By Brian Mosher,
There are things you expect when you step inside a whorehouse or a brothel. Or, as Helene liked to call her place, a House of Entertainment. You expect women, obviously. Whisky and gin. You expect to leave with less money than you came in with. And, of course, you expect to have sex, in whatever style you prefer. Personally, I don’t go in for anything out of the ordinary, but I understand there are those who do.
Among the things you don’t expect to find in such places is a priest. Though, to be fair, I found him in the gambling room, not in the parlor with the working girls. Still, it was unexpected.
Another thing you don’t expect is for the owner of the establishment—the Madame, if you like—to introduce you to her five-year-old daughter. And to tell you that you’re the father.
This was back in the summer of 1970, my first season pitching for the Raleigh Terrapins after three years with the Tulsa Badgers. Around that time, I’d finally accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to make the Major Leagues. Used to be there was nobody who could hit my curveball. Used to be I was the best player in my town, and then the best in the state. I’d been so sure I’d make the big leagues before I turned twenty-five.
But I had risen to my level, as the saying goes, and suddenly I wasn’t even the best on my team. So, it had become more about the travelling, the women, and the time between the games than the balls, the strikes, and the space between the foul lines. Though, to be honest, I had always been more interested in women—or in sex, to be clear—than baseball, which may be why there’s guys who got better than me.
Over the years I’ve noticed similarities between baseball and women. In baseball, the pitcher and the hitter both know what the other guy wants to do. The hitter wants to hit; the pitcher wants to make him miss. It’s a guessing game, the hitter trying to guess what the pitcher’s going to throw, the pitcher trying to guess what the hitter’s expecting.
It’s the same with trying to pick up women: you have to outguess them, too. They know what you want. What you need to do is to find an approach they’re not expecting. The same way as when the hitter thinks you’re going to throw a fastball under his chin, you’ve got to surprise him with a curveball down and away. When a woman thinks you’ll offer to buy her a drink and tell her she’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, you can cross her up with a dirty joke. Then you slide your stool a little closer to hers as she laughs. That’s the curveball when she was looking for the heater.
It can work the other way around, too. If you think she’s not expecting you to hit on her, you can come on strong and have her back in your room before she realizes you threw the fastball past her. The hard part is knowing which approach to take.
Of course, you can always take the easy way out and go to a professional. That’s where the baseball comparison falls apart. I guess it would be the opposite of an intentional walk, or something like that.
Anyway, that’s what I did that afternoon in 1970. I stopped at Helene’s. I used to do this regularly when I was playing for various East coast teams but hadn’t since I’d signed with the Badgers, who stayed mostly west of the Mississippi. We had played a weekend series against the local nine and were scheduled to leave for Yorktown, Pennsylvania the next day. That day was Monday, an off day. I had some time to kill, but not so much that I could afford to put in the effort of scouting and working on a regular girl. So, I headed to Helene’s House, where the women are always ready, for a price, but without the wait or the work.
Helene opened the door when I knocked, wearing a long dress about the same light blue color as my uniform for the Terrapins. “Hello Billy,” she greeted me. “Been a while. Come in. I wondered if you’d be stopping by. I saw in the sports pages that your team was in town.”
“Hi Helene. How’ve you been?” As I passed her, entering the dark paneled hallway, I noticed a child clinging to her skirt, peaking at me with huge blue eyes.
“I’ve been ok, Billy. You?”
“Surviving. Who’s this little cherub hiding behind you?”
“That’s my girl, Billy. Her name’s Kate. Katherine, really, but I call her Kate.”
“Hello, Kate. I’m Billy. It’s nice to meet you.”
The girl took her thumb out of her mouth long enough to say, “Mama says you’re my daddy, but I don’t believe her.”
You can imagine my surprise. The last thing I ever wanted was to have a child, and here was this one claiming me as her daddy. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
“Hush, Kate!” Helene said. “Run upstairs now. Tell Ruby to meet me and Billy in the parlor.”
The child obediently scurried up the stairs as her mother had told her.
“She’s a pretty thing, Helene,” I said. “Looks like you, in the eyes.”
“And like you in the mouth and chin, Billy. She’s smart like you, too.”
