Frank McCloud had discovered two discarded, dead babies in his life, one close to its beginning, the second near its end. The first of the unbearably tiny creatures had been drowned, the other smothered. Each granted only the slightest breath of brief beginning.
When he was eight years old, Frankie’s jaw, smile, and self-confidence had been destroyed by an older bully with one vicious punch. Most of his teeth went, as well. In later life, he chose not to recall precisely how or why it had come to pass, though the physical circumstances, the taste of blood and its suffocating, viscous glueyness had remained with him always. By dint of its cold, metallic knuckles, a gigantic fist had rammed his mouth like a furious locomotive slamming into a tunnel far too small to accommodate it. In later years, he couldn’t have begun to summon the older boy’s face or expression, in spite of the fact that Frankie must have encountered him regularly at school, or in their small, north-eastern mill town following the incident. Indeed, he must have known the bully’s name. But thenceforth, he had kept his head down and his mouth shut.
As the all too well-mended, soberly clad boys had filed through, and then fled the iron clanging gates of the somber parochial grammar school’s once reddish, soot-blackened bricks, Frankie, preoccupied with stuffing purloined paper inside his socks to block their incipient and gaping holes, had lagged behind, and suddenly been waylaid. Terrified into silence, his mouth merely gaped as a swaggering brood of hooligans muddied and flung aside the dark boy’s worn shoes before dumping his slight body over the leaning picket fence of a nearby, overgrown yard belonging to an abandoned house. These were becoming more common as the Great Depression deepened.
The boys, not so much his senior, in fact, despite Frankie’s phantasmagoric vision, had squeezed into him so that he’d been concealed from the few stragglers still emerging from the soggy school grounds. They needn’t have bothered; no collection of children, never mind any single child, was about to confront, or even acknowledge those notorious tough boys.
Hoisted to his feet only to be nudged, taunted, and shoved back onto the wet, fecund ground, given a few kicks and stood upright repeatedly like a funfair doll that popped back up after it was slugged, only to endure punches again and again while patrons snickered, Frankie knew instinctively that if he didn’t suffer this horror without protest, the game might become too entertaining to be abandoned before it got out of hand. So, though he couldn’t control his blood streaming nose, he did not scream or try to fight back.
In the end, he’d proved such a sorry specimen of a stinking mick, son of a foundry sot, brother to a cripple, an invalid, and a couple of skinny girls, that the adrenaline of the boys who would be boys seeped away relatively soon. This little piece of Irish shit had nothing of value on him, not even a jawbreaker, the biggest one joked, so he’d leave him one as a present. Quite literally before Frankie knew what had hit him, his reason had been eclipsed by snarling pain edged with flashing light like the wham-bam illustrations in borrowed comic books. In later days, unable to speak or sit up in his small cot in a smoky room with other small cots, and solitary but for his reflections, the thoughtful, withdrawn boy recognized that he may have, even probably had overlaid this jaggedly framed image on his chaotic memory well after the fact, in an effort to order and file the recollection for ready access. Even so, he found that no other backward glance felt so suitable, so true.
Down the decades, when Frank the grown man, permitted the old goblins a peep into his dining nook of a vodka-clear night, he could just sense the swish of black cassock hems, the clumsy stamp and scrape of thick-soled shoes diminishing distantly, as he lost his balance and his head hit frozen ground under the surface mud, much like the later bouncing jump of an 8mm movie camera on its strap when it was inadvertently dropped while filming. During post-holiday screening, there you are one minute, having a highball in the safe warmth of your own home with your own family, watching familiar people cavorting in a motel swimming pool on a wrinkled white sheet hung from the wall, and the next, the world tumbles to the ground without warning, leaving nothing but a whirring whine. Yes, it had been quite a bit like that. However, the lonely, middle-aged Frank McCloud rarely admitted such ancient ghosts to his liquid gatherings, spirited, as they were, by more recent, familial phantoms. And anyway, the old goblins hung like moth-eaten, closed drapes, blocking illumination, haunting him with tinnitus, making his gums remember the after pain like amputated limbs.
Day’s weak light had stealthily stolen away when a feverish, bloody, and sickeningly fragile Frankie McCloud fully regained consciousness. He tried to curl up into a ball in order to ward off the now freezing rain stinging his exposed limbs and eyes, but shards of pain slashed his insides at the effort. His spent attackers had dispersed, not without parting snickers, comradely haroos of bravado, and anxious glances over their shoulders, having heard bone breaking and smelled blood oozing. St. Joseph’s gates were locked in iron silence by now. The boy’s moans, deafening within himself, went unheard.
