Fire Angels, Chapter 4

1958

As usual, Jim Raymond awoke at 5 am without an alarm clock. He opened his eyes to the familiar shadows of branches on the wallpaper, cast by the poplar tree he’d planted in the backyard years ago after Johnny was born. He marked the passage of time by the budding, blossoming, dropping, and decay of leaves on those branches. Now, three weeks before Christmas, the brittle branches were bare and stiff with frost.

Jim’s wife, Ann, stirred beside him. “Time to get up,” she said. Her comment was neither a question nor a command, just the same simple words she uttered every morning.

“Another day,” he grumbled.

Jim slid out from under the comforter and set his feet on the cold floor. His body felt the shock of the frigid air. He slept in his underwear, didn’t own a bathrobe, never had. Bathrobes were for rich people, the people they saw on TV who lounged around the house all day.

Even though his grumble suggested otherwise, mornings were Jim’s favorite time of day. For the twenty minutes it took him to move from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen and out the front door, he had the house silently to himself, which was a rare occurrence in their household of nine. He patted the chenille-covered hump of Ann’s behind. “Sleep, darlin’,” he said in his deep voice, and she sighed as she did every morning. She reached for his hand, squeezed it, then rolled over to grab another hour of sleep before their five school-age kids would begin their treks to the bathroom, chattering and teasing each other so loudly they’d wake up the two little ones, who’d start rattling the slats of their cribs.

Jim dashed down the hall to the bathroom and ran cold water from the faucet so it would be lukewarm by the time he finished emptying his bladder. He’d heard older guys talk about how they had to get up and pee three, four times a night. At forty-three, he was glad he wasn’t one of them. On the way to the sink he caught a glimpse of his scruffy face in the mirror, reached up, and stroked the stubble on his cheek. He’d shave for Ann when he got home. No need to look pretty on his job.

Back in the bedroom he slipped into the clean work clothes Ann had stacked for him on the straight-backed chair across from their bed. He pulled on woolen gray socks, then a worn pair of paint-stained pants and a denim shirt with frayed buttonholes and mismatched buttons. A wiry man whose body always seemed in motion, Jim moved quickly across the linoleum floor to the dresser, where he clipped a heavy ring of keys to his belt and cupped the change on his dresser into his pocket, followed by the Saint Christopher medal his daughter had given him the day before to commemorate the first Sunday of Advent. He remembered what ten-year-old Mary Kay had said, flashing him an angelic smile between two boxes of breakfast cereal. “Daddy, Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, you know. He carries people safely over the river.” She said it in the present tense, as if the brawny saint were still alive, carrying weary travelers back and forth across Lake Michigan. “Sister says if you keep the medal with you, you’ll never faint or fall on that day.”

Jim rubbed his calloused finger over the embossed form of Saint Christopher and thanked God for small blessings. He’d had a good night’s sleep. He woke up to a fine woman. His kids, “his little snappers,” as he called them, were healthy and accounted for, and he had a shiny new Saint Christopher’s medal in his pocket.

On his way to the kitchen he looked in on the kids. Mary Kay and the little ones shared the smallest bedroom, and the four boys, Robert, fourteen; Thomas, twelve; John, eleven; and Marty, six, slept next door, in a room barely large enough to hold two bunk beds and a dresser. A night light in each room illuminated the compact mounds of their bodies, warm beneath boldly patterned comforters. The whatnots and doodads of childhood were piled on their dressers and on the floor: In the girls’ room, board games, library books, Mary Kay’s rag potholder — a stringy work in progress — and a fan of holy pictures. In the boys’ room, dirty clothes, sports equipment, and leaning against the footboard of the bunk bed where John slept on the bottom, the red and white Sonic King bicycle his parents bought him from Sears for his confirmation a week earlier, a bike John would have slept with if he could. Johnny was itching to give that bike a spin through the neighborhood, to hear the clickety-clack of the playing cards — two aces — he’d pinned to the spokes, but his adventures would have to wait for a warmer day when the streets weren’t blanketed with ice. It had been a stretch to buy him that bike, but it made Jim happy to know that its broad silver handlebars would be the first sight his son would see when he sat up in bed that morning. In passing he gently tapped each door as if he were tapping their backs for good luck.

