Old Friends, Long Apart

I earned an honorable mention in the 77th Writer's Digest Annual Short Story contest in the "inspirational writing" category. This one touches on Mallory's struggle with religion and spritiuality, which develops more in the novel City of Woe.

photo by Monika Graff

Old Friends Long Apart
By Christopher Ryan

It was just another radio call, that neutral voice blandly reporting a bank robbery in progress with multiple civilians down.  I didn't have my gold shield back then; I was just a uniform, responding as back up, like dozens of others. Three civilians had been shot, one seriously.  I was assigned to take their information as EMS performed triage and prepped them for transport. No police heroics here; I was essentially a well-armed secretary gathering info for a report.

The first two patient interviews went by the book. The most cooperative was a female African-American high school teacher named Althea Johnson, 33. EMS reported that a bullet had slightly creased the upper right deltoid muscle, causing much bleeding from her shoulder area, but otherwise little damage. And Althea reflected this, offering crisp, precise information and a kind smile. The second gave all his information through gritted teeth and a determination not to exhibit any pain. His efforts were a commendable failure. Identifying himself as Juan Rafael Hernandez, this male Hispanic, age 23, had been hit in the calf (the gastrocnemius muscle, according to one dismissive paramedic), and though the bullet went right through, it caused significant muscle and tissue damage. Mr. Hernandez was in real pain and facing at least six months of rehabilitation after the wound healed.

The last victim was the most severely wounded, and it baffled me at first why this old man was still at the scene. It seemed EMS should’ve taken him to the ER immediately. An old Irish guy with a shock of white hair, a grizzled beard, thick glasses, and a button down denim shirt stained a deep, ominous red over the left breast pocket.  I demanded to know why he hadn’t been rushed to ICU. A short, slightly thick, attractive paramedic with a kind face and gorgeous eyes made sure the victim wasn’t looking, and then shook her head with a finality that was all too clear: once they moved him, this old man was going to die.
I stammered, searching for some way to show I wasn’t just another cold, disconnected cop (I was, but this girl was gorgeous, and I was single). Her eyes held bottomless compassion, acknowledging my shortcomings and forgiving them in the same glance, holding my attention with an all-healing openness. I wanted to be in their light, I wanted to -

"Francis?"

The victim struggled to sit up. I quickly eased him back onto the ground. "Try not to move, sir. Transport is coming."

"I know that," he smiled, though he seemed to be doing so from a distance. "Meanwhile, it is good to see you again, Francis Mallory."

The familiarity finally registered. "How do you know my name?"

"I’ve shouted it often enough," he smirked weakly. "’Francis, put down that stickball bat and get to mass! You’re serving the 10:30, boy!’ Heh …Ring a bell?"

"Father Flanagan?"

"Didn’t recognize me out of uniform, eh kid?" He tried for a grin, but it came out a cringe. "You think everyone moved out of the neighborhood like you did?"
I smiled. "Everyone did move out, father, years ago; everyone but you."

He snorted a little, eyes rolling up into his head then meandering back. When they refocused on me, they held a hint of mischief, like they always had in the old days. "Mrs. Cavanaugh’s still around too, dropping off pork chops and Irish soda bread to the rectory twice a month."

"She ever learn to make those pork chops edible?"

"Worse than ever," he chuckled. It came out as a choking cough. "But … her soda bread is still heavenly."
"’Embrace the blessings, shoulder the burdens, eh, father?"

"Taught you something after all, huh?"

"Lots, sir," My smile widened, remembering for the first time in years how much this parish priest had once meant to me, to all of the young concrete superstars growing up near St. Raymond’s, the cathedral of The Bronx.

Father Flanagan was the best third baseman I’ve ever seen, including anyone who ever played for the Yankees. And his love of the game far exceeded even that of Derek Jeter. Countless times, we would be on the Parkchester ball field, a blacktopped monstrosity housing two mercilessly hard playing fields, and he’d materialize. "Just coming from seeing Mrs. O’Hallahan, boys, and I noticed you’re one player short," he would say, then he’d dip into that black bag he always carried, rummaging through his Last Rites equipment to pull out that beat up old mitt of his. "Let’s see if I can be of some service."

Immediately a fight would break out between the team captains over who got father. The priest would throw the two best players together on one team, place himself on the other, and then divvy up the rest of us, making sure every single kid played, all-star or scrub. He preferred stickball, but could command the field in softball or even hardball, whatever was available. One time, when all of us geniuses brought Spauldings but no one thought to bring a stickball bat, father had us slap that pink ball with our palms, then try to beat out his throw to first. None of us could.

He seemed to show up all the time, except on Sundays in the fall when the Giants were playing at home. Then we all knew to go to his 10 o’clock mass. He’d hurtle through that service in half an hour, then rush out to the Meadowlands, as a guest of one or another of the congregation’s season ticket holders, to see his beloved New York Giants lose as they had been doing for over a decade. Didn’t matter to father; he had faith that they’d eventually win a Super Bowl, and in 1986 and 1990, his unshakeable faith was rewarded.