The limp boy could sip only tiny gulps of air, his mouth hanging frigidly, solidly open as if it had been sculpted that way. Trying to breathe through his nose, he had choked torturously, afterward summoning all his will to calm his panic, forcing his breathing to a slow and shallow ebb and flow. Sometimes he drifted into a pure and grateful sleep, sinking into an illusion of thick, dry snow, cleanly sheltering him and his misery. Then he would wake, each time ever more nauseated and trembling. But then again, he would succumb to dream just one more time, perfectly aware that it was foolish and ignominious to remain there, soaked and freezing.
For a long time, the injured second-grade pupil balanced his options on the scales of his predicament. It was late; he would be in trouble at home and at school for getting himself into this fix. And he feared the sturdy, no-nonsense black boots and hairy fists of the holy fathers not less than the bony limbs of young hoodlums. Uncoiling, standing seemed out of the question. Wouldn’t it be better to go to sleep and leave his fate in the hands of God? But wasn’t that cowardice? No, it was humility and faith. So was he a faithful lamb, washed in the blood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, or was he a shameful coward? If the latter, he deserved to die and the faster, the better. But what if he didn’t die before morning light? He would be found ill and whining and humiliated. Everyone would know him for a coward, and he would be in yet greater trouble with the fathers, as well as his own. More insistently, and this argument clinched it for him, is this how Jim would behave? Jim Hawkins would never just curl up and die in a muddy yard because he was afraid and ashamed and in agony, as if he didn’t have the stomach to prove himself, or the ingenuity to survive. The vision of Jim brought courage.
When it had become more uncomfortable to continue as he was than to act, Frankie girded his will and set about the excruciating business of rising, not without stifled groans and welling tears. The cold numbed his pain somewhat. But he could not permit the indulgence of tears, he discovered almost immediately; they interfered with his scant ability to breathe. Arms and legs proved functional, if somewhat untrustworthy, whereas he assumed all of his ribs surely must be broken, such was the torment of standing and turning.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” echoed Ma’s patient, enduring voice. He could afford no more wishy-washy indecision; making for home was the only thing to be done. His mother, any road, would safeguard and attend to him, although the last thing she needed was another sick child. On bare, filthy feet, Frankie plodded the path beside the river, seeking to maintain the rhythm of his heart. The child could imagine what a horrifying mask his face must be, slimy with muck, warm tears having melted rivulets in the now crusty, smeared blood, though it was ever renewed in his mouth. He was going to retch. He’d swallowed too much of it. The freezing rain registered as a dim aside, thickening into sleet, aggravating the slushiness of his progress.
Little boys, much less girls, avoided the river path, especially after dark, this dark that now clung to Frankie, web-like and sticky, as he skirted the lunatic asylum, from which cries, screams and, some maintained, howls, could be heard. Even so, the boy had sought the path on purpose, as the shortest, most discreet way home. Apart from these advantages, he had been drawn to its privacy and solitude. He suspected he might not make it all the way, given his physical condition, not to mention his emotions, which were as messy as his shirt. The crackling sleeves of his light jacket felt as brittle as the remains of his teeth. The last thing he wanted was solicitous curiosity, even if clothed in pity and sympathy. Truth be told, though, he was simply afraid. So afraid that it seemed each discrete fear had sought others for comfort and melded together into one solid lump of ice surrounding his heart.
Frankie shivered resignedly as he slid down the slope, flattening a brittle, swath of grass to the swelling river’s edge, having discarded at least one persistent worry: What would Ma make of the appalling state of his only school uniform? And where had his school books got to? God forgive and have mercy on him, he no longer gave a damn, as Pa would say. Gingerly positioned, face downwards on the bank, the child deliriously scrubbed his face and agonizingly rinsed his swollen mouth with the icy river water. Only his immense distress could spur the trembling boy to crawl, inch by inch, back up to the road and plan his imminent, disturbing appearance on the doorstep of his family’s clapboard, tenement. It being Monday, Ma would be tending the stove, stoked as much to dry strings of wash, as to warm inhabitants. Still, he dallied, wet through and feverish, attending the water music’s almost deafening swells and diminishing chords, as it lost momentum, meandering and eddying around jutting stones.
