The view in every direction was the same—sloping tables of wind-scraped land tilted this way and that as if they’d been dropped by a running child. There were no trees, just an incongruous carpet of bright green grass sown across volcanic rock. Low clouds scudded past overhead, the sky bearing down on Pete Harmon so that he seemed to be on the summit of a high peak rather than twenty feet above sea level. That’s how he would describe Iceland to Tower, a mountain breaking through the ocean.
“I’ll be very disappointed if you’re not an altar boy,” Brian’s mother said. She was sitting in the armchair in front of the window.
Brian looked up from the sports section he was reading. “I told you I don’t want to be an altar boy. You have to learn Latin and get up early in the morning.”
“I’ve been telling everyone at the sodality you’d be an altar boy. All the good boys are altar boys.”
“Then I’m not a good boy.”
A man walked past the window behind his mother and stepped up to the front door.
“Someone’s at the door,” Brian said.
There was a knock and Brian’s mother turned around in the chair and looked out the window.
“It’s Darby,” she said to Brian’s father, who was sitting next to Brian on the couch.
He motioned with his hand. “Let him in.”
She got up from the chair and went into the hall to open the door.
Darby came into the living room. “How are you, Martin?” he asked.
“Not bad, Darby. Not bad.”
Darby took off his cap and sat in the armchair in front of the window. He was a thin, wiry man. Like Brian’s parents, he was Irish, and he’d worked at the bindery with Brian’s father until being fired seven years earlier for drinking on the job.
Brian’s mother came into the room and put a glass ashtray on the table next to Darby.
“I’ll make you a highball,” she said.
“That would be nice if it’s not too much trouble, Bridie.”
“It’s no trouble.”
She went out of the room. Darby took out a pack of Lucky Strikes and lit one with a match. He put the match in the ashtray.
“What are you reading, Brian?” he asked.
“I’m reading about the Red Sox.”
“Well, I could tell you they’re no good without reading the newspaper.”
Brian didn’t say anything. Darby winked at Brian’s father and took a long drag on his cigarette.
“Any news from home, Martin?” he asked.
Martin shook his head. “They’re all well, I guess. No one’s asking for money.”
Bridie came into the room with two highballs. She gave one to each man.
“That’s very good of you, Bridie,” Darby said.
“Do you want some ginger ale, Brian?” she asked.
She sat in the other armchair.
“We haven’t seen you in a while,” she said to Darby.
“I try to keep myself busy.”
“The boy didn’t believe me when I said the Red Sox are no good,” Darby told her.
“Well, I wish he’d think about becoming an altar boy. Monsignor Lydon said at Mass this morning there was going to be a meeting once school stars in September for all the fifth and sixth grade boys who want to be altar boys.”
“Are you going to be an altar boy?” Darby asked Brian.
“I don’t think so,” Brian answered without looking up.
“I always thought he’d be an altar boy when he was old enough,” Bridie said.
“Well, it’s a good thing to be if you can,” Darby said. “They wouldn’t have taken me when I was his age, that’s for sure.”
Brian looked up this time. “Why wouldn’t they have taken you?” he asked.
“I was too wild, that’s for sure.”
“They’d take him, that’s for sure,” Bridie said.
Darby put out his cigarette in the ashtray.
“Do you want another highball?” Bridie asked.
“No, this is enough for me.”
He lit another cigarette.
“I went down to the track with Michael Flaherty last night,” he said to Martin. “I won fifty dollars on the last race.”
“Fifty dollars,” Bridie said. “That’s not bad.”
“The horse’s name was Galway Bay. As soon as I saw it in the program I knew I had to bet on it. Can you believe they named a horse Galway Bay?”
Brian put down the newspaper and looked at Darby.
“And Michael didn’t bet on it because he said Irish horses are slow. And I tried to tell him that just because it’s named Galway Bay doesn’t mean it’s an Irish horse. Then the one he picked fell going around the first turn and finished dead last.”
Brian’s mother and father were laughing.
“What kind of horse was it?” Brian asked.
“I don’t know. Probably an American horse if it’s running over here.”
“Once Michael gets something in his mind, he doesn’t listen to anyone,” Bridie said.
“No, he doesn’t.”
“Well, I’m going to be going here,” Darby said. “I was going by after Mass and I thought I’d say hello.”
As he stood, he took a dollar bill out of his pocket. He stepped across the room and handed it to Brian.
“Buy yourself some ice cream.”
“You don’t have to be giving him anything,” Bridie said.
“If he’s going to be an altar boy, he deserves a dollar.”
Brian thanked him.
“I’ll be seeing you, Martin. Goodbye, Bridie.”
She went to the door with him. After she had shut it behind him, she came back into the room.
“You know where he’s going if he has fifty dollars in his pocket,” she said to Martin.
“It’ll be gone by the end of the day.”
“Where’s he going?” Brian asked.
“Never mind,” his mother said.
“I just asked where he’s going.”
