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Jul/Aug 2003 fiction

Extreme Unction

by Phoebe Kate Foster


 

When I was twelve, Uncle Declan began hiding the car keys from Aunt Lally.

Every evening after supper, my mother would look up from the steaming sink of gray suds at the sound of the telephone ringing and nod at me to answer it. I would pick up the receiver, saying as I had been taught, "Good evening, the O'Connor residence," which always made me feel like I was greeting my house, not the caller.

"Who the hell is that? Can't a man get any peace and quiet in his own home after a hard day's work?" my father would rumble, loud enough to be overheard by the person on the other end of the line.

If it was 6:45, it was my uncle, of course, wanting my mother to suggest a new hidey-hole for the car keys, although every night my parents and I pretended we had no idea who could possibly be calling at quarter of seven.

"Don't dilly-dally, Colleen. It's stuffy in here," my uncle would say. He had taken up phoning his sister from the large closet in his front hall, where he hoped the winter coats would muffle his clandestine call. Declan was desperate, tired of waking up at two in the morning to find both the bed and the parking space outside empty, and Lally in the new Pontiac gone to God-knows-where until dawn.

"Put the keys in the toilet tank," I heard my mother say. Being the wife of an alcoholic had given her the dubious gift of a devious mind. Or, "In the fern pot. She won't be rooting around in there for fear of killing the plants." Or, "Try a hat box... no, no, not that one, that's her everyday hat and she might wear it tonight."

I dried the dishes, imagining my uncle pulling out my aunt's cloches and berets and straw skimmers in the woolly, mothbally darkness of the closet. What must Lally think, I wondered, passing by the closet door every night and seeing the telephone cord snaking under it.

Aunt Lally's sudden bout of bizarre behavior, piously referred to as "poor Declan's cross to bear," was the number one hot topic in our family that year. The men opined that Lally was stepping out on Declan—what else would a woman be up to, when she wasn't where she belonged? Feeling the insult to their collective crotch, they provided long hours of moral support for my uncle in McBell's Bar and Grill.

The women of the family, however, harkening to ancient inner voices and attuned to tide and moon, shook their heads knowingly.

"The change," they intoned with the solemnity of the priest at the Consecration of the Mass, while the men squirmed uneasily at the mention of this unfathomable rite of female passage that explained all, explained nothing.

We children held our tongues, for in the 1950s and in my blue-collar family that followed the old ways, children were still seen and not heard, but we observed our aunt closely-for what, we didn't know. Would she sprout a beard? Throw off her clothes and run naked through the sedate streets of Queens, Long Island? Get up one morning and no longer recognize herself in the mirror?

Or maybe, we reasoned, there would be nothing to see. The change would be as imperceptible and terrifying as transubstantiation at Mass-don't chew that wafer, a moment ago, it was just a cracker, now you're chewing Jesus. I was young, but wise as a shaman in the ways of holy magic that, once learned, are imprinted upon the psyche forever. Throughout my life, during times of distress, I'll find myself mumbling supplications to saints I think I've forgotten. Lying spread-legged under a sheet in a clinic, I will hail Mary and bless the fruit of her womb while a white-coated savior's cold instruments rid me of my own. In crises, I'll invoke the intervention of deities whose existence I doubt, remembering the guarantee that "This prayer has never been known to fail," and having faith that it is an equal opportunity promise, applicable even to agnostics and lapsed Catholics.

Though Declan accepted the Schlitz and sympathy-who but a fool would pass up a free beer-he was adamant that Lally was not stepping out. "She gets nervous and can't sleep," he told everyone. "She drives over to Manhattan because no matter how late it is, there are always bright lights and bustle. She swears she never stops, except to go to the bathroom, and that only in the proper places. The ladies' room at the Plaza Hotel is very nice, with a Negro woman to hand you a towel after you wash up. Do you know, she even used the facilities in the 2l Club once?" he added, sheepishly grinning at the accomplishment of one of our own, actually peeing with the elite.

"It's like she's afraid to go to sleep," he insisted. "She says the Blessed Mother gave her a warning in a dream. That was the last time she slept at night. Now she won't go near the bed or close her eyes once it's dark."

