Category Archives: Write

ForgeTown Cover

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?”




Forgetown Episode 1.07 – Robbie (Or Robert) Meets The Duck

ForgeTown Cover“Kath Rodriguez, nice to meet you,” Kath managed, letting go of Robbie’s upper arm and taking the firm grip of the grey-haired man who had walked over to where their two yards met. You could see where his property ended: it was a bright been line that spoke of chemical fertilizer, deep waterings, militarily precise mowings and, probably a quiet desperation about the state of the grass — you couldn’t call it a lawn — on her side of the border.

“Joe Kaczka,” the main said, shaking her hand. “But you can call me Duck. Everybody does.”

“‘Duck’! Well, hello Duck! That’s my husband over there, Don Morris,” Kath watched for the raised eyebrows ,but Duck’s face was a mask. “And this is Robbie. Morris,” she added after a moment of hesitation.

Robbie, seizing the moment, had started to make a break for the relative safety of the back yard.

“Robbie!” Kath called. The boy’s steps faltered. Kath added a special edge to her tone. “Robert Julio Morris. Come back here and say hello to our new neighbor, Mr Kaczka.”

(Kaz-ka. Kaz-ka,Gray hair. Number 6. Flag in the lawn, military air. Kaz-ka, equal stress on both syllables. Call him Duck.)

“Hello Mr Kaczka,” Robbie mumbled and Duck shook his hand solemnly as if greeting a great man. Something flickered across Robbie’s face.

“And what do you think of the place so far, young sir?” Duck said, giving his full attention to the boy.

“It’s bigger than our house,” the boy said, only he pronounced it ‘biggah’ and ‘hahwz’. “I mean our old house.”

Duck looked up at Kath.

“Boston?”

“Just outside the city.” Kath said. “Is it that obvious?”

“Well,” Duck said, “Most people around here have been here so long — my mother spent her whole life in the same house — so we notice when a person has an accent.”

Kath noticed that he said and “l-wong”  and “hee-ouse”, and painted her smile on more firmly. No accent, my foot.

“That’s a really tall flagpole,” Robbie was saying, staring up at the fluttering flag.

Duck’s chest puffed out just a bit and he turned to follow Robbie’s gaze.

“Yes it is, son. I raise the flag at sunrise every morning and retire it at sunset every day.”

“Why?”

Kath watched as Duck stared first at Robbie then quickly at her and then back to the flag.

“Because that’s how we honor our flag and show our love for our country, Robbie…or do you prefer Robert?”

Robbie blinked.

“I dunno,” he said. “Either, I guess.”

“A man should be in charge of his own name, young man.” Duck crouched down so he was at Robbie’s eye level. “You decide what you want to be called and then you just keep insisting on it until people they go along with it. They’ll respect you for it.”

Kath watched this little scene and realized her mouth was open. She snapped it shut. Robbie, too, was staring at Duck.

“But you’re called Duck,” he said. Kath choked off a laugh when she realized Duck wasn’t joining her.

“Yes I am, son. I am indeed. It’s what my last name means in Polish. They called me that in the service and I’m proud to use it now. Everybody in town knows me as Duck, but you’ll note that I told your mother to use the name. That makes it my choice and that is what makes all the difference.

Kath and Robbie (or was it Robert?) came separately to the joint conclusion that there was nothing to be added to this curious sermon. Duck slowly straightened up from his squat.

“Perhaps, if your mom and dad say it’s OK,” he said, but his eyes never left Robbie’s face, “you can come over some time and help me with the flag ceremony.”

Kath watched the glowing face of her younger child. Hook, line and sinker, she thought, and braced herself for the onset of another of her son’s serial obsessions. Flags and patriotism? Well, it could be worse.




Forgetown Episode 1.06 – Joe The Duck

ForgeTown CoverThe big orange moving truck in Phoenix St was attracting attention from all around. It hadn’t been there at 5:32 am when Joe “The Duck” Kaczka had stepped outside, unfolded his flag and smartly hoisted it to the top of the flagpole cemented into his front lawn, as he did each morning, that was for sure.

A well-thumbed Farmer’s Almanac was a permanent fixture on Duck’s side table by his armchair. Every Sunday evening he took some time to to memorize the sunrise and sunset times for the coming week to ensure he was ready to honor his flag and his country at the right times every day. He took some satisfaction in the fact that his was the only one of three flagpoles in the neighborhood that was always raised precisely at sunrise and lowered at sunset excepting, of course, when we was a way from home for four days each November, at the start of hunting season.

