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Authors: Jonathon King

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The Styx

BOOK: The Styx
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The Styx

Jonathon King

C
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25

A B
IOGRAPHY OF
J
ONATHON
K
ING

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1

A
LWAYS
the women came first. Once they knew it was safe, that it wasn’t something contagious, that there wasn’t something violent still flying around: bullets, blades, fists. When it was a so-called natural death, the women were the first at the door, tapping lightly and calling out the name of the son.

“Michael? Michael, luv? It’s Mrs. Ready from down the way. Come to help you. Please now. Open up and let us in, lad.”

When death befell one of their own, someone like them, the word would pass through the slum more quickly than a gutter fire. And when it was another woman, a peer, an Irish mother, it was like a looking glass of their own inevitable demise, and Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it had to be put together in the way only a woman could.

Michael got up from the straight-back chair and went to the knocking at the door without turning his head from his mother’s face, like she might still awaken and bark a command or call out: “Aye, who’s it now?”

He had been staring at her dusty profile for only an hour or so now, ever since the local doctor had pronounced her dead and walked back down the tenement stairs. It was not like the vigil he’d sat for the three days she’d laid there, her cough rattling in her tiny chest like broken glass in a paper bag, sweat pouring off her brow in such gouts he swore the wet cloth he dampened from the washbasin was itself drawing the perspiration from her skin. The rag would go on cool and damp and come away hot in his hands as he rung it out.

“It’s a fever, mama, it’ll break soon,” he’d kept repeating.

“I know it will, Danny. I know. I’ll be up in a bit, son. Just a bit.” She’d mistaken him for his older brother, the one who’d left.

But they were the very same words she’d said to him for as long as he could remember when it was he in the bed with the croup or that one winter with pneumonia. She was his mother, always there. But now she was thirty-nine, ten days from forty, and he was twenty-three. It was a role reversal that would have seemed surreal but for the reality of the pain that tore at him.

“She’s gone now, Michael,” the doctor had said to him at dawn. “Gone to the Lord, bless her soul.”

He’d listened, without taking his eyes away from his mother’s face, as the doc packed his bag, closed the door behind him, and clomped down the narrow staircase in his old shoes. How many journeys does that man make a day on these tenement steps, where the denizens of the Lower East Side fall every hour, like grains of sand, only to be replaced by another wave of immigrants washed ashore? What’s the Lord got to do with it?

And then the women came. Michael answered the tapping, stared out at Mrs. Ready and a tight clutch of others; he recognized Mrs. Brennan, his best friend’s mother, and Mrs. Phelan, from above the bakery, and another he barely knew. They were bundled in winter coats and dark hats and were carrying baskets the contents of which only they knew.

Mrs. Ready stepped into his space and looked up into his eyes, and for the life of him he didn’t know how to react. The woman, not much older than his own mother, put her palms to his cheeks. “We know you’re hurtin’, Michael. But let us do what needs doin’. Go downstairs now to the street and get some air, lad.”

He watched the others move in, sliding immediately to the bedside, dark hens come to cluck and perhaps to weep over another. When Michael said nothing and just stood with the door open, staring, Mrs. Ready came back to him, picking up his coat on the way and draping it over his shoulders.

“Go on now. We’ll find our way,” she said and gently ushered him out.

Outside it was barely eight a.m. and the street unusually full. Michael stood on the steps of their tenement and looked about as if he hadn’t lived in the building for most of his life. These were the streets where he and his father had walked hand in hand on Saturday mornings to the poultry shop on Pitt Street. The-once-a-month chicken had always been Michael’s choice. Then his father was gone. These were the streets where he and his brother had chased and been chased by a dirty flock of Irish kids, dodging the wagons, scrapping after spilled produce, finding ways to entertain themselves, be it a stickball game or gawking at some irrelevant gang fight. Then Danny was gone. These were the streets where his mother had a magical touch for finding the deals for food and bartering for work and cajoling a city worker for word of an inoculation program or infestation warning, all the things that kept them alive. And now she was gone too. “You’re going to watch me die of a broken heart,” she’d told him three days ago through lips cracked with the heat of her fever. “Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t happen, m’boy. Aye, it’s a sure malady when you lose your husband and your son.”

“You haven’t lost your son, Mama,” Michael told her. “Danny’s coming home when he finds his treasure, and I will always be here with you.”

Now the street scene seemed unrecognizable as he stood with his hands in his pockets, eyes reddened from grief and lack of sleep and mind gone so numb he didn’t hear the man in front of him until the elder fellow took his sleeve.

“Michael! Michael Byrne,” the man was saying. “It’s me, James Brennan, Jackie’s father.”

Michael shook his head while Mr. Brennan was shaking his hand, and both actions seemed to pull him back to reality.

