A MAN CALLED FATHER
   

A Saturday afternoon in May, 1958, inside the second floor apartment of an old three storied brownstone flat, edgily close to the Milwaukee Road tracks in Madison, Wisconsin, and a baseball’s throw across North Mill’s Street from a coal yard, foreground to the University Heating Plant with four blow stacks protruding from atop that roar continuously day and night while spewing countless particles of black soot to every corner encompassing that peculiar fragment of a neighborhood and beyond.

Boys? You clean up your room yet?

An eight year old boy in tan shorts with large pockets buttoned on each side and a cross-striped tee-shirt tucked neatly into hiking shorts stood up from where he’d been lying on the floor, poring at random over pages in a volume of The World Book Encyclopedia.

Mom…can we do it later?

It’s later right now.

Bernard has to help, right?

Do you need to wait for your older brother? Go on Mark, get started.

Mom, so when is he coming again?

Who­oh, you mean your father?

Yeah, my father, Dad.

He said as soon as he could, remember?

I always thought he was dead. I thought he died in World War Two.

Who told you that?

You did. Or maybe…Nana or Grandpa.

I don’t know that we told you much at all.

No, that’s not true, you said he was…dead. How come?

Well, it’s a long story Mark. I really don’t recall telling you that he was deceased…But overall, it’s a difficult thing to explain. I’m afraid I don’t understand all of it myself.

A single parent working all day, every day, devoted Catholic, clinical nursing instructor; she stood there exhausted, folding clothes inside a summery light, glowing southerly through clean, cheap drapes veiling aged windows. Silhouettes of passing car shadows hummed nearly silent along streets below. A woman of thirty four, she looked older by ten.

I asked him about the war. I asked him if he ever killed a man...

Oh you did? That’s a serious… I bet he was surprised.

Maybe not. He got kinda quiet. He said it wasn’t something you want to talk about much. He wasn’t mad or anything.

Well I’m glad he answered you, directly.

Yeah, me too. I really want to do lots of things with him. He sure knows how to talk. Not like just a regular person.

That’s for sure. Well, you see, that’s all part of his training.

What training?

Well, he’s studied to be lawyer.

He’s a lawyer?

You might ask him about that, yourself, someday… Anyway, it’s a profession that requires an unusual skill with words.

Okay. Makes sense, I guess.

Walking into the bedroom shared with Bernard, he began to group a few belongings into neat piles, clearing a spot of floor space between two beds, one an old army cot. Then into the kitchen, grabbing a broom from the closet he swept dust clumps and shoe grit off the antiquated wood floor in this dim close space. One window faced north to the next house, Mr. Day’s.

He ruminated over that first awkward meeting with this brawny stranger, who knocked on their door that day wearing a starched white shirt with long sleeves rolled up, skin burnished tan, dark moustache, eyes gleaming untamed. This guy sure looked and sounded curiously unlike other adult male relatives. For that matter, unlike any adult male he’d met or seen.

Outside nearby, an oncoming Milwaukee Road train blew off the afternoon’s lull, issuing sharp blasts from its horn. Following came familiar sounds…ding­ding­ding­ding­the crossing bell loudly alerting any car or approaching pedestrian on North Mills Street.

A sudden flurry erupted in the boys’ room and Mark loped out of the bedroom to where his mother sat in a second-hand, stiff-backed chair. She’d finished the wash and sat now, fatigued yet composed, focusing on a thick pile of student’s paper’s on one bookcase shelf, her eyes narrowing in on the topmost essay.

Mom, I’m going out to watch the train okay?

You’re done in the other room?

Yup.

Another boy, older, came running up the long flight of stairs to their second floor flat, entering the front room. Physical size differences were not yet obvious between brothers. Frustration framed his face.

Mother, Mark was being immodest this morning.

In what way?---She turned her attention from term papers to her older son, who mirrored his mother’s demeanor; stern, disciplined. The younger boy protested, but she held up her hand, signal for silence.

He was running around the house in just his underpants, and before that he was bare-naked for awhile. The older boys voice sounded indignant, mortified.

Mom, I was washing up in the bathroom. And I walked to the bedroom.

It’s no big hairy deal, we’re not at St. James now, Bernard.

Mark, you wear your pajamas from now on.

Mom, they don’t fit anymore!

He’s always being immodest, Mother.

Alright, listen to me, son. I don’t want you running naked around here.

Mom, I wasn’t doing anything impure!

You heard me!

Bernard’s such a tattletale. You don’t care about that? I think it stinks to­never mind, I’m gonna go see the train. Bye.

Mark bounded down two flights of stairs, and fled out the screen door, racing up a sidewalk grade leading to beaten tracks of steel embedded there. Doubled-up diesel’s and thirty cars or so had already pulled their brakes up, screeching out a cacophony of ungodly noise. But a thundering inertia them onward swaying, rattling­clack-it--clack-it­clack-it.

Such rhythm set a syncopated entrance to the switching yard. He stood facing the hurtling cars at a few feet’s distance, mesmerized by sheer tonnage of energy. Feeling the earth tremble underfoot, clusters of heated air buffeted about as, eyes closed, both his arms opened wide to a heady sensation of raw power radiating from the machines momentum.

Another set of tracks deployed trains further up- Mill’s street, where exit loops and split-tracks were run by signal lights to coordinate changes. Four blocks due east, all these steel ribbons converged into Madison’s western switching yard.

Mark peered expectantly, watching a small rear door on the train’s dingy orange caboose. The door opened, and an older engineer strode out and stood, doffed a striped cap, waving at him in a familiar fashion.

No hesitation, Mark jumped right on the tracks and began a short---gaited sprint over blackened ties at a furious speed. Head angled downwards, he couldn’t see the older man. Watching the kid in hot pursuit of the caboose, the engineer leant backward at the boot rail like a coxswain as he watched, chewed and spat from a chaw of Skoln, laughing out loud, shoulders shaking mirthfully.

Tenacity burned in the kid’s chest. He took delight in a glowing heat coming on. Small legs, arms pumped, furious to catch the Diesel’s caboose before it lumbered forward to a dilapidated and cavernous off-limits area, the Central Roundhouse off West Washington Avenue opposite the Train Station. This freight was gonna get caught. This boy was gonna catch it, just like any self-respecting Paladin or Cisco Kid would catch it good. The boy loved these trains and tracks for adventure, sport, and ground to explore as a true son of the pioneers.

Shortly ahead on the next track up, another freight train rolled backwards and forwards hooking up cars and further yet, immense diesel engines stood, winding up to bellow and spew at higher decibel levels and faster revolutions of these rough, petrol snorting dynamos. That boy was running, hot to catch his train.

