Salvation by Michael Stedman

I discovered this short story written by my late father. Here it is.

It had been a nauseating morning. And then it got worse.

His Dad died six months earlier to the day; nothing was going right. The radio said how Williams might have been batting .450, but lost yesterday’s Yankees game for the Sox. His mother had called, begged off their Sunday visit — his sister called him a whiner when he cried about it.

“That’s just what Dad would say, too,” she cut.

He was only twelve. But they were clones. Together all the time. William and Billy, father and son — preordained by God or destiny, Billy never knew which — to look, walk, think alike . . . so people pitied him for his loss.

Now the sun scorched the trail around Lake Tisquantum. It must have been an hour since — alone — he had left the raft way out from the strip of patchy grass and gravel they called a beach. He could still hear shouting, splashing from the other kids vying for best dive, longest underwater swim, races to the rowboat dock.

He had to get away.

Overhead, a torn shroud of pines, maples, birches cloaked the trail, startling and foreboding. An unusual late afternoon mist hung low over the surrounding hills. Hot rays stabbed through the haze and the leaves above; patches of early foliage flashed on the ground like pieces from an afghan blanket. He kicked the leaves aside with the toe of his black high-top Keds and leaped recklessly from one large stone to the next thick root. Under his feet, he could hear the smaller rocks crack as he smashed through them. He could not see the raft now, beyond the hill behind. Jack O’Hara, one of the campers from the city neighborhoods, would be challenging
everybody in a double back flip off the high-diving board that jutted off the tower.

You could fly freely over the lily pads fringing the raft, over the sheer mud ledge that dropped into the darkness. Across the lake, he could see the French-style fleche of the camp chapel that penetrated the low-lying, clean layer of fog.

Fuckin’ obscene. A wash of light radiated through the leaves, flooded sensually over his face, numbed his head. He picked up a maple leaf, shredded it, kicked an innocent red mushroom to pieces, resumed jumping over the obstacles, like a maniac. That morning he had gorged on Brother Louie’s special: a lusty Canadian breakfast of eggs, fried in butter sunny-side up, red corned beef hash speckled with chopped home fried potato, dripping blood sausage and a stack of buttermilk pancakes.

Buttermilk. That made it feel a little bit more like home. His Dad had given him a life lesson over a glass of buttermilk in a country diner while on one of their rare vacations in New Hampshire two years earlier when he was ten.

He remembered: his Dad sipped from the glass, its inside coated with white goop; then he handed it to his son. He smiled when the freckled little face puckered.

“Can I put some sugar in it?”

“Like heck,” his Dad answered, his deep voice rising on the last syllable. “Defeatsa whole natural purity of a t’ing. Drink it up. First t’ing ya know, you’ll love it, just one more t’ing a look forward to.”

His way of saying love the thing you do. So, buttermilk was familiar, nice.

That meant nothing to O’Hara. He harpooned it; said a Canadian breakfast was when you vomited in your mouth and re-swallowed. O’Hara made him seethe, sharp and acrid in his stomach like a carnivorous animal when it’s too hungry or faced with a threat from a rival, larger predator. Fuck him! Billy washed it all down with a bowl of sour cream sweetened with maple syrup that his Big Brother had put up in the refrigerator of the communal camp kitchen. Things were coming to an end, his last summer at Sacre’Coeur.

Sacre’ Coeur was his Dad’s idea. His mother said they couldn’t afford it, but William scraped the money together to get Billy off the hot Charlestown streets for the summer. The camp was run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart; William knew they had the right ideals, would build his son’s confidence, develop his trust. No sacrifice too great. “Rainbow, end a evy storm,” he liked to say. “Not importan’ ’cause you’re a right kid alreddee, but I do believe ‘at some day, you’ll make‘n impac’ll be heard ‘rounda worl’.”

