James woke from a fitful sleep ripe with childhood monsters lurking under his bed and stealing into his dreams. Monsters that had faded almost from memory—like photographs blurred through the gauze of time—creeping back now into sharper focus.
He showered and dressed in a purposeful manner, tugging at his white dress shirt until it fit just right and Windsor-knotting a paisley tie snugly around his neck. The dour gray suit was worn only on solemn occasions—funerals, mostly. Now, another chalk mark to add on his sleeve.
Winter sunlight streamed through the windows of his west side co-op and basked the apartment in a golden glow, belying the funereal purpose of the day. He made a double Nespresso—fortification for his journey—and readied his bags. Outside, icy wind blustered up West End Avenue, nipping at his face. It made him want to return to the warmth and safety of home. He remembered a PBS show about wolves and how they are not slowed by the cold. Some predators bulk up for winter and hunker down when the weather turns, but wolves continue their hunting unabated. Always on the prowl, always searching for their next meal.
He tossed his bags into the trunk of the waiting Lincoln Town Car and hurried into the back seat. The driver looked at James from his rearview mirror, not turning around or saying a word. “La Guardia, United terminal,” James said. “And take the tunnel, it’s quicker this time of the morning.”
St. Erasmus Catholic Church rose into view from the taxi window: a bulwark of stone and permanence in the South Boston neighborhood. James was baptized in this church, received his confirmation and first communion here; it was also where his parents were married (during the blizzard of ’69) and where his mother’s funeral was held (during the blizzard of ’03). Now he was back to bury his father. But instead of feeling consoled by the church and her comforts, he felt gutted—eviscerated—much like the saint for whom the church was named.
The key to the house was under the shoe-worn welcome mat where it had been kept since he was a boy. The location made it easier to find after a night of drinking. “In that state of mind,” James’s father used to say in his Boston-Irish lilt, “the simpler the hiding place, the better.” It was after those nights that James came to understand the fraught nature of family: those who gave birth to you and raised you wouldn’t always be there to protect you; sometimes they were the danger.
The house smelled soiled and stale, as if the sheer weight of family history trapped the air inside from escape. The drawn curtains were faded, the carpet threadbare and cigarette-ash spotted. It probably hasn’t been cleaned since Ma died, he thought. James burrowed his nose in his coat and trudged up the narrow staircase with suitcase and garment bag in tow.
His old bedroom hadn’t changed. The low bed was still covered in the Red Sox blanket he got for his fifth birthday: the same year Boston made it all the way to the World Series before losing to the Cincinnati Reds. The western-themed wallpaper—faceless Indians being chased on horses by stern-faced cowboys—was pocked and curling away at the corners. A Maplewood chest of drawers still held his little league trophies, tarnished now and covered in a film of dust. James threw his bags down on the bed and rushed to open a window, breathing in the wintry air.
He heard a noise downstairs. “Who’s there?”
“Who do you think?” a voice answered.
James inched his way down the stairs. “Bobby? You scared the shit out of me.”
“Who were you expecting, the Boston Strangler?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out in this neighborhood.”
Bobby laughed. “It’s just your big brother. Now come give us a hug.”
The brothers welcomed one another after several years distance with an awkward, emotional embrace. James wiped his wet eyes with his sleeve.
“Now stop that,” Bobby soothed. “Imagine what Dad would’ve done if he caught us blubbering like a couple of schoolgirls.”
They sat at the kitchen table drinking Rolling Rocks, reminiscing and listening to the muffled shouts of kids playing football in the street. Bursts of cheers rose and fell with the game—stout Southie kids in their Patriots jerseys, taunting the cold, embracing the day.
“Remember when Ma would yell for us to come inside when it got dark?” Bobby said, nodding towards the kids.
“And we would hide instead?” James shot back.
“We drove that woman crazy.”
James and Bobby fell in as brothers reunited, eyes alight and shining with laughter.
“It was all fun until we saw dad outside with his hand on his belt, remember?” James recalled. “We’d be scared shitless, trying to get inside without him seeing us.”
Bobby’s face tightened and the shine dimmed in his eyes. “We’ll need to go through Dad’s stuff.”
“I don’t want anything.”
Bobby looked up at James.
