To George the cloud tops look solid and muscular like monstrous figures expertly crafted from sheets of steel, a three-headed hellhound, maybe, bounding toward heaven, eager to taste the tender flesh of angels’ wings.
This vision seems all the more real thanks to the mangy dogs that trot up and down the narrow brick lanes, shitting on sidewalks, pillaging dumpsters. They compete for non-existent scraps of food, and whenever the wind steals a greasy wrapper from their snapping jaws they whimper with hunger and frustration. George feels no pity for them. Like everyone else condemned to live among these streets, the dogs must learn to accept suffering. Winter is almost here, spring a million years off, and soon there will be no escape from the punishing cold and lack of food. Unless, of course, death whisks them away to an even colder grave.
The change of weather doesn’t seem to trouble George’s son. The boy runs back and forth across a muddy patch of lawn, chasing after the chattering black grackles that haunt the mossy gables and rotten windowsills of the vacant house next door. At his approach the birds flutter away, easily evading his grasping fingers. A few even make a game of it, screeching at the ungainly biped stumbling through a swath of dead grass. From the low hanging limbs of a maple they hop up and down and pick lice from their metallic-looking feathers.
Billy pauses to study the birds with his large, inscrutable eyes. He bobs his head as they do, makes little chirping sounds, tries somehow to ingratiate himself with them, but this only makes the birds squawk all the louder. With a grunt of exasperation Billy suddenly charges, his arms pin-wheeling, his boots slipping comically in the black muck.
Sensing disaster, George sits up and shouts, “Godammit, Billy, watch where you’re going!”
But the warning comes too late. The boy collides with the cockeyed post of a wooden fence, and for a long time he remains motionless, his face buried deep in a pile of moldering yellow leaves. He might be unconscious, he might be dead. George checks his watch and waits for a sign. It’s only five o’clock. His wife won’t be home from the foundry for at least another hour. With a yawn of boredom he bundles the collar of his jacket around his throat and wonders how he’ll survive so many days tethered to this wretched madhouse. He opens the plastic bag at his feet and tosses a handful of stale breadcrumbs at the boy’s head. The birds spread their wings but dare not swoop down to gobble up the bits of bread.
The wind picks up again. The treetops bend and sway. After a few minutes Billy lifts his head and peels the wet leaves from his bruised face. Had another child been injured–a normal child, thinks George–there would have been a high-pitched scream, inconsolable wailing and blubbering, but from his son there comes only a strangled, drawn-out hiss, the sound a vampire makes after it has been cornered in its crypt, its forehead seared by a crucifix, its eyes maced with holy water. In his four years of life Billy has never so much as uttered a word, not a single one, and rarely moves his lips with make believe speech. If he manages to communicate at all its only because his mother claims she can interpret the strange guttural sounds that he coughs up from the back of his throat.
Neighbors sympathize, offer explanations, use the cryptic words “solipsism syndrome,” but George isn’t interested in armchair psychology. He believes the boy is disturbed, plain and simple, and isn’t afraid to say so. The neighborhood has a tendency to breed monsters. Newspapers tell grisly tales of murder, incest, rape, a veritable decameron of horrors not to be believed. People around here are diseased, their brains warped from breathing the poisoned air and drinking the poisoned water.
There are rare moments when George worries that he is in some way responsible for Billy’s mysterious affliction, that he may have damaged the boy during one of his now legendary lost weekends–dropped him, shook him, put whiskey in his bottle instead of milk, vodka instead of formula. Sobriety should help him remember these things, so say his fellow alcoholics during the weekly AA meetings in the smoky church basement, but the past will not give up its secrets so easily, and for that he is grateful.
His wife, however, is not the type to forgive and forget and is only too happy to remind him of the terrible things he has done. A deeply religious woman, she has always believed in the power of shame and has chronicled, often in meticulous detail, his innumerable failures as a father and husband. Without asking his permission, she consults the Jesuits about their son, but the priests can only offer their usual crackpot diagnoses. They invite her to the rectory where they sit in an enormous parlor surrounded by ornate tapestries and artwork, and there they tell her that the boy’s behavior, while certainly unusual, is not at all abnormal.
