He told the police sergeant, as he knew he would, that he would leave right away and help however he might. The address he wrote down was familiar to him. It was in the Flats, an old Holyoke neighborhood or section of the city once inhabited by many different ethnic groups, although now almost exclusively Puerto Rican.
He shoved the paper with the address in his coat pocket and found his little black bag with the oils and other implements for giving what once was called the last rites of the church, but were now termed the sacrament of the sick, and headed off in the direction of the Flats. Sixty-six Center Street. He’d been there before, he was sure. Only the week before, the adjoining block had burned up. It was another of those mysterious fires, on weekends mostly, that were plaguing the city recently. All occurred in poor neighborhoods, and for reasons he didn’t at all comprehend. Maybe it was done for insurance purposes, he thought. Or perhaps some fire freak was at large.
The Center Street block was an old building, as were all the buildings on the street, and considerably run-down too, although not a block away there was a building under repair as part of a federal housing program. Such restoration was desperately needed in Holyoke, and not only in the Flats.
On the first floor landing there was a wall of mailboxes, common in the tenements. Little black mailboxes, some fairly rusted now, each with three or four Spanish names pasted on the outside. Must drive the mailman nuts, he thought with a grin. It was the same here as it was in New York: the list of names meant that several Puerto Rican families were living together: parents, children, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and what have you, all under one roof. It was a common practice with poor people. He understood it and he understood the need for it as well.
The apartment he sought was on the fifth floor. There was no elevator, so he began climbing the stairs slowly. Although not yet 33, even mild physical exertion left him short of breath — the result of an asthmatic condition he’d had since childhood, and, he mused, the price of too many cigarettes and too much weight for his 5-foot ten-inch frame. His frail health was one of the reasons he’d left New York, although he knew that leaving a place like New York City for a locale even farther north didn’t make a great deal of sense. Yet that’s what happened, there having been no opportunity for him to go someplace like Arizona or New Mexico, where he might have benefitted from the climate. But he had family in Holyoke.. There were many Dillon’s in Holyoke. His name was Peter Dillon.
As he ascended the dimly-lighted stairway, he could hear muffled conversations in rapidly-spoken Spanish, which he couldn’t understand very well. In the best of circumstances, he had to listen very carefully to Puerto Ricans, for their Spanish, heavily laced with slang expressions, was much different from what he’d learned in El Salvador. In the background, over the hum of voices, he could hear loud Latin music. Dance music, he thought.
The fifth floor hallway was lighted by a single low-wattage bulb, making it difficult to read the apartment door numbers. When he found the apartment he was seeking, his knock was answered by a uniformed police officer, a tall young man, slender and slightly stoop-shouldered. He seemed relieved to have somebody else arrive on the scene.
“You speak their lingo, I hope,” he said.
“Yes, I speak Spanish,” the priest answered.
“I haven’t been able to get much out of them,” the officer continued. “Nobody seems to understand a word of English. All they do is cry, except for the old one over there.” He pointed to an elderly woman sitting off to herself in a corner of the kitchen. “She just sits there. I guess she understands even less, because when I talk to her she doesn’t so much as look up. Maybe she doesn’t hear so good.”
When Peter went into the kitchen the woman continued to look at the floor, her hands neatly folded in her lap. She hadn’t looked up when he came in, either. He glanced in her direction but he didn’t try to speak to her.
The apartment was very warm. There was almost no air coming in from the front room with the windows that opened on to the street. He could hear someone talking in a loud voice on the street level below. The conversation was in English so he supposed it was more police or an ambulance that had arrived at last.
The apartment was like many others he had been in in Holyoke, and in New York, too. In some ways the apartments in Holyoke were less livable than those in New York. At least in New York heat came with the rent, but not so in these units. In the older sections of the Flats, apartments rented not only without heat, but without even heating systems. That left the tenants often trying to heat drafty apartments with gas space heaters and sometimes even kitchen ovens. It was a very dangerous situation.
Everybody looked frightened, but he began his questioning in a quiet voice, trying to seem friendly and thereby convince everyone he was on their side. He was on their side, of course.
“How did the baby die?” he asked a man who he guessed must be the father. “Who was watching, who was babysitting?” he wanted to know.
“Suffocated,” the man told him in Spanish, speaking quickly but not adding much in the way of details. The man looked about 24 or 25. He was slight in build and thin and didn’t look very well, as if he might have been ill lately. There were also two women, both in their twenties, Peter guessed. One was crying softly. The infant’s mother, he assumed. The other woman was speaking softly to the mother, consoling her, no doubt. Perhaps they were sisters. He couldn’t hear what she was saying. When he had determined for sure which of the two was the mother, he said a few words to the woman that he hoped would be reassuring, comforting, and there was a quiet “Thank you, Father.” She spoke in English, which surprised him. She didn’t say anything more. Two children were standing nearby, a girl of about twelve and a much younger boy. Neither knew what was expected of them under the circumstances, so they said nothing. They just stood there looking frightened. And well they might be, Peter thought, because nobody had yet explained just what had happened. Only that the baby was dead. They could well have believed it was something they had done, for they too were at home when the baby died, at home with their grandmother, Blassina Torres Santiago, a small woman past seventy at least. Well, maybe not that old after all, Father Peter thought, Puerto Rican women aged quickly; she could be younger than she looked.
