Tuesday, September 22, 1964
That was my response, and I didn’t even know the poor guy. Jimmy Parker, a new college seminarian at nearby St. Joe Hall, had been found dead that morning. Hank told the faculty at a stand-up meeting after lunch.
“All we know at this point is that he was found hanging from a tree near St. Joe Lake," Hank said. "Probably suicide. This is all too common at the university—every couple of years an ND student crumbles under the pressure of grades, homesickness, or God-knows what—but Jimmy was one of us. He wasn't professed, and he was new, but it''ll be tough on the community all the same. Especially the guys at St. Joe Hall."
"Tougher on the family," I said. When you don't know what to say, state the obvious.
"God, yes," Hank said, looking down at his shoes. He was in control, but barely. It was just past 1 p.m.
"Any word on arrangements?" I asked. As an ex-seminarian myself, I well remembered the custom of having Holy Cross seminarians "wake" the body of the recently deceased member of the community all night in hourly shifts until the funeral. The thought of two high school boys staring for an hour, in the middle of the night, at the body of a young suicide gave me the willies.
"No word yet," said Hank. "Because Jimmy wasn't professed, the arrangements almost certainly will be handled by his parents—and they're not from the area. We won't have deal with wake duties--or even attending a funeral mass or burial. My guess is we'll have a memorial mass somewhere, probably Moreau's chapel. That'll be it. This will limit the impact on our guys."
“Except for the seniors who met him Friday night,” said Brother Rufus, alluding to what we all were thinking. The seniors had gone over to St. Joe Hall last Friday for a soiree with the St. Joe Hall seminarians. They had entered the seminary as collegians and were expected to go on to novitiate the following year with the current seniors from Holy Cross. The Friday night soirees were supposed to be a monthly affair. The idea was to let the two groups get to know each other.
“Yep, that's a problem,” said Father Aloysius Hopfensperger, known to the students as Father Hop, a play both on his name and his ever-present cane. He was the assistant rector and, unlike Hank, didn’t mind his nickname. “They know who the guy is, and they’ll spaz.”
“True. And so will others, depending on how we handle it.” added Hank. "Let's play this straight but low key. I'll make the announcement about Jimmy's death at Vespers. We'll pray for his soul, just as we do for any member of our order."
"But what about the seniors?" Father Hop reminded him.
"Right," Hank said slowly. "We can't exactly low-key them. Let's you and I meet with the seniors in the chapel, just before Vespers. We'll give them the news, some basic information, and give them a chance to ask questions, to share what they know about Jimmy, and whatnot."
"Are you going to mention suicide?" I asked.
"Yes," said Hank. "Well, probably. I think I have to tell the seniors. And if I tell the seniors, I'll have to tell everyone else. They'd find out anyway. It doesn't sound like there's any doubt about what happened, but I need to make sure."
“They're all going to want to know details,” I said.
“Try not to get into it,” said Hank. “Let ‘em talk, but steer them away from motive and especially methods. Tell them you just don’t know. Stress the impact on the family. Your main job is to listen, not lecture. In a way, it’s easy.”
“Yea, easy,” I said.
The stand-up meeting broke up, and we headed out. I caught up with Bernie Fox and said, “You were pretty quiet.”
“So? What was there to say?” the Fox said.
“No questions? No words of wisdom?” I said.
“No. I have to prepare for class.” And with that Mr. Warmth hurried up the stairs toward his room.
I went outside to have a smoke and stare at the lake.
“Those things are going to kill you,” said Hank, coming up on my blind side.
“Easy for you to say,” I said. “You’ve still got your scotch, which by the way would be mighty comforting at the moment.”
“I hear you,” Hank said “I’d like you to walk over to St. Joe Hall with me after dinner.”
“Why? You think we’re not depressed enough over here?”
“There’s a wrinkle,” he said. “We have to have a chat with Father Perry, the rector over at St. Joe Hall. He thinks he might have a free minute after seven.”