Hiding the car keys worked. Aunt Lally stayed home, but now she paced around the apartment night after night, drinking black coffee and listening to the radio until daybreak. "Sometimes she stands at the bedroom door, just staring at me," Declan reported to us. "I don't even need to open my eyes. I can feel her there, watching me. Like a ghost." He hesitated. "She keeps whispering, 'Why are doing this to me, Declan? Why?' and then she starts weeping." He looked away, embarrassed.

"It grieves me to see her like this," Declan told the family gathered in his living room one Sunday afternoon. "But I have to do it. I'm afraid she'll hurt herself. Fall asleep at the wheel. Have an accident." His voice was as soft as snow sifting onto a lonely landscape. "I don't think I could bear the telephone call in the dead of night or the policeman knocking on my door, telling me the bad news about my wife."

I was the only one who was listening. The rest of the family, satisfied that Lally had been brought back into line again, had moved on to discussing other matters and weren't paying any attention to him. Their conversation was abruptly stilled by the appearance of Lally in the doorway, a woman with the sorry look of a cake that fell while baking, sunken and dumpy, her once fiery hair now faded to the color of ashes and rust, her face a soft study of sad shades. The impact of the sudden silence and all the watching eyes froze her in her tracks, coffee pot in hand.

My mother nudged me with her elbow. "Can I help you, Aunt Lally?" I asked, rising from the sofa as my mother muttered furiously, "May I, not can I, Colleen!"

For a moment, Lally's expression lifted, like the hopeful flutter of birds soaring toward heaven, but quickly slipped back into the deep shadows from which she now viewed life.

"I seriously doubt it, dear," she replied faintly, handing me the coffee pot and withdrawing once more to the sanctuary of the kitchen.

 

When summer came, Lally began sneaking out at night again.

The car keys still resided under the bathroom radiator or in the can of salted nuts where Declan had tucked them, but Lally was gone. Every morning, she was back in the kitchen, making breakfast as if all were well, humming contentedly as she fried bacon.

"It's worse than ever," Declan wailed. He had taken the subway from Flushing to our house in Corona to talk with my mother after Lally had dozed off watching "Art Linkletter's House Party." So visibly upset was he that my teetotaler mother relented and retrieved my father's contraband whiskey bottle from behind the davenport where she'd stashed it that morning after discovering it in the laundry hamper. Every day my parents played this strange game of hide-and-seek with the Four Roses, my mother not daring to do anything more definitive since the knock-down drag-out fight a few years earlier, after she consigned an entire bottle of Seven Crown to the sewers of Queens.

My mother poured an inch of liquor into a juice glass and handed it to Declan. He took a sip. "She refuses to discuss the matter," he said. "Whenever I bring it up, she just looks at me like I'm a stranger. 'I'm doing what I must and I don't want to hear another word about it' is all she'll say." He drained his drink. "The nerve of her, speaking to her husband like that." His voice dropped. "Decent women don't belong riding the subways at night or wandering about the city alone. I don't believe her dream came from the Blessed Virgin. The Mother of God wouldn't tell my wife to do this kind of thing."

"Declan, you simply must speak to the priest about her," my mother counseled in a furious whisper, fancying herself inaudible to me as I finished dusting the living room while they sat at the kitchen table talking.

But I had ears that could hear the unheard, eyes that could see the unseen. I could find signs in the sad clouds that smudged the flat forehead of sky like Ash Wednesday ashes. I could sense God's finger extended for just a moment, then inexplicably withdrawn, leaving the world empty and dark, no longer noticed for judgment or reward, a place as tattered and frail as the worn altar cloths in Saint Christopher's Church where we attended Mass, named for a man who a few years later would not only be divested of sanctity but declared to have been nonexistent as well, a helper of no traveler in this sorry journey from mother's breast to funeral bier.

 

A thin crisp plink woke me. I lifted my head from the pillow and listened. A bird tapping? I was reading Poe at the time. My fate awaiting? I had heard that opportunity proverbially did knock. All my life, I will be a seeker of signs, searching for meaning in numbers and names, in happenstance and random chance. I will collect omens like lovers, but like lovers, they will all deceive me.

