Chapter 1: Book I: Tribulations
My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining across this dark highway, where our sins lie unatoned
They all go a little mad sometimes.
In retrospect, Ray's not sure why he should be any different.
It starts ... well, not with Tim's breakdown, it starts long before that, maybe in a swarm of hands and arms and bodies bearing Ray down while klaxons blare through prison halls, maybe in terse words on an official letter stamped with the diocesan seal and sentencing him to Oz in the first place. Maybe it starts the day he walks into a prison infirmary to find Miguel Alvarez framed in a window and haloed by what smoggy sunlight could fall through bars and screens, or the first time Miguel slices himself open - sacrificial lamb, scapegoat - for a God he's convinced he can't reach any other way. Maybe it starts the day they both hold a dying infant in their hands, feel the doomed flutter of a tiny heartbeat under their fingertips.
The aftermath of Tim's breakdown, even the freakout itself - that wasn't the start of anything, really. It was just one more moment in a string of moments when Ray stood in the middle of the prison cafeteria and wondered whether he was looking into his own future and how far.
It's not as if he isn't used to interruption by now - Oz is a prison, for heaven's sake, and Ray's had to deal with any variety of chaos in his years here, even during Mass, simmering resentments and fisticuffs and that one time his fourth month in, when Frankie Moretti dropped acid beforehand and started writhing in the aisle, babbling in what his cellmate insisted was tongues, like Ray wouldn't be able to tell true glossolalia if he heard it, like he wasn't going to expect the same kind of decorum in his services that he would have expected in a sanctified church building.
No, it's not like Tim's performance was his first time at this kind of rodeo - not like it was even the worst thing that could have happened. Ray's guys don't even have a lock on busting out crazy stuff, he's also seen plenty go down at run-of-the-mill Sunday services - Albert Malfey showing up piss drunk and struggling with the ushers in the back of the nave as Father K blessed the Communion wafers, wanting to know if his wife was with Terry Santos the night before, if she was there now, that Whore of Babylon, or the time Theresa Ríos set her banner on fire, standing too close to one of the candles during the Mass before their First Confession when Ray was 8 years old. Although, to be fair, it's rarely on Sunday when something actually goes down, particularly out of nowhere - it's the ones who come to daily Mass for weeks at a time who always seem to lose it on some random Thursday.
Not that McManus particularly surprises Ray, either.
Both ends of the spectrum, he thinks, the Roaming and the Fundamentalist Catholics, always the worst for the crazy stuff - although maybe that's not so strange, when they're the ones who always seem the most discontent, the ones most desperately looking for something, most desperately in need of something, even if they can't figure out what or where to find it.
There are times Ray does miss the quiet solemnity of Mass at the Lateran, the steady weight of centuries of ritual, the calm rolling sounds of the Latin, the warmth of the apse, deep burgundies and blues, bright fields of gold among the stretches of marble, the span of arched stone wings and intricate inlaid patterns beneath his feet. Well, maybe not all of the gilt and scrollwork, he has to admit - when he first made it to Rome, he started attending Masses there because who wouldn't? It would be like going to Paris and not hitting the Louvre - but he always did like San Carlo better. Although come to think of it, that might have had more to do with the Quattro Fontane, the Four Fountains outside at the crossroads, than with anything inside the church itself.
Mass in Oz - that sort of reminds him of the assemblies from Catholic high school, he thinks, standing alone in the cafeteria, looking around at the concrete walls and the wooden stage after it all goes down, after Tim's ... performance, Camptown Races preserved on tape, God help them all ... after the service is over and Ray's cleaned up the physical mess and given the memorial photo to Officer Smith's daughter, thinking of Clayton Hughes as he does it, one more kid, now, whose father is dead in this prison. It's not just the prisoner's kids who deal with that sort of thing, and he spares a thought for DeeDee Whittlesey and Aguilar's two boys, too, because it's not just the dead CO's kids who catch a lot of this stuff, when you get right down to it.
They were right next to the church in elementary school, he remembers, but they had to have First Friday Mass in the gym in high school, and he was there for the time someone from the previous class period overflowed one of the showers and they all ended up scrambling for higher ground during the reading of the Gospel, Father Henry hiking up the skirts of his vestments as he climbed onto the bleachers with everyone else. So yeah, enough stuff has always gone on at Mass that Ray supposes he can deal with it pretty smoothly by now - at least he does when it's one of the inmates, because these guys have problems, and you have to expect some of that to come out, sometimes.
Of course, who doesn't have problems in this place, he wonders, and maybe he should have expected this kind of thing, too. The staff is as fucked up as the inmates are, and Ray's pretty sure he's including himself in that learned and professional and clinical assessment. He remembers walking back into Oz, gauze still stuck stiff to his head with dried blood and the irritation of a butterfly bandage on his cheek, the sting of unhealed cuts, flesh split by knuckles and fingernails, taste of copper on the rare occasions when he tried to smile - lip torn open and him unable to stop poking at the puffiness with his tongue like a kid with an empty tooth socket - and still coughing from the gas. He supposes he might have been considered a morbid child, because he loved reading the lives of the martyrs, he must have checked out that one thick book a dozen times from the school library during his years of junior high, but even given his adolescent fascination with dying for the faith, he'd never been comfortable with the tales of Isaac Jogues and the other Jesuits, the North American martyrs - too close, too real, no soft-focus centuries of myth like those laid over the martyrs of the early Church. No, the North American martyrs were all sweat and spit and misery, sharp edges and torn flesh, mortification for the glory of God, and Ray's got no desire for a hair-shirt. He's not into self-flagellation.
And yet, look at him, standing here in this prison, wondering like a dumbass what precisely made McManus spin out like that, like you could pinpoint a singular cause, identify it and protect yourself against it.
Anyway, he thinks, gathering the last scattering of altar cloth and cross, you have to expect some of it to come out sometimes, and church is maybe where that should happen, the place where you can put it on the shoulders of a Father who's big enough to carry it when you can't handle it by yourself, when you're most in need of something, even if you can't figure out what.
God is not dead. Not like everyone else in this prison. Right?
He catches himself sitting at his desk, later, staring into space, staring at the picture on his wall, the stormy sea breaking against the rock face. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock, he thinks and stands to gather his things for his afternoon rounds: confessions in solitary today and a trip to the infirmary to read the next chapter of Matthew to Carlos Aranda in the AIDS ward, to spend a few quiet minutes at Alvarez's bedside, waiting - again - for him to wake up. He strangles the thin tendril of thought that maybe Miguel will never wake up, this time, that he's finally hit the end of his miraculous nine lives, that he'll never emerge from the half-comatose state he's retreated to in the wake of the stabbing by Giles.
Should have let me die ... the rest of my life in a little fucking room.
It's Miguel's voice in his head, he thinks, frantic and broken and hopeless, and Ray clenches his hand hard around the doorknob, knuckles stretched pale and tight, before he opens the door to slip out of his office.
Mineo shows up on his doorstep a few days later, escorting Tobias Beecher with a roll of his eyes and a message that Murphy sent him. Beecher's excited enough to perch on the edge of his seat, practically jittering, energy like Ray hasn't seen in a while - certainly not since the shootings in Em City, since Chris Keller disappeared to Benchley Memorial. Beecher can barely wait until the door shuts behind Mineo, closing the officer out, closing them into privacy like the confessional, to tell Ray that he's found Hank.
Maybe this time you don't tell him, maybe this time he just … knows, Ray remembers saying, and he's all for Beecher's apparent need for reconciliation, his need to bring this thing with Schillinger to a halt – whatever it is, at this point, whatever hydra it's grown into. Ray would like to see this war of mutually assured destruction between them smothered out … but he didn't realize this was what Beecher had in mind.
He can't help wondering if it's a good idea, really, a feeling that niggles as Beecher admits - confesses - that Hank insisted on being paid off as part of the agreement to visit Oz. Something curdles small and rotten in the pit of Ray's stomach as he thinks of Andrew, of Andrew's relationship with his father, the way he lashed out at the end before he ended it all. This is, maybe, a kind of reconciliation that can't be forced, can't be bought or sold, can't be paid for – no, that's not right, he thinks. It's something that probably needs to be bought dearly, paid for heavily, just not with money. He remembers Andrew's sullen face, the rage vibrating off of him when he came into Oz, alternating with the dull, thousand-yard stare when he managed to score, and Ray can't imagine Henry Schillinger is in any better frame of mind to come visit his father. Presumably, he's stayed away this long for one reason or another.
Maybe he's as fucked up as his brother was – or maybe he's not, and he stays away for his own sanity. But if he was at a place to offer a filial hand to Vern, wouldn't he already be here at the prison, looking to do it?
"Maybe ... maybe he just hasn't had a chance," Beecher says, open palms extended like he can reach out and scoop up Hank Schillinger himself. "Haven't you ever fought with someone and thought you couldn't get past it? Maybe sometimes it takes something - somebody - outside of it all to help you get past it. Maybe sometimes, something needs to push you into it."
Beecher's unshakeable, and Ray knows he's already fought with Keller over this - maybe not this idea, specifically, over bringing Hank to Oz – but they fought about the very concept, about any kind of reconciliation with Schillinger, conflict that flared into words and fists and maybe teeth, who even knows? It was one of those flashfire bursts that seem to characterize their relationship, and Ray wonders if there's any other kind possible, locked inside the walls of Oz, wonders if it's possible to cobble together something truly good in the search for something worth fighting for.
Isn't that what he and Beecher are trying to do here, though - trying to carve a spot in this prison out of something other than misery? Trying to do some good?
Maybe Ray's too cynical, maybe he's been here too long. He knows a lot of the staff see him as hopelessly naïve - soft, even - but then, it's not like he doesn't get that all over, it's not like he hasn't gotten it his whole life, fallout of being small and looking about 10 years younger than his actual age, whatever age that happens to be at the time. No one ever seems to understand, Ray's no fresh meat - he's close on seven years in Oz, almost twice as long as Beecher, and he may not have been through everything Beecher has, but he's been witness to it and worse a dozen times over, hands tied and helpless while the world exploded around him or crumbled slowly, silently, in whispered confessions of rape and abuse and strung-out fear, some of the worst small, everyday terrors that man has to offer his fellow man. Sometimes all he can do is wonder if anything good will ever come out of this prison.
Pax homínibus bonae voluntátis, he tells himself - And on earth, peace to people of goodwill - and sets aside his careful counsel of caution.
He knows Beecher went to the Hole over this, in going toe-to-toe with Keller, so Ray's not sure what hope he has of convincing him otherwise, anyway. And maybe, just maybe, even if there's no actual reconciliation, there can at least be some peace - for values of peace that at least equal a cessation of hostilities. Who knows what could grow, once those seeds are planted?
Ray's not even entirely sure whether he's thinking of the relationship between Beecher and Schillinger or between Schillinger and his son - the live one, the ghost of the dead one.
Sacrificial lamb, an unquiet voice still whispers in the back of his head, though, scapegoat, and something's still heavy in the bottom of his stomach when he goes to meet Hank, the day he finally shows up.
The kid's no great shakes, Ray thinks, appraising him with an eye honed by years of intake interviews, but he's not necessarily worse than some of the other guys Ray's seen come through Oz. He supposes it's sad when the best you can say is that a kid doesn't look any worse than the run-of-the-mill prisoner, but Hank's cleaner and vaguely more well taken care of than Andrew managed to look, and Ray wonders who's responsible for that. He wouldn't pass a drug test, heavy-lidded and slow, laid back but vaguely twitchy, probably smoked or huffed something before he showed up at the prison - a little chemical cushion before he got on the bus for the trip to see his father, probably unconscious, doesn't even realize what he did or why, Ray thinks, still studying him critically. Ray wonders how he's supporting himself, decides it's probably a good thing he doesn't know.
He watches Hank survey the visitor's room and does manage to squash the urge to tell him not to take anything. What's not bolted down, anyway, right?
Bad idea, bad idea, Ray can't quite quiet the mantra in his head, still disconcerted even once he's got Hank situated in the visitor's room and heads off to collect Schillinger from Unit B. He tries to convince himself the unease is really eagerness for this reunion, but he can't help wondering what this prodigal son's returning to and if he's really any better off back in his father's embrace.
Ray never expected Vern Schillinger to be the true revelation of his day. Then again, he tells himself - only a bit wryly - Vernon Schillinger and the Spanish Inquisition may have some of their worse aspects in common.
Stop it, he follows up the thought quickly. Don't be like that.
He has to admit, at least to himself, that it's unsettling, though. At first, Schillinger's poleaxed - no one wanted to warn him about this, no one thought it was a good idea to get his hopes up, not when there was no guarantee Hank would follow through and show up - and then he's eager as a child promised a treat as they walk to the visitor's room.
"He's really here?" he asks in a tone of voice that says he expects Ray to suddenly point and laugh, to pull the rug out from under him and leave him frustrated and … heartbroken, Ray even dares to think. "My boy really came to see me?"
All his defenses are down, gone, washed away on shifting sand, and it's more than a little shocking how blind he is to Hank's hesitations and stumblings, the kid's lack of true eagerness - but then, he wouldn't want to see anything like that, would he? What parent would? Ray tries to articulate this to Beecher later, after the meeting, has to fall back on wonderment and simple words, relaying how much the guy truly seemed to love the kid. Maybe he should feel bad about how surprised he is, shocked that Schillinger would care that much about anything outside of himself – he did come to prison for trying to protect his children, after all, in whatever limited ways he understood how.
Nobody ever wants to be a bad parent, Ray, he remembers Pete telling him, years ago, as he watched a couple of inmates fumble through a family visit in the children's room, blocks and crayons dangling helplessly from hands that had wielded guns and knives without hesitation, men who refused to pick up their children because they were honestly afraid they might hurt them. It's just that a lot of people don't know how to be good ones.
Ray's on his way out the door of the pod when Beecher asks him the question.
"Father …" he hesitates long enough that Ray tilts his head in encouragement. "Have you ever loved someone too much?"
Beecher babbles, then, in the face of his own apparent temerity, stumbling over his words, apologetic as people almost always are when sex comes up with Ray - apologetic or confrontational, one or the other - like they think he's sexless, not just celibate, a blushing virgin. Which, OK, he pretty much is … but he's still human. He supposes it's good, sometimes, that they forget that, it can give him an additional, supernatural authority when he needs it.
Too often, it's a double-edged sword. People think he can't understand those all-too-human feelings - but Ray himself is all too human. Not only can he understand, but the whole thing gets lonely sometimes, up on that pedestal - lonely and tiring - people thinking he doesn't hurt and ache and want and love, just like anyone else.
Maybe that's part of the reason he barely hesitates to answer, or maybe he wants to acknowledge his own failings. Maybe he looks at someone else's longing and wants to make a connection to something so sweetly human.
And so he answers, like a confession freely given, because yes, he's loved too much - and more than once. Himself, maybe, at one point, and that's part of how he ended up in Oz in the first place. Davide in Rome, dark hair and dark eyes, Latin rolling off his tongue as easily as Italian, and Ray remembers the relief he felt when Davide left the seminary, when things went back to normal, when two-thirds of every day wasn't some kind of temptation. Miguel, in some way, all bright fire and midnight despair, blood and sharp edges, and maybe that's why he had to put some distance between them, because he wasn't doing either of them any good, watching Miguel spiral down.
And so he answers, like a confession freely given, because yes, he's loved too much. He wore his devotion to Miguel like an invisible scapular, and he can still feel the weight of it sometimes, on his shoulders, over his heart.
He remembers again, on a Saturday morning, first of the month and Father K - Thomas - already out the door, on his way over to Our Lady of Fatima with his small brown scapular over his shirt instead of tucked inside, headed to help out at their sister parish with First Saturday Devotions.
Devotion, Ray thinks standing in the doorway of the small house that serves as St. Margaret's rectory, caught blinking in the early morning sun, stiff collar clutched between two fingers and blueberry Pop-Tart half eaten, on his own way out when he's confronted by the delivery man with the flowers for the next day's Mass. Devotion, a gift, to God, he thinks, absently. He can hear the drone of Father Rossi back in theology class: adoration, veneration, dedication to service through prayer or pious act, making it sound dry and boring, making it sound like a chore.
He has to put down the Pop-Tart on the small table where they all keep their keys so he can sign for the flowers. Father T - Lou - is shut up in his office working on a sermon, and Thomas gives a cheerful wave as he pulls out of the driveway, headed for OLF, something that's happening more often, now, as resources get cut back, as the two parishes come closer and closer to merging, sharing office staff and turning to each other to stretch volunteers to the breaking point, holding services jointly whenever they can. Every other week, Lou mourns the loss of the church ladies, a generation of women who worked inside the home instead of out, and he's less concerned about the state of their household linens or their teenagers' souls than about losing the human engine that kept the parish running, the hundreds of woman-hours they were able to provide, paperwork filed and people fed and families not even their own taken care of in the face of hospital stays and lost jobs.