By the time dinner rolled around, none of the teachers wanted to talk about the suicide. It wasn't a topic of discussion at dinner among the students either. Hank was pleased but not surprised. When he talked to the seniors, he treated them as adults, enlisting their aid in steering any discussion in appropriate directions: compassion for Jimmy, his family, and his classmates at St. Joe Hall. Hank's theory was that getting the seniors on board, as older brothers in effect, would bring out the best in them. It worked. In the short free period after Vespers, the seniors had fanned out and answered inquiries about what Jimmy was like, confessed to not having any details to share about the suicide itself, and admitted sadly that the best they could would be to pray for Jimmy's soul and his family. At dinner, the seniors steered the conversation back to chatter about classes and ND's prospects in Saturday's football game against Wisconsin. the first to be coached by Ara Parseghian.
Hank buttonholed me after dinner, and we set off in the Indiana twilight down the cinder path toward St. Joe Hall.
“This must be the most walking you’ve done in a year,” I said to Hank, who was known for driving everywhere, not a good thing considering his affection for Lady Scotch.
“Yea, well, I need the air," he said. “I guess it went okay this afternoon. Considering ...”
“Thanks to you, Mr. Psychology,”
“Yea, there's that,“ Hank said, pausing to catch his breath. “Maybe we should have taken the car.”
“Nah, the walk has got to be good for our health,” I said, removing a Lucky from my shirt pocket and lighting up. It was a good excuse to stop. “All things considered, things went pretty well. But I heard something after Vespers that stopped me cold."
“What was that?”
“Something about Jimmy being one of 'the Fox's boys.’ ”
“Oh! Who said that?” Hank stopped in mid-stride.
“Dan Johnson, I think—it was said sotto voce when I had my back turned, so I can’t be sure.”
“Johnson? Dan? He’s a sophomore. The seniors have met Jimmy. The juniors don’t know him from Adam.”
“Curious, isn’t it.”
“What did he mean by it?”
“Got me,” I said. “I buttonholed Dan as we were going in for dinner, but he denied saying it. Maybe I’m crazy.”
“Maybe not,” Hank said, starting to walk again. “Jimmy Parker was a graduate of Notre Dame High School.”
“In Niles? So?”
“So … that’s where Bernie taught last year.”
“Oh, yea, right. So Bernie probably knows, er knew, Jimmy.”
“No probably about it. He was Jimmy’s reference for getting into St. Joe Hall.”
“Oh-oh. Bernie told you this?”
“Nope, Bernie hasn't said much more to me than he has to you. Joe Perry told me,” Hank said. “And that’s what he wants to talk about.”
St. Joe Hall was a three-story yellow building, rather stodgy compared to its immediate neighbor, the curvaceous Moreau Seminary that had been completed just seven years earlier and housed the professed seminarians attending Notre Dame.
Father Perry’s combined office and living quarters were on the first floor. He met us in his office and ushered us into the intimacy of his living quarters. He was a small man with a crewcut, a ruddy complexion, wire glasses, and an expression that would have been jovial under other circumstances. He looked at Hank and said, with more of a question than an accusation, “I thought you’d be coming alone.”
“I know,” Hank said, “but I have my reasons.” And he proceeded to fill Father. Perry in on why he had hired me.
“That solves one mystery,” Father. Perry said. “The word in the faculty lounge is that you were bent on tweaking Mother May-Eye.”
“Well, there's that,” Hank said. “But that’s not why I brought him along tonight.”
“I could really use a drink,” Father Perry said. “You fellas want something.”
“Scotch rocks for me,” Hank said, without missing a beat. “And Bert will have … “
“A broken heart,” I said. “Also known as a club soda.”
“You’re a teetotaler,” Father Perry said, getting up to fetch the drinks. “Probably a good idea from what I’ve heard.”
“Word gets around,” I said.
“Word does that when you smack a monsignor upside the head,” he said.
“Yea, well, the next time I do that, I’d like to be sober enough to remember it.”
