by Richard Natale
Father Malone was not like the other priests and brothers who taught at the all-boys Bishop Palmer High School in New Rochelle. He was young and spirited and ecumenical with fierce opinions on absolutely every topic, though he never so much as broached the fires of hell and damnation, a subject near and dear to the other instructors in the insidious way that Irish Catholic clergymen have of fetishizing perdition.
Father Malone did not lack for devotion however and could regularly be seen pacing the halls reading his breviary, sucking on his pipe, which exuded a musty, sweet smoke. Sometimes he would stop at a window and stare out, reflecting on a passage he’d just read, lost somewhere between this world and the next.
Like many of the other boys at B. Palmer, Arnold Bergin found Father Malone had a kind of hero crush on him. Hanging on one wall of his office was a framed poster of Da Vinci’s wizened “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” and on the other, a signed portrait of Joan Baez, whose album “Farewell Angelina” sometimes played in the background, alternately with Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs or Odetta. Arnie was so taken by Baez’s Madonna-like soprano that he purchased the album with his allowance money and committed it to memory. He not so discreetly mouthed the words in Father Malone’s presence in an effort to impress him – a tall order to be sure.
Still, Arnie persisted. Impressing Father Malone became his primary mission. And though he only partially achieved his goal, he was confident that by graduation, he’d earn Father Malone’s respect.
And that was something.
* * *
At the end of Arnie’s first semester, Father Malone had pulled him off the basketball court, forcefully grabbing the collar of his tee-shirt. “I want you to take a look at this,” he said, holding out Arnie’s report card, “and tell me what you see.”
Arnie fumbled for a response. He was already painfully aware that he’d pulled mostly Bs and Cs with a D plus in Algebra, a subject that made no sense to him.
“Do you know why you were placed in the honors class?” Father Malone asked.
“Yes, Father,” he said, though it was entirely a mystery to Arnie. He had pulled good grades at Holy Mother Elementary without being quite certain why, since he rarely cracked a book.
“Because you have a God-given natural intelligence,” Malone said. “Which you are wasting. Which is a sin.” It was less a remonstrance than a sincere expression of frustration and concern, and Arnie was strangely touched by his concern.
“So, what do you have to say?” Father Malone asked.
“I guess I can try to do better,” Arnie suggested.
“This is not a guessing game, Arnold. I want some assurance.”
“Gee, I’ll do what I can,” he shrugged.
Father Malone let go a sardonic chortle. “I am not that far removed from fourteen that I don’t recognize a tepid response when I hear one.” (Arnie would later calculate that Father Malone was twenty-eight at the time.). “Surely, you’re familiar with the passage from Revelations: ‘Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I shall spit you out of my mouth.’”
Arnie nodded weakly. “Sorry,” he said as if the quote had been written specifically about him.
“I wonder Mr. Bergin, if you would allow me to help you in this struggle.”
“I guess that would be okay, Father,” Arnie said.
“Try not to sound too enthusiastic,” Father Malone said with a wry smile. “Shall we say Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in my office at three p.m.?”
“Okay,” Arnie said.
“I don’t do this for everyone,” Father Malone said as he walked away. “But I believe you might be worth the effort. Try not to prove me wrong.”
Except for holidays, illness or an unforeseen conflict, for the next three and half years, Arnie was a regular visitor to Father Malone’s office, in which he learned and absorbed far more than the school curriculum. He was amazed at the breadth and scope of Father Malone’s knowledge. His other teachers, while fluent in their particular discipline, rarely addressed the world at large: Civil rights, the Vietnam conflict, nuclear disarmament, apartheid, the situation in the Middle-East.
Arnie thrived under Father Malone’s tutelage, making the honor roll from his second semester through graduation, except for the C he pulled in Driver’s Ed. Father Malone volunteered “to take my life into my hands to bump you to a B.” For the next several weeks, he sat beside Arnie in a wheezy ’61 Chevy Impala, in the B. Palmer parking lot and the surrounding streets.
Like the other counselors at B. Palmer, Father Malone tried to steer Arnie to a Catholic college, but he did not press him. Arnie recognized that his political and social leanings – many of them fostered by Father Malone – would be at odds in a conservative, religious institution. Though he had yet to come to terms with his affectional desires, they too would have been out of place in a religious institution.
When Arnie announced that he’d been accepted at Columbia University, Father Malone seemed genuinely pleased. “You should be quite proud of yourself.”
