Author’s Note: “This short fiction explores that tension between what we think or know we should do and what we’re capable or willing to do. Inspired by people, places, and stories from my childhood, the piece focuses on a teenager trying to remain optimistic despite the resignation or limitation of the people surrounding him. One afternoon without planning it, he rejects the status quo, and a new world begins to open to him.”
I STAND IN THE FOYER OF MY FATHER’S HOUSE and hope the old fool didn’t hear me come through the front door because the left side of my face is still pink from O’Brian’s black-hearted swipe. If the old man finds out about it, he’ll get wet in the eyes and grumble to himself about getting revenge. Then his wife, the ogress, will convince him that the good Monsignor would never do such a thing unless he’d been properly provoked. I’ll get a hard-boiled egg for dinner and the silent treatment for a week.
The old lady has set up what looks like a little waiting room just inside the front door, a place for her royal visitors to pass the time while her highness prepares herself to receive guests. I’m the only one who’s ever sat in either of these chairs, even though I’m forbidden to do so since they’re “strictly for company.” She once accused me of repeatedly knocking the lace doilies off the armrests. I told her it was probably her cat, Tommy. She said that was impossible because for one, the doilies were pinned down, and two, Tommy isn’t allowed in the foyer because he might bolt out the front door. If it was Tommy, it would have been my carelessness that let him out in the first place, so I should accept the blame and pray for an increased sense of responsibility.
Above the little table that separates the two chairs is what looks like a photograph of Jesus, and tucked into a corner of the frame is a frond from Palm Sunday. He’s got big, blue eyes gazing up to heaven, and his hands look like they’re suspending his Sacred Heart in midair, like he’s some kind of magician. He looks to me like the kind of person who might understand the nature of human beings like myself.
NOW I CAN SAY, with God as my witness, that I never met a priest I liked. I think they’re cruel by nature, and then they learn how to perfect their cruelty when they go into the seminary. They become priests because they’re too pompous and too unlikable to ever hold a regular job, so they get one with a lifetime guarantee. No woman would want them, and I think that suits a lot of them just fine. When we all became altar boys in the fifth grade and Mike Flynn’s brother, Pete, drove us home from the church hall after picking up our cassocks and surplices, he half-joked that we should be careful of priests with “Russian hands and Roman fingers,” which at first I didn’t understand and then didn’t believe. The only thing I knew for sure was that priests thought they were better than the rest of us since God chose them specifically to do his work. Monsignor O’Brian was no exception.
He was looking for trouble from the minute he walked into religion class this afternoon. He likes to make a “surprise” visit about once a month, and he always starts with the kind smiles and the good-natured charm. Sister Mercier giggles like the schoolgirl she was sixty years ago when he gives his fake speech about just stopping by on his way to visit a “very ill parishioner who might be needing the Last Rites,” as if he were the direct line to God that we’d all desperately need one day. Then she goes and sits at an empty desk in the back row and looks at him as if it were Christ himself come to give us some advanced instruction. Today was about our inevitable stay in Purgatory while God ponders our eternal fate. As usual, his enthusiasm for instructing students began to peter out after a few minutes, and he started looking around the room.
It became obvious that the old bastard was determined to humiliate one of the girls, so we boys weren’t as worried as usual.
He started with embarrassing Doreen DePolito by asking her why her father charges so much for fishing bait at his tackle shop. Then he teased Teresa Devine about her brother, Jimmy, who came back with his tail between his legs two weeks after he left for New York City, vowing never to return. I don’t blame him for trying to get out; Dorchester is a shithole with too many Irish immigrants, their American kids, and a bunch of other people who’d rather be somewhere else but who can’t consider it. Once he finished with Teresa, the old goat scanned the room again before settling his eyes on Mary Muldoon, a good girl who never caused trouble.
“Miss Muldoon,” he snapped before switching to a tone that suggested it took effort for him to remain patient, “stand up and tell us why you think your skirt looks better three inches shorter than any of the other girls’.”
Sister Mercier looked in Mary’s direction with a snarl.
Mary Muldoon’s pudgy face froze solid except for the two corners of her mouth, which she couldn’t help from curling downward.
“I didn’t tell you to pout, Miss Muldoon, I told you to stand up.”
Poor fat Mary did as she was told.
“Now, Miss Muldoon, tell me; do you think it’s your dimpled knees that all the world wants to see when you enter the schoolyard?” Now he was smiling like he was a regular guy, good natured and curious. We all knew better.
