Catholic in America

Incense hangs in the air in great clouds,
stealing into dark corners
of stained wood and marble floors.
I watch the casket roll by,
and memories take me, unwilling.
It was here I knelt on red velvet cushions and confessed my darkest sins
and the venial ones, too.
Sundays of pork pie hats, white gloves made obstacle courses on the benches.
My summer uniform: a red bow tie, seersucker pants, white bucks.
We begged to Christ in eternal agony for his love.
Back at the apartment above Auburndale Plumbing Supply, streams of aunts hovered around the stove, basting the roast, mashing potatoes.
They sang Irish ballads and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
The sour breath of Uncle Dennis, as he strained to kiss us,
made me fear whiskey.
His Lucky Strikes, the shiny metal lighter that made that clipping noise, got him through the war.
The talk was of Jack and Jackie, American saints.
A Catholic White House finally.
Uncles spat drops of Canadian Rye and talked of fishing trips, concrete jobs and the “blacks” down South.
“Jesus, would they just keep quiet?”
The word “Cuba” made them shudder.
On the living room wall, the Sacred Heart, blood tear dripping, made me wonder.
All these years in heaven, and Jesus was still sad.
Did he want us to be sad, too?


Snow in Poland

Snow falls on the brittle leaves of birch trees,

their frail branches somehow overlooked by the December wind.

It makes a sound like the marching feet of scary Germans rushing through Poland.

Snow, mixed with freezing rain, falls hard on the roof of an unheated barracks in Auschwitz,

filled with men and boys in pajamas.

It sounds not unlike the far-off thunder of the radio in the commandant’s house,

the angry voice of the Fuhrer.

Snow, descending from the sky like shaved ice, on a brittle day,

5 maybe 8 degrees.

It covers the makeshift roadblocks in the streets of Warsaw,

making little mountains — so pure on the outside butImage  fetid, rotten, corrupt beneath the fine powder.

This snow, this ice falling to the ground, sounds like Russian boots jumping over the mountains.

Rain in Gdansk,

a fine mist,

the smell of the sea covers the street

Men whisper things that will someday be heard

and old women fall on their knees to pray the Rosary.

This rain smells of freedom.

The Wedding Invitation

The following is from a Long Island Writer’s Guild writing exercise, in which the prompts were:

  • wedding invitation
  • your first tax refund
  • favorite song
  • plastic flowers

I opened the wedding invitation from Bridget. It came on a day when the sun was nowhere in sight. It was just another day of darkness in what seemed like a month-long string of days without the colors blue or yellow in the sky. It was so bad that I was beginning to look for a way out of my reality — a bottle of wine, a trip to Buenos Aires. Worse — something sharp to rub my wrists against. Just kidding.

As I sliced through the envelope with my pen (a writer always has a pen handy), God laughed at me and arranged for “The Wanderer” to come on the radio. It was Dion and The Belmonts, Bridget’s favorite song.

The line, “Well, I’m the kind of guy, that likes to roam around…” made me think of how I had isolated myself from any kind of relationship since Bridget. Through the military-like efficiency of the United States Postal Service, she was now telling me that she was moving on with her life — leaving her crazy, dysfunctional relationship with me, one in which we’d cuddle like two Pandas in a zoo on one date and yet, on another, sat across from each other barely talking — two cold stones not even a summer sun could heat.

Once she was one of the most important people in my life — the last thought in my brain at night as the gerbils up there finally got off the wheel and I drifted off, and the first person I wanted to talk to in the mornings.

I remember our first time together like I do my first tax return. That night, I was rich when I kissed her; I felt like a millionaire in her embrace.

But our bouquet of love — crowded with fragrant lilacs, happy daisies and colorful lilies — turned into a wiry clump of plastic flowers, the kind you might see in a dusty vase peeking out from behind a curtain in the window of an old house. One night, I dropped by her place unexpectedly, looked in the kitchen window and found her kissing some guy — some muscle-head from the gym that we both belonged to.

I walked away, down the dark street that was lit by only one lamp because the others were broken. Glad they were, too, because I didn’t want anyone to see me crying — tears of disappointment, in her, but also in me, because I obviously couldn’t give her something that she wanted.

