THE WALNUT GROVE Don Deveau 2 Chapter I Three days before Christmas, in the Year of our Lord 1998. In a world that was wired and defined by the speed of its global connectivity and supersonic jets, he had to wonder at himself. Already two days had passed since he and his travelling companion had left from Halifax. Already they had changed trains twice. Now they were not moving at all—sidelined. Some problem on the tracks up ahead. No one was saying just what, but it would not have made for a bright spot in the future of the passengers on the Southbound. Outside, where the brightly-lit suburbs of Boston should be, there existed nothing but a blank white wall of Arctic bred snow. Inside, the lights were too bright, the chatter too loud, the air a little suffocating. None of this has the least effect upon his companion however, especially since he was lying in a box two cars back, in the baggage compartment. In the window his reflection stared back at him with a haggard almost demented look. The hair was a mess—and he never noticed all that gray before. The rumpled black suit didn‟t help and he badly needed a shave. He didn‟t even look like himself. There were way too many lines in that face, and puffiness under the eyes as well. At least the eyes were the same. And the cleric‟s collar added another bit of familiar to the likeness. But damned if he wasn‟t beginning to show a striking resemblance to the man in the box—his namesake and grandfather, the late Frank Martin. But at 98, that was twice the 3 younger man‟s age. And if his own face was already showing signs… well, then it must be getting time for a bit of self-examination, he thought. He remembered being fit and it did not seem all that long ago. When did he stop going to the gym, swimming, skating, anything that could be considered physical? He still maintained his discipline from his seminary days and remained faithful to the spiritual exercises (although lately, he had to admit a more apt description would be spiritual rituals). As for physical exercise, manipulating a laptop probably didn‟t count for much. Neither would sitting for hours on airplanes watching your feet swell. He hadn‟t set out to be a globetrotter, although he had already traveled around the world at least three times. And he wasn‟t even that comfortable about flying. But at the moment he would have preferred it to this nightmare ride. The problem was that he made a promise to an old man on his deathbed and a dying man‟s last wish is not a thing to be trifled with. And a promise to carry out a dying man‟s last wish—to the letter—was a matter of some gravity. And when a priest (even a Jesuit, the old man would have said) makes such a promise, it tends to take on the exaggerated solemnity of a vow. It becomes larger than life. But I‟m not the one who is larger than life, he mused. It turns out that the old sinner back there in the box might be the one who has fooled us all. If only he hadn‟t been so stubborn about his distrust of flying—dead or alive. He knew that he was being used of course. Calling for a priest on his deathbed, when he hadn‟t gone to Church in nearly 70 years. And not just any priest would do, oh no, only young Francis would do. And he knew damn well that young Francis would come in a hurry, no matter where he was in the world. Hop on the first available flight out 4 of Singapore and spend the next 20 hours on planes, across an ocean and a continent. Still wearing shorts when he landed in a snowstorm at Halifax International Airport, he should have known then. Sleep-deprived, bewildered and suffering serious jetlag and climate assault, he should have stayed on the plane. Met by a young man, who introduced himself as his nephew, he should have pretended to be someone else and just walked on by. He last knew the nephew as being a lad of eight or nine and totally devoid of pierced body parts or tattoos at the time. And the drive to Grace Harbor—“back home”—was more terrifying than any plane ride. His nephew, grown up since they had last met, was presumably old enough to have a driver‟s license. That he actually had been given one however was obviously an oversight by the issuer of such licenses. Driving through the dark night on treacherous icy roads, running through all the gears at every hairpin turn of the highway, was the boy‟s idea of great rollicking fun. Or perhaps he was just playing “scare the hell out of old Uncle Francis, the priest”. At least he was kind enough to turn down the stereo a notch, just enough to keep old Uncle Francis‟ head from exploding. Great driving music, huh? That‟s what he said. At least a dozen tapes, probably a complete collection: AC/DC. Great for driving a person mad thought Francis. When they finally arrived at Grace Harbor and the house of his sister, Alice, it was after midnight, his head was throbbing and he felt rather ill. It had been a very long day. It had been at least 10 years since his last visit home, but Alice greeted him as she would if he had just returned from the corner store. “Francis! You look like you just saw 5 a ghost. You‟re so pale, my dear. Have you been taking care of yourself? Come in and have a cup o‟ tea.” He wanted to ask her when was the last time she had been the passenger in her son‟s car—or flown halfway around the world first and then taken a ride with her son. Instead he just smiled, reached out and hugged her and asked, “How have you been, Love?” He was genuinely glad to see his sister. He always was. She was only a few years younger than him, but strangers would have guessed that he was many years her senior. She had aged very well—unlike some others of us he thought. Alice was the mother of the family. She had taken on the role at a very young age, soon after their mother had passed away. She was also the repository of the family‟s conscience. Which made it much easier for her siblings to float through life and shirk many shared responsibilities. No need to worry, don‟t have to bother, Alice will take care of things. Just as she was taking care of their grandfather at the present moment. She had even given up hers and Charlie‟s downstairs bedroom to give the old man a “decent place to die”. Francis didn‟t know what Charlie thought of the idea, but the man had been married to Alice long enough to know better than to argue with her. Every ounce of her 110 pounds was pure concentrated headstrong stubbornness when she had her mind made up about something. She was also the most genuinely caring person that Francis had ever known. So why was it that after a half-hour in her company, she always seemed to bring out the worst in him? Very likely it was mostly in his own mind—though certainly no less deserved—but she had a way of always bringing out the guilt in him. Not so much in 6 what she said, she really only needed that look of hers. He could swear that their mother‟s spirit had passed into Alice when she died. He had loved his mother dearly and he still missed Rose every day. But one mother was enough and he wasn‟t looking for another one. He may need reminding of his sins of omission, like his latest 10-year absence from the old homestead, but the reminding was not going to make one bit of difference. It never donned on him that his sister knew that, of course. It was like reminding Charlie not to forget his mother‟s birthday, or 101 other things. Charlie might remember or he might forget, depending on the kind of day Charlie might be having. One thing was certain however: Alice‟s reminders went in one of her husband‟s ears and straight out the other. The same thing went for her son, Kevin. She would have to be a member of AC/DC to get through to the boy. But none of it mattered. It was just the way she was. In the latest jargon, it was the way in which Alice interfaced with the world around her. As a trait it was as much a part of her as her Jesuit brother‟s collar. And in some indefinable way, it made her feel good about herself and right with the world. In other words, she was just doing the job she was made for. And motherhood was certainly as much a vocation as priesthood, was it not? Francis declined the offer of tea but hinted that he wouldn‟t mind something a little stronger. But first he insisted upon seeing the old man, the object of his odyssey— the Holy Grail Himself. Alice poured him tea anyway, but fortified it with a generous dollop of white rum. With that he entered his grandfather‟s room, sat down at the dying man‟s bedside and began the next leg of his journey. The room was in semi-darkness and it smelled of something that Francis could not readily identify: old people perhaps or antiseptic… maybe death? He heard the faint 7 sound of snoring coming from the bed. This stopped abruptly when he lay his hand lightly on the old man‟s exposed arm. The other arm came over with a hand that gripped the younger man‟s wrist with a strength that would have been the envy of a professional wrestler. The familiar voice too was just as strong as Francis had remembered. “I knew you would come,” his grandfather rasped. “I knew that this would be an opportunity that you just couldn‟t pass up. Now, enough preliminaries. I don‟t have that much time. And don‟t forget… you are here as my priest, young man.” Francis nodded his assent, then whispered, “Good to see you again, too, you old goat.” “I heard that, Francis. Forgive me, but I never was much good at small talk. Now, do you have what you need… you know, the proper vestments, paraphernalia, whatever? Okay then… Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my last confession.” Thus began the strangest and longest performance of duty in his career as a priest and confessor. It would take the young Jesuit on a journey from which he might never recover. As he sat on the stranded train outside of a Boston suburb, with the snow swirling around outside and his grandfather‟s body resting two cars back, his mind began to replay the old man‟s words. All the while one part of his brain reminded him that, despite his three degrees in philosophy, business administration and law, and despite his sophistication as a world traveler, he had been no match whatsoever for old Frank Martin. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” indeed! How can you hear a dying man‟s confession, then proceed to prescribe absolution when he refuses to repent? When he tells you that he committed murder not once but twice, then insists that he would do it all again, given half a chance? That killing those two men was no different than drowning 8 kittens? That to understand he would have to bear with him—hear him out—and listen to his story that really began a long time before that fateful day. *** The year was 1914. Frank was 14 when his father remarried a city woman. He had gone away to Boston and returned two weeks later with his new bride. Within days the boy was on a train headed for Toronto and distant relatives. Soon after he was entrusted to the care of the Jesuits where his real education began. The youngest of seven children, he was the surprise child, conceived “on the change.” His mother said it was a special gift from God. His father said nothing. By the time he reached the age of 14, his mother had died of consumption, his brothers and sisters were scattered across New England and Eastern Canada, and his father was gone much of the time. Left in the care of an old aunt who was half-blind from gout and cantankerous by nature, the news of his banishment was more or less welcome. By then he had also gone as far as he could in the one-room schoolhouse, which could never offer him more than the a rudimentary introduction to the world of “book-learning”—the world of which he was so fond and that his father so despised. At Saint Pat‟s Frank learned the intricacies of the slide rule. He also learned the intricacies of many other rules, and the consequences should he “slide” from the straight and narrow path, which those rules described. He learned about the razor‟s edge and just how fine a line it was between the road to heaven along its narrow path and the enormous chasm of eternal damnation that lay in wait just about everywhere else. And always there 9 was the razor‟s strap, waiting to reinforce all of the hard but necessary lessons. Brother Aloysius, or “Aloysius the Animal”, as he was dubbed by his charges, was the uncontested master of discipline, and every boy at Saint Pat‟s lived in fear of his wrath. But the leather strap wasn‟t his “reminder” of choice. His preferred tool for reminding his boys of their folly was a well-worn hickory cane. And when their souls were in mortal danger, the familiar and feared gleam in his eyes was recognized by one and all as the sign to tread lightly. If the saliva was actually dribbling from the corners of his mouth, and he was beginning to “froth”, you knew that it was already too late, and a caning was imminent. Whatever knowledge Frank truly needed could be found in “The Lives of the Saints”. Epistemology was the domain of Saint Thomas Aquinas. All others who proposed systems of thought regarding Truth or the nature of reality were merely philosophers. He was not to be fooled by any of them, including the likes of Plato or even Hegel. If mysticism was his wont, then he needed to look no further than Saint John of the Cross. And if he really wanted an insight into the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, then the life of Saint Francis of Assisi was more than enough. If he were looking for the ideal of wisdom, Pope Paul III provided that, since he was the one responsible for granting the charter to Ignatius Loyola to establish the order of the Jesuits to begin with. And the Pope was infallible. And Saint Pat‟s was the place where all such truths were to be learned. Frank took to his new academic environment like a duck to water. He was a natural and, except for the occasional caning, he began to enjoy the austere and disciplined life of a scholar. His Jesuit teachers were not only masters of discipline, they 10 were also the undisputed wizards when it came to training fertile young minds in the nuances of logic. And his teachers were not long in recognizing that, in Frank, they had found one of those rare and gifted young men who actually showed promise. Youth by its very nature was an unformed element however, malleable and susceptible to any and all manner of influence. But that was their job, wasn‟t it? Theirs was a long tradition of molding and of providing the right influences—especially with a mind of such potential. And Frank showed all the signs. Not only did he grasp the Pythagorean Theorem effortlessly, along with all the other elements of geometry, he understood the beauty of it. Just as he understood the beauty of the epistemological arguments set forth by Saint Thomas. As he entered upon only his second term at Saint Pat‟s, friends, colleagues and enemies alike had to acknowledge that they were in the company of an intellect. The teachers were quick to remind themselves however, that the subject of their awe showed signs of a potential intellect. Only time would tell whether or not young Frank would prove to be the prodigy he appeared to be. Until then judgment would remain suspended. In secret though, not a few of the brothers held the conviction that this apt pupil of theirs was as much and more than he appeared to be. Brother Michael took a particular interest in young Frank, convinced that the boy had a special destiny. Perhaps he saw his own self of two decades earlier, reflected in the steady gaze of his steel gray eyes, or the assured and confident voice of a protégé. Whatever it was, Brother Michael knew that Frank‟s true potential lay in the possibility that he would someday be one of them—that he could be among the ranks of, not only the called, but the chosen. Brother Michael in his heart of hearts recognized the spirit of camaraderie in the young man—camaraderie 11 within the ranks of Saint Ignatius‟ own, the fellowship of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. He even brought the boy to the attention of Monsignor Bellanger. And the Monsignor had to admit that he was impressed. In Frank he recognized a mind that showed both capacity and discipline, a rare combination in one so young. In the pre-Christmas debates between Saint Pat‟s and its perennial rival Sacred Heart, Frank was undeniably the best he had ever witnessed. The subtlety and skill that he employed and which seemed to come so natural to him was almost sublime. It was as if he had anticipated his opponents‟ every move, thought it out to its natural (and fallacious) conclusion, patiently allowing them to walk into their own traps. Like a spider to the fly, the Monsignor thought. Then he would show them their own fallacies, their inferior understanding of the question at hand, and without mercy he would drive home the irrefutability of his own argument. Even his enemies would have to acknowledge the beauty of his logic—that is, if they understood it at all. Monsignor Bellanger understood the logic of his arguments, just as he understood the logic of the enemies that this young man was already in the process of making. To begin with, it was unheard of that someone who was not even a senior should be chosen to lead the debating team at such an event. It was certainly no secret that Patrick McGill was more than a little put out by the news that this newcomer had usurped what should have been his own position. McGill and a few of the other senior boys decided that young Frank was in need of a lesson or two. It wasn‟t good for any of Saint Pat‟s boys to be riding around on such a high horse. And so began young Frank‟s nightmare. 12 McGill and his cronies were a clever lot. Family money and a proper upbringing had taught them many of life‟s valuable lessons early on. As members of the privileged class, they had an acute awareness of their own value in the general scheme of life. That awareness also extended to the fact that their money could buy them anything. And anything included much more than just those tangible items, of which they had three of everything, while the less privileged could only dream of their discards. It also included the more exotic specialties, from a two-dollar whore on Bloor Street to a dram of opium from Chinatown. Their money bought favors, friendship and silence and in effect, secured their right to remain among the privileged class. It also assured that they would never feel the sting of Aloysius‟ cane nor any other abuse or “discipline” meted out by the Brothers as a matter of routine—always in the name of protecting and preserving the wretched souls of their charges. The good Jesuits were of course astute enough to know better than to concern themselves with the soul of a Patrick McGill and his like. They knew that the McGills and the Redferns and the Thompsons and the McGuires had come to them not for any kind of spiritual refining. They were there because their fathers recognized the best secular education offered anywhere at the time. That it was an institution of their Church was a bonus. At the same time, their railroad, newspaper and shipping money went a long way towards supporting Saint Pat‟s as well. Monsignor Bellanger himself was not only a frequent dinner guest at their tables, he had christened most of their children—including the boys who were now attending the venerable institution. In any case, it wasn‟t all that unusual for a boy to find himself “picked on” by other boys. It wasn‟t unusual to find Patrick McGill involved in any hazing activity that 13 took place at the school. He was always the first among the usual suspects. It would have been a rare case indeed if he weren‟t at least behind most of the shenanigans. But it would have been exceptional to have caught him at his games, or to find him responsible in any way. In every other instance the Brothers had always turned a blind eye, believing that for the victim, such an experience would lead to enhancing the boy‟s character, making him ultimately stronger. Except when it came to Frank. At first it all seemed harmless enough, the usual practical jokes and lessons in humiliation—like the outstretched foot in the middle of a busy dining hall, the victim sprawling on the floor and the contents of his tray splattered everywhere. The snap of a wet towel in the showers, leaving welts on tender flesh. Even the extra rough play on the rugby field—the bloody nose could be cleaned up, the dislocated shoulder could be set right. All these “lessons” were taken in stride, just grist for the character mill. There was no sense in complaining. The boys who were so inclined only got double the next time around. And the perpetrators still got off scot-free. Young Frank was never one to complain anyway. It had never done him any good at home. His father‟s answer was a cuff to the back of the head, a “good boot in the arse”, or extra chores, especially in the woodpile. He only complained the one time about the food at their table—a particularly unappetizing offering of turnip hash and half-cooked liver and onions—something his father had tried to pass off as cooking, shortly after his mother died. After holding out for two days, the boy‟s hunger finally got the best of him. He ate it then, every morsel. It was cold and certainly unimproved with age. But Frank didn‟t complain about this lesson in character building. He just swore to get even. 14 The small town that they called home was far enough away from Boston to still be considered quite rural, or “quaint” as described by the city folk. Many people still kept chickens, raised a pig or two or a milking cow. Many of them were immigrant families who had packed up everything they owned, including their dreams for a better life and had come to America, the land of opportunity. Landing at Ellis Island at the turn of the century, with little or nothing to help them get “set up”, New York was somewhat overwhelming. In some ways, although the concrete and the emerging skyscrapers were a wonder in themselves, being poor in the City seemed a harsher reality than the poverty they had left behind. Whether it was from the Rhine Valley, or the hills of Sicily, or Limerick in Ireland, their poverty had been a shared existence and most everyone was more or less in the same boat, so to speak. On the other hand, the opulence, the downright decadence even, of the City only served to remind them of their own sorry plight. Those who made their way to Chicago or Boston experienced the same sensation: a poor country mouse had no business being in the City, no matter how much they admired or wished to emulate the ways of the city mouse. When these families discovered and finally settled down in those rural little communities surrounding the cities, it was like coming home. And in truth they did find themselves better off than in the old country. In comparison, America was the land of opportunity. With hard work, which they were used to anyway, they would certainly find the opportunity to carve out for themselves a better life than they had left behind. In time they would come to realize that the Rockefellers were as rare a breed in America as were the Guinnesses of Scotland or the Bismarcks of Germany. In the meantime, they would create their own opportunities for modest success. 15 One such family in Frank‟s neighborhood was the Meisners. They had originated from a small town near Cologne in Germany. They brought with them not only six children and a set of aging grandparents but the family recipe for sausages that would make them famous in at least three counties of the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Among their patrons, Frank‟s father was perhaps their most devout customer. Frank himself never knew what all the fuss was about, since the famous sausages were reserved only for the old man‟s breakfast. On the morning of the day before Frank was to leave for Boston‟s North Station to board his train for Toronto, his father sat down to his usual breakfast of two fresh farm eggs and two Meisner-family German sausages. He consumed his meal with the usual gusto, sopping up the last of the yoke and the grease with thick-sliced brown bread. Frank sat across from him, also as usual with his thin porridge and weak tea. An ordinary morning with few words exchanged between them. Frank‟s new stepmother lay fast asleep upstairs in Frank‟s mother‟s bed. As was her habit, she seldom appeared much before noon on most days—which suited the boy just fine. No word was mentioned concerning his imminent departure on the following day. The plans were already set: the hired carriage would arrive at eight in the morning and the two hour trip to the city would allow him ample time to make the eleven o‟clock train to Toronto. He only had one trunk, which housed all of his worldly possessions. There would be plenty of room remaining for his father and the new Mrs. Martin and they both planned to accompany him on the journey. While his new wife visited her family and did a little shopping (since nothing decent could be found in the quaint little shops of this godforsaken boondocks she now had to call home), Mr. Martin would pay a visit to the offices of Barnes, Ellis 16 and Boyd, his solicitors. After all, a new will would have to be drawn up, now that circumstances had changed. On the morning of his departure however, young Frank was the sole occupant of the carriage that was to bear him away. His stepmother, who looked rather distraught and frazzled from a sleepless night, managed a cursory wave from the driveway, as Frank and his one trunk departed from the old homestead forever. With a crack of the whip and a whistle from the driver, the horse picked up its gait and soon the old house, the old town and the old life were left behind. Frank settled back against the upholstery of the carriage‟s interior and smiled. He hadn‟t even had the chance to say goodbye to his father. The poor man had become quite suddenly and desperately ill early in the evening of the preceding day. He had been up throughout most of the night with fever and diarrhea, not to mention vomiting and the chills—followed by more fever. And his poor wife, the new Mrs. Martin, fresh from the city and unused to the role of nurse, or caregiver by any name, was frantic and perplexed beyond imagining. She was ready to pack her bags and move back to “civilization”, meaning Boston, by the time she finally managed to get a doctor to the house. “A person could die first!” she moaned. But the kind and patient doctor assured her that her husband would not die. At least not today at any rate. Oh, he was sick all right, and yes, it could be a serious matter—sometimes even fatal, depending upon the circumstances—but Mr. Martin would probably live to a ripe old age. “But he should be a little more careful about what he eats,” old Doctor O‟Hanley informed her, once he had got a rundown on her husband‟s dietary consumption of the preceding day. “It was probably just a bad batch of sausage. Someone not being 17 altogether careful in the preparation. It happens.” With that, the good doctor pronounced his diagnosis as a mild case of food poisoning, “probably from the sausages”, and his prognosis that her husband would probably be “fit as a fiddle” in a few days‟ time. Frank‟s thoughts kept returning to his father as he made his way through the rolling countryside. All the way into Boston he found himself grinning foolishly, even laughing out loud on occasion. The old man would never know the difference, but the son had managed to get even after all. Finding a dried cow patty and removing it from a neighbor‟s field had been the easy part. He had been surprised at its consistency and lack of odor. It was similar to a plug of chewing tobacco actually. The trick was to use just enough of the foul stuff so as not to be noticeable but effective just the same. The hard part was handling the raw sausages, untwisting the ends and removing the contents. Once the dung was added to the mixture, it could hardly be noticed. He had to be careful refilling the intestine wrapping and then twisting the ends just so. When the sausages were fried they resembled every other sausage of every other morning on his father‟s breakfast plate. As Frank had sat across the table from him, watching the older man devour the fare, the boy was hard-pressed to hold his tongue or to keep a straight face. And for once he didn‟t mind his own breakfast of porridge or have any desire for sausages instead. The only thing lacking in his scheme of revenge was that he could not inform its victim about his cleverness. Maybe someday, he thought, as the carriage pulled into the parking area of the North Station. Frank continued to smile as he melted into the colorful, bustling crowds. Since that day nearly three seasons had come and gone and Frank had not returned to his home. Not even during the Christmas break, having been informed by 18 telegraph not to bother, since his father and Mrs. Martin would be spending the holiday in Florida. His aging aunt as well had withdrawn the welcome mat, explaining that her gout was “hideously unbearable—especially during the Christmas season.” None of Frank‟s classmates had thought to invite him home for Christmas. Even if they had been aware of his circumstances, it is doubtful that anyone would have extended the invitation. Not that Frank was disliked by the others (except McGill and his crowd, of course). He just wasn‟t an easy one to get close to, more or less a loner. So Frank spent his first Christmas away from home at Saint Pat‟s, whose hallowed halls, mostly empty, seemed especially cheerless and cold. As he rambled around the place, he noticed first the echo of his own footsteps—a sound that had not been there when the place was full. Next he noticed the sound of quiet. Except for a handful of Brothers and Mrs. Gridley, who came in to prepare the meals, Frank had the entire place to himself. He felt curiously contented and at ease with these new circumstances. He actually enjoyed the quiet. He noticed a change in the Brothers as well, they were somehow almost human. Midnight Mass in the school‟s chapel was a joyous affair, with everyone participating, including Frank who led the procession and lit the Christmas candle. It was the first time he could recall ever feeling moved by his religion. Christmas dinner was splendid and Brother Michael even allowed Frank a glass of the table wine, then swore him to secrecy about it. After dinner they went outside and played a raucous game of football on the front lawn, in the snow. The cold nearly took his breath away but the sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky. Frank could not remember ever being so—not exactly happy—unself- conscious. He felt at home among these strident, exuberant, seriously happy bearded 19 wildmen. Their laughter rang loud and genuine across the wide square, echoing off the granite buildings and up to heaven. The sight of them running through the snow in their parkas and monk‟s robes brushing the ground and their sandalled feet made Frank laugh. The game ended when Brother Gregory ran headlong into the statue of Saint Ignatius in the center of the square. Running to catch a pass from Brother Michael, he was looking back over his shoulder, arms stretched wide. He missed the ball, catching the stone saint instead. He bounced off and landed on his back in the snow. Everyone made a dash for the fallen monk, converging around him at the same time. He looked rather peaceful really. His eyes were closed but his cherubic face positively glowed—from the cold most likely. Someone bent down to tap his cheeks and check for signs of life, at which he opened his eyes and uttered, “Jesus?” “Afraid not,” answered his companion. “It‟s only me, Michael.” “The Archangel?” he asked hopefully, still stunned from the collision. “Sorry once more.” Brother Gregory‟s eyes began to focus finally. “This means that I‟m still alive, right?” They all nodded in reply. “Oh well,” he sighed. “Is there still wine left?” Everyone roared with laughter. They helped him to his feet then, brushing off the snow and checking for anything broken. He was going to have a headache anyway—so a little more wine couldn‟t hurt. Everyone felt the same about Brother Gregory: he represented the best of Saint Pat‟s. Unlike Aloysius, Brother Gregory would be sorely missed if the school should ever lose him. 20 Frank felt strangely depressed once the holidays were over and the other boys had returned to the hallowed halls. He felt intruded upon and he missed the quiet. He also resented the way in which the Brothers once again had donned their mantles of serious instruction and discipline, putting their humanity back on the shelf. Mostly he resented the reappearance of Patrick McGill, once more providing him with a cross to bear. Whatever the reasons, Frank was edgier, more irritable than usual. He cringed every time his antagonist came within sight. He wasn‟t afraid of the senior boy. He just knew that his patience had dissipated over the Christmas break. The anger, which he carried with him every day of his life, but which he normally kept under control, was beginning to smolder ever closer to the surface. The once thick skin of the lion-tamer had become stretched to the thinness of a membrane—much too thin to contain a lion held too long at bay. So when Frank opened his only trunk and found the paper bag of foul-smelling human excrement, the lion escaped. He knew he was making a mistake as he ran through the halls, seeking out the perpetrator of the despicable deed. He knew that he was playing right into the enemy‟s hands, as he went screaming bloody murder at the top of his lungs. He knew that this could only end badly and in the end he would be the one punished. He knew all these things as he gave into his seething rage. Other boys gave him a wide berth as he passed them. Perhaps it was the bag he held at arm‟s length, as if it contained horrors. Perhaps it was the look in his eyes, but each knew instinctively that he was on a mission into irreversible trouble. Just as instinctively, every boy he passed turned to follow him, irresistibly drawn to what surely promised to be a great spectacle. So by the time Frank stormed into the library, there was already a large crowd at his heels, all eager to witness the imminent storm. 21 Frank shattered the quiet of the place with a tremendous shout of just one word. “McGill!” he roared, striding forward to stand accusingly before his upper classmate. He still held the bag outstretched in his trembling hand. McGill languidly pushed his chair back from the table and slowly stood up to face his accuser. He took a moment to look around the large room, suddenly gone silent. Smiling, he asked in a confident tone, “What‟s this, your lunch? No thanks, Old Boy. It smells pretty bad, really.” He looked around once more, gauging his audience. But there were no smiles, not even from the bunch whom he could normally count on. In a low, controlled voice, just audible enough for everyone to hear, Frank said icily, “It‟s a bag of shit, Old Boy. And it smells just like the asshole standing in front of me.” McGill stopped smiling and the color drained from his face. “So it is your lunch after all,” he said, a little louder than he had meant to. He gave a short laugh and surveyed the room once more, but no one shared in the humor. In fact, the sea of serious faces all appeared to be holding their breath. Even Brother Aloysius, the monitor on that particular evening, stood by his desk unmoving. The unfolding drama held his rapt attention just as it did his pupils. No one noticed the customary twitch of his left eye or just the hint of spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. Frank struggled to control his voice. “You‟ve gone too far this time, McGill.” “Gone too far?” McGill raised an eyebrow and continued nonchalantly, “Whatever do you mean. Why, I haven‟t gone anywhere. I‟ve been right here in the library since after supper. Just ask old Brother Aloysius over there.” He turned away from Frank and with a sweep of his arm, he gestured toward the monk. 22 When he turned back to face him, Frank lost control of his anger. The thin membrane couldn‟t take any more strain. It tore away, unleashing the lion of his rage. With a guttural cry, which witnesses later would describe as the sound of a wild animal, the boy drove the paper bag full force into the face of his enemy. The bag exploded on impact, as did McGill‟s nose, gushing blood. The blood however was not at first apparent due to the putrid, grotesque mask of excrement that all but covered his face. With a howl, the older boy staggered backwards and stumbled over his chair. Raising his hands up to his damaged face, he clawed away at the mess, spreading it into his hair, causing it to drip down onto his white shirt and school blazer. Rubbing it out of his eyes, he lowered his hands only to discover them covered in blood as well as shit. “Bastard!” he roared. “You fugging son of a whore! You broke my fugging nose!” He was frantically trying to wipe away the mess as well as stop the blood pouring profusely from the middle of his battered face. With each effort he would look at his hands in horror, then wipe them savagely on his jacket. Before he could stop himself, Frank laughed out loud. “It‟s not fugging,” he said, looking down at the humiliated creature on his knees in front of him. “What‟s wrong, Old Boy? Can‟t pronounce your words right with a broken nose? It‟s fucking—fucking son of a whore.” He should have left it at that but as so often is the case in such a moment, we just never know when to quit. So Frank continued, “How about shit, can you say fucking shit? Or maybe that‟s a hard one too when your mouth is so full of it?” Until then the room had remained hushed. It was as if what they were witnessing defied understanding or even recognition, and so precluded any kind of appropriate 23 response. At Frank‟s last remark however, at least one of the boys recognized the irony and could not stifle his laughter. A few others tittered nervously. Patrick McGill, favored son of one Horace Wendell McGill, and future heir to his father‟s fortune, had never known humiliation in his life. Humility in any form had never been a lesson that any McGill had ever had occasion to learn. And to be introduced to the experience at the hands of one such as young Frank Martin—this pathetic son of a travelling salesman, this hick from rural New England who still had chicken shit clinging to the soles of his cheap shoes—this sorry excuse for a scholar who didn‟t belong at Saint Pat‟s, who wasn‟t even fit to shine the shoes of the boys there—every one of them his better—the thought of it was not only unbearable, it was intolerable. These thoughts flashed through his mind in the space of that single outburst of laughter from among the crowd. His state of humiliation changed instantly to seething, blinding and uncontrollable rage. With murder in his heart he lunged at his humiliator. Frank had anticipated this but he had forgotten about the press of boys behind him and he couldn‟t avoid his attacker in time. McGill, taller and about 30 pounds heavier than the younger boy, managed to throw his full weight into Frank‟s mid-section. Frank hit the floor hard, the wind knocked out of him and McGill took the opportunity to sit on his chest, pinning him down. The other boys moved back to give them room, then closed in to form a loose circle around the two protagonists. The whole place erupted then into a great din and shouts of “Fight!” and “Give it to him!” filled the air. Frank was having trouble catching his breath, especially with the weight of the larger boy pressing down on his chest. He just managed to get his hands in front of his 24 face enough to avoid the full impact of the blows from the other‟s flailing fists. McGill was totally out of control, shouting “Bastard!” over and over with each swing. Frustrated by Frank‟s efforts to defend himself and unsatisfied with the damage he was managing to inflict, he abandoned the pummeling. Instead he wrapped his large, gore-covered hands around the smaller boy‟s neck and began to squeeze. He stopped shouting then and became very quiet. His eyes seemed to focus on something, or nothing at all, at some great distance. He appeared to concentrate very hard. And indeed he was concentrating, focusing his entire being on the task at hand—his considerable strength dedicated to choking the life out of Frank Martin. He might have even succeeded in his endeavor. At the point when the crowd suddenly hushed—perhaps sensing the ghastly nature of what was unfolding before their eyes—Frank was certain that his enemy would succeed as he began to lose consciousness. There was just no more air left and so there was no more struggle left either. In his confused mind the Angel of Death appeared bearing a countenance that strongly resembled a boy named Patrick McGill. But the face was misshapen somehow, with a flattened nose and there was blood and gore all over it. And he never would have imagined that the Angel would descend smelling strongly of shit. So, blacked out and believing himself dead, Frank missed the vision of his own Angel of Deliverance. This took the form of Brother Aloysius, who went forward through the crowd, pushing boys aside and commanding this desecration of his hallowed halls to cease. He stopped next to the two hooligans just as young Frank lost consciousness. Quickly taking stock of the situation, the monk instinctively brought his cane to bear across the older boy‟s back. It had no effect whatsoever, so absorbed was he in his 25 murderous intentions. It took a succession of repeated and severe wallops from the stinging cane before McGill finally loosed his grip on his victim‟s throat. Yelping with pain, he threw himself off the limp body. Turning quickly he managed to shield the next blow with one arm. With his free hand he caught the detested weapon and wrenched it from his tormentor‟s grasp. With a menacing look he slowly stood up, faced the monk and raised the cane as if to strike. True to his vocation, or perhaps his nature, Aloysius didn‟t flinch. Instead he straightened his shoulders and squarely faced the insolent boy. His eyes blazed and he leveled such a look at his challenger—a lesser heart would have perished on the spot. An audible gasp escaped the gathered crowd of boys. In the long history of Saint Pat‟s there was no precedent for the events of this night. Never had a boy of McGill‟s privileged position felt the sting of the cane—and a lashing of such violence. Likewise, that a boy— any boy, McGill included—should dare to threaten a Brother with violence. It was beyond imagining. Granted the circumstances surrounding such chilling events had been most unusual. It certainly appeared that the precedent of murder had just occurred at Saint Pat‟s. Fascinated by the bizarre turn of events, enthralled by the standoff between Brother and classmate, everyone ceased to take any notice of the boy still lying on the floor—until Frank stirred, coughing and gagging and frantically gasping. His body jolted back to life, convulsing and heaving, his lungs desperately demanding great gulps of air, which made him gag and cough even more. His thrashing and histrionics served to sever the tension between the two advocates. The spell was broken. The moment of danger had passed. McGill gazed down upon Frank with the same expression he might have 26 displayed were he to be looking at some form of disgusting vermin. His expression remained the same as he shifted his gaze to Brother Aloysius. Lowering the hated cane, he grasped it in both hands, extended his arms and bent its slim form almost in a circle. It broke with a loud snap. Throwing the pieces at the monk‟s feet, he then turned on his heel and stormed out of the room, without a backward glance. His classmates moved aside to let him pass, each and every one of them averting their eyes, so as not to be touched by that awful look on his face. In the days that followed what was simply referred to as the “incident”, a pall seemed to hang over Saint Pat‟s. The venerable institution found itself facing a crisis of significant proportion. The initial shock and horror—a student was very nearly killed at the hands of a classmate—eventually gave way to confusion. Difficult decisions had to be made. The behavior of both boys certainly warranted immediate expulsion. And it wouldn‟t be the first time that a boy had been sent away from Saint Pat‟s, although to be fair it was always a very grave matter. The Jesuits prided themselves on their ability to train, enlighten and even redeem the toughest cases. When they reached the point of showing a boy to the door, it was generally accepted that his edification was beyond hope. Those circumstances didn‟t easily apply to the two boys involved in this particular incident, however. Neither boy could be categorized as incorrigible or beyond hope. Each in his own way showed exceptional potential. And although they would both vehemently deny such a comparison as preposterous, each was similar to the other in many ways. Especially regarding that inner sense of pride, which usually translated into stubbornness, they could both benefit from lessons in humility. Among all the various Orders of the Church, the 27 Jesuits were perhaps the least restrained by ritualistic conformity. Their constitution, which dated back nearly 400 years to Ignatius himself, recognized the importance of the individual‟s temperament in terms of his approach to the way of life that defined their existence. That is not to say that any leeway was allowed concerning their belief in the one, holy apostolic Church, or in their vow of fealty to the Holy See. But their Order allowed for individual expression of that faith and of service. In other words, personality was never considered as sinful. This kind of flexibility, although subtle at times, allowed for an enlightened perspective in schools like Saint Pat‟s—allowed for the acceptance of both the Patrick McGills and the Frank Martins, and all others in between. The trick was to maintain a certain balance. The “incident” was simply a case of things getting out of hand and the balance had been upset. Now a way had to be found to restore this balance to the ordered universe that was Saint Pat‟s. And the Brothers were the first to acknowledge their own complicity in the matter, admitting to their indulgence in an already over-indulgent narcissistic bully such as McGill. Like McGill however, they had underestimated the strength of character of the boy he had chosen to pick on. Or perhaps they had overestimated Frank‟s limit of tolerance. Either way, it would have been an easy matter to dispose of young Martin. After all, he had been the one who had initiated the attack. And there was certainly no way of proving that the upper-classman was responsible for the offensive material that had incensed him to begin with. That everyone in the entire school knew about the history that existed between the two boys made not one iota of difference. As Patrick‟s father vociferously emphasized to Monsignor Bellanger: “That low-life piece of shit 28 deliberately and pre-meditatively attacked my boy, for no reason and without provocation. He broke his fucking nose! And I want him gone.” The monsignor was used to such language and also to such outbursts. He nodded politely and assured this benefactor of Saint Pat‟s that the matter would be “looked into and dealt with appropriately.” After the man left his office, the monsignor sat for a moment, shaking his head and lost in thought. Ass, he thought, and your son will be the same. Proof or not, it didn‟t take a leap of faith to make a reasonable assumption that coincided exactly with the assumption arrived at by Frank Martin. Patrick McGill had gone too far when he decided to deposit his excrement into a bag and then to place it among Frank‟s belongings. Putting himself in the younger boy‟s place, he knew that he would have probably reacted the very same way. The monsignor had enough sense however to dismiss such thoughts as mere sentimentality. If it came down to a choice, young Martin would have to go. He wouldn‟t stand the chance of an ice cube in hell. The dilemma lay in the fact that the son of the ass who had just left his office had nearly killed the boy in question. His actions could be explained in terms of self-defense, perhaps justified as well if they hadn‟t been quite so violent. Even if his innocence was “a given” however, the black and blue marks on the boy‟s neck would be hard to explain away. Not to mention the eye-witness accounts of 30 or 40 of their classmates, none of whom were well disposed towards the one