I decided to stop in at my office before heading back to the rectory. As I had feared, there was a huge stack of mail sitting on my desk, awaiting my attention. And if that weren't enough, I knew I'd probably have twice as many e-mails waiting for me as well. I was about halfway through the stack of mail when Sister Joan knocked on the door frame of my open door. Behind her, I could see a tall, strikingly handsome man of about my age.
“Father, this is Detective Connor McMahon of the metropolitan police. He is asking for information about one of our clients.”
I stood up as the detective maneuvered his way around Sister Joan and into my office.
“I'm Father David Colucci. I'm the curate here at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” I offered my hand, which the detective took into a firm but not bone-crushing handshake.
Standing across my desk from me, the detective was even larger than he had appeared standing behind Sister Joan. He had dark, almost black hair, and the two most beautiful, deep blue eyes I had ever seen on a man. His face was handsome in a rugged way, and I could tell even with the heavy jacket he wore that underneath was a well-cared-for, muscular body. All in all, Detective Connor McMahon was a stunning figure of a man. I would bet that many a felon would give up after seeing just the size of him. I sat down, indicating one of the two chairs in front of my desk that he was standing between. He sat as well, but on the very edge of the seat, almost as if he was sitting at attention. I had seen this behavior before among the former marines I had dealt with in this very office.
“Well, Detective, I'm glad to meet you. Would you mind, before we get started, if I asked you a question?”
He seemed taken aback by my request. I guessed that he was more used to asking questions than answering them. But, I guess to be polite, he nodded his head.
“How long were you a marine?”
He gave me a look of shock before replying, “Ten years. How does that matter?” His answer showed annoyance.
“It really doesn't matter; it just helps me know you better. In my work here, I deal with a lot of former marines, unfortunately. Many of them whom have been deeply psychologically wounded.”
“And I need to talk to you about one of those former marines.”
“As you are probably aware, much of the work we do here is of a confidential nature, some of it under the seal of confession. So I'm not sure how much I can discuss with you. Is this former marine suspected of criminal activity?”
“No, I'm here to serve a material-witness warrant and take this man into protective custody. We believe that this man has vital information concerning the commission of a serious crime.”
“So you do not believe that this man had anything to do with the crime?”
“No, Father. We do, however, believe that he has information that can lead us to the apprehension of the persons who committed the crime.”
“What is this man's name?”
“Timothy Brian Shelton. Do you know him, Father?”
The name of our newest resident hit me like a blow to my solar plexus.
“Yes, I know him. He has only just come to us seeking help. I can tell you this, he is in an extremely delicate psychological condition. It is my intention to have him placed in a psychiatric hospital tomorrow for treatment of what is obviously PTSD, along with possible traumatic brain injury.”
“Are you a doctor, Father?”
“I am a licensed clinical psychologist. That gives me the ability to diagnose his psychological condition and arrange for his hospitalization.”
“Look, Father. Let me lay my cards on the table. I know that Mr. Shelton has been homeless for a number of months. He's been living on the streets and sleeping in an alley off Fifteenth Street. That alley was the scene of a recent murder. We believe that Mr. Shelton witnessed that murder and can tell us who committed it.”
“Unfortunately, given his condition, without evaluation and treatment, his testimony would be completely useless in a court of law. Any defense attorney with even a modicum of experience would shred any testimony he gave from a witness stand in open court. So it is truly in the interests of justice and the Metropolitan Police Department for you to let us get treatment for this man before you try to interrogate him.”
“Believe me, Father, we have no intentions of interrogating Mr. Shelton. We merely want to talk to him and find out if he knows anything about the murder.”
Detective McMahon seemed extremely earnest in his desire to track down the killer. I wondered why.
“Can I ask another question?”
“I'm from upstate New York and did my boot camp at Parris Island,” he said, smiling.
I returned the smile. Detective McMahon had a sense of humor, after all.
“Thank you. I'm learning more about you. More, actually, than I intended to ask. The question I wanted to ask is who was murdered in the alley. Obviously, it must be someone of some importance to bring a detective of your caliber here to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.”
“Actually, yes. The victim's name was Chang Wu, known on the streets as T.J. Chang. He was the leader of the North Side Dragons, a gang heavily involved in the manufacture, sale, and distribution of crystal meth on the north side of town. We believe that he was gunned down by the leader of a rival group calling themselves the Twelfth Street Crew who are trying to make a name for themselves and expand their own drug trafficking into the Dragons' territory.”
“Look, Connor. Is it all right for me to call you that?”
“Sure, Father. It's my name, after all.”
“And my name is David. About the only people around here who call me 'Father' are the sisters. I've tried to get them to just call me 'David,' but it's harder to change them than it is to get the former marines to stop calling me 'sir.'”
“I know. It took me six months after I got out of the corps to stop calling everybody 'sir.'”
