SHEP AND THE PRIEST: PART II

This is a continuation of a memoir excerpt placed in the blog last month.


The next day the priest drives me to meet the Good Man from Long Island. It is late afternoon and we are driving down a beautiful street in Long Island with large houses on large lots on either side. Yards have shrubs of all shapes and sizes and the trees, while denuded of leaves, are large and seem to signal to me with their gallantry that they have always been there and always will be there and they know I’m a good boy and they don’t depend on anyone either.

We pull into a driveway off a cul-de-sac. In front of us stands a ranch house that seems to stretch on forever it is so large. There is a two-car garage with doors as white as snow and a shiny black Cadillac Fleetwood sits in the driveway. I remember Dad telling me Fleetwood’s are the top of the line.

We are walking towards the front door and I am sweating and hoping I don’t smell bad. I’d bathed best I could early that morning, heating water up on my hot plate and scrubbing down very inch of me. I’d gone to the basement with Lyn and put my head under the power burst of the ice water in order to shampoo my hair. The water is brutal cold, after a few seconds my head begins to freeze, my vision gets blurry and Lyn wraps my head in a towel until it warms up, repeat. It takes more than 10 soakings like this to thoroughly wet my hair. Then it takes another 15 or so to rinse out the shampoo. Head under brutal cold water, start to freeze, blurry vision, wrap towel around head, wait for warmth, repeat.

The front door opens before we reach it and a woman in her thirties comes out to greet us. She is so beautiful and dazzling I am instantly a combination of breathless and worthless. “Father, so good to see you,” she says, extending her hand to the priest. “Good afternoon.”

The priest shakes her hand and looks at me. “This is Peter,” he says. I am out of place and want to run away, but where can I go? I’m in Long Island and Long Island is filled with these big houses and dazzling rich people who smell good and never sweat.

Suddenly I am completely focused. The smell of cooking food pours out of the open front door and I am so hungry I can’t make sense of anything.

Everything in the house is large. I’m standing inside the front door on a marble floor that must be 20 feet wide. To my left there is a hall that disappears somewhere. In front of me and to my right is a sunken living room that’s so big I can’t figure out how a person sitting on one side of the room can hear what someone sitting in on the opposite side is saying. I think the entire population of Rhode Island could migrate to this living room with room to spare. There is a large fireplace along one wall with a large fire burning away. I remember Mommom and Poppop’s fireplace in Rumson and how my Dad loved making the fire and tending to it, his eyes growing soft, half closing with sweet memory, watching the dancing flames. I miss him.

The Good Man from Long Island sits on the far side in a large leather chair; a huge unlit cigar in his hand, his floral-patterned shirt opened low, revealing a tanned chest and, I swear to God, a gold chain. He has a tan and it hits me that his wife does too. It’s wintertime and they have tans. They are rich. They’re tanned top to bottom. I may be just 18 but I know if you live in a big house in Long Island and you have a shiny black Fleetwood Cadillac and you have nice clothes and deep tans you have a lot of money. There can be no other explanation and I know this.

The Good Man from Long Island waves for me to sit down next to him with his cigar. I sit down on a large leather couch that almost swallows and digests me.

“How old are you, kid?” the Good Man from Long Island says.

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen. That’s a good age,” he says and I can’t figure out what the hell is good about it but of course I don’t say this. “The Father tells me you’re living in some abandoned building in Brooklyn.”

I say, “That’s true.”

“How long you been on your own, kid?”

“Since my Dad died when I was 15.”

“We need to help this young man, honey,” he says to his beautiful well-groomed wife in a loud voice. She’s in the very large kitchen which is up two steps from the living room with a woman who looks like a maid to me. “I been there, kid, the Father will tell you. I been there. I know poor. It’s not fair it should happen to any of us. You don’t have family?”

I say, “No, not anymore.”

“That’s too bad, kid. I can tell you with hard work and perseverance you can make it. That’s how I did it, hard work and perseverance. Isn’t that right, honey?” he says to his wife.

