When death comes it will not go away empty. -Irish proverb
At the Salvation Army Christmas dinner, some lady kept asking where our mother or father was.
“I don’t know,” I answered several times.
“You don’t know?” she laughed. “Why, how could you not know?”
She obviously had no children of her own, because anyone with kids knows you never ask a child two questions in the same sentence because it makes them paranoid, and you never laugh at a child’s answers. Above all else, children want to be taken seriously by adults.
“Where do you think she is, sweetheart?” she asked again.
I answered truthfully, “She could be back in Brooklyn, but Paulie says she shacked up, probably with a colored guy; I don’t know.”
She kept asking the same stupid question and I kept giving her the best answers I could and I spoke slowly, too. I’d heard of adults like this, the slow people who talked to the angels, and I figured she was one of them, because how many times can you ask the same question and not understand the same answer?
The last question she asked me was, “Where do you live, darling?”
“Seventeen Pond Street,” I answered.
So we had been done in by the stupid lady at the Salvation Army. But everyone in the neighborhood knew about us. They knew that sometimes my mother locked the door to keep my father out and then disappeared herself, down to the taverns, her infants in tow. She’d drink herself into a stupor or simply forget about us and we’d return home to find ourselves locked out. We learned to cover our small fists in a shirt or coat and punch out a windowpane and let ourselves in through a window. But most times we sat patiently and waited for an adult to let us in. Sometimes we’d cry from hunger, frustration, lack of sleep, or all of those things, and, overwhelmed, go to a neighbor’s door and knock and ask for food or a place to nap or simply someplace to be where we weren’t alone. It happened a lot, and then, one day, Jimmy died and it didn’t happen anymore for a while.
He died from spinal meningitis, a rare disease almost always caused by a bacterial infection from dirt or filth. It cloaks itself as a common cold and that’s what we thought he had, a common cold. He was less than two years old, too young to express himself and describe the other symptoms that accompany the killer, like light and sound sensitivity, confusion and delirium.
He was a happy baby, Jimmy was. My father called him by his given name, Shamus, his granduncle’s name, old Irish for James. We were all happy that my father’s habit of naming us for past relatives ended there, because his grandfather’s name was Cornelius Aloysius Tuohy and who the hell wants a name like that to lug around, as if things weren’t bad enough already?
We taught Jimmy to drink beer, to blow out matches, and to dance the Twist in his high chair, the same high chair we all used once, and that’s where he was on that beautiful bright morning when he died: in his high chair. He had a cold. He nodded his head and fell asleep and he never woke up again. We tried to wake him up but he wouldn’t wake up.
We laughed about it and then my father touched Jimmy’s head and put his ear to his little chest and then pulled him from the high chair. He held him in his arms tightly, tightly, tightly and rocked him back and forth, and he closed his eyes and let out a moan so deep it scared us, and then without a word he ran with Jimmy from the house and across the bridge to Saint Mary’s, but Jimmy was dead in his arms.
When he came back, he stood in the doorway and told my mother, “He’s dead. My little boy, he’s dead, oh Jesus Mary mother of God,” and she stood and she stared at the empty high chair and then walked into the living room and fell straight down on her knees and it must have hurt because she went down so hard, and we all watched her. Nobody made a sound and she reached up and started to pull out her hair in big red clumps and then she made fists and shook them in front of herself, but there were no words coming out of her and I was scared.
“My boy is dead,” my father said, directly to her, and he sort of spit the words out. He didn’t yell, he just said it, but in a mean way. Then he walked up to her and bent over to her ear and yelled at her, “My boy is dead.”
Bridget curled her fingers and started to shake, and then we were all scared because, we figured, Bridget isn’t crazy like they were, but now we thought maybe she’d finally gone crazy too.
At the hospital, they say that Jimmy died from filth in our house and maybe he did, because Denny’s head was filled with ringworm. Our house, our clothes and all, had that dirty smell, that unique smell of poverty that permanently burns its way into your nostrils and never leaves, so you always recognize it and it’s everywhere in this world, and how awful is that?
I don’t think it was our dirt that killed him. I think it was the water from the Mad River that killed him. On all of the streets in the Abrigada, our neighborhood, we could see the river, and you could smell it because it was filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemicals and other waste from the dozens of factories on its trash-strewn banks.
