Joey knelt beside his mom and made the sign of the cross when she did, except he couldn’t remember for sure how it went, if his hand was supposed to go from his forehead to the left of his chest first, or to the right, or what, so he moved his hand in a blur, hoping no one would notice if he’d done it wrong. He lifted his head and realized God, sitting in the clouds above the altar, would know. He stood when his mom did and the line moved forward.
Joey stepped away from her legs to get a better look, but he still held his mom’s hand. An old woman with a black beaded rosary swinging from her hand knelt and made the sign of the cross. Then she leaned forward. When she lifted her head, Joey saw the Archbishop’s ring sparkle. The red stone threw light just like God’s fingers in the ceiling overhead. She had kissed the dead Archbishop’s hand!
The old woman got up and the line moved a step closer. Joey didn’t. His mom tugged, but he stood his ground. “Come on,” she said softly but she squeezed his hand so hard he knew he’d better do what he was told. His mom knelt and kissed the ring, then moved aside to let Joey get close. “Kneel,” she whispered. When he got to his knees, he began to cry, not out loud, just a sniffle; he didn’t want to touch a dead man. “Go on, Joey. He’ll be a saint someday.”
His mom boosted him up so he could reach and he bent forward, taking careful aim not touch anything but the ring. The Archbishop’s eyes were closed, but he could jump up maybe, like the guy on television, Roland, who came out of a coffin before the scary movies. Joey gave the ring a peck, expecting it to burn, but it didn’t. Before his mom let him down, he stole a quick glance at the Archbishop’s purple pirate’s hat and Silly Putty face that looked like you could peel right off.
The next day he got sick and his mom blamed his dad for not driving, forcing them to walk in the cold to SS Peter and Paul. His dad said it was because thousands of Catholics had kissed the Archbishop’s ring and passed germs on to one another, which except for Joey, who was only four and had no business being there in the first place, served them right. His dad was not a Catholic, his mom told Joey later, so he didn’t understand.
Joey mimicked his father and took off his own small fedora as he entered Aunt Meg’s enclosed porch. The house stank and he wrinkled his nose, but didn’t say anything. He knew better than that. His mom had told him they were going to visit her cousin, John, who was very sick. He was Joey’s godfather, she’d said, but he hadn’t seen Joey since he was a baby. Joey wasn’t supposed to stare or anything. When his dad switched his hat from his left hand to his right, then back again, Joey did the same thing. Aunt Meg was even shorter than his mom, the smallest adult he’d ever seen. “Joey!” She grabbed his shoulders with both hands so he was trapped. “You’re getting so big.” She kissed him and then offered her cheek, thick with make-up and ghostly. He knew he was supposed to return the kiss, but after what his dad had said about how he had gotten sick, he wasn’t about to make that mistake again. He stood rigid. Aunt Meg stepped back to look him over in his coat and tie. “Oh, you’re a handsome little boy.” Her voice cracked, like she was going to cry. “You look so much like my John when he was your age.” She dabbed her eyes with a fancy hanky. Its red border matched her rouged cheeks. After a bit, she turned to Joey’s dad and said coolly, “Hello Bill.”
Joey’s father nodded. His dad hadn’t wanted to come, but his mom had threatened to walk, or even call a cab, if he didn’t drive them.
“How are you?” Aunt Meg prodded. “It’s been a long time.”
“Good,” said his dad. He twirled his hat.
“I just put tea water on,” said Aunt Meg as she took their coats, the last being his father’s full-length wool dress coat which buried her under its mass. His dad topped the pile off with his and Joey’s hats. “John’s not having such a good day,” Aunt Meg whispered from under the coat pile.
They followed her into the living room where the air was musty and the stench stronger. Joey wriggled his nose again and his mom squeezed the back of his neck. “It’s gotta be time,” the man on the couch said. The room was hot, almost steamy, but he was covered with a thick blue blanket. Only his gaunt gray face, greasy black hair, and spindly hands showed.
