Friday, November 6, 1964
Big day. Bernie's funeral was in the morning, and I had another day of kitchen duty. With a whole day's experience under my belt and supplies acquired by the school's secretary, I went through it more easily. One more time and it would be routine. In fact, everyone seemed to be going through the motions.
The seminarians were still trying to absorb what they now knew about Father Bernie Fox, and they weren't sure how to think about it. The wake soiree was subdued. No one wanted to talk, least of all the faculty who were just as stunned as the seminarians. The party, such as it was, broke up after everyone had eaten. The fact that the juniors and seniors had kept vigil in half hour shifts over Bernie's body through the night kept the mood somber. I had done this in my day, and it was always a spooky experience. And I never had to sit staring at the body of one of my teachers.
The faculty was equally stunned. They weren't talking, and I couldn't tell what they were thinking. For me, it explained everything. I understood why Bernie behaved the way he did, why he protected a homosexual student, and why his actions could be misinterpreted. I understood the origin of his prickly personality and, after all of that, I wished I had known him better.
The seminarians ate fairly quietly, at least for them, and set off to do their obediences. Afterwards, they hung out in their rooms and locker until heading off to Sacred Heart Church for Bernie's requiem mass, which was scheduled to start at 10 A.M. Compared to the wake, it was an anti-climax. Instead of an emotional surprise, it was high liturgy, complete with a procession of the cassock-and-surplice dressed priests and professed seminarians. There was a homily instead of an eulogy, the former being more about reminding people that life was a fragile thing but that in death there was the hope of resurrection. The words were a boilerplate, but they had some resonance at a funeral where nothing was what it seemed. Not life. Not death. Not Bernie.
The procession to the grave continued the healing ritual, with priests, brothers, and seminarians walking quietly in pairs behind the hearse to the cemetery, less than a mile away. I walked just behind with the Holy Cross seminarians, basically at the end of the line. I felt, more than saw, the presence of some others. When I turned my head, I saw a man and a woman trailing at a discrete distance. Behind them were two men, whom I recognized as the detectives from the sheriff's office.
At the conclusion of the graveside service, the presiding minister—Hank—invited everyone to lunch at Moreau seminary, another quarter mile to the north. He had told me of this plan, important because it covered another meal for the seminarians. This procession was more informal, with people mouthing the usual consolations and cliches or remaining unusually quiet.
Father Joe Perry, I noticed, made a point of introducing himself to the middle-aged couple and shepherding them toward Moreau. At this point, I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the man and woman were the parents of Jimmy Parker, the young man who had committed suicide a month before. Obviously, Bernie's death had scraped open the wound that had had no chance to heal. The woman was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
I lost track of Hank on the way over and didn't seem him again until most of the group had assembled in the dining room. Some had taken seats at tables, but a few were still mulling around. Father Perry was introducing the Parkers to the provincial, who greeted them warmly.
At that point, Hank came in, spotted me, and asked for a word outside of the room. "We have some news."
"I was afraid of that," I said. "What's up?"
"The poison has been identified." He paused. "It's yew."
"Me? What the ...?"
Hank tried not to laugh. "I'm sorry. "It's not Y-O-U. It's Y-E-W. Yew."
"Oh, the evergreen," I said. "Oh ... Oh-oh ... Oh."
"Is that significant for some reason?"
"Maybe," I said. "It's not a very common poison, is it?"
"It's a common enough plant, as the detectives explained it. It's quite toxic, but they're not sure it's ever been used to murder someone. Hardly anyone knows it's a poison."
"I know someone who knows it's a poison." Part of me wished I hadn't spoken.
"And who is that?"
I paused, "Dingo Dave." I felt guilty as soon as I said it. Guiltier still when I fingered my son as my source of information. I was going to be in big trouble on the home front—but then that wouldn't be a new deal.
"You better tell the detectives," he said.
"You tell or I will."
"Are they still around?"
"I told them I wanted to talk to you first. They said they'd be out by the lake."
After a circuitous walk around the building, I found them staring at the golden dome and the Sacred Heart steeple.
"You have something to tell us?" Detective Hayden asked.
I told them.
Sergeant Hayden showed no emotion, just asked me to get "Father Grieshaber."
With that, I wended my way around the building, through the entry way, and into the dining hall. Most were seated and waiting for the prayer. I found Hank, who looked unusually sober, talking to Father Hop. I motioned him to step outside the dining hall.
After I briefed him, he said, "You should come as well."
When I complained about having to take what seemed like a mile circuit around the building, he laughed and directed me down the stairs and out the lakeside door. Much faster.
Sergeant Hayden was ready for us. "We'd like to search Dave Johnson's locker and room,"
"He doesn't have a room," Hank said. "He sleeps in a dorm, but there's nothing there to see. Just a bed. He does have a locker, and you're welcome to search, preferably at a time when you won't be noticed."
