Some years ago I gave myself the task of trying to understand the things that shaped Chester Palcewski’s personality. I wrote a short story entitled “His Journey Westward,” which appeared in Electric Acorn, a literary journal published in Ireland. In the story I described what Chester may have felt as a boy, witnessing the death of his father. That trauma, and many others, had a profoundly negative effect on him.
Here are some excerpts:
From His Journey Westward
The snow was light and powdery, and slipped easily off the smooth steel blade. Mike watched his father bend over, scoop a large heap, and toss it to one side. The tall, broad-shouldered man bent again, repeated the motion. He continued shoveling in a steady cadence.
"This is disgustin, eh?" Sean said, breathing out clouds of steam. "You never see snow like this in the old country. Never."
Mike tried to mirror his father's steady, confident motions. One, two, three, four. But quickly Mike felt a burning ache in his back and in his arms, and soon he had to stop, to gulp in the frigid air.
"In the winter in Ireland there is more rain than snow," Sean grunted, tossing a huge shovelfull toward the street. "Lots of mud. And rain. But not much snow to speak of."
After a few moments Mike resumed his shoveling. But the burning ache in his arms got more intense with each shovelfull, and he felt hot and sweaty and trembly. His father hardly slowed. One load after another, with a grunt and an expulsion of steam. One, two, three, four.
Mike looked up toward the house, saw his mother in the window, one hand parting the white lace curtain. Oh, how much he hoped that she would open the door and call out, "Mike, come in now! That'll be enough shovelin' for one day." But soon the curtain closed.
Sean slowly climbed the stairs, and closed the bathroom door behind him. They heard water running in the bathtub. The snow had stopped, and now bright light shone in through the windows of the house. A brilliant white light that made Mike squint when he looked out. Residual snow on the sidewalk was melting, making dark, wet patches on the concrete. Mike looked at the mounds of snow he and his father had shoveled. Tons of snow.
Jane was at the kitchen table, studying the Sunday comics. Mike sat down in the chair opposite his sister. She'd combed her hair, and had tied it back into a pony tail. "Give me some of that," he said.
Without looking at her brother, she separated a section of the paper and pushed it toward him. As he read the printed words in the balloons that floated above Dagwood and Blondie he drummed his fingers on the table.
"Stop it," Jane said.
"Stop it," he mimicked in a falsetto.
Mike got up, went to the pantry, and opened the refrigerator door. Inside was the milk bottle that he'd brought in from the front porch earlier that morning. He was surprised by what he'd seen in the early gray light. The cream had frozen, and had pushed up out of the bottle in an inch-high white column. He'd never seen anything like that before.
"Don't drink from the bottle," Jane said. "Use a glass."
Mike pulled out the cardboard cap from the neck, and raised the bottle to his lips and took three long swallows. "Okay," he said, replacing the cap.
They heard the water draining from the bathtub, and the sound of the door opening. The footsteps of their father, from the bathroom to the bedroom. The creak of the bed. Murmuring voices of their father and their mother. Alternating tones, masculine and feminine. Indecipherable words.
Jane turned the pages of the comics. Mike pushed backward, tilting the chair so it rapped against the wall. He bobbed his foot, and rustled the newspaper.
"Stop it," Jane said.
"All that moving around. Can't you ever sit still for one minute?"
Mike moved forward, and the front chair legs hit the floor with a loud bang.
"I said STOP it," Jane said loudly.
"Will you be quiet down there?" they heard their father call out.
Mike looked at Jane, and she returned his gaze. "You heard him," Jane said. "Be quiet."
"You be quiet."
Jane resumed her study of the paper. Mike went to the cupboard above the sink, opened the door. He inspected the cans that were stacked neatly on the shelves inside. Campbell's Pork and Beans. Campbell's Tomato Soup. Campbell's Chicken and Noodle Soup. When he was a little boy he remembered scribbling on a piece of paper. "Soup-erman." His mother corrected him. "It's spelled this way," and she showed him. But then he told her about those cans in the kitchen. She'd seemed so pleased. "How clever," she'd said.
He closed the cabinet door, and opened the other. Canned peaches. A box of Quaker's Oats. Morton's salt. And a round tin box painted a bright red. He hadn't seen it before. He reached up, tried to take hold of it, but it was heavier than he expected and the tin box fell out of his fingers. It hit the rim of the sink, the lid sprang loose, and a shower of nails, nuts and bolts clattered and spread over the floor. The tin box bounced once, then rolled, finally settling with an abrupt metallic shudder.
"For Christ's sake, I told you to be QUIET down there!" their father shouted.
