Category Archives: Fiction

Not Forgotten

I hate this patch of grass.

It’s not even good grass. It grew in, scraggly and clover-filled, over-seeded carelessly by the new owners and left to fend for itself. I watched as it filled in, obscuring the scar of bare earth that used to be where the kids soared on yellow swings and hauled themselves across the monkey bars and cried because no one would go on the seesaw swing with them and shrieked with laughter, playing Squeeze The Lemon on the bumpy slide as we watched, all in a row, heads cocked, narrow-eyed, holding back, but ready to intervene if one of them looked at us with sudden, panicked eyes.

The grass was worn away by feet sized 3T-big kid 2, trampled by women’s 7s and 9s. Even regular drenchings from water balloon wars weren’t enough to save it and it gave up, leaving a rectangle of hard won, hard-worn earth in its place.

Until that summer.

When the swingset was empty and the silence rang through the neighborhood. A few kids would stop by from time to time and swing for a minute, wondering if it was OK to be there, but no-one was home to care. I just watched them, over the fence, and waited.

That fall, every time I walked out of my front door the empty swing — the one furthest to the right was her favorite — was like a kick in the guts. And then, when they’d all gone, the bare patch of earth was a memorial of sorts.

The next spring’s thin weed-ridden growth was an insult: Life goes on. But this lush coating of green three years later?

I hate it.

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ForgeTown 1.16 – Sleep Tight, Stella

Buoyed by her success in settling down her restless and homesick son, Kath crossed the hall and knocked on Stella’s door. A baseline thumped spasmodically behind the door. Overtones of a whiny pop diva’s voice bled through like a mosquito on speed. Kath winced. Stella knew she couldn’t stand that song.  It was, she realized, probably why Stella listened to it incessantly. As acts of rebellion go, it wasn’t the worst. Deeply irritating, of course, but Kath could do irritating too. She grinned. You’d have one less problem without me, girl? Ha!

She knocked as she pushed the door open.

“Mo-om! What about privacy? Why can’t I have a lock on that door? What kind of hell is this you’ve brought me to?”

Kath raised her hands in front of her to fend off the attack.

“Woah!” she said. “A, I knocked; B, who said you couldn’t have a lock? The fact is the door doesn’t currently have a lock, that’s all. And C, what kind of tone is that to take with your mother, missy?”

Oh God, she sounded like her mother. In the bad old days. Still, she couldn’t back down now.

“And could you please turn that ‘music’ down? My ear drums are going to split.” Had she really just done the air-quotes thing around ‘music’? Yes, she had.

Stella, curled up on her bed, looked small in this big new room. She was clutching her iPod. Her ever-present notebook was beside her on the bed, its pages scrawled with tiny writing. She flipped its cover closed as Kath approached. It took all Kath’s self-control not to reciprocate the preteen’s eyerool. Stella did, however, turn the volume down on the auto tuned mosquito noises.

“Thank you”

“I’m never going to get to sleep. It’s too loud out there.”

Kath mentally pictured the street outside: empty sidewalks, roomy yards, token streetlights dripping weak spots of light onto the sidewalk for the occasion late night dog walker; a far cry from the busy Waterville sidewalks that had nudged up against the kids’ bedrooms bringing city lights, thumping baselines from vibrating, pimped-out Honda Civics and snatches of shouted conversations that had been an education in colorful vocabulary for every neighborhood kids down through the generations.

“Too loud?”

Stella bolted out of her bed and stood, hands on hips by the window.

“Listen,” One palm up, she indicated the offending outdoors as if her mother must be not only hard of hearing but also hard of thinking.

Kath listened.

Nothing. Well, apart from the insects doing that come-and-go chirping thing she associated with movies about country life. There were some shirrings of air conditioners too, but apart from that…then there was a scuffle as if something was digging in the flower bed outside.

“What’s that?” she asked. Stella dropped the drama queen act and stared back at her, wide eyed.

“Cats?”

“Maybe it’s a possum,” Kath said. “Out here in the wilds of Pennsylvania, they might have possums. What is a possum anyway?” Kath struck a dramatic pose. “What does a possum even look like? Are they carnivorous. Are we on the menu?”

Stella looked like she might crack a smile.

“Possum!” she repeated, letting the smile break through, briefly.

“Would it help if I let you have the iPod and headphones for tonight?” Kath asked.

She thought she saw a hint of the little girl Stella had been until about two months ago, when this move had come up and she had vaulted into the teen years. A wave of softness flooded over her, then Stella arched an eyebrow at her and mumbled. “thanks,” and the moment was over.

“It’s going to be–“Kath began.

“Fine. I know. So you keep telling me.” Stella threw herself back down on to her bed and scrolled studiously through her music, her back to her mother.

Kath slowly and silently counted to ten — which, she remembered somewhat belatedly, only ever served to make her angrier — then decided to let her Angry Young Woman stew. A thousand opening lines died on her tongue and she turned back to the door.

“Sleep tight, Stella,” she said.

After she closed the door Kath waited for a moment on the landing. From behind the closed door, she thought she heard the faintest, “And don’t let the bugs bite.”

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ForgeTown 1.15 – Good Night, Rob-A-Tron

All Kath could see of Robbie under his covers, was a fan of black hair and two very large brown eyes. They looked like thy might go on growing wider and wider until his face was nothing but eyes — and possibly a hint of quivering bottom lip, under that sheet.

Kath pick her way through the scattered contents of moving boxes (tomorrow!) and sat on the edge of her son’s bed.

“Hi buddy.”

“Beep.”

“Beep, yourself.”

The little piece of his face that had been showing slid under the sheet. She reached out and stroked the tuft of hair.

