CHAPTER ONE: THE BEST OATMEAL EVER
Darkness fell like a shroud upon the twenty Brothers of Augustine as we gathered in our small chapel for morning prayers. Closing my eyes in exaltation, the voices of my dear brethren entered my entire being, an eiderdown of comfort and love.
“Domini deus,” we sang with open mouths, and to a man, we cherished our deep bonds of devotion to one another and to our sacred order. All of us were clothed in light brown cassocks which nearly swept the floor and the dark sandals we believe Christ our Saviour had worn in the desert countryside of the Levant.
“Rex caelestis,” we continued in the glorious harmonies of the Gregorian Chants, as small shards of daylight penetrated the blue stained glass windows in front of us. Many was the time we discussed in our classrooms, led by one of the Augustine fathers, how Jesus, hot and thirsty, traversed the landscape preaching his mighty teachings to serve the poor, the needy, the oppressed, marginalized and sick. From the stone walls of our monastery, we went out into the greater world to live and preach the humble life of our Saviour.
After morning prayers, I reported to the kitchen. I like to think that even though we had a modern white stove with gas burners and two huge refrigerators, our kitchen was not all that different than when Saint Augustine himself lived in what is now Tunisia. How pensive was this exalted man. It was he who came up with the concept of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and The Holy Ghost. I am crossing myself now as I write. As a child growing up in an impoverished section of Philadelphia, I studied the teachings of Saint Augustine and knew at a young age where my destiny lay.
The pot bearing the oatmeal was black as midnight as I stirred with a big wooden spoon. By “big” I mean it was a two-footer, long enough so I could scrape the bottom of the pot so the slushy sweet-smelling porridge wouldn’t stick to the bottom. Over my cassock I wore a green apron. Brother Emmanuel’s sister managed a Starbucks restaurant and was able to get a donation of half a dozen green Starbucks’ aprons with nice deep pockets in which I kept a handkerchief in one pocket, and in the other a Ziplock bag of raisins, mixed nuts and four long cinnamon sticks.
Those entering the monastery who declared oatmeal their enemy were quickly won over by eating “the real thing,” not the processed microwavable mash that hardly counted for one of the oldest grains on earth.
We raised cows in the monastery. Seven brothers arose early in the morning to milk the bulging udders of our Holstein cows. We joked amongst ourselves that this was the closest we’d ever get to touching a round female breast. Not so for me, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Untying my Starbucks apron and slipping it on a peg in the kitchen, I watched as Brother Heller, a former Jew, wheeled out the breakfast to one large sunlit table in the dining room. Into the middle, he placed two large wooden serving bowls of oatmeal and two bowls of fresh fruit. Our large acreage in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, bore fruit trees of many varieties, all free of pesticides. I readily admit that not all the fruit was perfect but who is afraid of a few squirmy worms who have found the most delightful of homes inside the heaven of the apple.
“Funny,” said Brother Simon, as he licked his lips, shiny with oatmeal, “it seemed as I approached Mary, you know, the fattest cow in the barn, that she shied away from me.”
“Who can blame her?” laughed Brother Heller. “That potbelly of yours looks like you’re six months pregnant.”
“Unkind!” roared Brother Alphonse, the oldest amongst us, and our de facto leader.
Brother Heller looked down and apologized. His tongue got him in trouble nearly every day, yet he was awfully witty and loved nothing better than a sly pun. He had penned a book called “Brother Heller’s Witticisms” that was available on and brought our order a pretty penny. We dearly loved our formerly Jewish brother who said that one day when he was out for a walk in the woods, he saw the face of Jesus in the mirrored waters of the Pennypack Creek. He did a doubletake, but the vision never left, so he began to study Christianity. Quite something, since he was engaged at the time, he told us, to a most voluptuous Russian-American woman from Moscow, with lips as red as delicious apples.
“This cow, Mary, then,” said Alphonse. “We don’t want to waste time and find ourself with a dead cow.”
“Not necessary yet,” said Brother Simon. “I’ll keep watch. We’ll wait a couple more days and then if necessary call Doctor Cooper.”
“Fine,” nodded Alphonse. “Fine.”
After the breakfast dishes were collected from the tables and the kitchen thoroughly washed and scrubbed, the twenty of us had half an hour to do as we pleased, like study hall back at high school. We might visit our large library, pray in the large chapel that was open to the public, request counsel with one of the priests or walk upon a section of the thousand acres of our property.
“Thank you, Lord,” I said as I walked out the red double doors of our home, hearing them clink behind me. My sandals strode down the dirt path. They knew where they were headed. I simply followed along. A huge beech tree, its leaves turning to gold, seemed to welcome me. I sat down underneath, not terribly easy for a forty-three year-old man, who gave up a basketball scholarship to Villanova University, to enter – gladly – the seminary.
The sky was a halcyon blue with nary a cloud skittering by. Miles and miles of green grass lay in silent prayer under the September sun. A small pond glistened nearby, newly replenished by ferocious rains that fell last week, necessary rain, as our water tables were running very low.
I’d been asleep in my small chamber when the rains woke me up. Sitting bolt upright, I feared the pounding on the roof would hammer a hole in the roof and I, and my books on my bedside table, would get a good soaking. Not to be. A silent golden leaf floated from my tree. I lifted out my hand to catch it. And remembered briefly playing basketball at Cardinal Flannery High School. I also thought of the book I was writing. “Poetry for the Devout,” I called it and had shared it with no one. The poems pleased me. One, “Seeing God in a Preying Mantis,” had strengthened my faith, and in fact, autumn was when these charming creatures appeared, in their green mantles, to mate and lay their eggs on our holly bushes. Another favorite poem was “The Geese Flee for Warmer Climes.” Looking up at the sky, I muttered aloud, “Thank you, Jesus, for my ability to write. And, you too, Mary Oliver,” - one of my favorite poets, who loved nature and spoke of finding God in the great outdoors.
Though some of the brothers wore a watch, I never did, having learned as a child to gauge the time inside my head. My late mother, the very religious Veronica, worked three jobs to make ends meet but was always home by six o’clock in time for dinner. Wherever I was in the house – upstairs doing my homework or reading religious literature – or outside playing basketball – my sixth sense led me home. There I stayed at the front door waiting to open the door for Mom and then help her prepare dinner.
I was not the only child. There were four of us, three boys and a girl. At dinner time, each of us had our roles. Gerri would bring mom her pink slippers and Bobby and his twin brother Lester would set the table.
And where was father? Dad had a good job as a police officer in Philadelphia. Winner of half a dozen awards for bravery, which still sat on the mantelpiece, he would beat my mother, punching her face until it was black and blue. As children, the four of us attempted to stop him, holding onto his legs or pushing him but he was strong as a mighty hurricane. When Mom was pregnant, Dad beat her up and she had two miscarriages.
Catholics did not get divorced, a travesty against women, our family, including my late mother, all believe. But Dad was now locked up at Graterford Prison for shooting an innocent man to death. The widow of Eli Grabner hired a good attorney who put Dad away for at least ten years. We wouldn’t have minded if he stayed there for the rest of his life.
Grabbing a few autumn leaves in my hand, I lifted myself off the ground and headed back to the monastery. In my room, I have a lovely white opaque basket that once belonged to Mom. Acorns live there quietly, shining under the large window. I picked up a few along the way home, reminding myself of the Hansel and Gretel story Mom used to read to us. Maybe there was poem to be written about this. As I walked along the dirt path, I heard our church clock toll eleven times. My instinct for time hadn’t deserted me.
CHAPTER TWO: IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE
As October came to an end, Father Francis O’Meehan called me into the library. He was a grand old man and looked fine in his black priestly garb and the collar he complained aggravated his neck, “but for the sake of our Lord, I’ll endure a little scratching.”
Father O’Meehan had been transferred to us since he was an aging priest from Maryknoll Missioners up north in Ossining, New York, also home of the famed “Sing-Sing” Prison. “What fine restaurants,” he once told me in his Irish brogue, “they have in that little town of Ossining. Excellent selection of wines, too,” he laughed.
He bade me sit down across from him at a burnished brown table in the library. I slid out a matching brown chair, sat myself down, arranged my cassock just so, then folded my hands on the table.
He had kindly blue eyes. “Lad,” he said. “I wanted you to hear it first from me. There are whispers about one of our priests.”
“Oh, no,” I thought to myself. “It can’t happen here.”
“I can see what you’re thinkin’,” he said. “I won’t tell you his name as I personally am investigating the situation. It mustn’t go any higher than myself.”
O’Meehan said he was speaking to all twenty of us Brothers. He also assigned me to return to my old high school, Cardinal Flannery, and speak to the student body, some two-thousand of them, about the virtues of becoming a Catholic priest.
“Or, at worst,” he laughed, “A Catholic Brother.”
He pushed a slip of paper toward me upon which he had written in his shaky old man’s hand, “Visit Cardinal Flannery to discuss becoming a Priest.”
“You have my word on this, Sir,” I said, looking at him.
“I depend on you, my son. You are among the brightest of the Brothers.”
We nodded at one another and I walked out of the room. Like a switch turned suddenly on, the moment I left the room, my mind began to whir like a helicopter taking off. Who was he? Who was the culprit? Who was the – I could barely think the word – the pedophile?
Dear God, I prayed, oh dear dear God, please say it isn’t true.
Stop this thinking, I ordered myself. Going into my room, I turned on the radio to WRTI-FM, the classical music station. It was Saturday afternoon and Donizetti’s Anna Boleyna poured from my speakers. Talk about perfect timing. The womanizer King Henry the Eighth defiled the Catholic Church, raping and sodomizing whomever he chose and then, rather than blaming himself, had his victims sent to the Tower and finally beheaded.
My torment continued as I lay in bed, my stomach a whirl of nerves, and finally I rose up and shut off the offending radio. Outside into the clear air I went, putting on a wool sweater over my cassock, for it was chilly outside. I remembered Christ’s call on the cross: “Lord, why hast thou abandoned me,” for so I felt. A squirrel scurried up an oak tree upon seeing me, then paused on a branch to scold me – chee! chee! chee!
Where, dear God, was comfort to be found? To my tree I went, kicking up leaves as I walked, raising up my arms to the sky in silent questioning. As I settled myself under the beech tree, I closed my eyes and did the only thing I knew would calm me down.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he restoreth my soul.”
I repeated the Twenty-Third Psalm over and over, eyes closed, deaf to the outside world. When Dad used to come home from work, always drunk like the stereotypical Irish cop, I would recite the psalm from my bedroom, door closed.
Some people do not deserve to live. My father, I’m sorry to say, was one of these men. And so was the man I’ll refer to as “The Accused.” Opening my eyes, I stared upward at the tree, which, with its leaves half-gone, revealed the simple circular lines of a robin’s nest. By now most of the robins had flown to the warmer climes not terribly far south. That’s why on some winter days they return to this area. As a Boy Scout, I wore the Birder’s Badge, a patch with a red cardinal on it. And of course I had a few nests in my bedroom. I had to sneak them upstairs. A golden feather of the finch’s nest was stuck fast onto the bulging nest.
If Father had seen me, he would’ve given his stock response to anything that displeased him. “You good-for-nothing brat. How can I be proud of ya when you haven’t an ounce of sense in your empty head.”
“Honor thy father and thy mother,” does not apply to everyone. The four of us Donovan children agreed on that.
For dinner at the monastery I prepared one of our favorite soups. Tomato-Onion. My sister, Gerri, a talented homemaker, would often visit me. For a birthday gift when I was a young and sprightly thirty-three, ten years ago, she handed me The Tassajara Cookbook by a Buddhist monk in California.
The Brothers and I delighted over a breakfast called “Banana Split.” We made our own yogurt and into this delicious natural dish, first served six-thousand years ago by Neolithic tribes who cultured their milk, I put slices of bananas, raisins, dried apricots, and other ingredients from our pantry. Tonight, though, it was the thick and creamy Tomato and Onion Soup.
After clasping hands and saying grace, we dove into the soup. And began looking at one another. Furtively. Not a single word was spoken. The roar in my brain and my stomach had quieted. How had the other Brothers taken the news? And how would we discuss it?
“Marvelous soup,” said Brother Simon, patting his enormous belly. “This may be among my favorite of your foods, Thomas, though there’s always your….”
