(from Billy Boy, a novel)
by Thomas J. Hubschman
Rosemary Grady, known to her various paramours and
clients as Rosy-O, Sweet Rosy O'Grady and Rosy O'Blowjob, was
on the phone to her former classmate Cathy Conover. Her
older child was taking a bath in the old tub you could only
reach by walking out onto the top-floor landing of the
brownstone where she lived. The baby was snoring in a Port-
"Danny Matthews says he saw Jinny just half an hour
before it happened," she said, her voice hoarse from crying.
"He says she looked a little high, but not that bad. Not,
you know, like she was gonna O-D or anything. I talked to
her mom this morning. She says Jinny had a heart condition.
A murmur or something. I never heard nothing like that, did
you? I mean, everybody knows Jinny was using crack. Even
I knew it, and I hardly get out of the house anymore."
Cathleen replied that Jinny's death was such a shock that
she didn't know what to think yet. But in reality she was
only surprised that her childhood friend had survived as long
as she did. Jinny started using drugs in seventh grade. By
the time she was fifteen she was turning tricks on Bartel
Pritchard Square just two blocks from her home. By then
Cathleen was a sophomore at St. Saviour and had more friends
in upscale Park Slope than she did in her own neighborhood.
But she wasn't going to risk Rosy's ire by telling her Jinny
McCormick only got what she had so long been asking for. In
a few years Cathleen would be free of 16th Street, just as
soon as she could afford a share in a Manhattan apartment and
still have a few dollars left over give to her mother. Till
then, though, she had to pretend she was still one of the
"The wake's tonight," Rosemary said, more than a trace of
apprehension in her voice. Wakes weren't her favorite social
activity, at least not when the corpse was a close
contemporary whose life style didn't differ much from her
own. "Ain't that kind of quick? I mean, since she only died
last night? But I guess we gotta go."
Cathleen pictured the scene at Roche's Funeral Parlor:
half a dozen weepy friends, themselves just a pipe or two
from sharing Jinny's fate; the usual klatch of red-eyed aunts,
uncles and cousins who were no more surprised by how Jinny's
life had ended than Cathleen herself was. But she had to
make an appearance, even if it meant pretending she wasn't
revolted by all those half-stoned unwed mothers and ex-
She got rid of Rosemary and took a quick look at the
roasting chicken she had started for her mother. Mrs.
Conover suffered from angina, which was why the apartment
looked the way it did despite her daughter's attempts to
maintain some kind of order. A large living room at the
front of the building doubled as her brother's bedroom.
Cathleen's own, small room was located off a long narrow
corridor which opened into a dining area. Her mother had set
up a narrow cot for herself on the other side of the heavy
dark dining table which hadn't been used since Jack Conover
died several years earlier. The kitchen looked out on the
gray backs of the buildings on 15th Street. Every other
building on the block, a dozen or more tenements, was laid
out the same way. When she was a little girl spending most
of her time at home or in one of her friend's apartments,
Cathleen assumed everyone in the world lived in a similar
There was no time to wait for the chicken. She hurriedly
changed out of her work clothes and into the black dress she
had bought three years ago for an uncle's funeral but which
had come in handy several times since.
"You're off to the wake?" her mother said. An interior
window which served no logical purpose connected the two
women's sleeping areas and was left permanently open. After
the lights were out it encouraged mother-daughter
conversations which could seem difficult under the glare of a
"I'll be back in half an hour. The bird'll be done at
"Tell Jinny's mother Im sorry for her trouble."
"I will," Cathleen said, pulling at the zipper of her
dress. Narrowly built, she was a trim size six, with a small
waist and long perfect legs, the only obvious legacy from her
mother's side of the family. The Donovans were big-bone,
wide-hip people, but their women had the finest calves in
"Your brother might turn up at Roche's himself. See that
he comes home with you."
"Do better than try. He was out all night again. I'm
afraid he's in with a bad crowd."
