Redemption-Part 1

Reader–here is the entire text of the story–all five parts which you can read all the way thru in one sitting or you can come back each day for that day’s installment and a new picture each day.

Begin Part one

I remember my dad sayin’ Cheech Spinelly’s old man—George—was a good guy before he joined the Marines and went off to war. All through high school and the years right after, they were best friends. They’d hang out together, double date and work out together. Dad said back in those days before the war George could get about any girl he wanted, could build muscle faster than anybody he ever knew—and was strong as a bull.

After high school dad and George worked at the mill and on Friday nights they’d go bowling at Black River Lanes and cruise the bars on lower East Dominick pickin’ up girls. When the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor they enlisted. Dad tried to get George to go into the Army with him but George went into the Marines because his father had been a Marine who died in combat in Europe in the First World War.

Everybody in George’s family was proud of George’s dad—he was awarded a silver star and was the only guy from central New York who ever won the Medal of Honor. George’s dad was killed a few weeks before he was born and besides George, three of his cousins were named for him. It was a huge deal in George’s family.

My dad and George both got out a couple weeks after V-J day. They got their jobs back at the mill. Dad hadn’t gone overseas—he was stationed in Oklahoma. George was in the Pacific and got captured by the Japs—at a place called Batann.

Dad says something really bad must have happened to George while the Japs had him. George got shell-shocked—screwed up in the head—by whatever happened over there. Before he went to war he was real good-time guy—he’d laugh and joke a lot. But when George came back from the war he was always real quiet and sad. Dad said George had these bad nightmares and would wake up screamin. There were other changes too.

Back before the war when he & dad went out drinkin, sometimes they’d get in a fight. Usually it was no big deal—some trash talkin, pushin, a few punches—somebody would get knocked down or a bloody nose and that was the end of it. Dad, George & the other guys would usually end up drinkin together—winners buy the beer—that kind of thing.

But dad stopped hangin out with George after what happened at Guido’s place on South James. Like I said, George had turned into a real quiet guy and one night some big-mouthed loser started pickin at him—callin him a sissy, wimp, asshole. George is like, not sayin anything and starts walkin out of Guido’s—not wantin to fight like in the old days. George is almost out the door when the other guy calls him a coward. George stops and goes after the guy.

Dad says he never saw anything like it in his life—George nearly put his fist through the guy’s face, picked him up over his head like a ten-pound sack of potatoes & threw him through the big front window out onto the sidewalk.

It’s a lucky thing for the guy—and George—a couple cops were sittin out front in their patrol car. The guy comes flyin through the glass and hits the sidewalk right in front of the cops. George comes out the door and has the guy by the throat tryin to kill him when the cops knock him in the head with their sticks. George spent a year in Marcy Prison. When he got out he wasn’t just quiet, he was quiet and mean. And he turned into a drunk.

***

We lived in Wright Park in those years. Wright Park was the nastiest, crappiest housing development in the town—or that whole part of central New York. I remember one day my mom talking to some of the ladies she worked with at W.T. Grant’s downtown and lying—saying we lived in Riverdale—cause she was ashamed of where we lived.

Everybody in Wright Park knew what was goin on there in Cheech’s house—even Dirty Annie—and while she hardly ever talked to anybody she saw a lot. I’ll tell you more about her later.

George never went back to work at the mill—or any place else. Cheech’s mom had to go to work to support the family. George would lay on the couch all day drinkin cheap beer and smoking—lotta time he’d fall asleep with a lit cigarette. Cheech’s mom had to watch and make sure he didn’t start a fire. Every few months he’d come home late and tear the house up—bust up things. If Cheech or his mom go in the way or said somethin he’d bust them up too.

End part 1

A couple times I seen Cheech with a black eye or split lip. Cheech is a big kid—only one way that could happen. One day I heard Cheech’s mom tell my mom George had this way about him. All day he’d lay there looking at the ceiling, listening to ball games on the radio or the street sounds from outside—like he was waiting for something.

