September 21, 2015

Novel Excerpt: “A Hoarse Half-Human Cheer” by X. J. Kennedy

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Novel Excerpt: “A Hoarse Half-Human Cheer” by X. J. Kennedy

Editor’s Note: We’re extremely pleased to publish an excerpt from X. J. “Joe” Kennedy’s novel, A Hoarse Half-Human Cheer. It’s a ribald story of post-World War II America that rivals another Joe’s novel – Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Joe Kennedy’s novel is, in our opinion, a more finely wrought work, and perhaps even funnier, which is as it should be from a man for whom literature has been his life work.

X.J. Kennedy

Earlier this year, Joe was awarded the Jackson Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement in poetry. The judges wrote:

“X. J. Kennedy’s forms are perennial, his rhetoric is at once elaborate and immediate, and his language and diction are always of the American moment. He translates the human predicament into poetry perfectly balancing wit, savagery, and compassion. His subtly dissonant rhymes and side-stepping meters carry us through the realms of puzzlement and sorrow to an intimated grace. The size of his poems is small but their scope is vast.”

Later this month – in a week, to be precise – Joe will be reading from his novel at an event in his home town, Lexington, Massachusetts, called “Spellbinding Stories: Four Local Authors Read From Their Novels.” Joe will be be joined by Jack B. Rochester and Peter David Shapiro. The event will be held at the First Parish Unitarian Church, 7 Harrington Road, Lexington, Monday, September 28, at 7PM. Readings will be followed by a discussion of writing and publishing, with refreshments served.

Here is an excerpt from his novel entitled “Abduction from the Seraglio.”

  *     *     *

The Story: Harassed by mobsters seeking to take over the lucrative charity he heads, The Chidren’s Crusade, the Right Reverend Jasper Fry has lost his mind. He has taken refuge in a brothel. On learning his whereabouts, his friend Father Douglas Knox, basketball coach at Saint Cassian’s College, sets out to retrieve him with the aid of student Moon Gogarty and Professor Aisling Vastasi, a nursing mother. A patrolman who catches Knox speeding gives them a police escort.

*

The siren of the police car kept growling, bullying other cars out of the way, but Kiki Sue, sleeping in Aisling’s arms, never stirred. In record time they reached South Orange and pulled into a street of fifteen-room houses with long uphill lawns.   The largest house sat at the end of the street, a tall Victorian with a wrap-around porch surrounded by tall maples beginning to put out buds.   Three or four cars clustered in front of it.   Knox and the police car parked.

Branigan walked back to them and said, “Here we are, Father. What’s with your dying priest? He have a heart attack getting

“I don’t know yet,” Knox said. “I don’t know what’s happened to him.”

“You want me to wait outside?”

“I want you to come in with us.”

Branigan hesitated.   “I don’t know as I ought to, Father.”

“Why not?”

“Kind of hate to be seen in a place like this. It might get back to the wife.”

“She gives you a hard time, have her call me. I’ll vouch for you.   Listen, Branigan, we might need you. This man could have the strength of ten.   I figure he’s out of his mind.”

“All right,” the cop said reluctantly. “I’ve got my billy stick, I could bop him over the head, you want me to.”

“We don’t want to hurt him,” Knox said quickly, “just make him come out of there. Mrs. Vastasi, we won’t need you now. You and the baby better stay in the car.”

Aisling clambered out of the back seat, clutching Kiki Sue. “Like hell you’re leaving me out in the cold. I’m your medical support. Anyhow, I’ve always wanted to see the inside of a whorehouse.”

Knox shrugged. They mounted creaking steps to the porch, Branigan lagging behind, his cap pulled down low over his face. Knox pushed a doorbell and a woman’s voice came through a speaking tube, “Who’s there?”

“Open up in the name of the law,” Knox said.

The tube delivered a laugh. “Oh, the cops again? Always welcome.”

The door buzzed and unlatched and they stepped into a long narrow hall heavy with stale tobacco smoke. It led to a parlor that had three loveseats and two big mohair couches. Red velvet wallpaper, a painting of a nymph pursued by a satyr, and perched in the middle of a coffee table, a punchboard from the Children’s Crusade.

