Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in the United States. He has published fiction, poetry, and illustrations in multiple literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Cowboy Jamboree, The Visitant, Ink In Thirds, Twisted Sister LitMag, The Corner Bar Magazine, the L’Éphémère Review, Second Hand Stories Podcast, and Route 7 Review. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of Paterson New Jersey’s textile industry.
Saturday confessions were coming to an end as Pietro Bevalaqua made the first of seven trips from his home on Winthrop Street to Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on Summer Avenue. With a nearly five-foot long muslin sack slung over his shoulder he looked like a Sidewalk Santa out of uniform.
When he emigrated to this neighborhood decades earlier, first generation children were Sicilian, Neapolitan, or Calabrese. Now, they were Honduran, Dominican, or Puerto Rican. Pietro slowed in front of Timoteo’s Bodega on the corner to adjust the baggage evidently filled with something heavy. Children circled around as he waited for the traffic light.
“Hey, Father Christmas, what you got in the bag for me?” one yelled.
“Got any footballs?” another laughed.
“How about some money?” a third shouted.
“I’m not Santi Claus. But, if you’re good, maybe Santi Claus will bring you what you want.”
“He ain’t no Santa Claus,” the obvious leader of the group said, “He’s just Pete the window washer.”
The boy was right, except that Pete was now semi-retired. He no longer swung across the facades of office buildings in a boson’s chair. A few storefronts along Mulberry Street still received his attention every few weeks. His presence was marked by the galvanized pail, a sea sponge, the black rubber squeegee and chamois cloths used to wipe away the diesel soot of the Public Service buses that rumbled past; the coal dust from the foundries across the river; and, the red brick powder that coated everything since they started demolishing the old Klienholtz Brewery on Clinton Avenue.
Crossing the boulevard, Pietro left the gaggle behind, their attention now fixed on the next challenge, Jules the Fishman. In this part of town, every tradesman had a nickname.
The December sky turned purple along the eastern horizon. Block long shadows swallowed the cars parked along Summer Avenue. Inside the granite church, three-foot tall lamps hung above the nave in two rows, each with six lights. Pietro neared the confessional next to the side altar of the Blessed Virgin. He eased his mysterious cargo to the terrazzo floor much like he would a sleeping child onto a bed.
The empty church echoed his every move while he untied the knotted cord at the top of the sack. A face encircled by a halo of auburn hair emerged. As though undressing a bride for the first time, Pietro tenderly peeled away the muslin to reveal one of seven Santos figures he brought with him from Marciano, the village of his birth on the Gulf of Naples.
“Ciao, Micheli.” Pietro smiled at the four-foot statue of the Archangel Michael, with its hand-painted porcelain face, human hair wig, and elegant stitched gown of gold and ivory. Pietro pulled a small brush from his back pocket and drew it across the face, the arms, and the sandaled plaster feet, to remove the dust of another year. Then, he carefully bent the straw-filled limbs and torso to approximate the angel in flight.
Over the next half hour, he descended into the church basement to retrieve the unused ladders he had donated. These were followed by spools of braided wire upon which each Santo would fly. Finally, Pietro wrapped a thick leather harness around his waist as he did every year. With the tools for the night’s work assembled, Pietro departed for the first of six more trips to his home, each one completed with another muslin sack atop his shoulder. Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raguel, Sariel and Remiel joined their leader Michael alongside the altar.
The pealing of the bronze bell high atop the steeple broke the quiet night air. The church reverberated seven times; and with each, Pietro bowed his head; his balled fist striking his chest. He prayed silently, for at these hourly intonations his memory was drawn to the vision of a small white casket lying before the communion rail in this very church. He recalled Monsignor Anello saying, “No father should bury a child and no mother should bury a daughter as angelic as Rosalinda.” Though twenty-four years had passed since that rainy Wednesday, the pain returned whenever those church bells tolled.
To decide this year’s arrangement, Pietro stood in the center aisle halfway to the front door. Should the seven hover above the main altar? Form an arch over the nave? Or, as once before, ascend in a line to the dome?
The flicker of the sacristy votive candle caught Pietro’s eye, turning him towards the side altar of Saint Joseph. There, the crèche had been erected with its plaster figures of Mary, Joseph, a shepherd boy with a lamb atop his shoulders, two sheep, and a donkey, all of which crowded around the manger, empty until midnight Mass on Christmas Eve when the figure of the child would be processed through the church to rest in its rustic crib.
This evening, Pietro decided the archangels would form an airborne spiral crown for the infant. And so he began; moving the ladders; affixing to his harness large hooks from which he would run strands of wire that would secure the backs of the Santos, keeping them aloft above the worshipers.
Starting low, Pietro set the first length some twelve feet above the marble floor. In slow deliberate steps, he carried the Santo of archangel Remiel up the ladder as a fireman might the victim of a blaze. With the wooden ladder swaying, he connected that first figure. Back at the base, Pietro studied the location of the next. It would be to the right and fourteen feet high.
Archangel Sariel in place, Pietro fastened Raguel to the third wire at sixteen feet. At eighteen, Uriel swung free, the white goose feathers of his wings seeming to provide lift. Three more and Pietro would complete this year’s display. Raphael, the angel of healing, then Gabriel, soared high above the Christmas scene. Despite the protestations of Concetta, his wife of fifty-three years, and the new pastor, Father Dominguez, the seventy-eight-year-old Pietro refused all assistance for his annual ritual. It was his private homage to Rosalinda, the daughter who had enjoyed too few Christmases.
Surveying the nearly completed grouping, Pietro realized the final ascent required a third ladder extension. With each successive section, the rungs narrowed until they were barely wide enough to accommodate both his shoes. At twenty-four feet, the ladder bowed under the weight of Pietro and Saint Michael. About to secure the final Santo to the hook, Pietro felt a shudder scale the ladder. Its uppermost frame skipped against the stone column on which it rested.