“Potato-Leek Soup,” said Brother Harry. We knew Brother Harry was a gay man who had disavowed sex when he entered the monastery. As a teenager, he told us he had frequented a few gay bars in Philadelphia, but was too afraid of getting AIDS, so he followed his calling and became one of us.
“I’ve made dessert on this solemn occasion,” I said to the boys. Into the kitchen I went. Earlier I had taken out three pumpkin pies from the freezer. Sis had brought me a mask with different-colored feathers, which I slipped over my eyes.
Adjusting the mask, I rolled out a cart with the pies on them. Beside the pies were two bowls of homemade whipped cream.
“Happy Halloween!” I called as I re-entered the dining room.
The boys cheered and clapped. Every single one of them had forgotten about the holiday.
Conversation picked up now.
“You won’t believe this,” said Harry, “but I always fancied princess dresses for Halloween,” everyone began to laugh, “but Mom would never let me wear them.”
“Wise woman,” said Alphonse.
“One year,” said Simon, “when I was a wee tyke I fashioned a box to look like a skyscraper. We lived in Port Richmond, back then, as poverty-stricken a place as you’ll find, but my skyscraper was a big hit. Oh, the Milky Ways, the Baby Ruths, the Mounds Bars I carried home in my pillow case.”
“And yes I know, undoubtedly the beginning of my gluttony.”
“Thing is,” said Brother Heller, “it’s bad for your health. Hate to say it, Sy, but you could get diabetes.”
“Right about that,” said Simon. “My mother had diabetes and went blind. Put me on a diet, then, boys. Help me out.”
After dinner, we agreed to meet in a small room called “The Study.” It had a pleasant smell of dark wood and chrysanthemums – pots of yellow, burgundy and white – sitting near the window.
A thin stream of fading light filtered into the room as we took our accustomed places in a circle of chairs. It was in The Study that we held weekly meetings. None like this one.
“Of course,” led off Brother Alphonse, “we all know why we’re here.” The boys shook their heads. Mumbles of “terrible” – “disgraceful” – “a pall on our order” – and my own “How dare he?” – circulated around the room, lit by several lamps.
“Who?” said Brother Emmanuel. “Who in Christ’s name, who is it?”
How was it that we all knew? We had never thought of it before and yet every single one of us knew who the offender was.
“The leche,” said Brother Harry.
“Murderer,” said Brother Anthony. “The victims will never ever be the same. A good many of them kill themselves,” he said, burying his face in his hands and weeping softly.
“He must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Brother Gregory.
“Do you think Father O’Meehan is serious and will report him to the outside authorities?”
“I’m not so sure,” said Alphonse, squeezing his folded hands on the table. “He’s an old man, not terribly vigorous. I’m just not all that sure.”
We all shook our heads.
“The man must be prosecuted,” I said.
“Prison is too good for him,” said Harry.
“Let us pray,” said Alphonse, grasping the hand of Simon who sat next to him, who grasped Harry’s hand.
“Dear Lord of the Universe,” he began, his voice trembling. “We do not countenance what has happened in our sacred order of Augustine and we know you don’t either, Lord. Please show Father O’Meehan the way to root out the young and handsome priest who is bedeviling young boys in his parish. If by chance, the Father can’t do it, please, Lord, show us the way, to get him expelled ourselves.”
“Amen,” we said softly.
CHAPTER THREE: LET THE CHILDREN LEAD THE WAY
The very next day I made an appointment to speak about the priesthood at Cardinal Flannery High, where I graduated at nearly the top of my class. I’d do anything for that school, which saved me from my dreaded home life. Though a majority of its students lived in deep wells of poverty, the educators – priests, nuns, brothers and even a lay person or two – were nothing short of outstanding. Sister Annaliese, a tough little woman – as far as I know, we had none of those knuckle-cracking nuns – drilled all of us in music.
“You cannot be a complete human being,” she once said, standing before us in her black habit, “until you’ve learned to revere music.” She looked out at her young students, clad in our uniforms of black pants, sky-blue shirts and red ties.
Bold, for those days. But remember this was not your ordinary Catholic school. Our principal, young and handsome Father Brian McGowen, would often visit each classroom, unannounced, take a seat in the back and sit in on the lesson.
“Sister Annaliese,” we heard him say, “you could make your boys love poop in a pig sty!”
We roared with laughter, though the Sister blushed in the front of the room.
She had a little purple stereo atop her desk, which she handled without even looking at the buttons. Made me wonder if she played a musical instrument, a question she answered later on.
“Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord. Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” We stared up at her. She was so tiny in her billowing habit I was afraid she would disappear. How can such a tiny thing speak such wondrous words, I wondered.
Suddenly the most astonishing music poured forth from her little stereo. And she, our teacher, grabbed a ruler off her desk, extended her arm and used the ruler as a bow of the violin. She became a member of the orchestra in “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughn-Williams. I don’t know about the other boys, but I closed my eyes and became one with the soaring lyricism of the violins, which I viewed upon a stage in my mind. That this little gem of a nun had led me post haste into the world of music was something I’m eternally grateful for.
So it was that both myself and Brother Anthony, whom I considered the most emotional of the lot of us, drove for twenty minutes in our white van to my beloved Cardinal Flannery High School. Twenty-six years ago I graduated from this three-story brick building, which I barely recognized, since several additions now expanded the facility. Of course I dared not hope that my teachers were still here. Upon entering, the noise of the place surprised me. It was the changing of the classes and the joyful noises of the students resounded from the white tiled walls and polished wooden floors. My mood quickened and I was positively ecstatic to be in the presence of all these young learners. Praise be to the Lord that maybe a dozen or so of these young men would enter the clergy.
We met first with Father Brian McGowen – yes, he was still there - in his large office, complete with a Mr. Coffeemaker, hot water for tea, a tray of cookies, comfortable chairs for parents and students and his huge desk, filled with masses of papers.
“Wonderful to see you again,” said the father, rising from his desk to reveal how time had shaped him. Quite a bit of his hair was gone – it remained mostly black – and his dark eyes shone like coal. His posture was good, nary a stoop. He motioned us to sit on blue-checkered love seats and asked what we’d like to drink.
“Nothing for me,” I said.
“C’mon,” he said. “While I can’t get you whiskey – did you hear the one about ‘the capital of Ireland is booze’ – I’ve got the second best. Earl Gray Tea.
“Very kind of you,” said Brother Anthony, rubbing his hands together. “Steaming hot, if you please, sir.”
Our pleasant chatter lasted nearly half an hour until Anthony and I were ready to take the stage in the auditorium. The room seemed to be the size of a small football field.
“I am so pleased that the Ghosts are in the lead in the Northern Division," I began, looking out at the huge audience. “Undoubtedly it’s because I left the team twenty-five years ago.”
The kids roared with laughter and then Anthony and I went into our spiel. We hadn’t practiced a word, knowing that the Lord would deliver us the right words of persuasion. Otherwise, Brother Alphonse would not have chosen us.
“Let me,” I said, standing at the microphone, “put in a good word about God. As young men, you are on the verge of graduating from the top academic Catholic school in Philadelphia. Perhaps you doubt the existence of the Lord.”
There was silence and I, too, remained silent.
“No one, least of all me, can lead you to the Lord, even though He’s watching all of us right now.” I pointed to the ceiling.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “He’s only watching Number 38, your quarterback, Mr. Colum – what’s his last name?”
“McCauley” shouted the audience.
Brother Anthony interjected. “It wasn’t until a miracle of sorts occurred that I became a believer.”
“But you don’t want to hear that story.”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” cried the students.
Anthony recounted a story I’d heard many a time. His little sister, Rosemarie, lay comatose in Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. At six years old, she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor – he pointed to his head – and the family waited in the hospital waiting room while the surgeons attempted to remove it.
“What were the chances she would live?” he asked. “Take a guess.”
“Right on!” he said, pointing to a lad in the second row.
“A thirty percent chance, but there was nothing else to be done. Could you let your little sister waste away, with nausea and headaches, or would you try something daring?”
You could have heard a pebble drop in the auditorium.
“That’s when I knew God had answered our prayers.”
A hand shot up in the audience. “What if she had died?” asked a young man.
“Good question, son. I like to think that the Lord would find me wherever I went. If I was in a field of lilies or in a green pasture or on the basketball court he would’ve made it his business to come and get me.”
The audience applauded.
“And,” I added, “He may just be looking for a few good men now. And I don’t mean to send to the neverending wars across this transient world of ours. Why would God Almighty want you for the priesthood, or God forbid, to be an Augustinian Brother like my friend Anthony and myself."
Hands shot up in the air.
“Go ahead,” I said. “Shout out the reasons.”
“To preach the Gospel of Saint Matthew, to preach the teachings of The Sermon on the Mount.”
“To bring salvation and hope to a sinning world.”
“Clarity and love and peace. Only the Catholics can show the world the way.”
“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Brother Anthony, looking out at all the young men in their blue shirts and red ties.
We looked at our host, Father McGowen, who sat on stage, alert as a bell, eyes gleaming with pride at his boys.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “You contact your boss here, Father McGowen, if you have any questions. Do it soon because you never know when he’s going to retire, right Father?”
“You go talk to him. He’ll answer all your questions,” I said.
Father McGowen stood up. “We’re not trying to bribe you boys, but you’ll see refreshments in the back of the room. Cookies and cupcakes your moms baked us. Then come pay me a visit, if you wish. Don’t tell your teachers,” he said with a laugh, “that anyone who’s interested in the priesthood will get all A’s on their report card.”
“Thank God,” I said when Anthony and I got back in the van, “no one asked the question about the bad priests.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” he said.
The suburbs were all built up. Pet Smart. Giant Supermarket. Home Depot. Chinese restaurants, Friendly’s. I supposed that if we drove cross-country we’d find much of the same thing.
A lump came into my throat. So many losses. I clearly remembered the beautiful farm fields, tall with corn stalks, or green with soy bean crops. Good verdant land that yielded to the wrecker’s ball.
I cleared my throat and said nothing for a while.
“When I was a kid,” I told Anthony, “I remember Mom and Dad driving by – get this! – The Pie House.”
“Nothing was better than pie,” he said. We reminisced about our favorites. Banana cream, pecan pie, apple pie a la mode. How sad it was, I thought, that none of our former teachers were there at the high school. I hadn’t inquired about them from Father McGowen as I didn’t want to hear about their deaths. Perhaps I was in denial about our earthly tenure, but I intended to keep Sister Annaliese and my other teachers alive in my head.
“We did good, Brother,” said Anthony, as I pulled into our parking lot.
The double red doors of the monastery were a comfort. Sometimes, while falling asleep, they flashed into my mind. The comfort of being home. On acres and acres of virgin landscape, with countless trees. rolling meadows with gurgling brooks and the protective hand of God above us all.
CHAPTER FOUR: A DANGEROUS MAN
So much to think about. So much to do. Would Father O’Meehan keep his word and investigate the accused? Fortified with energy from our successful talk at my old alma mater, I was on a roll. My muse was off and running, like Atalanta running her famed footrace in Greek mythology. Everything I looked at demanded a poem. The crucifix on the wall in my chamber became the subject of “Six Approaches to Christ on Easter.” My small Sony stereo on my bedside table yielded the poem “To Samuel Barber on His Birthday.” My homemade pumpernickel bread, from the Tassajara Cookbook, reincarnated itself into “The Ancient Art of Breadmaking.”
Time begin to spin swiftly like a whirling Dradl. Was it my imagination that nearly all the Brothers, including the slow-witted Brother Vinnie, shared this profusion of energy? Looking in the mirror as I brushed my teeth in the communal bathroom, I looked in my eyes – I bore a resemblance to my sister Gerri and my mom - and gave praise to the Lord for his bounty.
Might you indulge me if I print a poem here? My writing notebook is a huge red diary with dates on every page that I write over. The classical music station in Philadelphia does an about-face in the evening and plays jazz. “BP with the GM: Bob Perkins with the Good Music.”
Back in May, Bob Perkins announced – and I wrote this in my diary - “We’re gonna spend the evening with the great Miles Davis,” said ole Bob, who is in his eighties, “because today, May 26, would have been his eighty-ninth birthday.” I was lying, hands under my head, in bed and could barely contain my excitement. Never was there a greater jazz musician! As a child Mom had bought me a transistor radio that I slept with, my fingers greedily roaming the dial and introducing me to classical, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock. AM only in those days, my little transistor sucked in “clear channels” all the way from Utah, California and even Mexico. Radiowaves fascinated me and I did a lengthy report on how the frequencies worked.
