Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SHOT IN DETROIT: Father Bertram

In SHOT IN DETROIT, twelve African-American men under forty die. At one point in its long gestation, I composed back stories for each man, not sure if I would use them or not. 

I decided not. The story belonged to Violet Hart, the photographer, and these long pieces diluted that--and it made for too many characters, something I personally don't care for. 

But I do feel their stories are worth telling. The stories are all basically fictitious but mirror the sort of deaths that take place in any urban area.

Father Bertram
          He’d never made love to a man under 25—at least not since he’d passed that age himself. He’d never made love to a parishioner. Nor to anyone in a position of subservience. Never to a woman because he’d known he was gay—or queer as they called it then—by the age of twelve. It didn’t seem fair trying to pretend otherwise at someone's expense. What was the point—and he probably couldn’t have done it anyway.
God would help him find his way. That’s what he eventually decided. God made him this way for a purpose. Frank. Jr.—and after his ordainment—Father Bertram believed that fervently. How could he not?
            He’d only made love with seven men in his life: at nineteen with a professor in college, and then with a boy down the hall his senior year, with his roommate in the seminary, and with a doctor who’d he’d been sent to with neck problems when he entered the priesthood, an artist exhibiting his art in a park down the street from his church in Buffalo (only once), a priest in a parish in the suburbs he’d met at meetings at the archdiocese.
His brother, Howard, was the first.
If he counted all his sexual encounters with these men over twenty years, they’d number less than fifty. He didn’t know how to count the times with his brother. Did what they did in that cold attic room really count as sex? Most of it was touching, caresses, nuzzling. Didn’t all boys do this with other boys? Wasn’t it more about experimentation? About finding comfort in their case.
There’d been no other children or even people in their lives back then, living as they did with a mother who rarely left the house and disliked them leaving home either.
“They’ll beat you up,” she said. “You’re the only black boys in this town.”She looked at them sheepishly. "And they'll know."
Know what, Frank wondered? 
She’d come to the New Hampshire town from New Orleans to cook for a rich white man who favored Creole cooking, and she went straight from his kitchen to their tiny under-heated, under-furnished  house—no stops in between. Frank. Jr. and Howard did the shopping, negotiated everything else in the outside world. And at nights, they did what they did. At least, in winter, they could pretend they were keeping warm.
There was no Frank, Sr. Never had been. It was years before they realized Frank Sr. was their mother’s creation. They wondered if they shared a father but couldn’t ask. Everything they asked her, even everyday stuff—like could she sign their permission slip to go to the museum in Concord—seemed to bring her pain.
            Howard killed himself at twenty-three following a dishonorable discharge from the Navy. Frank Jr. decided to become a priest the next year. His mother had moved in with the rich white man by then, something the man wanted.
“Do you share his bed?” Frank Jr. asked in a shuddering voice, as she helped him pack his bags.
            She didn’t look up. “If he wants.” She paused. “I’ll do what he wants.”
His mother was only forty-five—her employer nearing seventy, Now her lover, he reminded Frank, Jr. of Colonel Sanders or Mark Twain, some fancy white guy in a loose suit anyway. Facial hair, red-faced, dour. For Christmas, he’d given the boys school supplies with the admonition to study hard if they wanted a better life. If he gave their mother anything, she didn’t mention it.
            He’d never kill himself, Frank. Jr. had decided, at his brother’s funeral. He’d use the lesson of his brother’s death, his lonely childhood, his mother’s situation, his own  desires, to become a better priest.
            And he was. He taught history, counseled children, taking on a more prominent role after he moved to Detroit and his parish slowly broadened in skin color, tolerance, language. He learned Spanish, computers, the jargon of children.
            And then came the illness. He ruled out his brother, the professor, the seminary roommate, the boy down the hall at college—all too long ago.  It was either the artist, or the priest. Probably the priest. And like Father Owens—that was the priest’s name—he didn’t report the disease. The priesthood and AIDS were not a good fit. Homosexuality and celibacy were at odds. He ignored the symptoms as much as possible, hoping it would go away with the new treatments, and for a long time, the disease seemed more a nuisance than a life-threatening situation.
But because he could not confess his ailment nor pursue treatment openly, superior drugs were excluded from his regimen.
           And suddenly he was in and out of hospitals for months at a stretch. The Church didn’t chastise him—it was too late for that. He didn’t try to track his partners, find his mother back in New Hampshire, do what he should have done. Most of the priests he had known for years stuck by him. But he died alone.
            Alone but for the sound of his brother’s voice.
“Frank Jr.” he heard him calling, saw him then putting out a hand. Bodyless now, they could take comfort in each others souls.


Margot Kinberg said...

Oh, this is a good 'un, Patti! I really am enjoying these character sketches!

Charles Gramlich said...

Powerful but very melancholy.

Al Tucher said...

Echoes of James Baldwin!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Melancholy says it, Charles.
Thanks for reading, my friends.

Cap'n Bob said...

You pack a lot in a small space. Damn good.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Cap'n.

Yvette said...

Did you write this, Patti? I wasn't sure. It's wonderful. Sad, but wonderful.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I should continue to use an explanation.

Mathew Paust said...

Powerful. Why not publish them separately? If they're all this self-contained they can stand alone.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A few of them have been published. Can't remember if this one has.