from Thieves I’ve Known
It was a visiting priest, as it often was, and the two altar boys half-listened to the homily and stared out at the small congregation. Snow was falling fast outside, and many of the old people had stayed home, but there was one man – more ancient than any they’d seen – sitting in the back of the church, and he was obviously a homeless man and a little drunk tonight.
At least it seemed this way to Omar, the older of the two altar boys, and he watched the man close his eyes and lean forward, almost asleep, then catch himself and listen again to the homily. The priest had moved past grace and love, as if they might be near the bottom of a list, but important to mention nonetheless. When he spoke the words Lazarus and resurrection the two boys perked up, because that story was often interesting to them. “When his name was called he awakened,” the priest said. “Just as our names are called, every day. And we must awake in a similar way.” And then the priest went on to some parish announcements. It made Omar frown. He’d been hoping for some new information. He looked over at Lewis, but Lewis did not return the look. The younger boy’s head jerked to the side, and then again, as if beyond the priest’s homily he could also hear some music that no one else could hear. It was a bad tick and had become worse in the last year. He’d been told he might eventually – when he was older – shake to death, and he’d shared this secret with Omar, who had told him not to worry over it too much, and who’d said, no, he wouldn’t tell anyone else.
They went through the rest of mass, ringing the bells when it was called for, and taking the gifts back to the altar, and during communion they held the little dishes under the chins of the parishioners, though no one had dropped a host in a long while. It had been a year, and Omar had caught it, and the priest – another visitor, though not this one – had told him that he was a very vigilant young man, and this had delighted both boys, so much so that they’d gone to the dictionary and looked up the word: watchful and awake, alert to avoid danger. They liked that. When mass was over, they walked down the aisle and waited at the back of the church with the priest as he shook hands with some of the parishioners, and some of the people shook the hands of Omar and Lewis, or patted them on the head, and when this happened the boys smiled though they weren’t smiling on the inside. They watched the poor box as some people dropped in dollars and coins, and even the ancient man dropped something in, and when everyone had left the boys took up the box and brought it back to the sacristy and opened it and counted out the money.
It was not much: four dollars and change, plus a candy wrapper, a book of matches, and a little white bone that they picked up and studied. It was just a few inches long and seemed like it might be half the wishbone of a turkey or a chicken, and they wondered about the wish that had been made upon it. Good health maybe, or a change in the weather. They placed it at the top of the stack of money and took it off to the priest who was preparing himself for confessional.
Once – the year before Omar arrived – there had been a five dollar bill in the poor box, and Lewis had slipped this into his pocket. He’d bought nine cans of lemon soda with the money and drank them all in one day. He felt bad about it now. He’d felt bad about it for a long time, and he’d been sneaking a quarter into the pile for the last few months. In a few more weeks he’d have it all paid back.
They offered the money to the priest, and the man took it and put it in a drawer, and Lewis stood there with the bone in his open hand. The priest looked at it.
“What the hell is that?” he said.
“It was in the box,” said Lewis, and his head jerked to the side.
“Somebody offered it up,” said Omar.
“Well, get rid of it,” said the priest.
The two boys studied the bone.
“Can we keep it?” said Lewis.
The priest frowned. He acted as if he’d never encountered this situation before.
“I don’t care,” he said, and though there were altar dressings to fold and the chalice and the dishes to wash, and the wine to be poured back into the bottle, the two boys followed the priest out to the confessional where there were two women waiting in the pews just outside. Later, the two boys would try to guess the sins to be confessed: adultery and jealousy and murder and thievery and sloth, the latter of which was the worst as far as Omar was concerned, but now they waited for the priest to open the door to the confessional, and when he saw them standing behind him he said
“What do you want?”
“Can we see in?” said Omar.
The priest looked at his side of the confessional. “In here?” he said.
He seemed to consider that, and he looked over at the two women who were praying with their eyes closed.
“Does Father Ramon let you see in?”
They frowned at that and said that he didn’t.
The priest sighed, opened the door, and waved them in, and immediately they asked if they could slide the windows open, and he said to keep their voices down and yes that was all right if they were quick about it.
