By Jenean McBrearty
Under the hawkish gaze of Miss Elizabeth Primly, Mr. Sheldon’s 8th-grade class formed a single line and stacked their books on the counter. The St. Ignatius middle-schoolers were notorious reprobates. The soccer team had been banned from Beaumont City competitions for unsportsmanlike conduct after making obscene hand gestures near the groin area instead of shaking hands with victorious Skyline Rocketeers.
“Okay, they’re rotten losers,” Coach Ritter told the Beaumont Beacon, “but the team spirit of St. Iggy’s Crusaders is unrivaled.”
The Bishop apologized to Skyline and cancelled athletic competitions for the semester.
“Nobody gives a shit,” Tullerian Makinda, captain of every one of St. Iggy’s sports teams, told the Beacon. “We’re the best school in Indiana.”
The Bishop admitted the accuracy of his comment at a special admin/faculty meeting, concluding with, “I don’t care if they’re altar boys, watch these lying bastards.”
Enabled by prelate permission, Miss Primly instituted draconian library ‘collection protection’ regulations: signatures for sign-out and inspection of each book upon return from all 8th graders. Pens were subsequently banned when the first inspection revealed a large penis attached to the picture of Moby Dick.
“Pencil could be erased, while ink was indelible,” she explained when the parents complained about the policy. “We believe in the equality of misery.”
When she found chewing gum in The Catcher in the Rye, she instituted ‘correctional librarying’, walking up and down aisles and patrolling the perimeter during pleasure reading before lunch.
The policy was fortuitous. The Monday after Thanksgiving, she caught Tullerian red-handed—at least, he was after she swooped across the room and whacked his knuckles with a ruler so hard they began to swell.
“Mr. Makinda, give me your book!”
He grabbed his burning hand with the other and rocked back and forth in his chair muttering. “Ya’ fucking bitch.”
His classmates froze in their seats, all except Paul Reilly. He was laughing at Tullerian’s blindsided bash. “Shut up, geek,” Makinda hissed as Mr. Sheldon appeared and snatched him up by the collar. The book fell to the floor.
“Come on, punk. You’re going to Father Gregg.”
“Don’t worry about the others, I’ll get them back to your classroom,” Primly promised. She envisioned an expulsion and knew a conviction would require the book as evidence. As she bent over, someone made a farting sound. “Oh, Mr. Sheldon, take Mr. Reilly with you.”
* * * * *
The violated text was still secure in her arms when she returned from babysitting Sheldon’s hellions. With a baloney sandwich and a carton of milk within reach, she opened to a random page and laid the volume flat in front of her, prepared to document transgressions committed against John Cody’s Famous Frontiersmen and Their Weapons, $10.80.
Most notable about the layout were two-and-a-half inch margins, which provided ample space for obscene student art and sacrilegious editorializing. Someone had inked in a mid-calf skirt on the picture of Daniel Boone, extending the tail of his coon-skin hat over his shoulder and coiling it around one of two large-nipple tits. An arrow pointed to the words: Miss Whore-yal.
Instantly, Miss Primly directed her eyes to the portrait of Marian Foyle, the revered woman who had trained her, which hung above the French door entrance to the library.
“Ghastly!” she whispered. Miss Foyle had been one of the first lay-persons hired at the Catholic school. At one point, only females inhabited the hallways and only nuns taught classes. Then, financial reality made co-ed classes a necessity, and pubescent boys, the scourge to decency, invaded the hallways. The nuns retreated, and male teachers were hired to stem the tide of barbarism. But it was too late.
Andrew Jackson… Old Dickory… sported a fascinator and a large phallus dangling from his lips. Someone had written, “His rod and his staff will comfort thee… Mr. Faggoty Room 3” Thank God Father Badgery was no longer at the school.
Davy Cock-ett; William Bent-over; Joseph and Stephen ‘Spread-your-cheeks.’ Page after page of references to body parts and physical functions, sexually explicit drawings of hetero and homosexual acts, and exaggerated claims of between-the-sheets prowess. All manner of assault on purity. If any of them died, they’d go straight to hell.
She checked the spine for a Dewey decimal number. If it ever had one, it was gone now. She checked the inside cover for an old-fashioned card pocket. Torn off. She checked the copyright date. 1955. Next to it was stamped an acquisition date. June 1956. Despite the grotesque internal defacement, the cover was in like-new shape. Extraordinary for a sixty-four-year-old text. She turned off her desk lamp, slammed the cover as hard as she slammed Tullerian, put the book in her top drawer, and leaned over to slide the trashcan closer. The last time she’d tried milk carton basketball, she’d missed.
