ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 28

            I ran away once.

            I was ten years old.

            I was fed up with mom and whatever.  Weird that a ten-year-old could be so fed up, but I was.  I grabbed one of mom’s old purses from the closet in the upstairs hall. I packed it with underwear, some shirts and jeans, a few unmatched socks, and my Cubs hat.  I put in my little magnetic chess set and my Yahtzee game.

            I went to my pal Cutter’s house.  He met me at the door.

            “What’s the deal, Pater?”  They called me Pater then.  It’s Latin for “Father.”  Everybody knew I was destined for the priesthood.

            “I need a place to stay, Cutter.”

            He didn’t blink.  Of course I needed a place to stay.  He’d been around my place.  He understood.  He took me down to the basement.  That’s where his room was.

            Now I was only three doors down from my house, but they didn’t find me for two days.  And that’s from when they started the search.  Mom didn’t notice me missing for almost a full day – that’s a fifth and a half in “mom time.”

            That was my experience with running away.  The prison psychologist told me I used booze to run away.  Then she put her hand on my knee.  I didn’t really trust her.

            Redlands had worked me over pretty good, but I was able to keep my eyes on the cockeyed kid.  There was no doubt in my mind.  When a kid runs away, he runs to a friend.

            I had seen Pies head into the third house down.  I knew in my gut Torey was in there.  I sat in the storefront doorway healing from my one-sided interaction with Redlands for awhile.  I pulled Vandy’s cell phone from my pocket.  I punched in Valerie’s number and hit send. 

            Redlands had been there.  He had seen me leave earlier that afternoon.  He had the video tapes from St. Phil’s.  Was Valerie O.K.?  I had too many important things to do at once.  How can you be in two places at once, when you’re nowhere at all?

            It rang…  It rang again…  It rang again… Six rings… Seven… Ten… Fifteen… Shit!  Why didn’t she pick up?  Why didn’t the answering machine pick up?  I disconnected.  I didn’t know what to think.  I did know what to think.  But I couldn’t.  I couldn’t think it.

            I had a task ahead of her on my list.  God, forgive me.  I had a task ahead of her.  Blood is thicker than water.  It’s a family affair, like Wyclef Jean says on the “Soprano’s” soundtrack.  I walked across the street.  Each step hurt.  Each step hurt less.  I was at the door.  I hesitated.  Do I knock?  If I shake this bush, will the bird fly away?

            It was a school day, so I wasn’t surprised that Pies was home.  I’d seen him in the street  after he’d no doubt gone outside to see what the ruckus was — my bloody self being the ruckus.  As a bad boy myself it seemed obvious.  Mother Pies was at work.  Probably pulling a double shift wiping rich people’s asses at the home, something like that.  I opened the door.  It wasn’t locked.  That didn’t surprise me.

            It was a poor person’s house, but there was no poverty here.  There was a little shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe just inside; a little statue and some plastic flowers and a few votive candles.  The front room was small, with a recliner covered by an Afghan to hide the rips, I was sure.  A worn couch was under the window.  It was worn but clean.  The drapes and carpet were K-Mart, but respectable.  The kitchen was clean.  The dish rack full of the breakfast dishes sat by the sink.  The refrigerator was small and old and covered in magnets, holding kids’ school papers and drawings.  To the left of the back door was another.  It had to be the basement.  It was partially open, and I could hear TV gunfire coming up the steps.  I could hear the boys talking.

            “What was up outside?”  It was Torey.  I wanted to run down there and …  I made myself take it slow – always a good idea in a strange house.

            “Nothing.  A cop beating the shit out of a crackhead.”

            “This monitor sucks.”

            “Look out.  Get the one on the left.  Up in the tower.”

            “Got him.  Look, the blood is the wrong color.”

            “It’s bug blood.  Whatta’ you expect.”

            “Bug blood shouldn’t be red.”

            “Shut up.”

            I went down very slowly.  The gunfire was sporadic.  At the bottom was a big cellar room with wooden columns.  A washer and dryer were against the far wall.  Light flickered out of a door.  I stepped to it and bent my head around the corner.

            Pies and Torey were side-by-side on a bench covered with brightly colored pillows.  Their faces glowed, intently focused on a screen to my left.  Their fingers were madly clicking away on the controllers they clutched close to their chests.  Torey’s tongue stuck out like Michael Jordan putting a nail in the Lakers.  Pies was looking straight at me.  No, he wasn’t.  I stepped into the room.  Neither of the boys even looked up.

            “Torey.”  I had to control my voice.

            They played on.  There were several explosions.  The screen was full of monsters.  Two heavily armed figures with yellowish skin were dashing back and forth.  Bug-eyed aliens with purple eyes were attacking.  Giant snakes were writhing everywhere.  One of the figures was suddenly swallowed by a nightmarishly distorted Freudian-toothed worm.

