Death comes suddenly to some; for others it takes a lifetime.
It was Good Friday of 1946; Kathleen O’Brien walked through a narrow cobblestone passage way to St. Brigid’s Church. She hated walking by Sully’s Bar with its overpowering stench of booze and abundance of seedy characters hanging around but she was late for services (a terrible habit) and this was a convenient shortcut. She was twenty-two years old – no longer a kid – yet she’d rather die than admit to her mother that she missed the Veneration of the Cross. It was bad enough she was late for everything.
Seeing an unfamiliar man drinking a beer and leaning against the wall outside Sully’s, Kathleen quickened her pace. She heard him chuckle and say “What’s ya hurry, toots?” She walked even faster, opening the side door of the church; it creaked loudly. The elderly priest paused in mid-sentence and made a grand gesture of looking in Kathleen’s direction; he stared at her over his glasses, giving her a withering scowl. Embarrassed, she quickly found a seat at the end of a pew next to Mrs. Callahan who huffed at having to make room for this rude latecomer.
As is the tradition on Good Friday, everyone remained after services for a period of silent prayer. It was a time to reflect and meditate, one of Kathleen’s favorite parts of Holy Week. When the ushers opened the church doors the sense of peacefulness and solemnity was instantly shattered by the loud music and drunken laughter emanating from Sully’s Bar. “Some people have no respect” thought Kathleen angrily. “An Irish pub shouldn’t even be open on Good Friday!“
As she began her walk home Kathleen noticed the same man from the bar standing at the corner. Had he been waiting for her or was this just a coincidence? Warily Kathleen took a step when suddenly the man started walking right toward her. She was taken aback as he stood in her path and extended his hand. “Name’s Harry Selkin and you’re one fine lookin’ dame. Ya need somebody like me to walk ya home. It can be dangerous for a good Catholic girl like yourself to be alone in this neck of the woods.”
“Where do you get off saying something like that to me?” Kathleen snapped. “And how do you know I’m a good Catholic girl anyway?”
“Well, I ain’t no Einstein but I seen ya practically runnin’ to St. Brigid’s like ya pants was on fire and I’m guessin‘ ya ain’t no altar boy – not with them gorgeous legs.” Harry replied in a very ‘Bogey’ sort of way. He smiled and his tough guy persona became surprisingly charming. Kathleen found it hard not to laugh just a little at this roguish stranger and she shocked herself by allowing him to walk her home.
Harry and Kathleen were as different as a gorilla and a swan but there was an undeniable chemistry between them and they started falling in love. No one was more surprised than Kathleen; Harry was like no man she had ever met. Sure, he was rough around the edges but she loved how his face lit up like a kid whenever he ate dessert, especially his favorite – homemade apple pie. Kathleen was known for her baking skills and would make a pie for Harry every couple of days.
They had a whirlwind courtship and Harry popped the question, much to Kathleen’s delight – and her parent’s chagrin. At first they tolerated the relationship thinking it would blow over, but the more serious it got the more concerned they became. There was a major obstacle her parents couldn’t overlook – the fact that Harry was Jewish. Kathleen’s father was dead set against Harry, calling him names like ‘Christ killer’ and ‘kike’. He was enraged when Kathleen announced that she and Harry were going to get married with or without his blessing. Her mother was crushed. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Can’t you see he’s no good for you? I don’t trust him at all, Katy girl, not at all!” she warned, crying into her apron. Kathleen hated defying her parents but would not be dissuaded; she was in love! Her father said she was a blind fool and if she married “that good-for-nothing bum” she was dead to him. With a heavy heart Kathleen closed the door of her childhood home behind her and never looked back.
Harry and Kathleen got married in city hall, the judge and his clerk their only guests and witnesses. After a weekend honeymoon in Niagara Falls the couple settled into Harry’s tiny apartment – a walk-up on the fifth floor and almost within arm’s reach of the elevated train. Kathleen was startled by the scream of the locomotive but Harry said she’d get used to it.
The dilapidated condition of the apartment shocked Kathleen but she was determined to turn it into a lovely home for them. She sewed curtains and towels for the kitchen and bought bed coverings from the thrift store. She also bought sacks of apples from the fruit stand to make Harry’s beloved apple pies. She read in her cookbook that it was alright to freeze apples until you were ready to use them – a handy tip Kathleen didn’t know.
Harry worked the graveyard shift as a printer at the local newspaper, seven days a week from midnight till 8:00 AM. His fingers were permanently stained with black ink. The first morning he came home from work and saw the newly decorated apartment, he got angry at Kathleen for spending his hard-earned money on unnecessary things. Uncaring, he left ink stains on the bedspread when he sat down to remove his shoes. However his mood lightened considerably when he eyed the sacks of apples and Kathleen forgave his angry outburst when she saw that boyish grin.