“Why didn’t you let me know about her before now? You could have—”
“Could have what, Billy? Could have asked you to marry me? I don’t think you came here to talk or have a family reunion. Come meet Ruby. She’s just arrived from Ireland, red-hair and freckles and all. I’ll mix you a gin and tonic while you wait.”
See, at one time I may have let Helene believe I was going to marry her. That was soon after she’d gone into business, about six years ago. There had been no need for me to feed her a line; she was a professional, and we were conducting a business arrangement. But the thing is I’d really felt a different connection with her than I normally do with women. I could almost see myself settling down with her. Almost, but not quite.
Helene led me into the parlor. I sat on the red plush velvet love seat while she mixed me a drink from the bar she’d built in the corner.
“You’ve made some changes,” I commented. “The bar is a nice addition.”
“Thank you, Billy. Business has been decent, though the politicians are making noises about cracking down again. Fortunately, I’ve still got a couple of Aldermen who stop in on Sunday afternoons after church. I’ll show you the casino room in back later, if you like. I just had a roulette wheel put in last January. Here’s your drink—ah, and here’s darling Ruby. You two have fun, and I’ll see you again before you leave, Billy.”
Ruby was a darling, all right, and already practically falling out of her dress as she took my hand and led me up the spiral staircase.
Later, Ruby led me back down that staircase, and through the double doors that led from the parlor to the casino room. It was quiet, still early on a Monday afternoon. Ruby excused herself after making sure I had a fresh drink, and I sat down next to Helene by the roulette wheel. She had a young Chinese fellow working the wheel, and one other gentleman was there playing.
“Billy, this here is Father O’Malley,” Helene said by way of introduction. “Father, meet my old friend Billy Agostino. You might have seen him pitching over at the ballpark yesterday. Father O’Malley’s a big baseball fan, Billy.”
Father O’Malley and I shook hands and assured each other of what a great pleasure it was to have made the acquaintance. He was somewhere shy of sixty years old, I guessed, with a full head of gray hair. I noticed he wasn’t wearing priestly clothes, just an ordinary blue blazer over a lighter blue shirt.
“You like playing the wheel, Father?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘like,’ necessarily,” he replied. “Passes the time, though. Since I retired, I find myself looking for new ways to fill the hours. You looked good out there yesterday, Billy. Nine strikeouts, was it?”
“Eight, I think. But, thank you. This team you got here is one of the better ones we’ve played lately.”
“They’re entertaining, all right. Especially that shortstop. I think he’s going to make it to the big leagues. Scouts have been checking him out.”
“Yeah, he’s a tough out, for sure.” I paused before saying, “Father, pardon me for saying so, but, retired or not, this seems a strange place to find a priest.”
“Only if you forget that priests are also men.”
“Fair enough. Do you enjoy the other entertainments here at Helene’s house? Or just the gambling?”
“All right, Billy.” Helene interrupted me for the second time that day. “You know the rules: No questions about what goes on upstairs.”
“Can I buy you a drink, Billy?” Father O’Malley asked me.
“You can,” I answered gratefully. “Make it a beer, if you would Helene.”
“I’d love another Scotch, please,” Father O’Malley said, handing Helene his empty glass.
Helene stepped away to speak to the bartender for us.
“Are you Catholic, Billy?” the retired priest asked me.
“My parents were, especially my mother. I never got the knack of it, though. I mean, take the wine. When they told me to be believe it was blood . . . well, I couldn’t make myself accept that.”
“Some of the subtleties of the faith can be hard to grasp.”
“I’d say the biggest problem I had was all the rules. I’m not big on rules, Father.”
“But you play baseball, which is a game of rules.”
“True. But no one ever threatened me with eternal damnation for putting a little Vaseline on the ball, like my mother did when she caught me with my hand up Marylou Parker’s skirt while she and Marylou’s mother were downstairs drinking coffee and gossiping about the other ladies in the neighborhood. In baseball, the rules make sense, Father. They’re there to make sure no one has too much of an edge. It seems the rules in your religion are more about making sure no one enjoys life.”
“It can appear that way, I suppose. Depends on what you find enjoyable.”
“Well, I find drinking, gambling and sex to be the most enjoyable activities I’ve tried so far. Attending mass doesn’t even enter my top ten.”
“Baseball is what I’m good at. It can be enjoyable. But day after day, year after year, it’s lost a bit of its charm for me. Problem is no one’s offering to pay me to do anything else.”