“Sorry, Mr. Brennan. Sorry, sir. I was just—”

“Don’t even say it, lad. We’re the ones’er sorry for the loss of your dear mother. Jackie told us how sick she was and all.”

The elder man had looped his arm through Michael’s, as a gesture of both moral and physical support, considering his dazed state. The morning air was still near freezing, and Michael had been just standing there on the stoop, staring out at the cold dankness of the city.

“We’ve already taken up a bit of a collection, Michael. We’ve got a coffin maker from Hanlon’s, and we’ll get the wagon arranged for three this afternoon,” Mr. Brennan was saying. “It’ll be a fine send-off, lad. No worries now, OK?”

Michael watched a coal wagon creak by in the street, pulled by a haggard old mare, tired before the day had even begun.

“A wagon?”

“Aye, out to the cemetery over in Brooklyn, son,” Mr. Brennan said. “Unless you’ve got other plans. Maybe a special arrangement with St. Brigiďs?”

Michael hadn’t been to St. Brigid’s in ten years. His mother had been devoted to the old famine church on Avenue B, a rock for Irish immigrants like themselves. But she stopped going to services after Michael’s father had gone and instead took to cursing her religious tenets on a regular basis, blaming God for leaving her damned and in the grips of hell over the last few years. Cemeteries in the city had been banned years ago as land became scarce. The rural fields of Brooklyn had become the resting place for the modern dead.

“Uh, no, sir. No, the wagon is fine, sir. Thank you, sir.”

The two stood there together, watching out over the street, Mr. Brennan stamping his feet in the cold, Michael blinking his eyes as if taking shutter photos of a world he didn’t recognize anymore. On several occasions men or women with faces he should have known came up and offered their condolences. The men shook his hand, clasping it with both of theirs as though he’d come through some sort of initiation of pain into their world of adulthood. The women simply took his hands in theirs and looked into his glossy eyes with a knowledge he had never seen before.

Yes, his father was gone, but there had never been condolences given like these. Yes, his older brother had left, but it was an absence of his own making, a choice even. Now Michael was the only one left, a position that harbored this sympathy in others but only froze Michael for now.

“Ah, there, boy. The ladies are finished,” Mr. Brennan finally said and turned Michael back to his own entryway. The four ladies were descending the steps, moving in a dark pack. Again Mrs. Ready took his hands.

“She’s ready, son,” the woman said. “If you’ll just sit with her now, we’ll start spreading the word and you can greet the well-wishers. We’ll make sure you get some food in you, too, Michael.”

She then turned to Mr. Brennan.

“The wagon has been arranged?”

“Aye. Three o’clock.”

She patted Michael on the sleeve. “We’ll be back, son. You won’t have to do this alone.”

When they’d gone, Michael made his way back up into his flat. Lying on the bed, his mother’s corpse had been transformed. The women had found her black dress, had apparently spongebathed her and changed her clothing. They’d used some kind of scented water. The room smelled of flowers instead of sweat and mold and sickness. They’d left two extra kerosene lamps to help brighten the room. All had been carefully posed: his mother lying square in the middle of the bed, her black church shoes buffed and tied, her dress unwrinkled and tucked just right along her thin body. Her hands were folded on her chest, the fingers interlaced, the ring his father had given her before they even left Ireland on her finger and turned prominently upward. Her eyes were closed, and the grimace of death had been replaced by simple manipulation of skin going slowly into rigor. The women had used perhaps their own makeup to cover her mottled gray face and had added just a whisper of rouge. Still, when Michael looked down at his mother, her face seemed to be melting; the bones of her cheeks and nose looked as if they would expose themselves as her skin slackened. The women had added some color to her lips to keep them from going dark, but even with the faux stoicism they placed on her face, she seemed a puttied version of herself.

Michael washed himself and dressed in the best clothes he had, a pair of corduroy pants, a shirt that could still pass for white, and a threadbare jacket. He took up his post in the straight-backed chair again and listened for the inevitable sound of footsteps up the stairwell.

The Sheehans from the butcher’s shop down the block came. The Huntaways from next door. The Flannigans from the tavern. Couples his mother’s age that he barely knew came and pressed coins rolled in pieces of cloth into his hand. Women brought pots of stew and sweetbreads and placed them on the only table in the room. Three young boys came with flowers. Michael didn’t know their names. “They went out and got them from the professor up on Tenth Street who grows a garden,” their father said. Michael nodded. He and Danny had done the same when they were that age and old Mrs. Clancy died, but he didn’t remember them asking first. He caught himself wondering if it was from the same garden. So long ago.

Near the end of the prescribed two hours of visitation, one of Danny’s old friends showed up. Ian Cronin. Ian and Danny had been thicker than thieves until Cronin had joined the police.

BOOK: The Styx
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