Bob McTeirnan worked for the city for twenty-eight years. He was a plumber at one of the city’s housing projects. He’d been there since the old law tenements had been torn down and the urban renewal plan was approved. The area had always been bad. Even when he heard reminiscences by friends about the old neighborhood and how even though they were poor they were clean, he’d laugh. He remembered his own uncles pissing on the sides of the buildings in the alleys on their way home from the foundry. It seemed that half the neighborhood was always drunk, and he promised himself he would never touch a drop. He kept the promise.
So, he laughed to himself when he heard the criticism of the Puerto Rican and black families –
– that they were dirty animals, that they destroyed the projects after the original families had left it to them in such a pristine condition. Because in truth, McTeirnan told himself, the projects were just slums-in-the-making, and they were twenty years old by the time the newer families had moved in.
But occasionally, he did find himself at a loss for understanding – like the time he found the dead baby in the plastic bag behind the furnace. He’d heard about this kind of thing from old-timers who’d worked here years and years before him. But he wasn’t prepared for it.
It was mixed in with orange peels and milk cartons and empty cans of beans. He felt no repulsion at the sight. His helper, Santiago, was out sick that day. It was just he and the baby and the noises and smells of the boiler room. He took the body to the slop sink and washed the cigarette ashes and dried juice from it. The umbilical cord was shriveled but still attached and he carefully placed it across the baby’s stomach, wrapped the body in an old uniform shirt and placed it in a Hefty bag. He carried it out to his car and put it on the back seat. He walked back to the boiler room and got a shovel.
McTeirnan drove over the Marine Park Bridge to Rockaway. But instead of taking the Drive to Belle Harbor and home, he turned towards Riis Park and the beach. He passed through the gates of the park where a sign hung reading, “Closed until Memorial Day -No lifeguards on Duty.”
He parked the car and walked over the dunes to the bird sanctuary. The gulls and terns flew close to his head. He wondered if they thought he was going to disturb their nests or if they could smell what he carried.
The sand and beach grass lifted easily, and he picked a spot that looked untouched by the winter tides. He dug deep and by the time he was satisfied with the depth of the hole, he was winded. He removed the baby from the Hefty bag but kept it wrapped in the shirt. He peeled it back from its face.
“It won’t be so bad here little…,” and he hesitated. He hadn’t looked to see the sex of the child. “You’ve already got it better than a lot of the ones that are going to grow up. The angels will come and take you very soon so, don’t be afraid.”
He laid the child at the bottom of the hole. He was going to take the shirt because it said “NYC Housing Authority” across the chest pocket and he thought there might be some trouble if someone found the baby. But it was an old shirt having belonged to Gustav who was dead many years and when he saw the sand crabs crawling in the wet sand around the bottom, he left the child covered.
He filled the hole in, stretched his stiff back, made a sign of the cross and walked off.
“Timothy is waiting, Bob,” his wife Clare said as he walked in the door of his home on Beach 136th Street.
“Waiting for what?” he answered as he hung up his jacket on the rack of pegs just inside the door of the apartment.
“He wants to go trick or treating. Did you forget it was Halloween?” Clare asked him.
“Oh Jesus, Clare.”
“Bob,” she said drying her hands on a dishtowel. “He’ll be so upset. He was so excited this morning.”
“Where is he?”
“In the living room.”
McTeirnan walked through the dining room and heard the sounds of Sesame Street on the television. His severely retarded, eighteen-year-old son sat ten inches away from the screen rocking, fingers twitching. He barely stopped to look up at his father. He was dressed like a hobo, charcoal beard, torn clothes and an old hat of Bob’s father pulled snugly down across his ears. He clutched a large, orange bag with “Trick or Treat” emblazoned with the face of a leering pumpkin – a hissing cat perched on its stalk.
The boy snapped the television off and walked over to his father. The resemblance between father and son was uncanny, even McTeirnan couldn’t help noticing it. The boy took his father’s hand and started to walk back towards the kitchen.
“Wait a few minutes, Tim,” McTeirnan said.
The boy frowned and returned to the living room. He snapped the television on and resumed rocking.
McTeirnan went into the bathroom and filled the sink with warm water. He brought his hands to his nose and smelled fish, cigarette ash and the baby. He washed his face and hands and stared at himself in the mirror. The apartment was quiet except for the sound of the television.
He heard his grand-uncle Garret, upstairs stamping his feet and barking. They were short, clipped barks. Garret was his mother’s brother. He was ninety-two years old and had Tourette’s Syndrome. McTeirnan knew the barking was compulsive and that he couldn’t control it. He also knew some Tourette’s sufferers cursed uncontrollably but Garret barked Lately, it kept him awake at nights.
He rinsed the sand that had collected around the drain and dried his hands.
“Let’s go, Tim,” he said, and the boy stood up. He was going on six feet, two inches, McTeirnan noted to himself. He was glad he was not violent. There had only been the one time when he was thirteen and Clare was walking him home from Mass at St. Francis. He began to cry suddenly and uncontrollably, and he threw Clare through the plate glass window of the fruit and vegetable store on 129th Street.
After McTeirnan paid the Korean owner for damages and took Clare for stitches, he brought the boy into the bedroom and locked it. He beat him with a belt for nearly half an hour. Clare screamed from the other side of the door and Garret banged on the floor over head to stop the noise. The boy made low, guttural sounds and crawled into the corner next to the dresser, watching each motion of his father’s arm, terrified. For nearly a year he would not look his father in the eye, and he ran from the kitchen when he came home from work.
He held the boy’s hand as they walked down the steps of the building. Small children looked curiously at them from behind Hello Kitty and Power Ranger masks. The mothers that knew the family nodded hello and said, “Hello, Timothy. That’s a lovely costume,” and patted him on the head. They whispered, “You’re a saint, Bob,” and walked off to ring doorbells with their own charges.
McTeirnan took his son to the homes of people that knew the family. He would wait at the curb while his son walked up the steps to the houses. He saw Timothy bathed in the yellow lights of the porches, rocking while his neighbors placed the candy and pennies into his son’s bag. It was a silent procession that lasted an hour and when they returned home, the boy left the bag with his mother and ran to the television set to turn it on.
McTeirnan sat at the kitchen table while Clare served him. He started to tell his wife about the baby and the beach but then he thought she would object to what he’d done; how he hadn’t informed the police. He thought she might be frightened that somehow, he’d be blamed.
He asked her how her day was instead and nibbled on a piece of candy corn while he waited for the rest of his dinner.