It won't be long before they're losing manpower, either, Ray would lay money on it. They've got more than their fair share of priests in this area - not more than they need, but more than the Church can spare, with so many other parishes going begging, and Ray himself a blank space when it comes to ministry at St. Margaret's or over at OLF, too much time cloistered inside his prison walls and nothing left to spare, to give during the short periods when he's able to escape. Cardinal Abgott and the bishop are going to have Lou pried out of their fingers one of these days, soon, no matter how successful they've been so far at hanging on to him, Ray thinks, as he tosses up a hand in salute at the delivery guy before shifting his car into reverse. No, Lou's going to end up somewhere out in Wisconsin or Minnesota pretty soon, running a parish by himself, and they'll all get spread a little thinner here. Maybe they'll move one of the guys from OLF over to St. Margaret's, or maybe they'll just go all the way and merge the two parishes, something that's certainly been mentioned in low murmurs and whispers, even if no one wants to say it too loud. The diocese is looking to cut costs, in the wake of the lawsuit payout, post-Sippel, Ray knows, although it was only a million dollars, and he can't help wondering what he doesn't know, yet, what might be coming down the pike.
He doesn't remember his half-eaten Pop-Tart until he walks into the door of Oz, and he's going to be sorry for that, with three-plus hours of confessions coming up. He ransacks the bottom drawer of his desk, but the box he keeps there is empty - and he knew that, it's why he was eating the last package in the cupboard back at the rectory in the first place. He spares a mournful thought for the lost taste of delicious faux-berries and crunchy frosting as he sets up his two lonely chairs in the middle of the cafeteria to the last banging of the kitchen crew cleaning up breakfast. Father K's probably setting up for confession now, too, tag-teaming with Father Ficaya - the Thomases, congregants from both parishes have taken to calling them, Tomascz and Tomas.
It's a big family day over at OLF, just like Saturday in Oz, only nothing like Saturday in Oz, family visits or not.
They'll all three have a full morning of confessions, the Thomases and Ray, but their confessions will be full of kids who've gotten to second base on Friday night or shoplifted a CD at the mall, guys who've looked on their co-workers with disguised lust during a water cooler break at the office. Meanwhile, Ray's got Marty Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose, in his veins, endlessly inventive, and the punishment he inflicts on himself when he manages it, mortification of the flesh. There's a couple of fresh fish with their characteristic hunted look and tight lips, and Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams he has, every night, the dreams where the two women he strangled come back for him, pick away at his eyes, open the veins in his wrists with the same fingers that scrabbled helplessly against him when he held them down and smothered the life out of them. Conservas from Unit C confesses to bartering his ass - literally - to broker a deal on tits and then reneging, and Ray's not entirely sure if he's confessing to using sex for payment or to going back on his word.
It's a typical Saturday, really, all of his regulars, all the admissions and non-admissions of graft and extortion and sex and despair, the general misery of the human condition distorted and magnified by the funhouse mirror of Oz, and Ray ends up spending something like four hours on the hard metal chair, all told. His guys, they're serious about their confessional time - or at least, they're serious about taking their confessional time. He supposes it gives even the most blasé and dilettante of them something to do, gets them out of work on Friday or boredom on Saturday, part of all their routines just like count.
... spend the rest of my life in a little room …
Cyril O'Reily offers up his weekly confession of frustration and bad words, the small selfishness of a child, stealing extra cookies during dinner prep in the kitchen, and Ray sends him on his way, helpless, with ten Hail Marys, before Ryan takes his turn. At OLF, they'll be through the offerings of flowers, by now, Ray knows, into 11 o'clock Mass, and it's like this every first Saturday, a constant awareness in the back of his mind, some kind of spiritual energy pulling at him or maybe just a longing for air.
He manages to break for a solitary Sext, liturgia horarum, and a recitation of the Angelus in the haven of his office - Be it done unto me according to Thy word, and if he ever had a problem with humility, Oz has surely solved that. He abandons the cafeteria to the kitchen crew banging through prep for the afternoon meal, to heat up his Cup'O'Noodle in the staff break room, where D'Agnasti's talking soccer to Aguilar, who's ignoring him in favor of the Times. Ray steals the entertainment section from her with a hangdog grin so he can lose himself for a few minutes, focusing on the day's acrostic before he spends his afternoon in protective custody, coming to light finally in the infirmary as sunset burns bloody through the windows. He takes time to hear a couple of confessions from the nurses, Silvera and Lawal, coming on duty early, in the short stretch of time before late clinic hours, then stands in the doorway of Prestopnik's office, later, and watches them move through the aisles of the infirmary, thinking about the cleanup that must be going on at OLF after the kids' rec activities.
It's not like a vocation as a parish priest was what Ray ever really envisioned for himself - he wouldn't have been working in Abgott's office, if that had been his goal. But this was never what he had in mind, either.
His Excellency decided to punish me by sending me to Oz, to extinguish my career.
Devotion, he reminds himself. A gift to God, dedication to service, adoration, veneration, and if he ever had a problem with humility, surely Oz has taken care of it. Right?
Before he leaves to prepare for the next day's Mass - Laetare Sunday, he thinks, be joyful, Jerusalem, and halfway home through the solemn days of Lent - he goes to sit beside Miguel's bedside.
Alvarez finally wakes up on a Tuesday. It means Ray doesn't even see him before he disappears; he learns about the escape on the radio during his drive in on Wednesday morning, and what the hell?
He swerves off the road and into the parking lot of a strip mall, slamming on the brakes of the Tercel, blinking blankly at the electronics store and copy shop and a Dollar Tree not even open yet. Nobody even called to let him know what was going on? He twists the radio dial, searching for more information, because his early-morning news show is already on to another one of the governor's cost-cutting measures, reduced library hours and two bus lines cut by half, and surely he just dreamed that, right? Surely someone would have called him at the rectory to tell him if two prisoners escaped, if Alvarez went down the rabbit hole ... but then again, why would they? Ray's there to minister to the guys in prison, which he supposes means the guys who are actually in the prison, not the ones who've apparently pulled a runner and disappeared into thin air in the middle of the night.
He has to find a convenience store after that, still half-convinced he imagined the news report, has to buy a fresh pack of cigarettes - should have done it on the way back to the rectory from Oz on Sunday night, but he had three in the pack and he tries not to smoke much at the rectory, Thomas always disapproving and Lou still trying to quit after a scare eight months ago, a dark mass on his lung that turned out to be benign. It's just a good thing Ray didn't give up cigarettes for Lent, he thinks, handing over his money, and he stares morosely at the 40s in the beer case as he waits for his change, wondering if he should buy one of those, too, if this is any indication of how his week is going to go. Maybe it's a good thing alcohol sales aren't legal before 8 a.m.
He gets the good goss from Murphy once he makes it to Oz, over coffee in the break room, Ray picking half-moon slivers out of the rim of his styrofoam cup and collecting them in a pile on the counter as he listens to details of the SORT team and the dogs and the empty hole in the floor of the infirmary closet.
"Busmalis," Murphy says, shaking his head, a world of exasperation and incredulity and maybe just a little bit of admiration in the tone of the single word, and Ray wonders how long Busmalis must have spent tunneling, burrowing, and how long Alvarez had known, how long he could possibly have known, and how much pure impulse had been behind his escape, a thought and a jump, slipping his restraints and gone, jack-rabbiting down the hole.
Ray formally carves out time each Friday and Saturday for any staff confessions, right along with the inmates - he hadn't been in Oz a year before he began to understand they were his congregation, too, damaged by their experiences here in ways their outside pastors and ministers wouldn't, couldn't quite understand - but Murphy doesn't even wait for that to admit a small voice in the back of his head had thought "good riddance" when they uncovered the pillows stacked on Alvarez's hospital bed, hiding his disappearance.
"What?" he asks, spreading his hands when Ray gives him a reproachful look. "I can assure you, Padre - it was a very tiny thought, compared the realization of what a pain in my ass the guy was going to be. Again."
The song-and-dance Leo and Devlin do for the press is full of the habitual and expected bullshit and hot air, claiming they're closing in on their escapees; they describe Alvarez as having a "history of violence," and well, that one's fair, Ray supposes. He's probably naïve to think of Alvarez any other way. It's just that Miguel's always so desperate at the time, whenever it happens, whenever he breaks, that it's hard to think of it as violence, exactly. It's more like collateral damage, the end result of getting in the way as he beats himself against the inside of his cage, the inevitable outcome of trying to put your body between him and the bars.
Maybe Ray should learn - should have learned - to stay out of the way, and he thought he was taking the first steps toward that, staying out of the victim interactions with the Riveras, taking Pete's word. But he remembers stepping in front of a CO's baton wielded by Leo Glynn, shielding Alvarez with his own body, thoughtlessly, instinctively, and it was only later that he felt any reaction, shaking on his knees in his office, every muscle strained and aching from the rush of adrenaline, a prayer on his lips, not for the first time, and it probably wouldn't be the last, in Oz. He can remember the reverence shown for Maximilian Kolbe in his days at the Gregorian, the wound of Óscar Romero's death still fresh enough to be raw and aching for many of his teachers, but for all the reading he'd ever done, it wasn't until he came to Oz that he really understood, with his body - in his blood and his bones, not just with mind or even heart - that instinctive drive to martyrdom, not in pursuit of faith or grace or dry doctrine, but simply to save another. It was like waking up, and Ray's not sure he would - not sure he should - go back to sleep.
Moot point now, he tells himself - at least as far as Alvarez is concerned. Ray's not sure whether to wish him good luck or not, not sure what kind of prayers to send up for him, other than for continued safety, no matter what happens, so he prays for Miguel's safety and leaves the rest up to God. He supposes he still trusts God, at this point. He supposes it's too late to stop now, after the riot and the takedown and the aftermath. What's the point of faith if you renege on it when it gets hard?
The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen ... he tells himself and gets on his knees, again.
"I can't believe he didn't even tell me!" Rebadow confides one day, hooked up for dialysis, as Ray passes through the infirmary, pique written in every line of his hangdog face.
I know, Ray wants to say, heartfelt. I feel you. But he'd never allow himself to actually say that out loud, feels ridiculous even thinking it. Why would Alvarez tell the "hack in black" something like that?
He wonders in his down moments if that's all he ever really was to Miguel, and if he ever had a problem with humility, Oz has surely taken care of that.
He tries to convince himself that he's set aside whatever was going on between them - that he was right, before New Year's, when he told Pete that maybe nothing he does would make a difference, when it came to Alvarez.
Hank's made his third visit to Oz and the novelty is wearing off when Beecher takes the chance to ask Ray if he's got any news about Keller like Ray's going to know. He dances around the topic before he'll finally spit it out, gun-shy, but then, Ray supposes the COs are probably sick of hearing about it.
Beecher's antsy like he's jonesing for a fix, and Ray studies him through narrowed eyes for a minute, searching for other telltale signs, but no, he's just got the same problem as too many guys in this prison - too much time and not enough constructive to do, too distracted or undisciplined for the kind of focused concentration that makes good use of so much self-contemplation. Meditation, maybe, Ray thinks, making a mental note to mention it, although probably not in an open staff meeting - he can imagine the reaction he'd get from Claire Howell or Len Lopresti, maybe even from Leo. He's a bit surprised McManus hasn't ever come up with the idea - maybe it's too New Age even for him, despite its ancient roots, or maybe it's not butch enough for guys already considered too touchy-feely - no, boxing is the way to go, apparently, and he makes a face at the thought.
"What," Beecher says in response, defensive, not even much of a question to his tone, like he knows what Ray's thinking - like he thinks he knows what Ray's thinking - and Ray offers a smile and a shake of his head. He remembers waiting for Alvarez to wake up any number of times – tied down and stitched up after he'd sliced himself open (They think I'm a bug); bruises around his throat, under his eyes, after he'd half-strangled the life out of himself, life pulled up short with a jerk (You should have let me die); sunk deep in the only escape he had, refusing to wake.
Well, he's awake, now, Ray reminds himself – awake and gone, flown, found another kind of escape, cage door miraculously ajar, and Ray's not sure what kind of prayers to send up for him, other than for continued safety, and it's just a new tenor of the same old helplessness running under his skin like adrenaline, nothing to fight, nowhere to run, an echo of all the bedside vigils. At least it gives him some sympathy for Beecher, some connection with that all-too-human response.
"I'll see what I can find out," he promises the other man.
He runs into Murphy in the break room, stands blinking in the doorway for a minute at the unexpected synchronicity.
"I just came from your unit," Ray says, and Murphy gives an inelegant snort. He's in street clothes, running Em City until Leo and the rest of them figure out what to do with the place in Tim's absence – that's how Ray keeps thinking of it, an absence, like he's out of school for the day, like he'll be back tomorrow, too inextricably bound up with the very concept of Em City for Ray to be able to separate them, now.
They've got two - three? no, two - more guys scheduled to interview this week, Ray thinks; meanwhile, Murphy's trying to look the part and not being very successful at it. Ray sort of suspects the failure would please him, if it was mentioned it out loud.
"You can have it," he tells Ray. "Fucking paperwork ... hey, sorry, Father. But you know how it is."
Ray only just holds back his own snort as he turns to poke in the cupboard, sure he left something here that can be made edible enough for a late lunch ... there. He turns to lean back against the counter by the microwave as the digital display counts down, folding his arms across his chest and studying Murphy until the other man looks down as he swallows a mouthful, examining the front of his button-down shirt.
"What," he says, no more question in his tone, really, than Beecher. "I got something down my front?"
"I don't suppose you have any idea when Chris Keller is supposed to be back?"
"Missing one of your flock?" Murphy picks up the second half of his sandwich.
"I'm trying to get some information for Tobias Beecher," Ray says, and Murphy waves a hand at him.
"Don't start with me, Ray. That guy's been bugging the ... snot out of me."
"Look," Ray says, "I know it gets tiring, hearing the same things over and over ..." The microwave chirps at him, and he pauses to stir his noodles before setting it for another minute.
"You can't cut me a little bit of slack?" Murphy asks, leaning one elbow on the table. "No tiny bit of sympathy? No benevolence for your fellow man? Just a little bit, seeing how I'm already dealing with these dinks in suits, now?"
"I think that's Leo you're talking about," Ray says, and Murphy grins at him, easy, triggering a flash of memory: shooting the shit with him and Diane Whittlesey, sitting around that same table drinking that same bad coffee.
This is not how he would have expected it all to shake out.
He doesn't ask if Murphy's heard from McManus.
"Are you eating shrimp Ramen?" Murphy asks, as Ray stirs his noodles again, and he curls his lip when Ray looks up from the bowl, raising an inquisitive eyebrow. "That's disgusting. What's wrong with you?"
"It's Friday," Ray says, poking around in the bowl with the tines of his fork. "Also, it's Lent. That's not a bologna sandwich, is it, Officer Murphy?"
"It's Lent?" Sean stuffs half the sandwich in his mouth, muffling his next words as he stabs an index finger in Ray's direction. "Anyway, it's not like there's ...." He breaks off to swallow, three times, before taking a swig of his cold coffee. "It's not like there's anything that's actually meat in there, even in the regular stuff. I bet there's not even anything that's actually food in there."
"Says Mr. Wonderbread Sandwich," Ray says, dropping into the chair across from him.
"I'll tell you, I said I was never eating any more of that wheatgrass crap when I moved here from Attica and started feeding myself again."
"Wheatgrass is smoothies, not sandwiches," Ray responds absently, poking at his noodles again, avoiding the impulse to study - to stare at - Murphy from across the table as he considers the prison gossip about what, exactly - who, exactly - Murphy left behind in western New York when he finally followed McManus' call to Oz.
"What the ... How do you even know what wheatgrass is?"
Ray contemplates indignation before swallowing his mouthful of freeze-dried, reconstituted shrimp.
"My older sister," he says finally. "And my best friend in high school was on the track team. With her. My sister, I mean. On the up side, I never had to fight anyone over the potato chips during training season."
The search for Alvarez widens across the state as Ray prepares for Palm Sunday, Christ entering Jerusalem, humble steed and a road laid with palm fronds and Hosannas and pieces of silver, clearing out the temple, laying ground for his own sacrifice.
Scapegoat, Ray thinks, as he prepares for Mass that morning, laying out his snow-white alb, the blood-red stole, kissing the small cross embroidered on each piece of ceremonial clothing, murmuring the traditional vesting prayers. Sacrificial lamb.
Lamb of God, Agnes Dei, who takes away the sins of the world.
He stacks a few dozen small palm crosses to hand out during Mass - project of one of the younger CCD classes at OLF, under Jeremy's direction, and some of Ray's congregation might actually keep their palms until next year instead of trying to smoke them out of boredom in the intervening months. A handful had them, still, from the previous year, when Ray collected them for use on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, and he rubs his fingers like he can still feel ashes gritty between them, remembers foreheads marked feathery and bruised, like finger prints coming up along a jawline, along the arch of a throat, a sign of mortality, of being all too human.
Unto dust, he thinks, and pauses to look up at the red vestments laid out on the back of his chair, blood on the horizon. He hisses and just stops himself from swearing as the sharp edge of one of the palm leaves slices across his palm, thin bloody sting of a slash - from one of the natural edges, not one that's been cut and shaped by childish, snub-nosed scissors - and he reminds himself to take more care. Just because a thing is dead and dry, doesn't mean it doesn't still have its defenses. Sometimes, things are just made that way.
There's still no word from or about Alvarez, he's disappeared into the ether, and Ray wonders - as he lights another candle at the feet of the Virgin and sends up another prayer - if Miguel's gone to ground or if he's flown, turned his back on all this. Got the hell out of Dodge, he thinks to himself. He heard from Murphy in passing that police posted a watch on his mother's home, and Leti Alvarez promptly called 911 three times to report, too innocently, that there were men lurking in the bushes outside her apartment, men in black and white cars. Ray wonders if they thought they had an easy mark and knows they were barking up the wrong tree with that one. Leticia Alvarez has always struck Ray as too fierce and fiercely loyal, still married to Eduardo Alvarez after more than 35 years in prison. Ray wonders if maybe she has heard from Miguel, if he's managed to find a way to contact her, if he's even tried.
