Steve found his dad asleep on the couch in the living room. The coffee table next to him was littered with sections of the Sunday paper and empty tall-boy cans. On the TV, the fourth quarter of the Eagles game was winding down. It was only the second game of the ’94 season, but his dad was already complaining that Cunningham was too old to scramble in the pocket anymore. Steve didn’t know what the pocket was, but he never disagreed.
He needed to talk to his dad. He’d already spent two days thinking about it, two days debating who to tell and how to do it. He could try and wake him, but he knew what would come after. The groans, the gluey mouth, and the search for anything left in the cans on the table. And then his dad would be asking what a guy needed to do to get some his peace in his own home.
But Steve needed to talk to someone.
He considered going back upstairs and waiting for his mom. She’d be home from her shift at the diner soon. But she wouldn’t get it. She’d never had to deal with guys like Ronnie McFarland. She’d never had to worry about being labeled a tattletale, a cry baby, or a pussy. She’d never been a twelve-year-old boy.
Steve was careful not to slam the door when he left. For now, he’d head to George’s house where there was a ten-inch TV and a Super Nintendo in the bedroom George shared with his brother. After a few rounds of Mortal Kombat 2, Steve wouldn’t need to talk. After ripping some hearts from chests and some heads from shoulders, he could forget that he’d watched Ronnie steal a bottle of wine from the church sacristy.
And maybe it didn’t matter anyway. Sometimes, people just stole things. Like when George pocketed a pack of grape Bubblicious at Wawa or when he had swiped a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pencil from Josh Romano in the second grade.
But this felt different. The gum, the pencil—they were the white-lie version of stealing. Ronnie’s theft was higher on the scale of venial sins. Stealing from the church was like stealing from God.
Steve crossed to the other side of his street where there was a stretch of rowhomes identical to his own. He stopped when he heard the thick puttering of Bear’s pickup. His dad hated that truck. He called the roll-bar and oversized tires flashy, and he blamed the truck when he couldn’t find a place to park. He said it was something only an idiot who grew up in the suburbs would buy.
But Bear didn’t seem like an idiot. And he’d probably know what to do about an asshole like Ronnie.
Steve watched Bear park his truck along the curb. After the engine quieted, the man worked his hulking frame from the driver’s seat. He coughed as he hit the ground, then spit and tugged at the coarse black hair that hid much of his face and neck.
“Hey, Bear,” Steve said.
“Looks like you gave up on the Eagles too, huh?” Bear asked.
“They didn’t have a chance,” Steve replied. “Were you at the game?”
“Nah, I was at the ex-wife’s place. I had to bring her a check and some things for my girls. I was just listening on the radio.”
“Oh, that sucks.”
“Maybe, but responsibility means sacrifice.”
Bear pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his chest pocket.
“Some men neglect those responsibilities and then they wonder why they’re living in a world of shit.”
It wasn’t a good time to bring up Ronnie. Bear was sharing something important.
“There are bills to pay and jobs to do and people to look after,” Bear said. “Football takes a backseat to my little girls.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Steve said.
Bear lit his cigarette and inhaled.
“I’m going to need some help with the leaves again,” he said. “You free on Wednesday afternoon? Usual rate of five dollars?”
“Yeah, totally,” Steve said.
“Good. Doing work? That’s part of what I’m talking about. Be a man, not a mooch.”
Holy Rosary Church was covered in a sepia gloom. It was too early for the sun, and only a few of the altar lights had been turned on for the Monday morning mass. The high ceilings, darkened stained-glass, and earth-toned paintings did nothing to help the mood.
Steve could see Father Graham next to two pews that had been roped off with caution tape. His cheeks were smooth and his hair formed a fragile wave. Steve’s dad said Father Graham always looked “fresh from the package,” but Steve hadn’t figured out if that was an insult or a compliment.
He hesitated down the aisle, wishing there was another way to get to the sacristy. Talking to the priest would only intensify his feelings of complicity in the theft, and that would manifest as awkwardness, labored speech, or blushing—all signs of a sinner.
As Steve got closer, he could see that one of the pews behind the caution tape was broken into large, jagged pieces. The other had a deep gash in its bench. Above them, there was a hole in the wall where a marble window ledge had been.
“Good morning, Father,” Steve said.
“Good morning, Steve.”
Steve eyed the window above the pews. It showed an angel hovering over a frightened Joseph. He was divulging instructions and pointing to the sky.