“He is merely speech delayed, Mrs. Fenner. Nothing more. A certain percentage of children are. Prayer will solve the problem sure enough.”
Mrs. Higginson, the housekeeper, emerges from the kitchen and listens to the conversation with special interest. She serves them tea, pours the cream, stirs the sugar, pretends to attend to their needs.
George doesn’t approve of these clandestine visits to the rectory. Though he always tries to avoid confrontation he was unable to keep his mouth shut that morning at breakfast.
“I should have a say in these matters,” he told his wife. “I’m still the held of this household. And I say the boy needs to see a proper physician.”
“We can’t afford a doctor,” his wife said. “We lost our medical insurance when you were fired. Remember?”
“Laid off, you mean.”
His wife snorted with derision.
“Anyway, those priests are no better than witch doctors.” He sopped up a pool of bacon grease with a triangle of burnt toast and stuffed it into his mouth. He had a bad habit of talking with his mouth full. “Mortal men claiming to speak for god. They can’t even look you in the eye and admit that the boy is daft. He isn’t right in the head, I tell you. By God, you’d think he was reared in the wild.”
At the end of the table, watching the scene with indifference, Billy gnawed loudly on a strip of leathery bacon. He tugged violently at it with his teeth and slobbered down his chin and shirt.
“Billy is fine,” said his wife. “He knows when to keep his mouth closed. It’s a sign of intelligence. He’s a prodigy.”
George erupted with laughter. “Sure, a real fucking genius!”
He waved his hand and continued sponging up the grease. He should have been more alert, of course, should have known what was coming, marriage had alerted him to the dangers, but he didn’t realize what was happening until he heard the dishes crash to the floor, the chair overturn, and felt the fork pressed firmly against his neck, the prongs dripping with yolk.
“Billy is a gifted boy,” said his wife, her voice quavering. “He’s smart. He knows a lot more than you give him credit for.” Plunging the fork ever closer to his ceratoid artery, she said, “Do you know what I think? ¬I think with just a little more encouragement from his father, Billy can accomplish some extraordinary things.”
George could only gasp and through clenched teeth whisper, “Yes, yes, I know…”
Her eyes bulged with wrath. She seemed to be considering her options, contemplating the benefits and drawbacks of murder, but when George looked at her he saw something primordial, barely mammalian, as if one the gray moles nesting in the high yellow grass around the front porch had scurried into their bedroom late at night and had tunneled deep inside her brain, gobbling up every last morsel of reason until her skull was hollowed out like a Halloween pumpkin.
“I have to leave,” she suddenly announced. “I’m going to be late for work.”
She threw the fork on the floor, kissed her son on the cheek and then stomped out of the house. Billy continued to gnaw at his bacon and make senseless noises.
It took George a few minutes to realize he was bleeding. With a paper napkin he gently dabbed at the thin trail of blood trickling down his neck. He trembled at how very close he’d come to confessing everything, how he almost told his wife what he’d been up to these past few months. From now on he would have to proceed with caution. He had no desire to be blinded or castrated. There were women like that, women who were capable of hurting a man, he’d known a few in his life, had the scars to prove it, and his wife was no different than the rest. She could be unreasonable at times.
Concealing the truth from her had suddenly become a matter of life and death, and since it involved their son the risk was especially dangerous. Still, he had no choice but to carry on. The alternative was to remain completely dependent on his wife who now held the purse strings and seemed utterly determined to turn his existence into a grueling pilgrimage on the long road to recovery and spiritual health.
The phone starts to ring (another creditor calling to harass him more likely than not) but George, going mad with boredom, considers any phone call a welcome distraction. Brushing the cigarette ash from his coat he stands up and shouts, “Billy, don’t run off anywhere!”
He hurries into the house and picks up the phone.
“That you, Fenner?”
He pauses a moment before saying anything.
“Something wrong, Fenner? You sound a little panicked.”
“My wife. She’s not over there talking to the priests, is she?”
“Haven’t seen her since last week.”
“That’s a relief. Well, then, everything is just fine.”
“What is it?”
“Afraid I don’t, Ms. Higginson.”
“Boiler is on the fritz again. How soon can you be here?”
“Might have to wait till tomorrow. I’m in charge of my boy today, you see.”
“The poor child. He’s probably running wild in the streets.”
