Practically every Sunday morning when I was a kid and it wasn’t raining or snowing, my Pop would crawl under our latest second-hand Chevy Impala (we were a Chevy family), and as Mom led me and my sister Nancy to her green and brown woody station wagon, Mom would tap Pop’s protruding feet and ask him if he was going to church
“What? Who’s that?” Pop would shout in mock-alarm, playing along.
“Who do you think it is?” Mom said. “You look like the Wicked Witch of the West after the house fell on her!”
“I may be cursed but I’m not dead.” Pop said, then: “This damn flywheel came loose again. Maybe next week.”
“Sure,” Mom said resignedly. “That would be great. Next week Lewis is singing in the church choir and he’d be proud if you came. And remember, Wednesday is his birthday.”
Pop cursed as a wrench slipped and ripped his right knuckle. “Damn!” A small ripple of bright red blood streamed from under the car until it puddle alongside one of Pop’s shoes.
“We’ll do something, Lee; I’ll take him to a ballgame, a Phillies game.”
“OK,” Mom said. “We’ll be back in a couple hours.”
Then another wrench clanged on the asphalt.
“Bring back a chocolate éclair and some glazed donuts, will you?” Pop called to us as we piled into the Mom’s station wagon and rode off.
I remember Pop going to church exactly twice, and both times it was to Mom’s Protestant church. One time it was for Grandpop O’Neal’s funeral and the other it was for Pop’s brother’s and my favorite Uncle’s second marriage. Otherwise, on Sunday morning Pop was usually lying under his car with only his shins and feet protruding.
Later, when I was in my twenties and the Pop had received his due compensation, I imagined Pop carrying around a faded photo of him in his wallet; and every so often Pop would take out the photo and stare at it and then slide it back into his wallet and his wallet back into his back pocket. I think I remember Pop doing that, though now I’m not positive, not sure... But I think he did.
I do remember clearly how on those Sunday afternoons when we came back from church, Pop would look different. He’d look strange, funny, not the same as usual. His head would be kind of dangling above his shoulders, like a pale balloon suspended on a white string, and his face would glow like some cartoon character’s, his eyes burning, like he had just seen Satan. And if one of us said anything to him, regardless of what it was, you could tell it flew right over his head and Pop didn’t hear a word. Not one word.
And on those Sunday afternoons after we came back from church, Pop would wolf down a chocolate éclair and a coffee and maybe a glazed donut, and then he’d disappear into the basement. Our cellar was a musky uninhabitable low-ceilinged little space dimly lit by a single light bulb that dangled from an exposed wire at the bottom of the stairs. And it was Pop’s room, his refuge. Some tools were scattered around on the floor, but that wasn’t the basement’s purpose. And nobody else dared go down there, or wanted to, but Pop. And on Sundays when Pop went down in his basement, he would growl like some sort of wounded animal.
First he would moan in deep low tones that percolated like black coffee in the back of his throat. And then gradually his voice would rise in intensity and in pitch and volume and in feeling, until it reverberated into full-throated bellowing, like the bellowing you might hear resonate from a pipe organ in church , or like a wounded animal. No, Pop wouldn’t whistle or sing down in his basement, sing, he would howl. And he would stay down in his dank musky-smelling cellar for hours, moaning and wailing with such candor and conviction and emotion that his family upstairs would scatter: Nancy would go outside to get away from it because it scared her, Mom would go out in the backyard and work in her garden until it was over, while I would stay upstairs and put my ear to the floor and soak it all in.
Then one Saturday morning when I was 9 or 10, Pop put all his ducks in a row, so to speak.
He put on his Sunday best, which he rarely did, shined his black dress shoes and dusted off his hat, and he told us he was going out. Nor did he conceal where he was going. He was going downtown he said, to the Church of the Revolving Doors, and later when he came back home, he told us it had been easy to find. That it was still in the same place it had always been - at the end of a grey street of dilapidated row houses that were built decades ago for the families who worked in the steel and rubber factories in South Trenton – workers like my grandfather and two of Pop’s brothers and most of their neighbors. That’s where Pop found the Church of the Revolving Doors, and that’s where he found him.
