Joyland

The Midwest |

St. Kevin of Cleveland

by Patrick J. Salem

Let me say right off that if any of you mooks repeats this story to Eric or Max or the other guys from school, I’ll call you a liar and find a way to make you pay for it later. Ask around West Park—ask around the whole Westside—you don’t eff with Pearse Rooney. Not that I’m ashamed of what I’m about to tell you, because I’m not. It’s just that a fella’s gotta worry about his reputation, especially a senior and the captain of the hockey team. So do us all a favor, and keep this to yourself. Anyway, I want to tell you about my little brother, Kevin, the goddamnedest kid you ever met. He’s half my age, and in our family, Kevin is definitely the runt of the litter. Where I’m tall and strong, Kevin is knotted up like a pretzel: His ankles were so twisted when he was born that his feet nearly touched each other toe to toe. And after the surgery to fix them, his toes permanently pointed out so when he finally learned to walk, he moved like knock-kneed penguin. Where the other six of us boys are all athletes—Tommy, Seamus, Marty and Michael, and I played football, hockey, and baseball for St. Xavier High and Richard and Francis play football and baseball at Queen of Angels Elementary School and hockey for the Winterhurst Hornets—Kevin was lucky to run down the steps without killing himself. But did that ever stop the kid from trying? Hell no. One time my sophomore year, I came home sick from school, and Kevin was in the basement with our old Nerf hoop and one of those miniature basketballs like they give away at Cavs games once in a while. Walking on my knees, I showed him how to do a lay-up. “You try it,” I told him. He waddled forward bouncing the ball once, twice, and then, trying to mimic the action of my hands, he flung the ball in the opposite direction, where it bounced once and then rolled underneath the cold-air return for the furnace. He took shot after shot. The basket was at the most maybe four-feet high, only a foot and a half higher than six-year-old Kevin, but it might as well have been regulation for as much trouble as he seemed to be having. I spent the afternoon down there trying to show him how to put backspin on the ball by letting it roll off the fingertips so his shot went in a straight line, but all Kevin managed to hit that way were the furnace ducts, the ice chest in the corner, and our dog, Silence, who’d come downstairs to see what all the racket was about. “I can’t get it to go in your way, Pearse,” Kevin said, after Silence ran up the stairs dragging her tail. “Can’t I do it my way?” “What’s your way?” “Like this,” he said. He waddled over to where the ball had stopped rolling and picked it up, then waddled back to me. He took the little orange ball between both hands so that the lines were perpendicular to the floor, bent at the knees a couple of times while swaying back and forth on his toes, and then let the deadest ball I’ve ever seen float out of his hands and through the plastic hoop. Swish. That ball didn’t spin even a little bit. It was basically a round rubber rock, but it found the bottom of the net. “Wow, that’s pretty good,” I said. “Can you make it from farther away?” He took a few steps back, did the same thing, arms bending at the elbow, knees flexing, rock floating, swish. He did it a half a dozen times from all over the room, only the eight foot ceiling keeping him from making longer shots. “Does anyone else know you can do this?” I asked, realizing that Kevin’s skill might be a chance for some money. “Only Richard and Francis. They taught me.” Perfect, I thought. When the twins, Marty and Michael, got home from baseball practice, I had the Nerf hoop out on the front sidewalk, bouncing the little orange ball. Kevin was in the grass under the oak tree, digging holes with a garden trowel. “Whaddya doin with that, Pearse?” Marty asked. “I thought you were sick,” Michael accused. “Mom’s cooking. Someone’s gotta watch the kid,” I said, giving a slight nod of my head in Kevin’s direction. “You know how she is about him when she’s got the refrigerator open.” Mom was convinced that Kevin would crawl into the open fridge when she wasn’t looking and she’d shut him in there. She always worried about stupid stuff like that when it came to Kevin. “Yeah, but why do you have the Nerf out?” Marty asked again. “Why not just drag the kid to the backyard and shoot hoops on the garage?” “He wanted to dig holes,” I said. Actually Kevin had lost his interest in digging holes a while ago, but he had afternoons off while going to half-day kindergarten. Mom had held him back a year from starting school for health reasons, so Kevin became one of those kids who found just about everything fascinating, even digging holes. The three of us looked at him sitting in the grass wearing a