My father asked me how my visit went. He tried to come across as very casual, off-hand, but I knew he was fishing around for something to get pissed off about. I told him that my mother, Bully, and I went to the movies.
“Bully? Do you mean Walter Orzechowski?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s his name.”
My father’s lips tightened into a thin line, and he went upstairs. Then he stomped downstairs, put on his jacket, and headed out the door. Three the next morning he came back, drunk, as usual, and passed out on the couch. Later that afternoon he called out,
“Johnny! Get your ass in here.”
He made it very short. “You can’t see your mother anymore.”
“Because she’s living in sin.”
“What are you talking about?”
He flashed me an evil, penetrating look.
“I said you can’t see her anymore, and that’s it.”
Of course I disobeyed him because he had no right to keep me from my own mother. I told her what he’d said, and she laughed. “Sin? Well, he’s the expert.”
Then she got serious. She took both of my hands. “Would you like to live here with me and Bully? I could go to court, get custody.”
Oh, yes! A fresh start. A new life. Much less anxiety and fear. Not having to feel jealous of all the other kids who show up at school in clean clothes, some of them have shiny new lunchboxes with ham and cheese sandwiches, and small thermoses full of home-made chicken soup, that aroma of chicken soup is magnificent and wonderful, and I hate how these privileged shits just take it for granted. No big deal. And they complain. Hey, why the fuck did she put mayo in this sandwich, she knows I hate mayo. Here, want it? I can’t eat this shit.
Tuna salad. Chicken salad. Chopped celery in the mayoed white chicken, and toasted bread, and a layer of crisp lettuce. I couldn’t imagine making such a thing for myself, it is beyond my ability. There is no produce at the deli, no heads of lettuce or celery. Just Twinkies, and pumpkin pies, and bags of potato chips, and a bunch of other stuff.
I was a kid and didn’t know anything about proper grocery shopping and the preparation of meals. It was something out of my experience, I had no models.
“Yes, mom, I do want to live with you.”
Chester Calls In Monsignor
My father goes ballistic when he gets the court summons. A custody hearing. He waves the papers in front of my face, I feel the breeze. “What the fuck is this? Huh? Do you seriously think that whore will get away with this shit?”
“I want to live with her.”
“I said I want to live with her. She’s my mother, and don’t call her a whore.”
He rose, clenched his fists. My defiant gaze told him that he could beat me all he wanted, but I wasn’t going to change my mind. Not on this. Never.
It took him about a week of hard thinking, but he finally came up with what was an absolutely brilliant move. He called Monsignor Kazmirski and explained that his recently excommunicated whoremongering ex-wife was trying to get custody of little Johnny. Was there ANYTHING he could do? Monsignor said, all right. I’ll talk to the boy.
Monsignor shows up at the house when my father is at work. I have no choice but to let him in. He’s in his long black cassock with a wide scarlet band around his bulging belly. He’s wearing his shiny gold cross with the heavy gold chain. He takes off his black biretta with its red tuft. I sit on the couch, he sits in the chair by the front door. He is very grave, solemn, intense.
“Understandably, your father is deeply distressed by your decision to go live with your mother, my son,” Monsignor says. “Your father truly loves you, and doesn’t want you to go away. When he spoke to me this morning tears were streaming down his face.”
I turn my head to the side. I can see my father bawling. I’ve seen it many times before.
“Have you considered the consequences of your decision?”
“Yes, Monsignor. I’ll be with my mother, and I’ll be happy.”
“But what about your father?”
“I could visit him.”
“Visit him? After such a profound betrayal?”
I look down and say nothing.
“You are at an important crossroads in your life, my son,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that you’re obliged to make such a grave decision, since you are still a child. But we do not choose the cross our Lord requires us to bear. We must accept it, without question. Now, I want you to think about this.”
I remain silent.
The holy man tells me there is but one moral choice. I must remain with my father, because that will keep me in this parish where I’ll continue my Catholic education. And at the appropriate time I’ll go on full scholarship to the Jesuit seminary, to study for the priesthood.
“You know how important that opportunity is, don’t you?”
I say nothing.
“You must remember what Augustine teaches us: ‘The measure of loving God is to love him without measure.’ This means you must abandon everything, including a mother’s love.”
