The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Work in statis, part II

II. The Boy
The boy did not hear her at first; he was lost in the story he was reading.  The patriot Nathan Hale had just been stopped outside a tavern by a squad of British soldiers and…
Joey?  This time the woman shook him gently.
Hmmm?  The boy looked up.  Miss Cruz had her hand on his shoulder.  Miss Cruz was the youngest librarian at the Carthage Landing Public Library and the boy liked her more than any of the other library people.  She used to read to him when he’d come in with his class on field trips but he was too old for that sort of thing now.
Yes, Miss Cruz, the boy asked.
Joey, your mom called.  She says its time for you to go on home.  It’s getting late, she said, and she doesn’t want you out after dark.
Okay, the boy said.  He closed the book and left it on the table.
You can check that out and take it home, if you want to, Joey, Miss Cruz said.  She picked up the book.
I didn’t bring my library card with me today, the boy said.
Do you want me to put it aside for you?  We can keep it for you until tomorrow afternoon if you want to read it.
No, that’s okay, the boy said.  He put his coat on and picked up his book bag.
It’s still raining a bit, Joey.  You should button your coat up.
I don’t live that far away, the boy said.
Do you want to catch pneumonia, Joey?   Your mom’s going to stop me after Sunday Mass again asking how come I let you leave here without buttoning up your coat.  You want to get sick and die? 
That’s just Mom exaggerating stuff again, the boy said.  She always does that.
I’ll bet, Miss Cruz said.  Stand still, Mr. Know—It—All. She bent down and began buttoning up his coat. 
The boy stood still, keeping his face set and impassive. 
There you go, she said, patting him on the chest.  No pneumonia for you, Mr. Smartypants.
Thank you, Miss Cruz, the boy said.
You’re welcome, Joey. Now run along, your mom’s waiting for you, she said.
The boy looped the strap for his book bag over his shoulder and said, okay, Miss Cruz.  Good night.
Good night, Joey, the librarian said.  I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I?
Yes, ma’am, the boy said. Good night.
It was still drizzling outside and it was getting dark; the streetlight had turned on and the asphalt gleamed brightly in the sodium vapor light.  Down the street, in the western sky above the mountains on the far side of the river, the sun peeked out for a moment between the crack between the earth and sky, staining the dark gray gunmetal sky with shades of red and yellow and purple.  The boy stood at the top of the stairs and watched the colors deepen as the sun vanished behind the mountains.  He frowned; down the street from the library he could see the spires of St. Joseph’s Church outlined against the fading sky, and next to it, the squat mass of the Christian Brothers’ boys’ school he attended.  School.  He pushed the terrible thought out of his mind and went down the stairs and across the street.
Stores were still open on Putnam Avenue: pizzerias, the drugstore, some bars, the Chinese restaurant.  The boy slowed as he walked past the Chinese restaurant and looked in through the big plate glass window.  There were cats in the food, people said.  His uncle said it too; he’d said it at the kitchen table not a week before, when he’d been sitting drinking his tea after dinner.  An old man and a young woman stood together at the long stove, speaking to each other and to someone the boy could not see in a sing song rush that sounded like baby talk.  They did not notice the boy; they peered down into the woks, concentrating on their work.  Every so often they stepped back or snapped their heads quickly one way or the other just in time to avoid an eruption of burning oil and propane.  The young woman saw the boy standing outside and looked at him for a moment.  She said nothing; her face was blank and impassive; and then she turned her attention back to the stove, evidently deciding that he was not going to come in and order anything.  The boy looked around the restaurant one more time and started down Putnam Avenue, disappointed he hadn’t seen any cats in the restaurant.  Out on the river a passing freighter blew its ship’s whistle twice as it passed under the bridge.  From the south the boy could hear the oncoming rumble of a commuter train coming up from the city, and then a loud long monotonous wail began on the waterfront: the fire alarm.  The boy turned and looked back towards the river. The front doors of the Charles F. Smith Hook & Ladder Company opened with a loud metallic bang the boy could hear several blocks away and the fire engines came roaring out of the station and up Putnam Avenue, their lights flashing and their sirens going full blast. 
The boy watched and waved and shouted and jumped up and down as the fire engines hurtled by. The firemen waved back to him.  He shouted again, wanting to know where the fire was, but his shouts got lost in the din of sirens.  A moment later the juggernaut passed him by.  He watched them until they turned the corner at Cross Street and disappeared. 
The boy walked down Putnam Avenue for another block and then went down the long flight of stairs that separated Putnam Avenue from Market Street.  Across the street in Memorial Park the lights were on and the boy could hear the p.a. system and the shouts of a crowd; the local softball league was playing a night game.  He thought about crossing the park to get home and decided not to; his mother was convinced that all manner of thieves and murderers and hoodlums and God only knew what other kind of troublemaker lived in the park at night and she did not want him in there after the sun had gone down.  On most nights he could get away with ignoring the ban, but tonight the streets and sidewalks were relatively dry and the park grass was still wet.  That’s a dead giveaway, the boy thought.  Go around the park.

The boy went down Market Street and then turned onto Carthage Avenue.  Carthage Avenue curved halfway down a small hill and then split in two. The buildings here were old and ugly, built of red brick indelibly stained from more than a century of use and a half-century of neglect.  Many of the buildings had been stores and warehouses once and painted on their walls were faded advertisements for brickyards and player pianos and automobile dealerships and department stores that had been out of business for over fifty years.  Abandoned for years, most of the warehouses were now small tenement apartments where most of Carthage Landing’s poor blacks and Puerto Ricans lived.  The area was ugly enough in the daylight; at night, in the pale sick yellow glow of perpetually dirty streetlights, a glow that seemed to gather in thick scummy pools around the old Victorian lamp posts and to leave the rest of the street in darkness, Carthage Avenue lost its surface ugliness and appeared deeply sinister.  Most sinister of all were the night people.  The night people were what his mother called them, the people who came out at twilight and shunned the light of day.  The boy had seen them as well.  They gathered together at street corners and front stoops, most of them avoiding the street lights, as though even that weak dirty light was too strong for them.  There was something gross and unclean about them, and the boy wanted to avoid them if he could. 
