From The Orchard Stories
Father Ryan stood unsteadily in the sweltering July afternoon, his worn leather-bound book of prayer sweat-slippery in his palsied hand as he held it before him in the bleaching sun and tried to read the prayer for the Blessing of the Home. Under his black cassock the heat was a simmering hell of torment and the clothes he wore beneath his vestments were drenched in the sour sweat of indolent middle age and reeked the rank aroma of stale late night liquor which poured out of him like water from a dirty sponge. He droned on in a hypnotic basso profundo the words of the Prayer, which, thank God, he had practically memorized, for his splitting head in the glare of the white light sent a spasm of pain through his eyes as if someone were poking them with white hot needles. The words he could not remember he finessed, for who would know the difference? The very proper Reilly family, Doc Reilly and Colleen and their seven freckled urchins whose faces bore the map of Ireland in such detail one could almost see the County borders, stood fidgeting about him as he went through the litany in the backyard. The Gilbert orchard stood off in the distance - a great green forest baking under the sun. Above it in two-dimensional relief against the pale watercolor sky of summer whose blue was nearly bleached out by the sun, towered the great Eucalyptus, which shaded the Gilbert Great House tucked invisibly beneath it and behind the plantation of citrus. The Gilbert plantation lay like an enormous backdrop to the ceremony, lying silently and deep green like some great beast in wait. Father Ryan hurried through the cruelly long (for him) ritual in the hope that his hosts would have the good sense, when it was over, to offer him a drink. Doc Reilly, a man of the Ould Sod and a wealthy one at that, would certainly ply him with nothing less than a fine Scotch whisky. Dare he hope for Irish? No, he thought remonstrating himself, that would be expecting too much. Whatever the aqua vita, the good Father consoled himself, its ministration in his condition would be nothing less than a corporal work of mercy for which the good doctor could expect plenary indulgences in plenty. Ministering to the sick. To the damaged. Please God, he thought, let me get through this charade without falling over or throwing up on my shoes.
As he mumbled the prayers with escalating urgency, an urgency that was lost on the spectating Reillys, for the priest was a master at dissembling the debilitating effects of the ravages of drink, he repeatedly drew the scepter from the font of holy water that was carried dutifully by the acolyte that Father Ryan had in tow. He waved the watered scepter in his hand like a magic wand and scattered holy droplets to the four corners of the house as he repeated the prayer for the Blessing of the Home. Finally, when that was done, the priest and the Reilly entourage repaired to the blessed cool of the house where the priest continued the anointing ritual.
Mary Reilly, the eldest and not yet ten years old, kept stealing glances at the young altar boy and he, feeling her gaze like he would the rays of the July sun, secretly lifted his eyes from time to time from the chalice of holy water and blushed ruddy when their eyes met. Mary Reilly was forever falling in furtive love. She had a passion for Brian Warrington, the handsome raven-haired second son of Doctor Mac, the veterinarian who lived next door. She had begged Doctor Mac to let her kiss Brian, and obliging the little girl, Doctor Mac had captured his mortified boy and held him captive for the kiss. Mary had planted it on Brian Warrington in front of everyone that day, and humiliated beyond repair, he had run home with tears gushing from his shamed face. Perhaps she could ask the priest to capture this fine altar boy for her so she could plant a wicked kiss on him.
Still the water kept showering from the holy wand as the blessing ritual wound its way through the large house. The children followed, herded expertly by Colleen Reilly who schooled her brood like a fish her fry, filing them in a row improbable as it was efficient, each moving quickly and expertly behind the one in front of him. Mary, Patrick, Jamie, Michael, Katie, Joseph, Erin (in diapers) and one in the oven. Colleen had been pregnant so many times before this, her seventh, (Michael and Katie were twins) she moved behind her swollen belly as if she had been born that way. Still the water kept showering down on the rooms of the house.
For all the rain inside, the afternoon skies were clear and cruelly hot. But a suggestion of humidity hung on the air like the fading scent of a woman who had left the room hours ago.
* * *
It was not a Sunday, but you could not tell it from the clothes the Reillys wore. For the Blessing of the Home was a long awaited ceremony and one that was taken very seriously by the Reillys and other parishioners of St. Thomas Catholic Church, where Father Aloysious Ryan held sway as pastor. His lack of frugality had taxed the parish coffers more than was permitted by the bishop of Tucson, who in his stead held sway even over parishes even in distant Phoenix. Tucson had been the first town, when Phoenix was a mere collection of ancient irrigation canals from an Indian civilization that had vanished inexplicably; left as so many curious scars on the land, enigmatic etchings on the desert floor that had weathered time unnoticed and unused for nearly a millennium.
Father Ryan’s lack of frugality had taken struggling St. Thomas parish to the very brink of bankruptcy from which it was roundly doubted it would ever pull back. And the talk among the parishioners, among those for whom ecclesiastical fiscal matters were nearly as important as ecclesiastical spiritual matters, was that Father Ryan’s profligate spending on booze for his own private larder must be the first expense checked if financial disaster were to be avoided. But he arrived timely for early Mass, nevertheless, smelling of resignation and musky celibacy and of the sweet queer morning-after odor of whisky and plunged unerringly into the liturgical cant in his sing-song resonant voice. For that he was a thing of wonder, for among those who tippled a bit – and the mostly Irish congregation counted many among them who tippled – it was widely known that Father Ryan drank to immoderate excess. His stern constitution was all that explained this startling devotion to duty, however marginal it was in other respects, to permit him to brave the pain of early morning Mass without a hitch or a miss year after year after year.