Because he knew it wasn’t a demand, Billy Burke believed it. That’s why he was so willing to believe Big Brother Christos.
“Anything,” his Big Brother Christos would say. “You can do anything you want, be anything you want to be, eh?” “Prioritize,” he counseled. Goals had to taken seriously — over the ordinary.

“Hey! You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet,” Billy would promise. “Ya shudda seen me yestady.”

Above a swampy cove now, he came across a monstrous snapping turtle, picked it up by its tail, started throwing it back into the marsh canes. Its head whipped out and twisted around in a rattler-like strike. It opened a flap of gore right there on his calf. Cocksucker! His first instinct was to take out his honed blade and cut it through its bony throat. Fuck it, he decided instead and tossed the whole bulk back into the swamp. Swearing was something new too. He felt awkward even thinking that way.

He was uncertain of the branching trails. He moved past a number of beckoning side routes. They plunged in and out of the jeweled coves and hidden swamps that dotted the lake like choices on a gigantic board game. He had walked there only one other time when
Brother Christos had showed how to use a divining rod to discover well water. He could get lost.

I don’t give a shit.

There, he saw the well, just up a knoll between two birch trees. He lifted the wooden cover, wiped the mildew off his hands and looked down at the oil-black water pooled at the bottom. Magic! It was he who Brother Christos picked to hold the divining rod out straight from his body to find the water secreted beneath the verdant moss. He remembered how he had stood mesmerized, screaming when the stick started shaking. It pulled on his hands, forced them down to follow the instrument’s point. It aimed itself directly to the slight depression under the leaves in the ground making him laugh hysterically when the rod twitched in his decisive hands. Brother Christos, who, in spite of his untamed face, looked like an overgrown boy, eyes hypnotic in their promise of adventure, hair mussed — lopsided and askew — was the first to join his glee. He saw respect, confidence in those watery eyes.

Through the woods, across the water he heard the chattering splash from the girls at Elysium, the all-girls camp. Was it true? They said that, at some miraculous times, you could see the counselors there in a hidden cove swimming naked as fledglings. Ahead he spotted a side trail that split off down a worn embankment. A wall of bushes blocked his vision. He had to see, grabbed an overhanging branch. It snapped back, scratched a thin red line across his bare belly as he started down. He scrambled over a patch of small boulders shrouded in moss, ancient headstones. His foot slipped on a patch of clay, shot out; he plunged into the water.

He stood; felt the caress of the mud between his toes, cupping his heels. Then he moved knife-like deeper into the lake. It felt good. His heart throttled, reverberated achingly in his ears. A croak startled him, a bullfrog close enough to spit at him, a fright film to his city ears. He ignored it, eased out to deeper water, swam effortlessly, rounding the bend that had blocked his view. Then he saw them. He could even make out the figure of one — looked about fifteen — stood at the end of the diving board. She pumped up and down, up and down on the board. He felt the blood bang through his body, her flesh jiggle under his hands.

He saw himself coming back with Jack O’Hara. O’Hara was so different from his old friends. He carried a switchblade knife and made sure everyone knew he could use it; that the four-inch blade could kill, cut through the cartilaginous rings that protected a man’s windpipe, sever the larynx, slice through the carotid. “That’s all it takes,” he’d sneer.

Billy coveted that knife.

O’Hara came to Sacre’ Coeur for “attitude adjustment” from Lyman School, the state reformatory. About kids like that, Billy’s father had said, “Stay ‘way from kid like ‘at, gets inta fights. Kid like ‘at’s nuttin’ ta lose.”

“So what,” he thought now. “Fuck’ him. I ain’t got nuttin’ ta lose needah.”

Young Billy Burke, lost, wounded to the core but still innocent and unblemished, desperately needed a guide. He cherished the dream-like sense of security he got from Brother Christos who said he could blow the pain goodbye — if he could just get beyond the past. All he wanted was his Dad. Never having had to before, he didn’t think he could depend on himself. He was overwhelmed — so alone, swamped with a sense of abandonment. Lost.