Ray - like everyone, anyone, at the prison - has heard nothing, but that's not surprising anymore.
He's left his lighter in his other pair of black pants, folded over the back of his desk chair at the rectory; he has to dig out a box of matches in his office. The pinpoint scent of phosphorus carries a flash of memory, like a spark: Alvarez's half-regretful look and back turned toward him, business as usual, status quo, as Ray went down in a swarm of hands and arms and bodies, just how it is in Oz.
What will you give me if I deliver him to you?
He spends his afternoon in the infirmary, sunlight slanting through the smoky glass of the windows as much as it can, trying to peek through overcast clouds, and Ray tucks his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt, wraps it around himself as he moves through the rows of beds, offering Communion to a handful of his guys too sick to attend Mass that day. There's a curious kind of quiet lying over the ward like a shroud, a disquiet, an absence in his mental awareness that he tries to shake but can't quite, even though he knows Gloria wouldn't have been in on a Sunday, anyway.
"El Cuerpo de Cristo," he whispers to Aranda, one hand on the crown of his head, blood-warm curve of his skull cupped in Ray's fingers, buzzed-short hair tickling his palm, and the other man turns nearly blind eyes up to him as Ray lays the unleavened wafer against his lips.
His last stop of the day is Chris Keller, finally back in Oz, asking to see Ray, making a point of it, in fact, though for what purpose, Ray's not entirely sure. He can't help his feeling of wariness, an urge to edge up to the bed sideways like skirting a predator, something with sharper teeth and longer claws, alerting some sixth sense developed over years that he has to so carefully balance with charity, hope, love - one that stirs, restless, just under his skin as Keller makes his plea, tries to go through Ray to get to Pete.
What will you give me if I deliver him to you?
Keller claims to have died twice on the operating table, talks about hell, and Ray tilts his head to study him through narrowed eyes, because Chris certainly isn't the first guy he's heard claim to have flames licking at his heels. Too bad Ray's not a fan of repentance based on fear - that's not true repentance, to his mind, and it's one of the things he argued, probably too much, with Abgott, who seemed to have no problem supporting the death penalty in an effort to "encourage" sincere conversion in those facing it down.
No, you've got to work harder than that for Ray: You've got to mean it.
He knows Keller fought with Beecher over the plan to lay down arms with Schillinger, and he has to wonder just how sincere Chris's own effort at reconciliation really is, whether this whole thing is just a desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of trying to poach a Bride of Christ, just one more manipulation, contrite and sloe-eyed and body leaning in close like his center of gravity or maybe sheer will could pull Ray in ...
Shit, Ray thinks, suddenly, back going ramrod straight. Keller's hitting on him. Or maybe he's just playing with Ray - or maybe he's playing Ray, the way he did Pete.
No, he thinks. Not this time. That is not how this is going to go.
He remembers though, later, as he lights a candle before Compline, shut in the dimness of his bedroom at the rectory - remembers the desperation edging just under Keller's voice, the strain in the cant of his hips, artifice revealed, and he thinks about days turned into weeks, turned into months, and his own stubborn stiff-necked hurt after the riot. He didn't even go to see Alvarez afterward, not until he was going to demand something from him - Miguel's forgiveness of Leo - and Ray used his own forgiveness of Alvarez as a bargaining chip for that.
He allowed himself to be put off during the victim-intervention, and if he's going to be honest with himself, lay himself bare, it was a relief, to put that distance between them, to be able to set aside the hurt and the ache, smother it under dry routine - a relief when his days could go back to normal, when two-thirds of every day wasn't filled with bright fire and midnight despair, blood and sharp edges, copper and salt and breath.
Was there a reason Alvarez wouldn't have talked to him after the stabbing, before the escape?
How much of it was a copout - his agreement, his concessions to Pete's demands, the distance he allowed between himself and Alvarez; how much was it abandonment of a duty just because it made his own life easier?
They call him when the kids are kidnapped, a heart-stopping moment standing in the kitchen at the rectory, still in bedhead and sweatpants and bare feet, toes curled on the cold formica floor, because it's Monday, and that's supposed to be the first day of his weekend. He'd spent the day so far arranging space at a halfway house, coordinating a sponsor, cajoling three possible job interviews for Damon White, scheduled for release in a month and a half, nearest family three states away and a fourth-grade reading level, cut loose after eight years for armed robbery in a street-corner stickup for drug money. Ray'd hoped the ringing phone meant the local literacy program had managed to find a tutor willing to work with White, once he was out.
Instead he gets Pete's shaking voice on the other end of the line, and the pit of his stomach hollows out, the hair on the back of his neck prickling instantly, on alert, because Pete – she's pretty unflappable, even by Ray's standards.
Beecher weeps brokenly, hard and painful and ugly under Ray's hands, and Ray tries to hold him upright through the spasms, bent over him in a chair in Leo's office – tries to hold him upright through sheer force of will, by one hand on his shoulder and one hand on his back, another lesson Ray never learned in a classroom, that safe touch, non-sexual and comforting, in the space between his shoulders, nerve-rich and designed for a mother's touch or whatever soothing equivalent was at hand. He thinks he can feel the beat of Beecher's heart through the ribs caging it, through the fragile shaking wings of his shoulder blades, a frantic rabbiting in Ray's palm, echo of the doomed flutter of a smaller heart under his fingertips, and he slams a door on the thought.
No, he thinks. Not this time. These kids will be all right.
It's a prayer, a demand, as much as a reassurance to himself.
"You are fucking this up, asshole," Beecher says, bitterly, angrily, to the federal agent in the library, and Ray can see to one side, out of the corner of his eye, D'Agnasti standing guard in the corner, appalled now, all too human, façade broken – whatever it is he puts on with his uniform that lets him walk through the halls of Oz everyday looking like nothing gets to him. Vic doesn’t have kids of his own, Ray remembers, but he's practically a second father to his brother's three kids, helping out his ex-sister-in-law, taking up the slack, and there's a crayon drawing of "Uncle Vic" inside his locker door, birds in the sky like "M"s above the figure in the foreground, holding a baseball, grid over his face in an approximation of a catcher's mask.
Ray thinks about his own niece and nephew, Eri's constant inquisitiveness and Jack's quiet watchful demeanor, and he lights a candle that evening at the feet of the Virgin, tries to send up a prayer, but the words are ashes in his mouth, and he can't forget Beecher's insistent words.
Schillinger did this.
What kind of God would repay Beecher's good deed this way?
Pax homínibus bonae voluntátis, he thinks, desperately, but there's no Gloria during Lent, and the words stick in his throat, lie choking on his tongue.
What will you give me if I deliver him to you?
Sacrificial lambs, an unquiet voice whispers in the back of his head, scapegoats, and two nights later, Beecher's cries echo in his head as he stands at the gates of Oz and looks up into the cold light of a Paschal moon.
The thing with Keller comes back to bite them all in the ass, of course. The guy's been back for two minutes, and he's making trouble - shocking, Ray thinks to himself, wryly, as he stuffs the last of a granola bar in his mouth and tries to make the back of his hair lie down, craning his neck to study himself in the rearview mirror of the Tercel on the morning of The Visit. He can't help thinking of it like that, capitalized, emphatic - The Visit. He got the message on Tuesday morning, barely time to prepare himself and warn Pete - who tried to run out on him, anyway, the traitor - and he has no doubt the timing was deliberate. It's not quite a surprise visit, Abgott isn't really interested in catching them all with their pants down, he'll give them a tiny bit of warning - just enough to keep them off-balance. Ray has to wonder how long the Cardinal's been planning this kind of visit anyway, without telling him, has to wonder how long Abgott's been waiting for an excuse, has to wonder if Keller is just an excuse, or not. It would be a typical power play, Ray thinks, sourly, textbook James Cardinal Abgott - Abgott, who insists on calling him Raymond. Not even his mother actually calls him Raymond.
Abgott, who had big dreams for him, as long as Ray was willing to be his Great Yellow Hope, follow his rules, shut up and do as he was told, be his model minority ... only Ray's never been very good at that, at dealing with those kinds of expectations. He doesn't have the patience - too little forbearance for bullshit. He gets too sick of it, the people who think he's going to be so naïve - a pushover and meek into the bargain, fallout of being small and looking about 10 years younger than his actual age, and more of the model minority crap, like people asking him where he's from, when he's from Toledo, and Sacramento before that.
Granted, Toledo was kind of horrible, after California, so it's probably a good thing he was so young when they moved there. He had less to miss, that way, including not being the only Asian kid in his class, the one everyone looked at when they did the chapter on Marco Polo in sixth-grade World History - like 90 percent of his family wasn't Japanese, other than Nainai, and her family had been in the US longer than almost any of the other branches of Ray's family tree. She'd sing snatches of old songs when he was small, cradle songs, practically nonsense syllables at that point, words that even she barely remembered the meanings of. Her own mother had tried to make her stop using the language, although Ray's sister is trying to preserve some of it, sits her down with a tape recorder at every family holiday. She certainly didn't make Ray Chinese enough to keep him from getting his ass kicked by the Chinese kids in the nearby neighborhoods back in Sacramento, the ones who called him and his family murderers, executioners, other words they'd picked up from their parents, baffling Ray when he was 6 years old.
Really, he was just always glad they never had time to do more than paperchase WWII in any given history class.
Of course, then there was that Italian kid, after World History, sixth grade, thanking him for the spaghetti, and Ray thought about punching him until he realized the kid was serious, and then he felt kind of bad for someone who was so much his own cliché. Of course, when he mentioned that - and he'd been snotty enough that it still makes him flush hot with embarrassment every time he thinks of it - all Joey did was shrug and ask him "What am I gonna do? I really do love spaghetti." And what could Ray do then? At that point, he had a best friend who'd stick with him through junior and high school, the first boy he was ever a little bit in love with, eventually, before he ever even realized he wanted to hold Joe Tessio's hand for reasons that the church wouldn't approve of at all. If Ray had a type, he might think it'd been set by Joey sometime around sophomore year, lean runner's body and dark hair and soulful eyes. He was just skinny, though, that first day, back in sixth grade, kind of scrawny, with a scraped up elbow where he'd fallen playing basketball in the parking lot that served as their little parochial school's recess area, and practically as small as Ray.
But seriously, fuck meekness and expectations, he thinks, slamming his car door and licking his fingers to make one last attempt at taming his hair, squinting at his reflection in the window. He has a flash of memory - the first time Jan put eyeliner on him, back from college and magnanimous enough to take her little brother to a house party, especially if it meant she got to corrupt him into the bargain, a light touch on his chin to tilt his face, and then a hand scrunching his hair to spike it up, before she grinned at him and told him to look in the mirror, little brother. He remembers touching his own lips and feeling them stretch into a grin under his fingers. Fuck your mathletes, he said to her, to his own reflection, stomach dropping at his own 16-year-old daring, and she laughed.
That was always the problem, trying to deal with Abgott - Ray wouldn't give in. Ray is short and looks unassuming, but he's not going to take it lying down.
Of course, look where that got him, fixed point in space, stuck in orbit around Abgott, who won't let him go, for some reason, who can't just transfer him to someone else's jurisdiction, oh no. And Ray can remember how proud he'd been, back in the day, so self-satisfied that he'd impressed James Cardinal Abgott. Like a virgin going to her marriage bed not realizing what was waiting for her.
Shut up and take it.
Putting up a fight is probably easier when you're not hobbled by vows of obedience, he considers, and he laughs - at himself, again, and bitter, again - at his midlife crisis or his delayed teenaged angst or whatever this must be that he's going through. Possibly he's a little tense, right now. Cranky, his grandmother would have said, like he was still 5 years old.
More than anything, he's pissed off that Abgott's showing up here like Ray doesn't know how to run his own show. If the guy didn't think Ray knew what he was doing, why'd he put him here in the first place? Ray may have self-doubts on occasion, but he knows better than to think Abgott himself is going to assign someone to a position they're too incompetent to hold, not when it might make him - and the Church - look bad. Of all the worries Ray had when he was sent to Oz, the idea that he might be able to deal with the job was the least of them.
And look how that turned out.
But now Abgott's going to come in like he's going to solve all their problems, after Ray's - literally - bled for this place?
Vow of obedience, he reminds himself, looks in the mirror and smiles, brittle now, shows his teeth - but only momentarily. He swallows his apparently damnable pride, and he kisses the ring like a good little boy. He's cleaned up the office, shoved the everyday mess into drawers to hide it - nothing's been filed properly since he lost Sippel as his assistant. The first thing he did was hide his copies of the Catholic Worker, because the last thing he wants to do is deal with the reaction that might get, the raised eyebrow, the look of disappointed forbearance. The best he can hope for is that Abgott will get in and get out as fast as possible.
"Do you know why I transferred you here?" the Cardinal asks him, slipping on his alb, suiting up like the warrior of the Lord he views himself to be, and Ray pauses momentarily, because really? They're going to talk about this? To each other and out loud?
"Because I had too many opinions?" He can't help the edge of insolence in his voice like the hint of a blade sliding just under surface.
"Because you had too big an ego." Abgott pauses and studies him, tilts his head just the barest bit, a movement so slight it would go unnoticed by anyone who didn't know the cardinal, who hadn't worked side by side with him for more than two years, the look that Ray's seen before when he studies a problem, takes it apart, layer by layer, in his mind, before pronouncing theological judgment.
And Ray can't say that he's wrong.
"Something tells me that's changed," Abgott tells him, and Ray blinks at him.
Prick. Although, again, Ray can't say that he's wrong. Ray doesn't feel like anyone's Great Hope, at this point.
You are fucking this up, a small frantic voice repeats in his head.
On Wednesday, Pete asks him - no, warns him - to be prepared for Ryan O'Reily in the confessional later in the week.
"What's he done now?" Ray asks, because he can only imagine. He stops poking through a jumble of old takeout containers - he was certain he brought some leftover pad thai with him on Sunday and left it here - to peer over the top of the fridge door at her, washed-out in the blue-white florescent light of the break room, looking tired and concerned and ... maybe a little disturbed. He wonders how off-balance she still is from Beecher's outburst in the library, from Abgott's visit and interrogation.
"I don't actually think ..." she trails off, shaking her head at him as she pours a dollop of milk into her tea. "You know I can't say. But I can tell you that you should talk to him, Ray. And if he doesn't show up, I think maybe you should go find him."
"Is this about the victim intervention with Gloria?"
"It's not as if I expect anyone to be on their best behavior in these sessions." Even the ring of metal on ceramic as she taps her spoon against the mug's rim sounds wry. "That's part of the point of them."
Like Mass, maybe, a place you can go to put something on someone else when it's too big for you to handle - like Mass, or the confessional. Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution, Ray thinks, fleeting, leaning one shoulder against the refrigerator door, but he can't quite place the quote, can't take the time and attention to chase it around and down.
"All I ask," Pete's saying, "is that they be respectful of each other. And follow the rules. But people have bigger expectations of themselves. Always bigger. Or smaller. One or the other."
She rinses her spoon, habit of neatness Ray recognizes, ingrained by communal living, and sets it aside before she tilts her head, studying him from under the new fringe of steel-grey bangs she's trying out, almost exactly the way she looked at him over the lip of a bottle of Bud Light, the last time she took him out for a drink. He shoves his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt, shifts to stand straight, catches himself pulling back his shoulders like someone's poked a finger between his shoulder blades, before Anderson wanders in with his lunch in a brown paper bag and breaks up their impromptu meeting.
So he doesn't know exactly what was said in that room - what Gloria or O'Reily or even Pete herself might have spilled out during the intervention - because Pete's not the open book Ray always seems to be when faced with her probing questions, and she's got her own vow of silence, her own requirement of confidentiality, the professional ethics of the therapist.
It's up to Gloria to tell him, in the wake of disaster like a hurricane, soft-footed on shifting sand, her gaze flickering to his face and back down to his desk before she forces herself - a visible effort - to meet his eyes again. She has her arms wrapped around herself, thumbs tucked into the shirt hem of her shapeless scrubs - armor put on every morning, like a uniform, like a collar, something that should be sacred – and she's perched on the edge of a chair in his office ready to fly, door firmly closed between her and the rest of Oz.
"Don't look at me like that," she says finally, and he gets up to pull out the heather-grey sweatshirt from his closet, the one he liberated from Thomas back on a November morning when he was running late, dashing out the rectory door while still trying to finalize his sermon for that day's Mass.
"Like what?" he asks, holding out the sweatshirt in her direction. "Go on. It's freezing in here. They always turn the heat off too early in the year."
"With all that sympathy," she says, voice sharp, but she takes the sweatshirt from him, muffles herself in it, even bigger on her than it is on Ray, which is admittedly part of its appeal. He thinks her shoulders loosen slightly inside it, despite her tone. "I don't want your sympathy."
"I look at everybody that way," he says, trying a small smile. He briefly considers dragging his chair out from behind the desk, equalizing their positions, but then he wonders if she might feel better having the desk between them, and he hangs, poised for an awful indeterminate moment until she laughs.
"You do," she agrees. "I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse."
"Gloria ... Do you ... Can I …" He flails momentarily, suspended in motion, finally waving an inarticulate hand at his seat and the space between them, waiting for her nod before he drags the chair around the side.
