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The Only Good Priest
After carefully hanging his clothes in the closet and dumping his dirty laundry into a pile in the basement, Scott sprawled his six-foot-four-inch frame onto the couch, spread his legs far apart, and planted his feet on the edge of the oak coffee table. He shut his eyes and said, "I don't want to be disturbed for a thousand years. Not for nothing or nobody."
Scott wore faded blue jeans, white gym socks, and a University of Arizona T-shirt. He'd just returned from a week-long series of speaking engagements on the West Coast. As the highest-paid pitcher in professional baseball, he gets huge numbers of requests to speak each year.
He opened one eye. "Unless we have chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream in the freezer."
I said, "If we do, you will bestir yourself enough to race like mad to get some before it's all gone?"
"I'd share. Probably."
I sat on the coffee table next to his right leg. I let my finger trace a wandering line from his ankle, around his instep, and then halfway up his leg. "How about hot sex instead. The kind men dream about happening once in their lives."
He opened both eyes and looked at me accusingly. "Tom, you ate all the ice cream."
"I had no choice. While you were gone, alien beings landed inthe backyard and demanded the most valuable ransom I could pay."
"That's what you said last time."
"I think you may be fibbing."
Suddenly he swung his legs around and grabbed me, and moments later I rested in a complicated head lock, half under him. He tried to grab several vulnerable parts of my anatomy. I wrestled with his heavily muscled 190-pound frame.
"You caught me by surprise." I laughed and tipped him over. We tumbled to the floor. Instantly we jumped to our feet, circling each other warily.
I sidestepped his next lunge.
We grappled momentarily. He slipped. I slid and he was behind me, arms around my chest and stomach, attempting a bear hug. I felt his chin on my shoulder, his bristly cheek against my neck.
We faced the picture window. I watched a car turn and enter the driveway. "There's somebody coming," I said.
"You won't get out of this that easily," he said.
"Seriously. A car's coming up the driveway." He relaxed his grip a moment to look. I dashed away.
"You rat," he said.
I pointed outside. A huge black Buick slowly maneuvered up the fifty-foot drive. "It's a priest with a couple of passengers, I think."
"Somebody soliciting donations?" Scott asked.
"You don't send priests out on Saturday afternoons in black Buicks to make door-to-door pleas for cash." I tried to see what the priest looked like or to catch a glimpse of the passengers, but they moved up the driveway out of view.
Moments later the doorbell rang. We hurried to answer.
Of the people who stood on my porch I recognized only one, Neil Spirakos, one of the reigning queens of Chicago gaydom.
I live in a farmhouse in the middle of one of the last cornfieldsin southwestern Cook County. The subdivisions creep closer every year. Soon I'll want to sell. I like the quiet. A visit to the suburbs by Neil Spirakos was a major event.
Within minutes five of us sat in my living room. As Neil explained the reason for their visit, I observed our guests. Neil had stuffed his overweight body into a rocking chair. He wore designer jeans, inappropriately tight on the contours of his lower torso, along with a brightly checked turtleneck sweater that clung to his rolls of fat.
Scott and I sat on the couch. In the wing chair on my left sat a pale and sweating priest dressed in black except for his Roman collar, which he tugged at in sporadic bursts. Moments before, I'd shaken his cold, flabby hand: Father David Larkin. Every few minutes during our conversation he'd pull out a comb and run it through his rapidly thinning hair. No matter how many times he did it, he couldn't cover the fact that the remaining long strands wouldn't be sufficient for long to keep his pate hidden.
In the wing chair to the right sat an elegantly dressed woman with dark hair and fair, pale skin. I have a fashion sense just above that of a learning-disabled snail, but even I could tell without looking at the labels that she got her clothes from exclusive boutiques in New York, Paris, and Rome, plus whatever doodads she picked up on Oak Street in Chicago. Taking off a red coat with black collar and matching black leather gloves, she'd revealed a red knit dress and a black scarf with swirls of spidery red in it draped around her throat. A pair of black leather boots and a small black shoulder purse completed the outfit. From this last she extracted a silver cigarette case and a cigarette holder. On her, this wasn't an affectation. She carried it off with grace and humor. Her sultry "May I?" and lifted eyebrow sent me for an ashtray. I am not one of those radicals who refuses to permit smoking in my house or presence. In my pre-Scott days I liked kissing a man with the smell of cigarettes on his breath.
Neil had introduced the woman as Monica Verlaine. I knewher by reputation as one of the richest women in Chicago, owner of a chain of gay newspapers in large cities across the country. The most visible, prominent, and powerful lesbian in America.
"Murder," Neil said, finishing the explanation he'd begun five minutes earlier.
The priest pulled out a gleaming white hanky and mopped his upper lip and the fold of his double chin. "I don't believe someone would kill him," he said.
Monica took a short drag from her cigarette, dipped an ash into the nearby ashtray, and watched Neil placidly.
"You have proof for that charge?" I said to Neil.
Neil slammed his fist on the rocker arm. It creaked dangerously in response. "No. The fucking police and the fucking Catholic Church pulled a fast one."
