Father Cranly’s Confession
Father Ryan was trouble. This was his third parish in less than three years. He had been with me only four months but I could feel that everything didn’t seem right to him. He looked at me as if he knew something that I didn’t know.
The only time Ryan looked happy was when I gave him every other night off on weekdays. He would leave saying that he was going to go to that diner on 11th Avenue – “the one where all the queers hang out”, he would say – and have “something decent to eat.” He would stand in the doorway of my room and, with that kid’s look of his, smile at me and stick his hand straight up into the air limply and would slowly wave it up and down saying, “Goodbye, Father Cranly”, as if he were a fag, and I would get up, and stick my hand up into the air and slowly wave it saying, just the way he did it, “Goodbye, Ryan. Goodbye.” And we would both laugh.
But that Saturday night when he was supposed to be in and I suddenly realized that he wasn’t in his room and it was midnight and he had the seven o’clock Mass the next day, I couldn’t sleep. I went down into the living room and sat in the rocker and looked out the window. I watched the snow falling past the street light outside. It had been snowing heavily all day.
At 2 a.m. Ryan opened the rectory door. I was half asleep in the rocker and there he was standing in the hallway looking down at me, smiling, snow all over his head and his leather jacket, looking as if he had just arrived on a motorcycle. I jumped up and shouted at him:
“Where have you been? You’re a 29-year-old priest, Ryan! You don’t come into the rectory at 2 a.m. without your collar on wearing that old leather jacket! Where are your brains?”
And he laughs, he laughs at me. I can smell the booze, and when I move close to him, I smell the perfume. And he sees it! He sees that I smelled it. And he says, “So what? God damn, so what?”, he says. And we have a real go at it.
I told him he was a bum. He said I was a dry lump of shit and no wonder no one ever calls you or visits you and if I’m around when you die I’ll piss on your grave!” He was loaded to the gills.
I shouted back at him, “May God strike you dead, Ryan! If this is going to be your life as a priest, you might as well kill yourself tonight!”, and I got up and put on my galoshes. I didn’t even have my socks on. I put on my sweater and coat and walked out into the snow and stood there on 48th Street in front of the rectory. I didn’t even have a hat on. I was trembling and muttering to myself like a screwball. I was trying to get ahold of myself.
When I couldn’t stand the damn snow any longer, I went back in and stood in the vestibule. I looked up and called out to him. He had the seven o’clock Mass and he was cockeyed drunk. He was in no condition to say Mass. “Ryan, Ryan, come down here!” No answer. “Ryan do I have to go up there, for God’s sake?” No answer, and then from the back of the building sounds coming from the cellar. He was trudging up the wooden cellar stairs. I walked through the dining room and towards the kitchen and called out towards the cellar door, “Ryan?” No answer…..I walked to the other side of the kitchen. I looked down the cellar steps. The light was on.
“Ryan?” No answer. Then I heard his footsteps going up the stairway above me. He must have put up speed going up the cellar steps and turned up the back steps. Now he was on the second floor. Then I heard him going up the third floor stairway and with that I heard him close his bedroom door. It wasn’t a slamming sound. It was a fast cracking sound, like lightning. That’s how I heard it, like lightning, and I didn’t like that sound, I didn’t like it at all. I felt right then that I should have gone up those steps, but I didn’t. Had I but known what was going to happen – who could have dreamt it? – I would have run up those steps but I didn’t. I was an old man and I was tired and I wanted a cup of tea. In that one instant, that millionth of a second, my life took a left turn into Hell, but I didn’t know it. I walked across the kitchen to heat the kettle for some tea. I took down a cup and saucer, opened the tea box for a bag of tea, took my shoes off, and sat down, waiting for the kettle to whistle.
As I sat there, I thought about Ryan’s room.
