On 8th Avenue, sandwiched between an apartment building and a cleaners, was a shop called Finnigan’s. It had a gray brick storefront and a maraschino door with a brass coffin-shaped doorknob and the store name was written on the olive green paneling above the door. The shop window showcased a skeleton in a top hat and suit, upright in a grave with one arm raised above its head.
Finnigan’s was owned by Mr. O’Shea, an Irishman whose hair looked like it had whitened faster than he had aged. He had an oblong face and crooked teeth and a smile that lingered even when he frowned.
I met Mr. O’Shea when I was 10. The store was on its way out, but I didn’t know it at the time. I had passed Finnigan’s every day on my way home from school, but accusations from people in town about the owner made me wary. To most, he was a kook; to some he was a menace; and to me, he was someone to avoid if you wanted to live past the fourth grade. If you had asked me, I would have said it was the skeleton that scared everyone away.
I walked home everyday with my two friends, Matt and John. One day, John was feeling feisty and when we passed Finnigan’s, he dared me to go inside. I objected at first, as any self-respecting fourth grader in this situation would, but he apparently wanted me dead that day.
“What is it Jodie? Scared of old guys and skeletons?” In fact, I was. But I had my pride to keep, so I gulped and approached the door. A bell jingled when I entered.
The interior was cozier than I expected. Five feet from the door, an oak desk was snowed in by stacks of pictures, photos, paintings, documents, books, magazines, greeting cards and postcards. Where there weren’t papers, there were baubles and knick knacks, a few small potted plants – some brown, some fresh – and framed faded photos of people laughing in front of the store.
Mr. O’Shea sat behind the desk and greeted me when I entered. He had a heavy accent that spilled out of his mouth in breathless spurts.
”Hello, what can I do for ye today?” He smiled.
I said nothing for fear that a wrong word would put me in the grave with the skeleton. Mr. O’Shea looked at a calendar on the desk then at me and said, “Sure, yer not Mrs. Merion come here to make the arrangements for her husband?” He said ‘sure’ like he’d stirred up the words ‘sewer’ and ‘shore’ with his tongue before mouthing the word through his round lips.
I shook my head. Mr. O’Shea chuckled and asked me my name. I told him.
“Ah tis a pleasure, Jodie. Call me Mr. O’Shea. Now are ye interested in planning a wake?”
I asked him what that meant.
“Well, it’s a party. Usually the poor fellow yer celebrating is dead, but at Finnigan’s," he leaned over the desk and whispered, “they’re alive!”
”So,” I said meekly. “It’s an awake wake?”
“Couldn’ta said it better me self, Jodie.” Mr. O’Shea’s smile so consumed his face that I had to grin back. He was a happy kook, I had to give him that.
Mr. O’Shea stood up and asked if I’d like a little tour. “It’s not often that I get visitors these days.” I said yes.
Mr. O’Shea first showed me the framed photos on his desk. “These’re some of my clients.” He pointed to an old smiling woman in one photo and told me that her name was Eleanor and she wanted to see all her family in one place before she died. So they gathered up all nine of her kids and eighteen of her grandkids and they all talked about how great a mother and wife she was. And then a few years later, he said, she “skipped to the grave.” Then he pointed to another man, who died at 23. He was diagnosed with cancer, so before the sickness took him he had a wake with his parents and friends and a lot of beer, and he said it was the happiest night of his life.
Then he asked if I’d like some tea. I said yes, please, and he bounced around the wall behind his desk to the kitchenette to put the kettle on.
While he made the tea, I found a framed photo of a dark-haired Mr. O’Shea and a freckled, round-faced boy. When Mr. O’Shea returned, I asked him who the boy was.
The glint left his eyes quick as a flame leaves a candle wick, but a small smile endured. “Ah, that’ll be my son, Finnigan,” he said fondly.
A few minutes later, the water was boiled. Mr. O’Shea brought back two cups of black tea and gave me one. I paused to consider the chance that it was poisoned as part of his plan to throw me in the ground with all these other supposedly awake clients. But that smile of his was too genuine to be the smirk of a murderer.
While we sipped our tea, Mr. O’Shea would told me more stories about his awake wakes. There was the one for Miss Rita, the cocker spaniel who was so old and blind that she didn’t enjoy her party half as much as her owner, who kept a tight fist on the brandy, Mr. O’Shea said. And there was Harvey Martin, who had discovered that his brain tumor was just a shadow on the X-ray, but wanted to celebrate before the doctors changed their minds. And there were the twins, Beth and Bev, who had a while to go, but wanted to be recognized by their senior center as the championship bingo players they were before they died.
I listened to Mr. O’Shea until he noticed it was closing time. He gurgled a laugh and said, “Well we’ve talked away the hours haven’t we?”
I picked up my backpack. Before I left I said, “Mr. O’Shea, do you think I’ll be able to meet your son sometime? Finnigan?”
His white pipe cleaner eyebrows scrunched and the wrinkles on his forehead deepened. “Let’s hope you don’t meet him for a while, Jodie. But I’m sure I’ll be seeing Finnigan someday soon, and when I do I’ll tell him you said hello.”
I thanked Mr. O’Shea for the tea and the tour. I must have felt especially brave that day because then I said, “A lot of people are afraid of this place, Mr. O’Shea. But I don’t think it’s that scary."
His smile warmed the tiny room. “The only thing that’s scary is the thought of not being able to say goodbye. That’s what I’m here for. But you’re right, Jodie. Tisn’t scary. Tis sad sometimes when a client dies, but not scary.”
I picked up by backpack and said I should get going. “Bye, Mr. O’Shea. Thanks again.”
“Goodbye, Jodie.” He grinned so wide that his smile still stretches into my memory today.
Outside, Matt and John were gone. They probably thought I was a dead man and were too hungry for dinner to wait around to collect my corpse. The next day, I told Matt and John about Eleanor and Harvey Martin and the man with cancer and about Finnigan and Mr. O’Shea and wasn’t I brave for drinking the tea. They laughed.
”Jodie’s made friends with a wacky grandpa,” said John.
“Gonna have a spot of tea with him again today, Jodie?” said Matt.
They cracked some geriatric joke every time we passed Finnigan’s after that, so I never opened the red door again. I tried a few times to return alone, but at each visit I was met with a sign in the window that said “CLOSED casket.”
Finnigan’s closed a year later. Some people said it was haunted, others said Mr. O’Shea had camped out in the basement, but I knew that he’d left because there weren’t enough people in town to keep him in business. I’ve tried to contact Mr. O’Shea all these years later, but I could never find him. Sometimes I still walk back to Finnigan’s and wave at the dusty skeleton. I look at the rusty doorknob and wonder what it is about coffins that gives people the creeps. But mostly, I stare at the green paneling and I feel lucky to have been able to say goodbye to Mr. O’Shea before he left.