who was already being referred to (although in whispers) as “the Saint Pat‟s Strangler”. Besides all that, Monsignor Bellanger genuinely liked Frank Martin. From the very first he had recognized his intelligence and self-assurance. Even a fool could not mistake the boy‟s potential—except perhaps his fool of a father. From the little he knew 29 of that relationship, there was little wonder that the boy should react in such an explosive manner. Too bad he lacked the forbearance of his namesake and just turned the other cheek. But not many of us could ever live up to the examples set for us by the Saints, he chided himself. Saint Francis of Assisi or Francis Xavier both were certainly hard acts to follow. Too bad as well that he had to tangle with the one boy in the whole school whose family could exert the most pressure on Saint Pat‟s. His father played golf with the Bishop, for Chrissakes. If Frank is to remain among us, he thought, then we are going to have to come up with one helluva good compromise. As he sat in his office mulling over the fate of young Frank, there was a knock on the door. His secretary announced a visit from Father Ambrose, the headmaster at Saint Pat‟s. He brought with him the very compromise that the monsignor had been desperately trying to find. It was a bizarre sort of plan on the surface, yet the logic of it was inspired. That it had been the brainchild of one Alphonse Santori, a boy at Saint Pat‟s, made both men a little wary. But it just might work. Santori was the school‟s resident scam artist or “opportunist”, as Monsignor Bellanger described him. Alphonse somehow managed always to avoid trouble himself. A more model student could hardly be found. But he had a way of turning trouble into opportunity—for himself at least. All of the Brothers to a man would have voted him the most likely to succeed—in business, politics or crime, take your pick. If some new get- rich-quick scheme were making the rounds at the school, they had only to look to Alphonse to discover its source. Whether it was a lottery, a wager or some other form of gambling endeavor, it was a pretty good guess that he was behind it. Around something 30 as mundane as the number of days before Brother Aloysius would administer the cane, the boy would organize a betting pool. In the present circumstances, it was Santori who suggested to Father Ambrose the idea of a boxing match between the two boys involved in the “incident”. He was well aware of the good Father‟s keen interest in the sport. The stories of his prowess as a middleweight during his Seminary days were famous. He knew that the headmaster would appreciate the suggestion. He also knew that Patrick McGill and his father would love the idea of a legitimate opportunity to pound the piss out of the young upstart, Martin. Especially when one took into account the older boy‟s substantial advantage of size and weight—not to mention experience, since young McGill had been boxing for the past two years, while Frank had never donned a pair of gloves. Santori also knew that he stood a good chance at making a nice piece of change on the fight. It turned out that the only person who was less than enthusiastic about the solution was Frank. He looked into the future and saw only broken bones and missing teeth—all of them his. “Why not just hang me from the bell tower and get it over with,” was his response when Brother Michael informed him of the plan. But of course that wouldn‟t satisfy the McGills. It wouldn‟t do at all. His public humiliation at the hands of the younger McGill was the cornerstone of the plan. And Frank was left with the correct impression that his options were severely limited—that is, if he wanted to remain at Saint Pat‟s at all. The broken bones would heal. So would his pride. He knew it was a mistake the moment he agreed, but Frank couldn‟t see any way out. He didn‟t want to leave Saint Pat‟s. He couldn‟t return to his old aunt and his father certainly didn‟t want him. A few months ago he might have felt differently. He was still 31 very much the loner and he hadn‟t made what he could call good friends, but he at least had begun to feel like he belonged here. He had even felt contentment during his time with the Brothers at Christmas, when they had let their hair down. It had been a very long time since he could remember anything resembling such a feeling. So the fight date was set for St. Valentine‟s Day—to give Frank a few weeks to train. More likely it was to give his opponent the time needed for his nose to mend. Brother Michael would be in Frank‟s corner and act as his trainer and sparring partner. McGill, Sr. insisted on providing his son with a hotshot coach from a local Toronto boxing club. No one protested. Alphonse Santori was giving odds of 20 to one on Frank for fools who wished to part with their money. And at those odds there were a surprising number of takers. Frank spent the next five weeks pushing his body in ways he would not have thought possible previously. Every spare moment was devoted to physical and mental training. Skipping, jogging, pushups, sit-ups, sparring were followed by more of the same until every night the boy collapsed onto his bed exhausted—only to dream about skipping, jogging, pushups, sit-ups, sparring, ad infinitum. When the day finally arrived, Frank felt almost relieved. He also felt sick to his stomach. It was a Saturday and Brother Michael had him out of bed by six a.m. An hour- long run was followed by a giant breakfast. His trainer encouraged him to eat his fill because there would be no lunch. The fight was scheduled for one o‟clock and it was better to enter the ring with an empty stomach, he assured him. Frank figured it had more to do with limiting the amount of vomit he would expel when McGill pulverized him than anything else. He didn‟t voice his opinion however, not wanting to dampen his benefactor‟s optimism. He just wished that he could share in that optimism. He felt like 32 Daniel entering the lion‟s den. He just lacked the necessary faith of the ancient prophet, which was the only thing that Daniel had going for him. “You know it‟s not fair,” were the last words that Frank said to Brother Michael in the dressing room. “Of course it isn‟t,” the Brother replied. “That‟s why I brought these along,” he added, slipping a small horseshoe into each boxing glove. Frank smiled, each taped hand forming a fist around the cold metal. “Now remember what I taught you,” his trainer reminded him. “We both know that you are not a boxer. McGill is the boxer. You, my son, are a dancer.” Frank nodded. “Five rounds, three minutes per round. For 15 minutes of your life you will be the greatest dancer this place has ever known. You will duck and run, duck and run. If he lays a glove on you, it will only be because you have forgotten that you are a dancer and not a boxer. Got it?” Frank nodded once more. Of course he got it. Of course he was not a boxer. “And if you can‟t avoid the bastard, remember to just get in close—hug him if you have to. He can swing all he wants then, but it won‟t do any damage. Right?” Frank just kept nodding. “And if you get the chance—and you may only get it once—that‟s what these are for.” He tapped the gloves, indicating the horseshoes inside. “Right square on the nose, okay? With any luck the old break will shatter once again, only screaming this time.” Frank nodded one last time, marveling at the ruthless nature of the Jesuit who was advising him. He was glad that brother Michael was in his corner. What a formidable 33 opponent he would be, he thought as they headed for the ring and possibly his own demise—or at the very least, his abject humiliation. As he entered the ring, Frank was more than a little intimidated by the crowd that had gathered to witness the spectacle of his imminent demolition. The entire school was assembled, including the rank and file of the Brethren in their distinctive black robes. Not only that, he also recognized the Bishop and Horace Wendell McGill in the audience, both of whom he had met once. The judges were Father Ambrose, who knew about boxing, and Monsignor Bellanger, who knew about politics. The referee was none other than Brother Aloysius. At least he didn‟t have his cane, Frank thought, thankfully. For the first three rounds, Frank performed exactly as he had been instructed. McGill had managed to get in a few punches, but they were for the most part just glancing blows. Frank danced the dance of his life and his opponent was becoming extremely frustrated—even disgusted—by the travesty that was unfolding. At one point, as he had Frank in a headlock and Aloysius was trying to separate them, McGill whispered vehemently, “It‟s not supposed to be a fucking ballet, you know, you fucking little shit. It‟s a fucking boxing match!” “Speaking of shit,” Frank replied, “How did you like the taste of your own?” This managed only to incense McGill into wanting to kill the younger boy. And even after Aloysius had managed to separate them and the bell had sounded, ending the round, he kept swinging away at his reckless opponent, managing to cuff him across the head at least a couple of times. By now the Toronto coach had figured out the other‟s stategy and the fourth round did not go well for young Frank. Taking the advice of experience, McGill 34 “danced” his opponent into a corner. Once he had him on the ropes, he pummeled the smaller boy for all he was worth, until Aloysius intervened. At the bell Frank found himself staggering to his corner. His head was spinning wildly and he was quite ready to throw in the towel. Brother Michael however reminded him that as yet he hadn‟t really even laid a glove on the other boy. “Just three minutes to go,” he said. “You can do it, my son. Three more minutes and one last chance. Now, go get him!” Frank really didn‟t care. He didn‟t care if he won or lost. He didn‟t care if he got a punch in or not. His main concern was that he survived this ordeal and was able to walk away from it in one piece. Even if he could win the fight, what good would it do? His only chance at remaining at Saint Pat‟s was that he lose. If by some miracle he were able to demolish his opponent with a knockout punch, he was smart enough to realize that somehow it would lead to his expulsion from the school. People like Patrick McGill simply did not lose—especially to people like Frank Martin. Near the end of the fifth and final round of the bout, Frank simply walked up to his opponent with his jaw leading forward. Let‟s just get it over with, he thought. McGill couldn't believe his luck of course and proceeded to roundhouse his young enemy. Frank took the punch and dropped to the mat. It hurt like hell and he saw stars, but at least it would be over now, he consoled himself. And it would have been—if the victor had only had enough sense to let it be. As Brother Aloysius gave the countdown: one, two… three, four… McGill interrupted his victory dance to bend down and whisper to his victim lying groggily on the mat, “Take that, you son of a whore. And that‟s just what your mother was… a fucking whore!” 35 It just so happened that his mother was the only person in the entire world whom Frank had actually loved. For this asshole to refer to her as a whore was just intolerable. Despite the loud advice from Brother Michael in his own corner to “stay down, boy! It‟s over!” and despite the roar of the crowd, by the count of nine, Frank was on his feet once again. Aloysius barely had time to check the boy‟s gloves, and before McGill even realized what was going on—he was so caught up in his victory dance—Frank suddenly loomed in front of him. With one mighty overhand swing, powered by rage and reinforced by the iron of a horseshoe, the younger boy‟s glove connected with the bridge of his opponent‟s nose. Above a suddenly hushed audience the sound of breaking bone rang out loud and clear. In fact, McGill‟s barely healed nose was broken once again along the very same fissure. The pain was both blinding and excruciating and the boy fell like lead to the mat, unconscious. With one punch Frank had achieved a KO. Just as the punch landed the bell sounded to end not only the round but also the entire match. The audience was hushed once more, only this time in confusion. Who was the official winner of the fight? Did young Martin‟s knockout count, since the bell had sounded to end the round before the other boy went down? Taking into account that it was the only punch that he had actually been able to land on his opponent, if the knockout was disqualified, then surely McGill would be declared the winner on points. At that moment, if anyone had taken the time to notice—as Brother Michael did—the faces of Horace McGill, Monsignor Bellanger and Alphonse Santori shared the most stricken looks among the audience. It turned out that Frank Martin was the only other person to take notice besides Brother Michael. And something inside of him decided then and there that, no matter 36 what the outcome, everyone connected with Saint Pat‟s could simply go to hell. They could have their Patrick McGills. They could pretend that social class and money were irrelevant—that even a poor boy such as he could be welcome and succeed in their rarified world. But at that moment he knew better. Regardless of his intelligence, regardless of his “potential”, when it came right down to it, money made the world go round. He was naive to have ever hoped for anything better. The Lives of the Saints be damned, it was only rhetoric. The Jesuits be damned, above all else they were realists. He knew that he didn‟t belong in this world. There was just one more thing to do before he took his final leave. True to his stubborn nature, he could not just slip away. As he had expected, the official outcome of his fight with Patrick McGill turned out to be a decision in the upper- classman‟s favor. Since the bell had sounded, ending the round, the KO didn‟t count. Everyone was happy with such a result, of course. The McGills managed to save face. The school continued to enjoy their monetary support. Alphonse Santori made a bundle, as he had expected. Only Frank and Brother Michael didn‟t share in the general satisfaction of the others. Except when they considered Frank‟s one moment of glory. That knockout punch had been very satisfying indeed. Once all the excitement had died down however, the boy was still left with only that nagging deflated feeling. One way or another Saint Pat‟s was no longer his. It had been ruined for him. In that moment of insight as he surveyed the sea of faces turned towards him, he knew. Even through the dim cloud of his grogginess, he knew. He had been a fool for ever letting himself believe that he could belong here. Everyone else knew the difference except him—until that moment. Then as he had looked down at his enemy 37 sprawled before him on the mat, he knew just as clearly that the McGills would always win—no matter what. And in his mind there was no doubt whatsoever that the one lying at his feet was the true son of a whore and the one responsible for this new sense of loss that threatened to overwhelm him. Frank knew that he could stay on at the school. The decision in McGill‟s favor was a means of “saving face” and no one would think the worse of him because he lost the fight. No one expected him to win anyway. He had simply been one more statistic in a long line of victims. But Frank never could wear the mantle of nameless victim with any ease. Nor had he ever learned to “settle”. If he felt unwanted he simply left, shook the dust from his heels and never looked back. The day he departed from his home, leaving his poor sick father (the memory of the tainted sausages always made him smile) he had vowed never to return. Nor would he ever darken the doorstep of his old, gout-ridden aunt, who made it clear that he was unwelcome there during the past Christmas holidays. And he had learned a long time ago not to complain. That life was unfair was simply a given. To complain about a bastard such as Patrick McGill was about as useful as berating God for taking away his mother. Frank scoffed at the litany of others who continuously cried, “Life is unfair.” Instead, Frank got even. Although he had made up his mind on St. Valentine‟s day to leave Saint Pat‟s, for another month or more he went about his daily routine as usual, pretending that everything was hunky-dory. It was easy really. The only thing that made the next few weeks bearable was the fact that McGill now avoided him completely—shunned him actually—which suited Frank just fine. It took him three weeks to figure out his revenge and one more to pull it off. 38 Lights-out for the boys was nine p.m., as it had probably been for the past 400 years in every boarding school ever run by the Jesuits. The Brothers and the Fathers would use this time to gather together for a quiet glass of wine and to discuss the day‟s events. It was their time to unwind and the ritual was as anticipated and as necessary as the daily Mass. Often on these occasions one glass of wine would turn into two or even three—more than that if Brother Gregory had his way. Even Brother Aloysius took part in the evening gatherings, so the boys had no reason to fear his presence during their nocturnal excursions. And despite the rather elaborate and accepted practices of monitoring and downright snitching on one another that was part of the school‟s everyday operation, the curfew was the one rule that could always be broken without trepidation. Whether it was because the hall monitors were always well paid-off by boys like Patrick McGill, or perhaps because the monitors themselves were involved in such clandestine activities from time to time, it wasn‟t clear. But it was the one breach of the rules that was never reported. Some of the boys would sneak out of their rooms for nightly rendezvous with hired cars that would whisk them away into the City, where they would engage in all manner of forbidden pleasures. Others would simply cross the half-mile of meadow that separated Saint Pat‟s from Saint Agnes‟, a sort of “sister” school run by the Sisters of Charity. If Mother Seaton, the venerable founder of their order, were to ever witness the goings-on along the well-worn paths between the two schools, she would surely roll over in her grave. Every boy at Saint Pat‟s was well aware, either through experience (if he were among the lucky) or rumor (if he could only live vicariously), of the legendary promiscuity and abandon of those poor sexually oppressed Catholic girls from St. 39 Agnes‟. Even the snow or the cold late March winds could not diminish their penchant for misbehavior. While others were breaking the rules in order to engage in assorted acts of debauchery and vice, Frank on the other hand had his own agenda. One night just before the spring examinations were about to be administered, he tiptoed from his room and quietly made his way into the study of Father Ambrose. He had already done his homework and knew exactly where to look for the master sheets that contained the questions that would be asked on the upcoming math exam. As he removed the documents, he made sure that it was obvious that an intruder had been at work. The good Father would have no choice but to recognize foul play. Once he instigated an investigation, that is to say a raid, in which the belongings of every boy at Saint Pat‟s would be turned inside out, he would be sure to find the pilfered exams hidden among the personal possessions of one Patrick McGill. Which is exactly what happened. Before Brother Aloysius had even finished dragging the boy down to the office, the news had spread through the school like wildfire. McGill had stolen the examination sheets and then lied about it, even though they were found among his own personal items inside a locked trunk no less. (Frank and locks had always been on friendly terms—they never could manage to resist him. And he had always been very careful that this minor talent of his should remain a secret. One consequence of this was that he never put much store in locks—never bothered to use them himself. A further consequence of course was that it made it easy for McGill to leave his “deposit” in Frank‟s trunk—the imprudent act that had essentially begun the chain of events that led to his present nightmare.) Of course no one paid any attention to 40 the ranting of the accused boy as he screamed bloody murder and that he had been framed. He kept repeating, with varying expletives, (not to mention complete accuracy) that Frank was the one responsible for this travesty of justice. Everyone knew how the young upstart hated him—had it in for him from the very beginning. Of course everyone knew how each boy felt toward the other. It was no secret. The entire school found nothing surprising in McGill‟s behavior. Of course he would point the finger at Frank and try to blame his old enemy. And if Frank had ever considered such a plan, would he not have also known that he would be the first one accused of foul play? Wasn‟t that exactly what was happening now? The Jesuits were no fools. They certainly would not have ruled out the possibility of Frank‟s complicity in the matter. Nor were they given to misjudgments regarding a boy‟s character or intelligence. Except this time they had surely erred. But Brother Aloysius had been an eyewitness to the damning evidence. He had even examined the trunk‟s lock before he had the boy open it. The boy himself showed no sign that he noticed anything amiss. It was all perfectly ordinary. The key slid into its receptacle, a half-turn to the left produced an audible click and the latch was sprung. No surprise from the boy when he lifted the lid either—the contents inside looked much the way they always did. Even his stack of money—the neatly folded bills in the leather clip— apparently had not been disturbed. McGill had probably performed this routine of opening his trunk a thousand times since he had arrived at Saint Pat‟s. As creatures of habit we are quick to notice when our daily rituals or habits have been interfered with. Under the Brother‟s supervision, the boy calmly and confidently carried out his request, showing no sign that anything was wrong until he arrived at the bottom of the 41 contents that comprised the assorted treasures. As he grasped the documents in his hand he knew immediately that they represented the reason for the all-out search throughout the school. His heart sank with his second revelation, which came to him instantly on the heels of the first—the fucking little bastard had framed him. That‟s when his world began to collapse around him and a kind of blackness gripped his heart. It was also when he began screaming foul play and turning the air blue around him with colorful descriptions of the ways in which he intended to kill young Frank Martin, each murderous plan more graphic than the one before. To his credit, as he later explained to Father Ambrose, Brother Aloysius did consider the possibility of the boy‟s innocence. In those first moments of discovery he didn‟t rule out Frank as a suspect, as McGill so vehemently and vociferously insisted. It was not impossible to imagine the scenario. Neither was it impossible to accept the possibility that the younger boy possessed the ability to carry it off, including the skill needed to overcome the trunk‟s lock. It sent his mind reeling as he tried to fathom the logical argument that would be necessary to convince a boy like Frank to demonstrate his ability to pick a lock—and thereby incriminate himself. It just wasn‟t going to happen. That key, on the other hand, had hung around Patrick McGill‟s neck for as long as he had been at Saint Pat‟s. It was common knowledge that the boy never removed it— not in the showers, not before going to bed—never. The silver chain to which it was attached was long enough to allow him to unlock his trunk without removing the key from his neck. Which was exactly what he did in front of Brother Aloysius. It was enough. The brother could never prove Frank‟s guilt. But neither would McGill ever be able to prove his innocence—at least not beyond the shadow of a doubt. 42 Nothing however was enough to convince the boy‟s father. When he came down from Toronto to “deal with such nonsense” he was annoyed. When the headmaster explained the situation in detail he was angry, not only at the false accusations against his son (Of course the boy had been framed!) but also at the invasion of his privacy. Halfway through the interview, when Father Ambrose carefully explained to him the consequences of his son‟s actions, McGill was livid. His fury resounded throughout the school. No McGill had ever been expelled from anywhere—ever! Whatever the good Fathers thought they had uncovered, they were wrong. He would take the matter right to the goddam Pope himself if he had to! He also demanded his own private interview with that low-life Frank Martin. He‟d have that little guttersnipe confessing to his crimes in no time! For his part, Frank wanted nothing to do with that old bastard. He wanted nothing to do with Saint Pat‟s anymore either. His revenge was complete and young Patrick was getting the boot. The word along the school‟s grapevine was that no amount of threats, cajoling, whining or bribery from either him or his overbearing father was going to make a bit of difference. McGill‟s crime apparently came under the heading of unforgivable and the Jesuits were left with no choice but to expel the boy. He was sure going to have trouble getting into that ivy league college that he had his heart set on. What a shame, Frank thought, grinning the whole time as he packed his own bag. He had traded his trunk with one of the other boys for a carpetbag. He gathered up what he absolutely needed, which wasn‟t much, but it included his only picture of his deceased mother. What he left behind wasn‟t much more and he informed his roommates that they were welcome to it. They didn‟t quite understand Frank‟s desire for flight but they didn‟t press 43 him on the matter either. They understood that Frank was Frank, more independent and headstrong than most of the rest of them—and still the loner in their midst. He intended to quietly slip away—to shake the dust from his heels and turn his back on this place where he felt unwanted. He almost made it too, except that he found Brother Michael waiting for him by the main gate. “Where will you go?” he asked the boy. Frank had no answer for him but asked instead, “how did you know?” “That you were leaving us?” Frank nodded. “It was just a matter of time, wasn‟t it? Ever since St.Valentine‟s Day, yes? I recognized the look in your eyes after the fight.” The boy just nodded again. “But there remained a little unfinished business before you could go.” Frank shuffled his feet and just shrugged. With his eyes he seemed to be searching for something in the distance—something just over the Brother‟s shoulder and beyond the gate. “How does it feel, Frank?” “How does what feel—to be leaving?” “No. How does it feel to have won? To have beaten him in the end?” Frank just gave him a puzzled look. “You know what I‟m talking about,” the man pressed on. “It‟s okay. Really, I understand. We are not so different you and I. Do you think that you are the only one who ever had to bear a cross in the shape of a Patrick McGill? And whatever the outcome 44 of today‟s events, you needn‟t worry about that boy. He‟ll land on his feet. The Patrick McGills of this world always do.” That got a reaction from Frank. He looked the Brother straight in the eye then and nearly spat out the words, “Worry about him? It would be a very cold day in hell before that happens, Brother—excuse my language. Of course he will land on his feet. My only regret is that I couldn‟t have caused him more trouble…” He stopped himself, realizing that he had almost confessed his complicity in McGill‟s present “troubles”. “I meant to say some trouble. I wish that I had caused him some trouble before I left this place.” Brother Michael put a hand on the boy‟s shoulder and grinned broadly. “It really is okay,” he assured him. “This is not the confessional and I really do understand completely, my son. We both know that young Patrick will survive and it‟s doubtful that he will be missed by many here at Saint Pat‟s…” “It‟s doubtful that his own mother would miss him,” Frank quipped, interrupting him. The older man couldn‟t help but laugh. In a more serious tone he continued, “Now you on the other hand… Are you quite certain about your decision to leave here? With McGill gone… and then there‟s the fact that you are so close to finishing the semester. Is this truly what you want, Frank?” The boy just nodded. Across the courtyard, even through the stone walls, the harsh tones of Horace McGill could be heard as he berated the school and cursed at Father Ambrose in his office. “Time for me to go,” Frank said calmly. “How will you look after yourself?” the other asked with genuine concern. “God will provide,” he replied. “Isn‟t that what you have been trying to teach us?” 45 Frank started to move past the monk but he stopped him, once more with a hand on his shoulder. “Okay,” he said, holding the boy‟s eyes with his own. “But take this along as well for insurance.” He withdrew an envelope from the folds of his black robes and pressed it into the boy‟s hands. It contained a collection of money, mostly one-dollar bills. Frank didn‟t know what to say. “There‟s about 50 dollars in there. It represents about half of Alphonse Santori‟s profits he made on the boxing match. I figured that you could use it. I also figured that you deserve it since it was made by capitalizing on your own „troubles‟. And since such gambling is one of those vices that is rather frowned upon at Saint Pat‟s, it wasn‟t hard to convince the little creep to make a „donation‟ to the „Frank Martin fund‟.” Frank accepted the “donation”, tucked the money inside the carpetbag and thanked him for his kindness. “It might just be true,” he said as he took his leave. The Jesuit raised his eyebrows questioningly. “It seems that God really does provide,” he said, smiling. He embraced his patron, then slipped through the gate, leaving Saint Pat‟s behind. He never looked back. As he made his way along the snow-covered road that led to town and to the train station he began to whistle softly. It was a melody from a song that his mother used to sing to him when he was a young boy. His spirits began to lift and his heart lightened with every step. It felt as if he was leaving behind a great weight. He wasn‟t sure of his destination. It didn‟t really matter to him where he went. The cold March wind made little eddies of the late winter‟s powdery snow along the roadway. A sharp gust made him pull his wool overcoat tightly around his neck. Maybe I‟ll go 46 somewhere warm he thought—just buy a ticket to the end of the line on the southbound train. Florida‟s probably nice this time of year. Maybe I will find a place where I feel wanted. Chapter II The train suddenly lurched forward and Francis was jolted from his reverie. It took him a moment to realize that the voice penetrating his thoughts was directed at him. It belonged to a very attractive woman, about his own age, dark hair, dark eyes so deep that it would be easy to lose himself within them. “Father,” she was saying. “Father, are you all right?” She was offering him a Kleenex. He was unaware of the tears that were running down his face. He offered his thanks as he took the tissue from her, still not fully cognizant of his apparent distress. She was saying something about the season… and the stress of it all. “It‟s the time of year. Christmas can be a very stressful time,” she said. “And things like this…” “Things like this?” he offered. “You know… a glitch in travel plans… a train delayed… it can add to the stress. It can make us feel overwhelmed sometimes. Know what I mean?” His head was starting to clear and momentarily Francis found himself back in the present, back in reality. His face flushed as he realized that he had been crying, that his tears were the source of this stranger‟s concern. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Didn‟t mean to cause you any concern. But you know, you are right… about the stress, I mean. The past few days must have taken their 47 toll on me and I wasn‟t even aware of it. It‟s hard to believe that less than a week ago I was in the Philippines, enjoying the warm sunshine, just going about my business. The next thing I know, I‟m being summoned to my grandfather‟s deathbed halfway around the world. And here I am at the present moment escorting the old man‟s remains to their final resting-place. And stuck in a blizzard to boot.” He smiled then and offered his hand to the stranger. “Forgive me for rambling on,” he said. “Francis Martin, at your service.” She took his hand in hers, responding with a firm grip. “Amelia Grant,” she replied. “My friends call me Amy. It sounds like you have had quite a time of it lately.” Francis smiled again. He liked this woman already. And upon closer examination he realized that she was actually very beautiful. His training informed him of the hint of sadness apparent in her eyes and more than a hint of careworn days judging by the lines of her face. He also noticed the wedding ring on her finger. “Are you on your way home to your family for Christmas? Are you travelling alone?” The woman followed his gaze and noticed his attention to her ring finger. She shook her head, then replied, “I‟m afraid that there is no family Christmas waiting for me, Father. Both my parents are deceased and I am divorced. It was a long time ago. The ring is just an old habit—and it helps to deter the wolves.” She laughed. “Children?” he asked. She shook her head. “Bobby and I decided from the beginning that it just wasn‟t the right thing to do—considering the state of the world these days. We just couldn‟t justify bringing children into such a world as it is. Not very Catholic of us, huh?” 48 Francis laughed at that. The traditional response of the priest would have been to agree with such a sentiment, but his Jesuit training made it easy to respond otherwise. “Based on available information, from a mature and informed perspective, your decision could be seen as not unreasonable.” She gave him a quizzical look. Then she smiled and replied, “Only a Jesuit could answer that question in such a way.” He smiled in return. “So, you are aquainted with the Society of Jesus?” “What a small world it is indeed. I have a brother who is a Jesuit. I wasn‟t invited to his ordination though. As a divorcee I seem to come under the category of „family secrets‟.” She seemed to be genuinely saddened by this revelation and the priest intuitively shared in her grief. “In a perfect world,” he offered, “no one would give a rat‟s ass about your marital status. In a perfect world you and your husband would probably still be married… and have a brood of children as well. And I would not be on this train escorting the corpse of my grandfather in a blizzard three days before Christmas. But here I am and here you are: a Jesuit priest crying his eyes out and a divorced Catholic woman who still wears a ring to keep the wolves at bay. And the two of us both feeling the duress of the season. You‟d think that after nearly 2000 years we would have some inkling as to the true meaning of this season, wouldn‟t you?” The woman looked like she was about to cry, but Francis pressed on. He had one more question for her, a question that had been gnawing at him since he had first boarded the train back in Halifax two days ago. “Tell me, Amy,” he said. “In this imperfect world, 49 do you think that it is possible to love someone enough to be willing to die for him or her?” She thought about his question for a moment then solemnly nodded in response. But that wasn‟t really what he had wanted to ask. He gathered his thoughts then rephrased the question, the one that he really wanted to ask. “But is it possible to love someone enough to kill for?” She had no answer to that one but replied with a question of her own. “Is it even possible to love someone enough to just be there for them? You know, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health? Maybe it‟s all just words, Father. Maybe we are all just fools. Maybe marriage should be called „the blessed union of fools‟. What do you think?” For a brief moment her eyes flashed with anger in counterpoint to the sadness he had discerned at first. “Ah, the age old question,” he mused. “When I was a boy growing up everything that surrounded me seemed quite solid—including ideas. Ideas like family and the Church, home and marriage… they were woven so closely into the fabric of life. They formed part of the pattern that made us who we were… and who we still are. They were as natural as breathing and as real as your grandmother‟s rocking chair next to the kitchen stove. Everything was so much simpler then.” “It sounds like you are waxing nostalgic, Father.” “I wasn‟t meaning to,” he grinned. “And please, just call me Francis.” “Okay, Francis. But tell me, whatever happened to that simplicity of 30 years ago? When did all that solid granite turn into such a soupy clay? I remember my grandmother‟s rocker as well. And the old gal sitting in it and fuming about the beginning of the end for Holy Mother Church. The Mass was no longer going to be performed in 50 Latin. Then fasting was no longer required before communion. And the idea of receiving the Blessed Sacrament in your very own hand! That one she refused to consider altogether.” The priest smiled broadly at his new acquaintance. “Are you sure that we didn‟t have the same grandmother?” The woman laughed. “Did yours wear the same kerchief to Church every Sunday?” He nodded. “And sit in the same spot in the same pew every time?” He nodded once again. “Did yours ever catch you eating meat on a Friday? Yes? And I bet there was hell to pay that day.” She really laughed at that. He noticed how animated she had become. They were like two old school chums reminiscing. He liked the way her eyes became very bright as she remembered a story from her girlhood. As she related it she seemed to become much younger and he could almost picture her as a girl of 17. “It couldn‟t have been any worse,” she began, “It wasn‟t just any Friday. It was Good Friday. And I was with a boy that I was not supposed to be seeing. Actually, I wasn‟t allowed to date until I became 18 and that was still a few months away. But the bigger problem was that this boy wasn‟t even Catholic. And I had skipped the afternoon service to be with him. We had one Chinese restaurant in our town and it was the only thing open on Good Friday. It was a perfect spring day, the kind of day that just makes you feel good to be alive—especially after a long, dreary winter.” 51 “Those are the best of all days,” Francis responded wistfully, caught up in the mood of her tale. “We couldn‟t wait to put away the galoshes and the winter coats and put on our sneakers. So tell me, how did your grandmother get wise to your sinful ways?” “I figured that it would be safe since everyone would be in Church. So we threw caution to the wind and settled into a booth with a window on Main St. Of course we were on display to all the passers-by. When one stopped to peer in at us I nearly choked on the spare ribs I had been enjoying rather gustily. Caught red-handed by my old granny.” “But why wasn‟t she in Church with the others?” “She was on her way back to the church after rushing home just before the service started. It must have been the only time in her entire life that she had forgotten her bloody kerchief. Fate of course, that‟s what she called it. She stormed right into that restaurant and tore a strip off everyone in the place. No one got left out. She even marched into the kitchen to give the owner and the cooks a piece of her mind. „It might be all well and good in China, but in America it‟s a sinful disgrace to even be open for business, let alone to serve meat on Good Friday.‟ Then she added, „While our Lord hangs up there on that cross.‟ When she said that she pointed upwards. I‟ll always remember the puzzled look on Mr. Woo‟s face as he stared at the ceiling in wonder. “At any rate, I lost my appetite and my boyfriend on that day. Mr. Woo probably lost a few customers as well. I wonder if he lost any sleep over his ceiling.” “Your folks must have been ready to ship you off to a convent after that.” He laughed. 52 “Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “That was one of the things about my old granny. She always dealt with everything head on and immediately. She held back no punches, she had a wicked tongue and she came on like a steamroller. But once she set you straight and she had taken care of the matter at hand, that was that. It was over and done with. She took no prisoners and held no grudges. And she never brought it up again—or held it over your head.” “She sounds like a remarkable woman,” he said. And you seem like a remarkable woman he thought. The train moved on through the night and the blinding snow. It was travelling at about half its usual speed but the time passed very pleasantly in this woman‟s company. Francis had never been very good at small talk and he had never found it easy or comfortable in a woman‟s presence. It still disturbed him when he thought about the day that he informed his grandfather about his decision to join the priesthood. All those blunt and searching questions, about which he had been so sure of the answers. In the ensuing years the only thing of surety that remained was that the “answers” were more elusive than ever. And on more than one occasion the old man‟s admonishments would come back to haunt him. “Make damn sure that you are not just running away from something, son— especially if you are running away from the company of women. A relationship with a woman can be just as much a spiritual adventure. Believe me, I know. The love of a woman can be a very powerful thing. I just hope that you don‟t live to regret never knowing it.” At the time of course the boy thought that his grandfather was referring to his grandmother. He knew better now. 53 In fact Francis Martin, S.J. had never had a real relationship with a woman. He didn‟t count the furtive mauling and pawing of one-night-stands that defined his adolescence. And in every one of those instances, if it hadn‟t been for the boldness of the girl involved, then nothing would ever have happened. Since taking his vows he had no problem in being faithful to the one pertaining to chastity. Sure, every now and then he would encounter a female parishioner who was looking for a walk on the wild side— usually a mind-numbed bored housewife looking to add a little spice to her life with “Father What-a-waste”. But he could truly say that he was never tempted by any of them. He considered them all as harlots and misguided Jezebels. Ah, to be so sacrosanct! But it was more than that. He was committed to his vocation and he took his vows very seriously. For the first time in his life however, he was now beginning to wonder if his grandfather had been right—if he really might have missed out on something. He had always taken pride in his self-knowledge as well as his self-discipline. He was the master of his own heart. His training allowed him to analyze his motivations and to recognize his faults. His awareness and confidence had grown over the years until he felt that he was prepared for anything. Training and discipline be damned; there was simply nothing in his life that could have prepared him for his present encounter. He was fully aware of what was happening to him. He recognized the feelings stirring within. As usual in his detached manner, he would categorize the emotional signals, rationalize them in terms of glandular activity and synaptic transmissions along his cerebral cortex. Then he would dismiss them. He knew that the heart in actuality had nothing to do with “the affairs of the heart”. A romantic he could never be mistaken for! 54 Even as this stranger on a train began to capture his imagination his internal defense mechanisms offered their rationalizations. He was just tired. He was oversensitive. The circumstances were highly unusual and emotionally charged. His grandfather‟s death and escorting the old man‟s body on the train were taking their toll on him. Hell, it was Christmas, the loneliest season of the year. That alone was enough. And they were just two lonely strangers drawn together as travelling companions—just needing a little human warmth. The pull on the old heartstrings was no different from what he had felt at other times in the past. They were just heightened in their intensity due to his present condition of emotional vulnerability. Francis was wrong this time however. This attractive and lonely woman was a horse of a different color. She was not on some wanton mission to seduce a priest or bag a trophy. Even as he slowly became aware that he was becoming lost in those deep dark pools of her sad eyes, he knew that was one game she was not playing. There was intelligence and warmth and genuine interest reflected in her eyes. But there was no obvious hint of lust. And his own emotional responsiveness to this woman was different not as a matter of degree but as a matter of kind. And this was a first such experience for Francis—which might explain why he failed to realize the danger he was in. The priest would have scorned the idea of love at first sight. He had lost count of the number of young couples whom he had counseled over the years in pre-marriage courses. Love and lust were only distant cousins. One demanded sacrifice, while the other sought only pleasure and self-gratification. And marriage had no room for narcissism. 55 He knew that his words fell on deaf ears of course. The vast majority of his students realized that he was lecturing them from the great disadvantage of the inexperienced. It was just as obvious that Father Martin didn‟t have a romantic bone in his body and thus was utterly incapable of understanding their needs and desires. And since the rate of divorces or annulments among Catholics was on a relative par with the general population, this seemed to verify that he had been wasting his time and energy. The first epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians just could not compete with Madonna or Hollywood in the present day and age. Neither could the Holy Father‟s pronouncements concerning birth control. Francis recalled with wry humor the furor surrounding the call for condom-dispensing machines in a Catholic high school somewhere in Ontario. They were never installed but he knew it was only a matter of time. They were fighting a losing battle. The irony wasn‟t lost on him as he examined the feelings stirring within him for his lovely travelling companion. The priest within was trying to maintain a healthy skepticism. It reminded him that the woman across from him was not only a divorced Catholic (an oxymoron according to the strict observance of Canon Law), but while married she had made a deliberate (and anti-Catholic) choice not to bear children. The man within however was taking note of certain phenomena, which were brand new to his own experience. About two hours into their conversation he realized that, for the first time in his life, he was totally at ease in a woman‟s company. He was more than at ease; he had to admit that he was actually enjoying her company. He caught himself hanging on her every word, even mesmerized by her facial expressions. As if caught in a spell, he felt like a schoolboy in her presence. And he loved every minute of 56 it. He also realized that she had somehow made time stand still. This was another first for him. In his organized life he was always acutely aware of time: travel schedules, time between lectures, time between Lauds and Vespers. His whole life seemed tightly run like clockwork. Now it seemed that the spring had become unwound. When she excused herself to go to the washroom, he couldn‟t believe the feeling of panic that swept over him. He couldn‟t believe how he counted the moments until her return. He was amazed at his sense of relief when she once again seated herself across from him. He chastised himself for such adolescent behavior. How in the hell could a Jesuit priest, nearly 50 years old, committed to his calling and faithful to his vows, suddenly find himself acting like an 18-year-old boy on a first date? When she smiled and said simply, “I love your company,” he was lost. If she turned out to be nothing more than his Delilah, he understood Samson as never before. She could have shaved his head bald and he would have been utterly helpless to stop her. When she suggested dinner he realized how hungry he was. It was the first time in days that he had any appetite. When they were seated together in the crowded dining car the rest of the passengers seemed to vanish. It was as if a cocoon of intimacy surrounded them. He ordered a bottle of wine; the brand was nothing special, yet it tasted better than fine champagne. Their conversation sparkled like the wine. After they shared a second glass the tension of the preceding days drained away and he felt more at ease than ever. His travelling companion showed genuine interest in Francis the man. She seemed neither impressed nor daunted by the idea of Francis the priest. This might have been due to the fact that her brother shared the same vocation. Whatever the reason, he was grateful that for once his collar was irrelevant. 