When the work was complete, David and Michael stood the table up properly; it was good and solid as if nothing at all had happened. Michael looked at his watch and saw that it was time to leave for ten-thirty Mass. Lily remained in the bedroom, the door closed. A few sleepy sounds could be heard from Meggy’s bedroom. David felt relieved that his mother would have to stay home with Meggy again; he did not want to see the whole family together in one place just yet, and endure the magnified silence. He grabbed his coat to accompany his father to Mass at St. Theresa’s, like any other Sunday. But once out of the house and in public while alongside his father, David felt a sudden and rising humiliation from last night, which he had not felt when cleaning his room, working on the wagon, or on the table in the confines of the kitchen while so close to his father just moments ago. Michael rubbed his hands. He stopped to light a cigarette. David kept a distance, unsure what was happening to him – he had just convinced himself it was all a mistake; his father didn’t really hit him. He kicked at some frozen snow in the curb to avoid drawing nearer. Michael tossed away the match, and they walked to the corner, the winter morning releasing both father and son into the day ahead with sad reserve.

As they approached St. Theresa’s, the street became busier. A few more cars filled the street, and Michael and David fell in with the other men, women, and children, as they climbed the front steps of the church. With shoulders hunched against the cold, they hurried inside and out of the wind. Michael removed his hat and held it respectfully in front of him with both hands. They walked up the aisle. David searched for his uncle and aunts and his grandmother, who would be seated and saving a place for them, though he hoped they would not be there. He looked up at the large stained glass windows as he walked. The glass brightened and darkened on and off occasionally as the sun dipped behind passing clouds. All the glass gleamed at once in a sudden burst of light as they genuflected to enter their pew. David looked up at the wondrous colored glass Christ’s in various panels with the apostles, with sinners, or within the crown of thorns, and the light brought a fierce brilliance to every one. David marveled at the brief shining moment before the glass went cold and dark with the loss of sun and a burst of sleet that rapped against the windows and sounded like marbles he had dropped on the kitchen floor when he used to play children’s games.

They found the family in a front pew. David scooted over near his grandmother, immediately feeling the absence of his mother, and certain it was signaling to all of private troubles. His grandmother looked at him with a tender eye and touched his knee softly, and it came from the most genuine part of her heart. He saw her noticing his lip, and he turned his head and cast his eyes downward. Michael drew his handkerchief to his nose and sat back. Uncle Gillie sat with his hands folded across his chest and watched all the people coming up the aisle, taking note of where everyone sat, focusing longer on some more than others, and brightening and darkening his expressions according to some unknown level of judgment he appeared to apply to each.

The gray haired priest entered slowly, his spirit and body straining under the weight of providing hope and redemption to so many for so long. Everyone rose, and the half-full church began to sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” though the sudden sleet against the stained glass windows rivaled the song enough to turn many heads to the cold dark faces of Christ, if only for a moment.