I stayed up until two in the morning listening to Miles play from his albums “Sketches of Spain,” “Birth of the Cool,” “In a Silent Way” – which I found prayerful and mystical – and others such as the staccato rhythms of “Bitch’s Brew.”
Around about midnight – that’s also the name of one of his tunes – I picked up my red diary from the drawer of the bedside table, grabbed my black Bic pen (the only pen I use) and penned a little tribute to this son of a dentist, born in 1926, and ex-husband of the late Cicely Tyson.
Rarely satisfied with my poetry, I revised it in the diary.
in memory of Miles Dewey Davis III (1926-1991)
After the lights went out
and the smoke
like gray ribbons of cloud
drifted into the other room,
carrying at half mast
much the way he did as a kid,
but this time not daring to
ask for even one more solo,
one more tumbledown sobbing arpeggio
leaving the stage instead for
more restless, wondrous countries
than ever his breath could tell.
Upon occasion I shared my poetry with one or two of the brothers, who really had little taste for poetry. Literature, yes. But poetry, no. They could not “get” how similar the two are, having been imprinted as teens, on difficult to understand classical poetry such as “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or “The Lady of Shallot.” At our weekly meeting in the Study, I took a chance and, asking their indulgence, read my Miles Davis poem to the assembled brothers as we sat in our circle.
Total silence followed my reading.
Said Brother Alphonse, changing the subject, “Two important things, boys. It seems that Father O’Meehan may be shirking his most important task. We will pray together and ask the Lord what we ought to do.”
“And the second?” said Brother Heller, with an impish grin. “Banning perhaps the useless recitation of poetry?” He looked at me and winked.
Alphonse paid him no mind. In his deep voice, he said, “We’ve received a call that six boys - or should I say, “six young men” – are interested in the priesthood, a result of the inspired talks by Thomas and Anthony at Cardinal Flannery High.”
We all put our hands together and clapped softly.
“Jesus, we thank you for your bounty,” I said aloud, rescuing myself from the humiliation of being totally ignored when I read my poem.
Alphonse told us that we should be hearing soon from Father McGowan, the high school principal, giving us details of the meeting between ourselves and the young men interested in a career in religion.
And then the day came when we visited Father McGowan. On a sunny day in early November, four of us piled into the white van and drove to one of the most spectacular Catholic churches in the area: Saint James the Lesser. Despite its disparaging name, the medieval-appearing church with six zooming spires, dominated a grass-filled plain, commanding all eyes to look upward, and in doing so, to contemplate the heavens. It was a Saturday afternoon, when the six students would take time away from their athletics or choir practice or band practice to meet with us and the young and charismatic Father Charles Brady. To the outside world, his reputation was peerless. Under his leadership, church attendance soared, drawing scores of young people. Its school from K through 12 was the second largest in the city, whereas most parochial schools were losing membership and were forced to merge with one another. Father Brady created an award-winning young people’s choir, a counseling center called “Through the Red Door” which averted divorces - they hired a consultant to help with alcohol and drug abuse among both adults and young people - and through aggressive marketing, Saint James the Lesser and its dynamic principal appeared on the Philadelphia morning television shows and the evening news as an antidote to the crime and four-alarm fires in the fifth largest city in the country.
As we alighted from our van we noticed that the parking lot was neatly swept. Mounds of autumn leaves were piled around the perimeter. Cool breezes swept over us as we eagerly awaited our first encounter with Father Charles Brady. Two young men in black pants, green-striped shirts and red ties greeted the four of us when we walked in the double doors. Banners in the huge lobby announced in school colors of yellow and purple: “Home of the Vikings” – “Winner of Hand Bell Competition” – “Congrats Colin Knightly, Student of the Month.” Our young guides led us through a door into a corner of one of the lunchrooms – vending machines beckoning in neon blue against a wall – and we were led to several Formica-topped tables where young men were seated, talking amongst themselves as they awaited our arrival. These, I thought to myself, just may be the future clergy of the Catholic church. They were clean-cut with closely cropped hair and looked like an advertisement for an anti-drug campaign.
“Father Brady,” I said as the four of us walked up to him. He stood up and shook hands with each one of us.
“My dear boys,” he said, looking at his students. “These cherished brothers will introduce themselves.”
Proud as we’d ever been, we looked at the students and shared our names “Thomas”– “Anthony”– “Harry,” who did sound a bit gay, and “Milo,” our only black brother, after which Father Brady showed us to our seats. After some give and take and answering of questions – “We prefer the contemplative life,” said Milo, “although, like Christ’s precepts, we do good deeds in the community.” He spoke about his involvement in gardening in poor black neighborhoods, like the one he came from, and the profound thanks he received.
“People trust us,” I said, “because we are brothers – that’s the same thing as monks - they don’t suspect we have ulterior motives but know we’re true in spirit. So, imagine if you will, a life of service. Of helping, in a myriad of different ways, your fellow men and women.”
“Of course,” said Harry, “there are sacrifices you must make by becoming priests or brothers. We believe that by taking vows of poverty and chastity – and you know what chastity means, I’m sure” – the boys snickered – “it allows us to focus our entire being on service, the most important reason, we believe, for coming into the world.
The young students stared up at Harry, who stood in his burgundy cassock. They were either very impressed or very nervous, I thought, about the sacrifices they would be called to make.
You can bet that the four of us were looking for signs of intimacy between Father Brady and his boys. The incredible thing was that each boy thought he was the only one who had won the “love” of his exalted parish priest. Truly, if I didn’t know any better I would have been charmed by the father’s warm ways, his quick smiles, the way he patted everyone on the shoulder and made even the most casual of acquaintances, such as myself, feel cared about.
“Look, boys,” said Milo, whose skin was the color of pecans, “we are encouraged that you came out to this little meeting. Think about what we have told you and pray about it. When I was a boy growing up in rough neighborhoods in Philadelphia, I had a few favorite saints. I used to study their words, particularly Saint Francis of Assisi.
“Think about your own favorite saints, including the newly canonized Saint John Paul the Second, who was a writer, a poet, a skier, and who saved many from The Holocaust.”
“Yes,” said Anthony. “Priests hold such power, they are so trusted, that they can change the world.”
Father Brady burst in with, “That’s one of the precepts of Saint James the Lesser Church. To change the world. My boys know they have my blessing to be a real force in the world.”
“We are leaving the boys in good hands,” I said, looking at everyone and pressing my hands together in a farewell greeting.
The moment we got in the van, the four of us began to speak.
“He was really something.”
“As charismatic as Bill Clinton, another sex maniac.”
“Did you see how the boys were mesmerized as if he were a rock idol?”
We discussed the young man sitting next to him. “He could have been his own son, they were so intimate,” I said. “I wanted to look under the table and see if they were playing footsie.”
“He’s a dangerous man,” said Milo. “A very dangerous man.”
“And you know what?” I said. “It’s gonna be at least ten years before he’s taken down.”
CHAPTER FIVE: The Faces of Satan and The Saint
The mood deepened within the monastery. We had gazed upon the face of Satan who shone glorious as the moon. Monsters there would always be, whether Hitler, Stalin, the Khmer Rouge, or Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia. This monster in Western dress, was first put on trial for a list of crimes so savage I won’t dare list them. He was first put on trial in 2003. Through his and his attorneys’ machinations, Taylor – such an innocuous name - wasn’t sentenced until 2013. He is currently serving a fifty-year sentence in a maximum security prison in Northeast England.
Free will. This term is much-bandied about. Our Brothers do not subscribe to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Like the existence of the Lord himself, neither can be proven. Many is the time when I attempt, without success, to prove I am my own man. That I can do exactly as I wish. At the dining room table, when I want to dish out a second serving of curried lentil soup, I take instead two slices of fragrant challah bread, Brother Heller, the former Jew, periodically bakes for us. His golden-brown braided twist with black poppy seeds on top is as spectacular looking as a wedding cake. But who can say that I am not manipulated like a puppet?
It is early November. From my upstairs window, I see a black Lincoln pulling up, driven by a church volunteer. Father O’Meehan emerges with his cane from the back seat. I hurry downstairs to greet him. We embrace and he tells me, “The news is not good. But let’s gather in the library.”
In a few moments all of us except for Milo, who is on garden duty, and Brother Simon, who is seeing Sister Florence, a Holy Redeemer nun, who is a certified dietician – yes, he is at last serious – sit down at the large brown table.
I am tapping my hands on the table in anticipation.
O’Meehan’s blue eyes shine out at everybody. “Good news or bad,” he says, “can’t tell which. You be the judges.”
I ask everyone to wait a couple of seconds and run off to the kitchen. I return, pushing a cart filled with several Gevalia stainless steel carafes of boiling hot water and a tray of tea bags. “Sorry,” I say, “we don’t have any cookies defrosted.”
The father laughs. “If only life were as easy as defrosting cookies.”
He paused and we all looked at him.
“I went to seminary with another old bird like me, Father Joseph Barry. They keep him on at Cardinal Flannery High. He keeps busy, he told me, though they don’t let him teach anymore, favoring younger priests, you know the story.”
O’Meehan told us he met with his old pal at a Friendly’s Restaurant. “Superb strawberry ice cream,” he told us. “Like a couple of old geezers the two of us reminisced before I felt he was warmed up enough for me to ask the question.”
He took a sip of his tea. I believe it was Twinings’ Irish Breakfast.
“Here’s what my friend told me. ‘It’s general knowledge that Father Brady is fooling around with as many as ten of the young boys.’”
“Ten! Geez!” we said collectively. “Jesus Christ Almighty!”
A number of us crossed ourselves myself included.
“Good work, Father,” said Alphonse. “Any ideas how we can stop the monster?”
“That’s what I’m here for,” said O’Meehan. “Any ideas?”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Why don’t I fix us some lunch. We’ll all be thinking until then and we’ll meet in the lunch room.”
Everyone agreed to it.
We lunched on a green salad with baby spinach, the anti-cancer agents of broccoli, tomatoes, sliced green scallions, and sunflower seeds. Sliced dill cheese chunks provided the protein. Warm applesauce, made from Granny Smith apples, was our dessert.
We ate in silence. From the looks of everyone, each was deep in thought.
Alphonse spoke first. “You’re aware, aren’t you, of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose on the widespread abuse of children at the Archdiocese of Boston?”
To a man, we nodded. “We discussed it recently. One of the news shows aired it,” said Brother Gregory, the youngest of all of us.
“Charlie Rose,” I said, who was soon found to be a lecher.
“So, I suppose,” said Father O’Meehan, “ya may be thinkin’ of bringin it to the attention of the press?”
We looked around at one another. Eyebrows went up and down. Shoulders shrugged. Fingers tapped on the table.
“Sold to the highest bidder,” laughed Brother Heller. “Sorry, couldn’t help myself,” he said about his nonsensical remark.
In an effort to redeem himself, he added, “There’s always the Philadelphia Inquirer. Damn good paper.”
“You’re right about that, Heller,” said Alphonse. “Their main focus is on the lousy Philadelphia sports teams.”
“Talk about psychopaths,” I interjected. “That quarterback Michael Vick, the dog torturer. He did time for that.”
When I saw that everyone was finished eating, I said, “So. We do nothing for now. Right?”
Everyone agreed and wanted to know when we’d meet again.
“A week from today,” said O’Meehan. “I’ll get these old legs going again. Gregory, remind yourself never to get old.”
“Will do, sir,” he said with a smile.
I was very fond of O’Meehan and saw him to the car. The older people are, the more I cherish their time on earth. He looked to be in his early eighties. He lived in our retirement center, a place I found too sad to visit.
When he lowered himself into the back seat, he mumbled something to me.
“Say it again, sir,” I asked.
He had invited me to visit right now the Augustine Brothers Retirement Home, a short ways away. Without saying a word, I walked around to the other rear door, and slid in. Not a good idea to leave without telling anybody, but it would be but a short visit.
During the ride over, I prayed that my dread wouldn’t show on my face when I walked in. I planted a little fake smile on my face and held O’Meehan’s arm as we walked inside, his cane clopping along like a third leg.
There they were arrayed in the front room with all the frailties of the aged. It doesn’t matter if you’re a priest or a brick layer, aging is democratic, tossing out indignities like a random throw of the dice.