57 Francis could not remember the last time he had felt so comfortable with anyone. At one point he asked her if she minded that he call her Amelia. He assured her that he was not making an attempt at formality. And although her friends called her Amy, he just loved the way that Amelia sounded, how it rolled off his tongue. He even said that he thought it suited her—describing better the mature and beautiful woman she was. He couldn‟t believe that he actually said that. He felt like a schoolboy and actually blushed with embarrassment. She had the grace to ignore his consternation and replied that he could call her whatever he liked. Then she added demurely that she also liked the way that her given name sounded “upon his tongue”. They talked throughout the night. Even after the effects of the wine had worn off, she continued to draw him out of himself. The rhythm of the train kept time to the intimate dance played out between the two of them. The white wall of snow outside wrapped them in a snug and cozy blanket. Someone had enough sense to dim the interior lights and most of the other passengers were resting or sleeping in various states of discomfort. The two of them continued to talk in hushed and more subdued tones and this added to their intimacy. As the night progressed their conversation took on an element of intensity. Francis also noticed a kind of heightened awareness within himself. Without realizing it he had somehow switched off the part of him that met the world with logic and rationality. The emotional man inside had been oppressed for so long that it was difficult to control. It was like someone starving suddenly invited to a great feast or a kid in a candy store given carte blanche. It was overwhelming. It was also delightful. He should 58 have been dead tired. Logic dictated that his body should be catatonic by now. Instead he was more awake than ever; more energized—more alive. Every little thing, every nuance held a world of meaning through his new eyes: her hand resting upon his knee, her eyes searching his, penetrating his very soul. He delighted in the timbre of her soft low voice; her sensuality, even the very smell of her, captivated his imagination. Her earnest interest in Francis the man and her patience in drawing him out was such a new experience for him. When she brought the conversation back to the topic of his grandfather, he found that he was more than eager to share the story with her. “When we first met earlier this evening—was it really only this evening? —You asked me a question that my mind just won‟t let go of. Do you remember?” Francis nodded. He knew exactly what she was referring to. “Do you believe that it is possible to love someone enough to kill for?” “It has to do with your grandfather, doesn‟t it?” He nodded again. “Are you sure that you are up to hearing about it?” he asked. “It might even put you to sleep,” he added. “How could I possibly sleep on such a night as this? Do you have any idea how long it has been since I have found such pleasure in someone‟s company?” It surprised him when her response echoed his own sentiments. It surprised him even more when she sidled over next to him, snuggled against him and spread her coat over the two of them. “Talk,” she said. It took him a moment or two to gain control of his heart, which was suddenly beating much faster than usual. Maybe I have been wrong all these years he thought. 59 Maybe all those young lovers were right when they talked about their experiences in terms of the heart. I‟ve just never felt this way before. Maybe the old man was right after all and I have been missing out on something my whole life… my vocation nothing more than running away from the company of women. On the other hand, he tried to rationalize, maybe I am just so tired that I don‟t know whether I am coming or going. Confusion certainly seemed to be the order of things on this very unusual night. As he draped his arm around his companion, his mind adjusting to every detail of her softness and warmth as she snuggled against him, the analytic within him finally let go. Holding this woman close felt as natural as breathing. He found himself trying to loosen the clerical collar around his neck. Always a solid outward sign of his inner commitment and choice in life, it now seemed inordinately constricting. He was suddenly reminded that, after all, solid as it might seem, it was only a metaphor. Where to begin he thought. “There was a period in my grandfather‟s life, which he referred to as the missing years. He was very young, maybe 17, 18. Even at that age he had learned that the world could be a pretty hard place. He had left home, left school and just drifted. There was a war going on and it wasn‟t hard to find work for an able-bodied young man. So he roamed from job to job, drifting through the seasons and eventually ended up in rural Kentucky. It was 1918. His life was about to change forever. Her name was Winona…” *** 60 In 1915, when Frank turned his back on Saint Pat‟s he also closed the door on what he had once thought would be a way of life for him. He should have known better: the life of a scholar was for the privileged, not for the likes of him. He hadn‟t told Brother Michael, but his last conversation with Father Ambrose had left no uncertainty about Frank‟s status among the privileged of the world. It appears that your father may be guilty of an oversight, the headmaster informed him—since he has neglected to send along the necessary funds to cover the balance of this term‟s costs. Frank believed that his father was guilty of many things, but an “oversight” was not one of them. The good Father offered to keep the boy on, proposing an arrangement by which he could “work off” the debt incurred by his future tuition and lodgings. Frank considered the offer—for about a minute. He didn‟t mind the idea of work. He had never shirked from it and God knows how his father had trained him well in the nature of it. He didn‟t even mind the idea of giving up his “preferred lodgings” (meant for paying customers) of the dorm. The converted pantry/cubbyhole just off the back scullery would have suited him fine. It was close to the kitchen where he would be working. And it would even provide him with a small measure of privacy, a precious commodity indeed in such a place as Saint Pat‟s. It was during that interview with Father Ambrose that Frank conceived his brilliant plan of revenge. As the priest discussed the prospect of accommodating the boy, explaining the duties that would be expected of him—the early morning breakfast schedule and so on—young Frank tuned him out. Instead of listening, he began to visualize what life would be like for him there under such new arrangements. He could adjust to the changes. He could accept all conditions but one. And it was the one 61 condition that Father Ambrose never mentioned, probably never even considered in his pragmatic way. It was the conditional nature itself of Frank‟s very presence at the school that made him wince just thinking about it. If he thought it was hard to tolerate them before, Patrick McGill and his cronies would now become unbearable. Now they would have the “scullery maid” to victimize. The picture of McGill‟s swarthy face and evil grin filled his head. His anger, never very far below the surface, threatened to erupt. But he kept it tightly in check. Instead, as the headmaster continued to drone on, Frank focused his attention on his surroundings. He only vaguely realized at first what he was looking at when his eyes came to rest on the examination papers. He made a quick mental note of them—middle drawer of left pedestal, headmaster‟s desk, simple skeleton lock. He hardly recognized his own voice as he suddenly interrupted the man. “Can I think about it—your offer?” he asked, feeling very sure that there was nothing to think about. His mind was already made up and his plan was already forming. “Of course, my son,” he answered sagaciously. “Of course. But I must tell you that the balance of your father‟s account is only paid up for one more week. We have tried every means possible to contact him, but he seems to have… disappeared.” Father Ambrose looked sorry as he passed along this news. Whether he regretted the loss of Frank, Sr. for the sake of his son or for the son‟s lost tuition money, it made no difference to the boy. “A week will be just fine,” he said, perusing the office one more time and taking his leave. One week to the day following that conversation, Frank was on his way. Saint Pat‟s now belonged to his past. Where he belonged in the future… well, he was sure that 62 his future would find him. At the present time, it was waiting somewhere down the line of the southbound train that was speeding him on his way. Wherever he was bound, at least he would be exchanging the cold Canadian winter for a brand new spring! *** For the next few years Frank drifted. Later on he would come to think of this time as his “missing years”, mostly because one memory ran into another one, piling up on top of each other. The countryside never ceased to amaze him, but the one-horse towns were all pretty much the same. The saloons and the saloon girls just blurred in front of his vision whenever he would try to conjure up the particulars. He fondly remembered a girl named Lil. He was certain at the time that he would never forget a single detail of that memorable night she had led him upstairs. Her short hairdo and her skimpy dress made her unlike any girl he had ever seen before and immediately alluring. The rouge, the lipstick, the perfume, not to mention the whiskey—it was all so new. In combination it added up to the irresistible aggregate of sinful and delightful wickedness. Apart from relieving him of his innocence—which seemed like a most urgent need the night before—the boy woke up to find that Lil had also relieved him of most of his money. She left him with a sour stomach, an ugly hangover and a head that threatened to explode with every step he descended along the creaky old staircase. He wasn‟t quite as naïve as he had been only a day before. But then he wasn‟t quite as much a boy either. He had only been gone three days from Saint Pat‟s, still feeling a little lost and unsteady. Yet somehow, after his encounter with Lil, he felt like he was on his way. He felt like he was just getting used to his own skin—at least by the time his headache subsided. 63 Later on he would still count Lil as one of his blessings, although admittedly a mixed blessing. But the details were no longer sharp. It might have been the Five Star Saloon in Georgia where he had met her or it might have been the lobby of the Confederate Hotel further south. There were many other girls after Lil, with names like Bobby-Lou, Thelma, and Esther. He would be hard-pressed to match any of them accurately with the bar, lobby or revival tent in which he had coupled with them. But his skin was definitely becoming more comfortable as the seasons marched on. They weren‟t all one-night stands. Nor were they all painted ladies or tarts. There was a war on and a lot of the women Frank encountered were real ladies who were simply very, very lonely. On the outskirts of a small town in Kentucky, he found himself invited home by a positively charming and beautiful young woman. It was just getting dark when she pulled over her one-horse buckboard and rescued him from a long day on a hot and dusty road. She introduced herself as Winona, asked if he was hungry, then took him home with her. Before long Winona had filled him in about the salient points of her life. She had hardly been married long enough to get to know him when her “son-of-a-bitch husband decided that he would rather be fighting Germans 3,000 miles away” rather than settle down and raise a family with her. That the bastard died three months later, leaving her a widow was unforgivable. The US government could not be accused of generosity when it came to her small widow‟s allowance, her place was in desperate need of repairs… “And it sure would be nice to have a man around here.” At 17—closer to 18 really—Frank liked the idea of being thought of as “the man of the place”. It sure beat the road and the Kentucky hills that greeted his vision each 64 morning were a fine sight indeed. And an even finer sight was that of his pretty young hostess. Her thin cotton housedress did little to conceal the shapely figure beneath its summer print. While watching her perform even her most mundane household chores, he found her every movement fascinating. Frank was surprised by the strength of his attraction to her. He also surprised himself at his own facility at swinging a hammer and mending the old place. He even enjoyed the work. He also enjoyed the home cooking and her apple pie was the best he had ever tasted. As the days passed, Frank‟s appetite increased. But it was for much more than Winona‟s apple pies. His desire for Winona reached such a proportion that he thought it would drive him crazy. His days were becoming torturous. Instant excitement resulted from just glimpsing the way she stretched as she reached up to a cupboard; the small of her back from behind as she stood at the kitchen sink and worked the pump handle. The way she had of tossing her head that made her long blond curls cascade around her shoulders; or a particular movement of her slender wrist and perfect hand that brushed back a wispy strand from her eyes. Even the pensive look on her face as she sat at the kitchen table some evenings; the warm low light from the oil lamp framing her features in a soft, shadowy glow. Every nuance became infused with meaning, until Winona filled Frank‟s mind. The nights were worse than the days, if such a thing were possible. At night he would lay on top of the covers, naked and hot, tossing and turning fitfully. The August nights were hot but Frank knew that it was more than the ambient temperature that was setting his body on fire. Some days he would drive himself like a madman. A fence in need of mending or a leaky barn roof didn‟t stand a chance against the boy‟s energy. 65 Winona would beg him to slow down, genuinely worried that he would suffer sunstroke. She would make him sit down inside the cool kitchen with a pitcher of cold lemonade. Unaware of his own thirst, but acutely aware of the woman‟s every movement as she fussed over him, Frank would consume the entire pitcher of the cold drink. Then it was back to work. He had only begun to become accustomed to his own skin. Watching this beautiful, vibrant woman, the hot, sticky Kentucky afternoon making her dress cling to the contours of her body in ways that made his already overworked imagination scream, was too much for him. He felt like he was going to jump right out of his skin; it was just too tight. The entire world was too constricting and yet too small to contain all that he felt for her. Exhausted, he would throw himself onto the bed in the guestroom, to find escape in sleep. Even on those nights he would awaken with a start, drenched in sweat, usually from a torrid dream of Winona and some situation involving great heat. Shaking the dream he would always fetch up against reality—the reality of his dream woman in a bed just across the hall from his own. One such night he quietly tiptoed from his room and stood in front of her bedroom door. Holding his breath, at first the only sound he heard was his own heartbeat, pounding so loudly in his chest and in his ears that he was sure that her sleeping form could hear it, even through the door. Getting his breathing and his heartbeat under control, he listened at the door. He thought that his ears were deceiving him at first. Instead of the soft sounds of sleep he expected, he was surprised by the distinctive noises of restlessness and agitation that seemed as profound as his own frantic tossing and turning. When he heard the woman moaning softly and her breath coming in sharp, quick gasps the hair on the back of his 66 neck prickled. He found himself catching his own breath and his heart began to race once more. His fevered imagination took over and his whole body became transfixed as he stood there in rapt attention. Every muscle was rigid and straining against the fabric of his skin. His blood raced wildly throughout his constricting veins, pounding against his temples and in his groin, desperate for release. Unable to contain the fire within any longer, Frank could not stifle a groan. When he recognized the voice as his own he fled down the stairs and from the house, into the humid night air. He ran to the barnyard, his vision blurred from hot tears that had sprung totally unbidden. He felt like he was going crazy, quite ready to explode. The desire within him was staggering, the frustration maddening. By the light of a half-moon he stumbled upon the outside hand pump and the trough used to water the horse. Flinging himself upon the ground, he leaned forward and immersed his head in the water, up to his shoulders. The shock of the cool water soothed him, lowered the temperature of his desire and brought him back from the edge of madness. But he still felt like howling—which he did—at the moon or Winona or at God, he wasn‟t sure. He shook the water from his hair and face. Then straddling the trough, he angled himself beneath the pump and began to work the handle furiously. The cold water streamed over the taut muscles of his abdomen. It cascaded over his thighs and his fiery groin. He pumped the handle until his arm felt like lead and the madness left him. Dry- eyed and with calm restored, Frank padded back to the small farmhouse. His naked wet body glistened in the moonlight, but he felt neither exposed nor ashamed. He felt more exhausted than anything, but in control at least. 67 As he stood in the middle of the kitchen and toweled himself dry, Frank decided that come morning he would hit the road once more. Whether it was love or lust he felt for this woman, he was as helpless as a baby either to control it or to act upon it. The month of August had slipped away since she had found him on that hot, dusty side road—the longest he had stayed in one place since leaving Saint Pat‟s. From the moment he had laid eyes on her, he knew that this one was different from all the other women of his limited experience. The days had been growing steadily hotter and the nights offered no relief. Sometimes he was convinced that the same feelings were stirring within her as well. But whatever indications she might have given had been too subtle. Or he was just too naïve to read the signs. He laughed at the notion of himself as the “man of the house”. If she had been waiting for him to fill that missing part of her life, then she must be sorely disappointed. He wanted to step into the role of her missing husband more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. His fantasies all played out in myriad versions of the two of them in nuptial bliss, in which he fulfilled her every unspoken desire. In his every dream, waking or sleeping, he was all the man that this lonely lady ever needed. In the middle of her dark midnight kitchen however, wet and naked and forlorn, he was more boy than man. It was time to admit that he had come to the end of hope and it was time once again to move on. He would leave better educated than he had arrived. He would take with him a better understanding of the true nature of hell. Sure, its fire was damn hot, but worse than its fire was the glimpse of heaven‟s door—always in sight, hopelessly beyond reach. 68 Frank was startled out of his reverie by a movement in the doorway to the hall. Winona was standing there, her shoulder leaning against the frame, the thin material of her nightgown revealing as much to his imagination as it concealed from his sight. The pale moonlight through the kitchen window reflected off one bare leg where the gown parted in the front. With her foot arched and thrust forward, she was tracing half-circles on the floor with her toes. Her face was in the shadows, but the boy could make out her bright shining eyes, her full mouth with lips slightly parted. Her breathing seemed labored, erratic. He couldn‟t quite read the expression on her face, but he had a vague sensation that he had seen it somewhere before. He was suddenly reminded of other girls, other nights. He was also suddenly reminded of his nakedness and of a growing excitement that sent the blood rushing to his own face. Other parts of his body as well showed definite signs of excited blood. He followed Winona‟s eyes as she lowered them towards his midriff, then lower still. He had no idea how long she had been standing there like that. He was unaware of his own exposed state of arousal until her gaze tipped him off. For all he knew she had witnessed his entire pathetic display out in the yard. His first instinct was to cover up his nakedness—throw the towel around his waist and then run like hell. But something stopped him—something in that look of hers. It slowly dawned on him that flight and embarrassment were not his first instinct at all. His first instinct was to rush over to this unbearable creature of light and walk through heaven‟s door. It had actually been his immediate and profound reaction and it was in response to her own unabashed desire. Frank had recognized the look right away. He simply could not believe it. This woman who had come to completely fill his mind, 69 occupying his thoughts both night and day, making him crazy—she was just a woman. Compared to the Lils and the other saloon girls, she was certainly a lady. But Frank had put her so high up there on the pedestal of his own imagining, that he had lost sight of the fact that she was still just a woman—and a very lonely woman at that. She was neither a Madonna nor a tart, but rather something in between that he had failed to recognize. Winona had needs and desires that were not uncommon, but her own experience could not allow her to boldly act upon them. She was not a saloon girl. She was a respectable 20-year-old widow whose needs were not buried with her husband, but whose upbringing demanded that the woman should never make the first move in any carnal relationship. As it was, she had done all that was respectably possible to inform this stupid young man—who now stood stark naked in front of her in her very own kitchen—that she was ready, willing but unable to do more than she had already done. All these thoughts raced through Frank‟s mind in the briefest flash of time. Memories flooded over him—flashes of Winona on previous hot August evenings. That “saloon girl” look he had suddenly recognized on her beautiful face, he now realized had been visible on many previous occasions. You‟re just real slow, Frank, he thought to himself, as he tossed the towel onto the kitchen floor. He decided then and there that one last straw of hope might yet remain. And he grasped at it. He wasn‟t sure if he could trust his voice but he had to try. His heart was pounding once more and it was so difficult to get the words out that he almost turned and fled. Finally he took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and began. “Ma‟am,” he said, barely above a whisper, “I can‟t stay here any longer…” “Frank, what…” 70 “No, let me finish, please. I have to get this out and I‟m not very good at this kind of thing, and… well… this might be my only chance to say what I have to… to somehow let you know… what I have to tell you…” He was stammering now. “Frank,” she whispered softly, kindly even, “just say it. It will be alright.” “Ma‟am,” he began afresh, “Since I came here, you have been so kind to me. But I can‟t stay here any longer. It‟s not you…” he waved one hand at her. “It‟s me. And I can‟t help myself. Seeing you everyday, being so close to you… it‟s just that… that… it‟s making me crazy.” He felt like a fool, the way he stumbled through his speech and he still hadn‟t told her one thing about how he actually felt. “Frank Martin,” she said softly, “Ever since I brought you home with me, you‟ve been calling me „Ma‟am‟. Now tell me, do I look old enough to be your mother? Is that the way you think of me?” Frank was shaking his head. “Well, young man—and I am not that much older than you after all—just what do you think of me? When you think of me at all, that is.” She took a step forward. The moonlight illumined her open face and Frank saw that she was smiling. He saw that her body trembled slightly. He realized that his own body had relaxed from its earlier rigid tautness. His passion rested just below the surface of his skin, as strong as ever but held in check now—in anticipation. He felt overwhelmed by the beauty of her face in the moonlight. He felt weak in the knees. And he felt something new. Just beneath his unbearable desire for this woman there moved something else and lovelier still. If he could have found a word to describe it, he would have recognized it as the feeling of tenderness. He had no word for it however because he 71 had never experienced such an emotion before. It was simply remarkable. It made his eyes sting. Frank cleared his throat, took another breath, then reached way down deep within himself for the right words. “Winona,” he began. “I have never met anyone like you before. I have never felt this way about anyone, not ever. The thing is I think about you all the time, every waking moment. Then I dream about you in my sleep—when I can sleep at all. I want you so much I can taste it. The sight of you, the smell of you, your very nearness… I just can‟t take it anymore.” There, it was out at last, his heart laid bare and thrown at her feet. He didn‟t dare to look at her face, at the certain scorn he knew would be there. Instead he just stood staring at the floor. It was finally off his chest but he wasn‟t sure if he felt better or worse. He had trouble squelching a keen desire to run away again. The ensuing silence was a hammer clinching the nails of his doubt, sealing his fate in a coffin of self-loathing and self-reproach. He should have had enough sense to have just gone before he had opened his stupid mouth. Now it was too late. If he had had the courage to look up he would have realized that there was no need for reproach. He would have seen that his words were exactly what Winona had been waiting to hear. He would have recognized in her trembling the same anticipation that he had been feeling. He would have seen her beautiful smile. “So, what are you going to do about it?” she asked softly, finally breaking the silence. “Do?” 72 “Yes. Are you just going to run away or are you actually going to do something about those feelings of yours? Well? Frank?” Her voice was stronger now, compelling. Frank slowly raised his head and looked her in the face. He couldn‟t believe his eyes. Her smile was so beautiful, so inviting. Her own eyes were shining with just a hint of wetness. In an instant he was sure—of her, himself, of everything. He wanted to tell her that he had been such a fool, that he never wanted to leave, ever, that he loved her. He started to speak but she hushed him with a finger to her lips. She shook her head slightly as if to say, “No more words.” When he finally took the three steps that separated them in the small kitchen, it was like leaping across a great chasm. Holding her in his arms was electrifying. His passion awoke with renewed vigor and heat but it wasn‟t the wild and destructive force that had threatened madness. It now had a place to go, a purpose upon which to spend its energy, unrestrained and boundless. To Frank‟s amazement, his own rising passion was met by Winona's, heartbeat for throbbing heartbeat. As if the sluice gates of a dam had burst, unleashing the stored up power of the water it had held back for so long, the power of Winona‟s own pent-up longing was breath-taking. “I‟ve been waiting so long,” was the only thing spoken for the rest of the night. Later on he would not be able to recall whose voice uttered the words. Dreamlike their bodies entwined and danced and tumbled and laughed and cried together all through the night. Sometimes they made sounds that resembled the wild animals of the nearby hills. Other times they sobbed uncontrollably as they desperately clung to each other. In between were long slow stretches of silence filled with tender caresses and wide-eyed wonder. Then Frank knew that he wasn‟t dreaming, that in fact he was just coming alive. 73 As the moon made its way towards the bottom of its arc in the western sky, the two lovers finally fell apart. Their passion spent and mutually exhausted, they lay side by side holding hands, still unwilling to totally separate even as sleep overtook them. As the sky began to lighten in the east, casting a warm glow along the woman‟s body next to him, Frank whispered, “I love you.” But Winona was already asleep. As he closed his eyes and he listened to the first birdsong of this new day, he couldn‟t stop smiling. Still smiling he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, knowing that he had just passed through heaven‟s door. Chapter III Frank stayed with Winona and as the heat of the summer gave way to a glorious Kentucky autumn, the heat of their passion gradually mellowed and matured like a fine cider. They settled into each other, wrapping their days in a blanket of discovery, their nights in tenderness. Not an unkind word was exchanged between them. She marveled at his gentleness, but for him it came as easy as breathing. For his part, her patience with his awkwardness and inexperience was the true marvel. He didn‟t know that her own experience wasn‟t all that prodigious—she had been a widow longer than she had been a wife. And Frank could not fathom in the least how any man could have chosen the trenches of Europe over the heavenly bliss of this Kentucky woman. 74 Late one night as they lay quietly together, listening to the mournful cries of the coyotes in the distance, she tried to explain it to him. It was the first time she had ever really talked about her past and Frank drank in her every word with the guileless devotion of a new lover. He was helpless in his need to know everything there was to know, greedy in his desire to absorb the details of her, to possess her. Just the sound of her voice was magic to his ears. Disembodied in the darkness it‟s dulcet and earnest tones wove a spell around him, binding him snugly within the cocoon of their quiet intimacy. If she were to admit to seven murders or the mutilation of babies it would have made no difference to him. If she confessed to breaking all Ten Commandments and worshipping the devil, he would have relished each and every detail, then pledged to join with her in any depravity. In other words, she already possessed him and he was quite comfortable with the arrangement. As it turned out, her story was a simple one really. She was in the mood to tell it and she talked long into the night. And in its telling, the past seemed to fall away layer by layer, like veils within veils. Or the heavy layers of winter clothing that had been worn far too long into the springtime and had suddenly become burdensome and stifling. As they slipped from her slender shoulders she began to feel so light that she was afraid of floating away. Then she would grasp Frank‟s hand tightly, content to have this man beside her as her anchor. “I was just 18 when I met Billy,” she began quietly. “He told me I was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. And I was quite willing to believe him. He wasn‟t bad himself actually, and a real charmer. No doubt about that. It was at the State Fair in Louisville. We would go there every year, we didn‟t live too far away. We practically 75 knew everyone. But that was the first time I ever saw him there. It turns out that he was just along for the ride. His older brother, Hadley, was chasing some young thing from down this end of the State. She was supposed to be the queen of cherry pie makin‟ in Graves County, and she was tryin‟ her luck at the State competitions. I don‟t think it was her cherry pies that Hadley was interested in though. And Billy was only interested in me. “It was real exciting at first, but I figured once the Fair was gone, I‟d never see him again. Imagine my surprise when he turned up on my doorstep a week later—then every Sunday after that for the next three months. One Sunday he brought me flowers—I don‟t know where he found them in the middle of December—and he was acting real funny. I knew that something was up and when he finally got up the nerve to ask me to marry him, I wasn‟t all that surprised. Two Sundays later we got married in the little church out on the nine-mile road, I said good-bye to my family and Billy brought me back here with him. That was just after Christmas, 1916. Less than a week later we toasted in the New Year with the homemade blackberry wine that was a wedding present from Aunt Ethel. But we never shared a Christmas together.” She paused with a heavy sigh, perhaps saddened by the thought of all the unshared Christmases. In the darkness, he asked her, “What about after that—after he went away—when he was overseas, did you stay on alone here? What about at Christmas time—did you go and visit your family then?” Frank recognized the movement as she shook her head from side to side. “There really wasn‟t much to go back for,” she said wistfully. “As a matter of fact, I only went back to the old place just one time and that was over a year ago—to see my younger 76 sister, Effie, get married and to say goodbye to her. Her and her new husband were headed out west the next day. Said they were goin‟ all the way to California. Heard it was the land of milk and honey and it had to be better than this hard old place of flax and cotton. They were probably right, you know?” “So, did they make it?” “Hmm?” She seemed lost in thought. Frank nudged her gently. “Oh. To California? Don‟t know. Never heard a word from them since they left.” “I take it that your family couldn‟t be accused of what one might call „being close-knit?‟” he chided. This made Winona laugh. “I had to think about that one, my dear. The thing is, before Mama passed away…” Frank gave her hand a squeeze at that news. “It‟s okay,” she continued. “It was a long time ago and I‟m quite used to life without her by now. It‟s funny how you get used to things.” Frank wanted to tell her about how much they had in common, about his own not so close family and how he missed his own mother. But it would keep for another time. Tonight was the time for the telling of Winona‟s story. Instead he said, “And it‟s funny how you get used to being without things, too.” “I used to wonder how life would have been different if only… you know… if only Mama hadn‟t died and we girls had to be looked after by Aunt Ethel… if only I hadn‟t married Billy… if only he hadn‟t gone off to war and got himself killed. But, you know, there‟s „if only‟, then there‟s life, and it seems that you can‟t do much about either one. And sometimes they can both drive you mad.” 77 She stopped talking and in the silence Frank found himself asking the one question that had been swimming around his brain ever since he first met her. “Why did he leave? I mean, I can‟t imagine, now that I have found you, ever leaving you behind— for any reason, let alone a war on the other side of the world. He must have been out of his mind.” It was her turn to squeeze his hand. “You‟re sweet, my sweet Yankee lover. On the other hand, Billy Campbell was neither sweet nor a lover. That‟s not to say that he didn‟t have his moments. And he certainly wasn‟t what you could call a bad man. He just had his moods. And they were very dark moods and they seemed to take him over more often than not. Remember, Billy had only been my Sunday man and that was the man I married. I should have met the other days of the week first, I guess. But my Sunday man seemed like a real good alternative to my life at home. If you thought that this place was run down, you should have seen our little shack back in the woods of Jefferson County. This place was like a southern mansion to me.” She laughed. Frank loved the sound of her laughter. He drew her closer and kissed the top of her head. He chuckled as well. “I‟ve never heard of a Sunday man before,” he said. “Wasn‟t your father a little concerned about your rather hasty engagement?” “Daddy wasn‟t around enough to be concerned with much of anything. He worked on the railroads and he was gone much of the time. When he was home, it was only long enough to drop a few dollars off to my aunt—for our upkeep, as he called it. Then he was off to the hills, „gone huntin‟‟. It took me a long time to learn why everyone would snicker about that one. It turns out his hunting grounds were none other than the shack of the widow Danvers. Old Elsie ran a little moonshine business out on Miller‟s 78 Ridge. The rumor was that her and my daddy had been sweethearts a long, long time ago. But she had chosen Ned Danvers over him, then regretted it ever since. Once old Ned was killed in a hunting accident, Elsie decided that she might as well take up where she had left off with my father.” “Are you sure that her husband‟s demise was an accident?” Frank asked, innocently. “I mean, you don‟t suppose…” “Frank!” she poked him in the ribs and laughed. Then in a serious tone she added, “Actually, I‟ve never thought about it before.” “He did say he was going hunting,” he jibed. “Being jilted like that in his younger days—you never know. Some people might never recover. The thought of Elsie and his arch rival making whoopee every night, festering in his brain year in and year out. Then one day he just can‟t take it anymore. Goes up to the Ridge with his trusty old squirrel gun and suddenly Mrs. Danvers is now the widow Danvers…” “Frank, that‟s terrible!” She poked his ribs once again. “It was just an accident, I‟m sure. Ned Danvers hunted all the time up there. He drank every day, as well. Elsie told everyone later on that he was falling down drunk before he left the shack. He probably fell and the gun went off. Probably never knew what hit him.” “Sounds to me like the old gal was in on it. You did say that she was the moonshiner, didn‟t you? She probably made good and sure that he was drunk before he left—wouldn‟t want your daddy to end up the victim of a „hunting accident‟ too, now would she?” “Oh, you are—what‟s the word?” “Funny? Smart? Amazingly gifted?” Frank offered, laughing. 79 “Incorrigible! That‟s the word. And that‟s what you are.” “I‟m sure glad about one thing though.” “And just what might that be, my incorrigible young lover?” “I‟m glad that wicked old „Moonshine Elsie‟…” “„Wicked old Moonshine Elsie‟?” “Yeah, I just made it up. Sounds like a character in a good story, huh? All about jilted lovers, murder and revenge. You like it? Anyway, I‟m glad she jilted your father. Otherwise he would never have got together with your mother and he really needed her, you know.” “What are you talking about: he really needed her?” “How else would you have ever come into this world? He needed her to make you, of course. And without you in the world, well, where would I be? Never thought about that, now did you? Always thinking about yourself, I suppose. Not concerned about where I might end up without you.” Frank laughed. “You are mad, you know,” she answered. “But sweet, nonetheless.” She seemed to be giving his questions some thought, then finally she added, “I know just where you would be… you‟d be shacked up with some tart above some hooch-joint over in Louisville, of course!” It was Winona‟s turn to laugh and his turn to poke her in the ribs. She squealed when his fingers dug in and he started to tickle her in earnest. She thrashed around the bed, trying to get out of reach but it was no use. His long arms and sinewy muscles were too strong for her. Laughing hysterically, she decided to fight back using his own tactics. To her great delight she immediately learned that he was even more ticklish than she was, 80 and in no time she had gained the upper hand. She ended up on top of him, straddling his chest—a position that Frank wasn‟t opposed to in the least. So it was an easy decision to give up the struggle and concede defeat. The night air was chilly and it made goosebumps on Winona‟s exposed skin. But they were both flushed from their wrestling games. In the dim light, provided only by the cold December stars shining through the small bedroom window, he studied her outline above him. The cascade of tangled curls, the curve of her perfect neck, the swell of her breast. He reached up and gently traced the lines of her with the lightest touch of fingertips. He began with her eyes, which she closed at his touch. He continued to her lips, which parted slightly, then downwards, tracing her outline with the softest of caresses. His fingers lingered at the places which caused her to arch her back, made her strain forward to gain more pleasure. But he wouldn‟t let his hand linger too long, moving on to the next spot of pleasure. She began to moan softly as he moved his hands up her body, then down once more, fingers tracing delicate patterns. She repositioned her body over his and began to move in a slow gyrating rhythm. The heat was electrifying, every nerve in his body was set on fire. Throwing her head back and tensing all the muscles in her body, a sharp cry escaped her throat. Frank was amazed at her strength and her passion as she locked her legs against his own hard body and drew him upward. He heard himself cry out as well as she brought his own passion to a surprisingly swift climax. They both exhaled deeply, unaware that they had been holding their breath, or for how long. Together they had made time stand still. Then as they lay together, quiet once more, snuggling close with his arms around her, Frank knew a profound sense of contentment. If he could have 81 stopped time altogether, then this would be the moment. No need to go any further because the future couldn‟t possibly offer better. Backward to any time before Winona offered nothing but emptiness. But time moves ever forward and in a few days Christmas arrived. Frank woke bright and early and tiptoed downstairs, leaving Winona sleeping soundly. He lit the fire in the cookstove, then went outside to tend to the chores. The air was chilly but the sky was getting bright in the east, promising cool sunshine. “Merry Christmas!” he greeted the old mare in her stall as he fed her and brought her fresh water. The rooster crowed then scolded him as usual as he fed the hens and robbed them of their eggs. In the yard he split some wood, working up a sweat even in the cool breeze that had sprung up from the west. It brought with it the chatter and songs of the numerous birds all around. By the time Winona padded downstairs and into the kitchen, rubbing sleep from her eyes, Frank had the place cozy warm. The frying pan sizzled on the stove with a fresh omelet while the percolator bubbled, filling the space with its fresh coffee aroma. The morning sun slanted through the small window and filled the room with its light. Taking in the scene at a glance her face lit up with a smile so bright that it made Frank catch his breath. You make my heart sing he thought. Aloud he simply said, “Good morning, sleepyhead. Merry Christmas.” Then he hugged her hard, kissed her gently and ushered her to a place at the table, much like a waiter might do in a fancy restaurant. She started to get up, eager to help, but he insisted that breakfast was his treat— just a little Christmas present he had “cooked up”. She grinned but sat uneasy. She was not used to being waited upon. Her protests fell on deaf ears and Frank seemed to be genuinely enjoying his role so much that she finally acquiesced. She sat patiently and 82 accepted his gift, following his every movement around the small kitchen with bright and shining eyes. In fact, she was moved by his gesture and could hardly keep the tears back. He makes me happy she thought and crossed her fingers beneath the table, hardly daring to breathe such a thought. He was full of surprises on this fine Christmas morning. After breakfast he insisted upon cleaning up and directed her to go and put on the prettiest outfit she owned and “no arguments either”. A short time later she came down to find him in the yard. The horse was hitched to the buckboard, extra blankets covered the seat and a picnic basket was tucked in just behind it. He looked over at her approvingly as she stood on the porch. Her blonde curls were done up neatly with combs and she wore the prettiest red dress. It wasn‟t what you could call fancy, but it seemed to suit her perfectly. Drawn in at the waist by a belt, it fit in a way that was most flattering. A small silver broach, in the shape of a wreath, was pinned over her breast and glinted in the sun. It was her only piece of jewelry and the only thing she had that had once been her mother‟s. “Oh, my.” Frank gave a low whistle. “It‟s a shame to cover up such a pretty picture,” he said. “But I am afraid that you‟ll need your coat, my girl. It‟s almost cold enough for snow. And to be honest, I wouldn‟t mind seeing a bit of the white stuff. This is the first green Christmas I ever experienced. As a matter of fact, I thought it might be a good idea to hitch up the old wagon and just travel north. What do you say? Eventually we will surely bump into New England and a good old fashioned Christmas snow storm.” Winona shuddered at the very thought of such a thing. “You‟d better be joking, my mad young Yankee dreamer,” she laughed as she clamored up beside him. She had her wool coat buttoned at the neck and she was already wrapping one of the blankets 83 around her legs. Frank just smiled but gave no answer as he clucked the old horse into motion. They turned onto the dirt road at the end of the driveway and started to make their way north. An hour later he directed the mare onto a side road, little more than a narrow logging track. The old road followed the contour of the land, over a small rise then through a wide, dry gully. Emerging from the gully it entered a thicket of small alders and dogwood, a few bright red berries that the birds had left still clinging to a branch here and there. Beyond these the track began to climb in earnest and then plunged into the woods. Stands of tall slender white birch swayed in the breeze. These gave way to larger trunks of maple, ash and oak. Some of the oak trees must have been very old, judging by their size. The road switched back a couple of times, climbing higher still. The hardwood stands became intermingled with evergreens, tall and full. Their great sweeping branches towered overhead like a canopy and threw the ground below into a shadowland. The sun had climbed high in the sky by now, but its light was filtered and dappled by the trees. The trees also blocked most of the breeze and the forest was very still and quiet here. It was warmer, too, without the wind. Winona removed her blanket and leaned against Frank‟s arm. She had lived in these parts for years but had never bothered with the countryside—had never strayed from the road between her house and the town and back again. “It‟s beautiful,” she said. Her voice was a whisper to keep from disturbing the silence. “But how did you…” “Not yet,” Frank whispered in return, placing a finger against her lips. “We are almost there.” 