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Where the Dark Streets Go
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
FATHER MCMAHON WAS LEANING out the window of the rectory study when he saw the boy in the distance. A little fellow, he was running with all his might in a crazy zigzag fashion, dodging cars and ashcans, a pile of junk and a cluster of women. When he came closer the priest recognized him, and at the moment he recognized him he realized he had found his way into Sunday's sermon: brotherhood was a matter of getting close enough to recognize one another. Since for over an hour he had been at the desk sorting banalities like a curate his shoes to see which pair was the least run down, he sat on the window ledge, swung his legs out and dropped to the sidewalk below. It was spring and the slow rain of early morning had left the smell of earth behind it, earth and the river smell which told of the tide's turning and provoked his memory of the sea's edge and the sand's whiteness, and himself the stranger running there in what once he had thought of as self-pursuit. Always he identified with runners.
He braced himself and spread his arms. "Hold it, Carlos. Slow down."
The youngster crashed into him. When the priest had steadied him on his feet the boy caught his hand and pulled at him. "Come, Father, quick. My friend, the man, he is hurt very bad."
"You can tell me on the way." The priest set his pace by the boy's, his long stride one to the boy's three steps. "Did he send for a priest?"
"No, Father, sí." Carlos often mixed yes and no as well as his languages. He was growing up bilingual in New York, or, as the monsignors said dryly of the rapidly increasing minority among his parishioners, semilingual.
"Are the police there, Carlos?" he asked as they approached Tenth Avenue.
"No, Father. Nobody."
That, the priest thought, would be strange indeed in the crowded tenement where Carlos lived. But the boy led the way, racing against a change in the traffic light and the bursting surge of trucks and taxis. Down a block he ran, then west again to a building marked for demolition, the great white X's scarring the windows. The whole long street, beyond and on both sides, was a desolation. The bulldozers had leveled the rubble to a prairie flatness. The boy led him down three steps and through a basement entry. How he had come to know the man was there, God only knew. The passageway was dank, bile-green, and piled with molding rubbish.
Carlos stopped at a half-open door. "In there, Father."
The priest heard the man's breathing before he saw him, the rattling sound of it all too familiar. The man lay, face down, on a heap of old clothes and bedding. The broken window overhead fronted on the street. McMahon glimpsed the top of a passing truck. He looked around for the boy to instruct him, but Carlos had vanished. He called out his name.
His own voice came faintly back, and then, as he approached the man and knelt beside him, he heard the child pass beneath the window. "Bring your mother, Carlos!" he called to him.
"If you can find your mother, Carlos," the man said with a clarity the priest had not expected.
"Where are you hurt, my friend?"
"As deep as the knife could reach." The man tried to raise his head. His breathing was easier. "Who are you?"
"A friend. I'm a priest."
"Who? Not what." The man rested his head on the back of his hand, the long fingers spread and glistening with spittle. In the gray light his gray face with its glaring eyes and dark beard resembled a medieval Christus.
"Joseph McMahon," the priest said. "Shall I go for a doctor if you don't want a priest?"
"It's as late for one as the other, wouldn't you say?"
"You are alive, man. It's not that late."
"Ah-h-h ..." The sound trailed off. He tried to clear his throat of the rasp starting there again. "You've heard the noise of death in your business."
"Too many times," the priest said.
"I can't get it out of my throat. Come down where I can see you. Turn your face to the light." He lifted his free hand and let it fall in the patch of daylight out of which he then dragged it like something separately alive, a haunting hand, the priest thought, the long fingers squared at the tips. The man clutched it in against himself.
McMahon lay down on the cold cement, flat on his stomach, his face toward the window within a foot or so of the dying man's. He could smell the taint of death. The whites of the man's eyes shone as he tried to focus them on the priest's face. "I think I would like to know you, Joseph McMahon."
"Tell me what I can do to help you."
"Get rid of the pain. Can you do that?"
"I would if I could, God knows."
"Then talk to me. Talk to me of anything but death. What were you doing when the child came for you?"
It was like tunneling out of a dream, going back that little time ago when he had been sitting at the study desk. "I was trying to write a sermon."
"Oh, God almighty. I'm glad I got you away from that."
McMahon laughed. He could not help it, and he was glad, for he saw that it pleased the man. "I would like to know you too, my friend."
"Is it so?"
"It is so."
The eyes slid away from the priest's face, staring past him. When he tried to speak the bloody spittle bubbled up to his lips. McMahon wiped it away with his own handkerchief. The man said, "Nim said once I'd shake hands with the devil."
"Is that what I am to you?"
"No, no, I was only remembering. Do you believe in him, horns, tail and all?"
"I believe in evil, call it what you will."
"So do I, friend. Oh, yes. So do I."
"Do you want to tell me what happened to you?" the priest asked gently.