Back in those days, once in a while, I’d see George hangin out in the lobby of the Wright Park Housing Authority—where everybody went to pay their rent or complain about the rats and the garbage that never got picked up on time. He’d be pitchin pennies with some other bums or just standin there watchin the traffic go by on Floyd Ave. and yeah—it was like he was looking or waiting for something.

He’d always have on that Marine Corp field jacket—and sometimes combat boots—and was always carryin a set of dog tags in his hand or clickin them together in his pocket.

Cheech told me after his dad came back from prison he carried them with him wherever he went. One day, Cheech looks at the dog tags while his dad’s asleep and sees the tags aren’t his dad’s—they had some other guy’s name on them. So Cheech asks his old man who the guy on the tags was and his dad got this crazy look in his eyes and starts cryin. Cheech said he’d never seen his dad cry—said it scared the hell out of him. George doesn’t say anything—just walks out of the house and doesn’t come back for almost a week. Cheech and his mom never did learn where he went.

After that George didn’t drink cheap beer any more—he drank cheap whiskey—like it was Kool-Aid. He stopped goin down to the housing authority to hang out. He just lay on the couch and stayed drunk 24-7—only went out to get booze. I seen him one day comin back from the liquor store—the bottle in one hand—dog tags in the other. It was everything Cheech’s mom could do to get him to eat anything and take a bath once in a while.

***

One morning just after school started back I’m getting off the school bus. Cheech is behind me and all of a sudden he gives me this real hard shove—knocks me down the bus steps on my face. He steps over me and kicks my books across the parking lot then stands there laughin this goofy laugh—like he wants to look like a crazy asshole.

I couldn’t believe it—I didn’t know what had happened. Cheech & I were never like best friends or anything but we always got along good. He always was a big kid but over the summer he grow a foot and suddenly he’s the biggest kid in the school—even bigger than kids 2 or 3 grades ahead of him. He turns into this bully and next thing you know he’s got this gang of punk wanna-bees following him around like he was the boss.

Now I gotta tell you about Dirty Annie.

Like I said, she didn’t talk much—she usually just sat on her stoop or Mrs. Depyster’s stoop, watchin the street—not talkin to anybody—just watchin. Sometimes she’d have this funny little expression on her face—the kind people get when they know something nobody else knows but there’s no way to explain it to them. She didn’t have any friends—everybody thought she was a little crazy. I used to talk to her once in a while—I could tell she wasn’t crazy—kinda strange maybe but not crazy.

Everybody called her dirty Annie because she didn’t take a bath very often—she usually smelled. One Saturday I saw her standing out in the rain—just standin there in the street with it pouring down and her not even tryin to go inside. She told me later her mom told her to do it so she didn’t stink so bad.

Most people ignored Annie—or treated her like a dog.

Everybody in Wright Park knew Dirty Annie’s mom didn’t pay her water or electric bill so she had no power or water—she’d fill buckets at the housing authority and use their bathrooms. She was Italian and her English was bad. I heard George used to shack up with Dirty Annie’s mom back before the war. My dad said she was a drunk and a whore—lotta guys shacked up with her. That was before she got fat. I heard back then she paid the water & electric cause George and other guys gave her money. She used to be respectable mom said—an opera singer in Europe or some other foreign place—Philadelphia maybe. But after she gained all that weight she couldn’t even make it as whore any more—she was just a fat drunk. I remember whenever people talked about Annie’s mom some of the old Italian ladies would hiss or spit and say stuff in Italian that sounded nasty.

End part two

It wasn’t long after Cheech pushed me down the bus steps the Spinellis moved from way over on M street to E street—my street. It was fall and the leaves were startin to turn & get pretty that day the truck pulled up in front of the E street house and started unloading.

His folks ain’t even got their stuff outta the truck & in the house and Cheeech is walkin around E street lookin for a fight. He goes up to Alfred Defazio—Alfred’s our paper boy and he’s pretty good sized—and he’s just just standin there watchin Cheech’s folks unload their stuff and Cheech says like,

“The fuck you lookin at asshole?”