He hadn’t told O’Hara about Brother Christos. Told nobody.

“Billy Burke has no balls!”

It was last summer, 1951. Some of the other kids from the projects taunted his modesty, yelling as they climbed hand over hand naked, trying to avoid the reliably inevitable splinters that spiked the creosote-soaked wood. He and his friends from O’Reilly Way in Charlestown’s Bunker Hill Public Housing took the “T” into Southie where they swam “ballacky-bare-assed” in the boy’s section of the L Street Bathhouse. The place was unique, a paradise for Boston boys, surrounded by a large wooden fence. It stood as a moral boundary; cordoned off the boys’ section from the women’s and girls’ side of the beach. The boys swam naked; rules were supposed to keep them on their side. The thrill came when they climbed the barnicled pilings on the fence that overlooked the girls’ beach. They would give a holler and a wave, shake their inheritance like a laurel to their limited triumph, and flip ass-over-tea-kettle off the piling.

He had no trouble doing that in summers past, but as of last summer, the physical changes in his body had become apparent. His Dad would no longer think it was cute: modesty was a virtue.

“Be my guest, los-ah,” he’d yelled back.

But that was then.

Watching her, he slid off his bathing suit; his heart revved like a hornets’ nest. He swam faster, held his bathing suit aloft and boldly waved it over his head. He didn’t know what he was doing but it felt exciting enough. She looked just like Bobby Taylor’s 16-year-old sister Robin, three years older than he, the one with celebrated defame, known as “Mattress-back.” Bobby, his best friend back home and a fellow altar boy at St. Francis de Sales on Bunker Hill, was forced to defend her honor. Loyal as a Templar Knight, Billy always took his back . . . even if that meant a beating — the only fights he ever got into before he lost those guiding hands. Satisfied with his fantasy he turned back to the clearing.

“Water too cold for you, eh?”

From the top, behind the blueberry bushes up from where he stood, suit in hand. The voice was familiar, commanding. It was also accusatory, ironic since he was the kindest brother at the camp, a soft touch in spite of the tough regimen he imposed. You could see the kindness in the way he patted Billy’s head with those big, browned, sharply tendoned hands and the nurtury way he coveted their time together. He was muscular, weight training apparent and years earlier he had been a semi-professional hockey player in Quebec’s Trois Rivie’res. His face was craggy and cut as New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain, pronounced by a clefted ax of a
chin under a bushy golden mustache.

It had all started the second week of camp. Christos coaxed him to earn a merit badge boxing every Friday night under the lights in the baseball field.

“In the gut, Billy-boy. “Spear him. Left jab to the head. BANG! The right cross, right hook, the gut now, the gut. C’mon Billy, eh! Do him. Do him, eh.”

Billy never could see how a punch with those puffy gloves could be considered a “spear,” but he did his best anyway. Whether it was the head jabs, the gut crosses and side hooks, he never did learn. He boxed every Friday night. And he always won. It meant a lot to Christos and it meant a lot to Billy. Everything.

Christos would have it no other way. Failure was the playground of the devil. Those thick, graying eyebrows twitched when he had to remind Billy of that. Punching his way to the honor badges earned him a sense of his mastery, alive and vibrant, his fists rapping out liquidly, like punishing water shooting out of a violent hose. Victory drove away his demons. Brother Christos was all about
victory.

Christos looked down from the top of the embankment. He marveled at the face beneath him, the spray of freckles still noticeable under the tan, broken by nothing more than the faintest patch of white around his waist and hips. He saw Billy’s disarming charm, the innocent smile.

Billy stood looking up, his feet planted in the sand. He might have been embarrassed, but he realized suddenly — how little he cared. The pain trumped everything.

“Come up to me, Billy.” He started down, reaching with his hand.

“I can get up myself.” His skin was numb; his head was chilled through. A sudden piercing pain blasted just behind his wrinkled brow. He couldn’t think right.