84 A short time later they arrived at the crest of the last switchback and came suddenly out of the woods. Before them lay a long, sweeping and gently rolling meadow. Its tall grasses swayed and danced in various shades of gold and yellow and winter brown. The sun shone down from a pale winter sky, but its light seemed brilliant, dazzling their eyes after the semidarkness of the forest. Something glinted and sparkled at the center of the meadow. A natural spring bubbled up out of a rock formation there. It formed a clear deep pool before it spilled over into a gentle stream that cut a path across the meadow. It followed a natural slope, which descended gradually toward a small grove of mature walnut trees, where it disappeared. Frank stopped the buckboard, climbed down and tethered the horse. Then he led Winona towards the rocks and the fountainhead. They crossed the 200 yards in silence, walking hand in hand, both of them smiling broadly. When they stopped, he gestured with a wide sweep of his arm toward the west. From where they stood a sweeping panorama lay before them. This view was not visible from where they had first entered the meadow. The trees that marched along its borders swung out in a long, wide curve as they descended the gentle slope to the other side. This combined with the slight rise at the center to give the impression that only more trees and sky lay beyond. But from their vantagepoint by the pool the change in the landscape was dramatic. They could see that the meadow was vast and formed a kind of tree-lined corridor that went on for miles and miles. It rolled on ever downward in a long series of gently sloping hills. The sun sparkled here and there in the middle distance, reflecting off the stream that had eventually left the woods once more and now meandered across the wide expanse of grassland. The land along its banks showed up like bold brushstrokes in a painting, in 85 rich and various shades of green. In the far distance there appeared what could have been a diamond necklace that had been dropped by some giant as he strode across the land. In fact it was a long narrow lake and the eventual destination of the tiny spring at their feet. “It‟s magical, Frank. I‟m sure that we can see clear across to Calloway County. And not another soul in sight.” The girl‟s eyes were shining. In all her life she had never seen such a sight. It truly was magical and it held her spellbound. “It‟s more than magical, my lovely. And more than just Calloway County, you can also see into the future from here. For instance, right over here…” He danced her along halfway to the walnut grove. Excited now, he continued, “Right here will be our house, well… just a cabin at first. But we‟ll build on as the children come along. And over here…” He ran forward a little ways, pulling her along by the hand. “The gardens will go here. And the orchards—we must have orchards! —Over by where we left the buckboard. Yes, that‟s the place.” He was very animated by now. He picked her up, whirled her around once then set her down facing the open vista of the rolling meadow once more. “And our children, my dear. Their only fences will be the sky and their own imaginations.” He seemed very pleased with himself and lost in his own imagination. Until he was brought suddenly back down to earth by the look on Winona‟s face, which had gone quite pale. His excitement, contagious at first, had begun to make her feel quite afraid. She somehow sensed that this was more than just a game and she feared that her mad Yankee lover might have truly lost his mind. She had a stricken look on her face, quite the opposite of what he had anticipated. It slowly dawned on him that he had forgotten something. 86 “I am not mad, my love. Truly, I am not. This meadow, the woods we just came up through, the walnut grove and the rolling hills beyond … they are mine … or ours, I should say, if you will have me. “What I mean to say,” he stammered, “is that this land soon will be ours—all 300 acres of it…” Winona grasped him by the shoulders, still very much bewildered, and interrupted him. “Frank, please, what are you talking about? Frank, there‟s just no way… you— we—are not rich. The little work you get at Grosvenor‟s livery stable… there‟s just no way…” “Winona, my love, listen. I‟m done shoveling shit for old Grosvenor. I‟ve procured myself a position over in Sedalia. In the New Year I will be the official schoolteacher in the one-room schoolhouse there. It seems that the trustees of District 19 found themselves in dire need of a teacher when Miss Imogene Parker suddenly informed them of her imminent departure. The old maid apparently decided that an offer of marriage from her gentleman friend was far preferable to a life of thankless service in their employ. Her husband-to-be happens to reside in Louisville however, which also happens to be a more prestigious address than anywhere in Graves County. The pay isn‟t much. In fact, in terms of real dollars, not one red cent will have to come out of their pockets. Although the trustees found this a very unusual arrangement, it was very much to their liking. And they really couldn‟t argue against the logic of my proposal.” Winona was still having a great deal of trouble in grasping the logic of just what in the hell he was talking about. “What does this all have to do with this land we are 87 standing on?” she asked, wide-eyed. “This piece of God‟s Earth that you are trying to say somehow belongs to us?” “It‟s beautiful, isn‟t it,” he answered. “I discovered it by accident one day on my way back from making a delivery over near Bell City. The old logging road was a sure sign that someone could lay claim to it. But it looked like it had been a long time since anyone had made use of the land. When I checked it out at the Registry of Deeds in Mayfield, it showed up as the legal property of the school trustees of District 19. Left to them by an old spinster, who was the last surviving member of a family that had been all but wiped out in the Civil War. They didn‟t really know what to do with it and the taxes had to be paid on it every year…” She interrupted him once again. “Frank, the more you explain, the more I am confused.” Her dark eyes searched his own and helped him to focus. He realized that he had been babbling on and not really getting to the point of his story. The truth of the matter was that he was afraid of getting to the point. He took a deep breath and resolved to clarify his intentions. She waited in silence while he focused his thoughts and his courage. Finally he said, “Winona, my love, here is the long and short of it: in six months, I will own this land. I will have traded my services as a school teacher for it.” He paused, taking another deep breath, then finally broached the question. He had never been so nervous in his life. He actually got down on one knee upon the frozen ground. Taking her hand in both of his, he looked up and said, “In six months I would like you to be my wife. Will you marry me then?” Silence. 88 While Frank continued to gaze up at the woman whom he considered as his beloved—his brought together by fate bona fide soul-mate—Winona stood like a statue, staring into the distance of the outstretched meadow and rolling hills. Whether she was focusing on the space before her was unclear. The faraway look in her eyes was laden with possibilities. She could just as easily have been focusing on a point in time: perhaps a moment from the past when her Billy had made such a proposal; perhaps a premonition of the future in which she foresaw only regret. He had trouble reading that look. And his racing heart only served to complicate his perception, causing him to conjure up the worst. All he knew was that each passing moment felt like an entire year. Whatever had been passing before her unseeing eyes, her vision eventually cleared. She too took a deep breath before responding to his question. She seemed to collapse as she knelt down beside him. She looked him straight in the eyes and Frank recognized so much in the briefest flash. Her eyes were bright and moist. They hinted at a thousand questions, which he would try to answer later on. He saw fear and pain and strength. But mostly he recognized longing, the same longing that shone in his own moist eyes. He put all of his hopes in that. His heart seemed to stop beating as she opened her lips to speak. “Frank, my love, my answer is this: if, in six months, you still feel the same way exactly, then ask me again and I will gladly say yes.” She spoke in low, hushed tones and with seemingly great effort. All he heard was “Yes,” and his heart started beating once again, nearly bursting with joy. Yes! Thank you, Jesus! Yes, yes, yes he thought. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered, smiling broadly. 89 They embraced for what seemed like a very long time. Then Winona pulled away and said, “Let‟s go home now and celebrate.” Then she added coyly, “We can have our picnic in bed, okay?” She blushed at her own boldness. Frank beamed. He just could not stop smiling. Winona snuggled against him on the buckboard, once more wrapped in blankets. As they left the woods and turned onto the road home the sky darkened. Large flakes of snow began to gently fall, quickly covering the winter landscape with a mantle of white. Frank smiled the whole way home. Chapter IV The train came to a complete halt for the second time that night, jarring its occupants into varying stages of alertness. Many sleeping passengers were rudely awakened. A baby cried somewhere and was hushed. A conductor hurriedly made his way through the car, heading towards the front of the train and information. Outside the snow formed a wall of solid whiteness. Amelia stirred next to Francis. Standing up, she yawned then lifted her arms above her head and stretched. She held the pose for a long moment, luxuriating in the way it made her body feel. Arching her back, she stood on her tiptoes, pushed against the train‟s ceiling with her fingertips. Francis found his eyes drawn to the curves of her body; the way her breasts pushed against the fabric of her silk blouse when she arched her back; the slender waist that curved gracefully into the slight rounding of her belly. He noticed 90 the taut muscles where her thighs were outlined through her soft wool skirt. Old Frank would be proud of me right now, leering like a schoolboy, he chided himself. He could almost hear the old man‟s voice in his head: “Go for her, you fool. Don‟t let this one get away. And for Chrissakes, stop running away from nature!” He couldn‟t help but grin at such a thought. But the vision of his grandfather chastising him made him feel suddenly bold, almost reckless. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “Your body is exquisite.” He regretted his outburst immediately and actually began to blush with embarrassment. That quickly turned to anger however and he wished to apologize for acting like a stupid boy. He was at a loss for words though and as usual, like all his dealings with members of the opposite sex, he found himself hapless and confused, beginning to stammer. His companion, finished with her stretch, relaxed her muscles suddenly and allowed her body to go limp. She gave him a curious look, which was completely unreadable, yet somehow made him want to apologize all the more. As if she understood his inner turmoil, she smiled warmly. He felt immediately better. At the same time he recognized the emotional rollercoaster which he was on and gained a new insight. No wonder he had never managed a relationship with a woman. It had been this way his entire life—even as a teen-ager. No wonder he had run away from the company of women. This was also the first time that he had ever admitted to himself that he actually had been on the run. “Yoga,” she said simply. “I‟ve been doing it for years—mind, body and spirit—it keeps me in shape and it keeps me focused.” 91 She sat down once more, on the seat across from him. Leaning forward, she took both of his hands in hers. Scrutinizing his face, she seemed to be searching for something. “Francis,” she began, “Your grandfather sounds like an extraordinary man. He also sounds like the last of the great romantics. You, on the other hand…” She hesitated but continued to hold his gaze. Then she went on, “I get the sense that you have some difficulty dealing with the „weaker sex‟. It must be difficult sometimes… being a priest, I mean, well, you know… the celibacy thing.” “It comes with the collar,” he answered automatically. It was his standard response to a question that had been asked many times. He realized that it was a cop-out rather than an answer, but this was the first time that he ever felt required to actually explain himself. She seemed to understand. “Hey, I bet you say that to all the girls,” she quipped. “You don‟t have to explain, really. In fact, I understand the idea of celibacy and I appreciate it. Hell, I‟ve been practicing it myself for years now. And its advantages are obvious when compared to the results of the promiscuity that is so rampant in today‟s world.” Still gazing into his eyes, she continued, “I guess the question that I really want to ask may not have an answer either.” “Ask away,” he offered, “This is your chance. Forget the collar. Anything you ever wanted to know about a priest, but were afraid to ask. Before you lies an open book. And at such a late hour and a victim of sleep deprivation, I am helpless to respond with anything but the truth.” In fact, he really was telling her the truth now. She could have asked him anything and, no matter what, he would have bared his soul to this woman. He would have confessed his deepest, darkest secrets without a second thought. He was even 92 prepared to tell her all about his masturbation fantasies, which usually revolved around Mona McGuire. Pathetic as it was, he still had the occasional dream about her white breasts in the moonlight, from as long ago as his high school days. Bless me, Amelia, for I have sinned. It has been over 30 years since I beheld (and held) the firm white flesh of Mona McGuire. It turned out however that she wasn‟t interested in his sordid and pathetic fantasy life, thank goodness. But her next question took him off-guard nonetheless. “Forget the collar, indeed,” she laughed. “You priests are all alike—especially you Jesuits. Talk about a forked tongue. You could have me believing that black is white without any effort at all. Don‟t forget that I have a brother who is cut from the same cloth as you. And he was always the worst one for avoiding a straight answer. Now, what I really want to know is this: whenever a man of your vocation looks at me, why do I feel like Eve? Like I am being viewed as the loathsome creature who is considered as responsible for the originator of Original Sin and the downfall of mankind?” The question was totally unexpected. And although the hour was late, his quick mind grasped in an instant at least a dozen implications and accusations behind the question. In truth, her acute perception, unsettling as it was, was probably quite accurate. At the moment he could think of nothing to offer by way of defense, which was quite unlike him. He was sure that he was as guilty as his fellows in giving women such an impression, whether intentional or not. He would be the first to admit his discomfort in their company. But he had never considered himself to be a woman-hater, which was what her question ultimately implied. To be honest, once he had managed to successfully 93 negotiate the confusing and terrifying minefield of puberty, he thought that he would no longer have to deal with the opposite sex ever again. Francis the priest had an entire repertoire of arguments at his fingertips. Not only that, his years of training in the subtle arts of logic and debate made him a formidable opponent. He had always prided himself on his mastery of language and clarity of speech. But Francis the man, even though he was aware of the rationality of each and every one of the possible arguments he could pose in his defense, had no desire whatsoever to defend himself against this woman and her honest question. For one thing, he recognized her own obvious intelligence and realized that any argument on his part would be seen as nothing more than rhetoric, and something she had heard before. More than that however, he did not wish to be Francis the priest at all in this woman‟s company. At first he had been afraid that she had interpreted the way in which he had been looking at her as “leering”. Now he was simply dismayed that she had viewed his attention as just one more snub from another self-absorbed, holier-than-thou sexless eunuch in a priest‟s collar. For the first time in recent memory he found himself actually interested in a member of the opposite sex romantically and here she was calling him on his attitude of superiority. It was an attitude apparently so ingrained that he wasn‟t even aware of it. Perhaps it was a good thing that she was knocking him down a peg or two. Perhaps it was time that someone had come along to disturb the foundations of his ivory tower. As he sat there speechless, aware only of the feel of her small, warm hands holding his and of her intense gray eyes holding his gaze, he couldn‟t help but feel like a schoolboy once more. She could just as well have been Mona McGuire, seeking 94 reassurance on a warm spring night beneath fragrant apple blossoms, the forbidden flesh of her white breasts in the moonlight the closest thing to heaven that he could imagine. When Amelia finally realized that no answer would be forthcoming to her question she laughed. “This must be a first,” she quipped. “Imagine that—a Jesuit speechless. Where‟s 60 Minutes when you need them?” In a more serious tone she continued, “I bet that your grandfather was upset when you told him about your intentions to join the priesthood.” Another question that took him off-guard. If she only knew the half of it he thought. How old Frank had ranted at him the day he broke the news. Then for the next two years, he used every opportunity that he could find to reiterate his opposition to his grandson‟s “witless” decision. It was his turn to laugh now. “While you were stretching,” he said, “I was doing my best to leer at you. It occurred to me that old Frank would be proud of his witless grandson. But I guess that it was just a wasted effort.” She laughed in turn, her eyes flashing. Finally she said, “I‟m sorry. I didn‟t notice your „leering‟. I guess that I am just too jaded—seeing only what I expect to see. I‟m not very good with words, but do you know what I am trying to say?” He nodded and she continued. “Knowing that you are a priest, I expected you to react just like every other priest I have ever encountered. Not that I don‟t appreciate being shown respect—I do. That in itself is such a rare commodity these days. But a woman, no matter who she is, always likes to feel that she is being appreciated by a man. And it doesn‟t matter if the man is a perfect stranger or if he is her husband of 20 years.” 95 He noticed the wistful way in which she spoke the last phrase and how her voice changed perceptibly. The priest in him picked up on this and he asked, „Was that how long you were married—20 years?” She gave him a warm smile. “Don‟t try and change the subject.I am not looking for a counselor, Father Martin. It‟s the collar, isn‟t it? You guys just can‟t help yourselves.” “You got me there,” he replied. “And just what was the subject that I was so lamely trying to change?” he asked, raising one eyebrow and smiling in turn. “I believe that we were discussing the finer points of what a woman expects from a man. And I was just about to let you in on a very important secret… something every man should know, but very few ever learn.” They were still holding hands and he grasped hers a little tighter in his. Then he leaned forward until they were literally face to face. He examined her features like one would examine a fine painting. The small lines around her eyes represented character. Intelligence was obvious in her eyes and upon her lined brow. The smoothness of her unblemished skin reminded him of fine porcelain and he had a sudden desire to caress her cheek. He dropped one of her hands and gently touched her face with his fingertips. With the back of his free hand, he traced a line from her temple and down one cheek. When his fingers brushed softly against her full lips it was electrifying. She closed her eyes then and drew in a sharp breath, slightly lowering her head. He continued his tracing down to her chin, marveling at this woman‟s poise and grace and… beauty. It had been so long since he had looked at a woman in this way, he had almost forgotten how once upon a time he had actually appreciated the beauty of a woman—how it had once moved him. 96 And that was exactly what he was feeling now: if he were to put it into words, he would have to say that he was being moved by beauty. Grasping her chin gently, he lifted her face upwards until her eyes opened and were level with his own once again. Something was happening—some kind of magic that had not been a part of his life since he was a small boy. In barely more than a whisper, he managed to find words. “This secret, this important lesson, which you wish to impart… don‟t you think it will be wasted on an old fool like me?” She took her time in answering this question, as if she had to give it some serious thought. All the while she continued to gaze into his eyes, searching for something it seemed. He was surprised at his own feelings: how strong was his need for approval from her; how strong was his desire. He was just as surprised by how calm and composed he felt, almost serene. His heart was not beating rapidly in his chest, his pulse was not racing and he was not breaking out in a cold sweat. Those were the symptoms that usually marked any of his previous experiences with women, in which there was even the slightest hint of mutual interest or the allusion to carnal possibilities. For the first time since he had met Amelia, he actually recognized the warning bells that had been sounding danger in the back of his mind all night long. For the first time in his life he chose to deliberately ignore them. He felt like he was hanging on the edge of a dream that promised everything good and answers to all the confusing questions that had previously defined his life. He felt that this woman held the key to all the vexations that had plagued his emotional life and that her next utterance would unlock some kind of truth that would surely set him free. 97 When she finally spoke, the simplicity of her words surprised him. It reminded him of similar gems of wisdom, gleaned from his teachers when he was a seminarian. It‟s just too bad that they were all so clueless when it came to the knowledge of this particular subject he thought, with more than a little chagrin. “Francis,” she said, matter-of-factly, “It‟s simple, really. A woman does not want to be looked at, regarded or seen—whatever term you wish to use, they are all the same— as anything more or less than what she is—a woman. She is always, I repeat always, aware of how a man looks at her. She knows instantly whether a man sees her as an object, like a thing to be used, like a whore. She also knows when a man looks at her as if she was something more, like a mother or like the mother of all mothers, the precious Mother of Jesus. None of us could ever be, nor do we want to be the Virgin Mary. “The sad truth of the matter is that most of you men, in your pathetic two- dimensional limitations, see us all as one or the other: the revered and adored Virgin Mother or the unredeemable harlot and spawn of Satan. We are either Mary or Eve. There is no in-between. And herein lies the great secret and the simple reality, if you would only use your God-given brains. Both Mary and Eve are nothing more than ideas. They are concepts, created by men and fashioned by their own limited and pubescent understanding of the world. Women are neither Marys nor Eves. We are just women. And we simply want to be looked upon as women. We just want to be seen. Seen as the vibrant, sensual, living creatures that God, in His wisdom, created us to be. We don‟t want to be looked down upon as guttersnipes and sluts, nor do we want to be placed upon unreal pedestals. And we definitely do not want to be looked through. That‟s where you and your kind make the biggest mistake. You try to pretend that we are not even there— 98 that your senses deceive you, that if you can just ignore our sensuality, it will simply cease to exist, or at least go away.” “You make us sound pathetic,” he interjected. “If the shoe fits…” she jibed. All the while that she was speaking he had continued to return her gaze. He was impressed by her passion and her confidence. Her passion demanded his attention. Her flashing eyes deepened in color, reminding him of the gray-green of the sea he had known in his childhood. He wasn‟t use to such forthright and honest conversation (especially on the part of a woman, he thought sheepishly). Because of this he felt slightly offended by her jibe and his first impulse was to sulk. But something stopped him: probably the good sense to recognize the truth when he heard it, he thought. Instead of sulking or becoming defensive, he took a breath, closed his eyes for just a moment and let her words sink in. This probably saved him, for when he opened his eyes once more and smiled, he saw that her searching look had suddenly changed. Her own eyes reflected approval and she returned his smile. He breathed a sigh of relief. Then he laughed at himself. Until that moment he had not even been aware of his own state of agitation and tension. He had not been aware of how much this woman‟s approval meant to him. This was certainly becoming a night of revelations. “I guess it is time for a new pair of shoes,” he said with a grin. “Or maybe a new pair of eyes.” “I think that there might still be hope for you yet,” she laughed. In a more serious tone she added, “Francis, I get the impression that your grandfather might not have 99 entirely approved of your Jesuit education—especially when it came to understanding women. From all that you have told me, he is beginning to sound like one of the great lovers of our time.” Francis thought about this for a moment. “You know something? It just occurred to me that you are probably quite right. And yet the whole time that I was growing up, I would never have known that about him. He hardly ever spoke about his own past. As a child I was very close to the old man. But I never knew how very close he was about his own inner life. And as far as his early days were concerned, they had remained a complete mystery. All my life for some reason I had simply assumed that he never would talk about those years that he called a „terrible time‟ because of the War. It had nothing to do with the War at all.” His companion looked at him curiously. “You look like you have just had an epiphany,” she said. “But I am not sure whether it is a welcome gift or not.” “Amelia, my dear, you are absolutely right. And it is welcome, indeed. And I believe that I have you to thank for it. It turns out that my grandfather, the reticent old codger that he was, had always been a lover rather than a fighter. He loved my grandmother but she was not the great love of his life. And I doubt very much that he ever confided in a soul about his true love, Winona. I doubt if he had even told Martha that he had been married once before.” “Probably just as well,” Amelia said softly. “Right again,” he agreed, pleased by her understanding. “Old Frank Martin would have had enough sense to appreciate you. He would have seen you for the woman that you are, unlike his lame-brain grandson.” 100 “I know,” she replied, smiling. “But don‟t be too hard on the lame-brain,” she added. “And by the way, I have to tell you that I agree with him. In answer to your earlier question: no, Francis, I don‟t think that such instructions will be wasted on an old fool like you.” He laughed out loud. Then he threw his arms around her in delight and hugged her tightly. She returned his embrace. When she pulled away, she kissed him lightly on the mouth. It was not a passionate kiss by any means but it had been a very long time since he had felt the touch of soft lips upon his own. It nearly made him cry and he was helpless to explain such an unexpected feeling. She changed positions once more and snuggled next to him like a young lover. He could not recall when he had ever felt such contentment. “Tell me more,” she said, “about Frank and Winona.” The train slowly began to move once more, the immediate crisis apparently over. *** That winter passed quickly for Frank. In his new role as teacher every day brought a new challenge. Just getting the old potbellied stove going and having the place warmed up for his pupils was difficult on some January mornings. If he had been disappointed by the lack of snow on Christmas day, by the beginning of February he had had his fill. The teaching itself was an easy matter, confined to the very basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. The school was not so different from his own childhood 101 experience. He learned a new appreciation for his old teacher, now that the shoe was on the other foot. He found that he was rather a natural at the job and for the most part the children presented very few problems. The little girls adored him, while the older boys maintained a respectful distance. The greatest challenge was to find a way to provide adequate time and instruction to each and every one of his 24 charges. He felt like a pie or a loaf that had to be sliced very thinly. Often, by the end of the day he returned home to Winona exhausted and useless. By mid-March his energy was returning and he felt more like his old self. He attributed the change to the coming of spring. The grass was greening, the sap was running and the magnolias were magnificent in bloom. Everything and everyone seemed more robust, more alive. The children as well were infused with more energy. They laughed more and stepped more lightly. The heavier winter woolens were discarded for cotton dresses or trousers. The children lingered longer outside at recess and noon-hour, reluctant to exchange the warming spring sunshine for the dim stuffy classroom. Throughout May and the early part of June, Frank extended the recess time by an extra 15 minutes. He also held classes outdoors as often as was practical, calling them “field trips”, which were really just short excursions to a nearby grove of magnolias or willow trees. The children loved these little outings. On the other hand, word filtered back to the novice teacher that parents were rather skeptical of their value. And the school trustees made it clear in no uncertain terms that the confines of the old schoolhouse was the only place where learning was possible or allowed. Frank gave them no argument, aware that his tenure would be up within a few weeks anyway. He knew that his position with the board was temporary and tenuous at 102 best. He had been hired under desperate circumstances. And although he found many aspects of the work rewarding, he had not decided upon teaching as a vocation,. by any means.. He was also aware that the trustees had a number of issues concerning their rather hasty and expedient choice for replacing the regular teacher back in December. Frank‟s youth was one issue of course, as well as his lack of formal training. Despite this however, they were not displeased by his performance. Some were quite surprised in fact, especially by the way he seemed to inspire the older boys in his care. They thought for sure that he would get nothing but trouble from the McCabe twins, a couple of strapping 16-year-old boys who had been notorious as discipline problems their entire school careers. But from the beginning, Frank had recognized himself in the boys. Perhaps it was their independent spirit, or just a simple need to be treated with a little respect, which they felt was due to them as the eldest in the classroom. Whatever the case he had a way with the boys that allowed for their unique position within the school. Without compromising his own authority, he treated the boys deferentially, seeking their help and experience with much that he found unfamiliar about his new job. He asked them for opinions and advice and actually listened to what they had to say. That was a first in that place. Sometimes he acted upon the advice, sometimes he rejected it. But he always let them know his reasons and they appreciated his genuine respect for them. By then the two boys would have done anything for their teacher, which was another first. By the middle of June Frank was finally becoming comfortable in his new role as teacher. He was also becoming as anxious as his students for the term to end and the 103 summer to begin. He couldn‟t wait to begin work on the cabin that was to be home for him and his new bride. And the planting was a priority as well. Marrying Winona would solve one of the moral issues that had perturbed the school trustees. He would no longer be “shacked up” with the widow Campbell and no longer “living in sin”. At the same time however, she would no longer be entitled to her widow‟s allowance. Meager as it was, it had still enabled Frank to work for no wages and in return for the land only. If he were not rehired in the fall, then he would have to find other paying work. He wasn‟t worried about it. Old Grosvenor had promised to take him back at the livery stable. He also had an offer from Adam Kelly who owned a sawmill over in Sedelia, and who also happened to be one of the school trustees. Once the gardens were in and the chickens were producing and they had procured a pig and a cow, Frank and Winnow could be relatively self-sufficient. He was never one to worry much about what might be. And even though cynical at times, at some level he had to admit that he truly did believe that God would provide—or at least show him a way to provide for himself. And whenever the Hand of Providence was outstretched, he never had any trouble grasping it or taking advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. That God might work in mysterious ways was generally accepted but it was no mystery to Frank. From a very young age he had learned that whatever you wanted had to be worked for. In practical terms, whether or not God was the provider of opportunity made little difference. Frank dismissed his class for the last time on Friday, June 27th. It was a half-day and by two o‟clock that afternoon he was at the Registry of Deeds over in Mayfield, the 104 county seat. The trustees had already taken care of the paperwork and in short order the 300-acre parcel of land, which Frank named “Walnut Grove”, was officially his. The very next afternoon Frank and Winona were married. It was a simple ceremony performed by Wilbur Sloan, the local Justice of the Peace. Wilbur and his wife, Dorothy, also acted as witnesses and the wedding took place in the front parlor of the Sloan‟s residence. There was no ring since Frank could not afford one. He promised his bride that a ring would be forthcoming and that, in the future, she would want for nothing. Young Elsie Sloan had festooned their old buckboard and mare with bright and gaily colored blossoms, which grew profusely in her mother‟s early summer gardens. The elder couple refused the usual honorarium associated with Wilbur‟s office for officiating at the wedding. Instead they sent the newlyweds on their way with a picnic basket and a bottle of Dorothy‟s elderberry wine. Mrs. Sloan, who also played the organ for the ceremony, cried real tears as the young couple exchanged their vows and as she watched their departing backs. She would later describe them as “young lovebirds, poor as church mice but so evidently devoted to each other that the angels must have wept at their sad story”. Frank and his new bride spent their wedding night out under the stars beneath a friendly June moon. They lay on a blanket spread upon a thick and lush carpet of green meadow grass. A babbling brook ran close by, singing quietly in the night. Far below them the moonlight glinted off the water of a long, silver lake. And not far away, off to one side, they could make out the shadowy outline of their very own grove of magnificent walnut trees in full bloom. Throughout the meadow wildflowers grew 105 everywhere and the heady mixture of their perfume continued to linger on the night air. The warm breeze softly caressed their naked bodies. For both Frank and Winona it was a magical night—a night of utter abandon and complete bliss. They made love wildly and passionately until they gasped for breath. Then they made love quietly, exchanging gentle kisses and caresses. At times they frolicked, running and twirling through the meadow grass and wildflowers, which swayed and parted as they passed. The soft grasses and closed blossoms grew as high as their naked thighs in places. They played hide-and-seek among these patches, as excited as children when one discovered the other. They bathed in the cool, refreshing waters of their spring-fed pond, then rolled themselves up in their blanket to dry off. As the stars wheeled overhead and the moon was sinking in the west, their voices rang in the night, echoing off the trees and swallowed up by the sky. “I love you, Frank Martin! I love you, Winona Martin!” they shouted into the night air. Then they made love again and finally lay exhausted in each other‟s arms. The rising sun found them thus entwined, naked and fast asleep. All around where they lay a myriad profusion of flower blossoms stirred in the morning breeze, opened their petals and seemed to bow their heads toward the sleeping couple. If Mrs. Sloan could have born witness to such a moment, she would surely have declared that “the angels would have wept for joy at such a sight”. For the next few days Frank‟s feet never seemed to touch the ground. He floated through his daily chores then made his way to Walnut Grove. Winona accompanied him and together they explored the land and made plans for their new home and their new life. They mapped out the setting for the cabin, the garden spaces and where the orchards 106 would go. Neither one could ever recall such feelings of pleasure or pride. The amount of work that lay before them would have been daunting to the stoutest heart. But together they looked forward to it and saw it as a labor of love. Each time they made their way up through the woods and came out into the vast meadow, they felt a kind of thrill. There was no challenge in the world that they could not face together. And for the first time in their lives, each felt a sense of what could only be described as “completeness”. In 1919, the Fourth of July celebrations promised to be the most extravagant in many years. The Great War was over and most of the nation‟s sons had returned home. For some families the celebrations would be bittersweet, since their sons would never return. For others it would simply be a matter of indifference, since they considered themselves better off without certain of their sons. To those families such boys had been nothing but trouble from day one and the War had provided the perfect arena for their talents and good riddance to them. Better that they partake in the legalized slaughter on the fields of Europe than to kill some innocent neighbor at home. Two such wretched creatures were the Southern brothers, recently returned as war heroes, welcomed home by no one, including their own mother, and generally avoided or despised by all. In their younger days they went unchallenged as the school bullies. Their father whipped them every day, as did their teacher. They finally left school, each with the equivalent of a grade three education. Adam was 18, his brother Ansel a year younger. By then they were both nearly full-grown, large, burly young men who had decided that they had had enough. Their last day of school was still somewhat legendary in local folklore. As Ansel held out his hands for the now ritual beating (no one could quite recall his particular 107 crime on that occasion, since there had been a perpetual list of them) Adam suddenly and forcefully took hold of the teacher‟s hand, stopping the strap in mid-swing. Old Miss Boyd, who was an unmitigated tyrant in her own right, was flabbergasted. In her entire career of more than 30 years, probably in her entire lifetime, she had never been challenged by such boldness. Undoubtedly she would not have thought twice about scratching the eyes out of the insolent boy‟s head. But her shock and consternation made her hesitate for just a moment. And the moment was all that was needed for the younger brother to withdraw his outstretched hand, make a fist with it and then drive that fist upwards in an arc that connected with the teacher‟s jaw, which was shattered most painfully upon contact. Miss Boyd literally flew through the air, landing against the wall below the blackboard, mercifully unconscious. The strap remained tightly clasped in her grip, while the rest of her body lay there limp and motionless. Everyone, including the Southern brothers, thought that they had killed her. Pandemonium broke out in the small one-room schoolhouse. Shouts of “Murder!” rang out from the older children, while a great din of wailing and crying erupted from the younger ones. Adam had enough presence of mind to check the old woman‟s breathing. Satisfied that she was not dead, he hissed at the boy closest to him to “go and fetch the goddam doctor!” Then, glaring at the other children, silently promising more violence, the two brothers backed out of the schoolhouse and ran for the hills and home. Knowing that old man Southern would learn of their crime sooner than later, they decided to inform him of the news firsthand. Whatever had gotten into them earlier had apparently not run its course, because when he reacted in his usual manner, they decided that they had also had enough of their father's whippings. The legend of the Southern 108 brothers was solidified when word spread of their rebellion at home and how they had overpowered the old man, forcefully removed the whip and then beat him to within an inch of his life. Miss Boyd as well as the school‟s board of trustees were adamant in their desire to press charges against the young hooligans. The Southerns disowned their two sons and the county sheriff would have been delighted to lock them up and throw away the key. As it happened, America was calling for its young men to take up arms and sail away to a war in Europe. It seemed like an ideal solution to the problem of the Southern boys and they enlisted willingly. That was a mere two years ago. Now they were back. The newlyweds decided to forgo their work at Walnut Grove on that particular July 4th. Frank had promised the local organizing committee that he would help with preparing the fireworks for the evening display in town. Winona took the opportunity to get caught up on some sorely neglected chores and mending around the house. Frank would return for her in the early evening and they would go back to enjoy the night‟s festivities together. The small town was bustling with activity. Word was out that the townsfolk would not be outdone on this Fourth of July and people came from miles around. Many who seldom ventured forth from their cabins in the surrounding hills and woodlands could be seen meandering along Main Street. The men came dressed in their Sunday best, which included jackboots of highly polished leather and a kind of bowler hat that had gone out of style some years before. The women wore gaily-patterned dresses of bright 109 colors and white summer bonnets tied under the chin. They added a certain panache to the usual dun drabness of the place. The quaintness and the open-faced enthusiasm of the countrywomen was refreshing. They were either unaware or chose to ignore the whisperings and the pettiness of their more sophisticated and haughty urban sisters. It seems that the combination of their colorful costumes and bare feet provided no end of entertainment to some of the local ladies. Those same ladies would have been mortified if anyone had pointed out the absurdities of their own manner of dress. Trussed up and corseted until they could barely draw breath, their own dark dresses buttoned to the neck and concealing layer upon layer of crinolines and other assorted undergarments; the high-heeled buttoned-up boots that gave their feet blisters and their legs shin splints if they walked more than 20 yards in them. Even their hats of gauze and feathers and the latest in Paris fashions were utterly impractical. In fact, the attire of these very proper representatives of Kentucky society made them utterly defenseless against the heat of the hot July Kentucky sun. It could make them swoon within minutes if they were directly exposed to it. No wonder they sat in the shade, sipping lemonade or mint juleps. No wonder they were joyless, reduced to idle gossip and petty jealousies, like cotton-brain schoolgirls with empty dance cards. Most other citizens, less concerned with appearance, found great joy in the general excitement of the day. This latter group included Frank. It had been a very long time since he had participated in such a celebration. It had been years since he had felt like he belonged anywhere. He had almost forgotten the simple pleasure derived from 110 sharing in the life of a community. It felt good to be alive on such a day and he felt more alive than he could ever remember. He noticed everything and every little gesture seemed to be laden with significance. He knew exactly the feelings of the two young soldiers as they flirted with the Hatfield sisters under the red maple in the village green. He could not hear the conversation, but he was sure that he could have recited it word for word, as they puffed out their uniformed chests and leaned close to the girls. There were the two old men, facing each other across the checkerboard in the shade of the awning in front of the general store. Their exaggerated gesticulating and consternation over each double-jump was comical and predictable. Pretending that the game was as serious as any war, they were obviously old friends and would be lost without each other. He recognized tenderness in the way a small boy‟s hand was clasped and lost in the gnarled and work-scarred hand of his father, as they made their way across the busy street. He was even starting to get choked up over the red, white and blue bunting that bedecked the front of the Dixieland Hotel and the courthouse. He knew the source of this new sentimentality of course. It was called Winona and he could not wait to get back to her. Just thinking about her brought him a feeling of contentment. For the first time in his life, Frank Martin was happy. But he did not dare to breathe the words out loud. To do so would surely invite disaster. He found himself knocking on the wooden doorframe as he entered the druggist‟s. He made his way past the crowded soda fountain, where two girls in bright yellow aprons and paper hats were serving customers. They were the owner‟s daughters, bright and cheerful and today busier than one-armed paperhangers. Past the long counter lined 111 with an assortment of liniments, ointments and stick candy; between the aisles that were lined with all manner of everyday needs from laundry soap to nylons. Through the saloon doors to the back of the store, he found a large, organized and quiet workroom, where Peter Lindstrom, pharmacist and chemist extraordinaire, was bent over his workbench, carefully mixing chemicals. Although he was a third generation Kentuckian, he was still referred to as “Peter the Swede” by everyone in Graves County. His grandfather, Sven, had been shipwrecked in a storm off the Carolinas. He was one of three survivors. While waiting for another ship to take them back home, he and his two companions decided to see a bit of the country. They hailed from a small fishing village called Trosa, just south of Stockholm. In 1849, he was 20 and had already been sailing for four years. He loved the sea and his homeland but when the time came to return there, he found himself enamoured with the gentle pastoral beauty of this place called Kentucky. He had also fallen hopelessly and completely in love with one of its gentle beauties named Clara. When their ship finally arrived, his companions bade him farewell and Sven remained behind. Every now and then Peter thought about his grandfather‟s choice and wondered if he would have stayed if he could have foreseen the impending Civil War and with it his untimely demise. As for Peter, he remained forever thankful for his grandfather‟s decision. He loved his life and his own homeland and didn‟t care one wit if he ever visited the land of his ancestors. To him Sweden was just a name on a map in a geography class. The same had held true for his father, the son of the shipwrecked sailor. Whether he was called a Swede or not made no difference to him. He was as American as the next fellow and what was America anyway but a collection of immigrants from the four corners of the 112 world? From the time that he was very young he had known exactly where he belonged and exactly what his role should be in the world that he called his own. Aside from his wife and two beautiful daughters, Peter Lindstrom loved chemistry. And in 1919, at the age of 35, he believed that he was living the good life and that the universe was unfolding as it should. Not only was he the proprietor of a successful business, he was also doing exactly what he wanted to do. At the present moment that meant pursuing his second love, which was a natural extension of the first. Ever since he was a small boy he had loved pyrotechnics. Peter Lindstrom made fireworks. It enabled him to be scientist, craftsman and artist all at the same time. To Frank, as he found him bent over his workbench, with his white laboratory coat, horn-rimmed glasses and wild shock of unruly thick hair, he looked more like a “mad scientist” than anything else. Even the gleam in his eye, as he looked up and greeted his guest, was somewhat fanatical. “Ah, you are just in time, my friend. I am just finishing mixing the last of the blackpowder,” he said in a thick accent that was reminiscent of his grandfather‟s heritage. “Come, come. You can help me to pack the cylinders and mortars. Oh, this will be such a day to remember!” he continued with enthusiasm. As Frank looked around the dimly lit workshop he began to have second thoughts about volunteering as Lindstrom‟s helper. One corner of the space resembled a carpenter‟s shop. He was familiar with the various hand tools, the hammers and saws, the jackplanes and screwdrivers. The nails, screws, binding twine and assorted cardboard tubes held no mystery as well. But where the druggist sat, lined up on rough shelves that 113 covered two sides of the room, there was an assortment of chemicals and various paraphernalia that Frank would be at a loss to explain. Before the afternoon had waned however, his ignorance would be corrected. Lindstrom usually preferred to work at his hobby alone, but the pyrotechnical display he had planned for this Fourth of July was meant to be bigger and better than any of his previous undertakings. He needed help with this one. And the master required an apprentice whose virtues included patience, an ability to learn quickly and an above average intelligence: in short, someone like himself. The older man had recruited the younger man based on the reputation he had gained as a schoolmaster. Frank soon learned what the various powders with the strange names were used for. His teacher was patient and thorough, not only because of the inherent danger of the chemical mixtures, but also because he loved the subject matter. And his enthusiasm was contagious. As Frank filled the assorted tubes with small pellets, he learned that he was making roman candles. The pellets were called stars and balls and they were made up of different compositions, to produce different effects of light, color and sound. His teacher patiently explained the difference between explosive compositions, which ignited the pellets, and pyrotechnic compositions, which produced the effects and were less volatile. Besides the basic ingredients of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur, used to make blackpowder, he was given lessons in the particular uses of other, more uncommon chemicals. Adding strontium nitrate to a mixture of potassium chlorate and shellac created red effects. The substitution of barium nitrate for the strontium produced green; copper sulfate was used in forming blue effects and of course, sulfur was a good source for yellow. 