She goes through the formula, all "bless me, Father, for I have sinned," but she warns him upfront that she's not really asking forgiveness for kicking the shit out of O'Reily, that she's not sorry for it and she won't say she is.
No, he wants to say when she tells him what happened, no, a visceral denial, abnegation, renunciation, and he barely stops himself after getting out a simple "What?" - barely keeps himself from insisting she has to be wrong, that any of what she's gone through has to be something she's making up. He can't believe - doesn't want to believe - O'Reily could do this. He considers, maybe, that all of it - Ryan, Preston, Oz - has finally become too much for her, but then he remembers Pete's words - I think maybe you should go find him - and he finds himself shaking his head, finds himself shaking, and clenches his fingers around the arms of his chair.
"Gloria ... that ..." he manages before he trails off, so miserably horrified he thinks he might be sick. All this time, O'Reily's claimed that everything he's done has been because he loved Gloria, but how is this love? How can it be any kind of love at all?
And Pete wants Ray to talk to O'Reily? Jesus Christ.
He still wants to believe O'Reily didn't do it, wants to believe that somehow Gloria's wrong - maybe she misunderstood what Ryan was saying, he thinks, mind racing now - but then, this wouldn't be the first time O'Reily made a phone call and tore her life apart.
"He admitted it," she says, voice rising in outrage. "He looked me right in the face and told me he did it - he had someone rape me. So I punched him in the face."
"You ... what?" Ray wasn't sure this could get any more surreal.
"I did, Ray, I slapped him, and I punched him ..." A hysterical laugh escapes before she sobers again. "For just a second, I had my hands around his throat, both thumbs right there, where I could just ... press. And it felt good, you know? So good to just get that out, finally, after carrying it around since that ... that night."
"You should teach classes on that," she says. "On how you manage to get so much loving reproach just in somebody's name. That tone that says you're very, very concerned about me, but you just can't approve of my behavior. Do they teach that in seminary? Maybe they could add it to the medical school curriculum."
Ray keeps his mouth shut this time, waiting for her to wind down.
"You're right, though," she says finally, dropping her eyes to the knot of fingers she's clenched in the hem of the sweatshirt, picking with care through the thicket of words and tangle of emotions. "That's not the person I want to be. It just ... it felt so good, and that scares me." She looks back up, meeting his eyes again. "I'm supposed to want to help people. What is this place turning me into?"
"Gloria," he does lean forward this time, holding out a hand, and she hesitates, stretches out one of her own hands to touch his fingertips, feather-light brush, before she retreats back into the sweatshirt. "Gloria, you have every right to be angry about what's happened to you. About what was done to you. But you can't let it take over. You're more than that."
"I can't ask for absolution and be honest about it," she says, fisting her hands in the sleeves of the sweatshirt like she's grabbing for something and holding it tight, tight. "I want it. I feel like I deserve it. Because he deserved it. Deserved what he got."
Mercy is what you get when you don't get what you deserve. Father Basile's voice whispers in the back of Ray's head, dusty with the scent of old classrooms and stale sanctity, and he thinks briefly about grace, freely given.
"I'm not looking for any reconciliation," she tells him, after, pausing with her hand on the doorknob as she leaves his office. "Not anymore. Not with Ryan O'Reily. Not with whoever did this for him."
She's still in the confessional, for all she's halfway out the door, still trying to find someone big enough to carry it, he can see it in the way her eyes study his face before she drops her gaze to her own hand, clenched now around the doorknob.
"Maybe someday," he says, gently.
"And don't look at them like that," she tells him as she swings open the door. "It only ends up costing you, in the long run."
Tell him something he doesn't know, he thinks as the door closes behind her, and he reaches for his cigarettes.
He only had a couple left, he consoles himself, when he next looks up, blinking at the shadows in the corners of his office just outside the glow of his desk lamp, and realizes the pack is empty and he's missed Vespers.
Pro afflíctis et captívis, he thinks. Let us pray for the afflicted and captives.
Líbera eos, Deus Israël, ex ómnibus tribulatiónibus suis; Deliver them, O God of Israel, out of all their tribulations.
He's stayed shut up through the noise of four shifts of dinner and cleanup, trying to get a jump on his Easter sermon, and through nightly lockdown, although it's still a couple of hours 'til lights out. He stands at the door to his office, looking out the tiny window on the half-light of the shut-down cafeteria, keys in hand for a couple of minutes, weighing them like his next actions; eventually, he stuffs his wallet in his pocket but leaves his work spread out on his desk and heads out, down to the nearest convenience store, where he cruises through the aisles to pick up a wildly overpriced can of Campbell's vegetable soup for dinner. He asks for a fresh pack of cigarettes from the clerk, a bored older guy with a combover, hesitates over the possibility of a second pack before denying himself firmly, and hovers over the packages of mini-doughnuts on a rack by the register, eventually buckling down to choose powdered over chocolate-covered, despite the best interests of his black shirt.
He's got a clean shirt in the trunk of his car - Hallelujah - and he figures he'll hang his pants to steam in the CO locker room while he avails himself of a shower in a few hours. He's not wild about intruding on their turf, but it'll be 2 a.m. when he needs it, between shifts, and why bother to go home when he'd have to be back in Oz by 3 a.m., or even earlier, to be ready on time?
For whatever values of "ready" one can be for a hanging, he thinks.
Pesach, he realizes, as he walks out the door and blinks in the dimming twilight - the slaughter of the firstborn and the blood of the lamb marking the door, a sign to the angel of death, shibboleth of the chosen in chains. Let my people go, he thinks and shivers in the chill early spring breeze, tucking his hands into his coat pockets and pulling it close around himself as he crunches across random gravel on the asphalt to reach his car, and he lights a candle at the feet of the Virgin when he shuts himself back in his office, the walls of Oz closing around him.
Richard L'Italien joked his way to the death chamber, trying to the last to walk-the-dog with that damn yo-yo of his, and Donald Groves drank in a final burst of sunlight as he drew up short on the stone causeway, thrust his face out the window, up to blue sky, before the COs grabbed him and hustled him along on his dead man's walk. Shirley Bellinger walks light in the spring chill coming through that same cracked window, keeps her face resolutely forward, doesn't turn toward the hint of pink on the horizon under a silver sky, like she's already distancing herself from what remains of this life, and Ray watches tendrils of her hair dance in the breeze, everything overly sharp and echoing, quick and efficient, like the words of the psalm they're reciting together from memory, and nothing like a movie. He remembers her last interview, like her last confession - no gravestone, and a wish to disappear from the world, to be unknown, unremembered. No legacy, he thinks, and there'll be no child who'll want to find her grave, to visit her final resting place – she'd seen to that, more surely than Vern Schillinger or the man who'd raised the O'Reily brothers.
No one ever wants to be a bad parent, Ray.
Shirley's problem had never been about what she wanted, Ray thinks as they mount the stairs of the scaffold, each step just a little too high for comfort. Shirley's problem had never been about what she wanted, about what she wanted. Wasn't that the problem? Who cared about Shirley when she was being knocked around by her husband, when she was being raped by her father-in-law? Who noticed any problems while she was seeing signs of fire over her child's cradle?
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father knowing.
Shirley insisted she was carrying Satan's child, and she didn't mean it metaphorically, Ray's pretty certain of that. He's no psychology expert, but he's willing to trust Pete's diagnosis – but apparently, he's the only one.
No, it's not that no one believed it, he thinks, as Leo formally pronounces her death sentence. It's that no one cared. Devlin joked about it, Ray remembers, then complained about being late to a Christmas party - one with plenty of donors who wanted to be sure that the state stayed tough on crime, Ray has no doubt. He remembers Cyril O'Reily's stumbling, childish confessions, and he's not sure why he's surprised – and Cyril's not the only case of a guy with no business in Oz, just the most extreme, the most obvious. Ray can think of two guys in unit B and another in Unit C, just off the top of his head, who likely have IQs low enough to qualify as retarded, and they could outfit every CO in the place with a Kevlar vest on the amount the infirmary spends on meds in a couple of months, despite Weigart's best efforts to cut that cost to the bloody bone.
Christ, if most of these guys were functional, they wouldn't be here in the first place, and Ray thinks he might be including the staff – might be including himself – in that learned and professional and clinical assessment.
It was Caiaphas who had given counsel to the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.
He fists his hands tight around his Bible and refuses to turn his face away as Shirley kicks and screams, stands witness to her frantic attempts at escape, like a bird beating itself bloody against the inside of a cage, until she comes flying at him, knocking him to the ground - collateral damage, the end result of getting in the way, of trying to put your body between them and the bars. He doesn't even think about it as it happens - only later, as he pulls up a pant leg to inspect his knee in the office, scraped raw on that scaffolding erected so quickly and never intended to last: gallows, guillotine, crucifix.
Sacrificial lamb, marking the door so the Angel of Death will pass the rest of them by and leave them unmolested, mark of the chosen … but Ray feels Samael's fingers at the back of his neck now more surely than he did before that dark angel took Shirley, feels sick and scared, small and cold. He can't block out the sound of her cries, the image of Lopresti dragging her back, the man who'd come to her cell and fucked her every night, disgracing his uniform, and had the hands he'd laid on her ever been anything other than hands of violence, any better than her husband or her father-in-law?
Like snuff, Ray thinks, like L'Italien, fucking a woman, then neatly erasing her out of your life, except it's not neat, it's never neat, it's messy and bloody and painful and cruel, it makes Ray feel dirty just thinking about it, makes him never want to take off his shirt or even unbutton it in front of anyone else, anyone who might ever look at him like that.
There's a bike on the porch when Ray pulls up outside the rectory, a sign that Jeremy's already there, their floater, over to help out while St. Margaret's hosts most of the combined services for three parishes over Holy Week - Brother Jeremy Costello, Franciscan like the other two over at OLF, only Jeremy's got no desire to be a priest, seems perfectly happy as a friar and a permanent deacon, at least for now. He's only in his year of post-ordination study, though, so very young in his brown robes, and Ray wonders how long that will last, wonders how long he'll be willing to settle, wonders what his own life would have been like if he'd been willing to consider a more contemplative lifestyle, some kind of vocation that was a little less career track than what he'd been reaching for, tucked up snug and smug in Abgott's office. Look where that all got him, after all, he thinks, sitting in the silent car, rubbing his face as he rests his elbows on the steering wheel.
He's missed evening Mass - Mass of the Lord's Supper, no Doxology, still, no Gloria during Lent, and it's just as well, because the thought of it is like ashes in his mouth - but he doesn't miss the fact that all three of them hover around him at the kitchen table, like he suddenly has three wives instead of the usual two. Lou kneels at Ray's feet for the traditional foot washing, a service they offer each other every year on Holy Thursday, the weight of centuries of ritual behind it, cool water and careful, sure hands, thumbs pressed into his arches and palms supporting the soles of his feet, and Ray can't help thinking of Ricardo Alvarez, of his son and grandson bathing him when he was past all recourse, can't help thinking of Shirley, body lying in the morgue or maybe at the funeral home by now, cut open, cleaned out, sewed up.
... a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight, and they took the body of Jesus and washed it and bound it in linen cloths with the spices ...
He jerks his left foot in Lou's hands, and fingers tighten around his ankle; Lou looks up inquisitively, but Ray only shakes his head, and the other man lowers his eyes back to his task.
It's a way of babying him, Ray knows - he's pretty sure Lou took on this service for Ray specifically, rather than leaving it to Thomas or Jeremy - and it continues when they portion out the times for the evening's traditional vigil, setting up a rotation until midnight. No one will sleep on Saturday night, of course - not when they're hosting Holy Saturday vigil, waiting through the dark for Easter sunrise - but tonight Lou tries to send Ray off to bed like he's a child.
Ray fights him on it, refuses to give in - for all Lou is the pastor at St. Margaret's, he's not actually Ray's superior, and Ray's a priest, goddammit, he can do his job. Isn't this why he wanted to be a priest in the first place, to pull the sacred into his everyday life? He needs that back, now, needs to do this; they need to let him do this, and he can't seem to find the words to explain, hears himself, suddenly, in the small rectory kitchen, realizes he's fallen back on volume to convey his urgency. Jeremy's blinking, big-eyed, from his seat across the table, once Ray finally shuts up - the sort of frozen, half-shocked look Ray's seen on so many visitor's faces when something breaks out in the family room at Oz - but thankfully, the younger man's trapped where he is over there, right foot still held in big hands as Thomas continues his foot-washing task with remarkable equanimity, Ray has to admit.
Ray walks across the street by himself - concession from Lou, first watch, and admonishment not to beat himself up, later, if he does fall asleep during private prayer - and slips into the church like a thief, like a beggar, seating himself in the nave, about halfway back. It's dark, now, and quiet, echoing, the only light a faint illumination from the streetlights through the windows, thrown across the simple lines of the high ceiling, the glow of the Paschal moon just past full tracing along the stone floor. St. Margaret's has been a modern building since its renovation in the late '70s, white walls and light oak, simplicity more suited to the Franciscans at OLF, quite honestly, and a contemporary look that surprised Ray, considering Lou was already pastor when it was renovated. Lou's a traditionalist - one reason he and Abgott get along like a house on fire - but he's also a proponent of the whole idea of decency and simplicity, Ray supposes.
All the lights were extinguished, candles and lamps, after the service earlier, leaving the dark of the tomb, waiting for the stone to be rolled away, and there's no Eucharist in the tabernacle, set back in its alcove, and so the sanctuary lamp has been darkened like the other lights. All the statues, the images of the saints, Margaret in her alcove, Mary behind the altar, are veiled, waiting for Easter sunrise. Traditionalist, Ray thinks, studying the simple wooden altar, the sanctuary - sacrifice and safety, bound up together, but Ray's not sure anywhere is truly safe, anymore.
He sits in the dimness blankly for a few minutes before he realizes he's missing his office, his cafeteria, missing the familiarity of concrete walls, the random banging clanging sounds, even the cooking smells, and it's funny how he thinks of it all as "his" - his office, his cafeteria - how the constant flow of prisoners in and out, kitchen crews and mealtimes, mark his days as surely as the Liturgy of the Hours.
Missing the prison, and this is the worst week he ever could have imagined - beyond what he could have imagined, even after seven years in Oz - and when he saw Shirley's body drop and jerk and swing, all he could think was that Alvarez tried to do that to himself in his solitary cell, that he didn't even fight like she did. Sure he'd kicked and screamed and beaten himself against the walls of Oz, and he's got a death sentence too, just slower, but he put the noose around his neck, himself, and how could Ray watch him die like that, watch his body drop like Shirley's, life pulled up short with a jerk and sickening snap?
I will fear no evil. I will fear no evil. No evil.
He remembers Miguel's words, later, muffled and croaked out of a ravaged throat - you should have let me die - and the thought is horrifying enough, the thought of Miguel on a dead-man's walk. But here he is, Ray thinks, pressing his fists to his own stomach, hunching in on himself like he can avoid a blow - here he is, thinking of Alvarez again when Shirley deserved a true witness to her death, someone who was there for her. Ray failed her in that, distracted by his own concerns, like he failed Groves when he missed those last words to pass on to Officer Smith's mother. Ray should have been there for them, for both of them, for all of them, but Jesus, Jesus - and it's a cry of despair, more than blasphemy, he consoles himself - he's just so tired of being the one who's there for them.
He's so tired of being God's witness.
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father knowing.
Sometimes he thinks it would be easier to take on Pete's role, the protest, walking out, and L'Italien laughs in the back of his mind, but he remembers, that first death he was witness to after the death penalty was reinstituted, remembers his thought of the thieves crucified with Jesus when he wanted to despise L'Italien.
Pray for him, Mary. That's for him. That's for all of us.
Shirley's murmured words come back to him, quiet, but firm and sure: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
(.. but where are Ray's green pastures? There's nothing green, nothing growing in that prison where he and all of the rest of them are locked up.)
He leadeth me beside still waters
(... waters gone stagnant and dead ...)
He restoreth my soul. He guideth me in the paths of righteousness, for His name's sake. Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
(I will fear no evil. I will fear no evil. No evil.)
for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me
(... but the rod is no comfort when it's turned against you ...)
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over
(... with what? poison?)
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
(... but there's no goodness in Oz, no mercy. Ray's not sure whose house that is, but it's not God's - he's sure of that. Devlin's, maybe. The Devil's. Oz is the valley of the shadow of death, and Ray walks into it every day. Offering himself up, and he always did love his martyrs a little too much, he remembers that book from when he was in grade school, checking it out over and over, St. Lucy with her eyes on a platter and Sebastian pierced by arrows.)
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever .
But he's in exile, cast out of the house of the Lord, into the valley of the shadow of death. He wonders if the Cardinal had any idea what he was doing, wonders if he knew exactly what he was doing. He remembers his grandmother, his mother's mother, and her tales of the camp at Gila River, fences and concertina wire, hears the slam and clank of doors and bars, his thoughts spiraling, beating like broken wings against the inside of a familiar cage that feels like home, battering themselves bloody.
I will fear no evil. I will fear no evil. No evil.
He catches himself bent over and rocking in his seat, sick - sick in his soul - and he wants to run away like Pete, wants to run away like Miguel, bird on the wing and sun on his face. He lets himself imagine - being gone, being somewhere else, maybe being with Miguel. Maybe it's a good thing he doesn't know where Miguel is, because that might prove too great a temptation.