“I see. So, if a better offer came along, you might be interested?”
Helene returned with our drinks. “You two getting along all right?”
“That we are,” Father O’Malley answered.
“Are you playing at all? Or just chatting?” she asked, as she placed a chip on Red.
“I’ll play,” I said, laying two dollars on 26 Black.
“That’s your uniform number, isn’t it, Billy?” the priest asked.
“It is, Father. Been my lucky number since I was a kid. Not sure why.”
“Strange the things we choose to believe in. Lucky numbers, but not the teachings of Jesus.” He said this with the hint of a grin, and a twinkle in his eyes. If someone else had said the same thing, it would have pissed me off. But when he said it, I almost laughed along with him.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right there, Father. Then again, looks like it’s worked for me.”
The wheel had stopped. The silver ball was sitting there on 26 Black.
“Well, it sure does,” Father O’Malley said, as he pushed back his chair and stood. “I believe it’s time for my dinner. Would you care to join me, Billy? I generally head uptown to The Golden Cup about this time of day. They have the best steaks in town.”
“That sounds like a fine idea, Father. A steak and some nice French fries should fit the bill just fine.”
We said our goodbyes to Helene who walked us to the front door. I spotted Kate sitting on the top step of the front stairway, watching me leave. I felt like I ought to say something, but I didn’t know what. So I gave her a wave and a wink, and Helene closed the door behind me without a word.
As we climbed into Father O’Malley’s shiny black Lincoln Continental, I asked him, “how well do you know Helene?”
“I’ve known her since before she changed her name from Helen,” he answered. “We have several mutual friends. And for a while she was a member of my parish. I still pray she’ll return to the Church one day.”
“And her child? Is she a good girl?”
“Your child, you mean? She’s charming, polite, respectful, and very intelligent.”
“Helene told you I’m the father?” The shocks kept coming. Not only did I have a child I wasn’t aware of, but it was apparently public knowledge.
“She did. I told you, we’re very old friends.”
“Has she told you anything else about me?”
“Nothing I couldn’t have learned otherwise, if I’d had a mind to.”
We arrived at The Golden Cup and took a table in the window, where we could watch people passing by on the sidewalk. Lots of lovely young ladies in short skirts. Our waitress was a fine-looking young lady herself, went by the name of Julie. If I hadn’t already spent time with Ruby, I would have seriously considered ditching the priest to see if I could get anywhere with her.
After we ordered our steaks, I asked, “Father, did Helene ever mention to you why she chose the name of Kate for the child?”
“You know, I did ask her once, out of curiosity. She didn’t want to say, exactly, other than it was a name that meant something to you. That was back when she still believed you might marry her one day.”
“I don’t’ expect I’m cut out for being a family man.”
“Perhaps not.” Father O’Malley shrugged. “Why did you ask me about the child’s name?”
“Kate was my mother’s name. Katherine, but she was always Kate. Not a name I’d ever choose to pass along to a child. Not a name I really care to hear at all.”
“You didn’t get along with your mother?”
“I guess I did, until I realized the truth.”
“Let’s say she wasn’t who I thought she was. Or I wasn’t who I thought I was. And while we’re at it, since you were interested earlier in knowing why I’m not so hot on the Church, it was a priest who could have helped me but didn’t.”
“What is it you think this priest could have done for you?” Father O’Malley’s blue eyes seemed to see through me as we talked, and I didn’t know if I wanted to answer him.
Our steaks arrived then, and we ordered another round of drinks. That gave me a minute to think about how much I wanted to share with Father O’Malley. He seemed a decent sort, hung out in a gambling room in the back of a whorehouse, enjoyed steaks and whisky. How bad could he be? Still, a priest is a priest.
Anyway, I told him. I don’t know why, exactly. He was a good listener, and the steak tasted great and, along with all the drinks, I was feeling warm.
“She used to take me with her when she went shopping, to this department store in the next town over. I was about eight the first time it happened. She’d told me to wait for her at the sandwich counter while she browsed the racks for a new dress or something. So I’m sitting there enjoying a chocolate milkshake, looking over some baseball cards I’d brought with me, and this woman I don’t know walks up behind me and says, ‘Hi, Timmy.’