She kept calling me for weeks and weeks after that. But I had already cut her out of my life. I never picked up the phone or answered her messages.

I, she, the two of us … were done.

I Need Help

It had been a rough day for Marilyn–her new doctor had told her she needed psychiatric care. “I felt anxious going in there, and I feel worse now,” she said to her son, Billy, as they drove out of the complex of medical buildings. “All she did was ask me if I was happy … how I filled my days … if there was anything in particular that was bothering me … why I looked so sad.”

On the ride home, Billy urged her to consider seeing the new doctor’s social worker so that Marilyn could at least talk with a neutral person about the situation with Betty. But as Billy turned onto Westmoreland Drive and approached the grey and white Dutch colonial where Marilyn lived, she said: “I’m glad Medicare is paying for most of that one; what a waste of time.”

Once alone, Marilyn found she couldn’t get the doctor’s comments out of her head–and it was especially hard to ignore them with the quiet of the house wrapped around her like the shake-less cold of a January day. Still, she made an effort. She sat down at the kitchen table and picked up the Irish Echo to scan the obituaries. Reading what she called “the Irish sports pages” was her pastime on days when she had nothing to do. One read: O’Malley, Gerald, November 2, 2012 in New York City. Born, April 30, 1938 in Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Marilyn thought: “Same age as me,” as she scanned the column for mention of children, grandchildren. Nothing. But at the end she saw: “Grieved by his Garden City Country Club golf partners of 50 years — Joseph Giavonne, Tom Smith and Peter Lappin.”

For a few seconds, Marilyn’s mind trailed off. She noticed that the man in the obit was born in her father’s home place. Sepia-toned memories came seeping in: Adults lifting her up to kiss her mother in the coffin; The smell of her perfume lingering on Marilyn’s jumper — long after the wake. And then there was Marilyn’s father. She remembered how he used to comb out her hair while she sat on the living room floor listening to her favorite radio show. He would hold her tiny head in place with his big, freckled hands, stained yellow at the fingertips from constant smoking. There was the smell of whiskey, too.

Marilyn tried to quickly shut off these thoughts; she was becoming sad and that old, familiar feeling of heat was creeping up her back and neck. Anxiety. She re-focused on the obit before her. “No children or wife … what a waste,” she said. But she had no audience. There could be no response from the grandfather clock, gleaming from a recent rub with lemon oil, standing in the corner of the living room, its tick-tock echoing through the place.

Out of nowhere, this thought came to her mind: “What if I go crazy and they have to put me away?” She’d been afraid of going crazy ever since she was a child, around the time her father was found dead down on the Bowery. On the afternoon her aunt had given her the news, she went to the room she shared with her cousins and stared in the big free-standing mirror. Her image suddenly took on a life of its own — or was it that Marilyn, herself, was coming out of her own body?

That was when she first felt that awful feeling — burning nerve endings, an urge to run out of the house and down the street. She’d wanted to tell her aunt about the mirror. But she didn’t because she didn’t want to be sent away. She wanted to avoid the fate of Aunt Rose, one of her mother’s sisters. When Aunt Rose was younger, she’d committed a terrible sin, the worst of all: she had an affair with a priest and when it ended, she had a breakdown. “They came and took Rose away,” she remembered her Uncle once saying in a whisper to another adult at the dinner table.

Marilyn didn’t usually think about when she was a little girl; the memories were too painful. Most days she thought about the fact that she had 6 children and twice as many grandchildren. Yet, she felt alone.

Betty, her daughter, a psychiatric social worker who lived in the next town with her two children, limited Marilyn’s time with them. Marilyn thought about this endlessly: “What have I ever done to those kids or to Betty that she would shut me out like this,” she asked, to anyone who would listen. In fact, she asked the question over and over again. Sometimes, after thinking about it for a long time, Marilyn would call Betty to ask her why she wasn’t allowed to babysit. There were times when she’d call five or six times in a row and leave messages, demanding: “Pick up the phone; I know you’re there listening to this! Pick up the phone.”

