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A Short Stretch
from When I was Pat
By Frank Murphy
"Your father wants to talk to you." My mother said as I entered the door one Saturday afternoon close to Thanksgiving. "He's in the front room."
She delivered this announcement in a strange, almost commanding voice, and yet didn't look at me, didn't really seem to be looking anywhere. I didn't get the impression she was drinking, but she was agitated. I assumed I had done something wrong for which I was going to be punished. But it didn't make sense. My mother was never the "WAIT UNTIL YOUR FATHER GETS HOME!" type. She preferred dealing with disciplinary problems in her own way, choosing to ignore them altogether whenever possible.
Besides, waiting until my father got home could sometimes take a very long time. Ever since I could remember my father took himself out of the family for weeks, months, even years. I hadn't seen him in months.
I tried asking my mother for more information but she just told me to go inside. "He's got something to say to you." She said. And there was coldness in her voice that I never heard before.
So I walked through the rooms of our railroad flat: my sister's room, my parent's room, the room my brother Joe and I shared, stopping there only to toss my coat on my bed before entering the large sunny front room where my father stood forlornly staring out the window. I remember thinking how vulnerable he looked standing there, his back curved like a lamp. It was a strange thought, hunched backed though he was, my father was a strong man with calloused rope-scarred hands that were trice the size mine would ever be.
I heard the el passing up the block and wondered if my father found out about Billy and me climbing the iron rigging of the el and running along the tracks until we could climb onto the platform. That was something I figured might warrant my mother getting my father involved. The way she spoke of the 3rd rail gave me nightmares when I was younger.
My father turned when he heard me come into the room. He hesitated, started to say something then stopped, looked down at the floor and started again. "Your mother wants me to tell you something." He said. "She wants me to tell you that I was in prison."
"Oh." I said, surprised and relieved that I wasn't in any trouble. "How long were you there for?" I asked. It was all I could think to say.
"A year." He answered.
"Oh, just a short stretch then." I said, pulling the words from some forgotten movie.
"Yes." My father said, giving me a strange look. He then repeated my words. "Just a short stretch."
We stood looking at each other, waiting for something. Nothing came. There were always sounds of 138th Street traffic coming into the front room, even with the window closed as it was now. Maybe that was why no one but me used the room much. I like it. I liked sleeping on the couch at night and listening to the trucks drive by or lying on the floor in the sun watching the clouds pass. I liked the sound of the bells from St. Jerome's Church across the street, and the 3rd Avenue el's rattling cars which passed only a few feet from my friend Billy's bedroom window-even the subway running below the street sometimes sent its noise above. This room was mine. No one else clamed it. No one else wanted it. It was mine.
But when my father turned back to the window I wanted to be anywhere else than in that room. From outside I could hear someone calling, "Johnny, Johnny." I thought of asking my father why he went to prison, or what it was like there, but I couldn't bring myself to speak. For once it wasn't my stutter or my stammer that kept me silent. The image of my father's face when I said, "Just a short stretch" already haunted me. I could see that it hurt him. The stupidity of that remark, the fear of saying something even stupider, left me imprisoned in silence.
My father had been in prison. What was that like? Why couldn't I ask him? He was standing there just looking out the window. Why couldn't I ask him what he was imprisoned for? Minutes passed. Finally he turned to me shaking his head. Angry? Ashamed? All he said to me was, "Your mother thought you should know." Again someone shouted out, "Johnny, Johnny." Again there was no answer.
I followed him back through the rooms of our apartment, pausing only to pick up my coat. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table. She stood up when she heard us, her hands holding tightly to the chair, her eyes looking from my father to me, and then back. "You told him?" She asked.
"Yes." He answered.
My mother looked at me, asking with her eyes if this was true, and, seeing me nod, she turned to put water on the stove. "Can I go out again?" I asked, putting my coat on before receiving an answer. My father's yes was almost a sigh. My mother said nothing, her face locked in an expression I couldn't read. I practically ran out the door and down the steps to the street, the scene in the front room running through my head like a filmstrip.
