The priest, Fr. Monaghan, sat in his office listening to the clock. The office was a small and windowless room behind the auditorium, cluttered with books and diplomas, portraits and mementos, and sitting at his desk Monaghan looked like a teenager mired in pleasurable chaos. He was youthful, just forty, with wavy auburn hair and green eyes that searched another’s gaze with an amusement often mistaken for warmth.
Though Monaghan had grown up in Rhode Island, his father had come over from County Clare, and at times he himself spoke with the hint of an Irish brogue. For a while the priest had worn a beard, a trim Van Dyke, but in the end a concern about dandyism sent him to the barber. He was not in a position to afford petty vanities. He was principal of St. Crispin’s School—“For God and Country,” the motto chiseled above the front doors announced—and that demanded a certain public dignity.
Monaghan toyed absently with his fountain pen. His office sat deep within the innards of the building, in a converted storage room reachable through a labyrinthine passageway. Currently the school was undergoing a long-overdue renovation, and scaffolding hung with sheets of plastic created a tunnel effect that made the room feel more isolated still. Monaghan needed privacy to get his work done; being principal occupied him day and night. He chaired the PTA and negotiated the budget with the diocese; patrolled the schoolyard, picking up garbage; led the basketball team in pregame prayer; and at fundraising time he sallied forth, hat in hand, into the community. He considered it humiliating for a priest to go begging, but OPEC had doubled the price of oil in the fall, sending the winter fuel bills through the roof, and the school needed help. St. Crispin’s had been built six decades before, in 1910, and its condition was parlous. Twice, down in the basement, Monaghan had seen a rat. Before changing courses in his vocation and emerging as a diocesan priest, Monaghan had been a Jesuit seminarian; and he often thought back to his seminary years, when discussions of free will and Ockham’s razor had proceeded with nary a thought of leaking pipes, scurrying rodents, and larcenous oil bills.
The school still possessed its original wall clocks—antiquated electric timepieces that tocked off minutes in discrete units. Each time the minute hand clicked ahead, the clock’s motor emitted an insect-like buzzing, and often Fr. Monaghan found himself attending to it, as he was now. He remembered the passage in Joyce with the grim priest lecturing Stephen Daedalus on hell’s eternal torments: how a bird could carry away a single grain of sand, one grain every million years, from a beach a million miles wide; and when the bird had finished moving the entire beach, not even one instant of eternity would have passed. As a ninth grader he had read the passage and lain awake all night; sometimes he wondered whether that single harrowing idea had made him a priest.
He heard a rustle of plastic sheeting, a knock. The boy stood at the door.
“Richard, come in,” Monaghan said. “Find your way all right? Bit of a mess out there.”
The boy strode in, wearing the school uniform: gray dress slacks, white shirt, plaid tie. He was round-faced and his blond hair hung low across his forehead, requiring him periodically to toss his head in an insolent-seeming gesture. A bright boy, skittish and high-strung—a sensitive thirteen-year-old, hiding behind a flimsy bravado. Monaghan guessed he had a secret life as a reader.
“Your hair could use a renewed acquaintance with some clippers,” he observed. “As you know, St. Crispin believed fervently that the tips of a boy’s ears were meant to be seen. I can recommend a barber.”
Richard grinned uncertainly. He was new at St. C’s, having transfered at midyear from one of the city’s junior high schools. His mother had come in at Christmas to see Monaghan. She wanted her son at St. Crispin’s. Richard was smart, she said—it amazed her sometimes how smart he was—but she worried about him; there was no man in the house, and the boy was too easily influenced. Indeed, his first day the boy had shown up in a shiny, patent-leather jacket, looking like an inner-city tough. Monaghan had taken him aside and gently advised him that such a coat, however impressive, might become an object of ridicule at St. Crispin’s. In the weeks since, he had tried to make Richard feel welcome, stopping him in the hall to offer a word or pat on the shoulder.
“How did that test of yours go?” he asked now. “Algebra, wasn’t it?”
“I got an A,” the boy said. “It was just word problems. They’re easy.”