But I was gone by then, gone from the neighborhood, gone from St. Ray’s, from father’s life, from religion.
I became aware of father staring up at me, and was sure he knew what I had been thinking. He didn’t let me down. "Have you a parish, Francis?"

I tried bluffing. "The 43rd Precinct, father."

Anger slid across his eyes, just for a second. "Does it look like I’ve got time to fool around here, Francis?" Right to the guilt; he could be lethal that way. "Surely our old friendship means more to you than that."
"Sorry, father," I averted my eyes, same as I had as a kid, when he caught me and Kevin O’Heirn, in full altar boy gear, having a fistfight in the sacristy. "I, um, I … not in awhile. But I’m going to…"

"Francis, you were always a more spiritual soul than that."

"I still pray father. But after Kevin … died…"

"I was there with you through that, Francis. Are you still be blaming God after all these years?"

I was. Kevin O’Heirn took his own life when we were just fourteen, and I developed serious doubts about the validity of a god who would just stand by and let that happen. My years on The Job, witnessing even worse examples of human behavior, only underscored this. "I remember, father. We discussed the mysteries, and faith, and I tried, I really, honestly tried. But then, that day with Monsignor -"

We both knew that story as well, and no, it wasn’t some sexual assault. This trauma had been catechistic. I was 16 by then, clinging to the remnants of shattered faith, and kneeling in the penance box, confessing lame transgressions that supposedly endangered my eternal soul. Monsignor Adam Withers was hearing that day, and he stopped me in mid-declaration. "You say you missed mass, son?"

"Yes, monsignor, but I went right back the next week, and haven’t missed since. Square business."
"And did you receive communion when you returned to mass, my son?"

"Listened to the readings, paid attention to the homily, sang the songs, put in my envelope, received communion; I participated fully, Monsi -"

"Then you committed a mortal sin, son."

The shock made me forget who I was kneeling before. "I’d never -"

"Yes, you have."

The anger that had burned since Kevin died flared up in me. "Excuse me, sir?"

"You received Holy Communion after missing mass, but before going to confession. That is a mortal sin."

I couldn’t help feeling a dangerous energy flow through my limbs, creating an ache in my biceps and forearms. I forced it away. "With all due respect, sir, that’s not how I was taught right here in St. Raymond’s school. ‘Think of the sin, recognize it as sin, do it anyway, knowing it is a sin.’ That’s what is required to commit a mortal sin, according to our nuns, sir."

"Nuns. You’ve committed a mortal sin, son. I have to hold you to it."

"That’s your belief, monsignor, not mine," I said, and then stormed out of the confessional, out of the church, and out of the religion.

I hadn’t been back since, despite Father Flanagan’s best efforts. Over fifteen years I had completely lost touch, and was fine with that, until I found myself kneeling beside this dying priest. I saw him searching my face with urgency in his eyes. "Still holding that grudge, after all these years, Francis?" He sucked in air. "I told you then …"

"’Destiny calls.’ I know father, you’ve told me so many times. But -"  

"But some people … they only hear what they want to hear. Thick-headed schmucks. Nothing’s perfect, okay? You’ve got to … believe what you know in your heart -"

A coughing jag took over; the old priest’s body bouncing through waves of small convulsions. He grabbed my arm, but his grip was frail, more frantic than fierce. "There’s so little time."

"Father, the ambulance is coming now, hold on."

He made a sound of disgust, raised shaky hands to his neck, and forced unsteady fingers to pull at a chain he wore around his neck. It was heartbreaking to watch his struggle, and frightening to see his determination. Finally he raised the chain over his head with a huge sigh.

"Here," he shoved the bloody gold into my hand, weakly pushed my fingers closed around it. "You need this more than I do."

"Father, I can’t -"

"Don’t deny a dying man’s request."

"No one’s dying -"

His rattling sigh ended my foolishness bravado. Father James Daniel Flanagan, priest, coach, mentor, hero, died in my arms.

It wasn’t until after EMS had lifted him into the ambulance for transport to the morgue that I even remembered what my clenched fist held. I knew it would be a small "indulgence," a gift from the O’Heirn family following Kevin’s funeral, he'd told me once, after I'd seen it glinting in the sun, having popped out of his opened priest’s collar while he was initiating an inning-ending double play.

I relaxed my grip, spread my fingers, and studied Father Flanagan’s Christ head medallion; old, tinier than I remembered it, simple and unaffected. I stared at it for a long time, a lapsed Catholic holding his long lost savior in a blood-stained hand.

I put it on, not as an act of forgiveness for a politician dressed in priestly garb, not as a renewal of faith, not even as an answer after all these years of questions. It was a reminder of a great man who held unshakeable faith in giants: his God, his sports, and long lost kids like me.

I told myself it was a tribute to that memory.
And maybe, just maybe, it was a start.

Click here to read more on City of Woe.

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