A long time ago, when I was not more than five, my Dad used to open the door to the room I shared with my little brothers, Timmy and James, sometime during the night.
Whatever time it actually was, it felt like it was the darkest and deepest part of night. The light from the hallway dropped on my face, and its brightness, followed by the soft pressing on the bed as Dad kneeled, pulled me out of my dreams and back into the messy, cramped yellow room in our first-floor apartment in South Boston. Waking up startled me, and I’d jerk up in bed. Dad kissed my face and coaxed me back to the pillow. Then he nudged me to flip over, so he could put his hand on my back. I wriggled the covers off me, no matter how cold it was, because his hand was large and warm. He made little circles with his fingers on my shoulders and slowly, gently, placed me back into my dreams.
My Dad’s name was Sean Keats, “a nice and neat name for a complicated man,” Mom always said. He worked for the Boston Police Department for 20-some years. He was plain-clothes for most of the time, but in my memories he’s always in uniform. I made Mom promise to tell Dad to come in to say goodnight. I didn’t realize until much later—when I became a parent myself—that he didn’t need to be told. I always fell asleep facing the door, partly to wait for Dad, partly because I felt some desire to protect my younger brothers, should something come through the door that wasn’t Dad.
Just in case.
I always thought Dad was a quiet man. He wasn’t, really, he just lacked words to talk to daughters.
One night, though, when he came home late, I got a glimpse into his life.
It changed how I thought of him, not right at first but over time. I felt close to him, held together by some bond bigger than blood.
That night we had three cousins crammed in our room. Mom was pregnant, her sister came to help and brought our cousins. They were all staying for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade the next day because it went right past our house earlier. The parade was a huge thing for the Irish community in my neighborhood, and even people who weren’t Irish came to see it. We’d spent the afternoon making hats and flags. My hands were covered in green marker.
I shared my bed with Maisie, who kicked and tossed like she was fighting something. I shoved her, but she wouldn’t wake up. When she landed an unconscious jab in my kidneys, I couldn’t take it. I dragged myself into the kitchen, looking as woeful as possible, and told Mom I was sleeping on the couch til Dad came home. She frowned and waved me back to bed. She and Nancy were cleaning the kitchen and picking up green and orange markers. Nancy offered to walk me back upstairs, but I said no.
I wouldn’t go upstairs, I’d sleep on the couch anyway, crawl around the far side so they couldn’t see me. Maybe if they found me they’d feel bad.
I inched out of the room and waited for them to get distracted. Somehow I made it up on the couch, the back of which was to the kitchen, without them hearing. I was cold so I put a few pillows over my legs. Someone had started the dishes; they were shouting over the running water. We didn’t have a dishwasher or anything like that in that apartment.
I listened. They were talking about moving. Mom and Dad talked a lot about moving. Mom’s view was that with three kids, and one on the way, a two-bedroom wasn’t enough. There was cheaper and better space in Watertown, said Aunt Nancy, that was where she lived. Dad said Southie was our home. My grandfather died in the War, so Grandma moved over here to be near family, she never remarried but raised my Dad and his brothers on her own. Dad and Mom young, their Moms were friends. Grandma died pretty young, bad heart, I never met her.
The back door opened, Dad came in and dropped his keys, removed his shoes, and pulled out a chair. He didn’t say anything. Mom and Aunt Nancy stopped talking. They too were waiting.
“Sean? What’s the matter? What happened?”
“We were up on 7th. I can’t believe this neighborhood.”
“Who were, what’s the matter? Sean!” Mom’s voice was stern, it’s how she sounded when she was angry, and, I realize now, afraid.
“Me and Garrity. Get me a drink.” I heard the whisk sound of a beer can opening. I wondered what was going on, I wanted to see Dad, but I knew I’d be sent to bed, so I didn’t move.
“This job. It’s fucking crazy. Some people . . .” His voice trailed off, and I could hear other chairs being pulled out at the table. “Breaks your heart.”
“You were just up on 7th?” This time Mom sounded afraid. What had happened—was there a murder in our neighborhood? Did Dad get the guy?
“Yeah, few blocks over.”
“Jesus Mary, I walk the kids. . . what happened? Sean? What happened?” Mom was agitated, and I almost wanted to look over the couch to see if Dad was OK.