Although, what makes him think Miguel would care anyway? Miguel let him get beaten down, turn of a shoulder, business as usual in Oz. Miguel got beaten down, scent of copper and salt, sweat and spit and blood, Ray's own silk stoles bound around his wrists, holding him still, holding him helpless.
It's lunatic to think like this, he tells himself, his laugh loud in the empty, echoing church, acoustics exquisite, bouncing the sound back to him as he slips to his knees on the tiled floor, lays his forehead against folded hands on the back of the pew in front of him and breathes.
My God, my God - why hast thou forsaken me?
He thinks of Shirley and of Gethsemene and of another death that day, millennia ago, thinks of a man who walked away.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said to him, "Are not you also one of his disciples?" He denied it and said, "I am not."
Ray knows better. He knows he can't do that.
He found a picture of his grandfather once, his father's father, in a box in the back of a closet when he was 16, a candid photo that looked shockingly like Ray, himself, in some indefinable way he's never been able to figure out, considering he looks so much more like his mother's side of the family. There was just something about George Mukada's expression under his helmet, the way he held himself in his fatigues, standing behind a dirt berm in a French forest, looking entirely too young to be holding the rifle he was carrying, a little too small for his coat.
The 552nd would go on to help liberate Dachau, Ray knows - something he's always felt a fierce pride in his grandfather for, a pride George himself never seemed willing to take on. He never talked much about that part of the war. He sat down with both Jan and Ray, individually, one-on-one, when each of them was about 14 years old, and he told them about it - he did it with each of the grandchildren, Ray learned, comparing stories with his cousins, and he can remember bugging Jan about it when he was 11, the solemnity with which she treated the discussion, that he only understood years later, after he'd taken his own part in the ritual telling.
George Mukada talked to each of them about it once, and no more; they could ask whatever questions they wanted, but it was made clear: This was not a topic he would discuss again. He cried - no, he wept, and it was the first time Ray ever really understood the difference - unashamedly, unreservedly, while he talked about it, wept not just for the physical state of the people he encountered, the bodies he found, the atrocities that had been committed, but remembering how frightened the people in the camps were, frightened of George and the rest of his company, before they understood they were liberators, when all they saw was more uniforms, more soldiers.
The power of the uniform, the responsibility that goes along with it - Ray reminds himself of that lesson, of his grandfather's shaking voice, every time he puts on his collar.
He leans his head against the side of the pew and looks up at the veiled statue of the Virgin above the altar, and he wonders what kind of immortality Shirley will get. She didn't want to be remembered - she told that to Ray and anyone who would listen, insisted she wanted an unmarked grave, wanted to disappear from the world - but there are other, more important immortalities.
Roll away the stone, Ray thinks, and remembers the thieves crucified with Christ, and the promise of the kingdom of heaven. He has to believe that, has to hold on to that; he has to remember that they are not hopeless, that they're worthy, that they can be saved, and that they deserve not only grace, but ministry, whatever the cost.
My job is not to make judgments. My job is to be by his side. My place is with him.
O'Reily finally shows up for confession on Saturday, skulking in line until Ray's through Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose and in his veins, fresh fish with haunted eyes and tight lips, Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams, every night, the dreams where the two women he strangled come back for him - all Ray's regulars, all the usual admissions and non-admissions of graft and extortion and sex and despair. Cyril offers up his weekly confession of frustration and bad words, the small selfishness of a child, hogging his cookies at lunch on Wednesday, even though it might make Ryan feel better to share, and Ray sends him on his way with ten Hail Marys, as helpless as ever, before Ryan takes his turn.
My job is not to make judgments. My job is to be by his side. My place is with him.
Ray keeps his back turned, offering the putative anonymity of the confessional, but who else is going to be there right behind Cyril? Anyway, Ray knows them all by now, after years in this prison, knows his flock by more than sight, can tell something's wrong - like any good shepherd - by the way they sound, the way they move, the hitch in the step and the lingering isolation. He knows O'Reily, knows his loose-limbed insolence and his amped-up frustration, his expectant calculation, and when Ryan slumps into the chair at Ray's back, his weariness hits Ray like a fist, almost tangible, a kind of all-out, bruised exhaustion that tugs at Ray's own muscles and heart in a way he remembers from Joey in the aftermath of a final kick at a track meet or his brother-in-law, Mark, post-marathon - someone who's pushed past all resistance and beyond, someone who's left everything on the road, no reserves left.
Even so, the plaintive quality in Ryan's voice shocks Ray, although he locks down the reaction, forcing himself steady and still in response to Ryan's seriousness - uncharacteristic even for confession, maybe especially for confession. O'Reily uses the weekly event as a way to kill time, is generally all brash bullshit and charm. Ray hasn't seen him this serious since the cancer diagnosis, since Ryan faced down a death he thought he couldn't bargain with or outwit, since he talked about what might happen to his wife, his brother.
The words come spilling out of him, and how has he waited this long, Ray thinks, waited for the assurance of the confessional seal with all of this inside him and no one he could tell, no one to speak the words to, no other way to make them real for someone else, anyone else? Ray's glad he heard Gloria's confession first, because he can't imagine keeping this from her, what he hears from Ryan. He's never wanted to betray the confessional like this before.
He remembers another Saturday, another confession and a younger, more characteristically brash Ryan, a tale of cigarettes and denial, remembers his own ... well, it had almost been an accusation, hadn't it? ... of altruism.
Things have a way of coming true.
So, actually ... I lied ... for his own good.
So you weren't actually committing a sin.
Then why did you come to confession?
Ryan does an awful lot of lying for somebody's own good, Ray thinks, and he's not entirely sure if that's a sarcastic observation or not. Maybe it is and it isn't.
What's the truth this time, he wonders - what's O'Reily actually confessing? What does he want absolution for?
It's pretty obvious who he's trying to reconcile with - and the Catch-22 he's tangled himself in. Ray can almost see, now, what has Gloria so twisted up over O'Reily, over a guy who's willing to do the kind of things Ryan does for the person he loves, in whatever way he understands love. There's nothing admirable in Preston's death, certainly, but this lie, in the service of someone else's greater good, this voluntary fall onto the sword that Ryan himself sharpened - Ray can almost admire it. It may be one of the few unselfish things Ryan O'Reily's done in a long time.
Ray wonders if Gloria will ever forgive Ryan for it, and as he lights a candle, after, at the Virgin's feet, he wonders who - what - might have died this time, that he's lighting his little pinpoint flame for, or whether he's asking a blessing to keep something - someone - safe.
Ray knows he's forgiven Alvarez a lot of things - fists and torn flesh and a split lip, the turn of a shoulder as Ray went down in a swarm of hands and arms and bodies, business as usual, hard press of fingers against the curve of his jaw, his neck, scent of copper and salt and the hard silk bindings of his own stoles tying him down - because Alvarez is just plain, flat-out scared a lot of the time, running on adrenaline, trying to make sense of the senseless world around him. O'Reily ... he comes off as more calculating. He is more calculating, Ray thinks, listening to the sixth sense that he has to so carefully balance, the instinctive response to a potential predator that has to be tempered with charity, hope, love. But Ray's seen Ryan just flat-out scared, too, when he went through that cancer treatment with Ryan - with Ryan and Gloria - and he remembers how scared Ryan was. He wonders, sometimes, if Ryan's ever truly recovered. Not physically, although there's always the concern, with the lumpectomy, that the cancer could reoccur - but if he's every really recovered from that feeling of helplessness, of despair, of the entire world pulled from under your feet in the face of your body's own betrayal, the loss of invulnerability and invincibility, being made small and sick and weak not just by the sickness but by the very drugs that were supposed to save you.
Ray grew up reading his grandfather's Howling Commandos comic books, over and over again, the ones that included the Nisei Squad - it was what set the Mukadas on the path to being a Marvel family, instead of DC, those three simple issues. At 6 years old, he thought maybe his grandfather actually was Jim Morita, that maybe "Jim Morita" was an alias, like "Clark Kent" - or really, like "Superman," he supposes now - something that allowed George Mukada to hide some kind of superpowers in everyday life.
And if he was super-powered, he was invincible, right?
In my family, Ricardo was like God,, Miguel's voice says, and Ray thinks about Ricardo Alvarez with shaking hands and childish anxiety, fingers wrapped frail in his son's as Eduardo and Miguel washed him in the infirmary, thinks about his own grandfather's paper-thin skin and cold fingers as he lay in a hospital bed near the end. It had been the first time Ray had ever formally performed the anointing, oil slick on his fingers and the smell of antiseptic in his nose, still new to his collar, the chrism barely off his hands from ordination, like it was leaking away before he could even grasp hold of it, no matter how tight he clenched his fists. He'd been kind of resentful about it, about having to worry about fucking up the sacrament when he only wanted to worry about his grandfather. He supposes it was a formality, anyway - George had been a pro forma Catholic at best, in it for his family, and Ray halfway suspects he'd been an atheist, really, after seeing more than he could handle in the war - Dachau and Little Cassino and the fight for the Lost Battalion.
The virtue of hope exists only in earthquakes and eclipse, he thinks, but he doesn't have time to place the quote, to chase and pin it down.
Murphy shows up for confession, as well - or at least some form of it, tipped back in his chair in Ray's office, a spare few minutes before Ray's evening rounds in the infirmary, and he's back in uniform, now that Martin Querns is heading Em City, but he doesn't look any happier. His very reticence in a tipoff - Ray's learned nothing can still Murphy's tongue like loyalty, and so he feels little compunction about probing the sore spot when he's already pretty sure he knows what the problem is.
"He's been riding my ass for taking his job," Murphy admits, finally, leaning forward with a thump to rest his elbows on Ray's desk, and Ray squashes the brief, likely blasphemous thought that this seems like a conversation that could be improved by a bottle of Scotch kept in his bottom drawer and pulled out as needed - if only he did such things. "He told me that if I really had any loyalty to him, I would have quit my job when he was fired. I mean ... does that sound reasonable to you?"
It sounds ridiculous, Ray thinks, and if anyone other than Tim McManus had said it, he has no doubt there wouldn't be even a lingering hint of uncertainty underlying Murphy's aggrieved tone.
"I think you know the answer to that," he responds out loud, allowing a hint of chiding, chivvying, to enter his own voice. "What do you want me to do, Sean? Offer you absolution for following through on your responsibilities? Is that something you're sorry for? Something you think you should be sorry for?"
Ridiculous, on the face of it, Ray thinks, although he can't say it surprises him, either, and where would Murphy be, now, if he had done such a thing, now that McManus was back?
Ray offered to hear his confession, half-joking with an edge of seriousness sliding just under the surface, waiting to break free, and McManus had declined in the same tone, already half out the door of the break room - and it's not as if Ray had expected anything else. At least the guy was civil for their conversation, Ray thinks, listening to Murphy, and he thinks about Marcellus and Typasius and Mercurius Abu-Seifein, athleta Christi, all the soldier saints of the early Church whose faithful service to the emperor meant nothing in the face of their refusal to worship at his altar, and he feels a pang of sympathy, of empathy.
Ray always did love his martyrs.
No, not love, he supposes. It was never love so much as fascination.
"You should come to the church tonight," he says, suddenly. "St. Margaret's is holding Easter Vigil this year."
He's supposed to be there, told the Thomases he'd show up; he can remember last year, at St. Helen's, tucked away together in darkness, church half-full and the quiet cadence of the deacons as they worked their way through the night's readings - Genesis, Genesis, Exodus, Exodus, Isaiah, Baruch, Ezekiel - the spark of the candle and the growing golden light of dawn, the images of the saints emerging from under the violet cloth, Helen and Francis and the Virgin Mary.
"That's a lot of church, Father," Sean says, skeptically. "Anyway, I got my own vigil tonight."
"You're just coming on?"
"Nightwatch in Em City. Now, that's dedication, right - overnight in Oz?"
Ray supposes it is dedication when he looks up, later, at the touch of Gloria's fingers on the back of his hand, looks up from Corinthians at Carlos Aranda's bedside, up to the faint gibbous moon covered by clouds, throat dry from hours of reading.
Ahora vemos como por espejo, en obscuridad; mas entonces veremos cara a cara. Ahora conozco en parte; mas entonces conoceré como soy conocido.
"You should go home," he whispers to her, as he realizes Aranda's slipped into a more restful sleep.
"So should you," she tells him, nudging at his elbow, urging him to stand. "Come on. He's stabilized for now. He's not going to die on us tonight."
There's no guarantee how much longer he'll last though, Ray can tell by her tone, by the liquid sound of Aranda's breaths.
"The aphasia's getting worse, too," Ray says, more of a comment than a question.
"Yes. Something about the way the lesions on his brain are affecting the speech centers. For some reason he can still understand Spanish - maybe because it's his first language? We don't know. But we can barely communicate with him in English, now."
Ray nods and collects his vials of oil, wipes them off with a paper towel before sliding them into a pocket, remembers the slick feel between his fingers as he did the anointing, the smell of antiseptic in his nose. Through a glass darkly, he thinks, remembering the words he'd been reading moments before.
But then we shall know as we are known.
He's done what he can for Aranda, even if the man does die tonight, but something about the prison holds him there, tugs at him, keeps him sitting in his office even as the moon climbs small in the sky, surrounded by shadows, pattern of light from the staff parking lot outside cast on his desk through the enforced screen on his window, grid falling across his hands, the cover of his Bible, bright enough to overcome the moonlight. He flinches at the sudden flare of the guard tower spotlight coming on in his imagination, lighting the prison up like day, like it must have been the night Alvarez and Busmalis escaped, blinking like the burst of light was real.
It's been a long time since you had to be afraid of the dark, he reminds himself, and he closes his eyes and breathes, lets it pass through him and on, leaves it behind. He remembered that they were but flesh, he thinks, stray memory wandering through his mind, a wind that passes and comes not again.
He knows he's already missed the beginning of vigil over at St. Helen's, another promise broken, but there's no reason he can't do Holy Saturday vigil on his own, no reason he can't do his own liturgy, if he wants. Church is wherever he is. Isn't that one of the reasons he wanted to become a priest - to pull the sacred into his everyday life? And so he sits in his office, eyes closed, breathing, making the darkness around him a stand-in for all darkness - evil thoughts, evil deeds, selfishness and pettiness, deceit and division, abuse. It's been a while since Ray was afraid of the dark - there are a lot worse things to be afraid of, and if he can survive the riot, the takedown and the aftermath, well, he can probably survive almost anything. When he's calm and centered, he lights a candle, click and hiss of his lighter, brief sweet smell of butane, then opens the Book and starts reading.
He works his way through - Genesis, Genesis, Exodus, Exodus, Isaiah, Baruch, Ezekiel - as the night wears on, murmuring the words aloud in the small office as the shadows move around him, as the building settles with its clanging, banging sounds. He gets as far as Psalm 51 - let the bones which thou has broken rejoice ... the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise - and he closes the Bible with a thump.
... you had too big an ego ... something tells me that's changed.
He wonders if the Cardinal had any idea what he was doing, wonders if he knew exactly what he was doing.
Disquieted, he wanders the halls of the administrative section like a ghost in his black shirt and collar, peering through the glass into Pete's empty office at the neat piles of paperwork, studying the nameplate on Leo's door, pushing down an urge to trace the engraved letters with one finger like a kid, leaning against the wall opposite like he's waiting for an appointment, loitering with his hands tucked into his sweatshirt pockets against the chill. The long decline, he thinks, and it's not his own voice in his head; he rummages through his mental files for the reference, manages to chase it and pin it down: Father Henry, from high school, the first person to hear Ray's halting, half-embarrassed confession that he thought maybe one day he could actually be a priest. Father Henry had been the first to truly expose him to Augustine and Aquinas, to make Descartes more than a footnote in a history book and send Ray hunting for his first copy of Chesterton, but he'd also talked to Ray about Lewis and Tolkien, too, about the books Ray was already reading, and he'd been the one to tug out the strands of Middle-Earth's Catholic underpinnings and spread them out for Ray's adolescent view.
He fetches up, finally, in the staff break room, exhaustion creeping around the edges of his awareness so that he startles when Sean drops a cellophane-wrapped package on the table in front of him. He stares a minute before reaching out to smooth two fingers light across the top of it, but he can't help the smile that tugs at one corner of his mouth.
"Seriously?" he says.
"Yes, my friend," Murphy says, doing the delicate dance of the too-full coffee cup as he slides into the chair across from Ray. "Anderson just got back from visiting his sister in Baltimore, and he's been selling out of his locker. And who else would I think of when I discover a stash of Tastykakes than you?" He leans back in his chair, crossing an ankle over his knee. "You can thank me at an appropriate later time. One that involves a beer."
"What time is it now?"
"You've probably got about two hours 'til sunrise," Sean says. "Two hours until Lent is over, by anyone's standards."
"It's that late, already?" He thinks about his watch, left on his desk back in his office.
"If you'd told me you were going to stick around, I'd have invited to come have your vigil in Em City with some company." Sean tilts his head to study Ray. "Offer's still open."
St. Sebastian was a soldier, Ray thinks, inanely, as he gathers up his Bible on the way back to Em City, and he glances up at Sean in the doorway of his office, standing foursquare and solid, thumbs tucked into his utility belt, Sean who raises an eyebrow at Ray and tilts his head again and asks if he's coming.
"Thank you," Ray says.
"For Tastykake and a couple of hours in Em City? You're a cheap date, Ray."
