SOME COLD WAR BLUES: A Short Story, Episode One

The cold hardwood floor punished the boy’s bony knees as he knelt beside the bed and said his morning prayers. He fingered the beads of the rosary tucked under his pillow. His Saint Christopher’s medal lay cold, heavy and hard against his thin chest. There had been a time when he had worn a scapular instead of the Saint Christopher’s medal, but the square patch of sacred woolen cloth had itched too much when dry and then got too soggy with sweat and bathwater. It made him feel guilty that he could do so little when the saints, the men in the hair shirts, and the martyrs, stoned and crucified and boiled in oil and roasted over spits like barbecued chickens, had done so much. He liked to imagine the tiny bedroom as his cell, a fantasy useful for at least two of his many invented lives, monk and prisoner. Clad in long underwear, a wraith-like figure, a grayish white against the whiter sheets, he slowly bowed his upper body forward until his nose touched the bed, and he remained that way for a time, bent into a rigid pose of veneration and self-denial.

“Domine non sum dignus,” he prayed silently. “Lord, I am not worthy, but I ask you again to give Your Grace to Mom so she will start going to church again. And please grant me the courage to finally baptize Ralph…” But then what good would it do for her to go to church if she did not divorce his stepfather Ralph? He knew from his catechism classes at St. Peter’s that, as a remarried divorced woman, she lived daily in mortal sin. She could not make a full and really contrite confession until she renounced Ralph altogether. Only then could she take Holy Communion without committing yet another and perhaps even more grievous offense, the taking of the Body of Christ while her soul was in a state of mortal sin. And Ralph was the very devil come to this world, his body tall and powerful, his heart and soul as black and stony and desiccated as cinders. So why could she not see that her soul’s salvation would also bring earthly happiness to her and to him, her 11-year-old son, who was called “Jack” by his friends but still “Johnnie” by the grownups? He worried every day that she would die in a car wreck without having made true repentance for her many sins or having the benefit of the holy sacrament of Extreme Unction and thus be cast into hell, wholly beyond her son’s power to ease with his prayers her everlasting torment.

His upper body erect now, still kneeling, he reached forward, picked up his Holy Missal and turned to the plenary indulgence prayer. Squinting in concentration, he read the prayer and released yet another anonymous soul from the searing hell-pains of Purgatory. His final prayer was for the spiritual and secular leaders of the world, especially Pope Pius and President Eisenhower.

It was Saturday, and maybe it was going to be a good day. It was early. Through the still drawn window shade he could see that it was only beginning to be light outside, the time of day that monks and prisoners arose. It should be a long time before his mother or Ralph got up, unless Ralph had to go work overtime that day. He would have to be carefully on his guard, especially for the next hour or so, to avoid being caught in Ralph’s way.

He slipped out of his room and scooted quickly past their open bedroom door and down the short and narrow hallway, through the living room, and into the kitchen. That was all there was to the house except a bathroom, a basement and an enclosed back porch. There was no dining room, no extra bathroom, no spare bedroom. They lived only in rented houses just large enough to contain them.

He counted himself very lucky that he had managed to fall asleep before they had arrived home the night before. Too often he had been awake, against his will, trapped in an insomnia of incomprehensible anticipation and insane fascination, much the same feeling he experienced when he went to horror movies at the drive-in. Ralph would open a beer and sit in the Lazy-Boy, their prize possession along with the exquisite china closet inherited from a long dead aunt, a china closet with no china in it, an incongruity that exposed the drabness, the utter plainness of the rest of the furniture, an odd lot of hand-me-downs and special-sale items hawked by the braying announcers on the television.