Like a herd of strangely habituated behemoth hunting under cover of nightfall, the trying process of hooking up car after car would continue past midnight. Every loaded rail car hitched up other loads of coal and grain, as oil and flatbed cars buckled to their hefty cargo of heavy earth-moving machinery, new cars, assorted freight; all becoming one long train.

Lying awake in bed at night, the boy often listened to trains moving back and moving forth, coming closer, backing away. They rumbled through shadowy holes until some diesel’s winding engines sounded notes eerily akin to something alive becoming one within his inner ear, then bore him off into another churning darkness, one of chaotic imagery, where he finally dreamt, asleep at last. Right now he was pushing, reaching, breathing fast and hard.

Daily child’s play, for Mark, was laying in wait for the long steely American caravans, freight cars too numerous to describe. Colored in every shade of earth, hulking metallic crates in every state of dilapidation. The grain cars often topped to overload, so when finally they came to a standstill, loud rivulets of rain and soy often streamed like a heavy summer rain rushing to earth. Once, he’d squatted under a standing grain car, palms out, feeling uncut oats rain sensuously down. America’s prosperity poured a gentle detour, whooshing through hands just sprouting their first season of calluses. But now, here he comes, hustling all out, gonna catch his train.

Some cars were routed east toward a sprawling metropolis the boy associated with Brave’s baseball, beer ad’s and now, his very own father’s town. He’d promised to bring all three kids there, for visits. Milwaukee in 1958, was the one truly cosmopolitan city in Wisconsin, heavily flavored by European influences, roots, colors. There, whole neighborhoods were enshrouded daily in yeasty brewery clouds of hops, and barley malt on the western shores of that mythic, omnivorous freshwater sea, Lake Michigan.

The kid loved straddling rails, sighting east or west, imagining the destinies of so many far-flung trains, so endless were their trails of cargo and passengers. Some highly rare adventures in glorious freedoms lay await beyond, in rugged termini far from these smoking railway yards. He would go there, someday. Today, gonna catch this train.

Well, by now, Mark’s running closer, bee-lining up to his buddy on the platform, lunged, grabbed a vertical pole, pulled himself up onto a caboose step, panting with pleasure.

Haa Caught ya, Jack!

Hey…you’re faster than my silver bullets.

Yeah, halfta be ‘round here. Jus’ gotta---He gasped, still short of air.

Oh yes. Need be awful careful around these trains an’ all, but you are- --aren’t ya?---Jack spat sideways.

Careful, coming from an old brakeman to a young boy, was a compliment.

Yeah, really. But I mean some people are real mean who live around these blocks---His short arms made a wide motion, implicating the entire neighborhood.

I mean I halfta run a lot from older kids, mean ones; a lot, Jack.

Ahh…that’s too bad, son.­Jack looked down at the boys shoestrings flopping to either side of each sneaker. Better watch yourself, Bub. Well,

you don’t ever wanna trip then, eh. Know how to tie ‘em up so’s they stay?

The kid smiled wryly, shook his head­not really. The older man squatted down, looking at the boy.

You mind if I…

Nope. Please. Yeah, they make fun. I can do a bow, but they come loose every time.

Sure, it’s not hard. Here we go Bub.

Jack pinched the strings and slowly strung the loop in a double hitch.

See that?

Do it again, okay. Please?

The old engineer nodded and retraced his steps while steeled wheel train casters clacked onward and the young boy squatted blissfully down on one knee alongside the older man together, upon the rearmost platform of this working freight train, and so served up a sight not many would know to explain to another. No person of any stripe or station however, was anywhere in sight.

Remember, you gotta pull’em tight there. Now you do it.

Mark pinched his shoestrings, made a double loop and hitched the knot.

Hey that’s good, buster!

Thanks, Jack.

Hey sure. Next time we’ll do a double half-hitch; easy.

The man reached into his back belt, pulling out a plastic Colt 45. automatic. A toy replica.

Here’s for you, bub.

Man alive, it’s really keen! He promptly began to aim and take fire at invisible adversaries, clearly delighted.

Around them, the scenery of industrial buildings interfaced with older residential neighborhoods beyond, began to change. They were approaching the busy switching yard. Here, diesel engines resounded from inside the roundhouse cave, a dreadnought’s bleating. Strong odorous exhaust drifted everywhere. The kid’s Mill Street neighborhood had receded swiftly behind the orange caboose, but he sensed no danger, and felt he would happily continue riding eastward, right on out of town. Jack pulled two quarters from his pocket, handing them to Mark.

Wow, Jack…The older man smiled easily at the kid’s exclamations.

Get yourself an ice cream.

You bet Mister Jack! Now I won’t hafta spend two hours finding enough Coke bottles to turn in for change.

Okay, just take care of yourself. Looks like you’ll have those laces tied up next time I see you. Better jump clear, ‘fore you get too far from that Mills Street o’ yours.

Thanks a lot Jack. The boy smiled broadly at him.

Hey watch how fast I am! And he jumped. Hitting the ground he tripped and fell to his knees in gravel, momentarily. Catching himself, he began sprinting to catch up, but the caboose pulled away. Jack waved energetically before stepping back into the car’s rear door.

The following morning, he woke and roused himself from bed, head between both hands, and sat there, reeling from deep sleep. He looked up at long cracked lines in the wall.

Too many nightmares.­he spoke to none but aged white plaster.

He’d also gone walking in his sleep, coming to semi-consciousness while walking, arms outstretched, in the darkened living room. Bewildered and frightened, he went to Marie’s room, and began to slide under the coverlet beside her. She awoke, screaming at him like he were a thief, prowling for jewels in the night.

"Get out! Get out of here! Mom make Mark get out of my room!

Katherine Van Heuval was fast asleep, however. Confused at finding himself in Marie’s room, and hurt by her screams of banishment, he tottered foggily back to his room, crashing into a lamp in the dark. Furtively, the boy castoff urine--soaked jockeys in the hamper before slipping into bathroom to begin a near daily ritual of squatting in the porcelain tub to thoroughly lather all over, front and back. Always frantic to wash away that familiar slick patina of ureic acid.

Afterwards, he dipped two digits into a small, wall-mounted white Madonna finger cup of holy water, performing "a sign of the cross." After which, the kid walked into their flat’s chilly kitchen, pulling open the refrigerator to grab milk for Cream of Wheat, already waiting in a hot mush on the stove.

Pouring milk on cereal, he listened to Bernard and Marie already murmuring and giggling over breakfast bowls. He sat and listened distractedly to songs broadcast from the radio. Advertisements or crooners. Elvis to Peggy Lee spoke or strummed in turn, through a Motorola radio set back on the counter. hHh

Where’s Mom you guy’s?

She already ascended into heaven, said Marie, razzing, her tone of voice clearly dismissive. Not a word was said about the sleep walking venture.

