Holy Roller


Mark Lyons

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.

      On first look, Anthony don’t look special, your basic white bird. But I assure you he wasn’t no dumb street pigeon grubbing for handouts.  I climb up here every once and awhile to check up on him, make sure he’s secure and all.  Feel that breeze. Helps me breathe, like things are all right. Look close there, see that breast, how big it is?  Like a goddamn weightlifter. That’s because he was part homer.  I’m talking English homer, the kind they race a thousand miles in three days, breed ‘em for speed and endurance.   Did you know the Army used these little mothers in World War Two?  On account of the radios and walkie-talkies weren’t too reliable in those days.   Paratroopers in the Signal Corps--pigeoneers--carried them in a special vest made by the Maiden Form Bra Company. I dreamed I was offing Hitler in my Maiden Form. Took ‘em to the front and tied messages to their legs in tiny tin cans, then sent them over enemy lines, through smoke and gunfire. The Krauts trained falcons to snatch them before they completed their mission.   Jerry-Falcon at one o’clock high! A feathered battle for the skies. Those babies were at the D-Day invasion, flew back home across the English Channel. Send reinforcements to east flank, many casualties.  Bearings lost, need coordinates.   Real heroes.  One even got a Purple Heart; I think he’s in some museum in Washington.  I’m going to visit him someday.   

      But that ain’t all.  I know Anthony’s dead, but if you look at how his neck’s cocked to one side you can still see it: that dizzy spinning look that rollers get.  He’s half roller, I bought him from a guy in Jersey.   Over there they got these contests to see whose bird can tumble the longest.  Use binoculars and stop watches, serious shit.  Big money.  Of course, if the bird hits the ground, they’re disqualified.  By and by they all die--get careless, or maybe their balance apparatus gets screwed up from all that spinning.  They get this crazy glazed look, like they can’t quite focus, their head tilted to one side.  Like that look that Johnny Bonecrusher Stompinato had when he hung up his gloves.   When they get that look, you know it’s just a matter of time, you should retire them to the coop.  But it’s in their blood: they ain’t happy if they ain’t rolling, like Johnny when he wasn’t boxing.  You’d have a miserable lousy bird on your hands pacing, fighting, plucking out its feathers, finally just withering away.  So you got to let them roll until they crash and burn.

      Before I lost my way in the desert, I had this girl, Mady: Madeline Elena Torrisi.  Mady was my girl on accounta Anthony, I’m sure of that. She wasn’t exactly hot, but she was fine.  If you watched, if you really watched her, you’d notice how she walked, how she had class.  Not a strut, not shaking her stuff; more like a silky glide. She didn’t notice that guys were noticing, because there wasn’t no whistling or leering; somehow her walk made them respectful.  Not that she acted like she was too big for South Philly; but we knew South Philly was too small for her. This girl was going somewhere, only she hadn’t figured that part out yet.

      Me and Mady and my buddy Dante grew up around Ninth and Shunk.   We all got baptized and went to grade school at Stella Maris--the ugliest parish church you ever seen.  Gray stone blocks, like a giant warehouse for souls. The damn Jennings & Armbuster ball bearing factory over on Third is more inspiring.  Ain’t even got a steeple or a belfry.   They play recorded bells blasted from giant loudspeakers hanging under the eaves, for Christ sake. Every hour a concert for Our Man.

                ♫ Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
                          The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.

      Rock on.

      But here’s what saves that old hag of a church: the most beautiful Virgin in all Philly--Stella Maris--the Star of the Sea. She’s more’n twenty feet tall, perched on top of the church--where the belfry would be if there was one-- looking out over the Walt Whitman Bridge, the Navy Yard and the Vet, down the Delaware, all the way past Cape May to the Atlantic. She’s silver from head to toe, her long gown covered with stars, even stars in her hair. Even stars on her sandals. A Beacon, Father Adolphus calls her. But she ain’t your run-of-the mill Our Lady of Sorrows with tears dripping down her cheeks. And she don’t look all virginal with the Baby Jesus in her arms. Get this: in her arms she cradles this two-foot-long silver clipper ship, three masts, sails flying, the wind at its back. That ship’s tucked right up there in her cleavage. Like her Holy Mother breasts are a shelter from the storm for all lost sailors and voyagers.  Beautiful.