It was a common enough accident—that’s what he was calling it. He had seen it repeated a few times before in New York. Each time in a different way, but always the same in that the baby got tangled up in something, bedclothes or a plastic bag or a blanket left in the wrong place.
He asked to see the corpse and he took from his bag oils to bless — to baptize, the still form before him. He was about to ask for a phone so that he could make calls about funeral arrangements when a second police officer suddenly appeared. This man was a detective and a man a good deal older than the uniformed officer who Peter guessed to be about his own age. The detective looked to be a man in his fifties, and perhaps older than that. He was a soft-spoken Irishman by the name of Dineen. He didn’t give Peter his first name, or perhaps he missed it. He reminded Peter of a couple of his uncles in New York on his father’s side. They too were in civil service jobs, only their jobs were with the fire department. Dineen looked like many older cops he had seen in New York. A bulky gray man who seemed almost depressed and probably was hating like hell the work he did these days, what with the damn near invasions of Puerto Ricans into Holyoke and nearby Massachusetts communities.
Just the same he was all business. He asked Peter, “How do you see this as happening, Father? You speak Spanish, don’t you?”
You know I do, mister, Peter thought. He was fairly sure they had been on cases together before. He wasn’t absolutely sure, though.
Peter told Dineen what he knew, but immediately decided that he didn’t much like this police detective or his mode of operation, which so far included totally ignoring the family, as if they weren’t there or that they didn’t count for anything much. Oh sure, Peter thought, Dineen can say ‘What’s the point, I can’t speak Spanish and the family can’t speak English.’ Still, not even to mutter a single kind word to the grieving mother struck Peter as a bit cold and uncaring. Most people understood words of condolence, no matter in which tongue they were uttered. He said none of this to Dineen, however. Indeed, he continued to try to answer all the man’s questions.
“The baby suffocated,” he said again in case he hadn’t been heard the first time. “They say it happened about two hours ago. It seems the infant got tangled in the bedclothes or something.” Pointing to Blassina Torres Santiago, he added, “The old woman found the baby dead.”
“She was here alone?” the detective asked next, all of a sudden seeming more interested and studying the woman as she sat where she had been when Peter arrived, still peering down at the floor in the kitchen. There were only two rooms in the apartment, a kitchen and the front room where they were standing.
“I am afraid so,” Peter answered, “except for the children, and I think she is feeling quite responsible.”
Dineen looked at the priest hard, as if trying to take his measure. He said nothing though, and after a long silence, he asked to see the baby. As he studied the small form he wrote more notes in his book.
Peter spoke briefly in Spanish to the little boy, but Dineen ignored this conversation — not that he could understand it. Instead, he jotted still more notes in his little black book which he then slipped into his coat pocket with a certain finality, as if to say, Well, now I have it all down and I must be off. Dineen stood for a moment, though, studying the apartment again as if he were looking for something or someone that he had missed when first he came in. His eyes stopped on the old woman still looking down at the floor. She hadn’t moved an inch. Then he asked Peter politely, “You are staying here for a little while yet, Father?”
“I think so, yes. The family appears to need some further comforting and support.”
Dineen did not respond to or question what Peter told him. He just stood by the door that led to the hallway as if trying to make up his mind about something, or maybe even decide if he should leave. Then he spoke to Peter in barely a whisper as if he didn’t wish to be overheard, unlikely as that was in this setting since nobody spoke English. “You keep an eye on the old one,” he pointed to the woman and looked back at her again, “the grandmother. She’s going to do something nutty.” That’s all Dineen said and Peter had difficulty containing his feelings of annoyance, but he did. Still, he thought, Just how do you know so much, smart-ass cop who is suddenly so full of wisdom, yet knows virtually nothing about the people you serve?
And it was with such feelings sweeping over him that he walked a few steps down the stairs with Detective Dineen, actually trying to decide in that moment what to say to the man that would not sound angry, while at the same time would convey to the fellow his feeling of disapproval. In the apartment downstairs he made several calls while the ambulance arrived to remove the baby’s body. And it was while he was doing this and out of the apartment those few moments, that Blassina Torres Santiago ran across the kitchen, into the front room and literally dove headfirst from the fifth-floor window that opened on to Center Street.