The Hawk Mercury
When they pull me out, I tell them I’ve seen a pinecone rolling inside a typewriter, back and forth as the tines spring forward, and I tell them I’ve seen a man who keeps the extinct birds in his belly, two of each. But they hand me a plastic spoon, and tell me today I’m to make what I can of this jell-o. I decide to go along. What’s the point?
There are stitches. What it means when the cuts are vertical, with the veins instead of across, is that somebody wasn’t kidding around, somebody was serious. And that’s me. One serious kid, Mary Gale Rooney.
They give me some shite like it’s a miracle I’m here. What a thing that would be. Miracle Rooney, a salty wafer, slowly dissolving as the choir of tired-eyed kids breathes through their mouths, stank morning breath, goo and Saturday night in their eyes, fidgeting, picking their ears, hock of gum inside their cheeks, singing, Fain Would I, Lord of Grace.
I’m not anyone’s miracle.
There is a way you are supposed to hold the Gospel Book. My little brother Jamie told me the priest who smelled of piney aftershave, the newish one, Brian, taught him to do it the right way and then gave him a quarter. Show me the quarter, Jamie. No, no, on the way home he dropped the quarter in a street grate. On accident? He shook his head. Why, Jamie? A whole quarter? He didn’t know.
Every time I see a crucifix, I am afraid it will fall on me. Even the smallest ones, on people’s necklaces. I will be trapped, squirming, under Christ’s urgent, quaking ribs, like Mrs. Bryant’s dog crushed by the wheels of the Heath Street milkman. Jamie can’t sleep, that’s what my brother Danny tells me. He reads all night with a flashlight under the sheets. I won’t be able to breathe ever again.
Father Brian is the nicest, but he has green teeth. Not really, but only slightly, green-white, clean, like the flesh of an apple. He worries for us with Dad gone, and he told me so. Whatever I can do, he said, you name it. And he smiles sadly, like people do when they’re afraid of you. Worry, worry.
Bad kids do bad things in the wide back seats of Mercurys. I say I’m afraid of the crucifix, but in a way, I want it to happen. Does that make any sense?
Beyond the window I can see hills. Where am I? Nowhere near Heath Street. Medford? They look flat and blue, these hills, like fake church basement drama surf made out of cardboard when Noah floats the ark, older kids at the back of the auditorium slouching in the shadows, dope and booze and hands in each other’s laps. Mrs. Atherton had a hawk in her garage. It left a mess on the roof of her son Charley’s Mercury Coupe. Then it flew out in the morning when she opened the door, and I heard her yelling from two floors up, sitting with my curlers and cereal and twiddling the knobs of a radio, watching Sean Waters ride by on his bicycle throwing papers. And from the street, Mrs. Atherton’s startled cry: oh my Gwad, a hwok!
Sean Waters, sixteen, the oldest paperboy in Somerville. Not that any of us kids have jobs we can be proud of; I was a shop girl on weekends at that grocery on Mystic, till the grabby, green-blind old creeper fired me. Sean’s done the paper route in these parts since he was eight years old, and he knows everyone. He’s not the sharpest tool. Not retarded or anything, but odd. He thinks he’s a lady’s man, Sean Waters. I’m six months older than he is, and he calls me the Sinister Kid. The girls on the block yell things at him, and then talk about him when he’s gone, and he just smiles like nothing matters. Sometimes, he goes about singing. Dreamy Sean Waters on his dreamy bicycle.
Some kid fell in a hole on a construction site in Medford, and she was stuck down there in the dark. For three days they tried to get her out. Sometimes she would hold a rescue worker’s thumb, they said, all she could reach. Did they get her out, in the end? Mary Gale, you’re dumb as a post, you are. Why a post? That the best you got? Dumb as a fire hydrant, then, for God’s sake, dumb as a box of hair. You weren’t born smart, but you could at least have been good.
Some holes there’s no getting out of.
You fly around from one thing to the next. A Jezebel you are, trouble girl, hot for it all day and night and nothing between your ears. You let him, no-good Sean Waters with his black, foxy wave and penny spit and swizzle stick and crooked, poor boy teeth, and you asked him for it, you.
It’s Dad you take after.
Does a box of hair feel afraid? I’m not too stupid to make a good job of it, anyhow. They told me so. They used to couldn’t sew it up, even, before modern times, and sometimes they still can’t.
A sin. But lots of things are. Coat hangers are a sin. Cigarettes are a sin, for you but not for Mother. Too much of a good thing rots your teeth. Anything I can do, you name it, Father Brian whispers through his secret grate. Don’t you ever let them call you stupid; it’s hard being young. But you have your family to think of, your brothers.