The old priest moved heavily around the altar and his latin murmured through the church, and David repeated et cum spiritu tuo in his head over and over, the lilt and rhythm long since baked into the words. He tuned in and out of the low hum, like the sun in and out of the clouds. He fidgeted slightly and looked around the church. He looked at his father’s profile from time to time, hoping not to be noticed, and he saw his father’s head bowed. He thought of all the words Aunt Rose had offered him yesterday, each one alive and beating. His mind started to race with the awareness of what had happened last night and the impossible juxtaposition of recalling such a private occurrence in such a public place dedicated to worship and mercy. He squirmed and cleared this throat, and he looked up at the glass hoping to see another sudden and brilliant display of light to take his mind of his thoughts, but the dark cold glass held no answers. He looked over at his father again, head bowed down, his face tense with preoccupation. He turned away to find something to change his thoughts, but the presence of his family, so many other people, a priest, and God himself surely somewhere in the room, made him queasy and sweaty, and his heart began to beat fast. Why is this happening? He had to get out. Now. The priest droned on. The congregation obeyed every Latin request to respond, and they uttered the responsorial psalm in an equally dutiful drone. His grandmother sat on his left near the end of the pew, his aunts, his uncle, and his father to the right. No way out. He looked up for one last desperate attempt to distract himself, and he saw a pew with only three people: a mother, father and a little girl. The young girl looked up at the high ceiling then turned around to look at the people behind her. She slipped off the pew with a sound made much louder by its echo in such a large cavernous place. The father placed her on his lap, and she smiled for a moment, swinging her legs freely while the father looked stonily ahead, his eyes in a far off worried place, his arms gently but firmly around his squirmy daughter. When she started to fret and fuss, the father decided to pick her up and take her out of the church, so as not to annoy the others. David watched the goings on. He seemed to start to calm a bit, but the sight of her swinging legs reminded him of his wagon and his internal promise and desire to take Meggy out today. He still needed to find wheels for the wagon, and attach the rope, and his heart beat faster, and he could not stop thinking of his father’s rage last night, and he whispered up to his grandmother’s solemn face in a last gasp of desperation.

“I feel sick.”

Without hesitation or scolding, David’s grandmother shifted in her seat to open the gate and grant safe passage out, sparing her grandson the indignity of perhaps revealing more through direct eye contact. David stepped up on the kneeler and out of the pew while his father looked over both concerned and confused. He exited down the side aisle toward the foyer. He didn’t look back though he knew his father was watching, and he walked out through the grace of his grandmother’s absolution. He would be forgiven—he already was — and he loved his grandmother dearly for how she moved about so quietly, occasionally, but effectively in his world, as if she knew every hair on his head.

He walked out of the church and saw the man and his daughter on the front steps in the cold. The man hunched against the wind and the passing snowflakes. The girl appeared not in the least bit cold and found stones and sticks to play with, snowflakes to chase, and much to occupy her, while her breath escaped in tiny cloud bursts and her father shivered nearby. Somehow watching the man brave the cold brought forward a new resentment to David at his ability to fix the table in front of his father. It agitated him more and more that he was so much better at those things. He watched the girl and her father in hopes of distracting himself from this uncomfortable thought, and he started to run. He ran down the street with his coat open, his cheeks red from the cold, and his breath pumping out like a locomotive. He ran to stop thinking, and every time the image crept back into his head of his father kneeling by his side at the table, he ran faster. The sun dipped yet again behind the clouds and a few wild snowflakes rode the wind. He knew he would take Meggy to the movies because that’s what a good father would do, and he hated himself for knowing he would do this, and he continued to run. The wind blew in straight off the Lake in great gusts, and he ran headlong into the wind. A woman crossed the street and interrupted the flow of a procession of automobiles heading in the direction of the church.

A few pages from The Sunday Chicago Tribune blew down the street and one butterflied across her leg. She kicked it away, and it flew like a ghost down the street before catching on a lamppost. When he got closer to home, David could no longer hold it in and started to cry. He cried out on the street in the cold and among so many suffering the indignity of great economic loss and the accompanying destruction of self-esteem. He cried with humiliation, fear of abandonment, and the pain of a young helpless child stunned by a physical violation of a sacred trust. He was a child in that fragile moment, without responsibilities to his mother or his family for the first time in a long time. It frightened David to return to a childlike state, and he cried openly and longingly for his father to expunge his suffering and explain himself. He ached for his mother’s embrace as well, though a deep part of him was sure she too was in tears. A few adults approached. They tried in earnest to comfort him to the extent any compassionate stranger could despite the weight of their own burdens.