Jane shook her head. Mike knelt down and gathered up the nails and bolts and nuts and put them back into the tin box. Miss bossy boots. That superior head shake, which makes her pony tail wag back and forth. Daddy never yells at her. Never. Just at him, because he can't do anything right. Always screwing up, one way or another. Eh?
Mike returned the box to the shelf. He was going to go down to the basement and look through that stack of magazines. He was going to keep out of everyone's way. But that pony tail beckoned him. He couldn't resist. They were yelling at him, always at him. Never at her. Miss goody two-shoes. One day he'd teach her a real lesson. In a quick motion, he yanked down, as hard as he could.
"AIEEEEE!" Jane screamed. She rose, and bumped the table violently. Her chair fell backward, bounced on the floor.
"By CHRIST I've had enough of this bloody nonsense!" their father roared. They heard their parents’ bedroom door open, and their father's booming voice at the top of the stairs.
"A man can't even rest in his own bloody fookin house!" he shouted.
Mike's eyes widened. His father was on his way down the stairs, most likely with the belt. He heard footsteps on the stairs, and then a pause.
It was a sudden expulsion of a breath, a sound of distress and pain, which froze Mike and Jane in place. After another pause they heard an awful rumbling and shaking of the walls as Sean's body collapsed and tumbled down the steep, narrow stairs. A deep and profound rumbling, more frightening than thunder.
Jane screamed. Mike could not move, he dared not move. His paralysis pressed down hard on him, and he suddenly felt himself pretending he was in another place. Jane rushed out of the kitchen, through the dining room, to the living room and the stair's landing. She screamed once again. "Oh, Daddy!"
Then Mike heard his mother's footsteps.
"Sean!" she shouted. "Oh, dear God..." And then his father's groaning. Then silence. More of his mother's footsteps, and the peculiar sound of the phone's rotary dial. His mother saying rapidly, "A terrible accident...I dunno...for sure he's not breathing...please come quick, please..."
Mike knew he should be doing something, but he could not move. He sat, staring, thinking he was not really in that kitchen, in that house, hearing all those awful sounds. He knew he should rise out of that chair to help his father, to help his sister and his mother. But he couldn't.
Afterward Jane came into the kitchen. She stood before him, chest rising and falling, her cheeks flushed, her eyes glistening. "You little shit," she said.
That was all she said. But her eyes told him: It was all your fault. If you would've listened to Daddy when he told you to quit the racket he wouldn't have gotten out of bed to come down to beat you. He wouldn't have fallen down the stairs, you little shit. You're always goofing around. You never do what you're supposed to do. Skinny little shit.
He always imagined growing up, as tall as his father, as handsome. Coming home with a report card from a college, straight As. Top of the class. He imagined his father grinning, and saying, "That calls for a nip, eh? Here's a toast to you, boy. I'm proud of you!"
He imagined himself finally being able to sit in a library for six straight hours, memorizing from textbooks, without struggling in a cold sweat. Or being first string on the football or baseball team, winning a game. Or getting a job where he'd supervise dozens of men, and bring home lots of money. Or pulling someone from a burning car after a wreck, risking his life, becoming a hero, being interviewed by reporters and written up in the newspaper.
He knew what his father's face would look like when he saw, finally, what a success his son had turned out to be.
* * *
The women pulled the dining room table apart and laid down polished panels that had been stored in the basement, then put a pad on the now enlarged shiny surface, and on top of that a linen tablecloth. Then came the pans and platters and plates they all had brought: A baked ham covered with pineapple and cloves. A large turkey with mounds of fragrant bread stuffing. A roast held together with string. Mashed and scalloped and baked potatoes. Tureens of gravy. Candied carrots. Candied yams. Bright green peas with tiny white onions interspersed. Also cubes of white and yellow cheese and chunks of hard salami with toothpicks stuck in them. The toothpicks had red and blue and green cellophane frills on the ends.
Mrs. Quinn had told the mortuary director that she wanted her husband's casket placed in the living room, against the wall beneath the fading photographic portrait of her father and mother, which portrait she had wrapped carefully and had taken with her on the journey from Galway to America in 1900. She'd had to replace the glass not too long ago, after Mike and Jane, her rowdy children, had tossed cushions during one of their frequent squabbles and had dislodged the portrait, sending it crashing to the floor.
The lid of the silver-handled polished mahogany casket was in two sections; one open, the other closed. Sean Thomas Quinn's head impressed a pale silk pillow, his hands were folded on his chest, a rosary entwined in his waxy, wrinkled fingers. His hair was still dark. The man looked much younger than his sixty some years. On the floor, directly beneath, were baskets of flowers.