“I love that joke,” Hank said.
“You think it’s a joke?” I asked with a straight face. “You mind if I smoke?”
“Mmm, your man is a poet,” said Father Perry, handing us our drinks.
“And don’t he know it,” said Hank. “But then he teaches English.”
“Hmm, if you’re going to be proper English teacher, you should give up those cancer sticks and smoke a pipe.”
“I tried,” I said. “But it burned my mouth.”
“Could be your pipe wasn’t broken in,” Father Perry said. “Could be your tobacco.”
“Cherry Blend,” I said.
He made a face. “Nasty shit. Here try some of this.” He threw me a half a pouch of Iwan Ries Three-Star Blue. “I get it from a store on Wabash in the Chicago Loop. They’ve got six blends, all good. And get yourself a decent pipe. A good pipe and good tobacco—people will think you’re a good teacher, even if you’re not.”
“It’s all about the right props,” said Hank.
“Spoken like a true liturgist,” I said.
“Chasubles and chalices,” Hank said.
“See, editors like me get off course thinking it’s all about what you know and what you have to say.”
“Naw, what you need is a good costume,” Hank said, showing off his cincture.
Father Perry took a sip of his scotch rocks, let out a big sigh, and sunk into his easy chair. I sensed that I had passed some kind of test.
“Been a helluva day,” he said and began to fill us in.
"Whew, that was hard to watch," I said.
"Joe's crying or his drinking?" Hank asked.
"Both, I guess." We started walking again down the asphalt road back to Holy Cross. The crickets were screaming.
"I've never seen Joe drink that much," Hank said. "He's more of a hobby drinker."
"Not a professional, like you and I?"
"You're retired, but yes, the liquor was a big part of it."
Father Perry didn't lose it for a good half hour. He went through most of his story in meticulous and chronological detail. He had become concerned when Jimmy Parker did not show up for mass or breakfast, both required of the new college seminarians. Jimmy was on his watch list because he seemed moody, which the rector attributed to homesickness. In his experience, there was always one who couldn't handle being away from Momma. Usually they didn't disappear. They just asked to go home. When Jimmy disappeared, the priest had a bad feeling. He went down to the cinder path along the lake, walked north to the swimming pier and then south to the opposite shore of the lake. Nothing. On a hunch, he doubled back and walked up up the path toward the stations of the cross. At station fourteen, he found Jimmy Parker hanging from a tree behind a bench and opposite the life-sized crucifix.
As he told this, he spoke with control, the only symptom of his discomfort being his steady sips of scotch rocks. Jimmy was wearing the school clothes expected of the young seminarians, khaki pants and a blazer. He had used three ties to hang himself. Father Perry's first instinct was to take the body down, but he knew he shouldn't, and anyway, he couldn't manage by himself. Instead, he turned around and walk-raced back to the cinder path, south along the lake, past the grotto and to the ground floor of the administration building into the security office, where he reported his discovery to Chief Ziolkowski, the man in charge. The chief immediately called the coroner's office, buttonholed another officer, and the three of them drove to the scene, parking on the road to St. Joe Hall just above the stations path.
The priest was glad about this because his seminarians would be less likely to see any commotion as they headed along the lake to their classes on campus. At this point, Father Perry asked if he could help take the body down, but the chief told him that he would have to wait and get permission from the coroner.
In the interim, the priest went back to his office, thinking he should call Jimmy's parents. He was loath to do that, thought better of it, and called the principal of Notre Dame High School. As he had hoped, the principal knew the parents better than he did—which was not at all—and volunteered to break the unhappy news to them. Father Perry, still dry-eyed, looked at each of us and said the principal must be a saint.
By the time he came back to the scene, the coroner was there. After a rather perfunctory check of the surrounding area, the coroner shrugged and agreed to allow Father Perry to help get the body off the tree. The second security officer managed to climb up the tree and cut the ties while Joe Perry held the body.