The ones that really got me sat in wheelchairs with heads bowed forward. They couldn’t keep their heads up. Yes, I know our heads are as heavy as a bowling ball, weighing all of three pounds, but they contain our precious minds. O’Meehan headed straight toward the man with his bowed onto his chest.
“Father Leary,” he said loudly. “Are ya asleep or just practicing your prayers?”
Father Leary snapped to at the sound of his friend’s voice.
“Oh, I hear you, dear friend, I’m just thinking. About the Old Testament, David and Goliath.”
“Well,” said O’Meehan, in a very loud voice. “I want to introduce you to Goliath here. Well, he’s tall as Goliath. My dear friend, Brother Thomas.”
We greeted one another and O’Meehan told me the important work Father Leary had done during his long life.
“You’re certainly entitled,” I said, “to let your thoughts roam where they will. A sort of meditation, then.”
He heard not a word I said. We made the rounds of the Day Room. One poor man in a wheel chair was shaking, both his arms and his legs, Parkinson’s, I supposed. He was not old, but he had become a parody of who he used to be. And was unable to practice his chosen profession.
“Father Reilly,” said O’Meehan. “How’s your shaking palsy. Ya know, that’s what they used to call it.”
Reilly looked up with difficulty, his head bobbing up and down. “It’s not a nice disease,” he said. “Very competitive. Wants to bring me to my knees. Depletion of dopamine.”
“Is there nothing you can do?” I asked.
“Brain surgery,” Reilly said in quick bursts of speech. “I’m a …candidate. We’re going… downtown to the … University of Pennsylvania for more tests… I wanna ride … in that black Lincoln… with the real leather seats… that warm your arse …. when it’s cold outside.”
We laughed and moved along. “The courage of your friends,” I exclaimed.
“Right about that,” he said. “And me, all’s I got is a bad hip that I refuse to get operated on.”
I told him if it were me, I’d avail myself of all that modern medicine had to offer. “I’m a sissy,” I told him. “I don’t like pain.”
For the first time, he showed me his room. We took a small elevator to the third floor. An unpleasant smell emanated from the hallway as we walked down the carpeted floor. Most of the doors were shut. Each one contained what I’d call an emblem of pride on the door, along with a brass knocker. Surprisingly, O’Meehan had an old photo of himself on the door.
“That, you?” I asked.
“Sure is. I need to remember who I once was. It’s the first thing I see as I enter, just as Jews view their mezuzah on their doorways.”
The room was spacious. On the window sill were pots of flowers – chrysanthemums of yellow, purple, and white. Their aroma floated in the air as did pipe smoke. And, sure enough, next to his blue rocking chair, was a table with a pipe and ashtray lying next to a huge Bible.
“This is my paradise,” he said, “before I hopefully get to the real one.”
He pointed to an adjoining room. “My bedroom,” he said, “though I often fall asleep while reading in here.”
I nodded and smiled down on this beloved man.
He told me to have a seat. “Let’s not talk about the Evil One,” he said. “I do want to tell you what I’m reading. A book or two by “the seanchaithe” – shawn-chay-tha – Gaelic,” he said. “My language.”
A pile of books rested on the table. “These fellows are marvelous: Seán Ó Faoláin and of course Frank O’Connor. He held up the books in their jackets. Of course there’s nothing wrong with Edna O’Brien, still alive at – what? – eighty-four, I believe. My age. And the late Elizabeth Bowen.”
My mind whirled. I must read his favorite writers. I’m sure they would become mine, as well.
I told O’Meehan I would let myself out. First, I went over to his seated form, bent down and kissed him on both of his soft cheeks. What a fine specimen of a man he was. A true and living saint.
CHAPTER SIX: READYING FOR THE PLUNGE
Deep within us an inner voice speaks. A homunculus. I first became aware of this little fellow as a child, this voice, this devil-may-care jack-in-the-box who was fearless in voicing his thoughts, nearly as far-ranging as the billions of combinations of our DNA, whose codes - ATGC (Adenine,Thymine, Guanine and Cytosine) - fashion poets and saints, murderers and the drug dealers, that fill prisons to bursting where new forms of violence reign unchecked.
Around the age of six, Mom gave me a quarter and I walked down the street to the corner store, not to buy milk or eggs, but to get anything I wished. That’s when “Skippy” made his appearance. There I was staring at the rows and rows of candies – Milky Ways, M & Ms, Forever Yours, Sky Bars, with four different flavors, nougat, caramel, chocolate and peanut butter, when the voice spoke up.
“Rub that quarter and mebbe it’ll turn into a silver dollar. The one with Ike shinin’ on the front.”
I kept my head down and looked around. Could anyone else hear Skippy? Not that I could tell. Now this isn’t one of the voices that saints like Jeanne d’Arc or schizophrenics hear. It was simply a thought that would pop out like the clown in the jack in the box. Never frightening. Just a thought like an airplane flashing by in the sky.
In time I didn’t even notice Skippy. Can’t even tell you if he was there or not throughout the years. But after the debacle with the bad priest, Skippy piped up again. He had matured right along with me. He sure did. He always had my best interests at heart, contrary to the schizophrenic who tells you to lay your head on the railroad tracks, the world is better off without you.
“So what do you think,” says Skip. “Do you want to be part of this contaminated institution? This institution of corruption and hatred. The Ten Commandments of Hate: Jews, gays, Lesbians, women. Mother Theresa, Skip emphasized, was a fake. All she did was rake in money as she went from place to place holding the hands of dying emaciated people with bloated bellies. Why didn’t she use the billions she raised to build hospitals to fix these people? She was a missionary of death.
Believe me I argued with every last thought Skip was feeding me. It was a beautiful religion. Sermons were filled with love and mercy, be kind to the unfortunate, sacrifice yourself for the sake of others and for Almighty God. This was the first time I ever thought of leaving the order. And I knew I would leave. I just knew it. Not now. But eventually. “We” had made up our mind. Every single cell and molecule inside me. It came as a jolt, one of those eureka moments, but unwanted, unasked for. I was not discovering a new scientific theorem, just another step forward on the game board of Brother Thomas Benjamin O’Riley.
After the homunculus offered up his aspersions, I began to sob, and quickly exited the monastery. Fondling the cross around my neck, I lifted up my cassock which acted like a broom sweeping up leaves and to the pond I went. This once was farmland with rich red soil dotted with natural springs where men and cattle alike drank, cowboys, I liked to imagine in my healing walks, who took off their hats, washed the grime off their faces, filled up their metal canteens and tipping their heads upwards drank the sweet cool water.
I surprised myself with the sobs that came from deep inside me. It seemed that every part of me was weeping, a fountain of tears that wet my face and cassock. Sitting beneath the tree like Buddha and watching the leaves sail down from the trees, I thanked the Lord for everything He had given me. Closing my eyes, I remembered when I’d first arrived here as an eighteen-year-old lad. Mother was not ready to let me go as I was one of her saviors from my father. Would I ever forget our goodbyes? She sobbed into my chest, a short woman, with a heart as big as a pumpkin.
“I’m still your son,” I told her. “I want to make you proud of me.”
“Forgive me,” she said. “Whenever I see you, when you come in the door, when you eat at the table, when you climb the stairs, my heart explodes with love for you, Tommy.”
“I know, Mom. I will never stop loving you.”
We were all at her bedside several years ago – Father was in jail – when hospice called and we settled ourselves on chairs around her bed. She never had much money but was content with the cheerful flowered wallpaper, a framed pastel painting of Pope John Paul II staring kindly at her from the wall, and pictures of the four children and grandchildren on the old brown bureau with round knobs on the drawers, and of course the comforting cross on the wall. Crosses were in every room in the house.
After her death the house stood silent for a year. A for-sale sign finally attracted another family to live at 2929 Fairlawn Road. It was a good ten years before I saw the house again. It was Christmas-time. I chauffeured the elders at our Augustine Retirement Community to see the Christmas lights around the neighborhoods. Our house was lit all in blue lights. The figures of children bounced back and forth in the living room, where the lit-up Christmas tree shone from the window. I tell you, those blue lights were really something. What manner of folk lived in that house? The blue was a somber color, not joyful like the colored lights. I liked what the color represented. Christ’s birth and his thirty-year journey to discover what his message was to the simple desert folk, who woke every day to do their chores and then fall asleep at night. He provided them with stories to chew on around the hearth or when women went to the well to fetch water. What a revelation it was to people who had never contemplated that there was such a thing as meaning, service, and making the world a better place. Added to that was the idea of a Hereafter. When their loved ones crumpled unto death, they were waiting for them in a real place, as alive as the sheep grazing in the fields. Whatever injuries death meted out on this earth – disease, deadly falls, violence – vanished in the other world. The Hereafter.
I thought about all this as my tears dried up under my tree. Heaven is a place, I thought. Millions of followers of Christ were comforted that death had lost its power over people. You could see it in their faces, their relaxed faces at church or in the streets. The message of The Gospel.
I would remain, of course, a Catholic when I left the monastery. Had there been others who came to our monastery and then left? I would have to find out. Certainly not during the twenty-five years I was there. How painful it would be to let everyone down when I told them I must go. Good thing Mother was gone.
Striding back to the monastery, I felt like I’d cleared my head. I saw myself standing on a diving board ready to plunge into the pool.
CHAPTER SEVEN: A WORLD OF THINGS TO DO
Awaking early before the sun came up, I wrote seven pages in my red diary. “My faith is not shaken and I hope never will be, but I know soon I will leave the order. What a fine line of believers we have in our O’Riley clan. I’ll never forgot the confirmation of little Sarah, lovely in her white confirmation dress. She spoke her lines flawlessly, a very bright little girl, who is all ‘growed up’ now.”
Stretching like a cat, I looked around my room. I must memorize it. And never forget the bliss my service here brought me every day until I ate from The Tree of Knowledge. And although God hasn’t kicked me out of Eden, I have taken it upon myself to leave.
I requested a meeting with Alphonse. The two of us across from one another in the Study. He told me he had known for some time “a worm was gnawing at my heart. What is it, Brother?”
Bowing my head I told him the story of my leavetaking some time in the future.
“Your mind is made up,” he said. “I see I cannot change it.”
“You’ve been here a long time,” I said. “Am I the only one ever to leave?”
“Of course not,” he said, looking at me with his keen brown eyes and white squiggly eyebrows.
“May I ask?”
“Three left, pleading ‘too small of a world’ – this after five years, not unusual – or ‘pulled to the larger world’ – and of course, ‘to find a partner to love.’”
He was silent a moment, looking toward the light coming through the blinds.
“I bear them no grudge. These are infinitely decent men. And, yes, I have heard from them, and they are fulfilling their destiny, just as you shall, when the time is ripe.”
I bowed to him. “Thank you, Alphonse.”
I told him that today I would serve the mentally ill who lived in a group home in Philadelphia. They knew me well.
“Go with God. You do fine work there, Thomas.”
I took the white van and drove to Philadelphia. All or some of the men were always home. Stomping the leaves off my feet, I entered the little house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
“Brother Thomas!” said Robbie, a tall man who heard voices. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Red-haired Kirk entered. He was thrown from a horse and was brain-injured. He lived in the present moment, not able to remember a thing. He came over for a hug, but I doubted he knew who I was, though I’d been coming here for years.
Nathan, who ran the home, ran down the steps.
“Great to see you, man,” he said, shaking my hand. “Whatcha got for us.”
“The usual,” I said. I’d stopped at Bethayres Market and picked up a freshly baked apricot kuchen and placed it on the table. The boys couldn’t have a better protector than Nathan, who loved them all and kept the place clean. His partner, Eric, also did a good job.
“Who wants to make the coffee?” asked Nathan.
Kirk, the brain-injured fellow, raised his hand, and went into the kitchen. I followed him to make sure he did everything correctly. We didn’t want to burn the house down.
Soon the smell of Maxwell House was wafting through the living room, dining room and kitchen. Robbie set the table.
“My voices are under control,” he told me. “No more nonsense about going out to the street and getting hit by a car.”
We gave each other the high-five.
“Are you doing any of your art work?” I asked.
“You bet he is,” said Nathan. “The guy’s on fire. We’re going to see if a few of the downtown galleries are interested in showing his work.”
