Excerpt from Magic Happens, a novel by Cathy Corcoran.
One Holy Thursday when I was a kid, my father hit the number 5-2-5-0, all four numbers exact, a two-thousand-dollar hit—a lot of money in South Boston in those days.
It was long before the Massachusetts Lottery came into existence, and J.J. got his winnings in cash from his favorite bookie, a guy who ran his business from the back room at a small grocery store up on Broadway.
Ma and Maryellen and I were waiting for him to get home from work so we could visit seven churches for Holy Thursday. You could hit seven churches without ever leaving Southie, and you got a plenary indulgence for your efforts.
When J. J. didn’t show up for dinner, Ma just pretended nothing was wrong, though I could tell she was boiling mad underneath. She fed us Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, bundled us into our coats, and off we went to Saint Augustine’s for our first visit.
The streets were like a carnival, filled with people visiting the churches. Ma spoke to everyone she knew, smiling and nodding as though everything were just fine.
Later, J. J. swore he was only minutes behind us, visiting Saint Bridget’s and Saint Vincent’s and the Gate of Heaven, trying hard to catch up with us and tell us about 5-2-5-0, but he ran into someone he knew at every single church and, the good news having traveled fast, what else could a poor man do but buy each of the boys a little nip to celebrate a chilly Holy Thursday evening?
He caught up with us on the steps of Saint Peter’s Lithuanian church at about eight o'clock, and waved a fistful of twenty-dollar bills in Ma’s face.
“Kiss me, Mary Margaret,” he cried. “We’re rich!”
I could tell Ma was furious, but Bobo Flaherty and Fatty Costello were standing on either side of J. J., grinning like idiots.
They all smelled like whiskey.
“I was worried sick about you,” Ma hissed.
J. J. threw his arm around Ma’s shoulder, and came at her with a big sloppy kiss. He lost his balance when Ma turned her head, and down he went, tumbling down the church steps, cracking his head on at least two of the granite stairs on the way down. He landed on the sidewalk with a sickening thud.
I was sure he was dead, but no. He came to after a hasty taxi ride to City Hospital where they diagnosed him with a concussion and two broken ribs.
It didn’t even slow him down. J. J. drank for another twenty years before Ma got a call one day from a foreman at the Gillette plant, telling her that her husband had been rushed to Mass General, unconscious.
Ma left a message for me at work, and Sandi, the sales secretary, tracked me down at the Copley Plaza, where I was having a boozy lunch with Mimi Blackstone.
I threw my American Express card on the table and ran for the Dartmouth Street door, leaving Mimi with a plateful of veal Oscar and a bottle of chenin blanc. By the time I got to Mass General, J. J. was sitting up in bed, chatting with the nurses.
“It was just a little spell, darlin’,” J. J. said when I rushed in with the Copley Plaza’s linen napkin still clutched in my hand.
The doctors gave Ma a valium shot for her nerves that day. They told us J. J. had suffered an alcoholic seizure.
“No more liquor,” the resident said as we stood at J. J.’s bedside. “If you drink, you die.”
J. J. nodded and held his right hand over his heart.
“I promise God and the Blessed Mother I’ll never touch another drop,” he said.
That promise lasted a couple of weeks before J. J. got drunk and slipped into a coma on the living room couch.
They rushed him to the Carney Hospital, Ma in the back of the ambulance with the EMTs, rubbing J. J.’s wrists, whispering in his ear, trying to wake him up.
She did that for three months while J. J. lingered, unconscious.
Ma was a saint, everyone said.
She took two buses and a train to get to the hospital every morning, then sat with J. J. until the nurses sent her down to the cafeteria for a sandwich and a cup of tea.
Most nights she ate dinner there, too—soggy meatloaf or creamed chicken that had languished on the steam tables for hours.
“What difference does it make what I eat?” Ma said. “I am here for my husband.”
She held his hand and laid cool cloths on his forehead and spooned ice chips into his flaccid mouth.
One day I walked in and found Ma squeezed into the high, hospital bed, stretched out alongside J. J. She was singing “Tura Lura Lura.”
I was stunned. I had never seen Ma and J. J. in the same bed, had never seen them kissing. But there was Ma, looking like some movie star—like some exhibitionist, like someone else’s mother up in that narrow hospital bed.
“What are you doing?” I said to her. My voice sounded hollow, like an echo in the overheated hospital room.
“I am comforting my husband,” she said.