“I know all aboot that.” He had a Quebecois accent. “Give me your hand. I can help, eh?”

Looking up, Billy wiggled into his bathing suit. Balancing from one foot to the other, he grabbed a root.

Billy could see beads on his golden mustache, glistening like gel in the sunlight. His foot slipped on a patch of shiny clay. One foot tripped on an arched root. He tumbled head over heel past Billy to splash into the edge of the lake. He looked up. They laughed. Billy lent a hand. They struggled up the bank together.

“What happened to your leg? One of ’em damn leeches?” He gasped, eyebrows arched, brow wrinkled. The blood from the bite mingled with the water. It now looked like a war wound. Christos whipped the worn terry towel from his shoulders, wiped it clean.

All the way to the infirmary Billy could see the light crackling in alternating shafts through the branches, hear the wind shifting the gossiping, fated deciduous leaves above him.

In the infirmary, the mentor leaned against the counter full of rubbing alcohol, aspirin bottles, stacks of J&J gauzes, tapes. Billy looked down, satisfied at the clean patch of white that now protected the cut. Christos had put on a plaid lumber jacket. The overhead fluorescent light highlighted the slash of plummy tissue that angled over one of his eyebrows, a trophy scar from high-sticking hockey thugs. His crinkled eyes under the heavy salt-sprinkled brows always looked on the verge of tears. It was apparent his semi-pro hockey days were long behind.

Billy thanked him, said how his father once dressed a cut he got when he fell off the bike his father bought and walked all the way back — three miles — from a pawnshop in downtown Boston.

“You loved him. I’m sure he was a great Dad. But . . . He was just a guy, Billy . . . Just like me.” His voice trembled, came out
like a plea. His face grimaced as if Billy had sucker-punched him in the gut.

He knew his father’s limitations; loved him all the more for them. His Dad had no education and he recalled once staring at the cigarette-stained fingers wrapped around a cup of coffee. “Filthy habit,” he smiled. “That’s one udda reason ya shouldn’ start smokin’,” he had said. Billy never saw him smoke again.

If only he could have his Dad back.

Sometimes, he would go into the chapel to say a prayer. In the early morning, when the light was rising through the stained glass windows, he thought about his father’s warnings. William Burke had himself gone to high school briefly at Miramar, a Catholic seminary just south of the city; he described it as a mini-democracy. That was what he loved about it. But he never regretted leaving.

“It took me year ta wake up. Realize‘at much as I loveda towel-snappin’, wrestlin’ about, I really wannid more ahta my life. Lef’ ta find ya Mum.” That was the same day William gave his son the birds-and-bees talk. He also warned about strangers in men’s rooms. “There’re bad men in ‘is world,” he counseled.

One day, they went into the center of town. They walked past the 100-year-old clock tower erected by a volunteer church group on a small landscaped green in a more honest time. The show window of the sporting goods store was full of posters, action shots of Jimmy Piersall, Johnny Pesky, Williams … the Red Sox greats. Christos led inside, bought him his own speed bag gloves.

Back at the camp, they went into the sweat-sodden gym where the acrid fumes of burnt sulfur and incense blended in with the odor. It was right next to the chapel. The proximity allowed Christos to mix Phys Ed together with catechism when the camp reverted to a prep
school.

Two windows, kitty-corner to one another, failed to air the gym sufficiently. The smell gave the room a tough, musky feel. A worn, brown leather heavy bag hung from the beams that criss-crossed the open, gabled ceiling, a taut speed bag hung right next to it. Christos plugged in the big stand-up fan, played it on the bag. He had already been teaching him special exercises with weights to strengthen his jabs and punches. Every time Billy stretched to perform he’d get a sharp slap on his backside. It made him feel joined, the camaraderie filling the void, forestalling the nightly tears that burned his eyes.

He looked back and forth from the bag to Christos.

“Combination . . . Jab, jab, cross . . . Left, left, right cross . . . Hands up . . . That left . . . Keep it up . . . In front of
your face . . . Jab, jab, cross.”