shirt that we’d all worn at some point, and a pair of jean shorts that were long pants on his puny frame. “Mom had a fit the time he dug under the fence and Silence got out,” Michael reminded us all. Mom was prone to fits. She said it came from living in a houseful of animals, but Dad told us privately that women are just like that sometimes. Not that any of us would know since we went to a boys-only high school. “You don’t need the distraction of girls,” Dad said when Seamus had asked about going to Prep. “Besides Xavier was good enough for me. What good would it do you to go to school with all those doctor’s kids at Prep?” I think the old man got it wrong, that not being around girls all day was way more distracting than being close to them. Just knowing that there were four hundred girls across the street at the all-girl Our Lady of Heaven High School was like dripping water onto the forehead of a man dying of thirst. But you didn’t argue with Dad. After three years in the Marine Corps fighting the Chinese and North Koreans, Dad came home and worked so hard as an electrician that they made him one of the heads of Local 38, the electrical union for Cleveland. Seamus used to joke that Dad had chest hair tougher than most guys in our neighborhood. So when dad said you’re gonna go to an all-boys school, you went to an all-boys school. Since we weren’t allowed to actually spend time with girls, we just accepted the mystery of Mom’s fits over stupid stuff like digging holes or making pop can grenades, which isn’t that hard. It’s just ten firecrackers stuffed inside an empty Coke can. Twist the fuses together, light it, and throw the thing as far as you can. You gotta get down fast because parts of the exploded can go pretty far and can cut you up good. If you want, I’ll show you the pieces stuck in the side of the Conway’s garage. Anyway, that afternoon, after letting Marty and Michael miss a few shots on the Nerf hoop, I bet them each a week’s worth of lunch money that Kevin could sink five in a row. “No way,” Marty said. “The runt doesn’t even like sports.” “Don’t call me a runt,” Kevin said. “Yeah, don’t call the midget a runt,” Michael said. “I’m not a midget.” “Do you guys wanna bet or not?” I asked, before Kevin could get mad and tell on us. “Sure, I’ll bet,” Marty said, which meant that Michael bet too because the twins were pretty much a pair in everything. Their faces grew longer and longer as their jaws fell with each shot, and Kevin hit another five in a row when one of them suggested the first five were a fluke. “That’s amazing,” Michael said after it was all over. “Never seen a ball float like that, not even a hint of spinning.” “It defies the laws of physics,” Marty said. “It’s goddam amazing,” I said. We tried the same trick on Tommy when he got home, but Michael’s grin must’ve given us away, and he wouldn’t take the bet. But that’s Kevin for you, always doing stuff that makes you take notice. I wanted to tell you that so you’d understand how remarkable this next thing was. Kevin started first grade the same time I started my junior year, but he made it to the second grade by the end of September when Mrs. Kiernan figured out that the kid could read and write better than some of the eighth graders at Queen of Angels School. I guess until they promoted him, it never occurred to any of us that Kevin’s reading was remarkable because everybody in our family read early. My dad taught us how. “The ability to read makes you the equal to any king or potentate,” he would always say. He’d sit you on his lap when you were little and read the funnies, showing you each word with the tip of his finger as he went along. By the time we started kindergarten, we all knew how to read, and Kevin was no different. He probably read even more since he was stuck in the house so much. The second graders didn’t treat him so well partly ‘cause he was so small and partly ‘cause they thought that he’d only gotten promoted because the first graders picked on him too much, which wasn’t true because everyone in West Park knows that if you fight one of the Rooney boys, you’re gonna have to fight all eight of us. And we can fight too, let me tell you: Tommy racked up more penalty minutes in hockey than anyone else in the history of the Cleveland Catholic League. And me and Seamus weren’t far behind him. Fact is, Kevin could have been put in the third grade, but Mrs. Kiernan worried that he’d feel out of place with all those older kids. So anyway, sometime around Thanksgiving break, Kevin finds out that Jennifer Fernhill, one of the kids in his second grade class who picked on him a lot, has brain cancer. At first everyone in the class was all nice to her. They made get well cards for days she had to go for chemo, and nobody said anything when she would throw up her lunch, but after