“Billy is always safe when he’s with his daddy. Everything is under control.”
“Well then bring him with you. That is, if he’s still in one piece.”
“Oh, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“I’ll gladly call another repairman, if you’d like. There are plenty of men looking for work these days.”
“No, no, don’t do that. Matter of fact I was on my way out the door. Just finished my last cigarette. Gotta go to the corner store and stock up.”
“Better get a move on then. The priests will be back soon.”
“Must be a desperate situation. A real emergency.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Fenner. The boiler’s overheating. That’s all.”
The line abruptly goes dead.
After hanging up the phone George struts over to the mirror above the mantle. With the tweezers he keeps in his back pocket he plucks the coarse black hairs sprouting in dense clumps from his nostrils and ears. He regrets not having showered or brushed his teeth that morning, but he never expected to leave the house. Unemployment has turned him into a kind of recluse. He walks out the back door and heads to the garage. The place is a wreck. In order to reach the makeshift shelves hammered into the back wall he has to climb over large pieces of plywood and particleboard. He’s been meaning to build a tree house for Billy but never seems to get around to it.
Under a pile of dirty magazines and greasy rags he finds his tools–the adjustable wrench, pliers, channel locks, chisel, all of them so rusty that they’re probably useless. He examines them one at a time and decides that he can’t go the rectory empty handed. A tool set, no matter the condition or age, makes a man look professional, it gives him an air of authority. People passing on the street are more likely to regard him as an honest tradesman, one who has fallen on hard times perhaps, but a tradesman nonetheless, a skilled laborer who is willing to work long hours for an honest day’s pay.
After securing the latches on the toolbox he walks to the front yard and finds his son dancing with the grackles.
“Stop monkeying with those birds!”
With an impatient huff, he yanks the boy by the arm.
“We have a job. Let’s go.”
Father and son start the five-block journey to the rectory on Dickinson Street. Billy struggles to keep up, his grunts becoming more pronounced with every step.
George turns to him and says, “Listen up, kid. You’re going to do exactly what I tell you, right? If you follow my directions we should make out like bandits. Now here’s the plan…”
Ms. Higginson stands behind the creaking iron gates of the rectory. From a distance she looks like one of the statues in the weed-choked cemetery across the street, an imposing monument of a woman carved from an enormous block of marble, strangely perfect in her bleak solidity and middle age. Broad shouldered and flinty-eyed she watches over the rectory like a sentry guarding a house of the dead. George is surprised that a pigeon hasn’t fluttered down from one of the turrets to light on her head and drape her in flowing ribbons of black excrement. Without saying hello or extending a hand in greeting, she opens the gate and directs father and son through the shadowy cloisters.
“Hurry along.” She snaps her fingers.
Inside, the rectory smells of incense, cheap aftershave, boiled cabbage. George grimaces. It has been a few weeks since his last visit (for some reason the word “reconnaissance” comes to mind), and as he passes through each of its enormous rooms he lets his eyes linger over the curious treasure trove of religious iconography–a triptych of martyred saints painted on three wooden panels; a crucified Jesus stretched across a cracked canvas, his fingers curled as though trying to pry loose the nails driven deep into his palms; glass cabinets showcasing chalices of silver and gold etched with ancient symbols and letters; crosses ornamented with silver, ivory, mahogany. Museum pieces of inestimable worth.
Upon reaching the end of a long hallway, Ms. Higginson turns to Billy and says, “Over here, boy.” She opens a door and points into the darkness. “Wait for your father down there. It shouldn’t take us long.”
George whistles. “The basement, Ms. Higginson? Seems a bit scary down there, don’t you think?”
She puts her hands on her hips. “I won’t have a rambunctious child wandering around this house.”
“Can’t he wait for us in the library?”
“Out of the question. He’ll make too much noise.”
George laughs. “He won’t say a word, I promise you that.”
“Down he goes, Fenner, or I’ll call McSweeney, ask him to do the job.”
“That tub of guts!”
“Have it your way.”
“Wait, wait.” George shrugs. “Alright, you heard the lady, Billy. No time to waste.”