Stacked at the end of the long table in the dining room were plates, in sets of six or twelve, each set in a style and pattern different from the others. There were shallow, cut-glass bowls filled with black and green olives, the green ones with and without red pimento filling, and carrots sliced in narrow little strips, and strips of celery, and dill and sweet pickles, some cut lengthwise and others cut crosswise, and radishes carved to look like roses. There were woven baskets with linen cloths inside which were small loaves of freshly baked bread, and biscuits. There was chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Also white cake with butter and powdered sugar icing.
The women had carefully arranged gleaming rows of silver forks, knives, and spoons. On a card table in the corner was a large restaurant-style coffee urn, and cups, saucers. The refrigerator in the pantry was full of bottles of beer. Schlitz. Carling’s Black Label. On the credenza near the dining room table were bottles of whiskey, gin, scotch and vodka. Also bottles of Coca-Cola, ginger ale, orange soda, root beer. A silver bucket full of ice cubes. An assortment of glasses.
Three men arrived, strangers, who unpacked their instruments from battered cases. Mrs. Quinn spoke quietly to them for a few moments, then the fiddler announced in a resonant baritone that he and the others would be playing songs everyone gathered here might remember from the old countrie, songs that were favorites of our departed brother Sean Thomas Quinn, God bless his soul. Couragie. Gravelwalk. Beardance. Lamentation. The Ashplant, O'Carolan's Dream. The Foxhunters. Boulavogne.
Among other strangers, Mike saw some familiar faces. Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald, old man O'Rourke, the two Morrisey brothers, and an assortment of aunts and uncles. Marie O'Sullivan, Molly Gaughan and their husbands. Anne Gallaher.
The women moved from the kitchen to the dining room and back. Jane stood near the front door and took arriving visitors’ coats to put them on the bed upstairs. She and the other women kept busy, moving constantly from room to room attending to one thing or another, while the men stood with their drinks, filling the rooms with the smoke from their pipes and cigars and cigarettes, and talked.
When Mike heard his father crashing, rumbling, tumbling down the stairs he couldn't move, he just couldn't rise out of his chair in the kitchen and cross through the dining room and the living room to help his father, and he could not respond to his sister's accusing look afterward. He'd never forget the look on her flushed face. He saw and felt her disgust. It did not matter that the doctor told the three of them at the hospital that Sean Quinn had a diseased heart and that his death had been inevitable, either that particular afternoon or the next.
Mike's rowdiness, his provoking his father to anger, was not the cause of his father's death, absolutely not. Mike was not to think that he had been responsible. No, absolutely not. Mr. Quinn would have without doubt died shortly anyway, and shoveling snow earlier in the morning certainly didn't help his heart any. "Do you understand that, boy?" the tall, white-coated bald doctor with the rimless glasses said.
Mike chewed on a piece of hard salami, and poked at a square of yellow cheese. To his right stood Patrick Gaughan and Robert Morrissey. Both had almost-white hair, and both held glasses of whiskey.
"You say your brother was in Limerick?" asked Patrick Gaughan.
"Yes, he returned last week," Robert Morrisey said. "And he told me while he was there he'd heard on the radio an announcer talkin' about all the organized crime that was supposed to be goin' on there. All sorts of bad publicity that was a hurtin' tourism."
"Organized crime, you say?"
"Yes," Gaughan said. "The announcer swore there was no organized crime in Limerick. The last ten murders, says he, were all separate incidents."
Mike cast quick glances to the left and right, then ran his finger at the base of the cholocate cake and brought the smooth, sticky chocolate glob to his mouth. He didn't want to think about what had happened. There was too much to it.
When his father died everything began to change in ways that made him feel a numbing astonishment, and then a rising anger that he could not express. When his father was alive there was a curious balance between his mother, father and sister. Mike occupied a certain position in which he had some influence in the way things went, which is to say that he knew he could count on his mother's coming to his aid when things got bad.
She was the one, after all, who ordered his father not to beat him with the belt that last time he did something wrong. And while Jane was almost grown he still was his father's son, someday himself to be a man, whereas Jane was a girl, to become a woman, and as far as he could tell men ruled and women obeyed. More or less.
But now all that had been put aside. At the hospital Jane took charge. She'd always been Miss Bossy Boots. Now she was the one putting coins in the pay phone, calling this relative and that, she was the one consoling her weeping mother, she was the one talking in quiet, confident tones with the doctor and the funeral director and so on. She was the one who was making decisions, while he just sat on a padded bench in the hospital waiting room, hands clasped between his legs, feeling a burning embarrassment at how pathetically ineffective he turned out to be, how useless he was, how utterly incapable he was of saying or doing anything that would help.