“You had such soft, fair hair when you were a baby,” she said. “And look at it now.”

A hand emerged from under the sheet and batted hers away. A muffled but decidedly disgruntled “beep beep” accompanied the gesture. One beep for yes, two for no. Kath pulled back the covers.

“You have to use words, Robbie. Remember?” Her voice was carefully soft.

The ‘beep’ was barely audible and followed by a louder,

“Yes. Mom”

“So, what do you think of your new room? It’s a lot bigger than your old one, right?”

Robbie stared up at her, still saucer-eyed. His gaze flicked around the room and came back to her.

“When are we going home, Mama?”

He never called her that anymore. Kath fought to keep her face from scrunching. She was definitely not going to let her eyes fill up.

“We are home, Rob-a-tron,” she managed. “This is our lovely new house and I’m sure it’ll start to feel like home as soon as we make some new memories to put in it.”

Robbie sat up, blinking.

“Is that what happens? The memories live in the house?”

Kath was just about to congratulate herself on engaging him when he cut across her private party with a rush of questions.

“What happens to all our memories from the old house? Are they still there? Can’t we bring them with us? Am I going to have to forget about Bobby and Cole and my little cubby and the climbing tree? And what about Santa and the Tooth Fairy? Are they going to know where we’ve gone? And how can I go to sleep without rubbing the little flap of wallpaper by my pillow?”

He ran out of breath and stared at Kath, forehead creased.

What could she say? That it’d be OK? (It would, by not necessarily tonight). That she knew how he felt? (Even though this was the first she’d heard about the wall paper? It did, however, explain a few of the quick fixes she and Don had had to execute after the big orange moving truck had packed up their lives and carried them away).

She did the only thing she could do: hug him until he squirmed. Then she snuggled in beside him, as she had every night of his life, book in hand. Nowadays they took turns reading paragraphs to each other. She had cried silently, on the last night when she had read to him in what he just now learning to think of as his ‘first bedroom’. She hadn’t been able to picture reading him bedtime stories anywhere else. Now, this strange new room was auditioning for the new role of ‘home’. With the lights low and their voices filling the air, Robbie and Kath took turns closing their eyes and willing this new place to do its job.

Forgetown 1.14 – The Fight For St. Stephen’s Begins

The news was out, of course.

It would have been un-Christlike to say it, but both Fr. Tom and his right-hand woman Jean McGinty knew that the leak about the parish merger could only have come from St. Stephen’s. From their point of view Fr Andrucyzk and his staff thought of it less in terms of a leak and more as ‘the best defence’.

Fr. Andruczyk ‘didn’t do email’, so all his commmunications were intercepted by Sal Lezek who — in this case — gasped thearically, attracting the attention of the Women’s Spirituality Group meeting in the dining room. They all put down their study guides and watched, wide eyed, as Sal rolled past the open door on her way to the kitchen where Fr. A was embarking on his second helping of the donuts the ladies invariably brought for him.

“They’ve gone and done it,” Sal wailed. “They’re closing us down and we’ve all got to go to St. Therese!”

Well, from there, the Women’s Spirituality Group had forgotten all about the Psalms and the meeting broke up in a cacophony of exclamations and half-formed memories, plans for the future and not a few dabs at moist eyes with crumpled Kleenex pulled from the depths of a purse or a sleeve. The ladies all — eventually — went home, stopping along the way to share the news with Flo in the Dollar Store (because her uncle had been a St. Stephen’s priest back in the day, God rest him) and with Andre Marek, who could always be found in Pat’s Kitchen on Steel St at this time of day and who knew more about the history of St Stephen’s than any man alive. Tones of outrage sang down the telephone lines and by the time Fr. Tom was arriving at the St. Stephen’s Parish House for lunch, the “Save St. Stephens” Facebook page had received an extra 754 belated “likes” for a total of 1027. Not impressive numbers, Andre would later comment, but his accountant’s heart coldn’t help but swell at the thought that it was — a quick doodle on his napkin told him — a 73.4% rise on the disappointing number it had stood at for most of the past year, and almost 200% more than the number of people at mass on an average weekend. That had to mean something, didn’t it?

Andre peered at the flat screen of hs phone. With the font bumped up to accommodate his weakening eyesight, he could only see three or four words on each line of the Facebook app. Most of them were in all-caps.

SAVE OUR CHURCH, the screen screamed. The comment came from someone whose name he didn’t recognize.

THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!

Andre stabbed at the ‘Read More Comments” option and let his eyes drift down the screen.

[outrage]
[bickering]
[more outrage]

Heat rose to his face. Fumbling, he thumbed into his phone:

“If you care so much where have you been for the past year?”

He stared at the screen. What he had ACTUALLY managed to produce with his arthritic thumbs read,

“If you all. Cars so much where have you been dorky be teas….”

He sighed. He should, he knew, probably take this as a sign that God didn’t want him to add to the vitriol being spread around in His name. His thumb hovered over the ‘delete’ key for a second longer, then he pressed down again until he was left with nothing but an empty comment box and a blinking cursor.

A gum-snapping teenaged waitressed sidled over, waving a coffee pot.

“What’s happening in the world, Mr Marek?”

He looked up at the girl. She was unmistakably kin to Pat-of-Pat’s Kitchen. Probably a granddaugther at this point. What a thought. He didn’t know her name, though he felt he should.

“Change,” he said, laying his phone on the formica table top.

The girl sighed deeply.

“I could go for some of that,” she said, pouring his coffee and turning away.

Andre blinked and watched her go. I got old, he thought. When did that happen?

ForgeTown 1.13 – Lisa Weaver Comes To Call

ForgeTown Cover“Hi-hi!”

