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A Hero’s Death
More than a thousand people attended Boom Boom’s funeral. Many of them were children, fans from the suburbs and the Gold Coast. A handful came from Chicago’s depressed South Side where Boom Boom had learned to fight and skate. He was a wing with the Black Hawks until he shattered his left ankle hang-gliding three years earlier. And before Wayne Gretzky came along, he’d been the game’s biggest hero since Bobby Hull.
He underwent surgery for the ankle three times, refusing to admit he couldn’t skate anymore. His doctors hadn’t even wanted to attempt the third operation, but Boom Boom bowed to reality only when he could find no one to perform a fourth. After that he drifted through a series of jobs. A lot of people were willing to pay him to generate customers and goodwill, but Boom Boom was the kind of person who had to be doing, had to sink his teeth into—whatever it was.
He finally ended up with the Eudora Grain Company, where his father had been a stevedore during the thirties and forties. It was their regional vice-president, Clayton Phillips, who found Boom Boom’s body floating close to the wharf last Tuesday. Phillips tried calling me since Boom Boom’s employment forms listed me as his nearest relative. However, I was out of town on a case that took me to Peoria for three weeks. By the time the police located me one of Boom Boom’s mother’s numerous sisters had identified the body and begun arranging a big Polish funeral.
Boom Boom’s father and mine were brothers, and we’d grown up together in South Chicago. We were both only children and were closer than many brothers and sisters. My Aunt Marie, a good Polish Catholic, had produced endless babies, dying in her twelfth attempt. Boom Boom was the fourth, and the only one who lived more than three days.
He grew up playing hockey. I don’t know where he got the craze or the skill but, despite Marie’s frenzy over the danger, he spent most of his childhood thinking up ways to play without her knowing. A lot of them involved me—I lived six blocks away, and a visit to Cousin Vic was often a cover for a few precious hours with the puck. In those days all the hockey-mad kids adulated Boom-Boom Geoffrion. My cousin copied his slap shot slavishly; to please him the other boys took to calling him “Boom Boom” and the nickname stuck. In fact when the Chicago police found me at my Peoria hotel and asked if I was Bernard Warshawski’s cousin it took me a few seconds to realize who they meant.
Now I sat in the front pew of St. Wenceslas Church with Boom Boom’s moist, indistinguishable aunts and cousins. All in black, they were offended by my navy wool suit. Several took the trouble to tell me so in loud whispers during the prelude.
I fixed my eyes on the imitation Tiffany windows, depicting in garish colors highlights in the life of St. Wenceslas, as well as the Crucifixion and the wedding at Cana. Whoever designed the windows had combined Chinese perspective with a kind of pseudocubism. As a result, jugs of water spouted from people’s heads and long arms stretched menacingly from behind the cross. Attaching people to their own limbs and sorting out who was doing what to whom kept me fully occupied during the service and gave me—I hope—a convincing air of pious absorption.
Neither of my parents had been religious. My Italian mother was half Jewish, my father Polish, from a long line of skeptics. They’d decided not to inflict any faith on me, although my mother always baked me little orecchi d’Aman at Purim. The violent religiosity of Boom Boom’s mother and the cheap plaster icons in her house always terrified me as a child.
My own taste would have been for a quiet service at a nondenominational chapel, with a chance for Boom Boom’s old teammates to make a short speech—they’d asked to, but the aunts had turned them down. I certainly would not have picked this vulgar church in the old neighborhood, presided over by a priest who had never met my cousin and talked about him now with hypocritical fulsomeness.
However, I left the funeral arrangements to his aunts. My cousin named me his executor, a duty that was bound to absorb a lot of energy. I knew he would not care how he was buried, whereas the little excitement in his aunts’ lives came from weddings and funerals. They made sure we spent several hours over a full-blown mass for the dead, followed by an interminable procession to the Sacred Heart cemetery on the far South Side.