      Anyways, Mady: so then in high school, junior year--we both went to South Philly High over on Broad-- I noticed how she’d developed that walk.  So I got this thing for her, big time; but she wasn’t paying me no mind, I wasn’t even in the ball game. She was taking algebra and trigonometry and physics and shit, on the road to college. For me, metal shop and business. She worked at the library on weekends while I was pumpin’ gas.  In the hallway at school when she walked by, the best I could do was stare at my feet. 

      “Forget it, man,” Dante’d say when he caught me checking her out. “’Sides, her father would rip off your balls, he even seen you even gazing at her. That bald fucker is older than old school, you’d think he’d just walked off the boat. Other than school and church and her library gig, he don’t let her out of the house. The hotter she looks, the tighter the leash. The old man ain’t no fool, he knows we ain’t nothing but a buncha dago dogs prowling for pussy.  College, marriage, then maybe he’ll let her husband touch his daughter. Fuckin’ waste, you ask me.”

      One day after school I’m taking Anthony over to the Navy Yard to let him do his tumbling thing, then fly around for an hour or so before heading home; keeping him in shape.  Anthony’s in the basket I got strapped to the back of my bike and Mady’s out in front of Argento’s Deli.  “Hey, Nunzio,” and I’m like, “Hey.”  “What’s in the basket?” she says, and I say, “You wouldn’t be interested.” “Try me,” she says.  So I do: I start up on my man Anthony, about his tumbling and homing.  Now I’m in a groove and do my rap about livin’ life: how rollers are meteors, street pigeons are moons.  “So are you a meteor or a moon?” I ask, and I know right there the way she looks at me I’m on first base.  Then I tell her I tried to take out a life insurance policy on Anthony, but there wasn’t no takers. She laughs, and I’m thinkin’ she’s thinkin’ this guy’s funny too.

      “Wanna watch?” I say.  I can tell she’s contemplatin’, like a fish checking out the bait. “No thanks, I have to work on my English paper, I should be at home.”  I pull Anthony out of his basket and hold him in front of my face, like he’s a feathered mask. Please, Miss Mady, come watch me fly. She looks down the street, like’s she’s checking out to see if the old man’s watching. Chomp. Hook, line and sinker.  “All right. Thirty minutes.”

      So Mady comes over to the Navy Yard and watches me and Anthony do our thing.  I add a little drama and whatnot, talking to Anthony quiet and kind of affectionate (he’s sensitive with animals, too) then throwing him into the air, not just opening the basket and leaving him take off like usual.  Well Anthony puts on quite a show, me and him are a team working on Mady.  He does four or five warm-up laps to stretch his muscles and get his bearings, then he starts climbing, circling higher and tighter, at least five hundred feet.  Mady’s lost him, “Where’s he at?” she says, and I point him out, a speck against the sky.  Suddenly Anthony stops flying, like somebody shot him: Bam!  His head dips and he tucks his wings and feet.  Mady breathes in real hard as Anthony goes into his roll, tight somersaults over and over, straight down.  There’s this whistle as he picks up speed, the air rushing through his tail feathers, and every time he rolls you can see the flash of sun reflected in his orange eyes.  He hits at least seventy before he pulls up forty feet above us.  Mady does this hand clap thing that drives me crazy, and Anthony goes into a climb for an encore. “So you want to go to a movie tonight?” I ask. 

      That’s all she wrote. The rest is history.  Big time.

      And her old man never had a clue. Never blinked when Mady told him she joined the Stella Stars over at the church, had rehearsals on Monday and Wednesday nights; or that she had to spend afternoons in the library working on her big paper.  

      Come senior year, her family thought she’d just apply to Community and Temple, go to college here in Philly and live at home. But Mady’d secretly applied to Penn State, got accepted. Scholarship, too.  Shit hit the fan at home when she announced that she was heading to Happy Valley in the fall.  When he hears, Dante tells me, “Damn, my man, your girlfriend just grew some serious balls. Before she met you she was Daddy’s Angel. Now lookit her: sneaking off to do the nasty with her secret lover in the backseat of his best buddy’s ’95 Z28 Camaro.  Heading out of town like there’s no looking back. Hmm hmm! You are definitely Daddy’s Nightmare!”