Years later, on another memorable night, I will gaze at the face of a new acquaintance on the pillow next to mine and in a flash of recognition know he is my future husband. On another occasion, I will come home after work, and when I open my apartment door, see a vision of scrawled words, shimmering like a migraine's scintilla, on the foyer wall. Before I can read them, they will fade, leaving me haunted by an event whose reality I doubted but whose message I missed. I will pass myself on the street a thousand times and never be entirely certain which is me and which the doppelganger.

But that late Saturday night, in the l950's, in Queens, it was no raven rapping but my aunt pitching pebbles at my window like an overgrown, obstreperous playmate.

"Come out and cruise with me!" she called. "And hurry up!"

I dressed quickly and threw on the lightweight coat I'd gotten the previous Easter. When I stepped outside, though, I wished I'd worn something heavier. It was only September, but the fine-honed chill of the night prophesied the early advent of winter, which will be a bad one, with slashing snows and a fatal flu epidemic that will send some of my kin into the arms of their Savior, including my father.

My aunt was leaning against a taxicab parked in front of our two-family house. She gestured toward the driver, an ageless black man with a face like burnished teakwood and eyes that revealed nothing. "I want you to meet a very special friend of mine, Colleen. This is Charles Frederick Douglass Johnson. He's been kind enough to drive me around Manhattan every night since Declan got so touchy about the car. Jazz, I'd like you to meet my niece." She smiled at me. "People who are close to him call him Jazz." The smile was so silly and self-conscious that I was reminded of my older sisters, in the throes of puppy love for one or another pimply boy with aspirations to be an artist or musician, before my mother engineered their early nuptials to stolid young men with steady jobs.

The driver nodded at me and reached back over the front seat to open the door for us.

"The usual, Miz Lally?" he asked, as he peeled away from the curb and hurtled us through the nighttime ghost towns of Corona and Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Woodside. We drove over the 59th Street Bridge to Manhattan. The sky had a bruised look, purple and dark blue and violet red, promising a troubled and unsettled tomorrow. Against the murky backdrop, the lights of Manhattan shimmered like a mirage. We turned onto the East Side Drive and headed downtown.

Aunt Lally tugged at my flimsy coat, sighing. "Colleen, you'll catch your death in this. Jazz, might you have a newspaper you can spare?"

The driver handed her the thick roll of The Daily News. Lally peeled off a malleable section and tidily tucked it into my coat over my chest, the same as she had when I was five and we'd had to make do when my father was laid off from work for awhile.

"Warmer than the finest wool," she had claimed then, and repeated now, patting me affectionately, making me crackle and rustle like dead leaves.

"My grandmama used to do the exact same thing when there was a cold snap back home in Georgia," Jazz remarked. "'Don't need you no winter coat, boy,' she'd say, 'The Atlanta Journal Constitution do you just fine.' Worked mighty good in shoes with holes, too, I recollect."

Jazz and Lally exchanged glances via the rearview mirror and grinned, although I saw nothing amusing about wrapping a young lady like Friday's flounder from the fish market. Moreover, my aunt was embarrassing me, chattering too loudly, gesturing too broadly, flashing her eyes at Jazz like little blue beacons. Now she was speaking of Uncle Declan, and none too respectfully.

"Imagine, him buying us a plot in Holy Family Cemetery for our anniversary! The man is morbid!" She tossed the frizzy escapees from the prison of hairpins. "And that's the kindest thing I can say about him these days."

"Hmm, hmm, hmm," Jazz said, shaking his head. "No way to treat a lady now, is it?"

I remembered the brouhaha over the anniversary gift-probably all Queens did, too, so loud and vehement had been Lally's outrage over what the family deemed a fine piece of generosity on Declan's part. "Have you any idea what a plot in a good graveyard costs these days?" they had chided her. "Here your dear husband is sparing you the worry over your final resting place, and you behave like a harridan."

"Now you wouldn't go giving your wife a gift like that, would you, Jazz?" Lally was saying.

"Only if I was wanting to be smacked upside the head with an iron skillet," he replied, and they both laughed.

Their banter made me edgy. It sounded old and stale, like a litany they recited ritually every night for reasons I didn't care to dwell upon too long. The family's advice to Declan ran in my head like a tune I couldn't shake. "Sprinkle the bedroom with holy water...pray the prayer that begins: 'Saint Michael the Archangel, our defender in battle, be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil'...And make sure she's wearing her scapular."

