Patrolman Mark Holtz stood and watched the crowd as the late August sunset behind the church. The sugary scent of cotton candy drifted down the street, mixing with the heavy, buttery smell of the pierogi booth. Every so often, Tom Linko’s voice crackled over the ancient PA system about the 50/50 raffle. Children squealed as some unfortunate volunteer splashed into the dunk tank. The money wheel clacked. The St. Pius street fair always got a good turnout, but it seemed a little smaller that year. The closing of the Duquesne Works the year before and the resulting layoffs had thinned out the crowd. There were smiles, but a good deal of them had a nervous strain or a quiet sadness to them. Holtz didn’t have a smile, just guilt. He had been laid off like everyone else, but his uncle was the police chief. He turned and spit a stream of tobacco juice into the gutter. The only thing he had wanted to be less than a cop was unemployed.
Despite his life not having gone according to plan, he tried to do the job as best he could. He had made plenty of arrests in the year he had been on the force, but he cut some people breaks. Like Billy Ptasinski, who was standing near the money wheel booth talking to one of the firemen. Twice, Holtz had called Billy’s wife to come to get him rather than arrest him for drunk driving. Billy hadn’t really started to overdo it until he had been laid off. Or like Butch Miller who was stuffing an Italian sausage into his mouth while his boy threw bean bags at the milk bottles. Butch had run a crane in the mill, but he had started running numbers after he was laid off. Holtz had tipped Butch to a state police raid. He did what he could for his former union brothers.
A heavy hand slapped Holtz on the back. “Hey there, copper!” There was whiskey on Father Harvey’s breath. More than you would think could fit on one man’s breath.
“Father,” Holtz said and shook the priest’s meaty paw.
Father Harvey was a big man, with the flushed complexion and bulbous nose of a dedicated drinker. “Butch still taking action?” Father Harvey asked, nodding across the street.
“Far as I know,” Holtz said.
Father Harvey smiled a little. His smile changed to a scowl as two teenage girls walked past, with big hair held in place from half a can of hairspray each and shirts that were cut short to show their little, white bellies. Father Harvey grunted his disapproval. Holtz shrugged. An old man wearing a scally cap and an Ancient Order of Hibernians jacket, in spite of the heat, shuffled over and greeted Father Harvey. They shook hands, and the man whispered something to Father Harvey. Father Harvey nodded, pulled his flask out of his pocket, and slipped it to the old man, who took a quick swig and passed it back. Holtz rolled his eyes and spit tobacco juice into the gutter.
Holtz watched the crowd because that’s what policemen are supposed to do. Kids were playing games and winning stuffed animals. Butch Miller was shoving another Italian sausage into his mouth. Sister Estelle was talking to a couple of the women from the Altar Society. Coming up the sidewalk, near where the booths began, was Eric Lange with his wife and their eleven-year-old son. Holtz smiled a little. He turned to Father Harvey. The old man in the AOH jacket had shuffled away.
“Thanks for the food tickets,” Holtz said.
Father Harvey waved his hand at Holtz to say it was nothing. “Who they for?”
“The Langes,” Holtz said, pointing with his chin towards the family making their way up the street.
Eric Lange was a stout fellow in jeans and a white t-shirt. He had been laid off on the same day as Holtz, but he hadn’t been fortunate enough to have a police chief for an uncle. His wife Maura was plain and always looked like she might cry. Being broke will do that, Holtz guessed. The boy, Neil, was as skinny as a bean pole, with messy brown hair curling from underneath his Pirates baseball hat. The kid was a hell of a baseball player. Holtz had been his coach for five years.
“How’s Eric making out?” Father Harvey asked.
“Not well. All he’s been able to find is part-time at the hardware store.”
“That’s rough,” Father Harvey said, shaking his head sadly.
“Yeah. He told me they’re probably gonna lose their house. They can’t make the mortgage this month,” Holtz said.
Father Harvey swore quietly.
“They probably wouldn’t have even come if I hadn’t told them that I had some extra food tickets that were going to go to waste.”
The boy spotted Holtz and ran over to him. “Hey, coach!”
“Hey, Neil,” Holtz said and high-fived the boy’s small hand.
“Did you see the home run Johnny Ray hit yesterday?” the boy asked excitedly.
“No, buddy, I was working, but I heard about it.”
“Won the game.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty good,” Holtz said. “What are you gonna get to eat?”
“I dunno,” the boy shrugged. “Maybe a funnel cake.”
Holtz smiled as the boy scampered towards the money wheel and slapped a quarter down on one of the spaces. The Langes made their way through the crowd towards Holtz. He wondered where they would go if they lost their house. Probably to the projects. He sighed and put on a cheerless smile.
“How’s it going, Eric?”
“Hanging in there,” Lange said and shook Holtz’s hand. Father Harvey was hugging Mrs. Lange. “Thanks again for the tickets,” Lange said.
“Hey, I’m just glad someone was able to use them.”
“How’s the job?” Lange asked.