A perky, petite blonde lunged at the window in the front door as soon as Kath got near it, and began waving like a hurricane warning flag that takes its job very seriously. Later, Kath would wonder why that particular image had sprung to mind. She added this coincidence to the “pro” side of the ledger that she’d begun to keep in her head for the arguments for and against the existence of a divine being. The woman herself she would later add to the column tallying the ‘con’s.

But all that was in the future.

For now, all that Kath Rodriguez knew was that there was a very excitable stranger on her front door step and she was carrying a sheaf of leaflets and what looked like an honest-to-God picnic basket. And she could swear there were brownies in it.

Oh what the hell, Kath through. She doesn’t look much like a serial killer. Plus: brownies. She opened the door.

“Hi-hi!” the woman squeaked again, even higher than before. “I’m Lisa Weaver. I saw the moving truck this morning so I guess that means we’re neighbors! That’s us over there,” she pointed to somewhere behind the house, on the diagonal. “Not the awful red house, but the Orchid White one — you’ll be able to see us from your deck. The people before you never used the deck much, but we are always out on ours. Can’t get enough of the fresh air. It’s so good for the kids to be outside, don’t you think?”

Bustling forward while she spoke, the woman had managed to end up inside the front door and was charging towards the uncleared kitchen table that cowered in a corner of the dining room, surrounded by packing crates.

“Oh, look at me! I feel quite at home. We have the same model, only ours is flipped from this, our door is over there and our family room is here. And of course we upgraded our kitchen last year, you must let me give you the name of our contractor. They were just the best. I can’t believe the Patels never did anything with this kitchen in all the years they lived here, but you know how those people are. Never want to pay for anything and always moving in more relatives until the house is overflowing. I mean, I’m don’t mean to sound racist, but, sometimes these stereotypes get made for a reason, you know what I mean?”

Kath, who had been trailed after Lisa Weaver, sweeping up cheesesteak wrappers as she went,  started to laugh. Then she stopped, realizing Lisa Weaver wasn’t joining her. Had she just imagined that? Or had Lisa Weaver introduced herself with a casual crack about 20% of the world’s population?

I should tell her that’s unacceptable, Kath thought. I should ask her to leave and come back when she’s got a civil tongue in her head. I should tell her I’ll get my friend Monisha down here to set her straight on a few choice issues and then we’d see where we stand. But none of these things came out of her mouth. In truth, she didn’t have the words to deal with this. In Kath’s circle you hid your prejudices, pretended they didn’t exist and felt guilty about them until you trained your brain to (over)compensate for its bad behavior.

“That’s better,” Lisa Weaver said, placing the basket down on the table. “Now, I didn’t catch your name.”

Kath stared. What was her name, again?

“Kath,” she managed at last. “Kath Rodriguez.”

“Well, hi Kath!” Lisa Weaver chimed in the tones of a support group leader. “And I saw a handsome man and some gorgeous kids running around this morning?”

Lisa Weaver blinked expectantly at Kath.

Suddenly Kath didn’t want to tell this woman anything about her family. She didn’t want the names “Don” and “Stella” and “Robbie” (or was it “Robert” now?) coming out of that mouth. Somehow she knew that Lisa Weaver would be spending the rest of the day wearing her badge of First Contact With The New Neighbors and polishing it up in front of everyone she met, telling them all the little details she’d manage to winkle out of Kath, speculating and judging and packaging and popping them on a shelf. No matter where you lived, no matter where you worked, there was always one.

She briefly flirted with the idea of telling Lisa Weaver that she had hired some actors to play her family in order to seem more acceptable to the Home Owners’ Association. Or maybe she could tell them that Don and she weren’t married and those kids she’d seen had been bought from gypsies and kept only for household chores. She pictured the pert little face forming a horrified ‘o’ and then reassembling itself into fake friendship. Then she heard herself saying,

“That was my husband, Don Morris, and the kids are Stella and Robbie. Eleven and nine.”

She even smiled.

“Oh!” Lisa Weaver said, eyebrows arched, blue eyes widening. “You’re a Rodriguez, but he’s a Morris. Do you hyphenate? Isn’t it mostly an African-American thing? Oh, and it sounds like your son will be in fourth grade, right? How wonderful! He’ll be in my Loren’s grade. It’ll be so great for them to have each other right here in the neighborhood. It’s a good school, of course, but Loren hasn’t really hit it off with too many of the boys — he’s so bright, you see, it’s hard for them to communicate on the same level — but he has plenty of friends of course. Will Robbie be signing up for football in the Fall? I can have a word with Coach Tony and see if we can squeeze him on to my Loren’s team. Of course that’ll mean you can’t go away for Labor Day — were you planning to? — Because they have mandatory practice for their first game that weekend, but it’s so worth it — such a great team, division champions every year — and it’s never too soon to start thinking about that college scholarship, is it? I think Loren will be QB this year, he’s such a fast little thing. Oh! We can carpool, that’ll be just great, because Kaelyn’s soccer schedule conflicts sometimes — she’s the youngest in the club but the coaches keep asking if they can move her up to the competitive teams because she has such a gift for the game. It’s hard because you know you want them just to have fun, but on the other hand you don’t want to hold them back.” At last, Lisa Weaver paused and took a breath. “You know?”

Kath’s grip tightened on the greasy foil she had scooped up from the table. She was holding on tight because otherwise she a feeling that her world would spin away from her somehow. All she managed in response was a noncommittal nod of the head.

Lisa Weaver brightened again and pointed at the leaflets she had strewn across the table.

