Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Ashes (fiction)

"Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven."

 - Matthew 10:29 - 33 (King James edition)

"Calling and calling, so cold and alone
 Shining 'cross this dark highway
 Where our sins lie unatoned."

- Bruce Springsteen, My Father's House  (from the Nebraska album)

Pete’s going to sit in the booth across from the TV and order roast beef on a kaiser with fries and a beer. I’ll bring it over to him myself and ask how he’s doing and he’ll say that he can’t complain and leaves it at that. He’s done this almost every day for as long as I’ve owned the place and mostly he leaves a pretty good tip. Sometimes I think that the sandwiches and beer are the only things he eats. Davey sometimes asks if he wants to play pool because he and Pete played a lot back in school, but he always says no.

Pete used to be one of the go-to guys at McBride’s warehouse. He probably didn’t do anything heavy, maybe he just ran cheap booze across the 401 from Michigan or held onto bags of cash that had to cool down before finding their way to a bank or a seller. The work was steady enough that he kept an apartment in that building next to McBride’s house on the other side of town. It was a perfect arrangement- McBride liked keeping people close, maybe keeping them one favour behind.

These days, McBride’s is a completely legit grocery business with some restaurant supply on the side.  That said - Bridey was a bulldog if you got him mad way back when. He laid down the law on a bunch of those little places north of town off the highway, you’d have buy your chips and peanuts and snacks through McBride’s or your windows would get broken and your power would get cut off so you‘d lose everything in your fridges. He offers a good enough price if your fingers end up in all of his pies, and he’s done just fine by me since I inherited this place.Say what you want, but in this business it’s like everybody’s a crook, and there are worse guys than Bridey.

McBride always wanted to be your pal and said you could call him Bridey since all his friends did. And he was tough enough that you’d want to keep on his good side. But none of this ever really mattered to me, I went to school with Bridey up at Our Lady way back when, so he’s always been a pussycat in my direction. It’s almost like he still thinks you’re going to tell his mom what he does after class. And since I knew him in the old altar-boy days, I get the envelope and a bottle of good whiskey at Christmas. If you’re going to complain about Bridey, then there’s the door, pal.

Pete was never any big deal, he’s just some guy who spent a couple of years at Our Lady because they threw him out of a few other schools. He wasn’t dumb, but he definitely wasn’t any genius, and he didn’t like school one bit. He liked cars. Tried to be a mechanic, but didn’t like working for anybody. Bridey always wanted to be the big guy, so just for old time’s sake he gave Pete a job here and there, carrying, driving, looking the other way. Since Bridey lived right next door, he could drop a few items off at Pete’s if somebody whispered that a search warrant was about to come up, and there were more than one or two of them.

But it was hard for the cops, ‘cause Bridey had all those kids running around and he pulled in his wife’s friends in from the church and made a lot of noise about how he was just a small business owner who scrimped and saved to get the Senior’s Home on McTeague St. all fixed up…you get it? It helped that Pete was the invisible friend next door who was too small for the cops to notice.

So everything was great except for Pete’s drinking. He had a car, a half-dead ‘74 Mustang that he bought ‘cause he saw one in a movie. He’d work on it like he knew what he’s doing, which he didn’t. And the bar was open all hours at his place, which isn’t my business, but it sure as hell was Bridey’s. One time, Pete got pulled over on a DUI while running one of Bridey’s little errands, and the cops didn’t find anything, but it was still too close for Bridey’s liking. So he and Bridey had the talk, and pretty soon Pete’s more of a watcher and a holder than a carrier if you know what I’m saying.

Pete still had that damn Mustang, and it was just a matter of time before he decided to go on a beer run before he lost his mid-morning buzz. Bridey had four kids, all of them under ten years old. His wife volunteered at the senior home, so Bridey kept an eye on his kids in his backyard (behind a fence mind you) while he ran in and out of the house, taking calls at that big desk of his, stuff like that.

But kids are kids, right? So one morning, Pete backed the car out on the driveway between the two places, on a buzz and not being too careful, smoking the tires because it’s was a Mustang and it’s what you do with a muscle car. He didn’t see the little girl (I think she was four or so), who went through the gate to go pick up a ball or something. Pete probably heard the thump at the back bumper and felt the bump under his seat. He stopped at the end of the driveway when he saw her mashed face-down on the pavement on top of a lot of blood.

Bridey runs out of the house, sees his kid and tries to pick her up, but she’s too limp and slippery to hold onto. He told me later that he didn’t think about how it could have happened, all he was thinking was that he’d been meaning to fix that bit of fence but never had the time, and that he’d just gone in the house for a second and…anyhow.

Pete’s watching this, and all he’s thinking is Sweet Jesus, I’ve done it now.

So he bombs down Stone Road to the highway and gets as far as Chatham before he hits a motel and puts the chain on the door, waiting for the knock. He thinks it’ll be the cops if he’s lucky and Bridey with a few select friends and a hunting knife if he’s not. I’m surprised that nobody found him swinging at the end of his belt.

Bridey’s connected, that’s not a secret. And it’s not like the Godfather or that kind of movie thing, it’s just connections and favours. He’s just a guy who knows a guy. Maybe that guy works on a computer at one of the credit card companies. Or some other guy knows people who work at those motels along the highway, maybe somebody wanders the parking lot and looks at license plates.