“Pain in my ass,” Holtz replied.
They stood there, looking around at the crowd, while Mrs. Lange and Father Harvey talked about church things.
“Your boy’s winning money over there,” Holtz chuckled, pointing across the street.
Lange snorted a laugh. “Well, I better go teach him to quit while he’s ahead.”
The Langes moved over to the money wheel, Father Harvey calling after them, reminding them to play the 50/50. Holtz smiled sadly after them. Father Harvey took his flask out of his pocket again and offered it to him. Holtz shook his head. Father Harvey took a long drink from his little friend and put it away.
“Any openings with the city?” Father Harvey asked. “Eric’s a good man. Hard worker.”
“No openings. As soon as there is one, everyone on the city council will be fighting over whose relative gets it.”
Father Harvey shook his head. Holtz watched two young children eating cotton candy. They didn’t know that things were never going to be the same here. Things were good in their world; there was cotton candy.
Billy Ptasinski drifted past, shook Holtz’s hand, and slapped him on the back, a quiet acknowledgment of Holtz’s decency. Father Harvey had gone over to the penny pitch booth and was talking to Pat McCall, whose wallpaper business seemed to be holding up for the time being. Holtz looked up at the crucifix on top of the church. He felt tired. He silently asked if miracles still happened. He didn’t get an answer.
Holtz stood at his post for two more hours. People passed by and shook his hand, even Digger Kowalski who was still sore that Holtz’s little league team had beaten his last Friday. Sister Estelle insisted that he eat, so he had some stuffed cabbage. The mayor put in an appearance, the smell of his cigar lingering after him.
Around 9:30, Tom Linko’s voice crackled over the PA that they would soon be picking the winner of the 50/50 raffle. This was the highlight of the street fair. Holtz made his way over to the booth where the ticket would be drawn. Most years, the take was around two thousand dollars, which meant a grand for the church and a grand for the winner. He watched as Father Harvey headed over to the booth to do the honors of picking the winning ticket out of the bucket. Father Harvey stopped behind Neil Lange and bent down to whisper something in his ear. Holtz saw him slip a dollar bill into the boy’s hand. Neil looked up and nodded.
Father Harvey ducked into the booth just as Tom Linko announced the last call for the raffle. Neil bounced up to the booth and was about to hand his dollar to the woman selling the tickets when Father Harvey called his name. Father Harvey nudged the woman selling the tickets and said something to her while pointing to the next booth. She went over to say something to the people in the next booth. Father Harvey took Neil’s dollar and grabbed the big roll of tickets, tearing a pair off, handing one to Neil and making a motion like he was tossing its twin into the bucket.
But it didn’t go into the bucket. It went between the priest’s fingers like a magician hiding a quarter to pull from behind a girl’s ear. Holtz stood watching, holding his breath. His heartbeat a little faster. This could be one hell of an ugly scene if anyone else saw what Father Harvey was about to do. The woman came back from saying whatever Father Harvey told her to say to the people in the next booth. Holtz looked at Tom Linko in the back of the booth. He was fiddling with the PA controls, trying to get it to sound better. He held the microphone up to his face and announced that the number would be drawn. He hadn’t seen. Holtz scanned the people nearest the booth. Nobody was reacting like they had seen what Holtz had seen. The woman held the bucket at eye level, and Father Harvey reached up and into it. He pulled his hand back out, holding a ticket. Holtz looked at Neil, whose mouth was open in anticipation. Mr. and Mrs. Lange were standing behind him. Father Harvey handed the ticket to Tom Linko, who read the number into the PA. Neil looked down at the ticket and turned to his parents.
Holtz took one step forward and caught Neil’s eye as he turned. Their eyes locked for a second, and Neil held up his hand and pointed to it. He was holding the ticket between his fingers like Father Harvey had. He pointed towards the booth with his other hand and opened his mouth to say something. Holtz put his finger to his lips. The boy stopped. They looked at each other. Holtz nodded, and the boy smiled. Neil handed the ticket to his father and very matter-of-factly told him that they had won. People near them looked at them expectantly.
Eric Lange looked at the ticket. He looked up and down at the ticket again. He looked at his wife. “I don’t believe it. We did,” he said quietly.
There were smiles and back slaps, and the money was counted out. Holtz scanned the crowd. Nobody but he and Neil seemed to have seen what happened. Father Harvey looked as pleased as Holtz had ever seen him look, except maybe when the Steelers had won the Super Bowl six years prior. Mrs. Lange cried and said something about a miracle. Father Harvey looked at Holtz. Holtz took a deep breath, let it out, and shook his head, grinning a little. Father Harvey took a small bow, then took out his flask and drank, not even bothering to be discreet.
Holtz waited until Mr. Lange was collecting the money and Mrs. Lange was talking through tears of joy to Father Harvey. Then he gently touched Neil’s shoulder. The boy looked up, and Holtz put his finger to his lips again. The boy nodded. Holtz patted him on the head and walked away.