“Are you proud of me?”
“I should think that would go without saying,” Father Malone replied with uncharacteristic modesty.
He thanked Father Malone, profusely, until they were both somewhat embarrassed. “Would it be okay if I gave you a hug?” Arnie said boldly.
“How about we settle for a good, firm handshake,” Father Malone said.
* * *
Every year, without fail, Arnie sent Father Malone a Father’s Day card, sometimes with a letter enclosed, until one year it was sent back marked “Recipient Unknown. No Forwarding Address.”
He contacted a former classmate, Joey Tenaglia, who was still plugged in to the goings on at B. Palmer. “Commie Malone keeps getting into trouble, so the mucky-mucks put him on some kind of long-term leave,” Joey told him.
“What kind of trouble?” Arnie said, uneasy.
“Getting arrested at anti-war protests. Even got beat up by the cops once. Messed him up kinda bad, broke a couple of ribs, I hear.”
Arnie was sympathetic to Father Malone’s efforts. At Columbia he’d participated in protests, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience, and spent a couple of nights in a holding cell waiting to be sprung by his abashed parents.
“Does anyone know where he is? I’d like to contact him,” Arnie inquired.
“I’ll nose around and see what I can find out,” Joey said. “Probably ask Brother Pratt. The miserable drunk’s always been kind of sweet on me,” he laughed and Arnie winced.
According to Brother Pratt, Father Malone was living in the Catskills in what Arnie initially assumed was some kind of rural commune. He pictured his former counselor in overalls sucking on his pipe as he weeded his victory garden. Probably grew the best tomatoes in New York State. Father Malone would settle for nothing less.
When he rolled down the expansive gravel driveway leading up to an imposing three-story stone manse, he was forced to reassess. “I’m looking for Father Malone,” Arnie told the suspicious-looking woman who answered the door. She shook her head and called out to the small group gathered in the living room. “Father Malone?” she inquired.
“That’d be Ken,” said one of the women. Arnie recalled that his Christian name was Kenneth. “Third floor…” the woman said. “The second, no, third door on the right. He should be up there.”
Father Malone came to the door wearing a polo shirt and khakis. He seemed as puzzled by the young man standing in the hallway. Then his face lit up. “Good, golly. Arnold Bergin. You must be what? Almost thirty by now?”
“Twenty-five,” Arnie corrected him. “It’s only been seven years.”
Father Malone raised his eyes and did a quick calculation. “Right you are. Please,” he said with a sweeping gesture, inviting him into a compact bedroom with uneven floorboards. “Not much,” he continued, “but these days it’s what I call home. How did you….?”
“I have my sources,” Arnie said with a sly grin.
“Well, we wouldn’t want to compromise those now, would we? Have a seat and let me hear about your life. I suppose you’ve already heard about mine.”
Father Malone reached for his pipe and lit up as Arnie brought him up to date: College. Activism. Current employment in the borough of Manhattan child services.
“Splendid. Pleased to hear it. And, by the way, it’s Ken or Kenneth for the time being,” Father Malone said. “So, tell me. Anyone special in your life?”
Arnie jiggled his head. He was eager to remain in Father Malone’s good graces a while longer.
“Do you have to rush back to town?” he asked.
“Not before I hear all the gory details of the Fighting Father Duffy crusade,” Arnie joshed.
“Oh, that was way back in WWI, Arnie. I’m afraid I’m not quite in that league. But as you know my beliefs can be passionate and unrelenting.”
“Yes, I’ve seen you get your Irish up.”
“And as a result, I’m in the soup with my bishop, which is why I’m sequestered in upstate New York beholden to a kind patroness.” He explained that the baronial estate was owned by a like-minded Rockefeller scion who sheltered stray activists in a couple of her country homes.
“But surely this isn’t a permanent situation,” Arnie said.
“It just may be, Arnie. It just may be,” he said, though he didn’t sound particularly discomfited.
* * *
They spoke well into the early evening. They drove into town for dinner and then back to the house where they sat on the porch in Adirondack chairs –one red, one blue. Realizing how much he’d missed Father Malone’s company, Arnie tried to cram seven years of conversation into a single day and was exhausted by the end of it.
After about the twentieth yawn, Father Malone leaned in, “You’re welcome to stay the night. In fact, I insist. It’s a long drive and I would like you to reach your destination intact. Do you need to be at work in the morning…”
“No, I have a few days off.”