“Oh, and I picked these up for you at the visitor’s center in Valley Forge Park. There’s SO much to do in this area, and then of course, there’s sports for the kids and all the festivals that they run in town these days. I keep my kids so busy that there’s no time for them to get into trouble! Good practice for when they’re teenagers, don’t you think? I’m so happy we’ve met and I’ll be glad to be your Welcome Wagon. I’ll make sure you know about all the neighborhood happenings,” (she said ‘neighborhood happenings’, Kath would later tell Don. She really did.) “and we must-Must-MUST get the boys together soon!”

Getting no further response from Kath, who looked as dazed as she felt, Lisa Weaver nodded briskly and said,

“Well, I can see you have a ton to do here.” She cast an appraising eye around at the packing crates and mover-strewn furniture. “I’ll let you get on. But if you need anything — ANYTHING — just come on over. Or you can always stand on your deck and yell. We’re always out there! See you soon, neighbor!”

And with that, she was gone.

If Kath had felt marooned before, now she felt utterly shipwrecked. And possibly beset by pirates.




ForgeTown 1.12 – A Meditation On Belonging

ForgeTown CoverPicture the scene: the movers have left, her husband has left to keep his appointment with the priest, and the children have bolted for their new rooms to look at their new view (Robbie) and tear into boxes filled with their most prized possessions — deeply lamented during the ten whole days of internment at the Homewood Suites five miles down the road (Stella).

The living room was free of boxes but only because every other room wasn’t. The kitchen table, looking lost in the middle of the large dining room, still held the crumpled aluminum cocoons that had disgorged te Philly Cheesesteaks, mainly because Kath had yet to locate her trash can and had told the kids that (“just this once”) they could go without clearing the table.

Now that the familiar bits a pieces of her Massachusetts life were here in the new house, something broke inside Kath. She was really going to live here. They had really done this.

The weight of it… Kath cast around for a metaphor, but the only thing she could come up with that matched the dense mass that now lay in the pit of her stomach, was an image of the tragically home-made birthday cakes her mother had attempted every year of her childhood until Kath had been deemed old enough to touch the oven and had taught herself to bake. Her mother’s cakes had been lumpen, lopsided things that had topped out of the cake pan and onto the serving plate with a clunk heard ’round the neighborhood. “Uncle” Tony would pop his head out of the kitchen window next door and yell, his face mere inches from their own window, “Grab your hammer and chisel, Maria! Carla’s been baking again.”

Kath closed her eyes and pictured it. Uncle Tony reaching across the tiny alley between their houses. Carla grabbing the much-maligned cake by one charred edge, as if it was a frisbee or, more accurately, a hockey puck, and making as if to wing it through the two windows and possibly cause Tony a concussion.
Who would Kath have, here, to throw pastries at through windows? She didn’t know a soul and she couldn’t imagine that these nice, sweet Pennsylvania small town folks were the bakery-flinging types. Not to mention that it had to be a good 24 feet to the closest neighbor’s window and she wasn’t sure her aim was that good. Were her children doomed to grow up without crazy neighbor stories? What kind of an upbringing was that?

Kath pressed her knuckles to her mouth to stopper the ridiculous sob that surprised her as she stood in her new home contemplating its cake-winging potential. Her hand went to her pocket to call Gina to tell her all about it, but Gina was 600 miles away. How long could she rely on her long-distance friends for comfort? Aborting the maneuver, Kath instead jammed her hand in the pocket of her capris. She would just have to make it work, that was all. They may not be her people, but surely there had to be some potential friends here in the wilds of small town PA.

And with that, the doorbell rang — a singsong chime, tinny and metallic.

“That’ll be our new doorbell,” Kath said to no-one in particular. “I don’t like it.”

She added ‘new doorbell chimes’ to the impossibly-long mental to do list and tiptoed cautiously towards the door.




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ForgeTown 1.11 – Two Men In T-Shirts

Don was sipping his glass of iced water — a glass which he was amused to note bore definite signs of having been part of a loyalty program giveaway some decades previously — when the sliding doors to the rectory sitting room parted and a man about his own age, in cargo shorts and a Foo Fighters t-shirt, stepped into the room.

“Don?”

Don put his glass down on the coaster Jean had provided and struggled to his feet. He found himself a bit off-balance.

“Sorry to keep you, but I see Jean’s been taking good care of you. She runs the place, of course, but you’ll know how that works.” The man smiled and extended his hand.

“Father Tom. Good to meet you.”

Don hastily wiped his hand, wet from the condensation on the glass, on his own shorts and shook the other man’s hand.

“Don Morris,” he said. “Late of Massachusetts, new resident and parishioner, reporting for duty, just like my mother trained me.”

Don grinned and the young priest grinned back.

“Ah, where would we be without our mothers? Don’t answer that!”

And with that, the two men sat down across from each other.

“I hope you don’t mind the civvies,” Father Tom said, pointing at his neck where the clerical collar wasn’t. “It’s just, in this heat,” he waved a hand.

“Not at all,” Don said. “Sensible. We don’t have enough priests left for you to be passing out from heat stroke.”

The priest said nothing, but gave Don a long, appraising look. He sat still through it, but he wasn’t ashamed to admit later, to Kath, that he’d been squirming inside. It was like the man was looking directly at his soul and Don had the definite sense that all his charm would be nothing but window-dressing to this guy. This was a man to watch.

“So,” said the priest, settling back into his armchair. “Tell me about your family.”

Don relaxed. If there was one thing he could do, it was talk.

“Well, let’s see. There’s my wife Kath — Kathleen — but she goes by her own name, Rodriguez and I’d advise you to remember that. Then there’s Stella, eleven-going-on-twelve. She’s a firecracker, just like her mother. She’s stuck between being Daddy’s little girl and too old for that kind of nonsense so I guess the teen years are almost upon us.”

