THE MAN IN THE CAGE – Pierce Scranton


Maggie O’Brien slid into the confessional booth of Pittsburgh’s Sacred Heart Church in Shadyside, her eyes puffy and her hair in disarray. The carved wooden cabinet smelled of stale sweat along with the lemony odor of wood polish. Could solace and peace be found within? She prayed for a miracle, anything to erase that test strip’s telltale blue. If she could not have a miracle, she prayed for forgiveness. Her fingers trembled, pulling the velvet privacy curtain closed. Then her hands traced the sign of the cross. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
The priest on the other side of the screen sneezed, then made snuffling sounds as he wiped his nose. “Sorry, the soot from these steel mills aggravates my allergies. Have you committed any mortal sins since your last confession?”
“Speak freely, child. My role is to be the instrument of God’s mercy. How long since your last confession?”
“I never miss Mass, Father. But it’s been months since I confessed.”
“What sins do you wish to confess?”
“I’ve had feelings…feelings for a man.” Her knuckles turned white as they clutched the Rosary beads. It had been a gift from her grandmother.
The priest gently inquired, “For how long?”
“Father, I met him three months ago. Do you remember how crazy the city went when the Steelers won the Superbowl and the Pirates won the World Series? There was this tavern in Homestead…Chiodos. Every night they’d sing ‘We Are the Champions.’ I just had to sneak in with my girlfriends.” She choked back tears, burying her face in her hands as though they might shield her. “Then I met this man, this… His deep blue eyes… I fell head over heels. I lied to my mother—God—and I’d promised to never let her down… I just discovered I’m pregnant.”
“Untruthfulness is a venial sin and lust a mortal sin. But this pregnancy is a most serious business.” The priest coughed. “Do you feel true sorrow within your soul for the commission of these sins?”
I do, Father, but there’s more at stake. I’m just seventeen and two months along. My parents are furious—they’ve threatened to disown me. But I had no idea! I was swept off my feet by feelings I’d never experienced, feelings I couldn’t control. Connor didn’t force… It’s just that one thing led to another.”
“Have you—”
She interrupted, finding a spark of courage. “We’re both Catholic! He told me he graduated from Bishop Canevin three years ago.”
The priest didn’t respond.
She dropped her voice, almost whispering. “I ask forgiveness. I wish to confess to the sin of lust and to being untruthful to myself and my family.”
“Don’t forget the soul being brought into this world. What are your intentions?”
“First I needed to confess, to seek advice and absolution. I’m meeting Connor tonight. He’s a steelworker at the J & L plant.” Her eyes flashed with hope. “He has big plans, ambition. He and his father intend to start a specialty fabricating plant. When I called him on the phone, I thought he’d be upset, but he said he’d stand by me.”
“There is only one answer for contrition,” said the priest. “Do the right thing. Both of you must take responsibility. But if you don’t marry, the child must be baptized. Otherwise, you’ll risk eternal damnation for its soul.”
“I promise to do the right thing, Father. I just needed to confess, needed someone to talk to…” She felt overwhelmed by the reality of what she was confessing. This summer she would have been the lead Camp Counselor in the Poconos; an application to Villanova University waited on her desk at home. But the life growing within her trumped them all.
The booth seemed to close in on her, the darkness smothering. If she didn’t escape this place and take a deep breath, she’d scream. Her parents were threatening to throw her out. She had to find Connor… He wouldn’t abandon her, would he?
She crossed herself and blurted out, “For these sins and all my sins, I am truly sorry.” Then she bolted, running past the rows of empty wooden pews, out of the church and down the slate stone steps. The priest called after her, but she couldn’t stop. Now she knew there was no easy way out. In the seconds it had taken for that strip to flash blue, her life’s dreams had fast-forwarded, then vanished.
Early that evening, Maggie pulled her Beetle into the Chiodos parking lot near the J & L plant. The bouncer with cynical eyes waved her past. She’d been there many times, using her sister’s driver’s license. He scarcely paid attention. The place reeked of steel-town swagger and sweat, of Iron City beer on tap with crushed peanut shells on the floor. Boisterous laughter rose and fell, filtered through the tavern’s eclectic collection of sports jerseys, helmets, trophies, and street signs hanging from the ceiling. For her, the magic of the place was gone.
She looked for Connor in the crowd but didn’t see him, so she took a stool at the bar, asking for a Diet Coke. “Joe? I talked with Connor on the phone. He said he’d be here.”
The barkeep blew out a breath, then ran his fingers through his thinning gray hair. His melancholy brown eyes didn’t meet hers. Instead, he pulled an envelope from under the counter. “He’s come and gone, Maggie. He asked me to give you this… Something about moving to Warsaw, Indiana, starting up a specialty steel company.”
She glanced at the crisp hundred-dollar bills inside, at the slip of paper where he’d written down the phone number of a place where she could get rid of the baby. Her face was on fire.
The barkeep reached out and gently touched her arm. “I’m sorry.”
Maggie ran from the tavern, fighting nausea and holding her stomach. She fumbled with her car keys, dropping them into a water-filled pothole. When she bent to pick them up, she vomited. She would be alone, except for the life she carried inside—alone and without a future. Damn him and damn her parents!
She would not give this child up. She’d find a way.