her hair fell out from the radiation treatments, they all started to drift away from her. Everybody, that is, except for Kevin. I’m telling you, the goddamnedest little kid you ever saw. He started taking money from his piggy bank and going to the Pic-N-Pay up at Kamms Corner to buy flowers, which he’d walk over to the Fernhill’s house and leave for Jennifer on the front porch. No one knew that it was Kevin doing this until one day Mrs. Fernhill asked the O’Malley’s to see who left the flowers. So here goes Kevin duck-walking up the front sidewalk with a bunch of flowers grasped in his tight little fist when Mr. O’Malley sticks his head out and yells at him. “Hey kid, whatcha doin’?” You gotta know Mr. O’Malley to know he’s not really all that mean, but he’s got one of those kind of voices that makes ‘good morning’ sound like an accusation. Kevin got so scared he just ran and ran as fast as his little short legs would carry him. By the time he made it home, he was having an asthma attack, and all he had left of the flowers were a half dozen broken stems. “What were you doing at the Fernhill’s, Kevin?” Mom asked after she gave him a squirt of his inhaler. “I was performing a corporal work of mercy,” he said. Get that, a corporal work of mercy. What a kid. “So it was you over there? Here I told Mr. O’Malley he was crazy, that you’d never be cruel like that. I’m not only a bad mother, I’m a liar, too.” Mom was always worried about being a bad mother, not that there were any rankings that we knew of, but you know how moms get, right? “I wasn’t being cruel,” Kevin said, his face going all red like it did before he’d start crying. He was back to wheezing, which always happened after he had an asthma attack. “All the other kids at school stopped talking to Jennifer, and I know what it’s like to be lonely so I thought she might like flowers. You said girls like flowers, Mom. How come it’s cruel if girls like flowers?” Kevin was crying by then, sobs ripping through his tiny body like tsunami waves through palm huts. Mom softened a little. “Oh Kevin, don’t you know that that little girl is gonna die? Every time you take flowers over there, her parents get reminded of a grave.” “But they’re not for her parents, the flowers are for Jennifer,” Kevin said. He tilted his head to the side like he was trying to hear something from far off and threw out his hands. “I’m not trying to be mean to them, just nice to her.” Mom called Mrs. Fernhill after supper and explained that Kevin was trying to be nice. They talked for a while, and I think Mom really liked it because she stayed on the phone ‘til it was time for bed. “We don’t know how much longer we’ll have him either,” I heard Mom say to Mrs. Fernhill. “He’s been in and out of the hospital for years. He’s doing okay right now, but you never know. All you can do is appeal to the Blessed Virgin, one mother to another.” Mom was one of those Catholics who secretly thought that Mary should be counted as equal to God, even though she’d deny it if you asked her. Mom said the rosary every day, had three statues of the Virgin in the house and one in the yard. She said her favorite was the small brass replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta, which she kept on top of the piano because it reminded her of the pain of having sons, but she really loved the one Dad gave her for their twentieth wedding anniversary last spring. It was made of a milky white bone china with the Virgin’s veil painted a light summer blue and so delicate that felt like nothing when you picked it up from the fireplace mantel. “I know,” Mom said into the phone after a moment of quiet. I think maybe she was crying. “But His plans are not our plans, are they?” If I ever decide to leave the Church, it’ll be because too many mothers cry too many times for me to love God. Anyway, after Mom and Mrs. Fernhill chatted on the phone, Kevin started going over there when the family was home. He’d still bring her the flowers and school work that he’d get from the teachers so Jennifer wouldn’t fall too far behind. “I know what it’s like to be behind in school,” Kevin explained to the teachers. Before long he was going with the family to the hospital for Jennifer’s treatments. They must’ve lied to the doctors or something because Kevin was allowed in the room when only immediate family was supposed to be there. Around Valentine’s Day, things started looking up. Jennifer was back in school a couple of days a week, and her hair was growing in. I know Mom was a little worried that Jennifer might get better fast and decide that she didn’t need Kevin after all, but that didn’t happen. As we were getting ready for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which fell on Sunday, Mrs. Fernhill called the house to say that Jennifer had spiked a fever. “She’s very