Discover more from The Writings of T.R. Hudson
The Perfect & The Wicked
Prologue from Upcoming Novel
The Priest was coming to dinner that evening. It was all anyone in the building could talk about. “The O’Reilly’s?” They’d ask and shake their heads as if the Priest was mistaken. John O’Reilly worked construction and was of no importance to anyone. His wife, Claire, worked in a laundry. The Priest sent an altar boy to their apartment to ask if he could stop by and Claire assumed the boy had gotten lost and told him to leave before he got in trouble. When the Deacon came by later that day, Claire almost passed out, either fear or excitement. Her family came over twenty years prior and they thought she’d married poorly. She had many suitors and was pretty and thin and quiet most of the time. She could run a household and knew how to read and could raise fine children. She picked John, who was handsome, but drank and came from drinkers who never owned a foot of land. They had three sons and no daughters and John hoped to keep it that way as he did not want to pay a dowry down the line.
Their oldest son, John Jr. looked like his mother, save for his bright red hair from his father’s side. He was a serious boy and often fought at school with Italian children who spoke no English. His mother insisted he went to school and hoped one day he’d go to college and become a professional. She prayed often that he could go to one of the Catholic colleges; Fordham was not too far away. His younger brothers did not like fighting, and the Italians liked that they did not fight because that meant John would fight harder. They were an ill-tempered people, especially the Sicilian ones, who the white Italians looked down on as less than Negroes.
They went to the Italian church a few blocks away and their Priests ate at the parishioner’s houses often because Italians were always eating and even a Priest could not say no to free meals. But that night, Father Danaher was coming to dinner and John Sr. was frantic and made sure his wife washed the boys that day instead of Saturday, which all but the youngest, Patrick, accepted. Claire seldom spoke Gaelic, afraid that the police would tell her to stop as her father had told her would happen when they first landed in New York. Patrick got an ear full of the old tongue that day and cried into the tub of dirty water while she washed him like a stained shirt.
“Mama, why’s the Priest coming here?” Patrick asked.
“Michael Sullivan said it’s cause Daddy’s got a new job and is making more money working for Mr. Shannon at night”, said Peter, the middle O’Reilly boy who looked most like his mother’s father and could get away with more than the other boys.
“Don’t be saying such nonsense in this home, Peter James. The Priest is coming to give us a blessing and you best remember that before you go off making foolish suggestions like that again or I’ll have your father teach you. Now go get dressed, the lot of you.”
John led his brothers out of the bathroom and into their bedroom. They dressed in their church clothes and Claire began the cooking. They were having pot roast that night, which they’d only had on Easter. Peter helped cut the carrots with a regretful frown on his face. Claire looked back at him and ran her hand through his hair, wiping away her disappointment. John knew Peter was her favorite and Patrick was the youngest and had the least to do. John led Patrick across the apartment, cleaning and dusting and polishing whatever was dirty or dusty or dull. He was not as amused at the Priest’s visit as everyone else.
Patrick followed John with a small broom, dusting about without rhyme or reason, copying his older brother’s movements with the precision of broken machinery. Patrick was more John’s son than their father’s and Peter was and would always be Claire’s. But John had no father, not really, and his mother’s love slipped through his fingers as he grew older and as his brothers arrived, needing more of her attention. He was only twelve, though already a man in his own eyes. Save for the fights at school, he caused no trouble. John Junior stocked groceries for twenty-five cents a day and was allowed to spend some of it for himself, saving the rest of it in case some emergency befell them. He had twenty dollars to his name, more or less, as his father would often rummage through for a few bucks to go down to Kelly’s. He was probably there now.
It was getting time for dinner and the Priest’s arrival and John Sr. still wasn’t home. Claire sent John to find him, as was often his responsibility. John walked down the dimming street, around the corner to Kelly’s. Several waved to him and he waved back to be polite, but they knew well enough what he was doing and where he was going to stop him. The few words exchanged were about the Priest and the rumors of his father’s new position, which John knew were probably true.
Mr. Shannon ran the neighborhood and anyone who wanted anything would have to see him about it. If you were being harassed by the Jews or Italians or the New Yorkers, you saw Mr. Shannon. If you needed work, Mr. Shannon knew someone who needed workers. The Union men did what he said, and the Politicians gave him what he wanted because, at the end of the day, Mr. Shannon was like the king of five square blocks of Manhattan. Only Mr. Shannon and maybe the Almighty could get Father Danaher to eat with his family, John reasoned.