A friz-haired blonde in an abbreviated purple dress occupied one of the loveseats with a patron, a plump sixtyish man in a striped business suit, dangling a gold watch chain, resting an affectionate hand on her nearer knee. They were sharing a drink out of a lipsticked glass. On a couch a kid Moon’s age and a middle-aged man in a lumberjack shirt were sitting. The kid was scrawny with pipe-stem arms and legs and a cap that said CAPTAIN MARVEL.   A young woman, wearing short shorts and a rabbit-fur vest that hung open over her breasts, stood leaning against a wall, smoking sullenly.

An imposing matron with prominent jowls, double chins, handsome once, in a gold evening gown and a necklace with a facsimile of the Star of India, cruised up to them and greeted the cop like a long lost brother.

“Why, Officer Branigan, where you been keeping yourself? Getting it at home for a change? Say, I got you a new Latina named Dolores—”

Branigan’s face turned a darker red. With a toss of his head he indicated Knox. “Listen, Diane,” he said under his breath, “you don’t know me. This is an official call.”

“What you giving me?” the Madame shrilled. “I don’t need any more official calls. I already gave to Sergeant Fitzroy for the Police Social Fund. Who’s your friends?”

Moon stood gazing at the young woman against the wall. She looked sulky, resentful. His thumb revolved in his secret gesture of tribute, drawing an imaginary circle around her face.

Knox poked him with an elbow. “Don’t get any ideas.”

Looking at Aisling, the madam said to Knox, “My God, that’s a beautiful woman you’ve got with you.”

“Thanks,” Aisling said. She turned on a winning smile.

“Suppose I wanted a job with you. What’s the salary like?”

Madame Diane drew herself with pride up on her high heels. “Best pay scale you’ll find in North Jersey, darling. Half of every trick, less forty a week for your room, eats, and laundry. But you’ll have to get rid of that baby. We can’t have babies here. They screw up the routine. When you want to start?”

“Let me think about it,” Aisling said.

Snuggled in her arms, Kiki Sue was awake now, big blue eyes staring around the room. The henna-headed whore rose from between father and son and came over to Aisling, grinned down at Kiki Sue and chucked her under the chin. “Aww, what a sweetie! How old is she? Can I hold her?”

Aisling surrendered the child, who seemed happy to be trotted around the room while the other whores made a fuss over her.

To Branigan, the madam said out of the side of her mouth, “You know, sport, right now Dolores is available.”

“Look, lady,” Knox said, “we’re none of us customers.”

“OK, OK,” said the madam, “you think I don’t know you’re a priest? I suppose you’ve come for the punchboard take.”

“No.   I want to see the guy you have staying here—“

A new face interrupted him. The Latina, a white rose in her hair, gown slit all the way up to her navel. She sidled up to him and cupped a hand over his fly.

“Say, meester, you look like you could use a little relax? Lucky you came in today, we got a two-for-one special, eesn’t that right, Madame?”

Madame Diane brushed her away. “Beat it, Dolores, can’t you see he’s a gent of the cloth?   That black hat and coat? That collar?”

“Sorry. I deedn’t know. He look like he need it.” She withdrew and started rubbing a hip against Branigan.

Knox said, “You have a guy rooming here, right?”

Madame Diane’s jowls hardened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do. Tall skinny guy, eyes far back in his face?”

“Maybe he’s here, maybe he isn’t. What’s it to you?”

“Friend of mine. He’s sick in the head.”

Madame Diane abandoned all pretense. “Boy, don’t I know it. He hasn’t stirred out of his room in a week.   We bring him his meals on a tray.”

“Want us to take him off your hands?” Knox said.

“All right, maybe you could. I’m starting to get sick of him.” She stepped close to Knox, her voice low and confiding. “He’s staying in a peepshow room. All he does is sit there watching the action in the next bedroom through the one-way glass.   So we’re not making anything off him but his rent.”

“Has he been doing—saying—anything crazy? You ever have to go in and calm him down?”