Alfred doesn’t say nothing—just starts walkin away. I never seen Alfred do that—take lip like that and not do anything—but Cheech is a lot bigger than Alfred.

Cheech goes after him, runs up behind him and pushes him hard in the back—almost knocks him down—Alfred tries to take off runnin.

Cheech starts to run as soon as Alfred starts to run—throws a leg in front of Alfred and Alfred goes down hard—cuts his hand he puts out to stop himself and hits his face on the curb and man, blood comes pourin outta Alfred’s nose. Cheech starts kickin him before he can get up. Alfred jumps up again and runs off—climbs over old lady Dimiglio‘s coal bin and jumps the fence. Cheech doesn’t go after him—just stands there pointing and laughin like before—that goofy, put-on, “look-what-a-big-tough-crazy-asshole-I-am” laugh.

A few weeks or so after school starts I’m on the bus—I’m sittin in the back seat—Dirty Annie is in the seat in front of me. She doesn’t smell too bad today—probly got a bath at Mrs. Depysters—and Cheech gets on with a couple of his assistant ass-holes from over on “M” street. I can see right away he’s comin to the back and is gonna sit there so I get up to move. He sees me and pushes me backwards—I fall on the seat Annie’s sittin in and bang into her.

Cheech grabs my shirt, pulls my face up to his and says, “Fuck you four-eyes.” Lotta guys call me that sometimes cause I wear glasses.

He jerks me around and pulls down my pants, I’m wearin shorts with elastic in the waist. A few guys laugh—scared like if they didn‘t Cheech might do something to them. Cheech shoves me on top of Annie and says, “Take care of ‘em stinky,” Annie turns her head and looks out the window like nothing happened. She don’t say nothin the rest of the way to school. Nobody says anything the rest of the way to school.

After that I didn’t ride the bus anymore. I just walked every day.

I was usually able to stay away from Cheech and his asshole friends—even though he lived just down the other end of “E” Street. Whenever he was hangin on his stoop I’d go outta the Park by “F” or “G” street. I stopped goin over to the Floyd Avenue Market cause he & his friends hung out there all the time. Whenever mom sent me to the store to get something I’d walk way over to Bill’s store in Riverdale—I never told her about Cheech.

So one night I’m comin home late. I’d been practicin singin Christmas carols at the church for the Christmas pageant—I got picked to be a shepherd. Dirty Annie was there too. That was the first time I heard somebody say she could sing good—I mean real good!

I never thought Annie could do anything except sit and watch the street. I guess everybody thought that. I wasn‘t there when she sang the first time but people were talkin about it when I came down to the basement to practice my lines. I heard Father Cararri sayin stuff like, “angelic,” and “astonishing.” At first I thought he was talking about the beautiful new mural the church had painted at the back of the sanctuary above the choir loft—of Mary lookin up at Jesus on the cross. But he was talkin about Annie’s singin.

As the rehearsals went on week after week it was weird seein Annie there in the church basement. I never seen her anywhere except at school eating lunch by herself and hangin on the street by herself. And yeah—once I heard her sing I couldn’t believe it either.

End Part three

Anyway, so after practice one evening I’m goin home. It’s dark and everything’s real quiet and so cold the snow was like sparkling sugar and the stars shinin so bright it almost hurt to look at them. I’m comin down ”G” street cause I knew Cheech doesn’t go over there. I see Dirty Annie walkin a few houses in front of me then all of a sudden Cheech is there comin toward me. I try to real quick crawl under a door into a little alley between houses—but he’s on me, draggin me out from under the door. He turns my pockets inside out lookin for change—but I don’t have any money.

He probly thought I was goin to the store—I heard he did that—shook-down kids for money when their folks sent ‘em to the store. I figured he’d punch me or something but he must have been in a pretty good mood cause he just shoves me down and walks away.