After the interment Bobby Mallory fought through the crowd to me in his lieutenant’s dress uniform. I was on my way to Boom Boom’s Aunt Helen, or maybe his Aunt Sarah, for an afternoon of piroshkis and meatballs. I was glad Bobby had come: he was an old friend of my father’s from the Chicago Police Department, and the first person from the old neighborhood I really wanted to see.
“I was real sorry about Boom Boom, Vicki. I know how close you two were.”
Bobby’s the only person I allow to call me Vicki. “Thanks, Bobby. It’s been tough. I appreciate your coming.”
A chilly April wind ruffled my hair and made me shiver in my wool suit. I wished I’d worn a coat. Mallory walked with me toward the limousines carrying the fifty-three members of the immediate family. The funeral would probably eat fifteen thousand out of the estate, but I didn’t care.
“Are you going to the party? May I ride with you? They’ll never miss me in that crowd.”
Mallory agreed good-naturedly and helped me into the back seat of the police limo he’d commandeered. He introduced me to the driver. “Vicki, Officer Cuthbert was one of Boom Boom’s many fans.”
“Yes, miss. I was real sorry when Boom … sorry, when your cousin had to stop playing. I figure he could’ve beat Gretzky’s record easy.”
“Go ahead and call him Boom Boom,” I said. “He loved the name and everyone used it … Bobby, I couldn’t get any information out of the guy at the grain company when I phoned him. How did Boom Boom die?”
He looked at me sternly. “Do you really need to know that, Vicki? I know you think you’re tough, but you’ll be happier remembering Boom Boom the way he was on the ice.”
I pressed my lips together; I wasn’t going to lose my temper at Boom Boom’s funeral. “I’m not indulging an appetite for gore, Bobby. I want to know what happened to my cousin. He was an athlete; it’s hard for me to picture him slipping and falling like that.”
Bobby’s expression softened a bit. “You’re not thinking he drowned himself, are you?”
I moved my hands indecisively. “He left an urgent message for me with my answering service—I’ve been out of town, you know. I wondered if he might’ve been feeling desperate.”
Bobby shook his head. “Your cousin wasn’t the kind of man to throw himself under a ship. You should know that as well as I do.”
I didn’t want a lecture on the cowardice of suicide. “Is that what happened?”
“If the grain company didn’t let you know, they had a reason. But you can’t accept that, can you?” He sighed. “You’ll probably just go butting your head in down there if I don’t tell you. A ship was tied up at the dock and Boom Boom went under the screw as she pulled away. He was chewed up pretty badly.”
“I see.” I turned my head to look at the Eisenhower Expressway and the unpainted homes lining it.
“It was a wet day, Vicki. That’s an old wooden dock—they get very slippery in the rain. I read the M.E.’s report myself. I think he slipped and fell in. I don’t think he jumped.”
I nodded and patted his head. Hockey had been Boom Boom’s life and he hadn’t taken easily to forced retirement. I agreed with Bobby that my cousin wasn’t a quitter, but he’d been apathetic the last year or so. Apathetic enough to fall under the propeller of a ship?
I tried to push the thought out of my mind as we pulled up in front of the tidy brick ranch house where Boom Boom’s Aunt Helen lived. She had followed a flock of other South Chicago Poles to Elmwood Park. I believe she had a husband around someplace, a retired steel-worker, but, like all the Wojcik men, he stayed far in the background.
Cuthbert let us out in front of the house, then went off to park the limo behind a long string of Cadillacs. Bobby accompanied me to the door, but I quickly lost sight of him in the crowd.
The next two hours put a formidable strain on my frayed temper. Various relatives said it was a pity Bernard insisted on playing hockey when poor dear Marie hated it so much. Others said it was a pity I had divorced Dick and didn’t have a family to keep me busy—just look at Cheryl’s and Martha’s and Betty’s babies. The house was swarming with children: all the Wojciks were appallingly prolific.