“I think I can scare up a sleeping bag if you don’t mind camping out on the floor.”
“Yeah. Sounds great.”
After reciting an evening prayer together, Arnie got a second wind and the conversation continued. Politics this time: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, about whom they were of one mind though Father Malone’s opinions were better informed and more nuanced.
“I guess we’re just a couple of nattering nabobs of negativism,” Arnie quipped, paraphrasing Spiro Agnew’s assessment of the media.
Just before he drifted off, Arnie said, “I hope you weren’t too disappointed that I chose not to go to Fordham or Iona.”
“Oh no, I could tell they weren’t for you. Well, sleep tight,” Ken said and rolled over on his side facing away from Arnie, who understood that it was foolish for him to assume he could hide anything from Father Malone.
* * *
Shortly before dawn, Ken rose and started getting dressed. Through half opened eyes Arnie said, “morning?”
“Almost,” he whispered. “You stay. Today’s my turn to prepare breakfast, which is always a hoot since I’ve cooked maybe twice in my entire life.”
“I’d be glad to help,” Arnie said squirming out of his cocoon.
Since he claimed to make “a mean omelet,” Arnie was assigned the bacon and eggs. Ken cut up melon and washed berries and set the table.
They drank plenty of coffee but spoke hardly a word and Arnie was unnerved. “I was wondering, Father. Do you plan to address the elephant?”
Ken looked up, “Elephant?” he said, feigning confusion, which only discomfited Arnie further.
Then he added, “And please, as long as I’m here, it’s Ken.”
“Well, I don’t know about this guy Ken, but the Father Malone I knew always spoke his mind, let the dishes crash where they may.”
“Don’t you mean ‘the chips fall’”?
“No, I have a feeling we’re going to be breaking some dishes.”
“Elephants. Dishes. I’m afraid I’m not very good at metaphors this early in the morning.”
“I’ve never known you to obfuscate,” Arnie said.
“Very well,” Ken said, exhaling loudly. “You are aware that we all have desires but we also have the choice to act upon them – or not.”
Arnie nodded and his lips tightened.
“Am I to assume that you have…acted upon them?”
“I’m not a priest. I’m not bound by the vows of celibacy.”
“Even if what you’re doing is wrong and places you in danger?”
“Are we talking about my immortal soul here? I don’t believe it to be in any danger.”
“I see. Have you completely let go of your beliefs like so many young people?”
“No, I have not. I go to Mass every Sunday and on the Holy Days. I follow the commandments and conduct myself accordingly.”
“And you believe that you can pick and choose which commandments to obey?”
Ken was about to correct him once again, when Arnie interrupted, “Sorry, but I can’t call you Ken when you’re preaching at me. And why can’t I choose? You have. You chose to break the fifth commandment.”
“How is that?” Ken said, wrinkling his forehead.
“I believe the vow of obedience to your bishop falls somewhere under the parameters of honor thy father and they mother.”
“That is a matter of conscience,” Ken said, coming to his own defense.
“Then you are capable of justifying your behavior just like the rest of us sinners,” Arnie said. If he meant the comment to sting, he succeeded.
“I don’t like this side of you,” Ken said. “We should stop now before….”
“No. Not before we break a few more dishes.”
Ken was fashioning a response when a couple of women wandered into the kitchen looking for breakfast.
“Lovely,” the first woman said as Arnie ladled scrambled eggs and strips of bacon onto her plate and finished it off with a slice of melon and a few berries
“And probably edible,” Ken said overcompensating for his discomfort.
* * *
Ken and Arnie hiked halfway up a ridge that overlooked the valley on what was a sparkling, brisk afternoon. Somewhat winded, Ken put down his walking stick and parked himself on a boulder.
“Did you come all the way up here to tell me this?” he asked Arnie.
“No. Maybe. Yes,” Arnie replied. “But the main reason was that I was worried about you.”
“That’s very kind, but I still don’t understand…
“Because your opinion is important to me and has been since the first time you collared me in high school.”
“I already told you my opinion,” Ken said.
“That won’t stop me from challenging it.”
“Very well. Fire away,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
“I’m glad to see you’re keeping an open mind,” Arnie snorted. “You need to understand that I did not come to this decision lightly. That I still have a keen sense of right and wrong; and when I put one foot out of place, my conscience gives me no peace. But on this, my conscience is clear.”