“Outstanding. Sit down, sit down.” He gestured to the green leather-backed chair opposite his desk.
“Am I in trouble?”
“Not that I know of. Actually, I’m getting encouraging reports from a number of your teachers.” Monaghan picked up a paper from his desk and studied it. It was, in fact, an invoice from the school’s contractor. “But tell me about your paper in social studies.”
The boy had written a report on the Attica prison riot. “Mr. Pagano said I plagiarized it,” he explained. “But I didn’t.”
Monaghan raised an eyebrow. “That’s a serious charge. Why do you suppose he said that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mr. Pagano came to me with your report. He showed me the phrase ‘events which culminated in an orgy of bloodshed.’ According to Mr. Pagano, no eighth grader could have written such a phrase. He believes you copied it.”
“I didn’t copy it.” His face had gone red, and for a moment it appeared he might cry. “I didn’t cheat,” he said again.
“I’m sure you didn’t.” Monaghan offered a reassuring smile. “That’s why I feel confident you can tell me what it means for an event to culminate.”
“It’s the end,” Richard said. “When something’s over.”
“Precisely. And an orgy?”
The boy reddened again and seemed to choose his words with care. “It’s like in hell,” he answered at last.
“Outstanding,” Monaghan repeated. “A very astute answer.” He pressed his fingertips together and rested his chin on them. “I’ll be frank with you, Richard. Your paper was superb, and Mr. Pagano drew a false conclusion. He made a mistake, and I told him so. I told him so right here in this room.” He put aside the invoice he’d been holding all the while. “Is that acceptable to you?”
Richard looked up, startled. He nodded.
“All right then,” Monaghan said. “Good.”
He sat back. It was the last period of the day and he had cleared everything away, his appointment book showing a blank slot. Through the far wall, construction noise resumed, a muted thunder of hammers and the chug of a compressor.
“Good,” he said again. “I’m glad we cleared that up.” He studied the boy’s face—the peaches-and-cream complexion, quick to flush with emotion; the intelligent, slightly furtive blue eyes. Monaghan knew all too well the abuse a smart boy took from the crude and the dull. Such a boy would be starved for friendship and might not even know it.
“Do you know where Attica was, the original Attica?” he asked him. “It was in Greece. Have you been to Greece?”
“No,” Richard said. “But last summer we went to Philadelphia. My grandparents live there.”
“That’s ironic, because Philadelphia is a Greek name too. You see the influence of Greece?”
Ancient Greece had lit a great flame of culture, he told the boy. It had created the language of the New Testament, of philosophy and science and art. “If this interests you, I have a book you might want to read.” Swiveling in his chair, Monaghan inspected the bookshelf behind him. Then he swiveled back again. “I must have left it over in the rectory. Remind me to get it for you.”
The boy sat staring at his hands. It was nearly three o’clock; in a few minutes the bell would ring, and children would gush forth from the classrooms and fill the halls. Monaghan leaned forward, a tiny crucifix dangling from a silver chain around his neck, glittering in the light. He looked intently at the boy and found himself imagining what his father might be like—a handsome nonentity, most likely, jovial in a bar and cruel at home. He had given his son nothing. It all came from the mother, that spark, that shame. It usually did, in Monaghan’s experience.
“Tell me about your father,” he said.
“He’s in California,” the boy said, tonelessly. “He’s visiting people.”
“Ahhh.” Monaghan stroked his chin. “Richard, you can tell me the truth. Your father ran out on the two of you, didn’t he?”
Richard nodded, avoiding his gaze.
“And that puts you in a difficult position. It’s confusing. Your father—if he left you, why do you still love him so much? And your mother. She’s doing her best, so why are you so mad at her all the time? You practically hate her sometimes, am I right?”
“I don’t hate her.” His voice a whisper, choked.
“Of course not. But you think you do sometimes. And that makes you feel terrible. It makes you feel enormously guilty.” Monaghan lowered his voice to a soothing tone. “Richard, you’re entering a stage of life where you’re going to have to be exceptionally mature. Like St. Crispin. He gave up all his possessions to make shoes for the poor. And he did it even though the Romans tortured him.”
