Fall 2011, Volume 11

Fiction by Dennis Must

The Window Harp

Jeremiah composed loving notes in longhand to our churchgoing kid sister, yet I seldom heard from him. I didn’t take offense because she was always solicitous of our brother—Father Jeremiah—a front he was keeping alive, I believe, for his own sake.

I say this because he and I had shared the same boyhood bed for eighteen years wherein there was no hiding the truth, even in a darkened room that overlooked a brook whose water eventually flowed into the magnificent Ohio.

More cowardly than he, even so I was convinced his bravado was mere bluster to disguise his having to look up to an older sibling. Those instances when Jeremiah’s fear betrayed him, I was as frightened as he…but swore that it would pass. In effect we lied to each other and were under no illusions that we hadn’t.


On the eve of his tenth birthday, we waited for Mother to return from the store…or so we thought. Jeremiah sat at the kitchen table, conjecturing what she was about to bring him. Our favorite pastime when alone was to set up a marionette stage and, in candlelight, create skits with puppets we’d crafted from dolls and stuffed animals. Our pretend audience sat in the overstuffed chairs in the living room. Mostly we acted out characters inspired by our neighborhood. We hadn’t lived there that long, so we let our imaginations run free.

Jeremiah was an uncanny mime and, unlike me, risqué. Mother had cautioned early on that I was responsible for his and my conscience, preaching we had to remain “chaste in thought and deed” (unlike our father) so that one day we’d spend eternity with her in Heaven, not Hell. We created skits to keep our minds off that vast emptiness we feared would one day overcome us.

While awaiting his gifts, we performed HOLY WATER, a skit influenced by a Punch & Judy show we’d seen at a carnival. He played our next-door neighbor, Widow Rispoli, who washed and ironed clothes for a living—a Medusa-haired, heavyset old woman who wore a long, black dress and tramped about barefoot even to the grocery store at the end of our street. I played Father Louis Tempesta, priest of our local St. Vitus parish and her regular customer.

Since we often were alone in the house, part of the delight was designing and fabricating costumes for the many characters we’d created. The doll puppets for HOLY WATER depicted our personas, even down to the priest’s cassock and biretta.

The skit opened with the cleric examining the laundered garments he was picking up from Widow Rispoli when suddenly he paled, fingering from the pile a pair of outsized ladies undergarments whose leg-openings were bordered with blood-red Sacred Hearts. To Father Tempesta’s etiolated expression, the widow scoffed: “The unmentionables I found among your soiled clothes, Father.”

He protested that she had made an egregious mistake.

“Oh, but I haven’t!” She snatched the embellished undies out of his hand and proceeded to bat them against the clergyman’s head, knocking his biretta to the floor. “They belong to Sister Bernadette Wazilinski, isn’t that so, Father?”

The Sister, a beloved holy figure in our community, very conceivably could have graced her underpants in such a saintly manner.

But in contrast to Widow Rispoli’s hectoring and flourishing the panties in one hand, she brandished from under her skirts a wine goblet in the other. Her body language grew increasingly lewd and vulgar as she cajoled the priest to join her in a glass of her backyard arbor’s Dago red. “Or else,” she bellowed, “come Sunday Mass, I’ll deposit Bernadette’s panties in the collection basket and cry, ‘These I found in Father Tempesta’s confessional!’”

By now Jeremiah had ceased eyeing the kitchen door for Mother’s entrance. Except I had begun losing interest in our performance, fretting that she may not return home at all.

He read the worry in my face. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said, resuming Father Tempesta’s persona.

Jeremiah slapped the puppet out of my hand. “There ain’t gonna be no chocolate cake with yellow frosting, right? I’m not getting any presents, am I? Yeah, who gives a shit that Jeremiah’s ten years old? Not even you, Ethan.”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I said, drawing a package not much larger than a matchbox out of my pocket.

He’d been about to moist up.

“Here. Happy birthday, Widow Rispoli.”

Jeremiah eyed me suspiciously while opening the gift.

Inside the small box I’d borrowed from Mother’s jewelry drawer lay a silver ring.

“But why?” He looked perplexed. “It belongs to you, Ethan.”

“No longer,” I said.

It had been sent to our father years earlier by his brother, who’d entered the priesthood. A note instructed Papa to “Pass this on to your eldest in the hope that he might follow in my path one day.” Etched on the ring’s face was a crimson Sacred Heart with our uncle’s initials, R.M., on its underside.

It was my prized possession. Papa, whom I’d once revered, had given it to me on my first day of school. But over the years he’d grown dissolute and was seldom home.

Yet I wore the ring about my neck on special days…especially those times when I felt vulnerable. I prayed Father Raymond Mueller protected me.

Threading the chain through the talisman and fastening it, I placed it over Jeremiah’s head.