He spends the next hour and then some in the dim amber glow of the guard tower, Em City still and sleeping around him as reads his way through Romans - death no longer has dominion over him - through Psalms - the Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation - through Matthew - He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. He reads silently at first, then again in a quiet murmur after Sean urges him, in what must be a burr of background noise to Sean and to Bell, the other CO on duty on the tower. He's barely conscious of the half-attentive audience - one of the first things you have to learn how to do, if you're going to survive in this profession, this vocation, is read for an audience, and an audience of one or two is no more likely to throw him than an audience of 75 or 300. He's read the Bible at enough hospital bedsides since coming to Oz.
He can see someone else, out of the corner of his eye, moving silent through Em City, the third CO on duty, on patrol, the vigilia - Dana Karailis, Ray thinks, new and painfully young, even younger than Jeremy - as he finally reaches the end of Matthew. The whole things feels unfinished, like there should be something more, so he lets momentum carry him, thinks about the planned vigil back at the church, swings into the Greater Doxology, finally, in the middle of dead silence and darkness. He does it in Latin, remembering the Brumel version at the Gregorian - what may be his favorite, despite Vivaldi's popularity, although Ray also has an unfortunate tendency to get U2's "Gloria" stuck in his head sometimes, too. Abgott hates those "modern" music Masses.
Ray thinks U2 may possibly be the most accessible form of Catholicism in the modern age - it's shot all through their music, and Thomas has raided Ray's music collection for the high-school CCD classes more than once because of it.
Glória in excélsis Deo
et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis
adorámus te ...
He does it in Latin, and then he does it in English as he becomes conscious of the weight of Sean's full attention, studying him, an awareness that's not there when he has a full congregation as his audience, that's absent when he's the focus of a group instead of just one person. He spares a brief thought for Jeremy, in his embroidered dalmatic over a simple cassock, probably saying the Exsultet right about now.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of goodwill.
We praise you, we bless you we adore you ...
He almost doesn't realize Kairelis has joined them on the guard stand, finished with his rounds, until he murmurs Amen at the end along with Ray.
"Not bad, Father," Bell says, grinning at him - she's AME, he thinks he remembers, and he ducks his head, suddenly self-conscious as the artificial sunrise of the lights flicks on, new florescent day dawning.
"Lumen Christi," he whispers, low, to himself, before he leaves them, heads back to his office, to the white and gold vestments of Easter resurrection.
Two days later, Ray needs a cigarette more than he ever has in his miserable life, and he smiles sickly to himself, grateful again that he hadn't considered giving up this vice for Lent - or maybe he should have, so falling off the wagon would be that much painfully sweeter, the snap of the lighter and the scent of butane and the first initial burn of smoke in the back of his throat. He started smoking during a rebellious phase, influenced by a boy in college - told himself it was a defense against the smokers around him, but that was just an excuse, really, just a justification, and not even a good one, because there was a boy in college, and nothing ever happened, but he liked watching Ray smoke. Liked hearing him curse, too, dirty words out of a pretty mouth, he'd said, and nothing ever happened, not anything worth counting, but Ray remembers fingers on his skin, rough thumb along his cheekbone, over his hot blush, fingertips at his wrist, over the pulse of blood, and wonders what he'd think now.
Why the fuck is he thinking about this, anyway, he wonders, and he knows he should stop smoking, should have given up this vice for Lent, at least as a first step - there are no boys he should be trying to impress now, although some days he still feels like he needs plenty of defense against everyone around him. But that's no excuse, no real justification, and he considers it, considers stubbing out the cigarette, crumpling up the pack, right up until Harrison Beecher says something to him about it, about smoking inside the building.
It's kind of amusing, Ray thinks, that this guy thinks his laws apply inside the walls of Oz - particularly when it's become glaringly apparent his laws don't even apply outside of Oz, all those laws that Beecher loved so much because they kept people who'd hurt his kids safely locked up.
You are fucking this up.
Beecher's words, haunting him - they could have been directed at Ray, should have been directed at Ray. He's fucked this up; he should have known, should have seen what could happen, but he was too naïve, too desperate to do some good, too deep to listen to good sense and his gut.
Et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis, he thinks. And on earth, peace to people of goodwill.
The evil in things is not intended, he consoles himself, refuge in Thomas Aquinas, doctor angelicus. Evil is a result apart from intention, good gone awry - and he'd like to believe that in the face of this fallout, but then, there's the road to hell, the road strewn with the bodies of dead little boys, the road that leads to missing little girls, and what do good intentions really matter when this is the outcome? Good intentions don't help Gary Beecher, or his father, or his grandparents; they don't help his sister, who's still somewhere, missing, in the hands of whoever treated her brother as figuratively and literally disposable, who left him in a garbage dumpster in an alley a block from his grandfather's law firm, poisoned by his own body after they held him down and hacked off his hand, kept him hidden for four more days with only the most rudimentary medical care while fever and dehydration wracked his thinning frame.
How much does it matter for all these people, for any of them, if evil is only an accident by good? It's still evil. Anything else is just a sop for Ray's soul.
Miserére nobis. Miserére nobis. Miserére, he thinks and takes a long drag off his cigarette. Have mercy on us. Have mercy on us. Have mercy.
He exhales hard.
He is losing his goddamn face, the one he puts on to look like all this isn't getting to him - he can remember those lessons, the basics, the things they don't teach you in a classroom, the things you learn from people like James Abgott, about seeming unflappable, about not letting them see your own doubts, your own fears, about projecting your supernatural calm. Touched by grace, right? All that seems like theory, now, abstract and intellectual as theology on a sunny afternoon, chalk dust dancing in dry, sanctified air.
He tries to remember those lessons two days later, when he runs into Murphy in the break room - shaken in a way Ray isn't used to seeing, losing his goddamn face, the one he puts on to look like none of this is getting to him.
"Beecher tried to kill Keller," Murphy says, staring blankly at the table top. "He's in the Hole."
"Well, that's nothing new," Lopresti says, stirring his coffee. "How many times has that happened - just this year?"
A cupboard door slams behind Ray, gunshot sharp, startling enough to jump, and D'Agnasti pushes his way past Anderson, lips a tight line; he slams the break room door behind him, too, on his way out, and Ray remembers, like a dream, the image of Vic standing guard in the corner of the library as a federal agent reeled off the details of the kidnapping, hand over his own mouth, appalled, façade broken - losing his goddamn face, whatever defenses he put on with his uniform that let him walk through the halls of Oz everyday looking like nothing was getting to him.
Anderson barely takes notice of the jostling, continues to watch his frozen burrito circling in the microwave with focused concentration, broad shoulders hunched, a slow flex of both hands and a curl of his fingers into fists the only indication he's aware of what's going on behind him, and Ray can bet who pried Beecher off of Keller, who pulled Tobias away when he got his hands around Chris's throat, both thumbs right there where he could just ... press.
"You're a dick," Ray hears Aguilar tell Lopresti, rage simmering beneath the words, but right now, he's more concerned with the look on Murphy's face.
"Sean," he says, stepping toward him, crouching beside his chair to put a hand to Murphy's elbow. "Are you alright?"
"He made this sound," Sean says, finally breaking his gaze to rub a hand over his face. "Keller did. Beecher was ... screaming about how Keller killed his kid. Williams and Anderson had to pull him off, and Keller just ... he went down. Mineo didn't even have to do anything. He just went down on his knees in the middle Em City, and he made this ... sound, Ray. Like an animal, like ..."
Sean breaks off, looking down at him, and Ray studies him, tired eyes and drawn face, before looking around the room at Anderson's bowed shoulders, muscles set tight in his back, at Aguilar's frozen expression, brows knit like she's holding back tears she can't afford to show. He remembers the set of D'Agnasti's mouth, the broken look on his face.
You are fucking this up.
No, he thinks. Not this time. Ray's naïve, but he's not that stupid about people, he's pretty sure he's not. He's seen Keller, seen the way he acts about Beecher - he's seen the way the man acts about the idea of going to hell, too, and if there's anything that will send you to hell, it's messing around, in whatever way, shape or form, with kids.
Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.
Ray can't believe Chris is responsible for this, no matter what Beecher thinks right now, in the middle of madness and grief. Whatever else Keller may have done, for all the ferocity between that pair, Ray has no doubt they care. He can wish they'd manage to turn that kind of feeling toward some more beneficial action, instead of beating themselves against the bars and each other, bleeding each other again and again as proof that you always hurt the ones you love - that the ones you love are the ones you can hurt, that it's proof they love you, if they hurt. But Ray knows Murphy and the other COs are pretty sure Keller's the one who stabbed Schillinger, back before New Year's, when Schillinger went after Beecher in the gym - he's heard about the bloody Pieta they made, Beecher in Keller's arms, when the SORT team finally burst in.
Ray remembers Gloria's surety and his own sick disbelief, Ryan's tired voice - and the discovery that he should have trusted his gut instinct. This time it's telling him that Beecher's gut instinct was right.
Who in this whole charlie-foxtrot has shown he won't hold a child sacred, after all - even the life of his own son?
"This ends now," Ray tells Sean and rises to stand, head up, shoulders set, no hesitation, like he's walking into the wind.
It's no surprise that Schillinger laughs when Ray tells him Beecher found Hank as a gesture of goodwill - the only real surprise is that he agreed to meet with Ray at all. Ray knows what Vern Schillinger thinks of him - chink, gook, Jap, slant-eye, ching chong - no matter that Ray's family, on both sides, has been in this country longer than the families of a lot of the Irish and the Italians in Oz - prisoners or COs - maybe even longer than the Schillingers. Ray thinks about George in his U.S. Army uniform in the mud and blood of France and of Germany, and about Hana waiting at Manzanar with a photo and a promise, about Alice Shigeta, neé Choi, walking away from her Chinese family, willing to follow her bridegroom into the camps when she could have kept her maiden name and her freedom, and about "Great-Uncle" Davis, the old man whose funeral Ray attended at five.
It'd taken Ray years to understand exactly what Samuel Davis had done for his family, buying Mikio and Alice Shigeta's neighboring farmland for five dollars, holding it in trust and careful hands until the young couple could come back from Gila River after war's end and buy it back for the same amount. Ray's mother grew up on that farm, told him stories about the peach trees and their sweet spring scent when she tucked him in at night in the cold dark of a Toledo winter - stronger than any other tree, he remembers Nainai saying, and Grandfather Mikio always called her his peach blossom.
Ray can remember, like a dream - or maybe it was a dream - being taken by his older sister's careful childish hand when he was only three or four to see the new kittens born over in Great-Uncle Davis's barn.
Et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis, he thinks. And on earth, peace to people of goodwill.
"If I'm lying to you, may I be damned for all time," he tells Schillinger.
Saturday marks the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and Ray thinks of little girls in print sundresses, solemn boys in badly-fitting suits crowning the statue of the Virgin with flowers as he sits in the cafeteria at Oz, scent of reconstituted eggs and industrial dish soap lingering, last banging of the kitchen crew cleanup clattering behind him. He remembers the soft crush of petals under his own 6-year-old fingers and the silky brush of trailing ribbons across his palms, scent of warm grass and impending rain in the outdoor grotto outside Blessed Sacrament - not the church where he was baptized, but the first he can remember, a hodge-podge of renovations, wooden scrollwork and cool splashes of stained-glass light and the warm burgundies and blues of the apse, gilded and accented by the arch of stone wings.
Somewhere, they're crowning the Queen of the May; meanwhile Ray's got Marty Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose and in his veins, a couple of fresh fish with their characteristic hunted look and tight lips, and Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams he has, the dreams where the two women he strangled come back for him - a typical Saturday, all the admissions and non-admissions of graft and extortion and sex and despair, the general misery of the human condition distorted and magnified by the funhouse mirror of Oz.
Ray's guys, they're serious about their confessional time - or at least, they're serious about taking their confessional time.
... spend the rest of my life in a little room … might as well kill me ...
Cyril O'Reily offers up his weekly confession of frustration and bad words, the small selfishness of a child, and Ray sends him on his way, helpless, with ten Hail Marys, before Ryan takes his turn. At OLF, they'll be through the offerings of flowers, by now, Ray knows, into 11 o'clock Mass, and it's just like a first Saturday, a constant awareness in the back of his mind, some kind of spiritual energy pulling at him or maybe just a longing for air, routine until Keller shows up with his hand scalded, wrapped in fresh gauze - remembering what hell felt like, he says - and sets the world exploding around Ray, crumbling slowly in a confession of abuse and murder and strung-out fear, some of the worst everyday terrors man has to offer his fellow man.
"I didn't want them to tell," Keller says, simple explanation for death, the simplest maybe, the least complex, a thought and a jump, instinctive reaction.
He didn't want them to speak his name, didn't want his name on the same lips that had been pressed to his, open for his tongue, open for his cock, the same mouth he'd fucked into, the men he'd fucked, and Ray has a wild thought, a stray memory - the fetish of the mouth, and a citizen of Rome didn't perform oral sex, that was for women and slaves, the mouth was sacred, an instrument of communication, and isn't this just a twisted funhouse-mirror version of the same thing? Like snuff, Ray thinks, like Lopresti, like L'Italien, fucking those men, then neatly erasing them from his life, and had the hands he'd laid on them ever been anything other than hands of violence? So easily erased, all those women, all those men, worth nothing more than the effort to snap their necks, but it's not neat, it's never neat, it's messy and bloody and painful and cruel.
Beecher, Ray thinks, and feels sick, because he's been standing up for Chris this whole time, defending him to Beecher, but how could someone who claims to love Beecher lay the same hands on him that have done such horrible things?
When you love someone, they own you. They posses you, the remembered voice of Richard L'Italien reminds him - L'Italien, who would not let himself be possessed, who struck out so violently to avoid it.
Ray remembers Keller in the infirmary, pleading eyes and hangdog look, the solid mass of him, the cant of his hips as he leaned in, the curve of his body, and Ray feels dirty just thinking about it, and he never wants to take off his shirt or even unbutton it in front of anyone else, anyone who might ever look at him like that.
He's not sure why he's so surprised Keller won't admit his crimes to anyone other than Ray, not sure why he's shocked at the force of the negation, the denial - or at the increasing insistence, the demand for absolution despite it all. It's not the first time Ray's seen this and it won't be the last, not in Oz, not anywhere, really. He knows a lot of people see him as hopelessly naïve - soft, even, a pushover - and they always expect him to be intimidated, fallout of being small and looking about 10 years younger than his actual age, whatever age that happens to be at the time. No one ever seems to understand - Ray's no fresh meat, and he knows he can't show any insecurities, any doubts, any hesitation.
He learned early on to walk with confidence, back straight, head up, shoulders set, no hesitation, like he was walking into the wind. Oz didn't teach him that, life taught him that, from the first kid who called him xiōng shǒu, murderer, to his face, to high-school classmates who'd nicknamed him "Charlie" behind his back.
The only thing surprising about Oz, honestly, was how little show of firmness it took to make some of these guys back off, like disciplining puppies, like all they'd been looking for their whole lives was a little structure, or like the concept of someone telling them "no" was so baffling it left them at a loss, or like one display of firmness was really enough to establish dominance. It's one of the reasons Ray knew he had to walk back into Oz without hesitation after the riot - walk into the wind, or he'd never survive it.
Keller, though. Keller's maybe too feral to respond the way most of these guys do, too scared to react any other way than instinctively, a thought and a jump, trying to bully his way into heaven. Because Keller's not sorry for what he did, Ray thinks - he's just sorry he's going to hell for it.
And he's going to hell. Ray's increasingly sure of that. Maybe he'd feel bad about it, if he wasn't pretty sure he was going to be there, too, if he wasn't tired of feeling pushed around, beaten down, tired of paying for whatever sins Abgott thought he committed, tired of being scared and sick, tired of being seen as ineffective and a pushover and a patsy, and he sets his jaw, narrowing his eyes as Keller insists, once again, on absolution, voice rising, like he can force Ray into this, like Ray's some kind of gumball machine, put in your confession and out pops absolution.
No, he thinks, no. Not this time. Not anymore. That is not how this works.
You have to actually be sorry for what you've done - it's not just confession, it's reconciliation, and what kind of reconciliation do you expect if you're not even sorry for what you did? Keller expects forgiveness when he's not even sorry?
Ray kind of understands Pete telling the guy to fuck off, now.
Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution, he thinks, again, and Ray isn't even Keller's therapist - although Keller's certainly not the only one using the confessional for therapy, not the first and won't be the last, and that's not only something that happens in Oz. Ray can sure see why he's in the market for a new therapist, though, the way he's fucked over his relationship with his current one.
Don't be like that, he tells himself. That's not the guy you are.
They're all God's children.
Of course, that would be easier to remember if so many of them didn't so often act like children - overgrown, dangerous children, with weapons and a whole lot of shit jammed up in their heads, pushing them to do things they really shouldn't do.
He's reminded, fleetingly and maybe idiotically, of the fights between his sister and his mother over hair perms or curfews or Jan's decision to major in library science instead of planning for law school - two immoveable objects, head-to-head, clipped words back and forth over family dinners - just before Keller damns him to hell and storms out of the cafeteria.
Get in line, he thinks sitting back in his chair and releasing a weary breath, cataloguing how awfully everything has gone, every single thing he's set his hand to in this prison. If he ends up in Hell, Keller's curse will be the very last in the long line of things that sends him there. He may be damned for all time, but it won't be for this.