Duck pulled a cotton handkerchief from his pocket and blotted his beaded forehead. It’d be good to be out on a crisp fall morning, about now. The heat and humidity had made an early appearance yesterday and they said on Channel 12 that it wasn’t likely to break until Friday. And everyone knew Channel 12 was always right. It did bother him, though that, on hunting days, when he was gone before dawn, he came home in the afternoon light to a bare flagpole, but it wouldn’t do to raise it in the dark. If Margie and he had been able to have children, he might have had grandkids by now. There would have been some fine boys among them; boys who, when they were still too young to come hunting would have apprenticed by coming over on hunting mornings and raising Pop Pop’s flag for him.

Of course, he could always install a floodlight like Bob Zemitsky on Elizabeth Street, and leave his flag up around the clock. Duck’s stomach knotted at the thought. Lazy, that’s what it was. Without his flag-raising ceremony he might sleep until as late as 7, never leave the house all day and spend his evenings going from local news straight through to the History channel without once getting out of his chair to salute, lower, fold and stow the flag. And that would lead to sloppiness,  a lack of discipline and, before you knew it, he’d be a 400lb pasty white whale with edema in both legs, only ever sighted behind the screen door, watching the world go by. He’d be found dead in his armchair, two weeks after succumbing to a host of diseases his parents had never lived long enough to worry about, and only then because Sully the mailman noticed his junk mail  piling up in his mailbox and called in Officer Jacks to break down the door with…Duck stopped. Did the Forgetown force even possess a battering ram? They’d probably have to call out to Collegetown for one. They’d all stand around on his front porch in their uniforms, boys he’d known when he’d coached the wrestling club, peering in his front window and calling his name, talking about how sad it all was.

No. No floodlight for his flag.

Duck folded and re-pocketed his handkerchief. He stooped with a grunt, one hand on his left thigh, to puck an enemy seedling from the white marble-chipped no-man’s land that held between the flagpole’s base and his lush green lawn. Duck levered himself upright and pulled his shoulders back, parade ground perfect. The good Lord wants us humble, but that’s not the same as giving up on your standards.

As he straightened up, rubbing the tiny green sprout between his fingers, Duck at last allowed himself to turn towards Number 4 with its buzz of activity and new faces. A young family. ‘He’ looked Irish which, though it might have seemed problematic for his parents’ generation, was better than the many alternatives that presented themselves these days. The wife had an exotic look, like a 1950 screen siren — Sophia Loren, someone like that. There might be some Italian in there, perhaps. But chances are they wouldn’t be joining him at St Stephen’s. They’d probably be St. Therese types. Pity. If they were church-goers at all. Duck had surprised himself with the thought, but you never did know these days.

‘She’ appeared, hauling a boy of about nine or ten around the corner of the house that was nearest to Duck’s yard. Duck well remembered the feeling of a mother’s grip on his upper arm. He grinned a little in solidarity with the young boy and began to walk stiffly towards them.

“Hi neighbors!” he called out, not so loud as to startle them, but loud enough to show confidence. It was important to proceed with confidence, with deer, with a shotgun or with people. That was one of Duck’s Rules and it had always served him well so far.

Duck thrust out a strong right hand, causing the woman to let go of the boy and recompose her face from ‘angry mom’ to ‘friendly neighbor’.




Forgetown Episode 1.05 – Father Tom’s Inbox

ForgeTown CoverThe ‘From’ field said “Archdiocesan Office of…” This was it.

Tom’s hand hesitated over the mouse. He knew what it would say. He was 99% sure, at least. Ninety-eight, maybe.

This is it, Tommy boy, the end of your nice quiet life. And he clicked.

DECREE
OF THE MERGER OF
 ST. STEPHEN’S PARISH, FORGETOWN, PENNSYLVANIA
INTO SAINT THERESE PARISH, FORGETOWN, PENNSYLVANIA
St. Stephen’s Parish was founded in the Borough of Forgetown in 1901 to serve Polish speaking people in Forgetown and surrounding area. As the result of an Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning initiative, a proposal to merge this parish with the neighboring territorial St. Therese Parish, Forgetown, was studied and discussed with committees from both parishes and with the appropriate Archdiocesan offices. Throughout this process, sufficient information regarding the proposal was gathered, and sufficient consultation was conducted ….

“Congratulations,” the accompanying note from the assistant Bishop said.

Congratulations. We’ve just turned your life upside down, but we’re allowed to do that because you pledged obedience, and we explained that this kind of thing would happen. Congratulations, we’ve just made you the hatchet man who gets to tell a parish full of psuedo-Polish retirees that you’re closing down their social club. Congratulations, Fr. Tom. Here’s the cross you longed to carry when you were an idealistic young boy in altar robes, gazing up at the impassioned face of your savior dangling above your head.

