Thursday, August 27, 1964
Eli Bonpere was my lawyer—and one of God’s little jokes on me. After my wife served notice, I had enough sense to get myself a lawyer but not enough to do more than pick one out of the Yellow Pages. I stuck on Bonpere because I didn’t have enough energy to get past the “B’s” and Eli Bonpere sounded like somebody who’d grown up wrasslin’ alligators in the bayou. With a talent like that, I figured he’d have a shot at my wife.
Eli was every bit as interesting as I thought, just not in the way I thought. He came out of Louisiana all right—Bourbon Street. He was black—or Negro as we still said back in the early sixties. Eli was Creole born, Chicago raised, Jesuit educated, and a Jew by choice. Orthodox no less. He knew more living and dead languages than I had fingers—and he could speak in several dialects that don’t have names. When he got married to a doe-eyed Moroccan Jewess named Leah, he added Arabic to his traveling suitcase. I couldn’t wait to get him into a courtroom—I figured he could talk to any judge or jury, didn’t matter their language or culture. Maybe. But he didn’t talk to them. He talked to me in my vernacular. Told me he’d take my case as long as I got my ass to AA and stayed there. Then he worked out a separation agreement that included limited visitation rights, child support, and a payment schedule for him that he said would be good for my sorry soul.
The man got my attention. Right after I popped Mother May-Eye a good one, I didn’t call my sponsor first. I called Eli. Good move. He persuaded the good monsignor not to press charges. In return, I had to give up my job, my pension, and the rights to all the books I had written. Eli said the deal would be good for my sorry soul. The man was beginning to get on my nerves, but I signed the necessary papers and was mostly glad to have another part of my life behind me.
Today I wasn’t in the same kind of trouble I had been in a few months ago, but I was troubled. I didn’t feel equipped for my job, not the teaching part, not the detective part. Don't get me wrong. I was grateful to have a job, not to mention a place to live, and the wherewithal to continue child support. But I felt like I was being sucked into something soft and slimy, something even creepier than my own life, and it terrified me. I was drawn to talk to Eli about it, maybe because of his moral confidence, maybe because of his background. I was in a swamp that would have done his ancestors proud, and I was looking for firm ground.
I had explained the situation in a general way in a phone call the day before. New job. Some moral complications I wanted to talk over. I didn’t need legal help. Would he mind seeing me? No problem, he said, and found an open half hour for me.
I was right on time. It was one thing I was good at. Eli’s office was in downtown South Bend. His setup made it look like he was part of larger firm. He wasn’t. He and four other attorneys, who also worked for themselves, had one-room offices and shared a secretary. She was a stern looking, sixtyish white woman in a ruffled blouse and a gray skirt. She looked at me blankly when I asked for “Mr. Bonpere,” which forced me into a stuttering description of him as “um, Mr. Bonpere, my lawyer, the um Negro.”
“Oh. him,” she said and rose to usher me into his office.
Eli was on the phone, talking to a client and waving me in at the same time. He excused himself quickly, hung up, and reached across his desk to shake my hand.
“Good to see you, Bert. Coffee?” I nodded. He got up, walked around his desk, leaned out the door, and said. “Trudy, bring us two black coffees, please.”
“She brings you coffee,” I said, puzzled. “She doesn’t even seem to know your name. Either that or she’s a racist.”
“Neither,” he said. “She’s sweet as pie to the colored folk who come in here, and she called me 'Mr. Bonpere' until last week when she found out I used to be Catholic. In her world, you don’t leave the church. She expresses her displeasure by pretending not to know my name.”
“Why don’t you get rid of her?” I asked.
“She’s not mine to get rid of,” Eli said. “I share her with the other lawyers on the floor—and, as it turns out, she’s a good secretary.”
“And she gets your coffee.”
“And she gets my coffee. What can I do for you?”
“I need a moral compass,” I said.
“Better late than never.”
“Thanks. Are you this polite to all your clients?”
“No, I have to be tough on some of them,” he said. “Better get on with it. I have to be in court in a half hour.”
I filled him in on my recent career change and new home address. He seemed amused and congratulated me for being able to pay child support again and for already having gotten my wife to agree to some informal arrangements for spending time with Sissy and Butch.
“Here’s the problem,” I said. “I wasn’t hired for my non-existent teaching skill. The rector wants me to shadow one of the faculty members and find out if he's been molesting some of the students.”
“Sounds like good work,” said Eli.
“Molesting the students?”
Eli laughed. “Trying to find the truth. Your rector has heard rumors that one of your colleagues likes boys. He doesn’t trust the rumors, but he can’t ignore them either. So he hires you to get beneath the scuttlebutt and find out what’s what. Your rector sounds like a good man.”
“And I’m not scum?”
“Oh, man, you gotta quit leaving me openings like this,” Eli laughed. “Why would you have trouble with this? You were a journalist.”
“An editor,” I corrected him. “But I get your point. It just feels like, well, spying.”
“Of course it's spying, but so what? If your new colleague is diddling with his students, that’s a terrible sin. But there’s something worse.”
“Spreading the rumor that someone is diddling with his students—when he’s not. Your rector knows that.”
“But what if he is?” I asked.
“Well, then,” Eli said, “I guess you better get busy.”