Amerigo Bonasera lived only a few blocks from his undertaking establishment on Mulberry Street and so always went home for supper. Evenings he returned to his place of business, dutifully joining those mourners paying their respects to the dead who lay in state in his somber parlors.
He always resented the jokes made about his profession, the macabre technical details which were so unimportant. Of course none of his friends or family or neighbors would make such jokes. Any profession was worthy of respect to men who for centuries earned bread by the sweat of their brows.
Now at supper with his wife in their solidly furnished apartment, gilt statues of the Virgin Mary with their red-glassed candles flickering on the sideboard, Bonasera lit a Camel cigarette and took a relaxing glass of American whiskey. His wife brought steaming plates of soup to the table. The two of them were alone now; he had sent his daughter to live in Boston with her mother’s sister, where she could forget her terrible experience and her injuries at the hands of the two ruffians Don Corleone had punished.
As they ate their soup his wife asked, “Are you going back to work tonight?”
Amerigo Bonasera nodded. His wife respected his work but did not understand it. She did not understand that the technical part of his profession was the least important. She thought, like most other people, that he was paid for his skill in making the dead look so lifelike in their coffins. And indeed his skill in this was legendary. But even more important, even more necessary was his physical presence at the wake. When the bereaved family came at night to receive their blood relatives and their friends beside the coffin of their loved one, they needed Amerigo Bonasera with them.
For he was a strict chaperone to death. His face always grave, yet strong and comforting, his voice unwavering, yet muted to a low register, he commanded the mourning ritual. He could quiet grief that was too unseemly, he could rebuke unruly children whose parents had not the heart to chastise. Never cloying in the tender of his condolences, yet never was he offhand. Once a family used Amerigo Bonasera to speed a loved one on, they came back to him again and again. And he never, never, deserted one of his clients on that terrible last night above ground.
Usually he allowed himself a little nap after supper. Then he washed and shaved afresh, talcum powder generously used to shroud the heavy black beard. A mouthwash always. He respectfully changed into fresh linen, white gleaming shirt, the black tie, a freshly pressed dark suit, dull black shoes and black socks. And yet the effect was comforting instead of somber. He also kept his hair dyed black, an unheard-of frivolity in an Italian male of his generation; but not out of vanity. Simply because his hair had turned a lively pepper and salt, a color which struck him as unseemly for his profession.
After he finished his soup, his wife placed a small steak before him with a few forkfuls of green spinach oozing yellow oil. He was a light eater. When he finished this he drank a cup of coffee and smoked another Camel cigarette. Over his coffee he thought about his poor daughter. She would never be the same. Her outward beauty had been restored but there was the look of a frightened animal in her eyes that had made him unable to bear the sight of her. And so they had sent her to live in Boston for a time. Time would heal her wounds. Pain and terror was not so final as death, as he well knew. His work made him an optimist.
He had just finished the coffee when his phone in the living room rang. His wife never answered it when he was home, so he got up and drained his cup and stubbed out his cigarette. As he walked to the phone he pulled off his tie and started to unbutton his shirt, getting ready for his little nap. Then he picked up the phone and said with quiet courtesy, “Hello.”
The voice on the other end was harsh, strained. “This is Tom Hagen,” it said. “I’m calling for Don Corleone, at his request.”
Amerigo Bonasera felt the coffee churning sourly in his stomach, felt himself going a little sick. It was more than a year since he had put himself in the debt of the Don to avenge his daughter’s honor and in that time the knowledge that he must pay that debt had receded. He had been so grateful seeing the bloody faces of those two ruffians that he would have done anything for the Don. But time erodes gratitude more quickly than it does beauty. Now Bonasera felt the sickness of a man faced with disaster. His voice faltered as he answered, “Yes, I understand. I’m listening.”
He was surprised at the coldness in Hagen’s voice. The Consigliere had always been a courteous man, though not Italian, but now he was being rudely brusque. “You owe the Don a service,” Hagen said. “He has no doubt that you will repay him. That you will be happy to have this opportunity. In one hour, not before, perhaps later, he will be at your funeral parlor to ask for your help. Be there to greet him. Don’t have any people who work for you there. Send them home. If you have any objections to this, speak now and I’ll inform Don Corleone. He has other friends who can do him this service.”
Amerigo Bonasera almost cried out in his fright, “How can you think I would refuse the Godfather? Of course I’ll do anything he wishes. I haven’t forgotten my debt. I’ll go to my business immediately, at once.”
Hagen’s voice was gentler now, but there was something strange about it. “Thank you,” he said “The Don never doubted you. The question was mine. Oblige him tonight and you can always come to me in any trouble, you’ll earn my personal friendship.”
This frightened Amerigo Bonasera even more. He stuttered, “The Don himself is coming to me tonight?”
“Yes,” Hagen said.
“Then he’s completely recovered from his injuries, thank God,” Bonasera said. His voice made it a question.
There was a pause at the other end of the phone, then Hagen’s voice said very quietly, “Yes.” There was a click and the phone went dead.