The whole class looked at her knocked knees, bulging out above her knee socks, and noticed that they did, as the old devil mentioned, have dimples. She stood there looking down at the floor in shame.
“Miss Muldoon, would you be deaf and dumb as well as being an exhibitionist?”
“N-n-n-no,” she replied, now red-faced with embarrassment. The rest of us were miserable due to the fact that we liked Mary, and we knew she stuttered when she got nervous. We also knew that her uniform was shorter because her chest had recently grown to three times the size of any of the other girls’, and the whole dress “rose to the occasion,” so to speak. I was afraid O’Brian might feel obliged to mention this. We also knew that it could easily be any one of us he was ridiculing.
I started to get that feeling I sometimes get, where I can either start laughing or crying, so I looked down at my desk, hoping he would soon finish with Mary and return to his discussion about how the unbaptized babies in Limbo have it much easier than the repenting sinners in Purgatory.
“Miss Muldoon, would you even remember the original question I posed to you?”
At that point no one could remember what the first question was. There was a stretch of silence that was surely as painful as a week in Purgatory.
“Do you or do you not remember the very simple question I asked you?”
“N-n-n-n-no.” Tears started when the humiliation was more than she could bear.
As bad as I felt for Mary, something inside me let go. I started laughing. After the first little chuckle got away from me, a gushing flood of uncontrollable laughter followed. The harder I worked to stop it, the harder the laughter pushed to get out. Now I had as many tears in my eyes as Mary had in hers.
“What’s this? You’ll stand up right now, Mr. McDonough, and you’ll tell me what has you so amused.”
I felt so sad about everything, so sorry for Mary, and so full of hate for the old bastard, but I couldn’t stop the laughing.
“You’ll stop it at once! You’ll stop it right now, or you’ll be the sorriest young man that ever there was!” He was furious as he came toward me.
With her scowl, Sister Mercier stood up and started marching toward me as well, her anger looking like a close second to the good Monsignor’s.
“That’s enough!” she barked as she walked toward me. “E-nough! E-nough!”
The tears made everything a little blurry, but I could see him turning a purplish red. The broken capillaries all over his face seemed to grow with every breath he snorted. We stood facing each other, and I was still laughing when he gently placed his beefy left hand on my right cheek. I was beginning to get control, to feel a privileged sort of comfort with his hand there, to think that maybe he wasn’t the devil I thought he was. That was when his right hand came down and smashed the other side of my face. He’d only held my right cheek to steady his target. I was so stunned that I pushed him away, but it was I who fell backward, tripping over a desk and a chair before landing on the floor. He came toward me, his eyes puffy with unholy rage.
“Keep your meat-hooks off me, O’Brian!” I screamed at him like no one had since he took up the collar. “You’re a mean old bully, picking on Mary Muldoon when you know she can’t fight back. None of us can.”
“Why, you arrogant little—”
He came toward me, but I was too fast for him. I scurried toward the other side of the classroom as he climbed over the fallen desk. I was infected with a bit of evil myself when I thought of how nice it would be if he took a stroke and died right then.
“You’ve got a hell of a nerve warning us about the pain of Purgatory when it’s perfectly obvious that you’ll spend eternity slurping your whiskey with Adolf Hitler on one side and Pontius Pilate on the other!” With that I bolted out the door of the classroom and then the door of the school and I sprinted home.
AFTER A HALF AN HOUR IN THE FOYER, I hear the phone ring, and the old witch picks up. Everything I hear is muffled, but I understand anyway. I hear her voice get high pitched and excited, almost musical, as if it’s Pope Paul checking to see if she approves of how he’s running things in Rome. She doesn’t say anything for a few minutes, and then her voice drops down to the polite tone she always uses with strangers and acquaintances. She hangs up the receiver; I count to three before I hear her wail. It’s a cross between screaming in anger and crying in desperation, and it makes me sick when I hear it because I know I’ll be the one who’ll pay the price for her pains. The old man, who’s home for lunch, makes a weak attempt to calm her down, but she drowns him out before he can make a full sentence. She cuts one of her howls short and stomps through the living room and up the stairs (they don’t know I’m in the foyer). My father follows her like her faithful mutt. I hear them above me in my bedroom, then a few thuds. She’s giving my things the knocking she’d like to give me. Every so often, I hear a phrase or two that tells me what she’s thinking.