Christos pushed the heavy bag at him, used his bulk. A gruesome snarl ripped across Billy’s face; the iron set of his jaws clamped his teeth; he hit the bag with a shock of violence, punches that burst out like concussion grenades. His nostrils opened with smell of clean, new leather from the 10-ounce gloves, the real things, not like the heavily-used, old 20-ounce puffs he had to wear for his Friday night matches. Sweat drenched his T-shirt, poured down his brow into his eyes, no more than slits now. Exhausted, he wanted to quit. Christos wouldn’t have it. He pushed him through two more three-minute rounds. Billy crouched — — — posed a smaller target, right foot flat, shuffling around the bag, snapping his jab like a piston, shooting the right cross, transferring his weight into it — — — delivering all his pent-up, animal-like ferocity

When the round was over, Christos looked at him, smiled, told him he was special, noted the rib cage distinct under the tight, wet T-shirt — saw the freezing blaze in his cold blue eyes under the damp locks of flaming red hair, inherited from his father
— the ropes of tight muscle, definition cut into his thin arms and shoulders already.

The question came from nowhere; it hung there between them for a moment. He turned his eyes away. “Why’dya become missionary? Didncha evah wanna kid?”

“Wanted one, wanted a wife. But I had a calling. Can’t have it all, eh?” Billy’s hard stare pierced the Brother’s face.

The more he trained, the further the pain receded, shrouded by time and the fun he was having with his mentor. His
Dad still came to him, but now only when he woke in the vacuum of the terrible nights. Nightmares.

“It’s OK. Don’t let it bother you” Christos urged. “You can learn to control it, like any other passion. Concentrate. Take control. No guilt. When you wake up, visualize victory.”

Billy shared the stories with Christos about his Dad’s days at Miramar. How his father’s own Dad insisted that he follow him to work at the old Shrafft’s candy factory off Sullivan Square. “My Dad made the decision to do what was right for himself.” He said how his Dad tried to impress upon him the belief that: “Ya never get everything ya want; ya can’t do everything ya want. So be happy wid what ya have . . . wid who you are.”

He loved the way the sunbeams played games with the leaves overhead as the wind blew them sensuously. They were lying in a barren spot under a tree in a thick copse of rhododendron and hyacinth, the other campers out on a scat-finding mission. The
balsam smell of summer scented the air. In the distance, they could hear the whisper from a transistor radio playing Big Joe Turner’s “Chains of Love,” one of his favorites. Christos lit a cigarette with a chrome Marine Corps lighter. It was shaped like a flame-thrower and Billy figured he must have bought in a variety store because even though he looked like a hero in one of those man-to-man Camels ads he certainly never belonged to the U.S. Marines.

“You’re a super kid, Billy. If I were your age, I would want you to be my best friend.” Billy was more thanflattered. He wanted to please his guide, his savior.

It was when he was alone in bed, or when his face was swathed in the caress of soft light that enveloped all from the aged stained-glass windows of the historic chapel, after he had lit adevotion candle — that was when the gnaw, the agony of abject loneliness, took over — a sense of nothingness; one bright lie after another that led to a bottomless canyon of zero.

It was the middle of the night. All the campers were asleep. He woke, heard Big Brother Christos’ slippers softly shuffling to his bed, felt his cold hand, fleshy and rough, over his own. He got out of bed, took a thin bathrobe off a hook on the pine-paneled wall, struggled into it. He put his hands in the pockets, looked blankly around at his sleeping fellow campers, followed down through the aisle of cots to Christos’s cramped cubicle in the corner. Outside, he could hear the cold, clean stream. It bubbled and gurgled as it coursed through the rock and root obstacles heading to join the parent downstream for its ultimate destination in the timeless sea, unseen, far, far away.