I didn't know what to do with the knowledge I received.
When I reached the street I started walking west passed Alexander Avenue, Lincoln, walking fast into the nearly deserted area of factories and vacant lots. It was bitter cold, but I just walked faster, my thoughts a blur. No one passed me as I walked looking into abandoned cars, lots filled with junk, dark factory windows. I knew this area well, I had claimed it the way I claimed the front room in our apartment, and got away with claiming it for the same reason: no one else wanted it. I thought of turning down to the docks but the cold was seeping into me. I stood in the doorway of a deserted building, stamping my feet to keep warm.
I didn't smoke yet, but I found myself wishing I had a cigarette. I thought that the little flame at the end of the butt could keep my hands warm, that the smoke drawn up inside me would warm me. I wanted to tell someone what my father said, maybe speak to Billy, tell him that my father was in prison. It was crazy because a large part of me knew that this was one of the Murphy secrets that had to be kept among ourselves, and yet a part of me wanted to spill it out, even to brag about it.
For a moment I wondered if my father repeated what he said to my brother and sister, if each of them were sent into the front room to hear his confession. But somehow I knew that didn't happen, nor would it. Years later, while they were drinking together, my mother told my sister many things she never spoke of to me, but for this time I was my parents chosen confessor.
As I stood in that doorway, my breath misty from the cold, I thought of the way my mother asked my father, "Did you tell him?" There was something hard in her voice. "You" "Him" It was almost as if English were a foreign language to her the way those words were accented. Him. That was me. Why me?
That was it, wasn't it? Why did my mother make my father tell me what he did? And she did make him tell. I could see that.
Why did I have to be told?
For years my father's past had been alluded to, hints, innuendoes, half spoken accusations in the mist of late night alcoholic fights, whispers among relatives who kept their distance, never visiting us-our visit with them always without my father. I never connected the dots. There were too many dots. Even with the knowledge that my father was in prison, I knew nothing. Maybe, if I asked my father what happened to him he might have sat me down and told me the whole story. But I didn't ask and he didn't tell.
Years later my mother told me my father, when he was a teenager, committed Statutory Rape (The girl was a year younger than he), and, in a panic fled to the West Coast, adding Interstate Flight to his charge. She told me I had a half sister somewhere, but that she knew nothing about her.
Over many years, in dribs and drabs, my father spoke of riding the rails to California, hiding in boxcars, being beaten up by railroad guards and fellow riders. It took him weeks to reach LA. By the time he got there, he no longer wanted the life of a fugitive. Scared, tired, and hungry, he went to see a priest, made a confession, received communion, and then turned himself in to the police.
He returned from the West Coast by train rather than by rail, but handcuffed all the way to an assistant sheriff. In the California jail, on the trip back, and even in the New York court where he was sentenced to a year in Sing Sing, he was treated differently from other prisoners. His was "a gentleman's crime." These were the words my father used when speaking of his treatment. He said that the guards said to each other, "That's Murphy there, he's here for a gentleman's crime."
How he got through that year in prison was revealed to me once when I visited him in the hospital. He complained of some minor problem and I asked him why he didn't mention it to one of the doctors or nurses. "Oh no," He said to me. "I'm going to be a model patient. They'll let me out sooner that way."
But all of that was a long way from the doorstep where I stood trembling from the cold that November day. The significance of what my father reveled, its implications, connotations, was lost on me. I was too young to know the stigma attached to prison; the word ex-con wove in and out of radio programs, but it was only a word. I didn't know that a jailbird was a bird whose wings were violently torn off, that that bird could never truly fly again. I didn't know they took away my father's right to vote, something that troubled him all his life. I'd been given knowledge, but I didn't know a damn thing.
Except that this was a Murphy secret, a family secret, something to be kept among the Murphy tribe, something else never to be talked about outside the house.
When I returned from my walk, my father was still there. He'd come back once again to live with us. He said nothing about our previous conversation. It was as if our words were of no more importance than someone shouting a name out the window and down the block.
© Corina T.v.M.
Given a Hand– in cherry tree blossom