“We got called out. Green and white banners and that other ribbon shit, all hanging from the balconies and screen doors. Garrity said, ‘Like a party store blew up.’” Dad laughed dryly, then continued. “So we had a call, an injured male, 57, name was Frank Rose. Found in his home by a neighbor after hearing shouts. Cuts to both hands and wrists. Right hand stabbed several times. But stable.
“So Garrity guesses—you know he does that—” (I was nodding too. I liked Dad’s partner, Garrity. He was fat, red-faced, and always asked me if I had any boyfriends—which I hated—but he was funny, and Dad trusted him.) “—Garrity goes, ‘Domestic dispute,’ and I answered, ‘You think wife?’ He says ‘Well, don’t sound like the family dog.’
“I agreed, some wife probably got sick of his drunk ass. Stabbed him.”
“Oh that’s horrible, Sean!” Mom’s voice was soft and low but still scared.
“Just listen, Kay. Anyway, Garrity asked me if I’ll bet him 10 it was the wife. ‘Sure.’ I says because I think it was an intruder. Surprised him.”
Garrity shrugged, ‘We’ll see. Ten bucks says wife.’
“So we walked towards a row of brownstones and row houses, ones look just like ours. Old buildings that used to house entire families, but now twelve people a building. . .”
“Exactly what I’m sayin’, which is why you need to move,” Nancy started, but Mom shushed her.
“So this guy, Frank Rose, was one of them, owned the entire place. Anyway, the uniforms led us onto the scene and to the neighbor, the one who had called us.
“She Irish?” Mom asked.
“She held all her weight in her torso like you do!”
Mom laughed, I could hear her swat Dad’s arm. I didn’t understand but it was nice to hear Mom laugh. I covered my smile and knocked a pillow off the couch. I retrieved it, flattened my legs and laid it back on my knees.
“No, this lady, looked Italian. Mid-twenties. She and her boyfriend had heard a noise—screaming—about a half hour earlier. So the girlfriend started talking, ‘Tell them what you did. Tell ’em.’ She flicked her hand against her boyfriend’s sleeve a couple times. So he starts, like he could care less, ‘She told me go over. I didn’t want to; I wanted to wait for you guys. But she made me. She called you guys and said I had to check it out.’ The boyfriend shrugged, plunged his fists in his pockets, and heaved up his pants. The girlfriend shouts again ‘You had to! Somebody might’ve been dying, I told you. You had to!’
“They were hysterical, so I told them, ‘Calm down. One at a time. Detective Keats, Garrity. We’re going to ask you some questions. Sir, how did you get into your neighbor’s apartment? Did you have a key?’
“‘No. We dunno the guy.’
“‘No, we dunno him,’ the girlfriend repeated. ‘Seen him, never talked to him.’
“‘We don’t have a key. I kicked it in. Right near the doorknob. These doors suck.’
“I kept asking questions, tried to get it out of them before they forget. You never know what shock will do to people.
“So the guy answers, ‘Oh man, blood. And I’m sitting there, in the kitchen, kitchen same as hers.’ He nodded at the girl, ‘thought he was dead. It was wicked bloody. I got it on my fucking shoe.’ He lifted his tan work boot, there was blood all over it.
“‘He was freaking out. It was everywhere, blood. He got it on his shoes.’ The girlfriend pointed. It was hard to tell, really messy kitchen. A fucking dump.’
“At this point, they kept interrupting, so I interrupted them: ‘So, you heard a scream, a man’s scream? You went over and kicked down the door while your girlfriend called 911, and then you saw him in the kitchen, bleeding on the floor?
“‘Yeah,’ the guy says. ‘Hey, I gotta go to work at ten. How long this gonna take?’
“I ignored him. It’s amazing what people think of after they’ve seen a crime. ‘Did he say anything? When you found him?’
“‘Naw, mumbled. Nothing-words. He was mostly out.’
“‘Like, just sitting there. And mumbling.’
“‘And you said you thought he was dead?’
“‘Well, yeah! He was almost fucking dead!’
Dad sounded like the guy he was impersonating. I shivered, I wished I had a blanket.
I’d never heard Dad talk like this before, he sounded far away.
“‘Yeah, OK. Thanks. So, where d’you work, Mark?’
“‘Flanagans up the street.’ Mark waved a hooked thumb behind his neck. ‘Work the door ten to one normally, but tonight we’re open late. For the holiday. Like three or so.’
“‘Is that a good place to be tonight?’
