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By Jennifer Haigh
Copyright © 2011 Jennifer Haigh
All right reserved.
Here is a story my mother has never told me.
It is a day she's relived a thousand times, the twenty-first
of June, 1951, the longest day of that or any year. A day that still
hasn't ended, as some part of her still paces that dark apartment in
Jamaica Plain, waiting. I imagine the curtains closed against the
five o'clock sun, hot and bright as midday; her baby boy peacefully
asleep; her young self with nothing to do but wander from
room to room, still filled with her dead mother-in-law's things.
At the time she'd thought it a grand apartment, her from Roxbury
where the children slept three to a bed. Even as a boy her
husband had had his own bedroom, an unimaginable luxury. His
mother had been injured somehow giving birth and there had
been no more children. This fact alone made the Breens wealthier
than most, though Harry's father had only worked at Filene's
stacking crates in the warehouse. The entire apartment had come
from Filene's, on the employee discount, the lamps and brocade
divan and what she had learned were called Oriental rugs. Mary
herself had never bought a thing at Filene's. Her own mother
shopped at Sears.
In the bedroom the baby slept deeply. She parted the curtains
and let the sun shine on his face. Harry, when he came home,
would pull them shut, worried someone might see him dressing
or undressing through their third-floor windows. Sure, it was
possiblethe windows faced Pond Street, also lined with three-
deckersthough why he cared was a puzzle. He was a man, after
all. And there was nothing wrong with the sight of him. The first
morning of their marriage, lying in the too-soft bed in the tourist
cabin in Wellfleet, she had looked up at him in wonderment, her
first time seeing him in daylight, his bare chest and shoulders, and
her already four months along. Nothing wrong with him at all,
her husband tall and blue-eyed, with shiny dark hair that fell into
his eyes when he ducked his head, a habit left over from a bashful
adolescence, though nobody, now, would call him shy. Harry
Breen could talk to anyone. Behind the counter at Old Colony
Hardware he had a way with the customers, got them going about
their clogged pipes and screen doors and cabinets they were
installing. He complimented their plans, suggested small improvements,
sent them out the door with twice what they'd come in
for. A natural salesman, never mind that he couldn't, himself, hit
a nail with a hammer. When a fuse blew at the apartment it was
Mary who ventured into the dark basement with a flashlight.
What did you do before? she'd asked, half astonished, when she
returned to the lit apartment and found Harry and his mother sitting
placidly in the kitchen, stirring sugar into teacups.
We didn't burn so many lights before, the old lady said.
It was a reminder among many others that Mary's presence
was unwelcome, that Mrs. Breen, at least, had not invited her
into their lives, this grimy interloper with her swollen belly and
her skirts and blouses from Sears. As though her condition were a
mystery on the order of the Virgin Birth, as though Harry Breen
had had nothing to do with it.
She lifted Arthur from his crib and gave his bottom a pat.
He wriggled, squealed, fumbled blindly for her breast. The sodden
diaper would have to be changed, the baby fed. In this way
minutes would pass, and finally an hour. The stubborn sun would
begin its grudging descent. Across town, in Roxbury, girls would
be dressing for the dances, Clare Boyle and her sister and whoever
else they ran with now, setting out by twos and threes down the
hill to Dudley Street.
She finished with the diaper, then sat at the window and
unbuttoned her blouse, aware of the open curtains. If Harry came
upon her like this, her swollen breast exposed, what would he
do then? The thought was thrilling in a way she couldn't have
explained. But it was after six, and still there was no sign of him.
When his mother was alive he'd come straight home after work.
You could set your watch by it, his footsteps on the stairs at five
thirty exactly, even on Fridays when the other men stopped at the
pub for a taste. Lately, though, his habits had shifted. Mondays
and Tuesdays he played cards at the Vets.
Once, leaving church, he'd nodded to some men she didn't
recognize, a short one and a tall one sharing a cigarette on the
sidewalk. See you tomorrow, then, Harry called in a friendly tone.