“Now, not being named Timmy, I didn’t know the lady meant me, until she ruffled my hair like a grandparent or an aunt would. I turned and looked at her, and I guess she could tell from my expression that I didn’t know who she was. But she was still sure I was Timmy. ‘Timmy,’ she says, ‘don’t you recognize your cousin Sally?’ That was about when my mother swung by and grabbed me by the collar, practically dragging me away, leaving Sally standing there with a face full of confusion.”
“Who was Timmy?” O’Malley asked.
“I had no idea. My mother wouldn’t tell me. Same thing happened on the ballfield a couple of times. Kids would tell me how much I looked like this kid named Timmy Oliveira from Greenfield. Said my pitching motion, my wind-up and everything, was just like his.
“You see, my father never was much of a ballplayer. Didn’t have any knack for throwing or catching. Had short little round legs that were no good for running. Nothing like me, see? Now, I know kids don’t always take straight after their parents. There’s differences, of course. But, I mean, my old man couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a baseball from six feet away, never mind sixty. And I was already taller than him by the time I was twelve.”
“Was your mother athletic? Any uncles or cousins? Brothers?”
“My mother was in good shape. She was fine-looking woman. But I never knew her to have athletic interests. I had no brothers or sisters, never knew of any uncles or cousins.”
“So, you suspected that your father wasn’t really your father at all.”
“I was sure of it. I asked both him and my mother about it, about Timmy, about all of it. They always tried to laugh it off, make me think it was my imagination. But I knew what I knew.”
“How was their relationship, your parents?”
“My father, the man who raised me, was the best person I ever knew, have ever known. Kind, generous, gentle, compassionate. But my mother treated him like he was an idiot. He did everything for her. Worked two jobs, took care of the house and the yard while she shopped, went to church, and drank coffee with the other church women. He took me to all my ballgames, even though he didn’t care about sports, because he knew it was important to me. Mom was always too busy. He’d do anything for anyone, especially for her. And she just shit on him.
“One night, I was about fifteen, my mom was having coffee with Father Williams, the priest from our local church, down in our kitchen. I could hear them from my room at the top of the stairs talking about raising funds for some charity or other. Then the conversation got quieter, whispering, and it was harder for me to hear. But I heard enough to know they were talking about me, about where I really came from, who my real father was. And that the mysterious ‘Timmy’ – whoever he might be – had the same mother and father as me.”
And I just kept talking to Father O’Malley. I told him how I had followed that other priest, Williams, when he left my mother that night. How I followed him back to his house next to the church. How I called to him, and he stopped. How I begged him to tell me what my parents wouldn’t, to help me know who I really was. But he wouldn’t, said he couldn’t betray my mother’s confidence or the “sanctity of the confessional.”
“So,” asked O’Malley, “what did you do?”
“That night I decided to run away. I couldn’t see going on living in a house where they couldn’t even tell me who I was. I didn’t belong there. It took a couple of months for me to get an escape plan together. A scout for the Cardinals happened to be in town, and I was pitching against Greenfield. I’d already convinced the scout that I was eighteen. He was really interested, and if I could show him my good stuff, he said he’d have a contract ready for me to sign.
“This kid Timmy was pitching for Greenfield. The two of us, looking like twins, pitching for opposing teams. I could see my old man sitting in the bleachers over behind third base. Every time I went through my wind-up, there was a point where I was looking him right in the eye. I could see something in his face I’d never seen before, or never noticed. A look like someone had punched him in the gut. And it was especially there when Timmy was up to bat. I looked at the plate and felt like I was pitching to myself. Then I looked at my old man seeming like he was ready to get up and run away, but staying there to watch me anyway, because that’s how he was. That’s how much he cared about me.
“Eight innings in, no score, and both of us pitching great. I’d struck Timmy out twice already, and he’d gotten me to hit two weak grounders. He comes up with a man on first and two outs in the top of the ninth. I saw my old man as I went into my wind-up, squirming in his seat, and I just lost it. I saw red. I looked back at Timmy Oliveira and I put a fastball in his ear. Dropped him like a wet rag.”
“How badly was he hurt?”
“I didn’t stick around to see. But I read in the paper a couple of days later that he was ok, other than a fractured cheekbone.”
“You didn’t stick around?” he asked me, surprised. “Where did you go?”
