Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Bruce Teifer
Our most shame-filled and artful concealments seek the light of self-revelation — Ask any experienced homicide detective. Secrets, especially family secrets, are nurtured in lies. They may be supressed with all our will, yet they slip out unexpectedly in pieces over time— From a leaky conscience, or a drunken rant. Often we expose them, consciously or unconsciously, in the tales we spin— Might be an alibi, could be a bedtime story.
I grew up believing my father was a young, bright-eyed soldier who hitchhiked through our town, Leafy Falls, in 1969. He was on his way to Fort Enterprise, then on to Vietnam. He stayed over for twelve hours, long enough to fall in love with a teenage girl, my mother. The soldier was only vaguely described, but many old-timers were sure they had seen him — None had. He wasn’t from this neck of the woods, people said, as if exonerating local boys from such immoral behavior. Of course most similar situations in Leafy Falls resulted in quick marriages, though often with the girl already showing. It was accepted that my father died before my mother even knew she was pregnant— She did not know his full name. This was my truth.
Mother never married. I was not aware of any boyfriends or lovers. “I still love your father,” she told me many times. I used to think, some guy, my soldier daddy! It was through her passing that I discovered my father had not died before I was born. In fact, he was not a soldier at all. He was a Roman Catholic priest. I was 18 years old— A new truth was born.
I had opened the shoebox where Mother kept important papers. I came upon his letters, bundled with a maroon ribbon inside a manila envelope labeled, from Jamie’s father. The self I knew, Jamie, the fallen soldier’s son, began to disintegrate. The letters were sorted with the oldest on top. Read chronologically then, the letters began as intimate, though not explicit, love notes. His swirling script was exquisite, like something from another century. I was mesmerized, witnessing my own creation from afar. His tone gradually turned distant, at first panicky, confessional and tormented, and then became dry, detached, and business-like. Once the letters shifted from the joy of love, to the consequences of sin, they bore no further trace of affection, not for Mother, and certainly none toward me. No more, Dearest Kathleen signed by, The One Who Loves You. Finally, only single pages arrived, blank except for the Month and Year, with the receipt of a cashier’s check still enclosed. Over the years he sent these funds on the first of every month.
His name was Thomas Kilharmy, although he never directly identifies himself in his letters. Among them however, there was one unsigned and typewritten entry, clearly not from him, that mentioned his name. The letter refers to him as, “… a humble Soldier of Christ, the good Father Thomas Kilharmy.” This letter may have come from the Archbishop himself, for it assumed a posture of dominion over both the inexperienced priest and the teenaged orphan from Saint Joseph’s Home. The letter praised Holy Mother Church and all her servants. The letter spoke of the weaknesses of flesh and the wiles of the devil. He stated that the constant cycle of Christian life was one of sin and redemption. The author implied that perhaps my underage mother was herself guilty of seduction. The Archbishop (or whoever wrote it) then proceeded to thank my mother for her continued silence, and granted her plenary indulgence for her transgression. His Eminence also promised that Father Kilharmy would provide discrete financial support should she decide to keep her baby. Or, alternatively, he included contact information for a Catholic adoption service.
Sisters of Charity in the now shuttered Catholic orphanage, Saint Joseph’s Home, raised my mother. She kept the most painful details of that abusive place carefully locked away — She referred to the nuns as jackals. I believe she feared such wounds, if opened, would inflict their damage all over again, but on me this time. She would never give me up to such a place.