When the Blessing of the Home finally wound to a close, Father Ryan, reaching behind his head, pulled off the holy scapula that denoted his Holy Office, kissed it, and folded it reverently if shakily into a tidy parcel. He placed it solemnly into a small satchel in which he had carried it to the house, closed the prayer book that was smudged with the drying sweat of his wet palms, turned to his acolyte who stood with his eyes to the ground in a look of devotion meant to disguise his wish to avoid contact with Mary Reilly’s and said, “That’s near enough, lad. We’re done. And a fine job you did. Perhaps Mrs. Reilly could find for you something cool to drink for all your efforts. And perhaps the very kind Mrs. Reilly could find something cool to drink for her priest.” He flashed his stained square teeth through a smile that betrayed the pain he was in and it looked like the grimace of a man having a bullet removed from his leg without the benefit of anesthesia.
“Please, Father, won’t you sit down,” Colleen Reilly said after the grimace faded from the priest’s purple face. “I won’t be but a minute. And you, young man, can have a seat too, unless you want to go into the other room with the kids. Maybe you know some of my boys?” The young acolyte, neither wanting to sit in the living room with the adults, nor to go unescorted anywhere where Mary Reilly could pounce on him, stood flummoxed in the middle of the room, looking hard at the carpet, not knowing what to do. “We all very much appreciate your hard work this morning with Father Ryan, young man. Go ahead out with the other children. They’ll find something for you to do. You can take off that hot surplice and put it in here so you won’t forget it.” The boy pulled the black garment off over his head. “That’s a good boy.”
Colleen Reilly whisked the boy efficiently ahead of her out of the living room, with the practiced thoughtless effort of one who managed children – and many of them – all the time. Father Ryan was alone then with Doc Reilly. Men alone, a time for a priest to disrobe, Father Ryan thought. He found it difficult, even knowing it was absurd, to take off his vestments in front of women, even the old nuns who sometimes assisted before Mass. It suggested too much for the priest, so he waited for Colleen to leave the room. He then took off his cassock, fairly wringing with sweat, now chilled by the cool of the inside of the house and folded it self-consciously, ashamed of it’s immodest wetness, into his satchel. His plain black clothing underneath was soaked and in the close enclosed room the reek of old booze and old sweat was hard for Doc Reilly to ignore.
“Sit down father,” Doc Reilly said. “You must be parched.”
Doc Reilly reached his hand out to the priest in a move that could have been mistaken for assistance into the chair, but which the priest responded to as a handshake, as men do, trained their entire lives to meet an upswung hand with their own, and he clasped Doc Reilly’s hand unthinkingly, a hand which furtively, but on the square, contained a bill folded up tightly as not to be visible but felt, and the priest then knew that he was being paid. The ritual was stealthy and quick, like the transfer of something sinful. These men treated money like they would sex, acknowledging its allure, but never explicitly, ashamed to give it force by discussing it. The gratuity was large, Doc Reilly was well off, but the priest, per the unspoken rule, never even looked at it, but pocketed it quickly as if to deny its very existence. But when the priest’s hand emerged from his pocket he reclasped Doc Reilly’s again and said, “That’s a good man, doctor, and many thanks. Lord knows I don’t deserve it, but the Church is always in need.”
“Sad that it’s so,” Doc Reilly said.
“More’s the shame.” The priest echoed.
When the priest released his hand Doc Reilly swept it in invitation to Father Ryan to sit in the big chair that was reserved for the doctor himself. No one sat there if Doc Reilly was home and if one of the children did sit in it, he sprang out the moment Doc Reilly came through the door. Doc ignored the soaking clothes on the stinking priest and his revulsion that this man in all his reek and wet would sit in his favorite chair. Father Ryan, oblivious to his condition, sat as invited and let out a mild but protracted groan.
“Damn, I’m tired, Dan,” he said, using emasculated priestly profanity and Doc Reilly’s first name in a play for awkward familiarity permitted him as the doctor’s pastor. Doc Reilly would never think of calling the priest Aloysius. But if anyone could get away with forced and uninvited familiarity, it would be his parish priest. Doc Reilly let the informality alone.
The priest’s face was swollen and purple and crossed with hard drinking gin blossoms that tattooed his face with an odd map of capillaries that looked from a distance like ruddy good health but which was really the cartography of hypertension and chronic alcoholism. His backward collar, high and tight, cut a white bloodless swath in his flaccid and fleshy neck that hung down like a great swooping awning beneath his chin, scratched and nearly bleeding from a long unabated razor scrape at the shaving mirror. The collar only worsened the condition of his purple face, making his head look as if it were being squeezed tick-full of old blood and then strangled.
“Well you look fine,” Doc Reilly lied in his incomparable disarming bedside manner, one that had made him famous in his own small circle, and which was the lynchpin of his thriving practice, “and that’s from your doctor, so you can take it to the bank.”
“Dan, you’re a damn liar,” he said mildly. “And a bad one. I look horrible and we both know it. I haven’t been well in a long long time and it shows. I look in the mirror in the morning, when I can stand to, and I cringe at the man staring back at me. It’s a horrible feeling, one you cannot imagine. But my condition is one of my own making, there’s no escaping that fact and I accept it as my sin. It’s not a terrible sin, but it is mine and it glares at me like my own hellish Picture of Dorian Gray.”