In the small room, Christos turned on a frail night-light, closed the door, opened a drawer in a small night table he had crafted in the camp woodworking shop. It was made from white birch, rustic with the bark still on the legs, something Billy had never seen outside a children’s storybook. He looked at Billy. He was getting tall, lithely graceful, with brooding, secretive dark eyes, pupils big like an onyx game aggie.

Billy sat on the tightly made bed, queasy from the staining odor of smoke. His eyes fixed on his stressed faced reflected in a mirror that hung on the wall across the shadowed room. Christos took out a pack of Galoise, told him they were Canadian. Billy had never smoked before and did not know they were actually French. Christos tapped the pack on his hand, shook out two, lit them, handed one to Billy, and put the other into his mouth, where it hung like a mechanical appendage with its glowing tip and curling smoke. He inhaled, coughed. Christos looked into his eyes. Billy’s burned back.

“Jesus liked a good time,” he said. “I think he would have smoked.”

“You think?”

“Remember the wine at the wedding. What do you think that was all about?”

“I thought he was about suffering to pay for our sins.”

“He was all about love, Billy, having a good time. That’s why he died. To save us from suffering.”

Billy inhaled and exhaled, gasped with an audible breath. Was that really all it was? He fell back, dizzy with serpentine confusion. If Christos was right, was his Dad wrong? He looked around the room. A crucifix hung over the bed. On the night table, a mahogany-brown marble ashtray in the shape of a tree slice overflowed with unfinished cigarette stubs. He saw a nearly finished pint of Old Thompson whiskey, next to that a shopworn copy of Flirt. The cover displayed a Latin siren wearing sheer, black nylon stockings held up by a straining garter belt. The model was bent over, looking back at the reader. Her sultry eyes, full of promise, flashed. A white crescent on the bottom curve of one breast winked.

“Come On-A My Boudoir,” the headline blared.

Christos’ eyebrows twitched; he snickered as he took it from Billy’s hands, turned to a page with a curvy blonde who waved out with a come-one-come-all purse on her wet lips. Billy made a fist, gripped it, flexed, cocked his head.

“My favorite,” Christos laughed. “She is saying come, enjoy. Just what Jesus would say. But Billy, you have to make decisions for yourself — like a man.”

His eyes squinched, peering. There was nothing there — in that face — that he could hold, no soft comfort of compassion. He looked and wondered: Is it me — my fault? Every time the Brother called on him, he was there. And every time he went he felt his father by his side.

Why did he leave me?

Now that he was gone, his mother and sister planned to move back to Cleveland with his grandmother. She had run out of sources for help and made plans to head off any trouble before it got out of hand. “You’ll love it,” she told him. The Academy of the Holy Cross was a boarding school that featured wilderness camping, but he knew from O’Hara that it was a warehouse for troubled boys.

He would never go.

“We are the same, Billy. You and I. Alone in this world. We need each other. There is so much I could teach you.” He stepped
over to the bed, sat next to Billy, drew close. Billy could smell the piney soap. His hands moved down over Billy’s shoulders, his body. Billy smelled the mints covering the sour whiskey breath, felt Christos’ freshly shaved face against his. Suddenly he pitied the man, pulled away, seized his grasping eyes, leaned back on the bed, propped on one elbow, wiped his damp hand on the bathrobe, creeped it into the pocket, his fingers strong now. He felt the unbending authority of Jack O’Hara’s steel switchblade.

“Let me talk to your mother. You could come to school here, live here . . . my son, my son.”

Salvation began as the scream came up from way down inside the deepest depths of his soul. It rose rapidly, a fresh bubble of clean, cool air cleansing the betrayal of his trust. It passed out his larynx and exploded into the firmament like a death star, waking up everyone in the camp, rolling out massively through the surrounding forest, over the lake into the sleeping town and the nearby city — into every newspaper, radio and television station — into the future.

Co-founder @brooklynmag @TasteTalks @NorthsideFest (acquired) Student journalism advocate. Boxing record 1-0. http://www.danielstedman.com

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