“‘Not for me. Since I’s working. But it’s whatever. Fucking college kids, they take over tonight. No one from the neighborhood goes. This neighborhood is shit. She wanted to live here, but fuck that, we can’t afford it. Now we can move. We have to move. Fucking shit like this happens right next door.’
“So this guy raises his voice, and his girlfriend starts yelling. I tell them, ‘Thanks, we’ll need your statements, make sure we have your number.’ Neither of them cared, neither of them asked—they always ask, witnesses, always ask what happened. Not these two.
“So they clear off, and at this point the vic was being brought down to the ambulance, his arm was in some huge sterile bandage to stop the bleeding. He looked like there was no one home. You see that a lot, it’s the shock, the pain. This guy, though, I don’t know, he just looked really calm. Almost smiling.
“‘Mr. Rose? Sir, I’m Detective Garrity, this is Detective Keats. We need to ask you a few questions. You OK to talk?’
“The man nodded. He was going to be OK; paramedics had said so when they wrapped his hand.
“‘She missed the artery.’ His energy and adrenaline pulsed with each word. ‘Thank God, she missed the artery. I could have died. I could have died right in there on the floor.’ He lifted his broken wing to point back to the apartment but only got an inch before he grimaced.
“‘So we’re thinking that must be why he’s smiling, because he’s alive. Not a normal reaction, but still. Then I say, ‘Sir, try not to move. Tell us what happened. Was there an intruder in your house? Was this your wife? Who did this to you? Who is ‘she’?’
“He shifted slightly, as the paramedics hooked him up to a blood-pressure monitor. I notice he’s got red scratches all over his unbandaged hand, and he keeps talking.
“‘It happened so fast . . .’ And then he turned to us, me, looked right at me as if this conversation was the most normal thing in the world, and he was right as rain. Though he had a weird way of talkin’.
“‘You see, Officer, I’m a writer. A reclusive artiste. Short stories. What they take up in paper space they extract tenfold from my cracked soul. I was struggling with a rather dubious neo-gothic piece about signals and inscriptions when all of a sudden, my left hand—hitherto sitting calmly satiated —grabbed the pen from my right hand and tossed it across the room! Sure, it was an unimpressive arch that comes from throwing from a non-dominant hand. But it was thrown, nonetheless. So I slapped it. Impudent appendage. With Right. Hard.’
“‘Sir, did you throw your pen at someone? Is that what caused the fight?’ Garrity asked. At this point we’re looking at each other, neither of us making head or tails of what this guy was saying.
“‘Left did. Left is not used to throwing things. That is what makes no sense. There is no history of violence. Nothing that would have suggested this agitation was precipitous. No such admonition. No, nothing bound such as such at all.’ Rose continued to smile, at this point I was baffled.
“Then I asked: ‘Sir, how did you get the stab wound on your hand? Who did that to you?’
“‘Well, after Right slapped Left, that was the end of that. They were slapping and hitting and scratching. Sure, for years, my right hand was dominant. In all things. Gesturing. Writing. Tennis. Rubbing together with Left to create warmth, on nights like these. But that does not follow that Left wasn’t a critical player. She massages the inner tissue between the bones of my right shoulder, which is so terribly torn and tormented. Ah! And she covers my mouth when I cough, such a penance for my sins.’
“Rose started to shake his head, looking disappointed for the first time. ‘You’re not dominant. You are important,’ he said, looking down the length of his body. I thought he was looking at the ground, but Garrity told me later he saw the guy was talking to his left hand.
“So I tried again. ‘Sir, did you stab yourself in the hand?’
“‘No!’ Rose flinched, almost sat all the way up as he said it. ‘Left did it. I told you that. With the letter opener, the one on the desk.’ He lay back down, tired from this abrupt movement.
“‘Left,’ as you call it, is right there, on your lap?’
“Rose sat back and nodded, muttering to himself, ‘I assumed we liked this arrangement. I thought it worked.’ His voice was getting really soft now, I could tell he was fading.
“But he kept talking, clearly talking to his hand. ‘In forty-five years, you expect a certain pattern to develop, a pattern for cause and certainty. You expect what you expect and what you know. You don’t expect the unexpected. Things should not collapse on themselves to wit they were not of strong substance in the first place.’”
Dad paused. He had been talking for a while and his voice was rising, agitated. I heard a can being set down, sounded empty. “There was no break-in, nothing stolen or disturbed. Completely self-inflicted. He wasn’t drinking, wasn’t on drugs, so far—not all the tests have come back. He was lucid, except for, well, being completely insane. For how long was he like this? Alone?”