--Why, you wet your bed again last night? Marie, again. Bernard picked up on the jibe.

Mark, you’re making more work for Mom again. What’s your problem junior, still need diapers, eh?

Even a stranger could tell this was a favorite of his siblings.

Aww you guys…will you just, shut-up?

. With Mrs. Van Heuval gone frequently, unmediated disputes weren’t uncommon. During any ensuing combat, furniture designs by St. Vincent de Paul, clearly demonstrated a cost effectiveness.

Watchit Ben, I didn’t say anything to you guys. You started.

Ohh poor baby Markey…Marie sarcastically cooed, dripping.

Swimming in your swimming pool of pee…

She mimicked the Australian crawl, arm over arm. The kid looked at his sister, shook his head. She masked herself as the archenemy of each unnumbered and fabled inappropriate behavior created by the Holy Trinity. Yet could turn on him as any famished weasel after rabbit’s tail, like she were some embittered street wastrel. Give her a while, she might forget she was feeling ornery.

Vulnerable, the boy was nonetheless learning to respond. Leaning forward toward his sister, the better to level a load of spleen, he launched a few words of lowest common denomination.

When are you gonna shut your big mouths, hey, dink-brain, turd- lips; especially you, miss fatso.

Marky is our swimming baabee. Repeating herself­Marie’s jab pealed out in usual fine form. She was fond of insults that held a weight of embarrassment over her brother’s head. Nothing else stabbed like a hot poker to the boy’s pride than reference to his ongoing struggle with enuresis.

Fatso, fatso, two by four, butt so big it breaks your door, so you do it on the floor, lick it up and do some more.---He snapped.

One flight below, an outside door opened and shut in the lower stairwell of the rear hallway, beneath the kitchen. Shoe heels stepped and clicked on creaky stairs in the rear stairwell. Heavily loaded grocery bags crunched loudly as if they were about to drop. Footsteps climbing the backstairs sounded their mother’s signature echo.

Don’t tell me you kids are still at the table. Bernard and Marie,

you have one more week and the school year is over. Now finish getting ready and go on, get going, right now! Mark, you’re free today, because of our parent-teachers conference. But! I want you to be on your best behavior, at all times. Do you hear me?

Yup. I’m gonna go see Tommy Wenger. I’ll be around, Mom.

You’re still responsible for what you do…in your free time.

Yeah, okay Mom.---Mark responded again.

I’m going to be grading term papers most of the afternoon. And I don’t want to be disturbed by anyone unless its really necessary. Not until suppertime.

Only rarely did Katherine Van Heuval return home before 5:00p.m. Usually she worked in her office on campus until 4:30, sometimes later. Frequently she walked home, saving a bit on parking. Often, Marie too wasn’t seen until later afternoon, when she appeared by the television, or preoccupied herself with home crafts. On occasion she would organize games calling for numerous players, and complex rules over which she superintended. The boy enjoyed playing alongside others, yet often felt lost in groups, and would quietly slip away.

So the kid traipsed off to explore uncharted sections of neighborhood territory with Tommy Wenger and Jesse Davenport---whose father was notorious for enforcing parental love and discipline on thin as-a-rail-Jesse by resort to a hefty razor strap. Today, all were engrossed in a uniquely magic reenactment of the well-storied exploits of an earlier pioneering countryman of theirs. Tommy was Davie Crockett. Jesse was Daniel Boone and Mark became Jim Bridger, only because he alone among them had read and re-read Bridger’s story, and was knowledgeable as to his legendary career.

Mark saw a brown rabbit hop out of a patch of green scrub behind the Wenger’s house, tearing frantically toward the telephone company’s locked equipment yard. Yelling at fellow companions he swiftly gave chase, ready to fire his flintlock pistol at a moments notice.

This enclosure comprised a half-acre and was secured by a high cyclone fence, grounded at each corner. Strung tautly atop from post-to-post, ran triple strands of barbed-wire. A typical telephone company equipment lock-up.

Bre’r rabbit scrambled under the rough cut fence bottom and disappeared behind the cover of huge cable spools and gangly brush. Only one option appeared sensible to the boy. After all, he was a pioneer and his family was bound to be famished. Mark stood up, looking over his shoulder at Tommy and Jesse. They weren’t enthused by the prospect.
Come on guys, we can do it, we can catch him. We gotta climb!

Hey Mark, lookit the barbed-wire on top.­Tommy was always cautious.

I see it. So what?­He looked up at nine-feet of fence topped by three strands of barbed wire.

Don’t you think those wires will get in the way?---Tommy persisted.

Well, maybe, yeah. I’ll give it a try. Somebody’s gotta try, ‘cause going over the top is the only way we’re goin’ to catch wild game. That’s how Jim Bridger would do it.

Already his tennie’s probed to mesh into one or another open link that intersected like knotted lines in a fishing net. The boy’s toes searched, just barely finding enough wire ledge to exact a toehold. The problem was sneaker toes. Worn smooth and round, they didn’t fit the triangular openings that interlaced a pattern raveling throughout the heavy-duty wire like yarn in an open crochet.

Mark pushed off, climbing deftly by fingers and fencing, until reaching a perch above. Here no choice presented but to reach precariously out, crossing over the furthest strand of barbed wire. So he extended an arm, not knowing what else to do, other than go back. Although, no real mountain-man like Jim Bridger would back out up there, or anyplace else.

As suddenly as any world tilts on end, Mark’s feet slipped out, leaving his weight to dangle, both hands across three strands of taut barbed wire, fingers glommed onto the furthest strand. A few seconds passed. Tommy and Jesse seemed hundreds of feet below, calling out. Mark couldn’t really hear them. Quietly, he reached a breaking point.

Hell. Awwww…

Hand grips gave way…a ripping sound could be heard, going down.

Landing on sneaker heels, he fell backwards on firm ground. A right wrist, throbbing. Getting up, glanced at the arm, startled to see long squirts of blood pumping out, leaving a spray trail of wet crimson reddening long strands of wild grass at his feet. Another, then another squirt. There: a barb gash, right wrist.

Oh, hell.

The boy watched, nearly fixated as blood welled out over his arm, squirting curiously. Taking a breath, the kid noticed his friends were backing slowly away…

Uh oh. Hey, hey Mark, I dunno but your wrist looks awful icky. Whatareyagonnado? It looks real bad, Mark. Whatareyagonnado? Jesse turned skittish, he could plainly hear. Tommy stood holding his stomach, eyeball’s buggin’ out, looking queasy as frightened.

It’s okay Jesse, I’ll make a big Band-Aid for that blood squirting­Mark looked reassuringly at him.

None of them had seen so copious a blood-letting since the great snake massacre. Behind the Van Heuval flat were remains of a foundation left over from nineteenth century carriage house days. A stone wall, thirty foot long at a yard’s height plus, these remains ran the length of a lot where the neighboring Swabojda and Mazzara families grew a shared vegetable garden.