He shoves the toolbox into the boy’s hands and pushes him toward the stairs. With a little yap and snarl he begins the steep descent. In the darkness the boiler rumbles and hisses like the guts of a steel dragon, and the galvanized pipes overhead cast a shadow across his face. Billy stands against one of the filthy cinderblock walls and looks up at his father.
Before slamming the door closed Ms. Higginson hits a light switch and says, “If he knows what’s good for him he’ll stay right where he is.”
“Oh, yes, he’s a very meek child.”
She leads George into the kitchen where the table has been set for dinner, the tablecloth neatly pressed, the silverware polished and gleaming, the china white and spotless. A still life that could easily grace the cover of a glossy magazine.
When he spots the bottle of red wine at the center of the table George claps his hands together and reaches for one of the crystal glasses.
“Don’t!” Ms. Higginson snaps.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“The priests mark the bottle.”
George laughs. “Those greedy devils. Well, they get plenty of this stuff every Sunday, I can promise you that. Blood of Christ, my foot.”
“I thought you stopped drinking.”
“Well, let’s just say there are occasions when I feel justified in taking a sip or two. Gives me strength.”
“Is that what you tell your fellow drunks at the meeting.”
“Everyone cheats now and then, eh, Ms. Higginson? Maybe you should have a little drink for yourself. Might help you to relax. It can hardly be paradise, working here for these old curmudgeons.”
“They’re good men, Fenner. They do a lot for this community.”
“You’re starting to sound like my old lady. She thinks the Jesuits are miracle workers who can cure our son of his dumbness. Laying of the hands and all that bullshit.”
Ms. Higginson laughs. “That’s not why she comes here.”
“Oh, really? What other reason can she possibly have?”
“She comes to give me the evil eye.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She’s no fool, Fenner. She knows what we’ve been up to.”
“Like hell she does.”
“Women can sniff out treachery the way a cat sniffs out a mouse. She’s toying with me, waiting for me to break down and confess in front of the priests.”
“But you won’t confess, will you, Ms. Higginson?”
She uncrosses her arms and shoves him against the table. With her calloused housekeeper’s hands she unzips his pants and reaches inside. He smiles, kisses her neck, unbuttons her blouse, lifts up her heavy wool skirt. Physical intimacy transforms her from a cold statue into a scratching, writhing hellcat. She pants and whimpers and grinds her hips against his gyrating pelvis, but before things can really get started she digs her nails into his shoulders and gasps, “Dear god in heaven!”
“What’s wrong?” George asks.
“Your little boy…”
“Oh?” George turns. “Ha, he doesn’t mind.”
“But he’s watching us.”
Billy stands in the doorway, sucking his thumb and gazing with indifference at his father’s grizzly buttocks and Ms. Higginson’s muscular white thighs.
“Get outta here, you!” George grabs his flannel shirt from the floor and lobs it at the boy’s head. “Back to the basement!”
The child croaks and bellows and then dashes down the gloomy corridor.
Ms. Higginson says, “Maybe we should stop…”
But George pushes her down so she is sprawled across the kitchen table like some kind of ritual sacrifice, and in no time at all they fall into a mutually satisfying rhythm. Somewhere nearby church bells begin to chime six o’clock. Soon the Jesuits will say grace and break bread at this very table, and this gives George such a perverse sense of pleasure that he nearly climaxes prematurely. He wonders what’s on the menu tonight. As an appetizer, the priests always eat their god. God is a small white wafer of unleavened bread, delicious and quickly swallowed. It is forbidden to chew him but chew him they do. This causes god to become wedged between their tobacco-stained teeth and cemented to the roofs of their mouths. The priests try to loosen him with their fingers, with toothpicks, with dental floss, but this only complicates matters. God hangs wetly from the floss in little white beads, and the priests wonder if they should consume the remnants before discarding the floss. Surely it’s an abomination, a sacrilege of the highest order to throw god into a garbage can or toilet bowl.
Since they aren’t in the habit of reading papal encyclicals the priests aren’t sure what the Church teaches on this matter. There is a fine line between sin and virtue, as George Fenner knows only too well, and Church doctrine, even for the most adamant defenders of the faith, can often be a most burdensome thing.
Twenty minutes later, George retrieves his son and rusty toolbox from the basement and hurries from the rectory. They walk down the avenue, and when they are no longer within sight of the big bay window where Ms. Higginson is surely observing them, Billy nudges his father and places a small rectangular object in his hand.