“Naw. He hasn’t been much trouble that way.”

“How did this guy—your roomer—find out about you?”

“Oh, him and me are old friends.   Priest from Saint Cash’s. Used to come in all the time, bringing punchboards for his children’s charity. Always said he felt right at home here. So when he came to me and said he needed to hide out for a while, offered to pay good rent, I said okay. Isn’t it like that poet Jack Frost says?   Home is where when you got to go there they got to take you in.”

Knox sighed. “Where’s his room?”

“Come on, I’ll show you.”   She led him down a hall.

Moon plunked himself on the couch across from the other kid, who kept darting nervous glances about. “You waiting for a piece?” Moon asked.

“Yeah.”

“First time?”

“Yeah. My old man here, he’s buying me a whore for my birthday.”

From the other end of the couch, the middle-aged man flashed Moon a false-toothed grin. “That’s right. Jackie here, he’s just turned seventeen. High time he had himself a piece of tail. Jackie’s shy. Now me, when I was fourteen I was dicking everything in sight.”

“That’s nice. The birthday present, I mean.”

“Damn right it’s nice. Nicest thing there is. He could of had one of them young broads, but I figure he ought to start on old Hilda. She knows how to break ’em in. So how about you? This your first piece too?”

“No,” Moon said. “I mean, that’s not why I’m here.”

“Why else you here?”

Moon squirmed. “It’s a church matter.”

Down the inner hall, a door banged open and a fat man in his underwear staggered out, wheezing. “It’s no use. Can’t do it. Not right now.”

“That’s all right, honey,” said a platinum blonde in a pink terrycloth robe, following him. “You just sit down in the parlor and rest a while.”

“OK,” said the fat man, slumping into a love seat alone. “But you understand, I’m not done yet. I paid my money. I want me a good old-fashioned blow job and a trip around the world.”

Kiki Sue had been paraded into the kitchen and displayed to the cook. Now she was back in Aisling’s arms and Aisling was nursing her. Passing whores oohed and ahhed. Branigan, drinking coffee, was telling the Latina a long involved joke and the woman was doing her best to laugh.

Hilda, a henna-haired veteran, came in, wearing a man’s white dress shirt, stocking rolled down. She beckoned to the birthday boy. “OK, honey, I’m at your service. You got your token?”

The young man stood up, fumbled in his pockets, and fished out a round red plastic disk.

His old man said, “Hey, Jackie, want me to come in with you? Give you a few pointers?”

“Uh uh,” Hilda told him. “Strictly not allowed. Anyway, don’t he have to do it all by himself, if he’s ever going to learn? Don’t worry, Dad, he needs any pointers, I can give him plenty.” She grasped the kid by the hand and led him down the hall to the room and slammed the door.

The father chuckled. “Hope he can pull it off. The first time, it’s always lousy, ain’t it? But what the hell, he needs to break the ice.”

“What was that little red coin he gave the woman?” Moon wanted to know.

“They don’t use no cash here. You pay the madam first, is how it works.   She gives you a token and you give it to the whore.   All the tokens she gets, she turns ’em in and gets paid.”

Moon remembered the little red and blue coins that the government had issued during the war. Red ones were for meat rationing.   Eight of them would get you a pound of hamburger.

At the end of the inner hall the madam turned to Knox and said, “He might need to put some clothes on. He doesn’t always wear any.”

She tapped lightly on the door and called, “Father, there’s a friend here to see you.”

From inside the room Fry’s muffled voice answered, “Go away. I don’t have any friends.”

Knox put his mouth up to the keyhole and said, “Jasper, it’s Doug Knox. Open up.”

Fry said, “Doug! Is it you? Just a minute.”

There was a shuffling and a scuffling inside as if Fry were rummaging a dresser drawer. After a long while he unlatched the door and stood there in his underpants, blinking deep-set eyes. Looking sane.

Fry’s lips worked, taking a while to get words out. “I guess I owe you an explanation.”

“Later,” Knox said. “Right now let’s get you out of here.”

“Why? I like this place. It’s better than a monastery.”