Jim grabbed a turkey sandwich from the icebox, smiling at the stack of sandwiches, neatly wrapped in waxed paper, that Ann had made for all of them the night before. Each had a dollop of turkey dressing and a thin slice of cranberry gel, the kind that comes in cans. No one could stretch a twenty-three-pound turkey — a gift from the parish — as far as Ann could. The carcass, covered with waxed paper, was sitting on the middle shelf waiting to become soup. Jim’s eyes jumped to the back, where he noted two bottles of Guinness that awaited him at the end of the day. His reward. He grabbed an orange from a glass bowl in the center of their kitchen table, which was covered with a well-scrubbed red oilcloth. At the door off the living room, from the first of seven hooks, he grabbed his worn gray parka and slid it on. The cold lining made him shiver. He pulled on his galoshes and donned the cap that had become his trademark — a flat cap the color of a burnt pork chop that he wore everywhere but in church. Gloves in hand, he dashed out the door and down an outside flight of concrete steps into the frigid morning.

He had more kids, more little snappers, to tend to now — 1,668 of them from among the 4,500 families at Our Lady of the Angels. He was the church’s custodian, janitor, handyman, and keeper of church properties, which included the school, rectory, convent, and a parish center. His first job that day would be to stoke the furnace so the classrooms would be warm by the time the kids arrived. Having suffered through many Chicago winters, his body told him the temperature was in the twenties. Still reasonable; it could have been worse. Sometimes when the temperature plummeted to below zero he’d be up and off in the middle of the night to feed the school’s ancient furnace.

Under the gray concrete sky he passed homes similar to his own on Hamlin Avenue, yellow brick two-flats, interspersed by a few brick apartment buildings, set off the sidewalk by rectangular patches of lawn and trees, now bare and glittering with ice under the streetlamps. The windows in most homes were dark, with shades pulled and porch lights on. Lost in idle thought, or sometimes thinking nothing at all, Jim headed south toward Augusta Boulevard, watching the traffic lights turn from green to red and back again, counting his steps between light changes, wondering where the few cars out that time of morning were off to, being entertained by the plumes of his own breath forming in front of him. Jim Raymond wasn’t a philosophical man given to deep thought.

It had been twenty years since he moved into the Our Lady of the Angels neighborhood from Holland, Michigan, 150 miles around the U shape of Lake Michigan. He was the kid in the hardscrabble Raymond family who wanted to strike out, who wanted to head to the big city, the toddlin’ town that Al Capone, speakeasies, and jazz had made famous; and to the dismay and admiration of those who never thought he’d do it, one day he hopped on a train and was gone. His new neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side suited him just fine. Five miles from the Loop, it was a compatible blend of Italians, Irishmen, and Poles — first and second generation immigrants from war-torn Europe, now owners of small businesses and blue collar workers like himself who were linked by dreams of a better life for their children. Their families attended Mass at Our Lady of the Angels on Sunday, and their kids all went to school there. In the summertime the parents sat on their stoops after supper, gossiping and telling jokes in broken English, Italian, Polish, while their kids watched for the ice cream cart, played hide-and-seek, and captured fireflies in jars. In winter the men bet on poker games, the women played canasta, the priests stopped over for Sunday dinner, and the kids, their wobbly ankles laced in ice skates, hitched rides on the back of delivery trucks. It was a neighborhood where everyone looked out for one another.

Jim Raymond never regretted the move, mainly because that was where he met Ann, who was by then as tight as a raisin in a muffin in her neighborhood. Ann had graduated from Our Lady of the Angels in the 1930s, and she and Jim met at a church carnival, the Ferris wheel lights flickering above them, the popcorn-scented air charged with romance. Together they created a good life with their seven kids, and if he didn’t compare it to the lives of wealthier people in fancier neighborhoods, he considered himself luckier than most.

