My first thought was, “How the hell did that thing get all the way down here?”
I was sitting on a bench, several stories underground, waiting for the Warminster Line to take me home when I noticed a fat, black-throated pigeon hopping around looking for specks of food. The bird had two legs but only one good foot: the right foot consisted of a single claw. Nonetheless, it navigated the train platform like the professional bottom feeder it was. You didn’t get that chunky by missing meals.
I decided to trace my own steps to the train station to see how a bird might have found its way down here: through the revolving door of Jefferson Hospital onto 10th Street; down a long block to Market Street and, once across Market, entering SEPTA’s Market East Station.
The entrance opened to a three-tiered mall: ground-level, a second floor and an extensive underground food-a-rama. I always took a left, walked 50 feet and then took the down escalator, walked across an underground convergence point and finally went down a set of steps to Platform One where my train always made its scheduled stops and starts. How could a bird do all that?
“How the hell did that thing get all the way down here?” I wondered again to myself.
As I watched and puzzled more about the bird—every living thing needs water—where the hell does the bird get water down here?—I tried to calculate how long a creature could survive without fluids. How the hell is it going to escape? Of course, I knew it wasn’t, any more than I was.
Today’s’ infusion went as well as could be expected. The second worst part was the time spent in the waiting room—talk about an apt name—listening for my name to be called. The worst was finally hearing my name called and being slowly led back to the infusion room. I always tried to get the reclining chair closest to the restrooms. My bladder had taught me well: I was a frequent pee-er. In the few weeks since I started my treatment “program,” I’d become quite expert at steering my IV pole to the men’s room.
The nurses and other staff were, without exception, wonderful folks. I didn’t mind their idle “How are you feeling today” chatter. I knew they meant it in a professional way, but not more than that, and that’s as it should be. I knew I’d get my blood drawn and my WBC’s could be totaled up to see if I “qualified” to receive another round of the intravenous poison that kept me alive. If I passed, I’d be given two Tylenols for some reason before getting needled up with the grandest stuff imaginable: I loved the gradual helplessness that overcame me. Once the introductory intravenous was completed and the real medicine hit, I’d hardly notice.
My favorite nurse was Maryanne. She was married with twin girls. Lived in New Jersey —possible husband problems. During my chemo sessions, I often thought about “offering her my hand in marriage” if she ever dumped him. I pictured myself as a Sir Galahad- type, saving her and saving myself. For that very reason, I pretty much kept to myself: what little they knew of me was in my chart. It was better for all that way.
And what was to know anyway? Good, middle class Irish-Scottish family. Loving parents. Lots of friends. Altar boy. Ah, that’s where it all started to go wrong.
Fr. Durbin was a holy man of sterling reputation. Extremely popular with the St. Joe nuns, who really ran school. Handsome—made huge impressions on all of the families during the annual Parish Visitations. First rate fund raiser. High flier—going places, that much was certain. Short sermons, said a brisk Mass. Handsome in his dark hair and smile and white vestments. Coached the school basketball team and ran the altar boys.
He got me alone one day. Never did recover. Still haven’t.
High school was a beery mist. Got out, signed on with the Marines. Received wonderful training on how to kill and then a sweet trip to Southeast Asia. Picked up several toxins while there: whores, ears, weed of all kinds, beer and some H. Got kicked out with a “dishonorable” in my 11th month after rearranging the face of a newbie officer whose stupidity had gotten three guys killed. But my family didn’t care since I got home “safe and sound.”
Stumbled through various jobs. The longest was driving people to and from the airport for a limo service. The vehicles were more limes than limos.
Married a good woman who I’d met in a bar. That didn’t last long although she really tried. It wasn’t her fault that her black hair sometimes reminded me of the good Fr. Durbin. How sick is that?
Life’s tempo ground on until patches of rashes started to appear on my back and neck. What the sam hell was this stuff?
After a bunch of tests, the ultimate diagnosis was a blood cancer of some kind I’d never even heard of. Already had several rounds of chemo that didn’t seem to be working all that well. Now the doctor was talking about a stem cell transplant, but he was having a hard time with his patient on this score.
My sad reverie was interrupted by the voices of two well dressed men, waiting for the same train as me. I glanced up and them, then back down and then quickly back up. I know that one face. I know that voice.
A moment of shock wore off. I looked back at the men and stared hot at the one on the left. He must have sensed something because he turned and glanced at me. He didn’t recognize me, but I knew him: Fr. Durbin.
I reached back to recall that, according to the newspapers, he was now Monsignor Durbin. He suffered a brief period of bad PR when newspaper stories mentioned him in connection with the pedophile operation that had blossomed under the noses of two popular but now deceased Cardinals of the Church.
I couldn’t recall whether Durbin got off entirely or was merely allowed to retire. But I didn’t care: the evil bastard was right in front of me now.
I got up and moved a few steps away from the two men. Painful images fused my mind and, combined with the chemo, made me dizzy for a second.
I heard a train approaching and noticed the pigeon suddenly take flight down the tunnel as if to beat the incoming locomotive. I realized in that instant that the bird was returning to where it had come—north towards the Temple University Station, towards the light a few miles down the track, where it would emerge from its catacomb.
As the train moved closer, I walked back to Durbin and, together, I helped him meet the train face first. The train’s headlight shined the brightest kind of white.
John McCann was born in the Kensington section of Philadelphia where many scenes in the first Rocky film were shot. He holds degrees from St. Joseph’s and Villanova Universities. John is a Vietnam Vet. He was a 1-A-0 conscientious objector and served as a medic with the 34th Engineers, stationed at Phu Loi and the Mekong Delta area. Retired now after a 40-year career with the U.S. government, John was also an adjunct instructor in management at St. Joseph’s for 25 years. A life-time dog lover, John now lives in Buckingham, PA with his wife and several wonderful cats. The Brady Program is the last book in his Philly Crime Trilogy.