"No. And I don't want you telling me what is going to happen to me."
"I wouldn't presume to."
"Forgive me, but you are a priest. Do you believe what you wrote in that sermon?"
"I try to write what I believe."
"Are you sure it's not the other way around?"
McMahon had the feeling of dream again, the self-aware dream where you know you are dreaming and so let things go that you might otherwise hold back. "No. I am not sure."
The man showed his teeth in a smile that became a grimace. He burrowed his face in his arm. His whole body shivered with every tearing breath. McMahon stroked the back of his head. He could think of no other comfort to offer, and he could not fortify even himself with prayer.
"You ought to tell me," he tried again.
The man turned his head. "Why? So you could save his soul?"
"Just to take the knife away from him."
"I think I've taken the knife ..." He cradled his head again in the crook of his arm, the face buried. The shoulders grew still, the breathing stopped.
McMahon heard the scraping of his own shoes as he got to his knees. He knelt on, looking down at the remnant of mortality, an existence no longer, a man who had, the instant before, left off being himself to himself, being. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend his spirit. He commends his spirit. The priest lingered still and listened to the deep silence of the cellar, the deeper seeming because of the far noises of the city, the ack-ack of a pneumatic drill, the thump of the demolition sledge, the deep-throated horn of a docking liner. He got to his feet and went out.
The sunlight was a shock to his eyes. He looked down. The words "Love Power" were scrawled on the sidewalk.
At the first call box on Tenth Avenue he telephoned the police. Then, because he was so instructed, he started back toward the building to await their arrival. He found himself almost greedily aware of life on that little journey: oranges in a basket were like so many suns. He picked one up and turned it in his hand. The shopkeeper rushed out and urged him to have it. He shook his head and put it back carefully. Most people knew him, the women in doorways haloed in hair curlers sunning themselves and their infants, storekeepers and cart vendors, the walkers of dogs, even the dogs. They all knew a priest for a priest if not for a man. A strange thought that, wherever it came from. Then he remembered: Who? Not what.
He asked among the women on the stoop of the walkup where Carlos lived if any of them had seen the boy. No one had.
"What did he do, Father?" Their eagerness to hear of mischief was implicit.
"Nothing, nothing. He is a good boy."
"Sí, they are all good boys," an old one said, wagging her head.
"His mother, she is not home so much," another offered, trying to detain him with the suggestion of gossip.
McMahon walked on. If you can find your mother, Carlos: did that mean the dead man knew her? The police would gather and sift the gossip and shake out bits of truth. He heard the first siren as he turned the corner. Waiting, staring at the rubbled field, he caught sight of two doors leaned together like a tent with a tiny flag hoisted atop one end. That would be the first place to look for Carlos.
Detective Finley Brogan took McMahon's statement while they sat in the back of a squad car outside the building. The whole area was being cordoned off, for the crowd came quickly at the siren's wail. Technical trucks, a mobile generator, an ambulance, and car after car of police and detectives converged. Nor were they all investigative. Any incident could fuse the neighborhood, a mixture of blacks and whites, Puerto Rican, Italian and Irish. Volatile, combustible.
Brogan was a well-mannered young detective brought up with a proper respect for the clergy. He asked every question as though it might encroach on the privacy of the confessional. Not so Lieutenant Traynor. When he climbed into the car with them Brogan proposed to read him the priest's statement.
Traynor said, "I don't think it would tire Father McMahon to go over it again. Would it, Father?" His smile was quick to come and go, a weapon of sorts. He was a man of around McMahon's age, forty, lean and scrubbed-looking, with slate-gray eyes. The name was an old one in the parish records.
When McMahon had told the story again, Traynor asked: "Did he come for you, or would any priest have done?"
"Any priest. I happened to be the one at hand." It crossed his mind that the dialogue between the dying man and either of the other two curates would have been quite different. To say nothing of how the monsignor would have dealt with the situation.
"You've never seen him around the neighborhood?"
"Not to my knowledge, but he would have looked different under other circumstances."
"A beard is a beard," Traynor said.
"I got the impression the boy knew him."
"What other impression did you get, Father?"
McMahon hesitated. They were numerous, but he would have to sort them out, to think about them.
"Did he know his killer, for example?"
"He might have."
"Did you ask him?"
"It's there in the notes," McMahon said, pointing to the report book in Brogan's hands. "I asked him if he wanted to tell me what happened to him."
"You were real delicate with him, Father. Because he wasn't a Catholic?"
McMahon felt the prickle of temper. "I'd have been as delicate with a Catholic."
"And him on the point of death?"
Both the questions and answers were wrong, almost the reverse, McMahon thought, of what either of them wanted to say.
"He did not want my advice," he said, trying to end the matter.
Traynor grunted. "There's a girl's name in there some place. No message for her?"