“You’ve got ten more minutes,” said Aunt Meg, having climbed halfway up the stairs with the coats. “It’s not two o’clock, yet.”
“What difference does it make? Jesus Christ.” The man’s head fell back into the pillow.
Joey noted that he didn’t make the sign of the cross, or nod his head after saying Jesus, but his mom did and Aunt Meg must have, because the pile of coats moved up and down which made the hats tumble off. His dad picked the hats up and hung them on the knobs of a wooden chair, under a group of framed photographs that surrounded a crucifix on the wall.
“Hi John,” said his mom bending to kiss the man’s cheek. Oh no, thought Joey, here we go again. He backed up and stood by his father’s legs.
“Mary.” The skinny man fought to an upright position. “My guardian angel.”
“How ya doin’, John?” asked Joey’s dad.
“I’ve been better.” They shook hands. “How’s bout you?”
“Okay, I guess.” His dad reached in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes then let them fall back into the pocket.
“How do you feel?” his mom asked as she sat down on the couch next to the sick man.
“I hurt,” he said. “And she won’t give me my shot to kill the pain.”
“He’s not supposed to get his shot until two o’clock,” chimed Aunt Meg on her way back down the stairs. She headed right for Joey and nudged him closer to the man on the couch. “Joey, this is your godfather, John.”
The man on the couch smiled faintly. It didn’t look like the same man his mom had shown him pictures of earlier. He looked worse than the dead Archbishop.
“Hi there, Joey,” said his godfather. He offered a bony hand with protruding blue veins. For an instant Joey wondered if he was supposed to kiss it. Maybe that’s what you always did with the dead. “Aren’t you going to shake my hand?” asked his godfather before he started wheezing.
Aunt Meg nudged Joey closer and he put his hand into his godfather’s cold claw. It felt like he could shake the arm right off if he wasn’t careful. His godfather let go, his whole body jerking forward in a sudden spasm. He leaned back into the pillow. “Give me my shot. Please.”
Aunt Meg turned to Joey’s mom. “The pain’s been getting worse.” Then she whispered. “I can’t stand it.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” said his mom. “Give him his shot. “She and Aunt Meg made the signs of the cross and bobbed their heads. Joey moved his right hand up about halfway, but stopped. He’d have to get quicker, he figured; by the time you think about it, it’s too late. Everybody else has already crossed themselves and moved on to something else.
“What time is it?” asked Aunt Meg.
“What difference does it make?” said Joey’s mom.
“Four minutes until two,” said his dad who always knew the correct time. His mom gave him one of her looks. A teakettle began to whistle and Aunt Meg headed for the kitchen. Joey’s godfather leaned to the side into a curl.
Joey’s mom followed her Aunt Meg into the kitchen. “I’ll fix tea,” she hissed. “For God’s sake, do something for John.”
“Be sure to make the tea strong enough,” said Aunt Meg. “You never used to make it strong enough.” Aunt Meg turned back toward the others and Joey saw his mom’s glare. He was glad it wasn’t directed toward him.
“What do you want, Joey?” asked Aunt Meg. “Root beer or Coke?”
“I’ll get him his soda,” said Joey’s mom impatiently, then towards the couch, “Do you want anything, John?”
“Yes,” he said. “Morphine.”
“Give it to him,” said his mom.
“At two o’clock.” Aunt Meg reached into a desk drawer and took out a syringe and Joey’s dad took him by the hand and guided him toward the bright yellow kitchen, which smelled better, like lemon.
His dad sat at the table and knocked his cigarette repeatedly into the table before he lit it. When he did his hand shook. His mom put ice in two glasses and poured soda. “Here Joey, she said giving him one with the bottom wrapped in a napkin. “Use both hands, now, and take this out to John.”
Joey held the tumbler carefully. When he got to the archway between the dining room and the living room, he saw Aunt Meg pull a needle from his godfather’s arm. The pained look lifted and his godfather even smiled, not at anyone, but at the ceiling. Joey looked up but didn’t see anything. As Aunt Meg gathered the needle and medicine and took it away, his godfather spotted Joey and winked, waving him forward. “Is this for me?” he said, reaching for the soda.