 

There was a knock at the door. Jean’s frosted blonde curls appeared.

“It’s arrived then, Father?” she said. “I saw the email but I didn’t peek.”

Fr. Tom Tyler smiled broadly, glad to see the parish receptionist. She had access to all his email but firm sense that she shouldn’t ever open the priest’s mail. A bit of a flaw in a secretary, and it had caused him some trouble at first, but he’d long since learned this was a battle he wasn’t going to win.

“This is isn’t going to make your life any easier,” he said, gesturing for her to come around and read the email over his shoulder — the one concession she would make to spying on his exalted correspondence.

“They’ve done it, then?” Jean scurried over. “They’re closing St. Stephens?”

Tom nodded.

“And merging her with us at St. Therese here.”

Jean sighed, then took a deep steadying breath.

“Oh!” she said. “They’re not changing the name! We’re just, what, swallowing up St Stephen’s without a trace?”

“Mmm.”

“Oh Father! I thought…”

“I know.”

The drone of a nearby lawnmower drifted in through the open window. A car honked at someone at the four-way stop Tom had insisted the town install at ‘his’ corner. It had not improved the fractious relations with the street’s non-Catholic residents with whom there there was a permanent cold war over parking.

“They are not going to like this.” Jean brought him back to the issue in hand, or rather, on screen.

“I know.”

Tom sighed deeply and looked at Jean. She looked right back at him. He saw a grandmotherly figure who had become, in his mind, younger and more vibrant during the five years he’d known her. Now that he knew her better, she seemed more maternal than grandmotherly.

Jean, for her part, saw a good man, younger than her own son, God rest him, and one with a world of trouble piling up on his plate. He looked a lot older than he had when he’d arrived, fresh-faced and full of ideas, five years ago. He hadn’t hit forty yet — young to be a pastor, but a  bit of a rising star, she gathered. Usually they kept the rising stars close — in the city — and moved them into the administration as quickly as possible. She knew he must have done something wrong to be assigned to this sleepy backwater. She’d wondered if  whatever it was might have been forgiven under the new Archbishop, but here he was, still in Forgetown. A blessing for them, of course, but she wondered how he really felt about it.

“So, when are you going to tell them?”

“Well, I expect Fr. Andruczyk will be telling the Parish Council today and then we’ll set up some kind of joint meeting for tomorrow night.”

“Have you heard where he’s going?”

“There was a rumor about the prison chaplaincy,”

Jean straightened up, rubbing her back.

“Big change for a man of his age.”

“Big changes all around, Jean.” Tom said. “And we are sworn to obedience.”

“Yes,” Jean said, with feeling.

“It’s going to be tricky for you, Jean. You’re my front line and your phone’s going to be red hot.”

“Oh don’t you worry about me.”

Tom looked at her and smiled.

“I don’t worry about you, Jean. But let’s get a statement together anyway, so we’re presenting a united front; sharing the same information, that kind of thing.”

It struck him that he had already started using the metaphors of battle and made a mental note to read some civil rights era speeches tonight. He needed to find a better class of cliché.

The lawnmower outside spluttered to a stop. There was a moment of silence, where the world seemed to hold its breath before, in ones and twos—and finally a chorus—the birds began to sing again.

That’s where we are, Fr. Tom thought. In the silence. I wonder how many voices will be in our chorus when all’s said and done.


Enjoying the story so far? Why not share the link with a friend? Use this message for a quick email, Facebook post, or update to your social-network-of-choice:

Subject: A Daily Escape For You
Hi! I thought of you today, because I know you love to read. I’ve been enjoying this series of short stories set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Forgetown and I thought you would too. They’re fun and short, and new ‘episodes’ come online three days a week. My favorite character so far is …

Hope you enjoy them too. The series starts here: http://julieduffy.com/forgetown-episode-01

Next week we settle into our regular Monday, Wednesday, Friday, schedule. Come back on those days to keep up with the inhabitants of Forgetown, or subscribe to receive new episodes by email.




Forgetown Episode 1.04 – How Stella Lost Her Groove

ForgeTown Cover“I’m going to kill you, you little creep!”

Yeah, that’s what I said. Top of my voice too. I know Kath’ll be all ‘pipe down, missy, what about the neighbors’, but I don’t care. The little snot was dangling a bird — a dead bird — right in front of my face. Who wouldn’t yell?

I don’t want anyone in this stupid town to like me, anyway. I don’t even want to be here. I was dragged —no choice — like a prisoner transfer, against my will. Really there should be a Geneva Convention for kids or something.