If Frankie could last until supper was over, and Ma had firmly and insistently extracted the housekeeping from her feckless husband, his father, in no mood to “listen to any more whining and pleading, bleeding him dry,” would reach for his crumpled fedora and woolen scarf, slamming the door behind him, an echo of the last word he never seemed to get. The swarthy, black-haired man—Black Irish, he never tired of bellowing proudly, product of the Spanish Armada—whose cheeks had begun to droop flaccidly, and girth run over his belt, despite their Depression deprivations, would be wanting his “evening constitutional.” Sure he would, with a few sequestered coins burning more holes in his pockets. In the company of his fellows, a man might sport his armor, prop up his illusions, craft chain-mail theories from them. None need peer too closely at his frail nakedness, his failed and stifled dreams.
Frankie assumed correctly that Pa wouldn’t yet be concerned about his son’s welfare. Patrick McCloud would still be at the intermittent, blustering, “the brat needs teaching a lesson…what time do you call this?” stage of laying down his authority. And anyway, Pa would have one foot out the door, keen as he was to get to the smoky, steaming haze of the beer hall, with its convivial league of his peers eager to escape the guilt of nagging homes and meager hearths, no matter the weather. At least Frankie hoped so. It wasn’t dread of his father’s temper or slow-brewing brutality, just a fervent wish not to have to cross the man’s first line of scrutiny and interrogation, blocking as it did, his wife’s inevitable ministrations to her son. And wasting precious time, emotion, and strength in an ineffectual, symbolic demonstration of rule.
The two younger McCloud tykes were sickly, George with polio and Bobby presently down with scarlet fever, so already would be in bed, notwithstanding the early hour. Still, Frankie faced running the gauntlet of his elder sisters, with their alternate jibes and hysteria, in order to reach the protection of his mother. Stern, practical, disillusioned, and relentlessly stuck with her lot in life, Mary McCloud was not in the habit of demonstrating affection, much less gushing course, excited professions of love and devotion in her relations with her children, though she felt an abiding attachment and regard for them, as she navigated the obstacle-strewn, exhausting channel of keeping body and soul together.
More to the point, she could be depended upon. This Frankie knew as surely as he knew his Hail Marys. At the sight of him, her only healthy son, Ma would clasp her hands together, wearily exclaim, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! What’s become of you?”, lay him down on a newly ironed white sheet in front of the stove, and set to inspecting, bathing, and disinfecting, all the while ordering the jealous and defiant Louise to run for the doctor, and Eileen, who was afflicted by fits when they were least wanted, to organize rags, scissors, and boiling water. First things first. His story would come out in good time.
As the spent boy steadied himself with his hands in preparation for pushing up and away from the riverbank, a sort of whitetail swished at the edge of his right eye. A sharp blade seemed to slash at his neck, as he turned his head to get a full view. Emerging from the ends of a sheet that had been wound round it, was a tiny, bluish foot, reminiscent of the marble foot of the infant Jesus escaping from the Virgin Mary’s grasp on the statue he’d sometimes had occasion to examine in the waiting room of the rectory library, where the priests summoned pupils from time to time. This one, too, had veins, though these were distinctly blue, and the water had puckered this foot. With each gulping lap, the river swallowed more of the sheet, exposing legs, then back, then arms, and finally, a disproportionately large head stuck with wet clumps of dark hair, like his own, he thought, like little Charlie’s, who had died a crib death.
The creature was curled in on itself like a raw rock shrimp. Momentarily mesmerized, Frankie stretched to see the puckered doll face and regretted his curiosity instantly. It resembled no doll he had ever seen, and despite the quick Hail Mary he whispered in his head, it would return at intervals to haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life. The face was grayish against the white sheet, with blue, sucked-in lips. The boy jerked sharply away, vomiting on a patch of soaked earth. When his retching had ceased, he rinsed his tormented face and mouth with river water again, and inexorably raised his eyes. To his surprise and vast relief, only the white sheet lapped back and forth, as though washing itself, snagged on a withered bush. The baby might never have been there.
Frank McCloud jerked his chin towards the shelf inside the island buffering the cash register, and murmured, in an embarrassed undertone, “a pint of Relska,” eyes down, ruffling through the bills in his wallet, while his groceries were being bagged, as he did every evening. In response to the cashier’s questioning eyebrows, he nodded. Ordinarily, he purchased a half-pint, so as not to have greater temptation in his house. But this was not an ordinary evening.
As he pocketed his change, nodded to the green-uniformed checker with his familiar grimace, and hoisted the brown paper bag in the crook of one arm, he caught sight of a black and white paper square, luminous on the floor at his feet. Replacing the bag on the counter and bending cautiously down, the heavy man retrieved the old photo of his then-infant daughter he always carried, replaced it carefully in his wallet, and smiled inwardly, relaxing his facial muscles without opening his lips, in the way he had learned as a child with no teeth to speak of for so many years. Then he retrieved his groceries and lumbered outside to his dusty car in the parking lot. After pulling its dented door open with his free hand, he swung himself in behind the wheel, depositing the brown bag on the passenger seat beside him with one practiced motion.