The priest nodded.

“From what I’ve seen,” he said. “They’re always Daddy’s little girl, even when they’re trying their best not to be. My sister certainly is.”

Don looked up.

“Are there many of you?” he asked.

“Just me and my sister,” the priest replied. He leaned forward in his armchair. “Contrary to expectations, isn’t it? To be honest, I suspect my parents were not entirely aligned with Church teaching in certain areas, not that we ever talked about it.”

He winked and Don laughed out loud. The image of discussing ‘such things’ with his own parents was not one he could conjure, for all his fertile imagination. It was odd enough to be having the discussion with a priest. A day of firsts, indeed. On a whim, he asked,

“So, how did they feel about their only boy becoming a priest?”

Fr Tom gave Don another searching look.

“A bit surprised actually, and not entirely confident. We weren’t the most strict family, to be honest. I know my mother wanted me to settle down and find a nice wife to look after me. And there are days, like today, when I almost wish I’d listened to her.” He winked at Don. “But the Lord can be quite insistent when he comes calling. They gave me their blessing in the end.”

The man opposite him was smiling, but Don had a strong sense of things left unsaid.

“Bad day?” he asked.

Fr Tom paused.

“Busy, let’s say. Interesting, even. But enough about me, you were talking about Stella. Is she your only?”

“Oh no, “Don said. “Robbie’s our youngest. Nine. All boy, as they say. A bundle of potential but God knows where he’ll end up. He’s all over the place, but that’s probably my fault — he’s got my overactive imagination, I’m afraid.”

“And will they be joining us at our school? I can point you in the direction of the registration forms.”

“Ah,” Don picked up his water glass from the table in front of him and twirled it, the cut glass pattern catching a beam of sunlight and splashing a lightshow across the exquisite fireplace. “Public school.”

“That’s fine,” Father Tom said. After a pause, he continued, “I don’t want to be indelicate but I do let everyone know that we have an excellent reputation and a robust scholarship fund. I hate for anyone to let financial concerns get in the way of their true wishes.”

“It’s not that, Father, And I’m sure the school is lovely. But my wife has…views.” Don stopped. Did that make him sound disloyal? “In fact, we’re both big supporters of public education,” he hurried on, taking a drink of from his glass to cover the moment.

“Well, we’re always here if you change you mind,” Fr. Tom waved his hand as if to dismiss the topic. Then he leaned forward again. “12 years of public education, sitting right in front of you, by the way, so I’m not going to tell you to fear for their immortal souls, or anything.”

Don looked at the man opposite. He was beginning to get the sense that this was a priest unlike any he’d met before. He was someone Don might like to call a friend.
They talked on for a bit, Fr Tom doing his sales pitch for the parish and telling Don all about the various ministries (“Are you musical? You know choirs are always desperate for men”) and the not-to-be-missed parish picnic in September, and all the other little things that make up parish life. Jean reappeared and pressed some forms into Don’s hand (“just return them whenever you can’”) and then the men were standing on the porch, shaking hands again, the door propped open behind them.

“My advice?” Fr Tom said, at last. “Don’t sign up for more than two things in any one year. It’s easy to get sucked in and then you end up overwhelmed and you’re no good to man nor beast.”

“Well there’s another surprise,” Don said. “A paster asking me not to volunteer!”

“People know my views, by now. You’ll thank me when Jack Rousch comes to sign you up for the seventh thing this week and you can tell him, ‘sorry Jack, I’ve already filled my two spots, you know how Fr Tom is…’ and shrug helplessly.”

Don laughed and then said,

“Will you come for dinner? One night this week. It won’t be fancy but we’d love to have you over.”

The priest frowned — the first Don had seen.

“Problem?”

“It’s not like the old days,” Fr Tom said, carefully. “There aren’t enough of us around anymore to go making home visits all the time. I’m not able to get around all the parishioners…”

“So you don’t want to offend anyone?” Don looked across the street. There were children swinging in a park. A woman in a straw hat emerged from behind a great green hedge to check her mailbox.

“Come after dark. Nobody knows who we are yet, and I can keep a secret.” Don leaned in and lowered his voice. “You know, if it was my mother, she’d have had you down there to bless the house before the movers had even crossed the threshold. The people before us, who built our house, lovely as they were, were named Patel. If I told my poor mother that we were sleeping in a house that’s likely never had a touch of holy water…”

Jean’s voice floated through from the inner room.

“You’re free on Wednesday evening, Father. After the Parish finance meeting. And it’ll be getting dark by then!”

“And they say priests don’t have wives,” Don winked.

Fr Tom laughed,

“We don’t. Just an abundance of mothers. And far be it from me to get between a fellow Irishman and the wishes of his mammy.”

“God bless you,” Don grinned. “Though I’m sure he already does. Come over whenever you’re free. . Wear your civvies if it helps, but don’t forget the holy water!”

“They’d defrock me if I did!” Tom offered Don his hand. “A real pleasure. Wednesday, a little after eight, then?”




ForgeTown 1.10 – Don Goes To Church

ForgeTown CoverThe heavy wood and glass door would have been magnificent it if hadn’t been sandwiched between an ugly louvered-plastic storm door on the outside and a set of yellowing lace curtains on the inside. But for all the church’s theoretical wealth it was, at the grass roots, the charity it claimed to be on its tax filings. There was little of what Don’s father would have called ‘liquid assets’ for such frivolities as cosmetic upgrades. Actually, the ugliness was kind of reassuring. It hinted at a pastor who put the extra cash into the hands of the needy rather than the Glory of Rome — assuming this parish had ‘needy’. Don hadn’t seen much evidence of poverty in the little town yet, but he was sure he’d soon meet plenty of people willing to warn him off walking down the streets where “they” congregated. People were always very quick to do that for new arrivals.