      After graduation I got to thinking about meteors and moons, how besides Anthony and Mady I was dying in South Philly. Nineteen, still living with my Old Lady, selling programs at the Vet and pumping gas on the graveyard at Angelo’s Texaco. Get off work at eight in the morning, crash ‘til three, tip a couple beers with Dante or my Viet buddy Minh at Parnelli’s Tap Room, shower, hang with Mady, then back to the gas station.  My only wheels was a ten-year-old three-speed Schwinn Dante gave me when he got his Chevy. That was it: that was my life.  Definitely dead end. 

      And Mady was starting to give me grief. “Nunzio, are you going to pump gas all your life?”  “Nunzio, here’s a program that pays you to go to college if you promise to teach for two years—you like kids.” Or, “Here’s an ad for becoming an electrician. Takes eighteen months. Pays good, and you never run out of work.” One day she says, “Where are we going, Nunzio? Where we going?”

      So, hey, the message of the Marine recruiter on Broad Street sounded good to me: get dressed up and look sharp, join the Signal Corps and learn serious shit about communications technology--the wave of the future--, free trips to places I’d never heard of, out in four with a guaranteed college education.  Yessir.  A goddamn dream.  So a month later I clinked beers with my buddies at Parnelli’s, gave Dante the keys to the coop so’s he’d look after Anthony, and made love with Mady--candles and all. I was off to see the world and she was off to Penn State. “I’m proud of you Nunzio,” she says. And, damn, I knew she was.

      Early the next morning I jumped a bus for Fort Gordon, Georgia.  Mady came down to say goodbye.  When the driver started the engine, I handed her something I’d been hangin’ on to: one of Anthony’s tail feathers. She brushed the back of my hand with the feather, then brushed her cheek.   I’ll never forget that.

      Then she gave me a Saint Anthony Medal to wear in Iraq. “Patron Saint of travelers,” she says. “Oh, yeah, the lost, too. You ever get lost, Nunz, he’ll bring you home.”

      Ten weeks later I was amassed with 100,000 troops on the border of Iraq, preparing for the assault that would save the world from weapons of mass destruction.      

      I shit you not, this is a true story.  You know about the siege of Baghdad, right?  How we had all this amazing equipment, pin-point lazer-directed rockets and bombs, could drop ‘em down a chimney, guaranteed no collateral damage.   American ingenuity at its finest.  In Basic they prepared us for the deadly agents that they were sure Uncle Saddam was going to dump on us.   We had high-tech gas masks with $200 canisters, drilled over and over until we could get them on in 12 secs.  We had HumVees equipped with super sensors that could detect nerve gas, one part per million.  Before heading over the border to Iraq we spent a week in the Kuwait desert, one final run-through to make sure all systems were go.  Come to find out, the gas sensors weren’t too reliable when tested in battlefield conditions--they got all clogged up with sand dust kicked up by the tanks. A-rab sand was a whole different ball game.

      So they needed a back-up. One of the corporals, this beanpole from West Virginia, told how his daddy used to carry canaries down in the mine to detect the gas—when the birds stopped singing it was time to head north.  Canaries is too frail for the dessert, the brass figured.  The first sergeant, a banty rooster Puerto Rican who used to fight cocks, said they were the toughest cabrons around. So they came up with this plan to use Rhode Island Red roosters as sentinels. They needed Sentinel Poultry Specialists to take care of the birds and march with them into combat, give the word to the C.O. the minute one of them croaked. Given my experience with pigeons, who are officially “poultry,” I was considered an expert.  In no time I was in command of ten Reds in cages strapped on top of five HumVees, and on March 20 our unit headed out over the desert towards Baghdad in 110 degree heat.  Every half hour I’d check the cages and, sure enough, another damn rooster had croaked.  I’d inform the C.O., he’d shout out  Everyone strap your masks, on the double! and all hell and panic would break loose.  I had serious doubts about there being any gas, so one time I kept my mask off.   Sure enough, the pathetic birds were dying from the heat.