If Ralph could manage to guzzle his final beer of the night, strip off his work clothes, the only clothes he ever wore, and roll onto the bed and drop asleep with a terminal thud before she started in on him, they would all be spared the otherwise inevitable shouting and howling and banging session. Ralph’s resentment was boundless, a never-slaked thirst. His reserves of hostility seemed immeasurable. Yet these deathly combats always seemed to be brought on by her. She, who was always so neglected, dumped on and contemptuously disregarded would now, drunk and viper-tongued, turn on Ralph and sting him until he punched her. Since they often dragged him to the bars with them where he played the pinball machine until the smoke burning his eyes drove him from the place and into the back seat of the car and merciful sleep, he knew exactly how it would have gone. During the evening she would have built Ralph’s rage step by step as she shouted, argued and exchanged savage insults with their tavern cronies, all the time pulling and prodding at Ralph as she desperately tried to win his allegiance or at least his interest. He would either sneer at her or move to the bar to talk to another woman. Of course she sensed his disgust, whether he just sat there smirking or turned his oily charm on the other woman, or, more rarely, paid her the attention of a vulgar retort. She never despaired of him. Her anger shielded her from hopelessness. Later, at home, she would bitch, nag, whine and scream him into a fury, and he would at last pay her the special attention of a beating, thus proving to her that she could still reach him on some level at least. And Jack would cower in his room, wanting to kill Ralph but knowing his child’s anger would be easily swatted aside by Ralph’s massive flailing arm, leaving him nothing but impotent shame and deepening Ralph’s already unconquerable hatred of him. He had tried once to intervene but came to understand from that experience that he had only exacerbated the situation, that he had been mere mulch to feed Ralph’s rage and her self-pity.

“Look at you,” she would scream at Ralph. “Real tough sonuvabitch you are. Beatin’ on a kid and a woman.”

“Aw, shit,” was all Ralph could reply as Jack cowered there weeping and she alternately sobbed and scolded Ralph.

Then she might turn on the weeping, raging boy himself and tell him to get to bed, dismissing this poor player who had lingered too long after his part was played out. He would crawl into bed then and hear only silence. Only much later in his life would he comprehend the silences that followed those vicious ballets, silences in which the spent players groped and fondled each other in less than holy rites of false forgiveness and reconciliation.

After that, after a few times of that, Jack stayed in his room, wishing he could somehow just pass through the walls of the house and be elsewhere forever. He had almost given up trying to rescue her from this fearsome life she had created. “I love him,” she would blubber as Jack argued his case to her that she could divorce Ralph just as she had long ago, before he had a memory, divorced his own father. And he had begun then to understand, almost unconsciously, that he must learn to protect himself from both of them. He wanted to run away, but he was afraid he would falter and fail a day or two out on the road and have to slink back, head bowed and eyes downcast, to an even more shaming life.

In the kitchen there remained only the strewn detritus of the later evening—five empty beer bottles, two full and reeking ashtrays, the popcorn pan on the front burner of the stove, the popcorn bowl empty save for a few old maids, a ring of salt on the side of the bowl and a cool puddle of congealed grease on the bottom. The kitchen smelled of fish sticks, popcorn, cigarette butts and flat beer.

He pulled down on the window shade, worried that he would lose his grip and the shade leap up with a loud flap. But the ascent was altogether smooth. His breath skipped, his eyes bulged. Snow. Snow everywhere. The first big snowfall of the winter covered everything. He wondered if the other boys would be out yet. He opened the front door onto the small open front porch. The snow had drifted a foot or two onto the porch and filled the old wooden swing. No one was out yet. Smoke trickled from a few chimneys. They were probably watching cartoons. He wished they lived in the country again where he could go tramping in the snowy woods with his dog Duke, walk along for miles on the ice of the creeks, as alone and serene as Daniel Boone himself in uninhabited territory. He had lived the imagined life of a woodsman back then, just he and Duke in a cabin in the forest, going to town once a month for supplies, hunting and trapping most of their food. But Ralph would not let him have even a BB gun, and Duke chased one car too many. Jack watched the old couple that had killed Duke proceed on slowly and blithely down the road as if they had not just crushed the entrails out of the only worthwhile thing in Jack’s life. Ralph dug a meager hole and pitched Duke in. Duke hit the bottom with a muffled thud, and Jack could only stand and weep and watch Ralph throw dirt on the dear dead dog. He wished that dogs could go to heaven too and wondered for the first time whether God really was All-Just as the catechism said He was.

By Max McBride
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