The boy reached the end of Carthage Avenue and stopped for a moment.  Park Street led back up the hill; Water Street led down to the train station and the river.  Set between the two streets was the Carthage Avenue Zion Baptist Church.  The front doors were open and bright light and music flowed out; the choir was practicing “Precious Lord.”  A man came out onto the front steps of the church, lit up a cigarette, and inhaled deeply. As he blew the smoke out, he saw the boy standing across the street and smiled and waved to him.  The boy waved back and then he heard someone inside the church call to the man.  The man dropped his cigarette and ground it out and went back inside.  The music grew louder and the boy turned and hurried up the hill.  Twilight had faded; night had begun.

Where’ve you been all of this time, his mother said as the boy came through the front door.
I was at the library, the boy said.
No, where were you before that?
I was riding my bike.
I know you were riding your bike.  Mrs. Cronin was looking out the window when you and your friends were popping wheelies in the middle of the street.  How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?  I don’t mind it so much if you do it at the playground, but if you fall off your bike in the middle of the street, a car will run you over and kill you.
Mom, that’s not going to happen, the boy said.
Is that so?  I suppose Jerry Fahey told his mother, poor woman, the same thing, and now he’s with both his legs broken because he couldn’t get from the front of that taxi fast enough.
The boy rolled his eyes.  Jerry Fahey lived two floors up in their apartment building.  Three months before he’d popped a wheelie while riding his bike in the middle of Mill Street and had fallen off his bike in front of a taxi. The taxi then ran over his legs and broke them both.  This was not a good thing, obviously; no one wanted to fall off their bike and be hit by a taxi, even if it meant they got to stay home from summer school and eat ice cream and watch television all day long like Jerry Fahey did; but now all the mothers on Mill Street were alert to the dangers of their children popping wheelies in the middle of the street and all of them hounded their children with the example of Jerry Fahey.  There was no point in telling your mother—he knew that some of his friends had tried—that what had happened to Jerry Fahey was a once in a lifetime occurrence, and that the only lifetime such an event could have occurred in was Jerry Fahey’s. There was absolutely no one on Mill Street or in Sacred Heart School or in Sacred Heart parish or in all of the United States of America for that matter as slow, dumb, fat, and clumsy as Jerry Fahey, and that it was not an accident that he had been hit by that taxi—it was fate, pure and simple. Jerry Fahey and that taxi had been on a collision course from the moment Jerry was born and the taxi rolled off the assembly line in Detroit. Few of the mothers of Mill Street accepted this argument and the maternal regulation against the popping of wheelies in the middle of the street was passed unanimously, a decree enforced by scores of harassed fathers tired of their wives’ nagging on the subject after a long day at work, and by Mrs. Cronin, the old woman who lived in the apartment downstairs from the boy and his family.  Mrs. Cronin found late in life that not only was she a prodigious minder of other people’s business, but that she had an annoying knack for spotting a kid popping a forbidden wheelie three blocks away in a heavy fog.  The boy had been unwise to tempt fate as he had; he realized that Mrs. Cronin would’ve seen him no matter how far away from the house he was and that she would call his mother right away with the bad news.                                                                                                                          
Don’t roll your eyes at me, young man, his mother said.  You won’t be rolling them when we have to take you into the hospital.  Now go in and wash your hands and go in to eat. 
What’s for supper anyway, the boy asked. 
There’s stew in the pot.  Heat it up before you eat it; it’ll have gone cold by now.  And Joey, tomorrow be home on time for supper.  This isn’t a flophouse where you can just come and go as you please and eat whenever you take a mind to, understand?
Yes, mom, the boy said.
Good lad.  Now go in and wash your hands, his mother said.  The phone in the living room began to ring.  And no eating out of the pot, Joey, she called.  We’re not savages that can’t afford to buy a plate to eat our meals off of.
The boy did not have to heat up his dinner; the Dutch oven was still warm.  He opened the cupboard, took down a cereal bowl, and then ladled the meat and potatoes and some onions into the bowl.   The boy sat down at the table and began to eat. 
When he finished the boy stopped for a moment and tried to stifle a belch.  He couldn’t and his mother yelled in, don’t be a pig, Joey.
Sorry, Mom, the boy called back.  He got up, put the bowl into the sink, and ran some water into it.  He went into the living room.  His mother was sitting on the couch, sewing a button back onto one of his father’s shirts.
Are you done with your supper?
Yup, I’m done.
Did you put the plate in the sink?
Yeah.  And I ran some water into it.
Good lad.  Get yourself ready for bed then.
Come on, Mom.  Only babies go to bed this early.  Can I watch the TV?  It’s Saturday.
You have to be at the Children’s Mass tomorrow at nine, Joey, and the past few Sundays getting you out of bed’s been like pulling teeth, his mother said, and I don’t feel like explaining your absence to Brother Timothy again. 
Okay, the boy said.
The phone rang again. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, won’t she ever leave me alone?
Nope, never, the boy said.
His mother smiled at him and pinched his cheek and said, don’t be hateful, Joey.  She’s your aunt, not some stranger in the street.  You be nice to her.
Even when she’s being a pain?
Especially when she’s being a pain, but you didn’t hear that from me, understand?