      “You know, pigeons are much tougher than those pussy chickens,” I says to the First Sergeant in charge of gas warfare.  “Street pigeons are the baddest.  They’re uglier then hell and they ain’t got no class, but growing up scratching out a living on the asphalt of big cities toughens them up.”  So on day two of the March to Baghdad we used a pigeon as our gas sentry, and sure enough when the sun went down that little mother was still standing. So I was sent to Kuwait City with a special unit to snatch 200 heat-hardened pigeons off the streets, bring them back to the front.  So hot my boots stuck to the asphalt, while those little fuckers went around barefoot pecking crumbs like they was walking on grass.  Women all covered in black, beady eyes staring at me through those slits while I stuffed the birds into cages, like they was thinking I’m going to cook them up for dinner.

      In sixteen days we drove Saddam Hussein and his buddies out of town, faster than Sherman’s March to the Sea.  No doubt who the mightiest motherfuckers in the world were.  April 5, 2003: after the Abrams tanks, the first vehicle to enter Baghdad with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was a HumVee with two gray pigeons up top and me riding shot-gun.  I have to admit, I was flying high. The greatest day of my life.

      A month after we rolled into Baghdad I turned the pigeons loose, given as the war was pretty much over, ‘cept for a few skirmishes and hot spots.  At least that’s what the Brass was telling us. That night I wrote Mady, telling her mission accomplished, I’d be home soon. 

      It took more than eleven months before I knocked on Mady’s door.  Now I’m back in Philly working the pumps at Angelo’s, she’s home from college on vacation.  I came back from ‘Dad wearing a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and a Combat Action Ribbon.  No scars or shrapnel, nothing you could see. But it was like my navigation system was out of whack, like I’d lost my sense of direction. There are things they don’t prepare you for in basic training. Things you see. Things you smell. You hear. Things you do, in your March to Victory. Things you bring home and never get rid of.  Like the desert sand that sticks inside your nose and ears and under your nails. You think you can live with it, but it’s always there, reminding you. You dream of coming home a hero, but you just come home different.  People notice. My commanding officer noticed--he’d seen eyes like mine before. Like you can’t stand to look anymore, at anything. So you turn your eyes away and act like you’re listening; but you’re not really listening, neither.  One day I couldn’t stand to look anymore, so I locked myself in the latrine. I could hear them calling my name for five hours, they thought I’d gone AWOL. Finally when it got dark I came out.  “Son, I think we should send you home,” said my CO.   “You mean a little R and R?” “No, I mean an honorable discharge. Some soldiers get cooked faster than others in this desert. You did your duty, Private, it’s time to move on with your life.”  

      Semper Fucked.

      Mady and me got back together. She noticed. How I kept glancing a way, like there was something behind her. “Nunzio, are you listening to me?” No tears, no drama or whatnot, no nothing. The dessert had sucked it all out of me, like when you pour salt on a slug.  “You got to stop brooding so much,” she’d say. “Talk to me.”  But no way.  She tried to get me to see someone over at the VA, but I said I got nothin’ to say.  I’ll give her credit, she hung in there, taking me to movies and Genos for steaks, buying tickets for the Phillies.  She reminded me how we fell in love, “Say, Nunz, you want to go over to Jersey and get another roller, you know, like maybe a Mrs. Anthony? Like maybe an Antoinette?”  That made me smile. But I looked at pigeons different.  Gimme time,” I says to her, “I’ll come around.” And she did.  But then time ran out.  Can’t blame her for moving on--like she’s got to live her life. 

      The end of the summer she went back to school. I don’t remember even saying good-bye.

      Anthony didn’t last too long after I got back. Dante didn’t work him much when I was gone--mostly just fed him. I could see the sign: my bird had plucked most of the feathers from his chest, his breast bone sticking out under the skin like the keel of a boat. He was dying to roll, being cooped up so long. So I started taking him over to the Navy Yard. But he wasn’t himself, he rolled like he wasn’t sure what way was up, like he’d lost the horizon. Instead of coming to me he’d set on top of a telephone pole, trying to figure it out. Then he’d take off and try another dive, but after a couple of rolls he’d pull out of it.  I knew it was just a matter of time. One day his gyroscope conked and he caught a telephone wire. Pretty bad.  I recuperated him in his coop for five days then tossed him into the air to see what he could do. His right wing flapped like a banshee and his left wing just hung there at a crooked angle, him spinning around, crashing to the ground. Like a helicopter that’s been shot down. Then I saw the bone stickin’ out at his elbow.

