by Harry Lang
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“Really? What would a ten-year old city boy want with a butterfly collection?”
“Damned if I know,” chuckled Frederick. “But Max knew. And I don’t think he bought it. I think it was his own collection and he wanted me to have it, you know, like he was my friend instead of just an uncle. Even a little knucklehead like me could appreciate that. Another beer, Father?”
“No.” Gallagher almost laughed out loud. Back at the rectory they called Frederick the mute and speculated about demon possession. Yet here he was, “clothed and in his right mind,” talking about something that mattered. “I’d better not. So what happened to this butterfly collection? Do you still have it?”
“I wanted... No. She took it. It’s no good anymore.”
“Filthy bugs,” grumbled the old man. “Who the hell needs ’em? You want another beer?”
“No, thank you.” Out went the light, just like that. “What about your uncle?” he asked, determined not to lose this lamb to the advancing night. “What became of him?”
“Oh, he died about a year before Mamma. Left all his dough to some convent. Guess he didn’t need it where he was going.”
“I should say not. ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions’.”
“So I hear.”
“Don’t you believe in Heaven, Frederick?”
“Sure I do. Yeah, I believe in Heaven all right. But not hell.”
“Really?” Gallagher braced himself. Parishioners had taken him down this road many times.
“You know what Pop would say? Pop would say there is no hell because this is hell, right here and now. I used to think he was nuts till I figured out what Mamma did to him. Then it was too late...”
“Too late for what?”
“She could really... Zwei Erbse, just like Uncle Max said. You don’t see it that way, do you Father? Even though it’s all around. People getting old and crazy, things happening to them for no reason. Livin’ in places where it ain’t safe to walk the street. And sometimes... sometimes it’s people, riding you, knocking you down, turning you into the kind of person who would do something... never satisfied. ‘Why you can’t learn zis from you father?’ she says. Then they take what you have and smash it in front of you like it’s a joke. The hell with it.”
“You’re right. I don’t see it that way. Neither did your Uncle Max, did he?”
“What? Max? I was only a kid! Then he didn’t come around for years, not till after I was married. Besides, some people are just lucky. That was Max. Never a care in the world.”
“Like when he lost his house? Come on, Frederick, there’s nobody without a care in the world. I’m sure he faced things the rest of us will never know about.”
“Then what’s the good of talking about him? Saint Max, that’s what Mamma used to call him. Always the needle. I was a kid but I wasn’t stupid. I told her, I said, ‘Mamma, why don’t you leave the guy alone?’ That got me a slap in the face because it was disrespectful, see.
“After a while he stopped coming to visit. I didn’t see him again for years. He was old and frail and he had cancer. But he was still smiling, crazy bastard. Even then Mamma never let up. Never. They never let up.”
“They who, Frederick? Who never lets up?”
“Like you’ll ever know!” More smoke poured into the silence of the disintegrating kitchen. “Nobody you can see, that’s who.”
That stopped the old man cold. He took another drag; his hands trembled.
“No,” he finally said, shaking his head for emphasis. “Not demons.”
“Who then? Can you tell me?”
“So you can tell the Blessed Mother? ’Cause she knows, all right. Yeah, she knows all about it.”
“I can help you, Frederick. I really can...”
“Who says I need help? Scharf thinks I got cancer. He didn’t say so but it’s what he thinks. I told him it’s just a cold.”
Gallagher knew he’d reached the end of the line, at least for today. But he would be back. Somewhere in the jungle of poison memory, self-pity and pride, a lost lamb listened for the voice of the Shepherd, he was convinced. The wolves were tenacious but the gates of hell would not prevail.
“Well then...” He rose to leave. “Will we see you in church this week?” He had no illusions; church was little more than a superstitious ritual to many parishioners or a habit they were afraid to break, but the Lord had won harder cases than Frederick Moser.
“Sure. Sure, I’ll be there.”
The young priest prayed briefly for the old man and then he was out of the dark, crumbling house, thinking hard about what to ask the wiser pastors back at the rectory.
Frederick went back to the radio, the priest’s visit the merest ripple on the smooth stagnation of his day. He worked quietly until frustration drove him to other odd jobs. He called his brother in Pittsburgh, hung up on his sister in Trenton. When it was dinner time he dumped something out of a can, heated it up and slurped it down. Magda could cook; he had to give her that.
Outside the shadows grew long and cool, muffling the sounds of kids playing stickball or the latest incarnation of cops and robbers. He sat reading the paper, rocking slowly, listening to the big band station. Now and then a memory would stray from its vault, struggling to the surface like a bubble in quicksand. A lifetime of habit made memories easy to ignore.
Deep within the house a clock chimed, solemn and metallic. Stairs squealed as Frederick climbed from the darkness of the parlor to the dimness of the upstairs hall, passing by the spot on the landing which had been patched and painted ten years ago. She was always on him to fix this and paint that and when he did (he always did) she let him know what a poor job it was. “Why you can’t learn zis from you father?” she would shriek, sometimes in Hungarian but always with that ridiculous accent she’d never bothered to grow out of. “Why I should put up with it...”
Darkness filled the bedroom like fog broken here and there by glowing shapes lying across the disintegrating carpet. The windows were open, admitting the soft warm breeze of September laced with the placid jumble of sounds from the neighborhood. Funny how those sounds never changed. They were the same when he was a kid sharing this room with four brothers, the same when he’d sat up chain-smoking most of the night after his tour in Korea.
Just like that night ten years ago when his ears rang from the screaming match and then he heard the crash of breaking glass. “That for the filthy bugs!” And Magda had pushed him far enough. He finally pushed back and it really was like slow motion, her long blond hair streaked with gray flying like willow branches in a storm and he felt the house shudder as she slammed into the wall at the landing and was quiet for the first time since he’d met her.
Maybe he saw a vision as he stood in the darkness at the top of the stairs breathing heavily, feeling free and alive for the first time in thirty-five years. Were demons abandoning the lifeless body to creep up the stairs? Spirits of vanity, bitterness, cruelty? His triumph crashed in the swirling dust of her fall and his hands began to shake. He had not stopped her at all. He had only turned her loose to sink her fangs into his neck forever.
Mr. Butterfly kneeled in the silver glow of the streetlight, careful to avoid the broken glass and pulverized wings which hadn’t been touched since young Max Czikeli had mounted them with such love and care. Crossing himself, he mumbled through the Our Father, though his mind was light-years from Heaven. Tomorrow he would go to confession, maybe mass.
But he wouldn’t take communion.
Copyright © 2012 by Harry Lang