He sits blinking at the wall for a few minutes, avoiding Anderson's gaze - Anderson, who's holding off the next in the confessional assembly line until he gets the nod from Ray - and entertaining the thought that he's already damned. Maybe this is hell. Maybe Abgott damned him, Yama and Rhadamanthus, Susinak and Yahweh and Maat with her feather, all rolled into one, pronouncement handed down in terse words on an official letter stamped with the diocesan seal. He wonders if Abgott had any idea what he was doing when he pronounced this sentence, wonders if Abgott knew exactly what he was doing.
Maybe he was killed in the riot, boot connecting with his temple instead of glancing off his shoulder, maybe one of those rifles from the SORT team got him, maybe he choked to death on some of the gas. Maybe this has all just been his damnation since then, this long decline, watching everything and everyone spiral down, watching Pete slip away, unable to help Gloria, fucking up this thing with Beecher, not knowing what's happened to Miguel, whether he's alive or dead, Miguel not caring enough to let anyone know if he's alive or dead ...
Maybe Ray got hit by a bus, and all of Oz has been hell, condemnation for having too many opinions or asking the wrong questions or having too much ego, whatever the hell Abgott judged him for and found him wanting. Maybe if he's really lucky, this is just Purgatory and eventually he'll move on.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
He laughs again - bitter, again - at himself, sharp and echoing, startling in the empty cafeteria.
The one thing Ray's been convinced of this whole time, foundation among shifting sand, is how much Keller loves Beecher. How can he love another man so much and hate himself so much for that kind of feeling?
Ray's never confessed it, of course - never felt the need to, never thought he needed to. It's not just that he's never acted on it - although it was kind of a relief to realize his vocation, to feel like the choice was taken from his hands. But even so, it's not something he feels like he needs to confess, not something he feels like he should have to be sorry for or apologize for. He remembers his mother telling him that he was made just the way God intended him to be, home after school and near tears of frustration and anger at one of his new classmates, making slant-eyes and bowing, giggling on the playground at recess, and he took her words to heart, like any other too-earnest 10-year-old. It's a belief that's never wavered, even when he realized, even when he knew he'd have to hide it, if he was going to be a priest.
I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought ...
Fearfully and wonderfully made, and there's nothing to reconcile, and he feels no need to talk about it, if it's only going to be confession, only one-third of the equation to fulfill the sacrament. That's just a different kind of masturbation, and he's not ... supposed to do that either.
Maybe that's part of what made him so angry at Keller, the idea that Keller was just using him like that, just the object of a jerkoff session.
He sleepwalks through the rest of his day, unable to focus, and drags himself back to the rectory, where he's plied with sweet potato casserole by Jeremy, little marshmallows crisped brown on top. Jeremy sits chin in hand across from Ray, disconcerting, and watches him eat like a grandmother, like Ray's nutritional habits are fascinating, and remarks that it must have been a shit day, if he can't even get Ray to argue with him over determinism.
Sometimes, "shit" is the only word that fits, Ray remembers, hears himself saying.
It wouldn't have mattered, anyway, he tells himself as he draws furrows in the soft mound of baked vegetables in front of him. Ray's role in this is minimal, really – if Keller doesn't feel any actual contrition, if he's not willing to make satisfaction … it wouldn't matter, anyway, even if Ray did agree to say the words.
He just doesn't know how to get Keller to see that.
You are fucking this up.
The phone rings, late at night; Ray's only the one to pick it up because he sent Lou off to bed with a promise to wash his own plate when he finished the warmed-over meatloaf and carrots, and Jeremy biked back to OLF – against all good sense – when Ray got home close to dark. "Itinerate preacher man," Thomas calls him, like it's not what all of them will be doing in a year or so, the ones who are still here, shuffling back and forth between the parishes, trying to cover two congregations with too few people.
Noctem quiétam et finem perféctum concédat nobis Dóminus omnípotens; May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end - he knows the words by heart, at this point, Compline before bedtime every night since his sophomore year of high school, when he first seriously considered he might have a vocation and not just wishful thinking, but he still reads from his worn Breviary with its onion-skin pages, fingertip following along the lines, lips shaping the words carefully, a low murmur in the quiet kitchen, flicker of a candle in a red cup on the stove and only the light from the hood above it falling across one corner of the table and the book, while shadows move in the corners of the kitchen. It's been a long time since Ray was afraid of the dark, though - he's faced darker things in the corners of Oz than simple shadows. He shifts the Breviary where it's propped against a couple of their knock-off copies of Lives of the Saints; he's spent the past hours with midnight pressing close, paging through the stories of Agnes of Rome, Dymphna, Agatha, Maria Goretti, martyrs to chastity, little girls taught that it was better to die than to survive impure, to lose their virginity, and Ray can't, he just can't ... He rubs a hand over his face, remembering, because what do you tell a 22-year-old kid who's being passed around a cellblock for contraband cigarettes?
It's part of the deal I made, Rick Cotter's voice, as clear in his head as it was at confession that afternoon, and Ray can feel the shrug of Rick's shoulder against his own as they sat facing opposite walls, and he knows them by now, after years in this prison, by the way they sound and the way they move. Sex for protection, and I know worse things can happen, but Father, I know it's wrong ... But I also know I'll keep doing it. It's the only way I can think of to survive in here. Can I still get forgiven?
He knows them like any good shepherd, but that doesn't mean he knows how to fix them. They never expect him to do anything, really - sometimes he thinks they tell him precisely because he can't do anything. It's not as if they expect anything to really change, and there's only so long you can live your life in protective custody - Richie, did someone rape you? Sure, but that's not the point ... - like they just need someone to bear witness, and that's his role, always his role.
Who do you set to watch over someone who's doing whatever they can to survive?
St. Zita, maybe, he thinks and scribbles a note in the margin with his pencil before moving on to Psalm 85: Inclína, Dómine, aurem tuam, et axáudi me: quóniam inops, et pauper sum ego; Bow down thine ear, O Lord, and hear me, for I am poor and in misery.
The phone rings, startling in the dim quiet, jerking him upright, and he pauses, heart thumping, fingers clenched around the table's edge, before he registers the sound and dives for it. No good hoping it won't wake anyone, Lou and Thomas probably both woke up at the sound, but if someone's calling this late, it's probably someone who needs some kind of help anyway. He manages to pull the receiver from the cradle halfway through the second ring.
"Hello," he says again, firmer this time.
His first instinct is to hang up, of course, because the rectory gets probably more than its fair share of prank calls, but the impulse is replaced quickly by a well-rehearsed response that kicks in - too familiar with those who need coaxing, who may be traumatized or embarrassed. Ray's not a legally licensed counselor, but he's dealt with enough people. He's barely into the standard spiel, all soothing tones and coaxing words, when the person on the other end of the line pulls in a shaking breath, and he knows. His heart slams suddenly against the inside of his rib cage, tries to slam its way out of his chest, like a fist to his lungs, and he sits back down, hard, almost missing his seat, banging his elbow on the edge of the table, but he only tightens his grip on the phone receiver.
Miguel doesn't talk - of course - but who else could it be?
Ray wonders for a brief moment, fleeting thought through the back of his mind, how he's so sure, just from the sound of the breaths on the other end of the line, but he is. Ray knows Miguel by now, after their years in that prison, knows him by more than sight, can tell something's wrong - can tell him - by the way he sounds, the hitch in his throat and the lingering exhale, and he remembers Miguel's breath on his face, light and quick, heavy and fast, and always panicked, remembers it the way he remembers the press of Miguel's fingers against the curve of his jaw, his neck, the frantic rabbiting of Miguel's heart under the palm of his hand, the scent of copper and salt and the hard silk bindings of his own stoles tying him down, holding him back as Miguel went down in a swarm of hands and arms and bodies.
The initial shot of adrenaline had him bolt upright, but he's numb already in its wake. He spots Thomas standing in the shadows of the doorway, stocking feet and a robe, end of his soft terrycloth belt clenched in one fist, concerned look on his face, and all Ray can do is stare back at him, everything narrowed down to a tunnel of vision and the plastic of the receiver gripped hard in his fingers, Miguel's breath counterpoint to his own, until there's a sudden click and the line goes dead. He has to stop himself from calling out Miguel's name, bite back the word like he can catch it between his teeth, sharp and bloody, taste of copper and salt in his mouth.
"The Wojciks?" Thomas asks him, voice low against waking Lou, and Ray stares dumbly back at him for a minute before shaking his head.
"No one willing to talk, on the other end of the line," he says, and it's not even a lie.
He has to wait until Thomas goes back to bed – gets a glass of water and putters around the kitchen, talking to Ray about something, but Ray can't even pretend to pay attention, and he's glad when Thomas spots his Breviary, rinses out his glass and wanders back into the shadows, telling Ray he'll let him get back to it. Ray tries to stand up then and finds himself on his knees beside the kitchen table, relief taking him down, shaking with the vestiges of adrenaline – not the first time it's happened, and it won't be the last – and then anger hits, his fists tightening on the edge of the table where he's caught himself. He's almost surprised at the intensity, the flush of straight-up rage that floods through him, tingling from scalp to fingertips, slapping him out of numbness, because what right does he have to be angry? Whatever made him think he'd hear from Alvarez, gone without a word, a thought and a jump, slipping his restraints and gone? What made him think he was ever more than a "hack in black" to Miguel?
He is, though, he is, he knows it - knows it, now.
But why here, why now? he wonders, picking through feverish thoughts, tumbling and wild. Safety, maybe, he thinks - it's safer to call the rectory, somewhere the phones won't be monitored, possibly recorded, checked the way they routinely are in Oz.
He can't get rid of the anger, though - why now, finally, after all this time with no word, no sign? It's been a month, and Miguel could have been dead in any number of ditches, nameless and faceless and lost, gone forever without a word or a sign.
Ray has to pull himself up, has to get to his room. He can't take one of the others coming out to find him like this, asking him what's wrong. He blows out the candle without thought, mechanically stacks the books on the table. He's in his room, door closed behind him, shutting out the rest of the world, before it even occurs to him to wonder why Miguel would risk it, how he could be sure Ray wouldn't call the police - before it occurs to him to wonder why he didn't.
Chapter 2: Book II: Book of Miguel
And love is not the easy thing ...
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind
The calls never last very long - a couple of minutes, maybe - here and there and always late at night, and Ray quickly takes to carrying the handset for the cordless telephone from the rectory's office into his room before Compline. It draws his gaze again and again as he works his way through those bedtime prayers (May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end …), and he can't help thinking of Jan, dragging the telephone into her bedroom, cord stretched taut to the end of its length to reach far enough, and she must have had to lie on the floor, head to the door frame, to even talk, but it didn't stop the whispers to boyfriends or the shrieks of laughter to girlfriends muffled through the firmly closed door, secret space carved out in the face of their mother's disapproval, their father's disappointed looks. Jan had been even more obstinate than Ray, that way, growing up, the children of their grandparents - of Pfc. George Mukada, of Alice Choi Shigeta - even more than of middle-class Minoru and Eileen, who worked to fit so seamlessly into the Detroit suburbs.
Stronger than any other tree, Ray thinks, and Nainai had never taught them to back down. "Shut up and take it" had only ever meant biding your time.
Justice will come, he remembers her saying.
Sometimes he wonders, though, if there's any such thing as justice any more, and even if there is, if it's possible to find it in Oz. He's still not sure what kind of prayers to send up for Alvarez, other than continued safety, no matter what happens, and so he prays for Miguel's safety and leaves the rest up to God. He develops a preternatural ability to pounce on the telephone at half a ring, while still three-quarters asleep. He spends four long days after the first call, agonizing days of nothing, wondering if he'll hear anything again - ever - wondering if the hitch in Miguel's throat was some kind of dying breath, if he'd reached out at the end with some kind of message for Ray, looking for some kind of message from Ray, for some kind of final sacrament or absolution.
He comes awake with a sharp drop and a jerk from troubled dreams of broken wings, bruises smudged like ash across the arch of a throat and the inside of a wrist, sharp scent of phosphorus and the blaze of a match flaring into a bonfire, blood marking a doorway, locked and barred, that he beats with impotent fists; he wakes with nails dug into his palms, small crescent imprints and a thin sting where he's clenched his fingers hard enough to break skin.
He questions himself, over and over, questions his surety, turns over every second in his mind, trying to parse the sound of lips parting and breath drawn in, the shift of the telephone receiver against the bunched fabric of Miguel's shirt at his shoulder, trying to dissect why he's so sure, just from the sound on the other end of the telephone line - not even the actual body language but the mere sound of it over miles of wire. Lying in the dark, he touches his fingertips to his own throat, his chest, feels the rise and fall of his own breath under his hands, remembers breath on his cheek light and quick and frantic, damp heat pressed against him, the length of Miguel's body, scent of copper and salt and smoke, weight pinning him, Miguel's heart rabbiting in the palm of his hand, and he realizes that he knows Miguel's body more intimately than he knows any other, realizes that Miguel knows his body, maybe more intimately than anyone else does.
When the phone finally rings again, he's sure.
Miguel's still silent, so Ray talks, gives his worry shape and form, allows it to escape, finally, into words, into reality, like he just needs - can only ask - for someone to bear witness to it. He talks to Alvarez about Leti, about his mother's concern, the buñelos she plied Ray with, their faint licorice tang, and the deep, milky taste of the corditos she made, legacy of her Miami childhood; talks about the way she first shut the door in his face, twice, before she'd eventually let him into the small apartment, and only when she found out Ray was the one who got Miguel talking to his father, his grandfather in Oz, after years between them.
You killed him over that baby, though, she'd said, shaking her head, and you are fucking this up, Ray had thought, and that he keeps to himself.
He talks about Eduardo, and about the COs who questioned him so that he wasn't feeling very cooperative by the time Ray got to him; talks about platitudes, mainly, and no discussion too specific anyway, filtered through Silvera's hands in the infirmary, because Ray's ASL is so rudimentary, a lack he keeps meaning to deal with, to do something about, but it always gets buried under the other things to do. Not that it's any excuse, and he'd felt that keenly as he'd struggled to connect with Eduardo.
Ray doesn't tell Miguel, but even in the two times Eduardo's come to confession in the intervening months, he hasn't given Ray much, although Ray almost ceremonially burns the pieces of paper Eduardo brings to his confessions - a system they worked out early in Ray's tenure at Oz, Eduardo's handwriting neater than anyone would expect for a street kid who's spent the past 39 years in Oz, but then, Eduardo's had a lot of time.
Ray wonders what Miguel's handwriting will look like in 35 years, wonders where Alvarez will be in 35 years, but he keeps that to himself, too.
He doesn't have time to say much, only a couple of minutes in each call before Miguel hangs up, line going dead without ceremony. It's not until the fourth call in that he responds: "Perdóname, Padre," he says, finally, formally, voice raspy and low in the dark, across miles of wire, breaking in to Ray's stream-of-consciousness chatter, "He pecado."
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
"I think you've done a lot more than that, Alvarez," Ray says after a moment, and he could almost laugh this time at the shocked silence on the other end of the line.
"Just come back," he can't manage to stop himself from saying, and the line goes silent again, the vacuum of a broken connection and dead air.
So it's not just Ray's certainty now, not his instincts or his guessing games, but it's a moot point, anyway, as he waits through more long nights with no word, still bringing the handset for the cordless phone into his bedroom every night, drawing his gaze, again and again, as he works his way through Compline.
Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit …
He spends his days moving through Oz like a dream - Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose and in his veins, fresh fish with hunted eyes and tight lips, Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams, every night. Aranda turns sightless eyes up to him from a hospital bed at the touch of a hand on his forehead and the sound of Thessalonians - Porque cuando aún estábamos con vosotros, os predecíamos que habríamos de sufrir tribulaciones. Y así ha acontecido, como bien lo sabéis.
For when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction; just as it has come to pass, and as you know.
Cyril O'Reily ODs on Haldol, and Ray's by his bedside in the infirmary when they bring in Busmalis.
"Rebadow tried to kill Busmalis," he tells Sean, in the break room that afternoon, blinking – the bearer of bad news, because Murphy's just coming on and he's moved over to Unit B, anyway.
The next week, Alvarez calls every night, sharp relief in the darkness, and Ray's aware of every breath he pulls in, senses them over the line, blade-sharp against his own skin. He touches the fingertips of his free hand to his own throat, his chest, feels the rise and fall as Miguel rambles, now, tells Ray about living on the street, running, trying to stay out of sight, how he's been warned - rumors through the grapevine and cautions in the back rooms of a bar, a garage owned by a hermano – that El Cid has put out word to have him killed, so that nowhere in this city is really safe.
Ray's pretty sure "this city" is New York. He remembers, a few weeks ago, they'd gotten word at the prison that state troopers had closed down Bear Mountain based on some wild report Alvarez had been spotted there, and he remembers thinking, at the time, how ridiculous the idea was. What would Miguel Alvarez - who'd never been outside of the city limits in his life - be doing out among the pitch pine and the scrub oak, out in the empty woods where he wouldn't have the least survival skill, the least idea of how to forage for what he needed, not the way a kid from the streets would make endless ingenious use of whatever he could find in laundromats and bodegas? Ray has a brief, incredulous flash of Miguel out in the pine barrens, surrounded by sweet fern and lupine and lowbush blueberry, coming face to face with one of the fluttering Kerber blues, butterfly wings slowly opening and closing as they study each other, nose to nose, and there's an almost science-fiction cast to the image, like some kind of fantastical lost world, hurtled back thousands of years in time to a glowing green untouched setting that's never seen a drop of acid rain or industrial pollution.