"Lieutenant, I have told as closely as I remember what was said. He gave me no sense of urgency on his behalf, no message, no regret, none of the things we feel should concern a man who knows he is about to die."
"Then why do you suppose he sent the child for you?"
"I'm not sure he did. It may have been Carlos' own idea."
"Then what was the kid doing there?"
"We'll have to ask him that."
Traynor thought about it, his eyes meanwhile sharp to the coming and going of his men. An unmarked car sirened its way alongside them. "The glamour boys," Traynor grumbled, and opened the door to get out. It was only later that McMahon learned he meant the Homicide Division. To Brogan he said: "Pick the youngster up," and then to McMahon: "Puerto Rican?"
"Black or white?"
"White." McMahon did not say it, but Carlos' sisters looked Negroid.
"I grew up in this neighborhood," Traynor said. "But it was a different place then. St. Peter's church. Is that your parish, Father?"
"Give my respects to Monsignor Casey. Does the kid speak English?"
"He can manage pretty well when he tries," the priest said.
"Most of them can. That's the whole problem, isn't it?"
McMahon did not think so but he refrained from saying it. Traynor shook hands with the men Brogan then identified to the priest as Homicide. He and McMahon got out the other side of the car.
"I could use your help with the youngster, Father."
To avoid the following eyes of the curious, McMahon walked the detective to Tenth Avenue. He pointed out the building where Carlos lived, the stoop now deserted. The detective made a note of the address. "It's only a hunch where we're going," the priest said, "but we'll find him one place or another."
"Do you speak Spanish, Father?"
"Well, I don't suppose a Spaniard would call it that."
Brogan grinned. "I'd have the same trouble with an Englishman."
"You don't live in the parish, do you, Brogan?"
"No, Father. In Chelsea, what's left of that. My old man is a longshoreman. Same as Traynor's, only his father's a big macher in the union."
"A good English word," McMahon said.
The boy did not come out of his shelter until McMahon leaned down and drew aside the canvas flap which had been tacked on the dirty green doors. The canvas itself was smeared with paint. No child of Carlos' age could have put the play fort together. He came out on all fours when he saw it was the priest.
"This is a friend of mine, Detective Brogan. Carlos Morales."
Brogan stuck out his hand but the child did not take it. Brogan admired the fort, but still won no favor. The boy looked only at the ground.
"Did your friend build it for you?" McMahon asked.
"Sí, Father. Him and my brother."
"Are they friends?"
Brogan reached for his report book and then thought the better of it.
"When did they build it?"
"For my saint's day."
"What's your friend's name?"
The boy shrugged.
"What do you call him?"
McMahon and Brogan exchanged glances. The detective shrugged.
"Do you know where he lives?" the priest asked.
"In my house."
McMahon put the next question as carefully as he could. "Did you often visit him in the place you took me this morning?"
"Never." Finally the boy looked up at him. "I just go to the steps and call him. He comes down and gives me doorknobs. Would you like to see, Father?"
While the boy went into the shelter, Brogan said, "You're doing fine, Father. We'll put it together afterwards."
Carlos hauled out a dogfood carton in which were a dozen or so doorknobs that had once been white but were now painted, some with faces, some like psychedelic Easter eggs.
"Oh, man," McMahon said, "aren't they something."
"Beautiful," Brogan said.
The boy grinned. "Every day when I come from school, he gives me one. If I say what I learned in school."
"Carlos only goes to school in the morning," McMahon explained to Brogan, which in no way explained why he was not in school that morning.
"This week I start afternoons, Father."
"So you went early to see your friend?"
Brogan shook his head. He did not like the prompting.
The boy said, "Yes, Father. Only he did not come when I call. I call again. Then he call me. 'I am hurt, Carlos,' and he tell me to come in the basement. I want to run away, but he say, 'Please, Carlos.' So I go in. He was like this." The boy humped over, hugging his hands to his chest. "He say, 'Don't be afraid,' but I am afraid when I see the blood. And when he fall down and don't talk any more I come for you."
"Carlos, do you remember the first time you ever saw the man, the first time?"
"Sí, Father. He was painting Mrs. Phelan's door. He let me paint too."
Brogan asked his first question: "Did you see anyone else in the building where your friend was hurt?"
The boy glanced at the priest.
"Tell him," McMahon said.
The boy shook his head.
"You're a good boy, Carlos," the priest said. "Better put your doorknobs away now."
About to go into the hut, the boy saw the crowd for the first time. He looked up at the priest.
"I'll wait for you," McMahon said. Then to Brogan: "I'll have to tell him."
"Thanks a lot, Father. It may not sit with Traynor, but if you'll come round to the station this afternoon, we'll try it on him. Do you know this Mrs. Phelan he mentioned?"
Excerpted from Where the Dark Streets Go by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1969 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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