"Billy's twenty-three years old," Cathleen said, trying
to free the zipper of a snag. There was no use asking her
mother to help. Apart from the angina which kept her flat on
her back most of the day, the woman was also nearsighted but
too vain to wear glasses. "If you didn't baby him so much
we'd all be better off. What ever happened to the job Uncle
Pat was supposed to find him?"
"Your Uncle Pat talks big, but its mostly hot air."
"Maybe that's where Billy got it from," Cathleen said,
finally yanking the zipper free.
"The boy tries. He really does, Cath-a-leen. There's
just no jobs to be had. Look at the newspapers."
"It would help if he went back to school and got his
"He went down to John Jay just the other day. They told
him he has to wait now for the next semester."
"I'll believe it when I see it."
Cathleen emerged from the bedroom, where there was
scarcely enough room for her twin bed and a chest of drawers,
and presented herself for her mother's inspection.
"How do I look?"
She did not ask from vanity but merely to find out if she
had gotten her clothes on straight. But her mother was
amazed as always by her daughter's beauty. Try as she might,
she could find little resemblance between the girl and
herself. Yet she felt no resentment on that account. Her
husband had not lived long enough to become a source of
bitterness to her as had the spouses of so many of her
friends. She was grateful for this living remembrance of the
man who, she acknowledged even when he was alive, was a
better-looking man than she was a woman.
"Swell," she said.
"Then, I'm off. Don't forget the chicken."
"You took your medicine?"
"I did. I'm all set till bedtime."
Cathleen started down the long corridor, then did an
abrupt about-face and deftly squeezed around the old
Victorian table to give her mother a kiss.
"See you later, love."
By seven o'clock there was already a klatch of Jinny's
friends gathered outside the funeral parlor, conveniently
located across the street from the parish church. Patty
Brodigan had showed up in a black miniskirt and tights she
sometimes wore to Manhattan discos. Mary Dempsey did Patty
one better by wearing black peddle-pushers, a first for
Roche's. The funeral director and his granddaughter, a slim
attractive blonde who graduated Holy Name Elementary a couple
years ahead of Jinny, watched from inside the glass entrance
door. Celia Roche had handled enough of this type of funeral
to know what the course of the evening would be like: For the
first half hour the immediate family would have the deceased
to themselves. Then uncles, aunts and cousins would start to
arrive. Finally the dead girl's friends would work up the
courage to come inside, approach the viewing room nervously
and at the first sight of the coffin all burst into tears.
They were a nuisance because they disturbed the other rooms,
though it was a rare night anymore that Roche's had more than
one body on view, much of the business having gone to the
By the time Cathleen arrived the sidewalk mourners had
moved inside and were weeping quietly at the back of the
room. The McCormicks were seated on the two front rows of
metal folding chairs, whispering among themselves like
wedding guests waiting for the bride to arrive. Jinny
herself, what was left of her after she had been gutted and
stuffed with excelsior, lay in her coffin, her lips looking
redder than they should, her already full eyebrows heavily
penciled over, making her seem as if she were pondering some
question -- how many Tuinols she had popped before her last
jolt of crack.
Cathleen approached the casket and knelt down on the
cushioned kneeler. But as she began her Hail Mary she found
that what at first had seemed an authentic if badly made-up
version of Jinny McCormick, up close was clearly a fraud.
The rougey woman in the coffin was not Jinny but a chimera
conjured up by the mortician's art. The real Jinny had
looked a good ten years older, and a hard ten years at that.
She fixed her eyes on the portrait of Christ at the back
of the bier and kept them there until her prayer was over.
"I'm very sorry, Mrs. McCormick," she said, taking the
hand of a stout, black-draped woman who used to offer her
milk and cookies when Jinny and she were in kindergarten.
Mrs. McCormick nodded her appreciation without raising her
reddened eyes, her two good teeth gnawing her bottom lip as
if grief could be masticated like a tough piece of meat.
Cathleen went down the line, recognizing all the faces, if
not every name -- father, brothers, younger sister, even
aunts and cousins.