“Uh huh,” said Joey.
“How about a scone?” asked Joey’s mom from the dining room.
“He’s never hungry after his shot,” said Aunt Meg. “He just wants to smile and talk goofy.”
“Yous go ahead and have your tea,” said his godfather. “Me and Joey’ll have a little man to man talk. Right Joey?”
Joey nodded, but he wasn’t sure he really wanted to. He didn’t know what you were supposed to say to somebody who was dying. His mom brought a tray with a scone and Joey’s soda. She set it up next to the armchair beside his godfather. Joey climbed into the chair, then straightened the lace doily he’d knocked crooked on the chair’s arm.
“His mom fluffed his godfather’s pillows. “Sure you don’t want anything to eat?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Ya know, the only good thing about having cancer is the first hour or so after my shot. Look!” He pointed to a small white feather from one of the pillows as it floated by the lampshade.
Joey’s mom cupped her hand. “Got it.” She smiled. “You’re not still afraid of them feathers, are ya?”
“Not with you around, Mary. You could chase the demons away.”
Joey saw his mom’s chest buck as she held back a sob.
“Go have your tea,” John said. “You don’t wanna leave poor Bill alone out there with Mom, do you? I’m amazed they’re in the same house together. Don’t push your luck. Let Joey and I get acquainted. Go on.”
His mom put the feather on the tray and draped the blanket over John’s legs. She was crying. Joey felt empty and like crying himself, but he didn’t know why. He supposed crying was like laughing; you could catch it from others. When she went back into the kitchen, his godfather said, “Your mom’s always looked out for me.”
Joey gulped some soda.
“We’re more like brother and sister, than cousins.” He sighed, looked around, then came back to Joey, “Hey, where’s your brother, Francis?”
“Workin’ at the gas station.”
“Get out. He’s not old enough to drive yet. Is he?”
“No,” said Joey. “But he can pump gas and stuff.”
“I guess he’s becoming a real motor head.”
Joey wasn’t sure what a motor head was.
“Your mom practically raised me. I bet you didn’t know that.”
Joey shook his head no and bit into the scone. He liked them almost as much as he did crumb buns.
“Your mom’s parents died, and her sister, too, before she was–how old are you, Joey?”
“Four,” he said without having to think about it. He was prepared for that one. That’s what strangers always asked.
“When she was your age, she’d already lost her whole family. That’s how she came to live here. My mom is your mom’s mother’s sister. Did you know that?”
Joey shook his head. He still didn’t know.
“Your mom was all alone. Nothing left except some little cream pitcher that her own mother had brought from Ireland. Mary used to clean that crystal every day. I wonder if she still has it?”
“Uh huh,” said Joey, nodding. He knew exactly what his godfather was talking about. His mom would hold that crystal creamer up to the window, just for him, and catch the sunlight. Like magic, the kitchen would burst into a rainbow.
Joey leaned into the arm of the chair. His godfather talked a little drunk, like his dad did sometimes, but men who were drunk talked to him as though he was a real person. Even if he didn’t understand everything, he liked it. Sometimes his dad would let him taste a beer, but he didn’t like it. His dad had said the taste would grow on him, but if he drank more than one sip before it did, he’d stay the same age forever. Joey never tried more than one sip.
His godfather picked up the feather from the tray. He held it up to the light, staring at it like it was a puzzle, then he blew it into the air. “You afraid of anything, Joey?”
“No,” Joey said quickly as he put his soda glass back on the tray, but he felt a little guilty lying. He was afraid of a lot of things.
His godfather blew at the feather again, and it shot up under the lampshade. A second later it popped out the top. “Did you see that?” his godfather blurted, wide-eyed, with a little boy’s enthusiasm.
“Yeah.” Joey laughed and they both watched the feather’s cut back and forth on its way to the floor.
