The History of Cars in America

The Complete History of Cars in America
Chapter 1
The 1959 Cadillac Professional Chassis Hearse
It was nearly nine o’clock when the hearse pulled up in front of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church in the North End. I had just been sent out the side door from the vestibule by Father Nunes to see if the funeral procession had arrived. I could tell that he was anxious to get the Mass started. It was raining a little bit and damp in the April morning but I had no complaints since serving the Mass was kind of a privilege for altar boys that were ahead of their class in the school that was built just a few years before in 1958 alongside of the rectory.
I had gotten the call many times as a fifth grader to go next door for funerals. I began to look forward to getting out of class, donning my cassock and surplus and being part of a ceremony that had much more importance to the family of the deceased than it did for me. The smell of the incense, the music all in minor keys, the liturgy – it became as much a part of my youth as playing soccer in the school yard, a sport the kids from my neighborhood a few miles away hadn’t yet learned to appreciate. Plus, the funeral director usually came around the side of the church after the ceremony to give the altar boy a small tip, usually a quarter or two, for helping out.
That day, I realized how I had become fascinated by the chrome rails on which the casket slid out of the hearse and instead of going right back in to let Father Nunes know the procession had arrived, I stared for awhile as the six pall bearers reached for the handles of the casket as it came out of the perfectly shaped hearse.
The funeral director, a man named Sylvester, looked over his shoulder at me and nodded, slightly, a signal I figured to let the priest know he was ready to get started. I turned and went inside but the look of that Cadillac hearse, all black, chrome and red, penetrated my thinking. I wondered how the deceased felt riding in back.
“They’re here,” I said to Father Nunes. “Do you want me to tell you when they get inside?”
“No, I need you to fill these cruets,” he replied as he tied the straps on his amice. “What took so long out, there?”
I shrugged, innocently. Not sure whether to take some blame for dawdling, as if he knew, or if he was just a little impatient with the pace of everything. I couldn’t wait for Mass to be over. Maybe I’d get a few quarters to spend after school at the variety store across the street from the church. I thought about the funeral director, as I filled one of the cruets with wine. Tall, elegant, he wore a long dark grey coat with a distinctive collar that pressed tightly against his collarbones. Sharply creased pants poked out from underneath and fell gracefully over black shoes that were as shiny as the chrome on the hearse.
“Watch what you’re doing!” said Father Nunes, sharply. The wine had just topped the lip of the cruet and was dripping into the sink over which I was filling it.
“Sorry,” I whispered, automatically, and grabbed the small hand towel hanging next to the sink to wipe the cruet. Fortunately, there were no other screw-ups during the Mass, after which I rushed to the altar boys’ room, took off my garments and headed outside. The pallbearers were just lifting the casket into the hearse when one of them slipped at the rear on the edge of the curb. The bottom left front corner tipped up and rammed the inside door pillar of the hearse making enough of a dent in the glossy finish that I could see it from where I stood a few hundred feet away. For some reason, I felt that death was kind of like that. When you die, people are sad, and, even though it doesn’t matter to you anymore, the shiniest things still get banged up.

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