|Kevin is an English teacher at Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio.|
© 2004 Kevin P. Keating
On a lazy Saturday afternoon in late September, Tom Berry, a man who knew better than most how to idle away the dwindling hours of summer sunshine, smoked his last few cigarettes on the back steps of his house. He gazed up at the sky and marveled at the distorted shapes of shifting clouds. To him they seemed to form a pastoral scene in which a mangy dog lifted its leg to spray a copse of white oaks. The air, while warm and breezy, smelled sour, vaguely sulfurous, from the high-flying soot that spewed from the blast furnace of a nearby powerhouse along the Cuyahoga River.
Today, Tom had the onerous task of watching his children. They played tag in the backyard, dashing back and forth under a clothesline heavy with denim pants and a flannel shirt. The oldest child, Bridget, was a little hellion, her arms pin-wheeling, a blur of dangerous whirling blades, her dirty blonde pigtails spinning like propellers, her high-pitched voice belting out a torrent of insults at her little brother. Brian chased after her in silence. He seldom giggled or screamed. In fact, he rarely spoke at all. In a peculiar language all his own, Brian grunted and growled with great purpose. The priest said it was normal, that he was merely speech delayed. Prayer would solve the problem. Tom wasn't so sure and said so. "By God, you'd think he was reared in the wild." Still, Brian was an observant child, quiet and contemplative, always scrutinizing things, but he never spoke a single coherent word.
The kids darted between the garage and alley, and when Bridget reached out her hand to tag her brother, they both stumbled over a root the size of an outstretched leg and toppled to the ground. This resulted in the usual wailing and overdramatic blubbering.
"You two stay away from there!" Tom Berry hollered.
The phone rang, and he hurried into the house, grateful to escape the commotion if only for a moment. A small voice on the other end told him that the boiler was on the fritz again at the rectory.
"God in heaven," Tom groaned and hung up.
He rounded up the children and thrust his toolbox into their arms. He walked at a quick pace, smoking and grumbling all the while, and the children had a very difficult time keeping up with him. When they arrived at the rectory ten blocks later, Mary McAllister, the nineteen-year old housekeeper, answered the door. Beaming a haughty smile and looking straight into Tom's eyes, she told him, "Father Feighan ain't here. He's been called away to administer the last rites to some poor soul." She twirled the ends of her hair with her tiny hands and added hurriedly, "Water's leaking from the boiler, and he wants it fixed straight away. Cold weather'll be here soon, and he doesn't want the boiler to freeze over."
Tom Berry grunted.
This skinny girl had the devil in her, everyone said so, each man had his own story to tell, and Tom was curious to find out if the rumors were true. He waved his children inside, and they lugged his toolbox into the basement. When Mary tried to help them, Tom grabbed her arm and held her for a moment in the doorway.
"They can manage," he said. "A little hard work will do them some good."
He leaned over and tried to smell her neck.
She yanked her arm away and hurried into the kitchen. "Basement's that way," she said, pointing.
"I know where it is."
Tom stumbled through the darkness, banging his knees against a concrete wall, and paused to listen for the steady drip of water. A rusty tube had burst in the guts of the small boiler, and black sludge oozed down the steel shell and onto the floor. Tom rubbed his knee. "Gimme a beater and a chisel," he snapped at the children. They took turns handing him tools and watched him work in silence.
In less than an hour Tom Berry repaired the damage. He yanked out the old tube and threw it to the floor. After rolling the ends of the new tube a dozen times or more, Tom Berry grew thirsty.
"Stay here," he said to the kids and mounted the stairs.
Mary McAllister stood at the kitchen sink slicing carrots and cucumbers. Tom tip-toed behind her and then shouted, "Hello!"
She shrieked, dropping a handful of carrots on the floor.
Tom smiled and poured himself a generous glass of wine from the bottle on the table.
"Don't!" Mary shouted.
"Why shouldn't I?" Tom Berry was indignant.
"Father Feighan marks the bottle," she explained.
Tom waved a hand at her. "I fixed his boiler, didn't I? And do you think that cheapskate is going to pay me? Haven't I got the right to a little wine...to restore my strength. That's all I'm asking." When he finished that glass he poured himself another. "And don't worry about old Feighan," he said. "He gets plenty of this stuff every Sunday morning, I can tell ya that. Blood of Christ, my foot."
Mary blushed. "You shouldn't talk like that!"
Tom held the glass out to her. "Relax," he said. "Have a bit for yourself. That miserable Jesuit works you around the clock."
Mary adamantly refused, but Tom, who was impatient and little annoyed, pushed the glass to her lips. She almost gagged at the taste of it, but after a few swigs her eyes became bright and she drank more eagerly.
