Charlie and Louie were always asking for my story. The story of the priest.
But I couldn’t tell them since I didn’t remember killing the priest.
As time went by I did seem to remember more and more about that night. I remember the blood.
But I know I didn’t kill Father Michael. Someone else was there and I remember arguing and loud noises and Father Michael crying and blood.
I remember the blood more than anything. It was like a fountain of blood pulsing in long streams from his neck, I never knew there could be so much blood in a human body. And he was making choking,gurgling sounds as the blood erupted in rhythmic spurts. And his eyes were wide open and terrified at what was happening to his body.
And there was someone else in the room.When I ran, I now remember I had the journal in my hands. Down the stairs and out the door. During his confession he had given me a journal which he said would explain everything.
And I now remember going back to the bar, not by streetcar, but walking all those blocks from Belair Road to Gay Street and to Cicero’s. There was blood on my clothes and I knew I couldn’t get on a brightly lit streetcar and not be noticed.
I had the smell of blood on me. My clothes were spattered with Father Michael and I could smell the rankness of blood as I walked. It was a sweetish, metallic, dark smell and as I walked I could smell myself, rich with sweat, like when I ran fast in the track team at school. Sweat and blood. The whole time I walked those miles to the bar I breathed in that smell. Of a dying Father Michael.
It was only fair that I tell my walking partners my story so I sort of made one up of things that I remembered and things I invented or thought I did.
“I was just a kid when this all started. I was brought up Catholic. And I mean Catholic, so the priests were considered almost like God. They were pretty scary guys in their robes and speaking all that Latin during the Mass. So Ma says when I’m nine years old, that it’s time for me to be an altar boy. To serve God. That meant being taught the Mass and the Latin by this guy Father Michael.
He was kind of a short guy but when I was nine I thought of him as really tall. And he had this look like a saint. I imagined him, like this Saint Francis we were told about who loved animals and could speak to the birds of the forest. And all the animals loved him.
I forget why he became a saint but there were always pictures of him with birds sitting on his hands and other little animals at his feet.So he was the least scary of the priests at Blood. When I would go to confession to him and talk about jerking off and stuff like that he was always very sad but he wouldn’t get mad like some of the other priests in confession.”
“Waita minute”, Charlie said. “ Ya mean ya told this guy about jerking off?”
“Well, Charlie, if you’re Catholic you gotta tell all that stuff or you’re making a bad confession which means you really go to hell”.
“But Christ, Buddy, wasn’t you embarrassed an shit?”
“Fuck! Course I was embarrassed but that’s what you had to do if you were a good Catholic and back then I thought I was a good Catholic and believed all that stuff about going to hell if you didn’t confess your sins”.
Louie and Charlie just looked at one another. “Man, that’s heavy shit for a nine year old”, Louie said.
Charlie mumbled, “ I never started jerking off till I was eleven”.
“Anyhow”, I continued, “he taught me the Latin for the mass and when to stand and kneel and sit down and when to ring the bells and pour the wine. The Latin was hard and I never knew what any of it meant. I just learned when I was supposed to say it.
Finally I graduated to Altar Boy and I was going to assist, that’s what they called it, at my first mass. It was six-thirty mass in the morning and I showed up at the church ten minutes early. There was an entrance in the basement of the church for the altar boys that led down a long dark corridor to the changing room where we had lockers with our cassocks and surplices .
The cassock was this long dark robe and the surplice was a white fluffy kind of shirt that you put over it. Shit, you both seen it, in the movies at least. Some protestants even wear the same things.
One of the worst things about serving mass was walking down that long hallway in the black winter mornings. The light switch was at the end of the hallway and I was nine so I’d always be thinking about the E.C horror comic books I read and zombies and vampires and stuff.
Walking down that hallway the first day of serving mass I was thinking all these monster things and when I got to the end of it and reached along the wall for the light switch I felt another hand there and then the light went on and Father Michael was there. I thought I’d shit my pants I was so scared. I was nine, for chrissake.
He had this big smile and said, “Buddy, I didn’t want you to be scared on your first day so I thought I’d come down and turn on the light for you.” I was so scared that I think that my eyes were wet. Like maybe I was about to cry or something.
And he grabbed me and hugged me so tight I could hardly breathe and whispered, “I’m sorry, Buddy. I guess I didn’t get here soon enough. But you don’t have to be afraid. I’m here now. You don’t have to worry about anything when I’m here.”