“What happened?” Steve asked.
“One of the ledges cracked and fell. Fortunately, no parishioners were present at the time.”
“That’s good. Well, not the pews, but nobody being hurt.”
Father Graham bent down and lifted a small chunk of white marble.
“Yes,” he said, “but the question now is how soon until the other ledges follow.”
“Can you fix them?” Steve asked.
“Yes and no. Marble is very expensive to work with, and with our parishioner base decreasing, the church can’t afford additional expenditures. That means we can’t fix the ledges, but we can replace them. There is a company that paints wood to look like marble, and if we allow them to take the marble ledges, they’ll put the wooden ones in for free. It may not be as ornate, but a church is its people and its faith, not its façade.”
“And this an old church. Things are going to start falling apart.”
Father Graham laughed.
“A blunt, but true statement,” he said. “Just like the aging man needs care, so does an aging church.”
Steve nodded in agreement.
“I should go get ready for mass,” he said.
At the altar, he genuflected before entering the sacristy behind it. On one side of the compact room was a sink, a full-length mirror, and a mini-fridge where the wafers that would be converted to the body of Christ were stored. On the other side was a massive, built-in cupboard where Father Graham kept vestments, oil, incense, and wine.
Ronnie stood in front of the mirror, buttoning a red robe. He reminded Steve of the mob guys in old black and white movies—a combination of wry charm and chaos. His hair was shaved short enough to show his scalp, and the first, sporadic whiskers of puberty tainted his upper lip.
“Getting up early for this shit is getting old,” Ronnie said.
“You could always quit,” Steve answered as he took his own robe from a coat rack.
“Yeah,” Ronnie said. “I want to, but we get to go to school late when we serve, and I hate school more than getting up early.”
Ronnie pulled the white, billowy top of his cassock over his head, while Steve buttoned his robe.
“I snuck out this weekend,” Ronnie said. “Went out the basement door, so my parents couldn’t hear me. Then I went and hooked up with this girl from St. Mary’s. We drank the wine, and she let me get to third base. It was awesome.”
“Whoa,” Steve said. “That’s amazing.”
Third base was a mystery to him. He’d only figured out what second base was the year before. George’s older brother had made a joke about it while twisting one of George’s nipples.
As Steve tugged on the top layer of his cassock, Ronnie approached.
“You didn’t tell anyone about the wine, did you?” he asked.
Steve pulled at his robe, kept looking for any part of it he could adjust.
“No. I didn’t say anything,” he answered.
“Good,” Ronnie replied. “I was afraid maybe we weren’t as tight as I thought we were, you know?”
He punched Steve in the arm and laughed.
“I’m going to go light the candles,” he said. “Can you fill the cruets?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “I got it.”
School was uncomfortable. The classroom was clogged with radiator heat, and Steve could see the church from his desk. It loomed and demanded, the autumn sky behind it just as oppressive.
Before receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time, Father Graham had taught Steve’s class that guilt was God’s way of pushing a person to the confessional booth. God wanted you to be forgiven. He wanted you to be a pure vessel cleansed of all sin. He wanted to bring you solace.
But guilt was the result of an inappropriate action. If Steve had taken no action, why was there guilt? Why did he feel like he was watching a rock fly towards his head, his body tensed and waiting for the impact?
At lunch, Steve took one bite of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich before dropping it onto its cellophane wrapper. Across the table, George crunched on some pretzels. They’d been friends since kindergarten, and George had been the one who’d pulled him out of the creek after he’d fallen in, the one who’d helped him when he struggled to memorize all fifty states and their capitols, the one who’d listened when he explained that his dad had been laid off, that he wouldn’t be getting his own Super Nintendo anytime soon. He could talk to George.
Steve checked the adjacent tables before he spoke.
“Ronnie did something messed up at church last week,” he said.
“Course he did,” George answered through a mouthful of pretzels. “Guess what? I finally figured out how to do Sub-Zero’s fatality move. It’s sick.”
“But this was worse than the stuff he normally does. Like maybe I need to say something?”
George sucked from the straw in his juice box and finished chewing.
“Maybe,” he said before swallowing. “Oh! I almost forgot. My brother’s friend got a Playboy, and he’s going to let my brother borrow it. You totally have to come over when we get it.”
“Okay,” Steve said. “So you don’t think I need to—”
“Hey, did you do the math homework last night? Can I see it? I want to have something filled in when Mrs. Watters checks.”
