When a retired cleric visits the memories of his past in the Smoky City of Pittsburgh during 1953, he recalls the many adventures he had with his best friend, Jack. The boys were inseparable and always up to something. One night, Jack even stole his dad's car for an adventure at the Yellow Wheel Saloon.
In the summer of that year, though, something changes: the polio epidemic hits Pittsburgh. Big Hank, a tough kid, falls victim to the disease, and the boys are shocked that something like illness could befall someone so strong. Life for Jack goes on, however, as he begins to mature over the passing months-but not so much that he ever forgets to laugh.
Even when school starts, Big Hank is still in the hospital. Jack wants to do something for him-but doesn't know what he can do. With Christmas drawing near, he thinks of the perfect gift to aid in his recovery. The cleric remembers all of this and realizes all things change and that change never stops.
Growth is an ongoing part of life, and it often helps to look back at who we once were to recognize the person we have become.
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By WILLIAM A. FRANCIS
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 William A. Francis
All rights reserved.
The Rabbi and Father Peacock
Before retiring from the ministry, if that's really possible, I set off in a stuffy Yellow Cab to visit auxiliary Bishop Richard Sheridan and discuss my future. I asked the driver, in jest, to avoid cemeteries. I've seen enough of them. But, I realized, I'm dressed in a new cemetery-black suit. My white hair is trimmed just above the ears. Shoes polished and shining. All of my vanities are in place.
The driver raced up and down narrow avenues where once-upon-a-time slick streetcar tracks and washboard cobblestones tossed cars and trucks around like toys.
"Really, there's no hurry," I said. "I've got plenty of time."
"Not worry, Rabbi. I get you there speedy-quick. Magic carpet!"
I was a case of nerves by the time we arrived at the Boulevard offices. Had I experienced what science fiction writers call warp speed? Was I a new person, à la 2001? Into the cab a monsignor, out of the cab a rabbi? I tipped the driver generously, wished him well, and then turned to the steps of the offices. I sensed that this would be a remarkable day—and I was right.
Father Vincent led me to the bishop's spacious office that was decorated with pictures of Benedict XVI, JFK, and Mother Teresa. The bishop shook my hand. "Monsignor C. C. Warren," he said, as though about to present me with a plaque, "I always love your visits. And you will be missed, but I understand that you will help us when we are in a proverbial pinch. This makes us all very happy."
He turned the pages of my résumé. "Clark Cyril Warren. Well, now I know what the second C stands for. Now that's a regal name."
"When I was young, I used to hide my middle name. But I like it now. Richard, I'll need to update my résumé. You see, I am now a rabbi." I told him about my magic-carpet journey. Is there a full moon today?
"Your story reminds me of the time I had to make an emergency call to Mount Washington. Saint Mary's. Vincent was out on an errand in our car, so I ran to the curb and flagged a cab, dressed as I am now in my (admittedly) colorful ecclesiastical robes. I settled in the cab for the short trip. The cabbie turned to greet me. 'Hey, Father Peacock. Where to?'"
We laughed. "What is there about our dress that makes us such easy marks?" he asked.
"Perhaps it's because we're so comfortable being different. No gray flannel suits for us."
"Good point! So, C. C., where will your travels take you?"
"To a place I loved in the summer and fall of 1953."
"Is there a typo here in the résumé? You were only a boy in 1953. A precocious one, I'm sure."
"Before I begin my duties as chaplain for the Little Sisters, I'm taking some time to rediscover what it was like to be a boy of thirteen or fourteen. Nostalgic indulgence. I've a hunch I'll discover things about who I was and what in the world I was doing then—getting in trouble as Jack's pal, falling in love with a pretty girl named Jane, and making a nuisance of myself. But it was fun. A child sees and feels in a special way. Maybe I haven't lost that."
Vincent joined us. "Hola. Would you like me to bring some sherry? It's Sandeman!"
The bishop asked me with a wry smile, "Would you like Spanish sherry, even though it's not yet noon? Or should I say, especially since it's not yet noon?"
"Yes," I answered. "Sherry is my favorite vice."
"Vincent," he said, "please bring three glasses and join us. You'll learn what a seventy-plus priest has to say as he's mustered out of service. Now, that's a military term, I believe, appropriate to you officer's rank as a chaplain." Though seated, he made a nice salute.
"Oh, and Vincent, when you have a minute, ask Blessed Goggle who the patron saint of taxi drivers is. C. C. might want to light a candle."