Ken rattled his head from side to side as if to shake off Arnie’s comments.
“Please don’t dismiss me like that,” Arnie said.
“I’m not. I’m just trying to understand,” Ken said. “So, confession? Do you still bother with confession?”
“Absolutely. Went two weeks ago.”
“And did you…?”
“No, because I don’t believe it to be a sin. No more than a man pulling out of a woman when he ejaculates, which is technically contraception, and yet no one would confess that.” The analogy to contraception was deliberate, since back in high school Father Malone had hinted to a certain flexibility on the question during an assembly on sex education. He and one or two other priests had – rather radically – suggested that within the confines of marriage, non-procreative intercourse was acceptable.
“Don’t you find it curious that J.C. was silent on the subject of sex?” Arnie continued. “And mind you, he wasn’t a guy lacking for opinions; nor was he someone who followed all the dictates of the holy men who preceded him. And please don’t start quoting St. Paul – the first in a series of nut jobs stretching all the way forward to Joseph Smith, who skewed Christ’s teachings to suit their own particular agendas.”
Arnie reached out and offered Ken his hand and yanked him to his feet and they resumed the climb. “Now who’s justifying?” Ken said and walked ahead.
“Perhaps I am. But Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery is very specific, and the church has stretched it to encompass everything from fornication to masturbation.”
“They are connected,” Ken emphasized.
“No wiggle room, huh? Unlike the sixth commandment.”
“Thou Shalt Not Kill. Unless it’s on a grand scale. Like war. If you were a padre in Vietnam, would you tell your charges to lay down their arms?”
“That’s a poor example. I’m adamantly opposed to that particular conflict,” Ken said, tensing.
“Even so, I doubt that you would lead those men into rebellion. You would minister to them, hear their confession, and absolve them, even the more savage, bloodthirsty ones.”
Ken nodded. “I guess you got me on that one.”
“I’m only asking that you acknowledge my situation with a similar magnanimity,” Arnie responded.
At that moment they reached the crest and Ken marveled at the beauty of the valley below.
“Yes. And thank you,” Arnie responded.
“You’ve just proved my point. Creation is beautiful. Turbulent and unruly as well. You can’t simply demonize the parts you find personally distasteful. It’s beautiful, Father. Two people loving each other is beautiful.”
“Aren’t you conflating love with carnal pleasure?”
“I’m not saying that I haven’t done it simply for enjoyment. But I’m not a hedonist if that’s what you’re implying. When I’m with someone it’s always with at least half a mind toward real intimacy. Sex is a part of that. Love is messy, both emotionally and physically. And I look forward to getting caught up in that mess.”
“Isn’t friendship enough? That’s a kind of love.”
“That doesn’t explain why we’ve all been given sexual urges year-round, and not just during mating season like the animals. I don’t believe that God’s a prankster. He’s given us a gift, which admittedly some of us abuse, but which you insist on classifying as a liability.”
“You’re just lonely. Believe me, I understand that.”
“Of course, you do. Those bottles of Johnnie Walker in your office didn’t stick around very long.”
Ken cocked a finger in his direction. “I wasn’t half as bad as some of the others.”
“Tell me about it. They drowned themselves every night, then waltzed into class the next day nursing a whopper of a hangover which they took out on us. I have the welts to prove it.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I would never strike a student.”
“Not physically,” Arnie laughed.
“Come on,” Ken countered. “I was very understanding. Your sin back then was sloth. You were a lazy boy.”
“I can see that now and I thank you for believing in me. You knew so many things about me long before I did.”
“Suspected,” Ken corrected him. “But I’ve been wrong before.”
“You? I thought you were infallible,” Arnie said, and cringed when he heard the words aloud.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be facetious.”
Ken reached out and tenderly grazed the top of Arnie’s head. “I wish I could speak with so much certainty.”
“Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not sure of anything,” Arnie corrected him. “I approach life like any good Catholic. I take a leap of faith.”
Ken absorbed what he’d just said but did not respond, and Arnie suspected that the comment had set off a chain reaction in his brain.
Arnie sat on the edge of the crest and patted the ground beside him. Ken joined him and they sat there in silence breathing in the bracing, clean air and taking in the splendid miles-long view.
* * *
Driving away from the large stone house, Arnie kept an eye in the rearview mirror as Father Malone waved and waved. Their goodbye had verged on tears and the embrace had been tight and extended, as if each was holding on to the other to keep from falling off a precipice.