The short man had muttered under his breath, and the tall one
had guffawed loudly. To Mary it couldn't have been plainer that
they were not Harry's friends.
They'd met the way everyone met, at the dances. Last summer
the Intercolonial was the place to be; now it might be the Hibernian-
or the Winslow or the Rose Croix for all she knew. On a
Saturday night, with Johnny Powell's band playing, a thousand or
more would crowd upstairs at the Intercolonial, a mirrored globe
hanging from the ceiling so that the walls shivered with light.
She was seventeen then, too young for such pleasures. But it
had been easy enough to slip out on a Friday night with Ma
dead asleep, exhausted by the work of getting three small ones
bathed and in their beds. And it wasn't even a lie to go dancing
on a Wednesday, when Mary really did attend the novena at
nine o'clock as she was supposed to, the church packed with other
overdressed girls and men who'd already had a drink or two,
who'd meet up later across the street at Fontaine's Café and make
their plans for the evening. All right, then. See you at the hall. The
men were deep on Wednesdays; you could change partners all
night long if you wanted. Thursdays were a different story, maids'
night out, the halls packed with Irish girls. There was almost no
point in going on a Thursday, the numbers were so against you.
On a Thursday you were lucky to get a single dance.
Harry Breen hadn't chosen her, not at first. That first time
they'd danced purely by chance. She knew all the dancesthe reels
and jigs, the wild céilí. At the Intercolonial waltzes were the thing,
though once each night Johnny Powell would force the dreamy
couples apart. Line up, everybody, for the Siege of Ennis. A mad crush,
then, as they formed two long lines, men and girls facing. You'd
take your turn with every one, herself and Clare Boyle laughing
the whole way through. Some of the men were clumsy, some so
strong they'd nearly swing you off your feet.
She noticed Harry a moment before he reached for her. He
was taller than the rest, his movements liquid; he swung her
gracefully, smooth and controlled. And that thing she first felt,
that swooning joy: maybe it was simple geometry, the relative
size and shape of their bodies, his chest and shoulders just where
they should be, their hips meeting, her eyes level with his mouth.
The plain fact was that she'd chased him, courted his attention
Gone to greater lengths than any girl should. There was
no point, now, in being ashamed. She had a ring on her finger
and it hardly mattered how. They were married fast by her uncle
Fergus, who'd skipped, discreetly, the time-consuming step of
publishing the banns. Fergus had guessed what everyone would
soon know, that Mary had gotten exactly what she wanted, and
a bit more besides.
She looked down at the baby at her breast.
In the kitchen she took her beads from the drawer and found
the station in time. Missing the Archbishop's greeting was like
coming late to a movie; she'd be unable to enter into the spirit
of the thing. When Harry's mother was living, they had knelt in
the parlor for the rosary. Now the old lady was gone and no one
was looking, so Mary dragged a chair to the open window and
settled herself there. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of
Heaven and Earth. Through the window a breeze came, carrying
the Archbishop's voice from the two apartments below. Up
and down the street, every radio was tuned to the same station.
Through every open window came the same holy words.
It being Thursday, they started with the Joyful. As a girl she
had studied the illustrations in her mother's missal. The Joyful
Mysteries were the most straightforward, the pictures almost
Protestant in their simplicity: the Blessed Virgin kneeling in prayer,
waiting for the angel; the Virgin noticeably pregnant, embracing
her cousin Elizabeth. The Sorrowful were haunting and in a
way lovelier: Our Lord kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane,
glowing in His anguish, perspiring drops of blood. But it was the
Glorious Mysteries she waited for, Our Lord lifted into heaven,
clouds bubbling beneath His feet like a cauldron of spirits. The
Resurrection, the Ascension, the Assumption of the Virgin: all
these stirred her deeply, even though (or perhaps because) she
understood them the least. That was the beauty of it: contemplating
the miracles, sublime and unknowable, and yet the words you
repeated couldn't be simpler. Hail Mary, full of grace. A prayer you'd
known since earliest childhood, familiar as your mother's voice.