Right, the boy said. He smiled at her as she picked up the phone.
The boy went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, and washed his hands and face.  When he walked through the living room, his mother was still on the phone.  Night, Mom, he said.
Good night, Joey, she said.
Good night, Aunt Margaret, the boy yelled.
His mother laughed and said, she says good night and don’t be fresh.  Now, off with you then.
The boy went to his room and got ready for bed, tossing his shirt and pants onto the pile of dirty clothes behind the door.  He climbed into bed and opened his book, wanting to read a little first.  He read nothing; he fell asleep, the book unopened in his hands, and the light left on.  When he dreamed he dreamed of baseball.

The boy woke suddenly, his eyes opened wide, the last parts of a nightmare already beginning to fade from his memory.  He stared into the darkness and for a moment could only see the black of night.  Then his eyes adjusted and he could see familiar shapes emerging from the darkness: his chest of drawers and the desk he did his homework on and the pile of clothes in the corner.  Light seeped in under the door and he could voices coming from the kitchen.  

His father was home.  The boy could hear talking with his Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jimmy in the living room, and the boy could hear the clink of teacups against saucers and smell the scones his mother had baked.
    …they identified the baby then aunt margaret asked or so mrs cronin told me they didn’t identify anything, uncle jimmy said you can only identify people when they have names to begin with no one knew that kid was there christ, no one knew that kid existed stop quibbling, you know what I mean, aunt margaret said well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, the boy’s father said the kid was hers why else would she go through all the trouble of hiding it for all these years that’s true, uncle jimmy said i mean, think about it for just a minute that old woman never went anywhere, never did anything, never talked to anyone if she could help it, and why is that she had a secret she couldn’t tell anyone about and she couldn’t take the chance that someone would find out about it so she never left the apartment unless she absolutely couldn’t avoid it and her best friends in the world were a bunch of dumb animals my god, the things people do, his mother said murdering your own child and to think i saw her every week at mass probably asking god to forgive her for what she’d done, uncle jimmy said probably, his father said how long do you suppose the baby’s been there, his mother asked who knows years, decades maybe, aunt margaret said no one’s ever heard of this baby she must’ve killed it—i hate saying it about a human being; does anybody know if the poor thing was a boy or a girl i think it’s a boy, his mother said terri gillespie’s husband, mike, was one of the policemen at the scene when they broke the door down terri asked him what it was and mike said he thought one of the detectives said it was a boy in any case, that crazy old woman must’ve killed the boy right after he was born that’s why there’s no record of him, aunt margaret said she wasn’t a crazy old woman when she killed him, his father said i can’t believe that no one back then noticed she was pregnant i thought of that, too, uncle jimmy said i mean, it wasn’t like today, when no one cares a rat’s ass one way or another and a girl can have two, three kids and go on welfare and who cares it just wasn’t like that back then nobody saw she was pregnant no one in this town gossiped about it, nobody pointed her out at mass and said, that’s the grady girl, the one with the baby and no husband you know, i find that damn hard to believe come on, jimmy, remember that kid’s been dead at least forty years, his father said everyone who could’ve pointed the finger at her is either dead or too old to care now or someone took the time and trouble to make sure no one asked questions, aunt margaret said i wonder who the father might be who knows, uncle jimmy said it’s too late in the day to do blood tests now i wonder if the father knew he knew, all right, his mother said, and when he heard the news he caught the first train out of town otherwise, there would have been a wedding maybe that’s why she did it my god, that poor woman, living with that on her conscience all these years well, i’ve seen her going in to confession, aunt margaret said not recently, but years ago when i first came here i remember thinking how odd she was she never sat by the confessionals or spoke to anyone that i can think of and if there were anyone waiting to go to confession she would sit and wait until everyone was finished and then she would go in to see father grogan he must’ve known, his father said i don’t see how he couldn’t know that’s what’s so strange, aunt margaret said since father grogan retired i don’t think i’ve seen her go to confession  she was always in church in time for confession and saturday evening mass, but i don’t think i’ve seen her go in to see the priest that’s not so strange, mag, the boy’s father said grogan was the one who knew her secret, but in the confessional it was between her and grogan and god the idea of telling someone else her secret must’ve been torture that’s true, uncle jimmy said bless me, father, for i have sinned, this is the 519th time i have confessed to the murder of my child father grogan said it was okay and i hope you will, too don’t be blasphemous, aunt margaret said sharply tom grogan would never have told that woman that it was all right to murder her child you’re being ridiculous now ridiculous or not, one thing’s very clear that crazy old woman never spent a day in jail for murdering that child, and if she hadn’t died when she did and the way she did no one would have known that she murdered her child or even that she had a child to murder in the first place so she got away with murder, uncle jimmy said, and that’s the plain truth of it father grogan is back now, you know, the boy’s mother said he retired a couple of years ago and now he’s living at his sister’s house over on north walnut street i saw him at mass last week he’s in a wheelchair now i can’t imagine how joan is supposed to care of him; she must be eighty if she’s a day she needs someone to take care of her christ, what’s wrong with him, uncle jimmy asked he had a bit of a stroke and i’ve heard that he might have alzheimer’s as well, his mother said poor man, uncle jimmy said a stroke and alzheimer’s to boot that’ll addle a man’s wits in no time at all poor bastard…

There was a general murmur of agreement.
The conversation in the living room moved on to other things, things the boy was not interested in.  He turned towards the wall, staring into the darkness.  He could not imagine a mother killing her own child; the thought seemed so implausible that he kept trying to discount it altogether, but he had heard his own mother and father discussing it not as an improbability but as a horrible reality.  His mind raced back and forth with the possibilities of what he’d heard, analyzing the consequences and repercussions of the act in all of their detail, until at length his mind wearied of the mental athletics and he drifted off to sleep.  As he slept, he dreamed he saw his mother screaming noiselessly at him and then run after him with knife in hand.  The boy woke with a start; his bed was soaked with sweat, and he did not sleep for the rest of the night.