Among symbols of an orthodox Roman Catholicism, snakes were a convenient embodiment of venomous evil. Always on the prowl, they slither toward an Eve who, while rapturous in Eden’s paradise, is yet naïve to the seductions of iniquity. Now, for each of the Van Heuval children, every school day began with Holy Mass, attendance being a strict obligation at St. James Parochial School.

All younger students were to sit close to the alter of the Church, situated beneath a prominent leaded glass window. A Reformation-like pictorial of the Blessed Virgin, Holy Mary Mother of God stood, in triumphant piety, her immaculate feet tread down upon a malevolent looking snake, permanently mouthing a big apple between scaly emerald jaws. Any seven year old fool could read the symbolic badness that underlay this well wrought depiction of…Satanic handiwork. Mark was no exception.

One afternoon, hearing Marie and a friend’s frantic screams, Mark and Bernard ran to join whatever trouble had set such a ruckus. Behind their flat, grouped around a remnant sandstone retaining wall, the boys discovered snakes in unusual numbers, teeming lazily outside a layered den of warm flat rocks. They looked to the boy like small-scale, soundless dragons sunning themselves, gathering strength.

Plenteous amounts of dragon meat alone elicited their hunter’s instinct. Both boys crouched low on the gravel drive, and breathless, began to stalk, before realizing they lacked proper hunting arms. Quietly, stealing backward, running down into the basement, they returned with baseball bats, plus sturdy branches they’d limbed into staves. Satan was known to be one slick operator.

Which snakes bite, and which one’s don’t?­Mark asked Bernard who, if not knowledgeable usually fabricated a useable explanation.

I don’t know, just better watch yer butt. Go for the head and

hit’em. Bash’em till they don’t move an inch.

A great many large---what appeared to be vipers, slithered in and around, sliding over the stonewall, as if during summers dog days, undue heat had drugged and left them, sluggish. No doubt the boys were responsible to cleanse the yard of vipers, whose ancestors were behind Eden’s loss. Being Satanic, they possessed a host of polymorphous disguises. Satan set it up, letting Adam and Eve take the rap, for original sin. Besides, these slimy creatures would continue to scare their sisters and their friend’s sisters, shitless.

Within minutes, two other boys had conspired with Mark and Bernard. Now all hopped about screaming like vengeful Crusaders, whacking every snake within reach of their clubs. Wielding their weapons in mimicry of earlier battles of good against evil, a curiously manic ferocity emerged that seemed suspiciously like an abrupt episode of some situational but transient childhood disorder. Adjoining the fractured rock retaining wall was a decrepit terrace, now transformed into a slaughter-ground of eviscerated snakes, fifty one dead serpents in all, once counted. Not a pleasant sight.

Snake’s lay splattered limp over flowers planted in hopes of improving morale in a shabby landscape. Their bludgeoning had been motivated by catechism, and fear, applied in a righteous manner. The Mother of Jesus would see their religious motives and applaud them for taking corrective cleansing actions, trampling out the vipers. Mark was absolutely certain, for at least a few days.

Alright, chicken-shits. One of you better gimme your tee shirt. And not you, Tommy---nothin’ personal.

So it was. Tommy had, for reasons unclear, a habit of wiping long stringy goo from his nose onto whatever tee-shirt barely clothed his upper body. Snot streaks dirtied his few tee’s.

See you guys later. He wrapped Jesse’s tee-shirt tightly around the wrist, and pulled his injured arm up, under left armpit. Steadily, he trudged in the direction of their brownstone, about eighty-five yards distance. Walking through a back alley behind dilapidated houses along North Mills Street, he soberly held the leaking member, forgetting to engage in reliance upon a translucent blue rosary jammed into a pants pocket.

Mark felt somber. He’d acted foolishly. How to explain this to her? Damn-it-all. Reaching the corner curb at East Spring and North Mills, he warily scanned up and down East Spring, hoping to encounter a friendly adult.

With luck, he thought, no marauding gangs would appear. Boys who seemed born to endless anger and hatreds. Anger for no reason you could see, less understand. Such chronic hostility terrified him, reminding him of Sister Mary Gertrude, the schoolteacher nemesis who, hostile and delusional, found momentary release in physical abuse, battering the children after castigating them viciously for incomprehensible infractions.

"Oh geez, said the boy, I’ve really gotta go…Standing in line for the lavatory break. Her right hook caught him under the jaw, flattening his third-grader form against metal lockers. One of many stunning lessons from one ordained, pious woman of God.

Don’t you dare say the name of Jesus in vain. She spat, saliva flew to Mark’s face, leaving Sister’s chalk white lips rimmed in spittle. Her long Nun’s rosary swished black wooden beads like the dashed rattle of an enfant terrible. Only to Bernard, would he chance voicing a wonder:

Does she dare to tell about all that, what she does. Hitting like she really hates ya…to Father Sharing, in Confession? It’s a Holy Sacrament, ya’ know Bernard?

Hard to say. She’s a Nun. Maybe she can pray enough to get away with stuff like that.

Damn. Wouldn’t be fair. I’m real glad you and Marie got to miss out on ol’ Sister Gertie. You’d both be so mad an’ so upset…But, you wouldn’t believe me anyway, if I said everything she does. Mom sure doesn’t. Hey--you believe in Purgatory, Ben?

I think so, why?

‘Cause I’ll go wherever old Gertie isn’t gonna be. If that black widow’s anywhere close, I’ll head for limbo or spit in her eye, then say the Act of Contrition really fast.

Older boys in Greenbush neighborhoods required no reason to beat you. And, by God, they’d beat him, if they could catch him. Fearful as this was, anxiety over self-defense arose, and became a singular fear. Actually defending against gang members, mostly older youth who would viciously inflict serious injury, meant being forced to really hurt or, even kill them, if he was serious about defending himself. Yep. He was serious. Not sure just how. Too darn bad the life of a real Saint was always tough as nails, and ended up having to accept getting crucified, stabbed, beheaded, poisoned, strangled, burnt or skinned alive, hung, shot, and otherwise tortured slowly to martyrdom by some big baboon. Yeah, Satan was wicked. But God seemed like an atomic hard ass.

Maybe a large rock. A baseball bat. Or, one of his Mother’s kitchen knives. Still, the very idea of doing lethal harm to another person continued to raise a maddening guilty fright that chased him in and out of nightmarish dreams. It would be shattering to his Mother. Unless, the enemy was a really bad criminal. The hardest question: Would she believe him, that he was forced into such dire actions?