“Yeah,” Knox said. “I guess you’ve been making a retreat, all right.”

Fry stared off into the distance. “Nobody bothers me here. I’m safe. No gangsters threaten me. That’s the only reason I came here, you know. To get away from that one called Peru.”

Knox stepped into the narrow room, empty except for a cot, a small table with only a toy rubber swan on it, and a chair shoved close to a window in the wall about a foot wide. He felt uneasy, the way he had felt on Okinawa when one day he had gone out with a party of Marines to retrieve the bodies of two men needing burial. You knew that snipers were still lurking in trees. You couldn’t see them, yet you knew they were there.

He inspected Fry more closely. The fugitive’s chin was stubbled with a two-week growth. There were thin scars on his right wrist, as if he had started to slice it, then changed his mind. The room felt cold, even though a radiator was crackling.

“Jasper,” Knox said, “you’re coming home. Back to your old room in Priests’ House. This time we’ll post a guard, so the gangsters won’t bother you. But tell me something. You remember changing that truckload of crackers into Eucharists?”

Fry winced as if struck. “I did what?”

“A team of priests and nuns had to stay up all night eating the damned things—excuse me, Lord—the Hosts.”

“I never did anything like that. I wouldn’t have.”

“Believe me, Jasper. You didn’t know what you were doing. Do you have any memory of doing anything else?”

Fry shook his head. “I—I—everything’s a blank.”

“Get your things together.”

“There’s nothing to pack. Didn’t bring anything except the clothes I was wearing. And my swan.”

Madame Diane gave Fry a grateful smile. She said to Fry, “Do like he says, Father. Your time is up.” She turned and headed back to the waiting room.

Fry moved like a man in a trance. Knox had to open the clothes closet for him, help him button his shirt, tie his shoelaces for him. Swaying on his feet, clutching his rubber toy, Fry let Knox steer him down the hall.

In the parlor Madame Diane was talking with a short swarthy guy in a blue serge suit, his hair combed like a wave ready to break. Somebody Knox knew. Cosimo de Montecassino.

“I’m a little short on cash this month,” the madam was saying. “You want to take it out in business?”

“No dice,” Cosimo said. “Can’t show the boss a piece of pussy.”

The madam sighed. “Wait a minute. I’ll write you a check.”

“It better not bounce.” Cosimo seated himself ceremoniously on a love seat and began a cigar. His face lit up when he caught sight of Knox.

“Well, hello, Father,” he said, chortling. “You come here all the time?”

“Don’t jump to any conclusions,” Knox said. “I’m here on business and it isn’t any of yours.”

Cosimo, Knox reflected, must be high up in Peru’s organization, and yet here he was, working as a bag man. Peru must trust him not to skim. Or not to skim too much.

Madame Diane reappeared, waving Cosimo’s check in the air to dry. Cosimo snatched it out of her hand and stalked out, tossing back at Knox, “Enjoy yourself.”

Branigan had finally got done telling the Latina his involved joke. His eyes bulged in amazement when he took in Fry. “Holy smoke, ain’t this the Children’s Crusader? He’s the dying man? He looks pretty healthy to me.”

Knox said, “This is a serious church matter, Branigan. Don’t ever tell anybody you saw him here.”

“OK, Father, I get it. Confidential, you want this kept. Anyhow, I should be getting back to patrol.”

“We’re all of us going now,” Knox said. “Come on, Gogarty, stop eyeing the women. Come on, Mrs. Vastasi.”

Aisling had been having an animated conversation with one of the whores, about Kierkegaard.

The madam said to Knox, “So long, Father. Thanks for taking the guy off my hands.”

“His rent paid up?”

“For four more days,” the madam said. “You want a refund?”

“Naw, keep the change. And you’ll button your lip about all this, right?”

The Madame assumed a look of tremendous dignity. “You can rest easy, Father. The secrets of this house are sacred. Like the secrets of your confessional.”

Knox walked Fry on down the hall, steadying him.   The sullen young whore let them out. Opening the door for them, she gave Moon a parting goose.

“Come back tomorrow, cute guy,” she said.

*     *     *

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