“I just ran. I knew there was no way that scout was gonna sign me after that, even though I’d shown him I could put the ball wherever I wanted. So I ran. Spent the rest of the day hiding, then snuck into my house that night to grab some clothes and things. Hopped onto a bus to Florida, never went back.”
“And kept playing baseball.”
“Sure. I told you, it’s all I’m any good at. I hooked up with an independent team in Tampa. Eventually another scout spotted me, signed me to a minor league deal with the White Sox.”
“And you’re still running. Are you running away? Or running toward something?”
“What kind of question is that? You a shrink on top of being a priest?”
Father O’Malley looked at me for a long minute before asking, “Do you have any idea what became of your brother Timmy?”
“My brother? He wasn’t my brother. Why would he be my brother? Just because we had the same mother and father?”
“That’s the general idea.”
“No, that doesn’t make him my brother. That makes my mother a lying bitch. And it makes my father, the man who raised me, a stupid sucker. That’s why I’ll never get trapped into settling with one woman. No one’s gonna to do to me what my mother did to him. Take this child of Helene’s; how the hell do I know it’s mine?”
“What reason would she have to lie? She’s not asking you for anything.”
“Isn’t she, though? Isn’t she asking me to be something I can’t be? To be a father? That ain’t me. Not a chance.”
“Billy, think about it. The child is five years old. If Helene wanted anything from you, she would have asked long before now.”
“Unless she had some other sucker on the line until now. Maybe more than one. No, I like Helene, plenty. She’s a fun lady and she runs a nice house over there, but I don’t trust her any more than I trust any woman. They’re all lying, conniving witches. I take what I want from them when I can get it, but I’m never gonna let one of ‘em snare me. Listen, Father, you seem like a decent guy. But, let’s face it, you’re a priest. What do you know about women?”
“Think about where you met me, Billy. In a brothel.”
“In the gambling parlor behind the brothel, technically.”
“There are other places I could go if I wanted to gamble. I’m a man, Billy. I was a priest, but I retired from that. And even as a priest, a man is still a man.”
“Ain’t it a sin or something for a priest to have sex with a woman?”
“No one is free of sin. But no one is totally sinful, either. Even your mother.” He stared at me while I squirmed a little. “Have you had any contact with your parents over the years?”
“The old man sends me letters occasionally, care of whatever team I’m with at the time. Nothing from my mother. They split up soon after I left. She moved to Greenfield, if you follow my drift. Listen, Father . . . is that what I should call you?”
“If you like. Or you can call me Tom.”
“Tom. Listen, I appreciate you taking an interest, and listening to me like this. I haven’t ever told most of this to anyone else before. But I don’t want you thinking I’m spending my life doing nothing but hating my mother. I’ve had a good run playing ball, seeing lots of the country. I’ve been in bed with more women than you’ve probably been in the confessional booth with. I have no complaints.”
“Town to town, woman to woman, team to team. Do you wish you had roots somewhere? A place to call your own?”
“Not really,” I said, shrugging. “I mean, I suppose there’ll come a day when I’ll have to stop in one place. I can’t keep playing baseball forever. But I’m of the school of thought that it’s best to focus on right now, not worry about a future that might not come. And I’d never be able to settle down with just one woman.”
We stood, shook hands.
“Anyway, thank you for listening, and for the steak,” I said as we stood and shook hands. “You were right; it was very good. But I’ve got to get back to my hotel. We’ve got an early bus in the morning, heading to Yorktown.”
“Don’t mention it, Billy,” Father O’Malley answered as we walked out the door of the Golden Cup into the evening air. “It was entirely my pleasure. Good luck to you. I hope you find some happiness.”
“Oh, I’ll find happiness all right. I believe in Yorktown her name is Sharon.”
Brian Mosher was born and raised in Foxboro, MA, and currently resides in nearby Mansfield. He’s been writing poetry and short fiction since he was in High School in the 1970s, and has self-published 3 books: “One Bad Day Deserves Another” and “Moon Shine and Lemon Twists” (both in 2016); and “The Broken Mosaic” (2021). His poetry chapbook, “Dreams and Other Magic” (2023) is published by Alien Buddha Press. He also maintains a poetry blog, Phlubbermatic: (www.phlubbermatic.blogspot.com). His fiction has appeared or is slated to appear soon in Esoterica Magazine and Half and One Magazine.