The grass had all turned brown. Snow, crusted gray by car exhaust, hugged the curb. A blare of shift change whistle blew at the factory a few blocks away; 5:00 pm and the gloaming of evening had already fallen. From his bedroom window in the rectory, Father Francis watched the cold breeze tug at a lone leaf on the tree in the front lawn. His own heart felt like that leaf. He went down the hall to the kitchen to heat water for tea. Although he’d only turned forty-six earlier that month, days after his mother’s death, he walked with a slight limp. The rectory was as quiet as a tomb.
At the sound of the factory whistle, Sister Katherine glanced up and looked outside the convent’s basement window. Above the rooftops, she could see the plume of smoke from the factory’s chimney against the ink-wash sky. She paused at the ironing board in the laundry room where she was pressing the nuns’ habits. The globe on the ceiling threw white light. A glimpse of her ex-husband entered her mind, and she shook it away. In the convent’s small chapel directly above her, she could hear Mother Superior’s quiet voice leading the rosary, followed by the answering chorus of the other nine nuns. …
My grandmother sat on the toilet seat. I was on the floor just in front of her.
She brushed my brown curly hair until my scalp hurt.
“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up. Look at yourself in the mirror.”
My hair looked flat, like someone had laid a book on it overnight.
I touched my scalp. “It hurts.”
“You gotta toughen up, Aiden. Weak people get nowhere in this world. Your grandfather was weak. Addicted to the bottle. Your mother has an impaired mind and is in a nuthouse. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong.” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous. I smelled coffee on her breath. She pinched my cheeks.
I reflexively pushed her hands away.…
On my morning run, I met a boy with a flute case. I was jogging up Highland when he flagged me down and asked directions to the library. He told me his school was closed because of a bomb threat. Then he started swinging his flute case forward and back.
“I’m the only boy in school who plays. I get teased all the time,” he said.
The boy was tall and thin with wet hair that fell over his face. He looked to be around twelve. I noticed he wasn’t wearing a backpack. I paused the timer on my watch.
“I think it’s cool that you play the flute,” I said. “It’s different.”
I kneeled down to retie my laces.
“Why are you running?” he asked.
“To get better.”
He swung his case a little too close to my head. “Better how?”
I was training for a race. But I was trying to get better in other ways. I didn’t feel like telling the boy about this.
Suddenly we heard police sirens in the distance. The boy’s eyes widened. He hugged his flute to his chest and took a step back.
“I’m not giving it to you!” he yelled.
I rose and held out my hand to calm him.…
I couldn’t believe we were even having the conversation. The sign said, “No Swimming.” That’s enough for me, but they were posted along the bank so incrementally as to ensure wherever a person stood, the message was unavoidable. Yet, Carl had already stripped his shirt, revealing the sweater of hair beneath, and was unbuttoning his pants. Our masonry crew had a long laugh after I mentioned his “sweater” when he removed his shirt one hot, summer day.
“Ah, they just post signs like that for kids and pansies,” Carl said, “for liability purposes. All the lawsuits these days, you know. Look over there. I used to jump from that rope when I was a kid.”…
The day before my brother died I went to see Clara for the last time. I hung up my mother’s soft voice and walked to the bedroom window. I rubbed a circle in the condensation and watched puddles collect on the sidewalk below. Two black squirrels ran up bare tree limbs fighting over an acorn. A girl, who might have been pretty, waited at the crosswalk beneath her umbrella in the drizzle.
I took off my wedding ring and drove through rainbow-soaked streets to Clara’s apartment. The oaks lining the way bent in the wind. At a stoplight, a little girl in a red parka jumped in a puddle, mud spattering on her white tights.
Clara opened the door; a pink bathrobe was cinched loosely at her waist. Her hair was dark and curly; her grey eyes flicked up and down, registering no surprise. She wasn’t a beauty; but it didn’t matter to me. Steam rose from a cup of tea and disappeared into her skin. She took a sip without saying a word.…