“That’s a bit melodramatic, isn’t it, Father?” Doc Reilly asked hesitantly, knowing the delicacy of this moment of confession and contrition and not wanting to offend the old priest. He was a priest, after all, gross flaws and all, and despite this new informality, it was not a time to stretch it too far.
“Not in the least, Dan,” he said, looking straight at Doc Reilly with withering tired bloodshot eyes. “Not in the least.”
“Ahh, bless you, Colleen,” the priest said, with preternatural and sudden enthusiasm when Colleen Reilly entered the room again carrying a bottle of Chivas and three tumblers already poured. She placed the tray down on the marble table at the priest’s knees and handed him the glass nearly full. The others, more modest in their measure, were for her and Doc Reilly. Father Ryan worried a moment whether he could get the glass to his lips without too obvious a tremor, but he hefted the glass, nevertheless, with buoyant glee. He lifted it quickly to hide the tremors and didn’t spill a drop.
“May the road rise to meet you and may the wind be always at your back,” he said and threw back a third of the whisky in one pull.
Colleen smiled weakly at her husband who looked down at his glass without expression.
“Yes, cheers,” she said unenthusiastically, “and long life.”
“Long life,” said Doc Reilly.
* * *
The air grew sticky outside. A breeze out of the southeast broke the afternoon sultry stillness and tickled the trees in the orchard making them mutter sullenly. But for that the wind was silent. The big Eucalyptus that shadowed the Gilbert Great House caught a grand fetch of wind in its lofty expanse and swayed silently and nearly imperceptibly like big trees do, waving slowly and languidly. Slowly like a great inverted pendulum, as slowly as time. The hand of the wind drove into its huge mass pushing it irresistibly, swaying it effortlessly.
The great plain of the desert from Sonora, Mexico north to the country above Phoenix burned like an oven and the air from the desert floor rose to great heights pulling wet from the Sea of Cortez. That air swung in a great arc, first blowing east then north and then west, churning the summer heat into the sea’s moisture. It was the Sea of Cortez that made the air sticky outside and it was the great tide of warm air rising to be replaced by the air from Mexico that stirred the trees to muttering in the orchard. It was a grand cycle repeated with stunning regularity each summer when the July sun hammered the desert floor.
Out of the southeast rose horrible thunderheads with the fluted texture of cauliflower that filled the horizon from compass to compass and marched across the landscape like a ghost army in the sky. They boiled in cloud time, bubbling too slowly for the eye to see, changing like the hour hand on a clock, but changing and blossoming all the same as vast as whole mountain ranges, as broad as a western county. They churned and shot for the apex of heaven, erupting like slow and silent white fireworks into the sky above the desert’s burning plain.
They chased the sun, which was westering into the late afternoon and so the thunderheads crept upon the Valley with quiet stealth, for no shadows were cast by the mighty cloud machines, tumbling ever westward to finally swallow the sun. They were carried on winds that grew more urgent and which raced that enormous journey across the desert, pushing before them with an insistent hand the thunderheads of the afternoon. The great clouds built like this often of a late summer day and they would usually dissipate as benignly as they erupted terrifyingly. But now and again the clouds gathered into a storm, driven by the implacable wind, and the great monsoon rains would storm down from the angry clouds like heaven’s wrath unleashed.
* * *
Patrick bolted to his room after the priest finished the blessing. He couldn’t wait to get out of the clothes his mother had insisted he wear. All of the children had whined about putting on their Sunday clothes on a day that was not Sunday and they did not have to go to Mass. Whoever heard of getting dressed up just to stay home?
“Father Ryan is coming to this house,” Colleen scolded mildly. “It’s like having the Church come here. We get dressed up when we go there. So we get dressed up when it comes here. Now mind me or I’ll get the fly swatter to you,” she said.
The fly swatter was Colleen’s tool of discipline. She kept it atop the refrigerator and away from the children - out of their reaches - for if the children got their hands on it they would have gotten rid of the thing altogether. They hated and feared the implement of their mother’s wrath. Colleen knew that the threat of the fly swatter would make the children fall in line for she was not afraid to use it and the children knew it.
“You don’t need to get the flice water,” Patrick had said, butchering the words blithely and unconsciously, pouting, and pulling on his Sunday pants as he sat on his disheveled bed. “I’m gettin’ dressed.”
He slunk through the ceremony, chafing behind the collar button that strangled him behind his clip-on tie. He was too young to know how to tie a necktie, but his clip-on tie attached rather convincingly at the top button on his shirt collar and looked like the real thing. Patrick’s neck was too big for his shirt; he’d been born with a big head and neck, like his father and his uncle and his grandfather before him. The collar button choked him and made him dizzy for lack of blood. He was sure that if Father Ryan didn’t hurry with his droning prayers in the hot sun he would have fainted dead away on the lawn.
So now that the praying was over and the folks had hidden themselves in the living room with their whisky and their priest he took off his Sunday clothes as quickly and viciously as he could. He threw them in a heap at the bottom of the closet, hoping never to see them again. He pulled on his cut-offs and a tee shirt and sighed for the relief. He looked at his P.F. Fliers, but thought the better of them and decided to stay bare-foot now that he had his feet free from Frankenstein shoes and breathing the air.
