the Guarino home – and this is only part of it;
Augie Maurello died three days after Thanksgiving, 1988. He was found beneath an Otis elevator car, the kind they have in high-rise buildings on the upper-east-side with a 2500 pound capacity that was indeed, filled to capacity. In a freakish moment, instead of coming to a stop in the lobby like the illuminated button commanded, the elevator car slowed, but continued to the basement where it stopped on what sounded like a crate of cantaloupe. That was Augie.
Apparently, the human ribcage being broken up in its skin- sack sounds sorta-like unlucky cantaloupe, but that’s neither here nor there. When the elevator stopped, the door opened and the annoyed tenants left the building through the basement. No one would know they were standing on a dead guy until later when the elevator mechanics arrived and found him and called the police. When the tenants found out about Augie, they were no longer miffed. They shuddered and were sickened, once again proving the power of information.
There was a big investigation. This could have been a mob thing or a union thing or a mob-union thing or just an Augie thing. Mister Maurello, in addition to being an elevator mechanic, was a low-level wise-guy who lived in a neighborhood filled with low-level-wise-guys. He was not a nice man, either to his wife or his children, but a saint to his capo (or “mob-boss”), his peers and his “women.” He loved the film, “Goodfellas,” and knew some of the actual characters from the story.
Someone who knew the cops on the case said all they could do was scrape him up and hose the rest away. His remains were subject to official scrutiny by crime labs and DNA collectors for almost two weeks before being released to the family which consisted of Connie, his wife of fifteen years; his twelve-year-old son Augie jr. and Celeste, their four-year-old “surprise” daughter—a point brought up on Thanksgiving by a drunk Augie when his daughter refused to eat the raisin and sausage stuffing, climaxing in tears and wails at the table. “Celeste, you’re the mistake that keeps on giving,” he slurred from his chair at the head of the table while mixing C&C cola into another glass of red wine. Celeste turned to her mom who was wide-eyed and speechless. “Mommy, what does Daddy mean?” she asked. Augie Jr. howled with delight, pointing at his sister, “miss-take – miss-take – mom’s unwanted stom-ach ache!”
But now, everything was different. Daddy was dead and Christmas was ten days away.
The body was transferred to the Gaurino Funeral Home on Flatlands avenue in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Needless to say, it was going to be a closed-coffin. Gaurino’s is a middle-income, family-run funeral home. The owner’s house is located across the street and every December the front yard of the two-story ranch-style home becomes a winter wonderland of motorized Christmas vignettes complete with Santa and Mrs. Claus, a sleigh with reindeer (complete with Rudolf and his brightly-lit red nose), elves working in their workshop, Frosty the Snowman and more. You can’t NOT see this as you enter the funeral home.
The grieving Maurellos arrived and set up grieving shop. Connie ran out of tears days ago. She was grateful that Augie’s parents were already dead and his brother Charlie was upstate doing eight years in the Dannemora Correctional Facility. Charlie was also a low-level wise guy who wasn’t as lucky as his brother until now. He was still here, Augie was not.
Connie did a quick emotional inventory. She figured she was on the fourth or fifth stage of grief. She didn’t have them in any particular order. It was all too blurry. At 7pm, she was stationed at the chapel door, her children to either side, her mind hovering somewhere between “acceptance,” “glee,” and “please kill me now,” when the first guests arrived to offer their condolences.
The weight and gravity of the night needed to be recalibrated for everyone who came. Augie was gone for two weeks already and everyone had begun to move on. Because of this, people were less convincing in their heartfelt-ness regarding Connie’s loss, particularly her mother and father who, in light of whispers about their deteriorating relationship, were quietly delighted with these events.
At eight pm, Sal and Maria parked their Plymouth in the lot adjoining the funeral home on the opposite side of the building where the Christmas display was. The car’s back door opened, releasing their eleven year-old son Nicky and Louise, their five-year old daughter. Sal and Maria were among the Maurello’s oldest friends because of the the proximity of their homes (a block away), the age of their children and Connie and Maria’s high-school days.
