It is Christmas Eve and I am visiting my dying father. He has been in bed since the robbery.
The smell in his room is dark green, the odor of fermenting vegetables and flesh. My mother changes his sheets each day, cotton sheets as white as snow. She cleans him every morning before she goes to Mass. In his entire life he has never been so clean: she wipes and sponges, she pats him dry, swaddles him, and tucks him in like a baby. But the smell darkens.
The room is always immaculate. My aunts come over three times a week armed with specially treated cloths and lemon Pledge. They sweep and dust the framed photographs of relatives who disappeared before I was born, the oil painting of a ship cutting through a storm, the doodads my mother picked up on their trips to Florida. The aunts wipe and rub; they seek out the remotest of motes. The dirt patrol, he says. He puts a finger to his lips to hush me, then motions under the bed.
Something is under the bed? I grin to assure him I get the joke, and he gives me that long, solemn stare that always unnerved me when I was a kid. It unnerves me now. He doesn’t wink or play the jolly invalid. It’s his life rotting under the bed, and we both know it. They are gathering up bits of him, sifting the chaff, winnowing his flesh. Will they garner out his soul at last and save it?
I tell him I’m going with Mom to Mass, it being Christmas Eve and all.
Christmas? he asks. Fine, he chuckles, that’s very nice. Where are the police? It’s a hell of a deal. I work my entire life like a slave. I never pinch a penny. I never copped a feel that wasn’t asked for.
He says these things and worse whether my mother is around or not. The longer he has lain here the fouler his mouth, the funkier the odor. I can only shut him up by shooting questions back at his sour puss. When are you getting out of that bed to go look for these punks yourself? Why is it you lie here month in, month out while two doctors, damned expensive ones, say you’re goldbricking? Stroke. Don’t kid yourself.
Stroke my ass, he mutters. Stroke my ass.
He isn’t deranged, but he isn’t pretending to be. Anyone robbed and beaten senseless four times in three years is allowed a little leeway when it comes to bad temper. It’s a constant refrain among the family: he has a right to be out of his mind. He has a right to die in peace.
Standing over him, letting my voice rip in the sickroom, I feel my neck and face heat up with shame. But the shouting drives out the smell.
He strains to lift his head, stretches his neck out like a turtle upside down and confounded. His lips shape words, soundless mouthing. You, he’s saying, Benjamin, avenge me. And I take his hand. It’s all I can do. He smiles up at me like a child, his grip pops my knuckles, his eyes overflow with a delight that softens his face beyond recognition. I’m hoping death is like a door; I’m hoping he has just pulled it open and taken his first look.
I’m off with my mother to church. She says nothing; one gloved hand holds the purse against her belly, the other grips the car seat. I was last here at Easter, when leaves on the scrawny little trees glimmered hopefully in wrought-iron skirts. Hooligans have ripped off most of the branches since then; some are mere stumps under cheap, glowing street lamps. Dingy remnants of the snow that fell last week impart a uniformity to the streets. After a block or two I’m not sure where I am. Boarded-up windows and revamped buildings loom side by side. I almost pass the parking lot before I see the church. Big as it is, it seems to huddle in the dark, cavernous mouth of an alley.
My mother takes her time, goes in on my arm, staring intently at the faces passing us up the steps. She stops. We are a small island in the crowd flowing toward the dark portico. She nods at two old ladies, then shakes her head, sighs, and we go in.
The lights are low, but it’s not hard to see that the Altar Rosary Society is in trouble. Only two rows of poinsettias this year, no pink or white, just blood red. Someone close to the fire marshal has decided holly looks better in the crèche than straw. And in the shadows high above the door to the sacristy, left over perhaps from a wedding, hangs a blue balloon.
All the way down to the front pews we shuffle, and she pulls me down onto the rock-hard kneeler beside her. For once, I pray; I pray as hard and fast as I can for my father. When I open my eyes, four people — three women and a man about my age — are shoving their way into the pew in front of us. The first woman has a baby in her arms; the man wears a lettered cap. He slumps onto the bench directly in front of my face so I have to draw back. He’s wearing a yellow pullover with white stripes, and his shapeless back is broad and puffy like his baggy, bluejeaned buttocks. I can see the stubbly bumps on the backs of his sausagelike arms. His cap says SHIT HAPPENS, and then, in small letters: God Is A Narcissist.
He shouldn’t have a beard, but he does, close-cropped and rust-colored. I stare at the back of his head, which looks like an oversized cocklebur. He leans across the teenage girl and motions to the woman to hand him a hymnal. When she ignores him, he reaches around and takes the one from the rack in front of me. He glances at it, then stuffs it back in the rack.
This is when I decide to hit him — when he gives this little nod and snaps the hymnal shut. He sits there, women on both sides. First one, then the other leans against his shoulder to whisper to him, while on the end the third woman holds the baby, intently watching the priest. The teenager giggles and seems about to flutter off the bench; on his right the good-looking one reaches around him and hooks her thumb over his belt. He ignores them both. I know he is smirking, pretending to pay attention to the service, just like the ones who come into the store. They don’t want to buy anything; they don’t have money to buy anything. They smudge the magazines, maybe sit at the fountain for a soda. What they’re really doing is eyeing the pharmacy, wondering if they can score any good drugs in an old-fashioned place like this. The way they walk, the way they peer around, is to show you what they think about the store and about you — real quaint, a joke.