Steve pulled his workbook from his backpack and passed it to George.
By the time Steve was raking leaves on Wednesday, Bear’s backyard felt alien to him, the Pearl Jam song coming from the little radio on the ground just a drone.
“I needed some fresh air today,” Bear said. “We’re sending out over twenty-thousand units this week—one of our biggest shipments ever—and this son of a bitch Al took a sick day. I know it’s a crock of shit too. The guy was bragging about heading up to the Poconos this weekend. He clearly just got an early start.”
Steve hadn’t lied. To lie you needed to say something, and he hadn’t said anything.
“Are they going to fire him?” Steve asked.
“They should, but you can’t really prove a guy’s playing hooky unless you take a trip to his place and peep in the windows, you know? Until then, there’s nothing we can do about it except work more hours, move more pallets, and bite our tongues.
“You know what the problem is? These guys go through life thinking the rules apply to everyone except them. They think, ‘Screw it; it’s just one little thing.’ But that one little thing? It affects other people. They never think about that part of it.”
Bear poked a cigarette into his mouth. Steve thought of Ronnie and all of his detentions and suspensions, all of his failed tests and reprimands from teachers. The way he laughed them off, the way he gloated over his missteps.
“You know what my old man used to say to me?” Bear asked. “He’d say, ‘Don’t do shit if you don’t want to get shit.’ It’s that simple.”
Bear lit his cigarette.
“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” Steve said.
Bear laughed, coughed, and spit.
“That’s it right there,” he said
“We have a kid like that at school,” Steve said. “He’s always—”
“They’re everywhere,” Bear said. “They walk around thinking they can do whatever they want. But guess what? It’ll come back to bite them in the ass. And I’m not talking about karma. That’s bullshit for weak people, something to make them feel better about getting trampled on. I’m talking about that one person that comes back at them. The one who says, ‘Enough is enough.’ The guy who takes action. A real man doesn’t wait around for karma to handle his business.”
Steve leaned against his rake and eyed the dying grass below him.
“Father,” Steve said. “Can I tell you something?”
He’d removed his cassock slowly after the Thursday morning mass. Had washed the cruets in the sink twice as long as usual. Had pretended to tie his shoe. Anything to buy him time while Ronnie left the church.
“You can always speak with me,” Father Graham said as he folded his vestments.
“Last week, we were cleaning up after mass,” Steve started. “You were at the back of the church talking to someone, and Ronnie, he… he went into the cabinet and he—”
Steve scanned the room. He wanted something to look at that wasn’t the priest.
“I guess he took a bottle of wine and put it in his bag.”
Father Graham closed his eyes.
“Are you sure?” he said. “Ronnie strikes me as the type of boy that likes to invent tales from time to time.”
“I’m sure.” Steve said. “I watched him do it.”
The priest was still. He opened his eyes and turned to Steve.
“I wish you’d told me sooner,” he said. “This is not acceptable behavior, and someone as young as Ronnie should not be experimenting with alcohol.”
Father Graham dropped his vestments into a thin drawer on the cupboard. When he tried to close it, the drawer stuck, and he slammed it shut with a grunt.
“What’ll happen, Father?” Steve asked.
“I’ll address it,” the priest responded. “I am the one who addresses everyone’s problems, aren’t I?”
Steve could see a few strands of hair poking up from the back of the priest’s head. A patch of his neck was red with razor-burn.
“You should get to school,” Father Graham said.
Steve thought there would be relief, but there wasn’t. Time slunk gracelessly over the day. He felt isolated, a passive observer to the students around him, their lives continuing while his was locked in a moment of humming, dreadful stasis.
Ronnie looked confident when the call from the principal’s office came over the PA. Some kids clapped or whistled as he rose from his desk. He offered them a smile as Mrs. Watters told them to knock it off.
Steve was sure he was going to puke. His skin was cold and prickly, his guts compressed.
He could see Ronnie in the office, denying the accusations and demanding to know who had sold him out. Maybe he was giving Sister Theresa the finger. Maybe there was a cop there, standing behind Ronnie with his arms crossed. Or maybe Ronnie was sitting quietly and planning his revenge.
When the final bell rang, Ronnie hadn’t returned. Steve packed his things quickly and caught up with George in the school’s parking lot.