“I’ll wear it because of you, Ethan,” he muttered. “Not because of Uncle Holy Joe we’ve never seen nor heard from.”

That’s when Mother came through the door with empty arms. She stopped and stared blankly at us. “Is your father home?”

We shook our heads.

As if she knew better than to inquire, Mother nodded and climbed the stairway, closing her bedroom door behind her.

Jeremiah and I didn’t even exchange glances. I blew out the candles, and we followed her up the stairs to our bedroom on the other side of the hallway.


Originating from an abandoned limestone quarry up our road, the brook that coursed through our backyard refracted the moonlight this night, causing it to ripple across the ceiling above our bed. We didn’t dare fall asleep until we were certain she had.

Maybe a half hour passed when her door hinges rasped, and we heard her step barefoot out into the hallway.

Its window looked out onto Widow Rispoli’s house. We listened as Momma pressed her face to the glass. It’s what she often did when in distress. She would hum or moan into it, creating a kind of a glass harmonium.

The sound terrified us because of what invariably followed.

And once she began to slur with her watery lips, Jeremiah grabbed my hand.

But then the window music ceased, followed by what sounded like a susurrus of dance steps to our door, accompanied by her heavy breathing against it.

She whispered: “Ethan, remember what I told you—you are your brother’s conscience. You mustn’t follow me. I know my way.”

A stifled cry, the root of which we were too young to comprehend, rose from deep inside her. Then silence.

“When your father returns, tell him I’ve left for cement dam.”


Our county officials had once intended to divert the Big Run River that meanders through the flatlands up our road a distance by constructing a towering dam so as to provide a large camp and fishing grounds that would attract folks from as far away as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. A huge, open–air dance pavilion featuring renowned bands every weekend was also planned.

Except Big Run continues to flow in its centuries–old path while the dam sits deep in the forest like some mythic wall, attracting the sick at heart—generally around the holidays—to plunge to their deaths.

“Please don’t,” Jeremiah pleaded under his breath.

Subsequently we heard her pad down the stairway.

Once the kitchen door slammed shut, we leaped out of bed. From that hallway window we could see her sweaty handprints on its upper pane, then spotted her between our house and the widow’s, gliding nude past the rosebushes and lilac tree out into the street.

Her pace quickened as she headed up toward the quarry.

But I saw Widow Rispoli’s undies with their lace Sacred Hearts veiling Mother’s nakedness…and Father Tempesta in hot pursuit.

The vacated stone–pit was a popular rendezvous for lovers.

It was Momma all the time and not Widow Rispoli, I fantasized. It was her undergarment in Father Tempesta’s soiled laundry.

Jeremiah sang to the windowpane a child’s lament of not wanting to be left alone but knowing he was…for this night would continue to revisit him each time he perceived all was right with the world.

Because I, too, shared that visitation.

“Come back to bed,” I urged.

“Maybe she will turn around."

“Maybe Father Tempesta is in love with Sister Bernadette."

“Maybe we aren’t children after all."

“Maybe Uncle Raymond’s silver ring was all an act by Papa to cause me to aspire to be someone he could never be."

“Maybe this is how we become men.”


As fate prescribed, it was my brother, not I, who followed our phantom uncle into the priesthood. Following high school, he entered St. Benedict’s Seminary in nearby Hebron, Pennsylvania, and, once ordained, served a working-class parish outside Pittsburgh for nearly a dozen years while I taught English in an East Coast preparatory school. The rare times we saw each other, we’d laugh a bit nervously, recalling a dark incident or two of our childhood but seldom more. Mostly it was small talk. Despite my effort to defer to Father Jeremiah more often than I naturally might, at some level I felt he still suspected I was playing the role of the older brother and seeing through him.

So I wasn’t all that surprised when I received a phone call from him late one winter night, sensing he might finally concede. Except after tentative greetings…he ceased talking.

What I heard instead, on the other end of the line, was the haunting mewl of the window-harmonium. Struck with the fear of that boyhood recollection, “What’s going on?” I said.

“Mother’s returned, Ethan.”

“But she’s dead.”

“Christ, no. Can’t you hear her?”

I lived several hundred miles away. Nuns from a nearby convent periodically looked in on him and tended to his Spartan needs in the parish house.

“Jeremiah, are you alone?” I cried, sounding very much like a tormented Father Tempesta.

“The wafers have turned to mold. The grape juice rancid. Remember how Momma used to stand outside our door, wheedling we savor death…to raise it like the Host up to our Westinghouse bed lamp?”

“Well, she’s returned in all her naked glory. We’re headed out, Ethan, to you know where.”

The phone line went dead.

By the time I found someone to enter the parish house, he’d disappeared.