When she reached the last family member, her obligation
was formally fulfilled. But custom required that she spend
some time keeping watch with them. She could park herself on
one of the hard metal chairs and kill half an hour chatting
with one of the deceased's gabby aunts. Or she could join
her contemporaries sobbing quietly at the back of the room.
Neither alternative appealed. She was not in a mood for
pretending that Jinny's death was an act of God, and she had
little in common with her old classmates since their paths
had divided several years earlier. Even so, she couldn't sit
by herself. That would only encourage the notion that she
was someone who thought herself above them.
She decided on two former Girl Scouts standing apart from
the others, little lace handkerchiefs pressed to their faces.
"She was so young and pretty!" one of them, a tall skinny
girl who used to live on Milky Ways greeted Cathleen as their
cheeks brushed. Cathleen glanced back at the coffin and
recalled the sunny pig-tailed Jinny who used to play tag with
her in the schoolyard. When you saw someone a couple times a
week, if only to say hello to, you didn't notice the minor
erosions that were draining vitality from flesh, the
consequence of too many crack vials and barbiturates, not to
mention the quickies in parked cars to raise money for the
next high. Suddenly she found that she too was crying.
Whatever these young women had become, they were once full of
hope like herself, and but for the grace of God she could
have shared their fate.
But the mood of moist reconciliation was suddenly broken
by a disturbance outside in the reception area. A moment
later her brother Billy made his appearance in tattered jeans
and dirty denim jacket, his hair scarcely combed, with at
least a day's growth of beard. Even from a distance of
several yards, his eyes seemed unnaturally bright, with a
familiar pinwheel look. At first Cathleen tried to continue
her conversation. But the ex-Girl Scout, like everyone else,
was waiting to see what would happen next. Billy was
impossible when he was high, sometimes impossibly sweet, but
more often just plain impossible.
He stood for a moment, not quite steadily thanks to the
quart of beer he had used to wash down some pills. He seemed
not to recognize anyone, and for a brief moment his sister
dared hope he might simply walk out again. But then he
sniffed hard, hunched his shoulders and lurched toward the
Despite his disheveled state, she could not help but note
the good-looking young man underneath the dirt and drugs.
Handsome was too mild a word. He had been a beautiful little
boy and had become a beautiful young man, though God knew you
had to look hard to see it when he was in the condition he
was in tonight. She didn't understand how he could look like
that and live the kind of life he did lead. Not just Jinny,
but half the people her own age had become dissipated by the
time they reached their twenty-first birthdays. Yet, Billy
seemed to thrive. And he had the personality to charm the
pants off virtually every woman he met and get round most of
the men as well. Between his blarney and his looks he could
have gone far. Instead, he chose to become the social pariah
she was looking at.
He hit the kneeler in front of the coffin with a thud.
Then he stared intently at the face of the corpse as if
expecting to begin a dialogue it. Everyone watched the two
dissolutes, one dead, the other still breathing, confront
each other. Would he break down and cry? Would he try
something outrageous like embracing the corpse? But after a
few moments he merely rose, took a shaky step backward and,
as if with a great act of will, focused on the line of black-
He started with the hefty alcoholic brother and worked
his way down the row until he reached the diminutive
grandmother, solemnly shaking each's hand and offering an
inebriate word of sympathy.
When he was done with the family he turned toward the
other mourners but then spotted a familiar face at the back
of the room and stumbled toward her.
Rosemary Grady had arrived just as Billy finished
visiting the bier. She had prepared for the occasion by
downing a couple shots of Jack Daniels but hadn't worked up
the nerve yet to approach the coffin.
"Rosy, Im sorry about last night," he said loud enough to
be heard at the reception desk. "I meant to come by, I
really did, but I forgot I had a previous engagement."
"That's okay, Billy," Rosemary said, trying to ease away
from her sometimes lover. She actually hadn't seen him in a
couple weeks and, as far as she could remember, hadn't made
any date with him for last night.
"You know I'd never stand you up like that if it wasn't
something important," he went on, putting his hand on her
shoulder, as much to steady himself as to emphasize his
"Sure, Billy. But you gotta excuse me now. I need to
pay my respects, you know?"