I pictured my Mom and Aunt Nancy shaking their heads at Dad and Dad staring down lost in thought.
“That’s not even the weirdest part,” Dad continued. “Right as we were about to release him to the hospital, I said, you know, the usual—‘You’ll be safe, you’ll get some help.’ And then—don’t know why I said this, but I guess I felt bad for him; he seemed happy, almost normal, except for the stuff he was saying—so I said, ‘Sorry you’re going to miss the parade tomorrow.’
“And Rose looked at me and said, I kid you not, ‘Parade?’ Like he had no idea what I meant. I thought he didn’t hear me, so I repeated it.
“‘The St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Comes right through here. East Broadway, couple streets up.’ He looked at me like I was speaking Gaelic. ‘Right up the street. Tons of people. St. Patrick’s Day?’
“He said he’d lived there for forty years, owned the house, moved in with his wife, before she died some years ago. And he had never, ever heard of the parade. Or he had but forgotten it. I don’t think that was it, though. His reality was different, but it was still his reality. How can you ignore the Parade, it’s right there.”
Dad pounded the table and shouted, “Jesus. How do people get like this? He lived just down the street for Christ’s sake!”
Mom made a low whistle and said something soothing I couldn’t hear; my eyes were closing, I was scared, cold and exhausted. I imagined my Dad finding me, carrying me upstairs quietly, kissing my head.
I must have fallen asleep because when someone pushed out a chair it startled me straight up. They all looked over, surprised, stunned. “Kitty, what are you doing? How long have you been there?” Dad was surprised, and sounded angry.
“I was just sleeping. Waiting for you. Swear it!” I sat up and closed my eyes again, I longed for bed. Dad walked over and lifted me up. “I’ll take her.” Mom was talking, annoyed, but we climbed the stairs, me holding his hand. I didn’t say anything, and in truth, I was very tired. But as he put me down in bed, I wanted to let him know that I heard his story. I wanted him to know he could trust me.
“Dad, Mr. Garrity owes you 10 dollars.”
Dad wouldn’t return my look at first. Then he pulled me into his chest so tight it hurt. I pushed him away, and he looked down and said, “Angel, some people are. . . ” he moved his foot, waiting for the right word, “Some people are alone. They aren’t bad, they are just lonely, and they become fragile. Some people need protecting.”
“Like that man?”
“And like Timmy and James.” I looked over and saw my brothers sleeping quietly, in a mess of legs and sheets. “Though they aren’t alone.”
“No, but they are fragile, because they are young.” I nodded. I was so tired. I shoved Maisie gently and soon fell asleep, Dad rubbing my back.
We left South Boston soon after that night, right after my sister Rose was born. It was fine—Dad had to drive further for work but he didn’t talk about it. I grew up in Watertown, went to high school, and then UMass, Boston. I took a few classes in criminal justice, but it wasn’t my thing. I went into teaching. Dad was proud, his Mom had been a teacher, he said it ran in our blood.
Dad died when I was 32, not from a gunshot or anything like that, but heart disease, like his Mom before him.
The only time I heard him talk about his job was that one night. I always asked but he said “These stories are not for daughters.” At the end, I took care of him, Mom couldn’t manage. He let me see him like that, he needed me. We spoke directly, without metaphor or artifice. His wake was huge, people drank and visited for days. My cousin Maisie came back from Australia with her family, she’d traveled there after college and never came back.
I kiss my own kids’ faces now and rub their backs when I come home late, which isn’t often but occasionally if my husband and I go out. I hold my angels tight. I talk about my job. But I’m a teacher, there are lots of stories for daughters, and sons. I make sure they know our neighbors, and play with their cousins and see their Grandma. She’ll probably come live with us, in the next few years, we’ve talked about it. I asked her recently if she misses Southie, she just shrugged and said her family is scattered now anyways.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is huge, one of the biggest in the U.S. I read recently in the Globe that an African-American hosted it this year. She married an Irish guy, has Irish kids. I guess that’s ok. It’s for everyone. We always take the kids.
At night, they still want me to rub their backs, and I do. And I still fall asleep facing the door. I don’t expect my Dad to come back or anything, and I don’t expect robbers to break in, but I do it anyway. A sleeping vigil. Out of habit, duty, love.
Just in case.
To keep up to date with all the latest news enter your email below.