Before schizophrenia got into his blood in his mid-twenties, Robert Mendelssohn would sell his oil paintings for a cool ten-thousand dollars to galleries in both Philadelphia and New York City. Yes, some people got part of their old lives back. Sad that the red-head would not. There were all sorts of transplants these days – kidney, liver, heart – but they weren’t even close, as far as I know, to transplanting parts of the brain.
The coffee was hot and delicious. I reached over to pat the red-head’s mouth with a paper napkin. Robbie cut the apricot kuchen.
“Nothing better,” said Nathan, holding a piece aloft.
“Where are Ron and Carl?” I asked.
“Taking in a movie,” he said. “Their peer specialist arrived and took them to see the new James Bond thriller.”
“Peer specialist?” I asked.
“A new position created several years ago. A peer is someone who understands your condition, because he or she has a mental illness himself, and is actually paid for visiting or even coaching their fellow peer.”
“Awesome!” I said. “Mental health is finding its way.” I couldn’t help thinking that I, myself, must find my way.”
After we’d eaten and discussed the latest Eagles game, we won, I stood up in my light brown cassock.
“Got something to tell you all,” I said, looking at Nathan, Robbie and Kirk.
Tears came into my eyes. Yes, I am a man of emotion. This would not be a good time to cry.
“I love every one of you,” I said. “But I must say farewell for now. My thoughts will always be with you. Have a wonderful life. If I can, I shall stop by in the future.”
Into the center of the table I placed little gifts for the four men plus Nathan and Eric. As a collector of stones, I put an assortment of smooth stones in the center of the table. “Take any one you want and remember me by these.”
I was too emotional to mention that David slew Goliath with a slingshot and a stone.
Someone was leaning against the white van when I left.
“I saw you go in there,” said an older black man in this mostly black neighborhood.
“Yes,” I said. “I am quite fond of everyone who lives there.”
“They’s crazy, you know that?” he said, pointing toward the door.
“Crazy?” I said. “Who told you that? They are the kindest, most loving people you’d ever want to meet. Knock on the door any time you wish and tell them Brother Thomas sent you.”
Sweeping my cassock up, I swung into the van and drove home.
I stopped at the Bethayres Market again, greeting Ollie, the owner.
“Happy with the kuchen?” he asked from the deli in the back.
“They loved it,” I said. Ollie himself had a schizophrenic brother who was living at home with his aging mother. He knew all about the home in Germantown and thought about putting Freddy in there when the time came.
I knew exactly what I wanted for dinner. Something unusual. Sweet and unusual.
The boys loved the asparagus coconut soup as we sat down to eat.
“I declare,” said Vinnie. “You’re always surprising us with great delicacies.”
“Not that I’m gonna enter a cooking contest, but what’s in here?” asked Brother Simon.
“You better not enter a contest until you’ve lost fifty pounds,” said Alphonse.
“Almost there,” he said. “That nun knows her nutrition.”
I explained that I used a quart of coconut milk into which I put peppers, onions, celery, a thinly sliced Gala apple and steamed asparagus. “Took but a second to cook,” I said. “Then I shook some curry powder over it. That’s what makes it the color it is.”
“I like the color,” said Vinnie. “Looks like a painting, green and red with those little brown bumps all over.”
I explained they were pecans. I omitted saying, “for protein” because I didn’t feel like explaining protein to Vinnie.
Looking at Alphonse, I asked, “Heard any news?”
“Yes,” he said. “He’ll be here tomorrow with some news.”
“Praise the Lord,” I said. “I hope it’s good news.”
“We can only hope,” said Alphonse, who paid no attention to Brother Vinnie’s questions, but arose from the table.
So did we all. Vinnie and Simon cleared the table.
I marveled at how delicious the soup tasted. Perhaps I’d make it in my new life.
CHAPTER EIGHT: A Child Comes Forth
Usually I launch myself out of bed like a rocket ship. This morning, though, I lay in bed, looking at the cloudy day outside. Forgive me for judging people, but I cringe inside when they say “What a miserable day!” Though tempted, I avoid telling them – for it’s a waste of time – “Every day we’re alive is a joy and an adventure.” Listed on my unwritten “to do list” was to contemplate the life of Jesus. Closing my eyes, his entire visage shown before me. He has always been like a living person to me. There he was, looking straight at me. We were not alone. He wore a long white robe and was seated on a cushion on a rock. Scores of people surrounded him. I had arrived in medias res but clearly made out his words. He was speaking to his disciples, but I’ve always regarded he was speaking to all within earshot on one of the magnificent rises in the desert of Palestine.
Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
An epiphany struck home. Although I always wanted to serve the Lord in some way, perhaps the long white robe of Christ had unconsciously implanted itself in me and that’s why I wore the long cassock of the brother.
Not wanting to let go of my vision of Christ, I invited him to join me in my chamber. Eyes still closed, I imagined him entering, his body shimmering with light as he stood next to me. That white robe again. Then he began to speak. “Let your faith and your knowledge of Me guide you in your quest to find how to serve me and our Father.”
Was I orchestrating his response? I know not. Upon further reflection, I’m certain the words emanated from his tongue. This is what we mean by a personal relationship with Jesus. Wherever I would go in my life, I would tell people who needed to hear it, “You can have a personal relationship with Christ. All you need to do is close your eyes and invite him into your life.”
This was a tremendous comfort to me.
I arose, changed out of my bed clothes, took care of my morning hygiene, and then, glancing again at the gray cloudy day, repaired to the kitchen to make breakfast.
From the pantry, I took some potatoes, who were growing eyes that looked like horns on a rhino, scrubbed them clean, and then put them in our food processor to chop up.
Potato latkes it was for breakfast. This Jewish delicacy is usually made on The Festival of Lights or Chanukah, but I needed to use up our homegrown potatoes before the horns turned them into an alien being from outer space.
Brother Heller helped me fry them up.
“Converting to Judaism, Brother Thomas?” he asked me.
“I am a Jew,” I said. “We were all Jews before Christ appeared. It’s part of our evolution.”
“I ask you this, Brother,” said Heller. “Does that mean we were pagans?”
“For sure,” I answered. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."
“Ah, gotcha,” he said. “Pride goeth before the Fall. You are showing off, sir.”
“Educating! Educating the uneducated.”
“Speak then, if you dare.”
I thought how much I would miss our clever brother.
“Ernst Haeckel – spelled H A E C K E L was a nineteenth century German biologist and philosopher who saith these immortal words which mean that the development of an organism – called ontogeny - such as yourself, Brother H - undergoes in his development all the evolutionary traits that led up to who he is today. Bingo! That’s ontogeny.”
Brother Heller gave a deep bow.
“I defer to thy learned self. Now what toppings do we want for the latkes?”
The golden brown latkes were wheeled into the dining room with bowls for the mandatory toppings, one of warm applesauce, the other of cold sour cream.
“Outdone yourself, again,” said Brother Alphonse. I winked at him.
I couldn’t wait to converse with Jesus again when I went on my morning walk. The wind and the rain had shaken most of the leaves from the trees. They lay in a golden carpet across the meadows. People travel to farflung places to see beauty anew. Look in your own backyard, my friends. Or come visit us here, as the faithful often do, and sing along with us.
There He was, my friend Jesus. He was far away, floating along the fields, not touching the ground. His hands were folded across his white robe. When he came within speaking distance, he saluted me, his feet touching the ground, like geese do when coming in for a landing.
“You know the score,” he said, as we both sat down under the oak tree.
“Sir?” I asked.
“You may speak to me any time you choose, you may ask for a visit, you may ask for encouragement, but I cannot give you answers. That is why, Brother Thomas, we gave our creatures free will.”
“All I want right now,” I said, “is to bask in your presence, my Lord.”
“I’m all yours,” he said. Closing my eyes, I lay against the tree. My bliss was superhuman, but of course it was Jesus-empowered.
Steaming hot chocolate and pizzelles were served when Father O’Meehan visited at four o’clock. Shaking out his umbrella from the slight drizzle, he said he’d always loved cloudy rainy days. “The earth shines more beautiful than ever. Anyone can appreciate a blue-sky day, but against the gray background, we have a magnificent contrast that only the true artist can appreciate.”
“The news is heartening,” he said in his Irish lilt, after eating a powdered-sugared pizzelle and wiping his hands on a pink linen napkin.
We all looked at one another. And gave a collective sigh.
“A boy has come forward. One of the abused. His parents removed him from Saint James the Lesser with the excuse that they wanted to send him to a public school.”
We all murmured our thanks to God.
“He’s traumatized,” said Brother Gregory. “How will that be handled, Father O’Meehan?”
“One reason the young lad got out quickly is that Brady did not succeed with him. He couldn’t be bamboozled like the others. So, he’s in relatively good shape. His name is Ryan. He also had hunches, as we did, on who Brady was involved with.”
“Good news, indeed,” said Brother Alphonse. “This has come about more quickly than we ever dared hope.”
“You see?” I said to the Father. “You were once a missionary at Maryknoll and now you have a new mission, which you have been accomplishing.”
“Not I,” he said. “I certainly have a role in it, but as they say, it takes a village to topple an errant priest.”
“I know the derivation of that quote,” piped up Brother Heller.
“So do I,” said a few others.
“If you’re going to attribute it to Hillary Clinton in her biography, you’re wrong,” said Brother Heller.
Everyone knew it was from an African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
“And,” said Brother Simon, “it takes one lousy priest to ruin a child.”
“Well said, Brother Simon, and by the way, your weight has come way down and I noticed you avoided the pizzelles,” said Alphonse.
Shortly thereafter, we all stood up, stretched and went our own ways. I was so happy I felt like skipping across the room. I tailed after Brother Gregory, a young dark-haired man who came all the way from Hartford, where his father was a noted physician, to join our order. He was a fine, fine man.
“I must tell you, Gregory, I am ecstatic about the coming forward of young Brian.”
“A brave thing to do,” he replied, “though seemingly so easy.”
“That’s one thing we can’t figure out,” I said. “The boys must know it’s wrong – they’re probably all straight men – and yet they’re quite pleased with this abusive treatment.”
Brother Gregory confessed to something I never would have guessed. When growing up he began having sex with, as he put it, “the high school whore.” “Shame flooded me. I felt dirty, contaminated. Felt people could read my sins everywhere I went. Fantasized that my entire body blushed red. She was a nice girl, really, parents were drug addicts, one in prison, so she had a terrible upbringing. I’d never had more fun in my life than shagging this girl on an old grease-stained mattress in her garage.”
“What made you stop?” I asked.
“Something terrible happened,” he said. “My penis began itching. I had to tell the whole story to my physician father. Talk about feeling devastated. I was terrified my pecker would fall off, but my dad administered a course of antibiotics: ceftriaxone, azithromycin, and doxycycline.
“In a matter of days, the itching stopped. Of course we had to notify the young woman who gave it to me. A good thing that was. Not only was her clap cured, but she went to live in another city with a relative.”
“Clap!” I remarked. “Haven’t heard that term in ages. I guess I’m showing my age. Forty-three.”
Back in my room, I stood and looked all around. There were my beloved books. Many volumes on interpreting the Old and New Testaments. Also books on art, philosophy, and poetry. I ran my knuckles over their shiny covers. What should I read?
Running my index finger over the books, I selected an art book my sister Gerri had given me for my birthday. Perhaps this was the book that imprinted me on the glorious art work of German expressionist Paul Klee. Looking at each colored plate – there were 186 of them – I was transported into a world residing deep inside me. His work turned me into a playful child, or a man who contemplated the God-given shapes of geometry – the star of David, triangles, half circles, flags, riotous colors of neon-bright yellow or deep reds the color of blood. Emotions swirled inside me, feelings that neither poetry nor literature could produce. Yes, Paul Klee was certainly a favorite.
When I leave, I told myself, I will learn to paint. Somehow, somewhere. I summoned the face of Jesus to scare off my feelings of fear for a future unknown, undreamt of.
CHAPTER NINE: Comfort Food in the Chapel
When I arose on Friday the thirteenth of November, I heard an unaccustomed murmuring of voices in the Great Room. What on earth had happened to make the Brothers so invigorated this early in the morning? When I stepped into the room with its burnished wood walls, they greeted me.
“Terrible news, Brother Thomas,” they said.
What could it be? A flash of thoughts entered my poor brain. Suicide by one of the abused boys? Recanting by young Brian?