…for the dead of our parish and all of those who have died in Christ and wait in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, grant us, O Lord, we humbly pray, Father Dornan intoned.
Grant us, O Lord, we humbly pray, the congregation intoned.
And most especially, O Lord, we pray for the soul of the innocent child found dead here in our parish this past week, whose too short life was so tragically cut short and whose soul is with you today, grant us, O Lord, we humbly pray.
Grant us, O Lord, we humbly pray, the congregation responded. 
Billy Muldoon nudged the boy with his elbow.  Take a look at that, Joey, he said under his breath, by the wall over there.  The boy took a quick peek.  In the far aisle next to the confessional an old priest in a wheelchair sat sleeping, snoring loudly.  His prayer book was in his lap for the time being, but it was edging bit-by-bit towards the side of the wheelchair and then inevitably to the floor.  Billy Muldoon leaned closer to the boy and whispered, hey, if he can’t stay awake for this bullshit why should we?
The boy chuckled and then wished he hadn’t; out of the corner of his eye he could see the principal, Brother Timothy, glaring at the two of them.  Oh hell, he thought.  Monday was not going to be a good day.  Brother Timothy would not forget this; he rarely forgot anything—not a face, not a name, not a chance remark someone had made twenty years earlier, and certainly not the names and faces of two of his students who’d laughed at a tired crippled old priest in the middle of Sunday Mass.  He would pay for this transgression in the morning.  He glanced again at the old priest.  Gravity had finally won out; the prayer book was on the floor.  The priest was still asleep.  Tom Fahey chuckled out loud.
Are you guys nuts, Lou DiPietro said.  Lou stood in the pew right behind the boy.  Brother Timothy was looking right at you guys. 
Fuck him, Billy Muldoon said.
I saw him too, the boy said.  He looked like he swallowed a razor blade.
Your ass is grass, man, Lou said.
Yeah, I know, the boy said.
The boys kneeled as Father Dornan began the Eucharistic Prayer.  The boy did not look at the old priest again, although he could hear him snoring every so often.  Heedless of his fate, Billy chuckled at every snore; the boy was sure he could feel Brother Timothy’s eyes boring into the back of his head.

On Monday morning the boy waited in the schoolyard for the bell to ring.  He was standing with his friends in one of the corners of the schoolyard, in the corner where the sixth graders had stood since before anyone could remember why.  The wise student soon learned that strict and invisible lines, lines he dare not cross, marked the schoolyard.  The corner nearest St. Monica’s was reserved for the eighth grade boys, so they could be close to the girls they had so recently discovered an interest in; the other corners were for the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade; the middle of the yard was for the first four grades.  The boy who violated these boundaries, whether on a dare from his friends or from simple ignorance, could expect an immediate reaction from the older boys.  First there would be shouts of get lost, kid, or get outta here, you little punk, and then pushing and shoving, and then, if no adult was looking, a quick punch in the stomach to teach the offender a valuable lesson about who was who and what was what and there’ll be a lot more of that if you don’t stay over there where you belong, understand?
The bell rang three times and the boys lined up to go in.  The youngest kids went in first, and then the middle grades, and finally the junior high boys.  The first few grades went inside in lines straight as soldiers; by the sixth and seventh grades the lines were more blurred, and the eighth grade went in less as a line than as a series of conversations about girls and sports being pulled lazily towards the open door by some unseen force.  Every few months the brothers, annoyed at the untidiness prevalent in their schoolyard, would clamp down, and the boys would go into the school in the neat orderly lines they were supposed to go into the school without the brothers there in the yard watching them, but the clampdown seldom lasted more than a week or two and soon the boys were slacking off again, the lines curving one way and then the other before disappearing altogether.  This was especially true of the eighth grade boys, who would not stand in a straight line for long, despite the grim warnings of Brother Timothy, in the first small opening salvo in the adolescent rebellion to come, a time when the more experienced brothers were glad they did not have to put up with the little hooligans anymore; they were someone else’s problem then, thank God.
The boy followed his class into the building and then up the stairs and to the left, where the fifth grade classrooms were.  There were four fifth grade classrooms at St. Joseph’s, the classroom doors marked A through D; the boy went into room C.  
Brother Michael was already sitting at his desk, reading the history textbook and marking a passage with a pencil.  The boys filed into the classroom and went to their desks and sat down.  When all the boys were sitting Brother Michael put the history book to one side and opened his attendance book.  He looked around the classroom and made two marks in the book.
The school bell rang twice.  Brother Michael closed the attendance book.  All right, boys, he said, please stand.
The boys stood and clasped their hands and said the Our Father and the Hail Mary and then faced the American flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance.  The loudspeaker clicked on, crackling with static.  No one paid any attention to the static or to the public address system; announcements on the loudspeaker were usually short and cryptic and usually meant for the teachers.  The eighth graders were the only students interested in the school news, especially if that news could get them near the girls at St, Monica’s.  Brother Benedict usually read the morning announcements.  He was a Hungarian brother whose grasp of spoken English was sometimes tenuous; the older boys laughed at him behind his back.
Joseph McGuire report to the Main Office immediately, Brother Timothy said.  A burst of feedback made everyone wince and then Brother Benedict continued with the rest of the day’s announcements.
The boy suddenly felt sick, and the rest of the class looked at him with a wide-eyed look of fear and curiosity.  For Brother Timothy to single out a boy personally by name and call them to the Main Office was either a sign of great merit, which was extremely rare, or that the called boy was in such deep trouble that it boggled the imagination.  The rest of the class watched the boy leave the room as though he were a condemned prisoner going to his execution. 