"Rosy, you're a sweet girl," he said, still not letting
her by. "And you still give the best goddamn head in all of
Everyone heard. Only the oldest old woman did not know
what he meant, and no one was eager to satisfy her urgent
Rosemary began to weep with humiliation. But Billy
mistook her tears for grief and decided to console her with a
Jinny's oldest brother Mick gently raised his great bulk
off his chair in front of the bier and quietly padded toward
the back of the room, his face as blank as if he had nothing
more on his mind than the men's room. But when he reached
the doorway he paused and, without saying a word, slapped his
great paw on Billy's neck. Then he gently turned Billy
around and planted his fist in his right cheek.
A gush of bright blood spurted from Billy's nose. He
staggered back to the wall where, with its help, he was able
to stay on his feet.
"Get the fuck outta here," Mick hissed at him, panting
hard. He poked a blunt thick finger into Billy's chest and
added, "Next time I see you, you wish you was dead."
Billy was tending to his bleeding nose but found time to
reply, "Sure, Mick, sure," as if the will of Mickey McCormick
were all he ever considered.
Rosemary stepped forward and began attending to his
injury as if he had sustained it defending, not impugning,
her honor. But her gesture seemed to infuriate Mick all over
again -- he was a regular visitor to her "blowatorium,"
Billy's epithet for her apartment on 16th Street, but was
unaware that so were half the other young males in Windsor
Billy seemed to be paying no attention to the freshly
erupting McCormick. But just as everyone was anticipating
another, possibly lethal blow he abruptly jammed his hand
into the bigger man's midsection and brought his knee up
smartly into his groin.
Mick collapsed into a great ball of pain, unable to
breathe, much less speak.
The mourners regarded the helpless giant writhing on
Roche's tasteful gray carpet, then looked up to see what
Crazy Billy would do next. But they found that, like Jesus
amongst the hostile Pharisees, he had disappeared from their
"Hello, stranger. What brings you to this neck of the
Rosemary had changed out of her long cotton nightgown and
into tight jeans and a blue turtleneck that showed off her
small but well-formed breasts.
"Just old times sake, Rosy. My day off."
She didn't turn away from the pail of dirty wash she was
sorting to ask, "You ain't got something else on your mind?
'Cause I got to get this little monster to the doctor for a
measles shot. Otherwise he don't get into pre-K, and that
means he drives me crazy till the next semester."
"No problem," Charlie said.
He had actually had nothing but business on his mind when
Rosemary invited him in. But he had to admit that her nicely-
rounded, if a bit overinflated rear did put other ideas in
his head. He had never been a regular visitor to Rosemary's,
even back in the days before the arrival of her first kid put
a damper on her generosities. But before his marriage to
Cynthia Cavanaugh, former Queen of the May, he, like several
other young men in the neighborhood, knew that Rosy was a
safe port when the only alternative was a sticky copy of
"You working nights?" she asked, filling a pillowcase
with small pants, shorts and underwear so badly soiled that
they temporarily drove any sexual thoughts from Charlie's
"One week I work days, the next week nights. Keeps me on
"Jesus, I wouldn't want to be married to you," she said,
causing him an unaccountable pang of remorse. He was, he
thought, happily if routinely married, with a child on the
way. "Must drive your wife crazy."
"She's used to it. It goes with the job," he said with
"Even so. I can't get a decent night's sleep as it is.
I can't imagine what it would be like if I had my whole day
turned upside down as well."
Charlie had known Rosemary's husband -- a tough, wild
kid, dumb as whale turd. But Rosemary herself was no dope
except when it came to keeping her twat closed. It had been
just a matter of time before she or her old man skipped out
of the marriage.
"I'd offer you a cup of coffee, only, like I said, I'm
kind of in a hurry."
"I just stopped by to see if maybe you heard from Billy,"
he said, staring down at the blond, blue-eyed boy she was
busily dressing. The same thought went through his mind that
had passed through Brendan's an hour earlier.