Arnie had exacted a promise that Father Malone contact him every year without fail right before Father’s Day so he could send him a card. “I’m not old enough to be your father,” Ken observed.
“And you never were. It’s the gesture.”
Ken conceded the point, and added that they needn’t wait for an occasion to stay in touch.
“I am at your disposal,” Arnie said.
They hugged one last time before Arnie got into the car. “I will pray for you,” Ken said.
“I’ll do the same,” Arnie smiled.
“Good. I’ll need it.”
* * *
In the middle of February, Arnie slipped on a patch of ice and wrenched his back. He was laid up for the better part of two weeks or he wouldn’t have been home when Father Malone arrived at his doorstep.
“It’s me, Ken, Ken Malone” he said when Arnie hobbled over to the buzzer.
Ken stood in the doorway frozen, not from the temperature but as if crossing the threshold might require a superhuman effort. From just a quick glance, Arnie could tell that he’d fought a major battle since they last saw one another. He appeared haggard and his body listed to one side.
“I can’t be vertical for very long, so you’re going to have to come in,” he said, coaxing Ken forward. “What brings you to NYC, Father?”
“It’s Ken now. More or less permanently.”
“Oh, well…that’s…,” Arnie said, a bit stunned. “And you’re okay with it?”
A half nod, more avoidance than confirmation. Ken surveyed the compact apartment: Pullman kitchen, conjoined living/dining area and beyond, the suggestion of a bedroom. “I was hoping – I mean you can say no and I won’t be offended, truly – but, would it be okay if I crashed on your couch for a while?”
“Absolutely,” Arnie said. “Stay as long as you like. Mi casa….”
“Thank you,” he said and there was a crack in his voice.
“Make yourself at home,” Arnie said. Ken threw himself onto the futon-sofa and almost immediately broke down. Arnie stood over him feeling helpless. He had never witnessed Father Malone lose his cool except in righteous anger.
“Oh buddy… I am…I am so…so lost,” Ken said, forcing out the words.
It struck Arnie that, having been cut loose by the Church, Ken was now orphaned. His parents had died when he was a boy and his only sister was a cloistered nun. Moved, almost unbearably so, he countered by attempting to lighten the mood. “No, you’re not. You’re at 84th and Amsterdam. Apartment 4C.”
Ken forced a smile before expelling another long, pained wail.
“…with someone who cares about you,” Arnie added.
“How do you mean?” Ken asked, looking up at him.
“In any way that you like. No need to quantify it.”
“I was kind of hoping you’d say that. Depending on it actually.”
* * *
Arnie waited a few weeks until Ken had settled in before asking the question foremost on his mind. For the first time since they’d known each other, Ken appeared visibly unmoored. He would fall into long silences, as if swallowed up by some deep internal conflict. He would absentmindedly sit there holding the pipe in his hand, forgetting to light it, or pack it, or suck on it.
Through some activist colleagues, he’d been pursuing potential job opportunities that would take advantage of his experience as teacher and mentor. Thus far, he’d secured a couple of voluntary and part-time positions for a variety of social services and charities, counseling men and women in far worse circumstances than his former young stripling Arnold Bergin.
The demotion from Father Malone to plain, middle-aged civilian had thrown him off balance. He no longer commanded immediate deference by virtue of his clerical garb. Where he’d once stood out, he now blended in far too easily and had to fight to be heard by his political cohorts. He was just another face in the crowd.
Ken never addressed these new challenges. But Arnie knew him well enough to see the cracks behind the genial façade he affected whenever they spoke.
“This is very good,” Ken said after a few tastes of Arnie’s spaghetti and meat balls. “You made this?”
“I’m half Italian,” Arnie reminded him.
“Of course,” Ken said. “Now I remember. Excellent. You must teach me.”
Arnie nodded. “So, what’s the real reason you left the priesthood?” he said bluntly.
“Well, you were never one to pull your punches,” Ken said, visibly reacting as if Arnie had actually threatened him with his fist. “Many reasons.”
“Let’s talk about the ones you feel comfortable discussing,” he said, backing off somewhat.
Ken answered as he often did, with an anecdote. “I had a wonderful parish priest growing up, an elderly man, Father Wyndham,” he began. “The soul of goodness. One of his favorite topics was how to be a good Christian. He contended that the path to salvation was a multi-lane highway and that we needed to choose the road that suited us best and remain on it. Since I already knew I wanted to help people, I interpreted that as a religious vocation.”