In less than a minute I was sipping sherry and toasting the occasion, I could not stop admiring the formal dress of the bishop: the black cassock, with its regal stitching at each buttonhole, the shoulder cape with scarlet piping, the gold pectoral cross, and the scarlet sash. Could I be envious? There but for his Grace go I?
"Richard," I said, "retirement comes close to being the end of one's life. I want to change the meaning of the word end. I want it to mean purpose of life, not termination. If I remember my Webster's, end can mean something ahead of you, like a purpose, a challenge.
"You haven't said where you're going. Where you'll end up, so to speak."
"Not far, really. I'm going to Roslyn Place. It's just up the road a bit, in Shadyside.
A small order of business came up. "Vincent, is the bishop's car free this morning? Is the bishop in his office?"
"The bishop's in New Orleans. There's conference at the Saint Louis Cathedral. Something about planning to invite Pope Benedict to visit New Orleans and some other cities, including Pittsburgh, if he decides to come to the U. S."
He left us to make sure that the car was actually in the garage. He enjoyed driving it about the city. I imagined his cassock drawn up on his knees above his Dockers, his sunglasses high on his nose. He returned quietly and nodded "yes." Then he went off to another chore.
"Then you needn't concern yourself with a cab. Vincent will drive you to your next destination in our silver Toyota, the gift of a generous businessman. By the way, have you ever been to New Orleans?"
"Yes, some years ago when John Paul II was in the Crescent City. Well, that was a splendid time! Since this is a morning of indulging memories, I recall walking through the French Quarter during a pause in the ceremonies. It was wishful thinking, perhaps, but I had hoped to see an aging man, a big, confident fellow, riding an old, rusty, red bicycle up and down those narrow streets. Such a sight would be nothing unusual in the French Quarter. So why not a big guy coasting on a red bike, surveying his kingdom? A boy named Henry, or Hank, or Big Hank, who moved to New Orleans more than fifty years ago to recuperate from a serious illness. He sent me a postcard of Bourbon Street after a few months. It read, 'Hay you bums.' The shaky writing told me he was not yet well. Haven't had a card since."
"I am sorry about the young man. Interesting names. I imagine they are all covered under the name of Saint Henry. When Vincent returns, I'll ask him to find a good excuse for a short trip to New Orleans, for the glory of God, of course." I detected a knowing wink.
Vincent, perhaps sensing that the bishop and I would talk further, put his head in the door to say that the schedule was open until lunch. The bishop motioned for him to come in.
"The patron saint you asked about was born in Ireland in the early seventh century, but later he fled to France. He's Saint Fiacre. Feast day, in Ireland, is September first. Other places, different dates in August. Sorry. I never heard of him."
How odd, I thought. Jack's birthday is the first of September. Yes, I'll light a candle.
"Odd name, but very good. Now tell us about Roslyn Place. What do you expect to find there after so many years?"
"I'll just open a gate and see what I find. Nostalgic breaking-and-entering, I guess."
"An exciting prospect, I think. What do you expect to find behind this gate?"
"Mystery, yes. And magic. And, I hope, a much younger me."
"May I have a preview, perhaps, an impromptu promenade?"
"Well, now, let me think. A warm day, even under the thick canopy of sycamore trees. Dappled light. A streetcar running on Ellsworth Avenue, bell clanging. Innocent laughter behind the fence. Jack's laughter. He had already passed through the gate and secured its spring lock. Wasn't he expecting me, I wondered? I sometimes overthink things and find a little hurt wherever I can. That's a scrupulosity I could never overcome. Was I imposing? Did I presume? Well, I pushed the gate open, and there was Abby to greet me with a southern belle's smile under her Prince Valiant hairdo. A southern fashion, I'm certain.
"Now Jack was hanging by his long arms from a low branch of an old apple tree, his knees drawn up to his chest. A circus scene. He'd been telling a story, punctuating it with loud laughs and shouts. 'Hahahahehe, my old man ran out of gas. So, there we were, stalled next to a saloon!' Jack loved saloons. Anything dank, dark, and smelly excited him. 'Let's see your cellar,' he'd say, already at the top step peering into the dark basement below. Abby must have been shocked by Jack's insensitivity. He shouted with a poet's satisfaction, 'A saloon is just like an armpit.'
"I was jealous of Jack's easy gab and quick laughs. I could understand his passion for Abby because she was tall and fair, like Jack. They were a 'match.' I remember that she had a slight dusting of white-blonde hair on her arms. Jack liked to tickle-tease it with his fingers. 'Stop it, Jackie!' she cried, but she liked the attention. He had nerve. I never could have touched her like that."
