A Late Winter Dusk
I went to Mass that Sunday. My parents went in the morning, but I wasn’t up,so I walked on my own to the five o’clock. I cut through the Island Grove Park on my way. To get to the Island, from my side of town, you had to cross a long concrete bridge that spanned the pond. It was a Civil War Memorial bridge with an enormous archway at the head of it, crested with a bronze eagle, as you reached the actual park. Inside the park there was an old roundhouse bandstand, and a small swimming pond with a sandy beach. The Island had been a meeting/speaking place for abolitionists prior to the Civil War and several spots were marked for historical significance. It wasn’t really an island at all though, and if you cut through you would come out to the road that led to the church.
The ground was crusted with frozen crumbled leaves, and a thin layer of winter sand. I lit a cigarette with little fear that anyone would see me. The drunks and kids and lifeguards would be around in the summer, the rumbling Park Department trucks, but not now. Now it was mostly deserted. This time of year you usually only saw people walking their dogs up here. I was now smoking pretty much every day, and I kept my cigarettes in the rock wall that separated our yard from the woods behind our house.
I hadn’t seen Alistair nor Danny since we had exiled Chad, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to yet. We had hung out with Chad for years, and now we had ruined him, ostracizing him from our group of friends. He had often been a bully himself, picking on the weaker kids, and I had thought I would enjoy seeing the tables turned on him, but I didn’t. I just felt small.
I had spoken to Danny on the phone. We were usually inseparable but he had said he had to spend the whole weekend helping his father do some work under their house. The work was filthy, something to do with the toilet pipes and the septic tank—something was overflowing or leaking–and Danny’s father couldn’t fit beneath the house so he would send Danny under with five gallon buckets. Danny’s house always smelled like sewerage and apparently the project was an ongoing one. Winter or summer, Mr. Hurley would sit in his lawn chair, cigarette in one hand and Bourbon in the other, supervising, as he sent Danny in and out with the buckets. The eventual goal, Danny said, was to dig a trench and lay some pipe to drain the septic tank directly into the stream that ran by their home. You had to be careful doing it though, he said, because if the town caught you, it would mean a lot of trouble.
Mass had already started when I arrived so I slipped up to the balcony. There were only a few pews in the balcony, and the rest of the space was reserved for the choir. But the choir was rarely around anymore–usually only on the big Holy Days–and the chairs and sheet music were tossed about as if they had left in a hurry. There was an enormous pipe organ up there, too, and behind the pipe organ was a tall, steel ladder that was bolted to the wall and lead to the trap door in the ceiling. I heard that the kid who lived next door to the church, Mason Finneran, used to climb up there and smoke pot.
Danny’s older sister was up in the balcony, too. Sheila. I saw her there every once in a while. She never said anything to me, and neither one of us ever acknowledged that the other was there. Sheila was three years older than we were, a junior in high school and in the same class as my brother Bacardi. She was smoking hot beautiful. Round, brown eyes, and shoulder length brown hair. Slim waist, and round, high, perfect breasts. I sat right behind her, but I didn’t think God was even a little pleased with me right now because of the Chad situation, so I was trying to concentrate on what was going on at the altar and not on her.
Father McDermont was saying the Mass. An octogenarian who was out of his mind, he shouted the whole Mass, the decimals raised even a little more for the sermon. Everyone was going to Hell. All of us. You were going to Hell if you left Mass early, or if you came in late, or if you missed a week. Especially if you then went and received Communion without going to Confession first. You were going to Hell if you ate meat at all during Lent, even though the Church now said you could except on Ash Wednesday and Fridays. And if you were a kid, you were going to Hell if talked during Mass, or stood at the back instead of taking a seat.
Father McDermont had coke bottle glasses, and a shiny bald head. Small patches of white stubble covered his cheeks and chin–he always demanded face to face confessions–and his breath smelled like he liked to chew on dead people. I was wondering if I should go see him soon.
He was already into the sermon. I had missed the first two readings–I was always late–and just made it for the tail end of the Gospel. The Sermon had something to do with his outrage over women being allowed on the altar–even though there was a lady with a guitar up there now, standing off to the side–but I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I don’t think he did either. He never left the pulpit–wasn’t one of those priests who liked to march around like a talk show host–but he liked to bang his fist a lot, and I heard that once he even threw his New Testament, nailing one of the Eucharistic Ministers in the head.