Jane was calmly making sure that everything went smoothly in this crisis, this hour of need. Whereas Mike sat there on the bench, a miserable and pathetic figure, wondering if he'd provoke more of his sister's contempt if he asked her if it would be all right if he got a candy bar or a bottle of coke or something, since he was very hungry. But he said nothing, knowing that being hungry--thinking only of himself as usual--was really a terrible thing to be doing now that his father had died. All he could do then was just sit, quietly, stomach rumbling, while his sister bustled about. Miss Bossy Boots.
"Mike!" Jane called out.
Mike moved quickly out of the dining room, weaved in and around the standing, talking, smoking men. He hoped to reach the stairs, so he could steal up to his bedroom, slip under the bed, and hide in the dusty darkness. Away from that casket and dead body, that melancholy music, away from all that loud talking, and smoke, and the heavy, sickening scent of flowers. And Jane.
But Jane saw him at the stairway. "Mike, come here," she said. "We need some butter. Get two pounds. Understand?" She gave him a new five dollar bill, folded into a narrow rectangle, which he slipped into the right front pocket of his trousers.
The snow had turned to slush, but the wind was still cold. He walked along the sidewalk, avoiding the puddles. The snowmounds along the street were covered with a glaze marked with specks of soot from the mill and coarse bits of gravel from the city's road crew. In front of the brown-painted house on the corner was a snowman, with his hat awry, his carrot nose lying on the ground A red-haired man sitting in a black Ford was goosing the accelerator, while the rear wheels spun and screamed on the slush, admid a cloud of exhaust and the scent of burning rubber.
Mike saw glistening, falling droplets from melting ice on tree limbs and telephone wires, a plop, plop, plopping. He heard an occasional whump as mounds of snow slid down sloping roofs and onto the ground below.
The vigorous walk flushed his face. He unbuttoned his coat, and took off his gloves and absently stuffed them into his bulky jacket's left side pocket, as he climbed up onto the top of a long, narrow mountain of packed snow along the side of the street. He held his arms outstretched to keep his balance. He moved slowly, step by step, along the mountain's ridge, careful not to fall into the yawning abyss.
But suddenly he slipped and for a moment--with some wild arm waving--he managed to keep his balance, but then he fell down sideways on the slope of the dirty snow, rolled once, and came to rest in a puddle. He felt the sudden sting of cold wetness through his trousers. Damn! He stood up, ineffectively brushed the wet fabric with his bare hands.
O’Malley’s grocery store always had a heavy odor of cheese and sour milk, and the dark linoleum floor near the dairy case was always wet and slippery. Old man O'Malley never turned his lights on, so sometimes it was hard to read the labels on the cans and boxes and bottles. The store was empty. Mike found the butter. He put the soft, heavy packages on the counter while O'Malley punched the keys of the cash register.
The register's drawer sprang open. O'Malley waited while Mike reached into his trouser pocket where he'd put the five dollar bill Jane had given him. But his pocket was empty. Mike felt a rising, hot, tingling sensation.
His other pocket was empty as well. His hand felt the warmth of his thigh through the thin fabric. He fumbled in his jacket, both pockets. No five dollar bill. Also no gloves.
He looked up at O'Malley, who stood watching, stonefaced. "I lost the money!" Mike said in a weak, high-pitched voice.
"Put the butter back, then," old man O'Malley said, squinting.
Mike turned quickly and blinked, trickling hot tears, and then pushed open the door of O'Malley's store. He clenched his teeth and made two fists and trembled. Fucking asshole bastard good for nothing goddamned fucking bastard, he growled to himself, walking numbly along the sidewalk.
O'Malley didn't give a damn. He just stood there waiting for his goddamned money. Put the butter back, then. Sure, you ugly bastard!
The wind gusted, and his coat flew open. Mike fumbled with the buttons but kept his eyes down at the wet sidewalk, examined it carefully as he walked along, hoping to catch a blessed glimpse of green. He walked slowly, casting his eyes back and forth, ignoring the cars splashing on the street and the people walking along...please, please, please, please.
He visualized finding it. He knew how relieved he'd feel, spotting that folded five dollar bill, and also finding his gloves, which his mother told him many, many times not to lose, as he had lost all the others. Oh, how he'd breathe out a great sigh, and feel so exultant at having been spared still another calamity. The lightness and grace of God’s compassion is what he'd feel soon enough. All he had to do was look carefully. Retrace every step from the house to the store. Down Bellmont three blocks, then left on Locust, and two blocks, and then...
The wind was blowing, so maybe the bill had fluttered up over the piles of snow and had come to rest in one of the pools of water on the street. He could vividly picture a wet, immobile five dollar bill stuck to the dark pavement, held fast by the wetness, waiting to be found, just waiting for him.
All he had to do was keep looking.