She did not always believe him, truth or no truth. Surely he would be captured by the police. A trial would take place, just like in Perry Mason. He, Mark Van Heuvel, would be required to prove self-defense. Bernard talked about this business of self-defense with a buddy, and besides, Marie watched Perry Mason more than anyone. Impatiently, she had explained what this meant in practice.

Greenbush neighborhood had a certain notoriety for loose affiliations of Italian, Sicilian and Albanian gangs, often roaming the old neighborhood for the express purpose of locating trouble. Finding younger or weaker youth to beat the crap out of, was a favorite past time. The news around this side of Greenbush was that parents of gang members rarely cooperated with police.

Then, images came, Mother, at home today, working. She would be unhappy getting interrupted. Opening the dark wet tee shirt slightly, a scarlet jet pulsed outward. Mark quickly re-wrapped the wrist. You could die, losing too much blood. He tried walking faster toward the apartment, woozy. Time collapsed like a cheap film projector feeding film too slowly, or maybe too fast; doubling footage in white numbers that blotted to black, folding inward, jammed up, along the way.

Jerking alert there, the boy felt rimming aloneness there. In the bathroom, leaned over cold water running from the faucet. Didn’t work. Water only diluted flowing blood, spreading a mess around the old porcelain sink, pooling on floor tiles. Echoes. Drips and drops, otherwise unusually quiet today. Mark looked into a red puddle there on octagonal tile and listened to soft echoes dripping red over small black and white octagonal tiles below.

How much do you halfta loose?

Thinking of the mess he’d made, wanting to nab a mop. He should clean it up or someone would resent his mess. Same as wet bed sheets. Either Mom, or Bernard, or Marie. Mother worked all day and he could tell by her breathing, by those long, deep sighs…she was way too tired. She didn’t need more work to do. All those wet sheets, sighing. None of them wanted to bother her. Not really.

Mark knew she was awfully tired, often. His and her energy levels were dramatically disparate that alone seemed a cause for…XX Over and over again, she sighed and the sighs accumulated, haunting. Always suspended in the air, waiting for one more moment of expression. Ohhhhh… Almost regardless of the task or situation at hand, she could be sighing. Maybe there was no better expression; certain circumstances may rob one of the power to articulate.

Bringing in groceries, Cooking their meals, cleaning up afterwards, washing the floor, washing his sheets. When going to church at St. James---on Sunday; afterwards she sighed so deeply. Awfully deep. Of course they helped; their efforts never enough. And he complained too much. Bernard and Marie, and him, sure. Never enough to ease her pained, weary exhalations. But then, if he didn’t snap to it, here, now, a small mess would become a big mess. Then trouble, would descend, calling for punishment. Maybe a huge mess.

Mark turned into the hallway, leaned against a wall. He could hear slight shuffling, paper upon paper. Walking cautiously, placing one foot before another, he pulled his arm up behind, crept to the bedroom door and stood, arm behind back. She sat there propped in bed surrounded by piles of papers set in rows. He stood there, subdued. Suddenly she was aware of his presence for, turning her head, she looked at him intently.

Well, Mark.

He looked straight at her.

Hi Mother. Something I gotta show you---

Her bright brown eyes probed. Colors were out of order. She glanced in her penetrating way. A dripping sound led her. between short legs, blood pooling on the floor, leaking down, fast.

Well Mark, you’re bleeding. Abruptly she was up and her legs swung over the bed side.

Let me see your arm!---She quickly went into the bathroom and grabbed a clean towel.

I’m going to wrap this around your arm. You put all the pressure you can over the wound with your other hand, I’ll call Dr. Tanner’s office, let’s get you to the doctor, pronto.

Hop in the car?

Yes, right away.

You’re worried, Mom.

Well we don’t want you to loose too much blood, you see?

I’m dizzy. Kinda strange. You aren’t worried about Sister uhh...

What’s wrong? Something about Sister---

Told you three times, Mom.

Told me what?

She hits. Hard. She beats us, Mom. Sister Gertrude does. She’s a witch.

Just what do you mean---beats you?

Takes her fist. Hits us really hard. Shook Alice Meyer hard, slammed her against ahh..the blackboard…she fell on the floor. Didn’t move, I don’t know, for awhile. She slaps us or uses rulers and her pointer. She’s hit me several times. Kicks with those big black shoes. Geez. I’m getting dizzy.

I find that pretty fantastic. That’s hard to believe. I’m sorry but, I don’t see any evidence of that, Mark. She seems concerned, good-natured and polite to me.

I know. She’s like…different around parents.

Let’s talk about this another time. I have to concentrate, son. And you don’t feel well. Let’s stick with one thing at a time.

He knew what ‘another time’ meant.

Two weeks later, arm still bandaged over sutures, he was still looking for Jack. His older friend, whom all other railroad engineers called Brakeman Jack. Finding him was usually a cinch. All Mark needed to do was run between sets of waiting railroad cars, near West Washington Station back to Mills Street, eyes alert, openly yelling out loud for Jack. Generally, one of his buddies would know to direct Mark to Jack. Wherever he might be found; most often working. If he were in town, not on the road.

The boy was comfortable around trains. Not without caution. One night he’d seen a passerby become tangled underneath the wheels of an oil car. He’d come running, having seen several red flares blazing on the track path. Not a good sign. Then stepped up an incline reinforcing the rail-bed to see; could they maybe use an extra hand? Only twisted clothes and a few legs in bunched contortions appeared, a difficult scene to make sense of at first. The picture came together quickly enough. A university student grown tired of waiting for a long, slow freight, had hopped atop the hook-up between an oil and a boxcar.

The train, just then, had accelerated unexpectedly. This young man had fallen down, under rolling train wheels between cars. Observing two engineers and a cop, you could see they were trying to comfort someone. Soon a voice called hoarsely down the line: Don’t bring nobody over here but a priest!

A few minutes later, an ambulance arrived. The train backed slowly away. The boy noticed, aghast, that the train had actually moved but five feet and a few inches more. Yet, that was enough distance to cleave this hapless fellow, leaving him drawn and quartered. After witnessing another, similar occurrence, he told himself never, ever, would he roll, creep or crawl under any moving train. Climbing over the car locks connecting each car’s end, was almost as dangerous.

Mark had been out along the switching yard rails, looking for his friend and over two hours had passed. He finally sighted an engineer that Jack often worked with, hooking up cars or letting ‘em go.

Hi, you seen Jack around?­He called out.

The brakeman looked at him quickly before turning his head away. Still, the volume of his voice undoubtedly rose.

Naw, you won’t see him now. Get on home.

Whaddya mean mister?

Told ya. You won’t see him now.

You mean I‘ll see him­he’ll be here later?

You won’t seem him now, not no more, not at all, see? What da hell’s da matter widya can’t ya hear? The man was showing color. The kid tightened-up his stance. Jack was a friend. It wasn’t a stupid question. He wasn’t gonna take a stupid answer.