Bonasera was sweating. He went into the bedroom and changed his shirt and rinsed his mouth. But he didn’t shave or use a fresh tie. He put on the same one he had used during the day. He called the funeral parlor and told his assistant to stay with the bereaved family using the front parlor that night. He himself would be busy in the laboratory working area of the building. When the assistant started asking question Bonesera cut him off very curtly and told him to follow orders exactly.
He put on his suit jacket and his wife, still eating, looked up at him in surprise. “I have work to do,” he said and she did not dare question him because of the look on his face. Bonasera went out of the house and walked the few blocks to his funeral parlor.
This building stood by itself on a large lot with a white picket fence running all around it. There was a narrow roadway leading from the street to the rear, just wide enough for ambulances and hearses. Bonasera unlocked the gate and left it open. Then he walked to the rear of the building and entered it through the wide door there. As he did so he could see mourners already entering the front door of the funeral parlor to pay their respects to the current corpse.
Many years ago when Bonasgra had bought this building from an undertaker planning to retire, there had been a stoop of about ten steps that mourners had to mount before entering the funeral parlor. This had posed a problem. Old and crippled mourners determined to pay their respects had found the steps almost impossible to mount, so the former undertaker had used the freight elevator for these people, a small metal platform, that rose out of the ground beside the building. The elevator was for coffins and bodies. It would descend underground, then rise into the funeral parlor itself, so that a crippled mourner would find himself rising through the floor beside the coffin as other mourners moved their black chairs aside to let the elevator rise throngh the trapdoor. Then when the crippled or aged mourner had finished paying his respects, the elevator would again come up through the polished floor to take him down and out again.
Amerigo Bonasera had found this solution to the problem upseernly and penny-pinching. So he had had the front of the building remodeled, the stoop done away with and a slightly inclining walk put in its place. But of course the elevator was still used for coffins and corpses.
In the rear of the building, cut off from the funeral parlor and reception rooms by a massive soundproof door, was the business office, the embalming room, a storeroom for coffins, and a carefully locked closet holding chemicals and the awful tools of his trade. Bonasera went to the office, sat at his desk and lit up a Camel,,one of the few times he had ever smoked in this building. Then he waited for Don Corleone.
He waited with a feeling of the utmost despair. For, he had no doubt as to what services he would be called upon to perform. For the last year the Corleone Family had waged war against the five great Mafia Families of New York and the carnage had filled the newspapers. Many men on both sides had been killed. Now the Corleone Family had killed somebody so important that they wished to hide his body, make it disappear, and what better way than to have it officially buried by a registered undertaker? And Amerigo Bonasera had no illusions about the act he was to commit. He would be an accessory to murder. If it came out, he would spend years in jail. His daughter and wife would be disgraced, his good name, the respected name of Amerigo Bonasera, dragged through the bloody, mud of the Mafia war.
He indulged himself by smoking another Camel. And then he thought of something even more terrifying. When the other Mafia Families found out that he had aided the Corleones they would treat him as an enemy. They would murder him. And now he cursed the day he had gone to the Godfather and begged for his vengeance. He cursed the day his wife and the wife of Don Corleone had become friends. He cursed his daughter and America and his own success. And then his optimism returned. It could all go well. Don Corleone was a clever man. Certainly everything had been arranged to keep the secret. He had only to keep his nerve. For of course the one thing more fatal than any other was to earn the Don’s displeasure.
He heard tires on gravel. His practiced ear told him a car was coming through the narrow driveway and parking in the back yard. He opened the rear door to let them in. The huge fat man, Clemenza, entered, followed by two very rough-looking young fellows. They searched the rooms without saying a word to Bonasera, then clemenza went out. The two young men remained with the undertaker.
A few moments later Bonasera recognized the sound of a heavy ambulance coming through the narrow driveway. Then Clemenza appeared in the doorway followed by two men carrying a stretcher. And Amerigo Bonasera’s worst fears were realized. On the stretcher was a corpse swaddled in a gray blanket but with bare yellow feet sticking out the end.
Clemenza motioned the stretcher-bearers into the embalming room. And then from the blackness of the yard another man stepped into the lighted office room. It was Don Corleone.
The Don had lost weight during his illness and moved with a curious stiffness. He was holding his hat in his hands and his hair seemed thin over his massive skull. He looked older, more shrunken than when Bonasera had seen him at the wedding, but he still radiated power. Holding his hat against his chest, he said to Bonasera, “Well, old friend, are you ready to do me this service?”
Bonasera nodded. The Don followed the stretcher into the embalming room and Bonasera trailed after him. The corpse was on one of the guttered tables. Don Corleone made a tiny gesture with his hat and the other men left the room.
Bonasera whispered, “What do you wish me to do?”
Don Corleone was staring at the table. “I want you to use all your powers, all your skill, as you love me,” he said. “I do not wish his mother to see him as he is.” He went to the table and drew down the gray blanket. Amerigo Bonasera against all his will, against all his years of training and experience, let out a gasp of horror. On the embalming able was the bullet-smashed face of Sonny Corleone. The left eye drowned in blood had a star fracture in its lens. The bridge of his nose and left cheekbone were hammered into Pulp.
For one fraction of a second the Don put out his hand to support himself against Bonasera’s body. “See how they have massacred my son,” he said.