Intercession

“Intercession” was first published
in Main Street Rag in 2011.

When Maureen Donnegan first moved into the apartment in Brooklyn, her neighbors used to stare at her window, nearly level with the brownstone’s stoop. The window made a shabby frame for the assortment of saints that lined the shelves pushed up against the glass. Their faded robes were cracked, separated from countless days of sun and rain only by the loose, filmy glass and the slivers of curtain too tired to do their job. Some of the neighbors were standing on the sidewalk now, but they couldn’t see her sitting at her kitchen table, just a little ways from the open window, listening to what they were telling the man who had just been inside knocking on her door.

“We don’t see much of her,” someone told him. It’s Mrs. Bogavitch, from 3C. “She used to have a dog,” she said, “a tiny thing. Growled through its pointy teeth. Even chewed on the living room window shade when she left it alone in the apartment.”

“It was a nasty creature,” someone else agrees, and Donnegan knew most of them thought that she was too. She wasn’t. She had merely had her fill of people. Somewhere back in her late 50s—almost thirty years before—she had finally given in to the long-held suspicion that people by and large were a greedy, reprehensible lot, who lie for sport and mostly smell bad. Certainly her husband and at least two of her sisters had proved the rule, and she was no longer willing to pretend otherwise. She was always civil, but she refused to listen to people brag about what they did or what they owned or endure tales of thankless children or cheating husbands. She kept her greetings to the point and never let discussions of health or the weather get taken too far. She’d talk, but only about things that mattered. On Thursdays, she nodded to Mr. Norman, the superintendent of the building, if he spotted her watering the long and spindly philodendron that grew unevenly from St. Jude’s lap. But otherwise she kept to herself.

And she prayed. She prayed mostly in the kitchen with the saints. She didn’t address her prayers to them, although she could recite all of the prayers for their intercession; she simply liked their company. She liked the good sense behind the notion that if someone cuts your head off or boils you in oil, they aren’t necessarily getting the better of you.

The voices below the window drifted in again, and Donnegan stood, stepped close enough to the window to see them better. Mrs. Bogavitch told the black man who was knocking on Donnegan’s door that she had seen the old woman with his daughter Charlene on the avenue a day or two before the girl went missing. “Charlene was pulling her laundry cart, the way she does sometimes.”

“She must belong to St. Frances Parish,” the man insisted, as if these neighbors must surely be holding something back, maybe trying to protect the woman. “Maybe I could find her after Mass. Do you know which one she goes to?”

“Doesn’t go to Mass,” Mr. Norman told him. “Doesn’t want anything to do with the Church.”

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “It looks like a communion-of-saints theme park in there.”

“She watches the Mass on TV,” said Mr. Norman.

“Every morning,” said Mrs. Feldman. “Never misses.”

“Are you sure she’s not home?”

“You knocked for five minutes,” said Mr. Norman.

“That don’t mean she’s not in there,” said Mrs. Bogavitch.

“Well, please tell her I came by,” the man said to the super and handed him a folded paper with his phone number on it. “She may be able to help us find her.”

Mr. Norman held the paper loosely by a corner, clearly not convinced he should take it. He didn’t want to get involved. Donnegan was sure of that. She was a good tenant, always put the lids back on the garbage barrels, tipped him at Christmas. Mr. Norman nodded to the man as if he would get back to him. The others said nothing. They watched the man walk to his car, as if convinced that this stranger wouldn’t really be gone unless they followed his every move. He walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door. “You’ll call me if you hear anything?” he said to them across the roof of the car. “My wife is very worried.”

Donnegan shook her head. Such worry hardly fit what Feldman had told her about Charlene’s family. The girl was in classes with Feldman’s daughter in September, at the start of junior year, and in trouble all the time. Never had homework done, rarely went to class. Calls home to the parents only made things worse. She’d come to school afterward bruised and sullen.

“Here,” said Mrs. Feldman, holding her hand out to Mr. Norman for the paper, “I’ll take it in to her.”