And he kept hugging me. I could smell his after shave, Old Spice, the same kind my father used, and he pressed his face against mine and it felt all stubbly and said “there, there” like you would say to a scared baby. And I could feel this really hard bulge pressing against me.I was embarrassed and didn’t want him holding me but didn’t want to push away because he was a priest. He seemed to start shaking all over and breathing funny and finally he let me go and said, “hurry up, now. It’s almost six thirty.” And walked out of the changing room and up the spiral stair case to the priests’ changing area.”
Charlie and Louie were real quiet on this walk and didn’t look at me as we paced. They just smoked their bull durhams, their heads down , as we walked and turned and retraced our steps.
“Things got worse after that. From then until I was fourteen he was always after me and wanting to do all kind of queer shit. Only I didn’t think it was queer cause he was a priest. Priest couldn’t do anything wrong so I always figured it was me that was wrong.”
“Jesus, Buddy, couldn’t ya tell anybody what he was doing?”, Charlie asked.
“Naw, Charlie. I can’t explain it if you’re not catholic. See, as far as I could see he wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was the one. Since a priest couldn’t do any wrong and what we were doing was wrong in my mind, then it must have all been my fault.” I said, but knew that Charlie didn’t understand at all.
“Shit, Buddy,if it was happening to me and I tole my Ma, she’d a gone down there to that priest place and probly killed him!” Charlie continued. “ My Ma woulda probly cut his cock off or somethin!”
I didn’t tell Charlie or Louie all the shit that went on those years. For one thing a lot of it was mixed up in my head and sometimes he had me blindfolded and there was someone else there too. I didn’t want to tell them any of that shit so I jumped ahead in the story.
“When I was sixteen I split from home. That’s a whole other story. But anyway, there was this big colored woman at Cicero’s where I started hanging out. She kind of ran the place. And she was nice and would let me hang around. Even got me this kind of half-ass job across the street at the Belair Market. This was after I left home.
I would help this guy Guido set up his fruit stand in the morning and take it down at night and he would give me a few bucks. Enough to eat on, you know. And Mary, the colored woman would wash my clothes.So I was sort of living there. Sleeping where I could. And I used to like to talk to Mary and so one night I went to her asking questions and shit about this priest and whether the stuff he did was queer.
Man, Mary told me a lot of shit that night. Good shit, you know. She was kind of reading my mind which was a thing she could do sometimes and even look into the future.
And she told me I was going to end up in jail but she didn’t know what for. And she told me that priest wasn’t queer but was sick in some kind of way and that he had no right to do the things he did to me. Said I was just a child and children shouldn’t have to do those things. Said there were some guys that liked to do it with children, you know, like some of the short eyes motherfuckers here at Patuxent. Mary was great. When we were done talking that night I felt like everything was finally clear in my head. And after thinking about it a while I got mad and wanted to go and talk to this priest and tell him that I was never wrong during those years. That he was the one that was wrong even if the church didn’t say so. Even if the church said he had sanctified hands and shit like that.”
“So, that’s what you did, Buddy? You went to see the priest?”, Louie asked.
“Yeah. I thought about it all day the next day and then went to see him that night”.We were still walking and smoking when the alarm rang for everyone to go back to their cells. Lock up time.
“Buddy, we gotta get to the next part tomorra. You promised us the story”, Charlie said.
And as we walked down the tier to our cells Charlie kept saying to me, “My Ma woulda offed that fucker, ya know it?”
Charlie never heard the rest of the story, though.
Charlie was a cowfucker, at least according to population. And he was kind of a wise guy.
He would tell jokes and rag on other guys about some of their crimes. He was not liked at Patuxent. People thought he was too happy for a cow-fucker.
I knew he was in for trouble. Knew he had made lots of guys pissed. And that night I lay in my bunk in the next cell from Charlie and he talked about his Ma, as usual,and then was eventually silent. Asleep.
I was aware of the smell, first. I smelled something like lighter fluid or gasoline and heard somebody on the tier. It was lockdown time and they had already finished the count so I knew it was something wrong with the noise on the tier.And then I heard a voice saying, “Priest killer!” and then a crash and a flash of fire in Charlie’s cell.