"Which would be now," I said.
"Mmm, it would be now," Hank agreed. "The seminarians will be tied up at lunch for an hour or so."
"We could do it now," Detective Wood said.
Hank looked at me. He seemed relieved, as if solutions lay ahead. "Okay, Bert, but my presence is needed at the lunch. Will you mind taking the detectives over there? I'm afraid you're going to have to make other arrangements for lunch."
"No worries, as Dingo Dave would say."
"And Sergeant," Hank said, "I don't mind letting you have a look around, but can you be discreet?"
"You mean you don't want us to toss the place?"
"I think we can handle that," Sergeant Hayden said. "Thank you for your cooperation."
Hank headed back into the building. The two detectives and I went down the bank and took the cinder path next to the lake back toward the seminary. The building was open—security was light in those days—and I took the detectives downstairs to the junior locker room and to Dingo Dave's locker.
"What's this?" asked Detective Hayden, staring at a bookshelf hanging from the ceiling. I had forgotten about this. It contained plants, featuring a bizarre assortment of plants. One was a Venus Flytrap. Another was a Resurrection Plant, which in its current dehydrated state looked like a prehistoric tumbleweed. Another was an evergreen, which I now realized would be the clincher.
"Dingo Dave fancies himself something of a botanist," I said. I didn't bother with the specifics.
"Well, well. I believe we're looking at the seedling of a Yew tree," said Detective Wood. He had gotten up to speed in a hurry.
"I don't think there's enough to poison a 220-pound man," I said, trying to slow down the freight train of conclusions.
"But it's a yew tree," he said. "Combined with what else you've told us ..."
They were careful with the search of his locker, which contained a small collage of Australian pictures, a boomerang, and Dingo Dave's trademark bush hat.
"Hmm, interesting collage here," Sergeant Hayden said. "Didn't you say something to us about a collage on the victim's door?"
I said nothing, just waited for them to finish. They made a perfunctory search of the locker room, with me answering their questions about what turned out to be a "fly graveyard," a display of photos, including one for "the Cerebral Palsy Marching Band," and a popcorn popper.
"We'd like to check that island you told us about," the detective said. "Where do we get a boat?"
I had to think about that. "This might not be a good time for that. When lunch is over at Moreau, the seminarians will come back here. Classes have been cancelled for the day, and dollars to donuts Dingo Dave will change into his outback gear and row over to his island."
"How about Monday—during classes?"
"That should work," I said. "Dave will be in my class at 9 A.M."
"We could do that. How about the boat?"
"I'm thinking you could borrow the one at the retreat house. We have a boat at our pier—the one Dingo Dave uses—but you probably don't want to call attention to yourselves by using that one."
"Right," the detective said. "We'll walk over to the retreat house right now and make the arrangements."
AfternoonI got the picture. The detectives were fixing to arrest Dave Johnson, perhaps as soon as Monday. My feelings were mixed. On one hand, I was glad the case was being solved. Everything was lined up against Dingo Dave. In some ways, it was the best of all possible outcomes, better than finding out one of the teachers was the culprit. Or even that the good sisters had served up a homicidal microbe in a mystery square.
My guess was that Bernie Fox's demise was the result of a prank that went awry. Dingo Dave might spend a year or two in a group home and then he would be released. Of course, his promising life would be derailed.
On the other hand, what if Dingo Dave didn't do it? His life was about to be ruined over a rush to justice. My head went with the first hand. My heart went with the second. I needed to talk with someone.
The best candidate was Eli Bonpere. He knew the legal ins and outs.
As soon as the detectives left for the retreat house, I went upstairs, retrieved Eli's work number, and called it. Trudy answered, told me he was in a meeting. I guessed that he was sitting at his desk, eating lunch. That was enough for me. I didn't need to be around for the rest of the afternoon, and I was on a mission. I went down the two flights of stairs, fired up the Edsel, and drove to Eli's office.
Trudy was at her desk. I asked if I could see Mr. Bonpere some time to day. "It's an emergency," I said.
"Let me ask," she said, disappearing into his office. She returned within thirty seconds. "He'll see you now."
I followed her in and took a seat across from his desk.
"I've got about fifteen minutes before my next appointment," he said. "Shoot."
I filled him in, concluding with my latest dilemma.
"Well," he said. "You cooperated with the authorities. From a legal—and ethical—point of view, that's a good thing. On the other hand, you feel guilty."
"Yes," I said.
"Tough." Sometimes Eli could be long-winded. I waited until he spoke again."But a compassionate man would do what he could to make sure the young man had legal representation, if it comes to that."
"Any ideas," I said.
"What's the situation with his parents?"
