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March 28, 2002. It's Holy Thursday. That's Catholic for three days before Easter, and I'm in Las Vegas. I've come from my home in New York City to visit my father. We're at Vons, a fluorescent grocery store roughly the size of Manhattan, waiting in line to pay for pork chops. There's a bank of slot machines near the exit clanging away, and I find, as I do each time I come to this desert city, that I'm in shock to think it's here Dad's retired and will likely die.
There, on a rack in the checkout line, on the cover of Time magazine, is a gray and ominous drawing of the back of a bishop and these words: Can the Catholic Church Save Itself? The headlines of the scandal are everywhere at the moment. It's an uprising, the body of Mother Church erupting with such force that the shock waves are reverberating, at long last, all the way up to her head. Cardinal Law will resign before the year is out. I reach for a copy of the magazine.
"Jesus, that's been goin' on for a thousand years," my father says, jutting a finger at Time. "Did I ever tell you what happened to your aunt when she was little?"
"Father Murray, the basement of St. Bede's. I don't know what went on, but thank God the janitor happened by. I never knew anything about it until your aunt refused to let Murray say your grandmother's funeral mass."
I say to my dad, "Wow," but nothing else, because suddenly I'm riveted by a photo, page twenty-eight, of Father Kos and a Dallas boy, age twelve, who killed himself at twenty-one. I know the story of Kos and his altar boys; I'd cut every clip of it from the papers in '98 and stuck them in the thick file I keep under my desk. I'd read about the young men who'd gone to court and were awarded millions and the promise of a public apology from the Archdiocese of Dallas. I can recall the New York Times photo of them, handsome and courageous in their suits and ties, sitting at a table, along with one stricken mother who was there on behalf of her deceased son. I'd seen all this but I'd never, until this moment, seen the face--God, the face--of the boy who shot himself dead. His tiny-toothed smile, the light in his eyes, are absolutely haunting. He's in altar-boy frocks, all white, and the arm of the man with the Roman collar is slung behind his slim shoulders.
"Do you want me to buy that for you?" my father asks. I look into his kind old face and wonder, again, what it would mean, what it would be like, to tell him the story.
"No thanks, Dad, I'll get it."
This story that will not let me go.
April 1, 2002. Easter Monday. I've left my dad in Vegas and I'm in Los Angeles to visit my goddaughter; maybe pick up some acting work. I'm headed south, or possibly east, in the haze of the Hollywood Freeway when my cell phone gives three bleeps. A message. Maybe a job. One hand firmly on the wheel, I press voicemail, put the thing to my ear.
Marty, it's Bob C-- (I hit the brake. The SUV behind me honks). I got your letter saying you'd be traveling West. I'd dearly love to see you. I'm at the Veterans Hospital in LA. Here's my number....
I take the next exit and come to a stop in the glare of a 7-Eleven parking lot, stunned that he's alive, that my letter actually found him.
I'd lost all track of Bob. I'd spoken to him once, by phone, nine years before when I was on a visit to Denver, my hometown. I'd sat, I remember, on the edge of my mother's bed, next to the phone, possessed suddenly by the idea of contacting him. My fingers had trembled as I dialed the number I'd just searched for and found. I was shocked when he picked up right away. We had a curt conversation: It does no good to dwell on the past, he'd said. I've made my peace with God. I hope you do too. Then he'd given me his address, saying that I should write. Numb, I'd jotted it down on the back of a housepainter's business card that was sitting on my mother's nightstand and stuck it in my wallet. Where it remained until, a few weeks before taking this trip West, gripped again with the idea of finding him, I called once more. Disconnected. No address. No further information. He must be dead, I figured, or moved long ago. I'd waited too many years. I mailed a note anyway with a Please Forward to the old address--some little town in California. I never imagined I'd hear from him, let alone that we'd ever be in the same place at the same time.
I pick up my cell and half dial him, hang up. Half dial, hang up. Come on, I tell myself, do it. Just do it. He answers on the second ring:
The pitch, the tenor of his voice enters my body like a lance. Him, after all these years. Him, reduced to a little human hum across a wireless. Very businesslike, we arrange to meet.