“I mean, you can keep whatever you want.”
“I was hoping we could do it together,” Bobby said.
James took a drink from his beer, looking away.
“Another thing.” Bobby paused. “Dad left the house to us. The both of us.”
“Sell it. Get rid of it. Do whatever you want,” James said, dismissive, waving his hand. “I don’t want any part of it.”
“It’s what dad wanted. It may not be your New York City apartment, but it’s where you came from.”
Bobby rose from his chair. “It’s who you are. Remember that.” He grabbed his beer and walked out of the room, leaving James and his elusive memories alone in the faltering daylight.
James roused from a nap later in the evening. The monsters were back, and this time they were closer.
He could almost smell their foul breath.
The din from his father’s wake emanated through the floorboards—drunken laughter and the stringy Celtic music he had come to hate. James left the bedroom with equal parts hesitation and dread.
Maggie Reilly was sitting at the bottom of the stairs talking to Teddy Buckley with a cigarette tucked into the corner of her mouth like an accessory, bobbing up and down, side to side with every inflection. When she saw James at the top of the stairs, she cackled: “Is that little Jimmy Flaherty?”
“Hi Maggie, hey Teddy,” James said, singsong, resisting each step down the stairs.
Maggie pulled herself up to get a better look. “Well, look at you.” She took him in head to toe with a lascivious smile. “You’re not little anymore.”
“Careful, Mags, you’re in a house full of priests,” Teddy jumped in, making an expansive wave of his arm without spilling his drink. “Drunk priests, but priests still.”
James flushed and reached for the banister, righting himself.
“I can handle the priests, Teddy,” she sneered, baring nicotine-stained teeth. “I’ve had the practice. But this one...”
He pushed between the pair, shaking his head as Maggie and Teddy roared behind his back. Strains of Danny Boy came from the kitchen, starting and stalling in fits between raucous laughter. James recognized most everyone even after all the years away. The same kids he grew up with—the kids he knew would never amount to much—just older now and drinking and smoking themselves into early graves. The Southie cycle of life: you’re born with a bottle and you die with a bottle. Everything in-between was the unsettled part.
But in his mind, nothing was unsettled. From an early age he knew: get away from this life—the misery, the repetition of bad choices. He thought, I’m only back here to bury my father, it’s what’s expected of me. But after this… this place will be in the rearview mirror for good. James moved across the room like walking through ghosts.
He spotted Father Thomas in his dad’s easy chair, enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke and holding a whiskey. James turned to walk away but the old priest called out to him: “Jimmy, is that you?”
He hesitated. “Yes, Father. It’s me, James.”
“I haven’t laid eyes on you for years, son.” Father Thomas leaned forward in his chair and reached out to take James’s hands. “How have you been?”
“Busy, Father.” James pulled his hands free from the priest’s grasp.
“We were hoping to see you sooner, Jimmy. Your father wasn’t well for some time.”
“Yeah, I didn’t feel good about coming around sooner,” James said. “Too many bad memories about this place, you know?”
“I know the troubles you endured, Jimmy. Both you and your brother,” Father Thomas took a sip of his whiskey. “But the Lord never abandons his flock.”
“Then Southie must be at the bottom of his list, Father,” James said. “Have you seen my brother around?”
Father Thomas indicated with his head across the room. “Better check the bathroom. I think he’s been in there for some time.”
James left the priest and walked across the room, knocking sharply when he reached the bathroom door. “Bobby, it’s me, Jimmy.”
There was no answer, but he heard the door unlock from inside. James opened it and stepped into the cramped room, recoiling when he saw his brother. He thought he was looking at his father instead; the face flush from drinking, eyes shot and empty. “Are you okay?”
“I’m at a wake, what does that tell you?”
“Listen, I’m sorry about earlier. The last few days haven’t been easy. With the news about Dad… it brought up a lot of memories. I just wanted to say that I’ll agree to whatever you want to do with his stuff, the house…”
Bobby stepped nose to nose with James. “You think this has been easy for me? I’m the one who took care of him. I’m the one who made his meals, bathed him… where were you?”
“Trying to live my life, Bobby.” James took a step back. “Look, Dad made his choices, but we don’t have to make the same mistakes.” James pleaded, “Come to New York with me. Get out of this place and start over.”
