38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl): Chapter Four
Author’s Note: This is Part 4 of a series of posts serializing my novella 38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl). For more information on the origins of this novella, including all disclaimers, and a complete chapter list, please see the announcement regarding this series.
Mass never moved as slowly as it did that day. The choir droned on for what seemed like hours, through the longest hymns they could find. Father O’Connor spoke for at least twenty minutes on fish and loaves. The crowded church grew hotter by the minute. The heat, the wooden bench, and my wool slacks conspired to make my butt itch. The communion procession took forever. I was too young for communion, so that left me alone in the pew as everyone squeezed by. More than a few people stared at me as I watched them return from the altar. Normally, people would walk head down, hands folded in front of them, but many had noticed the Mallory family, abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves. I wanted to tell everyone that I didn’t know what was going on, or why my parents had left, but instead, I sat there and returned their gaze. Then I wondered if they knew something I didn’t. Maybe they were looking at me because I was the only one who didn’t know what everyone else knew. Ricky and Brenda shuffled back down the aisle, obviously uncomfortable as well.
As the closing hymn finished, and Father O’Connor and the altar boys walked the length of the center aisle, Tony flashed Ricky a quizzical look. Ricky motioned for him to keep steady, and tipped his head towards Mr. O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien must have given him a gesture as well, as Tony nodded to him, and followed the priest out the back of the church, and then back into the vestibule. As the last notes of the hymn faded, Mr. O’Brien set his hand on gently on my shoulder.
“Donnie, isn’t it?”
“Let’s just wait for your brother. When he gets back, we’ll go and get some ice cream.”
I nodded again, though extremely confused. Ricky looked at Mr. O’Brien, and then at his sons, Sean and Ray. They weren’t at the top of Ricky’s wish-list to hang around with on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, but something was really up. Not only were we going home with people we barely knew, they were taking us out for ice cream. Ricky was the first to speak.
“Mr. O’Brien, what’s going on? Where’d Mum and Dad go?”
“Don’t worry, Ricky. They just needed to take care of something. We’ll head over there in a little while.”
“Is everything okay?” Tony arrived from changing out of his altar-boy robes.
“Everything is fine. You did a wonderful job up there today, Tony. How about we go to the store and I’ll set you up with a round of milkshakes. How does that sound?” Mrs. O’Brien put her hand on Brenda’s shoulder and directed her towards the exit.
I didn’t believe them. Everything wasn’t fine. Even a six year old knew that. I thought about objecting, and making a fuss, but I didn’t want word to get back to mom or dad that I’d gotten upset in church. That was a quick way to even more church. And besides, what six year old could pass up a milkshake on a Sunday, before noon even? I was sure I would never have another chance at that.
We spent the better part of an hour at the pharmacy, slurping on the incredibly thick shakes. Mine was chocolate, of course, as was Ricky’s. Tony and Brenda had strawberry. Mr. O’Brien watched us nervously, and kept looking at the phone. He smiled and whispered a few words to his wife, who did her best to be pleasant to these kids she had never really met before. The O’Brien boys sat at the far end of the counter, sipping their own shakes, and keeping quiet under the stern gaze of their father. They didn’t seem to know any more than us about what was up, but they were aware that something unusual was happening. Mr. O’Brien wasn’t usually known as the most generous person in town, and giving away four free shakes was pretty much unheard of.
The phone rang a little past noon. Mr. O’Brien grabbed it on the first ring. I couldn’t hear much of the conversation, but it was mostly “Yes, of course.” and “Uh huh.” He set the phone down gently in its cradle, and walked back over to where we were spooning every last drop of the shakes into our mouths.
“I’m going to take you home now.”
“Is everything okay, Mr. O’Brien?” Ricky spoke for all of us.
“Your brother will explain it to you all when we get to your house.” He nodded to Mrs. O’Brien and grabbed his fedora from the hat rack by the door. “Come along now.” He motioned for us to get moving. As much as I wanted to know what in the world was going on, I also knew that sitting there, on that stool by the ice cream freezer, allowed me to be a little bit oblivious to whatever was happening with Mikey and my folks.
The car ride home was short. Ricky sat in the front with Mr. O’Brien; the rest of us squeezed into the back. There wasn’t much I could see, sandwiched in between Tony and Brenda, but I knew basically where we were by the trees out the window. Rosemont Avenue had huge maple trees down one side. Buckley Boulevard had a pair of gigantic oak trees on one corner that Tony and I always tried to climb on the way home from school. Seeing these familiar places, from a car with unfamiliar upholstery, with a different man, who wore a different hat, behind the wheel, felt strange.
Mikey greeted us at the curb as we arrived. Mr. O’Brien pulled him aside for a moment, and talked quietly, before shaking hands. We stood nearby, wanting to ask Mikey what was going on, but knew enough to wait until he was done talking.
“Did you thank Mr. O’Brien for the ice cream?” Mikey gave us a look perfectly copied from our mother. Guiltily we all offered our thanks to Mr. O’Brien, then watched him get in the car and drive away.
“Mikey, what’s going on?” Ricky barely waited for the car to leave the curb.
“Where’s Mom?” Brenda questioned.