The boy went down the stairs to the first floor.  He went into the rest room and relieved himself, almost wetting his trousers as he stood in front of the urinal; his legs were shaking violently.  The boy felt sick and more scared than he had ever been in his life.  He knew why he’d been singled out; he even knew that he would be called to the Main Office, but now that the moment was upon him he felt terrified, and a moment later he rushed into a stall and really was sick, vomiting his breakfast into the toilet bowl. 
He flushed the mess away and went to the sink.  The boy washed his hands and face and washed his mouth our as best he could, gargling twice to get rid of the bitter aftertaste, but it wouldn’t go away completely. 
The hall down to the Main Office was empty now.  The boy could hear the classes going on behind the closed doors: teachers standing in front of their classes lecturing or answering questions, the calls from the boys who knew the answer, the jokes from the class clown, bursts of laughter, and the admonition from the teacher to settle down. 
The boy reached the door to the Main Office and knocked twice.   The door was open and an elderly brother looked up at him and smiled.  Yes, son, what can I do for you, he said.
I’m McGuire, I mean, I’m Joseph McGuire, brother, the boy said.  Brother Timothy sent for me.
Yes, he did, son, the brother said.  That was almost five minutes ago.  It doesn’t usually take that long to get here from the third floor.
I had to go to the bathroom, the boy muttered.
You what?
I had to use the restroom, Brother, the boy said.
I thought that’s what you said.  Come here, son.  The brother pulled four or five tissues from a box on his desk and motioned for the boy to come around his desk.  The brother rolled the tissues into a ball and wiped the sides of the boy’s mouth.  There you go, son, the brother said.  We can’t send you in to see Brother with vomit on your face, can we?
No, brother, but, the boy started.
You thought you got all of it, didn’t you?  Well, you did a good job of it, Mr. McGuire, you certainly get an A for trying, but there was just a spot here and there.  Anyway, now you’re presentable.  Just wait here.  The brother got up and went to the door marked principal and knocked once.
Yes, Brother Timothy said from inside. 
The brother opened the door partly and poked his head inside.  Mr. McGuire to see you, Brother, he said.
Thank you, Brother. Could you come in for a moment, please, Brother Timothy said.
The elderly brother disappeared into the office.  The boy could hear a quick whispered conversation, but could not make out anything the two men were saying.  Less than a minute later the elderly brother came out and said, all right, Mr. McGuire, you can go in now.
Thank you, Brother, the boy said in a very small voice.  He walked slowly to the solid oak door and pushed it open.
Close the door behind you, Mr. McGuire, Brother Timothy said, and do not bang it.
Yes, Brother, the boy said.  He closed the door, holding the knob tightly to keep it from slamming shut.  When he heard the bolts click home he turned around as far as he could without letting go of the knob; his legs were turning to water beneath him. 
Brother Timothy was sitting behind a large wooden desk writing in a gray ledger with a fountain pen.  The office was spare and functional: the desk itself, a few large file cabinets, some bookshelves with books straight as soldiers on them, and a print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna by one window.  There were two heavy wooden chairs in front of the desk; Brother Timothy looked up for a moment and motioned the boy to one.  Please sit down, Mr. McGuire, he said before returning his attention to the ledger.
Yes, Brother, the boy said.  He crossed the room. His legs, which only a moment before had felt like water, had solidified into concrete blocks he could move only with the most extraordinary physical and mental effort.  He sat down; the chair was uncomfortable as it looked; and he waited.
Brother Timothy continued writing in the gray ledger.  Every so often he flipped back a few pages to check something and then returned to his original page and continued writing.  The boy tried not to look at him; he folded his hands in his lap and tried to keep his attention firmly focused on them, but every so often he stole a glance at Brother Timothy.  He could not help himself; the man dominated all aspects of life at the school.  The boys talked about him in low whispers, as though saying his name would immediately cause the man to appear.  Stories of boys sent to the Main Office for some usually unspecified breach of the rules and then never returning abounded, and there was a story of one boy’s father coming in to protest his son’s punishment leaving the Main Office with a black eye and a split lip.  The boy felt beads of sweat trickle down and gather in the small of his back.  He shifted his weight from one side to the other.
Mr. McGuire, that chair is not a recliner, Brother Timothy said.  Please sit up straight and keep still.
Yes, Brother, the boy said.  Brother Timothy did not lift his eyes from his work.  The boy sat up straight, not permitting his back to touch the back of the chair.  The beads of sweat began to flow down his back now, and his face was wet with perspiration.  A pain started to grow in his back, between his shoulder blades, and it spread up and down his spine and over his shoulders and into his neck.  A trickle of sweat reached the corner of his left eye and the boy winced.  He wiped the sweat out of his eye.
Mr. McGuire, I did ask you to sit still, didn’t I?
Yes, Brother.
Why are you moving about then?
The sweat gots in my eye, Brother.  I hadda wipe it out.
The sweat got in your eye, Mr. McGuire, and you had to wipe it out, he corrected.
Yes, Brother, I had to wipe it out, the boy said.
There was a small knock on the door and the elderly brother said, Monsignor Riordan is here, Brother.
Thank you, Brother Jude, please send him in, Brother Timothy said.  He put his pen down and closed the gray ledger book.  Please stand up, Mr. McGuire, he said.
Yes, Brother.  The boy stood up.
There was a quick knock on the door and before Brother Timothy could say come in Monsignor Riordan was in, saying, good morning, Brother, how are you today?
Good morning, Monsignor, I’m doing well, thank you.