“When I was your age, I used to be scared to death of feathers. Can you believe it?” Joey wasn’t sure if he was supposed to answer, but then his godfather just kept talking. “Now, I’m just plain scared to death.” He coughed hard, then grabbed a Mason jar from a hiding place under the couch. He spit something ugly and green into the jar, then rehid it and settled back. “I was about your age, I guess. My mom and your mom, were pluckin’ a turkey, for Christmas or Thanksgiving or something. I don’t know. Anyway, I come into the kitchen–your mom’s a worker, boy–I mean feathers were flyin’ everywhere–I get up on my toes to see onto the counter, right, and all of sudden–plop!” His godfather smacked the folding table, almost knocking Joey’s soda over. “I got a dead turkey looking me right in the eye.” He stared straight at Joey with big bugged out eyes. Joey didn’t like to be looked at like that. “It’s hard to explain,” his godfather said unlocking his gaze, “but man, for the next couple a years, every time I saw a feather I was ready to pee my pants.”
Joey still couldn’t imagine being afraid of feathers, but then again, he didn’t want to look any dead turkey in the eyes either. He was very glad, now, that the Archbishop’s eyes had been closed.
“I was sure, as much as I’ve ever been sure of anything, that if a feather touched me, I’d die.” He turned to Joey as if talking to an equal. “Where do you think fear like that comes from? I mean, Christ.” He never bothered to cross himself. “There’s enough in this world to be afraid of. You don’t have to invent stuff. Right?”
Joey shrugged. He was afraid of kissing, and the dark, and when his mom got mad.
“Do you know what my mother used to do?” His godfather reached for the sweating soda glass with a hand so frail that only skin and bone remained. “When she figured out how scared I was of feathers—oh, did she have a field day. If it wasn’t for your mother, Joey, I’d have gone nuts. My mom used to tape a feather to the doorknob to keep me in my room. She stuck one in the gate latch out back, too, so’s I wouldn’t leave the yard. Oh yeah, she gets a lotta mileage out of fear, my man.” He gulped some of his soda, using two hands to steady the glass just like Joey. “God bless’r, your mom used to sneak up and take the feathers away.”
“How are you two making out?” Joey’s mom said as she approached with a large Coca Cola bottle. She poured more into Joey’s glass.
“Fine,” said his godfather. “We’re having some man-to-man talk.”
“Mary,” called Aunt Meg from the kitchen. “I don’t want John drinking too much soda.”
“He won’t,” said his mom. Then she bent down and topped off his godfather’s glass. He winked and she went back to the kitchen.
“See, your mom’s still lookin out for me. Ya know,” he said lowering his voice. “My mother made life miserable for Mary. She treated her worse than hired help. Maybe it was ’cause your mom was so pretty. I don’t know.” He looked to the kitchen to make sure he wasn’t being overheard and his face twisted up like he was spitting. “She had no reason to hate your mom, no good reason… it wasn’t her fault. It was my dad… You mom was just a little girl.” He looked Joey in the eye again, like he was looking right into his thoughts, then said, “I oughta shut up. After I get my shot I talk too much sometimes.” Then as if he just couldn’t stop himself, “but there’s more to it. You can bet your sweet ass.” His godfather look toward the kitchen again, then back to Joey. “Christ, you don’t talk much. Do you?”
“No,” Joey agreed. He had a hard time imagining his mom as a girl. It had never occurred to him that she was little once.
“Did they tell you I was dyin’?”
“Uh huh.” Nobody had really told him outright, but he knew.
“Hand me that paper.” Joey’s godfather pointed to a note pad on the coffee table. “Can you keep a secret?”
Joey nodded, yes, and handed his godfather the note pad. He was real good at secrets.
“All right, Joey, now get me that feather on the floor there. You’re not afraid of it, are ya?”
Joey thought about it for a second, before he picked it up.
