Bad Road Ahead: the Story of Willie and Sister Fran

read the suite in order

by Don Robishaw

V. A Eulogy and a Funeral 

  I squat on the damp cold ground, back against a black tank, and stare out at a diverse group of fine men and women of mixed ages, ethnicities, and dress style. I’m one of Sonny’s friends who gather along a river on a chilly November morning.

My x-girlfriend’s here, perched on a rock. “Sergeant Robinson, love ya, but you’ll never change. You’ll never get your shit together.”

  “Just Willie, please. We almost made it, kid.” I scratch my chin. “Shaved for ya, 

didn’t I?” 

A tear drops. Hate when she does that. I lean forward, grip my forehead, and shake my head. Fran wipes her tears. 

I speak to those gathered to pay tribute to Sonny. “Brothers and sisters, ya gotta help me out here.” Pointing my thumb to my chest, “Willie’s not making no long-winded-speech. As you know, our brother had his throat slashed by Silent Jim. That son-of-a-bitch. A bad man. I shoulda killed that — .”

Too angry to continue, Loser takes over. Red-faced and shivering, “Remember the time Sonny gave ya his peacoat?” 

   I rub my eyes, “Even though he refused to let me in the shelter, still tossed me a five-spot.”

   Sporting a black motorcycle jacket, Loser continues, “Sonny always packed a set of sticks. Banged those damn things while dining.”

   Fran’s shaking. I grab an elbow, thinner these days, and steady her as she gets up and points her thumb right. “Except the time Big Harry here had a wicked hangover. Wasn’t in the mood for the incessant banging, was ya, Harry? Broke Sonny’s drumsticks and walked out. Didn’t ya? Ya bastard.” The big man’s eyes redden, as he drops his head towards the hard ground.

   Loser says, “What many don’t know, Sonny James was not his real name.”

   “What was it,” I ask?

   “Changed it after getting out of the navy. Back in the day, was one of the top drummers in North America. Played Vegas. Married a chorus girl.”

   “I hear a break-up coming.” Fran pretends to be fiddling.

   The Loser continues, “She left em. It was her or the drums. Hooked-up with the club owner, had twins, and bought a house in the burbs. Never performed again.”

   I say, “At least he sobered up during those last two years. Planned a comeback, too.”

  An ex-minister rises, says a few words, passes a basket, and hands me half. My half will get me where Sonny wanted his ashes spread. We rise and head in different directions. 

   “Where to Fran?”

   “Get me out of here, Willie.”

     While standing on broken glass, I pick-up an empty whiskey bottle off the hard ground and fling it against the tank. 

I remove a paper sack from my peacoat, fold it back and around The American Classic, twist the cap, and say, “What’s the word, Fran?”

   “Thunderbird.”

  “What’s the price?”

  “Thirty-twice.” She laughs and takes a swig. Several hard coughs and Fran whispers in my ear for a minute. 

We embrace. I shake my head, tears gush, and walk alone towards the station with Sonny’s ashes, set of drumsticks, and Fran’s ‘final’ words rolling around my brain. 

***

Cold up here on this rusty iron span. For a few bucks, I’ll paint this ugly mother. Press a black watch cap tight, remove paper sack from my peacoat, and test the wind direction by licking and lifting a finger. Toss a set of drumsticks and Sonny from the downwind side of the Red Bridge into the River Charles.

He loved the sea. An eighty-mile waterway takes him through the four hams; Needham and Dedham, crosses paths with Waltham and Bellingham, and flows through Medway, Medfield, and other Massachusetts towns and cities, to run out into the Atlantic via Boston ‘Habah.’

My friend’s not coming back, no more. Sonny used to always say: 

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Need a drink, ain’t got no money.

And ain’t got a dime.

Rough out here for a panhandler.

Can’t even buy, Thunderbird wine.

Old ways don’t work these days. Panhandling calls for patience, persistence, and writing skills. A Sharpie and invented spelling are acceptable on a raw sheet of cardboard.

Suits not around Government Center on weekends. Find em in their MGs or in a Benz along America’s highways, byways, and city roadways.

When broke, jump the turnstile in the subway or like today, hop a train. Must be skill to it. Looks easy, though. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans,’ as Sonny would say.

A northeast bound freight comes up from Milford. I sense the vibration on the track and hear a sound round the bend. Get a rush when the engine roars and rumbles, and tracks rattle and roll. Whistle’s blowing on that mile-long freighter. When she gets here, I’ll go halfway up that giant erector set. An easy climb — even after a few shots of rye. Round that curve she comes, real-slow-like. Five-foot jump to a slow-moving-train. When I get near Cambridge, climb down and hop off.

Whistle’s blowing. I’ll soon be riding the rails. Dig it. Pick out a boxcar Willie. Got a hundred to choose. Here comes a yellow New England freight-car. That be the one. As the sun sets over Western Mass, she comes to a crawl.

  Train, take me where I can ease me pain. Lost Mom, Big Daddy in jail, Romanian girlfriend and family moved again, childhood bud killed in the war, my squad too. Lost track of Amerasian daughter and older brother Malcom, still MIA in Vietnam. Train, take me where I can ease my pain. Take me home train. Perched here, soaked, and listening to that whistle blowing. Rain and snow falling. Heavy now. River’s running fast and high. I jump and roll on top of that old yellow freight-car. Train picks up speed. It jerks. Stop this train. Willie here’s getting off. I slip and stare into that bottomless river. Take me home, Charles. Take me home.








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