“They pulled out his fingernails. They boiled a cauldron of tar and dunked him in. Can you imagine that?” He leaned forward. “Crispin wanted to help others. And that’s what I’m here for as well. To help.”
Pushing his chair back, he rose and came around the desk. On the mantle perched the statue of Crispin, a replica of a woodcarving Monaghan had seen years ago in a church in Bavaria, the saint placing a shoe on the foot of a blind man. Monaghan hovered above the boy.
“Your hair,” he said. He reached down and with his index finger pushed the lock of hair off the boy’s brow. “It’s too long.”
As if on cue, the construction outside stopped, and silence filled up the room. Monaghan leaned back against the front of his desk and crossed his arms. “Come see me at the rectory sometime. I’m always home. My car is owned by the diocese, and they can’t afford the gasoline, so I never leave. That was a joke, lad.”
The boy forced an obedient, fidgety grin. “Can I go now?” he asked.
“Of course you can. But do drop by the rectory later on. You can pick up that book I mentioned.” He summoned a cheerful smile and patted him on the shoulder. “All right, run along now,” he said. “And remember, get that hair cut.”
Behind him he heard the buzz of the wall clock, and the telltale click of yet another minute being knocked into oblivion. As the bell rang, the boy propelled himself from his chair like a sprinter from the blocks and fled the room.
Some time later, after the halls had emptied and the last buses roared away, Fr. Monaghan emerged from his office and walked down the crooked corridor. He came through the auditorium and proceeded out the back doors to the deserted playground. It was late March but still cold, and the two poplars behind the rectory showed bare branches that accentuated their loneliness, the only trees on the church’s half of the block. Even on a sunny spring day St. Crispin’s presented a forlorn picture: the school squatting behind the church like a big brick toad, the grounds a half-acre of fenced-in blacktop unadorned by a single blade of grass. Recently he had invited in a landscaper who laid out a vision of green lawn and a state-of-the-art playscape. But the diocese would never pay for it, and Monaghan knew that for now at least, the only remaking of the place would be the one that transpired in his mind. Five years before, still new to the school, he would walk over from the rectory on a spring morning just past dawn, when mist rose off the blacktop and birds twittered in the poplars, and absurd though it might be, he imagined himself in a meadow in County Clare. But familiarity had worn the luster away, and more and more these days he saw only the squatting toad, the barren prison yard, the leafless black trees.
He walked out across the grounds. At recess on the open expanse of pavement, the older boys at St. C’s liked to play a rough free-for-all known as Crossers and Catchers. A lone boy would stand in the center, facing a line of fifty. At a shout of Go, the line raced across, and the one in the middle tackled someone; the next time, those two tackled two more, and so on, until at last a few desperate crossers faced a mob of gang-tacklers. The game was brutal; violent vendettas were enacted in the scrum while girls, those merciless arbiters of manliness, stood watching from the side. Though it was a hallowed St. C’s tradition, Monaghan disliked the contest intensely. He had tolerated it for years before finally outlawing it; and whenever he walked out among them and instantly the melee stopped, he felt like Jesus Himself, undoing the world’s casual daily brutality and teaching tenderness instead.
But tenderness was all too often misunderstood. Monaghan knew that the school swirled with rumors about him—crude messages scratched into the paint of a bathroom stall or scrawled on a note found crumpled on a classroom floor. It alarmed him, how stories grew and spread, until finally they obscured the truth of a tenderness bestowed only where it needed to be given. He pictured the boy, trudging home at that very moment. He knew where Richard lived, a drab two-family house on a featureless street six blocks from school; he had driven past the place. Monaghan marveled at how God worked, planting a child like that in such an arid field, for no reason other than that He could.
