This is what they did to him, to the old man, after a lifetime spent in quiet contemplation among books of eschatology…
1. They paraded him before the students on high holy days like some kind of sacred relic not unlike the shriveled and mummified thumb or toe of a medieval saint or mystic, an object to be revered as a symbol of piety, celibacy, wisdom, and dread. The old man, long since retired from teaching, had been given the title “Instructor Emeritus,” an honorific bestowed on those priests too ancient and addle-minded to continue functioning without embarrassment or scandal in a classroom. It was generally believed that these appearances, though rare and often ritualized, would satisfy his need to be among the students, his proverbial “lost flock” whose intellectual curiosity seemed to dwindle with each passing moment. The problem was that despite being partially blind in one eye and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, the old man was more agile than most octogenarians, and the Jesuits found it difficult to manage him. Taking him to mass in the morning became particularly trying. During the Lord’s Prayer he recited soliloquies from Hamlet, during the Te Deum he hummed Irish airs and dances, and—perhaps worst of all—during the celebration of the Eucharist he shook his head as though in disagreement. Or was it in disbelief? The Jesuits were never sure. Afterward, he vanished from campus only to be found hours later inside a local tavern where he commiserated, as best he could, with those miserable boilermakers and steelworkers who hunched over shots of whiskey and confessed their sins. The men seemed more resigned to their debauchery than truly penitent, but this didn’t disturb the old man. In fact, he encouraged them to get drunk and stay that way, and because he was good for business his drinks were always on the house. He relished the sharp taste of whiskey on his lips. He sipped it slowly and felt his limbs go numb. There were times when he felt that he’d slipped out of his body, liberated at last from the imprisonment of flesh and bone, and floated freely through the room like the wisps of smoke gathering around the dim yellow bulbs and the garish neon signs. When the Jesuits came to retrieve him they had to hoist him off the barstool and carry him back to the school where they locked him in his room for the rest of the day. Keeping the old man out of the bars, this was one of the things they did to him, but it was not the worst thing.
2. Jack Murphy and Mark Rourke, two boys of privilege, loitered behind the gymnasium after class, smoking, trying to make sense of their teen angst, when the old man suddenly approached. Unsure if he intended to reprimand them or to impart some heretical platitude, they hastily stomped out their cigarettes and rehearsed their expressions of innocence. Even they knew of the old man’s apostasy and were curious to hear the things he had to say. For a time he simply stood there gazing at the embers and ashes swirling around their shoes, the weeds creeping through the cracks in the pavement, the puddles evaporating under the glare of the midday sun. “Eternal life,” he murmured, “the resurrection of the flesh.” He looked up as though startled out of a dream, and with spittle flying from his lips he proclaimed, “To die and not be forgotten! That’s the best any of us can hope for, the only immortality a human being can ever have.” The boys watched him amble away and immediately began to think of ways to take advantage of his apparent lunacy.
3. One afternoon, Jack Murphy’s father, a most generous benefactor to the school and the largest manufacturer of wooden pallets in the Midwest, came to visit his son, and as he strode across the campus toward the administration building the old man jumped out from behind a tree and, clutching the startled fellow by the wrist, blurted, “You continually ask yourself, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And this is what I say to you: What is the meaning of this leaf I’m holding? What is the meaning of the mosquito crawling on your arm? What is the meaning of that feral cat hiding there in the shadows? What is the meaning of this little conversation we’re having?” When the Jesuits were told about this “ambush” as Mr. Murphy described it they feared that the old man, in peeling away the layers of the gospels like an onion, had like so many others before him fallen into the abyss of heresy, and the heresy was such that it made his eyes water, for they spied him wandering the corridors, sobbing into a filthy handkerchief, murmuring things under his breath, working out some elaborate architecture in his mind. Still, his fellow Jesuits did nothing to stop these peripatetic displays of misery, and whenever the old man started up with his blubbering and blasphemous banter they smiled sympathetically and pressed an assortment of colorful pills into his trembling hands. Keeping him in a perpetual drug-induced stupor, this was another thing they did to him, but it was not the worst thing.