He got to Kelly’s as men were pouring out the door, into the streets. Cops kept their eyes on the place as they walked by, but most were Irish and did nothing except tip their hats and the men raised their glasses in return. John walked into the smoke-filled room, where men were singing songs from Ireland, drinking whiskey and beer. He knew his father was in the back, always staring at the barmaid who knew John Jr. by name and knew that his father was married, but still gave him the hungry eyes because he was handsome and she was pretty and he could not control himself.
“Pa, it’s time to go. The Priest…”
“Ay, John, the Priest.” John Sr. raised his glass. “To the Priest” and there was laughter, and many repeated the toast and they drank and John pulled his father’s arm after he slammed the whiskey glass onto the hardwood bar top.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?” John Sr. said, pulling back his arm and slapping his son. John rubbed his cheek and knew a bruise would come and he wanted to cry, but if he did, his father would hit him again.
“Mama said- “
“You think I take orders from a woman? I’ll be home when I finish my business here. Now get out.”
“But Pa, the Priest.”
His father slapped him again and John left, holding his cheek and keeping the tears back, though they welled up. His father’s wedding ring cut his cheek and blood started to come out, though barely. He walked back home, and the Priest was already there and they all ate dinner together and the Priest left not long after finishing. John kept his eyes on the Priest the whole meal, who did not meet his gaze and instead stared at his plate the whole time. The Priest thanked Claire and said a blessing for their home, standing from the table. They all stood with him.
“I am reminded of the book of Ezekiel, ‘And all the trees of the countryside will know that I, The Lord, am the one who lays the tall tree low and raises the low tree high, who makes the green tree wither and makes the withered bear fruit.’ Let this family grow for God’s glory, may they bear much fruit and may we know them by the fruit they bear. May God bless all in this home”, he spoke, then left, leaving the home like the family was full of lepers.
Claire cleaned John’s cheek with iodine and the sting hurt worse than the slap. At least that was what John told himself. He didn’t mention the barmaid, he never did, though it was obvious, and he knew his mother suspected. As they went to bed, Patrick rolled over to John and kissed his brother’s cheek, then rolled back and fell asleep. John lit a candle and read for a while. He enjoyed reading; it was the only part of school he did well and his teacher sent him home with a book if he promised to bring it back in good condition. This one was called the Iliad and though he had little context for the work, he enjoyed the descriptions of the battle and the fighting and killing. He read a few pages before going to sleep, for he had a ball game the next day. John loved baseball and was considered by many in the neighborhood to be good at the sport. He was the fastest boy in his class, though he would never admit it was due to him running from the Italian boys when there were more than two of them. John went to bed thinking of hitting. He practiced his swing when he could, sometimes using the broom in the house, being careful not to break anything.
Over the next few months, his father became more and more popular. He was spending money everywhere but at home, talking about how he worked for Mr. Shannon. He was drunk most of the time and John wondered what kind of work a drunk could do, but didn’t say such things as he was already getting his fair share of beatings from the old man when he stumbled home, smelling like whiskey and women’s perfume.
A few months after that, he was found dead in an alley uptown, where he had no business being. John didn’t know what had happened, only that it was bad, and the casket was closed at his funeral. All the new friends he’d made didn’t bother showing and no proper wake was held. Just John and his brothers and their widow mother and some of her family. Father Danaher finished the burial and John O’Reilly Senior was laid to rest in a Potter’s field in the Bronx. The only non-familial soul there besides the Priest was Mr. Shannon, who approached John as the family was walking to his mother’s brother’s car to take them back to Manhattan.
“Young man, might I have a word?”
“You know who I am?”
“Your Da worked for me. At the pub. I used to see you around there from time to time. You stopped coming by.”
“I’ll keep it brief. Your mom works at a laundry and there’s no way that’ll keep you and her and your brothers eating. Plus, there is the matter of some money that your Da owed me and a few of my business partners around town. I’m not in the business of charity, but if you need work, I can always find something for you to do.”
“Come by Kelly’s in a few days and we’ll get you started.”
It started to rain, but briefly. The cemetery had very little grass, and if it kept up, there would be mud. John wondered if it rained too much, his father’s casket would rise out of the ground and he’d see what killed his father. He walked to the car, and they ate dinner and went to bed before sundown. John went to school the next day, but it was the last time and he worked for Mr. Shannon for many days after. Whatever dreams he had of playing baseball were buried with his father. He told himself he could work for some time and play later, but he knew that this was a sweet lie he could sleep next to.