Monsignor Riordan saw the boy and said, and who might you be, young man?
Joseph McGuire, Monsignor, the boy said nervously.
Ah, so this is our young criminal then, Brother?
Yes, Monsignor.
I see, I see, the monsignor said as he sat down.  As soon as Monsignor Riordan settled in his chair Brother Timothy sat down as well; the boy remained standing.
Well, young man, Monsignor Riordan started, and then he interrupted himself, saying, sit down, sit down, please.
The boy sat.
Now then, Mr. McGuire, do you know why you are here, the Monsignor asked.
No, Monsignor, the boy said.  He saw Brother Timothy frown and said, well, maybe a little.
Maybe a little, Monsignor Riordan repeated.  He sat back in his chair.  Are you sure?
The boy was disconcerted now.  He’d never thought much of the monsignor before; he was a short roly-poly man who was always smiling or laughing at something; he seemed a nonentity when compared to Brother Timothy, but the monsignor was not smiling or laughing now.  The boy could not recall ever seeing Monsignor Riordan defer to Brother Timothy the way everyone else did, but then, the monsignor didn’t have to.  Brother Timothy was a lay brother; Monsignor Riordan was a priest.
Yes, Monsignor, the boy said.  I’m sure.
That’s better, the monsignor said.  You know, Joseph, that Father Grogan’s grown old and sick in the service of the Church and he’s done nothing to deserve your mockery.  At the very least you’ve sinned against charity.
Yes, Monsignor, the boy said.
If you don’t mind my asking, why were laughing at Father at Mass, the monsignor said.
I don’t know, Monsignor, the boy said.
Do you always laugh at people without knowing why?
No, Monsignor.
Then why were you and the other young man laughing at Father Grogan?
I don’t know, Monsignor.
Mr. McGuire, ‘I don’t know’ is an evasion, not an answer, Brother Timothy said sharply.  I don’t want to hear it again.  Answer the monsignor’s question.
Yes, Brother, the boy said.  He waited a moment, trying to think of something to say. Billy Muldoon was laughing at him first—I didn’t want to be mean or nothing, he said finally.  Billy pointed at him and he was laughing already and I laughed at Father too.  I didn’t mean to; I just did it.
…and the woman gave me to eat, and I did eat, Monsignor Riordan said.  Congratulations, Joseph, you’ve just used the oldest excuse in the world, the one Adam used in the Garden of Eden: it’s not my fault I sinned, someone made me do it.  It didn’t work then and I’m afraid it’s not going to work now, Joseph.  You know you will have to confess this before you receive Communion next week, don’t you?
Yes, Monsignor.
And that your parents will have to know, the monsignor said.
The boy had been leaning against the back of the chair; he straightened up immediately.  Do they have to, Monsignor, he said. 
You’ve got his attention now, Monsignor, Brother Timothy said.
I thought it would concentrate his mind, Brother, the monsignor said.  He turned to the boy.  I think your parents will have to know, Joseph, if only to get their permission.  As you may know, Father Grogan is staying at his sister’s house until his family can make arrangements for him.  He was supposed to go to the archdiocese’s home for retired priests in Channingville, until the chancery office received word from his family that they wanted to care of him; I believe that they intend to send him to his brother’s home in Maryland.  Now the plain fact of the matter is that his sister can’t stay with Father Grogan all day long.  There’s an hour or so in the afternoon, about the time school lets out, when she needs to run errands and do some shopping and so there’s no one is immediately available to take care of him.  I was thinking that perhaps you could watch him Father Grogan for that little while.  Do you think you could do that, Joseph?  It won’t be for very long, maybe a month or so, until his family makes the arrangements necessary to move him to Maryland.  And you wouldn’t have to do very much at all.  Father Grogan makes very few demands on the people around him.  You’d have to turn his television on and off, get him his lunch, maybe make him a cup of tea sometimes.  I’m assuming that a boy whose parents come from Ireland knows how to make a proper cup of tea.
Yes, Monsignor, I can make tea, the boy said.
Very good, very good.  Now, could you do that, Joseph?
I don’t know, Monsignor, the boy said.  I’d have to ask my parents.
By all means, Joseph, no one expects you to do this without your parents’ permission, the monsignor said affably.
What if they say no, the boy asked.  I don’t want to get in trouble.
Mr. McGuire, you are already in trouble, Brother Timothy said.   That is why you are here in the first place.
Yes, Brother, the boy said.
Well, I must say I hadn’t thought of that, the monsignor said, stroking his chins.  Well, I think we’ll worry about that when the time comes…or I could call your parents this afternoon and see if we can make some arrangements for you to come in, without, of course, mentioning why we happened to choose you.  Would you prefer that I called your parents, Joseph?
Yes, Monsignor, the boy said.   The boy thought it was a terrible idea, but he could see no way around it; if he told his parents they would know he was in deep trouble.
All right then, it’s settled, Monsignor Riordan said.  I’ll call your parents and once everything’s arranged you can come over to the rectory.  You’ll remember to go to Confession on Saturday, Joseph, won’t you?
Yes, Monsignor, the boy said.
Then I won’t keep you any longer, the monsignor said.  Unless, Brother, you have something to add?
No, Monsignor, I do not, Brother Timothy said, except to say that there shall be no repetition of last Sunday’s events, do I make myself clear, Mr. McGuire?
Yes, Brother, the boy said.
All right, son, go back to class, the monsignor said.
The boy got up and backed out of the office.  He closed the door behind himself slowly and then slowly turned the knob until he heard the lock click home.  He slowly walked across the room; the old brother nodded and smiled at him as the boy passed the desk.  At the door the boy stopped and looked both ways and then bolted down the hall.