The squeak of the right-side door made her pause. By one o’clock, the east end of campus library was darkly shadowed. Unless the lights were turned on, it was natural to assume the room was empty. She sat up quietly, and saw Mr. Sheldon, walking around the table where Tullerian had been sitting. He pulled out each chair, checking each seat as though searching for something. He went to the closest shelf and perused the titles.
“Can I help you find something?” Primly asked.
Sheldon swung around to face her and held his chest. “Geez! You scared me.”
“I didn’t mean to. Did you lose something?”
“Ah…no. It’s Father Gregg. He wants to show the Bishop what all the fuss was about.”
Sheldon came to her desk and sat on one of the student tables. “Tullerian’s parents picked him up and took him to the hospital. His pinkie’s broken. There’s talk of battery. Father wants to gather all the evidence he can that you were justified in attacking the kid.”
“It was discipline.”
“Old-school discipline. Verbal warnings are preferable to violence, they’re saying.” He was scanning her desk.
“Father Gregg. The Bishop. The parents.”
“I caught him vandalizing school property.”
“You should’ve called the cops, they’re saying.”
“What did you say, Mr. Sheldon. You saw him. Did you speak up?”
“Yeah, I gave them a statement. It would really help your case if they had the book in question. Have you seen it?” Before she could answer, his cell phone rang. He read the text and answered. “I’m supposed to tell you to go to Gregg’s office if I see you. I’d take your purse and coat with you, if I were you.”
“Is Father Greggg going to fire me?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He did know. She checked the book sign-out sheet.
“Famous Frontiersmen…The book should be in 970. North American History.”
As he crossed the room, she got the book and the sign-out sheet from her desk drawer and put them in her big flowered purse. “I don’t see it,” he said. He returned to the table area, but Primly had left via the faculty door in the reclamation room.
* * * * *
Miss Primly had been at St. Iggy’s long enough to know that parental permission for corporal punishment was required as a condition for enrollment.
“This isn’t a day camp,” Marion Foyle had told her the day she reported for work. “Middle schoolers are the most expensive and difficult population to handle because they’re so destructive. It’s puberty. Without the use of force as a last resort, our classrooms would devolve into the chaos of the public schools. Parents don’t pay tuition so their kids can be exposed to bad apples.”
When did discipline become abuse? Ms. Primly wondered if she’d crossed the line. She wanted to ask an expert. After checking for signs of law enforcement, she parked diagonally before Tullerian’s house and called his contact number.
“Beth Primly here,” she announced when a female answered. She expected a harsh response.
“Father Gregg said we shouldn’t talk to each other. But… he said he placed you on administrative leave. Is that true?”
“I haven’t heard. He’s right. We shouldn’t speak if you’re going to sue me, but I think there’s something he’s not telling either of us.”
“I told my husband the same thing. Is there somewhere neutral we could meet?”
“The McDonald’s on 4th and Main. Six o’clock?” She heard a tapping on the passenger-side window and lowered it half-way.
A woman with a cell phone said, “How about your car, now?”
“I’m Karen Makinda. Let’s get coffee?”
Beth pulled away from the curb. “Where’s Tullerian? Is his pinkie really broken?”
“Tully’s at his grandmother’s in Evansville, weed whacking her backyard. His pinkie is just fractured, taped to a metal splint. He’s suffered worse at football practice. Did Father Gregg tell you it was broken?”
“No. Mr. Sheldon. I… I’m sorry about whacking Tully so hard.”
“I’m sorry he was being such a shit… brat. This isn’t the first time the school has called us. Knew he’d be expelled eventually. He’s got problems.”
They drove through Mickey Dee’s. Karen was a decaf, sugar, and cream person. Beth, a regular, 2% milker. They both liked apple pies, and agreed the lake was the best place to discuss parish skullduggery.
“Why do they want to get rid of you?” Karen spoke like it was a given.
“I’m sixty-seven, so it might be an age thing, but I know it’s got something to do with this.” Beth pulled Famous Frontiersmen from underneath the driver’s seat.
Karen thumbed through the pages, periodically letting out a gasp and an oh, my. “It could embarrass the school, but to fire you over what silly boys have done to an old book? I can’t see Father Greggg doing that.”