"Divorced. His dad is in Australia. His mom lives in Fort Wayne. Manages a restaurant. Works weekends. Doesn't have much money."
"I could help in a pinch. You going to pay me?"
"Same terms as last time?"
"I'd make more doing it pro bono,"
"Funny," I said. "Maybe the congregation will pitch in."
"Even though nailing this unfortunate seminarian is the best outcome?"
"They're good people," I said. "They can manage the moral complexities, better than I can."
"Okay," he said. "Come Monday, if they take him into custody—and there's no other lawyer in play—give me a call. And get me his mother's phone number."
After that, I worked my way back to the seminary, hoping I could find Hank somewhere. I tried his office and then the faculty lounge. He was having a drink.
"How was lunch?"
"Tasty," he said, taking a sip. "Hmm, that's good. We've been lucky, in the sense that the congregation has provided us with two meals, handy in the absence of cooks. Tonight, we'll see how catering from the student dining hall works out."
"How was the mood?"
"Interesting. Relief. Maybe a reassessment of Bernie's life. We knew him, and yet we didn't."
"Odd," I said. "The man was a Nazi, in the military, and yet ..."
"Not just in the military ..."
"Hard core," I said.
"The hardest. I get it. Still, I feel a bit better about him somehow."
"Repentance does that. Too bad he had to die to be redeemed in our eyes."
"Maybe that's true of all of us."
"Yessir, you'll make a theologian yet." He tipped his glass to me in a salute. "This morning, the thing that moved me the most was the presence of the Parkers. Just showing up was moving enough, but they talked to anyone who would listen about what Bernie did for their boy. They sought out me, Perry, and the provincial especially. They seemed to be on a mission to restore his reputation."
"Sounds like they did a good job."
I decided to change the topic. I told him that I had arranged with my lawyer—Eli—to pitch in if Dingo Dave needed some legal help.
"It looks like the detectives are going to make their move on Monday."
"That's my guess. Check that, more like an informed opinion."
"Already? My, my, Mr. Foote, you work fast." He took another sip.
"I wish you hadn't said that," I admitted. "I feel guilty about fingering the boy."
"Well, thank God anyway, It's going to be a relief."
"You mean, knowing where we stand?"
"Of course," Hank said. "And to be honest, this may be the best outcome."
"You mean, nailing a student."
"I wouldn't put it that way, but yes. It's better that it's a seminarian than a member of the staff."
"I had the same thought, but is it really?"
"Well, certainly not for young David," Hank said. "But if the culprit turned out to be a teacher, that would be the end." He paused. "We're close enough to the end as it is."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, parents could decide the school is not safe, maybe pull their kids out immediately, certainly not send them back."
"No, I get that," I said. "I mean, why do you say we're close enough to the end."
"Well, you're getting into the inner workings of the congregation here, but there is some feeling among the leadership that this institution—at least as a seminary—no longer makes sense."
"Quite simply, it's a lousy way to produce priests—or at least healthy priests."
"You mean like you, Reverend Alumnus," I said
"I have my issues," he said, raising his glass. "But some of us have been uncomfortable with the practice for years. You get guys who have been protected from the outside world all of their lives. Then they get ordained, and you put them with regular folks in a parish, a school, or a hospital—and they have no background for it. Emotionally, they may still be 13-year-olds. At best, they know how to get along in a community of men with the same values, but outside—nothing."
"You're talking about celibacy."
"Not just that, but yeah," he said. "If you think about it, choosing to not have a family, to not have sex, to go where someone else tells you go, to not have freedoms that everyone takes for granted—it's an odd thing. If you're going to do that, you'd better know what you're giving up."
"You believe it's better to pull men into the system when they are quite a bit older."
"In a word, yes."
"So you see the congregation closing down this place."
"Not for sure," he said. "While we are in some agreement that entering the seminary at the age of thirteen is a bad idea, some of us think that this environment turns out good men, healthy men, when they don't go into the priesthood. In fact, we know it does."
"Present company excepted," I said.
"You have your issues," he said, tipping his glass to me, "but you're still a good example. At least when you're sober."
"High praise coming from you," I said, immediately regretting the insult.
Hank laughed. "You deserve it. Do you have any regrets about graduating from Holy Cross?"
"Now that you mention it, not really," I said. "The powers that be told me I wasn't priest material, which was a blow to my ego. But they were right. When I look back on the life here—the discipline, the teachers, my classmates—no, I don't have regrets. It was a good way for a boy to become a young man."
"So you'd keep the institution, but you wouldn't focus on preparing boys for the priesthood."
"Correct. We'd focus on preparing them to lead."
"A boarding school."
"If this place is going to survive, that's the game."
"I think so," he said. "What I don't know is whether it will work—and whether the congregation can afford it."