I’m getting up and I see Dirty Annie watchin from across the street. Cheech seen her the same time I do—he’s walkin over to her. She doesn’t have a coat on even though it’s so cold—she just has on this old baggy sweater.

It’s weird—she doesn’t run away as he’s walkin toward her. Just stands there in that stupid old sweater lookin at him. He grabs her by the shoulder—or the sweater shoulder—and pulls like he’s gonna jerk her around but the sweater just stretches—like two feet—and she hardly moves. She doesn’t try to run—just looks at him—not a bit scared—I see she has that funny little expression in her eyes—like she knows something Cheech didn’t know. He looks at her lookin at him—shoves her down in a snow bank—calls her a smelly bitch and walks off.

I walk over to Annie—she’s gettin up out of the snow. She doesn’t say anything—just glances at me and walks away, brushing the snow off as she goes down the dark street.

A few weeks later I seen Cheech walkin fast down “F” street and a few minutes later I see an ambulance with the light flashin, in front of Alfred’s house and there’s people standin around out front. Orin Dominico’s there in the crowd and tells me Cheech picked a fight with Alfred and beat him up pretty bad. Alfred was taken to the emergency room and didn’t get out of the hospital for almost a week. Alfred’s dad was real mad—I heard he said some things that could get him in trouble.

The cops talked to Cheech and his old man but nothing happened—nothing hardly ever happens when the cops come to Wright Park. They tried to talk to Alfred’s dad—I heard he wouldn’t say anything—wouldn’t talk to them.

The church pageant was a few weeks later on Christmas Eve. My part where the kings bring baby Jesus the presents went OK—I only had a few words to remember—“Behold, they come.”

Then it was time for the part everyone was looking forward to—Dirty Annie’s song. It looked like everybody in Wright Park was there—word had got around Annie could sing real good and the pageant was moved from the basement to the main sanctuary—the place was packed—people were standin in the aisles.

Father Cararrie had brought in an old friend—a big-time concert organist from New York City, to play for Annie when she sang the Ave’ Maria. As I’m waiting for Annie to start her song I couldn’t believe what I saw. Annie’s mom in the front row all cleaned up—her hair was fixed nice, she had on new clothes—she’d lost some weight—she almost looked beautiful—no—I take that back—she was beautiful.

End Part four

I’m standing backstage and I watch Annie come out and at first I didn’t recognize her. She was wearing this long white gown like an angel and her long hair was so clean it shone in the stage lights. But there was something else a little different with her that night I never seen before. She had that “I-know-something-you-don’t-know“ look but there was something more to it that night.

That night there was this almost scary look in her eyes—like she had this deep power to look into everybody’s heart and see everything—all the darkness—all the suffering and pain. I think everyone else in the church could see it too. Everybody was holding their breath—and as the organist started playing the crowd just sat there in frozen silence.

Looking over the heads of the audience, Annie lifted her eyes to the mural of Jesus and Mary at the back of the sanctuary and began singing the first words…”Ave Maria. Gratia Plena, Maria, Gratia Plena, Maria Gratia Plena…” I had heard her in rehearsal and she sounded incredible. But I couldn’t believe what I heard that night. In the big sanctuary—with a concert organist accompanying her—the organ music rolled through the sanctuary like shining thunder—no one could believe what they were hearing.

A voice came from her beautiful lips—shining and pure filling the sanctuary like stars filling the winter night sky. My mouth was hanging open and like everybody else in that sacred space, I was barely breathing. Tears streamed down my face as Annie sang those aching, yearning phrases with her eyes fixed on the Savior, serene in sacrificial death.

Tears streamed down a hundred faces and for the first time in our lives, everyone in that room knew what the words, “I am with you even unto the end of time,” actually meant. The aloneness that all men carry in their hearts was brushed away like a cobweb—for a few minutes that Christmas Eve night—no one was afraid and we all felt, “the peace that passes understanding.”

When Annie finished her song no one clapped. There was just a stunned silence.