He’s a worrier, Father Brian. You have no choice but to comfort Brian. I can feel his worry, shed in waves into the dark box. Loneliness and the world of adults and Cary Grant pomade, veins showing through the thin, grey skin under his eye. I know he wears square, soft shoes, hospital shoes. I know they’re rimmed with dust from the park across the street.
Brian looks past me. Then down. It’s a long pair of eyes he has, looking right past you. Pale, fluttering lashes, like he’s about to faint or something. Or maybe I’m just too ugly, too bad, too stupid, for this youngish priest with Brylcreemed hair and nervous, champing teeth. Green teeth. Maybe he can’t bring himself to handle what I bring him, my heart clasped between two warm and sweaty hands. Someone wrote Asson the inside of the confessional box with a ballpoint pen. Noise comes in from the street, girls talking loudly. Brian sighs, hulked in his cage behind the grate. I worry for you, he says. All of you, with your dad gone, and your mother in a state. But you have to be strong. Take care of your brothers.
I know, I say. I will. Jamie’s well enough.
I’m so, so sorry.
Yes. It’s going to be all right.
Another sigh through the grate. Green, sweet air in here, smelling of Crest and tung oil varnish, of Brylcreem and Aqua Velva. Tears. Father Brian doesn’t have anything left for me.
When it’s done I walk away at a clip, down to the block where I can hide in Mrs. Atherton’s garage, me and the hawk. The strap of my stupid shoe comes unbuckled and flops around. Heath Street smells of tar and ozone, the yellow haze left by a patching crew. An old woman sits on her stoop and yells at me. Slow down, girl, she says. Too hot for all that hurry. Sheehy, that’s her name, curlers in her hair, sitting there next to a concrete fawn. No one on this whole block I don’t know. There are soft places all down the street, gleaming blackly, where the fresh tar bubbles in the heat.
Hey, Sinister Kid. From the summer pavement, Sean Waters calls to me. Fix your shoe, he says. You’re all bothered, going to break your neck. That’s a nice dress.
Shut up, Waters. Come over here. I want to show you something.
He looks both ways, and then he loafs across to my side of the street, fixing his hair on the way.
Up close in Mrs. Atherton’s garage, all his words sound canned. Hey, Sinister Kid. You spin the dial on the meat barometer. You raise the droplet on the beef thermometer. His voice cracks on him, making him the butt of his own joke. He laughs, I don’t. A brown mattress stands on its end against the wall, lawnmower and tools and rubbish bins and things. Red yard elves, tearfully smiling. Sheesh, he says, Hot in here. His eyes cut to the side, searching for the exit of the garage, on the other side of Charley’s Mercury Coupe. No hawk in the garage today, just the two of us. Where did the hawk go, when it flew out of Mrs. Atherton’s garage? Anywhere it wanted, I guess.
Up close, Sean’s confidence withers like burnt grass. Sorry, he mutters. I didn’t mean anything. Come on. It’s too hot in here.
But I want to feel something other than this weight, this churchy stink of loneliness hanging on my clothes.
It’s not so bad, kissing in the dark of Mrs. Atherton’s garage, snappy come-ons dribbled away to nothing. Dickies and PF Flyers, silly kid whiteys, dark smell of lawnmower. His rough, nice tongue tastes like a penny. Baby, he calls me, like something he heard his dad say. We lean against the fender of the Mercury, then I open the door and we fall into the back seat, and Sean Waters is breathing like a person about to cry, big gulps of air, eyes looped and staring through my head, sticky vinyl everywhere. And it’s nice, I guess. But it’s also like nothing. More of the same, after the shock wears off, and we’re just sort of falling on each other in the Mercury. No feeling, really. We can do it without even thinking, and it doesn’t really change anything.
In the hawk Mercury, I kick the window accidentally, shoe strap dangling, and my head bumps the ceiling, too much of me in the hawk Mercury. Too much of me everywhere, isn’t it? There’s a sharp, harbor smell in here. And he’s kind of a pantywaist, just staring up at me. What’s wrong with him? Like he’s more of a girl than me, and I’m just bad all alone. I get rough, slamming him, trying to get something more out of him, but he just sits back like he’s going for a Sunday drive, staring at me, lapping the shocks of the Mercury. After a while, Sean Waters sniffs back tears, shrinking, bare ass sticking to the vinyl seat. Sweaty hair: I can smell the warm asphalt out on Heath Street in his hair, even now, in this airless garage, in this up and down seat that is Sean’s lap, which makes a slapping, watery sound.
I say, Scared?