It is held that death is the ultimate abandonment, but that seems incomplete to me — Dying is not the same as walking away. Without doubt, leaving me was the hardest part for her. I was foremost in her thoughts from the beginning of my life to the end of her own. Before she died she sent me to the parish priest with a sealed envelope. I thought perhaps she wished to reconcile with her childhood faith. The old priest murmured as he read. Instead of summoning him to her deathbed for solace, my mother composed her own funereal directives. She requested that he contact Father Thomas Kilharmy. “My predecessor,” the old cleric mumbled. The name meant nothing to me at the time. Mother revealed only that he was a priest who long ago showed her a great kindness and gave her a wonderful gift. She requested that Father Kilharmy celebrate her funeral Mass. She wanted Father Kilharmy to retrieve her ashes from Fronti Brothers’ Crematorium, and spread them on the Leafy River instead of entombing them in hallowed ground. The church, Saint Catherine of Bologna, patron saint of artists, was built at the head of the wide, step-like falls that gave the town its name. If viewed from a certain vantage point, at precisely the right moment of light, and with the church doors opened, the falls appear to flow down from the altar and cascade out of the building. To witness this mirage was highly valued by the faithful, a visible sign of the saint’s presence. My mother had seen this optical illusion more than once.
Further instuctions read like a story— She wrote that Father Kilharmy should walk along the east bank of the river at sunset. He should continue beyond the church, the cemetery and the rectory. Father Kilharmy should carry her ashes past the grove of giant oaks and into the close underbrush, and follow the river to the bend, beyond civilization’s view. He would enter a small clearing, where the water splashes musically over the rocks and the grass is thick as a mattress. Mother was insistent on two final conditions— He was to go alone and there was no need of prayers. I was to keep a small sampling of her remains and create my own farewell— Several of them. She had a plan for that also.
“You should travel,” she whispered. “There’s no reason to stay. Sell the house. Leave this… this town.” She labored at a sip of air as if it were the town and not her lungs that failed her. “See the world.” She pushed through her pain in exhausted sighs. The impishness I knew best returned briefly when she added, “Drop me off as bits of ash here and there, in the magical places.”
When she spoke to me of magical places, I immediately imagined them as she had often described them. Throughout my childhood, Mother told me one, neverending bedtime story. I see now that she revealed her secret within the narrative of a mother and her young son, searching for the boy’s father. The boy’s age was always my age. As I grew, he grew. Mother encouraged me to join the storytelling, so it truly became our story. The mother and son traveled to a high mountain kingdom and found it mysteriously deserted, food still warm, abandonded on golden plates. Their search took them to a rain forest where pygmies sang the stories of the stars from treetop palaces. This tribe had seen the boy’s father.
“Your father is a shaman,” they told the boy— “Big magick.” They followed his trail across a blazing desert that tiptoed into a green sea. As they sailed away they heard waves hiss over sands as hot as coals Their small ship was captured by Amazonian pirates. They spent several months in captivity before they escaped and washed ashore on an unchartered island. The island was populated by survivors from both sides of a great naval battle that had sunk all their ships. They continued fighting from opposite sides of the river that divided the island. The wandering pair left the island on a raft made of coconuts, which they ate along the way. On and on they searched, sometimes getting close to the elusive magician but never catching up to him. I grew older and bedtime rituals changed. The story of a boy and his mother gradually faded away, all but forgotten by me. The instructions to Father Kilharmy, and mine to visit the magic places, brought the story back to life and continued it. Mother knew this day would come, and through the story, had prepared a way forward without her. She gave me a reason now, an imperative— Seek out the magic places that she might travel toward them with me, in truth. Scattering her ashes in exotic locales would serve as my escape plan from Leafy Falls.
I returned to the letters. I held them carefully, as one would handle an ancient scroll. I searched for my father in them as I had searched through my bedtime story. Saint Catherine’s was the newly ordained Thomas Kilharmy’s first assignment. A naive sixteen-year-old girl with a teenage crush stared doe-eyed from the altar rail at the handsome young priest. His letters often mentioned how he had fallen in love with her immediately, that very first day. Let me give you a quote from an early letter: “Your countenance quickened in me a deeply spiritual awakening. It was not base lust, Kathleen, nor was it ordinary romantic love, but something of a higher order, ordained and sanctioned by angels. I elieve God sent you, not as a temptation, but as the pathway to my salvation.” He overwhelmed this teenaged product of a depraved and lonely upbringing.