114 The hours passed quickly as he packed hundreds of prepared effects into dozens and dozens of cardboard tubes. He made comets as well as roman candles, aerial spinners and skyrockets: fuse, burst charge, pyrotechnic materials. The larger mortars were first packed with a layer of clay in the bottom to give them more stability. The rockets were bound tightly with twine to narrow wooden sticks to allow for a straighter projectory. Many items were fused together and arranged to fire sequentially. Lindstrom carefully explained the principles behind these rather simple yet spectacular devices. He described excitedly what could be expected from each of the mortars, fountains and rockets. His favorite creation was a multiple display of fuse-delayed starbursts that would approximate the colors of a rainbow. He was most proud of the particular shade of purple he had concocted, believing that its appearance in tonight‟s sky would be unique in the annals of pyrotechnics. He informed his apprentice that he was keeping the formula a secret, hoping to patent it someday. He also admitted his concern that “in the wrong hands” his new formula could be rather dangerous, since it involved mixing sulfur with a chlorate. Frank didn‟t pretend to understand that particular reference, just as a lot of the more technical information went over his head. But he understood enough to listen to his instructor and to handle all the materials with care. And he had to admit that he was having a good deal of fun and looking forward to seeing the results of their work. Once they were finished assembling all the various devices, the two men carefully packed them in straw-lined wooden crates then transferred them to Frank‟s waiting buckboard in the back alley. Fireworks were not as volatile as explosives, especially those that used a 115 nitroglycerine base, like dynamite, but some of the chemical compositions were not exactly stable either. The distance from the drugstore to the launching site, a small knoll on the edge of town, was not great, but they had to make many trips. It would be safe to say that no one in the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky would have ever witnessed such a display before. Some of the larger items, the ones which had been strung together on great wooden frames, had to be transported individually, laid across the sides of the wagon. They were just handling the last of these when their work was interrupted by the sudden appearance of two sprawling, cursing and drunken young men. They had been forcefully ejected from the back entrance of the building next door and they were the sorriest two examples of United States soldiery that Frank had ever laid eyes on. Their uniforms were soiled and covered in grime, as were their unshaven faces. When the two drunks hit the hardpan of the back alley, they both came up swinging. Lindstrom ducked just in time, nearly losing his balance and his hold on his elaborate contraption. Missing the mark, the momentum of the man‟s swinging arm carried him forward and he fell down once more, landing on his face. His companion gazed at the two strangers with murder in his eyes. He sprang at Frank, who happened to be nearest to him. In trying to defend himself he gave a mighty heave, pulling the wooden display out of Lindstrom‟s hands. It was made in the shape of a five-pointed star and constructed of heavy lumber. The star landed on end in front of him, one of its points connecting squarely with the attacker‟s jaw as he was in mid-lunge. There was not a knockout punch in all of boxing that would have produced a more profound effect. The assailant dropped to the ground, dazed and immobilized. At the same time, the impact loosened his grip and 116 Frank was helpless to stop the heavy contraption from falling directly upon the sprawled figure, adding insult to injury. It was almost comical except for the fact that their work was ruined. And the other wildman, who had recovered sufficiently to witness the event, was now in the process of bearing down on the man he thought must surely be his brother's killer. In his hand he brandished a very large and dangerous looking knife. Before he had taken two steps however the alley erupted with the ear-shattering blast from a shotgun, fired into the air at very close range. The knife wielder froze in his tracks. From the shadow of the doorway a low deep voice said calmly, “Drop the knife, Ansel, or the other barrel is meant for you. After that, I‟ll reload and finish off your brother as well. The mayor will probably give me a medal for cleaning out the town of its vermin.” Ansel turned on his heel to face this new threat. When the man stepped out of the shadows, holding the shotgun level at chest height, he dropped the knife. His body sagged and what sounded like the whimper of a whipped pup escaped his throat. Big Mike Avery was a mountain of a man. He was also the one who, only moments ago had tossed both boys outside by the scruff of their necks. Although Claymour Junction was known as a “dry” town, everyone knew that if you wanted a drink, you had only to pass through the door that led to the back room of the Dixieland Hotel. Everyone knew and no one cared, including the sheriff who was known to patronize the place himself on occasion. The only vocal opposition came from the Daughters of Temperance Society, but they didn‟t pull much weight in local politics. 117 The only requirements for admission to the back room, or “wetroom” as it was referred to, was that you be of the age of majority and that you check all weapons at the front desk. Once inside you could partake in a friendly poker game, play billiards or just sit and quietly drink yourself into oblivion if you so desired. Inside the room the only requirement was that you caused no trouble to the other patrons. If you broke that rule, then you had to answer to Big Mike, the one-man gangbuster. Big Mike was a teetotaler and he had very little patience for rowdy drunks. He also took his job very seriously. All in all, the wetroom was usually a very safe and amiable environment in which to socialize, unwind or drown your sorrows without worrying about being victimized by the general riffraff. The Southern brothers of course fell into the category a notch or two below the ordinary rowdy drunk. In fact, they were in a class all by themselves, and always had been. Although the War had officially ended the preceding November, they had volunteered to remain in Europe, to “help out” in the general cleaning up detail, thus ensuring a longer period in which they could continue to collect their basic army pay. By late February, the rumors of extortion and their organization of a prostitution ring in The Hague could no longer be ignored by the top brass, and they were shipped home. Even then they somehow managed to escape notice for the next three months. When they finally turned up, after a drunken binge and totally out of money, a sympathetic processing sergant stamped their papers all “in order” and crumpled up the outstanding warrants that had been issued when it was presumed that they had gone AWOL. The result was an honorable discharge, money in their pockets and a train ticket south, (which the Southern brothers promptly cashed in). 118 They spent the next three weeks on a tear, drinking and carousing their way from Virginia to Kentucky until eventually they made their way home, just in time for the Fourth of July celebrations. At the moment however they seemed destined to miss the remaining festivities. Big Mike was holding Ansel up with one large hand entwined in his dirty, lanky hair. The shotgun was still clasped firmly in his other oversized paw. The sheriff, who had suddenly appeared on the scene, doused Adam with a large pitcher of beer, from which he awoke, sputtering and cursing. (Frank had already removed the fireworks apparatus from the prone body). Yanked to his feet, he sobered up rather quickly when he came face-to-face with the sheriff‟s Colt 45 placed directly between his bleary eyes. They escorted, and not too gently, the two troublemakers to their horses and then to the outskirts of town, informing them that, if and when they ever sobered up, they could return to pick up their weapons at the front desk of the Dixieland, including the buckknife that Ansel had seen fit to conceal. Their guns of course would be emptied of bullets, just in case they persisted in their stupidity. On the outskirts of the town Big Mike discharged the remaining barrel of his shotgun and the two horses sped off with their drunken cargo. The two brothers held on to the reins for dear life, jostled and bouncing along like novices at a dude ranch, cursing the whole time. The pain from Adam‟s broken jaw was almost unbearable and it made him curse all the louder. Frank and Peter Lindstrom still had a lot of work to do. They tacitly agreed to abandon their ruined effort, the five-pointed star. Instead they went on to the launch site. There they made sure that everything was in order, that all the fuses were set according to 119 their plans, which the Southern brothers had not greatly affected. For supper they shared sandwiches, which had been prepared by Mrs. Lindstrom in her kitchen above the drug store. It was about an hour before sunset when they finally finished the last of the preparations. Frank felt almost as proud of their work as did his companion, the creator of the display. He had just enough time to get home, pick up Winona and return for the gala presentation. He felt tired but in that pleasant way, after you have worked hard to accomplish something. As he drove the mare down the country road, the dust swirled around in little golden eddies, caught by the slanting rays of the setting sun. His mind began to drift back to other golden days, like late last fall when he first discovered Walnut Grove. Back to Christmas morning when he first shared his discovery with Winona. He thought about that first morning he reported for duty as the new teacher— terrified, if the truth were known. And how by June he had mastered his fears, himself and his duties. It actually made him sad to think that he might not get to return to the little one-room schoolhouse. He was even a little surprised by the intensity of his nostalgia. He was surprised as well by how pleasant had been the hours he had just spent with Peter Lindstrom. He liked the man very much and he believed that he had just made a new friend. It slowly dawned on him that, for the first time in his young life, he may actually have found a place where he felt like he belonged. When he thought about this, he realized how little thought he now gave to the painful events of his past. Memories of his shiftless wandering days had faded and blurred, all merged together into one boozy cloud on the horizon of his past. He seldom recalled his days at Saint Pat‟s or even his 120 life at home, although before Winona there wasn‟t a day that went by that he didn‟t relive at least one painful episode. Ah, Winona. He knew the reason for his contentment of course. He knew very well why he saw the world through new eyes and why the sun shone brighter. He understood perfectly this new sense of belonging and this urgency he felt to settle down, build a home, start a new life. Because finally life was good. And Winona made it all possible. Even Walnut Grove would be nothing more than another piece of turf without her to share it with. A part of him found it extraordinary to think that he was a married man, barely into his 20th year. What was really extraordinary was that he had found such a creature as Winona at all— his wife of five days. He was thinking these thoughts, lost in his very pleasant reverie, as he turned the mare into the driveway that led to their home. The sun was very low on the horizon now, just skirting the tall pines that grew directly across the road from their place. Its rays were reflecting off the windows as it usually did this time of day, dazzling and almost blinding. At first Frank didn‟t see them coming up the drive, blinded by the sun as he was. By the time he could focus, it was too late and they were upon him. Then in the next instance, they had passed by him and were on the road. The hoofs of their horses as they galloped by had churned up a cloud of dust, choking and blinding him once more. He only managed a glimpse but he recognized the leering faces of the two horsemen as they rushed past him. His first impulse was to turn the buckboard around and pursue the bastards, but a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach informed him that something was dreadfully wrong in his universe. His heart jumped into his throat and he stood up in his place, 121 shouting and slapping the reins to force the bewildered mare into a sudden gallop. She whinnied, reared up, then took off with a burst of speed. Frank held tightly to the reins and continued to stand, bracing the back of his calves against the wagon‟s seat. He pulled in the reins just before the small house and jumped to the ground before the horse had completely stopped. “No, oh Jesus, no! Oh, God, no!” he repeated over and over as he bounded into the house. It was in semi-darkness, illuminated only where the dying rays of the sun replaced the shadows. He covered the three downstairs rooms in a dozen strides, then raced up the stairs, calling out her name the whole time. The house was empty. His voiced echoed off the walls and rang in his ears with a dreadful, frightened sound. Their bedroom window overlooked the small barnyard. The window was raised and Frank leaned through the opening, his eyes sweeping across the distance to the small barn. He had trouble focusing in the dying light of the sun. He also noticed that his eyes were suddenly stinging. The curtains hung limp on either side of him. Not a breath of air stirred. Except for his own labored and ragged breathing, there was not another sound— neither within the house nor outside—and nothing moved. There was something wrong with that. There should be some sign of life, if only it was the restless clucking of a hen or two. There were others signs that slowly registered in Frank‟s fevered brain. The last ray of the setting sun glinted off something wet on the ground. It resembled a thin, irregular trail like water spilled from a bucket, darkening the dry dirt. It snaked along between the water trough and the barn. Even in the thickening twilight he knew that the wet earth was too dark. It more closely resembled the stain made from blood, like when 122 he butchered a chicken. Even as his heart froze, he forced the air out of his lungs in an agonizing shout, “Winona!” He raced back down the stairs and burst through the back door. The screen door banged behind him. The old mare whinnied nervously as he fled past her. In the yard he stopped by the water trough. The old metal bucket sat on the ground next to it, nearly full of water. One of the hens was slumped over the rim of the bucket, limp and lifeless, its head under the water. Another hen floated half-submerged and head down in the trough itself. Frank bent down and touched the wet patch, which he had spied from the upstairs window. His fingers were stained red with the blood that was there. Then he noticed the rest of their brood of chickens, most of them headless, their white feathers smeared with blood and dirt. He hadn‟t noticed them at first because he had been concentrating on the middle of the yard and the barn. They lay scattered about the edges of the space, as if someone had slaughtered them and then just flung the carcasses around—just for the fun of it. He had trouble getting his brain around such an idea as he stumbled through tears towards the open barn door. He knew before he entered its shadowy interior that his troubles were just beginning. He knew without being told that the next moment would define the rest of his life. That once again he had been fooled into believing in the possibility of the “good life”, allowing himself to hope against hope—allowing himself to love someone… He found her in the gloom inside, curled up in a ball, lying on her side like a small child, on a bed of hay. He had an absurd notion that he should not disturb her—that she was only sleeping. But the hay was covered in dark, wet splotches, just like the barnyard, 123 and Frank knew that the blood was hers. When he called her name this time, his voice was barely audible, coming out of him in a hoarse rasp. But she stirred! He fell down beside her, not daring to believe that she was still alive. He moved her over ever so gently, laying her head in his lap. In the dark shadows of the stall it was hard to make out her face but it didn‟t matter. He stroked her matted hair and she stirred once more. Trying to rearrange her body, to get comfortable perhaps, a groan escaped her lips. She was trying to talk, to tell him something, but he hushed her. “It‟s alright, now,” he said softly. “You‟re safe, now, my love. I‟ll get you over to Doc Fulton. He‟ll have you right as rain in no time. Now, don‟t talk. Save your strength, my love.” As he spoke to her as gently as he could, as he stroked her hair that he loved so much, as he tried his best to comfort this creature who had somehow made his life worth living, the tears rolled silently down his cheeks. He couldn‟t help it. With unimaginable control he tried his best to give her hope, while inside he fought a losing battle with his own overwhelming despair. As he held her broken body close to him, he tried desperately to hold onto his shattered mind. Just when he had let down his defenses, the world was teaching him a new lesson in its cruelty. Whether 1,000 miles from his childhood home, as he was now or 1,000 years into the future, Frank knew that this was one lesson from which he would never recover. Losing his beloved mother when he was 14 had been unbearable. Losing his wife made him acutely aware that what he had once considered as “unbearable” was a mere walk in the park in comparison. As if in a dream he heard Winona‟s whispered words, as she struggled for breath, her fragile chest heaving with the effort. “I am sorry, my darling,” he heard. 124 “Hush,” he replied. “It‟s alright. Don‟t speak.” “I am sorry,” she repeated in her labored voice. “I know how your heart was so set on Walnut Grove… and starting our new life there.” “Winona, I don‟t care about Walnut Grove,” he whispered back. “I only care about you, my love. Everything is going to be fine,” he lied. “You‟ll see. Doc Fulton will fix you up… you‟ll be as good as new in no time. And Walnut Grove is going to ring with the voices of our children… you‟ll see… okay?” But the two of them knew that it wasn‟t okay—that Winona‟s life was slipping away, just as surely as the sun had slipped away behind the pines that grew across the road from their small country home. “I tried to fight them, my darling, but it was just no use. You would have to know them. They were always mean… they were born that way, I guess…” Her voice trailed off. “Shh!” But she continued, her voice like a ghostly whisper now. “Adam and Ansel. I recognized them as soon as I saw them. I was drawing water for the chickens…” At the mention of the Southern brothers a blinding rage threatened to consume him but he somehow managed to gain control. “It‟s alright,” he whispered. “Really, my darling, I understand. It‟s not your fault.” “They killed the hens, you know. They just… killed them… no reason for it…” “I know, I know. Now, hush. Forget about them. They are long gone. We‟re alone now, my love… just the two of us… no more need to worry ever again. I‟ll never leave you alone again… ever… okay?” 125 “Oh, Frank! I love you. I want you to know that.” “I know, my love, I know that as sure as I have ever known anything. And I love you.” But his words fell on unhearing ears. Winona had breathed her last breath and she was gone. Frank never knew how long he sat there, holding her in his arms, her head on his lap. He could not say how many hours passed, as he rocked back and forth, crying, his breath coming in shuddering gasps. At some point the shadows of twilight deepened into the darkness of night. He vaguely remembered hearing what sounded like the firing of a thousand guns, somewhere off in the distance. Now and then he was reminded by an indignant snort from the mare that she still remained out in the yard, captive in her traces where he had left her. She is probably hungry he thought, then promptly forgot all about her in his grief. Just as he never gave a second thought to the loud and continuous reports of what he mistook as gunfire from far away. He had forgotten completely about his earlier endeavor and his preoccupation with the fireworks display, which had brought him such unexpected joy. There was no joy left in the bosom of Frank Martin. It had expired utterly and completely with the last breath of his beloved wife. He barely recognized his newfound friend, Peter Lindstrom, or even the significance of the solitary oil lamp, which wavered in front of him, illuminating the dark stable where his friend discovered him many hours later. The fireworks display was long over the druggist had been worried when he failed to show up. He was convinced that Frank would not have missed the evening‟s events without a very good reason. Finding the place in darkness and the horse still harnessed to the buckboard only served to 126 increase his sense of foreboding. When he finally came upon the forlorn scene in the barn, his suspicions were confirmed. Finding his friend that way, stone-faced and cradling his dead wife, whose body had begun to stiffen and whose upturned face reflected a ghostly pallor in the lamplight, would be a source of nightmares for a long time to come. Before Frank had even uttered the words, the druggist knew that poor Winona was dead. Before her husband began to offer an explanation, he somehow knew also that the Southern brothers were responsible for her death. What neither of them knew at the time, and what would only be revealed on the morrow by Doctor Fulton upon examination of the body, was that Winona had not been the only victim of their savagery. Also dead as dead can be was the five-month-old fetus within the dead mother‟s womb—the baby that should have been Frank‟s daughter. When he was informed of this news, there erupted a sound from so deep within him that the townsfolk within earshot would describe it later as the cry of some wild animal, which they had never heard before—or since, for that matter. Chapter V Francis awoke from a dream he had dreamed many times before. But that was so long ago. In fact, it belonged to his adolescence and it had not visited his sleep in at least 127 30 years. This particular version of the dream however had the vivid qualities of all the others, including the heart-pounding pathos of raw teenage emotion. The only difference—and he realized that this was somehow important—was that for the very first time, the dream did not end as a nightmare. Everything else had been the same: the warm summer night, the way the moonlight reflected off the girl‟s bare shoulders. The sequence of events unfolded just as always: the two of them walking hand in hand, both flushed from the school dance that had just ended. He in his shy way taking her hand. Even that small gesture had sent his heart pounding in his chest. She gave his hand a squeeze and he turned his head to face her. Her smile was warm and inviting, her perfect white teeth dazzling. He felt like smiling in return, but he seldom smiled broadly because he didn‟t have perfect teeth. He thought, “How very beautiful you are.” The words welled up inside of him, just as they had on so many occasions. They seemed to form somewhere in the pit of his stomach. Then his heart would start working like some kind of engine, which was needed in order to bring the words up to the surface. It had to work so hard to drag the four words the short distance. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, How beautiful you are got stuck in his throat, which had suddenly constricted. He literally began to choke on the words. All that he could manage was to gasp for breath, at which point his date would become concerned, withdraw her hand from his, pat him on the back and ask if he was alright. “Asthma,” he lied. “It will pass.” What had passed was the moment—and his chance to impress—gone forever. Such a perfect night, with the moonlight on her bare shoulders. Her dazzling smile taking his breath away; her 128 light summer dress clinging to her body, shimmering in the dappled shadows cast by the streetlight and the canopy of trees on Chestnut Street. It was all wasted. The next moment found them by her front door. The night was coming to an end and it was time to take his leave. One last chance. She took his hand once more and they sat side by side on the old porch swing. Even in the dim incandescence of the yellow porch light, the beauty of her made him ache inside. She draped his arm over her shoulder and moved close to him. Managing to control his pounding heart he finally screwed up courage enough to kiss the girl goodnight. She turned her face towards him and closed her eyes. For one timeless moment he was calm and his heart was at ease. Then in slow motion, as he turned his face towards her, certain that this first kiss would end his adolescent awkwardness forever, it never happened. They were caught like startled deer in the headlights of her father‟s car, turning into the driveway. And the dream ended. Or so that had been the case in every instance of his youth. Tonight however, 30 years later, he finally kissed the girl. And it was the sweetest kiss he had ever known. He had waited a lifetime to taste that mouth and the moment he felt the soft touch of her lips he felt an astonishment that was wholly unexpected. The kiss had somehow managed to rend the fabric of Time and he stepped through gingerly, effortlessly. On the other side he found himself in a whole new world, as different from the life he had chosen as could possibly be imagined. The first thing that he realized was that Mary McCarthy had been worth the wait. He reprimanded himself for waiting so long to find out. Then he reminded himself to tell old Frank the good news: that he had finally come to his senses and managed to “find a good woman”. The old geezer would be proud of him, he thought smugly. But he could share the news with him later. First things first. 129 When Time loses its influence, that is to say, when a man finds himself beyond the reach of its effects, then anything is possible. However long their kiss lasted was irrelevant. With Time suspended, its length was a moot point since it could not be measured. In the timeless space of their joining however, Francis “lived” an entire lifetime. Conspicuously absent was the collar that had bound him in another life. The only “profession” that he made before an altar and witnesses was his profession of love to his bride. The only vows he solemnly pledged were vows of faithfulness to the woman beside him. The only things he cherished were his wife and children. He marveled at the delight he found in cherishing this woman. He was blown away at the intensity of his feelings and how he shuddered when they made love for the first time. He was amazed at the tenderness with which he regarded his children. He wept with joy at their births. He anguished over their trials and tribulations. He danced and cried at their weddings—especially those of his daughters. And he spoiled and doted on his grandchildren—then laughingly sent them home to their poor mothers. He grew old with Mary Martin and they still held hands as they walked home along Chestnut Street. He held Mary‟s hand, kissed her softly on the mouth and wrapped his arm around her as she made ready to depart from life, in her old age. He was sad, but it was still the beauty of her that made him ache. As she slipped away, he whispered, “How beautiful you are.” And there was not a word of lie. Then she was gone. And as Francis the husband, grandfather, bereaved widower, looked up through his tears, he was blinded by the headlights of Dr. McCarthy‟s car pulling into the driveway on a sultry summer night—the bastard! 130 It was all so real—it could not have been just a dream! As he awoke, Francis, the middle-aged Jesuit priest, blinked his eyes against the light of the early morning snowstorm that beat against the window of the train. As Time regained Its mastery, he slowly took in his surroundings, shaking the cobwebs from his head. As reality returned and the dream dissipated in the morning light, he began to sob uncontrollably. Unwittingly, he found himself clawing at the collar at his neck, the outward symbol of a life choice he had made so many years ago. He violently threw the thing to the floor. At the same time he recognized the woman curled up beside him. At some point during the night he and Amelia had drifted off to sleep. She was still snuggled against him. Someone, probably the porter they had seen earlier, had covered them with a blanket. She stirred beside him, coming awake just as Francis‟ collar landed on the floor in front of them. She yawned then stretched and opened her eyes wide as she noticed him beside her, crying quietly. She sat up suddenly in her seat beside him. “Francis, my dear! What on earth…?” “Just a dream,” he reassured her. “Nothing to worry about. Just a dream about a long lost youth, that‟s all.” “Who is Mary?” she asked. “Mary?” “Yes, when I woke up, not only were you sobbing, but over and over again you were saying, „Mary, oh Mary.‟” He hadn‟t realized that he had been calling out anything in his sleep. He began to swipe at his eyes with his hands, surprised at the wetness he found there and upon his 131 cheeks. He also noticed that his collar was missing. Amelia noticed his searching fingers at his neck and indicated the spot on the floor where the collar lay. “That must have been some dream,” she said, raising one eyebrow. “Care to tell me about it?” Just then the porter appeared, making his rounds through the passenger cars, informing the passengers of their whereabouts and other announcements. “Next stop, Springfield,” he called in his baritone voice. “The dining car is open and breakfast is on the house, folks!” Francis got the man‟s attention. “Excuse me, but will I have time to get off at Springfield and make a phone call?” he asked. “Well, Yassir, I do believe you would, but just,” was the man‟s reply. “Are you familiar with this area?” Francis asked. It was the first time he had actually taken a good look at the train attendant. The man‟s face was so lined that he seemed as old as Time Itself. And he was black as ebony. When he talked he always seemed to smile and his teeth were very white. That may have been due to the contrast with his skin, but it somehow reminded Francis of his dream and of Mary from long ago. “Will we have time for breakfast, my good man, before we reach Springfield?” he inquired. The man consulted his watch. It was an old-fashioned pocket watch, attached by a fob and chain to a vest pocket. “I do believe that you will have just enough time, Sir,” he responded, then started on his way. 132 “One more thing, please,” Francis continued, holding the man in his place. “Are you the one responsible for the blanket?” he asked, holding up a corner of the gray material. The porter hesitated for a moment, unsure whether taking responsibility was a good thing or not. Whatever he decided, he answered honestly, “Why, Yessir. You and the missus looked a little cold around four o‟clock this mornin‟, Sir.” Both Francis and Amelia smiled at that, easing the porter‟s trepidation that he might not have done the right thing. “Thank you, Sir. Thank you very much,” Francis told the man. “Much appreciated, indeed.” Then he turned his attention to his companion. “Breakfast?” he asked. “It feels like I haven‟t eaten in a lifetime.” Amelia smiled and nodded her assent. She reached up and, taking his face in her small hands, she gently massaged away the remaining wetness below his eyes. “You poor man,” she said. “You look like you have been through an ordeal. Breakfast sounds like a very good idea. But first I need a little waking up… and some freshening up as well. I feel like a rumpled old bag lady. And I am sure that I look quite dreadful.” Francis took her hands in his and smiled. “You look very beautiful,” he told her. The words rolled off his tongue with ease. It surprised him at how natural it sounded to offer this woman a compliment. “You‟re such a dear,” she laughed. “You really are. But I know what I look like first thing in the morning… and especially after spending the night before on a train. Now, either you‟re really just a sly old devil, who says such things to all the girls… or you need to get out more.” 133 Francis looked at her rather blankly for a moment, as if he were giving her statements serious consideration. Then he laughed out loud. “Regarding your second guess,” he said, smiling, “I am sure that you are definitely on to something there—I‟ve been away from the real world far too long. As for telling all the girls how beautiful they are, I‟m afraid that I have spent a lifetime running away from beautiful women. And I am beginning to think that I might have made a mistake. It‟s funny, but that was what my dream was about. I‟ll tell you about it later… if you are interested.” “Can‟t wait,” she replied sincerely. “Over breakfast, okay?” She stood up then and bending over him, she kissed him lightly on the forehead. “I think that you are a very complicated man,” she said. “And I can‟t wait to learn more. But first, if I don‟t go and pee right this minute, you might not want to spend anymore time with this old bag lady.” They both laughed as she rushed off to the washroom. Francis couldn‟t imagine not wanting to spend time with her. And he meant it when he told her that she was beautiful—first thing in the morning not withstanding. He knew that he was going to have to give some serious thought to this latest turn of events, especially to the dream. It seemed that soul-searching might be the order of the day. But after all, wasn‟t that what priests were supposed to do? Fully awake now, Francis gazed at the wall of snow that swirled against the window. Now and again he caught a glimpse of the passing scenery, a frozen landscape of row houses and apartment buildings. Everything appeared rather bleak in the gray light of the early dawn. There was no sign of life except for the occasional flashing yellow light of a snowplow. He had a distinct feeling of desolation emanating from the world outside. And it seemed to coincide exactly with his own inner feelings. He couldn‟t quite 134 put his finger on it and he would be hard-pressed to explain why, but he sensed that what he was feeling had something to do with the dream. That he felt disturbed would be an understatement. But it was more than just the aftermath of a dream. His thoughts kept returning to the events of the past few days—to his summons from halfway around the world and his grandfather‟s dying confession. There was a nagging feeling at the back of his mind that he had missed something—that the old man had something else in mind when he requested the presence of his prodigal grandson at his deathbed. The Martin family could never be accused of being “close” by any stretch of the imagination. Francis had not even been home for at least 10 years. But he remembered a time when he and his grandfather were inseparable, perhaps as close as two human beings could be. When he really thought about it—which he had not done in many years—in those days it would not be inaccurate in the least to describe his feelings as a young boy towards his grandfather as “worship”. It was a very long time ago indeed, but as the memories flooded over him, it seemed like only yesterday. Lately it seemed that Time had taken a vacation and the order of the universe was not nearly as predictable or as comfortable as it was a long time ago—or only three days ago for that matter. It had been a very long time since Francis had thought about those long ago boyhood days, spent in the company of his grandfather. He had all but forgotten those simple feelings of pleasure derived from those quiet Sunday afternoons as they fished together—just the two of them sharing the peace of a quiet lake in springtime. When he thought about it, it wasn‟t even the fishing that mattered. There were Sunday afternoons, especially in early April when the water was still too cold, that they never caught a thing. In no way however was his joy diminished. Just to be in the old man‟s presence had been 135 enough. He had to laugh when he suddenly realized that it had taken him over 40 years to acquire that particular insight. And why had it taken him over 40 years to learn something that he had already known when he was eight years old? What had happened between those days and this morning when he found himself as a man of the world, waking from a dream and blubbering like a child? Perhaps we don‟t learn something new every day, he thought. Perhaps we learn something old. It was a novel idea but it seemed to make a lot of sense to him on this particular morning. A soft kiss from the night before had certainly opened his eyes to some very old feelings, which he thought had been long buried and forgotten. That he had been reminded of them in a dream made the feelings no less real. In fact, their poignancy was heightened. And wasn‟t the subconscious deemed to be the repository of our true desires and aspirations—of our true selves? It was the modern day equivalent of the soul, was it not? The thought made Francis shudder. It wasn‟t so much a matter of being afraid to know his “true self”. After all, for most of his life he had prided himself on just such an endeavor. His vocation even demanded it. Ancient and modern philosophers, both religious and secular, had proclaimed each in their own way that to “know thyself was to know God”. The problem lay in the fact that he thought that he did know himself; that after so many years, he thought that he had it all worked out; that by now, there would be no surprises. Well, the surprise is on you he thought rather sardonically. You‟ve been pursuing a vocation for all these years that has turned out to be nothing more than a means to run away: from your true self; from the company of women. Was the old man was right all along? 136 On the other hand, his Jesuit-trained mind rationalized, it was just a dream and it could mean any one of 100 things. I am tired—no, more than just tired—I am worn down. I am still recovering from jet-lag and the emotional ordeal of the past few days is taking its toll. I am not even aware of the tremendous amount of stress that I have been under. And of course everyone knows how stress can adversely affect both the mind and body. I probably just need a good long rest, then I will be “right as rain”. I will tell Amelia about my dream, just as she asked me too, but I will explain it in just those terms. She will understand. Whatever feelings I might have thought that I had for her can all be just explained away. After all, we are both intelligent adults. Not only that, we are both intelligent adult Catholics. And we are both aware that I am a priest, for God‟s sake! Even as he silently rehearsed these rational arguments, he became aware of his own clerical collar that lay upon the floor at his feet. He had a vague but guilty recollection of tearing it from his neck and violently tossing it away. The sight of it and the still vivid memory of the dream left him feeling more confused than ever. At the same time other memories came swirling up from the past, threatening to overwhelm him. He had a sudden vision of Joey, “the crippled boy”. He hadn‟t thought about him in decades. With the vision came a terrible feeling of sadness and remorse. In some way he knew that his grandfather was responsible, but the rationale escaped him. Whatever the reason, his confusion seemed to deepen rather than resolve itself. And once more he found himself reminiscing, a reluctant prisoner of the past. *** 137 He thought that he knew his grandfather, the old man for whom he had been named. As a young boy he knew all that he needed to know about him, alright. The big, callused hand that helped him over the stone wall as they made their way to their favorite fishing hole on all those Sunday afternoons in spring—that he knew well. He also recognized the quiet strength within that never begged for acknowledgement, but always defied challenging. The first time he had learned about granite, he immediately thought of his grandfather. He had a sense that the familiar, warm and moving flesh of the man had been put on to allow the solid rock of the “real” man within to move about in the world. He was only eight when he discovered this. Already the romantic, he imagined the possibility of magic in all things. He believed that magical elements were what defined the true heart of things and of people as well. He took great delight in discovering those elements, like realizing that his grandfather could very well be the Incredible Hulk. His mother‟s magic was contained in her voice. It was evident when he was hurt and she soothed him; when she sang him to sleep sometimes, all his fears would vanish in the sound of her. The boy‟s inquisitive nature thrived on discovering the essence of the world around him. Not all of his discoveries were pleasant however. He could not help but feel sad when he learned that some of his favorite things were contrived: things like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. In this way he was no different from other children. But once he understood the necessity for their loss, he never missed them. At a very early age he seemed to grasp the idea of mythology and how important it was to everyday life. 138 All children have a natural curiosity. For most, this is easily assuaged with simple explanations. For young Francis however, his penchant for details was prodigious. Every answer led to further questions. In fact, there seemed to be no end to his questions— usually to the exasperation of both his parents and his teachers. Most adults never seemed to have the time, the inclination or the patience for his curiosity—his “pestering”, as they dubbed it. He suspected that, in most instances, what they really did not have were the answers—even when they pretended that they did. Adults were a queer lot anyway he had decided early on. They were full of contradictions and most of them lied so habitually that they were not even aware of what they were saying half the time. Some of the lies were small. They even had a name: “little white ones” and they were considered as trivial or harmless (likened to venial sins, he imagined). In some cases they were considered as beneficial even, like when your mother told Mrs. Simms—to her face—how much she liked her new hairdo. Behind her back however, she announced to the entire household how Mrs. Simms‟ hair looked like it had been styled by a drunken monkey. And, “Doesn‟t that woman have any mirrors in her house?” Some lies were much bigger and promised dire consequences for the unbeliever. “Eat your carrots or you‟ll go blind.” “Don‟t get caught across Water Street after dark or the Harbormaster will set his vicious dog on you—and it‟s been trained to kill!” “Stop it or you‟ll go blind.” Also, hell‟s gates yawned wide and the devil lay in wait around every corner, keeping his constant vigil for the heedless. There must have been a thousand and one pitfalls and every new sunrise brought fresh opportunities to trip over them. The devil was certainly a busy little bugger. It was even possible to fall from grace by association: 139 especially association with the Warringtons, the family across the tracks who were not only poorer than most of their neighbors, but were also usually referred to as “those dirty Warringtons” or “those thieving Warringtons”, and most commonly as “those wicked Warringtons”. Jews, prostitutes and drunks were considered roughly equal in terms of those on the list to be avoided. One group more than any other was the most dangerous of all and to be shunned at all costs. Association with Protestants was just asking for trouble and recklessly placed your soul in mortal danger. Of course the adults associated with Jews, drunks and Protestants every day. Francis didn‟t know any prostitutes personally, so he could not comment on them. But he knew Mr. Epstein, the Jewish junk dealer. His father and grandfather dealt with him regularly. Mr. Newman, the grocer, kept accounts and offered credit to almost the entire neighborhood at one time or another. Which seemed rather helpful and surprising as well, considering the fact that he was a shameless Protestant. Some of the things that the adults said might possibly be true. There was no way of knowing really whether or not there were starving people in China. But Francis was quite certain that whether or not he ate everything on his plate would not affect the starving Chinese one way or another. During his formative years, he wondered about many of the stories that everyone around him seemed to take for granted as the “gospel truth”. Like the place called “Lords” in France, where it was claimed that miracles happened every day, and the place was littered with discarded crutches. If it was true, then why didn‟t everybody go there and get healed? Why didn‟t someone take his crippled friend, Joey, over to Lords? 