The factories ran seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day in those days, and poured a combination of the chemicals and industrial waste into the river. Raw sewage and the factory waste made the water turn colors. Sometimes it was a deep unnatural blue, and other days hundreds of islands of orange or yellow drifted along like some sort of grand pollution parade in celebration of industrial arrogance.
We discovered that we could slip into the openings of the street gutters and land in the big circular cement pipes that opened on to the riverbank. In the summers, we all went down there to cool off, and we took Jimmy with us sometimes, and he played in the water and maybe he drank it—I don’t know; he probably did.
The wake was held on Willow Street in a funeral parlor that had been the childhood home of the actor Rosalind Russell. It was the finest house we had ever been in and it made us nervous. Paulie even went out back to the parking lot to take a pee because he was too tense to go inside. My father’s union, the house painters, paid for almost the entire funeral including the tiny bright-white casket we buried poor Jimmy in. It was a closed casket, and I, not fully grasping the meaning of death, was concerned with Jimmy’s loneliness. It troubled me that with the casket closed, as grand a casket as it was, Jimmy wouldn’t know about all the people that had come to see him off, including aunts and uncles and cousins from as far away as Brooklyn and Brockton.
We had been in the news, and onlookers, perhaps the same ones who drove slowly past our leaning little house on Pond Street so they could stare at us, came as well. All of them brought something, just as tradition called for. There were tables of sandwiches and casseroles and sausages and meatballs with mountains of pastas and cakes. In the back room was another table, covered in a white cloth, made into a makeshift bar with a stock of liquor that would rival any of Waterbury’s taverns.
I wish Jimmy could have seen Denny, Paulie and I dressed just like him in fire-engine-red sports coats, white shirts, red ties, black pants and two-tone bucks, just like the kind Pat Boone wore on TV.
The wake started at three that afternoon and went on late into the night. The women, drenched in black dresses that reached their ankles, sat in the front room with my mother and Jimmy’s casket, in chairs that lined the walls, talking in hushed tones or whispering novenas over their rosaries.
Every now and then one of the women slipped out to the back room where the men gathered in circled chairs, sipping whisky and beers and smoking Chesterfields and L&Ms. They talked about the things they had seen in the war, how the Russians were going to blow us all up, and how “this new guy,” John F. Kennedy, was “wet behind the ears” and didn’t “know his ass from his elbow,” a mental picture I found confusing but funny.
The visiting women would have a few drinks, a little conversation and return to the main room with my mother. But, as the night wore on, more and more of them staggered down the narrow hall to the back room and didn’t return, and by the end of the evening most of them had to be carried out to their cars so they could drive home. The world was a different place back then.
At the wake the next day, almost everyone who was there wore sunglasses—not because of the sun, because it was mid-March in Connecticut, but because they were hung over. Since it was a funeral, no one seemed really out of place.
Jimmy’s Mass was in the same Church he was baptized in two years before. The church, built by and for the city’s Italians, was French Gothic and had a magnificent copper dome with an icon of God, complete with white beard and white robe, in the middle of it. On the side of the main hall were elaborate grottoes filled with lit votive candles. Because it was Lent, something we knew nothing about, the statues were hidden behind plush purple covers.
“Why they got those things covered?” I asked Paulie, who didn’t know either, but he said, “They must be going out of business.”
We buried Jimmy between my father’s parents. We were the only ones at the burial, me and Paulie and Denny and Bridget and Maura, and our mother and father. It was a brisk day, and from where we stood in the cemetery we could look down on the whole of the city. Jimmy was lowered into the ground and the very minute that his grave was covered over with dirt, the sun burst out from behind the clouds, the wind stopped, and I watched the grimness that had gripped my mother and father and Bridget over those past weeks slip away. I saw it leave as clearly as I have ever seen anything in my life. It was over. It was time to move along. Because Jimmy’s death and its cause made the newspapers, for a few days people from other neighborhoods drove by our little leaning house on Pond Street and stared at us. The welfare people and the people from the Salvation Army brought us boxes of clothes and canned food and blankets.
The nuns came by every morning and every night. They lived nearby in an ancient red-brick convent and we walked by sometimes and saw them strolling across the large manicured lawns, praying their rosaries or sitting in rocking chairs on the expansive Victorian veranda.
The convent was surrounded by a tall, black wrought-iron fence, and we assumed it had been placed there for their protection, or perhaps for our protection because they had done something wrong, and were under some sort of house arrest that forced them to wear strange clothes.