The door ahead of him jerked and twitched a couple of times and Don plastered his most charming smile onto his face, timing it to reach its full power just as the door opened. Which it didn’t. It twitched another couple of times. Clearly whoever was behind it was having a little difficulty pulling the old and probably warped door free of its frame. Don’s hand was on the knob of the ugly storm door, ready to lend a bit of counterweight to the problem, when the lace curtain twitched back and the face of every parish housekeeper he’d ever known appeared beyond it. It was quite remarkable how, regardless of age, race or station, every woman who took on the role of priests’s Girl Friday had the same bouffant hair, the same patterned polyester blouses — flounced at collar and cuffs — and some kind of sensible knee-length leg-covering. The woman behind the glass flashed him a smile.

“Stuck,” she mouthed. “Just a moment.”

She disappeared behind the lace again. A moment passed and then, with a mighty heave, the parish lady wrenched the door open.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “Beautiful old buildings do have their drawbacks. It’s the original door, you see. Fr Tom is quite keen to save it if we can, so I’ve taken up lifting weights at the Y on Saturday mornings. My doctor says it’ll keep the osteoporosis at bay, too, so it’s a win-win really. Come on in out of the heat.”

Dan noticed with a jolt that, in this case, the lady in question certainly had the regimental hairstyle but was wearing a daring sleeveless top (synthetic, patterned) and shorts (shorts!) that fell just at the knee. How modern.

The woman ushered Dan into the dim, tiled foyer. The space had an air of stillness that he savored for a moment before following her into a bright front room, lit on two sides by tall windows in elegant wooden frames. The room was stuffed full of computer screens and printers and piles of paper all shrieking for urgent attention.

“Jean McGinty” said the name plate on the desk behind which the woman had slipped.

“So, what can I help you with?” Jean looked up from behind the piles of paper she had quickly shuffled aside on her desk.

Don twinkled at her. Get the parish secretary on your side and all will be right with the world. Another lesson he’d learned early. He checked her left hand for rings.

“Well, Mrs McGinty,” he began.

“Jean, please!”

“Jean,” Don said, slowly. Surely she could see he was honored to be invited to call her by her first name? “My name is Don Morris, new to this parish. Just moved in this morning in fact, and I’d never be able to face my mother again if my first stop hadn’t been here at the rectory.” He grinned. “I called ahead and made an appointment.”

Jean made a show of pulling up reading glasses from where they hung around her neck on a beaded chain and of paging through the big paper diary on the desk, but Don had the distinct impression she knew exactly what she was going to find. There, on the page, he could see his own name in beautiful, painstaking cursive script. Number 2 pencil, if he was any judge of character.

Jean tapped the page with a manicured nail (a modest short curve, natural shade) and smiled up at Don over her glasses.

“Ah yes, I think we spoke on the phone. I remember a young man with Irish manners calling me and laying on the charm a couple of weeks ago.”

“Guilty as charged,” Don winked.

“Well, let’s get you settled in the sitting room. Father’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. He’s just back from lunch with Father Andryczyk over at St. Stephens and…well.”

Her face clouded. Oh-ho, there’s a story there. Don made a note but didn’t press for details now. Better to broach it with the priest himself in case it was…though he hoped to God it wasn’t. Funny how quickly the mind jumped to “that” conclusion these days.

The sex abuse scandal had rocked the church much more than it might appear to outsiders who only saw carefully-worded press statements by corpulent bishops on the steps of forbidding cathedrals or heard soundbites selected by ambitious reporters desperate for a ticket to the big time. It had rocked families too: civil wars over Christmas dinner when the drinks were flowing and patience grew thin (“How can you stay?!” “How can you leave?”). Don sighed and thought of Kath and the empty space in the pew next to him these past few years.

Please don’t let it be that.

Jean lead Don back across the still hallway to  the sitting room, all worn-velvet armchairs and an ornate fireplace. It was a room full of faded gentility and, normally, Don would shave taken great pleasure in the sense of history in the place. But his thoughts had been polluted, his peace ruffled and he sent up a quick prayer for the will to forgive the men who’d brought this down on the church.

Jean left to get him a glass of water and he could hear her footsteps echoing on the old wooden floorboards of the old house. He tried to rekindle the sense of a fresh start as he sat alone in the room filled with who-knows what kind of memories. He was certain his glass of water would come back in a worn and scratched cut glass tumbler from a mismatched set stored in a cabinet near an elderly stove that burned pizzas on one side and left them raw on the other. He had been in enough rectories over the years to be absolutely sure of that. No matter how affluently this parish house had started out — and in this one the signs of former wealth were everywhere, from that intricate Italian tile foyer to the ornate carvings over the fireplace — he knew that everything else in the house would be hand-me-down and make-do. It always was. The surest sign of a good parish, in his experience, was a preset who saw this as the way things should be. He’d known plenty who had railed against it, requesting the parish council to sign off on upgrades and new leather sofas as if the rectory were a doctor’s office.

The big question, Don thought, the thing that shapes it all, is what kind of man is this Father Tyler?


 




 

Forgetown Episode 1.09 – We Meet Jane Cope

ForgeTown CoverJane Cope straightened up from where she had been weeding under her forsythia hedge. She pressed the back of one of her gloved hands to her forehead and squinted against the sun. She sighed deeply. Jane wasn’t in bad shape for her age, but she had to admit the knees were not what they had once been. She watched with envy as a youngish man bounded down the steps of the St Therese rectory building across the main road from her corner lot. He doesn’t even think about his knees. Just trots along on them with no thought for cartilage or menisci or spondylitis. Just expects them to keep on bending and cushioning as they do today.

