Book excerpt: ‘Dirtbag, Massachusetts’ by Isaac Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s memoir in essays, which delves into his childhood growing up in Boston and rural Massachusetts and examines the stories we tell ourselves and others, will be published Tuesday.

Isaac Fitzgerald
Isaac Fitzgerald Remi Morawski

When I was six years old and we were still living in Boston, the Catholic Worker had gotten my ma a new job, at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which was and is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston and one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in New England. They needed a lot of help, so my ma became, essentially, the personal assistant to the cathedral itself. She cleaned and tidied, pitched in with secretarial duties, and assisted the priests.

From the outside, the church is a stone behemoth standing guard over the neighborhood, offering both protection and judgment. It served a large, mostly Irish American congregation, almost everyone immigrants or the children of immigrants, while also serving a new growing immigrant community with Spanish-language services during the off-hours, usually in the smaller chapel, which was always jam-packed with congregants. I remember sneaking in to listen to those services, where the psalms were sung in a language I didn’t know yet felt both familiar and elusive, like a dream I’d almost forgotten. But the incense always smelled the same.


My ma had told me that the cathedral was supposed to have a grand spire. Instead, there is a big tower stretching up into the sky until it suddenly stops short and squares off, like a partially completed homework assignment. You can almost feel a strange sort of tension and possibility in the air above, as if at any moment a spire still might fall magically from the sky to fill the emptiness.

When I told my ma that, I remember her laughing, a certain low and gently rueful laugh she’s had her whole life, which I’m sure was appreciated by the Cathedral priests and anyone else who has ever needed to hear a laugh perfect for when things are so hopeless that they’re also a little bit funny.

“More likely they ran out of money,” she had answered, touching the back of my head as we walked up toward the gray stone castle. “Everybody in this neighborhood does.” I didn’t get the joke then, but now I do.

When you walk into the nave, everything opens up and the inside seems even bigger than the outside, somehow. It would feel massive to anyone at any age, but when you’re six and enveloped by the shadow of the enormous organ as you follow its countless pipes reaching up and up and up to a ceiling so far away it might as well be the sky, it was so deeply lonely and self-abnegating that it was almost transcendental.

While my ma was working I’d often hide among the endless pews, decipher the stories told through the stained-glass windows, or circle around the perimeter of the nave, my own endlessly looping rendition of the stations of the cross. I would hide in the confessionals and sometimes just find a corner and flip through the hymnals, trying to sound out the words and not even trying with the musical notes, which were all unsolvable math to me. Sometimes I would play in the cathedral until after the sun went down, the figures in the stained glass gradually losing whatever spark of life they’d been granted by the sun shining through them, taking on an air of menace as they dimmed.


The priests quickly noticed that my ma was good at her job and dependable, so they started giving her more responsibility, bigger tasks, and more complex, longer-term projects. Eventually, she was working with Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the archbishop of Boston, himself. Despite not being from Boston, he had one of those big slabby Boston faces, with kindly but piercing eyes, topped with a full head of white hair. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but given his line of work, his avuncular, warmly intelligent, trustworthy vibe was better than handsome, and far more useful. You could understand why people followed him, listened to him. Believed in him. Here was a man who certainly must have the ear of God.

Cardinal Law was also quick to smile, when he wasn’t performing mass for the congregation, and was always friendly to me when I was around. He grinned when I insisted on calling him “Blue Jay Law” instead of “Cardinal Law,” certainly one of the funniest bird jokes that had ever been told, while my mother tried to shoo me away, anxious about keeping this new and much-needed job (one that had both the downside and benefit of enraging her Protestant parents). But even as a six-year-old I understood that he was an Influential Man who was important to my mother’s happiness, so I disobeyed and hammed it up even more. It isn’t every day that you get to put a smile on the face of a man who talks directly to God.