“Are you doing anything this afternoon?” she asked him.
“I might go up to the pool.”
It was early evening when Bridie saw Darby coming up the street. They were sitting in the living room again. Brian and his father were watching the Red Sox, who were playing on the west coast.
“Darby’s coming up the street,” she said. “He’s staggering.”
“Don’t let him in if he’s drunk,” Martin said.
Brian turned his head and looked out the window behind the couch.
“Don’t be looking out the window,” his mother said.
“You always are.”
“Maybe he’s not going to stop here,” she said.
“He’ll stop,” Martin said. “Make sure the door’s locked.”
She went into the hall.
She came back into the living room and sat down. Brian saw Darby go by the front of the house. There was a loud knock at the front door. No one said anything. There was another, louder knock.
“He’ll go away if no one answers,” Bridie said softly.
She looked out the window.
“He’s leaving. He’s crossing the street.”
There was the screech of car brakes.
“He got hit by a car, Martin. He’s lying in the street.”
“Is he all right?”
“He’s not getting up. I’ll call the police.”
Brian went into the hall and pulled back the curtain of the window alongside of the door. Darby was sitting up on the road and holding his knee. The back of his elbow was bleeding. A five-dollar bill lay on the pavement. The driver of the car, a young man, had gotten out and was speaking with him. Brian let go of the curtain and went back into the living room.
“His arm’s bleeding,” Brian told his parents.
“The police are coming,” his mother said.
A minute later there was the sound of a siren and a police car pulled up. Brian looked out the living room window. Two policemen got out of the car. One of them squatted next to Darby and began talking.
Brian was still watching at the window when the policemen helped Darby to his feet and into the back of the police car.
“I think he’s okay,” Brian told his parents.
“That’s good,” his father said.
There was a knock at the front door. Brian’s mother went into the hall and opened it. One of the policemen was standing there.
“Did you call us?” the policeman asked.
“Yes. I saw the car hit him when he was crossing the street.”
“The car didn’t actually hit him. He said he fell down when he saw it coming. He seems to be okay. We’re going to take him down to the hospital just to be sure. He’s obviously been drinking.”
“We hope he’s okay.”
“Is there a boy here who’s going to be an altar boy?” the policeman asked.
“My son Brian’s thinking about it,” she said after a moment.
The policeman held out a five-dollar bill.
“He’s insisting on giving this to the boy,” the policeman said. “You can always give it back to him.”
She took the money. The policeman thanked her for calling and stepped down from the door. Brian’s mother shut it and came into the living room.
“The car didn’t hit him, I guess. They think he’s okay,” she told her husband.
“A little fall like that’s not going to kill him.”
“Darby wanted to give this to you for becoming an altar boy.” She handed the five dollars to Brian.
“Tell him thank you when see him,” his father said.
“You have to be an altar boy now,” his mother said as she sat back down.
“Why didn’t you let him in?” Brian asked his parents.
It was his mother who finally answered. “He had too much to drink. It was nice of him, though, to give you the five dollars for being an altar boy.”
Brian looked sharply at her. “Why do you even want me to be an altar boy? You didn’t care about Darby. He could have been killed.”
“We cared about Darby.”
“No, you didn't. You locked the door so he couldn't come in.”
“He's okay now and he wants you to be an altar boy.”
Brian got up. “I haven’t decided yet,” he said as he left the room.
Tony Concannon grew up in Massachusetts. After graduating from college with a degree in English and American Literature, he taught for 18 years in Japan, where much of his fiction is set. Since returning to the United States, he has been working in human services. Stories of his have appeared in Columbia Journal, Litro, On the Premises, The Taproot Literary Review, Oasis Journal, Here Comes Everyone, The Lost River Review and Eastlit.
In the evening, we would all gather around little Mable because she was the one with the proper way of speaking—like she was from New York, or grown and had been to college—and Momma would light the kerosene lamp, and hopefully John, that’s my father, would have passed out by then. I can see him now, sleeping all big and pronounced on the gritty wood floor in the main room with his head turned side on his crossed-over arms, snoring some, like a man with a face as soft and gentle as his had no business doing.
Whether he was drunk from moonshine, which he usually was, or just worn out from the labor of the pulp wood during one of his rare being-on-the-wagon times, it was best that he’d be snoring with that deep hum of his before the story began or he’d ruin it with his “thoughts on the matter” of everything. He liked to hear himself say those words. “I got thoughts on that matter,” he’d say and go on about something that wasn’t the point of what was happening in the story, which is what we wanted to hear—about those far off places that most of us would never get to see. We knew that, that we’d never get to the places except in those stories, which is why we all loved the reading so.
I was the last of my father’s nineteen children and the first to be graced with his forename because I was the first boy. My father was already sixty-some when I was born. He made grand promises to me of life and work, the things that make up the dark side of the earth. He would tell me in private that it was a full-time job and then some providing salvation to his children, that he knew I would build upon what he had built.