"What's the matter, he done something?"
"I just happen to be talking to Brendan in Scully's. He
ain't seen Billy in a couple days, so I thought I'd ask
"Scully's? What the hell's Brendan doing in Scully's at
this time of day?"
Charlie shrugged innocently.
"What were you doing in Scully's? Your old lady lets
you go to bars in the daytime?"
"Hey, it's not like I'm putting away boilmakers like them
old farts that hang out there. I had a beer, that's all."
Rosemary straightened up and swept her long brown hair
back from her face, her breasts swinging freely beneath the
turtleneck. A glisten of perspiration clung to her lips and
cheeks. She was still one of the best-looking pieces of ass
around, Charlie decided, and here she was saddled with two
kids and no husband. For two cents, he would fuck her right
now, wife or no wife, despite the stench of diaper shit and
the roaches scampering across the oilcloth.
"Naw, I ain't seen Billy," she said. "I ain't seen
nobody for a while, if you know what I mean. Two's
enough." She nodded toward the bags of dirty wash. "You
know what it's like tryna live on the bullshit check Welfare
"Must be tough," Charlie said.
"If it wasn't for food stamps and the little bit my
mother sends me, I'd be up shit's creek." She shook her
head. "It takes a while, but I learned. No more babies.
You know how old I'm gonna be before this one" -- she jerked
a finger toward the child sleeping in a battered portable
crib -- "is ready to go out and get a job?"
"It's tough," Charlie said, his erection lodged
uncomfortably between his right pocket and scrotum. He
reached casually under the table to free it.
"So," Rosemary said, giving him a grin which suggested
she knew exactly what was happening inside his pants, "you
can spread the word around, Charlie: Old Rosy's retired. At
least from serious fucking. I ain't saying," she added
confidentially, "I wouldn't do a blow job now and then. But
it's strictly cash and carry. Now, if you don't mind, I
gotta get this kid to the doctor."
Charlie pushed his chair back from the kitchen table.
His ordinarily pale, almost translucent skin, looked like it
had just spent a couple hours in subfreezing weather or had
had his cheeks slapped by Sister Bernice. His erection was
stiffer than ever, but he had no alternative, so he stood up
and began zipping up his jacket, hoping his tight jeans would
conceal his excitement.
"If you do see Billy, give him my regards," he said,
trying to sound like the canny cop.
"Sure thing, Charlie." She gave him another grin,
dropped her eyes to his crotch, winked and said, "And you
give mine to Cynthia."
Billy watched Charlie walk back toward the corner of 9th
"For a minute I thought you was gonna ream him out right
on the kitchen table."
"Gimme a break."
"You gonna tell me you never sucked Charlie off?"
He was watching the street below and missed the pained
response in Rosemary's eyes.
"Listen, Billy. I let you stay here and hide like some
kid playing hooky, when I don't even know what it is you
"Who said I did anything?"
"I had a fucking cop sitting right here in my kitchen.
If I wanted to I could have put your ass in jail."
"I told you, I didn't do nothing."
"Then, why'd you come here? And how come you looked like
you was gonna shit in your pants when I said it was Charlie
Madigan coming up the stairs?"
Satisfied that Charlie wasn't coming back, Billy turned
away from the window only to find Rosemary stripped down to
her bra and panties. She had closed the louver door that
separated her bedroom from the dark middle room and kitchen
where the boy had returned to his toy cars.
She lowered the waistband of her baby-blue underwear and
struck a pose like a gun moll in an old movie. "As long as
you're here... "
"You said you was retired. Ain't that what you just told
Charlie?" he said, stepping closer and reverently drawing her
panties down to her ankles before genuflecting in front of
her. She put her hands on his shoulders and said, "Jesus,
Billy, I love it when you do that. I love it better than
"'I shall go to the altar of God...'"
The baby woke up in the kitchen, but Rosemary paid him no
"'...To God who giveth joy to my youth.'"
Thomas Hubschman is a regular contributor to BMR.