“How old were you?
“That’s when you decided to become a priest?” said Arnie, unable to conceal his incredulity.
“Pretty much. And when it came time to enter the seminary, I still felt the same way. I never wavered.”
“You never wanted a normal life?”
“Arnold, I’m surprised at you,” Ken shot back in that way he had back in the days when Arnie was a student and he’d come up short.”
“I’m sorry. Not normal. Traditional.”
“I never really gave it much thought. Seriously,” he said, picking up his dish and walking over to the sink and turning on the tap.
“So, you chose your path and never looked back. What changed?”
“Life. The world. Everything. If I’d been cloistered like my sister, I’d probably still be a priest. But being exposed to bigger issues, problems beyond the spiritual…The more involved I became, the more I realized how limiting the priesthood could be. The collar got tighter and tighter. All this time, I’d understood that being a good Christian meant remaining true to my vocation. But the more I clashed with my bishop, the more I felt that the priesthood was actually a roadblock. Still, I probably would have stayed, if the diocese hadn’t finally given me an ultimatum. I don’t respond well to ultimatums.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that. Any other reasons you want to talk about?” Arnie asked as he picked up a rag and began drying. “Like maybe why you chose me rather than one of your other friends.”
“That was an instinct. I always liked you….”
“Not always,” Arnie countered.
“True, but even at the start I sensed your potential. And you’ve made such great strides. Impressive. And you know that I’m not easily impressed.”
Arnie leaned back against the sink, rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and chuckled. Finally, he thought.
“Then after you graduated, I started receiving the Father’s Day cards, sometimes with a letter enclosed. I kept them all. They’re in one of the suitcases. But what cinched it was when you showed up at my doorstep. It was like a sign.”
“No, more like a guiding light, illuminating the path forward.”
Arnie was stunned. “You really thought that?”
“Absolutely. There you were standing in my door, fully grown, sharp, full of piss and vinegar. All the things I’d wished for you.”
Arnie gently brushed his cheek and Ken politely pulled back.
“I at least had to try,” Arnie said.
“You don’t,” Arnie corrected him. “There is something. Between us. I felt it upstate New York. You’re not a priest anymore, you don’t have to be celibate.”
“That doesn’t change who I am.”
“Are you attracted to women?”
“Beside the point,” Ken said.
“Not beside the point,” Arnie argued.
Ken let go a sigh of exasperation. “Arnie. Do you believe that there are people for whom sex is not important?
“I don’t know.”
“Celibacy was never an issue for me. Another reason I saw the priesthood as a good fit. I can’t tell you how few times in my life I’ve even masturbated.”
“And I bet you went to confession immediately afterwards.”
“Yes,” Ken said, rolling his shoulders. “Look, if this is going to be a problem, say the word and I’ll go. I care a great deal about you. But friendship is all I can offer.”
“Well, that’s something,” Arnie said.
“Don’t get me wrong. I understand you have your…needs. But I…”
“I hope you didn’t get the wrong impression. I’m not exactly a poster child for the gay rights movement.”
“Then you’re not…?”
“Oh, I’m definitely gay. And I’ve had sex with men. But as for the rest, you’re one of the few people I’ve told. I’m not out to my parents or at work. Not that I’m ashamed. I just can’t risk alienating my family and I work in an environment that isn’t exactly open. When I can’t stand to be alone for another minute, I try to connect. Sometimes it works.”
“I’m curious. Why did you tell me?”
“Because you already knew. And as I said, your approval means everything. Now, I can’t help but feel that it’s put up a barrier between us.”
“I would say the opposite. We’re both renegades in our own way.”
“Except you’re not going to burn in hell for it.”
“Do you really believe you’re going to burn in hell?”
“No,” he said with a giggle. “I’m a homosexual. We’re melodramatic. Haven’t you heard?”
* * *
Arnie arrived home to find the apartment spotless. Ken’s bags were packed and stacked in a corner. And it hit him all over again that Ken was moving out.
Ken emerged from the bathroom with a pail and scrub brush. “Men are such filthy creatures. And I include myself,” he joked. “Promise you’ll do your best to keep the place presentable after I’ve gone.”
The words ricocheted in Arnie’s head. Ken had two part-time jobs that paid enough for him to afford his own apartment. “To give us both some space,” he’d said.
