A Fairy Tale of New York is a funny, lusty, and sad novel of comic genius. Returning from study abroad, Cornelius Christian enters customs with his luggage and his dead wife. His first encounter in New York is with a funeral director, with whom he reluctantly takes employment to pay for the burial expenses. In the course of his duties he meets the beautiful Fanny Sourpuss over her millionaire husband's dead body. However, his over-enthusiastic handling of his first corpse lands him in court. Cornelius Christian wanders through the great sad cathedral that is New York, examining the human condition in all its comic pathos and lonely absurdity. Whether lingering in the Automat drinking from half empty coffee cups and stealing baked beans from the plates of customers who go looking for ketchup, or finding love on a street corner only to end up fighting his way out of a hooker's fists, Cornelius Christian, heroic anti-hero, sings of life's goodness in the wake of disaster.
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Three o'clock in February. All the sky was blue and high. Banners and bunting and people bunched up between. Greetings and sadness.
Great black box up from the deep hold, swinging in the air high over the side of the ship. Some of the stevedores taking off their caps and hoods. With quiet whisperings, swiveling it softly on a trolley and pushing it into a shed.
Cornelius Christian standing under the letter C. The customs man comes over.
"I'm sorry sir about this. I know it isn't a time you want to be annoyed by a lot of questions but if you could just come with me over to the office I'll try to get this over as quickly as possible. It's just a formality."
Walking across the pier through the rumbling carts, perfumes, furs and tweeds, the clanging chains and into the little warm hut with typewriters pecking. Tall dark customs man, his fist with a pencil on a piece of paper.
"I understand this happened aboard ship."
"And you're an American and your wife was foreign."
"And you intend burial here."
"It's just that we've got to make sure of these things because it can save a lot of trouble later. Don't want to burden you with anything unnecessary. Do you have any children travelling."
"Just my wife and myself."
"I understand. And are all your other possessions your own property, all personal effects. No fine art, antiques. You're not importing anything."
"Just sign here. Won't be anything else and if you have any trouble at all don't hesitate to get in touch with me right away. Here's my name and I'll straighten out any difficulty. Just Steve Kelly, customs'll get me. Vine funeral home phoned here just a while ago. I told him everything was all right and he says you can go see them at their office, or phone any time this afternoon or tonight. You take it easy."
"Thanks very much."
Customs man giving Christian a pat on the back.
"And say, Mr Christian, see the stevedore, guy with the fur jacket. Just tell him Steve said you'd help me with my stuff. Ok. Don't worry about anything."
Out through the grinding winches, clicking high heels, the stacks of gay baggage and colored labels. The great tall side of ship. And coming out to it as it sat on the sea in Cork Harbour. A stiff cold vessel. All of us bundled up as the tender tugged us out on the choppy water. And left the pink houses on the shore twirling early morning turf smoke in the sky. Black rivets on the ship's side. And I climbed up behind her. On the stairway swaying over the water. And now through this jumble and people gathering each other in their arms. This stevedore with fur jacket, a hook tucked under his arm. Hard muscles across his jaw.
"Excuse me, Steve said you'd help me with my stuff."
"Oh yeah, sure. Sure thing. Got much."
"Three small trunks, two bags."
"Ok. You just follow me all the way. I'll put the stuff down the escalator. Meet me the bottom of the stairs. You want a taxi."
Under the roof of girders and signs. No tipping. Escalator rumbling down with trunks and crates. Crashing and crushing. The treatment they give things would break open her box. And they shout, this way folks. Five bucks, Grand Central. Three fifty, Penn Station. The stevedore has scars on his face, keeps his hands on his hips.
"Mr. Christian, this guy will take you wherever you want to go. Stuff's on."
"No no. I don't want any money. I don't take money for a favour. You'll do the same for somebody. That way it goes round the world."
Cornelius Christian opening the door into this gleaming cab. Horns honk everywhere. This driver with a green cap turns around.
"Where to, bud."
"I don't know. Have to think of somewhere."
"Look, I haven't got all day. I want to catch another boat coming in."
"Do you know where I can get a room."
"I'm no directory bud."
"Place is full of hotels."
"Do you know anywhere I can get a room."
"Boardinghouse for a guy like you. Just sort of dumps I know. This is some time to start looking. Everybody want me to find a room I'd be starving. As it is I make peanuts. Ok. I know a place west side near the museum."
Taxi twisting away. With smiles and arms laden with coats others get into cabs. The trip is over. Some made friends. And we go up a hill to the roaring highway.
"It's none of my business but what's a guy like you doing coming all the way over here with nowhere to go. You don't sound like a guy got no friends, don't look it neither. Ok. Takes all sorts of people to make a world. Keep telling my wife that, she doesn't believe me. Thinks everybody's like her. Across there long."
"Went to college."
"Good education over there. Don't you feel lonely."
"No, don't mind being alone."