Mrs. Donnegan returned to her kitchen table. The room was shadowy. The light had a hard time getting past the plants and statuary on the shelves at the window. Donnegan had not turned on her lamp above the table as she normally did by this time of day. She would be reading now, of course. It was nearly 4 o’clock and the chores were done. But she was having a good deal of trouble focusing her thoughts. Charlene had promised she’d call, but she hadn’t. She had surely arrived by now, Donnegan thought, found the medical building. Charlene promised she would take a cab from the train station, but she didn’t trust that she did. The girl wouldn’t want to spend the money Donnegan gave her, not for that. She thought she could still walk for miles, even in her condition.

Charlene was remarkably strong. Donnegan could see that from the start. She lifted huge bags of laundry with no trouble, even pulled a washing machine away from the wall to get at a broken hose. Of course, Donnegan didn’t know the girl was carrying a child then or she would have stopped her. The girl always laughed when the woman scolded her, as if the objections Donnegan had to what she ate or even to cursing or stealing from the vending machines were quaint little rules of etiquette from a distant time that Charlene had only heard about or seen on reruns.

The first time Mrs. Donnegan saw Charlene working at the Laundromat she wondered why the girl wasn’t in school, but she didn’t ask. The girl didn’t speak to her at all that day, only nodded when Donnegan thanked her for picking up her quarters when she dropped her change purse. Donnegan read her newspaper, and Charlene folded clothes, swept the floor, put her long parka on when her relief came at 3 o’clock. She went out the door, headed left, probably toward the Ridgefield section, thought Donnegan, where mostly coloreds live.

Donnegan left the Laundromat that day wondering about the girl. She’d caught her lost in thought a few times, even suspected she might have been crying at one point. The girl folded towels and sheets with a rhythmic motion that was soothing to watch. Her hands were dark and wide, the nails unpainted. Donnegan thought of her mother’s hands, the freckled skin, the chipped nails. She took in laundry to help with the bills, but she was hardly content about it. At the ironing board, she’d keep up a running commentary on the dreadful owners of these tailored shirts and ruffled blouses. Cursed souls, she’d call them, whose faces were a cross no one should be forced to bear. The descriptions of her homely clients made her daughters laugh, but they knew instinctively that her mockery was meant to keep insult at bay, to make clear that Mary Monaghan was more than just the woman who carried away these ugly people’s smelly socks for them.

Laundry day the week after came sooner than it should have for Donnegan. She was having some trouble. After marketing Tuesday she had barely gotten back to the apartment in time. She blamed it on too much morning tea, until Thursday, when it happened again, this time so unexpectedly that she didn’t make it inside in time. The girl was at the Laundromat again, sweeping, folding, wiping down the machines. Donnegan was a little surprised when the girl greeted her. Soon after, when a woman with twins and a German shepherd put too much soap in a machine, the two exchanged a look.

Charlene stood, unflappable, amid the growing suds, and the site reminded Donnegan of how stoic Maggie, her second oldest, used to be as a girl.

“She does it every time,” the girl told Donnegan when the suds maker cleared out. The old woman shook her head. “I show her how much to put in, but she never thinks it’s enough.”

“People like that should get jobs serving ice cream.”

The girl laughed. “I’m Charlene.”

“I’m Maureen Donnegan.” The woman extended her hand. The girl hesitated, not sure at first what Donnegan meant to do. When she saw that the woman wanted to shake hands, she smiled at how old-fashioned it seemed but put out her hand. Donnegan spent longer at the washing than she needed to that day. There was something about this girl that pulled at Donnegan, a stability, a rightness. Beyond their names, they shared few details about each other at first. Such incidentals rarely changed Donnegan’s first impression of people anyway, even when she wanted them to.

The girl asked Donnegan what she was reading in the paper. “It’s the Sunday Times Book Review,” the woman told her. “I never read the books, only the reviews.”