“I have to ask Tully where he found it. If he knows what it means.”
Karen collected their trash and deposited it in a gray plastic can near the park path. “Do books mean anything today?” she asked when she returned.
“Sure, hit me with a philosophic question when I’m down for the count. All I know is, Sheldon and Gregg want to get their hands on it, tout suite!”
Karen opened the book again. The faceplate was a map of the states showing how it grew from sea to shining sea. The thirteen colonies were light pink, the Louisiana Purchase in lilac. Texas was in light green, the Southwest in yellow, and the Northwest in light blue. “It’s funny to see only forty-eight states.”
Beth nodded. “I’m old enough to remember when it was only forty-eight, but you’re not even forty.”
“I went to St. Mary’s High School. They still teach history there.” She turned the book sideways. “Have you read this stuff in the margins? Page nineteen. ‘Closets are good for queers, steins are good for beers, and Father Haroldson is good for nothing.’ Did you know Father Haroldson?”
“He taught algebra. He retired in nineteen seventy-nine or eighty.”
She handed the book to Beth. “You repair the books, can you tell old writing from new?”
“I can tell the sentence you just read was written by a fountain pen. Ballpoint pens weren’t allowed in parochial schools with wooden desks because they left grooves.” She continued reading, turning the pages slowly, ignoring the obscenities. She stopped at page seven. Then flipped to page sixty-two. “Karen, I have to talk to Tully as soon as possible.”
“We’ll go to Evansville tomorrow,” she said.
* * * * *
Karen picked her up in a Silverado, and they headed west on sixty-four, driving in rain.
“Where did you stash it?” Karen asked.
“I didn’t have to. I checked the inventory record and the book isn’t listed. It was probably taken out of circulation years ago.”
“What happens to your old books?”
“We donate them to the missions. The old history and science books we take to the dump.”
The questions sounded like small talk. Karen had kept her eyes on the road, and now she focused them on the Starbucks menu. “Give me a decaf venti no-whip mocha, and a venti regular, with 2%.”
“Did you tell your husband you’re going to Evansville today?” Beth asked.
“He says he’s going to sue you, the school and the Diocese. You should have been supervised better. He wants a psychiatric evaluation.” Karen turned to her and Beth saw tears welling up in her eyes.
“Maybe he’s right,” Beth said softly.
“He’s not Catholic. I’m the one who wants Tully and Brad in private schools.” She pulled forward and handed the barista a credit card.
“Oh, that’s right. Brad’s at Catholic Central. He’s a sophomore this year, isn’t he? Does he have … problems too?”
Karen parked in the lot and turned off the motor. Sheets of rain blurred the windshield. It reminded her of a confessional. Stuffy. Too warm. She rolled down the window a sliver and lit up a cigarette. “Tell me what you think is going on here, Beth.”
“I want to make sure I’m right before I say anything. I hate to think…” Karen gave her an unforgiving look. Marital fights tended to make women determined. Beth hauled out the book again. “It might all be coincidence. A product of some weird pre-dementia. But check out page seven. Left margin.”
Karen began searching the page. “What am I looking for?”
“Historical references.” She pointed to a scrawl, and Karen deciphered it. “Today, the Russian red killed the Irishman, and the media ate his brains. I’ve got a gun too.”
“That’s the Kennedy assassination. Seven years after the book was published. If you add seven to nineteen fifty-six, you get nineteen-sixty-three.”
“I… I don’t understand…”
“You wouldn’t unless you’re old enough to remember Vatican II in ‘62. Back then, Catholics learned some Latin from the translations in their missals. Turn to page one and read the words near the spine.”
“Abusa liber sacerdotalis,” Beth said. “a record of priestly abuse. Page by page the victims have testified about abuse at St. Iggy’s. Brad was there two years ago, check page sixty. There’s a reference to Trump’s election. Does any of the writing looks familiar to you?”
“No.” Karen snapped the book closed. “My husband will kill anyone who’s touched our kids. Believe me. He’ll blame it on me. He’ll leave me.”
“Then we better be sure before we accuse.”
* * * * *
Tully was in the barn giving Hugo, the family’s Shetland pony, a good brushing. “I saw you, big boy, rolling around in your stall. All that time I spent braiding your mane. Whad’you want to do that for?”
Beth hid behind a stack of hay bales. “Attention,” she squeaked.