4. Jack Murphy and Mark Rourke, two incorrigible troublemakers, were sentenced to detention for reasons that were unclear even to them—insubordination, laziness, tomfoolery, it didn’t matter so long as they were chastised and summarily punished in some way—and they were made to plant flats of red and gold impatiens, the school colors, along the sidewalks of the plaza. As they labored on hands and knees the boys heard the arduous clip-clop of footsteps on the cobblestones and turned to see the old man peering down at them. They set their shovels aside. “Good afternoon, Father,” they muttered. The old man dug up one of the impatiens with his fingers and twirled it before his eyes. “All the answers to the mysteries of this universe and the next can be found in the delicate petals of a flower. But few people comprehend the message of a flower petal. Most people look for answers elsewhere.” He nodded at the tortured expressions of martyrs on the stained glass windows of the chapel. “Flowers often remind me of the secret sayings of Jesus. His disciples used to ask him, ‘Master, when will the Kingdom come?’ And do you know what his answer was? Hmmm?” The boys clasped their hands together, bowed their heads, tried to suppress their giggles. Some of the Jesuits paused to observe this exchange, and the old man, sensing their displeasure, leaned down and lowered his voice. “He said, ‘It will not come by watching for it. The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth…but people do not see it.’” He straightened up and winked at them. And with that he walked off.
5. The following morning, after the usual recitation of the Pater Noster, there came a screech of tires and roar of an engine, and the students of Saint Francis Xavier High School threw down their books and gathered at the windows. Somehow the old man had managed to start up his jeep, a rusting, rattling crate left to decompose in the corner of the parking lot. Shifting the jeep into four-wheel drive, he raced across the plaza. He plowed through row upon row of freshly planted flowers, smashed hostas and ferns, crushed shrubs and rosebushes. He decimated a sundial, weaved around garbage cans, knocked over a statue of Mary. The students shouted in exaltation as the old man stomped on the gas. The tires spun round and round in the lush, green sod, sending clumps of grass high into the air. The headmaster dashed from the school, clamored into the vehicle, and yanked the wheel away from him. In the aftermath of the carnage the Jesuits paced back and forth along the once immaculate plaza, pinching their chins, sighing with resignation. Some of them crouched down to gather up handfuls of ravaged chrysanthemums and wilted lilies, their voices alternating between outrage and sorrow. For that infraction the Jesuits took away the keys to his beloved jeep and forbade him to drive ever again. But even this was not the worst of it.
6. Jack Murphy and Mark Rourke, two fearless pranksters, cracked open the door of their cramped and Spartan dormitory room late one night and crept through the hallways. Both boys were imposing figures, each approaching his final height of six feet, and the floorboards creaked and groaned under their weight. In the dark, the corridors were difficult to navigate—the school, after all, was one big labyrinth, its endless passages and antechambers following a mysterious logic that no one, save perhaps for god, could fathom—and it took them some time to find their way to the forbidden Jesuit wing. Their mission was to swipe the keys to the old man’s jeep and take it for a joyride through the streets of town. They knew of a bar that served underage drinkers. They also knew of a woman who, for a small fee, would service the boys in other ways. At last they arrived at a rack on the wall where the Jesuits kept their keys, but before they could find the correct set a light came on in one of the rooms, and the boys had to scurry behind an imposing tapestry of a knife-wielding Abraham restraining his son Isaac. “Bastards probably just finished buggering each other,” Jack Murphy scowled. At that moment the old man, bathed in bright white light, shambled out of his room and marched over to where the boys were hiding. “You! I say, you there!” He started beating the tapestry with a shillelagh. Dust billowed all around them. “What do you think you’re doing behind there, eh?” The boys came out coughing, rubbing their bruised ribs, but they stood their ground. There was no challenge in running away. Over the course of that year Jack Murphy had garnered the nickname Knuckler from his fellow classmates, and at the sight of the old man he smiled in a way that only the Knuckler could smile—he revealed his missing front tooth, wiggled his crooked nose, and in a mock voice croaked, “I came to borrow your jeep, you old goat.” The priest paused, sucked in his breath, shook with the beginnings of rage. The epic hellfire and brimstone sermon that had been bottled up in his heart for so long now threatened to burst forth from his sputtering lips. “Why, you! You reprehensible…you impertinent…Do you have any idea who…I’ll have you know…” But then his voice tapered off, became small and distant, the voice of a child lost in the wilderness. “That’s strange…I was just on my way to the dining room and…” Massaging his forehead, he offered a little laugh and said, “Where is the dining room, boys? I’ve lived here for so long but I just can’t remember…” Mark Rourke, sometimes referred to as Biscuit Head for reasons no one could remember, took the old man gently by the arm and turned him around. “That’s okay, Father, we’ll show you the way.” The priest patted him lightly on the hand and with tears welling up in his eyes said, “Bless you, boys. You’re very kind. I’m sorry to be such a nuisance.” Jack Murphy slung a heavy arm around him. “Oh, we’re only too happy to help. Here we are, Father. Watch your step now.” And using both hands he pushed the old man into a broom closet and propped a chair against the doorknob.