Whatever it was, Pete gets the knock at around seven the next morning. I’ll say this for him, he doesn’t dive out the window, he opens the door like a man. But it's not Bridey or his buddies. It's old Harold Parker with two cardboard cups of coffee and probably a bag of donuts if I know Harold. He’s Bridey’s lawyer and Bridey's guy more importantly, the one you talk to if Bridey’s busy but wants to play nice. A stand-up Presbyterian with charm, had an office in Hamilton and a summer place at Port Colborne where the men would talk business while he gave pony rides on the beach to their kids. He's been around 60 years old for the last twenty five years or so.

Pete lets him in, ‘cause what else is he going to do? And Harold gives him a sad smile, tells him to drink his coffee and explains the situation. Pete’s coming back to town with him, that’s not negotiable. And Pete’s going to the cops along with Harold to make things a little easier. Of course he’s losing his license and it’s 50-50 that he’s getting jail time. But things are looking up, ‘cause Harold says that Bridey’s not out for blood. It’s a no-revenge deal and I’m sure Pete didn’t believe it at first.

I don’t think Bridey was a killer, but there were a lot of loose teeth and bruises on his say-so. And it was all right by Bridey if you were scared of him, whether you were his pal or not. Maybe his hands were dirtier than I want to think about, or maybe all that chapel time at Our Lady put the fear of God into him. Harold tells Pete that Bridey went straight from the hospital to the church and was there for five hours straight. He must have heard one hell of a sermon or given one hell of a confession.

So Harold tells Pete to relax, he wasn’t going to get his teeth knocked out or anything worse. Of course there were conditions. Pete had to come to the funeral with his hair combed and wearing a clean suit, respectfully and doing it right. And he and Bridey had to have another talk, a long one. Bridey was sure that he was the one getting God's wrath, but Pete was the sword that the angel of death dropped (or whatever that bit is in the bible), and he had to own up to what he did.

Pete thought about it just long enough to know that there wasn’t any choice, so that’s how Harold and Pete ended up driving back to town, straight to  the cops. I’m sure he was hoping for it, but the cops didn’t stick him in a cell, they just arranged some kind of court date for the next week. Which meant Pete had time for the funeral.

I put my suit on and was there with the rest of the old crowd, and I’ll cut Bridey a lot of slack. Whatever you think about what he did for a living, he looked terrible. I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but his hands were sick. He held them at his sides like they weren’t his, like they were rotting and had a bad stink. They were hands that held a lot of IOU’s if you know what I mean, something that Bridey didn’t want to think about just then. I’d say that at least a third of those mourners were there because they were too scared to avoid it, and when they wandered past the grieving father, he looked them up and down like he was thinking This is why God killed her, and his dead hands were itching to rip up those IOUs as fast as they could.

Pete was propped up alongside Harold at the back of the church. Bridey’s daughter had been cremated, and her ashes were in a plain metal urn on a little table at the front of the church. Bridey sat beside it as the mourners walked past to pay their respects. He never cried. When I told him how sorry I was, he whispered something about how much it meant to him that I was there and if we had any unfinished business then let it stay unfinished, he didn’t want a penny from me, not now, not ever.

Harold asked me to keep close, he might need me to take care of Pete if things got ugly. Harold looked serious, so I stayed in the church when all the other mourners left. I brought Pete a chair so he and Bridey could sit face to face across that little table.

Pete knew exactly what had happened and what he deserved. Bridey knew it too, but he was sure God had it out for him much more than for Pete. They had a quiet chat which more or less boiled down to Bridey saying that he was officially out of the business, so Pete was out of a job. And he had to move, since Bridey didn’t want to see his face again. But nobody was going to hurt him, ‘cause Bridey was going to be good and straight from that day, like his little girl deserved from her daddy.

But it was a heavy day and something else had to happen. Bridey told Pete that he hadn’t eaten in days and never wanted to eat again because he had this horrible taste in his mouth, an awful taste that he thought he’d never get rid of. He asked Pete if he wanted to know what it tasted like, wasn’t he curious? Pete wasn’t in a position to say no, but that was enough for him. He got up fast and tried to leave, like he’d rather get pounded than have to deal with that kind of madness.

Harold put an old but firm hand on his shoulder and the rest happened very fast. Bridey opened the urn and took a pile of ashes between two fingers. Then he opened his mouth and shovelled them in before leaning forward and kissing Pete right on the lips, digging his nails into Pete’s cheeks so his jaw fell open and spit and ashes slid between them. It was the purest way for Bridey to say Taste what God’s done to us and be sure that he’d made his point.

It was a very long kiss, if that's the word for it.

Eventually, Harold took his hand off of Pete’s shoulder and gave me the nod, so we went outside and left Pete and Bridey staring at each other under the gaze of merciful Christ crucified on the wall behind them.

That was that. The weirdest part is that Pete and Bridey don’t avoid each other. Pete never moved. Bridey's daughter's headstone is in the yard up at Our Lady. The two of them meet there every so often. I don’t know what they talk about and nobody asks.

I know life goes on and all that, but it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. I’ve had the same nightmare a few times since then, where I see the two of them standing on that long driveway between Pete and Bridey’s house, staring at a little pink jumper on the pavement, both of them mumbling It was me. I always hear an ambulance off in the distance, but it never arrives.

Respectfully, in memory.

Written February 2003 
Revised May 2012


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