(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- a-Crib nearby.

"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 girls.

"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- juvenile delinquents.

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 arrangement.

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 lamp.

"I'll be back in half an hour. The bird'll be done at quarter-to."

"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 Brooklyn.

"Your brother might turn up at Roche's himself. See that he comes home with you."

"I'll try."

"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 diploma."

"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."

"I wont."

"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 suburbs.

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 open coffin.

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- draped McCormicks.

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 point.

"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 Brooklyn."

Everyone heard. Only the oldest old woman did not know what he meant, and no one was eager to satisfy her urgent inquiries.

Rosemary began to weep with humiliation. But Billy mistook her tears for grief and decided to console her with a beery embrace.

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 Terrace.

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 midst.

"Hello, stranger. What brings you to this neck of the woods?"

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 Playboy.

"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 mind.

"One week I work days, the next week nights. Keeps me on my toes."

"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 pride.

"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 around."

"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 sends you?"

"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 Avenue.

"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 did."

"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.

"What's this?"

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 anything."

"'I shall go to the altar of God...'"

The baby woke up in the kitchen, but Rosemary paid him no mind.

"'...To God who giveth joy to my youth.'"

Thomas Hubschman is a regular contributor to BMR.

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