David was quick to recognize in their eyes how urgently the lost heart of a child superseded so much other misfortune equally entitled to comfort. Before long he nodded his head in acknowledgement that he was all right. He regained control of his tears, so as not to overtax the caring hearts of those with their own troubles, and he decided to cut down an alley, as if he could hide from the wind and his sorrow. He walked down the quiet alley stepping over a book and a bottle left in the snow. He returned to the thought of the wagon. He was almost done; it was easy to build, and he had done it quickly. All that was left was to find two large wheels. The rope was a good idea, an easier pull and less material required. He had good ideas when he fixed or built things, and the skill he possessed for such things kept coming at him, and he grew exasperated at his abilities and his inability to stop thinking of them yet again. He walked slowly down the alley, disappointed that his cold Sunday morning run had resulted in an outburst on the street but did nothing to stop his prickly thoughts and deep attempts to understand and reconcile the events of last night, which he had thought this morning were settled in his mind. Then he heard the sound of a young child in a nearby yard. He walked closer, keeping out of sight. The child played near an old bicycle; it leaned against the garage at the end of the yard, partially hidden and close to the alley gate. He decided he would cry no more.

* * *

Lily opened the bedroom door and walked into the hallway of the quiet house. Meggy slept. She went into the kitchen and looked at the repaired table, which she had overheard being fixed. She walked softly over to it and ran the flat of her hand over the tabletop. It was secure; she recognized David’s work. She went to the sink and poured a glass of water. She ran her hand across her tightly bound hair. Every strand was secured and in place, but she continued to touch her hair so that she might experience the comfort associated with control over wayward things.

She turned from the sink and looked over the empty kitchen, knowing she would have to prepare for Sunday dinner with Michael’s family in the same place where violence of either an accidental or purposeful nature occurred between her son and husband, as if there existed a clean and meaningful distinction between the two that might rationalize the events of last night. She lifted the hand that had touched the table, and she touched her lips, and her full and complete conviction that she did not protect her son last night settled in, and it crushed her. She grabbed a broom and swept the floor near the table. She cried while sweeping, thinking of David laying there, thinking she was a failure as a mother, wondering why all her prayers for strength and an end to the escalating danger were not being answered. She cried while letting her thoughts drift back to a time long ago when she came to America at the age of seventeen and worked on the North Side as a maid to earn enough money to stay and build a happy life.

She had worked in so many large houses with so many pretty rooms, all full of expensive furniture, like she had hoped to have someday for her future family, and she swept without ever thinking that a floor could contain anything more than dirt and footsteps. She remembered too how Michael’s brother Gillie had not so secretly felt she was beneath the family, especially him, for doing such work, and she cried for some unknown misfortune that must have accompanied Gillie during his young life to have had to pass judgment on her, or anyone like her. She cried for all those suffering on the city streets through no fault of their own, for children in distress, especially those feeling lost and frightened during these strange times. She swept the floor clean then sat down at the table, exhausted from her tears and feeling embarrassed and confused by the sudden rush of sorrow for others. She thought she should ask forgiveness for questioning the void currently engulfing her prayers, but no such words came to Lily in the throes of her despair, and she stood up knowing she would have a meal to prepare shortly while under the mysterious hand of overwhelming grief, and shattering self observations, and she returned to her bedroom to prepare herself for the day.

* * *

The priest blessed the congregation and concluded the mass. Michael genuflected, crossed himself, and led his sisters and his mother out towards the back of the church. Gillie made it clear he would leave when he was ready. Once outside, Michael turned his back towards the cold and reminded the family to come to Sunday supper, though they came every Sunday and required no formal reminder. Rose told Michael they would be there early enough to help Lily get supper on the table. Michael nodded and winced as he straightened his back from sitting so long. Rose looked at her brother and thought of the time she spent with David yesterday. She knew Michael was unaware that she was so focused on him, and it gave her a timeless sense that she was watching him forever, from his long ago childhood to his current heavy responsibilities, the troubles he shouldered, and all the sorrow he surely carried. She couldn’t help but wonder back to the days when she first noticed the gloom come over him and how deeply etched in his hapless face that gloom had taken root. Her heart ached for peace for her youngest brother, as the family stood on the steps waiting for Gillie while the rest of the congregation dispersed. Michael cleared his throat with an ugly and urgent cough and quickly gasped to catch his breath. The young girl, previously on the steps with her father but now walking hand in hand with both parents on the sidewalk in front of the church, turned to look at Michael. Michael didn’t notice her, and he reached for his handkerchief and flinched, feeling pain in his side. Gillie finally ambled out of the church and into the cold.