Bobby grabbed James by the collar and slammed him against the wall, knocking him off his feet. “This is my home. I’m not going anywhere.”
James drew his knees to his chest and dropped his head protectively between his arms, trying to draw breath, trying to make himself small and unseen.
“You’re the one that doesn’t belong here. You’re the one who needs to say goodbye to the past, Jimmy.”
James found Bobby passed out on the sofa hugging an empty Jameson bottle; overflowing ashtrays were littered throughout the room. He took a wool blanket from the back of his father’s easy chair and placed it over Bobby, tucking in the ends, and stopped to look at him for the first time in years: the once-thick mop of black hair was now thinning, and his face ruddy and fuller than he remembered—like their father’s. Bobby had always been closer to their father in both looks and temperament, and he liked the comparison. An eager learner, a chip off the old block.
James was starting breakfast when Bobby stumbled into the kitchen. “Coffee’s ready.”
Bobby grunted and helped himself to a large mug, adding a heavy helping of cream and sugar.
James took a carton of eggs from the fridge. “Some show last night, huh?”
“I think Dad would have approved.”
“No doubt,” James said, then with a Cheshire cat grin: “Care for some over-easy eggs?”
The funeral mass began in the early afternoon. The day was already waning when mourners arrived in small groups bundled against the cold, their dark suits and dresses in contrast with their pasty winter pallor.
The brothers helped carry the casket up the center aisle with Father Thomas following, head bowed. James had heard his father wasted away before his death, but he was shocked by the lightweight he shouldered. Just a shell of the hard-living man he was in his prime.
The pallbearers set the casket down on the bier as Father Thomas walked to the lectern. He gently tapped the microphone, then spoke in a full voice with arms outstretched: “Receive the Lord’s blessing. The Lord bless you and watch over you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, look kindly on you and give you peace. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Father Thomas made the sign of the cross as the congregation murmured, “Amen.”
The priest looked out at those gathered before resting his eyes on the casket in front of him. “We’re here to celebrate the life of Robert Sean Flaherty. A man of many faces, as are all of God’s creations. I tended to Robert during his last years when the sickness tore through him. Wasted him. He told me he drew strength from his boys, they kept him going.” James stole a sideways glance at Bobby, still puffy and hungover from the night before, gaze fixed straight ahead. “We all knew Robert and his ways,” the priest continued. “But he spoke lovingly of his boys. ‘Father,’ he used to say to me, ‘I’ve my oldest boy close to home, to remind me daily of how much I’m blessed. And my youngest making his own way in the world, to remind me that love also means letting go.’”
The house was dark and still when James awoke the next morning to catch his return flight. He felt like a thief, tiptoeing around, trying to keep from waking his brother. He was aware of the small sounds the house made, sounds he recognized from a lifetime ago—the knocking of the gas furnace, the whirring of the refrigerator motor, the steady tick-tick of the kitchen clock. Sounds that made him feel young again and vulnerable: Little Jimmy.
He spied the space under the sink where he fit easily as a young boy, the sanctuary where he hid during the parties that started out friendly and ended otherwise. The punches that were supposed to mean kinship and love but only left bruises in the morning. Bobby would ask to stay up when the gatherings turned ugly; eldest son learning at his father’s elbow. But Jimmy was sent to bed, tucked in by the family priest—a charity, a clerical duty, leading the Rosary with his hot, expectant breath. Hiding behind his Roman collar with the promise of protection, he was a wolf dressed in all black.
He flinched at the sharp honk of the taxi. James was trembling as he took a final look around the house before pulling the front door closed behind him.
The day was just rising. James followed his bags into the back of the cab, sliding along the cracked pleather seat. “Logan,” he told the driver. “United terminal.” He closed his eyes and rested his head on the seat behind him, lolling side to side with the movement of the cab.
He saw Bobby in his mind’s eye: sliding his bare feet into their father’s worn slippers and putting on their father’s dingy robe against the cold morning, stepping carefully down the stairs and into the empty living room. Would Bobby be able to feel his stealthy early morning presence? Probably not. He was gone from that place forever. He was letting go.