Betty was there. She wasn’t picking up because she’d been explaining her motives to her mom for several months now. First, Betty explained she didn’t want Marilyn taking care of the kids because it was too much work for a woman in her 70s. The real reason, however, was Marilyn’s uncensored comments to Betty about raising her kids. “What kind of a mother lets her kids eat ice pops before dinner?” Or, “Your husband is a saint, coming home from working hard all day and giving the kids their dinner and baths; in my day, that was my job!”

When Betty did allow Marilyn to come and see the kids, she’d invite her to dinner, limiting the time she had to hear her mother’s comments. But even then, it was hard spending time with Marilyn. “Where did you get these bruises?” she once asked Jane, Betty’s youngest daughter. “If Mommy is hitting you, the police will put her in jail … and then you can come and live with me. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

As Marilyn rose from the kitchen table and the obit page, she reached for the tea kettle and again found herself consumed with disturbing thoughts. She guessed her wheels were turning especially fast today because of what the new doctor had told her: “I’d like you to see a psychiatrist; I believe you’re suffering far too much with anxiety and depression. And I feel strongly that it can be relieved with some new medication and some talk therapy.”

That was when she had jumped up from the examining table and, wrapping her blue, paper robe tightly around her, stormed into the waiting room and demanded that Billy take her home. “She wants to put me away,” she said.

Now, standing at the kitchen stove, pouring boiling water into her pink teacup, Marilyn was filled with shame over what she’d done. “In front of all those people,” she said aloud to herself. “They must think I’m crazy.”

Glancing at the kettle, steam still rising from the spout, she thought about when she was a little girl, living with her Aunt Dotie. “Girl, won’t you get up and make me a cup of tea?” her aunt would say, in an accent born in the hills of County Kerry. It didn’t matter what Marilyn was doing–she was expected to make the tea and prepare a snack to go with it.

One time, Marilyn was awakened from bed on a school night to make the tea. She was frustrated and angry and said: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Marilyn still carried a scar from the beating she got with a belt buckle, first, as her aunt said, “for using the holy family’s name in vain,” and second for not showing enough gratitude for the kindnesses their family had shown by giving Marilyn a home.

All these years later, standing at the kitchen stove, deep in thought, Marilyn felt a surge of depression. She got another shot of heat up the back of her neck. Why had she agreed to go see that new doctor? She felt worse today than she had in weeks. In fact, when she considered it, she’d felt pretty good up until that morning.

But her family didn’t see it that way. This past Christmas, her husband, Dean, told her that he was returning to AA meetings because he felt like he might pick up a drink again. That was the day after she had hit him — with all her kids and grandchildren watching. It had happened like this: Marilyn was presented with a pile of gifts. “These are from Dean,” said her daughter-in-law Donna, who had done the shopping and wrapping. Marilyn responded by picking up some discarded wrapping paper from the floor, bunching it up into a ball and flinging it at her husband. It bounced off his head and hit the nativity set on the fireplace mantle. Dean merely picked up the makeshift weapon and put it in the fire he was tending.

“Do you know what that was for?” Marilyn asked everyone in the room — which had gone morgue quiet. “We agreed not to get gifts for each other because we already have everything we need.”

As Marilyn sipped her tea and pored over the rest of the obituaries, it suddenly occurred to her that she should call the monsignor up at the church and ask him for his advice. She picked through her Rolodex on the kitchen counter and dialed; he picked up. “I’m sorry to disturb you Father O’Rourke. This is Marilyn Moultrie. I was hoping I could speak with you today about a personal matter.”

“Well that would be okay, Marilyn,” Father O’Rourke said. “I’m in the middle of something, but I could see you in about 45 minutes.”

“Oh that would be fine, grand,” she said, “I’ll drive over and see you; I want to talk with you about this crazy doctor I saw today.” Marilyn hung up the phone and started straightening up the kitchen table, putting the obit page in a neat pile on the counter, her tea cup in the sink.

She was feeling better. Father O’Rourke would tell her to ignore the doctor and just get to church more often during the week. There was no problem too big that God couldn’t handle.

But as she walked through the living room to get her coat and car keys, she suddenly thought of something the doctor had said to her. “You’ve had a very traumatic life, ” Mrs. Moultrie. But up until now, Marilyn never thought she had a rough life. Her parents died when she was a kid; she got married; had children … she got over it. That’s the way she always thought of it.