I stared at my aunt, suddenly unrecognizable and repugnant to me as she flirted with the cab driver. She's old, I thought, old and crazy. It will not be until forty years later, when I'm with a man half my age whom I hardly know in a room discreetly darkened to conceal flagging breasts and tired skin that I will suddenly remember Lally and realize she had been neither old nor crazy. I will do the mental math as I grind stretch-marked hips against a hard young body, and with a ripple of shock as deep as an orgasm, discover that I am the same age as my aunt was that night we went cruising with Jazz.

At the tip of Manhattan, Jazz exited the East Side Drive and pulled over so we could admire the Statue of Liberty, serenely shining like a madonna over the port of New York, but Lally quickly grew agitated. "Let's go, Jazz," she urged, leaning forward and clutching his shoulder. "Please."

The driver patted her hand. "Sure enough, Miz Lally. Whatever you want."

The taxi threaded swiftly through the thin, shadowy streets of lower Manhattan, by day pulsing with people like a swollen vein, by night lying like desiccated bones under a brooding sky. Lally frantically scanned the dark canyons of the financial district, as if searching for someone she hoped not to see. Her mouth constantly moved, forming unuttered words. Prayers? Curses? I couldn't be certain any more.

As we turned onto the West Side Drive and gained speed, Lally's mood lifted. She got a teasing look on her face. "Might you know a saint for the crazy, Jazz? Somebody poor Declan can pray to, instead of casting his prayers into thin air and hoping his wife becomes right in the head again." She laughed raucously and winked at me. "Jazz is a member of the fold, you know. He goes to Queen of the Angels on West 132nd Street."

"Well, Miz Lally, I think the only patron of the crazy I be knowing is Saint Jack Daniel's," Jazz replied, and offered her a pint bottle from his jacket pocket. She took a long swallow and handed it back to him. I gaped, aghast. Like my mother and the other women in my family, my aunt had always been adamant in her disapproval of liquor consumption, the result of a lifetime lived amidst male alcoholics.

Lally grew silent and restless again, tossing troubled glances out the back window, as if we were being pursued. In the distance, the spectral sprawl of the George Washington Bridge spanned the dark depths of the Hudson River. For the first time, I noticed my aunt's breathing was raspy, labored. Though the cab was chilly, her coat was open and the top buttons of her blouse were undone. Around her neck I saw her gold crucifix and Miraculous Medal entangled with a new necklace. It was a thin black cord with a curious assortment of trinkets-things resembling bone and claw, lumpy stones, small figures crudely carved from black rock. I reached over and tried to free the crucifix from the knot of ugly little objects.

"What are these, Aunt Lally? They're funny-looking."

Her eyes were as hard and opaque as the strange new stones she wore. "Jazz gave them to me," she said, and pulled away. "They-ward off bad things." She caressed the charms. "They help." She flashed me a defiant glance and I sat back, abashed.

The bridge loomed nearer now. "You want to cross over tonight, Miz Lally?" Jazz asked.

"No!" she cried. "There's no life on that other side, no matter what anyone says."

"I meant the bridge, Lally honey." Jazz reached back and Lally clutched his hand. "Calm down, baby. It's okay. You're fine. You're fine."

I peered out at the dark ridge of the Palisades hovering on the other side of the Hudson and wondered what Lally had against New Jersey, where the more upwardly mobile members of our family had moved into just-built houses with the latest appliances and furniture with that unmistakable smell of brand-new.

Jazz changed lanes and exited onto a street in Harlem. So accustomed was I to the mausoleum of my own lower middle class neighborhood, where self-conscious people awkwardly aspired to the genteel circumspection of the upper crust, that I gazed in amazement at the scene outside. Even at that late hour, there were people everywhere, talking, walking, milling around with a carefully orchestrated aimlessness. Women on stoops, men in groups, youth with flashy steps and fancy flourishes filling the streets with color and life. Children dangling from windows, capering on fire escapes. Bars that never closed, lights that never went out.