The monsignor opened the door.  You’re right, Brother Timothy, he said.  The boy’s running like all the devils in hell are after him.  The monsignor closed the door and sat down again.
He’s basically a good lad, Monsignor, Brother Timothy said, but he wants to be one of the boys and so his friends influence him, and, as in this case, sometimes not for the better.  One such friend instigated this incident.  Joseph went along with it to show he was a good sport, not from any actual malice towards Father Grogan.  He gets good marks and all his teachers like him.  He’s not usually a discipline problem.
Is that why you suggested him, the monsignor asked.
Yes, it is.
And what about the other boy?  Malone, isn’t it?
Muldoon, William Muldoon.  I will tend to Mr. Muldoon later today.
The monsignor made a sour face.  I take it young William is a problem, he said.
He wants to be, Monsignor, but he’ll have his mind changed for him before the end of the school year, Brother Timothy said.  In any case, how are you going to explain this to Joseph’s parents without going into the details?  I know his father; if he finds out Joseph was making fun of Father Grogan during Sunday Mass, the boy won’t be able to sit down for a week.
The monsignor shook his head and said, I haven’t a clue, not a clue in the world, Brother.  I’ll think of something, though, God willing.

The boy started a week later.  He didn’t know what the monsignor told his parents, but whatever reason the monsignor gave, his mother didn’t believe it for a minute.  She prodded the boy for answers, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said nothing, admitted nothing, guessing that the less he said the better off he’d be.  His mother was sure that he’d done something that deserved a good thrashing but couldn’t prove it without calling the monsignor a liar to his face, something she would never do even if she thought it was the truth.
The boy went up the stairs and into the church, stopping to dip his fingers in the holy water and bless himself.  The church was cool and still, his footsteps echoing hollowly amid the soft murmuring of old women saying their rosaries.  Monsignor Riordan met him at the sacristy door. 
How are you today, Joseph, he asked.
Fine, thank you, Monsignor, the boy said.
The monsignor looked at his watch.  Well, you’re on time, but Mrs. Murphy hasn’t arrived yet, he said.  I can’t imagine what’s holding her up; she was supposed to be here a half hour ago.  Well, come in and sit down for a minute and I’ll go and see if I can’t find out what the delay is.   Come on in.
The boy followed Monsignor Riordan into the sacristy.  Not much to look at really, the monsignor said.  Just sit anywhere and I’ll be back in just a minute, all right?
Yes, monsignor, the boy said as he sat down in an uncomfortable orange plastic chair.  Monsignor Riordan went back into the church.
The boy looked around with interest.  The altar boys never talked about the sacristy or about anything else they did in the church, except with other altar boys; they liked to keep secrets.  There wasn’t too much to see: a couple of sinks, a refrigerator, a bookcase crammed with hymnbooks and missals, a cupboard, candles, crucifixes, and a large closet for vestments.  Two large oak doors led out onto the altar and there were a few plastic chairs like the one he was sitting in.  The boy thought that maybe being an altar boy wasn’t such a big deal after all; his mother wanted him to ask but he’d been putting it off, his mother and his asking, for several weeks.  He decided that he had better things to do with his time; being an altar boy suddenly struck him as being a singular waste of time.
The door opened and Monsignor Riordan entered, followed by an old woman with snow-white hair who was nodding at something the monsignor just said.
And this is the young man I was speaking of, Mrs. Murphy, the monsignor said, closing the door behind the old woman.   I don’t believe you know Joseph, do you?
The old woman smiled.  I’ve not had the pleasure, she said.
Then allow me.  Mrs. Murphy, this is Joseph McGuire, who’s volunteered to help you care for Father Grogan.
Well, how do you do, Joseph, she said.  She put out her hand.
Pleased to meet you, ma’am, the boy said, taking her hand and shaking it.  Her grip was firm, her hand warm and dry.
Now, Joseph, the monsignor said, you understand that you will be helping Mrs. Murphy take care of Father Grogan for a little while each afternoon during the school week, don’t you?
Yes, monsignor, the boy said.  I know that.
Good, good.  Excellent.  Then you know that we are asking you to take on a lot of responsibility for someone of your age.  Mrs. Murphy will usually be there to supervise you, but there may be times when she has to go out on errands, to get the mail, for example, or to shop, things of that nature, and then you will be alone with Father Grogan.  Father, because of his illness, is not able to supervise you; in fact, many times you will responsible for him.  Brother Timothy selected you because he believes you are mature enough to act responsibly in this situation.  I don’t have to tell you, I think, that the reputation of St. Joseph’s, as well as your own good name, are riding on how well you can carry out your tasks.  We’ve told Mrs. Murphy that you are a good Catholic boy whom she can trust.  Don’t make us look like liars and fools, Joseph, he said.
I won’t, Monsignor, the boy said.  I promise.  I’ll do my best.
I know you’ll do well, Joseph, the monsignor said.  He clapped the boy on the shoulder.
Thank you, the boy said.
Well, that’s settled then, Mrs. Murphy said.  Let’s go across the street then and I’ll introduce you to my brother.
Doesn’t he live in the rectory, ma’am, the boy asked.
Oh no, Joseph, not at all, Mrs. Murphy said.  He lives with me across the street.  Come along now, won’t you?
Yes, ma’am, the boy said. 
I’ll see you tomorrow, Monsignor, she said, in the morning, if I can make it.
Of course, the monsignor said.  I’ll be in the parish office tomorrow morning after morning Mass.  That’s usually about nine o’clock or so.
All right then, Mrs. Murphy said.  I’ll see you then.
