In 1935, Bruno Hauptmann was on trial in New Jersey for kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby. Amelia Earhart aborted her first attempt at an around-the-world flight when she lost control of her airplane on takeoff at Luke Field, near Pearl Harbor (which had no special significance for Americans, beyond being the place where Amelia Earhart failed to begin her landmark flight). And penicillin, which had been discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1929, was in the final stage of development but scientists had not yet found the formula for a stable commercial preparation.
Frank Donnelly was 12 years old. He lived on the north side of Minneapolis, close to the main boulevard where tall trees grew out of a wide center swath and formed arcs over the streets. His house was brand-new, a stucco A-frame with three bedrooms in back and a swinging door between the dining room and the kitchen. His father, Ted, was a jeweler, with clean, white hair and a slight stoop. Ted was very tall for the time—almost six feet—gentle and pensive. He worked long hours in his store and at home at a bench in the basement, peering through a set of monocles attached to the frames of his glasses. Frank’s mother, Mary, was 10 years younger than her husband—small and willful and quick to laugh. She cleaned the house with short, swift jerks of the dust rag and carpet sweeper. She volunteered at the church, serving funeral luncheons every Tuesday and Wednesday. She was a competitive bridge player—far more so than Ted—sifting quickly through her cards and playing them with the snap of an Atlantic City dealer.
Frank was tall and serious like his dad. He had medium-brown hair that he would wet down every morning with a comb dipped in water. He wore starched white shirts and stiff woolen knickers with knee socks and hook-and-eye lace-up shoes. He preferred reading to kickball (although he did quite well at the game and once got a home run playing in the alley behind his house) and had raced through every story ever written by Robert Louis Stevenson. He asked the librarian to recommend other adventure books but none, so far, was as good as Treasure Island.
Frank had skipped a grade and still he was at the top of his section at school. The nuns seated him at the front of the classroom and often pinned up his work—particularly his penmanship and math assignments—as models for the rest of the class. They never hit him across the knuckles with their rulers. In the lower grades they asked his sister, Eleanor, who was 9 and already vain about her long, silky hair, why she couldn’t be more like her brother.
The sisters praised Ted and Mary for raising a son so mannerly. And pious. Even kneeling with their heads bowed on clasped hands and their habits tented around them, they noted that he did not fidget during daily Mass. He was a good boy. A smart boy. A credit to his family, his school, and the Church.
Every afternoon, when Frank arrived home after school, he took his little brother into the kitchen with him. Mickey was not quite 3, still wearing pullover jerseys, rubber pants, and hard-sided shoes. Frank would hoist him easily onto the countertop and talk to him while he fixed a snack: bread with butter and white sugar for both of them. Lemonade when the weather was warm, hot chocolate in the winter. Mickey’s black jellybean eyes would follow Frank from the icebox to the sugar drawer to the sink. He loved this room because the cupboards were stacked three-high all the way up to the ceiling; when he looked up at the top, he got shivery and dizzy and felt like he might fall off his perch. But he knew Frank would catch him if he did. Frank would never let him fall.
Mickey couldn’t say as many words as other children his age, but that was fine because he preferred being quiet and listening to Frank. He especially liked hearing about school—a glorious place. Frank told him about the ink pots sunk into holes in the desks, the new-smelling books filled with numbers, the gymnasium with its waxed board floor and blue wrestling mats against the walls. In Mickey’s mind, the school was a castle. He could see the nuns, sweeping down the halls, two abreast, in full-skirted black habits. He knew that school was the place to become smart, like Frank. He wanted to go to school. He didn’t understand why Frank had to leave him every morning.
December was snowy that year, even for Minnesota. Each afternoon brought a fresh shower of fat, wet flakes that covered the streets and rooftops with white. The air was quiet and full. Frank loved the snow. This was the one time of year he would spend hours outside, sledding down neighborhood hills on his Flexible Flyer, holding the steering rope in his bare hands, his cheeks reddened and chapped from the onslaught of wind as he flew down the hill.
But on a particular Monday afternoon early in the month, he walked straight home through the swirling snow. He felt tired, and his ears rang in the quiet. There was no snack for Mickey that day. No wild ride up the cupboards. Frank sat in the living room with a book and read until dinnertime. He ate little. Once, at the table, he put his head down in the cup of his two hands.
