By English Turn: River Trilogy, Part Two by Robert Klein Engler
II. BY ENGLISH TURN
The side door of St. Sebastian church is flung open. A shaft of afternoon sunlight floods across the tile floor, then the sunlight is cut off as the church door slams shut. Heads turn to see who is rushing in. There are whispers. Arthur hurries up the side aisle, out of breath, to the altar.
“Am I too late?” he asks panting.
“Look at you,” I say to him, shaking my finger in his face. Your shirt is all muddy.”
“Am I too late?” Arthur asks again, begging to hear that he’s not.
“No, you’re not too late. What happened to you? I was so worried!”
“I’m sorry Father. The alarm clock didn’t go off. I overslept. Then, I rushed to get here and slipped in the mud in front of the old courthouse. You know, the building they’re fixing up on Royal Street.
“It’s not polite to keep half the important families in New Orleans waiting, Arthur.”
“But the alarm clock…”
“No more excuses. Get changed.”
I follow Arthur back to the sacristy, encouraging him to walk faster. When we stand before the wardrobe that holds the alter boys’ cassocks, I ask him, “You’re not going to put that cassock on over your muddy shirt, are you?
Arthur looks at me wide eyed. He can’t imagine what to say.
“Take that muddy shirt off, right now.”
Arthur turns away and unbuttons his shirt. He hands it to me and I drape the shirt over a stool. When I look up, I see Arthur’s perfect body in the golden light coming from the sanctuary. His curly, black hair cast a blue shadow on the back of his alabaster neck. I am stunned to see in the flesh what we have seen come up to us in stone from the debts of ancient, Greece. Arthur is a living statue before my eyes. In another time he could have been a slave in the Emperor’s brothel or fought over by Athenian philosophers. This is what Aschenbach saw as he waited for death in Venice. How can such beauty be born from ordinary, bayou families?
Then, I notice that the organist is beginning to play the welcoming hymn. The music is low at first, like the breath of passion, but soon rises to a reverberating song. I look across the sacristy and see Monsignor Reynolds signals that the ceremony is about to begin.
“Arthur,” I say softly. “You must be more mindful.
“I will, Father.”
“Now, go. All is well. The wedding begins.”
While the Gaines family watches their son slip the wedding band on his new bride’s finger, and Arthur serves at Holy Mass, the body of another boy floats down the Mississippi River towards Chalmette. No one from the deck of the tankers or the towboats that sail up and down the Mississippi sees the body because by now it is the same dull brown color as the muddy river. The churn of propellers and the wash of waves has worn away many of the human features that were once adolescent beauty.
The body bobs and rolls in the river until it snags on driftwood by the bank, and then rests ashore near English Turn. Now, only the lap of the river’s current raises and lowers what is left of Billy Gordon. It is as if a sack of rags was trying to breathe. A week in the river and it’s hard to tell who or what this lump of flesh is. It could be a boy or a large animal.
A graduate student from the Tulane Research Laboratories was walking down by the river when he saw an odd shape of clothes snagged among some driftwood. Sunlight glint off a gold chain and what looked like a carved skull caught up in the mass of a T-shirt. The chain sparkled with light reflected off the slick mud of the riverbank. A buzz of flies filled the air around the rotting corpse.
What is this, the student wonders? Once he realizes what he sees, he uses his cell phone to call the police. All he can say to the officers when they arrive is that when he got close enough to see it was a body, he felt like vomiting.
Of course this death is not the first time beauty and youth were wasted. The earthquake that devastated Mycenae thousands of years ago, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans on the ninth of Ab, the murderous hordes of Attila the Hun, the trenches of World War One, and the endless lust of men and women, they have all wasted the beauty and youth that comes into the world as a marvel from beyond. So much of what is wasted is nameless and then forgotten. Perhaps it is taken up into a wondrous plan. That has been my hope for some time.
It took investigators a week to identify the corpse from dental records. The boy was a runaway from Chattanooga. He was sixteen years old. An autopsy said he either drowned or was smothered to death. What about the rest? The ones blown up in war, or lost at sea? They are now nameless ashes. Who cares? Unless the poet Rilke is right, and there is one who holds us tenderly as we fall.
I promised detective Gresham I’d keep my cell phone with me in the confessional and call him if my dark visitor came back. It was the Saturday afternoon after the Gaines wedding when I kept my promise. I was waiting in the confessional with my phone placed on a small shelf next to my missal. I waited in the dark a long time and may have drifted off to sleep.
After a while, I hear the left door to the confessional open hesitantly. I’ve been at this long enough to know those sinners who are coming back to the church are usually the ones who are cautious when they open the confessional door. There is a moment of silence and hesitation. I hear the weight of a man rest on the padded kneeler. Then that terrible voice breaks the silence and my nightmare returns.
“Bless me, Father, I have sinned, again.”
“Again? Not again.”
“Yes. They will find the body in the river.”
“Why, my son, why? Tell me why and maybe we can find a way to forgiveness.”
“I want the police to find them, Father, but not right away. That’s why I throw them in the river,” the voice says from his darkness to mine.