Tully turned around, so quick he almost fell. “Who’s there?”
“Me,” Beth squeaked again.
Tully came around the bales, and saw her, matted wet hair, yellow slicker, and wearing his grandfather’s galoshes. “So, you guys made it,” he said. “We thought you might’a got caught in the flash flooding.”
“Not a chance with your daddy’s big-ass truck.”
He went back to his brushing. “Is the school closed?”
“I don’t know. I’m unemployed. Didn’t your mama tell you?”
“Serves you right for being such a bitch.” He held up his sore hand and waved to her. “My Dad says we’re going to sue you for every penny you’ve got. You’re going to be old, poor and on the streets.”
“Would that make you feel better?” Beth climbed up on two stacked hay bales.
Tully led Hugo back to his stall. “Naw. Coach Ritter is ten times the ballbuster you are. Adults are so stupid. They treat us like the wimps they are.”
“Good coaches make good leaders. Good teachers make good readers.”
“Is that a real saying or did you make it up?”
“Both. I’m sorry for hurting your hand, Tully.”
“Did you come all this way just for that?”
“Nope. I brought your book.”
“Did you show it to Sheldon…anybody?” Fear crept into his words.
“Just your mom.”
His face softened as he raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Thank-you, Jesus!”
“Sheldon’s looking for it, though. Do you know why?” she said.
Beth unsnapped her slicker. “I have a story for you. It’s about a young girl who went to confession and told the priest she’d been making out with her boyfriend. Two weeks later, the priest came into the classroom where she was working on a mural during lunch. He told her he could reinstate her sin and make sure she’d go to hell. He put his arm around her and touched her breast. He almost had his hand inside her blouse when another girl came in. You know what happened?”
Tully hoisted himself up beside her. “No?”
“The other girl said the priest had touched her too. They talked about who they should tell, but they didn’t tell anyone because they were afraid. One of the girls regretted the decision, but the other girl always thought they’d done the right thing.”
“Did you regret your decision?”
“It doesn’t matter. When there are other people involved, the person who tattles then makes the decision for everybody. Suddenly, they’re center stage and everyone becomes part of their tragedy play. All people, for their trouble is more trouble. Everyone starts hating them because now everyone has to choose up sides. They have to stand up and fight even if they don’t really care, and they can’t hide their not-caring.”
“I told Paul Reilly about the book, Miss Primly. No details. Just that I had the goods on Mr. Sheldon.”
“Well, that explains his desperation. But until Sheldon sees the book for himself, it’s just a rumor spread by run-your-mouth Reilly. Where did you get the book?”
“Brad told Dominic Barkley to give it to me. It gets passed down on graduation night. There’s a signal we’ve invented. If the other guy knows it, then he’s one of us. I can’t show it to you.”
“No, of course not. It’s a sacred trust,” she said and remembered the Bible quote from Acts: Ye are the children of the prophets and the covenant which God made with our fathers.
The Bible is the book that reveals the sacred bonds among people who share their lives by choice or compulsion.
“What should I tell my mom?” Tully said.
“It depends. If you don’t want to blow the whistle, just tell her Miss Primly was full of shit. Tell her you found the book on the shelf by accident. She’ll believe you because she wants to.” Beth slid off the hay bales. “I’m going to retire whether I want to or not. Some decisions are out of our hands.”
He was at her heels in a second. “And if I wanted to blow the whistle on all those sons-of-bitches?” He took her hand in supplication. “Who do I tell?”
Beth Primly narrowed her eyes and smiled. “Tell your dad. Tell him every detail about what Mr. Sheldon did to you. He’ll know what to do.”
* * * * *
Detective Emily Goodwin returned the five-inch thick folder to the Cold Case file cabinet. She’d worked the fifty-seven-year-old case for two years and was told to pull the plug. She was no closer to solving the murder of Father John Willard than any of the eight investigators who tackled the job. So far, this was a perfect crime. There were no clues, and no DNA testing in ’61. Absent that forensic miracle, identifying the perpetrator was impossible.
There was no question that it was murder. Willard had been found in the St. Joseph’s confessional at 8:30 pm when he failed to show for dinner, and, according to the coroner, he’d only been dead two hours at most. Where had he been earlier in the evening? His calendar was specific. Pre-confirmation catechism with 5th and 6th graders from three to four o’clock, 8th grade boys’ basketball practice four to five o’clock. Confessions five to seven o’clock. In the two hours after he sent the varsity athletes home, somebody strangled the former Notre Dame running back and cut out his heart postmortem. The fighting Irishman never had a chance.