“Where’s Dad?” Tony asked.
“Where’s Cathy?” I asked. Mikey hesitated before answering the flood of questions. Mine caused him to take a deep breath. His eyes flashed through a series of emotions so quickly. Anger. Sadness. And then back to the calm he had shown a moment earlier—a calm I immediately knew was a lie.
“Cathy’s in the hospital. Mom and Dad are there now.”
“What!” Brenda gulped. Tears welled up in her eyes. Brenda had always been the emotional one in the family. She cried at everything. Mikey had to stop her quick, before it became a full-on torrent. Only Mom could stop those.
“She’s okay. She’ll be okay. Not to worry.” He knelt down in front of Brenda and hugged her, hugged her as tight as he had ever hugged anyone.
“What happened, Mikey?” Ricky held it together, but barely. He could read the signs as well as I could, if not better. He had seen Mikey’s eyes, too. Everyone knew Mikey’s eyes did his talking. It’s what the women swooned over, and the teachers graded him on. He was a terrible poker player because of those eyes, and a terrible liar, too. I could tell he had been trying to think of what to say since before he called Mr. O’Brien.
“She was beat up. She’ll be okay. The doctors said it wasn’t anything they couldn’t fix.”
“Beat up? What? Who?” Ricky wasn’t usually very intense when it came to family issues. He typically played like he didn’t care. But he had a look on his face at that moment that I had never seen before. He changed from a happy-adolescent, to a pissed off teenager with a chip on his shoulder, right there before our eyes.
“Who did it? Where is he? Cops have him?” Ricky’s eyes betrayed the fury of a tenth generation Scottish Highlander.
“Calm down. We don’t know. Sis isn’t saying too much right now. Why don’t we all go inside.”
“We aren’t going to the hospital?” Brenda asked.
“We can’t. Cathy’s in surgery right now. Mom and Dad will call us when she’s out and awake.”
“Surgery?” It was the first word I’d spoken since I’d asked the critical question. I was fairly sure I knew what it meant, but I wasn’t exactly sure.
“Yes. She has to have some things fixed, but when she’s done, she’ll be good as new.”
“I want to see Mom.” Brenda lost her battle at keeping the tears in.
“She’ll be home in a little while.” Mikey grabbed Brenda’s hand and led us up the walk to the house. Brenda ran to her room. Mikey sat down in his chair on the porch, and lit up a cigarette. His hands shook as if he had spent the day running a jackhammer on the road crew. Tony and Ricky sat on the floor against the wall. I stood by the front door, not sure what to do.
“What were they operating on?” Ricky asked.
Mikey took a deep drag from his smoke, and the stubbed out into the ash tray by his elbow. His face contorted with emotion. The anger roared back, and this time it stayed a little longer. He chose his words carefully.
“Her jaw was broken.” He stared straight ahead. “Her cheekbone, too.”
“Oh my God.” Ricky didn’t seem worried about swearing on Sunday today.
“Doctors said she would have to have her jaw wired shut for a while until it heals.” Mikey said. He wiped a tear from his eye. He looked at us, surveying us. Today would change us all.
“How’d it happen, Mikey?” Tony fought back his own tears. I stood by the door, frozen in place.
“I don’t know,” Mikey dismissed Tony’s question, but we all knew he wasn’t telling the full truth. He shifted in his chair. He made a fist with his right hand, and clenched it until his knuckles went white, then pounded it on the arm of the chair. “Damn it!” He rose from the chair, and brushed past me as he went inside. He picked up the phone, and dialed.
“Hi. It’s Mike. Something’s happened. Can you come over and watch the kids for a while? Thanks, I’ll explain when you get here. Appreciate it.” He hung up, and dialed another number.
“Hi. Could I speak to Billy, please? It’s Mike.” Billy was Mikey’s best friend. He lived three blocks over with his parents. A pause. “Hey Billy, wanna go for a ride? Yeah, I’ll pick you up in ten minutes. See ya in a bit.” He hung up the phone and turned back to us.
“Aunt Doris is coming over to baby-sit until Mom and Dad get back.”
“Where you going, Mikey?” Ricky asked.
“Just out for bit. Don’t worry. I’ll be back soon.”
“Can I come?” Ricky didn’t feel he needed babysitting.
“No, you stay here.”
“I want to come.” Ricky said more forcefully.
“No. Stay. I want you all here and on your best behavior today. Mom and Dad have enough to worry about today, without worrying about you guys.” He ran his hand over the top of my head as he passed by, then bent down to pick up his jacket, his smokes and his keys.
Aunt Doris only lived a few houses away. She came waddling up the sidewalk as Mikey finished gathering his stuff. He met her by the street. She covered her mouth as he explained, just like my mother had done. Mikey started to walk away, and she grabbed him by the jacket. She raised her voice, and we could hear snippets though the screens.
“Mike, you need to calm down. Think this through.” We couldn’t hear Mike’s response, but he gave her a look I had never seen him give another member of the family. Aunt Doris recoiled as Mikey ripped his sleeve out of her grasp. He jogged over to his pickup, got in, and started the engine. He glanced at us as he pulled away, rolled down the window, and flashed me a salute. Mikey was taking care of business, and we all knew it.