“There’s no need for that. Such deeds are not beautiful.”
“What good is killing them if no one knows about it? I want them to be found so that the police will know I can’t be caught. It’s not the killing that troubles the police. Not being able to catch the murderer, that’s what troubles them the most. I want the bodies of the boys to be found because it shows the police I am powerful and they are helpless. This is my revenge for being helpless, once.”
I cannot listen to any more. I fumble for my cell phone, but drop the phone onto the dark floor of the confessional. I try to find it by slowly searching with my foot. I do not want my insane penitent to leave until I am able to call detective Gresham.
The voice drones on and on, unaware I am searching the floor in vain. “Besides,” he says, “I am done with them once I have tasted their juice. I have seen their fear turn into the spasm of pleasure then back, again, to a deeper fear.”
“Is there not another way?” I ask, realizing he does not wish to answer any questions but just wants to confess, while at the same time I’m stalling to find my phone.
“I knew it would end like this, Father. After that fat slob of Brother Brian made me take him into my mouth, I knew the taste of his piss would never leave me. I was twelve years old, for chrissake!”
“I knew when he promised me never to tell as we walked from the dark stairwell of the gym into the light of the hallway. And if I did tell, I would be “terribly sorry,” he said. I knew, that whole semester he made me satisfy him, that I would end this way.”
“So, you were abused and now you think by abusing you find peace?”
“I will get to the boys before the priests get to them. The last one I saved looked like one of the sons of Laocoön, once I stripped him naked. That’s why I have to save that dark haired alter boy, Arthur, from you, Father.
“What do you know of Arthur?”
“I will save him, too. I will save all of them from abuse. I am gentle with them. I hold the cushion over their nose and mouth until they stop breathing. It doesn’t take long. Some don’t even let out a muffled cry. They just go to sleep. I will never mutilate their beautiful bodies. Try to understand, Father, I am not only the Angel of Death. I am also the Angel of Mercy.”
By now, I finally locate my cell phone. I reach down and pick it up. As I flip it open, a green light from the phone fills the confessional. I know he sees the light of the phone in my hand, now. I hear the faint rustle of a body rising and then the slow scrape as the confessional door opens.
“Wait, don’t go,” I say waking from my dream.
“There is silence. I stare down at the number on the cell phone screen and push the button that says, “call.”
When I can’t sleep at night I go for a walk. I put on my habit and walk around the French Quarter. Somehow, I feel safe in clerical black. The best time for walking and thinking is early in the morning. The best early mornings are when a fog comes off the river and the Quarter is wrapped in a mist like a holy gauze. The world is shades of gray and shadows on these foggy mornings. The fog helps me turn inward and wonder at all that has passed and all that is yet to come.
I see in the fog halos around the yellow flames of the gas lamps. My silver cross protects me. If there were vampires lurking in the shadows, they would turn from me. They would find my blood too bitter. When a priest takes away the sins of others, he also takes with him something of the sin’s dust. If you’ve ever tasted dust, you know it has a bitter taste.
I prefer to walk about Jackson Square, and down the slate banquettes that border the Pontalba Apartments. I look into the shop windows. Here, the live oaks bend their hunter green arms over anyone who walks under them. Then, I will head down river on Decatur, towards the old US mint. I will go up Esplanade towards the lake and turn at Bourbon Street. Ahead are the lights and music of the bars.
Here are the alternate churches of the lonely and unhappy. I do not begrudge them their prayers. The bars and music are a step upwards on the ladder of release. The bright temples of the flesh are always open, here. I turned away from those shrines by growing older, by reading and by seeing love’s betrayal. The hardest thing for a man to do is not to harm after he’s been harmed.
Tell me, what can I do to turn Arthur away from the danger he faces but does not suspect? The truth may save him, but it may also turn him away from me. Listen, the blare of horns from the river travel up through the fog, even here. Above, a blossom falls heavy with dew from the basket hanging on a wrought iron balcony. The blossom lands on the banquette ahead of me. Its beauty is spent. It will be trampled underfoot, and swept away.
“Forgive me, Father, they ask.” No, they do not ask it. They demand it. I must tell them to find their own way in the fog, to look for the light, the light that is like a gas lamp in the distance. Why is Arthur lost in the fog of his beauty? Why does another boy sell his beauty or has it stolen from him? Even if no one remembers or knows their names, each man or woman has a destiny. I tell them that. The fact is, I probably couldn’t prove to anyone the truth of the Cross, or what I believe.
I’m tired of arguing with the world. All I can tell you is what I have chosen and what the Cross has accomplished in the world for 2,000 years. Faith is not an argument but a choice. The hope of the Cross asks us not to abuse beauty, but to cherish it. When I discovered that truth, I made my choice. I am a priest forever, now, after the order of Melchizedek.
Later that morning, detective Gresham comes by the rectory for breakfast. When I have a guest for breakfast I serve them croissants from Croissant D’Dor Patisserie on Ursulines Street. Otherwise, it’s just simple toast for me. There will be coffee with chicory from Cafe du Monde for the detective, too, along with fresh butter, and thick cut marmalade.
