Thursday, Oct 15, 1964
In some ways, there were huge developments in the past week. In other ways, I was treading water. Bernie Fox was still in place, still being talked about behind the scenes, still with no evidence of wrongdoing that any of us could pinpoint.
On the plus side, my wife and I were continuing to talk. I had been meeting her a couple times a week at the library, downstairs in the vending area for a cup of coffee or outside by the reflecting pool. She still wasn't smoking, which I was glad to see. I wished I could say the same. We had another Sunday dinner, where the conversation was less strained and subject to occasional bits of family banter. If I had experienced this in the last ten years, I would have called it "normal." It wasn't normal for me; it was completely unfamiliar territory.
On the minus side, there was the business about getting nowhere with the Bernie Fox situation. I decided to check in with Eli.
When I arrived at his office, Trudy was at her seated sentry position, and again I asked for "Mr. Bonpere."
Again she said, "Who?"
This time I nodded in the direction of his office. "The lawyer over there," I said. "I have an appointment."
Without a word, Trudy got up and led me to Eli's office.
Before she could leave, the room, Eli said, "Trudy, would you mind bringing us two black coffees?"
Trudy turned on her heels and went off to do his bidding. I like a woman who speaks volumes while not saying anything.
Eli turned his attention to me. "So, how goes it?".
I filled him in on my marriage developments.
"Are you getting back together?" he asked. He didn't look as happy as I might have expected.
"Depends on what you mean," I said. Until now, I had only talked about my relationship with Sarah at a couple of AA meetings, but it had helped sort out my thoughts. "Sarah is seriously Catholic. She'd rather cut off her arm than get a divorce. And she does, oh I don't know, love me. Maybe. At the same time ..." I paused.
"She's afraid to have you in her house."
"That," I said.
"You being a wife beater and all."
He might have been laughing at me, but I wasn't sure. "There you go with your way of words again."
"You can be married and not set up house together," he said. It bugged me that he suddenly seemed happy about this turn of events.
"Maybe." I paused. I had never faced the prospect quite so starkly. "But it's too soon to say that's how it will go. Right now, we're trying to get to know each other. For years, I didn't pay much attention to her or the kids, but now it's different."
"You're sober. You're no longer the man she threw out of the house."
"Well, I am the same man—or so my sponsor would insist. But I'm sober, at least for now, and that makes a difference."
"I should think."
"It's funny," I said. "Right now, we're circling each other. I can't tell if we're preparing for battle or, or ..."
"Courting," he said. Again he had named something I hadn't thought of. "Have you had sex yet?"
"Have you had sex yet?"
"Well, that's a little personal," I said.
"As if the rest of our conversation is about national news. Have you had sex yet?"
"Okay, you're courting."
Just then, Trudy brought in our coffee. This broke the conversation, much to my relief. After she left, I changed the subject. "I seem to be getting nowhere with my main task at Holy Cross."
"Finding out if Bernie Fox is a good guy or a creep."
"You don't know yet?"
"I know he's different. He's difficult. He's diffident."
"Spoken like a true English teacher," Eli said.
"But you don't know if he's messing with the boys."
"No," I said. "There is still some gossip, but the evidence is that on his previous job he went to bat for a student who was being bullied. In doing so, he offended the parents of the bullies. The principal backed Bernie, and rumors started shortly after that."
"That the rumors are payback."
"Might there have been truth to the rumors?"
"Sure, but most of us don't think so."
"Most of us?"
"One of the brothers is not entirely on board."
"And his evidence is ..."
"Bias, as far as I can see."
"But you're convinced the priest is clean?"
"Let's just say I'm leaning that way."
"What are your reservations?"
"It's the suicide," I said.
"The hypothetical young man from the college seminary?"
I had talked to Eli by phone shortly after Jimmy Parker's death, mainly to consult with him about how to handle Joe Perry's discovery of the book, The Charioteer, signed by Bernie Fox, where Jimmy had hung himself. "The legal situation I spoke to you about resolved itself when the rector of St. Joe Hall turned the book over to the campus police, who returned it last week without comment to the parents. We haven't heard what the parents thought of it. However, the presence of the book suggests a) that the unfortunately not-hypothetical victim was struggling with homosexuality and b) that he was close to Bernie. That's discomfiting."