The bishop raised his hand to interrupt me. "Excuse me, but are you saying that he was already in love at his young age? Or was this just innocent courtship? The libido beginning to unwrap, so to speak?"
"I think it was a case of adolescent concupiscence. That may be too strong a word. But pre-confessional, I think. Summertime dalliance. I confess that I was in that stage, too, with no thought of the priesthood in my head. That came later, much later, when I was a senior in high school."
"And where were the young lady's momma and papa?"
"Papa was at the window, taking notes, so to speak."
The bishop laughed. "Still," he observed, "you must have found some vicarious pleasure."
"Oh, yes. I especially loved the comedy. You see, Jack liked to pester Abby. And he liked to brag. Jack bragged that his mother's Sunday breakfasts after Mass were unrivaled— bacon, eggs, hot, hot coffee, danish, sausage, toast, orange juice, and more. I know this to be true. I was often invited."
I resumed my story of old times. "Abby stared at Jack. 'Jackie, you must think everyone on Roslyn Place thinks the same way. Well, I have news for you, they don't. Some of us are from enriching places with culture and customs you will never understand, unless you travel outside of Shadyside.'
"Jack just swung on the branch with one arm while he scratched himself with the other.
"As she lectured him, her voice trailed off into the accents of the deep South. 'My Uncle Claude lives in a very beautiful house in the Garden District. His street is lined with large oak trees. He has banana trees, too, with real bananas that I'll bet you'd love. His home has the distinction of being close to the house in which Jefferson Davis died. Do you know who he was? Any idea? A guess? I didn't think so. Well, he was the president of the Confederacy. Do you even know where New Orleans is, Jackie?'
"He thought for a moment. 'New Orleans must be right next to Old Orleans.'
"'No, silly, it's in Louisiana. Do you know where Louisiana is, Jackie?'
"'Yes, I do.'
"'Where is it, then?'
"'It's on the map. Hahahahehe!'"
The bishop said that he was beginning to like Jack. "That boy enjoyed life, didn't he? How many boys today can swing on an apple tree and be so entertaining? After all, when you're hanging with both arms, you can't send those bothersome messages on an Apple device." We laughed at his witty comment.
"So, at that point Abby's papa put his face in the screened window and called her into the house. 'Abigail, I am about to drip coffee,' he observed, to the puzzlement of Jack. 'What's that, some new kind of java?'
"I later learned that in the Creole society of New Orleans, the family patriarch brewed coffee by dripping boiling water through dark, rich coffee. This was a specific and respected duty belonging to the patriarch, while his many olive-skinned daughters with their faint moustaches chattered about their beaux.
"Abby turned to the steps leading to the kitchen door, but Jack said, 'Don't go in yet, Ab. Tell me more.'
"Torn between disobedience to her father and obedience to Jack, she hurried on about New Orleans. 'Uncle Claude—his name is French for man with a limp, in case you didn't know—Uncle Claude promised to take me to Bourbon Street, that's Rue Bourbon in French. That's in the French Quaaata, and jazz bands play in the middle of the street, and there are jazz funerals, too. Then the band plays, and people dance and twirl under umbrellas on the way home from the cemetery, singing disrespectfully, but with no meanness, about the deceased. We will eat French food that's called Creole and Cajun in a dreamy restaurant with fans spinning on the ceiling. Everything's French in the French Quaaata.'
"Abby's papa reappeared in the window. 'Abigail, I have dripped coffee and we wish to begin our lunch. I am reasonably certain that Jackie and his friend will come by later in the afternoon.'
"Abby looked hard at Jack, who had already dropped from the apple tree. 'Oui, oui, Papa, I come,' sang Abby over her shoulder. Then, skipping, she sang, 'oui, oui, oui' again."
The bishop smiled at the linguistic intensity.
"We left through the open gate that I had never closed. We spent the rest of the morning speaking French. Jack's French was flamboyant and spontaneous. I sensed his mastery of this strange language but I understood little of what he said. But what he said about drip coffee made sense: 'Ees good to ze last drip.' Dropping into curbside English was a courtesy I appreciated. 'All ze gurls in France ze wears tizu-paper pants.'"
Vincent was red-faced with pleasure. With his linen napkin he dabbed his eyes, which were wet with laughter. A few drops of sherry splashed on the carpet.