The unshaded windows of the tenements revealed panoramas of personal landscapes, lives laid bare and brightly lit. Kisses and quarrels under naked bulbs, rooms with uncleared tables and unmade beds. A woman in a red slip. An old man in his pajamas, scratching as he watched the passing scene. A couple naked on a mattress, rich brown flesh blending together like melted chocolate. There were no secrets here, no lace curtains conveniently drawn over the face of reality as if it were a corpse.

Jazz pulled up to the curb, and we gazed for a long time through the window of an after-hours club. The red-gold glow of the lights and the sinuous, smoky music extended themselves like an invitation ripe with pleasure and possibility.

"Oh, Jazz, I want to go dancing sometime soon," Lally said wistfully, leaning forward and stroking Jazz's shoulder. "I haven't been out dancing since I was a girl."

"That can be arranged, Miz Lally," the driver replied impassively, as we watched the bodies weave and entwine in the numinous aura of amber light that held back the night and made everything seem beautiful.

 

It was dawn when we crossed back over the 59th Street Bridge to Queens. Jazz took my aunt to her house in Flushing first. "Don't want poor Declan to suffer any longer than he absolutely has to," she said to Jazz, with a wink. They cackled gleefully. I cringed deeper into the ripped taxi seat that smelled of tobacco and whiskey and God knew what else.

Lally seemed tired, but in a state of peace so perfect that her face was lineless and luminous as she and Jazz embraced for an embarrassingly long moment, his head tilted so he could whisper in her ear. I could see his lips moving, and wondered what he was saying. Whatever it was, it made my aunt happy. She looked up at him, smiled and stroked his cheek. "See you tonight," she said. I watched, shocked, as she slipped a wad of crumpled bills into his jacket pocket. The food money, I thought, shaking my head, or she's pilfering from my uncle's wallet to pay for this. I wasn't entirely sure what "this" was, but I knew the housewives of the working class had no money of their own. Declan was one of the more prosperous members of the family, with a single-family house in a good neighborhood and a job in Manhattan as an electrician.

Jazz and I didn't speak as he drove me home. I ached somewhere deep within, and didn't know what to say anyway, a problem that will perpetually plague me whenever I am blind-sided by life.

Words will fail me that winter when the parish priest comes to administer the sacrament of extreme unction to my father as he succumbs to a virus he adamantly insists, with his dying breath, is just a little cold. A decade later, I will watch as my mother is raped by tubes in ICU while she does a slow dance with the angel of death, and find no comforting phrases to make her passage any easier. I'll be speechless the day my therapist says, "You can't avoid it any longer. It's time to talk about the abortion." And when the man, whom I had recognized as my soul mate while he was yet a stranger, announces after twenty years of marriage, "You don't know me. You never knew me," and walks out forever, I'll stand mute, guilty as charged, exposed as a fraud, a poseur with no powers of foresight or gift of precognition.

Jazz let me off at the corner of my block in Corona, where almost-identical shabby two-family houses hovered shoulder-to-shoulder in a gray-shingled row. "You'll have enough explaining to do to your folks without having to explain me, little lady," he remarked wryly, reaching back and opening the door for me. He touched his hand to his brow in a little salute. "Until next time, missy," he said, and drove away.

I'll never see Jazz again. That next spring, Declan will receive the phone call he dreaded, informing him that his wife was dead. "Keeled over in the street," the family will repeat in disbelief. "In the middle of the night. In the middle of Harlem, of all places." Their voices will drop to a horrified whisper when they say, "And she wasn't alone at the time..."

The men in the family will put on stony faces and nod their heads: they had been right all along about what Lally was up to, of course. The women will be powerless as the balance of power tips irrevocably in favor of the fathers and husbands and brothers. Their arcane female discernments discredited, they will find themselves suspected of collusion with Lally in her infidelity. Worse yet, they will be constantly reminded of their diminished status in the family, challenged daily by the men about all their comings and goings, under suspicion when they are away from home too long. The eyes of their men will scorch them like the summer sun on sensitive skin, and they will shiver in the dead of night, possessed by sadness like a sickness no healing hand can cure.

Every night, my mother will remind me as I go to bed, "In your prayers, remember to ask God to have mercy on your aunt's soul."

But I won't pray for Lally. Instead, I'll think about Charles Frederick Douglass Johnson's enigmatic eyes and wonder if he took her dancing in that little club before the fate she sought to escape inevitably claimed her.