There was no fabled cement dam in or around Steeltown. But there were many bridges spanning the Allegheny, Monongahela, and the mighty Ohio rivers.

Yet Jeremiah’s body never surfaced in any of those waters.

In several months a new cleric presided over his parish, and, since Elizabeth and I were the only remaining family members, at least in our hearts we kept the search alive. She, a believer ever more so than our devout mother, had periodic visions of him ascending into the vault of heaven alongside Christ.

I’d no idea what to think. But because of the bond he and I had forged in our fretful early days, I continued to believe Jeremiah’s story was not over.

Nearly a dozen years later, I was an instructor in a boarding school in upstate New York, having settled into a quiescent way of life by living alone, reading omnivorously, and periodically traveling into New York City for a weekend of theater and diversion. I’d never married but did enjoy sharing an occasional evening with a woman friend.

It was on one of those visits to the city, when returning from a performance and about to enter my hotel lobby, I heard a voice call out what risibly sounded like “Widow Rispoli!” I’m hallucinating, I thought. My brother was often on my mind, especially after an evening of theater.

“Oh, Father Tempesta…it’s me!”

I turned again and there, as close to me as our old bedroom door was to the glass harmonium windowpane…

“Jeremiah!” I cried.

Flashing his impish expression of youth, he pulled me close.

“Your mind’s not playing tricks on you, brother. Here, touch.”

He pressed to my lips Uncle Raymond’s ring that graced his neck.

“Dear Ethan, let’s go inside and sit down.”

We sat across from each other in the hotel bar and mutely bathed in the other’s aging presence while the waiter took our order. Bourbon on the rocks, twice.

We laughed at that.

Curiously, I could now envision him authentically attired in a chasuble and other priestly vestments, where earlier I was unable to.

“I’d begun to accept I’d never see you again,” I said. “Momma’s stroll to the woods… Is that the path she had destined for us? I’ve anguished as to how soon I would be summoned.”

Jeremiah stared long in his drink before responding.

“The truth, Ethan, is that I woke up one morning in the rectory aware that I’d been living a monstrous lie. I’d so desperately wanted to escape the kind of life I was fearful I’d lead by remaining Jeremiah Mueller…nurtured like you on shattered hopes, shortcomings, and forever despairing of hearing her dance steps outside my door, the window harp’s beckoning Mr. Taps."

“It’s why I sought out God, yearning to be led onto the path of righteousness and transformed into somebody I wasn’t. All those years I steadfastly prayed and served the parish, brother, trusting I was saving us both…our naive and sweet sister Elizabeth too."

“Except lies have no foundation. And the God Almighty edifice came crashing down for me in days."

“I likened my lost faith to the towering cement dam in our woods that held back a nonexistent river."

“After discarding my cleric’s garb to the rectory’s floor, not wishing those who discovered my body to perceive it still posing as Father Jeremiah, I phoned you. And before lying down, I turned the gas heater on in my bedroom but didn’t ignite it."

“Then waited."

“Soon a shuffling erupted outside my door, a series of her velvety quicksteps. I heard the window harp commence, Ethan. Except it was not her customary mournful plea for mercy but an abiding, low, melodious tone. As if she were peering out of the window on a bracing spring day, savoring the lilacs come into bloom or her beloved rosebushes displaying buds."

“And I began to cry."

“We’d never heard that from her, Ethan.”

“It might have saved us if we had."

“Except we didn’t and here we are.” Jeremiah at that moment mirrored the expression he wore on his tenth birthday, when Mother returned home sans presents or chocolate cake with yellow icing."

“And do you want to know how I can live with it?” he asked.

“Please…so I might know too,” I uttered, on the verge of breaking up.

“Lacking the courage to end my life that dark night in the parish house, I’ve decided I’m dead, Ethan.”

Dumfounded, I barely mouthed the word.

“Don’t you see? I’m free now, brother. I can be who I wish…truly not afraid of anything.”

But it was Jeremiah’s tone, his sudden wintry detachment that unnerved me. As if nothing mattered any longer. Including me.

Dead? Then who do I play, Jeremiah? What shall we call this skit?”

“Valedictory,” he replied. “Momma only danced solo.”

I reached out to pull him to me as I had the many nights in our boyhood bed to disarm his bravado. “Jeremiah,” I whispered

Except he signaled that I not touch him and stepped away from our booth.

“You mustn’t inform Elizabeth we met,” he said. “Promise me you understand, dear Ethan?”

I nodded I did.

“For she never could,” he said.



BIO: Dennis Must is the author of two short story collections: OH, DON'T ASK WHY, Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, CA (2007), and BANJO GREASE, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000), plus a novel, THE WORLD'S SMALLEST BIBLE, to be published by Red Hen Press. His plays have been performed Off-Off Broadway, and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He resides with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.