The wonderful thing about these nuns was that they always seemed to have some sort of exotic fruit available that appeared, magically, from under their long, flowing sleeves. They walked down to the fence where we stood and handed us oranges, plums, and apricots. It was a treat because in the 1950s and early 1960s fruit was still relatively expensive compared to its cost and abundance today, and we didn’t eat much of it. So the nuns were our friends and they knew our names and it was good to have them in the house.
The person we weren’t so pleased about was the priest. One day, not long after Jimmy had passed on—that’s what the Waterbury Irish called it, passing on—the priest from the nearby parish came to our house, spoke to my mother, drank tea, and then, without asking, tacked a framed picture of Jesus Christ to our kitchen wall. I guess he assumed that we knew who Jesus Christ was and what Jesus did for a living and who his father was and all, but we didn’t know, and unless Jesus arrived with a week’s worth of groceries instead of a picture, we didn’t care either.
So while he smiled adoringly at the picture of Jesus and saw the son of God and the savior of mankind, we saw a colorful painting of a guy dressed in different-colored blankets who didn’t look like anyone did in 1960. He had long hair and a beard. We could live with that. What troubled us was that his heart was not only exposed, it was on fire and it had the initials “INRI” tattooed on it. And he was smiling. His heart’s on fire, somebody tattooed it and he’s smiling.
We stood there and just stared at it until Denny finally asked what was on everyone’s mind: “What the hell happen to dis clown?”
Denny had a way of unsettling the religious. A few years later when we were in a Catholic elementary school, the nun asked the class if anyone knew any songs about foreign lands. Denny immediately raised his hand and assured the Sister he knew a great song that his father had taught him.
Would he be kind enough to sing it to the class then? the poor woman asked. Never stage shy, he leapt to his feet and, standing before his fellow second graders, he belted out his song in fashion that would have made Al Jolson proud:
On the other side of France
Where they don’t wear pants
All the streets are made of glass
you can see the people’s ass
The nun stopped him before the third verse, which included a rhyme with the word “Ritz.” Although we used God’s name in vain on an hourly basis, we knew nothing of God except that he was invisible, which we liked, in much the same way that we liked watching ghost stories.
It’s something short of amazing that we knew so little of God, since so many people seemed hell-bent on introducing him to us. They said, all of them, that God loves the poor, which we thought was stupid and figured he must not know any poor people. They told us that if we didn’t get to know God that we would have to deal with the devil, and they’d give us graphic descriptions of him and we would think how much more fun the devil seemed to be than God. In our lives, the devil made sense.
It’s also amazing that we knew so little of God, because in Waterbury, the City of Churches, he had outposts all over the city. But no matter how good a tactician the Catholic God was, or how well he has us surrounded, we had no interest in him because we could tell by the way adults spoke about God and church that it wasn’t a happy thing. They never smiled or laughed. Even the nuns, those happy nuns with their magically appearing fruit, lowered their voices and furrowed their brows when they spoke of him, and we figured, who needs this?
We much preferred the God of the colored people up in the North End, the only people in the city with a church made of wood instead of granite. On Sunday mornings we could hear them sing and shout out to God in what we assumed was something akin to a weekly birthday party. The Puerto Ricans were even more fun than that. They took their statues out on parades once a year so people could tape money to them. Now those religions, we thought, those were our kind of religions.
In 1962, six year old John Tuohy, his two brothers and two sisters entered Connecticut’s foster care system and were promptly split apart. Over the next ten years, John would live in more than ten foster homes, group homes and state schools, from his native Waterbury to Ansonia, New Haven, West Haven, Deep River and Hartford. In the end, a decade later, the state returned him to the same home and the same parents they had taken him from. As tragic as is funny compelling story will make you cry and laugh as you journey with this child to overcome the obstacles of the foster care system and find his dreams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. He is the author of numerous non-fiction on the history of organized crime including the ground break biography of bootlegger Roger Tuohy "When Capone's Mob Murdered Touhy" and "Guns and Glamour: A History of Organized Crime in Chicago."
His non-fiction crime short stories have appeared in The New Criminologist, American Mafia and other publications. John won the City of Chicago's Celtic Playfest for his work The Hannigan's of Beverly, and his short story fiction work, Karma Finds Franny Glass, appeared in AdmitTwo Magazine in October of 2008.
His play, Cyberdate.Com, was chosen for a public performance at the Actors Chapel in Manhattan in February of 2007 as part of the groups Reading Series for New York project. In June of 2008, the play won the Virginia Theater of The First Amendment Award for best new play.