There was something about that doctor, though, Marilyn thought. Something about her. The perfume! It was her mother’s Channel No. 5. The same perfume Marilyn had smelled in the coffin.

Marilyn smelled it again. She knew it was irrational, but she looked around to see where it was coming from — as if someone was hiding in the corner spraying the mist in her direction. She felt searing heat run through her body — from head to toe. She sat down because her head was swimming; her hands shook so that she couldn’t hold her car keys.

Marilyn held a pillow up to her mouth and sobbed into it. Her back heaved, wrenched. She sat there in the living room chair for hours, crippled by the desire to do nothing … just cry. Her appointment with Father O’Rourke came and went. She felt she would cry forever if she didn’t do something … anything.

She thought of her mother’s warm hand in hers and remembered the pattern on her apron. “Oh, Mama; I’m so scared,” she cried out.

It was dark in the room. The anemic winter daylight had long since retreated. Marilyn reached out to turn on a tiny lamp, and the yellow light cast an arc over the phone that sat on the table. It was the only thing in the room she could see. Marilyn reached out. She dialed her son and said: “Billy, I need help.”

The Diner

dinerJeff is the kind of guy who likes to call the women he dates broads. “Yeah, I got laid by this broad last night,” he told me once at the diner. I flinched. “What is this, 1942?” I told him. “Who talks like that?”

It reminded me of when my grandmother used to tell stories about the war and say outrageous,  politically incorrect things out loud — really loud because she was deaf — in restaurants. I remember once when all the customers in Friendly’s — probably the people out in their cars in the parking lot, too –heard her say, “And then … those God-damned Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!”

Jeff lives with his father, Morty. He hates him because he drinks — not just one or two beers, but wine out of the box … and all day long. Jeff hates Morty because of what he does when he gets drunk. When he’s staggering from too much vino, he goes to the bathroom and leaves little drops of shit on the floor.

One time Jeff looked out the living room window and saw Morty walking up the block all bow-legged, like a cowboy who just got off his horse. Jeff thought: “Looks like he’s got something stuck up his ass.” Later that afternoon, Jeff found out that it wasn’t what Morty had stuck up his ass — it was what he had let loose from it: a load of crap. The evidence: boxer shorts — all 10 pounds of it — left in the sink in the downstairs powder room.

In the summer, Morty leaves the air conditioning running full blast on the hottest days — but with the windows open, too. Jeff gets electric bills for $500 and more a month. He’s tried to get Morty to stop, but the man refuses to change his behavior. About the only thing Jeff can do is take money from his father’s wallet to help pay the bills.

Morty tries to help cut the household’s carbon footprint by dropping kitchen waste out the backyard window onto the patio: banana peels, coffee grinds, egg shells and sometimes things that are harder to decompose — like used condoms.

When Morty drinks too much he says strange things — like the time he let 4 Vietnamese kids from down the block swim in the pool in the yard, talking to them the whole time about how he had to tough it out with his Marine buddies during the Tet Offensive. Jeff overheard Morty tell the kids that he helped protect their country from communism when he was stationed in Saigon.

Morty was never in Vietnam, and never in the service. The only uniform he ever wore was in the 80s: tight short pants and red-striped tube socks. It was his get-up, as he went around in endless circles to the beat of disco at RollerWorld, an indoor rolling rink not far from the family home.

Not long ago, Jeff called me up. “I’ve got to get out of this house. I can’t live here anymore,” he said. “I’m going to tell that bastard that if he doesn’t stop drinking and go to rehab, I’m going to sell my share of the house.”

But Morty didn’t want to stop drinking Chardonnay. So Jeff contacted a lawyer and started the legal work to get out. Once Jeff made his decision, he felt better about his future, and he started talking about finding his own place and the “right woman” to help fill his days.

Still, Jeff felt he had a lot of work to do to resolve issues with his father. That was the contradiction about Jeff; he could use words like “broad” and call people “butt-nut,” but if you were sitting in the diner with him, and he was talking about something deep, something that hurt, he’d start to cry. He could give two shits that Mrs. Weinstein from down the block was sitting in the next booth listening to every word he said.

