By: Phil Temples
“There are one or two things I need to set straight before I go, and seein’ as how I ain’t got much time, that’s why I asked my young’un to fetch you at this ungodly—I mean–at this late. . . Well, you know what I mean.
“It’s been a good life mostly. My wife and me have had four wonderful children, and they’ve all grown up and moved away. All except Adam. He’s the one living with us—the one which fetched you. Always been a little slow. But happy! He’s always easy to make laugh, and he never complains much. . . . Where was I, now?
“I was born in Chicago in 1865, just two days after our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth for freeing the colored folk. I never met Mr. Lincoln, but I reckon I would’a liked him a great deal. My daddy didn’t much care for him. Daddy didn’t like very many people. He never smiled much. Not at me, anyway. Occasionally, when he wasn’t coughing and drinking, he would reach down and pet me on the head and ruffle my hair and say, ‘Mickie, when you grow up, don’t be like me. You amount to somethin’, okay?’ I told’em I thought he was somethin’. I remember his expression. He would get real sullen-like and shake his head like he was disagreein’ with himself. Then, he’d remember that he said it out loud to me, and me hearin’ it. Then he’d haul off and smack me—real hard like. Just for hearin’ him, I guess.
“Now, I’ve not always been a faithful husband to the missus. In my younger days, I used to got out drinkin’ with the boys after my shift and get shit-face—ah . . . sorry, Father–intoxicated, and I’d go out whorin’ around. But I was a good provider, and I never beat my kids or my wife, neither. You could ask Amelia that yourself, ‘cept she passed last winter. Bless her soul.
“No, my real regrets come from when I was a mere lad–just six years old. It was the fall of 1871. The family had moved to the upper floor of a triple-decker over on DeKoven Street. There was lots of us Irish kids around those neighborhoods in the day. As you might expect, not all the citizens of Chicago was happy to see us around. I got spat on, and kicked my fair share if I wandered into the German or Italian neighborhoods. And the coloreds didn’t think too highly of us either. Course, that didn’t stop me and my buddies from wandering all around the city.
“Anyways, I was a skinny little runt. I was always the practical joker. A real comedian. Guess I practiced bein’ funny to distract my dad from when he was fixin’ to beat me for no good reason in particular. Sometimes it worked. I’d make a silly face and he’d forget what I had said or done to make him mad, and he’d start to laugh. He would grab his sides and begin to belly-laugh so hard, he would lose his grip on my arm and I’d slip away real fast. Other times, it didn’t work. I’d get beat twice as hard, prob’ly cause he knew what I was up to.
“My buddies used to pick on me, too. Sometimes they would throw rocks at me and I would stick my tongue out, and make funny faces, and dare them to try to hit me again. Sometimes I’d even let them hit me, so it would end quicker. But after a while they would usually get tired of throwing stuff at me, or calling me names or chasing me into the colored neighborhood. After a couple of days, I could be part of the gang again. If, they told me, I would agree to torment some poor animal.
“Once, I remember I threw a cat down a well. I told the gang we’d find out if the cat had used up all of its lives. God, we were such stupid little shitheads . . . sorry, I ain’t gonna apologize for my language this time, Father. It’s true. I was a stupid little shit. Pardon my French. To this day, I’ve never forgiven myself for what I did to those poor, defenseless animals. Just because I was tormented, that didn’t give me the right to inflict pain and suffering onto others – onto God’s creatures. I know it was wrong.
“I’m comin’ to the point here, Father. I need to be forgiven. Big time.
“Sometimes, when I couldn’t face getting smacked around at home, and the gang had rejected me and I had no where I could show my face, I’d sneak over to the neighbor’s barn down the street. They were a nice couple, just off the boat from County Cork a few years before my ma and paw. They’d saved enough money to buy a milkin’ cow from a farmer in Ciscero. When times were lean, they’d share the milk with all their neighbors. Anyhow, real nice people, you know?
“I’d sneak into the barn and ‘play’ with the animals. I’d chase their chicken and pluck some hind feathers out of its rump. Of course, the chickens would get real upset and squawk up a storm and the man or woman would come out to make sure no stray dog had gotten into the barn. I’d hide behind the hay bales until ole’ Patrick would go back inside. Neither of ‘em ever did catch me. I wish they had.
“I also did bad things to the cow. I’d pet it and reassure it, and I’d whisper in its ear, “I won’t let Paul or Johnnie or any of my gang hurt you.” Then I’d reach down and yank on its teats real hard. Other times, I’d pull its tail, or I’d poke a hay straw up its behind. Like I said, Father, I was a real shit.
“I guess things like that can land you in Hell or Purgatory if you don’t repent your sins while you still can, right?
“Things came to a head on the evening of October 8–an evening I’ll never forget. It was around eight o’clock. I was tormenting ole’ Jezebel—that’s what I called her—by poking a stick at her big, hanging udder. I had her trapped against the side of the stall and she was getting real pissed at me. I guess I was particularly angry that day. Dad had laid into me with his belt, and I remember the sting was still with me, all up and down my back and my behind. I kept pokin’ and pokin’ and . . . God forgive me, Father . . . I kept pokin’ and pokin’ and pokin’ and . . .
“Hand me my handkerchief please, would you, Father?
“After another minute, old Jeze plum kicked down the side of the stall and bolted. She knocked me down and damn near trampled me over.
“The next thing I knew, I was coming to. I see that old cow had knocked down a lantern and had lit the whole barn on fire. My God in Heaven! The O’Leary’s were gonna lose their whole barn on account of me bein’ a little shit.
“Well, Father, sadly, you know the rest of the story. Not only was that barn lost, but hundreds of souls were also lost that night. The whole City of Chicago went up in flames. To this day, nobody is the wiser as to how or why it happened. All ‘cause of me bein’ a little shit.
“So now you know, too, Father. You know the terrible guilt and sin I’ve been carrying around inside of me my whole life. I didn’t want to go to my grave without first making it right with the Creator.
“Father, tell me the truth, now: I know that Jesus forgave that thief up there on the crosses with him when they was crucifyin’ him. But he didn’t do anything nearly as bad as me, did he?
“I don’t mind tellin’ ya. I’m scared, Father. Do I have a snowball’s chance in Hell at redemption?”
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Phil Temples grew up in Bloomington, Indiana but has lived in and around Boston for the past thirty years. He works as a computer systems administrator at a Boston area university. For over ten years, Phil has written primarily flash and short sci-fi/fantasy. His stories have appeared (or will soon appear) in several online journals, including: Bewildering Stories, The Zodiac Review, The World of Myth, InfectiveINk, Daily Frights 2013, Bleeding Ink Anthology, and Stupefying Stories. Phil recently produced a full-length murder-mystery novel, “The Winship Affair” which will be published by Blue Mustang Press in 2013. In addition to his writing activities, Phil is a singer in a garage band as well as an avid ham radio operator.