sick,” Mom told Kevin. “They don’t know if she’s gonna make it through another night.” “Will they let me see her?” Kevin asked. “Mr. Fernhill is going to pick you up here in a few minutes to take you to Fairview.” We left for the parade after watching him climb into the backseat of Mr. Fernhill’s Buick. Stolen sips of beer tasted bitter, watching amateur Irish kids barf everywhere seemed stupid, and the girls who tried to kiss us for being Irish were all ugly because we knew Kevin was sitting next to his little friend in the hospital reading a book. Mrs. Fernhill said that he acted out all the voices of the characters just the way Dad used to do it for us when he taught us to read. I guess he stayed for a while because he got home when we were eating supper. Jennifer died that night. Mom woke us with the news. Later that day, I took Kevin aside when nobody was looking. I’m not saying I was crying, but I did have a tough time seeing the little guy because my eyes were kinda misty. Musta been from the weather or something. “I’m sorry, Kev,” I said. “I know you really loved her.” That’s when the little punk busted my heart to pieces. “Don’t be sorry, Pearse. She’s in heaven now. I’m happy: She gets to talk to Jesus. I’ll miss her, but everyone knows that Jesus is the best friend you can ever have.” Like I said, goddamnedest kid ever. Anyway, the funeral was on St. Joseph’s Day, and the whole Queen of Angels School turned out. Mom called Xavier and took all of us out of school for the mass, too. Kevin did the New Testament reading, which made Mrs. Fernhill ball. After the mass, we all went to the cemetery, and Mr. and Mrs. Fernhill told Mom in front of the eight of us kids that they would always think of Kevin as their son. Mom cried the whole ride home, not once yelling at Tommy for how he drove, which never happens because Tommy drives like crap. Life went back to normal until the end of April, when Queen of Angels School started planning for the May Day celebration for the Blessed Virgin. I don’t remember a whole lot of details because by then I’d started dating this girl from Our Lady of Heaven, Elizabeth Johnson. We’d meet after school at the rapid transit station on West 25th and hold hands ‘til her train came. Once, I got on with her and rode all the way to Shaker Heights so we could make out in the back of the train. So maybe I was a little distracted, but basically it went something like this. Kevin volunteered to head up his second grade classroom’s team to build a float for the Queen of the May parade, which the school put on every year. There were prizes for the best float, but the eighth graders always won because they started building their floats in September. Anyway, Kevin invited a bunch of the kids over to the house to plan and build the darn thing, but no one showed up. He did this like three or four days in a row but still got no help. But like I said, he’s the goddamnedest kid ever so he just decided to do it all on his own. He didn’t even tell Mom and Dad. He took a box from the basement and painted it all blue. He put the painted box upside down in the little red wagon we kept in the garage. Then he cut out letters from white construction paper and glued them to the side of the box. They spelled out the words, “Mary, Queen of Heaven.” On top of the box, he used plumbers putty to attach Mom’s bone china statue of the Virgin, and next to it he put a doll that he’d found somewhere onto which he glued a photo, a school uniform skirt and blouse, and some wings he made out of paper and colored with crayons. Then he covered it all with a big green trash bag so it wouldn’t get wrecked before the parade. The day of the school’s parade came, and Kevin wheeled the wagon to the Church parking lot without telling anyone what it was. At school, a bunch of the kids from his class who were supposed to help put the thing together tried to peak, but Kevin wouldn’t let them. When the parade was getting started, Kevin unwrapped the garbage bag, and the other kids started to laugh. “What’s that box supposed to be, doofus?” one of the little Barrett boys asked. “Hey guys, the Rooney runt thinks that heaven comes in a cardboard box.” “Don’t call me runt,” Kevin said. “Why not? You’re a runt, ain’tcha?” “I said don’t call me that,” Kevin repeated, only louder this time. “You’re too much of a midget to be a runt,” said Charlie Sheehan. “Plus you gotta doll on there, which means you’re a girlie midget.” Just then, Mrs. Conaway, Kevin’s teacher, came up to see what hubbub was all about and saw the doll. Her face went all white and then suddenly red, according to some kids who were there. “Kevin, is that doll supposed to be Jennifer Fernhill?” she asked. “Yes, Mrs. Conaway,” Kevin said. “I didn’t have any angels to show that Mary was in heaven but everyone knows that’s