"I contributed what little French I had picked up from my mother's convent school French. 'Jacques,' I said, 'Zam tous fraters.' And I felt like his true brother at moments like these; we seemed to understand each other so well.
"On that confident note, and with a brotherly punch to my shoulder, I judged it was time to make my disappearment, and ride my bike to Fifth Avenue where my papers were stacked, waiting for me to make my deliverancement."
I raised my sherry glass as in a toast. It was time to leave.
The bishop winced repeatedly through these final words, raised his empty sherry glass, and declared that we must all open gates at certain moments in our lives.
Vincent stood reverently and declared that he would drive the Silver Bullet around to the front of the residence. We laughed at this picture, but I was certain that neither the bishop nor Vincent understood that the silver bullet was the Lone Ranger's delicately-directed bullet that spared, rather than ended, a rustler's life. The surgical bullet with a soul.
"Monsignor Warren, tell me more some evening. I wish you happiness in your travels."
I opened the door and found Vincent waiting patiently. With dark glasses high on his nose, he looked like Cary Grant on the Grande Corniche in To Catch a Thief. (But did Grant actually wear them?)
There followed a sherry-induced little dream, a Sandeman-sandman possessing me.
"Are you ready Monsignor? Buckled up?"
"You bet! Warp three Father V."
We were off like a shot.
"Where in Wonderland are we going?" he asked.
"To a little alley, Lamont Place, August, 1953. Are we there yet?"
"You bet! How's it look?"
"Just the way it should. Remember, you aren't born yet, so all of this will be lost to you. Someday, you know, I hope to meet you, Vincent."
"A blessing, Monsignor?"
"I'm only an altar boy at Sacred Heart. It's 1953. I'm thirteen."
"Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye," he said.
The Silver Bullet shot up the alley and around the tricky corner and disappeared. I closed my eyes until I could stand it no more, and then I opened them slowly to the noonday sights wrapped in industry's fog, the stench of mill smoke as pungent as I remembered.CHAPTER 2
On the next morning, as my story continues, a hazy and pungent day in 1953, when I was thirteen, I woke at ten o'clock in a suffocating, sunbaked bedroom filled with dreamy shadows. I was home alone. My brother's bed was covered by a single sheet in the hot weather, and so the bed was always "made." His pillow was on the floor. Dust on the gray marble mantelpiece was etched by the random coins that I slid into my pocket every day. "Never leave the house without some money in your pocket," was my mother's advice. She had left for her social work agency much earlier. My father was in Carnegie breathing acrid chemicals in his darkroom where negatives hung from clothespins. Sally, my sister, was shopping with a friend.
I opened George's junk drawer, a small one at the top of an old dresser. His junk told me a lot about him. He had a set of brass knuckles that were never used and what he called a "Bowie knife" in a leather sheath. It was only used for throwing at soft wood, like the inside of the closet door next to my bed, never the outside. Mother would have been angry. There were dried cigars, a can of lighter fluid, and half of a Mickey Spillane paperback called I, the Jury. His friend Tom had the other half. That way each read half of the novel and then they traded. "Hurry up," they'd say. Before closing my brother's drawer, I borrowed a cigarette. Then I climbed like a goat down the steep ladder-like steps to the first floor. "Baa-aa-aa," cried the hungry goat.
Excerpted from Lucky Jack! by WILLIAM A. FRANCIS. Copyright © 2014 William A. Francis. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Rabbi and Father Peacock, 1,
In the Dark Closet, 14,
At the Yellow Wheel Saloon, 17,
A Sunday Morning Scold, 23,
King Kong—Danger Everywhere, 27,
A Glancing Blow, 33,
What Came Next—Domestic Sunshine, 36,
Lash La Rue Meets Red Ranger, 40,
Interlude I: Remembering, Not Dreaming, 45,
Old Man Brooks, 49,
On Probation, 51,
Was There Sunshine Behind the Cloud?, 55,
Among the Dinosaurs, 58,
A Promotion in Rank, 65,
Life at the Round Table, 68,
Mr. P. Is in the Building, 73,
Turning the Calendar Page, 79,
Big Hank, 82,
Interlude II: Saturdays, 85,
Red Ranger, Red Ranger, 92,
Talking in the Dark, 98,
Dressing Jack, 102,
Interlude III: Waiting Is the Longest Season, 106,
Crescent City Blues, 111,
I Wish the Day Would Never End, 114,
Ranger Rouge, 120,
Almost There, 124,
Home in the Dark—The Journey Ends, 134,
And So?, 136,
Author's Note, 139,
Author Biography, 141,