Connie’s big secret was that her daughter was totally planned. When Maria became pregnant with Louise – something they considered “a wonderful surprise” – Connie orchestrated the “Celeste project.” Augie’s death was as much a mistake as his daughter’s birth, if you know what I mean. His death would end the use of that word regarding their daughter. Tonight, as they walked across the parking lot, Augie jr., at a loss for words, began to taunt her sister again with, “miss-take,” and was solidly smacked across the head by his mother who, through clenched teeth said, “call your sister that again and i’ll cripple ya’.” She said this while pressing his cheeks together until they almost met in the middle of his mouth.
Sal, Maria and the kids walked from the parking lot and were immediately drawn to the huge Christmas display across the street. A scratchy rendition of “deck the halls” came out of a set of old speakers placed atop a display that had a group of yuletide carolers swaying back and forth in mechanical meter. Behind the crackling music, you can plainly hear the whirr and click of mechanical gears and pullies. The Gaurinos put the same display up for almost thirty years with little change. It was charming and old-worldly. Looking at it made you think of music boxes and The March of the Wooden Soldiers.
Sal, a carpenter and contractor by trade, sized up the display to be in excess of one hundred feet long and over a thousand square feet in total area.
He silently priced out the job in wood, aluminum framing and plexi-glass. It was instinctive. It was what he did. He shoo’ed away this thought and before everyone could get too wrapped up in the window scenes, he said, “C’mon, not now,” and guided his family back across the street and into the funeral home. They walked across a large common area, glancing at the other chapel rooms—there was one other wake in progress—before seeing Connie. They smiled and hugged. The children bolted toward each other, finding comfort in familiarity.
Sal and Maria stood talking to Connie, asking how she was bearing up; this was more about how the gauntlet of death unleashed itself upon her family than it was about Augie. He was old news. I mean, he’s been gone two weeks already.
Connie recounted detective-talk and police interviews and questions and business cards from investigators and members of the organized crime task force. As she spoke, she looked down. She wanted to lay down where she stood—right there on the burgundy, thick-pile-commercial carpet—and go to sleep.
Maria steered the conversation to the future, and Connie became more animated because of the potential for a new life; a new page. She raised her eyes. Sal excused himself and walked over to a group of men who reminded him of himself. Augie Jr. and Nicky disappeared—probably outside—while little Celeste sat on a chair at the end of an aisle and stared at the flower-draped box while Louise sat beside her. They were silent. Connie looked at her and wondered if she understood the Augie-in-the-box-thing.
The night went on for another hour or so. People chatted. There was hushed laughter with the occasional squeak of children.
Connie thought about how “this was it.” This thing tonight, this funeral at ten tomorrow, this burial at noon. Done, done and done.
Gradually, the fifty-or-so people who had signed the guest book gathered themselves and their others and found Connie to say goodnight. She thanked them for caring and made half-hearted, “maybe” plans for the future. Maria’s words floated in and out then back into her head.
“Huh? what?” Connie asked, her eyes re-focusing on her friend.
“I said we’re getting ready to go, hon,” Maria chimed. ”You ok?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Connie answered. “Just worn out.”
“You want us to wait around? Want us to take you’se home?”
“No – I got the car. We’ll be fine.”
Sal gave her a hug while Maria did the same with the kids. “We’re gonna go ‘cross the street,” she said, tying her kerchief. They left. The other wake emptied, too. Connie and the director stepped into the small office in the main room. They spoke a little while. The chapel was emptying and partially dark.
When Connie returned, Celeste was asleep, her head on her brother’s lap, sitting on a couch in the main room. She stepped over and lifted up her daughter, her ringletted hair resting on her mother’s shoulder. Almost whispering, Connie apologized to her son for hitting and threatening him about “that word,” but asked him to please never use it again, because it’s hurtful and “your little sister might be hurt-enough right now, OK?”
“Okay, Mom,” he answered. She stroked his cheek lovingly.
Walking out, they passed the director who smiled sadly. Connie wondered if he had that smile down to a science…then guiltily dismissed her thoughts.
Exiting the funeral home, she looked across to the Christmas display. A couple was walking past it chatting and pointing.
Augie Jr.’s eyes asked and Connie’s answered. Smiling, they crossed the street to the big Christmas display. Celeste raised her head from her mother’s shoulder and awoke to a winter wonderland and a crackling rendition of “Joy to the World.”