So, he’s moved away? Cause, He…he was a friend of mine.

The engineer looked down intently, then he looked up, straight ahead, pulling on the visor of his dirty striped railroad hat. Switching a stance, leaning his bulk against the other leg, his gestures reminded Mark of a baseball pitcher coiling up to throw a fastball from the mound. He mentally alerted both feet to move quick, if need be.

Ah come on mister. Say, sir?­where’d he move to?

The man began to hedge, angling a reluctant look in his direction.

Alright, goddamn kids…he grumbled, wagging his head. Way I heard it…they found him in bed. He was dead, see---died in a station house down in Burlington, dere.

Where’s his family?

Naw see, Jack was all by hisself. Didn’t have no family or nothin’, not Jack.

A pause. Mark felt a weight plummet downward, a lead sinker in his stomach. Water welling in already liquid eyes. "All by himself…how could that happen to someone like Jack…"

You know, you should prob’ly stay way from these tracks. It gets real dangerous around these trains here. The engineer wasn’t looking straight at him, wasn’t making eye contact, but looked ahead, sideways, spitting juice from a wad of chewing tobacco.

Yeah, I suppose. Mark dutifully nodded his head, faking agreement.

On his way back home, Mark could feel an aching in the very center of his chest. It seemed sad and unfair to be completely alone. This man, Jack, had been unusually kind. Evidently, he’d worked a long hard life, and then died all by himself in a cold, dingy station house. Where was God’s grace in that? He wondered whether God gave you all due rewards up in heaven. If so, then God didn’t seem to have much common sense.

Why was this world so harsh and mean?

He ran up the back stairs to avoid disturbing the Ballentines, who lived in the first floor apartment. Mrs. Ballentine was always scolding Mark’s mother for allowing her children to run galloping around like wild horses. Mr. Ballentine was an Army Colonel who taught military history at the university. They owned a large new all-white station wagon. Ten year old Greg Ballentine explained, this was so any atom bomb blasts would reflect off the white color of their car when Russia attacked the United States.

After washing up, he into the kitchen and sat down at the table. His mother and a good friend of hers, Anita, sat drinking coffee, smoking Viceroy cigarettes, and he could smell the sweet fresh aroma of waffles, as a guest was visiting at breakfast.

Hi Anita, Hello Mom. So, when is he coming again?

Well Mark, your father will be coming next weekend. So it appears. If we have enough time, maybe we could take you kids over to B.B. Clark Beach.

Whaddya mean­so it appears?

Oh, nothing. It’s just­what you call a term of speech.

Do ya think he’ll bring me a gun? I asked him, politely, Mom.

Oh well…you don’t mean a real gun, Mark, you mean a toy gun, don’t you?

I’d like to have a gun like Paladin’s. A six shot, Colt repeater.

And just what do you think you’d do with a gun, favorite youngest son?

Chuckling at her own rhyme, she blew a lung of smoke sideways, looking across the table at Nadine, who returned her own wry smile of adult complicity. A benign condescension. After all, they were humoring a child two months short of his eighth birthday.

He’s got more guns than he can store in his place. He said it’s the arsiny,’ the arsiny of something democrat.

Maybe the Arsenal of Democracy?

That’s it­yeah!

But you haven’t yet answered my question.

Self defense for the house…shooting cans, bottles and paper targets.

Oh you would, would you? Her tone revealed she thought his idea naïve, even preposterous. Still, the boy could tell, his father was a mysteriously different kind of adult than his mother. He’d been in the War, a soldier. Maybe he would understand certain thing’s his mother could not. Maybe she’d forgotten the night when, all three floor’s occupants awoke to terrified screams of a woman forcing her way into their flat’s front entrance, desperately fleeing a man attempting to rape her. Or the morning they and the Handley’s, upstairs neighbors, awoke to find bicycle tires, football and basketball’s lying eerily limp, gutted, slashed open by anonymous intruders.

Time faded into holidays, weeks birthed months and eventually, he came again, Father. Arriving on the Badger Bus from Milwaukee. Obviously, no other kids awaited their parent’s arrival at this dingy Badger Bus depot. Maybe the sociology of mass transit escaped the boy’s notice. Certain things were inescapably obvious: The station’s low-rent, shabbily scented ambience of rank cigarette smoke, cheap perfume in excess, and industrial antiseptics along with clientele who struck him, even like his own family, as being in some way, economically disadvantaged.

Mark asked at dinner one evening…why their father hadn’t come to Madison driving his own car, instead of their Mother’s 54 Chevy. Nobody else said word one. Every other grown-up man he knew of drove his own car. What did this mean, he asked aloud. So many curious things, differences. Well, to hell with it. Long as his Father would return to them, and remain with them, what difference did differences like these matter, anyhow.

The following visit was so keen. His Father brought along a real pistol, which he referred to by dismissive chuckles as "a .22 Smith & Wesson pea-shooter." The boy couldn’t stop turning this heavy, well-tooled piece, over and over in his hands.

Whoaaa…gosh, it’s heavy, but it’s a beauty.

Haa ha..ha..ha…Wait ‘til we get you to the house in Milwaukee. There’s a 10 gauge shotgun there you won’t be able to lift. But all in good time, my dear young fellow. Luke took a thoughtful double-puff off his cigar, sending up a fragrant billow of smoke.

Will you take me hunting, sometime?

Ohhh yes. When you and Ben are a little older.

But we’ll go fishing together a whole lot, won’t we?---asked Bernard. ‘Cause I heard some old timers talking about bluegills and crappies running off Proudfit Street at the Bay Docks in a few weeks.

Will you take us camping, Dad?---Mark knew of several other boys who spoke often and excitedly of camping adventures with their fathers.

Ahh…and when thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,

And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;

And take upon’s the mystery of things…

Both boys looked, pupil’s wide. Luke obviously didn’t mind an enchanted audience, eyes laughing and chuckles rising from barreled chest.

Wow…Where didya hear that. Dynamite keen! Mark was transfixed by the harmony of such clever words.

William Shakespeare. Lucas had already moved on, to more present concerns.

How about you two help the old man build a fire in the grill, eh? The boys responded promptly, already up on their feet, Mark hugging his fathers waist before trotting off to retrieve charcoal briquettes. After an early supper of salad, potatoes with a savory medium-rare steak barbecued beyond delicious, and complete with a tantalizing homemade salad dressing his father called Salerno’s secret recipe, they all packed into the green 52’ Chevy and headed over to a large public, east side beach known as "B.B. Clarke."