            “I’m dead,”  said Pies, dropping his controller.  “Shit!”

            “I got him,” said Torey.  His tongue stuck out further. “I got him.”  The worm’s teeth flew in a million directions as it disintegrated.  Crimson bug-blood splattered on the screen.

            “Torey.”  I suddenly thought of how frightening I might look to them.  Redlands had worked me over good.  I’m sure I smelled unpleasant.  They didn’t seem to notice me.  They didn’t react at all.  Then another big explosion and a run of dramatic music.  Torey stood up and did a victory dance.

            “You got him, Plunker!  You got him!”  Pies was slapping Torey’s hands.  So Torey was “Plunker.”  I wondered what it meant.  He had a nickname.  He had a friend.  He looked at me.

            “Uncle Marty.  What are you doing here?”

            Should I hug him or wring his neck?  It’s a dilemma all parents face every five minutes or so.  The thought was more evidence that my paternal feelings were starting to kick in big time.

            “What are you doing here?”  Torey asked a question I couldn’t answer easily. 

            I returned the favor.  “What are you doing here?”

            “I’m sick of school.  I’m just hanging out.”  He didn’t answer me, either.

            I looked down at the table in front of the bench.  There was a black video tape sitting next to the PS2 video game console.  The vibe it put out was identical to the tapes hidden in St. Phil’s Rectory – just one of those things I can feel when my hyper-vigilence switch is thrown.  It was the video Torey had grabbed as he ran for his life.   Doug’s “mistake” video.  The kid took it that Sunday night when Doug Hunter’s “Saviour” had killed Terri.  I looked down at it sitting there like an obscene plastic stain.  He looked down.  We both looked up.

            I thought I’d cut to the chase.  “Want to tell me about it?”  He knew what I meant.

            “Talk about what?”  He slumped back down on the pillows.  Pies laid back, too.  He was ready to cover Plunker’s back.  That’s what friends are for.  “What?”  Torey was putting on the innocent face.  He looked just like me.

            “I know what’s on the tape, Torey.  I know what happened at St. Philomena’s.”

            “Nothing happened.  Are you drunk?”  Torey knew how to hit below the belt.

            “Pies…”  I turned to his friend.  “Pies…”

            “Yeah.”  He was trying to read this stranger’s voice.  The man he had just seen down on all fours on the corner was talking to him.  He was trying to read me quickly.  That’s an important skill down in this part of town.

            “Run upstairs and make us a snack.”  I wasn’t looking at Pies now, I was locked on Torey.

            “What?”

            “Make us a little snack.  Some microwave popcorn, whatever, just take your time.  Plunker and I have to talk.”

            Pies read me.  He got up and headed up.  Just like that.  He read me right.  Torey settled back.  He picked up the controller and cancelled the pause button.  The music started up again.  I reached down and flipped the Playstation’s power.

            “Shit, Marty, I didn’t save.  Damn!”

            “Listen to me, Torey.  I know.”  I was good with locks, but this one had me baffled.

            “You don’t know anything.”  Torey might have been right, but…

            “Your dad was charged with murdering Terri.  You knew Terri.”

            “Mikey’s not my dad.”  God, how did Torey know?

            “Whatta’ you mean?”  He couldn’t know.

            “You know my mom.”  He said a lot with an economy of words.  He had seen all the new guys come and go.

            “Mikey’s been charged with murder, Torey.”

            “Like I should give a shit.  I know he’s not my father.  He was always a prick.  Fuck him.”  So hard, so young, so familiar.

            “You know he didn’t do it.  You know who did.  You going to let this happen?”  Great, now I was making him responsible.

            Torey took a deep breath.  His gaze turned back to the blank screen.

            “It’s not your fault, Torey.  It’s not your fault.”  He shouldn’t be on this hook.  I had to pull him off.  I hate big steel hooks, especially this kind.

            He looked into space.  He almost looked like Doug Hunter for a second.  It made me shudder.

            “Torey… Torey… I’m your father.”  Jesus, did I sound like Darth Vader?  How do you say something like that gently?  Was I torturing him like…  I was lost, then something in the room changed.

            Torey started to cry.  He cried like a baby.  That’s the only way to describe it.  He came unglued.  He fell back and covered his face with a pillow and bawled.  Even muffled, it tore me apart.  I went to him and did something I had rarely done to Torey.  I touched him.