      I did what I had to do.  Late at night down the gas station I kissed the back of Anthony’s head and put him in a plastic trash bag. I tied the bag around the exhaust of a ’98 Ford pick-up waiting for a tune-up and turned on the ignition. I held the bag until it stopped jumping. Then I climbed into the cab, switched off the key and fell asleep with the bag in my lap.

      About five months after we broke up, I seen Mady in front of Argento’s Deli, bitin’ on a hoagie.  I wasn’t ready for that. She looks at me like she means it and says, “How you doing, Nunzio?”

      “You know…coming along.  Still working at the Texaco, figurin’ out my next move.  N’you?

      “Ok. College is good. Home for Christmas. Think I’m going to be a teacher or maybe a counselor, something like that.”

      “Cool. We all figured you were going to make something of yourself.”

      “How’s my man Anthony?”

      “You ain’t heard?”

      So I made up a story about Anthony, about how he’d crashed at the Vet, at a Phillies game while they played the Star Spangled Banner.  Twenty thousand people cheering as the announcer directed their attention to the sky, watching Anthony shoot up to a thousand feet and then go into his dive, rollin’ over and over, the crowd going wild! Then twenty thousand moans as he crashes at second base, people crying and holding each other. 

      “You’re lying like a sinner at confession,” she says. This guy’s still so romantic, I’m thinkin’ she’s thinkin’. Then she looks at me, head cocked a little, like Anthony used to do.

      “You ok, Nunz?”

      “Yeah, I’m ok.        Maybe.        I don’t know.”

      She don’t say nothing, just looks at me.

      “Hey, Mady, I gotta go, get to work and such.” I’m staring at the ground like way back when.

      “Yeah, sure.”

      I head up Oregon, trying to walk casual.  Five more houses and I can disappear around the corner at 7th. 

      “Take care of yourself, Nunzio.”

      I nod, enough to let her know I hear, and keep on walking.  Finally I turn the corner. Out of sight.

      How you doin’ Nunzio? Jesus!

      I gotta find a stoop, sit.

      There was this once I did talk about it.  One night I’m closing down the pumps, Dante pulls up in his Camaro, says, “Hey, let’s tip a few at Parnelli's.”  About five beers later sitting at the bar Dante taps me on the knee, “Hey man you know we’re proud of you, how you did that; we should’ve all signed up to go over there and put that fucker down.  Anthony would’ve been proud of you, too, helping pigeons make their contribution.”  He chuckles at that. 

      I can’t say anything for awhile, then tell him. “You know what we did with those pigeons, the HumVee flock?”

      “No, man,” he says, “what’d you do?”

      “About six weeks into my tour we let ‘em go, one by one.”

      Dante nods, like he’s got the picture in his mind.

      “There was this Iraqi kid, maybe ten, maybe fifteen, you can’t tell with Arabs. He’s hanging around asking for cookies and pretzels and shit.  We called him Ahab. ‘Hey, Ahab,’ we says, ‘toss these birds into the air, one at a time’.”

      “That’s cool,” says Dante. “Like, Let freedom ring.”

      “Yeah,” I say. “Then six or seven of us blasted away with our M-14’s on automatic. Poof!  Nothing left, not even any feathers.  Obliterated like they never even existed.”

      “Damn,” says Dante, then don’t say nothing.

      I’m working on my sixth or seventh beer now. “That ain’t all.”

      “What ain’t all?” says Dante. 

      “That ain’t all we obliterated.”

      “You don’t have to tell me no more, man.” Like he’s trying to go easy on me.

      “A couple days before we let the pigeons go, we’re sitting in this square. It’s noon and you could fry a damn steak on the sidewalk so we’re all hanging under this awning. The speakers in the minaret of the mosque across the square start blaring out the call to prayers.

      Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar

      Allah is Great, Allah is Great”

      Anthony’s impressed. “You know how to talk Arab?”

