Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chapter 1

Monday, August 10, 1964

I thought I had hit bottom three months before I wound up in Hank Grieshaber’s office. Hank was a classmate from seminary days. We had roomed together in this same building—before I went off to war and he went off to novitiate. He was a good guy. Brilliant. Funny. Honest. He should have been in the theology department at Notre Dame, teaching Scripture. I'm not sure why he wasn't. Instead, he was the rector of Holy Cross Seminary, where one of his first moves was to sit behind his blonde oak desk with a glass of scotch in his hand and offer me a job teaching English.

Oh, I forgot. My name is Bert, and I'm an alcoholic. To be rigorously honest, my full name is Englebert Aloysius Foote, three reasons why I prefer to be called Bert. A year ago, I had been doing fine. I had a wife, two kids, a decent job as editor at Spes Unica Publishing House near the university and a modest 1920s home. Then I got in my own way. I had always liked to drink, and it had never seemed much of a problem. Then one night, after spending some time drinking with my colleagues, I came home and got into an argument with my wife. I hit her—or so she told me the next morning in a most matter of fact way—along with the promise that she would leave me if I ever did it again. 

I was stunned—and mortified, especially because I couldn’t remember anything. I believed her though. She didn’t play games, and I was so embarrassed I didn’t have a drink again. For a week. When I felt in control again, I went back to my bourbon, came home and hit her again. I guess. I don’t really remember that episode either, and she never said. She just left before I woke up the next morning, taking the kids with her. I knew that was it. Being married to a drunk—and getting the crap kicked out of herself every night—was not in Sarah's plans. She was a tough cookie. That’s why I married her. That’s why I lost her.

I did not pass go. I did not collect $200. And I did not go to jail. Instead I went to AA, thanks to a kindly judge who offered to throw my butt in jail if meetings didn’t work. The meetings did work, after a fashion. I haven’t had a drink since then, which has so far served mainly to make me acutely aware that every single day I meet someone whose brainless melon I want to smash to bits.

Nowadays, you’d say I had anger issues.

My sponsor told me I was making progress because I had stopped acting on the impulse, but that was before I took a swing at Mother May-Eye and broke his nose. Mother May-Eye's real name was Monsignor Albert Mayer, but he had acquired his nickname because of his officious airs. That and his ability to stare down an alligator, especially when the alligator wanted something. Like a raise. Mother May-Eye was my boss. He was the publisher. I was the editor. I wound up in jail for that one, two nights. Mother May-Eye dropped the charges after I promised never to go near his publishing house again. I was out of a job, and my name in the Catholic publishing world was mud. In one sense, that was okay. I was past the point where I could edit church stuff with any credibility. It was time to leave. Maybe that’s why I hit him. I didn’t have the guts to leave outright. I had to work myself up into a rage to make something happen. Still, if I had to hit someone, I was better off doing it sober. At least I could enjoy it—over and over again. My sponsor had taught me to count my blessings.

So, having burned my bridges in the world of Catholic publishing, here I was getting offered a job teaching in a seminary.

“You know I almost wound up in jail for decking a priest,” I reminded Hank. I knew he knew. Everybody in the community knew.

“Ego te absolvo,” Hank said, moving his glass of scotch in a sign of a cross. “To be honest, I lifted a glass to your name when I heard. Mother May-Eye is the biggest jerk in the order, and that’s going some. Wanted to hit him a few times myself, the last time for helping put me on this path to oblivion. He lobbied to get me this assignment.”

In the cold light of my own sobriety, I stared at Hank's scotch and wondered if he might be doing a good job of putting himself on the path to oblivion. It didn’t say say so. Instead I said, “So you’re getting even in a way—by hiring me.”

“That’s a plus—but it’s only icing,” Hank said. “The real reason is that I have an opening that I need filled—and I want someone I can trust. Someone, um, not from the community.”

“Why?” I asked, surprised. I thought he had been trying to do me a favor. He wasn’t. He was using me. I felt better already.

“There is some ugly gossip about one of our incoming faculty members, a Bernard Fox. Do you know him?”

“I assume he’s a priest,” I said. "Never heard of him. I haven’t poured over the provincial newsletter in quite a while.”

“Right. He’s a history teacher,” Hank said. “He comes off a bit arrogant sometimes—but he’s popular with students, some of them anyway, probably just because he’s different. An odd duck.”

“Being an odd duck should be no problem in your pond,” I said helpfully. “What’s the gossip about?”

“He taught at Notre Dame High School in Niles for years,” Hank said. “Last year, the principal started hearing noise about Bernie and, um, boys.”

“Hmm, boys in general or boys of the high-school persuasion,” I asked.

“The stories seemed to be coming from the students,” Hank said, “but there was no formal complaint, and there was no evidence you could hang your hat on.”

“Why, in the province’s infinite wisdom, did they send him here?”

“Because the order doesn’t have a girls’ school,” Hank said, with just a trace of irritation in his voice. “To give the community the benefit of the doubt, there is no real evidence against the guy. Only story. He’s a good teacher, in spite of his quirks, and most students seem to like him. So the provincial figured they would get him away from the gossip and …”

“... and he told you to keep an eye on him.”

“Right. I didn't much like it, but he told me I could hire whomever I wanted to teach English.”

“And that’s where I come in.”

“Right again,” Hank said. “If he’s dirty, I want him out of here. If he’s clean, I don’t want the young men here telling stories about him.”

“And of course, you want me because of my extensive background in private investigation,” I said neutrally.

“I didn’t know you had any,” he said.

“Geez, Hank, you're on the job for a week, and you've already lost your sense of irony. I wouldn’t know an investigation from a dissertation. I’ve never taught school a day in my life. I don’t need any more teenagers in my life. I’m not Catholic anymore. I didn’t like this place when I was here. I beat up the last priest I spent any time with. So maybe you need a better grade of hootch.”

“You’re hired,” Hank said.

1 comment:

  1. It's good, you have made me want to read on....enjoy the "dark" humour.....