He was standing, Pop said, in a disorderly room in another dark dank basement that was empty but for a few sad sticks of furniture and some forgettable archaic objects that were once used for ritual and sacrament but had been neglected for years. And he was alone. He was an old man by then, Pop told me later, and he had rheumy red eyes and faded leathery gray skin that sagged on his arms, and his shapeless testosterone-depleted body was hidden underneath a black dress that was now way too big for him. When I asked Pop how old he was, Pop said that he was older than dead. He was hunched over a sacramental basin, Pop said, scrubbing a filthy rag, trying to rid it of maroon stains with trembling ineffectual hands that had sharp, protruding knuckles.
Pop said he approached him cautiously, and that when he got close he cleared his throat and the old man turned around.
“Do you know who I am, Father Pawel? Do you recognize me?” Pop said he said. The hooded man looked up but by this time his eyes were two phlegmatic blurry pink platters that no longer refracted or reflected light or absorbed the light projected by the objects of the world. That’s what Pop said. He looked, as the good Book says, but he didn’t have eyes to see. “What do you mean, he didn’t have eyes to see?” I asked. “Listen to your Mom and read your Bible, Lewis,” Pop said. “His eyes were hollow.”
“It’s Bill Kostrwzski, one of your little altar boys,” Pop said he said, “but I’m grown up now.” Pop paused. “I believed in you back then, Father,” Pop said. “I believed in you, and I believed in Him.”
“Kostrzweski?” I asked Pop.
“Yes, that was our name until Grandpop changed it a few years later.”
“Why did he change it?”
“Because nobody could pronounce it,” Pop said, chuckling.
“In who, Pop?” I asked “Believe in Who?”
“In Him,” Pop said.
When Pop surprised him the old man’s head had twitched involuntarily and what remained of his shoulders trembled under the baggy black cassock. Then the old man mumbled, and started to dissemble, Pop said, but abruptly stopped himself; and sounds began to form deep in his throat, gurgling sounds directed inwardly at himself —that became unintelligible grunts and groans that had no meaning to anyone but him, had no social meaning, Pop said: inarticulate sounds that dribbled from his mouth and meekly struck the mildewed grey-green wall of his basement prison and slid harmlessly to the dirty tile floor.
Then the old man in the black cassock cupped the back of his head and lowered it into his sunken chest and braced for the blows he knew were coming. As taunts and strikes and blows and shouts and bawls and shrieks had rained down on him before, several times before over the years — invectives of rage and fury directed at him by the avenging angels of tormented souls and twisted indentured spirits who for decades had remained tortured boys suffering silently inside grown men’s bodies. Father Kaminsky waited, but the blows never came.
Instead Pop said “Dziekuje.
“What?” I asked, puzzled. “Thank you?”
Again the old man looked up, expecting the blows. But they never came.
“Dziekuje, Karma,” Pop said. (Thank you, Karma).
And with that the old man lowered his head and began to whimper. His frail shoulders shook, his whimpers turned into cries and then sobs and then into weeping, into full-throated lamentation: his withered body shook under this thin black cloak as he wept with the same ferocity with which Pop sang and bellowed and wept on Sunday mornings in our basement.
And after Pop had seen enough, he said, he left.
He left the room and climbed the stairs to the Sanctuary; walked under the tortured crucified replica of Christ past the church’s grand altar, and then ducked under a railing that brought him to the aisle of the nave that led out the front door of the Church of the Revolving Doors into a muted sun that was struggling to shed light on the dilapidated colorless tenement streets of South Trenton.
“And that was it?” I asked Pop.
“Yeah, that was it,” Pop said. “A few months later I saw his obituary in the paper but it was already over by then. Karma is real, Lewis. Respect Karma and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That, Lewis, about covers it.”
And after that Saturday Pop never disappeared into his dingy basement to moan and howl again, and I never remember him looking as if his head was dangling above his shoulders on a string when we came back from church.
Though weather permitting, on Sunday mornings he did continue to crawl under his new Oldsmobile in order to tighten the flywheel or, more often than now, pull the plug and drain and replenish the oil
Ron Kostar has published poems and short stories in US 1 and numerous other publications and he lives in Roosevelt, where he participates in the Roosevelt Arts Project (RAP) and the Roosevelt Writers’ Workshop.