140 When he asked his grandfather about this, he explained that Joey‟s family was too poor to go there. When he asked if that meant that “the Lords” only healed rich people, Grandpa replied that it certainly seemed that way. Ever curious, young Francis continued, “Grandpa, do you think that the “Lady of the Lords” really does it? Or is there some kind of magic in the water there?” Magic was something that he understood, and it‟s presence in the world always piqued his interest. His grandfather thought about this for a moment. Then he shrugged. “That‟s a hard one to answer,” he said. “But I guess it doesn‟t really matter, does it? As long as people believe… maybe the healing comes from the believing. Maybe that‟s all the magic there is… or all the magic that‟s needed. What do you think?” His grandfather was the only adult he knew that ever took the time to answer his questions. Not only that, he was the only one who never pretended that he had all the answers. In fact, many times he had no answer at all, but simply gave him more questions to think about. Sometimes Francis was quite sure that the old man knew more than he let on, but preferred that the boy make up his own mind about certain things. “Maybe you‟ll get a chance to go there yourself someday,” he offered. “Then you can ask the Lady yourself—if you can find her, that is. I hear that she is not always available.” His grandfather‟s suggestion sounded like a good one. And although he was not quite sure whether he was serious or not—and often he discovered that the latter turned out to be the case—the idea of going there excited him. He decided however, that if he ever got the chance, he would make sure to bring Joey along as well. 141 *** Once again Francis found himself thrust rudely back into reality. Once more he found himself awkwardly brushing back tears that were unbidden and totally out of character for him. As far as he could remember, he hadn‟t cried in over 30 years—not since his dear mother had passed away. He hadn‟t even shed a tear at the passing of his father 20 years later. Now for the second time in the space of less than an hour, he was acting like a blubbering child. He had no idea what Amelia thought of him. His experience with women over the course of his life had been so limited that he really did feel like a helpless child—or an imbecile might be a more apt description he thought, when it came to understanding the goings-on in the mind of a member of the opposite sex. He knew that he could be sure of one thing however, regardless of his limitations—if he had been vainly hoping to impress this woman in any way, his situation was surely quite hopeless. He felt like a fool. He couldn‟t even begin to explain to her the source of his misery. He had always meant to take his friend, Joey, with him. He had been to Lourdes many times during his subsequent travels. He had been a mute witness to the uncounted number of abandoned crutches left behind there. On each and every occasion he had mildly chastised himself. But not once—not ever—had he ever seriously entertained the notion of including his childhood friend on his journeys to such a magical place. 142 Now of course it was too late for Joey. He had succumbed to his childhood disease many years ago. But it was more than Joey‟s death that was behind his present sense of remorse and his own childish weeping. He remembered clearly his first visit to Lourdes and how he had been an astonished witness to the miracles of faith—how the faithful pilgrims had arrived there in their desperation, and how they had discovered the magic of the Lady and went away whole, their abandoned crutches left behind in silent witness. But Francis the worldly priest had somehow left behind the boy who had once believed and had sought for the magic. In all his years of training, in his sophisticated Jesuit logic, he had somehow lost the magic. The last time that he had visited Lourdes, he knew of a certainty that he would never find the Lady—that she might indeed be there, as real as she ever was to the faithful—but she would never show herself to the likes of him. Old Frank had been right as usual. The magic lay in the believing. And by then he knew, although he was still reluctant to admit to it, the belief was no longer accessible. It had been sacrificed upon the altar of worldliness—in the same way that his childhood friend had been sacrificed upon the altar of poverty and ignorance. And where was God in all of this—that loving Creator, the source of the ultimate magic that had at first lured his young soul and had later held him up and supported him in the life that he had chosen? Even against the admonitions of his strong-willed grandfather, whose influence he thought he had escaped, Francis had chosen for himself. At the present moment he was only beginning to realize just how powerful and far- reaching the old man‟s influence could be. 143 Amelia was standing over him with a concerned look on her face. “Francis, my dear, are you okay?” she asked for the second time that morning. “Forgive me, but you don‟t look well. You look like someone who has just seen a ghost.” He rubbed at his eyes, that were red-rimmed and probably quite bloodshot by now he thought. Then he laughed. “That sounds just like something my sister Alice would say. I think that the two of you would get along famously if you ever met. And, to tell the truth, you are not very far off the mark—about the ghost part, that is.” It seemed like he had been doing nothing but wrestle with ghosts since he boarded this train days ago in Halifax. First Frank and now Joey. He wondered who might be next. And he was quite sure that old Frank wasn‟t finished with him yet. “I‟m alright though, really… just a little tired, that‟s all,” he assured her. “I‟d say that you are more than just a little tired. I‟d say that exhausted might be a more apt description. And this is coming from someone who hardly knows you. What would your sister say?” He laughed once more and she smiled in return. “A good breakfast wouldn‟t hurt, either,” she continued, offering her hand. He jumped to his feet then, eager to show that he was quite willing and able to join her. The quick movement caused him such a head rush that he immediately sat back down again. The concerned look returned to his companion‟s face. “You really are exhausted, aren‟t you, you poor dear,” she said. “Why didn‟t you get a sleeping berth when you boarded? Then you could have passed all these hours in sweet oblivion and got caught up on the rest you need.” 144 “Didn‟t have enough notice. It‟s been kind of a whirlwind tour since I first got the call… the summons actually. Everything was booked. I was lucky to get a seat it seems, with the Christmas rush and all.” Something else suddenly occurred to him and he quickly added, “Besides, God works in mysterious ways, you know. If I was sleeping my life away right now, I might never have met you.” As soon as the words escaped his mouth, he groaned inwardly. They sounded false somehow, like a “line” delivered by a teenaged boy. I was never any good at this he thought. But his speech was sincere and the woman seemed to recognize the sincerity behind the words. She took it as the compliment that it was meant to be and she smiled demurely. “I‟m really not sure anymore these days about the ways of God,” she replied honestly. “But I am sure that our meeting was meant to be. What comes of it, we will have to wait and see. Therein lies the true mystery… what is yet to be.” She lowered her eyes when she said this. Francis was amazed at the intensity of his feelings that suddenly overwhelmed him as he looked at the woman in front of him. The two of them were not teenagers. And this was definitely not a game of “exchanging lines”. It might be a game, but they were two mature adults and fully aware of themselves and their circumstances. Fully aware that they were not teenagers and how such games could easily lead to consequences that teenagers would never tend to consider, let alone worry about. And for Francis, every step took him into unknown or at least unfamiliar territory. If this were a dance and at some level that‟s just what it was, he felt certain that at every turn he was bound to trip himself up. 145 “I think that I‟m ready for breakfast now,” he said, getting up more slowly this time. “And after breakfast…” Amelia offered. “After breakfast I must make a phone call from the station at Springfield.” “And after that,” she continued, “You shall sleep… comfortably and undisturbed for as long as you need to… in my sleeping compartment.” He had to admit that he really was exhausted and her offer sounded downright heavenly. But the implications of her words were not lost on him, as tired and confused as he was. “You have a berth?” he asked, suddenly wide awake. “But what about last night?” She laughed. “Last night was wonderful, don‟t you agree?” He nodded dumbly. “Last night,” she continued, “was the first time in a long time that I found myself in the company of a man who actually interested me. It felt right somehow… natural. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I like getting to know you, Francis Martin, S.J. And I think you should know that the „S.J.‟ doesn‟t scare me in the least. But how in the world was I ever going to discover anything more about you if I had decided to just say goodnight and go and sleep my life away. Life‟s too short for that.” He had no argument for that one. He had always felt the same way himself. He remembered his youth and questioning God on many occasions as to the reason for so short a prescribed period of time for His creatures upon this earth. He couldn‟t even imagine how many years would be needed before a human being could actually be prepared to form a true and loving relationship with another person. 146 Of course he was looking at the problem from his intellectual perspective. He had no understanding whatever that time was irrelevant when it came to matters of the heart. A heart made decisions based on a rationale all its own and totally foreign to his logical way of thinking. In fact, a heart did not think at all. It felt. And no decision made by a heart ever took 100 years. A heart made its decision in an instant and this was true in almost every case. It was true for Amelia and it was true for Francis. He just didn‟t realize it. His Jesuit brain, superb in its own right, had little or no room for the illogical. And illogical as it was, his heart literally screamed at him in its effort to awaken within him the possibility of another reality. “Fuck logic!” it screamed. “Life really is too short. Don‟t let this one slip away.” But he still was not sure whether he was hearing the voice of his own heart or whether it was the ghost of his grandfather. “Maybe God is just working in one of his mysterious ways,” he heard his companion say in the midst of his reverie. Maybe that‟s true he thought, as they went off to breakfast. He certainly felt like he was caught up in the middle of a mystery lately. But whether it was the workings of God or of old Frank Martin, it was not quite clear. Without question, the old man was the one who had made up the agenda. He was the one who had set the stage for their little Christmas pageant, providing costumes, props and scenery. His cleric‟s collar and black suit made for a great costume to be sure, lending just the right touch of somber respectability to this macabre journey. His grandfather had never made a secret of his cynicism towards Francis‟ chosen vocation, regarding clergymen in general—and Jesuits in particular—as the last of the true witchdoctors and “spiritual parasites”. 147 He imagined the old man chuckling to himself as he made his plans for this, his last ride, knowing full well how his prodigal grandson, the priest, would faithfully perform his part in the play. Knowing full well that not only their long ago attachment but also his guilt from neglecting that attachment would lure him back to the dying man‟s bedside. Even though it was from 10,000 miles away he would still come. The ancient bond had been formed early enough in his life that it had woven itself into the very fabric of who he was. No matter how many miles lay between them, or how many years for that matter, his grandfather‟s voice ever remained close by. Only now, as he began to reflect upon the life and times of his old mentor, was Francis just beginning to appreciate the extent by which his own life had always been subject to his influence. During those times of absence, when he was so sure that he had left the past behind, as he traveled the globe, he would suddenly be reminded of Grandpa. It might be in the way a small child clasped the gnarled hand of an old man as they crossed a street in Palermo. Or a glimpse of an aged figure sipping coffee at an outdoor café in Prague. There was something about the way he held the newspaper, with one hand adjusting his spectacles just so. And the worldly-wise sophisticated Papal legate was a 10-year-old boy once more, struggling with a sudden stab of nostalgia for something he believed had been long forgotten. Even in his dreams Francis was reminded of the old man‟s hold upon him. Especially in his early days as a seminarian, Brother Francis would awaken on many occasions, usually in a cold sweat and left with only a fleeting glimpse of the nightmare. It was a long time in fact before he realized that the vision which startled him from sleep was a recurring dream. After that he recognized it right away and understood. Eventually 148 he learned to turn over and go back to sleep. At some point the dream went away. But in those early days he thought that it might never cease. The dream was always the same. It always started out as a most pleasant sojourn in a countryside he did not recognize but was so idyllic that his mind knew it immediately as a haunt of ancient peace. The woodlands and rolling hills, the meandering and easy path that followed a soft-flowing stream led to a sparkling clear lake that glittered with the diamonds of reflecting sunlight. Francis knew every step of the way; he recognized every twist and turn along the path. He knew just where the gnarled and half-hidden roots lay that had to be skipped over. He always recognized the fallen trunk of the old ash tree that signified the last switchback that made for a final climb to the crest of a small hillock that led to the clearing. And each and every time he reached that place and beheld the open meadow and the sparkling, peaceful lake beyond, his reaction was ever the same. The beauty of the landscape held him spellbound and for an instant, he was moved to tears. Next he was running through the meadow, the tall grass and the wildflowers parting in his wake. He could feel their soft caresses against his legs, his waist, even against his chest in the places where they grew exceedingly tall. He felt freer than he had since he had been an eight-year-old boy. He felt like he was that boy once again. He ran with utter abandon. He felt the warm wind on his face. He ran through the meadow without a care in the world. It was springtime and he could almost hear the sound of the trout splashing in the lake as they jumped and broke the water‟s surface. He reached a hand into one pocket of his spring jacket and felt the coil of twine, touched the hard, 149 curved surface of the sharp metal hook attached to it. In his other pocket lay an old tobacco tin containing fresh-dug worms. For some reason however he always failed to see the small boulder that lay in his path just at the water‟s edge. And it always surprised him, as he tripped over the rock and fell, just how far down it was before he hit the water; and the biggest shock was the extreme coldness as he plunged below the surface of the lake. Down, down he sank through the murky depths of the water. It had seemed so clear from a distance. The sun had reflected so brightly upon its surface, but the light did not penetrate below. In this watery world of cold and gloom, Francis the boy was afraid. All the same, he did not panic. He reassured himself that help was close by. He knew that he needed only to bob back up to the surface and he would find the outstretched hand of his grandfather—the hand that was always there for him without fail. And sure enough, as he broke through the murky water and into the sunlight, Grandpa‟s large callused hand was there, reaching out to him, its grip familiar and comforting, promising safety. The boy grasped the hand and held on tightly. To his surprise however, he found no help in this hand. With a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, he realized with horror that the thing that he was clinging to was his grandfather‟s hand all right, but it was no longer attached to the man. He began to sink below the water‟s surface once more. The last thing he saw was a vision of the old man standing on the shore, holding up one arm. It was a bloody stump. And he was grinning foolishly. With a pounding heart, the boy began to panic. He knew then that he was about to drown and he could not loose the grip of the ghastly hand that continued to 150 hold his own. A feeling of despair overwhelmed him. At that moment Francis would awaken with a shudder. It had been a long time since he had dreamed that dream. In truth, up until a week ago it had been a long time since he had even given much thought to his past, his family or the family‟s patriarch. In fact, when the telegram arrived on his desk in Singapore, he was in the midst of giving some serious thought to his future. He had begun a letter to his Superior General in Ottawa at least a dozen times, trying to find just the right words to convey the doubts, which had resurfaced lately to plague him once again. He sat amidst a sea of crumpled paper, feeling more frustrated than usual. He read the cryptic message over and over again, then tried to make some sense out of his feelings concerning the news. “Francis. Grandpa deathbed. Little time. He insists come at once and bring vestments. Alice.” There was no shock or even surprise for that matter. After all, old Frank was 98. He chuckled at the nerve of the old man to “insist” upon his presence. But of course that would be just like him—still ruling the roost even from his deathbed. That he should “bring vestments” intrigued him somewhat. He knew very well what he thought of priests and their “paraphernalia”. And although he hadn‟t been home in 10 years, he refused to believe that the old sinner had a sudden change of heart, dying or not. There were miracles, then there were miracles. He felt weary just thinking about the excruciating trip to Nova Scotia. If it were really a priest that he wanted, then Francis could arrange the presence of one at his bedside from right here, with a few phone calls. But he knew better 151 than that. He knew that it was his own presence that was being called for, or rather “demanded”. As he looked around the small office that had been home to his work for the previous six months, it felt suddenly cramped and oppressive. The ceiling fan that slowly circled above his head reminded him of the oppressive heat of the place as well. It had taken him all of those six months to even begin to adjust to it. At times he longed for the deep snows and cold days of Banff, Alberta, where his last posting had been. As he looked at the books, which lined one wall and the neatly stacked reports that covered half the desk, he had to wonder just why it was becoming harder and harder to find significance in his life lately. It used to be so easy. That‟s not to say that he never doubted his calling. He didn‟t know anyone who shared in his vocation who never had doubts. They were healthy actually, providing an impetus to test and strengthen one‟s faith, many times leading to a stronger and more profound commitment. But things were somehow not the same as they once were. He had not made his profession until he was 30, which was not all that unusual in the Jesuit Order. At least by that age you could expect to be fairly certain about your choice of vocation. He had been a priest for nearly 20 years now. But he had not envisioned himself ending up traipsing around the world to become a paper pusher—or to play the role of devil‟s advocate and watchdog—cleaning up the messes made by his fellow priests. He had made many attempts to explain his misgivings of late—as was evident from the crumpled paper that lay about the floor of his otherwise neat office. And it wasn‟t so much the fact that he was becoming jaded, even cynical at times by the tangled mires and webs of deceit, which it was his job to sort out. It had as much or more to do with the overall sense of 152 futility and frustration, which was growing within him it seemed, almost on a daily basis now. He was beginning to lose hope that even his best efforts were not going to make a bit of difference. But how can you tell your superiors that despite your vow of obedience and despite your humble acceptance of their better judgment, it was time for a change? That under the present circumstances the normal cracks in his foundation of belief were beginning to widen substantially and threatened to turn into a crisis of faith. It suddenly dawned on him then as he read over the telegram one more time that he felt relief. He was not relieved by its news of the old man‟s approaching death. But he knew that at some level its arrival was in answer to a silent prayer. Wasn‟t he just bemoaning the fact that he needed a change? This may not fit into his own muddled scheme of what was best for him and it might not coincide with the plans of his superiors either. But then wasn‟t there One Superior Who knew better than any of them what one Francis Martin, S.J., impious priest, might truly be in need of? It would certainly be a change, maybe even give him a chance for proper reflection and a new perspective. He reached for the phone on his desk, his heart already much lighter. Chapter VI And now he was reaching for another phone, in a train station 10,000 miles away, dialing the number of a woman he had never met. He had never known of her existence until a few days ago. He had been ignorant as well of any connection a member of his 153 family might have had to Springfield, Massachusetts. As the connection was made and the phone began to ring, he was acutely aware of how ignorant they all had been in his family, how very little indeed any of them had ever known about their grandfather. Whatever the old man had ever allowed them to see seemed like no more than the tip of an iceberg compared to the secrets he had kept hidden for all those years. “Hello,” said a sleepy voice on the other end of the line. It gave Francis a chill when he realized what he was about to do. He had all but forgotten how early in the morning it was. The brightness from outside that showed through the station doors had more to do with the swirling white snow than the time of day. Looking out through the glass of the phone booth his eyes narrowed against the brightness. As they refocused he was startled for a moment at his own haggard reflection in the dirty glass. “Hello,” the voice repeated, a little more insistently, a little less sleepy. He liked the sound of it and he tried to picture the woman to whom it belonged. But all he could see in his mind‟s eye were the steel gray eyes of his grandfather. Composing himself, he took a breath and got on with the task at hand—the fulfillment of a promise to a dying man‟s strange and mysterious request. Just one more of your secrets he thought, you mysterious old sinner. “Hello,” he responded. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas to you,” the voice replied. “My name is Father Francis Martin. You don‟t know me, I‟m afraid. We have never met, but I am under an obligation to…” He groped for the word that momentarily escaped him, the word that was a part of the memorized speech that he had promised to 154 deliver. Finally he continued, “…to contact you. It has to do with a vow that I made to a dying man.” He hesitated again and there was an expectant silence on the other end. The “speech” sounded contrived now, in the light of day, spoken to a real live human being on the other end of the phone. But he went on. “I represent the estate of someone else whom you have never met but who nevertheless has named you in his will as…” “Is this on the level, Mister?” the voice interrupted. “Or are you one of those Boston disc jockeys, just playing an early morning prank? Is that it, huh? You‟re taping this whole conversation and later on today you‟ll play it for your listening audience and everyone will have a good laugh, right? What station is this, anyway?” He was taken aback by this. He never listened to popular radio broadcasts, even when he was in North America, and he had trouble imagining just what she was talking about. But he had enough sense to realize that she was accusing him of a ruse. “Please, Ma‟am,” he offered. “This is on the level. I am sorry about the early hour, but my train was delayed by the storm. As it is, I only have a few moments to get back on board.” “Sure, sure you do. And Merry Christmas to you, too.” It sounded like she was about to hang up the phone. Francis shouted into the mouthpiece desperately, “Wait! Please! Your eyes… are they gray in color?” The question just came to him out of the blue. It wasn‟t part of the “speech” but he was desperate for her to stay on the line. And there really wasn‟t much time. 155 There was a moment of silence but he knew that she was still there. When she hesitantly answered, “Yes,” he breathed a sigh of relief. Now to finish this business and fulfill his promise. “Please,” he said. “Just bear with me for a moment or two. I just need a little information, okay?” “Okay,” came the reply but the voice sounded a little spooked now. “What kind of information?” Here goes, thought Francis, but he recognized the reluctance in her response. “Listen, if it would make you feel better… do you have a pen handy? Okay? Write this down so you can check this out later if you want to. Okay?” The woman agreed and he gave her his name and the name of his Superior General and his address and telephone number in Ottawa. It seemed to set her mind at ease. How did we ever get to such a point he thought. Future historians will probably judge our time as the “age of suspicion”. Okay then,” he continued. “First of all, you are Anna Grant. Is that correct?” The woman answered in the affirmative. “And your mother…?” “My mother?” “She was referred to by what name?” “What do you mean?” she asked. “Was she called Jennifer?” “Well, no, not exactly. People called her Jenny.” “Thank you, Anna. Now, I have deposited a suitcase in a locker here at the Springfield train station. I will be mailing the key to you. What you find in that locker is yours. Also included in the case, you will find a note of explanation.” 156 He made sure of her address, which had already been affixed to the envelope, written in Frank‟s own neat hand. He bid farewell just as the train whistle blew and the “all aboard” was called out. “One last thing,” he hurriedly added, again outside of the official “script”, “I have no idea about what you know of your grandmother‟s past. I don‟t know if you will be shocked or delighted by your find. I just ask that you keep an open mind—suspend judgement for at least a few days—and remember, God really does work in mysterious ways. Good day.” He dropped the envelope containing the locker key into the mailbox near the station entrance, then dashed aboard the train, just as it was beginning to move. He shivered from the cold air and the blowing snow nearly took his breath away. He had no idea what the outcome of this morning‟s business would be. He wondered about how the woman would react when she opened the case. He imagined a similar reaction to his own upon discovering family secrets and closets filled with skeletons. He felt content in his role as emissary, satisfied that he had fulfilled his promise to the letter. He did look inside the case, but he had not promised not to do this. Aside from his role as confessor, he knew that the real reason for his presence at that bedside had just transpired. Old Frank knew that his grandson, the priest, could be counted upon to carry out his instructions— especially knowing how it would appease the dying man‟s conscience. As a matter of fact, Francis recalled that this particular confession turned out to be the only thing that could inspire guilt in the old sinner. He marveled at how his grandfather had carried that guilt with him for over 75 years, periodically trying to make amends, only to be thwarted. It amazed him even more that after such a long and frustrating search he had finally succeeded in his quest. But it was too late to go himself 157 by that time. He was certain however that it would be a simple matter to delegate Francis in his stead—as a request from his deathbed. His sister Alice‟s bizarre story of Grandpa‟s strange behavior near the end made sense now. About two weeks before Christmas he received a letter in the mail. It had American postage but that was nothing unusual, or so it seemed. “But you know what he was like,” she confided, “very tight-lipped that one, always was. Anyway, after that he seemed to spend all his waking hours for the next few days writing letters, going to the post office. He went to the bank once. The only thing he would offer by way of explanation was that he was „making arrangements‟. The next thing we knew he was insisting that we send a telegram to you. “He wasn‟t in the best of health, but he wasn‟t sick either. We thought that his mind might be going. The day your message arrived to say that you were on your way, but would need at least a day to arrange things, well… it was just the strangest thing. The old man smiled at the news, climbed into his „deathbed‟ and never got out again. It was as if he had just had enough of living and he was deciding on his own terms just when and how he was going to go. You should have heard him rant when I wanted to fetch the doctor or get him to the hospital. I thought he was going to have a heart attack then. But he calmed down once he was sure that he could trust the promise I made to him. I never knew anyone so stubborn or pig-headed in my life.” Stubborn and tight-lipped were very apt descriptions Francis thought, as he watched the houses of Springfield roll by through the swirling snow. How about manipulative? That was another of the old man‟s traits that could not be overlooked. He was still trying to understand the nature of the hold he had always managed to maintain 158 over those who cared for him. There were other qualities about him as well. To be fair, as a boy Francis remembered his grandfather as a man of patience and understanding. He always had time for the boy. And although he never felt exactly “love” from the old man, he saw hints of a passionate nature. More than anything he felt a sense of strength in him—a strength upon which he knew he could rely, no matter what. Maybe it was no more than loyalty that Frank assured to his family. That combined with a strong will might be enough to forge such lasting bonds between people. He had to wonder at himself in turn—perhaps he was not much different from the old man, when all was said and done. As a boy he certainly believed that he loved his Grandpa. He definitely loved the time that he spent with him. Later on however, he wasn‟t so sure if what he felt could actually be called love. Loyalty might be a better description. It was the same with his siblings. He would defend them in all things and he would always be there for them—if they called. But he had long ago realized, to his own surprise and chagrin, that the only person he could truthfully claim to have loved was Rose, his departed mother and the keeper of his heart. He now believed that Frank may have spent his entire lifetime under much the same conditions. Now that he had become the “keeper of his secrets”, he felt that he finally understood certain things about the man who had affected his own life in so many ways. For one thing, he now understood what his own mother hinted at when she talked about her own mother. Martha, who seldom complained about anything during her lifetime, had once confided in Rose how she had long ago ceased to look for the “fire of love” from her husband. She had hoped for it of course, believing for a long time that her own loving nature would eventually “rub off” and bring about a change in his nature. 159 Eventually however she gave up and relegated this desire, as she did with most of her wants, to just another one of her girlhood fantasies. But she assured her daughter that Frank was “a good man” and loving in his own way. Only Francis knew, and that only after 75 years, that the man had passion once—that he had experienced love with such a depth of feeling that it would have eclipsed any hero, both modern or ancient. And that his story of love lost would have rivaled any tragedy of Greece or Shakespeare. When he had learned the details of Frank and Winona, the jaded priest had sat next to the dying man‟s bedside and shed tears of grief. Now that he had concluded the day‟s “business”, other memories flooded over him. Again, they came from stories related by his own mother. Only this time they related directly to his own life. And for the first time ever, he began to appreciate the circumstances of his birth and his great good fortune to have been placed within the benevolent protection and the fierce loyalty of Frank Martin. As a bastard child born to a young Catholic girl in the 1950‟s, things could have turned out much worse. As it was, Grandpa Frank provided the child with unconditional acceptance, the old unyielding patriarch himself, surprising everyone with his sudden attitude of tolerance; bending the considerable force of his will against all opposition, including his hysterical wife, Martha, who was hell-bent upon putting the bastard child up for adoption. It was Frank who insisted upon tolerance. And it was Frank who won out—forever to the gratitude of the ungrateful child, not to mention his mother, Rose. Once again he found himself on the verge of tears, and he could not stop them. Only now, and for the first time, they were tears of grief for the old sinner himself. 160 And that is how Amelia found him, still standing in the doorway of the train, staring out through the snow at the moving scenery of the sleeping New England town— pathetic and forlorn, crying shamelessly for a man whom he had neglected for years, but who now lay claim to his heart and soul. He felt relieved by her presence, and relieved when she led him along the corridor towards her compartment, uttering phrases of comfort, which seemed to come naturally. “Oh, Francis, you poor dear,” she cooed, as she eased his tired body down onto the fold-out bed of her sleeping compartment. He didn‟t resist as she removed first his shoes, then his socks. It felt good when she pulled away his collar, then unbuttoned his shirt. She soon had him out of his clothes and tucked in under the blankets. He was barely aware of her ministrations, yet he felt no embarrassment when he appeared before her in his undershirt and boxer shorts—except perhaps for the slight self-consciousness he felt about the beginning bulge around his mid-section. “You are obviously exhausted,” she said as she covered him up. The look of concern on her face was touching. But Francis wasn‟t ready for sleep. His mind seemed to be working overtime and he could not shut it down. His tears had stopped and he had become suddenly awake. His new awareness of the past was insistent on its need to be understood. At the same time, his present situation, in which Amelia played a central role, was just as insistent in its own need for acknowledgement. It threatened to provide a physical manifestation of its desire however, and Francis found himself glad that his companion had covered him up. “I need to talk,” he finally managed to rasp, hoarsely. “I‟m all ears,” his companion replied, smiling. “Just give me a moment.” 161 She went off then, he couldn‟t imagine where. But true to her word, in a moment she had returned. She was clad in oversized flannel pajamas. When she slipped beneath the covers and he felt her body next to his, Francis experienced a moment of such confusion that he literally forgot just where in hell he was—or even who he was, for that matter. “Don‟t worry,” she reassured him, as if aware of his confusion and consternation. “I am as tired as you are, and we are only going to sleep. Okay?” He nodded dumbly. “But before we sleep,” she added, “You wanted to talk. Right? Something to do with your phone call back at the station… and your grandfather. Is that a good guess? He nodded once more. “Okay. I‟m listening.” She had drawn the blinds, shutting out most of the morning light outside. Francis lay on his back with one arm under her neck. Amelia snuggled closer. Together they filled the narrow sleeping space. Once he got used to her presence next to him and his heart palpitations became manageable, he suddenly felt very calm. His earlier agitation disappeared and was replaced by a kind of contentment. The feeling was almost foreign, it was so novel to him, especially lately. It felt good to have someone with whom he could share his tales. Old Frank must have felt much the same way those last days after his grandson had arrived to sit by his bed, providing a listening ear. In the dim light of the compartment, he felt grateful as his voice quietly began to fill their cozy space. The rhythm of the train seemed to keep time as they moved through the morning air. The passing landscape slipped by unseen. He felt as if they were wrapped in a cocoon 162 together, travelling through space and time. They could have been anywhere—even New York City in 1923. *** It was quite by accident that the girl discovered Frank Martin. He was walking along with a woman, hand-in-hand. His clothes were a little better cut, but his walk was the same—the slight swagger and the cap worn rakishly to one side. She would have known him anywhere just by that walk. But it was the voice that really gave him away. She couldn‟t believe her eyes at first. She had come to New York to find him. She had already been in the City for over two years and had all but given up. The little girl beside her, clinging to her hand, was barely a year old when they had first arrived. The City was a hard place for a single woman with a child to care for. But she didn‟t know where else to go. To find Frank was her only thought and when Frank left her he had been hell-bent for New York. He was on a mission was what she had later learned. That was all well and good for him, but things weren‟t quite the same for her after his departure, especially in her condition. To be fair, Frank knew nothing about the child. She had only been “late” by a couple of months and there didn‟t seem to be any need to alarm him. By the third month however, there was no doubt. She was in a fix and by then he was long gone—on his “mission”. After her initial panic and by the time she could no longer hide the obvious, 163 she found life at least bearable. This was due to the surprising understanding of her parents. They were not pleased of course—and the name of Frank Martin would forever remain a cuss word in their mouths—but they continued to accept their daughter and her “mistake”. At least the girl‟s mother continued in her support. The father managed to tolerate her and “that bastard child” for about a year. His high Christian morals and wounded sensibilities finally won out however. It probably had more to do with the gossip of his Christian neighbors and his wounded pride, but his tolerance ended one day in a sudden fit of righteous indignation, and the pair were banished from his sight. Even Mother could not prevail against his unyielding resolve. Turned out of her home, her baby still suckling at her breast, her own resolve kept her going. She turned her back on her small-town home just south of Springfield and headed for the city of New York. She understood her father at some level. It had never been easy growing up as the daughter of a minister. For most of her life she had always felt that she displeased him, but this went beyond mere displeasure. She knew that this time she had actually brought shame upon him. She was also acutely aware of the gossip and the rumors—and worse than gossip. His affronted Christian congregation had set in motion a plan to remove the man from their pulpit. At least her own disappearance would secure his position in the church. They all deserved each other, as far as she was concerned. Her mother had managed to scrape together a bit of money, from God knows where—she didn‟t ask. She just accepted the gift that was thrust into her hands as her mother saw her off at the station. They were both in tears as the train pulled out and her journey to the City began. But she never looked back. She ignored the stares from the 164 other passengers but she found herself trembling as she nursed her child in the presence of all those strangers. She arrived at Grand Central Station tired out, bedraggled and forlorn. But the sights and sounds of the place, its utter exuberance, energy and complexity of life were like nothing she had ever witnessed, nor could have imagined. After the banality of rural New England, she felt like she had stepped into a richly textured, vibrant oil painting of a great spectacle that had suddenly come to life. She felt both afraid and at the same time in awe, as she stood in the center of the great concourse. Clutching her one battered suitcase in one hand and holding her child with the other, she looked all about her, wide-eyed and gaping like the country bumpkin that she was. The sheer size of the place was overwhelming. Her father‟s small church would have barely taken up space in there enough to fill a corner. And its steeple, which had seemed so grand back home, would not have reached the ceiling And such a throng of people! Whereas the tall pillars, like gigantic trees of stone, the great sweeping marble stairs and the steel and glass ramparts of the roof left her with an immediate impression of solid, unmoving permanence, the people moved across the great open space with such fluidity that she was reminded of flowing water. A line from one of her father‟s sermons popped into her head—something about “a sea of humanity”—and she felt suddenly adrift. And everyone seemed to be in a hurry. They didn‟t just walk, but rather they moved with purpose—up and down the great stairs; through the large doorways and wide arches, all at a clipped pace. Porters hustled along pushing, transoms laden with trunks and luggage of all sizes and descriptions. Young boys hawked newspapers and shoeshines. Calls of “Taxi!” rang out repeatedly as people 165 made their way through the doors at the top of the stairs and stepped outside. Lovers and families rushed to greet each other, aglow with happiness at obvious reunions. Their excited chatter rose and fell as they gathered up belongings and hurried each other along to waiting cabs or carriages—to waiting hearths and homes. There were others among the crowds too, the likes of which she had never seen before but had only heard of in stories. There were dark brown men dressed in long robes of pure white or rich cream. Upon their heads they wore turbans. One figure stood out among all the others. He was very old, with a long flowing white beard, but his stature was that of a much younger man. He walked erect and seemed to emanate strength and authority. He also walked with a purpose, but unlike the rest, he was not in a hurry. He obviously seemed to be someone of importance, surrounded as he was by a large entourage, all of whom seemed to treat the old man with great deference. He seemed to radiate a kind of peace and calm amidst the clamoring bustle of the other travelers who filled the station. Many among the crowd who followed this man were also dark-skinned, but they were immaculately dressed in dark suits, like businessmen, their shoes gleaming. Upon their heads sat cloth hats that resembled flower pots turned upside-down. There were also women among them, beautiful in their long flowing saris, multi-colored and shimmering, replete with matching headdress. Many carried bouquets of flowers, resplendent in their profusion of color and redolent with perfume. The scent of roses especially seemed to permeate the air and she noticed then that two of the women were scattering rose petals about the floor in the wake of the procession, as if at a wedding. 