Chapter One

Eight-year-old Connor O’Brien lay propped up with pillows on a wooden gurney in the orthopedic treatment room of Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. Maggie O’Brien stood behind him, watching the orthopedic residents as they entered, dressed in hospital whites. The doctors appeared to defer to a tired-looking man with a five o’clock shadow and dark curly hair. He knelt to study the little boy, who had a deformed, triangular head and wore thick glasses. A shock of reddish hair crowned his pale, almost translucent face.
“Hey, little guy, how are we doing? I’m the Chief Resident, Dr. Ben Felson.” He stuck out his hand. “Call me Ben.”
Connor jerked back, bringing his splinted hands up to fend off the doctor. “Don’t touch me. Don’t even think about it!”
Felson recoiled, then looked to the boy’s mother. “Ma’am?”
She shushed Connor. “He can’t help being afraid, doctor. He was born with a genetic disease that causes brittle bones, osteogenesis imperfecta. Too many times, people trying to help him wind up hurting him. He’s had two broken arms, a broken leg, broken ribs—just from getting lifted. He trusts no one. The physical therapists are afraid to touch him. Last year he fell and fractured his pelvis.”
“That really hurt,” Connor added.
“I’ll bet.” Felson kept his eyes on Maggie. “What brings you to the Ortho clinic?”
“Right now his leg bones are so brittle that he can’t walk. But when I was here two years ago, the doctor said to bring him back when he turned eight, because his leg bones would be big enough then for rods to be put into them. He told us no guarantees, but the rods would give him a chance.” She nodded for emphasis. “Connor turned eight last week.”
The boy peered intently at Felson. “I’ve been reading about this, looking things up. Steinman pins, Rush rods—whichever you think, I want it. I want to walk. And I’m sick of getting hurt.”
The residents acted surprised, hearing him call out these trade names. They turned to talk among themselves. Connor ignored them, placing his splinted hands in his lap and lowering his head to sulk. How could they know, he thought? Other than memorizing a bunch of fancy names and a diagnosis, how could they even imagine living like this, with every day another chance to break another bone?
“Come on, fancypants,” said Maggie. “You don’t need to let everyone know how smart you are. These doctors are trying to help.”
Felson asked, “Has he really been reading about this? At his age?”
“Homeschooling, doctor. It’s obvious my son can’t go to a regular school, yet he seems to have an aptitude for reading. I work at St. Rita’s Hospital over in Aspinwall, so I have access to medical texts and articles about Connor’s disease. He wants to know as much as he can. The librarian looks stuff up, and I bring it home.” She fluffed the pillow under Connor’s knee. “I’m sorry about his attitude. It’s just that something always gets broken. Anyone who tries to help hurts him.” She paused, then said, her voice breaking, “His father abandoned us. I named my son Connor after him, hoping… But we never heard back.” She wiped her eyes.
Dr. Felson knelt at the foot of gurney. “Here’s the deal, Connor. No need to be afraid, because I won’t touch you, okay? But we’re going to admit you. Your mom’s right: now’s a good time to put rods down your leg bones to strengthen them. Perhaps you’ll be able to walk. But you have to work with us, help us help you. Why not start by talking politely?”
“I’ll say what I want! You can’t punish me. Any time someone tries, something gets broken. And when that happens, you’ll be in trouble.”
“Still, if I’m going to try and be nice, how about you?”
Connor waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever.”
In the elevator on the way to the Ortho floor, Maggie noticed teardrops staining Connor’s shirt. He’d slumped into the pillows the way he always did when she was forced to mention that he had no father. She saw her own reflection in the polished elevator wall, the tired eyes and no makeup. Self-consciously she brushed strands of hair from her face.
Connor watched her, then whispered, “Ma, don’t mention him again. Ever. Okay?”