His godfather put the feather into the paper’s fold. Joey sat back down, and tried to figure out who the people were in the photographs surrounding the crucifix on the wall. He didn’t know any of them. His godfather kept folding until he had a two-inch square with the last corner fold neatly tucked into the previous one. “There,” he said proudly. “You have pockets in them fancy pants of yours?”
“Uh huh.” Joey stuck his hand deep into his right pocket.
“Okay, now listen,” whispered his godfather like he was including Joey in a conspiracy. “You stick this in your pocket and don’t let anybody know you have it. When I’m gone you give it to your mom. You hear?”
“Yep,” said Joey, excited, but just as he shoved the folded paper into his pocket his godfather clamped onto his arm. The bony hand’s strength startled him.
“No. That’s no good. Get me your hat. Go on, quick.”
This was just like Peter Gunn, the detective, on television. His godfather buried the feather inside the liner of Joey’s fedora. “There.” He looked toward the kitchen to see if anyone had noticed. “Nobody will know unless you tell. You won’t tell, will you?”
“No,” said Joey squirming into his seat. His godfather put the tiny hat on his own large greasy head. “How’s it look?”
“Okay,” whispered Joey, but it looked goofy.
“I mean it,” his godfather rasped. “You have to keep this secret. If you don’t grant a dying man his last wish, you’ll burn in hell.”
Burn in hell? He didn’t want to burn in hell; that was for sure. He’d been burnt once accidentally by his mom with just a drop of tea water and that was plenty!
“God will know if you let anybody see the feather before the right time.”
Joey remembered God looking down, over the Archbishop, with lightning ready to fire from his fingertips.
“After I’m gone,” said his godfather with eyes that had suddenly gone droopy. “Not until I die. It won’t be long. Promise?”
“Promise,” said Joey.
His godfather took the hat off and plopped it on Joey’s head. ~ Joey peeked into his parent’s bedroom. His mom was at the ironing board, facing the window, an empty wicker basket at her feet and a neat stack of clothes folded on the bed. She humming peacefully and Joey hesitated to interrupt. She’d gotten mad earlier and made him go lie down, but he wasn’t sure what he’d done. Propping the iron on end, his mom brought a shirt to her nose, took a deep whiff, and stared out the window where sheets flapped on the line.
“Mom,” said Joey, convinced she was in a good mood now.
“You’re supposed to be taking a nap.” He could tell she was forcing herself to sound harsh, because she twirled, almost dancing to the closet to hang up the shirt.
“Can I go out and play with Jake?”
“I’ll tell you what,” she said reaching down to unplug the iron. “We’ll bring him inside this afternoon.”
Jake, a beagle his dad had found at the SPCA, hardly ever got to come inside. Now, Joey knew his mom was in a good mood. She lifted the empty laundry basket and headed out, picking up a heavy wool sweater along the way. Joey watched from the storm door in the kitchen, his warm breath making clouds against the cold glass. Jake followed while his mom pulled sheets back from the blowing wind. Her cheeks were pink from the cold and as she approached, Joey opened the door. “Whew,” she said bursting into the kitchen.
Jake charged inside, through the kitchen, around the dining room table, and then took off, out of sight, yapping through the house like he was so happy he couldn’t stand it. They met in the living room. Joey dove to the floor and rolled. Jake jumped on his chest and began to lick his ear. Joey wrestled Jake onto his back.
“Okay,” said his mom. “You’re not outside. Don’t play rough.”
Joey let go and Jake sprang up and tore off down the hall.
“Joey!” his mom yelled. “I’ll put him back out.”
“Shhh,” He hissed trying to calm the dog. “Shhh.”
“Help me fold the sheets before they get all wrinkled.”
Joey ran to the couch, took off his Converse sneakers, small black high-tops just like the big ones his brother Francis wore everywhere, except school, only because their mom wouldn’t let him. His mom was too short to fold sheets easily by herself, so Joey would climb up on the sofa to help. Mostly, he just held his end up while she worked them into neat crisp folds. Jake sat on the rug below and watched. They were almost done when the phone rang. His mom took the last sheet and finished folding it on the way to the phone on the kitchen wall. “Hello.”