My half-brother, Joel, lived in Newton with his dad, a Unitarian minister. Sometimes Joel would come visit, and if something came up at the church during the weekend, my ma would have to take us both to work with her. We would often hang out in the rectory, a comfy building but one that lacked any of the magic of the cathedral. This was where the priests actually had to live in between performing their ceremonial and spiritual (not to mention administrative) roles, and where I had always felt welcome to hang around, even without Joel, sometimes whiling away hours on a couch there, watching television with whoever was around.

Different priests were always coming and going. They visited from other parts of Massachusetts or New England, in Boston for meetings or special services, or they came to live in the city while they waited to get transferred to another parish somewhere in the surrounding area. In the rectory, the grand tableaux of suffering and sacrifice, told in gold and dark polished wood and every shade of glass, was put aside for half-full ashtrays and bulky furniture upholstered in something green and plastic that didn’t even try to mimic an animal’s hide. In these more informal quarters, the priests exchanged their ceremonial garb for a plain black suit of clothes finished with a white plastic collar, but sometimes even those would be dispensed with, their shirts left unbuttoned at the top. Strangest and most uncomfortable of all for a young child not sure what to make of it was when the priests simply wore laymen’s clothes and looked too much like any other person.


I looked up to Joel for a lot of reasons, for being my half-brother, for being four years older than me, for being more physically active and adventurous and better at sports than I ever was. But especially because we both liked books. I loved to hear Joel read from the Encyclopedia Brown series, even though he was almost always able to guess the correct solutions while I, with a kind of optimistic helplessness, just made up ones based on imaginary clues that hadn’t even been in the story. (“A chipmunk stole it!”)

That’s where the idea for the Half-Brothers Detective Agency came from. We didn’t really know what “half-brother” meant, but, at least for me, it made me feel special. As if the phrase meant something more than brothers because it took two words to say, even though one of those words was “half.”

When our ma had been called into work again, we parked ourselves in the rectory and made a sign advertising the Half-Brothers Detective Agency, folding the paper so it stood on its own on the laminate table top (green and plastic, like everything else), the sign boldly proclaiming that our agency could solve ANY crime. A few priests walked by and kidded with us without lingering before one came into the kitchen and leaned against the counter to read the sign, a grin already spreading across his face.

“Any crime, huh?” he said.


“That’s right, Father,” I said, looking at Joel. “My brother is smarter than Encyclopedia Brown.”

The priest laughed. “Well, then I’m in luck. Because my wife has gone missing.”

I looked at my brother again. I knew priests couldn’t have wives, but did my Unitarian half-brother know that? Joel didn’t return my look. He was already on the case, peppering the priest with questions. When was she last seen? Was there anywhere she might have gone? I couldn’t tell what Joel was thinking, but I followed his lead. Maybe this would be the case that I finally got to solve, instead of him.

Meanwhile, the priest was saying, “No, she wouldn’t be in my room . . .  but I do know she’s still in the building. And don’t forget, she’s extremely fat.”

I had obviously missed some clues while zoning out, so I did my best to refocus.

Joel was frowning a little, deep in thought. Then his eyes lit up. “What about . . .  Is there an attic here?”

The priest’s smile widened. “There is! Hmm, my wife might be too fat to fit in the attic, but let’s go check, shall we?”

We got to the attic by pulling down a stepladder. The attic was full of sunlight, hazy with dust. Though it was used for storage and there was a lot of turnover due to the number of priests coming and going, things looked surprisingly orderly. Dust there was, but no cobwebs.


My memory of this part is a little indistinct, probably because something extremely memorable happened right after. The priest pretended that we had indeed found his fat wife in the attic—I don’t remember how Joel and I dealt with the fact that there was clearly no one else up there—and gave us some hard candies as our reward.