He went outside, ignoring the altar boy who sat glumly at the kitchen table not knowing what to do. Patrick didn’t want to have to play with him. He wore glasses and was very pale, two things that made Patrick suspicious, so he left the boy sitting there to be someone else’s problem. Mary Reilly would probably smother him with attention; she couldn’t keep her eyes off him all afternoon. “Oh, brother,” he muttered to himself as he left the house by the back door, shuddering just thinking about girls and “mush” and cooties. His sister probably had cooties like all the other girls did.
He detested his Sunday clothes ever since the funeral. He did not like to wear them before the funeral, but afterward he could not look at them (the clothes) without thinking of the funeral and it was the funeral he did not want to remember, so he detested the clothes.
He did not know what a funeral was before Kevin Murphy’s father died. He would not have learned when he did if Kevin’s father had not died so young. If he had not drunk so much and gotten so sick. All of the nuns at school had said that Kevin’s father was young when he died, even though Patrick knew he was older than his own father, Doc Reilly, and that was older than dirt. But the nuns said he was a young man.
“Oh, goodness, it is such a pity when the young men are taken from us,” they commiserated with the students at St. Thomas Catholic school the morning of the death. “And what, God help them, is to become of Josephine and the children?”
It was early morning when the news of the death spread through the school like mumps and when Patrick heard it, it made him numb, like he was walking through the throngs of children with cotton in his ears and everything he saw was moving in slow motion. Death was as close to Patrick that day as it had ever been and it made the world seem like it was far away from him, that he was a mere spectator now instead of a participant in it. Death did that to the one it took and it did that to those whom it brushed in its passing.
Patrick walked to his sister Mary’s classroom like in a fever dream and searched her out from among her classmates and it was as if she too were in that place where everything was muffled and slow and for that he could see her like the two of them were the only children there and he saw that her face was misshapen and wrecked by the news and shining and red from the tears that ran her freckled cheeks. Mary Reilly walked out of the classroom toward Patrick who stood waiting for her in the doorway without even a by-your-leave from Sister Ruth Agnes and they walked out of school together like in a trance without saying a word to anyone, and Mary crying like her heart had been broken forever and nothing would put it back. Colleen Reilly took them to the Murphy house. There would be no school for them that day.
Kevin Murphy was Patrick’s best friend. Kate Murphy was Mary Reilly’s best friend. Charlie Murphy was their father. He drank too much sometimes. Patrick saw it once and it scared him. But now Charlie was gone. Charlie was dead. It was just last night. Early this morning. Maybe he was not really gone because so short a time ago he was here. He could not have gone far. It was not like someone who was dead a long time and the death was now etched in the Rock of Ages. There might still be time to fetch him back; to correct this silly mistake. He had just been here yesterday - and well - and talking to his son Kevin and watching the late September baseball game on TV and wondering whether Babe Ruth’s single season home-run record would fall to the bat of this man Maris. Now Charlie would never know – or no one would ever know whether Charlie knew - whether the Babe’s record was no more. It was just that recent, early this morning – today. What would Patrick say to his friend Kevin as the two of them stood in the shadow of the passing of the Angel of Death?
The empty feeling in his stomach was like he was hollow inside and his stomach hurt and tickled sickly from the emptiness. The trance too never went away: that feeling that the words he heard were muffled through gauze and that the people who came to the Murphy house to be with Josephine and her half-orphaned children all moved slowly like the phantoms in that fever dream. The empty feeling in his stomach was like what he felt when Leticia had said it was time to say good-bye and had moved out of the Reilly home to start a new life after she had given birth to the child that would never come home with her from the hospital like Colleen Reilly’s always did and after Patrick had fallen in love with her. A delicate part of him that tasted sweetness in a way he had never tasted sweetness before had died then. Suddenly the sun dimmed and the colors faded. [The gleam and shine on the world’s tawdriness had been stripped away and everything seemed mute and weary.]
But he was not so young that he did not know that he was at the Murphy house and not at school that day to be with Kevin who had just lost his father and he knew that he would have to be a friend for his best friend. But the Angel of Death had passed close to Patrick and he felt cold and diminished. If he had been a girl he probably would have helped Kevin cry, but neither he nor Kevin would cry. It was that, he finally decided, that he would do for his best friend. He would help Kevin not to cry for that day – at least not when the sun was shining and everyone could see and the house was full of somber ghostly adults speaking in mummers’ tones the cant of the dead, all smelling like Church, comforting clumsily Kevin’s mother Josephine, bereft and disconsolate, her face stained from crying and ashen from disbelieving grief.
They would not cry because to do so would be to go to that scary place where the deep sadness lay in wait to overpower them both like a great wave. Neither wanted to go there because neither thought he could survive it. It was a frightening place, like a haunted house, a dark house full of weeping and confusion and loss and emptiness like the emptiness Patrick carried in his stomach after Leticia, childless and defeated herself, had said it was time to say good-bye and leave Patrick with his heart broken. So they would buddy up against this great threat as they had on the playground many times against the big bullyboys, watching out for each other.
They did not talk about Kevin’s father at all and Patrick tried not to say things in jest like “I felt like killing him” or anything else that suggested death or dying. But it was sometimes difficult because they tried to talk like hard guys and it was a rare half- hour without talk about killing somebody.