“Okay, Connor. Now that we have that out of the way, I can let you talk with Mr. Shelton, but I need to be present for the interview.”
“Can I ask why, David?”
“Because, as I told you before, his condition is truly delicate. I've seen men in his condition put under stress, and it throws them right into a profound catatonic state. If that were to happen, it could take literally years to pull him out of it.”
“You've got to believe me. I don't want to see something like that happen any more than you do. First of all, because he's a brother marine. Secondly, because he's in the condition that he's in due to his service to this country.”
“You forgot the third reason, Connor.”
“Thirdly, you need the information that he potentially has, and it could become locked away from you forever.”
“You're right. There is that.”
“Sorry. I'm just trying to keep this discussion honest.”
“To tell you the truth, I don't think I've ever in my life had an honest discussion with a priest before.”
“Just couldn't bring yourself to confess all the times you masturbated when you were a teenager, huh?”
At this, Connor's face turned a lovely shade of dark red, making him even more handsome, if that was possible.
“And I'm not about to now either. Besides, when I was sixteen, I figured out that I was gay and left the church for good.”
“Given that discovery and the way the church has dealt with young, adolescent gays, I don't blame you at all. Of course, I still don't tell the truth all the time either.”
“Well, unless you're messing around with the altar boys, that would be about all you'd have to confess.”
“Trust me, I have no interest in the altar boys. Besides, most of them are girls these days. But the days that I would have been interested in adolescent males disappeared when I grew out of adolescence.”
Connor's eyes opened wide at this statement. And I could almost see the gears in his brain moving and reconnecting until he looked at me and asked, “Then I take it that these days you are far more interested in grown men?”
Unfortunately, one of my character defects is that I allow my mouth to run before my brain is even in gear. Basically, I had just told a police detective that I was gay, if he was able to read between the lines. And given how obviously intelligent Connor was, along with what he did for a living, he didn't miss it.
“When I was an altar boy, it was the altar boys who messed around with each other. We neither needed nor wanted 'priestly involvement.'”
I said, “If any of that was going on when I was an altar boy, I never knew anything about it. And I would have been way too scared to get involved anyway.”
“Well, that was an interesting little trip down memory lane. What do you say we go and have a little discussion with Mr. Shelton? And table this one for another time.”
“You know, Connor, you are very good at your job. Too good. I feel like, if I talk to you any longer, I'm going to end up confessing things that I'll wish I hadn't.”
“That's too bad. I was kind of hoping that we could talk some more. Maybe over coffee sometime or maybe lunch. I'd like that.”
“Strangely enough, I'd like that as well.”
“So I can call you?”
We left my office, and I led the way to the quiet room, where we found Tim Shelton lying on his cot, coiled up in the fetal position. This was not in any way unusual, given the type of psychological hell that so many of our residents lived with on a daily basis. I walked over to the cot, leaned down, and gently touched Tim on the shoulder. He turned his head and looked at me, but it took several moments before any recognition appeared in his eyes.
“Tim, it's David. Do you remember me?”
“Yes. You're the priest who's going to help me get home.”
“Yes, Tim. That's me. Tim, I've brought a friend who needs to talk to you. His name is Connor, and he's a police detective. He thinks you might have witnessed a crime, and he needs to ask you some questions about it. Do you think you can talk to him? I'd really appreciate it if you would.”
“Yeah, okay. I'll talk to him.”
At this, Tim uncoiled himself and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Tim, I'm Connor. I can see from your tats that you were a marine. So was I. Where did you serve?”
“Iraq and Afghanistan both.”
“I was in Iraq in the first war.”
“So you know what it was like.”
“Some, but I think you guys have it a lot tougher than we did.”
“What is it you need to talk to me about?”
“I understand that you were sleeping in an alley off Fifteenth Street.”
“Yeah, I was until the night some guy got killed and I moved to the roof of the old icehouse.”
“It's the night that the guy was killed that I want to talk to you about. Do you remember that night?”
“I can't get it out of my mind. It caused me really bad flashbacks for a couple of weeks after it happened. That's why I came here. I heard on the street that maybe I could get some help here.”
“Tim, did you see the guy get gunned down?”
“Fuck yeah. They were only about twenty feet away from the refrigerator box I was sleeping in.”
“So you saw everything that happened?”
“Yeah, I saw it all. These two cars drove into the alley from opposite directions. One was a black Cadillac Escalade, the other one was some kind of big old sedan. Looked like an old Pontiac or Chevy.”
“What about the guys? How many were there?”
“I only saw two. One was this Chinese-looking guy who got out of the Escalade, and the other was this huge black guy who got out of the sedan. They stood there arguing for a few minutes, and then the black guy reached behind him, pulled out a gun, and shot the Chinese guy right between the eyes. Then the black guy got back in the sedan and hauled ass out of there.”