Ken emptied the pail and put it under the sink and slipped into his coat, which was hanging on a peg by the door. “Let me get out of my work clothes and I’ll help you with the bags,” Arnie said.
“No. I’ve already made a couple of trips. There’s only these two, and I can manage.”
Ken put one hand on each of Arnie’s shoulders. “I can’t thank you enough, mister,” he said, looking directly into Ken’s eyes. “I would not have made it through these past few months without you.”
“Any time,” Arnie said. He lurched forward and planted a kiss. Ken did not draw away. He allowed himself be kissed.
“I can’t help it. I’m in love with you,” Arnie said, unashamed.
Ken nodded in a way that indicated it wasn’t news to him.
“So?” Arnie asked.
“Not unpleasant,” Ken replied.
“Well, that’s something,” he sighed, half elated, half crushed.
“Arnie, I’m moving four blocks away. We’ll go to Mass together on Sundays like we always do. You’ll come to dinner. If you dare.”
“I’ll eat beforehand,” Arnie countered.
“Wise move.” Ken said and they stared at each other for a moment.
“You are my dearest friend,” Ken said with a broad smile.
“As I said. That’s something,” Arnie repeated, slightly more upbeat this time.
* * *
“You busy Sunday night?” Arnie said into the phone.
“Think I’m free,” Ken said. “What’d you have in mind?”
“Father’s Day celebration.”
“I’m not your father; or a Father any longer. We’re buddies, Arnie.”
“Then let’s celebrate something else.”
“Friday is two years since I left the priesthood.”
“Good enough. Eight ‘clock. McDougal’s.”
Arnie got there early. He ordered a bottle of Maker’s Mark and two glasses. They were sitting on the table untouched when Ken arrived.
“Fancy. Trying to get me drunk?” Ken said in jest.
“Shut up and celebrate.”
They soon fell into one of their long-winded conversations about politics and the state of the world, arguing, challenging one another, particularly about Richard Nixon, who had recently resigned.
“What are you talking about? The man’s a complete scalawag,” Ken said.
“Don’t get me wrong. I find him reprehensible. But I will venture to say that history will paint a somewhat more nuanced picture. He was not the worst president ever and probably not the most crooked. He just got caught,” Arnie said.
“You will have to defend that argument Mr. Bergin,” Ken snorted.
“I didn’t say I liked the guy. But a few of his policies were not half bad.”
“Lazy reasoning mister,” Ken said with a tut-tut.
“Fair enough. Let time be the judge.”
“Very well,” Ken said, barely noticing that he was three drinks up on Arnie.
Around the time he began slurring his words, Arnie slipped in a question.
“You’ve never had a sexual attraction to anyone?”
“Not really,” Ken said.
“And not much of a denial,” Arnie taunted.
“We had a neighbor I used to hang out with….”
“Older boy,” Ken continued. “Jerry Schatz.”
“Perhaps. Or German. He only lived next door for a year or so. I would go over to his house after school while my mother was still at work. Terrific guy. Very friendly.”
“You were how old?”
“Around the same time as you decided to become a priest.”
“Steel trap,” Ken said with a smirk. “May I finish the story?”
Arnie shook his head and mouthed a “sorry.”
“One afternoon, his girlfriend, Cassie, came over and after hanging out with me for a while, they excused themselves. I heard these giggles from the kitchen, but when I went in there was no one there. Turns out they were holed up in the pantry, and I opened the door ever so slightly and spied on them.”
“Talk about scalawags,” Arnie said, teasing him.
“They were kissing, making these really loud sucking sounds and I thought it was fascinating and always wondered what that would feel like.”
“What it would feel like to kiss Cassie or Jerry?”
“All right, mister. Knock it off.”
“So, does that mean you’re forty and still a virgin?”
“Forty-one. And I’m not so inebriated that I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Answer the question.”
But Ken remained mum.
“Have you been holding out on me?”
“Not exactly. There was this one time in the seminary….”
Arnie let out an extended, “oooooh!” and leaned across the table.
“It’s not what you think. I was in the shower with this other boy, Rick, and he reached over.”
“And you returned the favor?”
Ken nodded. “But that doesn’t count. It was just…”
“Bull hockey. It does so count. You are not a virgin my friend. Even if you didn’t come, though it sounds like you did. So, what happened to Rick?”
“Left the seminary.”
“But you went to confession, repressed your desires and soldiered on.”