Chapter Two

Twenty-five years later, a motorized wheelchair rolled out the door of a brick apartment complex, down a plywood ramp, and onto Delafield Road in Aspinwall. A man with a large head and a bird-like neck sat on pillows in the chair, his splinted right hand clutching the joystick. He wore an over-sized Army Surplus jacket with a 101st Army Airborne patch on the shoulder. Pipe-stem legs hid beneath pressed blue jeans, his ankles were braced, and his feet were stuffed into Velcro-strapped running shoes that rested on the wheelchair’s footplates. A pair of aluminum Canadian crutches were strapped to a wooden board at the back of the chair.
Connor’s breath steamed in front of him as he motored the wheelchair down the sidewalk, heading north to cross the street and arrive at his favorite spot near the on-ramp of the Allegheny Valley Expressway. The sky overhead was a bright blue, the air crisp and clean; a light frost reflected the early-morning sunshine. If he got to the on-ramp before rush hour, he could motor across. A monitor light would kick in, forcing the drivers into a rolling stop.
Each morning, rain or shine, Connor parked at the entry to hold up a cardboard sign that read, “Please help.” In his other hand he held a wicker collection basket attached to a broom handle that allowed him to extend it to a car window. Today he’d wear his Pittsburgh Steelers hat, because on Sunday the Steelers had beaten the hated Cleveland Browns. The city’s mood was good. If the Pitt Panthers won, he’d wear his Panthers hat. For insurance, he also carried the sports announcer Myron Cope’s famous “Terrible Towel,” with its Steelers logo.
A rusty F150 Ford pickup slowed down next to him. “Hey, little guy. They kicked ass, didn’t they?” Out came a five-dollar bill.
“You bet. No love this year for the Dog Pound.”
A metallic Mercedes rolled up, and the woman behind the wheel put on her sunglasses to avoid eye contact. He waved the terrible towel anyway. “Go Steelers!”
Five minutes passed with drivers ignoring him. Then the passenger window of a white Malibu station wagon powered down, and a lady surveyed him. “You’re here every time we drive by. Why?”
“Just mornings. If you take a look at me, you can see I can’t work.”
She reached out with a handful of change. “It’s all I’ve got, but when I come by tomorrow, I’ll bring some bills.”
“Everything’s appreciated, ma’am. God bless.”
After several hours, a light sprinkle began. Traffic was winding down, so Connor took out a bright red umbrella from the basket below his seat and extended it toward the road. The cars ground to a halt, giving him a chance to motor back across Delafield.
The morning’s take had been great. Still, he didn’t know how much money he had: each time bills or change got tossed into the basket, he’d empty it into the zippered leather pouch fastened to the arm of his chair. In the past, he’d let the money build up in the basket, thinking it might inspire people to share more in the spirit of giving. But on one particularly good day, some asshole had scooped up the money and driven off, laughing. Another time, a heavy woman who looked as if she’d smeared on her lipstick with a spoon rolled her window down and threw in a stinky cigarette butt with lipstick on it, along with a half-empty Coke. Connor had had to clean the syrupy mess off everything when he got home.
Today he made it easily across the street to the Delafield sidewalk. The sprinkle stopped, so he headed right rather than turning left and going back home. On Fourth Street he took a left, then another left onto Lexington Avenue. He liked to call this drive “his little walk around the block.” It gave him a chance to enjoy the outdoors, to see his neighbors¾at least those who would say hello¾and maybe to pet a dog or two. His motorized chair hummed along, the wheels bumping across occasional weed-choked cracks in the sidewalks.
He enjoyed the morning, listening to the breeze rustling through the trees. Robinia pseudoacacia, the Acer family, and Plantanus occidentalis, he smugly reminded himself. He referred to these trees as his lady-friends: the frilly black locust, covered with white blossoms each spring that cascaded down like a wedding veil, later dripping pollen that made him sneeze insufferably; the maples, releasing April’s shower of whirling helicopter seeds to coat the sidewalks and clog rain gutters, then flash a colorful orange and red good-bye with autumn; the haunting sycamores, with their patchy white bark and long limbs, waving in the sunlight like dancing skeletons.
He waved to neighbors who recognized him. Mrs. Kaminski’s dog came out, licking his hand through the fence and coating it with dog slobber. He wiped it off with the Terrible Towel. “Atta boy, Jake.”
Four doors down, a Korean War veteran named Mr. Fedulla lounged on his porch reading the morning’s Pittsburgh Press, a cup of coffee next to him on an end table. He tipped his Steelers hat to Connor. Connor waved, silently observing that the retired people in the neighborhood were always the friendliest. The young ones seemed always in such a hurry.
“Mr. Fedulla, did you like that Steelers game yesterday?”
Before answering, the man had to stuff in his dentures. “Connor, I gotta admit it: I no longer miss Terry Bradshaw. That damn Roethlisberger is the real deal. The guy’s a horse!”
Connor continued his circuit, motoring down Lexington to take a left on Freeport, then stopping at one last panhandling spot, a parking lot in front of a Farmer’s Market Store. It was a place where yuppie wives from Fox Chapel and O’Hara Township came to buy organic vegetables and fresh-ground coffee. Connor liked lattes himself, but they made him need to pee, and the wheelchair made that problematic. Each morning he’d stop just out of sight from inside the store, but not out of sight for the housewives leaping from Range Rovers and Audis on their sacred mission to find fresh kale or free-range eggs. He could usually get a half-hour’s worth of donations, mostly from locals who walked to the store; the wives driving the fancy cars tended to avoid him. Still, begging in the lot was a good way to cap off the morning. If he’d been employed by the market, he could have been designated as a greeter. As it was, a half-hour of begging might result in an additional ten bucks.