      “That’s it,” I tell him. “Heard it five times a day, no matter where I was”.

      “People head for the mosque, the traffic stops. The square is totally silent, like the volume’s turned off.  Not a fucking sound. Even the dogs stop barking, like they’re praying, too. Muslim dogs. I’m sipping on a Coke, enjoying the peace and quiet, when all hell breaks loose, we’re taking fire from the fourth floor of this apartment building. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat from a AK-47, then a pause for the shooter to take aim then tat-tat-tat-tat-tat , over and over, then  tat-tat-tat-tat seems to be coming from the mosque too,  Shit, we’re surrounded! Then we notice that the second sound is lower, just the echo bouncing off the minaret. Two of our Abrams swivel their turrets around and let loose a shitload of 150 millimeter shells into the apartments. Instant rubble.  Then smoke. And flames.  Then this huge explosion, a butane gas tank, we figured.”

      “That’s war, man,” Dante says.

      “Twenty people fried, trapped in there.  Maybe one sniper.  Ain’t no way to describe the sound people make when they’re burning to death. Screaming. Howling.  Wailing.  All at the same time. Like a goddamn choir in hell.” 

      We both stare into our mugs, like you do when you got nothing to say. Or when  you said too much.  Dante holds up two fingers, the bar guy uncaps two Buds. Me and Dante take a long sip at the same time, both of us staring into the mirror.

      “There’s this kid, maybe five, runs out of the building and collapses, cooked like a French fry, his eyes burnt out, face gone. How the fuck can you scream when you got no face?  Now he’s sprawled there on the street, clothes burnt off, raw meat.  That smell… Silence. Thank god, the poor bastard’s dead. May he find his forty virgins in heaven. ‘Give me a hand, soldier,’ says a medic, ‘let’s get this little guy off the street and over to the morgue.’  We load him in a body bag, zip it up, start to drag it over to a HumVee transport. Suddenly the bag’s writhing and screeching, like there’s a god damn alligator in there. It won’t stop. I look around for a mother. Thank god no mother to hear this, she’s probably already smoked.  Writhing and screeching. No way this kid can live. No way. We pull the bag over to the HumVee, the medic unzips it three-four inches, signals to me. We slip the exhaust pipe into the opening.” 

      Dante stares up at the TV, Flyers are up two to one. He drops a couple of bucks for the bartender. 

      “There’s more,” I say.

      “Let me take you home, pal,” he says.

      Something I didn’t tell Mady, Dante neither…nobody:  what I done with Anthony after I gassed him. Like nobody asked, neither, like, “Hey Nunz, what’d you do with Anthony anyways?”

      So here’s what I done:

      First thing, I went to DeLeo’s Drugs and bought one of those plastic capsules that holds screws and pads and whatnot for fixing your glasses.  Then I wrote two numbers on a piece of paper:

      546744253—the ID number on my Marine dog tag.

      7648—the number on the body bag we put the kid in.

      I rolled it up real tight and slid it into the capsule, crewed the lid on good.

      Then, late on a Tuesday night, after choir practice and the catechism class had all gone home from Stella Maris, I snuck into the sanctuary. I carried Anthony in this canister pack from my days in the desert. He was pretty stiff. The christening bowl was up by the altar, still had some water in it. I dripped some water on Anthony’s head. Then I stretched out each of his wings and dipped them. I preened his long white wing feathers between my fingers, knitting them back together, like they was velcro. Last thing I done was wash his feet.  I could feel him relax. I laid the message capsule up against Anthony’s leg and wrapped a rubber band around it. Then I put him back in the pack.

      I slid around the altar with my flashlight and a ladder I found in the basement, and pulled the ladder up with me as I climbed up the stairs to the trap-door to the roof. Out on the roof the moon was out and the stars on Stella Maris’s gown shined like they was real.  I propped the ladder up against her, careful not to hurt her breast.  I climbed up to the clipper ship and took hold of Anthony. Over my shoulder the lights were on at the Vet, Phillies got a game on. Cars streaming across the Walt Whitman. I kissed the back of Anthony’s head and laid him there on the deck, in front of the main mast.

      Like he was that ship’s figurehead, him and our Virgin working together to bring us all home.