After an Alanon meeting, on a night so bitter even the Russian guys who cut my hair would have been cold, we went to the diner. Jeff told me that his father used to beat him. “He came home from fixing TVs, and he was totally fucked up in the head — angry about something,” Jeff said. “I think I was about 6; he dragged me down the basement to make me clean up my toys.”

Jeff paused and drew a deep breath. “Then, when I was done, he took me in the laundry room and stuffed me in one of those canvas laundry bags. He closed it up so it was dark in there, and then he kicked and kicked me.”

You could tell it bothered Jeff a lot — 33 years later. The whole time he was telling me that, he was looking down at his cheeseburger. Little drops of tears were falling in his french fries. Then, as though his soul had been cleansed a little, he started talking about how lousy the Yankees were playing.

About a month ago, Jeff called me to say that he felt like drinking again. “Listen, douche bag,” he said. “I need to start going to more AA meetings. So, I won’t be able to come to the Friday night Alanon meeting anymore.”

I felt sad that we wouldn’t be spending as much time together. But I learned in Alanon that you have to take care of yourself … because the drunk you live with won’t take care of you. So, I told him that I respected his decision…but I was sure things wouldn’t be the same.

It wasn’t long before I got text messages from the colostomy bag himself asking to meet for breakfast. We were back to unloading … laughing … and sometimes — even if Mrs. Weinstein was listening — crying.

My Treasure

I keep my treasure in a small wooden box on a table in my bedroom. The box is intricately carved on top … made in Malaysia or Thailand … someplace where they still make things by hand. I keep the box next to pictures of loved ones that have gone on to live with the eternal warmth of the sun and the black night, The box gets dusted every week. I make sure it’s arranged optimally on the table so that visitors can see it, inspect its contents.

Inside the box is a curl of brown hair, taken from my nephew when he was just nine months old. For something that’s been shut up in a box for the past 17 years, it’s still remarkably tinged with light, as if he, sitting in the backyard in the brilliant July sun had only yesterday had his hair cut.

I keep his hair because it reminds me of sweet days holding him in my arms, playing ball and living in moments shared by just the two of us. It reminds me of the look on his face, when he’d gaze up at me — waiting anxiously for the next words to come out of my mouth.

When I pick up that curl, hold it between my fingers, it reminds me how it feels to be loved … unconditionally.

Leaving Roberto

Jake held the boy in the crook of his arm. This would be the last time that he would see his “bambino,” and despite his efforts to be brave, Jake couldn’t stop the water from collecting in tiny pools at the bottom of his eye lids.

Roberto studied each stream of water as it rolled down Jake’s cheeks. The child was just 9 months, but he knew that something was wrong.

Jake was saying goodbye to the orphanage. He was being shipped home. The last fascist in Italy was either dead or in prison, and the army was now giving him a free ride back to Brooklyn, USA, with its pizza joints, Nedicks soft drink billboards, the lush green of Prospect Park and noisy summer nights spent on fire escape balconies.

Peace and home. This was Jake’s dream ever since getting called up in ’42. So why did he now want to abandon all that wishing he’d done in foxholes throughout Europe? All that time, right up until Mussolini got hung upside down, all Jake wanted was a cold beer in his favorite bar in Bensonhurst. Now, all he wanted was to stay in Bolzano with Roberto.

In Jake’s imaginings, he’d get a job, maybe with the occupation forces, and he could keep coming back to the orphanage every Sunday with packages of food and a toy or two. In his wildest thoughts, he would find an Italian girl, marry and then adopt Roberto. It would be a happy ending, just like in the movies.

It was already 4, and afternoon visiting hours were over. There was nothing Jake could do but put Roberto back in his crib. He noticed how the child immediately grabbed one of the rails, flaking with chips of white paint, and pulled himself up to try and climb out. Jake leaned over and gave the boy kisses, leaving wet marks on Roberto’s cheeks.

“That’s the last he’ll know of me,” Jake thought.

As he made his way out to the hallway beyond the ward, great sobs emerged from Jake, shocking sounds that made him hide his face in shame. The nuns looked up from their chores with the other children and watched him.

Roberto stood in his crib, holding onto a thin rail. The boy began to cry.