Charlene laughed. “I like to read, but I get restless. Can’t stand sitting still that long. TV gets to me that way too.”

“That’s a good thing. You’ll get more done in your life. Reading books has taken up an awful lot of time in mine, and I can never remember any of them anyway.”

“What’s the review about?”

“A psychologist’s book about parents’ relationships with their grown-up children. He seems to think that when they go well, they can be some of the closest connections of all.” Donnegan chuckled.

“How did he figure that out?”

“Studied them in a laboratory, I guess. I can’t imagine he ever had any specimens of his own.”

“Or maybe he’s one of those fathers who bow out when the kids are toddlers,” the girl said. “Maybe he made friends with them later.”

“Yes. After they’re potty trained and tantrum-free. That’s not a bad way to do it really, cause the longer you stick around the more they have to be angry at you about.”

“Are your kids angry at you?”

“Not angry exactly. I just seem to bring back bad memories for them.”

“That’s sad.”

“Not altogether. They’re a complicated lot, so arm’s length is mostly fine with me.”

“You don’t miss them?”

“I get lots of sentimental Mother’s Day cards and their deepest regrets at Christmas that they can’t come to Brooklyn cause they’re traveling or swamped with shopping.”

“How many children do you have?”

“Seven. Three boys, Irishmen all, and mostly just as bad as you’d expect, but the Lord spares mothers the whole picture.”

“And four girls then?”

“They were the hardest.”

“Why?”

“One Irish woman is more than you need to run a place; put four of them together and you need peace talks to get the bread passed.”

Charlene laughed.

“I’m talkin too much,” said Donnegan. She had folded and packed her laundry back into the cart.

“I’d better get on my way.” She headed to the back of the place to get her coat off the hook.

“I’m done here too,” said Charlene. “Gloria will be here any minute.”

Donnegan tipped the cart over and pulled it toward the door, tried not to let the girl see the trouble it took.

“How far’s your place from here?”

“Four blocks.”

Charlene moved ahead of the woman to open the door for her. “Listen, if you can wait till Gloria gets here, I can pull that home for you.”

Donnegan didn’t answer right away. The kindness stunned her, and she couldn’t help savoring it, like the taste of something missed for so long. “Oh, don’t be silly. I’m fine with it. Don’t have that much today anyway. But thank you. Thank you very much.”

The girl nodded matter-of-factly, and Donnegan couldn’t tell what she might be thinking, why she would offer to help. Feeling sorry for an old woman, she supposed.

The next week, the offer came again, and this time Donnegan didn’t refuse. But she knew that it was more than her arthritis that made her willing to accept the help, although that was reason enough. The trips home from the Laundromat were getting harder. Within a block, her hip would flare up and she’d recite the rosary till she got to her stoop, then pray all the harder that Mr. Norman might appear and help her get the cart up the steps. It was humiliating, this fragility, this loss of the strength she thought she would always have. The girl’s offer was precious, like a brief escape from the cage of her weakness. It seemed so easy for the girl, this little favor. She was strong, young.

“What can I get you to drink?” she asked when they were inside the apartment. “I can put on some tea.” She didn’t wait for an answer, and the girl followed her into the kitchen. Inside the room, Charlene halted, as if she’d entered a place so foreign she’d need a guide to explain what she was seeing. The shelving in front of the windows was a menagerie of statues and greenery, no size or shape or color unrepresented. Shelves along the ceiling were packed with more of the same. Standing in place, her eyes tracing the top of the walls, the girl turned in a circle to take it all in.

“I guess you’re Catholic.”

“Something like that.”

“Do you collect these . . . these . . . ?”

“Saints. They’re saints. At least most of them still are. Some of ’em fell from grace.”

Charlene looked at her, puzzled.

“The Church decided that some of them were not saints after all.”

“Which ones?”

“This fella here, for one.” The old woman pulled a chair closer to the wall and Charlene could see that she was about to climb onto it.

“No, don’t. I’ll get it. I can reach.”