But Patrick knew by the red-rimmed eyes he saw on Kevin when Colleen Reilly drove up to the Murphy house that Kevin had been crying already and he knew that it was for him to ignore it and not to mention it for he understood the embarrassment that Kevin felt for being the one who had the father who died. It was, they both knew, somehow his fault, Kevin’s fault, as much as it was his misfortune, to have a father who died. Patrick’s father had not died. Patrick had nothing to apologize for. Kevin knew that and he knew now that Patrick had something on him, he had a father who had not died, a father who had not suddenly left his boy half-orphaned and forced to endure this too sad ritual of a house full of grey people all smelling like Church and all looking at him all the time seeing if he was going to cry. What had Kevin done to deserve this? And was not Patrick, with his father still alive – a good father by comparison because he was not dead – just another face in this crowd of ghouls come to gawk and wonder when Kevin Murphy was going to cry?
Kevin felt like crying for the unfairness and for his anger at his father who left him so utterly and suddenly alone and he tried to think if there were something that he had done to make his father leave and it all became too much for him to think about and he felt as if he were going to cry one more time right here in front of Patrick, with whom he tried to be a hard guy, so he punched Patrick suddenly and viciously for all the unfairness, punched him without thinking, punched him to keep from crying. Patrick watched Kevin’s small boy fist come pounding hard against his chest but he did not feel it. Like he did not hear the people around him, except that they sounded like they were speaking through gauze. Kevin’s punch was muffled like the sounds of the phantom people talking, soft and from far away. Kevin’s punch came at him in slow motion as did everything else that day and Patrick knew, as he was being hit, as the punch was coming through the air in front of Kevin’s red-rimmed eyes that Kevin was doing it to keep from crying. He knew it like he knew the earth held him solid and would not let him float away. So he let Kevin hit him because he did not want to see Kevin cry and whatever it took to help his buddy he would do. That, he knew, was why he was there that day and not at school.
But when they went inside the Murphy house, filled with old people in grey Sunday suits and black funereal dresses and smelling like Church, together, Patrick and Kevin, inseparable, like they always were at school, and when Kevin’s mother Josephine walked up to Patrick and hugged him on his neck and said, “Thank you, Patrick, for coming here to pray for my daddy” (meaning her husband) it was too much and he failed. It was not for Kevin’s dead father but for his mother, now a widow with half-orphaned children, who reminded Patrick so much of his own whom he could not think of so lost and so sad, that he started to cry and while Josephine hugged onto him he saw past her shoulder, as the tears came silently down his face – he would not make a sound – that Kevin was crying too.
Three days later was the funeral.
The Church had filled early and the Reillys were there. All the Reillys in their Sunday clothes as if it were Sunday, but it was not. The music from the organ was plangent and plaintive like the somber music of High Mass on that cloudy rainy Good Friday when the nuns said that Jesus had died on the cross and was dead in his tomb and everyone at Mass that day bowed his head and the dark foreboding inside the Church made the sadness worse and the rain beat implacably on the roof, the only sound that broke the silence as everyone bowed his head in supplication and remorse. But today it was not cloudy and not rainy. It was bright and brilliant as everyday in Phoenix nearly was and the mute and grim procession of mourners who filed into the Church seemed sacrileged by the weather that bespoke false promise and joy.
In the front pew closest the altar, the Murphy family sat. Josephine, a large and gravid woman with hair that was changing to steely grey, kneeled with her head hanging as if the weight of an irresistible hand were pressing her face to the railing. It was not possible to tell whether she was praying for the strength to endure or whether she had abandoned any pretense enduring at all and was sobbing still in disconsolate and abject despair these three days after Charlie had died.
In front of everyone on the altar, not to be ignored and in front even of Josephine Murphy kneeling bent and broken, and the focus of all the devotion that was not directed to the almighty himself, lay the steely closed coffin in which Charlie Murphy was for this short time entombed, its very solidity and mass an answer to Patrick’s wonder three days before whether his death were really immutable and irrevocable. For the steely coffin spoke in its blunt irrefutability about the permanence and certainty of Charlie’s death and would admit of no doubt and forced everyone to acknowledge that he was gone forever and nothing was going to bring him back. The somber queer organ music droned on in its dirgelike minor key, giving no relief to the terror that Patrick was feeling just being there in the first place. The terror was made more horrible by the odd commonplaceness of the grim ceremony and the utter wretchedness of the event was mocked horribly by the bright sunshine outside that even the colored glass in the windows of the church could not abate. Death should be kept in the shadows where it can be whispered about in reverent and deferential tones, disguised and covered by the dim light of dusk where one is not forced to confront its tawdriness nakedly. For then it is robbed of its drama and mystique, of its mystery and power which the grieving must feel in order to forgive the trespass and rape that death is. When the almighty summons home one of his own, it is like a murder, once removed at best - for the killer is benign - but no less lethal, and one must pray fervently not to blaspheme god for the murderer he is. Better that he take one in the dark of the night as God did Charlie and never let the cruel slaying see the light of day. But here they all were in the sunshine of the church bent to the task of carrying Charlie to his final dark hole in the ground. That made it all ghastly.