7. The old man sobbed and begged for mercy. At some point he soiled himself. The air became thick and foul with the stink of it. Trapped within that pestilential darkness, he grew more and more terrified and pounded on the door in a near frenzy. He opened his mouth to scream but his voice had become so ragged and shrill that nothing came out save for a small, strangling sound. He recognized in his terror the last vestige of his animal self, the death pangs of consciousness, the final stratum of reality. Beneath his terror, waiting for him with the patience of a saint, was Annihilation, simple and incomprehensible Annihilation. “Why do we cling to our fear? Beyond our fear there is nothing. Nothing at all.” He couldn’t focus for very long on such ideas. Eventually he fell asleep. Early the next morning the cleaning lady opened the closet and discovered in the corner a bundle of blue and white flesh smeared with excrement. Thinking the old man dead she unleashed a torrent of high-pitched shrieks that managed to rouse the Jesuits from their peaceful slumber.
8. The time had come to make a decision, and the Jesuits unanimously agreed that the old man was in need of full-time care. Arrangements were made. He was to be sent to a retirement facility for elderly clergymen in the countryside, a sprawling facility situated on one hundred acres of land. There were sparkling lagoons and paved walkways and scenic vistas with park benches all around, a very pastoral and restful setting to spend one’s final days. But when the Jesuits entered his room and dared to remove his books from the shelves, the old man became combative. “Hypocrites!” he shouted as they packed away his precious books in cardboard boxes. Some of the Jesuits squirmed at the titles. The Gnostic Bible. Lost Christianities. The Poems of Rumi. The Diamond Sutra. The Katha Upanishad. The old man lunged at the headmaster and had to be restrained, and as they dragged him away he spat, “This is the essence of the one true gospel: Just as god is a fiction so too are we fictions. Each of us is a character in some facile and purposeless tale.” When confronted by the bishop of the diocese the old man refused to recant this heretical tirade. Indeed, he raised his chin and said, “Blessed is the man who can understand a metaphor.” The bishop crossed his arms and gave the order that the old man be “quarantined” from his fellow priests. Rather than get embroiled in a dispute with the Church, and glad to be absolved of all responsibility, the Jesuits shuttled the old man off to a squalid government-run nursing facility, a jumble of soot-covered bricks that resembled one of the steel mills along the river. Inside its bleak walls, the old man discovered a conveyor belt of death. The poor souls condemned to this place seemed to die in twos and threes, but this did not deter his efforts. He tried to reach as many of them as he could, but more often than not his words were met with silences and blank stares. The nights were interminable, empty of any meaningful conversation, and without his cherished books to console him the old man quickly fell into despair and died shortly thereafter. Taking away his books, some would argue that this was the worst thing they did to him. But it was not the very worst thing.
9. A short, balding, government desk clerk completed all the necessary paperwork and had it signed in triplicate by the director of the nursing home. An ambulance came for the old man’s body and brought it to the county morgue where the coroner performed a routine and rather perfunctory autopsy. After a mortician prepared the body for burial, it was placed in a wooden box and taken to a cemetery where two gravediggers lowered it without ceremony into a perfectly symmetrical hole near the new expressway. No one came to say farewell or to scatter flowers over his grave. The old man had no family, and his closest friends had preceded him into death. No Catholic mass was held, no mournful requiem was played on an organ in the great cathedral, and no priest was in attendance to say a prayer over his final resting place. And this, let it be known, was the worst thing they did to him.
Copyright 2005, Kevin P. Keating
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