Mary stood up from her seat, felt his forehead, and said it was “warm-ish.” She put him in bed early, tucking three quilts around him. His cheeks were streaked and fiery. Later, his father came in with a mixture of lemon and honey and a capful of whiskey steeped in boiling water that he told Frank to drink. Ted sat on the bed, silent, one large, long-fingered hand—so deft with the tiny inner workings of a watch—holding the hump of his son’s knee through the thick blankets. When Frank had finished the drink, Ted turned out the light and told him to sleep well. The next morning, Frank woke up feeling empty and weak but much better. His face was white, but he pinked up a bit after he ate some toast and drank a glass of orange juice.
“Can you go to school?” Mary asked as she rushed around the kitchen, fixing plates, pouring coffee, and brushing the knots out of Eleanor’s hair. “I’m due at the church at 10 to serve for the Williams funeral.”
Frank said he could go. He packed his satchel slowly with paper and pencils and his history book. He walked to school and sat himself gently in his seat. When Sister Magdelena called for attention and began the Lord’s Prayer, he barely mouthed the words. The morning seemed endless. By noon, his neck felt as if there were two knobs growing inside it, under his jaw on both sides. The knobs made it hard for him to swallow and pressed painfully into his ears, too. His eyes were teary. His throat and the roof of his mouth were as sore as if they had been scraped with ground glass.
Frank hunched on a wooden bench after lunch, staring at his shoes and trying to decide what to do. He could not concentrate on the lessons. He seemed to be a beat behind everyone else: as if his body were going forward but his mind had been separated from it and couldn’t catch up. Finally, midafternoon, he gathered all of his nerve and asked for permission to visit the office of Sister Mary Constance. He had only ever seen her once before, when he hurt his foot jumping off a swing on the playground. Now, once again, she towered over him, a black specter, the lower half of her face obscured by her wimple. She used large, rough hands to examine him. Pinching his chin between her fingers and thumb, she tilted his head back, felt his forehead, and looked in his open mouth.
“You don’t appear to be ill,” she said, speaking from the back of her nose. “Go back to your class for the rest of the day and your parents can decide tomorrow whether to send you.”
Frank turned to go. But as he did, Sister Mary Constance saw the spots. Pustulant pinpricks of bright red dotted his arms and neck; when she lifted his shirt to check, she found they had exploded like constellations all over his chest and stomach. She did not utter a word. Carefully, she pulled his shirt down and tucked it back into his belt. Putting her hands on his shoulders, lightly now, she guided him to the small cot in the back of her office.
“I will send someone to the church for your mother,” she said quietly to Frank.
Grateful, Frank laid his head down on the hard cot. He thought about his mother coming for him. He imagined her seizing her hat and coat and putting them on as she rushed out the door of the church. He wondered if she would make him ginger tea when they went home. He fell asleep wondering this.
By the time Mary reached the school, Frank was burning inside. His fingertips and palms were stigmatized with tiny blood spots. He was unconscious, deep in a dreamless sleep. His body shivered delicately as if from cold. She got him home with the help of Father Bernard, who carried Frank into the house and then drove off to Ted’s jewelry store to bring him home. Mary put Frank into the double bed she and Ted shared; again she piled on the three quilts, then knelt beside him with a rosary laced between her fingers like a child’s string game. Hail Mary, full of grace.
She did not move from the side of the bed, even when Ted came home and found the baby, Mickey, sitting on the floor and clinging to one of her feet. “Come on, Mary. You must get up and leave the boy to rest,” he said. But she stayed. Finally Ted picked up Mickey, whose pants sagged low with wetness, and took him away. He changed the boy’s diaper. In the living room, Father Bernard sat with Dr. Ross, who had just arrived and paused, his black-handled bag on his lap, to talk to the priest. Ted heard Father whisper, “Scarlet fever.” He heard Mary muttering in the room down the hall. The Lord is with thee.
Dr. Ross rose and went down the hall. He pushed through the bedroom door and glanced briefly at Frank lying lifeless on the bed, his face bright with flames of fever. The doctor smiled at Mary. “Well, I think we can do without a few of these,” he said kindly, lifting two quilts from the bed. “Mary, why don’t you bring me some ice. Crush it real fine, if you would, and put it in a bowl.” Mary stood, her fingers still pinching their way down the row of beads. “And a few towels, dear,” said the doctor. Mary went out the door, but turned to look at Frank as she departed. Dr. Ross shut the door behind her. Blessed art thou amongst women.
In the living room, in the fireplace framed by Spanish tiles that they had been so proud to own when they bought the house, Ted built a fire. He stood next to the trifold screen that held the flames inside. One arm extended up, his hand flat against the brick chimney, he stared into the fire and smoked his pipe. Mary’s youngest sister came to collect Mickey and Eleanor. All of Mary’s sisters and brothers had offered to take the children, but Clara did not yet have children of her own so it was decided she should take them, in case they were contagious.