"That right. Got a right to feel that way if you want. But look at this, how can you feel alone. Everything looking like it's going to explode. And I got a face looks like a monkey. Know why. Because I used to own a pet shop till a relative got the big idea to make a lot of money. So what happens, I lose the whole thing. Now I'm driving a hack. Kick in your teeth and every guy after a fast buck. What a life. Keep going, keep going till you can't stop."
Christian folding white gloved hands in his lap. Cars stream along the highway. The wail of a police ear zooming by.
"Look at that, some guy murdered his mother for a dime. Guy like me got to drink milk all day, live like a baby. I tell you, it's a crime. Sweat our guts out. Something awful. God damn place jammed with foreigners. Think they'd stay in Europe instead of coming over here and crowding us out. You foreign."
"You could pass for foreign. It's ok with me mister if you're foreign. My mother came from Minsk."
Clouds come grey and east. Ice down there on the edge of the river. Smoky red weak sun.
Taxi turns down off the highway. Between the pillars holding up the street above. Serve beer in there. Bar stools and sawdust. Stevedores with hooks. They say keep your mouth shut and you won't get hurt. Safe in a crowd. Close in there by the elbows, next to the sleeves where all around me are just hands to shake and squeeze.
"Ok mister here we are. Give me five bucks."
Red grey stone they call brownstone. An iron fence. Where the rich lived years ago. Tall steps up. First five dollars gone.
"Mister ring the bell downstairs and I'll take your bags, never get rich this way but you look lonely. Mrs Grotz'll take care of you. She's crazy, but who isn't."
Mrs Grotz, cross eyed, wrapped in a black coat and a collar of silver fox, standing in the door.
"What's your business mister."
"He's all right, Ma, just back from college over in Europe. Just ain't got no friends."
"Everyone ought to have friends."
"How do you know he wants them."
"Friendship means a lot, you crazy cab driver."
"My wife thinks I'm crazy too, but my kids think I'm god."
"Go home you crazy cab driver. Follow me mister, I got a nice room."
Carrying the bags behind this large bottom shifting up the stairs. In the onion smell. And scent of dust.
"Stairs for me is work mister. Got to do everything myself. Since my husband. He drop dead right in his underwear. Right while I was watching. Such a shock. Go to turn off the lamp and drop dead right on his face. I'm nervous and shaking like this every since. So all husbands drop dead sometime. You think they have manners and do it quiet in the hospital."
A room with red curtains high on the window. Double bed like one I saw in Virginia where once I was walking down a street and climbed in a train standing in the hot sun. Always wishing I could save the heat for the winter.
"Four fifty dollars a night or twenty dollars a week. Look what I supply, radio, shelves, gas stove, hot water. Don't play the radio loud."
"Could I let you know in a day or two how long I'll be staying."
"Give you till Friday and you got to make up your mind. You got a funny voice, you English. Learn to speak at college."
"Just a bit."
"Was that the accent you was born with."
"I don't know."
"Give me four dollars and fifty cents."
And now You own The Brooklyn Bridge
New world. Opening up the suitcases on the bed. Turn on the oven. Out into the hall past another brown door. Everything in the dark. And cars go by in the street like boats and soft bubbles.
Find the switch for the light in this bathroom. Green towel crumpled on the floor. Lift the seat. All gentlemen are requested. When little you never lift the seat and mommy tells you lift the seat. Pick up the towel. Go back. This door has a name on it under the cellophane. And now the only thing I can do is wait and wait and wait. It's got to go away. She could never pack things and her bag's a mess. I told her she was sloppy, why don't you fold things up. And I've got to go down there. To a funeral parlor. Just wash my face. No one to be with her. And I was so full of dying myself. I hope I know how to get down there after all these years. How much is it going to cost. Just end up being buried among a lot of strangers.
Christian steps down into the street. Grey tweed on his back. White gloves on hands. Street full of shadows. And dark cars parked. And straight ahead the stale stiff fingers of trees. After so much ocean. And I don't know what to say to this man. He'll be in black or something. Do I have to give him a tip or cigar. He might think I'm not sorry enough and can't concentrate on the death.
Grey tall windows of the museum. Down these steps to the subway. Chewing gum everywhere. Turnstile reminds me of horses. Coin goes in so neatly. Click through. Could step right under a train. Just let it roar right over me. What have you got to touch to get electrocuted. How would they know to take me and put me with Helen. It would have to be written down in my wallet. In case of death take me to the Vine funeral home and bury me with Helen. So slaughtered you could put me round her in the same casket. I just can't bear for you to be cold and you said last thing of all to put you in the ground. And you always wore a green shadow around your eyes. Came near me in your silk rustling dress, you sounded hollow inside. Listening with your eyes. And the first day at sea I didn't want to see you spend the two dollars for a deck chair. Now I'd let you have it. I'd let you have anything now. Helen, you could have got two deck chairs or three and I'd have said nothing. It wasn't the money, I didn't want you to get cold because you looked so ill you'd freeze up there and no one knew how sick you were. And I pulled on the towel. Pulled it right out of your hands when you said you'd spend the two dollars. It wasn't the money, I'd tear up two dollars here right on this platform. God, it was the money. I've lost you.
