Robber’s Dance: The Butch Matson Story (R)

He never told Father Cleary to go fuck himself and this was, for the majority of his life, one of his top two greatest regrets – the other being a hankering for smothered pork chops one summer night in ’38, but we’ll get to that in due course. Butch’s restraint in regards to the old priest had nothing to do with Cleary’s supposed piety and it certainly had nothing to do with fear of any divine reprisals, Butch just didn’t cuss is all. Understand, Butch was no prude, he had a connoisseur’s appreciation for the fine art of swearing, enjoying each colorful variation those in his circle would use – shitfucker, for instance, being a favorite, never failing to make Butch crack one of his retarded gap-toothed grins. But Butch left the cussing to his friends and acquaintances; for him it was a temptation quickly snuffed by the echo of one the clearest memories he had of his long dead daddy. He was six, maybe seven, and his old man was still a handful of years from his date with St. Peter, when Butch had told his father that their dinner of cabbage stew tasted like “shit.” Wilkie Matson’s fist, a red-skinned brick of calluses and bone, sent the boy from his stool to the rough wooden floor with a grain sack thud. When Butch woke up later that night he found his jaw painfully throbbing and his mouth shut by one of his father’s handkerchiefs wrapped from chin to crown and tied in a tight bow. “That’ll be your jaw that’s broken there. Aye, broke good,” his father had grumbled in his strange, fluctuating accent – sometimes Scottish Highlands, sometimes lower East side, “you’ll be sippin’ soup fer a good while. ‘F nothin’ else, ya won’t be able to open your mouth an’ give out such trash as ya did. Ya think about that, Butchie.”

They weren’t the plushest of times for the Matsons and there wasn’t enough in the coffers for a doctor’s visit, so Butch sipped broth for weeks, missing school and wasting away. But he healed as young kids can, not much worse off other than a distorted jawline that widened his face something like an ape’s. Once he was able to, he started to eat like an ape as well, soon gaining all his weight back and the start of some of his muscle. He was never going to win any beauty contests, but that was okay with Butch.

He never talked much about those early years in his old man’s clapboard shack but it’s reasonable to assume that there were more bruises than laughs. However, on those rare instances Butch did wax nostalgic, the church was mentioned often and, according to those who were privy to these reminiscences, he never smiled when he did so.

“I guess you coulda called him a Catholic,” Paulie Hearn, an early partner in crime, recalled, “But it wasn’t no comfortable fit. He didn’t bend his knee easily, see, an’ that’s what they was teachin’ him to do at St. Alphonse.”

St. Alphonse’s was the Matson family house of worship, its iron-fenced boneyard was where Butch’s mother slept free of earthly cares and Wilkie’s snoring. But the only impression all those childhood masses and sermons left on Butch was “a bunch of standing an’ sitting an’ kneeling and trying to feel bad about whatever they told you you were supposed to feel bad about.”

The Roman Catholic church, as you may have gathered, was no guiding light in Butch’s life. As a child he listened restlessly to the stories of Jericho’s walls, lions’ dens, parted seas, virgin births and the risen dead and it all made about as much sense to him as Santa Claus and Paul Bunyan. He was a kid of the waterfront, a first generation immigrant with a worm’s eye view of the way things worked in the real world, he’d believe in such things if and only if he saw it with his own two eyes – and even then he’d get his eyes checked. And as for getting into Heaven? The rules as he understood them were way too strict, the chances for actual reward in the Hereafter seemed slight. Butch had it drilled into him that the virtuous and meek were rewarded and that the unrepentant sinner would be punished for all eternity, but he took a look around himself. He saw the men that everyone else labeled as wicked and godless – the men in the big cars, the ones eating at all the posh joints, always in the company of gorgeous dames – and they looked to be having a great time. Heaven, so Butch came to feel, was a sucker bet, a stacked deck in the house’s favor, and he hated how faith in such a fantasy turned his father, a wall of a man, into a weeping penitent for one day out of the week but didn’t do anything to prevent him from being a prick the other six.

But it was Father Cleary, his childhood priest, who earned the lion’s share of Butch’s ire and not just because the “potato-eating son of a beeswax,” as Butch was known to say, had boxed his ear for giggling during his own confirmation. There was just something about the man’s act that rang false as a tin bell for Butch. To a precocious cynic like young Butch, this priest in his robes peddling fairy stories to the desperate and poor while running through his well-rehearsed gestures – the spread hands of supplication complete with raised eyes that marked the climax of each and every sermon – just came off like a cheap stage magician. It was all show and it pissed Butch off how all the grownups around him bought into it. He would sit in his pew mutely seething as he studied Cleary’s face, eyes lifted to the rafters as if he could see beyond them, gazing upon wonders that nobody else could. Butch knew there was nothing up there to see. So it was that he wrote off Father Cleary, Christianity and the whole of religion as “a big steamin’ crock of hooey.” Though, it must be stated, he never had the nerve to say as much to his father.

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