Alphonse stepped forward and put his hands on my shoulders. “This has nothing to do with the errant priest. This is a global atrocity by the ISIS terrorists. In Paris, yesterday, there were seven carefully calculated attacks at different Parisian sites, that murdered one-hundred-thirty-seven innocent civilians, at last count.”
He stepped away and dabbed at his eyes.
“One hundred thirty seven innocent people, dead by the hands of these insane psychopaths.”
He explained the blood baths were carried out by machine guns. Machine guns went into a restaurant which served fine Parisian cuisine, they fired onto the playing field of where men were playing table soccer, and they took their insane mindless violence into a concert hall, filled to the brim, where an American rock group was performing.
“What would happen if they decided to destroy Notre Dame? Just march inside and blast away at this eleventh century cathedral, where our friend Archbishop Andre Vingt-Troit has his clerical office?”
Alphonse should his head back and forth. He mopped his brow and again dabbed the tears from his eyes.
“Brutality has always been a part of our world. But today? Today you would think, wouldn’t you, that reason would prevail.”
“Sir,” said Brother Simon. “We are only seventy years from Hitler and Stalin and the many genocides of the current century. Intolerance and brutality, if I may say so, will never end.”
“Of course you’re right, Brother. Where has my head been, cloistered away in our little paradise. Excuse me. I’m going to the chapel to pray.”
We all followed him.
If Notre Dame was a monument to the Catholic faith, so was our little Chapel. Many of the seats were filled this morning. Sisters of the Holy Redeemer who lived nearby and had their own chapel were seated with the blues and reds of the stained glass windows shining across their habits or lay person’s clothing. All heads were bowed in sorrow.
“Alphonse,” I whispered. “I’m going to speak to the congregation.”
Up I walked onto the raised platform and gazed out at more people than I’d ever seen here. The figure of Christ on the Cross blazed across several window panels. I turned my back and gazed on Him a few moments.
Feeling my own cross set atop my cassock, I turned around and addressed the congregation.
“Christ is weeping. As the son of Man, he feels our feelings. He, too, is outraged by the senseless violence that befell our brothers and sisters in Paris. He is a God of love and mercy, but he, too, seeks revenge. Why? Because he knows the ways of the world, ever since the eating of the apple from the Garden of Eden.”
I avoided saying that Eve had eaten the apple. Certainly it was all a myth, a fairy tale, but terribly unfair to blame a woman.
I continued. “Let me recite for you a passage from Mark about Jesus cleansing the Temple.”
The congregation were staring at me as if I could provide comfort. I knew many of the Holy Redeemer nuns. There was Brother Simon’s dietary guide, and the elderly Sister Mary Thomas, in the beginning stages of dementia, and Sister Pauletta, head of the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, a brilliant woman with a wicked sense of humor.
“And they came to Jerusalem,” I said into the microphone and heard my voice echo throughout the room. “And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.
“And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
A hand was raised in the congregation.
“Yes, Brother Vinnie?” I asked, hoping he would not embarrass us.
“Might we sing a song of praise?” he asked.
“Sure, Brother, which one would you like?”
“It’s on page twenty-three of the hymnal.”
We all turned to page twenty-three.
“Good choice, Christmas is right around the corner.”
We raised our voices as we sang, “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come, Let earth received her King! Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing.”
When we finished, I suggested that people stay as long as they wished, that they comfort themselves by reading the Bible, or better yet, by talking to one another on “this unforgettable day.”
Climbing down from the platform, I thought to myself, I had done a good thing, a very good thing, something to remember myself by, in the undreamt of times.
I was nearing the exit, when something crossed my mind. I went back onto the stage and spoke once again.
“I’m going to prepare some food and drinks. If you’d like to partake with us, stay here and I’ll be back in twenty minutes.
Comfort food was well-named. Our pantry was always full. And we were generous. We couldn’t exactly feed the multitudes with seven loaves of bread and fish, as Jesus did, but we had giant tins of cookies and huge samovars for tea.
Brother Alphonse helped me prepare the feast. As promised, we rolled in two carts with Lorna Doone Shortbread Cookies, old-fashioned dark brown ginger snaps, and several packages of Pepperidge Farm cookies – chocolate-filled Milanos and Pirouettes, a chocolate hazel nut rolled wafer that looked like a candy cigarette.
The samovar was given to us by one of our wealthy patrons. It was real silver, which required polishing, and had four delicate feet and engravings of birds, flying birds and fleur-de-lis patterns. Delicate lacy “ears” protruded on the side. The container heated up quickly and the smell of the green tea, which I sweetened with honey, was simply divine.
We rolled it to the back of the chapel and were soon overtaken by the multitudes. They helped themselves – equipped with paper plates, paper cups and paper napkins. You won’t be surprised to hear that I took my refreshments outdoors where I stared in disbelief at the overflowing parking lot. The cars shone radiantly in the late afternoon sun light. I walked among them, sipping on my sweetened tea. One day soon I would have to buy my own car. As I strolled among the aisles a few of the cars were still “beathe-ing,” from their journey over to the chapel. Viewed like this – Toyotas, Nissans, SUVs as large as whales – they seemed like sentient beings. All had mirrors – at least three - as if to preen themselves. Their feet were rubber tires – boots - with glorious mirrored hubcaps. Their eyes were huge and made of glass. They had eyes in the front and in the back of their heads.
Their hands were made in a variety of designs, all located on the doors of the automobile. On which day did God create cars? Man, he made on day six, so I suppose it must’ve taken Him a couple million years to create the automobile. And how about sports cars? I’ve always preferred the low-slung Italian Ferrari, perhaps the equivalent to a cowboy speeding across the range to meet his cowgirl. Can you imagine a retired monk driving in one of those racing vehicles? Neither can I. I laughed to myself. Who knows? Maybe God would send someone my way.
CHAPTER TEN: LEAVING THE ARK
Folly, thy name is Brother Thomas O’Riley. Get used to it, I thought. You are amputating “Brother” from your very existence. Your name shall henceforth be Thomas Benjamin O’Riley. From my bed, I looked over at my book case. My eyes quickly zeroed in on Thomas Merton’s best-seller “The Seven-Storey Mountain.” This Trappist monk, who wrote some 70 books, was responsible for tremendous interest throughout the country in becoming a priest. Doubtless many wished to join him at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, of all places.
No, I was not going to pull “The Seven Storey Mountain,” thumb through its pages and feel guilty about my upcoming resignation.
I was in good company. Pope Benedict XVI had resigned from the papacy on the last day of February, 2013, citing his declining health. We talked about it for hours around the table. Why, we wondered, hadn’t he followed in his predecessor’s footsteps, the now Sainted John Paul XXIII, who had his own Parkinson’s disease to contend with, but found it humbling and inspiring to help the ailing population around the world.
Each man faced his mortality in ways that pleased them.
Myself, lying in bed, eyes closed, in the prime of health, wondered what would finally do me in. I thought of the scandals that deposed an entire papal family about a thousand years after Christ died on the cross. Stretching like a cat, I arose from my bed and stood in front of my book case. The Catholic Encyclopedia, bound in a thick green cover, occupied an entire shelf. Choosing Volume T, I returned to bed with it, slid back under the white eyelet cover, and re-read the five-page entry on the Theophylacti family. I imagined Christ shaking his head at their debauchery. Has he forgiven this politically influential and corrupt family? They were not terribly different from today’s dynastic politicians, such as the Kennedys or Clintons. The Roman Catholic priest, Andrew M. Greeley, recounted tales of priests gone astray in his many novels. “Cardinal Sins” was a gem of a novel of realistic writing and included torrid sex scenes.
The family Theophylacti held vast influence over the selection of popes. The patriarch’s wife, Theodora, and daughter, Marozia, managed through conspiracies, sexual encounters and marriages to gain the riches and influence of the papacy. Young Marozia became the concubine of Pope Sergius III at age 15 and later took other lovers and husbands. A regular breeding mare, she also arranged the murder of her former lover, Pope John X. Had Dante Alighieri, author of “The Divine Comedy,” been acquainted with this family? It would have been interesting to see what punishment Dante would have meted out in “The Inferno.”
It was unwise for me to read such compelling history before breakfast. I could have spent hours under the covers reading, the way I did as a child.
After a breakfast of egg popovers – light and fluffy as clouds – and filled with either home-made apricot or blackberry jam and a bowl of nuts for added protein, I asked to see Brother Alphonse in the study. Since we were coming up on Thanksgiving, we had just begun lighting the fire place, which Brother Vinnie did with gusto. He learned the hard way to make sure the chimney flue was open. He had nearly passed out from thick swirls of gray smoke that seemed to delight in filling up the study. He came running into the kitchen for help.
I walked over to the welcome fire, crackling and snapping on logs and tinder chopped from one of our dying maple trees, and held out my hands in front of the fire. Nothing on earth is as wonderful as the heat of a real fire. My sister Gerri has one of those gas-burning fireplaces in their den, nice for the family to sit around, but hardly the same as a real fire.
“Shall we sit around the fire?” I asked Alphonse. He nodded and we pulled up two chairs from the large table. We sat in silence a few moments, while we watched the flames.
“I was a Boy Scout as a kid,” said Alphonse. “I was called ‘Al.’ Mom was smart enough to know the other kids would make fun of the name Alphonse. I had been named after my grandfather. At the time I loved our Scout trips more than anything in the world and that certainly included going to church.
“When I was about thirteen, our troop, led by Mr. Morris, Charlie’s dad, took us on a trip to The Poconos where we stayed at a Boy Scout camp among the tall trees in the woods. It was glorious. Thing is, Mr. Morris, who, ironically was in insurance, didn’t calculate the weather. As we were cooking our doggies over an open fire, it began to rain.”
Alphonse laughed and shook his head back and forth.
“It wasn’t quite as bad as Noah’s Ark but I remember we did discuss ole Noah and the giraffes on board and the dove who finally gave the all-clear. The waters had receded.
“As twelve-year-olds we hovered inside the wooden barracks. Never saw so many boys – about twenty of us, plus two Scout leaders, running to the window to see if the dark clouds were finished tormenting us.”
“I was never a Scout,” I told Alphonse. “Wanted to be but my father wanted me to study all the time. Fun, he believed, made a boy lazy and undisciplined.”
“I can tell you,” said Alphonse, “that we had more fun than if the weather had been perfect. We were nothing if not well prepared. Out came the board games and the floor games like ‘Twister.’”
“Holy mackerel,” I said, arising from my chair, bending down and putting one hand on the floor and moving slowly about.
“You got it!” Alphonse laughed. “We made up ghost stories that made us scream and laugh in our kerosene-lit room. And, we learned to tie some nautical knots.”
“The families back home must have been plenty worried about you.”
“They were,” said Alphonse. “No cell phones, of course. but we were in our glory.”
“How about now, Al?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how’s life treating you here at the mission?”
“I’m as happy as a honey bee sucking nectar, thank you.”
He looked over at my hands warming themselves.
“But you, Brother Tommy, don’t feel the same.”
“Quite true,” I said. “I’m being called. By God I like to think. I think that now’s the time to go.”
“Look,” I said. “The priest at Saint James the Lesser will be rooted out like a rat in the cellar much sooner than we ever thought. And,” I laughed, “I want to get out of here so I can watch the film “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s…”
“Investigation of the sex scandal, something I do not want to see.”
“Hmm, perhaps I’m changing inwardly and am pursuing more secular activities,” I said, realizing I was analyzing my new-found changing self and finding it fairly true.
I explained to Alphonse that my time had come. I was ready to leave, to find my way in the outside world, to resign.
Alphonse told me he’d prepare the necessary paper work. I would also be presented with a sum of money – probably ten thousand dollars, he said – for my years of service.
“Money!” I said. “Now you’re really scaring me. Sure hope I don’t come crawling back, Dad!”
We laughed and stood up, walking away from the fire. Spontaneously we hugged one another. His strong arms pressed into my back. I felt loved and protected. Never had I loved a man the way I loved Alphonse, the father I would never have. I told myself I was never to forget this moment.
CHAPTER 11: THANKSGIVING DAY
The leave taking from the monastery was a joyful one, mixed with sorrow. Brother Alphonse saw to that. My sister Gerri picked me up in her large white Ford Explorer. I carefully lifted up my brown cassock as I moved into the front seat. We pulled out of the front gate. Its beautiful wrought iron gate featured the figures of birds, frogs and lizards. Only now did I have the leisure to study them. A little laugh escaped my lips. Gerri was kind enough not to inquire.