The day he arrived, I showed him the bedrooms on the second floor. First I showed him mine and then I showed him the other two. I suggested that he take the one two rooms away from mine if he wanted it. I said that way he would have more privacy. He looked around him and said that he would like the room on the third floor. I told him there was no bedroom on that floor. He said he knew that. He had been to the rectory earlier that day and a man doing some cleaning showed him about. He saw the third floor space and liked it very much. He would take the furniture from one of the second floor bedrooms and put it up there. He would use the bathroom in that second floor bedroom. I asked, “Ryan, out of sheer curiosity, why do you want the third floor storage room, big as it is, for a bedroom?” He said, “I love those two massive windows. You can sit anywhere in that room and look up into the sky and feel as if you were in the middle of nowhere. What a grand feeling it is, Father Cranly, to be in the middle of nowhere looking up at a sky brittled with stars.” I looked at him as he stared up through the window at the sky over 48th Street and I saw my aged face in the glass next to his his handsome face, and I envied him.
Ryan was right. You did feel relaxed in that room. The storage room originally was a room used for social meetings of priests in the Hell’s Kitchen area. The walls were a good 12 feet high. The priests from nearby parishes used to go there and let off steam. They would have a few beers, turn on the radio, play cards, or talk their heads off about anything they wanted without worrying about their parishioners or other priests in their rectories hearing what was said. In the 1980s the churches began to close one by one. The room became a storage room for old Mass vestments. Two tall, massive bureaus were built for them. They were nearly three feet apart along one wall with a step ladder between them. Each of those vestments was sewn by hand, painted by hand, and cared for by hand – all the hands of Irish nuns and old Irish widows on the West Side. When you looked at them with all those hues of green and red and blue and orange and burnished gold you thought you were standing inside the hearts of those old ladies who probably got only a cup of tea and a bun to help them along in their work. And so I turned to Ryan and said yes, Ryan, take the room if that will make you happy.
When the kettle whistled, I got up and was just about to pour myself a cup of tea when I heard Ryan shouting out:
“Hey, Cranly, come on up. Come on up. I want you to see something!”
I went up the steps slowly, wondering why God in this late time in my life had singled me out for this pain in the ass. Why me?
Just before I was ordained, I heard one of the priests say of me, not knowing that I was in the next room, “Cranly? Oh, he’ll never be a bishop. He’s too ordinary, if you know what I mean. With a bit of luck he might be a monsignor but not a bishop. No, Cranly’s a good man, of course, but nothing more than that.” When I reached the third floor, I had a slight angina pain. I stopped for a minute in front of Ryan’s room and then opened his door. There standing on a chair spread between the tops of the bureaus was Ryan, a thick rope around his neck, running from behind his head up to the big pipe that ran across the ceiling.
“My God! What are doing, man!”, I shouted. How did you get up there? Why are you dressed for Mass? Did you take that vestment from one of the drawers? Are you crazy?”
“Not crazy at all, Cranly. You said kill yourself if I couldn’t be a good priest!” His lips quivered and he rolled his teary eyes up at the ceiling like an old woman.
“You’re drunk as a pig, Ryan. Come down like a good fellow,” I said. “Come on, come down now.”
“I’m not coming down until you hear my confession!,” he shouted.
“You’re not in a state to confess, Ryan. You’re high as a kite. Come on down, come on, Ryan, down, come down.”
“Cranly, I’m not coming down.”
“Do as you please, but take that rope from your neck. Where did you get that rope?”
“From the cellar,” he said. “I got it from the cellar and I won’t take it off. It’s my costume for the confession I’m going to make whether you hear it or not, Cranly.”
He then slowly and dramatically made the sign of the cross.
“Are you kidding, Ryan? Have you been having intercourse with some prostitute over at that diner?”
“She’s not a slut!”, he said. He then slowly made the sign of the cross again. “She’s not a slut! She’s Irish-American”
“God, Almighty! I think you’re possessed, Ryan! “\
“I’m drunk but not possessed”, Cranley answered.
“Ryan, how could you get involved with that kind of human shit ?”
“Careful, you old bastard! Careful! I loveAlice. You better watch your tongue, you old fuck of a wreck. Watch your tongue!”
“Watch my tongue!”, I shouted.” You bum! What do you know about love humped over a drag queen in an alley on 11th Avenue?”
“We use her apartment”, he yelled. “We don’t use an alley. And she serves tea, Cranly,Barry Tea, the Irish tea you like. Who knows, Cranly, maybe with another pound of Barry Tea and you’ll be eating over at the diner with me.”