Homes in eastside neighborhoods were old too. Yet ringed by cupolas and turrets epitomizing a more graceful era with the fine repair and grand dignity befitting houses once so proud. Eastlake Victorians and huge Mission Style wood, stone and stucco homes. Mark noted that many featured sharply groomed lawns, modeled and painted in fancy, whimsical ways glimpsed only briefly during evenings before Christmas when Mother drove them by other, residential neighborhoods around Madison to view picturesque decorations and nativity scenes. Any other neighborhood seemed nicer, more sociable, softer than their own. Here windows looked out over the wide green expanse of Lake Monona. Kids around here were privileged. Parents with money.

Hot and sweltering as summer weather in the Middle West will be, the three siblings swam and played in lukewarm green, grimy water, under a reddening backdrop of western sky until sundown was but an hour away. Hearing loud sirens on the street above B.B. Clarke, Mark sloshed out of the lake, seeking out his father. But Luke had disappeared. Marie flopped on a huge beach towel next to where their Mother had laid out a site. Bernard was still swimming off the horseshoe pier. Over two hundred people lounged or lay sprawled about in cooling states of undress.

Couples, college students, families; all arrayed in swimsuit garb revealing people of all ages wanting desperately to beat hot asphalt streets that radiated intense heat waves in every direction. Never mind their close, humid homes turned hothouses. She too was gone, his Mother, strangely enough. The boy looked toward the bath house, the concessions and beyond to where green parkland bordered the beachfront. After a few minutes, he scampered up the hill, practically running into his Mom.

Where’s Dad? Where did you guys go?

He’s right over there. She pointed. But you wait here, ‘til he’s out of the street. Her face was a study of sober relief. The boy looked at his tall, big-boned and dark Father, whose starched white cotton dress shirt was rolled up at each sleeve. He was walking away from a police officer. Both had stood, speaking next to an ambulance with whirling red lights and hustling paramedics. As the two stepped aside, the ambulance sped off down Spaight Street, siren screaming loudly.

You know Mark, your Father did something very heroic. Right here, today.

What happened--tell me, Mom.

I’d rather your Father told you. Let’s wait and see.

It was closing time at the beach. Bernard and Marie and Mark piled into the green Chevy, their Father behind the wheel. The car spun away from the curb in one smooth motion.

Bernard, Marie…I was just saying to Mark that your father had done a very heroic…act here today. Just a short while ago. Bernard, you and Mark were still in the water. Marie, I think you were snoozing on the beach.

The kids looked expectantly at each other. Then Marie looked away. Mark noticed she was nearly scowling, indifferent. Marie and his father didn’t seem to get along well.

Luke, do you feel like telling the kids---?

You tell ‘em, Mike. ‘Mike’---his father’s nick-name for their mother.

Well kids, a young girl, just about your age Bernard, ran out across the street here and, she was hit, by a car going west. Gads! When I think of---

Was she killed?---Marie broke in.

Now hold on, let me tell it. There was a doctor down at the beach, and he ran uphill to where the car stopped. But he couldn’t get near enough to treat her. That poor girl was trapped under this same car--a big Buick, like your Aunt Mariana’s. She’d been dragged along the road a-way, as well. So what could they do? They had to get to her. Oh Lord, she must’ve been seriously hurt! The usual crowd gathered along curbs on either side of the street, but everybody else just stood there gawking like stoops! Your father Luke, grabbed another fellow, although turn’s out--this other guy wasn’t too strong, and he wasn’t so sure they could do this.

Do what, what?---Mark was frustrated. He’d not been there to help his father, in action.

Just---shush now.

But, your father latched on, down under the Buick’s front bumper, and good gads, you kids. He actually picked up this car by the front; picked it right up, using hands, arms and shoulders, or what have you. Correct me if I’m not describing this right, Lucas. At the same moment, that doctor requested help, calling to bystanders, and another guy scrambled underneath to slide her onto a board, and with your father bearing up its weight, others in the crowd then ran to assist in holding this big car. Don’t know why they didn’t jump to help right away. So, they managed to pull her from under that car! So then came an ambulance, and of course they loaded her in right away, and were gone, lickety-split. Boy, I tell you… I’ve never seen anything like it.

The brothers sat in back listening in momentary disbelief. No two ways about it. Mother simply wouldn’t say anything untrue. She rarely exaggerated. Only in describing a faux pas or, rudeness on the part of a close relative. An aunt’s peevishness or uncle’s, irascible--- Even then, rarely and quite spare were her verbal excesses. Bernard and Mark were both struck with outright astonishment. Feeling’s of pride over their Father’s actions were present. But Mark, at least, was solidly in the grip of awe.

ow in hell’s b Connected by blood they were, to a man who soldiered during four years of World War, fighting treachery. Now he’d acted strongly, swiftly, here in their midst, saving an injured girl’s life. What sonorous voice, and physical power, those eyes looking into infinity. Virtually a man who hailed from another distant era, one more heroic. Aroma of cigars, pipe smoke of bittersweet tobacco, some-days Cuban cigars and Mennen after-shave appointed his profile like white dress shirts, sleeves rolled up, tucked into khaki field pants. Where had he disappeared to all this time? Walking out of a story submerged in tales, old letters, closed books, the inaccessible memories of adult relatives.

The boy reflexively flared both nostrils, gathering in a potpourri of this rare, vintage brand of someone masculine. Oh, if he would always be closer; here to stay. This scent. A man called Father. An elusive man, occupied in unknown ways, whose home was a different house. Still. An inheritance had found a way to him, a boy, wrapped in mundane elements. Wild stories. The boy sensed a presence unfolding, honoring things passed along in mystery before, anointing him now, in fire and smoke and aromatic waters.

Weeks passed, some painfully. Times were, all the boy could think of was Dad. Coming to see them. Taking him and Bernard fishing off the trestle bridges or out in the country to discover hidden lakes, streams and ponds. Summer drifted past like varying species of flower pods and seeds on gusts of a blustery day. More phone calls came from distant Milwaukee. These preceded his irregular returns to Madison, and an unpleasant wait at the grimy Greyhound & Badger Bus Stations, where Katherine Van Heuval sat with one of the kids, usually Mark. For the record, to everyone’s considerable disappointment, father did not always appear as planned. Another one of those. Behavior out of joint. Difficult to explain, their Mom repeated.

Reaching their flat after picking up Father, on that faded weekend of August. The weekend of summer before school resumed. Katherine served iced tea in huge sweating tumblers for her and Lucas. Soda for the kids. Luke prepared steaks on the outdoor grill, and concocted his usual secret salad dressing, freshly flavored with aromatic basil and oregano they’d grown in a spare corner herb plot in the back yard.