where Jennifer went after she died so I figured that was good enough. See, I made wings so everyone would know she’s an angel now.” Mrs. Conaway stood there for a second until the Sheehan kid started laughing. “That’s the ugliest float here today, runt, and the dumbest idea ever,” Sheehan said. “I’m glad I didn’t help on it.” A bunch of other kids said the same thing, and Kevin started to look upset. “Kevin, did you do this all alone?” Mrs. Conaway asked, pointing at the float. “They said they would come over to help, but they didn’t come. I had to do something.” Kevin was trying not to cry because even he knew that was the kiss of death for a second grader, but Mrs. Conaway didn’t seem to care. She hugged Kevin and started crying for him. “Oh Kevin, you should have told me you were doing it all alone,” she said. I guess she hugged him for a while, his tow-colored head barely reaching her belt. “Maybe we can fix this,” she said. She sent one of the girls into the building with a note, and the girl came back in a few minutes with some scotch tape and a bunch of pictures of angels. “I’ve had these in my desk all year and haven’t used them. You know, God always has a plan,” Mrs. Conaway said as she started taping the angels onto the sides of the float. A bunch of the girls helped. too. Pretty soon there were angels sticking up all around Mom’s statue of the Blessed Virgin. “We should take this doll off of here,” Mrs. Conaway said. “We don’t want anyone to think we were making fun of Jennifer.” Kevin just stood there and let them do it, apparently relieved that he wasn’t in any trouble. Kevin pulled the wagon in the parade, and Richard, who was in the seventh grade, said that everyone clapped and said it was a really good float for such little kids to come up with, which may or may not have been true because Richard sometimes makes stuff up so people sound nicer than they really are. Francis, who was in the sixth grade, didn’t say a word to contradict him so maybe it was true. At the end of the parade, Mrs. Conway told Kevin’s entire class what a good kid he was, which I guess made some of the other kids a little mad, especially Charlie Sheehan. “The only reason teacher fixed the float was cause she feels sorry for you,” Sheehan said. “You’re such a loser, Kevin.” “I just wanted to do something for the parade, but you guys wouldn’t help me,” Kevin said. This only seemed to make the kids who didn’t help madder. “I’ll bet the Blessed Virgin thinks you’re a loser too,” Sheehan said. A couple of the others laughed at Kevin. Mrs. Conaway heard them, and Charlie and two of his buddies got sent to the office. “Don’t ever make fun of someone for showing his faith,” Mrs. Conaway scolded them. “Would you mock Jesus before the Sanhedrin?” On the way home from school, they waited for Kevin in the bushes near the corner of 165th Street. When he passed them, they jumped out and knocked him down. One of them kicked the float over and laughed when Mom’s statue busted into eight pieces. Richard and Francis were about half a block behind around then and saw Kevin lying in the grass crying and struggling to breathe. Francis shouted, and he and Richard charged those punks like a couple of bulls going after all those idiots in Pamplona. The three kids ran away, but it was too late for Kevin. He was so upset that he started having an asthma attack right there. Richard scooped him up and carried him the three blocks home, and Francis carefully picked up the broken pieces of the Blessed Virgin and put them in the box. He looked for a long time but couldn’t find her folded hands. By the time he got home, Mom had already left for the hospital with Kevin. The doctors decided to keep him over night because he had fluid in his lungs and they were worried about infection. We were pretty quiet that night at dinner, and Mom kept crying on and off. Marty told the story about the kids all cheering for Kevin’s float, but I don’t think it made Mom feel any better. Tommy, Seamus, and I got out the glue gun and carefully pieced the statue back together except for the missing hands. When we were finished, we set the statue in the middle of the dining room table so the glue could set. “He was trying to protect the Virgin,” Mom said staring at the statue. “My little boy is in the hospital right now because he loves the Church.” When we went to bed that night, Richard wondered aloud for all of us if Kevin died, would he be a martyr. “Can you imagine, St. Kevin of Cleveland?” Seamus whispered. The kid’s been in the hospital for a couple of weeks now, fighting off a bad case of pneumonia. They don’t know if he’ll make it or not—it’s touch and go. But every night, I pray silently in my bed for Jennifer Fernhill to talk to Mary and Jesus and ask them to save my brother, the goddamnedest kid you’ve ever met.