“Thank you.”

Charlene got on tiptoe. “Which one? This one?”

“That’s the one. St. Christopher.” Charlene handed her the statue, but the woman gave it back for her to look at. “Bunch of Jesuit scholars put their heads together and decided he never existed to begin with.”

“Guess the Church changes its mind about things just like everybody else,” said Charlene, and the old woman wondered about the edge in her voice, whether she’d already had her heart broken.

“It does indeed. But what difference did it make whether he was the real thing or the Easter Bunny? He was real enough to do a perfectly good job for centuries.”

The girl stayed quiet. And the old woman could see that whatever was on her mind she was not going to open up about it. “Everything changes. Especially marriages,” Donnegan said, although she was never sure why that thought had come to her just then. She never spoke of her marriage, certainly not to strangers. “When we get married, we pretend we can make at least one thing stay the same. But we can’t. Of course, it takes some of us a little longer to figure that out. I was a slow learner myself.”

“Were you married a long time?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry . . . I mean . . . ”

“Not nearly as sorry as I was.”

Charlene smiled. “But you had children.”

“Yes,” said Donnegan, “And they were blessings really; only one of them got into much trouble.”

“And you loved him?”

“It got a whole lot easier once he passed 40 but . . . ”

“No, I mean your husband.”

Donnegan heard something in the girl’s voice, almost a longing, and she knew that she should not sidestep this question or make light of it. She should tell the truth. “No,” she whispered. “I didn’t. I think I knew from the start that I didn’t.”

“But you had your children anyway—and you loved them?”

“We didn’t have as many choices about what we had or didn’t have the way you girls do now. But yes. The children were different. Baby love. Powerful thing.”

“Does that happen to everybody? I mean even if they don’t want to have the baby?”

“I don’t know,” Donnegan said, puzzled. “Maybe not.”

                                                                                 •
In the darkness Donnegan heard someone at the door again but made no move to go to it. Charlene was in Connecticut by now and there wasn’t anybody else she wanted to see. She wished she could see the girl’s face, look for that little tightening that came into her jaw when she was unsure about something. She saw it often when they talked about getting the abortion. She’d have to weigh everything—what it would mean to have to support the child, what she was giving up. But how do you explain something so huge to someone who’s no more than a child herself? The girl would lose focus when Donnegan spoke of these things. She’d nod, but she didn’t seem frightened about what life alone with a baby would be like. It was her feelings about the child’s father she returned to each time. “I don’t love him,” she’d say. “And I’m afraid I won’t be able to love his baby either.”

The old woman wished now that she had helped her more with that, helped her see that maybe the two things could be separate. But she didn’t. And no amount of prayers to St. Joseph, a man who knew what it was like to be given no choice about things, was going to change that.

Charlene hadn’t asked her for the information about ending the pregnancy. Donnegan had pressed it on her finally, like a stick offered to someone about to go under a third time. She wanted to pull the girl back to the way she had been before, strong and kind, so kind. Each week that passed—she must have been six weeks gone by then—made the girl sicker, more withdrawn. Charlene had refused to admit what was happening to her till then. Donnegan had gotten the pregnancy test kit for her, had a good laugh with the pharmacist over it at the cash register. When it turned out positive, she bought two more kits. Nothing changed, of course.

For weeks they didn’t talk about it, although they saw each other more and more often by then. Charlene had dinner at the apartment; they found movies they could watch together. Once they even went to the Loew’s theater. The film was mediocre, but Donnegan felt close to tears as they walked back up the aisle. It had been more than ten years since she’d been to a movie theatre. She had told herself there was nothing she cared to see, but the truth was she couldn’t bring herself to go alone, and she didn’t have friends anymore. Mary Gleason across the hall had been a friend like that, the kind you go places with, but she was gone. And Elizabeth Kroll, who had owned the dress shop on the avenue for so long, sold it and moved in with her daughter in upstate New York. She wrote every Christmas. The rows of cuddling couples, their contented faces flickering in the lights of the credits made the old woman wish she could hurry back up the aisle, made her see that she was lonely, see it like a thing exposed. She was ashamed of it, felt responsible for it.