Pietro’s throat tightened against a rising queasiness. Not since getting caught in a sudden gust when cleaning windows of the National Bank five stories above Broadway, did Pietro feel this vulnerable. He searched for something to grab, but found nothing. He curled his hands around the uprights, trying to ride out the malevolent tremor threatening to hurl him to the floor below. He wanted to call for help but knew he was alone in the empty church.
Pietro looked to the ceiling at the great fresco of the Virgin Mother, her arms outstretched. If only they were more than paint, he might grasp them. The vision of that white casket again filled his mind. This time a larger mahogany one stood alongside.
The wire set for Saint Michael grazed Pietro’s cheek. As it did, the ladder began a sickening slide downward. Pietro let go of the wooden support and seized the wire. His hands started to slip immediately. The arms of the Saint Michael Santo were locked around his neck, adding weight. The wire cut deep into Pietro’s weathered hands. In a sudden sharp movement, the ladder fell away. His feet kicked wildly in the air. Knowing the gyrations would only hasten his fall, Pietro commanded his legs to stop.
The shock wave of his full weight on the wire set it whipping and spinning. The backdrop of the empty church blurred around him: light, dark; candle, shadow; window, wall; ceiling, floor. It was a circular pattern of panic. Little more than four feet of wire remained below Pietro’s knotted, bleeding hands.
As each inch skidded through his palms, he watched the lamps glide by like orbiting planets. With his strength dissipating, Pietro’s arms started to quake. Finally, he felt the hook that marked the end of the wire. It would all be over in seconds. Unable to hold on any longer, he cried, “Madonna mia.” The image of the Virgin Mary shrunk as the distance between it and Pietro grew.
* * *
The doorbell at the church rectory stirred Father Dominguez from his morning ritual.
“Mrs. Bevalaqua, what brings you here so early? Our first Mass isn’t until seven.”
“Pietro didn’t come home last night,” the elderly woman said nervously.
“Really?” the priest asked.
“I fell asleep reading. When I woke up, he still wasn’t home. Is he here?” Fear underlined the woman’s voice. The same emotion swelled in the chest of the priest.
“Come. He’s probably sleeping in the church.” Father Dominguez led Concetta through the darkened sacristy. Nearing the doorway to the altar, the priest stepped forward, looking across the vacant nave. At the foot of the main altar, Father Dominguez gazed up at the covey of archangels. “He’s outdone himself this year. They float up to the heavens.” The priest counted to himself, ‘Two…three…four. Only six. No seventh.’
“I don’t see him,” Concetta whispered.
“Me neither,” the priest replied, his hand still cradling her elbow. Two massive fluted columns hid the side altars. Only the wooden wall of the crèche stood out. Father Dominguez noticed something out of place; a ladder splayed across the floor just beyond the communion rail. It was not like Pietro to leave it there.
Father Dominguez fixed on the seventh wire, the one that should have held Saint Michael. Following it downward, it led to the crèche. “Let me look over there,” he said, suggesting he go alone. At the edge of the altar of Saint Joseph, Father Dominguez found what he dreaded.
“Father? What is it?” Concetta approached the somber priest. He needn’t answer. “Oh God!” Her scream echoed throughout the cavernous church. Father Dominguez bent over the crumpled figure. “Is he….” Concetta could not finish her words.
Pietro Bevalaqua lay motionless in the empty manger, atop the Santo of Saint Michael. The weight of both having crushed the trough into the straw spread below. It was a cruel diorama; the gathered statues encircling the fallen man and angel.
Concetta sank to her knees, her head on her husband’s chest, “Pietro, Pietro.” Her piercing cry could easily rival the loudest note of the organ in the choir loft. Bending low, she kissed his cheek and clutched the limp hand hanging over the edge, dried blood pooled in its upturned palm.
Father Dominguez considered telling her to be careful; not to move him. But his first impression suggested Pietro could be hurt no more, the fall likely having inflicted the ultimate injury.
Concetta sobbed, “All those years washing windows, he was never hurt. Now, he dies here. I begged him to stop. But he wouldn’t listen.”
Father Dominguez drew the sign of the cross on the forehead of the fallen parishioner, while his other hand felt for a pulse.
* * *
From atop the pulpit at the first Sunday of Advent nine o’clock Mass, Father Dominguez addressed the assembly. “Dear friends, last night our church was the scene of an unfortunate accident. As he has done for so many years, our beloved Pietro Bevalaqua decorated our sanctuary with his Santos figures.” The priest’s arm swept the air tracing the line of six suspended angels. “Somehow, as he was putting Saint Michael into place, there was a mishap.” The congregation gasped as the priest continued. “The ladder upon which Pietro worked slipped and he fell.” Worried whispers rippled across the church.
Father Dominguez gestured for the crowd to still. “But, through the miraculous intercession of the Archangel Michael, God saved our Pietro by having him fall into the arms of that Santo which landed beneath Pietro in the empty manger full of straw. Apparently, the Santo and the straw provided a cushion. Though unconscious when we found him earlier, Pietro has a broken leg; a rather large bump on his head; and some nasty cuts on his hands. He is resting at Saint James Hospital and thankfully expected to make a full recovery.”
The parishioners smiled, applauding Pietro’s deliverance.
“Friends,” Father Dominguez continued, “the Santos of the archangels you see above us will remain in place throughout the year and the Santo of Saint Michael, though somewhat worse for wear, will be kept alongside the altar of Saint Joseph to serve as a reminder of our very own Christmas miracle. Now let us pray.”