Head bowed. A white knuckle rubbing under an eye. A man steps near.
"Are you all right, buddy."
"Yes I'm all right. Just a lot of dust blown up in my eyes."
"Ok, buddy, just wanted to make sure."
Roaring train in the tunnel. Sweeping into the station. Train with the tickling noise under the floor. Doors growl shut. Then up, out, crossing each avenue, when the lights turn red and the cars slide up and stop. And it's all so new around me and so old. When I was young and walked here I heard a car screech and hit a boy. Saw the white shirt on his shoulder. And I wondered if all the people would be gathering around and keep him warm and not like me running away.
Where the street slants down, further on, the elevated train, tall buildings and a river. Closer. There it is. Double curtained doors, two evergreens on either side. Push through. God, what a place for you. Soft carpeted hall, luxurious in here. Warm green light flowing up the walls. So soft everything. This isn't bad. This door's open. It gleams and I'll knock. Man's black shoes and gartered black socks sticking out from a desk. They move and shine. His hand in front of me.
"Good evening, you're Mr Christian aren't you."
"I'm sorry that you've had to come. I'm Mr Vine, please sit down."
"Will you smoke. Cigarette. Cigar."
"Go ahead, make yourself comfortable. There are only a few little things here. Customs man who dealt with you telephoned after you left the pier. Very nice of him and I'll certainly do everything I can Mr Christian. Only these to sign."
"I'm not just an ordinary man in this business. It means a great deal to me and if there is any special help I can give anyone I'm really glad to do it. So understand that."
"That's nice of you."
"We can only do our best Mr Christian. We try to understand sorrow. I've arranged burial at Greenlawn. Do you know New York."
"Yes, I was born here."
"Then you may know Greenlawn. One of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world and it's always a pleasure to visit. My wife's buried there as well and I know it's a place of great peace. We realise sorrow Mr Christian. I'll take care of all the immediate details for you and you can have a chat with them later on. All under my personal direction. Arranged as soon as you wish."
"Could it be arranged for tomorrow morning."
"Yes. Will it give mourners time. The notice will only be in tomorrow's Daily News, only give anybody couple of hours to get here."
"I'll be the only mourner."
"No one knew we were coming to New York."
"I can put you in our small suite there across the hall."
"Just for a few minutes. I want to keep it very short."
"I understand. In the way of flowers."
"I'd like something simple. Perhaps a wreath with, my Helen."
"Of course. Something simple. I'll see to it myself. We try to make friends with sorrow Mr Christian. That way we come to know it. You'd like us to use glass. For permanence."
"That's all right."
"And where are you located."
"Near the Museum of Natural History."
"I'm pleased you're near there. There's much to reflect upon in that building. We'll send our car for you."
"Is that anything extra."
"Included Mr Christian. Shall I make it nine thirty, ten, whenever you wish."
"Nine thirty is fine."
"Mr Christian, would you like now to have a little drink before you go. Some Scotch."
"Well I would. Are you Irish, Mr Vine."
"My mother was. My father was German."
Mr Vine's little snap of the head and blink of the eyes, crossing his soft canary carpet. Puts a neat white hand under an illuminated picture. Sunlight filtering through mountain pines and brass name beneath says In The Winter Sun. Panels drawing apart. Shelves of bottles, glasses and the small white door of a refrigerator. He must drink like a fish. Pick him up like a corpse every night. I don't have the nerve to tell him I was raised in the Bronx.
"Soda, Mr Christian."
"Now, the way you said that. Just one word. I can tell by your voice you're an educated man Mr Christian. I also like your name. I never had very much in the way of education. I was a wildcatter in Texas and then became the manager of an oil field. Wouldn't think of it to look at me, would you. I left school when I was nine years old. I've always wanted to be in this business but I was thirty before I got a chance to do a high school course. Did it in the navy, then went to mortician's school when I came out. It makes you feel closer to people. It's dignified. And art. When you see what you can do for someone who comes to you helpless. To recreate them just as they were in life. Makes you able to soften things. You're a man I can talk to, a person who's got a proper mental attitude. I can always tell. There are some of them who make you sick. Only thing I don't like about the business are the phonies and I get my share of them. Here, have another, do you good."
"Some people think I'm outspoken but I've given a lot of satisfaction and people put their whole families in my hands, even in a big city like this. I opened up another branch in the west fifties. But I like it best here where I began. My two little girls are growing up into big women now. You meet people from all walks of life. I'm a bit of a philosopher and I feel anything you've got to learn you'll learn just through what you have to do with people, in that way I never miss an education. It's a fact, I never graduated. It's especially sad when I bury those who did. But everything is how a person conducts themselves. That's how I know all about you, customs man said over the phone you were a real gentleman. Would you like now for me to show you the establishment. If you don't it's all right."
"I don't mind."
"You'd like to feel that she was somewhere where she's really at home. Come along, we're empty now, there's just two reposings on at my other branch although it's a busy time of the year."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Fairy Tale of New York"
Copyright © 1973 J. P. Donleavy.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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