Sheila wore jeans and a blue sweater, head down and missal open, but in my eyes she had suddenly switched to her green cheerleading outfit I had seen her wear at the varsity football games. Hands on her hips in pom-pom repose. She did a little shake, spun around into a split, one hand raised high in the air, and then she stood, turned to face me and began to disrobe. The green sweater with the big W, for Willington, on the front came off first, and then she pushed the skirt slowly over her hips, bending a little at the knees as she did. She stepped lightly out of the skirt, and it was then she unclasped her bra, her breasts falling free. She took one in each hand, looked at me, and ran her tongue over her lips. “Jack,” she mouthed silently, “Oh, please Jack.” I pushed myself up against the back of the pew in front of me, and my head began to spin. Her words silently rose to the domed ceiling of the church, floating high above the heads of parishioners. She did another little cheerleader move, and then spun around, her ass in the air as if she were standing on top of the pyramid. On the altar, McDermont had both hands raised, and his face was red.
He was right. I was going to Hell.
I lowered my head, and shut my eyes, trying to think clean thoughts and make my hard on go down. Please make it go down, God, I thought. Please. Before she turns and sees me. It will stay that way, I promise. Now and forever. I’ll say seven Hail Mary’s.
The guilt was terrible, and my daydream wasn’t unusual–I had been adding to it each time I saw her at Mass. While I had my eyes shut, I tried to pray, asking God to forgive me for what we had done to Chad, and for my bad thoughts in the Church. McDermont started into the Apostle’s Creed, and I wondered if maybe I should start sitting down in the main section for now on–most of the female parishioners down there were blue haired and withered. Sheila turned to shake my hand during the sign of peace, and she didn’t break a smile. I was worried she had read my thoughts.
She caught me outside though after Mass as I was descending the enormous granite steps. McDermont was behind us, holding open the door and insulting people as they made their way back into the cold. One man was getting much too fat, he said, and another woman he had noted to be sleeping, and she was going to Hell. Sheila told me to wait up, and asked me if I were walking home. I nodded, but didn’t speak. As many times as I had seen her over Danny’s and at church I could never actually get up the nerve to open my mouth to her–she was too pretty.
“Good,” she said, “let’s cut through the cemetery. I don’t want anyone to see you walking with me.”
Sheila and I climbed the rocky hill next to the church that lead to the train tracks. The tracks were rusted and rarely used, the ties broken and splintered with a gravel bed beneath them, and they passed right by the cemetery.
“You got a cigarette?” she asked me.
I nodded, and pulled out my Marlboro’s. Sheila laughed. “You little punk.” She leaned over, and brushed her hair away from her eyes as I lit it for her, her lips pursed and her eyes barely open. I could have stood like that and stared at her all day.
She stood up straight, her breasts pushed forward, and exhaled. Watching the smoke. She pulled out the cigarette and looked at it for a moment.
“These are strong,” she said. “I like Parliaments.” She looked at me again, and snickered a little. “You shouldn’t smoke.”
“I’m trying to quit.” I knew it was a cool thing to say, implying you had a track record. Telling her that I had really only been smoking a few weeks would not have been cool, it would have reminded her how young I was.
She dragged again. “These are giving me a head rush. Does Danny smoke?” she asked me offhandedly.
I hesitated. “Not that I know of.”
“You little liar. Of course you know. I bet he does. I think I’ve smelled it on him.” She blew the smoke out of the corner of her lips. “He shouldn’t. He’s a good athlete. He’s going to ruin it.”
“No, he won’t. He’s too good. He’s the best athlete in our grade.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see. He’s a little punk, too. You’re all a bunch of little punks. At least you go to church though. That’s good. I doubt any of your other little delinquent friends go.” She flicked the cigarette ahead of her on the tracks, and when we caught up to it, she crushed it out with the heel of her boot. “What do you pray about when you go?” she asked. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. I don’t think anyone should have to answer anything they don’t want to.”
I thought about my cheerleading reverie, and figured it probably wasn’t a good idea to share that one with her. I tried to think about what I prayed about, but nothing came clear. I knew I said I was sorry for the Chad situation, and for teasing my younger brother and sister at home, for hijacking D’mato’s suprette for candy every day, but I wasn’t sure I really prayed. Praying, I thought, implied that you were communicating with God, and I wasn’t sure that I was communicating. I was just throwing stuff out there.
But here I was walking with Sheila Hurley, and she was talking to me. And I was talking back. That in itself was impossible to believe. And while I didn’t begrudge her for not wanting to be seen with me, I would have given anything for my friends to see me with her. I was happy that there were no leaves on the trees because maybe it meant maybe somebody could see us. From somewhere.
“The usual stuff,” I said. “My family, that I’ll do good in school, soccer, maybe that I’ll score some good weed.”
“You really pray for that?”
I tried to think. “I sometimes pray for people in Mexico.”