Then Father Ryan appeared at the altar and the Mass for the Dead began. He stood with his back to the gathered faithful in somber funereal vestments and recited the Latin liturgy flawlessly and from memory, the gears of his speech slippery from use and the years of drink, but he did not falter and he did not fall. Patrick could see that his hands held wide during the consecration shook like old people’s hands sometimes shake. Patrick stood and sat and kneeled to the chiming of the silver bell at the fingers of the acolyte kneeling at the priest’s feet. He listened to the altar boys recite their Latin antiphons to the priest’s Latin prayers and he wondered how he would ever learn that secret tongue when his day to serve Mass finally came. The droning of Father Reilly’s voice, like the deep roll of a hollow wooden instrument, hypnotized him as it always did and he found that he wandered in his thoughts for whole epochs of time, forgetting he was in the Church at all with a dead man in a box. Then he would come back and look around himself stuporously in the still dead air of the church at the faces of the old people who looked dead too, their faces grey and melting down to the ground and finally to their own graves. He thought about Kevin’s dead father Charlie whose face had not yet melted as much, whose hair was not yet so grey as those who stood here to bury him and he wondered about the love and mercy in the heart of god that he heard the nuns rhapsodize so hysterically about.
The warmth of the close church made his groggy head stumble and falter again and he took a turn toward the front steps of a dreamy sleep. Father Reilly’s voice echoed hollowly through the church punctuated by demure sniffles of runny noses, full from crying, and the random coughs that come from all close crowds and the scrunch of sand under the polished hard shoes of the men as they braced themselves yet again for the long haul.
Patrick must have fallen asleep, although when he awakened he could not remember whether he had been sleeping at all, for he awoke suddenly, startled, terrified by the weird wail, like a high and furious moan of repudiation and disdain from Josephine Murphy whom he saw fold like a puppet whose strings had been cut from the hands of the puppeteer. She folded and crumpled like Patrick had never seen anyone do before, for she was a grown woman – an old woman – and he had never seen a grown person fall. It was like someone had hit her from behind with a tree trunk and she folded nearly down to the ground for she could not resist it. Then Patrick looked beyond her, beyond the falling woman for whom the weight was just too great and he saw that Father Ryan had opened the box on the altar for all to see the dead man inside and he knew that the sight of this waxen monster that had once been her husband Charlie and who had once been Kevin Murphy’s father but who did not look like either had been too much for Josephine and it was too much for Patrick and he wondered whether he too would crumple and fall to the ground for the sight of it. He wondered again about the mercy and love in the heart of god and he knew then that he hated Father Ryan for doing what he did to Josephine.
And to him.
That’s why Patrick hated his Sunday clothes and why he took them off viciously and threw them in pile at the bottom of the closet. That is why he went outside alone and left the pale bespeckled acolyte to the clutches of his sister Mary. It was the memory of the funeral and the sight of the waxen monster in the box who did not look like a man and who did not look like Charlie Murphy and the incomprehensible revelation that followed it all that he was trying to escape and his Sunday clothes and Father Ryan in his housewould not let him escape it. So he escaped the house.
* * *
Half the sky was hung with a dirty grey bunting of low clouds that billowed in from the southeast. To the west where the sun was declining into evening the sky was the pale bleached blue of summer and the sun burned there in all its July fury. Patrick felt the wind from the southeast in his ears as he walked in the backyard and spied next-door to the Warrington’s house to see if Johnny Warrington was home. The wind from the southeast was cool in his ears and on his face and that meant the promise of rain. Patrick knew that because he could smell the odor of the creosote bushes on the wind that wafted in from the desert beyond the houses and beyond the citrus orchards. The coming of desert rains always smelled like creosote bushes, the storm air tangy and full with an aroma like sweet vinegar. Patrick tingled with the caress of the cool wind and looked up to the heavy leaden clouds that were gobbling the blue sky across to the west and said a prayer on this day so full of prayers, that it would rain.
* * *
The parking lot had filled with the dark suited men and the women in their black dresses who spilled out of the church and they milled in the oddly cool but brilliant late September sun before they all were to follow the box with Charlie in it to the cemetery. The men lit cigarettes and the women too and talked about Charlie and about business and about their marriages and about their children. The ceremony had been long and trying and Father Ryan, except for the pyrotechnics following his opening of the casket, had been as soporific as ever, droning on in his atonal bass like a bow pulled exquisitely slowly and excruciatingly across a cello string. So getting out of the church for a smoke and conversation was blessed relief. No one spoke about Josephine’s horrifying moan, although they had all heard it, and no one spoke of her collapse, although they had all seen her fold and crumple like a lifeless doll when Father Ryan lifted the casket lid and made everyone look at something inside that did not look like Charlie at all; that did not look like a person at all but like a mocking grotesque masquerading as Charlie. No one protested that it was a damn shame and a barbarity that this image of Charlie, dead in the box, foisted upon the mourners, forever would be the last memory they had of the man who had been husband, friend and father. No one mentioned it was a damn shame and a barbarity for Father Ryan to have opened that box.
Patrick, sick and numb again like he had been on the morning when he learned Kevin’s father was dead, walked out of the church with Colleen and Doc Reilly and all of the Reilly children more or less together, bumping against the throng which smelled of the admixture of middle-aged perfume and aftershave and wafts of tobacco smoke and sweaty woolen funeral coats. He knew that his mother and father would stop to talk with Josephine and the Murphy children and to visit again with all of the friends that the Reillys and the Murphys had in common who were many and who had all come here to bury Charlie. The old people talked now, having been silenced by the solemnity of the Mass and it had been hard, for everyone wanted to say something about Charlie or to console his widow and his half-orphaned children and wonder “Did he have a life insurance policy?” and “Who will be father to the boys now?” and “Will Josephine have to go to work, God forbid?” and “Was it the drink killed him so young?”