The girl’s company brought so many moments like that, moments when feelings pushed their way to the surface—joy, embarrassment, curiosity, the wish to possess things again. It was like adolescence. “I enjoy you so much,” she told the girl once, and she realized even as she said it that it was silly, unlike her. The girl was embarrassed. She could see that.

The phone had still not rung, but the knocking at the door had stopped. It was probably Feldman—a brief, half-hearted try, unlike the knocking earlier. That had been Charlene’s father at the door. He said so, said he was Mr. Robinson, looking for his daughter. Donnegan had made no movement. She would not speak to this man. She did not want to see his face. She knew he would not look like a monster. He would look only like a tired, hard-working man. Nothing about his face would show that he gave his daughter about as much notice as an attendant in a restroom. “He never talks to me,” Charlene had told her. “He knows I’m around, but he didn’t look at me.”

“What do you mean never?”

“He’s tired. And sometimes he works nights.” The girl gave a kind of shrug, a movement that seemed to discount any worth she had. “I ain’t much to see anyway.”

“Don’t talk like that. What about your mother? Will you be able to talk with her about what to do?”

She shook her head no. “She’s pretty angry most of the time.”

Donnegan wanted to hold her then. She never saw much point in that kind of affection, but it seemed needed. No one should feel that unimportant, not with your father, not with family. Family was supposed to be the blanket you pulled close to you in the cold. Donnegan was never able to make her own children feel safe, the way her father made her feel. The pain of that never left her. That was the whole point, Donnegan saw, that business of family and whether Charlene and her child could really be one. Charlene had that warmth to give. Donnegan saw that clearly. The girl could lose herself to others. She seemed to prefer it that way. The loss of this child might be a wrong thing, Donnegan realized, and she ventured for the first time in that direction.

“What about the child’s father?”

“What about him?” Charlene said, clearly uncomfortable.

“Can you talk to him? Work something out?”

“He’s nobody,” she said, as if this father were of no more consequence to her child than the back seat they used to conceive him. This annoyed Donnegan, this knee-jerk response women old and young had of sparing men any real understanding of the damage they do. She sighed, remembering the countless reprieves she’d granted.

“There are other ways to handle this. I’m a lot better off than it may seem from this two-bit place I’m livin in.” Charlene looked at her, confused. “I’ve got my Social Security check and my kids send me money.” Donnegan didn’t think she needed to make it any clearer, but she could see from the girl’s face that she didn’t get it. “You could come here is what I’m sayin. We’ll raise the baby right here.”

She could read Charlene’s reaction in the slow way her eyelids lowered to cover it. Was it disappointment? Doubt? She saw that the girl didn’t believe her, didn’t think she was truly in a position to give such help. And it pained Donnegan now that she had waited so long to offer it. Charlene was accustomed to leftover choices. Donnegan’s hand was on the table and the girl put her hand on hers, nodded, as if the woman’s offer deserved to be recognized. Surely, Donnegan could have made the girl understand she really would have done this for her. But she did not. She knew what the girl was thinking and didn’t correct it.

The teakettle began to whistle softly, and Donnegan wanted to get to it before it drew attention. She was not used to being noticed, having people knocking on her door. It wasn’t her they wanted, of course. It was a young girl with a life that could still matter. When the girl was with her, Donnegan felt as if she might still matter too. But the girl was not there. She was in Connecticut by now, with almost $2,000 of Donnegan’s savings tucked into a zipper pocket inside her knapsack, on her way to visit a doctor, a friend of Donnegan’s son Peter, a doctor she could trust, a friend of the family, who would take her out of a situation she didn’t know how to be in.