I like detective Gresham. He is a young man and handsome. In summer he wears a white suit and a straw hat. In winter his suit is darker and he sports a fedora. I suspect he comes from an old family with money. His suits are carefully tailored so that you never see the outline of his service revolver on his hip. I always think it odd that for a young man his taste in clothes is that of a gentleman from another era. I see him sometimes standing guard with his partner in the back of the church during Sunday Mass. There is always a silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket that matches his tie.”
“The Gaines family wants to thank you for the wonderful wedding, Father. You were the only one they knew who could say the Mass in Latin”
“It was the least I could do. They are a large contributor to our organ restoration fund.”
“There’s a problem with your organ?” detective Gresham asks.
“Well, it’s actually not my organ, it’s the church’s organ.”
I could not help but smile as detective Gresham picks up on the double meaning of our banter and carried it forward.
“Pipes or bellows?”
“A little of both. It happens when they get old. See what you have to look forward to.”
“In my job, growing old is a luxury.”
“Speaking of luxuries. The Gaines wedding cost a pretty penny. Do you know that New Orleans family?” I ask.
“I do. I went to school with their daughter.”
“So, there will be another wedding, soon?”
“I doubt it,” detective Gresham says with a wink. “But don’t be surprised if there is a baptism in six months instead of nine.”
“But the bride wore white.”
“Brides in the Gaines family always wear white at weddings, Father, no matter what.”
“That is what I hear; but you’re not at breakfast to talk about brides, are you?”
“No, Father. I want to talk about this.”
Detective Gresham removes a copy of the Times-Picayune from his jacket pocket and lays the newspaper on the table.
“Did you see this story about the body of a boy we found by English Turn the other day?” detective Gresham asks.
“Yes. I fear he may be the victim of a penitent.”
“I wish you had made that call, sooner, Father.”
“So do I, but I dropped the phone on the floor of the confessional in my excitement.”
“Understandable. Try to be more mindful, Father, when he returns.”
“How do you know he will return?”
“That altar boy, Arthur, he will return because of Arthur.”
“I see you have an eye for beauty, too.”
At that remark, we pause our conversation to look away from each other. I take a spoon and stir my coffee. I watch the swirls of steam circle and rise from the cup. Detective Gresham sets a half eaten croissant on his plate. The touch of my silver spoon on the porcelain saucer rings like a small bell.
“Is there anything else you remember, Father? Something more we can go on besides what you cannot disclose from his confession?”
“I believe, detective Gresham, that I may safely say our man may have been educated in a Catholic school. He may even be an ex-priest.”
“Why do you say that?” detective Gresham asks, anxious for any clues he may get.
“I can’t tell you under the Seal of Confession what anyone tells me, but what if someone were to say “Chichero,” instead of “Kikero.” What if he used the ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation for Cicero, not the Classical Latin one.”
“He probably was educated in a seminary and could have been dismissed because of a questionable incident?”
“I know it is a small detail, but sometimes in criminal investigations small details are important.”
“That’s not much of a clue, Father. Perhaps you’ve been reading too much Sherlock Holmes,” detective Gresham says with a tinge of dismay in his voice.
“It’s the best I can do for now.”
“I suppose I could put a man on it, but do you think it leads anywhere? Serial killers make up stories all the time. What he told you may have been just said to torment you.”
“If that is the case, then he has succeeded.”
“I’m sorry, Father, I know this is a burden for you. I appreciate your help. That Sherlock comment wasn’t called for.”
“Not to worry, detective,” I say, reassuring him. “We both want to end this horrible series of events.”
“Just call me Marc, please, Father. It’s Marc Gresham.”
“OK, Marc, it is.”
“We could use a Sherlock Holmes, right now,” Marc says, running his fingers through his thick hair and trying to make up for what he considered his faux pas. “Why on earth stuff like this happens is beyond me.”
“For those who hope in the World to Come, Mr. Mark, Arthur Conan Doyle was correct when he wrote, “We cannot command our love, but we can command our actions.”
“We cannot command our love,” the detective repeats slowly. He savors the words as if each one had the sweet flavor of an insight.
“The reason why stuff like this happens, is because some men cannot command their actions,” I add.
“Well, when it comes to catching serial killers, I want to be in command,” Marc says, then he gets up with authority and walks towards the window that overlooks Charters Street. He pulls the curtain aside, and looks out. Morning sunshine has burnt away the fog. The day is clear and open to possibilities.
“Maybe you must trust in the Cross, Marc,” I say.
“The Cross?” Marc comes back to the table and sits down. He reaches with his knife for more marmalade to spread on his croissant. “Do you have a better idea, Father? At the moment, I’m not keen on the Cross.”
“As a matter of fact, I do have an idea. I sense our killer can no longer help himself. That being the case, let’s set a trap for him.”
“Yes, a trap he cannot resist.”
“You mean, Arthur?”
“I mean first you must finish your coffee and then take me to English Turn. I want to see where they found the boy’s body.