"Please," the priest said.
"Sorry for the language, Father," Neil said. He neither sounded nor looked contrite.
The priest leaned forward in his chair and waved away the apology. "We have no proof it was murder. And while I would never defy or accuse my superiors, there is a moral obligation for the truth to come out." He subsided. Out came the comb.
With cool aplomb Monica reduced Neil's overly dramatic explanation to the basics. She told us that Father Victor Sebastian, fifty-one years old, had been found dead in the sacristy half an hour after the Sunday evening Faith Mass. The police had been called. Chancery officials had shown up. Father Victor Sebastian had been involved in Faith since 1972, when it began sponsoring a mass in Chicago for gay Catholics.
Faith used to be the main gay Catholic organization. I knew they'd had rough times in recent yearsinternal dissension and fights with the Vaticanbut I knew little of the politics of the situation.
Monica explained. "Father Sebastian always spoke for moderation and conciliation. Yet each time the group took a more radical stance, he came with us. When we split up, we didn'tthink he'd stay." She described him as kind, gentle, and unassuming.
"One of the few actually goddam Christian people in the fucking Catholic Church." Neil said this with no apology to the priest. "Some bastard killed the only good priest in the whole fucking diocese." Another smack on the rocker arm. I winced.
Monica continued the explanation. What little inside information they'd managed to obtain led them to believe the police had done only a perfunctory check. Barely looked for fingerprints, just took a few pictures. The paper said it was a heart attack. "I finally managed to get through to a source in the chancery this morning. He wouldn't talk except to say he'd never seen so many auxiliary bishops and priests scurrying about at all hours. He knew it was a cover-up of some kind."
All three nodded. They each expressed varying degrees of agreement with this notion.
"That doesn't mean murder," Monica said, "but it makes me suspicious."
"Why a cover-up?" I asked.
Neil exploded. "It's like the fucking Inquisition. Those medieval shitheads want to look pristine and pure. They're afraid of 'scandalizing the faithful.' Every time they fuck up, they trot out the 'scandalizing the faithful' bullshit. It's like Nixon, Ollie North, and National Security. Only totally blind fools believe that shit."
Neil is my closest gay friend in the city. For years we worked together on committees to get the Gay Rights ordinance passed. Over the years, he and Scott have moved from barely tolerating each other to peaceful coexistence. Neil hasn't gotten over being picked last for teams in school forty years ago. Scott's being both a Major League baseball player and gay offended Neil's sense of order in the universe. Given Neil's radicalism, I've never understood his attachment to the Roman Catholic Church.
Monica said, "Our friend is dead. We want to know why. Hewas in perfect health. We talked last week. I'd never seen him happier or more vibrant."
Scott asked, "If he was such a good guy, who'd want him dead?"
They looked at him in silence.
I added, "What I don't get is why you're telling all this to us." "He was the parish priest here in River's Edge," Father Larkin said.
I looked expectant.
"You knew that?" Neil said.
I shrugged. "I don't read the local papers very often, and it's not something I would notice. I haven't seen a gay newspaper in a couple weeks."
"You have contacts in the police department here," Neil said.
This was true. For years as a teacher at Grover Cleveland High School in River's Edge, I'd had the slowest classes of seniors and sophomores for English. Dealing with them had brought me into contact with cops, judges, juvenile officers, social workersthe usual paraphernalia of teenagers versus the world.
"You know the system," Neil went on. "You can talk to these people and find out the truth."
I shook my head. "Even if that were true, it happened in Chicago. They'd have little on it here."
"The Church and the cops can't cover up a murder, can they?" Scott asked.
Neil looked disdainful. "In Chicago anything's possible."
Monica said, "We want the truth to come out."
"I really don't see how I can help," I said.
"You could talk to people," Neil said. "People trust Tom Mason, confide in you. We have contacts. You could see them." He nodded toward Scott. "Plus, Scott Carpenter's name can open doors closed to many others."
"You want us to look into this priest's death?"
"No way. Why don't you?"
The priest spoke. "We're too directly involved. We're all known in gay Catholic circles. They'd be suspicious of us immediately."
"And whether you choose to believe it, Tom, you're one of the few gay activists in the Chicago area who is trusted by all factions," Neil added.
I said to Monica, "Your source in the chancery would be in a better position to investigate than we would. Have that person do it."
"He can't. His position is precarious. I was lucky to get out of him as much as I did. I promised not to push him any further."
We argued for a while. They left frustrated, but they extracted a promise that I'd at least think about it.
By the time they left it was after six. Scott and I worked out for an hour in my basement. I've got some old weights down here. At his penthouse on Lake Shore Drive Scott has a complete set of exercise machines. I can still fit into the gym clothes I wore when I played sports in high school and college, and Scott is in great shape by profession, so working out together is a turn-on for us.