I fought against finding sincerity in those early letters, but you cannot read them and not find him smitten. Of course once I was on the way, his prose became dramatically less lofty, and less believable. He claimed that he was wrong to love my mother, and blamed himself. He fled from his own feelings by cutting us off. “You must appreciate the torment I suffer. We are an Unholy Family,” he wrote. “We demonstrated complete disdain toward the Church, my vows, and by extension, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He whipped himself into a guilty lather on the page. Solace for him was elsewhere. The Church shielded him from this young woman’s ordeal— Even more than forgiveness, he sought forgetfulness. In his last letter he spoke about the indelible stain of our sin, which I take as reference to me. “I utterly failed to resist the manipulations of my flesh,” he concluded. Quietly and suddenly the Diocese transferred Father Kilharmy to a new parish across the state and the letters stopped. Only the cashier’s checks folded inside the dated paper came— No return address.
There was a tree chart of my geneology in the shoebox. Except for my mother, the maternal trunk was empty, befitting a foundling’s history, while the paternal side of the tree was completely desolate. My mother’s name, with my name beneath it stood like two crows on black, barren limbs, with nothing but empty branches above and below us. The white paper background lent the tree the look of misty winter. Then I noticed that where my father’s name, the fictional soldier, should have been, there was an asterisk. In that tiny, nearly invisible asterisk, I heard my mother’s voice. “Take this secret from my heart,” she whispered.
I re-wrapped the letters in the purple fabric and set aside the chart. I moved to the bottom of the box where photographs were jumbled all together without regard to when or where they were taken. I was selecting photos to post at Mother’s wake. I came upon a well-worn image of a young priest standing near the river bank. There was a tender look in his eyes, but part of him was in a fearful place.
Mother’s wake was sparsely attended. It was a one-night affair— As her fabricated tryst with the soldier had been. The good people of town kept small truck with us. My mother bore the shame not only of an unmarried pregnancy, but of raising-up a bastard in the community as if nothing was wrong, as if this boy was like any other, as if he wouldn’t have been better put out for adoption. The whole town believed the story of the soldier lost in battle. It did nothing to mitigate the polite shunning. The proper wives and mothers of Leafy Falls froze in mid word if my mother happened by, while their husbands sneaked lecherous glances. It did not matter that the father of her child, a teenager himself, was sent to an ignoble death under the same flag that hung ubiquitously in Leafy Falls, saluted and cheered at every occasion. Moral outrage surpasses patriotism in this town. As a schoolboy I was taunted— “Talk about a laaaaaay-over, eh, soldier’s boy?”
Father, now Monsignor Kilharmy, entered the funeral home and signed the visitors’ log in the same florid hand seen in his letters. I saw my resemblance in our permanently boyish cowlick of tossled hair— Like straw stuffing leaking haphazardly from a scarecrow’s head. We were both broad-shouldered, and had identical hazel eyes that change color to match the environment. After signing the register, he moved directly to the place my mother reposed in a plain wooden casket. He kneeled, and slowly, with trembling hand, Crossed himself. Suddenly, wretched sobs erupted from him. His shoulders heaved and he held his hand clasped over his mouth. I fought back my own tears, resisting a shared grief. I
could not confront him during the wake. His outpouring disarmed me, while his inability to maintain eye contact, confused me— I could not determine whether it arose from a guilty conscience or was a summary dismissal of my existence.
I meant to challenge him after Mother’s body was escorted away to the crematorium. I had rehearsed scenarios whereby I’d corner him and make him squirm, and finally, break him. I was furious that my mother had suffered because of this man. I saw him only as a pious hypocrite. My mother’s denial was understandable and forgivable, while his was self-righteous, heartless and cowardly. Seething rage mixed with something deeper that I could not discern through the fog of my anger. I was disoriented by the drastic shift in my life’s narrative. I had little time to find meaning. Who was this man? Was he a charlatan to be unmasked? Did meeting me pain him as much as it stung me? Why, after all this time, after such a carefully maintained fascade, had mother put us together, literally over her dead body?