Thursday, April 4, 2002, the morning of the meeting.
My old high school friend, Jodi, prints out directions from her house in North Hollywood to the Veterans' Complex off Sepulveda Boulevard. "Good luck, Mart," she says. "Wring his friggin' neck for me."
Jodi is quick to fury on this subject, which always sets me to wondering about anger. My own anger, whatever, wherever it is, feels lost or buried somehow in complicity, I think. As if having wanted, allowed, has squelched any right I have to wrath or innocence. I remember when I first told Jodi all that happened, she looked at me with such pity that I blurted: "Hey, doll, I'm OK. It's not like the guy murdered me, calm down." "I'm so sorry that happened to you," she said, and I watched as she glanced across the room at her child, and the worry that flashed over her face told me I'd lived her idea of a parent's nightmare. And then I think of another friend who, when I shared the story said, "Oh, my ... weren't you a lucky little boy." When he said it, I laughed like a lunatic.
It's a gorgeous day.
Bob's instructions take me to a red-roofed convalescent home. I park the car. I get out and walk past the well-kept lawns and palm trees. A pretty place for mending, I think.
I ask for C--, please?
Crisp and smiling, the nurse points to the elevator. "Second floor, dear."
First I step into the men's room for a pee, for a breath. I stand in a stall and take from my pocket two double-A batteries. I'd meant to do this in the car. Forgot. So, standing there in front of a toilet, I snap them into my little tape recorder like a lousy spy. I don't really know why I'm doing this. It's as if I'm afraid that without a record I'll forget everything or never believe any of it actually happened. As I snap the batteries in, I'm thinking: This is rude. Maybe illegal, immoral ... fuck it. I stick the recorder in my jacket pocket and catch myself in the mirror above the sink and break into a crazy grin.
The corridor is long, hospital-white. There are two to a room. I check the names, scrawled in black marker, tucked beneath plastic next to each door. Dazed-looking vets are everywhere. Some walking silently, wheeling IVs. Some staring out the window. The long hair, the age, say Vietnam. As I walk I rehearse lines in my head, afraid I'll go blank when I see him.
Do you remember the last time I saw you?
Bob, who was it, exactly, who sent you to prison?
And then the door is open and I'm thinking there must be a mistake because it's his name there but I don't recognize either person in the room.
In the far bed, a dark-skinned man is coughing up what appears to be part of his lunch. In the nearer bed, sitting up, is a plump person with a mop of white hair who looks to be someone's grandmother. My first thought is: Are there women vets here? There must be, I figure, but wait, it is a man and he--like everyone else--is wearing a rose-colored frock, prison-like, with faint numbers stenciled above the breast pocket. He's holding a plastic fork, poking at broccoli. Slowly, the face revolves toward the door, blinks once.
"Are you Marty?"
I nod. His voice, no question.
"I never would have recognized you," he says, and in that instant, like a shift from blurred to sharp, I get him. Exactly. Under the mop of grandmother hair I apprehend the features of the vigorous, thirty-year-old man I once knew. This is him, the guy who taught me about Buckminster Fuller and geodesic domes. This is the guy who took me glacier sliding. It was the summer after seventh grade, on a raft trip. He led a group of us campers into some Wyoming peaks and we came across a huge glacier and he said to all the boys: "OK, OK, climb up and slide down!" Everyone was terrified. Nobody moved, and Bob whispered into my ear: "I know you can do it." And I just turned and climbed and climbed. It must have been a quarter-mile long, this thing. I got to the top and tied my jacket around my butt and all the other guys linked arms at the bottom of the glacier to keep me from slamming into the rocks. It was insane. I screamed the whole way down and they caught me! I was king for a day. Brave, for once. This is the guy who woke me late one night at the mountain ranch and said: "Hey, come with me, Marty, you gotta see this." He grabbed a lantern and took me to the barn. The vet had come in the middle of the night to help deliver a calf. Bob and the vet had their arms all up in there because the cow was in trouble and suddenly this rickety-legged creature covered with goop and blood came out. Lying there on the barn floor ... alive! And Bob turned to me and smiled and I felt so lucky to be there, to see something so real.