            I touched him.  I laid my hand on his jerking chest.  He just cried.  Then almost imperceptibly he moved closer to where I sat.  I moved closer to him, and then I held him.  My chest replaced the pillow, and he sobbed into me.  I felt his pain cross into me physically.  I didn’t know what to say.  I just held him.  I heard noise upstairs, but I ignored it.  It might have been Spanish.  The basement was getting darker.  Evening was coming on, and Torey cried.

            “I’m so sorry, Torey.  I’m your dad, and I’m sorry.  I’m your father.”

            He caught himself and looked at me.  He moved slightly back and rubbed at his eyes with one hand.  The other held one of mine.  Then with the hand that had been at his eyes, he slapped me.  It stung.  He slapped me again.  My eyes burned.  I could have stopped him.  I didn’t.  He slapped me again.  Then he put his face back into my chest and cried again.  I held him.

            When he stopped, it was abrupt.

            “Now things are supposed to be O.K.?”  He was looking at the screen again, away from me.  He sat up and put some distance between us.

            “I don’t know.  But I found you.  Everybody’s been looking for you.  You’ve got to tell what you know.  You’ve got to go back home.”

            Torey just looked at me blankly.  The momentary bond he’d felt for me had been suppressed.  “I’m not going home.  I don’t know anything.”

            “I’m your dad, Torey.”  I said it automatically.  “I’m your dad.”  Like that was the reason he should listen to me.

            “You’re my dad.”  Torey’s voice was flat.  He looked down at his empty hands.  “But you told me, everybody told me Mikey was my dad.  Him and me were at the park — on the rides.  I watched it over and over.  Mom told me.  You told me.  He was my dad.  I watched it a million times.  I just wanted a dad.  You lied.”

            “I’m your dad.”  I was in an emotional echo chamber.

            “He wasn’t my dad.”  Torey looked at me.  “And you weren’t my dad.  Funny thing is, I used to wish that you were.  You lied to me.”

            “Let’s go home, Torey.  You can’t stay here.  You’re in danger.”  It was all I could say.  I felt a lot of guilt and remorse and all that twelve-step bullshit.  But all I could say was,  “We’ve got to go.”

            “I can take care of myself.”  Torey tried to believe that.

            “You saw Terri get killed.”

            “Maybe I saw her get hurt, that’s all.”  I knew the look.  He was figuring out which truth he could get away with.  It was just what I would do.

            I repeated myself.  “I know what happened, Torey.”  But then I stopped telling the truth that I could get away with.  I told every bit of it.  “Father Hunter told me everything.  He said you grabbed that tape.”  I pointed at the table.  “He said you saw Terri fall.  She saved you, and you ran away.”

            “Maybe…”

            “Terri saved you, Torey.  She saved you.  Who killed her?”  I was going too fast.

            “What did she save me from, Dad?”  Torey used the word “Dad” like a fist.  Every time he used it was like another punch.  “Tell me, Dad, what did she save me from…Daddy?”  I was defenseless.  “Tell me, Dad.  Tell me what she saved me from.”

            I had to go on, anyway.  “I know what’s on the tape, Torey.”

            “There’s nothing on the tape.”  His tone was flat.  He reached over and flipped the game machine back on.  It beeped as it booted up.  I turned it off and grabbed the tape off the table.  There was a VCR under the TV.  I shoved in the tape and hit play.  The screen blinked, then hissed, and there was Torey.  He lunged at the controls.  I grabbed him and held him as the images ran. 

            Torey saw himself – bluish-tinged skin — naked.  He saw other things. Images of Torey all alone and naked and…the tape ran.  “That’s not me.”  Torey sounded far away.

            “That’s you, son.  That’s you.”  I didn’t know if I was damaging him more than he had already been damaged.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  But I had to reach him.  I’d found him, but I hadn’t reached him.  It seemed very important.  I still wonder if it was the right thing to do.  Maybe I regret what I did.  But that’s what happened.  I won’t deny what I did.  I played the tape for Torey because I couldn’t bring myself to slap him.  I know that doesn’t make sense.  Most of my mistakes don’t.  “That’s you, Torey.”

            “That’s not…”  He was almost hypnotized by the picture tube as it played out that little sick solo scene.  “That’s not…”

            “Torey!  I know.  I was raped when I was twelve!  I got raped, too.  Do you hear me.  I know what it does to you.  He almost killed me.  I know!  I know!  I know!  I know!”  Was I shaking him?

            “That’s…”

            “Please, Torey.  It’s not your fault!  It’s not your fault!”

            He took a quick, spasmodic breath – then another.  “That’s me.  That’s me.”  He wept again.  The only light in the room was the screen and its obscene glow.  The horrible images on the old screen were wrapped in a rainbow border.  Torey was back in my arms.  “That’s me!”

            “Who did it, Torey?”  This was all so familiar.