No one saw them except my father, and if a cop were to ask him right now who they were, he would say the same thing he did that night.
“Go ask them,” he said, and that was all.
Bur-head looks familiar. He might be from our neighborhood; they all might be, especially the women, arrayed like versions of the same person at different ages, all with dark clothes, black wavy hair, and vegetable-oil complexions. None of them takes any pleasure in the baby. You can’t tell who the mother is, or whether he is the father. Tiny, red-faced, and wrinkled, as if it had been dropped in the fount and left too long, the baby couldn’t have been baptized more than a month ago. It isn’t funny when Bur-head makes as if to launch the baby in the air. The woman on the end gasps, and the one on his right doesn’t like it either. But she grins when the teenager titters. She can’t stop touching him, leaning on him, smiling. She is nice-looking, with a face like a model’s and short hair to show it off, and a tight sweater and jeans to show off the rest. She glances back at me while she whispers to him; why should I look away?
Long before we come to the sign-of-peace part of the service, I know I’m going to hit him, as if my back and arm muscles have made the decision and I’m there only to act as the witness. We say the Our Father and the doxology, and then the moment comes for handshakes and I feel my mother take hold of my arm.
She’s been doing this lately at certain times, like she can read my mind and knows I’m thinking of my father and seeing his mouth grope like the mouths of those graylings we used to catch off the pier. When I get mad because he won’t even look at the racing forms anymore, or because the joke he started with his phony old-world gallantry has suddenly trailed off into jeering obscenities, I feel her embarrassment building and I go numb. Things go red around the edge of my vision. She says my pupils are wide, black, and empty, but I feel white-hot flame licking the insides of my skull.
So I kiss her polished velvet cheekbone and I turn blindly, shaking hands all around. The older woman passes the baby to him while the girl reaches back, grinning, to shake my hand, but none of the rest of them moves. Everyone faces front again, trembling with a bit of embarrassed goodwill, and he reaches across and pokes the woman so that she jerks sideways, open-mouthed. It hurts her, you can tell, but she smiles.
I think how if I hit him a solid one right there in church, literally in front of God and everybody during the taking of the Eucharist, he will never forget it, he will never again be able to run through his Mr. Wise Guy routine without looking over his shoulder. I imagine the look on my father’s face when I tell him.
My mother holds my hand; I can feel her eyes on me, her knowing that something is up. But I’m beyond caring, I’m through with understanding. I’m fed up with the benefit of the doubt, the patronizing stink of brotherly love. It’s too late in the day for mercy.
He’s the first one up to take Communion, and the women trail after him. Then my mother pulls me along the pew, tripping over the kneelers and into the aisle so that I am right behind him. I stare at his hog-fat back as we shuffle toward the altar. Now, I’m thinking. Now. But my mother knows. She’s got her fingers locked around my arm. She whispers something I don’t hear. The whole front of the church is bathed in a red glow, and in my ears a fist pounds a big slab of meat. If I have a heart attack here and now, I’m thinking, so much the better. Just let it happen after I hit him.
He takes Communion, pious as can be, and I follow him. This is it — right by the crèche, the little Lord Jesus, the Holy Mother, the kindly animals. My turn.
The wafer sticks to my tongue, and my mouth is so dry the wine won’t go down. I choke a little. Somebody thumps me on the back. SHIT HAPPENS stops, reaches around to buck me up. The spasm passes and I head back to the pew alone, coughing.
The four of them sit in front of me, heads bowed, except for the girl, who stares over her shoulder at the little boy beside me. He is pointing toward the sacristy. For a minute I see nothing but shadows; then I watch as the blue balloon gently bobs toward the tabernacle. As I watch, my throat still aching, the balloon nudges a stained-glass window and drifts down toward us. From high in the gloom of the vaulted ceiling, it sinks toward the file of people receiving the cup, then wafts gently upward as the organ music swells. The Communion line dwindles to a few stragglers and people pray, their heads bent over the backs of the benches, while others sing. The balloon rides the mix of currents down, down, till it’s right in front of the girl. As she tenses to reach out, it slips left. It moves toward me.
Suddenly, I am frightened. The balloon keeps coming slowly on. The little boy beside me watches. He fidgets, then reaches. The balloon is too high for him. But SHIT HAPPENS swings his ham fist for it. There’s still time to hit him. Do it. But the air comes out of me in a rush. I’m thrusting myself over his shoulder, but my fingers only brush the string. Then I’ve got it. No, it’s his hand I’ve got. Bur-head and I stare right into each other’s eyes. I let go; we both let go. Then the boy grabs the string.
The congregation digs in for the closing hymn. The little boy cradles the balloon to his chest as though it were a kitten. No one says anything to him. SHIT HAPPENS starts to sing, loudly, and so do I. Then we are all standing. “Give the man his balloon back,” says the boy’s mother, oblivious to the whole show. The boy’s glance is quick and shy. “Thanks, it’s not mine,” I say, so he thrusts out his string-clutching fist to the man in the next pew, who shakes his bur-head, grinning ear to ear. For an instant, I think I might take the balloon back to my father, tell him the story, and explain that my heart has melted and put out the fire in my head. Impossible. And as I smile this word, the boy opens his fist.