There was a whooshing sound that seemed to suck up all the surrounding air and a scream from Charlie. High and short ,and the sound of flames crackling and a smell that I’ll never forget.And then I saw Bones moving past my cell, his hair all white and spiky and he looked in at me and his eyes were black and wide and he grinned at me, moving past my cell.And in the next cell I could feel the heat of the flames and the thrashing of Charlie against the bars. But no other sound from Charlie. And then silence.
And then the alarms clanging and Charlie’s cell being opened by the night hack at the end of the tier and footsteps running.
I thought of Charlie a lot after that. Could see his face and his dark hair and hear him yelling down the tiers and laughing at his own jokes and smell that Charlie smell walking next to me on our walking tours. But Charlie was gone. And I kept thinking of Bones yelling “Priest killer”.
And thought that stupid motherfucker had killed the wrong person. Charlie was the cow-fucker. I was the priest-killer.
Bones had been ahead of me in school at Blood. When I was in the fourth grade he was in the eighth. Never went any further than that. But he had also been an altar boy. I think I even served a mass with him once.
I also knew Bones from Cicero’s. I don’t mean I knew him to talk to. But everybody knew Bones there. Knew he was dangerous. Crazy. At least crazy in the sense that he did things normal people, even normal people at the bar, didn’t do.
Bones killed people.
Everyone said he killed people so I believed it even before I really knew it. But I really knew it the time I saw a john in front of the bar stabbing his finger at Bones’ chest and yelling loud about money he had lost. I was about ten feet away by the alley that ran next to the bar. Bones reached into his pocket and then grabbed the john by the front of his shirt with his left hand and with his right hand seemed to punch the john in the stomach.And I watched as that john with red hair slumped dream-like against Bones and slid slowly to the pavement.Bones left him there and I watched as the sidewalk started to spread bright red from beneath that john.
It was in the Morning Sun the next day about the body in front of Cicero’s. I never told anyone what I saw. I thought of telling Mary but I never did.
Years later I heard how Bones died.
Not how he died but how he was found dead. And how he looked.
Leading to speculation about how he died and who did it and why. The why part wasn’t really what people were curious about, though, since practically anybody who knew Bones might have had a reason to kill him.
He was found in an apartment on Baltimore Street in the bathroom. In a bathtub filled with water. He was nude and by the size of his swollen body and the color of the water when he was found it was determined that he had been there for days.
Mary told me on one of her Patuxent visits and she said Bones was lying on his back in that bathtub, his face under the water and his legs bent, knees up as if he had slid down to rinse his hair or something. Mary said his eyes were open.
Under that water.
Course Mary said the picture of the killer was in Bones’ open eyes.
In the newspaper account I read in the Morning Sun it didn’t say anything about a picture of the killer in the dead man’s eyes. But I believe Mary. There are some things coroners and newspapers can’t see.
But Mary can.
I liked thinking about it. Bones. Dead in that bathtub. His eyes open with or without the picture of the killer in them. I liked knowing he was somewhere with Charlie and maybe Charlie could talk to him about Fire. And Water.
I was questioned a lot about Charlie after that. Not only me but everybody on the tier. Men in suits would come every couple of weeks to ask more questions. I never told them anything. Couldn’t see the point. Charlie was dead. And if I answered any questions I would be put on Protection tier for snitches and short eyes and punks.I heard that Charlie’s Ma was put in Spring Grove. She swore she was going to kill whoever had done her son and she kept showing up at Patuxent demanding to see the Warden and acting crazy and shit.
I think his sister had her committed. I knew Bones was in for real trouble she ever found out he was the one.
Charlie’s Ma was crazy. Crazy about Charlie and just crazy.
Patuxent housed 1200 inmates. Segregated inmates. Integration had not yet reached Maryland prisons or jails or mental hospitals or any combination of the two like Patuxent. Negro inmates, the polite term, used by officialdom in those years, were not only housed in separate cells but in separate sections of Patuxent. This was the case in all Maryland prisons. The only place in which white inmates and colored inmates were gathered in one place was the chow hall.
But, of course, not at the same tables.
There was a sign on one side of the chow hall that said WHITE and a sign on the other side that said COLORED.Inmates were not as polite as state officials. The terms used by inmates were fuckin honkies and fuckin yoms.Tension was always thick between the two groups. And it was generally fueled by the hacks, all of whom were white.One day it all exploded. And it started in the chow hall.