166 The entourage made its way towards the center of the concourse and she realized that she stood directly in its path. But she could not move, so intrigued was she by such an unusual sight. She thought at first that they didn‟t see her standing there. But the entire knot of people stopped directly in front of her and the venerable old figure in their midst made a deep bow before her. She felt like she was in a dream then, as he smiled and gently spoke to her. She didn‟t understand the language of his words but it didn‟t matter in the least. As he held her gaze with his eyes, she felt that he was speaking directly to her heart and she understood every word perfectly. She believed that he called her his “daughter” and she believed in that moment that she had just been reunited with the truest friend she had ever known. He spoke briefly and simply and her mind seemed to hear him say the words that her heart longed to hear: “Don‟t worry. You and your child will come to the shore of safety. Through your difficulties you will find strength; through your struggle, you will attain to the harbor of peace. Do not be afraid, child. You will even find him.” As long as her gaze was held by those dark, piercing eyes, their depths like infinite, luminescent pools, she felt utterly and completely accepted, regardless of her faults or failures. She felt like a little lost child who had found her way home, and waiting there for her was the father who loved her—without question or condition. He stroked the hair of the child in her arm, then with the gentlest touch of his other hand, he brushed her own cheek. The next instant he moved on, his robes flowing behind him, his entourage following without a glance in her direction. Their entire focus was upon the figure whom they apparently considered as a saint in their midst. And she would have heartily agreed with their assumption. But her own spell was broken and she found herself standing once 167 more, at the center of the vast concourse of Grand Central Station, surrounded by a sea of disinterested strangers, utterly alone. Only now, where once his soft touch had brought solace, hot tears were streaming down her cheeks, unbidden and uncontrollable. “Welcome to New York,” she whispered to her tiny daughter through her tears. “We will find him, don‟t worry.” With that sense of hope, she entered the City. Through her tears she stumbled up the great stairway and out into the blinding sunlight of Lexington Avenue. There her blurred vision tried to make sense out of other sights, to which she was wholly unaccustomed and unprepared. To begin with, the sheer magnitude and grandeur of the surrounding buildings nearly took her breath away. Across the avenue, the elegant Biltmore Hotel loomed impressively, brand new and gleaming in the sunlight. Behind her, the classical façade of Grand Central, complete with huge cast-iron eagles, reminded her of a picture from a school history book, which depicted the Roman Empire in its glory days. Such magnificence was compounded by the streetscape that lay before her. Not only had she never before seen an array of such splendidly dressed folk, but they were well-met by what seemed like a continuous stream of horse-drawn carriages that were meticulously furbished and groomed and beautiful to look upon. And even more enthralling than those were the motor cars. Their polished surfaces gleamed in the sunlight. Their spoked wheels were a blur as they rushed past at dizzying speeds. Within five minutes on Lexington Avenue she had seen more automobiles than she had witnessed in her entire lifetime previously. Within another five minutes she suddenly realized that she had also seen more people and of a greater variety as well than Springfield could have ever boasted. But not 168 everyone was dressed in such fine apparel as those she had first seen exiting the railroad station and driving away in fancy carriages or automobiles. And not all the sights were enthralling, or even appealing. In fact, as she made her way along the avenue, there appeared many sights that she would have preferred to have been spared in her lifetime. Although the Great War had been over for nearly three years, she recognized the uniforms of the soldiers. There seemed to be one about every block or so. The uniforms however were soiled and tattered, barely rags in some cases. And the men who wore them in no way resembled the men she remembered from Springfield, who had returned home in 1918 wearing their uniforms proudly, as they marched in victory parades. There was no pride remaining in these men on the streets of New York. Each one sat upon the sidewalk with his back against the hard stone of a building, without shade to protect him against the merciless summer sun. The cement and granite all around sucked up the heat then radiated it right back at you. On such a day it would be easy to picture the City as an enormous oven. She could not imagine spending a day just sitting and baking under such conditions. But of course such a plight had to do with the condition of these men—these once proud soldiers in their uniforms of rags, reduced to begging for their daily bread. Some were blind, some maimed, missing a leg or an arm. Some offered pencils for sale for a nickel, while others just proffered a tin cup for alms. Some wore placards around their necks with neatly lettered signs: “Help a Crippled Veteran,” or “Victim of Mustard Gas”. It was the most pitiful sight she had ever witnessed and they seemed to get progressively worse the farther south she went along the avenue. At first she could barely look upon these beggars and her feet hurried her past them. Then she seemed to be helplessly drawn to the wretched creatures, barely able to 169 look away. A macabre fascination seemed to grip her and she felt ashamed. This produced the desire within her to donate something to the tin cups and help alleviate their suffering. She fought such an impulse, reminded of her own plight by the small child who clung to her for support. She continued to hurry on, not really knowing where she was going. She felt overwhelmed once more by this City, with its contrasts of opulence and misery. She had no idea where she was or how long she had been walking. She felt weary all of a sudden, exhausted really; the baby in one arm and her suitcase in the other felt like great weights, making her ache all over. The sun was too bright and the sidewalk started to boil; the air was shimmering all around her, blurring her vision. In a fit of dizziness and nausea, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, nearly collapsing where she stood. She closed then opened her eyes repeatedly, then inhaled deeply and slowly let it out; then another deep breath, followed by another… and another and… one more. Her vertigo receded, she was nearly calm now. Her vision was clear now and when her eyes focused once more, she realized that she had stopped directly in front of the most terrible sight of any that had disturbed her so far. There was no sign, and no need for one; there were no pencils offered for sale either. There was a tin cup beside him and it sat empty and forlorn. Not only was he obviously blind, he was also the youngest of the unfortunate soldiers she had seen so far. His youth alone should have elicited pity enough from the passers-by. One side of his face—the good side—was almost angelic in its appearance. The other side of his young face resembled a hideous mask that was made up of livid, purplish scar tissue. He sat upon a kind of makeshift trolley of wood and iron wheels, set low to the ground. Where his legs should have been, the pants of his uniform were turned back and pinned up, just above the knees. 170 Everyone hurried by without a second glance, as if he wasn‟t there—or perhaps they glanced but did not dare to let their eyes see. They did not dare to believe in the possibility that what they saw could be anything other than a ghastly apparition. What should have been a cause for pity and the utmost human kindness instead became a repulsive abomination. The hideous nature of the creature defied comprehension. Aversion and antipathy were preferable to acknowledging that such unspeakable and loathsome cruelties could exist in the world—especially in the world of 1921, in the City that was preoccupied with moving forward and onward. The War was long over and belonged to the past; the City belonged to the future. Better to forget and get on with it. Better to let the past be and to ignore such reminders of such a dark page in human history. So the tin cup remained empty. The woman with the baby and the suitcase, stopped in her tracks by the shimmering summer heat, did not yet belong to the City. She was still a tourist and her small-town girl‟s eyes had not yet grown blinders (although they would in time, as they always must). At present she could not take her eyes off the pitiable creature before her. She also could not comprehend what she was seeing or the terrifying horror of what could have created such a monstrosity. But she was moved more by pity than by revulsion. She knew instinctively that this young man had no future; that he was now and forever a casualty of the dark past. She remembered the captivating gaze of the mysterious Sage from the East, the bottomless wells of his dark, piercing eyes that had seen into her very heart. She had been moved to the depths of her being , had felt whole, completely and unconditionally accepted. In a flash of revelation she now realized that, for the first time in her life, she had actually felt loved. And for no other reason but that 171 she was a creature of God. It made no difference whether or not she deserved to be loved, he had made no distinction, no judgment. The memory gave her a peaceful feeling inside. She wished for the venerable old man‟s presence once more, only this time for the creature of God sitting upon the sidewalk, scorned and reviled by the world. She had no love for this gruesome beggar, realized at once that she never could. At best, he could only move her to pity. But even that was something. She also felt moved to contribute to the creature‟s well-being. She had very little money, but surely she could spare a nickel. She dropped her suitcase onto the sidewalk and her shoulder registered immediate relief. Hiking the baby up a little higher, she found her pocketbook and awkwardly fumbled around inside of it, until her fingers found the coin she was seeking. Clutching her child tightly, she walked hesitantly but deliberately towards the disfigured beggar. She stopped in front of him, took a deep breath, then quickly bent down and placed the nickel in the tin cup. The coin rattled around in the hollow emptiness and seemed to ring out with a sound that was much too loud. She turned to go but as she straightened up, the man‟s hand flashed out and held her by the hem of her dress. She could not help the feeling of revulsion and panic that came over her and she wanted to bolt. His grip was surprisingly strong however and she couldn‟t move. But there was no menace in his actions. He held her there only momentarily, his unseeing eyes staring straight ahead. “God bless you, Ma‟am,” he said softly but clearly. Then he loosed his grip and she was free to go. ”God bless you, too,” she replied, calm restored and chastising herself for her moment of panic. She turned around just in time to see her suitcase being snatched up and carried off by a lanky young boy had appeared out of nowhere. He was tall and thin 172 and very dirty, but probably not much older than 12. The young hoodlum seemed to be well-versed in his trade; he began to walk away with the valise with such nonchalance that his charade fooled even her for an instant. But when he saw the look on the woman‟s face and just as she began to yell for help, he took off running. The girl‟s heart sank. She cried out, “Stop! Thief! Stop that boy… somebody!” She ran after him but feared that it was already too late. All of her worldly possessions were in that case, including those of her baby. As if she understood the nature of her mother‟s plight, the child in her arms began to cry rather loudly. It probably had more to do with the jostling and bouncing around, but she clung tightly to the woman‟s neck and wailed during the entire pursuit. And the thief led them on a merry chase, indeed, up one unfamiliar street and down another. At times it seemed like they were going in circles because everything looked like everything else. But the whole time the chase was leading them farther and farther away from the busier avenues and the grander buildings and into a part of the City, which still remained untouched by the vision of the future. She could finally run no further. Her legs suddenly felt like rubber and she lowered the baby to the ground then collapsed in a heap beside her. Wheezing and coughing and sobbing all at the same time, she fought to catch her breath. She was drenched in sweat. The boy was long gone, her belongings with him. She silently cursed the young hooligan, then lowered her head and gave in to the feeling of desolation, which engulfed her. At least the baby had ceased her wailing, choosing instead to pat her mother‟s back with her tiny hands, by way of consolation. All the while she practiced one of the few words that she had mastered, cooing over and over again, “Mama, Mama.” 173 And that is how the two of them were discovered, sitting on the bottom step of the wide and inviting stairs that led up to the welcoming doors of the Unitarian Church, at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 20th Street. She was startled out of her stupor by a pair of rather large, fleshy arms that were suddenly enveloping her. The arms were connected to a rather stout, solid little woman, who was smiling broadly and cooing just like the child, offering comfort and solace, just like any mother would. With a “Now, now, child, don‟t fret,” and “You‟re safe now, it‟s alright,” the older woman held the girl in her arms and hugged her to her bosom. Mrs. Annabelle Mayfield was the organist and sometimes choir director of this church. She was also the self-appointed savior of wayward girls, the homeless and strays in general. She was a minor legend in the neighborhood and even throughout the City itself. She was known as a one-woman crusader and referred to by many names. Her generosity of spirit as well as her ferocity were legendary and she was described sometimes as the “13th Apostle” by some. Others considered her more as the “13th Hound from Hell.” When she was hell-bent on one of her “missions”, even the thugs and the pimps of the Lower East Side stayed out of her way. The pimps especially, she despised. They were lower than the lowest snakes, more vile than the most villainous—all of them spawns of Satan and not worth her spit. The pimps knew her as “Belle from Hell,” but they didn‟t fight her. They just considered it as part of the game when she rescued one of “her girls” from their ruthless clutches. Of course it didn‟t hurt that she had a brother who just happened to be the assistant to the New York City Police Commissioner. Her girls simply referred to her as “Mother Mayfield”, or “Mother Belle”. They all thought of her as their patron saint. 174 Belle was as wide as she was tall and she was all heart. And all four feet, 11 inches of her was concentrated bulldog when it came to one of her girls. Since the late Mr. Mayfield had passed away, more than a dozen years ago now, she had thrown herself heart and soul into her “homefront missionary work”. She had turned their modest mansion on Fourth Avenue into a temporary shelter and “fresh start” domicile for those lost and wayward souls, whom she sought out or found upon the streets of the City. She loved the City. In fact, she had grown up here and not far from where she continued to reside. On many occasions she had thwarted her late husband‟s desire to move away from the City, or at least uptown to a better neighborhood, perhaps near Central Park or even the Upper West Side. But she would have none of that. Her roots were here. Greenwich Village, Chelsea and especially the Lower East Side were where she was needed. Even before Harold Mayfield, the railroad executive, had boarded his last train into the sky, his illustrious wife had already begun—much to his dismay and futile protestations—her “missionary” work and on more than one occasion, he had arrived home to find some “dirty little streetwalker” sharing his “humble home.” After his death, Belle Mayfield so no reason whatsoever to restrain herself in the work, which she was convinced was a calling from God. At any given time nowadays, her home was usually filled. On this particular day, there just happened to be a vacancy. And as usual, she marveled at the workings of the Lord. His ways were wondrous and quite a mystery at times, but she never questioned them. She always recognized His hand in the work that she had chosen to perform—sometimes at great peril to her own safety. But this was the first time He had delivered a stray right to her bosom. 175 “I usually have to seek the likes of you in the dens of iniquity,” she said to the girl who was nestled in her expansive arms, at the bottom of the stairs that led to her own church. “Today, somehow the Lord has seen fit to bring you to me,” she continued. The girl had no idea what she was talking about. But she realized instinctively that this unusual woman represented safety and security. When she heard her say that she—and her child—were coming home with her, she just breathed a sigh of relief and whispered a silent prayer of thanksgiving. It had been a very trying day and she was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Later on, when she told her all about her adventures in this, her first day in the City, Belle listened attentively, then assured the girl that all would be well. Both hers and the baby's needs would be more than taken care of. When she told her about her encounter with the mysterious and venerable Eastern mystic, the old woman seemed a little perplexed. “Why, it‟s a mystery within a mystery, child,” she finally said. “I believe you, I‟m not saying otherwise—but it couldn‟t possibly be. The man you are describing was here in New York, all right. He spoke right from the very pulpit of my own church—the Unitarian, where I found you on the steps, the very same. But that was nearly 10 years ago, child. I remember it as though it was only yesterday—the summer of 1912. And he was such a wonderful speaker. It didn‟t seem to matter in the least that he spoke in a foreign language—and I was always sure that the translator never did do him justice—but he spoke directly to the heart. It was wonderful. But after that summer, child, he left America and returned to the Holy Land. Later that year, we received the most wonderful note, thanking the congregation for its hospitality and warmth.” She seemed lost in the memory for a moment, then continued wistfully, “I remember that day clearly as well. 176 The note was accompanied by the most beautiful profusion of yellow roses. Their perfume filled the church and seemed to linger for weeks. They reminded me of that earlier summer day when he had called us all „the flowers of one garden, the waves of one sea‟. “But the message was clear: we would not see the likes of him in our midst again, he was needed in Palestine, because of the dark days ahead. It warned us of a calamity that was about take place and engulf the world in a great conflagration—that we must remain strong and steadfast and continue the work of the Lord. “Oh, child,” she went on, once again focusing on the present. “You witnessed the pitiable results of that great calamity today on the streets of our very own City. Those poor souls, reduced to begging… and all of them so young… it just breaks your heart.” The girl was more confused than ever. When she began to describe her encounter with the mysterious stranger, Belle had taken over excitedly and filled in details concerning his appearance and his entourage as if she had been there herself. When she had mentioned the girls and their shower of rose petals, she never named the color of the roses. But they also were yellow. Perhaps it was all just an extraordinary coincidence. Or perhaps, as her benefactor suggested, it was just as well to accept the mysterious workings of God and not waste too much time on seeking an explanation. She envied Belle‟s simple faith. Over the next few months her own faith was steadily restored. Belle helped her to get on her feet. Eventually she was able to move out of the residence on Fourth Avenue and into a tenement in SoHo, on Canal Street. It was a fifth-floor walk-up, a cold water flat of two rooms, with a shared bath. It wasn‟t much but the rent was cheap and she 177 could call it her own. The Salvation Army helped by providing blankets and clothing for herself and the baby. They were also good for an occasional meal at their soup kitchen over on Lafayette. Belle scrounged a few rough sticks of furniture and, more importantly, found work for her. There was a wonderful Italian bakery just down the street and the prices were most reasonable for the day-old bread at three cents a loaf. She also discovered a market just south of SoHo near Battery Park, where she could procure fruits and vegetables that were practically free. Like the bread, they weren‟t exactly fresh, but sustaining nonetheless. And there was a butcher over on Chambers Street. He was rather gruff and unfriendly, but he provided soup bones for free. You just had to ask him for leftover bones for your dog. Apparently the man was not too fond of people—but he loved animals. Her new friend Louise had taught her about that trick soon after she had moved in. Louise was another one of Belle‟s “finds”. She was one of the tenants who shared the fifth-floor bathroom. She had come to the City after drifting from place to place along the Mississippi River, all the way from New Orleans. She had a beautiful face, except for a scar that snaked from just below one eye down to her jaw, and she had a foul mouth— “Both gifts from my Daddy,” she proclaimed in her thick Cajun accent, “—the son of a bitch.” She despised men and insisted that she had enough of them to last her a lifetime. But she delighted in making fools of them or when she got the best of them, like “that old dog-loving, queer bastard, the butcher”. She was just 17. Quite a few of the flats in the building were occupied by Belle‟s girls and everyone had a story to tell. Many of them had a child, some had two. All of them were young and most of them became fast friends. They looked out for one another, showed 178 the new arrivals the ropes, shared what little they had and provided solace and comfort during the “bad days”. They had also formed a kind of informal cooperative, providing babysitting services, which made it possible for the young mothers to go out to work. What they all shared in common was a desire to make a new life for themselves, too little of the necessities that could bring comfort to that new life and their genuine affection for Mother Mayfield. The newest arrival on Canal Street, fresh from Springfield, Massachusetts, had never known such friendship in the company of women and she delighted in it. She even began to take delight in the City as well. In a very short time, she no longer felt like a tourist there. And although she might never be considered as a native to the place, she soon realized that the vast majority of those on her list of friends or acquaintances fit the same description. New York City was a mosaic, composed of the most diverse mixture of people that might ever be found in one place. But it was the City itself that bound them together, wrapped them all up in its own identity and left its indelible mark upon them. If you lived in the City for any length of time, it soon became impossible to remain a tourist. You were left with no choice but to get caught up in its energy, exuberance and passion, and before long you simply became a New Yorker. Its charm was inevitable, its spell subtle but inexorable. There was just no choice in the matter. Well, that wasn‟t exactly true, but for those frightened souls that just found it too overwhelming, the only other choice was retreat. And that usually meant returning to the parochial life from which they had been trying desperately to escape. For the ones who stayed, the ones who rose up to the challenge, the City became Home, with a capital H, the one place where they felt that they belonged. It became a living and breathing thing that somehow gave 179 meaning to their own lives and breath. And it made no difference whether they were cleaning toilets in Grand Central Station or running errands for the Mayor. Even in the early days she never minded the work. She began by cleaning the houses of friends of Belle. She was friendly and everyone liked her. They recommended her to other friends, and so it went. But some of the residences were not very close by, even as far as Chelsea, along streets in the mid-20‟s. It made for very long days and what she minded was having to leave the baby on those occasions. She had mixed feelings when it came to weaning her little girl. She felt that it was too soon—the baby was barely a year old. But she soon appreciated the freedom from nursing. There wasn‟t much money to be made; some days she might only have three hours‟ work with a three hours‟ walk back and forth. But she loved to walk the streets of the City, especially in those early morning hours before it had stretched and become fully awake. There was something magical in the soft light of dawn, followed by the slanting rays of the sun filtering through the mists that rose above the East River. There wasn‟t a penny to spare but many of her patrons were kind. A few were even generous, remembering her with their hand-me-downs and cast-offs. There was an extra dollar in some of the envelopes at Christmastime and she managed to buy fresh oranges, sweet and juicy, and the prettiest ragdoll for her little girl. She and the other girls pooled their meager resources enough to put together a real feast for Christmas dinner, including turkey and all the trimmings. Life seemed good then, and for a moment they could all forget their troubles. But she never forgot what brought her to the City in the first place. 180 Wherever she went and whomever she met, she continued to ask after Frank. But he was neither famous nor infamous enough to have come to anyone‟s attention, at least not within her circle of acquaintances. Even Belle‟s brother in the police department came up empty. At first she saw him everywhere—across a busy street, entering a department store—once in front of her own building, in the twilight after a long day at work. Each time this happened her heart would leap into her throat and she would rush to the place where he had just appeared. And each time her elusive prey escaped her and she came away more disappointed than before. As the seasons came and went and the months turned into a year, then nearly two years, she eventually stopped seeing Frank. He was no longer around every corner or lurking in the shadows of buildings. As her own life began to find new meaning in the city, there were entire days when she no longer even gave him a thought. By the spring of 1923, she found herself with full-time work at the Vanderbilt mansion and life was suddenly looking up. As luck would have it, during the preceding Christmas party season she had filled in for a sick friend at some high society gala on Madison Avenue. She must have impressed the hostess enough to get her a recommendation to the Vanderbilt‟s and she suddenly went from charwoman to parlor maid in the most opulent surroundings imaginable, on Park Avenue. Her employer was tyrannical and all 33 parlor maids, identically dressed in their calico uniforms, in the 137- room mansion waited in terror every morning. They waited to see if their work passed the old woman‟s “white-glove test”. Whether or not her work pleased the “old bitch”—as she was referred to by Louise—she was never informed. At any rate, she assumed that it was 181 adequate, since she continued to remain in the woman‟s employ (while more than a few others of her company were given rather rude and immediate dismissals). There were no hand-me-downs at the Vanderbilt mansion but the pay was much better and by early summer she was able to “move up in the world”, finding a place on 20th Street, not far from the Unitarian Church where she had met Belle her first day in the City. She could hardly believe that nearly two years had slipped by since that fateful day. Her new apartment was not much bigger than her flat on Canal Street, but at least it had hot and cold running water. It was also brighter and cheerier and, best of all, she now had her very own bathroom. Once again, Mother Belle was there to help, this time scrounging a little better furniture to go with her improved surroundings. She even found her a set of red and white gingham curtains to match her kitchen tablecloth—what luxury. Best of all she had arranged for Mary-Jane, her newest “girl”, to come in and look after the little one while she was away at work. She was a sweet girl and a runaway from Memphis—not ready to talk yet about just what she was running from. She had only been in the City for a week when she was caught up in a police raid in the Bowery. No ID, no money and no history—just an innocent face and a Tennessee accent—she was somehow lucky enough to come to the attention of the Police Commissioner‟s assistant and Belle‟s brother passed her along to the saving grace of his sister. Belle took the young waif in of course and knew just what to do with her. She kept herself informed about her girls, knew that one of them was about to move up in the world and that she would need assistance. And this new one, Mary-Jane from Memphis, needed a focus in her life. It was the perfect arrangement. The timing of course, Belle assured everyone, was nothing more than one more clear sign of 182 God‟s hand making a difference in the lives of His pitiful creatures. Better than any other “sign” was the fact that the little girl loved Mary-Jane almost as much as she had loved Louise, her previous babysitter, and the transition went off without a hitch. Her new digs were not far from Gramercy Park and this became a favorite haunt on Sunday afternoons. She would take her little girl and, hand-in-hand, they would stroll along the paths, delighting in the open space, the greenery, the shade trees and the fresh air. Fish and chips from a street vendor was a ritual, followed by a push on the swings that overlooked 23rd Street. The child squealed with delight, exhorting her mother to push her to greater heights. The mother obliged, sharing in her child‟s exuberance and simple happiness. Sundays in the park were magical and they restored her tired body and her aching soul. The ritual had become an important part of the rhythm of her new life. When she spied Frank, her heart leapt into her throat, just like in the old days, and the rhythm was suddenly disturbed. It was a few moments before she realized that she had stopped pushing the swing and her daughter‟s usual squeals of delight rang differently in her ears. But she had suddenly lost interest in their game. Removing the little girl from the swing and taking her by the hand, she offered no explanation as she dragged her along beside her. The rules of the Sunday game were changed without warning and the child did not understand. The child did not complain, sensing something serious in her mother‟s changed mood. This was something very serious indeed for the mother. After searching for nearly two years until she had reached the point where she had finally given up—or at least believed that it no longer mattered— there he was, large as life. And she had no control over the heart that leaped or the blood that suddenly raced through her, and she could not deny that it still did matter. But 183 finding him like this was nothing like she had ever envisioned. He was supposed to be alone and ready to embrace her once again—and their little girl as well. He was not supposed to be strolling down the avenue in the company of another woman, who appeared as easy and familiar with him as… a wife? She didn‟t dare to even breathe the word. She and the girl followed the couple until, halfway along the block they stopped in front of an old brownstone. As they began to ascend the front steps, her heart sank. If she was ever going to confront him, she knew that the time had to be now. Her feelings were all mixed up and tumultuous. In fact, she didn‟t know quite what she was feeling, but miserable seemed to be at the top of the list. There was such a discordance and turmoil inside of her that she was suddenly reminded of a strain of the new music she had been hearing lately in the Village—something called “jazz”. Until now it had only sounded like noise to her ears. But she found herself relating to its jangled, tortured rhythms in that moment and a kind of detached voice in her head told her simply, “Jazz. It‟s just the music of pain.” Then she found her own voice. “Frank Martin!” she shouted, stopping the couple on the bottom step. They turned around and stared blankly at the woman and her young child. She was an intruder upon their own Sunday ritual of escape from domestic cares. Their two young boys were waiting for them inside the brownstone, where their grandfather cavorted with them delightedly, as he did every Sunday, under the guise of providing a “break” for his daughter and her husband. As she stood before them, unable to take her eyes off Frank and unsure of just what to say next, it was the woman who answered her call. “And just who might you 184 be?” she asked, with just a tinge of acid in her voice. “And how do you know my husband?” She recognized the malice in the voice immediately and, although she was taken aback at first by the woman‟s directness, she managed to gather her wits about her. Taking a deep breath, she found something resembling a calm center inside and said in return, “Perhaps you should ask your husband how he knows me.” Inwardly, she wished that this woman, whoever she was—wife or no wife—would just disappear, vanish, go on up in the Rapture, whatever—she just wanted to speak with Frank. “Well?” his wife asked, turning to the man of the hour. Frank said nothing. For his part, he knew immediately that his pleasant Sunday afternoon ritual, the lovely stroll he always looked forward to with his wife, and without the children, had just become a nightmare. And it only got worse as the woman continued in her accusing tone, “Frank Martin, I would like you to meet Elizabeth—your daughter.” Both Frank and his wife, Martha, looked upon the other woman as if she were an alien from another planet. It would have been comical under other circumstances—to see how they resembled each other in that moment, both with their jaws slack and wide-eyed in their confusion. Martha surreptitiously made a mental note of Frank‟s genuine surprise. It would go a long way later that evening as she sought to make sense of the day‟s events. Frank of course did not have to pretend surprise in the least. He had no knowledge whatsoever concerning this claim of paternity. He knew the woman of course. And he had enough sense not to deny the fact to Martha. After all, she had called him out by name. What were the chances of some stranger calling him by name on a New York 185 street, without some kind of previous history? He recognized Jenny Gale the minute he laid eyes on her. Sweet young Jenny, daughter of one Reverend Gale, fire and brimstone minister of a small church in Springfield, Massachusetts. The two men had never become fond of each other. But Jenny had been his saving grace. He might have still been with her if he had not gotten wind of the Southern brothers‟ whereabouts. Jenny had been the only ray of light to even penetrate the dark nightmare, which his life had become in the year since he had buried Winona and left Kentucky. That had been a very black period in Frank‟s life, as he drank and brawled his way North. The booze helped to deaden the pain and the brawling was for sharpening it once more, when the numbness threatened him with despair. His fevered brain gave him no rest either way, blinding him to all else but the great quest, which filled his mind every waking moment. His Holy Grail was nothing less than to stare into the eyes of Ansel and Adam Southern as each one knew that he was about to die. His preferred fantasy was one in which he got to choke the life out of them with his bare hands. The vision had driven him onward for a year, following their trail like a bloodhound, despairing when the trail ran cold. At those times, the bottle brought him solace. The day after would always begin with a headache and self-recrimination, and before it ended Frank would be looking for a fight. Every now and then he would remember the day he was forced into the ring with Patrick McGill and how sick he had felt. Then he would laugh at himself. If Brother Michael could only see me now, he thought. A hundred Patrick McGills couldn‟t stand up to the rage that seethed within him now. Then he would realize what he had become and he would feel sick all over again. 186 When Jenny found him, asleep in the hay of the small stable that separated her father‟s church from the rectory, he had been on a tear for weeks. He had no recollection of how he had come to be there. There were a good many such gaps in his memory during that time, which was just as well he later concluded. His clothing was ragged, he was covered in grime, his knuckles were scraped raw and his bruised and swollen face was a mess. He probably stank to high heaven as well, since he didn‟t know when he had bathed last. In the gloomy shadows of the early morning he awoke to a vision of blonde curls backlit by the radiant light of the rising sun. He couldn‟t make out any of her features and, for a moment he wasn‟t sure whether he had died and gone to heaven, or whether God had seen fit to turn back the clock. Either way it made no difference. For one glorious, pain-free and peaceful moment Winona had returned to him, alive and well and beautiful once more. She had come to save his wretched soul and transform his forlorn existence. He was so happy in that moment—he almost forgot how miserable he had been without her—and the tears welled up, then streamed down his face, hot and uncontrollable. But the vision turned out to be not his Winona. It turned out to be Jenny Gale, who ended up caring for him, nurturing him and loving him. She was no less a creature of light than Winona had been, but he did not possess the capacity to understand this at the time. His pain and his grief had cut too deeply within him by then, right down to his very core, and he had little or nothing left inside with which he could respond to her loving care. In time he came to appreciate her. Her beauty and compassion, her gentleness and passion combined to work magic on his ailing soul. He even had to admit that, on certain nights while cradled in her loving arms, the memory of Winona was all but forgotten. But 187 Jenny was just never enough to erase the memory or the pain entirely. And at some level, he always knew that he was just a “stray” and it was the girl‟s nature to go soft for any stray she happened to find. Sometimes he pictured her in his mind as an old lady surrounded by a menagerie of found cats and three-legged dogs that anyone else would have abandoned. So, although he loved her ministrations, he never came to love Jenny. She never was able to replace his Winona. And when he read about the infamous Southerns one morning in a discarded newspaper—that they were involved in some gang related criminal activity in New York City—without so much as a goodbye, he was gone, hot on the trail once more. A more sensitive soul or a more rational mind would have realized his callousness, but Frank could claim neither quality at the time and he barely gave a second thought to the girl. And now she was standing in front of him, on the streets of New York, in front of his home and his wife, vilifying his character in broad daylight, shattering his peaceful Sunday afternoon. He was aware as well of the open windows behind him and the listening ears of his neighbors and friends. He imagined his father-in- law behind one of those windows, Tony Delveccio, grandfather to his children, paying very close attention to the scenario unfolding out on the street. There was something very wrong about the whole scene. If the child were truly his, then he would have unhesitatingly taken responsibility for it. As it was, that is how he had come to be married to the woman beside him. Regardless of his faults, Frank Martin, above all else, saw himself as an honorable man, a man who took responsibility for his actions. When Martha had informed him of her condition, he didn't think twice about making the proper arrangements with Father 188 O‟Neill over at Holy Trinity. Tony Delveccio toasted the wedding couple with gusto and seven months later he took great delight in the birth of his first grandson. Not only that, but he would have fought anyone who even whispered aspirations contrary to the “fact” that the baby was born two months premature. It made no difference whatsoever that the infant came into the world screaming as a full-term, healthy eight-pound neophyte. Christened Amos after his grandfather‟s own deceased father made the charade complete and all was well in heaven and on earth. There had never been a bastard child born into the Delveccio family (which was a good thing because God knows how it would have been treated). So life remained good and Frank was assured that he had “done the right thing”, although he wondered from time to time whether or not it had always been the right choice. For her part, Martha was no fool. She loved Frank with all her heart (despite his own reserved and inadequate affection), but she accepted from the start that her passion would never be reciprocated. It made no difference: he was her husband, for better or worse. And come hell or high water, she would fight tooth and nail for what was hers. And at the moment she made no exception regarding her commitment to her family, which was also her world. Frank was jolted from his reverie by the angry and accusatory voice of his wife. “And just what are you after, accusing my husband as being responsible for your sins?” he heard his wife say. “Gutter-trash the likes of you—what do you want? Is it money that you are after?” Then, “Frank, do you know this woman?” He was pale and his mouth had gone suddenly dry. His hands hung at his sides, clenching then unclenching. Of course he knew this woman. She looked much older than 189 he remembered her. Although it could be no more than three years since he had last seen her, those intervening years had not be kind to her. And although at one time he had counted her as his one and only friend in the wide world, he had other loyalties now. Of course he knew her and he would not deny her. But that was then and this was now and the world had changed for them both. The child however was a different matter. Pitiful and enchanting at the same time, she clung to her mother‟s hand, half-hiding shyly behind her skirts. She had Jenny‟s blond curls and light skin and she was pretty like her mother. When she peeked out to stare up at the adults, her wide eyes held Frank‟s attention. He instinctively knew that she did not have her mother‟s eyes. If he had looked closely he would have seen his own gray eyes staring back at him. But he didn't look because he didn‟t dare. He would not deny knowing the woman who stood brazenly and accusingly before them. But he could honestly say that he knew nothing of this child. The child‟s gaze held him with a kind of morbid fascination and a part of him was prepared to accept, even acknowledge that Jenny Gale‟s claim was true. Indeed, a small part of him even wanted it to be true. He felt torn between the past and the present. He had a crystal-clear awareness that whatever transpired in the next few moments would determine his own future. He was just as aware that he had decided that future on the day that he made a promise to the woman beside him, “until death do you part”. He seemed to have no choice. Caught between a rock and a hard place, with each woman expectantly awaiting an answer, at last he found his voice. And he knew that however he answered their unspoken demands, he was really involved in making a choice—life-confirming for the one and devastating for the other. He could not in all honesty profess his love for Martha; 190 on the other hand, he had never really loved Jenny. The only woman he had truly loved lay beneath the cold ground next to a walnut grove, far away in Kentucky. The best part of his heart had been buried with her. But he did love his two young sons, Amos and Michael and there was no doubt whatsoever that, wherever his future might lie, it would have to be with them. He chose Martha. “Martha,” he said, barely above a whisper, “this is Jenny. I knew her once, a long time ago. I never laid eyes on the little girl before and I have no idea what this woman is talking about.” Even as he spoke the words and he saw the ashen look on Jenny‟s face, he knew in his heart of hearts that he was wrong in his denial. As she stood there trembling, her world collapsing around her, he had to steel himself against the almost uncontrollable urge to go to her and wrap his arms around her. This woman who had never done him any harm, who had literally been there for him in his hour of need and saved him from himself, deserved better. This beautiful little girl beside her would grow up never knowing her father. For one brief moment he found himself actually fantasizing about how delighted his boys would be to have a sister. But what could he do? If she had found him before, come to him before he had met Martha… he had no way of knowing that this was the culmination of a two-year search for the prodigal father of her child. He had no way of knowing just how hard those two years had been for her, or just how hard this very moment was for her—the moment in which she had finally found him, only to have whatever remaining hopes she had left dashed and confounded. As despicable and hard- hearted as he felt, he knew that his only hope lay in persuading this woman from the past that she should abandon forever any hope that she held for a future together with him. 191 So when he next spoke, addressing his words to the forlorn creature, who had suddenly and unbidden stepped out of the past to disturb his present life, it was with a combination of regret and angst. “Is that what you are after?” he asked, knowing full well that he was unjustly insulting her. “Are you looking for money? Is extortion your game? Looking to pin your mistake on me, just because you knew me once a long time ago? I want you to know that I am a happily-married man, Jenny. I have two little boys and I cannot let you interfere with their welfare… or the happiness of my family.” His words sounded pompous and hollow in his own ears and he wished that he could take them back. But he knew that it was already too late. Jenny understood his message; she didn‟t need to be told twice. She gave Frank a very hard look; she simply sneered at Martha, whom she did not know nor cared to know. She knew that Frank was hers however, and that he was gone forever out of her own life. The sadness that welled up within her threatened despair, but her anger was even greater and won out in the end. Turning away, she just managed to hold back the tears. Shouting, “Bastard!” she fled from the scene, pulling her little girl behind her as she quickened her pace. It was Martha who responded, shouting at her retreating back. “Don‟t you ever darken our doorstep again, you… you tramp! We‟ll have you arrested!” She was visibly shaken. “What a terrible thing,” she said over and over again. Then she started to cry. Frank held her and the two of them remained on the step like that for some time, silently preoccupied with their own thoughts. When Martha‟s tears subsided, she spoke quietly to her husband. “What an awful thing,” she said. “What an awful woman to come 192 here and tell such lies.” With her face pressed against his chest, she continued, “It is a lie, isn‟t it, Frank?” “An awful lie,” he responded with a heavy sigh. He gazed over her head, out into the distance where Gramercy Park lay. There were a few Sunday strollers and children playing there. Two little girls were jumping rope and a refrain from their skipping rhyme came floating back on the warm breeze—“Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks…” There was no sign of Jenny or her daughter. Martha knew very little about his past. He simply did not want to talk about it. She knew nothing at all about Kentucky or Winona. Neither had he informed her about his quest and what brought him to the City. The only hint of the darkness, which lay behind him, was an occasional bout of melancholy. But that never lasted for very long and she never pressed him on the matter. He knew that she would not press him now on today‟s run-in with a ghost from his past. “She‟s gone,” he said simply. “It‟s all over now.” She accepted his words, or at least she had nothing further to say about the “awful lie”. Together they turned and, hand-in-hand, they climbed the remaining steps to their front door. Frank looked back over his shoulder one last time. He knew that he and Martha would be alright. But he also knew that it wasn‟t over—that he would have to see Jenny, and the child, at least one more time. Chapter VII 193 When Francis had finished relating the sad tale of Jenny Gale he lay quiet for awhile, as if he had run out of words. Amelia lay next to him waiting for him to continue. She was filled with questions, like: How did Frank learn of the details of the girl‟s early life in the City? Did he see the child again? How did he end up with Martha? As the minutes drifted by she realized that her questions would have to keep. Francis had not run out of words; he had simply run out of energy. The quiet sound of his voice was replaced by the quieter sound of his breathing. The only other sound within the small compartment was the background hum and clickety-clack rhythm of the train itself. Francis was sound asleep. He looked rather peaceful she thought as she got up on one elbow and studied his face so close to her own. Even in the semi-darkness she liked what she saw. He was not exactly handsome, but he was not far off the mark. All in all, he had a pleasing face. He also looked younger in his sleep, with the smoothing out of a lot of the careworn lines that were visible by day. She also reminded herself that they had met under some very trying conditions for the man. She kissed him lightly on the forehead. He murmured and rolled over in his sleep, while she gently climbed out of the bed. She sat down in the chair across form the pull- down bed. It was a recliner and very comfortable. She settled herself into its soft cushions and watched Francis as he slept. She was tired but she knew that it would be no use trying to sleep. There was too much on her mind—too many things to sort out. In the dim light of the quiet compartment, the rhythm and gentle sway of the train was very soothing. The swirling snowstorm that raged outside the window added to the feeling of coziness within. She felt relaxed, safe and almost content. All that was missing was the 194 cozy fireplace and perhaps a glass of fine wine. Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve. Perhaps this Christmas might bring some joy into her life. After all, wasn‟t this the season of miracles? Who are you trying to kid, she silently asked herself. From her own past there were too many recollections of Christmas as the season for everything else but. It was the season of stress, depression, drunken debauchery, disappointment, or sometimes all out war. It was a miracle if you survived the season at all or still in one piece. From her earliest childhood memories, any tidings of comfort and joy seemed to have sailed right over her own household. No matter how peaceful it started out, or how perfect everything seemed, there was always something that would go wrong, invariably and without fail setting her mother off. And it was always the same: what seemed like the most trivial incident to everyone else would irritate her. It might be a toy that didn‟t quite live up to its advertised standards, the “goddam piece of junk”. It didn‟t matter in the least that the child was perfectly happy with it, regardless. Sometimes the turkey came out of the oven slightly overdone, the fault of the “goddam oven”. The worst case of “overdone Christmas turkey” that she remembered ended up being thrown out into the snow of the backyard, since it was “only fit for the fucking neighborhood dogs”—which they promptly and delightedly came around to devour—while the entire family watched in envy and grief. Not the entire family exactly—her mother had gone to bed with a headache. Her father made sandwiches out of Spam, garnished with cranberry sauce. Amelia was seven. The scenario always unfolded exactly the same way every year. Whatever had triggered her mother‟s irritation was soon forgotten by everyone else. As the rest of the 195 family simply went about enjoying the day, the irritation was smoldering and festering within her, solidifying into some form of nebulous anger. Eventually it would burst forth, manifesting itself as a sudden and uncontrollable moment of rage and the “merry” part of Christmas was over. No matter how she hoped or how steadfastly she prayed, it never made any difference. At least once the rage had fully blossomed, things got better. As if on cue, her mother would put one hand to her forehead, announce that she was “depressed by it all” and promptly go to bed. Her father would then bring his wife something to “help her sleep”—it was many years later that Amelia learned about the steady diet of tranquilizers that her mother had been taking. He would then come back downstairs and mumble some excuse about the poor woman‟s own miserable childhood. Next he would proceed to down one scotch after another until he was thoroughly inebriated and passed out in his chair. Amelia and her brother could then begin to enjoy the “peace” of the season and play with their toys undisturbed. At some point—she couldn‟t remember exactly, perhaps 10 or 12 years old—she had made a simple connection of understanding. If her mother‟s “Christmas madness” (and at other times as well, she had to admit) could be explained in terms of her childhood experiences, then didn‟t the same hold true for herself? As she understood things in her limited way, her resolve to never have children of her own made perfect sense. As far as she could see, it was the only way to stop the madness from being passed on. It was the one thing that she was sure of and the only thing that she had insisted upon when her high school sweetheart, Robert Grant, had proposed marriage to her. Bobby was really a sweet boy, but he had no idea whatsoever about what he was getting into at the time. 196 They got married on Christmas Eve and it was magical. By their second Christmas together however, she began to recognize signs of her mother‟s madness in herself. The next year was even worse and before the end of the following January she had made arrangements to have her tubes tied. She didn‟t tell her husband. Instead, she had made up some lie about “women‟s problems and a routine procedure”. She would never forget his angry reaction when he finally found out the truth. At the same time it opened her eyes to the fact that he had never really accepted or believed her one and only demand when they got married. At least he now knew that she was deadly serious about not bringing children into the world. That was the beginning of the end for them of course. Why it took them another 14 years to face up to it was a mystery in itself. After a messy divorce and 10 years of therapy, she still felt like a novice in terms of understanding the primal forces that had molded her character and determined the person she had become. There were certain events or patterns that she could now recognize with a certainty. There were even milestones, once obscure but now clearly visible as turning points in her life—moments in which she could say, “Eureka!” with a full measure of awareness concerning their significance and importance. But it had been a very long and arduous (not to mention expensive) process. And it was still ongoing. Her shrink constantly assured her that, above all the virtues, patience was the most valuable. Only time would heal and to heal would take a very long time. The good doctor never alluded to the axiom that “time was money” of course. She was thankful that she had managed to get a good settlement from her divorce. Despite the years of therapy and regardless of her own intelligence, she always approached the Christmas season with trepidation. She was not a superstitious person by 197 any stretch of the imagination. But Christmas had always been the harbinger of nothing but bad news throughout her entire life, or so it seemed. Her mother passed away on Christmas night. Her depression during that particular season had apparently reached new heights and so had called for more than the usual dose of tranquilizers to set it right once more. As he administered the customary two tablets that had become a Christmas tradition, her father had no idea that she had already consumed most of the contents of an entire prescription of sleeping pills. When she failed to wake up the next morning, he was beside himself with grief and continued to blame himself for the rest of his life. Amelia was 17 at the time. The rest of her father‟s life turned out to be 10 years. It was Christmas Eve when he finally expired, after a three-week struggle in the hospital. He had been suffering from multiple ailments, including malnutrition and sclerosis of the liver. In the final analysis however, the doctors all agreed that he had simply “drank himself to death”. Amelia was holding his hand as he finally slipped away, to join his wife in whatever afterlife that awaited them. She cried all night. Her brother, Thomas, as usual, arrived too late and was no help at all. He had somehow managed to detach himself a long time before that particular Christmas and had run off to join the Seminary. She both loved and hated him at the same time. She had never blamed him. She herself could claim no prize as the devoted daughter. Although she and Bobby only lived about a three-hour drive away, she had only made perhaps a dozen trips “back home” in those seven years between her leaving and her father‟s death. Even the phone calls had become fewer and farther between. After the usual greetings and comparing weather, there was little or nothing to say. She always pictured her father on the other end of the line, sitting in his 198 favorite chair, a glass of scotch in one hand. She could always hear the noise of the TV in the background. With one ear on the news or the weather channel, or whatever the hell held his attention, she imagined him almost painfully groping for words and finally coming up empty. He always seemed relieved when she broke off the conversation. Whenever she called late in the evening, he was more talkative but his words were slurred and he only wanted to rant about politics or the plant. She stopped calling late and eventually she stopped calling altogether. As she sat in her father‟s easy-chair, a large scotch in her own hand, finally escaped from her hospital duties, she tried to make sense of what she was feeling. She was free from every duty as a daughter, now that she was officially an orphan. But she didn‟t feel any different. She thought she knew what she was supposed to feel, what everyone would normally go through at such a time: loss, grief, sadness, all the usual emotions expressed over the death of a loved one. But she could not find one of these sentiments deep down inside. She knew that it was also considered acceptable to feel other things like relief and yes, even joy, for those who believed that death had freed the person from pain and suffering and opened the door to an even better Life. Amelia could not honestly admit to feeling anything at all, except for a kind of emptiness that she dared not examine too closely. The day‟s events had not created the emptiness. It may have widened it or perhaps brought it a little closer to the surface than usual. But she knew all about that feeling; it had been with her for a very long time. She thought of it as the “pit” and she had only glimpsed it occasionally. But she had always known that it was darker and deeper than the deepest coal mine she could ever imagine. To fall into the pit could only result in death, or even worse than death. What she feared 199 most was a descent into madness. And so, over time, she had become very adept and subtle in her skills at avoiding that vast empty place altogether. Her most effective strategy when faced with the gaping maw of her darkness was to steel herself against the memories. She had become very good at recognizing their onset and had become quite an expert at avoidance. Sitting in her father‟s chair, drinking his scotch and looking around the dimly lit den, she knew that she was on dangerous ground. At least the goddam TV was off for once. It never failed to amaze her how much smaller her childhood home had become over the years. It was hard to believe that they could have managed to fit even a small Christmas tree into this room. And the tree had always seemed so gigantic when she was a little girl. There was no tree now and not a sign of Christmas anywhere to be found. Everything else was just as she remembered it. The furniture was all the same except for the chair in which she now sat. And that was only because it had been a gift from her and Bobby a few years ago. Her father accepted it reluctantly and eventually even conceded that it was much better than the old torn and ratty one, which they finally convinced him to send to the dump. But other than the chair and a slightly updated model of the color TV, everything else still remained as it had been, and looked like it belonged on the set of a 1950‟s movie. The whole house was like that. The kitchen wallpaper, with its faded motif of fruit bowls and spice grinders, in muted shades of beige and red, dated back to Godknowswhen. The table and chairs were a chrome set with a marble pattern in sea-green. Even the kitchen stove was the same— the old Boston Breeze pot burner with the same goddam oven that repeatedly produced overdone Christmas turkeys. The place was like some kind of outdated shrine to the 200 immutable spirit of the woman who once ruled there and who could never deal with change of any kind—until one day, one Christmas Day in fact, she decided to change everything. Amelia‟s eyes strayed to her mother‟s ancient collection of glass and ceramic figurines, the ones that she and Thomas were never allowed to go near, let alone touch. They were exactly how they had been ten Christmases ago, untouched. For a time, the collection had grown by one every Christmas. The figurines had provided a means for her father to do his “Christmas shopping”, which boiled down to the purchasing of one solitary item each year. And each year the selection of the particular item was made known to him well in advance, so he knew just the “right” thing to buy for her. And every Christmas morning, as she unwrapped it, she would ooh and ah over it, just as if he had gone to great lengths to find the perfect gift, which he was sure would please the love of his life. Amelia had always wanted to, but never did tell her mother that she had no desire to touch her collection anyway. As far as she was concerned, every piece without exception was ugly. After 20 years, and two double scotches, she suddenly realized why—they had always reminded her of their owner. Without thinking, and with acute accuracy, she heaved her empty tumbler at the menagerie of glass that had lined the sideboard for uncounted years. It was a rather heavy tumbler and its effect reminded her of getting a strike at bowling. The entire collection jumped up, careened against one another and the wall behind, then fell to the floor, crashing into a shattered heap. The last piece to fall, and ironically her mother‟s favorite (a particularly hideous green and black ceramic elephant) teetered for a moment, almost righting itself, then finally lost its balance. The fragile creature plummeted to its death in 201 what appeared for all the world—at least to Amelia‟s slightly blurred vision—as a suicidal leap into oblivion. She laughed hysterically at the implications of such a thought, and then at her own self for even imagining such a morbid connection. Her gaze became preoccupied next with the telephone, which sat on a small table next to the chair. She had almost forgotten how archaic and antique the apparatus was. Just another piece of functional ugliness from the 50‟s she thought, examining its squat black shape and the slow, cumbersome rotary dial. No one owned such a phone anymore. After all, it was 1979. This thing looked like it could have been a gift from Alexander Graham Bell himself. And it must weigh at least 15 pounds. Why, that‟s as much as a peck of potatoes. Or was that half-a-peck? She couldn‟t remember. She hadn‟t eaten all day and the second scotch was taking its effect upon her small frame. Whatever, she thought, nobody even talks in terms of pecks or half-pecks anymore; nobody even knows the meaning of the terms. She realized right away where such a reference had sprung from. She tried very hard to squelch the memory, frightened of going anywhere near the pit of emptiness, which threatened to engulf her. But for the life of her, she was helpless to fight it. She might have been nine or she might have been twelve, she could no longer say for sure. It was a Saturday morning and her mother had decided to make a stew for dinner. Her father worked a half-day on Saturdays and noon was always the main meal in their household anyway. The stew was well on its way, the meat, the turnip, parsnips and carrots were all simmering in the pot, when she suddenly realized that they were completely out of potatoes. Amelia was sent to the corner store. It was so very long ago that the details were no longer clear. It was a beautiful winter day with sunlight reflecting off the huge snowbanks. She couldn‟t see a thing 202 inside the store, blinded as she was from the brightness outside. All the way down the street she had skipped along between the high banks of the white snow, which had been made by the sidewalk plow. At Susan Dunn‟s house she had run up the front steps, then slid down the little hill that sloped away to the driveway and back to the sidewalk. She made snowballs and threw them at her friend, Kate Simpson, who lived in the next house. Kate laughed and retaliated in turn, then went back to making a snowman with her mom. Then she was inside the dark store, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach when she could not find the dollar bill that her mother had tucked into one mitten— hoping against hope that it had fallen on the floor and she would find it there. After that the memory became muddled. She mostly remembered the black feeling as she stumbled back home, struggling with a brown paper bag of potatoes, heavy in her small arms. The whole time her eyes were on the ground, searching as she retraced her every step, ignoring Kate and her mother, her vision blurred through tears and too bright sunlight— trying to spot a bit of green. But there was not a scrap of green anywhere, only white and a splash of brown here and there from a muddy boot. The dollar bill was gone. Next came the inquisition followed by the inevitable confession. This part would forever remain a jumbled confusion in her mind. Only her mother‟s tone and that piercing look of hate in her eyes had stayed intact down through all the long years. That and the first signs of the dark well of emptiness deep down inside that would be with her for the rest of her life. Perhaps the painful details of the ensuing scenario had been buried within her psyche simply as a way of protecting her fragile child‟s ego. Her therapist had helped her to understand such a concept, but her memory never could fill in some of the blank spots, which was probably just as well. The actual sequence of the arguments and 203 accusations paled next to the memory of the mood. Her mother‟s concentrated rage, directed at her one and only daughter, was what had left its indelible impression. Whether or not she was supposed to bring home a peck of potatoes or a half-peck didn‟t matter in the least. Whether the little girl had at first lied about losing the money— after all, where was the change from the dollar?—made no difference either. That the grocer, whose name had long since been forgotten, had been kind enough to understand and provide the child with the produce—believing wholeheartedly in her tearful story of the lost money—had no effect whatsoever in alleviating the wrath of the proud woman who screamed that they were not “charity cases and never asked for credit in their lives”. After that the screaming became just screaming and the only words that were retained afterwards were “stupid little Bitch!”, which had become the salutary ending of each of her mother‟s expletive-ridden descriptions of her daughter. Once the hair-pulling and face-slapping began, the remaining memories mercifully went blank. The only other thing that she could recall about the “incident” was her father questioning the state in which he found his little girl when he arrived home for the noon meal. When he accepted Mother‟s explanation of the reddened and tear-stained face as the result of a snowball fight that had got out of hand—“the poor dear”—little Amelia knew that all was lost. She knew better than to say anything to the contrary, and ate her stew in silence, wincing only once when her mother commented on the marvelous flavor of the potatoes. Twenty years later, she bolted upright from her dead father‟s chair, as a crystal- clear memory suddenly revealed itself. The grocer once again had a name and it was Mr. 204 Harris. And Mr. Harris had said quite clearly, “A half-peck of potatoes is more than enough for a seven-year-old girl to have to carry home through the snow.” “Jesus H. Christ! I was only seven years old.” Her own hushed voice startled her, disturbing the silence of the house at the same time. Amelia, the orphan, decided that it was time for another drink. When she returned to the den, she looked at the antique phone once again, decided to call Bobby, then changed her mind. The bastard should be here she thought. Work or no work, he didn‟t have to come for the entire week. But he should have been with her tonight, goddam him. Tonight of all nights. He at least should have called by now. He could get in the car and, if he left now—it still wasn‟t too late—in three hours he could be here. Maybe he was on his way. She brightened at the thought then immediately decided that she knew him better than that. So what if this was Christmas Eve? So what if she had been alone while holding her father‟s hand as he expired? So what if this was their seventh wedding anniversary? So what if she was still alone in this mausoleum of a house, where the ghosts rattled around in her head? This house, where the Christmas Eve dreams and hopes of two trapped children were dashed without fail and transformed into Christmas Day nightmares. This house that had never quite become a home, where her brother had still not crossed its threshold, after turning his back on it 10 years ago or more. And where the hell are you tonight, dear brother? Where were you ever when I needed you? “You prick!” she shouted to the empty room. “You goddam, cocksucking emotional midget!” she screamed to the empty house. Then quietly in a subdued voice, she found herself addressing the empty armchair. “Oh no, you were never there for me— you goddam stupid old bastard.” She croaked out the last words in a hoarse whisper, her 205 voice nearly breaking. She stood in the middle of the room, suddenly confused. She realized that she was trembling by the chattering of the ice in her glass. She was really not a drinker and this third scotch was playing tricks with her mind. Just who in hell am I ranting at she thought. But she knew of course. And the whiskey had nothing to do with any of it. All three of the men in her life were the focus of her anger and all three deserved it in equal shares. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The deep breath was a good idea. But she immediately learned that she needed her eyes wide open in order to maintain her balance. She staggered with dizziness, nearly fell down on top of the rubble of broken glass, but caught herself on the sideboard. Returning to the easy-chair, she regrouped her wits and eyed the phone once more. Her brain had just enough clarity remaining to sort out the objects of her disaffection and to deal with them one by one. The first on the list was her dear brother. How in hell can a “man of God” forsake his family entirely she thought distractedly as she looked up the number. She knew exactly how to find the sniveling little coward. When a gruff old voice answered at the rectory connected to Saint Bernard‟s, she simply said, “Please tell Father Thomas O‟Brien that his sister wishes to speak with him.” Her words were slurred just a little. There was a pause at the other end of the line, then an answer. “I‟m afraid that Father O‟Brien has retired for the night. Is there a message, perhaps?” There was a message all right. “Tell him that I have decided to burn down the old house. Tell him that if there is anything he wants, then he had better get his sorry ass over here in the morning. Or,” she added with just a hint of mischief in her voice, “he could 206 just come for the spectacle at noon. Got that?” Before the bewildered man could respond, she hung up the phone. Next on her list was her husband—or so-called husband she mused as she dialed her own number. Long distance, too, Daddy, she chortled to herself, remembering how her father always complained about the cost. And this one‟s on you. The bastard better be there. Three rings, four, five. One more and … “Hello,” said a sleepy voice. A woman‟s voice, and it sounded very much like her good friend and neighbor, Marilyn. Amelia was confused for a moment. Marilyn? She thought. “Bobby?” she asked. Click. The phone went suddenly dead. Maybe she had dialed the wrong number. After all, she was three sheets to the wind, and it wasn‟t often that you dialed your own number. She tried it again, carefully this time. No answer. She waited, letting it ring, eight, ten times. She hung up. On a whim, she dialed her friend‟s number next. Same thing. Nobody home on Christmas Eve. Marilyn, Peter and the kids usually went to Peter‟s parents for Christmas. Then she remembered a terrible row that her neighbors had had about that very tradition. And Marilyn swore that they could all go without her this year. Once again she dialed her own house. No answer again. She let in ring and keep on ringing. She lay the receiver on the table and listened to the incessant ringing from a distance. Eventually somebody picked up, then hung up, breaking the connection. She too returned the receiver to its cradle. She then turned off the lamp, sipped at her scotch, sat back in her father‟s chair and let the tears come. But she wasn‟t quite ready to let go of the anger yet. She fought back the tears and switched the lamp back on. She began to 207 reach for the phone one more time, to dial that “miserable son of a bitch husband” again, but something stopped her. It was the sight of the phone itself, the instrument which represented her father. She had a vision of him sitting in this very chair, cradling that very phone and feeling distracted by her calls—if not resentful, then at least annoyed that she was interrupting his evening TV viewing. Once every couple of weeks and he had difficulty to hold up his end of a conversation with her for more than 10 minutes. Twenty minutes a month for his only daughter and even that much seemed painful to him. She knew better than to expect anything more, of course. There had been many more “incidents” in the years that followed that traumatic “snowball fight” when she was only seven (she now remembered). He accepted every and all excuses offered by his wife, her dear mother. From the reddened face to the black eye to the dislocated shoulder and finally the broken nose—he never questioned the explanation. From falling down the stairs (clumsy girl!) to slipping on the ice, he simply accepted that his daughter had the curse of Jonah and was jinxed. He never had much to offer by way of consolation, except to assure her that “his little girl” would grow out of it someday. At least he was right about that. The broken nose (the result of distractedly walking into an open cupboard door, according to her mother) was the last time that she had such an episode of clumsiness. She was 14 at the time and helping her mother decorate for Christmas. While stringing garland above the sideboard, upon which were displayed the untouchable glass trinkets, she inadvertently knocked one over onto the floor. Luckily, it didn‟t break. At least the girl thought it lucky, until a blinding flash of pain exploded between her eyes. She fell to the floor herself then, blood spurting from 208 her nose—her once perfect, straight little nose that was now somehow pushed over to one side of her pretty face and nearly laying upon her left cheek. Mother couldn‟t help herself—she just “reacted”, hardly aware even of the heavy crystal, Christmas candleholder that was in her grip at the time. Amelia‟s nose soon became aware of the butt end of the solid glass decoration. She remembered being glad that it was Christmas break, and that she did not have to go to school with her two black eyes, swollen face and crooked nose. The doctors said that they would have to wait at least two weeks for the swelling to go down before they could straighten out her nose once more. That was an ordeal in itself. By then an operation was required, since the bones had started to knit on their own (crookedly of course). Not only did she find herself being “put to sleep” for the first time in her life, the whole reason for such an ordeal was that the surgeon had to re-break her nose, which had begun to mend, in order to set it straight once more. Everything about the hospital experience frightened her, including her mother‟s face staring down at her, as she was wheeled away into the operating room. She had asked for her daddy but of course he had to work. You were never there for me she thought, still staring at the phone, and at the same time lost in her reverie. You are the real son of a bitch, always leaving me out to dry, never once standing up to the old bitch who really made all our lives miserable. In the end I was the one who finally had to stand up to her—before she ended up killing me. The broken nose was definitely the worst but it was also the last. By the following summer, when Amelia was just 15, things would change. And it turned out to be so simple, really. It was a fine summer Saturday. Amelia was sweeping the kitchen floor. 209 Her mother was working on a sewing project, seemingly absorbed in her work and quite content. Even as they discussed the daughter‟s desire to attend the regular weekend dance at the local youth center, she gave every indication that she did not oppose the idea. Whether she pricked her finger with a straight pin or perhaps for no reason at all, Mother suddenly changed her mind about approving her daughter‟s plans. Without warning, she went into a rant about the evils of dancing and how it only led to worse things and that no daughter of hers was going to “whore around and get herself knocked up”. Dances were out. The teenager couldn‟t believe her ears. The weekend dances provided one of the few opportunities for her and her friends to get together. And it was almost the only chance to actually spend time with the boy she liked. Even so, there was little chance for hanky-panky since the dances were well supervised. The youth center was owned by the goddam church, for Chrissakes. Arguing and pleading were of no use, of course. Her mother had on her “I‟ve made up my mind end of discussion” face. And the black look was in her eyes. She could not believe her own rashness when she stood in the middle of the kitchen and openly defied the woman. The daughter expected the raging assault but was not quick enough to dodge entirely the sting of the wooden yardstick. She did manage to shield her face from the blow, which was the intended target. As it was, the arm that she raised in defense would be bruised for days. As the stick broke, sending shock-waves of pain along the arm to her shoulder and neck, something inside of her seemed to snap at the same time. It was the mother who did not expect the counterattack, was not prepared for it in the least. And such violent treatment from her little girl! As she raised her arm to strike 210 again, the “little girl” gave her a mighty shove that knocked her down and sent her scudding across the kitchen floor. Amelia‟s vision locked on the jagged piece of broken stick, still held tightly in her mother‟s hand. After that she saw red. She began to swing the broom at the woman on the floor, as if she were an unwelcome dog that had just strayed into the house. It took several blows before the stunned woman‟s brain was able to register just what was happening. Her daughter, who was attacking her—all the while screaming blue murder at the top of her lungs—had gone mad. Fearing for her life, she hurriedly scrambled across the floor and into the bathroom, where she promptly locked herself in. After seeing red the next thing Amelia remembered clearly was finding herself sitting on the kitchen floor, trying to catch her breath between great heaving sobs. She sat facing the bathroom door. Without realizing it, she was making half-hearted sweeping motions with the broom, just brushing the closed door. There was no sound coming from the other side. She washed her face with cold water at the kitchen sink and eventually regained her composure. She winced when her bruised arm just brushed against the metal sink. Her head was still a bit muddled but one thing was very clear to her. Whatever had just happened, her relationship with her mother would be different from now on. And that was a good thing. That was the last “incident” that ever took place in that house. Her mother still had her “off-days” and she still managed that black look of hatred, reserved for her daughter only, so it seemed. But since the day that she had finally stood up to her (or rebelled, according to the other party involved), the mother never raised a hand to the daughter again. And there was no mention ever made concerning the day‟s horrible 211 events. When the man of the house arrived home from work, he found no noon meal waiting for him on that particular Saturday. Instead he found his wife upstairs in bed, with the blinds drawn and the curtains closed, suffering from another one of her “headaches”. He spent most of his afternoon off tending to the poor sick woman. When he noticed the rather large and multi-colored bruise on Amelia‟s arm, it was in passing— on his way upstairs with more pills and a cold cloth. For one brief moment she almost believed that he was concerned. He started to speak, then stopped abruptly. There was a look in his eyes that told her that he knew. And all he could say was, “Had another fall again, sweetheart?” That was the moment when she made up her mind to leave that house, one way or another and the sooner the better. It was also that very same evening that she first fooled around with Bobby, giving him a little taste of what he could look forward to once they were married. And it would certainly be a hell of a lot better than the back seat of a friend‟s car outside the youth center, from where they could hear the loud music from the “forbidden” dance. Now in the dim light of her father‟s den, as she sat in his chair, she repeated his words of so long ago. “Had another fall again, sweetheart?” It came out as a whisper and her own voice gave her a sudden chill. She had seen that same look only one more time, while she was holding his hand, just as any dutiful daughter would, sitting next to his hospital bed. In his last lucid moments before slipping into the final coma, she recognized that same expression on his pale, gaunt face, the one she mistook for concern. He held her eyes for a moment, and made as if to speak, only to change his mind once again. Then he squeezed her hand, closed his eyes and spoke to the air around him. “Your mother… your mother was a good woman,” he rasped. “Always remember that.” Those 212 were the last words that he spoke. After that there were no more words and no chance for any. After that came only silence. Like the silence you kept for all those years she thought. But you knew, you bastard, you knew. “You knew, goddam you!” she shouted to the empty room. But she knew, too. She knew that he just didn‟t care enough, that he just didn‟t have it in him. She had been fooling herself her whole life, guessing at the awful truth but never accepting it. Hoping against hope that it was a lie. She never despaired, even right up to the very last, always ready to give him one more chance. Well, I guess we are both out of luck now she thought. And at the very end, when he had thrown away his very last chance—when even a word would have been enough—a bone to a starving dog, or a pat on the head to the loyal dog at his bedside—loyal because she knew no other way to be— he kicked his old pet instead. His last message was the clearest one yet. There had simply been no room inside for her. His life had been spent in devotion to a woman, whose primary goal in her own life was to fulfill a death wish. Even after achieving that, her hold over the man did not diminish. If anything it increased and eventually infected him with her own disease. It took him 10 years to rejoin her, but it was suicide just the same. And in all the time that she had been with him, and in all the time since her passing, she had completely filled the man‟s heart. That was quite a feat actually. Perhaps my mother really was a good woman, she mused. She just wasn‟t a good mother. And as for Daddy, perhaps the same held true. I just wish someone had informed me about the competition, that‟s all. Maybe I would have had a chance. 213 But she knew that it would have made no difference. Maybe his heart wasn‟t really filled up; maybe it was just small—too small to find even a little corner in it for her. She eyed the telephone once more and it reminded her of something that had been bothering her since she had left the hospital earlier in the evening. It had been just a small, nagging something, simmering away at the back of her mind. Only now could she put it into words and it suddenly didn‟t seem so little any more. This seemed to be the night for revelations, so why not one more? It dawned on her that not once—not one solitary time in the seven years since she had moved out of this house—had her father bothered to pick up that telephone and call her. Such a little thing. Before she could stop herself, Amelia picked up the archaic instrument, heavy base and all. With one yank she pulled its brittle old cord right out of the wall. Then with all her strength she threw the thing at the TV. The screen exploded with a crash, followed by a shower of blue and white sparks, accompanied by the sounds of crackling and sizzle and a puff of smoke. Even though she was the cause of it, the whole display startled her and frightened her as well momentarily. She ran across the small den and pulled the TV‟s plug from its socket. When she was sure that the fireworks were over, her heartbeat returned to normal. “Jesus, I nearly did burn down the old house,” she said out loud. “Imagine the look on Tommy‟s face in the morning.” This made her laugh hysterically. The house rang with her laughter, probably the merriest sound it had heard for many Christmas Eves. She laughed until she felt dizzy and her giddiness forced her to sit down once more in the old arm chair. Eventually it subsided and was gradually replaced by the tears that had only 214 been waiting their turn. Free to flow at last, they poured down her cheeks like a steady rain. She finally cried herself to sleep. # Someone was calling her name. It felt like she was being recalled from a great distance and the feeling of her body moving was so real. She must have fallen asleep in the armchair. That was real enough also. But nothing else seemed to make sense. Her eyes briefly flickered open but she had trouble focusing, Something wet was blurring her vision. In the half-second of her blink, she took in the dim lighting of her surroundings and was reassured that she was still in the den. The man standing over her must be Tommy, come to watch the fireworks. But the man was not her brother and she was suddenly sure that the goddam den was moving. She heard her name again. She bolted upright in the recliner, forcing her eyes to open, a scream cocked at the back of her throat, ready to explode. When she recognized Francis, the scream vaporized, but her body wasn‟t satisfied with that. The pressure from within and the adrenaline rush seemed to have its own momentum. Something had to be released and what escaped her throat was a torrent of uncontrollable sobs. She tried but there seemed to be no way of stopping them. Francis, himself awakened from an uneasy sleep by the sound of quieter sobbing only moments before, did not quite know how to act in the face of such stark and raw emotion. Hesitantly, he knelt down beside her and awkwardly enfolded her in his inexperienced arms. He tried to console the poor creature but his words had little or no effect. He 215 recognized pain, he had witnessed enough of it over the years. Whatever this woman‟s story, he was sure that she had experienced enough of it over those same years. If this was her way of releasing it then that was surely a good thing. Francis managed to ease Amelia‟s body down towards his own position on the floor. She seemed to have no control over the cascading tears. Her body was as malleable as a small child‟s. And that‟s what he was reminded of as he held her in his arms. He rocked back and forth, cradling her and gently stroking her hair. “It‟s alright,” he murmured. “Everything‟s going to be alright,” he repeated softly, over and over. Her keening was so pathetic and she cried with such abandon and he felt so utterly useless to help her that his own heart soon became heavy. “I would take this burden from you, child,” he whispered. “If only I could.” But he felt pathetic himself and totally inadequate to the task. All he could do was to continue to cradle her, stroke her and try to soothe. Eventually the great heaving sobs gave way to a series of low moans, but less desperate now and she had managed to gain a measure of control over her breathing. The torrential rain of her tears lessened as well but it seemed like a long time before they ceased altogether. Even then, he continued to hold her in his arms for a long time after. Now and then her chest would heave with a heavy, involuntary sigh. Finally even those subsided and her breathing returned to normal. At some point Francis noticed that she had fallen asleep. He leaned back against the side of the recliner. Amelia was half-sitting on his lap, half-laying on the floor, her head laid across his chest and arm. With his free hand, he continued to stroke her hair in an automatic kind of way, without thinking about it. He felt the vibration of the train‟s wheels through the floor. The rhythm was soothing. He rested his chin for a moment on 216 top of Amelia‟s head, where it rested against his chest. Taking a deep breath he breathed in the scent of her perfumed hair and it sent his own head reeling. It reminded him of the reason for his restless sleep earlier. He had been dreaming about Mary McCarthy again— only this time there had been a helluva lot more than kissing going on. And now, something worse. He was becoming acutely aware of this woman‟s body in his arms. The softness of her, the gentle curve of a hip, the warmth and firmness of her flesh, especially where it met his own flesh with gentle pressure. He had started out cradling a frightened little child in distress. Now that the crisis had passed, he found himself holding a beautiful woman. Even as she slept in his arms, trusting and vulnerable still, like the child, he couldn‟t deny the stir of feelings within him. Lust. That‟s all it is, he tried to reassure himself. Just like in the dream. “Lord, have mercy,” he whispered. If the superior general were to walk in here now. He surveyed his own appearance and just shook his head. At least the woman was wearing flannel pajamas. He had forgotten about his state of dress, clad only in his boxer shorts and undershirt. And he could have wrung out the shirt, it was so wet from her tears. Well, Father, not everything is as it seems. You see, I was on my way to Kentucky to bury my travelling companion—the old sinner in the box, two cars back— and this beautiful woman here offered me her bed. Well, one thing led to another—you know how it is with us sad, old priests. You can dress us up, but you can‟t lead us anywhere near temptation. He had to stop before he laughed out loud and disturbed his sleeping companion. At least he had managed to quell those delinquent stirrings of his lust. And the truth of the matter was, given the choice, he preferred to remain just as he 217 was now. In fact, he felt exceptionally contented at the moment to just hold her like this. He wouldn‟t mind in the least if this moment were to last for a good long time. That old sinner in the box would have got more than a chuckle out of this. He would have berated his grandson for being such a sentimental fool, of course. While growing up, Francis would not have believed that his grandfather had a sentimental bone in his body. When Francis was a boy, his grandfather was his friend and his defender ( more than he knew at times), and he knew that he could not have had a better man in his corner. He recognized more than a little of the old man in himself, as well. It wasn‟t that he lacked the feelings—in fact, he felt very deeply about certain things—but like old Frank Martin, he was hopeless when it came time to expressing them. So, for the most part, he had given up even trying. He contented himself by believing that it was enough that the emotions were there, and real to himself at least. Besides, sentimentality was “the province of women and old fools”. And when you were as self-contained as was old Frank Martin, what did it matter if the people around you saw you as unfeeling, uncaring even? What did they know about the man inside? Apparently very little indeed, old man, Francis mused. We never could get a glimpse behind that mask of yours. And those steel gray eyes that shed no tears. I never doubted the kindness or the wisdom that I saw in those eyes, but I never guessed at the pain behind them either. I learned many things from you, more than you knew. But perhaps we were both wrong to believe that it is enough to simply have the feelings. What good has it ever done to hoard them up inside, under lock and key? For what? 218 In your entire 40 years with Martha, while she clung to you with all her might, loved you with her every breath, how did you repay her? Did you ever once say the words? And when you finally buried her did you shed a tear? I remember that day and that stoic face of yours. I remember wanting to be near you, but the stony look in those gray eyes that matched the color of the overcast sky… it was like you weren‟t even there. You were standing there with us, but you weren‟t among us. I felt sad and afraid at the same time. To my nine-year-old mind, as they lowered my grandmother into that deep, dark hole in the ground, I believed that I was witnessing my grandfather turn to stone—right before my eyes. I had always been open to such a possibility, and my own sensibilities were unusually “open” that day. So it did not surprise me in the least when the magic— always hovering close by—came up through the ground and began working its way up through your body, beginning in your shiny, black shoes. It journeyed up your legs, turning flesh and blood into solid marble. I imagined the magic as a cold, blue spreading fire, doing its work unseen. It had nearly succeeded too, until Mama broke down in tears and collapsed into the arms of her brothers. I didn‟t look at Mama though. I couldn‟t tear my eyes away from you. When I saw your eyes shift from their distant stare, I knew that everything would be alright then. I believed that the magic‟s spell had been broken. But in fact, you had been far away—standing at another graveside and in another time. All those years Martha had been competing with a dead woman. And she died never knowing. All those years, and all that pain that you thought you had buried so deep down that it could not hurt anymore. Or was it something else, Frank? Were you holding on to the pain, keeping it all inside so you could nurture it? Protect its memory, even? 219 You never could let go, could you? Never dared to. You were afraid to let go of the pain because you knew that meant letting go of Winona. I am trying to understand, believe me. I have never known the love of a woman, so experience cannot serve me here. But reason can. And I can almost understand what drove you to kill those two men. That doesn‟t mean that I accept your murderous acts. Just that I am beginning to understand. I still have trouble equating the fate of those two souls with the same nonchalance you displayed for drowning kittens. But there is something else that I am beginning to understand as well. All those secrets harbored and nurtured for all those long years, trying to live in two worlds but only managing by halves. Perhaps if Martha had known, her own lot might have been easier to bear. Maybe she would have stopped yearning for more if half of you was all she could expect. Or just maybe, by knowing what she was up against, she might have found a way to reclaim that missing part of her husband. Perhaps she had it in her to mend and restore the part of you that remained broken. If anyone could have done it, it would surely have been Martha. She had enough heart to hold the lot of us. So, maybe it turns out that you were really the sentimental old fool after all? While you tended the votives and maintained your lifelong, solitary vigil at the altar of past regrets, you missed it. Your second chance was right in front of you the whole time, but you were afraid to take it. She loved you, you old fool. We all loved you, but only as much as you allowed. It was hard to get a foothold on the rock, even harder to find a fissure or crevice that led inside. That stern façade, the reticence and miserly affection— all the things that we mistook for strength and kept us bound to you, but at arm‟s length—who could have guessed? It was you who was afraid of us. The inner man was 220 vulnerable, had been brutalized. And you were determined to make damn sure that it could never happen again. I am glad that you found your Winona. I envy you. And even though Fate dealt you a cruel blow and cut it short, you had something most of us never get a glimpse of. Brief as it was, I believe that you really did get to stand at the entrance to Heaven‟s Gate. What could be more blissful than such a blessed union of souls? Wasn‟t that precisely His plan from the beginning? Eve made for Adam to share Paradise? And after that? After that you learned to put on a good face and you fooled us all—except Martha. Even at nine I remember being haunted by my old granny‟s sad brown eyes. I was bursting with questions that day—Why didn‟t he cry? Didn‟t Grandpa care? Why did Grandma always seem so sad? Mama said it was just “his way”—of course he cared, but just had a hard time showing it, that‟s all. Grandpa had had a hard life as a boy, so Martha had explained to Rose a long time ago—when she had asked her mother the same questions. Martha had laughed actually, telling her daughter, Oh, but you should have known him before. Papa is a good man, she assured her, but he was oh so sad before. Then our little Rosie was born and he finally began to come around. It was you, Rose, you who put the sparkle back in Papa‟s eyes! Rose took great delight when she retold that part of the story and she imitated Martha perfectly.