Today, December 1, marked the first weekday of Advent and the beginning of the official rush toward Christmas. He’d need to pull dozens of boxes of church and school decorations out of storage. He’d have to touch up the paint on the largest camel in the life-size Nativity scene he would assemble at the side altar. Did he have enough paint? Did he have enough heavy-gauge wire to fasten the thirty-five-foot evergreen trees to the eyebolts he’d drilled into the plaster walls years ago?

Would those eyebolts hold another year? He had three weeks to prepare, and he’d start tomorrow. Today, he expected, would be a pretty typical Monday. There was the furnace to stoke, the floor to mop in the rectory, and the annual clothing drive to wind up. The meeting hall in the building on Hamlin was already filled with hundreds of bags of clothing donated by the parishioners for the Catholic Salvage Bureau. The truck would arrive at about two. He’d call Sister Florence, the principal, and she’d get some eighth-grade boys to help him load the truck.

He crossed Augusta and turned right on Iowa Street. The sky was a washed-out yellow, the same color as the lights that glimmered in the windows of the convent across the street from the church. The nuns were early risers. He could picture them quick-stepping down the hallway in their ankle-lengthblack habits, boxy hoods, and fluted white collars, their arms folded and hands primly tucked inside the sleeves of the opposite arms, the only sound around them the swish of their skirts and the jingle of their rosary beads. They’d be walking single file from their chapel to the refectory, where at the communal dining table they’d break their bread and their nighttime silence.

Jim Raymond was the only man, other than a doctor or confessor, who had access to those rooms, where he was called upon to fix a broken chair or an embarrassing plumbing problem that even the most tenacious member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary couldn’t correct. Once he was called upon in the middle of the night to capture a bat that had swooped from the attic into the hallway leading to their private rooms. As he was stretching up to whack the creature with a broom, he’d caught a glimpse of young Sister Clare Therese in her nightgown, got a hint of her bosom and a look at her shorn auburn hair curled around her frightened face. You dames are all alike, afraid of a little creature, he wanted to tease as he would have in the daytime, but in the hallway of the sacrosanct convent, with paintings of saints and Jesus on the walls, he thought better of it. He imagined what his Old World mother would have said if she knew her Jimmy had been anywhere close to seeing a nun in her nightie. Keep your Irish trap shut. And he politely looked away. Like their confessors and physicians, the good sisters knew Mr. Raymond could be counted on for discretion.

He passed the church and turned right into an icy gangway between the rectory and the school. He made a mental note to spread salt on the walkways so the kids wouldn’t break their necks. The kids would be friskier today after an extended Thanksgiving weekend of stuffing themselves with sugar and gallivanting around the neighborhood to movie theaters and frozen ponds for ice-skating.

He unhooked the ring of twenty or so keys from his belt and entered his domain, the boiler room. An empty thirty-gallon cardboard drum sat in the shadows next to the door. Near the end of every school day, around two thirty, a parade of boys would come loping down the steps to fill the giant drum with papers from their classrooms. Tomorrow he’d burn the papers. He always burned paper on Tuesdays.

The boiler room was like a claustrophobic cave. One breath and the cold, concentrated smell of carbon filled his lungs. He waved his hand above his head and searched for the frayed light cord attached to a single overhead lightbulb. One click and a weak light illuminated his work space. It was a tight and dank room with sooty floors and grimy plaster walls. Lining those walls were shelves that held cardboard boxes of greasy gaskets and valves, and hooks that held shovels, pokers, and a calendar depicting the flaming Sacred Heart of Jesus. The last hung above a stained sink in the corner, where some kid had placed it because it seemed appropriate to the surroundings.

Against one wall was a mountain of gleaming black coal, heaped almost as high as the trapdoor in the ceiling where it came sluicing down a chute from the delivery truck. Clinging to the opposite wall was the huge black cast iron furnace that looked like some grotesque, hungry monster in a scary movie. Jim’s job was to keep the fire inside the furnace burning. He shucked off his parka and tossed his street gloves on a table.

He pulled on his leather work gloves, by now molded like claws to the curvature of his fingers, grabbed a shovel, and yanked open the furnace door. The hinges of the door creaked. The embers were red hot, but not yet hot enough. Already his eyes burned, his skin itched, and hot sweat dripped down his temples and cheeks. It was time to feed the monster.