There are a thousand paper cuts of a childhood without a father— Never protected by strong and gentle arms. I never knew the grown-up feeling of a first, man-to-man talk. I never used his after shave. I was the only child in town who did not have a father. Strange, but it was not the taunting from others that hurt the most. I could endure the tangible cruelties of boys — I could hear them, taste them, smell them. They were real and could be battled. My imagination conjored suffering from what never was but was what I longed for completely. More important than a son missing a father’s love and attention, was what lay hidden beneath— How I missed a son’s capacity to show affection for his father. I did not know how to love a man. Bitterness grew now out of my discovered father’s rejection, not through the death of a father who never existed in the first place.
Monsignor Kilharmy recited the funeral Mass in a deeply melodious tenor. Our voices were so similar that it could have been me up on the altar. Several very old ladies were the only other congregants— They attended every funeral whether they knew the deceased well or not at all. It was their calling to bear witness for the dead in Christ. These women with their rosary beads and covered heads comprised a sanctioned church group known as the, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem,’ named for the weeping women Jesus meets at the Eighth Station of the Cross. After the Mass ended, after the Daughters had shuffled away, after Mother’s remains were en route to the crematorium, I was at last alone in the church with my father.
I approached him as he changed out of his vestments. He seemed not to notice me as he precisely attended to folding his chasuble, the colorful outermost ceremonial garment that covers all the other priestly garb. He carefully placed it into an open suitcase, on top of underwear and socks. I cleared my throat. The sound echoed in the empty church. I steeled myself to unload on him. But instead of handing him a plate full of comeuppance, I started weeping and hugging him and calling him, Daddy. He nervously extricated himself from my clutches and crumpled the remaining vestments into the black suitcase, pressing
it shut with his knee. His hands shook as he snapped the latches. He said something about, “Kathleen’s ashes at the Fronti Brothers’ Crematorium.” His breath was scented by a higher proof than Communion wine. He hurried away. I walked numbly from the church under the pitiless and lifeless gaze of the icons and statues. I passed through the doors and closed my eyes against the pain of harsh sunlight. I could hear the sound of the falls and feel the coolness coming off the river, but only gradually did the shape of the falls come into view. Tiny rainbows danced joyfully on the frothy water, belying my misery. A small urn about the size of pop bottle arrived some days later.
In the months that followed I was outwardly one way and secretly another. I worked as a hospice aide. I gave terminal patients the loving care I denied myself. I was pleasant and compassionate with everyone I interacted with during the day. At night I isolated at home, drinking and eating until I passed out in front of the ever-droning television. I gained weight. I was prone to crying jags brought on by my constant TV viewing. It didn’t matter what I watched— In fact, I constantly changed channels. Everything I saw and heard on television became a single, excruciatingly sad program. After a bottle of wine with my take out dinner, and a good crying jag, I was set up for a pint of ice cream and a dozen cookies followed by the apneic sleep of the morbidly obese. I avoided mirrors as a terrified child avoids a bully. I was horrified to see myself in photographs — I turned away, mortified. I scoured travel brochures for a destination worthy of my mother’s magic, yet I stayed put, wrapped in the cerement of the unresolved relationship with my father. Everything began to change when the story broke on the news.
Here it must be said, and I learned this afterward, that Monsignor Kilharmy did not follow my mother’s last wishes by depositing her remains in the River Leafy. No, he held on to them. I don’t mean held on to them as in keeping them somewhere out of sight as I did with my much smaller urn. His housekeeper, Mrs. Beergum, when interviewed later, revealed that Kilharmy walked around with the floral-inscribed metal container and addressed it as a person. He also set it on the table and conversed with it while Beergum served his dinner. The housekeeper admitted growing physically fearful after the Monsignor insisted that she— Set another place at the table, for Kathleen. He brought the urn into his bedroom at night. He took it for drives. It heard the dark and meaningless sins of the confessional with him. He stashed it behind the altar during Mass. Old Mr. Demeter, the sacristan, confirmed this. Demeter’s tongue routinely loosened after a few pints of stout at the local pub.