I snuck mine into my pocket, like my ma had taught me during our time at Haley House, the homeless shelter, where the other residents had fascinated me. I’d often goof off and try to make them laugh while they slurped soup and chewed bread with gap-filled mouths, sitting under a big sign that read NO ALCOHOL. NO DRUGS. NO VIOLENCE. Sometimes I’d annoy some of the residents so much that they’d shout at me, unless they were so hungover that all they could do was scowl. Other times, they laughed and played along. An old man named Albert always called me “Captain” and often gave me butterscotch candies as a reward for the entertainment I’d provided. Then my ma got wind of it and took me aside, opening her hand to show me a butterscotch candy so ancient that tiny white worms had bored into it. She explained to me that Albert lived alone and had no one around to tell him when he should throw away and replace things, so his butterscotch candies were very old, like he was, and the next time anyone at the homeless shelter gave me anything, the proper thing to do was to thank the person very nicely, and then put the candy or whatever in my pocket to bring to her right away. Of course my mother never would have thought to worry about telling me what to do with candy from a priest. Why would she have had to?


Suddenly, a harsh voice blared behind us. “What are you doing up here?” Another priest had climbed up to the attic, this one short, compactly built, all furrows and radiating anger. “You are not allowed up here!”

The first priest turned red. “We were just joking around,” he said, addressing him by a name I’ve completely forgotten, washed away as it was by the surreal shock of hearing a priest called by his first name.

Joel tried to smooth things over by explaining about our detective agency, but the angry priest cut him off, ignoring him to lock eyes with me. “Isaac,” he said.

Uh-oh. I didn’t recognize him, but he clearly recognized me.

He continued, speaking so emphatically that each word was a self-contained monument to his fury. “Where. Is. Your. Mother?”

The friendly priest slipped away, retreating down the attic stairs without even a goodbye, and the mean priest marched us through the rectory until Joel and I found our mother. We were told to sit on a long red couch, a detail I remember mainly because I am surprised it wasn’t green, and pretended not to listen to the heated yell-whispers coming from the other room. We couldn’t hear much in the way of specific words but the way they sounded told us plenty.

Somehow, we had really messed up.

My mother’s job was crucial to her. It was crucial to the whole family—for one thing, we desperately needed the money—but it meant even more to her. She liked that she was good at it; she liked that she had proven herself and risen quickly and that her hard work and great intelligence had been rewarded, which was something that did not happen nearly as often as she deserved. I knew ma didn’t like all the priests she dealt with, but overall her job made her happy and proud, and I felt deeply ashamed that we had jeopardized it with our silly detective agency. I looked at my brother and he looked at the floor so I looked at the floor too.


The mean priest and my mother walked back into the room. Now he looked only stern, not all furious and scary like before, but I still hated him. I hated that he had yelled, albeit quietly, at my mother, and I hated that he had gotten so upset over what had clearly been a game. It was bewildering; it was unfair. The other priest had wanted only to be kind and entertain two kids while their mother was working. Playful and harmless—a made-up wife, a case to solve, a sunlit attic, and hard candies. He didn’t deserve to be yelled at, and neither did we, and neither did my mom, by this strict, heartless priest who seemed to hate fun and love enforcing rules no one else knew.

As we left, he said one last thing. “You can’t keep bringing your boys here, Susan. This is not a place for children.”

On the walk home our mother called the priest a “prick.” I didn’t know what the word meant but I could tell by the way it sounded and the way she said it that I agreed. The man was clearly a prick. Ma was a working mother who often had to do her job while trying to care for one, sometimes two, sometimes three kids. (The third being my father’s daughter, my half-sister, Kerry). The priests at Cathedral of the Holy Cross had been fine with me hanging around the church and even the rectory as long as I was quiet and didn’t become a nuisance. But something changed after that day in the attic. My mother was told that I couldn’t come to work with her anymore. I could of course come to church for mass on Sunday and the like, and it was okay for me to be there with my ma for a minute if she was just swinging by, but that put an end to my hours wandering around the grounds alone.


Excerpted from “Dirtbag, MassachusettsCopyright © Isaac Fitzgerald, 2022. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.


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