George pats the boy’s head. “Good work, son. I’m damn proud of you.”
He can say this without any irony. With just a small amount of training, Billy has become a true master of deception, conveying to one and all an air of dim-witted innocence. He can creep from one room to the next without detection, and over the past few months he has managed to pilfer numerous odds and ends from the homes of friends, relatives and neighbors. Occasionally his work yields big dividends–prescription pills, bags of marijuana, a collection of rare coins, watches, credit cards, a book of blank checks. The Tanzanian shopkeeper at the corner pays handsomely for the looted goods, tens and twenties are the standard rate of exchange, and he never asks questions. With the proceeds from these sales, George is able to maintain some semblance of a social life, sneaking a few pints at the corner tavern while his wife files paper work and answers phones at the foundry.
But now, suddenly, after a string of successes, disaster strikes. George is incredulous. He can’t believe what his son has stolen.
“What is this? No cash? No booze. No pills?”
Rather than finding anything of real value, Billy has engaged in a sort of spiritual espionage. George stops in his tracks, considers turning around and confronting the Jesuits with his son’s peculiar discovery, a discovery that while worthless in one sense proves once and for all that these old men, stooped and bent with the unyielding cynicism they harbor for their fallen parishioners, are no better or worse than anyone else–they have their weaknesses, their secrets, their forbidden pleasures.
“Just look at this filth!” he wants to say to them as they sit down to their evening meal just so he can watch them choke on their guilt and indignation. “What sort of men are you? What kinds of sordid things go on here? I’ve long suspected that you’re to blame for his troubles. And now I have proof. My child has been traumatized!”
Billy lifts his head and snorts.
“I dunno,” says George, “it’s late. And your mother isn’t a very patient woman. We better get home.”
He tosses the deck of pornographic playing cards to the ground and resumes marching down the street. The cards scatter in the wind, an orgy of big-titted, airbrushed women engaged in carnal pursuits with the kings and jacks and a leering joker in motley, their legs spread wide, their bodies glistening with oil. Billy squeaks and chases after them like a boy who has lost his flashcards.
A few minutes later George finds his wife sitting in a recliner by the front door. She extinguishes her cigarette in an ashtray already overflowing with stubbs and immediately lights another. Long steely spikes of smoke jab at his throat.
George smoothes back his hair, searches his pockets for a stick of chewing gum. He can still taste Ms. Higginson on his lips.
“Hello, dear. No overtime tonight? I see you picked up some cigarettes…”
He dares to take one from the pack on the coffee table.
“Where have you been?” she asks.
She yanks the bandanna off her head, releasing a shower of graphite dust, and for the first time in months George looks at her with a tinge of regret, with something that might even be described as old-fashioned Catholic guilt. She’s a scarecrow of her former self, so thin, emaciated almost, with dark circles of exhaustion under her eyes. She works hard, struggles every day to provide for all three of them, but somehow George has learned to live with his immaturity, his irresponsibility, his selfish pursuit of women and drink. The trick, he finds, is to turn your sins into virtues.
“I was doing a good deed for the Jesuits,” he answers. “The boiler sprung a leak. Over at the rectory.”
“At the rectory?”
“Is this true?”
“Is what true?”
His wife glares at him. “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to Billy. Well? Were you at the rectory with your father?”
George laughs. “You know damn well that the boy doesn’t talk! It’s your fault if you ask me. You treat him like an infant.”
“Oh, he talks,” she says calmly. “He talks all the time. He tells me all sorts of things. Everything worth knowing anyway. Don’t you, Billy?”
George senses a small but noticeable change in the air. His smile fades, his stomach tightens. He wants to hurry down the street to the local brewery, but since he is flat broke he can only stand in front of his wife like a criminal before a judge, helpless to defend himself against the inevitable charges. With mounting horror he watches Billy approach his mother, his chin held high, his shoulders back, a toy soldier on the march. Suddenly the boy whirls on his heels, points an accusatory finger at his father and, flashing him a malevolent and knowing smile, holds up the deck of playing cards.
by Connor Caddigan
click the following for each original posted part of The Spy,