Freedom! Dear Lord, I prayed, let thy wisdom guide me in my new life. Gerri and I were quiet. I would stay at her place until I knew what I would do next, a veritable game board, where, step by step, the player advances.
Would you believe that this man of God got himself a credit card in the name of Thomas Benjamin O’Riley? Gerri accompanied me to her bank, which she explained to me was not a bank but a “credit union.”
“We’re nonprofit,” she said in her husky voice. “Theoretically all the members own the credit union. It’s heresy to call them a ‘bank.’”
I laughed, thinking of the Catholics and their heresies. From Christianity’s beginnings, the Church has been attacked by those introducing false teachings, or heresies. Who was to decide what was true and what was false? And how would the heretics be punished? Fra Savanerola was tortured, hanged and burned at the stake. God is merciful. Man is not. Since I can quote the Scriptures verbatim, I remembered a passage in Second Timothy. "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.”
This will always be true. Look at the Paris killings done by Muslims. Good Muslims are not killers, not hatchers of terrorist plots. And did Paul, a man who was painfully crucified, upside-down, no less, foresee all the religions that would sprout like trees in the golden age of religious fervor? Joseph Smith discovered the tablets of Moroni on a hillside in Vermont. This polygamist, along with Brigham Young, founded the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons. What about Mother Lee? Sex repulsed her. Hers was a difficult task, getting followers who disavowed sex and lived in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania in segregated housing.
There, she taught them dance. Shaking and trembling, she believed, were caused by sin being purged from the body by the Holy Spirit. The worshiper was purified. And so they danced their way toward salvation, five-thousand strong in the United States and England in the mid-nineteenth century. Remarkably, a small community of three still remain in Maine. God bless them!
As we walked into the credit union Gerri pointed to the ceiling and showed me the hidden cameras. Soft rock music played in the background. I grabbed onto her arm to steady myself. “I’m fine,” I said. “Guess this is what they mean by ‘culture shock.’”
We had an appointment with Vernelle and sat down to wait for her.
“Gerri?” Vernelle stuck her head out of her office.
We walked in. Vernelle sat on one side of the desk while we sat on the other. I was introduced simply as Gerri’s brother, Tommy. The window sill in Vernelle’s office which gave out onto the parking lot was filled with stuffed animals. One solid row of soft cuddly animals including a yellow duck wearing a black beret.
“Cute,” I said with a laugh, pointing at the duck.
Vernelle turned around. “Which one do you like?”
“The yellow duck,” I said.
“That’s Pierre. My grand-niece Sarah gave it to me. She even named it.” Vernelle laughed.
I endorsed the check from The Augustine Monastery. This was the first time I tried out my new signature. I remembered in grade school practicing different fancy signatures during class. I watched my right hand tracing a looping “T” and then connecting it with a “B” and then the “O” for O’Riley. And then Riley, no apostrophe.
I stared at it a moment before pushing it over to Vernelle.
She turned sideways and typed into her computer. In less than fifteen minutes I had a savings account, a checking account, and a credit card that would arrive shortly at Gerri’s house.
She also gave me a wall calendar for the next year. Where on earth would I be in the future?
On Thanksgiving Day, I was at Gerri’s. She and her husband Jimmy had hosted Turkey Day for many years. For the first time I appeared in street clothes. I had driven over to the discount store Marshall’s and bought all-weather clothes with my credit card. When you spent enough money, you were given “cash back.” Gerri’s husband Jimmy had a gambling problem, so Jimmy sold me his 1995 red Toyota pick-up truck with only 21,000 miles on it. I took it for a test drive around the neighborhood. The radio had a good sound and I scanned the piles of crunchy autumn leaves on the side of the road. As I kid I was into cars with the neighborhood boys. A fellow named Scottie showed me how to stick my head under the hood and change the oil and put in anti-freeze for the bitterly cold Philadelphia winters. Along with six neighborhood kids, we built our own racing car, a souped up ten-year-old Dodge Challenger with a Ford engine. We drag raced through the back streets. Everyone in the family knew except my dad, who would have beat the stuffing out of me.
I knew for sure if I needed a job – and why wouldn’t I? – I could work at a restaurant or diner. Gerri and I burned the midnight oil preparing my last supper before I went on the road.
Ten of us sat down at the table, covered with a yellow linen table cloth and matching napkins. Utensils were rolled up in napkin rings. We held hands and I led them in prayer. “Dear Heavenly Father,” I began and looked around the table at my family. My loving family. “We thank you for your incredible bounty this year. We thank you for our good health, our prosperity and our continuing love of you, O Lord. We pray for peace in the world and know when you are ready, you will grant it to the world. Thank you, Lord, for my loving family, and the comfort they give me before I embark on my unknown, undreamt of journey in the greater world.”
“Amen,” we all said. And sipped on a glass of red wine.
“Uncle Tommy,” said Gerri’s young granddaughter Alicia. “I never knew you watched Blue Bloods on television.”
“Blue Bloods?” I questioned.
“Tom,” said Gerri. “It’s one of those police procedural shows. The family gets together for meals and they all pray together.”
“Yeah,” said Alicia. “You remind me of the old man.”
We all laughed. Did I really look old? True, my hair was graying and I wore those round “Granny glasses” perched on my nose. The better to see with, my dear.
I prayed silently that Jimmy would give up his gambling. There were no secrets in our family. We all knew Dad was in prison but no one had contact with him. Should I, as a man of religion, be in contact with him? After all he was my blood.
The Butterball turkey was juicy and delicious. I prepared the stuffing made with sausage and pears. Fresh cranberries, sweetened with honey, were one of the many side dishes. Since we were kids, we’d made a green bean dish with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and slivered almonds. Gerri’s daughter, Linda Lee, brought her special Pumpkin Chiffon Pie, encased in a spiced wafer crust. We served it with real whipped cream. I was proud of my family. We knew how to eat. Healthy and delicious. No processed food allowed.
We knew how to eat. How to love. How to pray. How to support one another emotionally. God could not have delivered me to better people. And having our errant father locked up taught us the importance of honesty, thinking before you act, and the importance of forgiveness.
Some day we would forgive him.
After dinner, we gathered around the piano. Jimmy played some Thanksgiving tunes and we all sang along. “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.” Here Jimmy pointed at his wife. Then it was “Thank you for being a friend / Traveled down the road and back again / your heart is true you're a pal and a confidant / I'm not ashamed to say / I hope it always will stay this way / My hat is off, won't you stand up and take a bow.”
And we did. We all bowed before one another. And went around the room giving back-breaking hugs to everyone.
Jimmy went back to the piano and banged out the Ray Charles tune “Hit the Road Jack.”
“Hit the road Tom and don’t you come back no more, no more, hit the road Tom, we’re gonna miss you, you’ll stay in our hearts.”
We all laughed and applauded.
I envisioned leaving the next day in the red Toyota pick-up.
Gerri switched on the porch light and we said our farewells. She wouldn’t let anyone help with the dishes, which she and I finished in a jiffy, putting them in the dishwater, pouring in Cascade dishwashing powder, and then listening to the sound of the cleansing water splashing onto the good China and even the turkey roasting pan.
Leave it to me, Catholic through and through, thinking of healing water that our Saint Bernadette of Lourdes discovered. How I loved the Catholic religion and everything about it. Her story is one of my favorites. A sickly child, a miller’s daughter, Bernadette Soubirous had several visions of a woman who finally identified herself as “The Immaculate Conception,” the Virgin Mary herself. She ordered a chapel to be built hard by a garbage dump. No one dared disobey this quiet but firm young woman. The waters from the grotto saved many a life. And still do. Healing waters. When our own beloved mother was sick from cancer, one of Gerri’s four children – Margie – went on the Internet and purchased several small glass bottles of the healing waters. They were shipped right here to the house, where Mom drank them. For a while she rallied, but then died a peaceful death, surrounded by our family.
Upstairs, I changed into my blue-striped pajamas, and lay exhausted in bed. Conversations from our Thanksgiving feast swirled in my head, along with the soothing sounds of the dishwasher.
In no time, I awoke to the new morn. The day of my departure.
CHAPTER 12: SLOUCHING TOWARD BURLINGTON
I scraped the frost off the windows on the red Toyota pick-up and let the engine idle a few minutes while I ran inside to kiss Gerri goodbye and shake Jimmy’s hand. She gave me one of her enormous hugs and Jimmy squeezed my hand tight.
“Go with God,” said Gerri as I walked out the door.
On the seat next to me I had several maps I picked up at the local Congressman’s office. Currently the legislature was embroiled in a budget stand-off in the state capital of Harrisburg. There must be a law that said “Wherever problems may arise, be certain they do.”
Quite honestly, I hadn’t a single problem. Only opportunities. Settling my red Phillies’ cap over my head, I drove with purpose, though I had no idea where I was going. Only the Lord had a plan for me. And he wasn’t saying a thing.
The state of Vermont was calling me. Granted, the fall season was not the best time to approach. Vermont was ski country and who knows when the flakes would begin to fall. One thing my dad taught us as kids was never to fear anything, particularly the cold and snowy winters of Philadelphia. He drove us kids in the Country Squire station wagon and taught us how to pump the brakes in the snow, how to slow down when we approached a traffic light or stop sign, and how to cruise through slowly if we detected ice on the road. He boasted to us, “Your daddy has never had an accident. Never.”
Suddenly I felt a rush of love for this incarcerated man and pictured his smiling blue eyes as I traveled along Interstate 91 North headed for Burlington. In the pull-out ash tray to the left of the steering wheel I kept change for tolls. I learned to pull up close to the person in the toll booth. Often they wore gloves to protect their hands from chafing and from germs. I tossed the coins in the basket and heard the ca-chink ca-chink as the machine digested my dimes and quarters and then the gate opened jerkily allowing me to get on my way. I felt a kinship with the hundreds of vehicles who traveled with me. Where were they headed? Who would they see? Buses had the right idea. Their destination was writ large on the front window. Although I was headed for Burlington, Vermont, it was not written in stone. I had the freedom to stop anywhere I pleased. And stay for as long or short as I wished.
I pulled into one of the many rest stops off the Interstate, all with delightful names. As I pulled onto the shoulder I could see the magnificent view of thousands upon thousands of trees with the changing autumn leaves. Most were still affixed to their host, awaiting a strong wind to part them from their parental home. I got out of the truck, used the rest room, and then upon exiting, studied two tall vending machines.
Such beauty! Surely some great artist had designed them. The Michelangelo of junk food. I slid a dollar bill into a giant mouth, which greedily ate it up. Then I pondered a moment and eschewing Coca-Cola, Orange Crush, and Grape soda, pressed a shiny plastic button that read “Minute Maid Orange Juice.”
The plastic bottle with orange label fell down the chute with a satisfying clunk and waited for my hands to rescue it at the bottom. The similarity of delivering a baby flashed through my mind.
Warm in my khaki jacket, I walked over to one of many picnic tables, brushed off a few leaves, and put my backpack on the table. Reaching inside, I pulled out several baggies of my lunch. One was filled with sliced white turkey meat, the other with whole cranberry sauce. I built a sandwich with two thick slices of whole wheat bread. The aroma was so inviting, I took a large mouthful. The OJ was cold and delicious. I exercised my legs by walking around, kicking aside the crunchy leaves, much as I did back at the monastery.
A forest ranger’s blue SUV parallel-parked near my Toyota. He removed his cap and smoothed out his hair as he walked briskly toward the rest rooms. The efficiency of the United States highway system was very impressive. Depositing my trash in a “recyclable” can, I slid into my truck.
“God be with you.” Gerri’s words echoed in my head as I pulled out onto the highway. I figured I was halfway there, about five hours from Burlington. I enjoyed flipping the stations on the radio. Most of the classical music was familiar to me. At this holiday season, Bach and Mozart, Handel and Mendelssohn were popular. I enjoyed the commentary of the various announcers, noting their regional accents.
“Few people,” said the announcer in an accent definitely not from Philadelphia, “are familiar with Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah Oratorio, so we proudly present it for you in this joyous holiday season.”
My heart quickened. What good fortune! Such stirring music would drive me onward toward my destination. I knew where the Jewish Mendelssohn had found his libretto – “As God the Lord of Israel Liveth” – from the first and second Kings in the Old Testament.