“Are you all right, dear?” Clara rushed through the living room, as if it were a crowded train station, and clenched Mary to her puffy breasts. She was just 22, but already Clara had the clucky, wide-hipped appearance of a matron.
Mary shook her head. She clutched her beads. She felt a tearing inside her as she watched her two well children walk out the front door. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
Dr. Ross was in the bedroom with Frank for a long time. Mary and Ted said almost nothing to each other. Ted stirred the fire with a long, black poker. Mary mated a basket full of thick, dark socks. Her rosary stayed wrapped in circlets around her wrist.
Sometime after midnight, the doctor came out into the living room and slumped silently into a chair. Within minutes, and without reporting a word, he was asleep, his head tilted back and his mouth open. Mary touched his arm, hoping he would wake up, hoping he would say something comforting. When he did not, she took out her ironing board and began on Ted’s handkerchiefs.
At 3 a.m., the doctor awoke with a snore that turned into a grunt and then a start. He went to the bathroom and urinated. He washed his hands at the sink and examined his chin in the mirror. He walked slowly into the bedroom, snapping his suspenders into place in the hollows of his shoulders, but emerged quickly. His face was pale. Frank’s dead, Mary thought, though she continued ironing. My child is dead.
“Mary…Ted,” Ross said. Ted turned from where he stood, still, watching the dying fire. “I think it’s time to take Frank to the hospital.” Jesus.
At St. Bridget’s, nuns in white nurses’ habits surrounded Frank. He lay on a rolling cot meant for an adult, his feet marking the length of his body only two thirds of the way down from the top.
The surgeon who explained the procedure was young. He had slick dark hair and serious eyes. He looked like Frank might when he grew up. If he grew up. They would open Frank’s back, the doctor explained, and massage his lungs manually. This had been known to work in extreme cases.
“And if we don’t do this?” Ted asked.
“He might die,” said the older, doctor version of Frank. “The fever is progressing very quickly and he’s struggling to breathe.”
Mary heard the promise in this. He might die if we don’t do it, she reasoned silently, therefore he cannot die if we do. She grasped her bracelet of beads. “Go ahead,” she said. “We give our consent.” The surgeon looked to Ted, who cleared his throat and nodded.
At 8 a.m. on Wednesday the bell rang at Frank’s school. His classmates, who were lined up outside three doors, filed in to the tune of a Sousa march. And a flock of blackbirds, heads bowed, circled Frank and rolled him into an operating room. Holy Mary, Mother of God.
At noon, Frank was out of surgery and in a private stall off the children’s ward. His hands were lashed to the sides of his bed with straps, to keep him from falling out. He lay on a rubber sheet heaped with ice. His fever had reached 106 degrees and would not fall; his face and arms radiated red, hot vapors. Mary sat at his side, one hand parked inches away from his shoulder, afraid to touch him because she thought she might transfer more heat into his body. She had not eaten or slept. She smelled sour. Her hands had gnarled into large, knuckly claws, like the wicked witch’s hands in Hansel and Gretel.
“Mary.” Ted stood beside her. He rested his hand on her back, but she flinched it off. “You must get some rest. Mary! Let me take you home for an hour.”
She did not answer. Her words would have been wasted. She could not leave her son, or he would die. She had to stay. She had to keep holding the line of his life. If only he were a baby again, and the other two were not yet born. If only she could pick him up and take him home and forget about this awful day, this awful night, this awful week…. If only she had not sent him to school.
She lowered her head to the bed and buried her face in the rough blanket, scratched it from side to side against her cheeks. Ted stroked her messy hair, and she let him. She knew there was an answer somewhere. If Frank woke up, he could give it to her. He could tell her. He could let her take back the day and just make her apologies for missing the Williams funeral. She would never again make the same mistake. She would know to stay home with her boy. Pray for us sinners.
Just past midnight on Thursday morning, in a dark crevice of night, Frank Donnelly died. His fever had risen to 108 degrees and his body had melted the ice he was packed in so quickly that his bed had turned into a pool of milky water. The red spots on his hands and legs and chest, instead of getting larger, had begun to fade, as if he no longer had enough blood inside him to fuel them. Frank’s breathing became quieter, easier. His neck relaxed. His body released the disease and with it, his soul.