At home, he lit a cigarette distractedly, took a long drag, and then balanced it in a waiting, half-full ashtray before unpacking and immediately refrigerating the perishables. Other items were left on the kitchen table for the time being. He took another pull like an inward sigh, while vodka was poured into a cracked coffee cup. On his way out the front door, cup, and cigarette in one hand, the television was switched on, filling the empty house with loud voices, punctuated at unnatural intervals by canned laughter.
On the parched front lawn, a green, partially coiled hose snaked and hissed when Frank’s soiled, meaty fingers twisted the rusty, vaguely flower-shaped tap. His other hand threw out the line of heavy hose repeatedly, removing its kinks, until the water reached the nozzle which, covered partially by his thumb, sprayed his sweat-stuck shirt, as well as the chronically thirsty earth, drenching them both in grateful respite from the heat. When the kids had been small, spraying them with the nozzle had been a great summer game, never failing to produce squeals of simulated protest, shrieks, and giggles. Now even the dog was gone.
The solitary man’s weekly routine had become so automatic as made no odds. Today had been different enough, though, dragging up snagged memories like discarded or lost junk sunk in a pond. Usually, he tried not to think about all that, tried not to dredge up the misery of the distant past, even when the kids had pestered him directly. Glossed it over, or rather, turned it face down like closing a hand of cards, with a reluctant word or two, unlike Ma and Louise and Eileen, forever shuffling, dealing, and displaying the whole deck with morbid satisfaction. As if anybody was interested these days. As if the kids didn’t roll their eyes and groan whenever worn stories of unknown dead people and places were hauled out. It was all ancient history, they moaned. The strangely familiar, distressing events of the day continued to sting Frank McCloud at intervals, like a shower of sparks. TGIF, the kids used to say. Thank God It’s Friday had never tolled more appropriately in his ears. His thin, compressed lips relaxed into a half-smile, as he recalled them clowning with their arms draped against the wall, head drooped to one side, murmuring, “Helluva way to spend a Friday,” only to dissolve in uproarious laughter. Ma’s tight lips would disappear in scandalized wrinkles as she hissed, “Youse wicked kids,” finalizing the judgment with disgusted jerks of her head. Every time, on cue.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would drive to the distant town near purple sage foothills, where his remaining sibling, Eileen, lived together with their mother in a trailer park. Reenacting their Saturday ritual, Frank would share Eileen’s mushy, reheated leftovers and weak coffee, before fetching Ma back to his house in their companionable, separate reverie on the road. He would prepare a decent meal, and they would play Rummy at the kitchen table until the 11:00 o’clock news signaled bedtime. Periodically, he would rise and go to the cupboard, blocking the vodka bottle from her gaze with his broad back, while he topped up his cup, and retrieved a jug of California wine boasting a red and white tablecloth-styled label to replenish Ma’s juice glass discreetly. Another game they played. They would pretend not to be waiting or paying attention to the ubiquitous TV. Undoubtedly, there would be a special report on the late news concerning the suspicious infant death.
Slumping down onto the pathetic cement perch of what was laughably called a porch, Frank flicked away the butt of his cigarette, absently lit another, and resting it between his first two fingers, gripped the small coffee cup with his thumb and free end fingers. It was all a balancing act, he mused, not unphilosophically. The cool, clear liquid paradoxically burned a trail to the tip of his fatigue, chased down with lung-expanding smoke. “Coffin nails,” he said aloud. “We called them that even
when I was a kid.” His adamantly anti-smoking daughter had latched onto that tale, at least, with determination. It had given her ammunition for her crusade to make him stop the filthy habit, which had fiercely annoyed him at the time, although now it brought on a wry grin of approval. Frank switched the hose to his other hand, concentrated his aim on a still parched patch of lawn, wiped his perspiring forehead with fingers made cold by the water, and took another swallow of his guarded elixir.