            “I can’t tell you.  It was nobody.  I did it myself.”  The image was only naked Torey.  It was pathetic.  “I did it myself.”

            “Did Father Hunter make this tape?”

            “No.”  He was emphatic.  “No, Father Hunter was never there.  He just let me in the door.  He was scared, too.”

            “Who was it, Torey?”

            “I can’t tell you.  He’ll hurt Father Hunter.  They’ll hurt me.”

            All of it now, no holding back.  “Father Hunter is dead, Torey.”

            The kid acted like I had slapped him.  “No…no…no…”

            “He’s dead.  Who did this to you?”  I pointed at the screen.  Torey turned his head.  I  shouted.  “Who did this to you!?!”  I forced his head back towards the screen.  “Who did this!?!”

            “I can’t tell you, I can’t.”  He was whimpering.  Then he caught his breath.

            I looked up at the TV.  The camera was zooming in on my naked son.  There was a blur like something was waving.  Yes, a hand was waving a direction to the boy.

            “Madre Dios!”  Mrs. Pies had come home.  I hadn’t noticed her coming downstairs.  She had heard us talking.  She was concerned, but Pies had told her to leave us alone.  When she heard me shouting, her maternal instinct took over.  She had come down in time to see the naked boy on the screen.  “Madre Dios.”   She fumbled with the VCR remote.  “Stop this.”  Mrs. Pies hit pause, the image froze.  Naked Torey with a sick look on his face and a hand from the left side of the screen.  A finger pointing.

            “What is this?  What is this?”  Mrs. Pies was frantic.  I grabbed the remote out of her hand before she could hit another button.  “Oh, Madre Dios.”  Her eyes were locked on the screen.  She backed away. She crossed herself.

            The hand with the pointing finger.  What it was pointing at was unimportant.  What directions the man was trying to give was of no interest.  It wasn’t the pointing finger that stopped everything in the basement room. Another thick finger on that hand stood out.  The ring finger.  The color was bright red.  A big red ruby ring wrapped around thick, short, obscene fingers.

            I recognized it.  And Mrs. Pies knew that ring, too.  “The bishop’s ring?  It is the Monsignor Shuldik?  But he is a holy man.”  She seemed confused by what she had seen.

            Torey buried his face in my chest.  I had known, almost.  Now, as I saw the final proof, I could barely catch my breath.  I was as frozen as the image of that naked boy and that holy ring.  Mrs. Pies — her name was Rosalita Peres — took the remote back from my numb hand.  She turned off the VCR.  She acted as if she were touching a hot burner.  Her finger hit the button and withdrew in a blur.  She turned on the light in the room.

            “I will leave you two for awhile.  But you must leave soon and take that,” she nodded her head towards the player, “with you.”  She was not hostile, but she was firm.  She had a boy to protect, too.  “I never saw anything.  I want no part of this.  As far as I am concerned, you were never here.”

            “But you did see it!  How can you…?”

            She turned her back and made an irrevocable proclamation,  binding in this world, and beyond.  “You were never here.  I have seen nothing.  That is the way it must be.  I do not know you.  I do not want to know you.  I will leave you and the boy now.  Gather his things, take that sinful tape, and leave my house.”

            Her words were formal and final.  I knew there was to be no argument.  She had helped all she could.  She would help no more.  “We won’t be long.”

            She went back up the stairs, and soon I could hear Spanish from the kitchen.

            I turned to Torey.  “It was the Monsignor?  Shuldik?  Is she right?”

            “I want to go home.”

            I pulled out the cell phone and dialed up Valerie again.  It rang twice, and then it was answered.  Thank God! “Valerie!” Then another ring.  There had been no answer, only a random click.  The phone rang on unanswered.  I imagined the ring echoing through Val’s kitchen, across the dinette table into the little hallway and into the bed room.  The rings continued in my ear.  I listened to them go on and on until I couldn’t listen anymore.  I slapped the cell phone closed.

            It felt cold in that basement.

            In my addled mind, memories are always shifting.  Glycerine-coated synapses finally fired off an overdue signal.  I remembered the young advisor to some of the high school senior seminarians at Assumption.  He’d only come across campus once a month or so to counsel some of the more devoted boys.  He’d spent most of his time with the college guys.  An athletic priest that some of the boys really liked, and some avoided for unknown reasons.  And I remembered his name.  The boys had called him Father Lee.  I’d never met Father Lee myself —  except one morning in my junior year at Assumption when I’d served as his altarboy.  I remembered his thick fingers as he gave me holy communion, and I remembered the heavy aroma of ginger.  Father Lee.  Father Leo.  Father Leo Shuldik.

            I had the proof.  I’d suspected Shuldik.  At that moment I was sure.

            He was the same guy.

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