“Ashes not three feet from the repository of Our Lord,” he reported to the other drunks. He was speaking of the proximity of the urn to the red-candlled tabernacle, where Consecrated Hosts are locked in a small chamber that serves as a variation of the Holy of Holies— Hosts are made of unadulterated wheat reduced to flour, diluted with natural water, and baked with fire. The Eucharistic Host is the wafer form of the Catholic God. The ashes at the altar greatly upset Demeter’s sensibilities. He swore that the priest was now praying— “Not to God, but to the ashes of that dead woman.”
Mrs. Beergum said that Monsignor Kilharmy not only talked to the jar, but also listened and even laughed heartily at some jocularity Beergum could not apprehend. She reported that the Monsignor seemed a new man, a happy man, a man, well, in love. Once she witnessed him defending the decision not to dispose of my mother’s remains. As was her custom, Beergum spied through one of a number of peepholes in the rectory walls. The priest was in his sleeping quarters, about to turn off the light. His beloved was carefully arranged atop a throne of cushions next to him in bed. She watched him kiss its cool exterior and say gently, “I will in good time, Kathleen. You didn’t say when, you know.”
I knew none of this as I carried-on as an overeating drunk. Until, that is, the story exploded on television. In announcing the news, the somber anchors displayed appropriate horror and disgust. The accompanying footage was truly repulsive. The story invoked a primal, supernatural terror. I was powerless to change the channel. It seems that the Fronti Brothers’ Crematorium had not operated as a crematorium at all. The cartoonish brothers were shown being led away in handcuffs from the crime scene. The shorter of two wore an undertaker’s dark suit. Whatever mask of concern he may have worn before, Karl Fronti was a picture of terror now. He was the one who solemnly consoled family members and took charge of their loved one’s remains, and promised to handle them with the utmost, Respect and Dignity. That was the outer face of the Fronti Brothers’ operation. As quickly as the mourners departed, the inner Fronti, the not so smooth one, a dim giant from the looks of him, wheeled the body out the back door and tossed it unceremoniously into a alligator-filled swamp. When the family returned, smooth brother gave them urns filled wth a sordid concoction of bleached and broken bits of steak and barbequed rib bones, mixed with the pulverized dust of cinder blocks— Ornately designed and inscribed with the departed’s full name. The brutish Dolph Fronti thought this was particularly amusing.
“They want cinders? We give to them cinders— BLOCKS! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” he howled.
I was too drunk to connect the Fronti Brothers to my mother. I cried anyway as I sat transfixed by the scuba divers retrieving whatever was left of the thousands of human beings— A forensic jig saw puzzle of undigested bone. Sheriff’s deputies stood watch with high- powered rifles resting at-the-ready on their hips should any gators show their menacing snouts. It reminded me of a made-for-TV horror movie.
Monsignor Kilharmy was propped up in bed with his fetish cradled on his lap, watching a late night comedian. The comic brought the news to him. I was viewing the same show half a state away. My father cried from a deep despair as if my mother had lived and died all over again, now leaving him truly alone and bereft— Without faith or companionship. Beergum witnessed his keening racket. She retreated to her room and sought refuge behind a curtain. Mr. Demeter was passed-out and heard nothing. I laughed hysterically as the comic turned a revolting story into farce, but my laughter, as always, was followed by
an inexplicable and nameless melancholia. I wolfed down more ice cream and passed out.
While I gasped for oxygen and snored loudly, Kilharmy dressed into his red- bordered monsignor’s cassock. He left his pectoral cross hanging from a knob of his dresser drawer. A trembling Beergum watched from hiding as he wrapped the urn in an altar cloth, and tiptoed out of the rectory to his car. He drove toward Leafy Falls. The ever-vigilant Mrs. Beergum reported later that as Monsignor Kilharmy closed the rectory door, she distinctly overheard him say, “They lied to me, Kathleen.” The nosy housekeeper could not be certain whether or not he was still addressing the urn.