Tom suggested they sit on the back steps. He took her by the hand.
"Daddy I want a glass of water," Bridget said.
Tom Berry whirled around to see his little girl standing there. "What did I tell you, eh? Back into the basement!"
Mary smiled. "Oh, I'll get it for her."
Tom put a hand on Mary's shoulder, squeezed, sizing her up. "She can get it on her own." He turned back to his daughter. "Hurry up then. Go get yourself some water. And no monkey business in there."
Bridget stuck out her tongue and ran into the rectory before he could swat her bottom.
Tom wanted Mary to believe that he was a strict disciplinarian like the rest of the men in the neighborhood. Actually he didn't really care what his kids did so long as they didn't bother him, and in truth he hoped Bridget would steal a few things from the house and hide them under her skirt. Tom Berry had trained his daughter well in these matters, and as a result of his diligent lessons, Bridget had managed to pilfer a small treasure trove of odds and ends from the homes of friends, relatives, and neighbors. She'd been instructed over and over again to skip and sing through each house they entered, to convey a well-rehearsed air of innocence. In recent weeks she'd done well, having stolen the tarnished silverware from Mrs. McGinty's cabinets on Bridge Avenue. The old crone's spoons and forks turned out to have some nominal value. The peddlers behind the Westside Market gave him a handful of small bills, and with the money he earned from the sale, Tom Berry bought a pink ribbon for his daughter's hair and a few pints for himself at the corner tavern. She was a wonder, his Bridget was, and she never left a house without pocketing at least one trinket—a watch, a ring, a jar of preserves, a flask of whiskey.
Now, with the wine warming his belly and his daughter busy snooping around the house, Tom Berry felt grand. Mary, looking both sly and anxious, handed Tom a clean rag to wipe the grease from his hands. She pretended not to notice his leg rubbing against hers. Even when he ran his fingertips along her back, she acted as though this were a normal thing. He felt the fading September sunshine on his face and, trying to sound earnest, bragged about his acts of heroism in the mills, how he'd once saved a man from falling into a pit of molten steel and how he'd plucked a welding rod from the eye of an apprentice. She seemed genuinely impressed by these tales and so he leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. She pushed him away.
"Stop that!" she cried.
"Why should I?"
"I'm not like that."
"Don't get smart with me, Tom Berry. You know what I mean."
"No, I don't. Tell me. Whisper it in my ear." He kissed her neck, running his lips down to the first button of her pale blue blouse.
She gasped. "But your little boy..."
"Oh, he doesn't mind."
"He's watching us. I don't like it."
Tom Berry turned. His son stood in the tiny patch of garden and ran a stick along the chain-link fence. His large eyes were riveted to his father. How the hell had he gotten outside? Quiet as a mouse, that one, stealthy as a cat. Tom saw great potential in this and pondered the possibilities. He would have to start training him soon. Proper training—that was the key to success.
Tom wondered just what the hell Bridget was doing. How long did it take to explore the narrow corridors and stuffy rooms of the rectory? Well, there was no telling what artifacts might be excavated from such a place.
At last, Bridget burst through the door holding a large glass of water.
"Daddy, Daddy," she said, "why does Jesus always wear diapers and togas?"
Tom shrugged his shoulders. Religious inquiry was best left to the theologians. "Dunno," he said. "Maybe he thinks they're comfortable. Now, enough of your silly questions. Go keep your brother company."
Bridget kissed his cheek, discreetly placed a small rectangular object in his hand, and then chased Brian through the garden. Tom glanced down and saw a deck of pornographic playing cards. A big-titted woman, naked and white, legs spread wide, smiled back at him. What a glorious find! To know that the old man was human after all, stooped and bent as he was with the unyielding cynicism he harbored for his fallen parishioners. Tom began to formulate a devilish scheme. He'd wait for the good Father to come home and would then eagerly engage him in a discussion about the diapers and togas, about the complexities of sin and absolution, and while the old man pontificated about church doctrine, a cantankerous scowl plastered on his face, Tom would magically produce from his shirt pocket the wonderful deck of cards adorned with curvaceous beauties. Then as old Feighan choked back his fury and indignation, Tom would slowly, methodically, perform a series of card tricks.
Fingering the obscene deck, Tom Berry felt something stir in his loins. He leaned against Mary and insisted they go inside. Although she claimed Father Feighan might come home at any time, she didn't put up much of a fight. Tom led her by the hand into the kitchen where he ran his rough fingers over her hard little breasts and tight stomach. It's always the quiet ones, he thought, eagerly exploring her body. Within moments they were on the table, panting and grinding. She let out a small gasp.