I noticed as she walked quietly off the stage she still had that same expression on her face a sweet smile like she knew something no one else knew—something beautiful—but could never explain it. No one spoke for several minutes then people simply began quietly getting up and leaving—returning to their homes and lives and fears—but all taking with them the memory of that night.

In a little while the sanctuary was empty except for Annie’s mom who sat with her eyes closed, drinking in the silence, her hands clasped on her lap as though she was finally able to rest after walking a thousand miles. As I was leaving I saw Annie come out and sit next to her mom.

***

Outside the church, firelight lit the night sky over Wright Park. Cheech Spinelli’s house was on fire—smoke and death hung in the air.

As the crowd stepped from the healing warmth of the church into the freezing winter night, shouts went up—people yelling “Fire,” “E” Street”—“call the fire department.” Somebody took charge yelling, “C’mon guys—let’s go!”

A hundred men—mill workers mostly—men of muscled arm and calloused hands—my dad among them—suddenly separated from the mass of families. Almost all, only a few years before, had been in uniform and were well acquainted with darkness and the smell of death. Followed by their women and children the men surged past the dark, locked Housing Authority office building and tore down “E” Street.

Pouring from the Spinelli house windows, Grey smoke, glowing in the streetlamp light, hung in the air. Asphalt shingles on the roof were sheathed in rolling orange flame—melting tar dripped in sputtering, flaming globs from the eaves into the sizzling snow.

The first few men to reach the house never hesitated, hitting the unyielding front door with battering shoulders. Glowing panes of glass exploded from front windows showering the men with shards of hot glass, momentarily wrapping them in flame. Shaken, they fell back, their clothes and hair smoking, one man’s coat in flames. This first phalanx threw themselves into the quenching snow as other men pushed forward again trying to open the locked door, the roof of the front porch groaned and half-fell toward the men under it who leapt back as flames climbed across the front of the house consuming shutters and window trim.

The crowd stood mesmerized and helpless in the fire-light as the snow-covered pavement was turned orange by the flames which were reflected in the black windows of houses across the street.

Several people began opening doors of nearby homes and charging in seeking buckets to fill with tap water when the front door of the Spinelli home suddenly shuddered with a loud thud. Almost as one the crowd realized someone inside was trying to force open the door—all stood staring trying to decide how to help—through the broken windows flames filled the kitchen & living room and a black, hulking shape could be seen moving through the smoke and flame.

Again a thud—louder this time—could be heard at the door then, then silence. Dismay began to settle on the crowd when suddenly the front door of the house split open with a shattering crash. A huge figure, wrapped in smoke, towering black against the surging, hellish flames, stepped out of the crumbling building and stood momentarily on the front porch as searing sparks and billowing orange flames consumed collapsing rafters and decking around him. Clad in blackened combat boots and smoldering Marine Corp field jacket, George Spinelli stood like an apocalyptic giant rising from the flames carrying his unconscious son on one massive shoulder and the limp figure of his wife on the other.

Fire truck sirens could be heard wailing in the distant night as George abruptly, gently laid down his wife and son before the crowd who shook off their astonishment and moved forward to help. Before anyone realized what was happening George turned and bolted back into the flaming house as members of the crowd screamed, “George, no.”

Shortly after dawn the next morning, fire-fighters, picking and hacking their way thru the smoking black ruin found the body of George Spinelli, burnt almost beyond recognition. In his charred and crumbling fist he gripped the dog-tags he always carried—that he had returned to retrieve—in his final seconds of life he had pressed them to his heart.

Across the street, standing silent, shivering and frail in the bitter dawn cold, Annie stood watching, wrapped only in that baggy old sweater, as firefighters carried a litter with George’s remains to a waiting mortuary vehicle. Most passersby hardly noticed her standing there but if they had looked closely they would have noticed a sweet smile—of melancholy resignation—the kind people sometimes have when they know something no one else knows but can never explain.

End part 5. End story

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