He called me by cell phone sometime before dawn. I was startled and disoriented. “Who is this?” I asked.
“It’s your father.”
My mouth tasted like raw sewage. “You mean Father Kilharmy?”
“Monsignor,” he corrected me.
“You never played catch with me,” I cried. “I hate you,” I snarled. “I … love you,” I pleaded.
“I don’t care for sports,” he said quietly. “But …” he let it fall away. He said the words I yearned to hear but could not accept when delivered, “I should have abandoned my vocation. I… I…” He paused. I heard him snuffle.
“Too late now, go to hell,” I spit the words at him like crumbs from the throat of a choking man. I was about to hang up but he went on quickly.
“I want you to do something for me.” This intrigued me despite my drunken stupor.
“You wanna play catch?” I sobbed.
“I would love that, but it’s too dark now,” he replied softly.
“Okay, Daddy,” I said. I felt the aura of a great warmth. “What should I do?”
“I want you to kill the Fronti brothers,” he hissed. “Feed them to the alligators— Alive!” he screamed. This was the last thing my father said to me before he disconnected the call. The full implication of the news story became clear to me then.
The police discovered his shoes in the plush grass of the clearing my mother spoke of— A place known to both of them. His body, weighted down with of all things, cinder blocks, was found downriver, churning slowly along the rocky bottom. A contruction crane lifted his dripping body from the river. An empty urn was wrapped in the altar cloth and stuffed into his cassock. The urn had my mother’s name engraved on it, so I got the call. My drunken crying jags were done. I felt the finality of her absence. For most of her life my mother denied everything except her love for me. I grieved that her remains were so horribly disposed of. Above all, I understood how I had illuminated the darkness concealing my mother’s secrets, and rather than feeling exposed and resentful, she embraced me. I grieved also for my father, Thomas Kilharmy. My existence exposed his secrets with the much harsher light of self-recrimination and doubt. His self-sacrificial death left forgiveness in place of my anger.
I claimed my father’s body and had him properly cremated. The Church wanted no part of a suicidal priest, and as I was his closest living relative, they released his remains without delay. I emptied his ashes into the swamp behind the shuttered Crematorium. It was the closest thing to a joint burial as I could figure. The Fronti brothers went to prison so I could not carry out my father’s first and only request of me. I wouldn’t have anyway— I am not a killer. I stood at the edge of the primeval swamp and watched my father’s ashes spread across the algae-covered surface, breaking-up and sinking in clumps of grey mud that reminded me of potter’s clay. Several of the large reptiles stared at me from afar— Their sleepy gaze unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Alligators are opportunistic killers. They eat whatever comes along. Though they appear laconic, they are swift. They act without remorse or hesitation. They crush with powerful jaws and drag their prey under water to drown it. My father’s remains would never satisfy their appetites. I’m sure I looked a good dealt tastier than a mouthful of ashes. I shuffled away as quickly as my girth allowed.
Since these events, a religious person might say I was born again, but I consider such talk foolishness. If anything, all religion in me died that day at the swamp — Ancient monsters accepted my family’s burden of secrets and shame, and removed any further need of redemption. I returned to a healthy weight. I refrain from strong drink. I declared a truce with my emotions. I sold the house and departed Leafy Falls. I doubt I will ever return.
It seems to me now, as I visit the magic places, that we all receive a version of the truth, but such truth is never complete, nor is it constant. Our survival is more in the service of chance than of personal will. Certainty deserts us long before the end. I could but I do not wish to fill in any of the paternal trunk of my family chart. We remain as three crows alighted on a cold and leafless tree.
Should I have children I shall tell them a bedtime story about a woman rejected by the only man she ever loved, yet she continued to love him because of the child he fathered in her. I will tell them of a man who did not find completion or peace until he circled back and discovered that by his death, love would no longer be denied. Love claimed his life as surely as war takes a soldier on the battlefield.