“You want to play Mortal Kombat 2?” he asked. “You could show me the Sub-Zero thing.”
“Can’t,” George said. “I’m heading over to the high school to meet up with my brother. He wants to go buy the Green Day tape. And he might have the Playboy. I’ll call you when I get back.”
“Okay,” Steve said.
As he walked home, he planned for the following day. Ronnie would be back, and he’d have to play dumb. He’d have to ask what had happened and how Sister Theresa had found out. And he’d have to tell Ronnie that it was all bullshit, that taking the wine was no big deal. Ronnie thought the two of them were tight, and Steve wanted to keep it that way.
But maybe Ronnie would be suspended or expelled. Maybe a cop had been in the office, and he’d taken Ronnie to the station. Maybe Ronnie was on his way to juvie at that moment, a problem Steve would never have to see again. That would make thing so much easier. That would bring it all to an end.
As Steve turned the corner, he was tugged backwards. Someone had grabbed hold of his bag and was using it to swing his body into the car parked next to him. He hit shoulder first, lost his footing, and landed with his chest pressed to the sidewalk.
“You dickhead,” Ronnie said from behind him.
Something hard connected with Steve’s temple. There was a jolt of pain and an odd silence, the world momentarily gone. He pressed his eyes closed, wishing to be anywhere else.
“I told you not to say anything,” Ronnie barked. “Stupid asshole.”
Ronnie removed Steve’s backpack and threw it into the street. Then he rolled Steve over, straddled him, and started swinging at his face and neck and head. Each time Steve raised his hands in defense, Ronnie shoved them aside and continued.
Steve waited for someone to step in, for an adult to shout Ronnie’s name like they always did. But no one came, and Steve was lost in a jagged blur of motions, each punch an explosion that seemed to work some queasy magic throughout his body.
When Ronnie finally stood up, Steve peaked through his fingers. He watched his attacker’s chest rise and fall as he tried to catch his breath.
“Asshole,” Ronnie said. “We’re not done.”
He kicked at Steve’s leg and walked off, his fists still clenched.
Steve waited until Ronnie was a few blocks away, then he struggled to his feet. His muscles were taut, but the world was tremulous. He found blood and tears on his face, and that discovery only made him feel weaker.
He retrieved his backpack from the street and made an awkward march home. Across from his house, Bear was smoking on his stoop.
“Whoa. What happened to you?” he asked.
“This piece of crap, Ronnie, beat me up,” Steve said.
“Shit, man. You’re a mess. You get him at all?”
“No. He climbed on top of me, wouldn’t stop.”
“Why’s this kid beating on you? You need me to do something?”
“He’s a jerk. He’s a loser.”
Steve wiped at his nose.
“He stole wine from the church,” he said. “He thought nothing would happen. But the church doesn’t have a lot of money, and drinking is bad, and people can’t just walk around thinking they’re better and don’t have to follow the rules, so I told Father.”
Bear took a deep breath. Then, he laughed.
“Man,” he said. “No one likes a snitch. If what another guy is doing gets in the way of your life, yeah, you have to do something. But you don’t want to go and rat on a guy when it’s got nothing to do with you.”
Steve stared at Bear. The man’s beard was ragged and uneven. Some flesh poked out from under his sweatshirt and hung down over his belt.
“I’m not going to say you deserved it, cause you’re a good kid,” Bear said. “But turning someone in? That’s never going to reflect well on you as a man.”
Bear dropped his cigarette and ground it out.
“You should get yourself cleaned up,” he said.
Steve didn’t answer as he turned and headed for his house.
Inside, the living room was empty, but the TV was blaring, a beer commercial on the screen. Steve could hear his dad banging around in the kitchen. He dropped his backpack to the floor, and slowly removed his coat.
“Are you kidding me, Steve?” his dad said as he entered the room. “Do you know how much those uniforms cost?”
Steve hung his coat carefully in the closet.
“I’m trying here,” his dad said. “I’m really trying. But you got to work with me. We don’t have money for this shit.”
Steve started up the stairs.
“Am I going to be getting a phone call about this now too?” his dad asked. “Jesus. It never ends.”
In his room, Steve closed and locked the door. He sat on his bed and waited for his dad to continue. He waited for direction on everything he’d done wrong, on everything he should’ve done better. But no matter what he heard, he’d keep his door locked and his mouth shut. It could be a trap. The world was a complicated series of them, and he wouldn’t be snared by one again.