“High and mighty!”
“Raised by wolves!”
“A mind of his own!”
And then, finally: “The damn Beatles!” That one almost makes me laugh.
They fly back down the stairs, and she swings open the door from the parlor. I stand up from my seat in the royal waiting area to face her straight on. She’s got bobby pins in her hair, and she’s wearing house slippers and one of the dusters she puts on when she knows she’ll see no one but my father or me. She stops five feet in front of me and crosses her arms.
“Well, there he is, the foul-mouthed criminal who hits priests.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I say. I figure it can’t get any worse, so why not say what I’m thinking?
“What did you say? What did you say!” She unfolds her arms and holds her right hand to the side of her head for a minute, as if she’s worried her skull might explode.
“Nothing,” I tell her when I think that maybe things could get worse.
She comes closer to me and says in her most angelic tone, “I’d like to know what you just said to me.”
I’d been fooled once today into thinking I could trust someone I couldn’t, and I’ll not be fooled again.
“I said, ‘Oh, for Pete’s sake.’ Did you think I said something else?”
“Upstairs right now, mister.” She seems to remind herself of her own superiority over the rest of the human race, which encourages her to calm down. “You’re cursed with the same contrary and unlikable nature as your poor mother. God rest her soul.”
“Now, Mae.” My father finally manages those two pitiful words before she leaves the room to return to her throne in the kitchen. She’ll soon be on the phone to each of her three sisters, telling them about her cross to bear that’s in the form of a seventeen-year-old boy.
The old man follows me upstairs and sits next to me on the bed.
“’Tis a miserable welt you still got on the side of your face.”
“For fuck’s sake, Dad. I’ve only got one more year here at home before I move out. You’d think you could ask me a question every now and again. I’m not even asking you to stick up for me, just consider my side of a story for once.”
My father takes a hankie out of his hip pocket and wipes the corners of his mouth. He takes a deep breath, shoves the hankie back in his pocket, and pauses before exhaling. For a brief moment I’m sure he’s going to make up for all of the spineless and pointless things he’s ever said to me. I know what’s about to come out of his mouth might be the most important thing I ever hear him say.
“Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”
“What?” I have to ask because I’d heard this bit of nonsense fifteen times in the past week alone.
“That’s what I thought you said.”
After no more than a minute, he stands up, says, “Well then,” to himself, and heads downstairs.
AT ABOUT MIDNIGHT, Mae’s cat, Tommy, jumps on my bed and starts kneading the side of my leg. I get out of bed and pick him up, letting him ride high on my shoulder like a great explorer looking for uncharted land outside my bedroom window. I start thinking of Tommy’s life sentence in this house where he’s never permitted on anything higher than a footstool, and I get to feeling sorry for him. He stays at his helm, purring as I walk barefoot down the stairs, through the parlor, and then into the foyer, where I wink at the photograph of Jesus on my way to the front door. Once outside, I’ll give Tommy what he’s been craving his whole life. When we get to the door, his purring stops, and he sniffs wildly at the night air. I gently close the door behind us and stand on the cold cement in front of the house. Tommy begins to push away from me as if I’m hurting him. He fidgets more, so I hold him tight to me, and that’s when he claws right through my tee shirt and carves three bloody lines in my chest. He punctures six tiny holes in my right shoulder before he makes what I think will be the getaway he’s been planning for years. But I’m wrong. Tommy runs to the front door with his back hunched, hair standing on end, and his tail puffed out like a squirrel’s. He sits there shaking until I open the door. He dashes in and disappears somewhere in the parlor.
The next morning, as I leave for school to face the wrath that surely awaits me, Tommy tries to bolt out the front door. I grab him by the scruff and toss him back inside without the tiniest consideration for his dashed hopes.
John R. Murray is associate professor in the undergraduate writing program at the University of Southern California. He also teaches a class to help students create short documentaries raising awareness about social justice concerns. His most recent work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The MacGuffin, and Mount Hope Magazine, in addition to his story in the Delmarva Review. He received a Master of Professional Writing and Doctorate in Education from University of Southern California.
Now in its 14th year, Delmarva Review publishes the best of new prose and poetry selected annually from thousands of submissions across the United States and beyond. As an independent, nonprofit literary journal, it receives partial financial support from individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The review is available worldwide in paperback and electronic editions from Amazon.com and other major online booksellers and specialty regional bookstores. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.