The basement is usually cool, but the January thaw outdoors made it warm enough to linger. After half an hour, I lay back on the weight bench dripping sweat, feet flat on the floor. I eased the weights onto the slots above me and drew a deep breath. I heard his weights clank to the floor. I glanced over. He strolled to the bench, eying me from head to athletic shoes. In a swift move he swung a leg over and stood spread-eagled above me. He slowly sat down, his ass resting finally on my hips. I traced a finger under the top quarter inch of his Bike jockstrap ... .
An hour later, after quick showers, we ordered pizza delivered from Aurelio's in Frankfort and discussed the afternoon's visit over dinner. We agreed there was no point in our doing any kind of investigating. "That's what police are for," Scott pointed out.
We also talked about negotiations at school. I'm on the union negotiating committee at the high school. We'd been meetingwith the school board since last spring. January in the Midwest is not the brightest time to call a strike, but it seemed a definite possibility at this point. Nobody wanted to budge, and the teachers were angrier than I'd ever seen them.
The other main topic for discussion was Scott's parents' visit this coming Saturday. His revelation nearly a year ago that he was gay had hit them hard. A reconciliation had taken place, but, as part of it, Scott had insisted they come to Chicago and meet me. We both had some apprehensions as the day drew closer. Meeting one's in-laws for the first time can be delicate.
Around eight-thirty we settled down to watch Field of Dreams. I'd gotten him the video for his birthday. We both love the movie. We sprawled on the couch, our feet up on the coffee table, a bowl of popcorn between us.
Neither of us cooks much, witness the pizza for dinner. He took a cooking course a few months ago. Big deal. All it means is when he makes the popcorn, he doesn't burn it anymore. Although to be fair he could make an occasional fabulous holiday feast even before he took the class.
After devouring the popcorn, I moved the bowl to the floor and snuggled, settling into a nice, quiet Saturday night. An hour into the movie, headlights pulled into the driveway. "That better not be the dynamic trio again," I said.
"Maybe it's Kevin Costner wanting to do a threeway."
"In your dreams," I said.
It turned out to be my brother Glen and his oldest boy, Jerry. Of all my three brothers and sister, I'm closest to Glen, who's four years younger. Many Saturday nights he and his wife, Jeannette, stop by, and the four of us spend long happy hours together. Usually we play games. Monopoly is my specialty. Of my nephews and nieces, I'm closest to Jerry. Glen started bringing him on Saturday nights a couple of years ago. I love the kid, but he wins at Monopoly far more than a twelve-year-old should.
They didn't usually stop by unannounced, but it wasn't unheard of. Jeannette wasn't with them. Glen said they'd beenin the area and Jerry'd remembered he'd left his hockey skates here last weekend. They planned to stop only a minute.
Glen has the darkest hair of all of us and, at six feet, is the shortest, but he's probably the best athlete. Being youngest had taught him he'd have to fight twice as hard to beat the rest of us. He also has a wicked sense of humor. It cost him a trip to the doctor and ten stitches when he glued all the pages of our older brother Brian's secret stack of Playboy magazines together. Brian's got a mean temper.
Glen didn't take off his coat. He sat on the edge of a chair while Jerry searched. We chatted about the Bears' collapse during the past season. Ten minutes later Jerry's voice drifted up from the basement, asking if I'd come help him look.
Glen yelled for him to hurry. I shook off my lethargy and lumbered down the stairs. I found Jerry sitting on the workout bench tossing an old baseball between his hands. He'd only turned on the light for the stairs, so basement shadows drifted from corners and crevices. He gave me a brief smile, all braces. He resembled his dad more than any of his brothers and sisters, especially the way his right ear was slightly higher than the left. I wondered if his peers teased him about it, the way we teased his dad when we were kids. A tough fighter, an honest kid, not a whiner, wearing a junior high-school letterman's jacket a shade too big for him. When he lost a game, it was always, Let's try again. He caught on fast to tricks and strategies.
I sat on the second step from the bottom. Other than the brief glance with the smile, he wouldn't look at me. Tossed the ball back and forth.
"Not here for your skates?"
He shook his head.
I leaned back, resting an elbow on the fourth step. He'd confided a number of secrets to me in the past. Kid stuff, mostly, but I'd always taken him seriously and never betrayed his confidence. Obviously he'd come over to talk. I only needed to wait. In a few years he'd be talking to his buddies, not anadult. For now he was still enough the trusting kid to try me first.
"Must be serious," I said.
"Trouble at home?"
He shook his head.
I walked over and sat down next to him on the bench. It surprised me for a second, sitting next to him, to realize how tall he'd gotten. Hair as dark as his dad's; he'd probably pass him by a few inches in height. I reached over and took the ball from him.
"I'll help if I can," I said.
I met the level gaze of his blue eyes. He gulped and said, "You know, Uncle Tom, how you said you and Scott would never live in fear just because you're gay?"
My turn to nod. "You afraid of something? Somebody bothering you?" I asked this quietly. The dim basement light lent itself to confidences.
He gave a brief shiver in the coolness. "I can't tell my dad. You know how upset he gets." Older brother Brian isn't the only one in the family with a temper. I have the longest fuse of any of them, but when I explode it's probably the worst of all.
"The priest at church." Jerry gulped. "He told me he'd kill me if I ever told."