At the far side of the schoolyard he approached the rectory, a tidy frame house, painted in a nondescript shade of oatmeal, with a miniscule yard and garden. Again his mind filtered back to his years at the seminary, a fortress of stone buildings high above the Hudson River. It was the 1950s, but in certain respects it might as well have been the 1590s. As novices they had received instruction in making their own instruments of mortification: a wire mesh device, like a braid, worn around the thigh to prick the skin, or scourges fashioned from heavy cotton string cord. In the large and drafty dormitory they slept twenty to a room, on iron beds enclosed by white hospital curtains, which they would pull closed on those nights devoted to scourging. A bell gave the signal to begin, and the room echoed with the sound of twenty young men whipping themselves. The flesh must be curbed, the body brought to heel: he had never questioned the correctness of it. And when might they stop worrying about sins of the flesh? Twenty minutes after you die, his father confessor had answered without pause.
Day and night they had endured it, mortifying their bodies and their appetites. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—he had kept a tenacious grip on beauty. The view out the seminary windows to the glimmering brilliance of the river far below, or to the courtyard where pacing priests said their breviaries. The glimpse he stole one night, sticking his head out through his bed curtain, of his fellow novices’ feet protruding from under their curtains, a whole row of feet illuminated in the blue moonlight. The slender fingers of Michel, the seminary organist, playing Bach on the chapel organ. Nowadays, alone at night in the rectory, a half-drunk cup of tea going cold on his bedside table, he looked back and wondered. He saw himself at eighteen, still a boy, heading out into the world with no idea of what awaited him and how lost he would become: the loneliness he would face at every turn, branching like a maze.
Reaching the rectory he opened the gate and, latching it behind him, proceeded along the flagstone walk to the porch. So wrapped up was he in his thoughts that he only half-noticed the figure off to his right, dawdling at the curb—a slight figure in a green windbreaker, hunched over, hands jammed in the pockets of his dress slacks.
He was halfway through the door when it registered. For a moment he hesitated; then, reversing his way down the three stairs, he leaned back from the porch, squinting into the light.
“Is that you, Richard?” he called, turning up the Irish brogue a notch. “Come on up, lad! Don’t be shy!”
ON FACT & FICTION
Fiction writers often prove coy about the origins of their stories. “Did that come from your life,” a reader asks, “or did you make it up?” The implication may be that borrowing from life is less impressive than using “pure” imagination. But writers know this is a false dichotomy. Making fiction from your own life involves a complex process of recollection, extrapolation, and reinvention. Ultimately, writing a scene “from memory” presents much the same challenge as cutting one from whole cloth. You still have to perform the magic trick of conjuring places and people from mere marks on a page.
The advantage of using your own life as material is your intimate knowledge of its contents. The disadvantage is the risk of being handcuffed by mere factuality. As all fiction-writing teachers tell their students, just because something happened doesn’t make it true. Truth—fictional truth—almost always requires transformation, an alteration of things as they really transpired.
If Commonweal readers experience déjà vu while reading “Labyrinth,” it’s because I wrote about the underlying events in a memoir-essay, published in these pages eight years ago, relating an ambiguous and disturbing interaction between myself and the priest-principal of my Catholic middle school (“One Boy’s Story,” June 1, 2002). I reported the interaction as accurately as I could remember it from a distance of three decades, and as an essayist took a straightforward tack: what happened back then, and what do I make of it today? Once I decided to write a fictional narrative based on this interaction, however, a number of questions and choices presented themselves. What would be the narrative point of view—boy? priest? both? neither? What events lie behind the encounter? How much of those events should I disclose, how much should I withhold, how much should I hint at? And what about the knotty question of sympathy?
Over many drafts, the story found its way, and in the process floated quite far from the events of my own life. Similarities remain: certain descriptions of the school; the details of a popular, roughhouse schoolyard game; and so on. But the exchange in the office between priest and boy ended up being cut way back, and redirected, as I began to see that the story needed to work by implication and indirection. And bit by bit I transformed the boy as well, until he no longer much resembles the boy I was.
So, did I take this from my own life, or make it up? Some of both. A lot of both. My hope is that a reader who reads the two versions in sequence will learn something about how actual, lived experience grows the wings and claws of fiction.
Rand Richards Cooper
Related: One Boy's Story, by Rand Richards Cooper
Read more fiction from Commonweal here.