“There’s no love in your life, Ryan,” I said. “You don’t have to kill yourself. You have to be alive to kill yourself,” I shouted.
And with that I turned to go and it was then he said the words that set my head on fire.
“There’s more love in her hot tongue, Cranly, than there is in the whole God damned Vatican on Christmas Day!”
I whirled about and with all my might jumped on the step ladder in front of one of the bureaus and with both my hands grabbed ahold of a leg of his chair and pulled it. He tottered there for a second like a frightened mannikin and fell back, his arms outstretched, grasping at the air like a big bird and dropped straight down and I saw his head jerk forward – all in a second he was hanging like a turkey on a hook in a butcher’s window. It was so swift, as if God had struck him down.
I opened my mouth to scream but I couldn’t make a sound. I remember sticking my arms out the way he did as I ran to the wrong end of the room for the door, and then turned and ran to the door and down the steps. I found my shoes under the kitchen table and put them on and got my coat and went straight out of the rectory. I had to breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I was trembling and talking to myself, trying to get ahold of myself. I don’t know how far I walked…. I was so tired, I wanted to hail a cab but I had left my wallet in the rectory. I had to walk back and when I walked in I suddenly felt that I had to speak to Ryan. I thought I couldn’t let the night pass without speaking to him, so I went up to his room and actually knocked and knocked and knocked and when there wasn’t any sound I tried the door and opened it and there he was, hanging from the pipe, his head bent towards the door as if he had been waiting for me to ask me “Why?”
And I knew then I was going mad. I had killed him. He had never intended to kill himself. He had said he would come down after he made his confession.
In a rush I ran down to the kitchen for a knife and then, out of breath, walked slowly up to Ryan’s room and started to cut the god damned thick rope, calling out Ryan’s name over and over, looking at his swollen face, his eyes popped out, his tongue sticking out. Finally I cut the rope, and he collapsed to the ground like a rag doll and when I saw that he had shit in his pants I burst out crying like a baby in the dark.
What happened next, I can’t recall. They say I dialed 911. When the police arrived, I was sitting on the rocker, mute, staring straight ahead, deaf to all questions, sitting as if I were in a great fog in a vast and empty field. I was that way in Korea when Freddy Jackson fell on top of my feet, the top of his head blown off by a shell fragment, his brains all over my jacket and boots, his eye hanging out of its socket. That time I didn’t speak for a week.
The night of Ryan’s death, the Cardinal’s office sent an old monsignor to stay with me at the rectory. Several days later a homicide detective, a really fat man, came to talk to me. He was out of breath though he had only walked up the seven steps to the rectory door. He apologized saying the rules required that he speak to me. I asked him his name. He said, “Patrick Madden, I’m a Catholic”, and winked at me. Oddly enough, that made me feel safe, though all my life I had despised that kind of bullshit.
I told him that I was in bed when I thought I had heard a thud. I went downstairs to check the rooms, found no one, and on walking upstairs noticed a band of light across the third floor ceiling. I went up and saw that the light came from Father Ryan’s room. His door was ajar. I knocked twice but there was no answer. I opened the door slowly and there saw Father Ryan hanging. I cut him down and called the police. When I began to speak further, Madden held up the palm of his hand, signaling me to stop. He looked at his wristwatch, entered the time in his notebook, and said he was very sad about what had happened. “I’ve never seen anything in all the homicides I’ve had matching the sight of that young priest with a rope around his neck, dressed for Mass. I can’t get it out of my mind.” He bent over me as I sat in the rocker and said, “Father, if you ever need help for anything, call me. Understand, Father, for anything at all, you call me. He handed me his card, and left.”
Several days later, Madden suddenly appeared at night, without calling ahead.”Do you mind my coming without calling, Father?
“Not at all”, I said.
Madden drew some papers from his battered brief case and put them on his lap. “Father”, he said, “I want you to help me straighten out some facts. We have Father Ryan’s autopsy. No doubt about it, he was drunk. Second, before he came here we have reason to believe he was with a prostitute in her apartment on Fifty-first and Ninth. He had been with her in a diner on 11th Avenue and had left with her. She denies that she took him to her apartment. Next, I can’t figure out why he would kill himself in that way – dressed to say Mass. And so, Father, I have to ask you a question.