She closed her eyes and enjoyed the breeze, the baby's warm
weight, the Archbishop's familiar intonations. She had seen him
once standing beside the carousel at Paragon Park, eating ice
cream with a dozen beaming nuns. In photos, in full regalia,
he was imposing, and yet you never forgot that he was from St.
Eulalia's in South Boston, that his own father had worked in the
repair pits at the Boston El. He never forgot it, either. You could
tell this from the photographs: the Archbishop tossing around a
football with the CYO boys, or raising a glass at a priest's golden
jubilee. The Archbishop wouldn't say no to a drink, according to
her uncle Fergus, who'd met him on several occasions. Cushing
was God's own, and yet he was theirs, too, in every way a regular
She heard two sharp knocks at the front door.
"Coming," she called, drying herself with a tea towel, noticing
all at once the wet stains on her blouse.
She threw open the door. A strange man stood there smoking
a cigarette. He wore a thin mustache and was her own height,
though she was barefoot and he wore heeled boots. It took her
a moment to place him: the short man from outside the church.
"Is your husband at home?" He looked over her shoulder, his
eyes darting around the room.
"I'm sorry, he's not."
From the kitchen the Archbishop droned: Glory be to the Father
and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.
"Listening to the rosary, were you? My mum does that every
night." The man dropped his cigarette and crushed it with his
heel. He stepped past her into the apartment. "You're sure he isn't
here?" He glanced into the kitchen as though Harry might be
hiding and Mary felt a sudden urge to laugh, a nervous tic. She
was forever laughing at the wrong times.
"He hasn't come home yet. Try the store, maybe?"
"I've been there. He left hours ago."
"I don't know, then. He could have stopped off at the pub."
The man frowned. "Never seen him take a drink, myself.
Likes to keep his wits about him, doesn't he?" He smiled then,
and she saw that on both sides his teeth were missing. It made
the front ones look suspect, like the vampire dentures children
wore at Halloween.
In her arms the baby let out a loud hiccup. She raised him to
her shoulder. "Excuse me. I was in the middle of feeding him."
Patting him gently, waiting for him to burp. She was afraid to
look down at her blouse.
The man stepped in close to her, smelling rankly of cigarette.
"Sorry to miss that," he said, and to her horror his rough hand
touched her face.
Arthur let out another hiccup and vomited in a great burst.
"Jaysus!" The man stepped back, shaking his sleeve. It was
coated in yellow spew.
"Oh, no! I'm so sorry." Mary took the towel from her shoulder
and wiped uselessly at his sleeve. The smell was terrible, sour as
vinegar. The man tore his hand away, eyeing the baby like a snake.
"That's a real charmer you've got there." He turned to go.
"Tell your man Shorty wants to see him."
She closed the door quickly behind him. The door, then the
bolt, then the chain.
Tell your man Shorty wants to see him.
He had never, in her memory, stayed out after dark. Only for
the card games, and then he always told her beforehand: I've got
the cards tonight, so don't hold supper. I'll have a sandwich or something
If he stayed out all night, would she sit up waiting? Brushing
her teeth a hundred strokes, a hundred strokes to her long
dark hair. Always the counting calmed herbrushstrokes, rosary
beads. Half the reason she loved the dancing was the counting of
the steps. It gave her mind something to do.
A strange fear gnawed at her stomach. For the first time she
wished for a regular man, who'd go to a pub on a Friday. Then, at
least, she'd know where to find him. But it was true what Shorty
had said: Harry liked to keep a clear head. There was nothing to
do but go to Old Colony Hardware. As detectives did in the radio
serials: she would go to where Harry was last seen.
I've been there, Shorty had said. He left hours ago.
How many hours? she wondered. Where on earth could he
She went to the telephone. "Is Father Egan in, please? This is
his niece, Mary Breen." The name new enough, still, to have an
odd flavor on her tongue.
"Wedding tonight," the housekeeper said. "He'll be back late.
I can have him call you tomorrow."
"Yes, please," Mary said.
Excerpted from Faith by Jennifer Haigh Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Haigh. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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