Before long the manager, wearing a smudged, short-sleeved shirt with a name tag clipped onto the breast pocket, poked his head out and looked for Connor. He wore a stern expression as he thumbed Connor out of the lot, but Connor waved cheerfully, then bowed, placing his hands together in obeisance. After all, the manager did this every day. Connor was pretty sure the man waited a while to give him that half-hour.
As he motored out of the lot, he noticed a skinny girl across the street, dressed in a revealing crimson tube-top with short-cropped, spiked, black and green hair. A sleeve of tats ran down her left arm. She wore a headset and danced to the music in her head while puffing on a cigarette. Connor watched her wave occasionally at passing cars. It surprised him when she glanced his way, blew a smoke ring, then threw back her head and laughed.
He fantasized about her coming over to talk with him. In truth, he didn’t really know the people he waved to or spoke with, not even Mr. Fedulla. They were polite but kept their distance. Except for his mom, he had no real friends. But the girl’s ride finally came, a black Chevy Impala, and she got in and disappeared down the road.
Connor used the Brilliant Street crosswalk to motor over Freeport Street and enter Aspinwall’s Riverfront Park. He loved the muddy Allegheny—watching the water flow, smelling that freshwater-river smell. There was always something happening: tugs, coal barges, and small boats doing their business, seagulls floating on the wind, calling their mewing cries or quarreling over a fish or scraps of food.
A brisk wind blew upriver from the Golden Triangle, so he zipped his jacket tight and motored onto a pier, stopping at the end. The basket below his seat held a sack lunch with a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, a bottle of water, and a small bag of Cheetos.
The seagulls maneuvered closer, jockeying for position. They knew that Connor would reward them and screeched in triumph when he tossed orange Cheetos into the air. They dove to catch them before they hit the water. Connor laughed.
When he’d finished lunch, he put on his thick glasses and took out a Harry Potter book, The Prisoner of Azkaban. This was his second reading of the series. He’d never understood why Harry hadn’t married Hermione in the end. Why had he ended up with some unknown girl named Ginny, who had showed up almost as an afterthought at the end? Connor had decided to read all the books again, to see if he’d missed something. He’d been outlining the plot on a yellow legal pad, looking for a hidden tell that would explain how Ginny wound up marrying Harry. So far, no luck.
He loved magic’s fantasy, the idea that you could fly on a broomstick, get messages from owls, or cast a spell to undo evil. He also adored science fiction: a dog-eared collection of Frank Herbert’s Dune series rested on the bookshelf next to the Harry Potter books. He imagined himself on the planet Dune, wearing a form-fitted Still-suit. He’d be strong and free, with self-contained breathing and water retention, not having to pee in a bottle when no one watched… Speaking of which: he pulled the plastic urinal up from the seat basket underneath, then took a quick look around—there was just one jogger, who was already past him on the path upriver; the leather back of the wheelchair would screen him. He unzipped and relieved himself.
By the time Connor had finished another chapter, it was time to begin motoring toward home. Mom would be happy that he’d read today; she was the one who’d taken him almost daily to the public library during his homeschooling years, dropping him off for several hours to read and do the homework she’d prepared.
Even the librarian had gotten into the act, plump Mrs. Tedman with her sagging wrinkles, insipid smiles, and perfume that made him sneeze. At first he’d hated the way she hovered over him, as though he needed protection. Then he realized that she was lonely and just wanted someone to talk with. And she’d offered a steady stream of astute book suggestions. He’d become addicted to novels that took him to faraway places and had quirky characters.
His mom had always picked him up at three. She worked the day shift at the laundry in St. Rita’s Hospital. It must have been tough, he thought now, because at the end of each week her arms and hands were chaffed raw from the detergents. Friday evenings she’d collapse, lifting her vein-streaked legs onto the ottoman. She’d kick off her shoes and rub her swollen feet, groaning. Connor would wheel over with a glass of sherry to celebrate the successful completion of another week. It was their little ritual. She’d take a delicate sip and lick her lips. “The boss says thank you.” Then, touching a napkin to the corner of her mouth: “And that’s me, the boss, doing the thanking. Pretty good for someone without even a high-school education, only a GED.” This was her point of pride: good patient care started with clean sheets and hospital gowns, right in Maggie’s bailiwick. Shortly thereafter, she would shower and go to bed. He’d stay up and read a little more, then brush his teeth, turn out the lights, and imagine what it might be like to run across the desert in a Still-suit. The next day he’d wake up and do it all over again. He’d done it every day for these past ten years.
But today one other thing was different. His mother had told him to be sure to get home early in the afternoon. “Connor,” she said, “I have some news. Things have fallen into place, and we’ll need to discuss them when I get home.”
“What things?”
“I’m meeting with the doctor this morning. He’s going to go over some test results. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had some back issues—well, they’ve gotten worse. But he’s got answers. He’ll give me treatment options. You and I can sort things out tonight.”