She herself had been the same, of course — sitting cross legged at all those sit-ins in the ’70s; running up and down the stairs between dressing rooms and stages; not to mention all those hours hunkered down among her plants. Had these things accelerated or fended off the stiffness? You could find doctors arguing for both. Worth it, though. All of it worth it.

Jane turned and beheld the majestic wall of green leaves sweeping down the side of her property. It was an honor, really to have been entrusted with the care of such a specimen. And, she had to admit, modesty aside, that the forsythia had flourished here. If only it weren’t for…Jane frowned and turned to follow Father Tom’s progress across Carnegie Park. Wiping her Hori Hori knife and sliding it into its sheath on her gardening apron, Jane set off across the park on the diagonal, to intercept the Catholic pastor.

Another sign of a life well lived, she was a little out of breath by the time she had caught up with the young man. The midday sun had burned away any traces of morning cool now with the result that Jane was rather more flustered than she would have liked when addressing the male of the species, no matter what his age. But needs must…

“Good morning, Ms Cope,” Fr Tom called as her path intersected his. “Going my way? I’d be glad of the company.”

“Oh I doubt that, Father,” Jane said, waving one hand at the universe in general. “You must get little enough time when you’re not on-stage, so to speak, and I’m sure you treasure those moments. I won’t keep you. Its’s just that I wanted to catch you and ask to please intercede for me,” she paused, pleased that she had been able to pluck the particularly Catholic word from her less-and-less-reliable memory, “with your parishioners, once again, on behalf of my forsythia.”

She watched his face carefully. There was no flicker of impatience, no hint of irritation.

“Do you know,” she said, changing tack with the unusual effect of appearing to interrupt herself. “You would make a very fine actor, I think. Have you done any formal acting? In college maybe? Although I suppose in your case you’d have had to be very Shakespearean about it — men playing all the women’s parts…Well, at any rate, the Forgetown Players summer musical offering is to be Oklahoma this year — a little ambitious, I feel, but Jacob and Cynthia Doolan are convinced we can manage — all those dance numbers! Can you imagine? Still, we would get on a lot better, it occurs to me, with a young man like yourself playing our Curly. And I hear rumors that you have a very fine Irish tenor voice.”

Her own voice trailed upward in the way of a question as she turned her best ‘reach the cheap-seats’ smile on the priest. She had been so caught up in the new idea that she had stopped walking right alongside the memorial rose garden — ratty-looking things they were too. Honestly, imagine putting in roses as a memorial to anything in this climate and then expecting them to get by under only the tender ministrations of the Parks’ Department’s butchers for hire. She really ought to have a word with Damian Belasco about it.

“You’re too kind,” Fr. Tom was saying. He had stopped when Jane had, and was looking at her now with that slightly awed look she often saw on people’s faces when she engaged them in conversation. It was hardly surprisingly, of course. She had presence. Always had. Ms Fonda herself had been kind enough to say so that summer she’d played at the Walnut in Philadelphia and she, Jane Cope, had had a small part as Dancer #2.

“But,” the priest was saying, “I don’t think my schedule permits. The show must go on but so, unfortunately must the emergency call-outs to Golden Acres and the hospice. I’m not sure the Archbishop would understand if I told him I’d missed giving the Sacrament of the Sick because my public needed me.”

He was smiling broadly and Jane thought she might have detected the hint of a wink. With that, the priest began to walk again. Jane found herself momentarily adrift in the middle of the park, head full of barn raisings and memorial roses and Ms Fonda’s summer in Philadelphia — that glorious garden party  — and found herself unsure, quite, why she was standing in the middle of Carnegie Park. Fr Tom had slowed and turned back to her.

“About your bushes,” he called. “I really am very sorry if the parishioners are causing damage. I’ll mention it again this Sunday and stress that if they must park in your lane, they should take better care with their car doors. It’s all God’s creation, after all!.

“I do appreciate it, your…um, Father,” Jane snapped back to the business at hand. “I know some of them think me a silly woman to fret, but it’s just that the very first cutting was given to me…”

“By Mr Fonda, wasn’t it? 1960-something?” Fr Tom was smiling again.

“’61, yes. Every so often I take a cutting and start a new bush. I brought the first cuttings from a garden party at Ms Fonda’s rented place — her father was there you know. Such an intimidating man. Quite kind, of course, but such presence! And then of course, I brought cuttings from my garden in Llanfair when I moved here to Foregetown. It’s taken me fully ten years to develop it into the hedge you see before you now, so often “trampled under foot, by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places”. With apologies to Washington Irving.”

“My mother was a gardener herself,” Fr Tom said, saluting her in farewell as they reached the far aside of the park. “So I know all too well the heartache caused by a carelessly placed sneaker. I’ll speak to them again, I promise. And I’ll pray for a good healthy rain, for your shrubs.”

Jane watched the priest stride off down Frederick St towards St. Stephen’s no doubt. Which reminded her.

“Father,” She called. He stopped and turned, one foot on the sidewalk, the other a step into the D Street crosswalk, just next to where that awfully nice lesbian couple lived. Janice and somebody. Oh, how terrible that she couldn’t call her name to mind. Jane saw Fr Tom watching her and hurried over. “Is there any news about the merger? Not that I’m a parishioner of course — old Episcopalians as my parents were, and I being a true child of the 60s, well — but I do have friends…and I can’t help wondering, if you do merge, what the extra traffic will do to the…parking situation.”

“Not to mention your forsythias.”