“What’s for supper tonight?” he called out, “I’m saving my appetite for something special.”

A homeless man passed by on the sidewalk.

“We’ll be on our way now,” Michael’s mother said; “I will call Lily on the telephone. I’m sorry for such late notice, but we won’t be able to make dinner tonight.” She lowered her voice, “I’ll tell the others.” She looked into Michael’s eyes, and he knew right away that she was imploring him to let David be for the day—he needed to leave church early for his own reason, and Lily too must be released from additional burdens of the day. Michael dropped his eyes from hers in secret acknowledgement of the message received from higher authority. No more words were spoken on the topic, and the family left. Michael walked home alone.

The Sunday late morning streets were fairly empty. The sun darted in and out of clouds, illuminating oddities depending upon the hole in the clouds at the moment: a tipped over trash barrel on the corner, the hood of a lone car parked in an alley, an indentation from missing bricks at the base of the steeple of the church. When Michael reached the corner, he saw a funeral procession approach, heading toward the church. Michael stopped at the corner and tried to light a cigarette. A gust of wind blew out the flame. The sun burst out watering his tired eyes. He lit another match successfully and took a long pull, closing his eyes briefly in response to the throbbing in his head. He stayed on the corner and watched the cars slowly turn and head toward the church. He studied each car for its passengers: adults with solemn faces and a few children who did not look like they understood how they were supposed to feel, trying to look genuinely sad though the sorrow appeared to be at the thinnest level afforded that of a distant relative. The line of six cars stopped in front of the church where a group had already gathered—a small but respectable funeral—and Michael saw six men approach the funeral coach and slide the casket out.

The simple wooden casket was carried up the steps, and a small but ample gathering stood in bundled up reverence around it before it disappeared into the church. Michael stood at the corner a bit longer and continued studying the scene. He had focused on the group intently as it gathered around the casket before entering the church. He imagined there were close friends and aunts and uncles. Some of the men stood together and smoked; the women crossed themselves as the casket passed; a few children wandered up the steps looking for something else to do while the grownups occupied themselves with the solemn duty of respect for the dead. He wondered if it was a man or a woman in the casket, what their life was like, and who the closest ones left behind were. As he studied the group, and the sun washed the street and continued to water his eyes, he fixed his stare on a young thin woman and a boy.

He instantly knew the person in the casket was a man, and a husband and father at that. The thin woman’s head was bowed, her face was covered, and her hand was on a young boy’s shoulder—a boy about the age of nine or ten years old. The boy did not join the other children but stood close by his mother, preferring to feel the familiar weight of her hand extending its protection against a confusing tragedy well underway. Michael felt instantly small and hopelessly out of place, even on the far perimeter of the woman’s presence. He instantly thought of Lily and he struggled briefly to steady himself, and he looked away, as if trying to avoid some quiet recognition of something better left unsaid. He threw his cigarette butt down on the sidewalk, stepped on it, and immediately lit another. His nose began to run from the cold; he sniffed it in and swallowed uncomfortably. The sidewalk in front of the church had cleared but for a few stragglers, and Michael turned toward the church and headed for the funeral.

John McCluskey’s poetry, short fiction, and photography are published in various literary journals including Jerry Jazz Musician, Sonic Boom, The Raven’sPerch, Third Wednesday, Quill & Parchment, The Red Booth Review, Lullwater Review, and Cradle Songs: An Anthology of Poems on Motherhood. His poem, “My Gray Child” from Cradle Songs was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “A Moment of Fireflies” is the title of his novel, available on amazon.com (USA & UK).