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Tumbleweeds, p.26
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       Tumbleweeds, p.26

           Leila Meacham
 

  His eyes had begun to water when he’d spotted the complement from his hometown spread along the first row—John’s adopted family. His heart had turned a painful somersault at the physical changes in the dauntless Emma, now shrunken and dependent on her cane, and his hero and father figure, Coach Turner, prematurely aged almost beyond recognition. Even his aunt, whom he’d seen at Christmas, seemed frailer, but his greatest shock of feeling came when his gaze landed on the blond head of Cathy Benson. She was seated next to her son, the other side of her presumably reserved for John. The years had strengthened her beauty, but Trey recognized with tender amusement that the straight posture she’d forced on herself since before he met her was unchanged. By now those petite shoulders were so disciplined, they wouldn’t have dared sag.

  He had watched her through his glasses, risking she’d feel his watery stare and turn her head. Cathy would not be fooled by his appearance. She had once been able to sense his eyes upon her. Was she wondering if he was somewhere in the congregation and had her in his line of sight?

  During the many points in the program when the assembly was instructed to stand, he was surprised and disappointed that she did not once cast a look over her shoulder searching for a familiar brown head. Her interest was focused on the star of the show, as was Trey’s when his attention wasn’t on Cathy. It wasn’t too hard to reconcile the man in the white robe to the boy of their letter-jacket days. He’d stayed virtually the same—older, of course, seasoned, but he was still John, tower of quiet strength, purposeful, focused, confident, at home with himself and everybody in the universe. So different from the man who watched him now.

  The emotional moment arrived that he’d read of and prepared himself for. As the choir began to chant the Litany of the Saints, a beautiful centuries-old prayer, John walked to the center aisle. Trey’s vision blurred as the figure in the white robe lay facedown in front of the altar and stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, a symbol of his submission to God.

  Only Trey knew what had brought him there. He hoped it would bring his friend the peace he craved.

  Trey steeled himself during the rest of the ceremony but wiped his eyes again when the bishop and the other priests laid their hands on John’s head in a ritual that declared him now one of them, a recipient of the Holy Spirit with the sacred right to pursue his ministry—and which now put him forever beyond his old life’s reclaim. Trey thought the service would never be over, but there was still the stirring vesting rite where Father Richard’s former altar boy knelt before him to accept the stole and chasuble drawn over his head like a knight receiving his battle armor. Not a sound disturbed the hush of the moved congregation. Trey was not so touched. He blamed Father Richard for taking John from the game, playing on his vulnerability that had been as obvious as an open wound after that day in November. Had John ever confessed his part in it to the good father? he wondered.

  As he watched Cathy’s face turned in profile toward the proceedings, a sharp twist of bereavement caught him just as he’d dried his eyes. Her brow and nose, the strong-willed little jaw and upward sweep of her lashes, were as they were stored in memory. Already her son—a good-looking kid—had overshot her by a foot. He held his shoulders straight, his head high. His gaze was fastened on John. A muscle grabbed beneath Trey’s breastbone. What would have happened—where would he be in his life today—if he’d played the final minutes of the last quarter of his childhood differently? Would he have been able to love the boy as his own or would he have rejected him like Bert Caldwell had John? He would never know. It had been a mistake to come, but he could not have stayed away. He’d had to assure himself that his and John’s secret was safe. John had now been given the authority to act in persona Christi—in the name of Christ. For whatever it had cost him in personal pain to be here today, Trey was convinced that in a moment of stricken conscience John Caldwell, ordained to the priesthood, member of the Order of the Society of Jesus, defender of the faith, would never reveal the truth of his one and only sin.

  With a last look at those he would likely never see again, Trey slipped away when everyone stood for the Acclamation of the Assembly and before John turned to be presented to the congregation like a groom at his wedding ceremony.

  When he got back to Carlsbad, he decided, he’d get himself a dog.

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  His ministry began. “Where do you wish to serve, my son?” the provincial superior asked John. At St. Matthew’s to be near Cathy and my godson, he wished to respond. Next winter, Will would enter his teens and need a father figure, and Emma and Mabel, both frail and ailing, were at the tail end of their lives and would soon be gone, leaving Cathy alone but for the few years remaining before her son took off for college.

  But he had committed himself to the larger family of God and to Ignatius Loyola’s mandate directing Jesuits to “travel throughout the world” to help those in need. And so he replied, “Send me where I am needed.”

  He was needed first at Pelican Bay State Prison, billed a “super-max” penal facility, near Crescent City in Del Norte County, California. It housed some of California’s most dangerous criminals and was located in a remote forested area close to the California–Oregon state line, far from California’s major metropolitan areas. The weather averaged sixty to seventy degrees in summer, a welcomed change from the stifling heat and humidity of New Orleans. His digs in Crescent City, located on the beautiful Northern California coast, were comfortable, and the area, utilizing the proximity to the Pacific Ocean and state parks, offered an abundance of the outdoor activities he loved. Within a week of reporting for duty, he thought he’d been assigned to hell.