You told me you got out of bed when you heard a thud coming from his room above your bedroom, right?” “Yes, that’s right”, I said. “Then why didn’t you go right upstairs instead of downstairs?” I looked at Madden and sternly said, as if he were an altar boy, “Madden, I didn’t say it came from his bedroom. I heard the sound when I was asleep. I didn’t speak to you as if I were reading a blueprint. I left my room and without thinking went downstairs first. That’s where we keep church money and where there’s an entrance to the church. Anyhow, when I went into his room I saw a kitchen chair on the floor. Maybe that’s what made the sound.”
Madden looked at the palms of his hands. “Father”, he said, looking up at me, “that chair was found lying on its side across the space between the tops of the bureaus. It wasn’t on the floor. And now that you mention that chair, why would he take the chair up there? I don’t think he knew anything about the distance he had to drop to hang himself. Who the hell does? Incidentally, Father, if you ever want to hang yourself, do you know how to figure the feet you have to drop to do a good, clean job of it?”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Take,” Madden said, “1,260 and divide it by your weight. The result is the number of feet you need to drop.”
“How useful that is to know, Madden. I’ll mention it at Mass, Sunday.” Madden laughed loudly, too loudly perhaps. Suddenly, he said, “I think Ryan might have gone up there on that chair dressed that way to be seen by someone before he did anything. Father, did you that night go into Ryan’s room while he was alive and standing up there on those bureaus?”
“Did you speak to him when he came in?”
“What did he say?”
“I can’t answer that, detective.”
“Did he speak to you in confession?”
“O.K., Father”, Madden said, closing his notebook. “Sorry about the questions. That autopsy report, though, it’s interesting”, he said, turning the rim of his fedora. “He didn’t really hang himself. According to the autopsy, he died of asphyxiation. He didn’t fracture any vertebrae in his neck. He put the rope knot in the wrong place. It should have been on the left side of his head. He put it at the back of his head, and so, according to the pathologist, Ryan was hanging there strangling for oh, maybe, thirty minutes or so, cutting off the blood supply to his head, and that finished him off. I thought that that was what had happened when I looked at him lying on the floor. He had crapped in his pants and that usually happens when they die of asphyxiation, that and the eyes popping out, sure signs of a screwed up hanging.”
I was stunned. Instead of running out of the rectory in a panic and walking around in the snow, I could have cut Ryan down right away and he would have lived. Instead, I broke and ran, and he died.
Madden walked to the door, turned and said, “One other thing bugs me, Father. If Father Ryan intended to drop from the chair, he would have stepped forward. He wouldn’t have knocked that chair sideways…. unless he moved sideways for some reason and shifted the chair so that it fell sideways across that space between the bureaus. But why would he move sideways unless the chair moved him, but that doesn’t make sense, does it, Father?”
“No, it doesn’t, if I follow you. You know”, I said, “you have a very sharp brain, Madden. You should have been a priest.”
“Thank you”, he said, “but hell, what kind of priest would I have made, Father?”
“Oh,” I said, “I think you would have made a bishop, Madden, at least a bishop…” He smiled modestly and extended his hand. I shook it. “Goodbye, Madden. May I give you a blessing?”
“Oh, thank you, Father, thank you.”
Madden knelt down in front of me. Almost like a child he bowed his head and held his fedora in his two hands against his chest. I blessed him, slowly. He raised himself with great effort, trudged to the door, waved a salute towards me, and walked out, but not without stopping:
“You know”, he said,” your Father Ryan’s girl friend was not a she. She was a shim, father.
“A what?” I asked.
“She was a he, a transvestite”, said Madden, triumphantly. “A jack of all trades, you might say”, and with that he bent this head back and laughed louder and louder and louder, but I could see that as he turned up his laughter his cold half-closed eyes were steadily fixed on me. I had the sense that he and I at that moment entered into another time zone and had begun a slow dance towards a yet unknown exit.
You know, it wouldn’ t surprise me if I saw Madden again.
Copyright Harry Reynolds 2015