The radio announcer on WMHT-FM – the words lit up on my dashboard – further told the listeners about the love Mendelssohn had for J.S. Bach, whose incomparable music had fallen out of fashion. It was Mendelssohn, a child prodigy like Mozart and Bach, who at age 45, mounted a performance in Berlin of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion.
That was the end of Bach’s obscurity and the start of his unflagging celebration as arguably the greatest of all composers.
The chorus trumpeted through the front seat, “Blessed are the ones that fear Him.”
Oratorios recount the great dramas of humanity, and here I was privileged to hear the entire work as I drove in tandem with other pilgrims heading toward their final stop.
“Such a sweet compulsion doth in music lie,” I thought, remembering a line from the great blind poet, John Milton.”
And yes my compulsion was to drive onward, leaving behind, like Jesus said, everything for His sake.
The Toyota climbed steadily uphill, a regular bobcat, and my ears began to clog up, so I cleared them by swallowing. Traffic waxed and waned. I always watched from my rear-view mirror, something Dad taught me when he gave the four of us driving lessons. Traffic was evenly paced, no one hanging on my tail. Jimmy had a green bumper sticker with a red heart that read “ACNJ.” Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was once a great gaming capital that was slowly going bankrupt. I bet the sticker was green, the color of money. Money Jimmy wished he had.
Mendelssohn began to slip out of range. I’d hoped to hear the finale of this glorious oratorio but it wasn’t happening. I wondered how the Mendelssohn family, prominent Jews from Germany in the early nineteenth century, made out during the Nazi war years. I could only guess. Intelligent people who saw the wave of the future needed little convincing, but those who hesitated had their line extinguished.
With Elijah only a flicker now, I was about to reach for the dial, when some very forthright rhythmical rock music insisted on being heard. What was this! I’d never heard anything like it. Of course, what would a forty-three year-old former monk know? “Daft Punk” popped up on the radio channel. Daft Punk? I pictured the Warner Brothers’ character, Daffy Duck. He was a velvety black with a full yellow beak and huge webbed feet. A Saturday morning childhood favorite.
For all I knew, Daft Punk were all the rage now. With young folks heading to see them on the concert stage. It brought to mind the Paris premier of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” or “Rite of Spring” when it was first performed in 1913.
It was a musical language that angered the public. Was this Russian composer ridiculing them? Of course not, though many people stormed out of the theater, mumbling and cursing as they left.
Daft Punk sounded as energized as an angry bee hive. I liked what I was hearing. “Work It, Make It, Do It, Makes Us, Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” I began to sing along, nod my head, and felt my mood soar, as I continued climbing the hill toward Burlington. Maybe I should switch my bumper sticker to “Daft Punk.” Become a groupie. Phenomenal harmonies, like our ancient Gregorian Chants. A sweet-voiced woman who “dreamt about you, we were dancing all night long.” Why were there no images in my mind? Why? Women had once been banned from my world.
The disc jockey cut in. “The iconic Daft Punk,” he said over their fading harmonies. “Known for their dislike of showing themselves in human form, they dress like robots. Their face masks come complete with air holes so the six of them don’t pass out. “Like us” on Facebook and Tweet us with bands you want us to play.”
I am entering the real world, I thought. Watching the road and the trees darken – it was Standard Time – I felt for my Thermos of coffee on the passenger seat. It was small and silver. Picking it up in my right hand, I unscrewed the top black cup and took small sips, so as not to spill it, still hot and steaming.
Bill boards sailed by advertising antique shops, churches – “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” – television shows “Watch the conclusion of The Hunger Games” – and motels. Ninety more minutes and I’d find the nearest exit and check into a motel. The Bates? Now there’s a vision from my teenage years. Janet Leigh’s car in the last scene of Psycho, being pulled out of a swamp by chains. And Anthony Perkins wouldn’t kill a fly.
The Brenton Motor Lodge was as lit up as if it were daylight as I pulled into the parking lot. Looked like a cheerful place. Right next door was The Red Rooster Diner. A swimming pool was covered over with a gray tarp. Rock music played on a radio behind the counter when I went in to register. But it was the television I was interested in. A lobby held a huge TV on the wall which apparently played whether people watched or not. The picture was unusually clear.
An older woman, wearing a name tag “Jeanette,” checked me in. “You’ve come a good ways, Mr. O’Riley,” she said, after I filled out some papers on a clipboard, including the license plate of my truck.
Small talk. Richard Nixon never liked it. Not easy for a lot of men. Me, I’d figure it out. Slowly. Like everything else. “This here’s your key, Mr. O’Riley,” she said holding out two keys on a Brenton Motor Lodge key chain.
“Thanks, Jeanette,” I said, holding out my hand. She told me where to find room number 302 and advised that the first thing I ought to do was turn on the heat when I got inside.
She was right. The room was freezing. I placed my blue duffel bag on one of two huge beds, found the switch to the heater and air conditioner and clicked it on. A rush of air, not yet warm, scurried through several vents in the room. Suddenly, freed from my driverly duties, I felt tired but decided to eat first at – what was it called? – the Cockadoodle? I jogged over, glancing at my truck, and knowing it was locked tight. At eight in the evening, the restaurant was fairly crowded. Fellow pilgrims I thought. Truckers, too. Their rigs were parked in neat rows behind the restaurant.
The waitresses wore short red dresses with white aprons.
“Coffee, sir?” asked a short, good-looking woman.
“No thanks,” I said. “Gotta get some sleep tonight.”
“You’ll like our tea, then,” she said. “Chamomile.”
I thought a moment. “Sure,” I said. “And what’s your name?”
“Andrea,” she said. She started to walk away but I told her I was ready to order. Looking down at the shiny menu with full-color photos, I ordered a turkey burger, onion rings, a small house salad, and Hires root beer to drink.
I was no longer a sheltered monk and must become one with the average American. Their food must become my food. I watched Andrea as she hurried about the dining floor. I took in the shape of her little body. A fine shape, I noted. I would be encountering many women now whom I would regard not as a monk, but as a man.
So be it.
I held the hot tea in my hands and took a tiny sip. Good. Very good. I must remember to tell Gerri about it. It seemed like years since I had seen her and Jimmy though it was really but twelve hours ago.
As I was leaving the Red Rooster, a couple stopped me by the door and pointed to my red Phillies’ cap. “Better take that off around here,” the man laughed. “We’re diehard Red Sox fans.”
I laughed. “I’ll take my chances. We’ll beat the dickens out of you next season.”
Feeling the cold metal of the key in my hand, I inserted it into the lock and entered the dark room. Letting the hall light shine into the room, I flipped on two wall lights, different than I’d ever seen. These were inverted rectangles, which I pushed down with delight. Yes, Brother Tommy was coming out of his shell. There were two huge beds covered with flowery bedspreads. I put my duffel bag on one and felt inside for my pajamas. Then I unmade the bed nearest the window. Opening the drapes, I looked out onto the parking lot where the high yellow moon made each vehicle sparkle. There was mine, which I looked at with pride. The beginning of my independence.
Yawning – and the chamomile tea had been mild and delicate – I did not feel like sleeping. I remembered the lobby downstairs and wondered if I should wander in. Instead, I picked up the remote control with multi-colored buttons, adjusted my reading glasses, and found “power on.”
A siren blared outside. Crime in Burlington, Vermont, a college town. Or perhaps it was an ambulance. Our monastery was so secluded all we heard was the wind and the rain. The television came on. “Shortly,” said the blonde female anchorwoman, “we’ll have a live report from Philadelphia.”
I laughed to myself imagining they’d report on my leaving the monastery. “Brother Thomas O’Riley” transforms himself into a virile male. “I changed into my pajamas and lay my driving clothes across the other bed to air them out.
No sooner did my head hit the pillow than I was out like a light. How little we know ourselves. I love this about life. We are not predestined, as the Calvinists claim. That Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” who President Obama asked to give a blessing at his first inauguration, was, we brothers believed, a dreadful choice. Politically motivated, for certain. It was a huge topic of discussion at the monastery. “We’d all be robots if predestination were true,” said Brother Simon. “Is that what God wants?”
In my sleep, I barely made out the anchor woman saying, “Now as promised we go live to Philadelphia.”
What was this about? The lousy Eagles team? Firing the manager again? What I saw I could scarcely believe. Sitting bolt upright, I fastened my eyes on the TV screen, and then leaped out of bed to get a closer view.
Flashing across the screen was a color video of none other than Father Charles Brady. He was led in handcuffs and leg chains from his home in the rectory into an awaiting police car. The blue-clad police officer pushed down Brady’s head as he entered the white police car. How I wished I could press a “pause” button to capture this glorious moment.
Jubilant, I dialed the monastery. 215-948-2311. It was a little past 10 p.m. The phone began to ring. “Saint Augustine,” answered Brother Alphonse.
“Alphonse,” I said.
“Brother Thomas!” he replied. “You are doubtless calling about Brady’s arrest.”
“Just saw him on TV up here in Burlington, Vermont,” I replied.
“Burlington, Vermont! By the grace of God you were able to see the taking down of one of the worst forms of evil perpetrated in our own city of Philadelphia. Glory be to God – and to Father O’Meehan – for the swift removal of this fiend before he could ruin the lives of more innocent young men.”
I was surprised by his use of the strong word “fiend” but said nothing. I told him I would call my sister Gerri. “Not sure why,” I said to Alphonse, “but I’m terribly excited about his arrest.”
“You should have seen us standing up and applauding,” said Alphonse. “The excitement comes from one less deviant on the streets. Especially since he’s,” Alphonse paused, “one of us.”
“One of us,” I said, staring at a commercial to lease a huge white Winnebago, here in Vermont.
“It’s the sad truth,” I lamented.
“You drive safely now, Thomas, and stay in touch,” said Alphonse, clicking off.
I called Gerri and gave her the good news. Told her to tell Jimmy the pick-up truck ran smooth as the wind. Too excited to sleep, I looked down at my blue pajamas to see if they could pass for real pants. No way. I changed back into my driving clothes and raced down three flights of stairs. The lobby was empty, with the television bellowing away like a tree in a forest with no one to listen.
Out in the open air, the yellow harvest moon had turned a piercing white. How many people throughout the world were staring at it right now as was I? Who knew the ways of the moon or for that matter, of God? Suddenly I felt a longing. Pushing open the door of the Red Rooster, I entered the brilliantly lit diner and waved to Andrea who was across the room. I took a seat by the window where I saw my reflection – a rather tall fellow with tousled hair – and waited for Andrea to come serve me.
Not many people were here at 11 in the night. She smiled when she saw me and walked over in her rooster outfit – red dress and white apron.
“You enjoyed the chamomile tea?” she asked.
“Certainly did,” I said. “How about some pie now?”
“Ever see the TV series ‘Twin Peaks?’” she asked.
“Can’t say that I have,” I said.
“All about coffee and pie. David Lynch was the creator.”
“So what kind of pie do you recommend?” I asked patting my stomach.
“In the grand tradition of Twin Peaks, make it a cherry pie. But I’ll bring you more tea, okay?”
“Fine,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Soon Andrea put a slice of gummy-looking cherry pie on a placemat that had a map of highlights of Burlington on it. Several churches, the university, two filling stations, and the zoo. The hot tea arrived, steam snaking toward the ceiling. I must say I enjoyed being served, after doing the serving at the monastery. I was fairly sure the pie filling was the “Thank-you” brand, enjoyable enough if you weren’t paying strict attention. Andrea went up to the cash register, rang up an order, and then walked my way. Standing over me, she said, “Don’t mean to rush you but I leave here in a few minutes. The diner closes at two.”
“That’s fine,” I said. She handed me the bill. I got out my credit card and slipped it into her hand, touching it slightly as I did so. Goodness, I was sensitive. I
remembered back in our high school French class, we read a very abridged Les Miserables, a tiny blue book, with line illustrations. Our sardonic teacher, Mr. Francis Warnement, asked us for examples of why Jean Valjean was a sensitive man. I had no idea, so consulted with a couple of classmates, who were also in the dark. Warnement wasn’t happy with us – I felt he was overly tough – but finally led us to the answers, such as Valjean walking with his head down and although he was impoverished sharing his bread with the less fortunate.
Andrea found me sunk in thought when she returned to the table - with not a trace of the pie remaining in the plate – and I signed the credit card. Looking at my name she said, “Mr. O’Riley?”
“Tommy,” I said. “How about if we go for a little stroll and shoot the breeze?”