  The uniformed guard who’d been asked to show John around the prison asked, “Have you ever been in a SHU, Father?” using the acronym for the Security Housing Unit—the modern name for solitary confinement. They were standing inside an eight-by-ten-foot cement cell with no windows. The only light filtered in through a high, barred skylight as gray as the concrete walls, unmoveable sleeping slab, stool, and writing platform, and combination stainless-steel sink and lidless toilet. Nothing penetrated the deep, enforced quiet of the isolation cell but the sound of a few muted voices and the occasional flushing of a toilet. The inmate confined to these quarters would be able to see the outside corridor only through the widely spread, nickel-sized perforations in a solid steel door. The metal was set with a small, knee-high portal through which his meals would be served on plastic trays—twice a day, John had been informed.

  A shudder ran over him. He was a Texas Panhandle boy. No matter to what dingy, teeming city his formation years had taken him, he’d carried the big skies and wide prairies of his home region in the forefront of his brain. It was a mind trick he’d developed to ward off the hemmed-in feeling he got from inescapable throngs and squalor and poverty. He could imagine no sentence worse than to be locked up in this starkly efficient place of electronically operated doors and sterile concrete and steel, unable to move more than eight feet in one direction, denied for years on end the sight of grass and trees and blue sky.

  The guard’s smirk clearly indicated he knew his visitor’s answer from his appalled expression. John asked, “This… pod, so I understand it’s called, is where the offender eats, sleeps, and exists for twenty-two and a half hours a day. Where does he spend the other one and a half hours that I assume are allotted for leisure?”

  “Out here.” The guard showed no offense at the sarcastic tone of John’s question. John got the impression he was accustomed to the objection that do-gooders like him took to the facility, where there wasn’t a prayer’s chance in hell of rehabilitating a man forced to live in these conditions. He followed the uniformed figure through a remote-controlled door that slid open to a bare concrete courtyard the size of a dog run. The walls were twenty feet high and covered by a metal grate allowing the inmate to see a patch of sky. It looked as inviting to John as an abandoned mine shaft.

  “This is the exercise
area,” the guard explained.

  “No athletic equipment is allowed and the offender is to have no contact with any other prisoner in here?” John asked to confirm his reading of the rules.

  “That’s right. Isolation is strictly enforced. Most of ’em do sit-ups or walk from wall to wall. Mainly this is just a place to stretch legs and get fresh air.” At John’s look of distaste, the guard added, “And, Father, I wouldn’t call the men who are sent here ‘offenders.’ As a matter of fact, the one who’s going to find a home in the pod I showed you murdered a family of five, including a two-month-old baby.”

  “How do I address the spiritual needs of these men, hear their confessions, administer the sacraments, without human contact?”

  The guard grinned, mockery in his eyes. “If you have any customers, through the food portal.”

  He had customers. The draw was not spiritual guidance, John was aware, but that he afforded the SHU inmates their only source of human contact, the opportunity to slip a little finger through one of the small holes in their cell doors to exchange a “pinky shake” with him. From his days of counseling inmates and hearing soul-sickening confessions from prisoners in the SHU and general population he learned much about the depths of evil and depravity to which a human being can descend that John’s psychology textbooks had not addressed. His clerical involvement with murderers and rapists and child molesters tested his belief in the Ignacian concept that God could be found in all things.

  “Do you believe man is made in the image of God, Father?”

  John considered the shackled serial killer of little girls before him, the derisive curl of his mouth, the mocking glint in his eyes, as he asked the question. He saw not a ray of redeeming light in the man. He was a monster. For some reason, unfairly, John thought of Trey, a servant to his nature. “He begins there,” John said.

  If the iniquity he encountered daily shook his belief that man’s essential goodness would prevail over evil, his trust that God could make it happen never trembled. All was certainly not right with the world, but God was in His heaven. It was John’s mission to lead men to see that through God’s grace and if they were willing, they had the power to change the wrong inside them, even in a violent, gang-infested prison where goodness was as hard to make thrive as a sunflower in toxic waste.

  He had been about his priestly duties for almost a year when his landlady announced a surprise visitor.

  “A doctor,” she said. “She’s in the living room. Are you sick, Father?”

  John read the business card: LAURA RHINELANDER, NEURO-ONCOLOGIST. The name rang a familiar bell. Ah, yes: Cathy’s childhood friend from Santa Cruz. He was aware they still corresponded, and he’d been proud of Cathy for keeping in touch with the friend who’d gone on to achieve the dream she’d had to abandon. He remembered that Laura was a doctor trained in the specialty of diagnosing and treating brain tumors—had become quite well known in her field, so Cathy had told him. She’d suggested he try to see Laura, since she practiced in San Diego, but the very name of the city where Trey played for the Chargers left a bad taste in John’s mouth. Cathy must have given her his address. She would be thrilled that Laura had taken the initiative to look him up.

  He thought of taking off his Roman collar and changing his shirt, but he was eager to see someone who knew Cathy and was not associated with the prison.

  “No, I’m not sick,” he told his landlady. “She’s simply a friend of a friend.”

  He entered the living room warmed by a flush of anticipation. “Laura?” he said.