Patrick listened to none of it, heard only the undifferentiated din that was the cacophonous mix of prattle all around him like so much wind in his ears. He did not seek out Kevin Murphy whom he saw walking hand in hand with his mother Josephine who wore a black veil over her head and face and who looked like a ghost. He slid between the cars quickly and furtively as he walked through the parking lot to the station wagon in which the Reillys would ride to the cemetery.
* * *
Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw the first stab of lightning, a thick and brilliant bolt, eclipsed by the sun like a bright lamp shining indoors in the daytime is eclipsed by the sun, which still shone valiantly in the western sky, not yet blotted by the clouds and the lightning struck like a gun shot in the distance, a silent bloom of yellow fire and then the expectation of the crack which comes several breathless seconds later. Patrick stood among the citrus trees with his face to the wind and watched the gathering storm come toward him and then over his head, finally to swallow the sun outright in sultry afternoon darkness. The clouds were suddenly black and they moved implacably and inexorably on stilted spider legs of jagged lightning that raked the earth. The thunder rumbled on in rolls, on and on and on, like rocks tumbling down a canyon, echoing forever into the windy halls of air then cracked again like some great log axe-sundered. The wind hurled against the trees that once merely muttered but which now were in frantic conversation with the force that rallied against them. The dry leaves that clung lifelessly to the branches were swept like so much confetti and littered the earth as they skittered into the orchard.
Patrick turned and looked at the Eucalyptus tree that stood over the Great House in the orchard and watched it rail against the wind like a crazy giant in agony, its great mass and volume a bone to be chewed by the elements.
The front of the monsoon was gathering to sweep past him. He looked again back to the southeast from which the great wind came and saw that the sky, which had once been a theater of clouds hanging with sullen black curtains had now turned to thick brown like the water in the canal down by the Lewis ranch. The whole horizon as wide as the sweep of Patrick’s eye was rusty with desert dirt which blossomed on the rising wind to cover the world. He heard the hurtling wind grow louder and louder as the dust storm advanced and the dust bank came on until the wind made his eyes hurt and pulled tears from their corners. Everything glowed for a time in an otherworldly yellow, lit by tired eerie light as from a dying bulb. The tangy scent of creosote soaked the air. As quickly as he had seen it coming Patrick was lost in the thick of it. It descended like some Old Testament plague to gobble him up in its murk.
* * *
Bill O’Connor and Jack McCarville stood together like men with faces made of parchment. Patrick recognized them as two of the anonymous men he saw from time to time at church and who nodded non-commitally to his father when they met at Mass. They knew Doc Reilly better than he knew them which was often the case with the doctor whose position and status mattered to these men, bitter and resentful of position and status of which they bore none. They spoke to one another out of their hard dry faces with hard dry voices that had endured years of cigarette smoke that would eventually kill them. Neither looked happy, but both had just come from the funeral and had seen their friend Charlie lying misshapen and ghastly in the coffin that Father Ryan had opened. They looked like hard men to Patrick, who stared up at them from the open window of the station wagon to which he had retreated when his stomach began to roll and his ears began to deafen after seeing Charlie in that box. The men did not see him or if they did they did not pay any attention to him. They talked the way hard men do, with hoarse and guttural words, bitten out with quiet ferocity. They did not raise their voices. They talked with restrained almost whispered fury. They stood next to the station wagon in the crowded parking lot, O’Connor’s hand on the car parked there as if he were about to open it and get in and would have had he not been talking with McCarville about something that made him mad.
“He was drinking a hell of a lot at the end,” McCarville said, explaining and excusing Charlie for having died, as if it would make it easier if they both agreed that it was the drink that killed him so young. The drink had done the same to many that they knew and would do the same to many more.
“Shit, he drank a hell of a lot all the time, Jack,” O’Connor said dismissively with a wave of his hand as if to defend both Charlie and booze in the same motion.
“All I’m saying is that he could have taken better care of himself,” McCarville said.
“You mean if he knew he was going to die that day he could’ve sobered up? I could say that about you. I could damn sure say it about me. But who ever knows when his number is up?” O’Connor said with thinly veiled impatience.
“The point is he’s dead and it’s just goddamn unfair.” O’Connor said while McCarville pulled on his cigarette.
“Know how it happened?” O’Connor asked out the side of his mouth like he was sizing McCarville for a bet.
“Know how it really happened? He asked again.
“Course, I know how it happened. Charlie was drunk – again – and all worked up about something – the way I heard it - and went into another one of his fool rages and then dropped like a bag of spuds on the floor dead. Hell, he’d had all kinds of problems with his heart before this came. Had all kinds of warnings. He wasn’t about to change his tune. The money thing and the work were too much for him. And the booze, Jesus, the booze didn’t help any.”
O’Connor looked at McCarville with condescending pity on his parchment face and said, “I’ll tell you what happened.”
He looked like a man who relished being the one to tell ugly news, like a man who delighted in telling something mean that someone said about you, the kind of man who if he weren’t such a crusty old son of a bitch would have been at right at home in a sewing circle of gossiping old bitties.
“Charlie’s at home,” he said in the present tense as if he had been there. “It’s late. He’s been drinking, but we’ll never know how much. He’s talking to Josephine into the wee hours. He gets excited about something – probably money; I’ll give you that. The money was a problem. You heard that he emptied all the kids’ bank accounts things got so bad.”