I know, I’m being a total cliche: pre-teen drama queen. I can’t help it.  I’m the one who’s had her whole life ripped out from under her. I was all set to start the coolest middle school on the face of the planet…ok, probably the coolest middle school on the planet. Granted I don’t know all of them. In fact do they even have middle schools in other places? I mean, like, do they have middle schools in England? I’m guessing probably. But what about China? Or Thailand? We did a whole unit on Thailand with Mrs Murphy last year but nobody ever thought to tell us whether or not they had middle schools. They made us learn all about the boring system of government and the food and drink but seriously, no adult thought that we’d be interested in where the kids in Thailand spend most of their waking lives?

Anyway, I was so over that school by half way through last year, but then I was supposed to be going Boston Latin and that’s like super cool and Olivia was coming, and both Emilys and, OK McKenzie Gravas was going to be there too, but none of her evil gang of friends made it, so we might have been able to turn her away from the dark side…

Now I’m here with stupid Robbie dangling dead birds in my face and laughing like a maniac and I’m going to some unnamed public school with who-knows who else. And oh yeah, here comes Kath, round the corner of this ugly new house, and she’s got ‘that’ face on. What do you want to bet I’m the one who gets in trouble for ‘making a scene’ while sweet little Robbie will get a pat on the head and a quick ‘tut tut’?

It’s all right for her. She’s an adult. They make friends no problem. Meet in the market? Oo, we’re new here, we should be friends! Leaving church? Oh hi there, you must come to the parish picnic, let’s be friends. And this, this summer was going to be great. We were finally old enough to be allowed to take the T all the way to the Common. We were going to do picnics and hang out at the pond and pretend we were movie stars. And now I’m going to be in my room, a recluse, with no-one to do anything with. I”ll have to spend the whole summer on Instagram with Olivia and the Emilies. I’ll probably get so pale I’ll get sick from Vitamin D deficiency and have to miss the start of school because I’m in hospital undergoing some special light therapy and then I’ll be The New Kid for the next three years, even though I only came two weeks late. Oh God.

“What are you two doing?” That’s Kath. She hates it when I call her that, but what am I supposed to do? She’s always been “Mommy” and I can’t call her that now. Changing what I call her is weird anyway, so why not just use her name?

“Is that a dead bird? Oh God, Robbie, get rid of it and go inside and…I don’t even know if we have running water yet so you can wash your hands. Oh Robert Julio Morris, how could you do this?! Stel, you OK? Young man, come with me. We’re going to the car. I’ve got some Purell. Don’t make this day any harder than it has to be!”

She hugged me! Robbie’s giving me that ‘help me’ look over his shoulder but there’s nothing I can do when she’s in a mood like this. Ride it out, little brother, and I’ll see you on the other side. Poor kid.

And that’s my mother for you. Completely unpredictable. How is a girl supposed to know what to do with a mother like that?


 



Forgetown Episode 1.03 – Kath And Evan-Devon-Maybe-Ethan

“Robbie? Stella?” Kath’s voice hissed across the still morning air.

“Kids!” Don bellowed and was rewarded with as swift punch to the upper arm from his loving wife.

“What?”

“Shh! Do you want us to be ‘those neighbors who yell at their kids’?”

“Do we care?”

Kath stopped, one foot on the first step of their new house and stared at Don. So perceptive in so many ways and completely thick in so many others. No shame, that man, that was his problem. Still she had enough shame for the whole family.

“Mrs Morris?” The youngest and most distractingly good looking of the movers met them on the top step, hand outstretched.

“Hi, so nice to meet you,” Kath smiled her friendliest style, the one that said ‘I’m totally not looking down on you because you do manual labor for a living, in fact I respect it and I’m desperately uncomfortable because I’m sort of your employer for today and I’m not the kind of person who has servants…’. Stop it. Don’t lose the plot, Kath. Back to the gorgeous man-boy-for-hire. “Actually it’s Ms Rodriguez.”

The man-boy’s eyebrows twitched upwards and he glanced briefly at Don who, as usual, was enjoying the moment.

“I, uh,” the adonis began. Now he was checking his clipboard. “Sorry, I just, uh…”

“It’s OK, Bud,” Don swept in, reaching into his pocket for the shiny new front door key. “You have the right place. She took me, but not the name. She’s old-fashioned that way.”

