This is Part 2 of a short story I wrote back in the late 80s or early 90s. Read Part 1 here.
“Someone cared for you. There’s a sensitive man under that tough-guy shell.” She wasn’t just flattering me. I was quite sure of that. I straightened my shoulders more than a little bit.
“She must have cared a great deal because it shows.”
“Yep, she was special. Thought I’d be a great writer someday.” I laughed. The idea was ridiculous, as ridiculous as my former ambitions to go to college.
“It’s never too late, you know. If she thought you could do it, you probably ought to try,” Cathy suggested. She was always so matter-of-fact.
I shook my head in disbelief. Working for The Man was a far cry from William Shakespeare! Still, I wished I could start over. Maybe I would try. Cathy had a way of making me want more from life.
“Where’s your father?”
“I’m not even sure who he was.” This fact had never mattered before. Now that husky feeling was back. I shook it away. My uneasiness mounted as I remembered the cruel taunts I had suffered in earlier years. “It’s not worth talking about. Tell me about you.”
We talked and laughed some more. When I told her how my kid brother drowned at thirteen years of age after neighborhood thugs beat him up and tossed him in the spring-swollen creek, she even cried. It astounded me — her crying over someone she’d never known. I hadn’t ever cried for him. She cared for people that much.
We saw each other every night after that. I was drawn to her. I found myself thinking of her happiness instead of my own. And in spite of my previous reputation, I struggled to keep my appetites in check even though the animal in me was ravenous to bed her.
It wasn’t long before I was seeking honest work. The Man was none too happy. In the short while I’d worked for him, I’d come to know about the inner workings of his slimy organization. He threatened me saying I knew too much. But I don’t scare easily so I ignored him and hired on at the shoe factory. It was assembly line work, and godawful dull, but I had determination. For her, I told myself. She deserved more than a bum who bullies for a living. Besides, she was a first-class lady, and I wasn’t going to have her exposed to the criminal types I’d come to know. So I kept on, saving cash to buy a ring — and that before I’d slept with her!
She was proud, though I’m damned to know why with such a small stone as my wages bought, but she insisted it was fine. Two weeks later, we stood in front of this preacher man. I told myself Sister wouldn’t mind Cathy being Protestant. I was certain she’d have liked Cathy as much as I did.
For days afterwards, every time Cathy looked at me with her sunshine smile, I felt I’d finally done something worthwhile.
Cathy stayed on at the café while I slaved at the factory. She didn’t mention nursing school again, but I decided she’d get there and finish, and without moonlighting in some dingy eatery. One night I told her so but she gave me this strange look. It wasn’t for sure, she cautioned me, but she thought she’d probably be busy nursemaiding come January of ‘53. It took me a minute to understand. Then we mooched a bottle of wine from a next-door neighbor and had a bang-up celebration.
With me almost a father, crazy instincts crowded my brain. It would be a pioneer effort, but I was excited for the little guy’s appearance. (She would kid me about that — I was sure we’d have a boy.) It was for them — Cathy and the first of our ten kids — that I found a second job at night. We needed money for the hospital and baby clothes and all. More than that, we began to have hopes of a different life and our dream was to buy a farm somewhere way out in the country. We wanted a good place for raising kids.
I knew The Man had been watching me, but God help me, I never figured he’d hurt Cathy. Late one night I came home to find our apartment all in flames! I rushed inside the smoke-filled hell. She was slumped on the kitchen floor like a limp dishrag. When I got her outside, The Man was standing across the street, looking pleased with himself. I’d have killed him on the spot but for Cathy. I carried her the two blocks to Doc Gennaro’s house. She was barely breathing when I laid her on his front room couch. He shoved me into the hall where I waited, knowing her chances were slim. Finally, Doc came out, shaking his head. All hell exploded in me.
When I found The Man, killing him was easy. He was a runt, and no one tried to stop me. His neck cracked like a small chicken’s in my grip, but I didn’t feel the gladness I’d expected. I was thinking about Cathy’s life choking away in that smoky fire. I dropped The Man’s lifeless body and walked away. Knowing there was nowhere to go, I sat down on the curb and balled like the baby we never had. People thought I was ashamed.
The preacher man visited yesterday, asking me to make my peace with God. When she was alive, I used to think there might really be a God. If anybody could convince me, Cathy could have. It was like she had divinity flowing from every smile, every kind word. Maybe God was jealous sharing her with me, but to have her die like that, and the kid too. It makes no sense.
I don’t like the idea of walking some long, last corridor but it’s not because I’m afraid to die. I just fancy making the decision myself for when it will be. Some people say it’s the ‘honorable’ thing, the condemned man getting to choose the time of his fate, but the way I look at it, it seems more like the dishonorable thing. I mean, in a life of shortcuts, cheating the hangman from his due ought to be expected. It just follows.
The preacher, poor sap, left me his tie. He kept asking me to pray with him but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If I never prayed before for God, seems there’s no reason to do it for some man, even a man of the cloth. I told him I wanted to dress up and didn’t have any other clothes with me, and he must have figured leaving his tie was the least he could do for me. He gave me the silk tie right off his neck! It’s probably the finest piece of clothing I’ve ever worn. Maybe that’s as it should be, considering the occasion.
I’ve got nothing but this tablet to leave. What I valued never made it through the fire. Without Cathy, there’s no reason to live. It’s just as well they didn’t leave me that choice. Much as I wanted to try my hand at fathering, I’d likely have been lousy at it.
This is it. All that’s left is to fix this tie and wait. It won’t matter when they come in the morning.