Redemption-Part 5 (Ilion Sunset)

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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