It was true. While it had been all the rage to keep your own name back when Kath and Don had married, Kath had been faintly annoyed to notice that it had remained, on the whole, a fringe trend. Younger women shed their names as quickly as they had previously shed their inhibitions, adopting their “Mrs” and a pre-packaged set of conservative social values as soon as they marched back up the aisle. It was very strange. It hadn’t been so bad in the professional world of Boston’s advertising industry but she had started to notice a lot of her friends leading a double life after kids came long: Ms Individual at work, Mrs FamilyName at the Home and School Association. She should probably do the same but she couldn’t. No matter how much confusion it caused she couldn’t stop the “Rodriguez”slipping out.

Don had the door open now and was asking the chief moving guy his name. Kath missed it — it was something like Evan or Devon or possibly Ethan — and was kicking herself for being so damned awkward around new people. She had sworn it wasn’t going to happen here. She was facing a whole life of new people and she was just going to have to figure out how to do the small-talk thing without sticking her foot in her mouth or dissolving in to a puddle of perspiration every single time.

“Tell you what, let’s keep it simple,” her husband was saying. “I’m Don and this is Kath. The holy terrors are Robbie and Stella and you just feel free to give them a kick up the rear if they get under your feet.” And then everyone was laughing like old friends. It wasn’t fair. Smart and charming. She cast and appreciative eye over her husband. He had grown out of that awkward male-in-his-thirties thing and was looking — though she daren’t say it to his face — quite distinguished now. Rugged. Streaks of grey. Smile lines setting in around the corners of his eyes. Yeah, she’d picked a good one. And he made beautiful children too…

The thought had barely started to form when it was cut short by a piercing scream from somewhere down the side of the building. She and Don reached the corner of the building at a run together. Evan-Devon-Maybe-Ethan, to his credit, was only a pace or two behind.




Forgetown Episode 1.02 – On Phoenix Street

ForgeTown Cover“Kids? Kids! Wait!”

Kath Rodriguez struggled to shift the bags around her feet and untangle herself from her knitting so that she could get out of the car and make her entrance on to her new street with some dignity. It hadn’t been a long drive from the hotel but knitting calmed her nerves: the more complicated the pattern, the more she forgot about outside stress. She had selected her most complex work-in-progress for the 20 minute ride. Some people medicate, she would joke when people commented on her habit. Or pray, said her grandmother’s reproachful voice in the back of her head. Kath rattled off a quick mental “Perpetual rest…” and aimed it upwards (Happy, Gran?) and, at last, stepped out of the car.

“Kids!” she hissed, seeing no sign of her wayward children. She was not about to start yelling for them. Who knew what time of day it was acceptable around here to start yelling at your family? Back in Waterville there had been a 24hr dispensation, but she had had friends from neighborhoods where no-one would ever have dreamed of sticking their head out the screen door and simply hollering. She didn’t know yet which kind of neighborhood this was and if she was going to have to play stay-at-home mom here, she didn’t want to be causing all the blinds to twitch on the first day. And yes, I’ve already spotted you, Nosy Nora, Kath thought, deliberately not looking up at the top floor of the split-level across the street.

“Witnesses!” Don stepped out from behind the steering wheel and stretched, winking towards the neighboring house. He waved cheerily at the old woman peering out through her blinds. “We’d better take her some of your mom’s famous shortbread later to butter her up.”

“Don!” They’d only been here five seconds and already he was making her blush. Don turned his Irish charm up and gave her his best cheeky grin.

“Let’s give her a show,” he said. He danced around the car, slipped his arms around her and planted a long, lingering kiss on her lips. She managed to endure it somehow, but swatted him away when his hands started to creep down over her shorts.

“Welcome to Phoenix Street, Mrs Morris,” he whispered. “And thank you.”

“That’s Ms. Rodriguez, to you,” she said, pushing him away, smiling. “We should probably rescue the movers from the curiosity of your offspring.”

“Oh, they’re mine now, are they? And here I thought they were yours.”

“Only when they’re good,” they chorused together and laughed.

 

From the window across the street Mary Szabowski watched her new neighbors pull each other hand-in-hand up the driveway to their new home. Were we ever like that, John and I, she wondered. It was all so long ago. But yes, they’d had their moments.

The old woman closed her blinds with a snap — they kept the morning sun off her TV set — and shuffled herself towards John’s recliner. If he could see her now. And, with a  sigh for the mixed blessing of the massive heart attack that had carried him off before either of them had started to fall apart, she sank down and flipped on GMA where stick-thin blondes with arms that spoke of hours doing battle with gym machinery, gave her advice on how to live a better, happier,  more fretful life.

The indignities of age, she reflected, were quite possibly as nothing compared to the indignities of being young in this post-feminist world of Botox and Brazilians. Mary patted her walking frame before giving herself over to the comforts of Colin Firth on the couch with Savannah.