The boy got up and had the presence of mind to hold the door open for the old woman, who thanked him and started talking about her difficulties with her brother.  He can be a real fright, sometimes, she said, a real terror.  You’d hardly know he was ever a priest from the way he carries on.  Terrible, terrible.  But he has his good days too, God be thanked, and they more than make up for the bad days.  The old woman chattered on about good days and bad, and sometimes she waved to someone she knew sitting in the pews.  They dipped their fingers in the holy water at the front of the church and blessed themselves as they passed through the vestibule and out the front door.
    They stopped at the top of the front stairs; Mrs. Murphy needed to look for her keys.  Just hold on one moment, Joseph, she said.  I will be right with you.
That’s okay, I’m in no hurry, the boy said.  Take your time.
The old woman smiled at him and started rooting through her purse.  The boy stood and waited.  He could see the top of the library from where he stood, and further down, the firehouse, and the long row of frame houses that stretched down South Oak Street towards Main Street.  There was a courtyard next to the stairs where a statue of the Holy Mother stood and in front of it was a small stone prie-dieu where a worshipper could kneel and pray when the church was not open.  A tall statue of Jesus with outstretched arms stood at the foot of the stairs.  Across the street was a small triangle of land where Church, North Oak, and South Oak Streets came together.  An old sugar maple stood in the middle of the triangle, shading a stature of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, the statue being a gift from a local businessman whose only son had died in the fighting at Bellau Wood in 1918.
    All right, here we are, Mrs. Murphy said.  Let’s be off, shall we?
Yes, ma’am, the boy said politely.  About time, he thought.
They went down the stairs and to the right and crossed the street.  Mrs. Murphy walked down to the corner, to the house next to Halloran’s Funeral Home, just across the street from the rectory.  They went up the three steps to the front porch and the hold held the screen door open for Mrs. Murphy.  She fumbled with the lock for a moment and muttered something about getting this door fixed once and for all; finally, the key slid into place and she opened the door.
Come in, Joseph, she said.  Come in.
The boy followed her into the house, stopping at the end of the small hall that led into the living room.  He looked around for a moment.  The living room was plain and neat, with a television and a couch and two chairs and a couple of small tables with lamps on them.  There was an oval coffee table in the middle of the room.  An old beige carpet covered the floor, the path through the living room from the hall to the kitchen just a shade darker than the rest of the carpet. 
Joseph, may I take your coat, Mrs. Murphy said from the kitchen.
Yes, ma’am, the boy said.  Thank you.  He followed the dark path into the kitchen.
    Mrs. Murphy had hung her hat and coat up already and was filling a teakettle under a running faucet.  I don’t suppose you drink tea, do you, Joseph, she asked. 
Yes, ma’am, I do, the boy said. 
 Would you like a cup then, she said. 
    No, Mrs. Murphy, really, I don’t need anything, the boy said.  I am fine.
All right then, she said.  Let me put this on the stove and I’ll bring you in to see him.  Sit down, please, you’re making me nervous standing there.
The boy laughed and said, I’m sorry, ma’am, and then sat down.
Now, you hold on just a minute, all right?  She put the teakettle on the stove and picked up a box of wooden matches.  She cracked a match and, as the sulfur caught fire, held the match to the burner as she turned on the gas.  The gas ignited a moment later and she turned the flame down low.  All right, that’s out of the way, she said, let me go see if he’s awake. I’ll be right back.
The boy nodded without saying anything.  He waited until she left the room and then cracked his knuckles one by one.  He shifted a few times in the old wooden chair; it was hard and uncomfortable, the back straight and rigid, with no pillows to ease a sitter’s discomfort.  The other chairs around the round oak table looked just as uncomfortable.  He looked at the clock and tried to remember what numbers the Roman letters stood for.  He thought it must be 3:30 or so, from the position of the hands and if he remembered the letters right.  Through the lace curtains the boy could see the small garden the old woman kept in the back yard, with its alternating rows of tomatoes, carrots, and cantaloupes, and the birdbath next to it.  Three cardinals sat at the edge of the bath, dipping their beaks down to the water to drink.  One of the cardinals raised its tail feathers and defecated over the edge of the bath.  The boy chuckled.
All right, Joseph, Mrs. Murphy said as she came into the kitchen.  He’s awake now.  He wants to meet you so let’s go see him before he tires himself out.
Okay, the boy said, getting up.
They left the kitchen and went into the living room and through a door into a long hall.  They went down to the door at the end of the hall.  She knocked twice.
Come in, a muffled voice said.
Mrs. Murphy looked at the boy and smiled.  All right, she said softly, here we go.
They went in.
The old priest lay in the bed, the bed covers pulled up to the middle of his chest.  He had an old copy of the National Geographic open on his chest and his glasses had slid down almost to the end of his nose.  He looked up over the top of his glasses as they came in.
Tom, Mrs. Murphy said, this is the boy I was telling you about, the one who’ll be helping me take care of you.
The old priest looked at the boy and tried to say something.  He stopped for a moment and then motioned to the boy to come to the side of the bed.  The boy went to the head of the bed.  You are Joseph then, yes, the old priest asked with some difficulty.
Yes, Father, the boy said.
I call you Joseph or Joey? 
Everyone calls me Joey, Father, the boy said.
The old priest nodded a little and murmured, then Joey it is.  For a moment, the old priest struggled to say something else and then stopped.  He shook his head and turned away the boy the boy, he thought, the boy ran up the road then, his face as red as his hair with the running, saying there was a terrible commotion in the town the colored church was on fire and Johnny Mahoney was inside trapped trying to save the poor black babbys poor child God bless all of their poor souls
Mrs. Murphy tapped the boy on the shoulder.  Let’s not tire him, Joseph, she said.  Let me show where I keep his things.  

And I have no idea how to combine these two bits of a story, which is why this is a work in stasis instead of a work in progress.

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