At this point in the telling, the priest lost it. His eyes filled with tears, he started to blubber, and then we heard a sound that seemed to come from the bottom of the earth.
I had heard this sound once before, during the war just outside the German city of Ulm. We had been under artillery fire all afternoon. Soon after dark, I had been assigned to climb a telephone pole and cut the communication lines--for which I would be awarded a bronze star. Fair enough. I didn't like climbing a pole, much less doing it under fire. I was scared shitless. By the time I got back to my unit, I could hardly stand up. The gunfire had died down, and it was my turn to stand first watch. It hardly seemed fair, and I wasn't in shape to face it. A guy named Ralphie, who was what passed in combat as a best friend, volunteered to swap places with me. I was grateful. I thought I might have my act together in a couple of hours.
When I went to spell him two hours later, I found him dead—a clean shot right through the front of his helmet into his brain. I dropped to the ground and made a sound just like Joe Perry did. The guys in my unit didn't know what it was until three of my guys, M1s at the ready, found me heaving and sobbing while I held Ralphie's body.
"It wasn't the first time you looked death in the face," Hank noted.
"No, but by then I was numb to it—or so I thought," I said. "Maybe it was the guilt. Maybe it was that he was the guy I was closest to."
"But you got over it," Hank said.
"Yea, sure, maybe, but I'll tell you one thing."
"I never wore a helmet again." I stopped and fumbled for a cigarette.
Hank waited a bit and finally said. "It took Joe a while to get his legs back."
Yes it did. We waited, saying nothing. Finally, between snuffles, we learned that the coroner inspected the body and, in a business-like manner, declared Jimmy dead, called the time of death less than two hours before—probably during mass, we guessed—and declared that Jimmy had died by suffocation, typical of suicides who failed to create enough drop to break their necks. "Tough way to go," the coroner said. "It might take twenty minutes to die when you're neck doesn't break."
It had taken Father Perry another fifteen minutes or so for his snuffling to abate, enough for him to get to the most important detail—at least for us.
"What do you make of the book?" Hank asked me, emphasizing "the book."
I said nothing for a minute or so. We had stopped to catch our breath before we climbed the driveway to the seminary parking lot.
Finally, I said, "That he found it and kept it, for one thing." The priest had found the book on the park bench, underneath Jimmy's body, thumbed through it—thinking it might reveal something about Jimmy's motive. And it did. He didn't say anything. He just opened it to the title page, which included a handwritten note, and handed it to Hank.
Food for thought.
Hank and I had just looked at each other, then looked at Father Perry. He said nothing.
I asked him why he hadn't given the book to the coroner. He said he wasn't thinking. I got that, and I didn't ask why he had picked up the book in the first place. I would have picked it, paged through it, looking for a suicide note. I didn't say it then, but I slowed down once we reached the parking lot, lit another cigarette and told Hank that the book, signed by our own Father Fox, was as good as a suicide note.
"How so?" he wanted to know.
"The Charioteer by Mary Renault. Are you familiar with it?"
"No, not at all."
"It's set in England, about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality. It's quite good. I picked it up because I liked her other novels, which are mostly related to ancient Greece."
"Oh," he said, pausing for a good ten seconds. "I guess that does say something about what the young man was struggling with. And given to him by Bernie, no less."
"Are you sure it was our Father Fox."
"Jimmy went to Notre Dame High School. Bernie taught there until last year," he paused again. "Yep I'm sure. Dead sure."
By the time Hank and got back to Holy Cross, it was pushing 10 p.m. The house had quieted down. We parted company in the lobby, Hank taking the stairs to the right and I taking the stairs to the left, to begin the climb up the three flights. On the top floor, I paused, out of breath, and aghast. The door of Bernie's room was covered with a collage, composed of beefcake images, pretty boys, and a large torso wearing a roman collar whose head was Queen Elizabeth. Clever enough. And mean.
I began pulling the pictures off of Bernie's door, marveling at how fast word was getting around.