“What did you do?”
“I hauled ass out of there too. I didn't want to be there in case more Chinese guys came looking for the one who got killed, and maybe would want revenge. Besides, by that point I was so locked up in a flashback that all I knew to do was run.”
“You said the black guy was huge. What do you mean? Was he tall?”
“No, he wasn't no taller than me, but he was really fat. Guy must've weighed at least three hundred pounds.”
“Tim, you got a good look at him, right?”
“Would you remember him if you saw him again?”
“Oh fuck! I can't get his fucking face out of my mind.”
“Thank you, Tim. You've been a big help. We might need you to testify if this thing comes to court. Do you think you can do that?”
“Yeah, I think I can. David, is this going to interfere with me getting help to go home?”
I looked over at Connor, who gave me a slight shake of his head.
“No, Tim. It's not going to interfere with getting you back to your wife and little boys. Believe me, that's the most important thing to me and to Connor.”
“Yeah, man. We want to get you home more than anything,” Connor assured him.
“Connor? Anything else?”
“No. I've got everything I need,” Connor said, closing the small notebook in which he'd been taking notes throughout the questioning. He slipped it into the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
“Okay, Tim. We'll leave you now to get some rest, but I'll see you in the morning just like I promised.”
“Okay. Uhh...David? Thanks again for helping me.”
“No problem. Thank you for helping Connor.”
“Yeah, buddy. Thanks for your help. And I hope you get well and go home really soon.”
With that, Tim lay back down on the cot and curled back into the fetal position once more. Connor and I walked back to my office. This time, rather than sitting behind a desk, I sat in the other chair next to Connor as we talked.
“I take it from some of your questions that you have a suspect in mind.”
“Yeah, I do. And Tim pretty well confirmed that. The leader of the Twelfth Street Crew is a guy named Marvin Johnson, better known on the street as 'Fat Marvin.' Like Tim said, Marvin comes by his name honestly, but I would guess him to be closer to four hundred pounds.”
“So you don't think all of this is going to interfere with Tim's treatment?”
“I don't think so. We've got pretty good forensic evidence, plus now, with Tim's eyewitness account, I think we can put Marvin away permanently. How long do you figure Tim's going to be hospitalized?”
“There's no way to tell. Each soldier or marine is different. It depends on what they went through and how it affected them. I figure Tim's probably worse than most, given he went through five tours of duty.”
“That's what he told me. Three in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. I figure he's going to have to spend at least six months in the hospital. But at least his wife and little boys can visit him.”
“How many kids does he have?”
“Three little boys. One is five, one is three, and the youngest is nine months.”
“Shit! His wife's got a lot to handle.”
“Yeah, my mom had trouble with the three of us, even with my dad around.”
“So you've got two brothers?”
“Yes, both of them younger than me. Tony, that's my next youngest brother, owns a garage and has two boys, while Vince, my youngest brother, just graduated college and got a job teaching high school and coaching wrestling. I just got back from visiting him today. He had to have surgery several years ago because he developed testicular cancer.”
“Is he okay?”
“Yeah, he's fine. I'm sorry. I'm rattling off about all this family stuff, and I'm sure I'm boring you to death.”
“No, not at all. I'm really interested. I am an only child. The only brothers I ever had were my brother marines.”
“I'll bet your parents are proud of you, what with your military service and being a police detective.”
“Yeah, except it's only my grandparents.”
“And do they know you're gay?”
“Fuck no! I never felt a need to tell them, especially since I don't have a lover or anything. Actually, the only place I'm out is at work. I got hired because I was gay. Ain't that a kick in the ass?”
“How did that happen?”
“Because of a lawsuit, the city was forced to put in this diversity-in-hiring program. That's how I got hired. I tricked with a gay cop one night, and he sort of recruited me, you might say. Of course, my time in the Marine Corps helped a lot too. It got me my gold shield, made me a detective earlier than most guys, because they count my military service as part of my seniority. Do your parents know?”
“No. There is nothing really to know.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Well, you know that priests take a vow of celibacy. No matter who I'm attracted to, I'm not allowed to do anything so it really doesn't matter if I'm gay or straight.”
“You haven't been a priest all your life.”
“I might as well have been. I decided I wanted to be a priest when I was thirteen.”
“You mean you've never had sex? Not even in high school?”
“No. I went to an all-boy Catholic high school. All I did was to drool over the other boys for four years. But I wouldn't admit I was doing that to myself, much less anyone else.”
“So you've hid out in the priesthood to avoid dealing with your sexuality.”
“No! It's not like that at all!” I could hear a lot of anger in my voice.
“No? Then what is it?” Connor practically growled at me.
“I love my work! I love helping people!” I could feel myself getting angrier and angrier.
“You could help people all you want. You don't need that dog collar around your neck to do that.”