"What is it now?" he asked.
Brian stood at the door, sucking his thumb. His eyes, impassive and gray, gave no hint of shock or confusion, not even a suggestion of curiosity. Tom grabbed his trousers off the floor, balled them up, and threw them at the boy's head.
"Get outta here, you!"
The child grunted, ran off.
Tom laughed. He pushed Margaret back down on the table, glad to be making progress with this lascivious young minx, thrilled to discover that the rumors about her were true after all. He took his time and enjoyed her for as long as he could possibly stand it. Outside, the crimson sky turned purple with the first flush of twilight.
Sweating and breathing hard, Tom Berry finally put his pants back on. He could hear the distant sound of his children playing in the backyard. Margaret was sprawled over the kitchen table like a ritual sacrifice, dazed, embarrassed, horrified. She tried to cover her body with a trembling hand. Tom stared at her and grimaced. She wasn't much too look at, he decided. Too skinny, too fragile. Sex had transformed her momentarily into a scratching, writhing hellcat, but now she shrank back to her old self, a helpless little mouse, frenetic and nervous.
A door slammed in the other room.
"Uh-oh," Tom muttered.
Mary sprang to her feet but was unable to find her blouse. Tom kicked it under the table and watched with great amusement as she scrambled from one corner of the room to the next. At the sound of approaching footsteps, she began to choke and moan in misery. Father Feighan, looking defeated and tired, slunk into the kitchen. Administering the last rites often left him hollow-eyed and pale. Tom snorted and thought, Maybe he's getting tired of telling his lies. But when Father Feighan's expression changed from exhaustion to bewilderment, Tom nearly doubled over with laughter. Mary tried to conceal herself with her bony fingers, her face a pale mask of despair.
"Boiler's fixed, Father," Tom announced with a smirk.
Mary scurried out of the kitchen, sniffling.
Tom called after her. "Maybe I'll see you at confession tomorrow!"
The priest clenched his fists.
"Oh! Almost forget." Tom Berry reached into his shirt pocket. "I found these around the house. Do they belong to you, Father?" He tossed the deck of cards on the kitchen table. Naked women scattered in every direction, an orgy of glistening buttocks and erect nipples. "Well, I'm off. Good night to you."
And with that Tom Berry strutted out the back door, leaving Mary to deal with her employer any way she saw fit. It was her problem after all.
His children, obediently lifting the toolbox, followed him down the street.
"Hurry along, you two!" he shouted.
Bridget stopped and winked at her brother. They set the toolbox on the sidewalk.
"Daddy, Daddy!" she called.
From under her skirt, she produced several ripe tomatoes from the garden.
Tom Berry was so pleased with how things had turned out that he carried the toolbox the rest of the way home.
When they arrived at their tiny bungalow on Jay Avenue, Tom Berry paused on the front porch. His wife sat the sagging sofa in the living room, her thick arms crossed, the rims of her eyes red with rage and concern. In the feeble yellow glow of a lamp, a turbulent storm of cigarette smoke swirled around her head.
Tom Berry gingerly opened the screen door and stepped inside. The floorboards creaked with every step.
"Where the hell have you been?" she asked quietly.
Bridget, sensing trouble, slid behind her father's back.
"Oh, hello, dear." Tom's voice cracked. "Hope you weren't worried about us."
"It's ten o'clock at night," she said, flashing him a humorless smile.
"Yes, well, you see, I was doing a good deed for the church."
"I bet. And you decided to keep the little ones out after dark?"
A light came into his eyes. "Here!" he said triumphantly. "Have a tomato. Complements of Father Feighan himself."
"Father Feighan," she muttered and extinguished her cigarette in the already overflowing ashtray.
"Yes," Tom insisted. "We went over to the rectory to fix the boiler. You were at the factory so I had to take the kids with me."
His wife lit another cigarette. "Is that true?"
"Is what true?" he asked.
"Shut up," she said. "I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to the children. Well? Did you go over to the rectory and help your father with the boiler?"
Bridget nodded her head, her lower lip trembling.
His wife turned to Brian. "How about you?" she asked. "What do you have to say?"
Tom laughed. "Now, dear, you know damn well that the boy doesn't talk. It's your fault, you ask me. You treat him like a baby."
His wife glared. Smoke coiled around her nostrils. "He talks. He talks all the time. He tells me all sorts of things. Don't you, Brian? Now, what did daddy do tonight?"
The boy approached his mother, chin held high, shoulders back, a toy soldier on the march. A small smile crept over his face. His eyes narrowed to slits and he pointed a finger at his father.
The above work is property of Kevin P. Keating. © 2004
© 2004 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved