meatballs too.
Jen heads them off at the pass and escorts a tiny, bird-like woman over Connie. Holding out the meatballs, the woman says, “Hi Connie. Where do you want me to put these?”
Connie makes no attempt to accept her offering. “Hi Angie. Just put them over there.” Connie points to a random table, her jangling bracelets commanding authority. When Angie’s out of earshot she whispers, “I can’t believe she come up to me with those meatballs. Why did she bring meatballs to a funeral parlor? What the hell am I supposed to do with those meatballs right now?”
Jen leans in, her eyes bloodshot from crying and too much warm Franzia the night before, “Well mom, you didn’t invite them over last night. And you decided not to have everybody over to the house today. You confused them. They had to give you meatballs. Someone died. They don’t know what to do if they can’t give you meatballs. That’s what they do.”
Above the mellow sound of elevator music is the death rattle cough of life-long smokers and locals who grew up breathing in air polluted by smokestacks. The hacking and clearing of throats punctuates conversations about upcoming weddings, lost jobs, new babies.
Pall Mall Nana’s casket is open and it’s as though she were listening in too. People walk up to pay their respects. Some make the sign of the cross. Paul’s other grandmother, Peggy, leans in to give her a kiss. One burly guy, about 35-years-old and 250 pounds, falls to his knees and starts sobbing like a child. Great, heaving, gulping wails. His hardened face is glistening with tears and his voice is hoarse as he cries, “I took the money from your purse, Nana. I took that 40 dollars. You always knew but you never said nothing. I’m sorry. I love you so much, Nana.”
The funeral wraps up and people begin heading back out toward the slushy parking lot. Plumes of exhaust fill the chilly air. Paul hugs his Grandma Peggy goodbye. As soon as she’s out of earshot (or possibly long after–her hearing isn’t so good these days) Connie whispers to Paul, “Did you see your Grandma Peggy kissing my mother’s body? Never kissed her when she was alive. Thought she was too good for her because Nana came from the south side of the hill. Now she’s kissin’ on her corpse like it’s the Pope’s ring.”
That evening is the Queen of Hearts drawing. Paul’s dad wants to go. Standing in the living room he explains, “I bought 10 tickets and you have to be there in person to claim to jackpot.”
Lying on the sofa, Connie rubs her temples. With her eyes closed she says, “Tom, if you wanna to go hang out in that shitbox just to find out that you’re a loser, be my guest.”
Tom’s mouth twitches. Two beats of silence and then…
“Okay, hon. C’mon Paul. Let’s go.”
Paul pushes me towards the door as Connie’s eyes flash open in disbelief that we’re tagging along too. We all scamper out before she can yell at us, knowing full well she’ll just save it for later.
“Your mom’s not really a fan of the Queen of Hearts,” says Tom as we slide into his car. “Don’t tell her, but you don’t actually have to be there to win. You can just write your number on your raffle ticket now. They changed the rules because there were too many people and fights were breaking out. The Martelli brothers got into it last time and they had to call the cops. But I wanna be there if I win.” Tom grins and cranks up the heat. “I mean, a million bucks! Somebody’s gotta win, right?”
A light snow begins to fall as we drive past used car lots and deserted strip malls. It’s very dark and the moon is hidden by the clouds. We’re all quiet. There isn’t much to say. Or maybe we’re just tired.
Pulling up to the bar, we find a row of fat men in windbreakers outside, shivering, stamping their feet to keep warm, and puffing on cigarettes. As we walk towards them, the tallest of the bunch calls out, “Hey Tom–I’m comin’ in to get a haircut tomorrow.”
“Guess I better sharpen my scissors. You got what, three hairs left on your head?”
“Oh yeah? Well, after I win that money tonight, I ain’t setting foot in your dumpy shop again. I’m gonna pay some Sports Illustrated bikini model to cut my hair.”
“Huh. From the cover of Sports Illustrated to cutting your greasy hair. That poor woman.”
We step inside, breathing in the scent of rotting wood, spilled beer, dirty mop bucket water, and fried chicken wings. There are old license plates bolted to the walls, along with grimy sign that says, “It’s not my fault–I’m always right!” and several faded United Steelworkers bumper stickers. A smudged mirror behind the bar is decorated with multi-colored Christmas lights, a huge American flag and a dusty yellow Terrible Towel. A stuffed Pittsburgh Steelers monkey is slumped over on the register. The place is packed with doughy, beery men in oversized Steelers sweatshirts, and while the bar right next door might be full of Cleveland Browns fans, there’s no doubt we’re in Steeler country tonight.
The raffle ticket barrel is guarded by a uniformed guard who is trading jokes with a blonde in a mini skirt and tight blue top. She’s one of the few women in the place, and she’s only here because she’s on the payroll. A touch of glamour for the big Queen of Hearts drawing. Next to her is a table with 54 cards (including 2 jokers) spread out face down, each numbered with a black marker. The cards are protected by a clear plastic panel.
The crowd is loud. They’re shit-talking fantasy football leagues, hollering at the bartender for more beer, ordering chicken wings, and telling each other what they’re going to do with the million dollars when they win. Tom points out the Martelli brothers in the corner, who seem to be on pretty good behavior tonight.
After we order our drinks, the bartender lowers the volume on the TV. He rings a huge brass bell behind the bar and shouts,
“Okay everybody! Quiet down! Everybody needs to stop talking, okay? C’mon. We’re gonna do the drawing now.”
There is hooting and cheering. A Martelli brother shouts, “The Queen of Hearts, baby!” His brother shouts back, “Nah-you’re The King of Farts!” One guy rubs a Buckeyes keychain and chants, “C’mon, make me a millionaire! Make me a millionaire!” Some people close their eyes as they grip their tickets. Others clutch their tickets to their chests. Another guy kisses a cross around his neck.
“Alright. Shut up everybody. Let’s get to it,” says the bartender. “Gina, take it away.”
The blonde reaches into the raffle ticket barrel and pulls out a ticket. “Okay guys! Here we go…Let’s see if we have a winner tonight! Who has…number 172?”
“Number 172!” repeats the bartender.
There is the hushed sound of ticket shuffling as people check to see if their number was called. Several groans and sighs are heard until the guy with the Buckeyes keychain raises his hand and yells, “That’s my ticket! That’s my ticket!” He pushes through the crowd to get closer to the card table and hands over his ticket. Goggle-eyed with excitement, he’s got a stupid grin plastered on his face. He looks like Connie’s inner child Zoe. Gina inspects the ticket, compares it to her stub, shows it to the guard and says, “Looks good, Rob. Now which number card do you want?”
Rob looks down at the cards, still rubbing his keychain. He shuts his eyes. He opens them again, scanning the numbers. He breathes in deeply. He rubs his keychain some more. He is taking too long. A Martelli brother shouts, “Rob-you gonna pick a number or what?”
Rob opens his eyes and says, “Number 52. That’s the one I want. Number 52.”
The bartender says, “Number 52!”
Gina smiles and says, “Okay number 52. Let’s see if it’s your lucky number!” Lifting the plastic panel off the cards, she slowly turns over number 52. She makes an exaggerated cartoon frown as she says, “Awwwww. Sorry Rob. You got the Joker.”
The bartender shouts into the crowd, “It’s the Joker! Rob got The Joker. No winner tonight, guys. Better buy your tickets for next week.” He turns the volume back up on the TV and wipes down the bar with a damp rag.
A Martelli brother cups his hands around his mouth and calls out, “We already knew you was a joker, Rob! Now you got the card to prove it!”
Rob is still looking at the cards, grasping his ticket, as though there must be some mistake. He watches Gina lock the plastic panel back down onto the table. It’s over.
“Well, shit,” he says to Tom. “I bought 30 tickets. That’s 30 bucks down the drain.”
Tom nods. “You know what they say, go to Vegas in a Cadillac, come back on the Greyhound!”
“Yeah, well,” says Rob, “You can’t win if you don’t play, right?”
“There’s always next time,” says Tom.
The next morning we leave Youngstown, headed back to New York. We drive past rows and rows of crumbling, weather-beaten houses with mildewing sofas and broken toys on their porches. Some of them have half-melted snowmen or misshapen snow angels on their lawns. Some of them have sports banners. But almost all of them have American flags flying in the cold air, bright colors unfurling against the grey sky. These flags seem like armor, comforting familiarity in a changing world. They’re protection from the strange. But more than that, they’re talismans, proof of belief in the dream. The dream that if we have enough faith, if we’re good, hard-working people, if we can just be American enough, maybe one day we might win the elusive Queen of Hearts.