Author’s Statement

In 1973 I saw a young child in a hospital, horribly deformed with brittle-bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta. The child was looking at a lifetime of institutionalized care. I wondered what kind of life such a person could have—deformed, untouchable, without purpose except to survive. Decades later I thought, “Why not show the indominable will to survive, to find purpose and love? Why not give that child a chance?” The Man in the Cage is that story.
In 1980, a rebellious fling between seventeen-year-old Maggie O’Brien and a Pittsburgh steelworker begins after she sneaks into Chiodos, a tavern in Homestead, PA. She becomes pregnant. The steelworker skips town. Her family disowns her. Still, she won’t give up her son and drops out of high school.
Connor O’Brien is born with osteogenesis imperfecta: brittle bones, collapsing vertebrae, and poor eyesight. At age eight, steel pins are driven into his leg bones so that he can stand. Maggie homeschools him. By age thirty-three, he’s still wheelchair-bound—a sensitive, gifted man with a photographic memory, who desires to write. He begs at an intersection each morning, enduring insults, petty theft, and the scorn of commuters. Afternoons, he writes in Aspinwall’s Riverfront Park.
A thunderstorm overtakes him one day just when his wheelchair battery dies, and Fate intervenes: Francine Steele saves him, a woman performing community service in a plea deal for solicitation. They find something in each other that has been missing in their lives so far. Francine insists that Connor reach out to others. The Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind needs someone to run an espresso machine, because the sight-impaired can’t run the hot steam jets. He becomes the snack-shop manager and a dorm proctor for the blind students. They teach him signing; he tells stories from memory. Though he won’t let people touch him—they tend to break bones—the sight-impaired use touch to see. Who better than someone blind to see into Connor’s heart?
Then Fate intervenes again, and he finds himself in a rainstorm at the end of a dock, but this time there is no Francine to rescue him.


Pierce Scranton lives in Ketchum, Idaho. His love of writing began at Kenyon College. His career as an orthopedic surgeon began when he became an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Later, he spent eighteen years as the surgeon for the Seattle Seahawks. This led to Playing Hurt: Treating the Warriors of the NFL (Potomac Press, 2001). He has previously published “The Orangutan” in Narrative in September 2020.

Embark, Issue 16, April 2022