“There is more to it than that. I love God. I love serving him. I love helping people to learn that God loves them and accepts them no matter who they are or where they are on their journey in life.”
“But what about you?
Who loves you?
Who puts their arms around you and holds you when everything around you turns to shit?”
“My faith and my God are of great comfort to me.”
“What? God comes down and holds you in his arms? The last guy who told me that
I was transporting to the state mental hospital.”
“Oh, so now I'm not just a coward hiding out in the priesthood, I'm psychotic as well!”
“No! I didn't mean that!”
“Then what did you mean?”
“Don't you ever get lonely? Don't you ever want somebody around who you can share all the pain and heartache that this work brings?”
I looked into his beautiful deep blue eyes and saw more concern for me than I think I'd ever seen from anyone before. I couldn't bring myself to lie to him, no matter how badly I wanted to. It was like those eyes were looking deep into my soul and would know.
“Lonely? I get so damn fucking lonely sometimes that I curl myself up into a ball and cry myself to sleep. I told you I just got back from visiting my youngest brother. That's not the whole truth. I was visiting my brother and his husband. He's gay, and a couple of years ago he married his lover, who was also on the wrestling team.”
“But gay marriage isn't legal in this state...yet.”
“I didn't mean that it was a legal
marriage. It was a religious one.”
“You mean they found some clergyman willing to marry them?”
married them? Couldn't you get in a lot of trouble for that?”
“I could be thrown out of the church if the archbishop ever found out.”
“Why did you do it?”
“It was because of the way they looked at each other. You could almost touch all of the love between them. How could I deny them God's blessing on their relationship? I truly believe that if Jesus were alive today, he would have happily performed the marriage for them.”
“Then I've got to ask you again--what about you?” This time, Connor's voice was gentle and loving.
“I don't know. I always figured it didn't matter. I figured I could never find someone who I could love that fully and who would love me. But what about you? Why don't you have someone?”
“I did. He was another marine. He was killed in a training accident. The helicopter he was riding in crashed, killing everybody on board. That's why I left the Marine Corps. I couldn't take life in the corps without him. I swore I would never fall in love again.”
“I take it you've kept that vow?”
“Yeah. Now I'm into deeply meaningful relationships of an hour or two's duration, names optional. Very optional.”
“That sounds as lonely as my life.”
“It fills a need.”
“No, it doesn't. Not really. Sex can be an expression of love, but it can't be a substitute for it.”
“This from a virgin. And a virgin priest, no less. What do you know about any of it? I've had love. It fucking tears you apart when you lose it. Pardon me if I choose not to ever go through that pain again.”
“I heard an old saying one time that there is no love without pain, but the greatest pain is to never love.”
“And on that note, I'll take my leave. I've got to get back to the station house before my shift ends, so I can write up my report and we can get an arrest warrant for Fat Marvin.”
“Yeah. I'm exhausted. I need to go to bed. I had a long drive getting back here, and it's getting late. I have to say Mass at six a.m.”
“Tell me something? Are you going to pray for me at Mass?”
“If you want me to, I will.”
“I guess it couldn't hurt. By the way, you still want me to call you for lunch?”
“Yes, but I'll make a deal with you. You don't question my vocation, and I won't question your sex life.”
“Okay. It's a deal.”
On my way to the rectory and to bed, I stopped into the church upstairs. This was the time that I liked being in it the best. Except for a three floodlights, one over the altar, one over the altar and statue of the Virgin Mary on the right side and the statue and altar of the Infant of Prague on the left side as well as the flickering vigil candles in front of each of them, the church was in complete darkness. I made my way up the long main aisle, genuflected before the tabernacle, and then went to the right to the side altar of the Blessed Virgin and began to pray.
Well, Mother, here I am again. I've got more people to add to my list again. Thank you, of course, for how well Vince is doing, and thank you for sending someone like Drew to be so good to him. I pray also for you to keep Tony and his family in good health and happiness. The same. of course, for Mama and Papa. Please help all the sisters who do such good work here to remain steadfast and constant in your love and protection. Tonight, I have someone special to pray for healing for. Please help Tim to heal from his wounds of war, and send him back to Annie and his sons, who love him so much. While we're on the subject of healing, I ask your healing and protection for Detective Connor McMahon, even though he'd probably laugh at me for taking him at his word and praying for him, but no matter what his sins, he's a good man who hurts because he loved too much. Take away his pain of loss and help him to find someone to love him again.
I took one of the wooden sticks and lifted one of the candles. I got up off my knees and made my way out of the side door of the church over to the rectory and then finally to bed. Even though I was tired, I couldn't fall asleep immediately. The thought of Connor and our discussion kept coming back to me. Something about it bothered me, but I just couldn't put my finger on what it was. Finally I drifted off to sleep.