Joey slid off the couch, down onto the rug beside Jake and watched his mom. She picked up the crystal creamer and fondled it. “Oh God… Oh, no… he’s better off… yeah, at peace now, right, I know. No, I’m fine… really.” Her voice trailed off and she hung up. She just stood there quiet, then startled Joey by loudly moaning, “Nooooooooo.” Then she sank to the kitchen floor, holding the creamer to her chest.
He was afraid, but he walked to the doorway anyway because he didn’t want her to cry. He’d never seen her face so scrunched up and sad. “Your godfather passed away,” she said, then leaned back against the cabinet, pulled her knees up, and started to rock. He wanted to make her feel better, but was afraid to get any closer. That’s when he remembered the feather.
He left her alone in the kitchen and worked quickly, dragging a chair to the coat closet. But when he climbed up, he couldn’t reach his hat. He got a telephone book, put it on the chair and tried that, but no matter how much he stretched, he could only come within an inch of the hat’s rim. Determined, he got the Sear’s catalogue from the coffee table and laid that on top of the phone book.
He was sure he could make her feel better if he just gave her the feather. He held the top of the hair with his right hand for balance, then slowly reached to the shelf above the coats, but just as he grabbed the hat’s rim, the chair, telephone book, and Sear’s catalogue, all flew out from under him. They crashed loudly into the coffee table across the room. He hit, hat in hand, belly first.
As he caught his breath, he started to cry, not so much because he hurt, but because his mom was screaming. “What are you doing!” She pulled him up hugging him roughly. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again.” She shook him and put him at eye level. “Do you hear me!” As he caught his breath, he grew more afraid and cried louder. “What are doing?” she shrilled.
“My hat,” he blubbered pointing to the small fedora on the floor. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“Your hat?” She calmed a little and her grip lightened.
“Feather,” he cried.
She pulled his hands away from his face. “What are talking about?” She stroked his cheek. “It’s okay, tell me.”
“He said to give you the feather.”
“Who said? What are you talking about?”
Joey pulled the inside flap of his hat back and the folded paper fell out. She unfolded the paper and the tiny white feather sliced to the floor near Joey. He recoiled. She picked it up by the stem and held it to the light. “Oh, John.” Her face scrunched to cry again, but then suddenly turned hard and distant. He felt cold and afraid again; she was a stranger and he wanted his mom. She looked as if she was going to say something, but stopped, stood up, folded the feather back into the paper and tucked it into her apron pocket. The she just walked away. Jake came and sat against Joey’s leg.
He stayed on the floor with Jake for a long time. He knew when his mom looked like that, like a stranger, to not go near her. But after a while, he sneaked to the bedroom door anyway. He wanted her back. She was ironing, but not like before. She worked hard and deliberate with no rhythm, just jerky, angry strokes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What?” Her face was blank.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
“You don’t have anything to be sorry about.” She kept staring out the window and he felt more alone than ever.
Finally, she turned and said, “Come here.” She sat on the edge of the bed, put her hands on his shoulders and held him at arm’s length. “Oh Joey… Don’t you ever, ever let anybody do bad things to you. Do you hear?” Her fingers dug in, but he didn’t squirm away. “Do you hear?” She pulled him and hugged him. As they rocked back and forth, he watched a bird on the clothesline outside the window and he was glad she loved him again. “I’ll never let anybody hurt you,” she said.
John Thompson’s stories have appeared in Specter Magazine, Voices de la Luna, Breakwater Review, The Monarch Review, The Stone Hobo, Raven Chronicles, Bayou, Northeast Corridor, Piedmont Literary Review, the anthologies Working Hard for the Money: America’s Working Poor and Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. His stories have beenread at InterAct Theatre’s Writing Aloud, and earned Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXI. Stories will appear shortly in -ality, and Used Furniture Review. “Feathers” is part of a collection to be titled The Real McCoys.