She says, “Absolutely, sweetheart,” in a tone that makes me think she didn’t hear him but knows what to say to keep him happy. I find myself feeling sorry for her, though I’m not sure I know why.

The smell of food is everywhere and I am so hungry I can barely focus on the conversation.

The Good Man from Long Island says, “You like construction, kid?” and gets up from his very large leather chair and gestures with his cigar towards the very large dining area off the kitchen.

I know this answer. I say, “I love construction,” at the same time telling myself that the act of running to the dinner table would not be in the neighborhood of impressive. As for loving construction, I know if the Good Man from Long Island had owned a funeral home I would happily profess a lifelong desire to be a mortician. Hunger is a harsh master.

We eat a huge meal of steak and salad, and then there is lasagna and garlic bread and I am beginning to think heaven and Long Island are one and the same. I know this is true when some very strong delicious coffee is served in tiny cups with tiny saucers and tiny handles. I don’t at all understand why people with this much money don’t get regular size cups with regular size handles and saucers but I don’t say anything because as far as I’m concerned I’d be happy if they served the very strong delicious coffee in thimbles.

After dinner the priest tells me he has to leave and I’m in good hands with the Good Man from Long Island. He puts his hands on my shoulders, his face and blue eyes smile at me. He promises he will pray for me. I say, “Thank you, Father,” happy to use the word Father again knowing the word Daddy belongs to one person only.

The Good Man from Long Island and his beautiful wife feed me a desert of warm apple pie and a bowl of vanilla ice cream. I am so stuffed I almost don’t feel well but I know to get as much food in me as I can because I can’t count on the next meal.

The Good Man from Long Island says, “I’ll drive you home myself,” and I can tell by the way he says it that this is a big deal and I should be grateful and I am because like me he had a hard life too and now he is rich with a beautiful wife and a beautiful house.

I am sitting in the front passenger seat. The car is warm and I am full and the Good Man from Long Island has given me three suits which are too large for me but he tells me he’ll fix that. I have a bag his wife and maid packed for me filled with shirts, ties and belts. He says it’s okay to wear my sneakers with the suit and says he will take me out for new shoes. I can’t remember the last time I had new shoes. He smokes a cigar and I fire up a cigarette from one of the two packs he bought me at a corner store.

“Good kid like you shouldn’t have to worry about his next smoke,” he says.

I watch the other cars as we drive. I see parents in front with their children in the back and I try not to think of the days when my father and mother were in front and I would look at the back of my Dad’s head and the way he held the steering wheel and wish he would drive a little faster when cars passed us.

“I’ll take good care of you, kid. Your worrying days are over,” the Good Man from Long Island says and I think maybe Dad’s in heaven and had a talk with God and they had the priest bring me to meet the Good Man from Long Island so I would be okay. Everything will be okay now and my eyes wet up so I look out the window because somehow I know these tears are between me and my Dad only.

We pull up in front of my abandoned building in Brooklyn. The Good Man from Long Island gives it a glance and says, “Not much longer kid. See you Monday morning.”

I say, “Thanks, man.”

“For what kid?”

“For helping me out, giving me a chance.”

“Not to worry, kid. I’m going to teach you to be an estimator. You learn to read blueprints, learn the business a bit and come up with a bid. My company bids on a job and that’s how we get some big jobs. I can see you’re a smart kid, you’ll learn this stuff easy. Not to worry. You’re gonna be alright.” He looks out at the abandoned house and says, “That’s not too dark?”

“No. I’m cool. Shep’s inside, there’s guys like me living on the first floor.”

We shake hands. He says, “God bless you, Peter,” and I think he has.

In my room I turn on the hot plate and boil water for coffee. I sit down on the mattress and Shep curls his head into my lap and sighs. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt this happy. I look at Shep and I think the two of us will have a place to live soon. All I want is a room with a bed and clean sheets and a bathroom of my own with hot and cold running water and a shower and if I am really lucky, a bath tub. The Good Man from Long Island even said God Bless you – to me.