His dark eyes penetrated identical tract houses across the street as if seeking the distant mountains beyond, temporarily obstructed by these lousy, shoddily-built, jumped-up “courts.” Dead-end, horseshoe-shaped cul-de-sacs, in other words. The developer, after whose mother-in-law the project was named because she financed his shady operations, never did deliver the promised shutters, damn him. A man might have painted them green to match the carpet sized front lawn or maybe blue like the sky. Something different from the neighbors, anyway. McCloud held his cigarette between nicotine-yellowed fingers, while running his hand back through ample, though now graying hair. Such a characteristic gesture was it, that his gray forelock was permanently tinged yellow, as well. Blonding, he called it, with an ironic harrumph. Ah well, more water under the bridge. Yanking the long length of hose a few times, he wrestled it to the wall of his house and placed its nozzle down at the base of his “evergreens” to soak them. Not really evergreens, of course, which would never grow in this godforsaken climate, but substantial, bushy green plants, nonetheless, and he was partial to them. A touch of home, though they sucked up water like no tomorrow. It seemed only a matter of moments before the blazing sun was reduced to brief flares. Night dropped suddenly on the desert. The bulky, solemn man cranked off the spout, ringed the hose over his arm into a heavy coil prior to hanging it on its hook, picked up his cup, crushed dead butts into the damp earth to be on the safe side, and closed his front door on the encroaching darkness.
Without appetite, Frank stabbed at his overcooked hamburger with a fork and transferred it to a plate, adding some boiled, canned green beans. Given the amount of vodka he’d drunk, and would still drink before sleep rescued him from his ruminations, it would be imprudent to eat nothing. Tomorrow would be a tough day, and he was beaten. In the morning, before he hit the road, he had to meet with the Sheriff again about the dead baby. Christ Almighty. He would have to go over it all, yet another time, in detail. Describe how he’d found it on his rounds emptying the big metal garbage cans into the truck. How his eye had been hooked by the brown, slimy lid disengaging itself from its box as the overturned dregs had slipped onto the foul, seething mass already collected, the viscous, crushed being’s body tumbling into the light. How the sad, crumpled creature had been stuffed, together with its crusty, blood-blackened umbilical cord into the now sticky, drenched, disintegrating shoe box. Before or after its heart ceased thumping? The unforgivable indignity of it. Two times in one man’s life were two too many. He drained his cup.
Of course, he knew whose baby it was, though he had managed to wriggle out of speculation when questioned earlier today. Not only had he been emptying their cans for years, he’d known the girl who lived there since her own babyhood. Priscilla’s best friend for a time in junior high school, the screen doors of both families’ houses had slammed behind them, in and out, daily. The girls would suddenly whisk the needle off of Beatles records and shush whispered confidences before dashing off to the Dairy Queen in their cut-off jeans.
He ran his fingers absently through his hair again and breathed out audibly as if sighing would dispose of the awful weight. The whole ugly business was transparent and pathetically naïve, although shocking, nevertheless, given the fact that the girl had successfully concealed her pregnancy from a small, gossipy town. Not easy to do, that. There but for the grace…. The Sheriff, of course, also knew which house the garbage had come from. But it was Frank McCloud who would be called upon to sign a statement, and later, probably, testify in court.
The phone startled him awake, head down on the table. It was undoubtedly Priscilla. He had meant to call her earlier, as usual on Friday evening, before she went out. Glancing at the kitchen clock, the dazed man guiltily let it ring. Ten shrill times. Worse to let her hear how drunk he was than to let her think he was beset by deep sleep. He’d call her tomorrow. Besides, what if she’d already heard about this gruesome business? He couldn’t bear raking it over until it had become inescapable. Certainly not now.
After switching off the TV and weaving to the bathroom, Frank took out his teeth, dropped them into a glass of water, and removed his last ampule of Insulin from the medicine cabinet over the sink. Better write himself a note. While preparing the needle for his injection, he had a sudden coughing fit, during which the ampule slipped from his fingers, shattering in the sink. Gripping the sides of the white porcelain, he bowed his head and watched, mesmerized, while the liquid seeped slowly around shards, and oozed over splinters of glass. The scene glinted like a
miniature icescape. Then he minutely examined his gray, lined face with its puckered mouth in the mirror, and laughed ruefully, milky brown irises meeting themselves. Frank McCloud was an old man at 52. Giving himself a naughty wink, he waved away the glass containing his false teeth, turned his back on the mess, and stumbled to bed.
Tomorrow, he thought hazily before drifting off. Tomorrow, he’d have to rise early to get to the drug store and buy his Insulin, so as not to miss another dose. Tomorrow, he’d call Priscilla. Tomorrow, Ma would sit opposite him at the kitchen table, a petrified feather, acknowledge the never-changing cycle of bereavement, and folly of ages with a fatalistic shake of her accepting head, and say a Hail Mary, eyes cast down on her twiddling thumbs.
Then, they would play cards in silence.