All the while, each of the children kept overheated eyeballs glued to the kitchen clock. Exactly one half-hour past dinner, the bunch piled into the world’s most redoubtable green Chevy and, Father drove them around Monona Bay to BB. Clarke Beach, for a final evening swim. Glory was Mark’s for the asking. Eyes scanning the waves lapping ashore, he asked Jesus and Patron Saint Mark for cool and keener times the family could enjoy together. Even if prayerful requests felt weak to insignificant, he figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

Scampering down the pier at BB Clarke this sweltering eve, the boy squatted down in wet swim-suit, sat, and dangled both legs above murky water. Looking out toward sandstone bluffs above the further shore, he thought, hopefully, that each one of their family was moving toward better times, somehow. Maybe a truce would be agreed upon. Less fighting, or mad, hurtful arguments. Maybe more money would ease things, Mother could sigh less.

All became a swelling sense of balmy pleasure as he imagined, truly life could change so…

Swallows dove by, and gliding came wayward echoes of a summer’s night: First a whip-pore-will’s call, and another’s; dogs barking in rapid-fire down-street, night fishing boats trolling out into the lake’s middle, gone puttering leeward, red lights glimmering on the face of August’s dark green waters. So. It was time to go.

Marie walked ahead with Mother, the boys and Luke bringing up the rear, all three of them slapping the concrete with wet flip-flops, unabashedly begging for another treat:

Let’s stop for cones and root beer at the A&W!

Yeah Mom, Dad, how about A&W root beer and soft-serve?

Lucas pumped on the car’s accelerator, but the starter only wheezed and hacked as if seized by a tubercular fit. He hopped out and popped up the hood, neck muscles straining as he ducked down low into the visceral parts of the V-8. Time passed. They were all getting squirrelly. Luke shook his head, looking dubiously at Katherine.

Mike, why not you take the troops back, I’ll call you a cab. It’ll take a bit, but she’s likely a fixer, just that it’s going to take more time than it’s worth your sitting here.

You’re sure now?

Those are the facts, as stated, Dear.

Okay, well Ben & Marie can run to make a cab call down on Williamson & Brearly.

Luke and Katherine chatted until Ben & Marie returned. Mark sat in the back seat, watching cars drive by, people out walking in the cooler hours of dusk.

Hey Mom, Dad, I want to stay with you, Dad.

He’s just going to be working on the car, Mark. You come along…

Aww c’mon, Mom. Dad, please tell her you’ll let me stay with you.

The two grown-ups exchanged glances and telepathy’s. Alright then son, since your old man doesn’t see you as often as he’d like, an exception is granted.

I can stay with you?

Indeed, you may.

The Checker cab arrived a few minutes later. Luke walked up to the cab in a familiar manner, and addressed the driver, chatting with him for a minute or so. Everyone waved out their window as the cab performed a U-turn and headed southwest toward Mills Street.

The boy watched his father return to the task at hand. He seemed eminently knowledgeable about this task, as well he should have, for he’d been a Major in a combat ordnance unit during the Big War. Cars were a relatively simple transport machine.

The kid himself was amazed to watch his father work, so lucid and certain were his movements, handling a few simple tools to swift effect. Within a matter of several minutes, Luke had cobbled two spare parts from a small branch with his penknife, attaching the pieces with finesse; one under the hood, one used to prop up the accelerator pedal. And off they went, Luke driving at what felt to the kid, to be a remarkably high speed for in-town traffic, and yet, his father drove skillfully as well, with an air of utter assurance.

The Chevy raced along, breaking smartly at stops and lights. Mark poked his head out the passenger window, and found they weren’t driving along the usual route of streets and turns but rather, were just now skirting the downtown area, driving now past the very largest lake in Madison, Lake Mendota. Now they’d turned and raced up a winding hill beside a gorgeous though unfamiliar parkway green, the Chevy churning loud yet uncomplaining in its maneuvers. Then the car slowed, and Luke pulled over in front of a tall and well-landscaped apartment complex.

Hey scooter. How about you guard the car. Your old Pop needs to attends to a little business errand?

Luke looked around, hesitating. Very little light of dusk remained, darkness was swiftly closing down the streets. Westward, there was a bright crimson reddening in the sky. Is everything okay, Dad?

Shall we say...between you and I, all is well. No need for worry, I’ll return shortly. You stay put and look after the vehicle?

Oh sure, I can do that. Can I see where yer going, sorta’?

Right up here. He pointed to apartment windows six floors up, on the right side­Mark’s side, of the car and street. You see?

Okay Dad, I’ll see ya soon.

Mark sat back and settled his gaze ahead, looking down-street at several grand, older houses, their edifices masonry of hung field stone. After a few minutes he stretched, leaned out the passenger window and looked up towards the apartment his father had indicated. Appearing only faintly lit from within, this apartment presented a set of long, narrow windows. Open curtains, mostly shadows.

Night air came in off Lake Mendota as a slight breeze, refreshing. The street was vacant of passers-by so he looked at the buildings front door and deeply inhaled lake breezes and a summery evening’s soft quiet. Again, he looked upward, toward the windows. Then suddenly, two bright flashes abruptly illumined the apartment interior; muffled popping cracks, heard in sequence. Like camera bulbs going off, he thought. Sounds came, from where?

Not more than several minutes had passed.

The front door to the complex opened, and Luke came down the walk, stepped to the driver’s side and got in, closing the car door. Mark looked over at him. His Father said nothing, but turned the ignition, the car roared in response. The kid wondered. His Father looked as if he was trying awful hard to think on something.

The car pulled away from curbside, Luke’s right hand extended straight ahead, resting on top of the steering wheel. He was taut. Barbed wire strung.

Everything okay, Dad?

Luke was silent for a few moments, focused directly ahead, driving.

Nobody does that to a friend of mine and gets away with it.

His tone of voice jolted the boy, sounding dangerous and mad at some person or party unknown.

Whaddya mean Dad, he asked.

He’s a prick.

What’s ‘a prick’ mean?

It means someone not very nice at all.

The kid too was quiet now. Taken aback, and taking pause. He knew this man called Father had gone inside there, just another unknown building. And when he returned, this…his Father seemed different; a kind of change. Strange. Maybe this was life among men, opening wide, closing down fast. Meaning…what does he mean. Loyalty and menace came together, fused in that moment.

A searing sound, his Father’s words threatening, led to someplace he’d never before been. The boy sat listening to the words turning in his mind. Over and over, like an unstoppable ventriloquist, a dummy sounding those words in a tone his Father had just used.

That voice, turning over. Here, they were together, yet now he felt alone. There, at that exact and burning moment. Placing his right hand on a damp forehead, the boy felt a whirling sensation. Soon his thoughts spun round and around, trying to find that place his Father had gone, inside his own head.

Nobody does that to a friend of mine, and gets away with it.

Luke drove the Chevy down Pinckney Street, passing through the downtown business district, driving toward Park Street and headed for home, where the heart is. Waiting for us always.