  She turned from the window, and he recognized the woman grown from the chestnut-haired, hazel-eyed little girl with a flair for fashion he had met when they were twelve years old. She tendered an uncertain smile. “I hope it’s all right to spring myself on you like this. I didn’t know I’d have the time off until yesterday morning.”

  He recognized burnout when he saw it. He guessed she may have suddenly decided she needed to get away from sick people for a couple of days and thought of him. “I’m happy to see you,” he said, reinforcing his joy with a big smile. “Thoroughly delighted, as a matter of fact.” She was wearing sensible shoes despite her outfit that called for more stylish footwear. “Let’s take a walk,” he invited, “and you can fill me in on the last nineteen years.”

  She was associated with a cancer center in San Diego, she told him, and had been practicing four years.

  “So Cathy informed me,” he said. “Do you ever see Trey Hall?”

  “Only on television when the Chargers play, and once in a restaurant. He was with a group of friends. He did not recognize me, and I didn’t reintroduce myself. I was afraid I might stab him with a table knife. How about you? Have you tried to reconnect with him since you’ve been in California?” She smiled an apology. “Cathy told me of your falling-out.”

  John shook his head. “I thought about it, but that’s as far as I got.”

  When it came time to be reassigned, his only regret in leaving Northern California was Laura. They had become friends. It was a two-day drive from San Diego to Crescent City, but he served as her excuse to get away from the numbing despair of her work, as she offered a break from his. She was one of the most sensitive and thoughtful people he’d ever met. One February afternoon, she drove straight to Crescent City from San Diego after a racially charged riot broke out in the prison yard the day before that had made national news. Guards had been forced to use assault rifles to subdue the thirty-minute melee in which one prisoner was fatally shot, thirty were wounded, and at least fifty had been stabbed. Among them were a number of John’s “parishioners.” In helpless and appalled resignation, he had witnessed the devastating scene through the prison fence.

  “Thought you could use a friend,” she said, holding up a basket of his picnic favorites when he entered his landlady’s living room.

  Laura had introduced him to surfboarding, clam bakes, sourdough bread, and California wines. He had provided a listening ear and broad shoulder in the gloomy gap left by her divorce from a concert pianist whom she still loved. “We simply couldn’t mesh,” she said. “Our careers got in the way.”

  There followed a relatively peaceful stint in Jamaica, where John lived in community with other Jesuits who, over the years, had built extensive schools and churches on the island and where he worked with the government to improve education and housing for the poor. Afterwards, in 2002 he was sent back to Guatemala to engage in activities for social justice, the same ministry in which he’d been involved before his ordination that had helped lead to the signing of Guatemala’s Peace Accords ending the country’s thirty-six-year civil war. Despite some progress, he found Guatemala as violent as ever and his face and former advocacy work for human rights well remembered by some still in power in the military. Assassinations, kidnappings, theft, drug trafficking, prison uprisings were prevalent “with 426 deaths registered in December alone—13 a day,” he wrote to Father Richard with a strict warning that he was not to share news of the dangerous situation with Cathy or the others. To Cathy, John described only the extreme misery of poverty “in such a beautiful land the world has forgotten.”

  He longed to be assigned somewhere in the United States, but he was sent to the seaport parish of St. Peter Claver in the tiny neighboring country of Belize to assist Jesuits of the Missouri Province in meeting the humanitarian needs of a Mayan population who had been left even more destitute from Hurricane Iris. His jobs included the never-ending task of feeding and housing the teeming indigenous poor, facilitating their training and education, and working for their social and economic improvement. In an area that postcards depicted as a balmy tropical paradise, he badgered and begged for help from medical institutions to combat the illnesses inflicted by a high disease-carrying insect population, lack of clean drinking water, and unsanitary hygienic conditions. He hammered and sawed, planted and tilled, taught and preached, and resisted and argued against the tyranny of the privileged few over the deprived
many. By the summer of 2004, he could speak and read the native language of Kriol fluently, spear fish like a Mayan, build a canoe, and detect the presence of a venomous, tree-dwelling eyelash viper lying in wait to ambush an unsuspecting victim below. His skin reflected the color of burnished wood, and he was twenty pounds below his normal weight. He had not been home in five years. He was thirty-six years old.

  And then one day he received a communiqué from the provincial superior of the New Orleans Province. Father Richard was retiring. Would John like to assume his duties as pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish in Kersey, Texas?

  Chapter Forty

  On New Year’s Eve, 1999, Mabel ran a bathtub of extra water, set out flashlights with a supply of batteries throughout the house, double-locked all the doors and windows, and placed one of her late husband’s hunting rifles cocked and ready by her bed. She had packed a pantry full of nonperishable food goods, cases of distilled water, bags of charcoal briquettes, and cans of lighter fluid. Her safe was stuffed with cash and jewelry, and the tank of her Cadillac was full—to be replenished from the five-gallon drums of gasoline stored in the garage.

  “You and the children need to stay with me tonight,” she said to Emma, referring to her thirty-two-year-old granddaughter and a great-grandson on the cusp of becoming a teenager. “My house is safer.”

 
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