“A demon got him,” Mrs. Riley, the housekeeper, maintained.
“More likely a jilted mistress,” Mrs. Weldon, the rectory secretary confided to the police.
Monsignor Bryce dismissed both theories because, he said, “If Father Willard had prurient inclinations with people, they would have worn football jerseys.”
Idle speculative fiction was the conclusion of Sgt. F. McArdle who did the initial interviews.
Detective Gooswin took an aspirin. Detailed as the detectives’ notes were, they were no more than historical documents that provided hours of entertainment but little helpful information. Of the sixty names referenced, many of the people were probably dead by now. The perp, witnesses, and potential accomplices were probably among them.
The trouble was, back in the day, everybody believed the clergy was above suspicion. People thought differently now. There was no better place to hide a perversion than a profession cloaked with respectability, where there was a sacred trust that, for the greater good, lesser evils were hidden in silence. Nevertheless, every child in Willard’s catechism class, and every boy on the basketball team was interviewed. None of them gave any indication of fear or guilt, according to Sgt. McArdle. None of them were capable of subduing a man long enough to kill him, much less move a hundred-eighty-pounds of dead weight. “This is one gruesome looking corpse,” McArdle wrote. “The chances of two or more kids having nerves of steel were mighty damn slim. The basketball players are altar boys, too.”
Perhaps. But there was nothing in the notes about an inspection of the locker room, where there were showers. Or of the gardener’s shed near the bleachers where there were tools and a wheelbarrow. A decade later, the next investigator reported that six of the twelve boys had gone to Vietnam. They’d all volunteered. What better place to hide a steely crime than in a profession that cloaks a love of violence in heroism and rewards killing with medals?
The aspirin kicked in, thank God, and Emily fought the urge to revisit the Willard file one last time before her shift was over. “There’s a boy here to see you, Goodwin. Says his teacher told him to talk to an adult about a problem,” Sgt. O’Bannon said as he stood in her office doorway. There was no escape.
“Okay. But I’m outta here in twenty minutes or I’m comin’ after your ass.”
An eleven-year-old boy sat at her desk. “What kind of name is Tullerian Makinda?” was her first question, asked with a smile.
“The kind that gets you bloody noses,” he said.
The kid was no push-over. “I’m Detective Emily Goodwin. What do they call you, and what can I do for you?”
“Tully, and my teacher told me to talk to somebody about this.” He brought out copies he’d made of the first two chapters of John Cody’s Famous Frontiersmen and Their Weapons, and gave it to Emily. “These are from a sort-of history book I got.”
Emily read the first page, then skimmed the other twenty pages for confirmation. She didn’t need further explanations. “Where did you get this?”
“I can’t tell you. I can’t make decisions for other people.”
“Oh, Jesus. Okay, son, I’d better call your parents.”
“No! You can’t! That’s why I’m here. Ms. Primly said to tell my dad, but I can’t. You don’t know him. He’d kill anyone who touched his boys. I mean it. He hates the Church already. He’d do it and not think a thing about it.” He leaned over the desk and snatched the book from her hands. “If you tell him, you’ll have blood on your hands. It’d be like you aiming a gun and pulling the trigger. Some guys are like that.”
“Tully, if somebody’s messed with you, you have to tell it. We’ll make your dad understand….”
“He’s my step-dad. The best dad in the world. I don’t want him to go to jail because of what some bastard did. I tried explaining that to Miss Primly, but she doesn’t understand. I mean, she’s been there, done that, so she knows about promises and secrets, but she don’t know about guys. When somebody tells you a guy messed with a kid … it’s murder time.”
Emily waited a minute. “Let’s do this. You let me call Miss Primly and tell her to come to the station. Then, we’ll all sit down and hash this out.”
As Tully sat outside her office door, Emily Goodwin pulled the Willard murder file and search through the names of the students who’d been interviewed. There are always names that stand out from the rest because they sound almost fictional. Elizabeth Jane Primly was one of those names.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University. She received the EKU English Department’s Award for Graduate Non-fiction (2011), and a Silver Pen Award in 2015. Her fiction, photographs and poetry have been published over two hundred e-publications, and in print. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time. Her works are available at Lulu.com and Amazon.
Visual Artist Biography