 

That early Sunday morning in September when I was twelve, though, my own destiny awaited me. As I crept into my house, praying that my parents were still asleep, my legs were baptized by a sudden gush of blood. Startled, dismayed, I burst into tears. My mother, sitting on the bench in the foyer waiting for me, eyes as red and round as grapes from a long night's fretting, hurried me to the bathroom.

"Did someone—a man, a boy—do something to you?" she asked in a voice that frightened me. I stood there stupidly, not understanding.

"Oh, Colleen! Did a boy put his—you know—thing inside you?"

When I finally grasped what she meant, my cheeks blazed. "No, no," I kept saying. "No, no, no. I swear. No."

She stared long and hard at me, her eyes like x-rays scanning for evidence of duplicity. "Well, thank the good Lord nothing happened," she finally muttered, wetting a washcloth and giving it to me. "Well, it appears that you're a woman now, Colleen."

I must have looked blank, because she snapped, "Your first period." She spat the word out like it was a bit of rotten food. "So young, too. Not a good thing for a girl." She handed me a box of pads from its hiding place behind the pile of clean towels in the cabinet. "Put the box back when you're done. Women don't want to be advertising when it's their time of the month." Mortified, I hung my head and clutched the box to my chest.

"What were you doing out until dawn?" my mother asked.

I didn't know what to say, of course. She'd already walked the Via Dolorosa on account of my three older sisters and been crucified on an invisible cross through no fault of her own other than being the mother of good girls gone suddenly wild. As grievous a sin as premarital sex was in those days, I knew it would somehow be worse to admit I was out all night with Lally. I didn't relish the relentless parental interrogation that would pry from me the details of my aunt's nightly assignations. As Jazz had remarked to me, he'd be very hard to explain.

"I just wanted to go out, take a walk..." I mumbled, intently studying the label on the box of sanitary napkins, a better choice than meeting my mother's eyes and falling into the great aching chasm of her weary face. "It made me feel better." I glanced up with the most defiant look I could muster. "It helped," I said, a little too emphatically.

My mother recoiled at my sharp tone and for a single moment, I thought she was going to slap me, but she didn't. She just replied, "Well, I'll speak to your father..." with a sigh that filled the room with the feel of dust and ash and cold old stone. "Since we discovered you missing, he's been sitting in the living room with the whiskey and the strap, waiting for you."

I knew what was coming. "I'll not have any daughter of mine playing the whore!" my father would shout as he applied the strap, just as he had to my older sisters when they had sneaked out to meet boyfriends.

When I walked into the living room, I saw my mother kneeling beside my father's chair, whispering to him. As her warm breath rushed into his ear like a tide, the hard fissures of his face eroded and crumbled. Though I couldn't hear her, I knew what she was saying. "She's got the curse. A woman's not herself when her time of the month comes."

"She's not old enough!" my father loudly protested, angry as usual at the things he couldn't control, but he dropped the strap and slumped back in resignation. I could read the undisguised disgust on his face and hear the single word in his mind: unclean. Tears of shame tumbled down my cheeks and he abruptly turned away from me. He would never touch me, either in correction or affection, ever again.

In the kitchen, my mother poured a cup of weak tea and gazed at me so ruefully while I drank it that I wondered if I had cancer instead of the curse. Then she shepherded me to my room. "Get some rest. There's a couple of hours yet before we go to Mass," she said, drawing the curtains.

Lying in the preternatural dusk of my room, I squirmed in my childhood bed, uncomfortable in my grown woman diaper and uneasy at the advent of a future I wasn't sure I welcomed. In another room, I could hear my father's voice rumbling like distant thunder, and the calming cadences of my mother as she sought to mollify him. As I dozed off, visions drifted before my closed eyes-my parents frozen like statues in a tableau of domestic woe, and the dancing couples in the after-hours club swirling like incense offered to a strange god, and Jazz with bowed head praying as he lit a votive candle in a dark church.

And finally, just before I fell asleep, I saw Aunt Lally in her big, bright kitchen on the other side of town, windows thrown open to welcome the sight of morning, humming contentedly as she cooked breakfast, safe in the benevolent sunlight of one more day's grace.

 

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