Maybe that was OK for a guy like him, I thought. But not for a kid like me. He was dead wrong. He didn’t know what he was talking about. But I dared not contradict him. Even though I didn’t really believe any of the convoluted “mysteries” of the church he and the nuns kept feeding me, he still was a powerful, intimidating figure.
And there always was the possibility that I could be dead wrong about everything.
“And on purely ethical grounds, well, you must consider the impact your decision to live with your mother would inevitably have—not just on yourself, but on others. How do you suppose your father will feel? Your aunt? Your uncle? Your cousins?”
I look at Monsignor. “It’s not like I’d be going to another country,” I say.
“But listen, my son. Your father nurtured you for nearly ten years. And to whom would you be going? Is it not to a woman who abandoned her husband and her infant son, and sought a divorce?”
Nurtured? You’ve GOT to be kidding. And my mother had reasons. Good ones.
“Your mother’s acts were unquestionably immoral and sinful,” he says. “Which is why she was excommunicated.”
“But my father is a sinner, too.”
“We all are sinners,” Monsignor Kazmirski says quietly.
“I still want to live with my mother,” I say.
“Yes, you do. But you can not ignore the facts. Your mother made no attempt to communicate with you for nearly ten years. Unlike her, your father didn’t abandon you. True?”
“ But . . .”
I can’t finish the sentence. I wish I could tell him about the zillions of cockroaches that scurry for cover when I turn on the kitchen light in that empty house. Or my father puking in the bathtub at three in the morning, because he can’t use the shit-clogged toilet. Or all those belt whippings he seems to love giving me. I’m paralyzed. Maybe it’s because I think he would never believe anything I tell him about my father. That he'd just call me a liar.
“You need to think about this, “ Monsignor Kazmirski says. “But you know what you must do. In the name of God.”
The judge is bald, stately and plump, sitting up there on his bench in the echoing marble courtroom. My father and his lawyer sit at one table, and my mother and her lawyer are at the other.
“I can’t hear you, speak up,” the judge says, clearly annoyed.
“I said I want to live with my father.”
“That is your choice?”
I lower my head. My face is burning. There’s an ache in my gut.
“Yes,” I whisper.
“I said YES.”
My mother’s lawyer says something I don’t understand. My father’s lawyer rises, and speaks for a while and I don’t understand him either. I can’t think, my brain is too numb. Then the judge cracks his gavel, a sharp explosive sound that startles me. My father’s nostrils flare in triumph. He shakes his lawyer’s hand, and then he throws a hateful glare at my mother.
Hooray! Chester WON! He’d been wholly exonerated of all blame, and now he can hold his head high. He’d done no wrong, ever. That’s what all this meant. I could imagine him telling his bar buddies: “Hey, listen! That kid would never have chosen me if I wasn’t a GOOD father! I’m a better parent than that goddamned whore, with her fat-fuck bookie husband and her faggot lawyer. That cunt had it coming. Look at her. Fucking whore.”
I have no recollection of what he said in the car on the way home. But I do remember clearly that he went out to celebrate after he dropped me off. I didn’t mind. I had the house to myself.
Late that evening in the darkness I was lying on the living room couch. From the radio’s loudspeaker came the saccharine strains of Brahms’s “Lullaby.” Obscenely sweet.
I wept and shuddered and felt awfully sorry for myself the rest of the evening. I couldn’t help but notice there was a certain twisted pleasure in being so clearly the victim of a colossal injustice. Wait till next-door-neighbor Caroline hears about it. She’ll whip up a hot tray of lasagna with sausage and make a chocolate cake with yellow butter icing, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Mmmmmm.
The next morning, a Saturday, I went to the Bellmont Library and looked up Johannes Brahms. I knew his violin concerto, which was almost as good as Beethoven’s, but I had only a vague idea as to his background. And there on the printed page of a thick beautiful book I read that Brahms, this supremely gifted sentimentalist, once worked in a brothel. Yes, a brothel.
How utterly fitting that following my cowardly betrayal of my mother I would be swept into pathos by the music of a whorehouse piano player.
I called her. Tried to explain that my father had brought in Monsignor, and…and…and…
“Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “I know exactly what he did.”
“I shouldn’t have let Monsignor talk me into it. I’m sorry.”
“Listen, Johnny. It’s all right. Remember, you’re only ten years old. You had no choice. Now, let the dust settle for a week or two. Then you can come over here any time you want.”
“Yes, my door is always open to you, and always will be.”