It is Monday morning before daylight and I am awake, the first cup of coffee in hand, Shep wagging his tail, smiling at me, the room warm and cozy. I have shaved and scrubbed myself down and begin to get dressed. The shirt is too big and the pants too long and the waist too big but I roll-up the cuffs and pull the belt tight and tie my tie like my Dad taught me and his presence in that task helps me.

I am embarrassed walking out of the abandoned building in a suit that’s too large and dirty sneakers and I am embarrassed on the train into Manhattan surrounded by well dressed commuters who I know are looking at me so I keep my eyes on the subway floor. I know everyone is staring and my face is hot and I want to die or fall to the floor and sob and beg someone to please help me, I can’t bear to live like this anymore.

I enter a polished lobby in a mid-town office building. It is so clean and shiny I think dust and dirt aren’t allowed. I enter an elevator with men in suits and women that sparkle with beauty, sexiness and confidence. I am ashamed to be alive.

The Good Man from Long Island welcomes me with a smile but he is distracted. He takes me to a large room with draftsmen’s tables along each wall. He shows me rolls of blue prints and tells me to the study them until he gets back.

“I don’t expect you to learn it all in one day, kid,” he says. He glances at his watch. “Just relax and learn as much as you can. I’ll be back in awhile.”

The wall clock says 9:15 and I turn my attention to the blueprints, glad to finally have something to put my mind to. I feel like I am making progress when I begin to recognize stairways and windows and elevator shafts. Time creeps along and boredom sets in. Even so I keep studying, trying to understand. I am learning some things and can’t wait to tell the Good Man from Long Island. Already I want him to be proud of me.

The Good Man from Long Island returns around four that afternoon. “Common, kid,” he says, “I’ll drive you home.” He seems distracted and this makes sense to me because I am sure he has been out there all day on big jobs and if you are a Good Man from Long Island with a large house and beautiful wife you’re bound to have a lot on your mind.

I haven’t eaten all day so I get a bag of chips and two Baby Ruth bars at a newsstand in the lobby. The chips will absorb the acid in my stomach and I like Baby Ruth bars and my Dad told me once Baby Ruth bars were his favorite candy.

The Good Man from Long Island says little on the drive back to Brooklyn. I know he is a busy man with lots on his mind and if I had to think about big jobs with different floors and stairs and elevator shafts and how much they would cost me so I could figure how much to bid I’d have a lot to think about too.

I am thinking Christmas is right around the corner and I don’t want to ask but I am hoping I’ll get paid before Christmas because I’d like to get Lyn a present and maybe have enough money left over for some clothes that fit and I want to eat at the neighborhood diner. There’s no better meal on planet earth than sitting at the counter in a diner and having the waitress put a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy and string beans in front of you and then apple pie for desert and all along as much coffee as you can drink, after you buy the first cup of course. Sometimes if you get a waitress in a good mood she’ll let you take a coffee to go for free. Sometimes they charge you. But there is no better feeling than stepping out of a diner into a cold winter day with a full stomach, a fresh cup of coffee and a cigarette to light up.

We pull up in front of my abandoned building. The Good Man from Long Island puts the car in park and leans back. The engine runs so quiet you can hardly tell it’s on. He looks out the front window, reaches into his shirt pocket, removes some money and hands it to me. “Take this, kid,” he says. I look down and see two ten dollar bills and I think I am beginning to know what it is like to get rich. “Listen, kid,” the Good Man from Long Island says. “I’ve been doing some thinking and the truth is I think I bit off more than I can handle with you so I’m afraid I don’t have anymore work for you. Sorry. You’re a good kid, you’ll be okay.”

I look at him. He is looking out the window. I am gutted. I think he must feel bad too but he proves me wrong. He looks at his watch and says, “Listen, kid, I wish you all the luck in the world but I’ve got to get going. Do me a favor, I need the clothes back, run in and get them for me.”

A few minutes later I am back at his car and hand him the clothes through the window. He says good luck and drives away and now I know that Long Island and Heaven are not the same thing.

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