"I don't want to interrupt your lunch," I tell him.
"No, no. It's OK."
He keeps blinking at me through these large, gold-framed glasses. I think of moving in to shake his hand but that seems ridiculous and we're in a freeze like, what? Victim facing perpetrator? Or like estranged ex's. Ex-altar boy, ex-almost seminarian, ex-friends? enemies? lovers? I don't know. Definitions fail, bleed one into the other. I watch him lay his fork on a paper napkin and I ask,
"How are you?"
"You're catching me at a pretty down time." His eyes are green, he's looking right at me but there's not a glimmer in there and I think: Jeez, the light's been bludgeoned out of this guy or maybe he's on something--antipain, antidepressant.
"What happened?" I point to his right foot, which is enormous, wrapped in white gauze up to the knee like the limb of a mummy.
"Oh, bad infection. They had to amputate a little."
"Ah, well," he says. "Stepped on a stupid screw in the driveway. Life." He shrugs, chuckles. "I've got diabetes. You remember how I liked my Coca-Cola."
"Yep. I do." I glance toward the hall, wanting to move outside, somewhere private.
"You look good," he says. "Your dad had quite a belly by your age."
I'm thrown at his mention, his memory, of my father, who he met, I think, maybe twice. I start chattering.
"Well, I'm an actor and the work's very physical, keeps me fit." In my skull I feel the buzz of words and how they're utterly weightless and how it's our bodies that are grave somehow, communicating, catching up. For my bones the whole experience isn't thirty years away but three feet.
"I see," he says. "You work in the theater, then?"
"Yeah. Uh-huh. Some TV. Plays and musicals sometimes. I sing and ..." Christ, Marty, I think, why not just give him an uptune and a ballad? Lord, he's got just the lost, ugly mug you'd expect in a news item on pedophiles--pasty pale, geeky glasses. "It's always eight shows a week, very rigorous ..." This sharp lament moves through me as I think how much the course of my days has been affected by this broken being in front of me. "But Broadway pays pretty well, when you can get it."
I watch him push, with an index finger, his glasses up the bridge of his nose, then scoop his bangs to the right. The gesture (exactly as I remember it) sends a tremble through my chest. It's as if I'm forty-two and twelve at once.
"Are you in New York?"
"Yes, I've been in Manhattan twenty years now." This sentence, somehow, gives me a sense of center, of pride. "I live there with my ... my boyfriend, Henry. We've been together for seventeen years." I want him to know, I realize, that I'm all right, that I've found success, stability. "Do you remember the last time we saw each other?"
"I do," he whispers, dropping his head, tripling his chin. "You were, what? Fifteen? You drove all the way to my place in Sunshine Canyon without a license. We sat by my empty fireplace and you told me you were ashamed that we'd ever met and that you never wanted to see me again."
I'm stunned and, oddly, flattered that he remembers it--the scene, my words--exactly as I do. It seems to say that it, that I, meant a lot to him. Is that what I've come for? I wonder. To see if I'm as vivid for him as he's been for me? That I wasn't just another little boy, an easy target, who gave it up to him?
"That tore my heart out," he says. "I curled into a shell that night after you left, for nearly two months."
He's speaking the truth, it seems. Or is he playing me? The confusion feels familiar. I finger the button of my recorder but don't push. I'm afraid it will click too loudly.
"Did you know, Bob, that this weekend will be thirty years exactly since we first actually met? April 7, 1972."
"Oh, I'm not aware." He shakes his head so that his hair falls back into his eyes. "Dates are fuzzy. I couldn't say the exact--"
"Oh, I can," I tell him. The man in the other bed coughs. He is watching a TV fixed high on the wall. I"m concerned he might hear me, and then I try not to care: "It was three months after my twelfth birthday. Except for my head, I didn't have hair on my body. I didn't know a thing, barely what a wet dream might be."
"Let's go outside," he says, scooting across the bed toward his wheelchair. "Let's go outside."