"Big word," Eli observed. "But the presence of the book still fits your explanation that Bernie might have been taking the boy's side. As if he was a counselor of sorts."
"Yes, and if the relationship was basically confessional, it explains why Bernie won't talk to anyone about it."
"Either that or he was messing with the boy."
After a pause, Eli asked, "How is the gossip situation?"
I told him about the second collage, the sudden appearance of Bernie's unfortunate nickname, Hank's plan to talk to the junior monitors, and the seniors. "Our strategy is working," I said. "Things have toned down some. I talked to one of the freshman—one half of the team they call "Lois and Clark"—and he confirmed that he was being teased—his word—but he seemed to like the attention. Apparently, the teasing is this side of mean. He seemed fine with Bernie Fox."
"Part of his fan club?"
"Yeah, maybe," I said. "At any rate, he seem to like him well enough. I also talked to the newspaper editor, one of my spies. He thought most of the talk was high-school stuff."
"Most of it?"
"He said he heard that one of the sophomores—kid named Dan Johnson—really dislikes Father Fox, that they had a confrontation in class. Apparently, it got pretty tense. The seminarian took issue with his emphasis on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals."
"The student likes Nazis?"
"No, that doesn't seem to be it. I buttonholed him a few days ago and told him I heard he had a set-to with Father Fox. He admitted doing so and made no bones about arguing with Father Fox about the persecution of homosexuals."
"The young man doesn't think Hitler persecuted homosexuals?"
"It sounded more like a matter of emphasis," I said. "He thought the teacher should have been emphasizing Hitler's attempt to exterminate Jews instead of running on about homosexuals."
"The teacher didn't mention Jews?"
"I think he did—not enough for the kid's taste."
"Well, I have to say I'm sympathetic to that," Eli said. "So is the kid a judaeophile or a homophobe?"
"Big words," I said. "Don't know. Maybe both." I told him about what I heard on the playground, his mockery of an effeminate boy.
"Unfortunate," Eli said. "But I"m guessing not altogether unusual."
"Actually, it is." I filled him in on the theory of the seminary, whose very name refers to a greenhouse. Seminarians were fragile seedlings that needed protection. The little seminary, which it was often called, was no British boarding school, which was notoriously dangerous for boys and generated the British propensity for profanity that focused on sodomy. When I went to Holy Cross seminary in the early forties, it was seriously sheltered. Even under Hank's more open system, the old practices survived. There was more freedom and some interaction with girls, but seminarians still took showers in curtained cubbies, still changed clothes using a bathrobe in a choreography designed to show no private parts, still avoided using a urinal next to another boy (and the urinals already had dividers), and slept in open dorms that invited public disgrace for the young man heard masturbating. Priests still wore cassocks, were called Father (mostly), and were understood to be mentors and teachers—not friends—to the young men. The system tended to do what it was supposed to do—delay puberty. Guys could go four years without confronting their liking for girls—or boys. I remember teasing—even bullying—but none of it was related to homosexuality. This was a different year, but the difference seemed entirely related to the stories about Father Fox.
"Here's my question," Eli said, after hearing me out. "Given the talk about Father Fox, why didn't the congregation's head guy ..."
"The provincial ... give Bernie an assignment where he wasn't going to be around teenagers?"
"Good question," I said. "One that's been bugging me. Hank—the seminary superior who hired me—told me this week that the provincial believes in Bernie, that he believes the talk is being orchestrated by parents of the bullies in the high school where Bernie taught last year. He thinks the parents are bullies and doesn't want to give into them."
"There's something to be said for that," Eli said. "But it's a tough call."
"That's why Hank hired me," I said. "But I don't think I'm getting anywhere. I'm inclined to agree with the provincial, but ..."
"But it's still nagging at you."
"You're the lawyer," I said. "You know it's impossible to prove a negative."
"So what's your plan?"
"Well, I've got the juniors working on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, in which gossip plays a key role. We're getting into some good stuff."
"That's your plan?"
"Maybe we'll study the play backwards."