While Harry slept during the day Kathleen cleaned, shopped and cooked. She wanted a vacuum cleaner but Harry said it was too expensive and the noise would keep him awake so she settled for a carpet sweeper. Their only chance to be together was at breakfast and dinner time – and of course for coffee and dessert. Kathleen suggested a few times that it would be nice if Harry worked during the day so they could be like a normal couple and spend more time together but her words fell on deaf ears.
She also longed for a baby. Each time she thought she was pregnant it turned out to be a false alarm. She saw a doctor who wasn’t very encouraging; he shrugged his shoulders, gave her ambiguous explanations and performed a couple of routine tests. He told her it was just one of those things; not all couples could get pregnant. When Kathleen finally got up the nerve to mention to Harry what the doctor said, he laughed and said it wasn’t his fault she couldn’t get pregnant; “Just ask that sweet little Frenchie I knocked up during the war” was his mean-spirited reply. Kathleen felt like she’d been kicked in the gut. When she cried that she needed something else to fill her lonely days Harry yelled to “go get a job and start earnin’ ya keep around here! Who needs another mouth to feed anyways?” Kathleen was reeling; how could he say such hurtful things? Heartbroken, she eventually gave up on having a baby and found a job as a presser in a shirt factory. The work was exhausting and she still had to maintain the apartment and cook for Harry.
What happened to the guy she married? Harry was constantly annoyed about something or other and drank more now than usual. He got mean when he drank and and Kathleen bore the brunt of his anger. When he demanded sex every night before going to work, she kept her mouth shut but she was silently screaming. This was no way to exist, like a piece of property and not a person. She’d lie awake at night remembering her mother’s warning words. The only thing in her God-forsaken life that she truly enjoyed was baking and she did it all for Harry. She would fantasize about how lovely it would be to have her own little bake shop; she’d make lots of delicious cakes and pies for her large following of loyal customers – not just for her selfish husband. She knew she could do it if she only had the chance.
A few weeks after Kathleen began working she started complaining about backaches and being very tired – probably from constantly lifting the heavy pressing machines at work. Harry, as usual, was unsympathetic and said she better toughen up because no way was she giving up that job.
One morning Kathleen asked Harry if he could bring down the mixing bowl she kept on top of the fridge so she could make an apple pie. He was tired from working all night and wanted to get to sleep but he obliged her at the prospect of dessert. Harry put down his bottle of beer and got the step-stool out of the closet. As he started to climb, Kathleen hoisted a five pound sack of frozen apples, wincing at the pain in her back, and bashed Harry as hard as she could on the back of his head. He fell backwards onto the kitchen floor, his lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling.
Kathleen hurriedly tore open the sack of apples and dumped them into a pot on the stove. She shoved the empty apple sack into the garbage bag, bunched it all up and threw it down the incinerator chute outside their apartment door. Placing a new bag in the garbage can, she looked at Harry’s body and felt sick to her stomach, vomiting in the sink. She washed her hands and face, then placed a call to the police.
“HELP!” Kathleen screamed into the phone. “My husband fell! I think he’s dead!” Then she calmly sat at the kitchen table and waited, crying over misspent years. The police and ambulance arrived quickly; after examining Harry, he was officially declared dead. Blunt force trauma, they said, obviously from smashing his head on the kitchen floor. Everyone was very conciliatory and sympathetic and they respectfully removed Harry’s body. “If there’s anything we can do, Mrs. Selkin, please let us know” the officers said as they left Kathleen alone in the quiet apartment.
Kathleen cleaned up the kitchen and called her boss at the shirt factory to say she wouldn’t be able to work that day. Her boss barked that if she didn’t come in to work she shouldn’t bother coming back at all. Kathleen simply said “Goodbye”. She put the pot of apples in the fridge and after changing her clothes she went to the funeral parlor to make arrangements for Harry.
When she got home she received a phone call from her doctor. “Mrs. Selkin, I’m calling because your test results came back; you and Mr. Selkin will be thrilled to know you’re pregnant. Congratulations, Mrs. Selkin!” Kathleen swayed in stunned disbelief and grabbed onto the edge of the table. She managed a weak “Thank you” and hung up the phone. “Pregnant” she whispered in awe and her slight smile slowly grew into a broad grin. She gently touched her belly, truly happy for the first time in years.
The next morning Kathleen baked a large apple pie with the same apples she used to bash in Harry’s head. When the pie was done and still warm, she placed it in a box and delivered it to the nice policemen. On the way home she stopped in the little bakery near her apartment and inquired about a job. It was a start, a new beginning for her and her baby.
NAR © 2020