“Oh yea I heard that,” McCarville said shaking his head for the pity of it.
“But then he goes down with a pain in his arm and his neck,” O’Connor continued.
“Goes down on the ground, sudden, and it’s bad but he’s still conscious. Still talking to Josephine who is now in hysterics.”
“Ahh, Jesus,” McCarville said.
“Who is now in hysterics,” O’Connor continued, “and Charlie lying there on the floor and saying to her, ‘Call Reilly. Get him over here, I’m dying. For God’s sake, Jo, get Reilly on the phone and get him over here.’”
O’Connor paused to draw on his cigarette and scrutinized McCarville through the smoke that squinted his eyes.
“You mean . . . ?” McCarville said.
“I mean Jo calls Reilly and begs him in a panic to come over because Charlie is dying in front of her eyes.”
“Ahh, Jesus,” McCarville said.
“Reilly says ‘Call an ambulance,’” O’Connor said, his teeth showing behind his thin lips drawn back, his cigarette dangling menacingly from the corner of his mouth.
“Didn’t go over to check on Charlie?” McCarville said.
“Reilly says ‘Call an ambulance.’ That’s what I’m telling you here. ‘Call an ambulance,’ he says.”
“Never went over to help Charlie?”
“Says ‘Call an ambulance’ and then hung up the phone.”
“Ahh, Jesus,” McCarville said.
“Charlie’s dead by the time the ambulance gets there and Jo’s a blithering mess and the kids are screaming bloody murder and terrified and Reilly home asleep not giving a fiddler’s damn. Reilly couldn’t be bothered. ‘Call an ambulance,’ he says, for fuck’s sake.”
O’Connor flicked his cigarette hard to the pavement, stepped on it like he was mad and opened his car door.
“And him here with his brood, not giving a good goddamn, to watch the priest bury Charlie after it’s all over.” O’Connor closed the car door, rolled down the window and looked up squinting in the bright morning sun at McCarville who stood there dumb.
“I’ll see you at the cemetery,” he said and started his car like a furious man does.
“Ahh, Jesus,” McCarville said again.
* * *
The rain came down in sheets, cool like a waterfall. Patrick stood soaking as Father Ryan stumbled from the front of the house to his car on unsteady feet. The pale bespeckled acolyte trailed behind him like a dog and by the time they made it to the car they were soaked too. Doc Reilly was scolding the old priest that he should let him drive. Doc Reilly never said it was because the priest was in his cups, but that was the reason. Father Ryan would not have any of it. To let Doc Reilly drive would be to admit that he was drunk. He would not do that. He could not do that.
Colleen Reilly stood at the door under the awning watching the priest wave off her husband with weary persistent impatience and when Doc Reilly dashed up the sidewalk after bidding the priest farewell she said, “He’ll make it home all right. God looks after children, drunks and fools.”
“He kills that boy, it’ll be on my head,” Doc Reilly said. “That’d be the luck. He’ll survive, the boy’ll die and I’ll pay the freight for letting him drive. Jesus Christ, they’ll say I killed him.”
Colleen put her hand on his wet shoulder and ushered him into the house and closed the door behind them on the storm.
Patrick stood in the backyard his face up to the rain that came down in sheets and began to laugh.
* * *
On the way to the cemetery the Reillys were silent but for Mary’s snuffling. Patrick could not stop thinking about Charlie in that box and did not know whether he was going to start crying or throw up. Mary Reilly was crying silently as she had all during the Mass. The other children were silent too from all the crying they had seen. Crying is contagious as chicken pox to children and it was all the small ones could do not to cry watching their sister Mary. Patrick puzzled and fretted on all he had seen and all that he had heard and finally said, “I heard two men talking. They said Jo called Reilly when Charlie was dying and they said Reilly didn’t go to the house to help. They said Reilly said call an ambulance and then they cussed about it.”
Patrick knew he was saying too much and winced at calling his father Reilly because he knew his father would not tolerate the disregard of his prerogative and demanded that he be called Doctor. Only his closest friends called him Dan and no one called him Doc except for those close enough to tease him. But they all called him Doc Reilly when he wasn’t standing in front of them. They did it then because they could. So saying Reilly when he knew he was talking about his own father was a rare and distasteful thing for him to say but he said it because he was quoting the men with parchment faces and because he could.
No one said a word. Even Mary stopped her blubbering for a time. Doc Reilly kept driving the car behind his inscrutable sunglasses and didn’t move or turn his head toward Patrick. Then he said after a long pause in a hoarse whisper like a hopeless prayer for mercy and forgiveness that sounded like he needed a drink of water, “Jesus Christ, they’re saying I killed him.”
Patrick never forgave Father Ryan for opening the box to make him see death in all its hideousness and he never forgave O’Connor and McCarville either for the same reason. He continued to believe that Kevin Murphy punched him on the day his father died so that he would not cry but now he knew that he hit him for the other reason too. If he had known he would have said he was sorry. But he didn’t know then. Even now he didn’t know for sure. He never did say he was sorry because he did not know how and he did not know whether he needed to but he always felt that he should but he never did. They never talked about it. How could they?
It was a long time before Patrick could look Kevin Murphy in the eye and even after he could they drifted apart and didn’t talk much to each other and didn’t play much together and were never again after that best of friends.
Copyright© 2010, Thomas Phalen, All rights reserved.