“I don’t know. It just seems like a rotten place to live. Everyone’s poor, and everyone who goes down there gets sick. They say it’s in the water.” My own cigarette was almost down to the filter, starting to get hot to the touch.
“How about you?”
Sheila looked straight ahead, and she was quiet for a moment. “I go to pray that my father will die.”
We reached the cemetery and started down the slope. The cemetery was surrounded by woods, and some of the graves dated back to the early eighteenth century. The landscape lay spotted with oak trees, rolling hills, and the small murky pond. Legend said the pond was bottomless. Haunted. Newlyweds and a stage coach driver who supposedly crashed into the pond sometime like a hundred years before. Now at dusk they rose from the depths, and wandered. Sometimes you would see them, but sometimes you would just hear their voices, whispering. That’s what they said. Sheila reached into her coat pocket, and pulled out some lip gloss, carefully applying it as we made our way up the winding dirt road. It was close to six, but the days were finally starting to get longer despite the chill, and it wasn’t yet dark.
“I hate winter,” she said. “The only place winter seems right is in graveyards.”
“Because everything else is dead, too. I used to run track and cross country when I was a freshman and we would come in here and do laps around the whole thing. I liked running.”
“How come you don’t do it anymore?”
She tapped my pocket for another cigarette–the indirect touch of her fingers, sending a jolt up my spine. “Because I smoke these things. Give me another.”I did. “I didn’t like Mr. Patterson either,” she said. “He’s a pervert.”
He coaches cross country. There’s a little hole in the wall in between the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms and he used to look through it to watch us all change. Him and the janitor. Probably jerking each other off. Dirt bags. I think he was hoping one of us would take a shower, but nobody ever did. Those showers are disgusting.”
I imagined a bunch of high school girls running about, cavorting, in nothing but their panties and bras, one or two without. But things like that only happened in the movies.
“How did you know it was him?”
“His eyes. And his eyebrows. He has bushy black eyebrows. Bushy black hair, too. He’s a little guy, he looks like an elf. You’ve probably seen him jogging around town, he’s always jogging. Anyway, every time we would head to the locker room, he would high tail it to the boys’ locker room next door. Didn’t waste a second. Dirty little bastard.”
“And nobody reported him?”
“No. Some of the girls liked it, I think, liked having someone watch them. Others didn’t know, and some liked to have the chance to talk about him, say things, knowing he was listening but couldn’t do a thing. The janitor was different. He’s even grosser than Patterson. He smells.”We passed the pond, and I looked over to see if there were any activity with the ghosts, but there was nothing. Just small patches of ice, clinging onto winter, and a low fog above. One of the graves near the pond was surmounted with a stone, sleeping child. Head on her hands, knees curled beneath her, and bum in the air. And another one merely said: “Fred. Waiting and Watching.” I never liked that one very much. No one did. We didn’t know what Fred was waiting for, and just the thought of him watching was bad enough. You always felt like someone was watching you when you made your way through the cemetery. We approached a tall tomb with the statue of the woman in the Victorian dress, her head bowed, and hands folded over her knees. C.T. Dunham. She towered high above us. Sheila stopped in front of her, looking up for a moment, and then she took a seat on the stone steps that lead up to the plot.
I stood there for a minute, unsure if it was a good idea for me to take a seat beside her or not. I didn’t want to be presumptuous. She patted the stairs though.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t mind. I doubt anyone is around.” She blew a smoke ring. “I like to get as many in as I can before I get home.”
“You don’t have permission?”
“No. But I’ve never asked. I doubt they’d care, or notice, but I don’t want to them to have anything on me. You know what I mean? Or to have to go to them for anything. Sometimes I go and smoke in the bus, out behind the house. I sit out there at night, and I can see in the kitchen windows, my father sitting there at the table drinking his whiskey. Fat blob. He’s gross.”
“What about your mother?”
Sheila pursed her lips as she exhaled.
“She’s not gross. She’s just not that bright. She can’t be to stay married to him. They had too many kids though. That’s the problem. How many kids are in your family?”
“That’s a lot, too. Fucking Catholics. My parents don’t have all those kids because they’re Catholic though, they have them because my father is a pervert. I even sleep out in the bus sometimes, just to keep away from him. It will be a cold day in hell before he ever touches me.” She looked at me a second, cautiously, and then pointed her cigarette at me.
“Don’t you dare tell anyone this.”
“Good. Because I’d have to kill you. Don’t say anything to Danny either. I don’t think he could handle it.”
“He can handle anything.”
“No, he can’t,” Sheila said quietly.
I didn’t know what to think about what she was saying–to some extent I was hearing but not quite processing–and I had no idea really how to respond. We had learned about some of things she had talked about–a movie or two in school–but not much, and the only guy I really knew as a supposed diddler was this crusty old guy with bad teeth who smoked Pall Malls rode an old bike around town. But having someone suggest that their father was one, especially the father of your best friend, didn’t make a lot of sense.