Mary was led away from his bed by two mannishly built nuns. They carried her between them. She did not make a sound. Ted, in a chair in a murky corner of the tiny room, cried quietly. Unnoticed. After a while he got up, went to the bed, and slipped his arms around Frank’s body. It was still hot. The sutured wound on Frank’s back ran from a spot between his shoulder blades down to his waist, held tight with wide X’s of heavy, black thread. His skin puckered pinkly at the entrance point of each stitch and wept tiny drops of fluid. Ted lay across Frank’s body, rocking him. His white shirtsleeves became soaked from the water that streamed across the mattress.
At his aunt Clara’s house in Robbinsdale, Mickey crawled into a linen cupboard in the dining room and sat on her best tablecloth, wrinkling it so that it would take her an hour in front of the mangle to press it before Christmas Eve dinner, weeks later. He held his knees to his chest. He felt hot; there was a pain in his head and his throat was squeezing shut. He sat in the dark, rocking back and forth, wishing for a butter sandwich. For his mother. For Frank.
At the hospital, Frank’s body was anointed with oil. He was wrapped in a clean sheet. Under the sheet, he held the rosary that Mary had placed in his hands before the nuns came to take him away. Now and at the hour of our death.
Frank was buried on Saturday and placed in the Catholic cemetery next to his great-grandmother, under a stone that said “Beloved Son and Brother.” Mickey and Eleanor and their parents sat in the front pew under the huge ceramic Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross, feet entwined, thorns circling his head, blood flowing down his fingers. Eleanor was next to her father. Ted had one arm around her and he kept pulling her closer to him and whispering, “Hush now. Hush. Don’t worry. He sees.”
She wore what was to have been her Christmas dress—a dress that she would stuff into an old oilcan in the basement when they returned home. She looked up at Christ on the cross and saw Frank’s face. She looked at the statue of the Blessed Virgin and saw Frank’s face. She looked all around the church and saw Frank’s face. At the wake the night before, her mother had told her she would never see Frank’s face again. She cried, as much out of confusion as grief.
Mickey sat next to his mother. It was the first time in his life he had ever worn long woolen pants and a white-collared shirt. Just like Frank. He stared straight ahead, his dark eyes clear and vacant. He did not see Frank. He would never see Frank. Because his mother had sent Frank to school.
Mickey had awakened in the dark, alone in his room, that morning. Frank was not in the bed beside him. No one was in the bed beside him, but there was something in the room with him—a creature breathing green fumes and trying to snatch him from his bed. Mickey got out of bed on his own. He went to the doorway of his parents’ bedroom and pushed open the door. The room was dark, but they weren’t there. They had disappeared. Just like Frank.
Then he heard the voices. He heard his mother coughing…no, crying. She was choking on the words, yelling in a whispered voice. They were in the kitchen. Mickey slid his feet slowly down the hall. He waited outside the door of the kitchen. He knew he shouldn’t be listening, but he didn’t want to go back in his room, alone, with the monster that was ready to eat him and make him dead. Just like Frank.
“You’re making yourself sick, Mary,” he heard his father say. “You’ve got to think of the other children. You’ve got to stop this and get some sleep.”
Mickey pushed the door open an inch. He saw his parents in the too-bright light of the yellow kitchen. He saw his mother’s face twist up horribly. He saw her hit his father with one of her wide, ringed hands.
“It is my fault, it is!” She hit him again and again. “I shouldn’t have made him go to school. If I hadn’t made him go to school….” Hit, hit, hit. “He would still….” Hit, hit. “Be alive!” Finally, Ted caught her arms. He said nothing. His face was gray and old. He stood with Mary, her wrists locked in his hands, and they stared at each other.
Mickey turned away from the door. He went back to bed. The monster in his room didn’t scare him anymore. He knew where people died: at school. He knew what had happened now. He knew that he should never go to school, or he would be made dead. Just like Frank. Amen.
In early February, Mary got up one morning, set the bacon on the stove to fry, put the coffee on to boil, and suddenly felt the room begin to tilt around her. She was sick that morning, and three more times that week. By late February, Mary was sure. And by mid-March, her doctor was, too. On Easter Sunday, at dinner with her parents and six of her brothers and sisters and their wives and husbands and children, Mary announced that she was going to have a baby. There was a silence, but it wasn’t long. Then everyone laughed and cheered and congratulated Ted. The men wrestled him away for cigars. They told him how a new baby would keep him young—even at 49. No one mentioned Frank.
Mickey, who had turned 3 during the dark week after Frank’s funeral, could use the toilet now and he wore white buttoned shirts every day. He slept alone in the room with his monster every night and dreaded the day when he would have to go to school. He didn’t understand why a baby was coming instead of Frank. But he never asked anyone about it. Certain things, he knew even at 3, were never meant to be explained.