So, they opened and closed the windows and they each had a seat in the chair. The other leaned outside to see if the little light came on, and when it did he gave the thumb’s up. They asked the priest if one of them could go around and kneel on the other side of the confessional, and the priest said no, go on now, and so they did, back up to the altar and the sacristy where they washed and folded and put things away, and when they were done they put on their coats and scarves and headed out into the snow.
There was a strong and painful wind outside, and the two boys headed into it, wiping the snow from their eyes and moving from streetlight to streetlight in the dark. The lid of a trashcan blew across the road, and the cars parked near the sidewalk were covered in white, like a long line of sand dunes or mountains in a range. The boys crunched along in the drifts, and Omar thought of his mother, as he often did. He’d not been vigilant enough with her – she’d been a heavy drinker and had died of it – but he tried to put that from his mind, and instead he remembered waiting for her at the laundry in the hospital, watching her sort and weigh the linens that she pulled from baskets and oversized sacks. The room was long and filled with light, and he could hear nothing above the din of the washers and the fifty-gallon tanks filled with bleachwater. His mother worked slow and deliberate in her long bib overalls, and every so often she’d motion for him to fold this stack of towels, these pillowcases, and they’d play a unnamed game: a poke to her ribs when she wasn’t looking, and a pinch on his ears when he wasn’t. Omar kept a tally in his head. He was always way ahead. They took up the sheets together and placed them in the washers.
When the boys arrived at the diner, just past the butcher’s shop, they went in and found a booth in the corner. There was some music playing from the jukebox, something slow and bouncy, and the two boys bobbed their heads to the music as they studied the menus. They looked at the pictures of the french toast and the patty melt and the banana pie. There was a line of syrup caked at the top of Lewis’ menu, and he scraped it off with the edge of his fingernail. They counted out their money, and figured in for a tip, and while they waited on the waitress they looked out at the snow that was swirling down into the streetlights. Omar imagined the moon and the stars falling to earth.
“What’s it going to be?” said the waitress.
“A tea, please,” said Omar.
“With two spoons, please,” said Lewis.
She looked at them. “That’s all you’re going to order, isn’t it?”
They said that it was, and sorry about that, and she took up their menus and went off into the kitchen.
Lewis took out the bone and placed it on the table halfway between them. His head jerked to the side. It was a strange little bone, they both agreed, and they began to play the football game with it. They slid the bone across the table to each other, trying to score a touchdown by getting the bone to hang off the edge without falling. They tapped it with the ends of their fingers. It was not easy, and they worked at it for a while, and at some point Lewis observed aloud that the table had not been wiped down in a long time. Still, he was the first to score, a lucky shot that ricocheted off the sugar container. Lewis lined the bone up for the extra point, and when he flicked it, it went over Omar’s shoulder and into the soup of the man sitting behind them.
“What the hell?” the man said.
They turned to look at him, and the man was dressed in a red Santa Claus suit. He looked very drunk and not very happy about the bone.
“Sorry,” said Omar.
“This is a finger bone,” said the man.
“Sorry,” said Lewis.
“You threw a finger bone in my soup,” said the man.
Their tea came then, with two spoons and two little containers of cream.
“What are you yelling at these boys about?” said the waitress.
“Look,” said the man. He pointed at his soup. “Finger bone.”
The two boys went back out into the wind and the snow. They were filled up with a cup of tea and two refills, and Omar had the bone in his pocket. The man had not given it up easily, and they weren’t allowed to play the football game anymore. The snow was coming down sideways now, and they walked into it, back towards the church. Lewis’ tick was worse, harder than before, and more frequent, so that he began to have trouble walking in a straight line. He took hold of the tail of Omar’s coat and followed the boy into the wind.
When they came to the church they could see that there was a strange form under the light by the side door, and they trudged up towards it until they could see that there was a man lying face down on the steps. The man was bundled in a heavy coat and scarf, and he had no shoes about his stocking feet. The boys circled around him and stopped near the hat lying alone and covered with snowflakes. Lewis brushed it off and gave it a quick whip against his knee, and he placed it back on the man’s head…
TOM KEALEY’s story collection Thieves I’ve Known won the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award. Tom teaches at Stanford University and is also author of the Creative Writing MFA Handbook. More about Tom and Thieves at tom-kealey.com
Adapted from Thieves I’ve Known, by Tom Kealey, Copyright © 2013 by Tom Kealey. With the permission of the publisher, University of Georgia Press.