He does look scared. Tough bully girl with her dress unbuttoned, that no-good bruiser Mary Gale, up and down in the lap of a paperboy wide-eyed as a concrete fawn. Father Brian, worrying away in his little cage. Sunday. What have you done this time? There’s a spit bubble at the corner of Sean Waters’ open mouth, light floating over its surface for an instant before it breaks, and I think I see the interior of the hawk Mercury, there and on the wet surface of his eyes, its pale windows, curved and upside down. Like a tiny planet, a curved view of the world, only as large as the inside of the hawk Mercury. And why can’t I make it stop, lie down, and be still? Why can’t I just put it all down and go off weightless, floating above myself and the hawk Mercury and the dirty buildings, above these tarry, reeking, hungry days, and why can’t I win?
Someone wroteAssin the confessional. Bad kids.
I don’t care. I’m fine. It’s all right. I brace myself on that shelf thing below the rear windshield where Charley Atherton keeps the maps of Massachusetts and a pair of jumper cables. There’s a flyer for Walden Pond. I wish I had some gum.
Christ on a cracker, Sean says, and white-knuckles my hips, his face straining forward between the cups of a pushup bra. And then he slumps. I keep moving, but he goes still. A yellow handprint on his chest fills slowly with blood where I slapped him, sweat in the black floss of his armpit. The mess. Oh, he says, God, God. So I hit him again, harder. And I say, You’re a dip stick, Waters. You’re a fancy boy. Go to hell. Go throw some papers.
And he just looks up at me like I’m killing him or something. So I make my hand into a fist, hit him again. Then I’m pounding his breastbone like it’s a wall. He throws his arms up, tries to push me off. The hell are you doing? The hell? And he’s stronger than me, even though I’m on top and heavier than he is, and I grab a clump of his hair to hold on, but he sort of pushes me backward so my head thumps the ceiling and then the window, both of us sliding on the slippery seat, and he reaches behind him, pulls the latch, falls out into Mrs. Atherton’s garage. He runs, pulling up his pants.
I slump down on the seat, just sitting for a while. I roll down the window. My head fills up with sparks. Just left there. It’s fine, I’m fine. Panties wrapped around my ankle, stupid with the heat. I can see one of his shoes, lying on its side in the garage in a smear of oil and cat litter, and he’s running barefoot down Heath Street just to get away from me. And he’s an idiot, so what did I think?
Sean Waters. Absolute shite.
Trash piled in the stairwell, bottles, baby junk. Old Mrs. Harvey’s nameplate with the seals and the fisherman. Jamie’s alone in the hot kitchen, sitting at the table in his undershirt, and he frowns at me as I pass through to stick my red face into the icebox. Grey under his armpits, circles under his eyes. Ten years old, and he looks like a geriatric raccoon. He sits half-crouched on the chair, one knee drawn up under his chin. A fan drones by an open window. Where’ve you been, he says. I’m hungry too, but we don’t have nothing. Not a slice of bread.
He hugs himself. He turns his head sideways, ear down, listening to his knee. He says, What’s wrong? You look mad.
In the shower, the razor slips off the edge and into the porcelain trough, rattling between my feet.
Mary Gale Rooney, mother is a loony. And then they send you to hospital in Medford, and call you Jezebel. My legs are sticky.
It’s straight down the arm, if you mean it. Don’t be a shite quitter. Don’t let them win. Jamie is humming quietly in the kitchen; I can just hear him, over the sound of falling water.
Everyone is shocked, supposedly.
Mystic River, black and stinking. Brown froth brittling up in the reeds, with the trash and dog dirt. Sometimes a white cross blooms up on the surface of the water, floating, caught between the reeds. Long, tapered wings, grey collar, cassock whites: a seagull. The boys from the block go fishing for them, sometimes, throw out the bait, reel them in when the dumb bird swallows the hook. I’ve seen them, down by the Mystic, passing the joint and the bottle, reeling in those brittle, trembling kites. Just to pass the time. Bleeding kites with praying wings, staggered and graceful in misfortune, hocking up fishhooks, falling slowly. I told my brothers never to go with those boys.
Mother lights a white candle for me. Bobby, Mikey, Danny and Jamie light white candles for me. Brian worries, and lights a candle for me. Maybe even Sean Waters from the block lights a candle; does he know, and did they send him away also, to Medford? Does he swallow pills with orange juice, and look out at the sky, turned the wrong way to see the brown cloud of Boston? Does he say a prayer for Mary Gale?
Dad doesn’t, I don’t think, because he doesn’t know. Unless he’s lighting the candle anyway, for some other reason wherever he is, last reach of the nightshift, beans and coffee in a tin, smell of the dry park from across the street and Dinah Shore on the radio, Sweet Violets. His fingers, cracked at the pads and stained with ink. His wooly eyebrows. His glasses. Red veins at the wing of his nose, and baked beans out of a can; he taps his spoon. I want him to light the candle, thinking of Mary Gale.