On the low shelf above the sink, in a corner, out of the way of splashing water, the figure of Our Lady stood where Donnegan had placed it years before, a place where she could glance at it while she listened to the news and wondered why anyone with saintly powers would put up with the nonsense this world conjures. Dust darkened the creases in the blue robe; her face looked as if it needed a good scrubbing. This was not right, Donnegan thought, not just the way she’d neglected a saint but this half-life she was compelled to live. The smallest things were now beyond what she could perform. She was wrong to believe that Charlene could make things right, but she couldn’t help it. The girl had become a reason to make her special pot roast, her soda bread. She told the girl her stories and they were new again, shocking, funny. She would help the girl make her way in the world, convince her to go to school, pay for it. No one needed the money she’d saved. Her children were all doing well. They sent her money instead of visiting. And she sent them thank you notes instead of calling and being reminded of how little they had to say to each other. Women could do so much more today. Charlene didn’t have to settle. She could live here when she returned. She didn’t have to live with those awful people. The two of them could do for each other. There would be time for babies later.

Was it so much to ask? To have the girl here? To have, just for a while, someone to wait with her? Because she knew that was all that was required now. It would come soon. Her legs got heavier each day, her hands more painful, more twisted. The breathless fears that came in the night were daytime visitors now, bleak heralds of an ending that the woman found herself eager for. It was the terrain in between that terrorized her. She dreamt, even by day, that her strength would leave her altogether, that her body would become a weight pinning her down. If Charlene’s strength could help her through it, was that so bad?

The phone was ringing finally. She stepped over to it as quickly as she could manage; her hello was like a nervous question. “Hi,” Charlene said and Donnegan sighed heavily.

“I was worried,” she told her.

“I’m okay.”

“Did you check in at that Y?”

“Yes, I’m there now.” There was a long silence.

“Is it done then?”

The old woman heard her take a breath. “No,” she said. “I haven’t been there yet.”

“But you had an appointment. I don’t understand.”

“I know.”

Donnegan felt she might lose her balance. She reached for the chair, but it was too far away. She leaned on the counter. “I like this town,” she heard Charlene saying. “It’s so small, but they have a huge Laundromat.” The girl was laughing now. And the old woman tried to say something, ward off the weakness coming over her. But it had come like a bully and would stay as it pleased.

“They must get plenty dirty there,” she said.

“I’m going to go there tomorrow.”

“To the doctor?”

“No, to the Laundromat.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve gotten your things dirty already,” said Donnegan, but she knew that wasn’t why the girl was going.

“They have a sign in the window. Help Wanted.”

“Ah,” said Donnegan, wanting now only to get off the phone.

“I’ll pay you back,” said Charlene.

“Don’t be silly.”

“You’ve been so kind. I was . . . I was . . . ”

“What dear? What is it?”

“I think it moved. On the train. I think I felt something move inside.”

“Ah. Well then.”

“I’ll call you?”

“Yes. You must call.”

Donnegan returned the receiver to the cradle and for a moment she was so frightened that she struggled for breath. The scream she wanted to let free stopped in her throat and she remained still, waiting to see what her body would do next. She began the opening of the Rosary, and before long its rhythm returned her breath to her. She leaned her weight on the stove and then on the counter to make her way back to the sink. Images of her oldest, Kate, navigating her way along the living room furniture came to her; within days she’d taken her first steps.

Our Lady was a little out of reach, but Donnegan got the statue down and placed it under the tap. The water was coming too strong and forced the figurine out of her hands. It hit the sink hard, and Donnegan shut her eyes, sure it would break, but it didn’t. She turned the water off and picked it up. A long crack had made a trail from the globe at the Virgin’s feet all the way up to her neck. With the corner of a dishrag, the old woman wiped the saint’s face and began to coax the dirt out of the robe one crease at a time. The blue brightened, but the face did not. The paint there was fading. The washing didn’t help. But the crack had not reached the face. That was good anyway. She could turn it slightly to the left on the shelf so that no one would see. And she would find a way to cut down on the laundry, a way to lighten the weight of that cart.