Jane inclined her head, acknowledging the hit.

“An announcement will be forthcoming, Mrs Cope. Forthcoming rather soon. In fact, I’m on my way to talk to Fr Andruczyk now, if you’ll excuse me.”

And with that, he was gone.

“My mother was” he had said, Jane thought as she strolled back across the park, taking the occasional, absent-minded dig with her Hori Hori knife at lawless patches of crabgrass in the park as she went. Past tense. So the mother is no longer with us? And he, such a young man. Do I scent tragedy?

Jane arrived back at her forsythia fortress with an apron full of weeds and a mind full of questions.




Forgetown Episode 1.08 – Don Dismisses The Movers

ForgeTown Cover“You guys are good,” Don Morris made an exaggerated show of checking his left wrist, even though he had long since stopped wearing a watch, then of looking up at the sky as if to gauge the time by the sun’s position like the rugged outdoorsman he was not. Finally he whipped his iPhone out of a side pocket of his grey cargo shorts. “11:49. You said you’d be done by noon!”
Evan-Devon-maybe-Ethan, chief moving guy whose name neither Don nor Kath had caught properly, grinned with all the boyish charm that had been making Kath lose her train of thought all morning. Don had come across her four or five times, staring into the space recently vacated by Evan-Devon-maybe-Ethan. He grinned. He had no illusions. He knew his wife was particularly susceptible to a cute smile and a bit of charm. He thanked God for it, daily. It was, after the best tool in his belt for getting around her when he’d done something to set her off. This guy though? He couldn’t be more than 22.
“Summer job?” he asked. The boy nodded.
“Where d’you go to school?”
“Penn State.” He had said the words with a reverence that Don noted and filed. He had learned young to spot these signals, local intelligence he called it, and use it to start making himself a ‘local’ as soon as possible. A useful skill in a gypsy childhood like his had been.
Now he took the clipboard from Evan-Devon-Ethan and scanned the paperwork, not really seeing it. Instead he was running through a mental list of college mascots. Penn State. Penn State. Ah, there it was.
“Nittany Lions!” he flashed a grin at the boy, who beamed. What else? Oh. Best not to mention the football team, after it’s recent “troubles”. That’d be a sore spot and this kid looks like he might have been hoping to play on a Championship team. Oh well. What then? In a last, heroic lunge, Don plucked the school fight song from some unused corner of his mind.
“Fight on, State,” he said knowingly and received an approving,
“Roar, Lions Roar,” from the proud collegian. Not that it mattered, impressing this boy he’d likely never see again, but he was a good test run for how to charm his new colleagues.
“Well,” he said, handing the clipboard back and shaking Evan-Devon-maybe-Ethan firmly by the hand. In one smooth move, he transferred a stack of folded bills from his pocket to the boy’s free hand. “Be sure and tell your crew we appreciate all their hard work.”
Even-Devon-maybe-Ethan looked down at the money with his big wide-open face.
“Well, thank you, sir,” he said. “And I hope you’re happy in your new home.”
It was probably line he was contractually obliged to delivery but he did it with such sincerity that even Don wanted to believe he meant it. It was…sweet. That was the only word for it. Don had been living in the scrappy Boston suburb of Waterville for so long (and spending his working day amongst the Boston intelligentsia, too) that he’d forgotten what it was like to be this close to the south. People were…different here. He wondered how Kath, Waterville born and bred, was going to adjust to all this unfiltered sweetness.
“Are they all set?”
And here she came now, through the screen door, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, all except for that one strand that she always missed which looped enticingly over her collar bone and down into the neck of her t-shirt. Don enjoyed the moment. Kath brushed the stray hair away and stared at him.
“What?”
Don, suddenly, horribly aware that he was far from 22 years old these days, gave her his best smoldering look. At first, he thought it wasn’t going to have any effect.
“I should go and say thank you,” Kath was saying, looking at the boys piling into the cab of the moving truck.
Don grabbed his wife around the waist and held her beside him, feeling the warmth of her body through his thin t-shirt.
“They don’t need you,” he said, low and slow.
“Oh,”
Kath turned to him, her cheeks reddening just a little. She leaned into him and wiggled just a little.
Don pushed her away with a playful,
“Yup. Still got it.”
The smack she administered to the back of the head was, he reflected, both justified and worth it.
“So hey,” he said, looking around. “Now that they’re gone, how about I wander down to that Pizza place we saw on the way in and pick us up some cheesesteaks for lunch.”
Kath screwed up her face, but Don carried right on.
“Don’t give me that face. Those things they served you on the Cape were nothing like Philly cheesesteaks. Trust me, I know. If you’re going to live here, you’re going to have to learn to be a connoisseur of the fine local cuisine.”
Kath groaned and he knew he’d won. Not least because it meant she didn’t have to figure out where to get food.
“And don’t forget I’ve got that appointment with the parish priest at 2,” Don said.
Kath groaned again.
“Yeah, I still don’t understand why you have to do that today.”
Don spread his hands wide.
“I told you. It’s what my mom always did: first day in a new home, you get the priest to come over and bless it.”
‘But surely you don’t need that kind of..” she faltered. ‘Nonsense’ was the word that hung in the air between them.
“You know I’m not superstitious,” Don said. “And I promise I’m not going to fill the garden with statues and wreath the whole house in palm fronds, but there are some things I just can’t fight. This seems right.” He gave her his best big-eyed look. “It’s important to me, love.”
He watched as she fought a valiant battle not to roll her eyes and almost won.
“Fine.” She said. “Just as long as I don’t have to come.”
“Never a question, my love.”
“And don’t sign me up for fourteen different committees.”
“Would I?”