“More lazy reasoning.”
“Guilty as charged. Anything else?”
“No. Nothing. I don’t feel so good. You deliberately got me snockered.”
“I cannot tell a lie.”
“That wasn’t very nice. Take me home.”
“I intend to.”
* * *
The taxi dropped them off in front of Arnie’s building. “You’re coming upstairs.”
“No. I’ll just walk the rest of the way.”
“Yeah, right into oncoming traffic. C’mon. I’ll make you coffee.”
As he entered the apartment, Ken felt dizzy and had to brace himself against the door jamb. “I suppose I could spend another night on my dear old friend Frank Futon over there.”
“You gave him a name?”
Ken touched the small of his back and groaned. “Yes, and Frank should come with a phone number for the nearest chiropractor.”
“Yet, you never said a word. What? Offering up your suffering to the Lord?”
“Don’t be disrespectful.”
“I think he has more of a sense of humor than you give him credit for,” Arnie said. “But that cinches it. Tonight, we’re sleeping in my bed.”
“Arnie….” Ken began in protest.
“You can keep all your clothes on. And don’t worry. I’m not going to force myself on you. But you can’t deprive me of the pleasure of having you beside me just this once.”
“Does it mean that much to you?” Ken asked.
“You have no idea,” Arnie confessed.
“Very well, though I know I’m going to regret it,” Ken said as he followed Arnie into the compact bedroom.
“I don’t care if you’re sorry or not. I intend to be entirely selfish. I’ll confess it next week. The selfishness anyway.”
Arnie pointed to the left side of the bed and Ken crashed onto it. Arnie stripped down to his underpants and set his alarm clock before turning out the light.
As Ken was drifting off, he felt Arnie rolling on top of him. “What are you doing?”
“Remember Chrissie and Jerry in the pantry? This is what it sounds like.” Arnie kissed him and after some initial resistance, their lips and tongues began savoring one another, producing loud, lubricious noises.
Then Arnie stopped. “You’re drunk. That’s now how I want it. But tell me, what did you think?”
“Pretty good, though I have nothing to compare it to. Now if you wouldn’t mind getting off me.”
Arnie rolled to the other side of the bed. “You’re not asexual, Ken. Your body responded. It took a bottle of whiskey, but…”
“What, the devil? You wish. Geez Ken, even a camel eventually needs a sip of water. And while we’re at the oasis….”
Arnie turned and kissed him again, a longer, more intimate kiss. And when it was over, he said, “now I need for you to admit that you love me.”
Exasperated and addled, Ken’s vocal cords became entangled.
“I know that you do. And that you’ve admitted it to yourself. Why can’t you say it?”
“Because then there’s no going back.”
“Well, that is something.”
* * *
Ken proved not to be the ideal lover for whom Arnie had always yearned. But he never really expected him to be. Imperfect or not, he was the only man for Arnie.
He finally admitted to loving Arnie “more than I thought was possible” and since he was loved, Arnie learned to embrace its limitations. For all his faults, Ken was a wonderful human being. Bright. Kind. Generous. And that compensated for the areas in which he was unwilling or incapable of giving of himself entirely.
In summers, Arnie and Ken often traveled to that same Catskill ridge where they’d first connected as adults. “This is where I first knew that, once you gave yourself permission, we could love each other,” Arnie told him.
“Oh? And what exactly gave me away?”
“When you said you wished you could be as certain of yourself as I was. And then you stroked my head, and I could tell that you wanted to do more. But you were too frightened.”
“I think some of that may have been wishful thinking,” Ken offered.
“Yeah? Well, let me tell you a story. I had this teacher once, wonderful guy named Father Malone. He gave me the tools to intuit things, to plumb beneath the surface. I was a lazy boy and probably wouldn’t have amounted to much without his guidance.”
“Just so we’re clear. I never had any designs on you. Even unconscious ones,” Ken said.
“Of course, you didn’t. I could never have cared for you if I thought that you were a creep. Back then, you were still on the way to finding yourself. And so was I. I just maybe got there faster.”
Ken chuckled. “No one will ever accuse you of being modest, Mr. Bergin.”
“I’m a warts-and-all kind of guy, so you’ll have to be one too.”
“Deal,” Ken said, and they kissed on it.
Afterwards, they sat on the edge of the ridge and gazed out at the marvels of creation in all its turbulence and unruliness.
© 2021 Richard Natale All rights reserved.