The dusk had begun to settle. A late winter dusk, heavy and gray. Smog colored and filthy. It was harder to see shadows in the winter dusk, but they were out there. You could always feel them out there when you were in the cemetery. Movement from the corner of your eye, but then you would look and there would be nothing. Sheila stomped on her cigarette and huddled her arms tight around her. I wanted to look directly at her, her beautiful profile, but I was afraid.
“Billy Morgan just got a new car,” she said. “You know him?”
I nodded. “He had me and Danny watch out for cops while he and your brother, Joe siphoned gas from the trucks at D’Matos.”
“Joe,” she said. “My old man beats the hell out of that poor kid.” She was quiet a minute. “Anyway, Billy asked me out. I might go out with him. I’m not sure. He’s kind of cute, but not wicked cute. You need a car if you want to get anywhere in life. I might just get a job. I want to save some money so I can do some things. Maybe get a car of my own. I want to get a bikini for the summer, too. A new one.”
I started picturing her in her bikini, and then had to quickly change my thoughts. All I needed, I figured, was to get all going, and then have her ask me if I wanted to get going, walk home, and I would have to stand and that would be it. She would see that I had a hard on again, and she would pummel the hell out of me. Danny had told me more than once that she could beat a tune on him when she wanted to. Anyway, I started thinking about Mrs. Tibbets down the street, answering the door naked–Mrs. Tibbets was pretty old and weighed a few hundred pounds—and that did it . Right down.”I love going to the beach,” Sheila said. “And I hate winter. One more year of school, and then I can go to the beach as much as I want. Move to Florida or something.” She stood up, and brushed off her rear end. Eye level. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Sheila spun around, her lips arched in the sneer that all the Hurley girls had, and she looked down at me, eyes at half mast. “You want to get going? I don’t want to be out here once it gets dark. I hate ghosts.”
“You ever see a ghost?”
“No, but we have one in our house. We hear him walking around in the attic when we’re down stairs, and then if you listen carefully you can hear a rope creaking. The guy who lived in the house before us hung himself up there. We call him “Johnny in the attic.” If I were my parents, I never would have bought that house. It’s a piece of crap anyway.” She looked back up at the monument. “Imagine having a grave like this. It must have cost a bundle. Nobody puts graves up like this anymore. She reminds me of my grandmother a little—pictures I’ve seen of her when she was younger, I mean. She was dignified. That’s why I can’t understand how the hell she ever gave birth to my father.”
We started walking again, and Sheila had gone quiet. I imagined myself reaching out and holding her hand, and then realized I was being ridiculous; she could never want anything to do with me. A guy with curly hair and thick glasses stood off amongst the graves up ahead of us. Smoking and staring. He was walking his dog, and the dog raised a leg to piss on a grave. He turned to follow us with his eyes as we passed.
“Creep,” Sheila muttered. “It’s a good thing I have you with me,” she said, and I suddenly felt a surge of power. I was her protector. At least for the next three minutes or so. The road that led to the main gates was now in view, and we passed the stone house where they stacked the caskets, the bodies, in the winter, waiting for the earth to thaw. I figured if I were dead I wouldn’t want to spend the winter in there with a bunch of people I didn’t know, and decided I’d rather die in the summer. But then I figured summer was a lousy time to die because there was too much to do. A lot of fun to be had. You couldn’t win. Maybe the fall.
When we got close to the gates, Sheila bummed one more cigarette off me asked me to wait a minute as she walked ahead. I nodded. She looked at me a second longer, and then she said, “Bye.” Walking off, her hands in her pockets. I stood frozen a minute, in awe, watching her go. Convinced I was in love. She had put quite a distance between us by the time I reached the street, but I turned and went the opposite way, back through the Grove. I didn’t want her to look back and think I was following her.
It was dark when I got home, but my parents didn’t mind because I had been at church. My mother had cooked a roast, and the house was warm. Yellow light in the kitchen. My little sister was working on some homework at the kitchen table—at the rate she went she could be there all night, and my little brother came by dressed up as Rambo. I punched him in the arm, and he started to cry and told me he hated me. It was all routine. Supper was quiet though, and after sneaking a cigarette in the garage when I went to take the trash out, I went upstairs and worked on a report for school. Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt looked a like the guy we saw in the cemetery, I thought. Except Roosevelt didn’t have the curly hair. I tried to write, but couldn’t really concentrate. I was thinking of Sheila, and wishing I was older so I could protect her even more.
Sean Padraic McCarthy