Father. They are the biggest liars in us. They make truth what we want it to be.” He looked to the front of the shop as the door opened again, and flung his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. “Look what this one is bringing me. An accordion. He will want a fortune for it, ivory and mother-of-pearl. And if he cannot redeem it, where will I find a street singer?”
McMahon said, “I must go. There will be a memorial tonight in the building where he lived. No funeral until the police are good and ready. I’ve promised to say a few prayers. You would be welcome, Mr. Rosenberg.” He wrote the address on a card the pawnbroker gave him.
“Will you play Bach and Mahler?”
“If there’s anything to play it on, I might.”
“He would like it better than the prayers. And to tell you the truth, Father, I would too.”
But Rosenberg did not go to the Morales apartment, and Father McMahon did not play Bach or Mahler. A visit to the stoop of 987 in the daytime was quite different from going up those steps at nine-thirty on a warm Saturday night. The sound of an electric guitar twanged through the building, and somewhere a Calypso singer was tuned in at top volume, and above it all, a cacophony of voices, one pitched higher than another.
A dim light shone in the windows of the Phelan apartment, but there was no light at all in the vestibule. He had to follow the voices. The ceiling bulbs in the hallway were caged in wire mesh. He began a slow, reluctant ascent. The smell of disinfectant was so strong it hurt his nostrils, yet it could not quite kill the undersmell of the communal bathroom on each floor. Behind a closed door a child was crying. He could just hear it through the raucous din, the loneliest of sounds, and one that angered him. A gang of teenagers thundered down the steps. He backed against the wall to let them pass, the girls rattling and sparkling with cheap jewelry, scented with heavy perfume, the boys with glossy hair and clattering, highly shined boots. He recognized Anita and called out after her.
“Upstairs, Father. Everybody.”
On the second flight of stairs a fat grandmother was lumbering up, one painful step at a time, and at every pause she shouted a gutter invective, not for what was going on, but because it was going on without her.
A man leaned over the banister and baited her.
“Bastard!” She shook her fist at him.
He and another came down the steps and between them hauled her up. On the last step he groped her fat buttocks and goosed her. She shrieked and swung her arm around on him, almost tumbling them all down the stairs.
And among these people in so short a time, McMahon thought, Muller had found a welcome. He was far less confident of his own and he had been in the parish for eleven years.
But the women made way for him, pushing their men to the side, black men and brown and sallow-white, almost as varied as the colors of their shirts. Mrs. Morales shouted the two crowded rooms into silence. Someone turned off the record player, the last few notes wilting away. The guitarist was in another part of the building and someone closed the door on him. It helped a little. As Mrs. Morales led McMahon toward the inner room, he noticed Dan Phelan sitting in a corner, a glass in both hands, his eyes on the glass and his face as taut as the fingers around the glass. His wife sat on the arm of his chair. She was made up with her old flair, defiance in every feature.
A sideboard was spread with food in the second room, but it was not toward it that Carlos’ mother drew him. It was toward a small round table where a candle burned alongside a shoebox. A chill ran down the priest’s back when he saw what was in the box: a waxen colored doll laid out as in a coffin, a doll clothed as a man and made from child to man by the crude gluing on of a black beard. When his first shock was spent, McMahon realized that it was probably Anita who had given a swatch of her hair to the making of the beard.