So he assumes "this city" is New York City, but he doesn't ask, because if he doesn't ask - and Miguel doesn't tell - then Ray doesn't know anything for sure. He isn't sure whether Alvarez is using the phone calls as a confessional, but he treats them that way nevertheless, and there's at least a slim thread of moral justification when he feels his face grow hot, a small thin tangle of guilt twisting in his stomach.
It's not as if Ray could manage to ask, anyway - not as if Ray can manage to get a word in edgewise, now that Alvarez has started talking, like a dam breaking. He can't even get a word in when Alvarez falls silent again for a few moments. Every time Ray tries to say something now, opens his mouth, tries to get out the words, Alvarez hangs up on him, like he can't bear to hear what he expects Ray to say, or maybe he just needs, can only ask for someone to bear witness, and that's Ray's role, always his role.
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father knowing.
In the moments on the line, Alvarez rambles, talks about running and stopping, the nights on the streets and the days in hiding, sleeping sitting up in the carrel of a public library - hoodie pulled low - until he was rousted, cat-and-mouse with police cars in alleys and in between pools of streetlight brightness, familiar game with new stakes; talks about a succession of couches and three different novias who finally insisted to their boyfriends that this guy couldn't stay here any longer, papi; talks about Starla, who shared a cigarette before kicking him out of her alley before she started work on the corner his first night in the city. He talks about the extra tamal slipped into his hand by a shopkeeper when he paid with a handful of quarters, the snap and smoke of cloves and chilies and cinnamon; about rain on his face and wet socks and the smell of dirt in a park and air heavy with the city scents of exhaust and asphalt and garlic and cumin and coffee, instead of recycled through three miles of twisting vent and the lungs of 40 other guys, stagnant inside a concrete box with the door shut tight. He talks about nights on the subway, the constant feeling of movement even as he sits still, about stretching out his arms without touching the walls.
The one-sided conversations are broken up by the automated operator asking for more change and the clattering sound of Miguel feeding coins into the telephone slot - he's jimmying coin-operated washers and dryers in lavanderías, he says casually, he's got a stash of the stuff, somewhere, because it's not like you can carry around all that goddamned change. A couple of times, he's been able to find a grocery store with a coin-change machine to turn it into cash, but they'll fucking rob you blind with those things, man.
"What?" he says, when Ray can't quite choke off a laugh.
"Are you going to start jimmying gumball machines, next?" Ray manages to ask, is surprised to actually get a response.
"Why would you think I would do that?" Miguel says, sounding offended. "Most of those things have signs that they're collecting for, like, disabled kids, or something. It'd be like stealing candy from kids. Also, shit, how much you think you're gonna get out of a gumball machine?"
Beecher's still spiraling down, and Ray's desperate for something, anything to stop the free fall, and that's how he finds himself in the gym with Chris Keller - because with Alvarez gone, he has to choose the next biggest emotional mess he can find in Oz to get his fingers into, he thinks wryly, before he can stifle the uncharitable thought.
You are fucking this up.
He stands in front of Keller, braced like he's facing into the wind, and thinks that maybe he should revise his opinion of his own martyr complex, or lack thereof. He has a brief flash of memory: Alvarez in the Hole, and days turned into weeks, turned into months, and his own stubborn stiff-necked hurt after the riot. He didn't even go to see Alvarez afterward, not until he was going to demand something from him, and he used his own forgiveness of Alvarez as a bargaining chip.
Is that what he's doing now, he wonders, as he remembers Keller's demands for absolution, and a thin thread of something - doubt, guilt, something all too human - worms its way through his chest, his stomach. Is that what he's willing to do?
He's waiting for Keller to call him on it, but they don't even get that far - or maybe they're already way beyond it.
"We fucked each other ... up the ass, in the mouth," Keller says, and Ray feels a flare of anger, because that's not the point, it's not about the fucking, and he's not going to let Keller devalue what he has with Beecher that way. He can't help feeling that would be a sin, too.
Keller's already on the defensive - it's clear from the way he's trying to push Ray away with the blunt, raw details - and Ray feels little compunction about probing the sore spot when he already knows what the problem is, and he also knows, he knows, now, that he's connected when Keller goes on the attack, taunting about Ray's own chastity, and no, Ray's never wanted to fuck one of his brother priests, tries to stay impassive, to keep the revulsion off his face at the idea of Jeremy that way, so very young in his brown robes. You were his priest, he can hear himself say to Sippel, accusing, outraged.
He doesn't think about Davide, doesn't think about dark eyes and clever fingers and the sun over Ostia, salt breeze like home. It was never Davide's ass that made Ray want to curl up inside him. no matter what Keller may say.
It's not the fucking - it's the love, just like he tells Keller, and Ray remembers his relief when Davide left the seminary, when two-thirds of every day wasn't some kind of temptation. It's the love, and that's why the Church demands a vow of celibacy from him, requires an oath against marriage, and only places the same requirement of chastity that she demands from any other of her children. It's the love, that relationship, that emotional commitment, and there's no room in Ray's life for that with another person, not with the place of God and the Church in his life, but Keller - he's made that kind of commitment to Beecher whether he admits it or not. It's the one thing Ray's been convinced of this whole time, rock-solid foundation among shifting sand, that Keller loves Beecher.
How can he love another man so much and hate himself so much for it?
My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought ...
Ray knows what Keller's done, is maybe the only other person on earth who knows the extent of what Keller's done, and he's not sure what makes Beecher so different, except that he is, Ray knows he is, despite whatever flashfire bursts of words and fists and maybe teeth characterize their relationship, beating themselves against the bars and each other, bleeding each other again and again as proof that you always hurt the ones you love, that it's proof they love you, if they hurt. He thinks about a bloody Pieta on the floor of this very gym, and he wonders if there's any other kind of relationship possible, locked inside the walls of Oz, wonders if it's possible to cobble together something truly good in the search for something worth fighting for.
Et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis, he thinks.
"It only takes one man to change the way things are," he tells Keller, desperately, as if he can make him see, through sheer force of will, what he's pushing away.
"Yeah? Well, I'm not that man," Keller says and turns away, in a flare of phosphorus scent and a taste of blood, the sharp edge of Alvarez's shoulder blade as he shrugged and turned away while Ray went down in a swarm of hands and arms and bodies, business as usual in Oz, and why did Ray think this would be any different?
The phone rings that night, late, early, two in the morning, and Miguel's drunk this time, rambles about being solitary and being in solitary, about life in a box, trying to disappear in a crowd, head down, hood pulled low, and Ray remembers the kid who confessed his pride, who had to be the best athlete, best lover, had to have the best car.
You've got to stop bragging for your own good, he remembers himself saying.
"I don't fit in, man," Alvarez says. "I never fit in, no matter how hard I try, thought I could fit in out here somewhere, you know? But I never had a chance. That prison, it's in my blood and my bones. Like pollution in the water, down to the molecular level, and there ain't no way to unwind it."
"No, it's true." His voice rises, agitated, before he sinks back into whatever depths he found in the bottom of a bottle, or tried to escape in the bottom of a bottle, or maybe both. "It's true. That prison, it's mi madre, mi padre. It shaped me, it made me who I am, from the very first moments of my life."
"Miguel, listen to me." Ray tries to keep his voice gentle, tries to tamp down the urgency pushing underneath his breastbone, choking the breath in his lungs, feels the desperate, fruitless impulse to reach through the phone lines and touch. "You're more than that. So much more. More than Oz can ever try to turn you into."
"Turn me into?" Ray winces at the sharp laugh barked down the line. "That prison owned my ass from the start." There's a break, a liquid sound that Ray's sure is Miguel swigging from the bottle of whatever he's paid his laundromat change for tonight. "I was conceived in Oz, you know that right?"
"Miguel, what are you talking about?"
"You do the math, man. Eduardo, he was already in Oz when I was born, already been there. My mama, she was on a conjugal, in Oz, when he knocked her up. That prison owns me, always has, and I'll never be able to run fast enough."
"You need to get more sleep," Murphy tells him, pointing a finger for emphasis and shaking his head as Ray listlessly stirs his Cup'O'Noodle in the break room. "Also, you should eat more - and not crap like that, or those doughnuts we have during the staff meetings."
"Hank Schillinger got off on a technicality," Ray says into empty air, casually, like it's nothing, and why not? He's already had to tell Beecher the same thing, had to watch him shut down further until they poked and pried and laid him open.
You do not want to see my anger. My anger is massive, all-encompassing.
"What?" There's a bang as Sean sets down whatever he's holding on the counter, and Ray can picture his face just from his tone, the tilt of his head, the furrowed brow, but he doesn't turn around to look at him. "Are you kidding me?"
Ray needs a cigarette. He needs a vacation, he needs to get out of the box he can feel constricting around him, walls tightening, suffocating, smothering.
You are fucking this up.
The evil in things is not intended, he thinks, tries to console himself, but good intentions didn't help Gary Beecher, or his father, or his grandparents, and what kind of God repays Beecher's good deeds, his good intentions, this way, like a curse, laid from generation to generation, bred into blood and bone, and Ray shakes his head at the thought, in rejection, revulsion. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but also, render unto Caesar, and Ray could laugh at himself, the same kind of bitter amusement he'd felt at Harrison Beecher's words, at the idea that the laws - any laws - apply inside or outside the walls of Oz.
I thought you actually cared, but only when it doesn't get in the way of your own fucking bullshit. You are nothing but a selfish cunt.
Was that how Miguel felt, Ray wonders? Was that what he thought during those days turned into weeks turned into months after the riot, when Ray allowed himself to be put off during the victim intervention with the Riveras, when Ray set aside the hurt and the ache, smothered it in dry routine, when two-thirds of every day wasn't filled with bright fire and midnight despair, blood and sharp edges, copper and salt and breath?
How much of it was a copout - his agreement, his concessions to Pete's demands, the distance he allowed between himself and Alvarez; how much was it abandonment of a duty just because it made his own life easier?
And here he is, Ray thinks, again, thinking of Alvarez, when Beecher needed someone - someone who was there for him. Ray's job - his vocation, his life is supposed to be about service, but who was there for Beecher when he needed someone? Who's been there for Alvarez? Ray should have been there for them, for both of them, for all of them, he was called to serve, it's one of the things Abgott keeps pointing out to him, monthly emails pressing the sore spot, and if Ray ever had a problem with humility, Oz is taking care of that.
"Hey, Ray," he hears, distantly, and looks over to find Sean crouched beside him, hand at his elbow, and he has a brief, disconnected flash of Lou on his knees, cool water running over the top of his foot, thumb pressed solidly into the arch, and he has to fight his body not to lean into the touch, not to give in to the hurt and the ache and the want, the all-too-human need. "Ray. Hey. Are you OK?"
"I'm ... fine," he says, searching for that supernatural calm, that authority, the gravitas they never taught in any lecture room but that he learned so well at the feet of Abgott, who was such a master of it, and he scrabbles it around himself like a cloak, like a coat, like armor, offers Sean a bleak smile.
Called to serve, he thinks. How well is that working out for you? How well is that working out for anyone in this prison?
He finds he can't get to sleep at night until after Alvarez calls, a new tenor of the same old helplessness running under his skin like adrenaline, nothing to fight, nowhere to run - which makes it particularly galling when he doesn't hear for agonizing days, silent nights of waking from dreams of fire and blood and bruises like ash, fists clenched to leave half-moon imprints in his palms in the dark. He can't quite tamp down the tingle of anger that runs through him, scalp to fingertips, because why does he keep letting Alvarez do this to him?
He needs to be able to focus, needs to concentrate; he has to prepare homilies for two days in a row, Ascension Thursday, Holy Day of Obligation, and then First Friday Mass, something for his flock to do, diligent attendance getting them out of work in the dress factory or boredom in their cells, part of all their routines just like count. Sometimes he wonders why he wanted a job that required him to work all his most important holidays, and he struggles over the preparation, crossing out lines and paragraphs, X-ing out entire pages, searching for the right words, the right tone, a layer of crumpled and discarded paper drifting to cover both his desks, at the prison and at the rectory, detritus of his concern that he's stripped down his homilies to the point of meaningless pablum, the equivalent of a picture book, uninspired and uninspiring.
He wonders sometimes if he does his congregation a disservice, underestimating them, thinks about Masters' intent look at Mass on Sundays, the probing curiosity of Figueroa at the Bible study class he organized on Wednesday evenings in the hour between dinner and lockdown, discussion always left open and hanging, never enough time for all the questions, and Ray's learned to sit back and just stay out of their way, most weeks. He likes Tuesdays, because it's his Sunday, and some weeks he can even take some time off, can feel a little less guilty for leaving his files and his checklists for an hour or two, meeting Jeremy for coffee and daily Mass over at OLF in the morning, where Ray can sit in and listen to Father Brady deliver his homily. He always learns things, sitting halfway back in the nave like a guest - things about how to move people in the course of putting together a persuasive argument. Ray's always been good at building a logical argument, he could write a comparative religion paper with 53 source texts and footnote it perfectly. It was the complex emotion he had problems articulating, drawing out - despite the fact that it was always the emotion that moved him more, that religion has always been a profoundly more spiritual experience for him than a logical one, despite all his studies ... or maybe it's because of that, because of the overwhelming nature of his emotions and his focus on containing them.
Of course, how often did anyone listen anyway? He remembers the helplessness of calling Miguel's name and a shoulder turning away as he was dragged down during the riot, remembers his simple, urgent pleas to stop when Miguel held a scalpel to his own throat and his impotent cries of negation from the outside of the solid metal door of solitary. If simple, heartfelt appeal doesn't work, if logic doesn't work - and logic never counts for anything in Oz, Ray's no fresh fish, no naïve and idealistic innocent to even pretend such a thing - well, then what?
It's just that "don't be a dick," seems kind of repetitive as a message. Unfortunately, it also seems most appropriate and important, given the atmosphere in Oz lately.
"And this is different from usual, in what way?" Murphy asks over turkey-and-cheese sandwiches in the break room, when Ray bemoans his dilemma.
He drags into the rectory on a Friday evening to discover Thomas out somewhere - the chickenscratch on the note taped to the refrigerator looks like it says something about Benchley Memorial and Katie Wojcik - and Lou shut up in his study and a stack of junk mail with his name on it in the center of the kitchen table, a postcard perched on top. The postcard's from Atlantic City, one of those chintzy cards with individual photo snapshots set inside each of the billboard-style letters proclaiming the city's name across the front of the card. Or, at least, he supposes it's chintzy. Postcards like this invariably remind him of the cover of Greetings from Asbury Park, so he can't ever see them without some kind of residual affection pooling in his chest and the chorus to "Blinded By The Light," starting up in his head, vestiges of summer afternoons spent at the Tessio house, fingers pruney from the neighborhood pool, tongues dyed purple and red from Fla-Vor-Ice pops, while Joey's older sister Angela indoctrinated them into the growing cult of Springsteen.
It was always "Angela," Ray remembers, never "Angie" - always "Angela," at least until that first Springsteen summer, when she suddenly decided she was "Angel," cutoff shorts and bikini tops, a faint swell of breasts that Ray never had more than an academic curiosity about, glow of sweat across her skin as she lounged on the windowsill of her room in the humid summer breeze, in charge of the record player. She was headed into her freshman year of high school and had a kind of cool to which Ray and Joey - just out of sixth grade and the bottom of the junior-high ladder - could only aspire, and she made Ray a compilation tape, "For You" to "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" to "Jungleland," that he played incessantly, for years. He untangled that tape more than once, every time it got eaten by a cassette player, until it finally snapped irrevocably his junior year at Boston, not long after he committed himself to applying to the Gregorian, along with safer options like Notre Dame, for his graduate-level seminary work.
He still somehow expects "Thunder Road" to cue up directly after "Rosalita" when he listens to his CD of The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
There's that kind of retro look to the postcard in his hands now, like something out of the '60s, the early '70s, an illustration of the city's skyline as the background, looking up onto the shore from out in the surf, bottle green waves rolling in. "Greetings from" is printed across the upper left corner, a black scrawl of script, and the "ATLANTIC CITY" stretches across a sky scattered with feathery clouds that break up the intense field of blue. Ray rubs a thumb over the glossy surface, memories of Miramar and Revere Beach and Ostia - of hot sand - under his bare feet and salt spray in his nose.
A long stretch of sunbathers lie lined up on the beach in the first "T," a shot of a crowd on the end of the pier fills the second "A," a young woman in a one-piece and a breezy blouse bikes past a motel with white wooden decking in the final "Y."
He knows it's from Alvarez.
Cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night, Bruce whispers in the back of his head.
Even before he turns it over, he knows it's from Alvarez, the same way he knew the quiet breaths on the other end of the phone line were Miguel, like there's some kind of vibration, some kind of aura, imprinted into the stiff cardstock from the time it must have taken Miguel to ... well, let's be honest, Ray thinks to himself. From the time it must have taken him to lift it from the rack at some convenience store or bodega crowded with tourist fare, find a post office, affix a stamp purchased with some of his laundromat loot and drop it in the mail.
Whatever sixth sense he's got attuned to Alvarez is probably a good thing, because there's no name, no message on the other side of the postcard - it's been left blank except for Ray's name and the address of the rectory, nothing to indicate who or where it's from other than the postmark - also Atlantic City, so Alvarez must have mailed it pretty quick, and there's no telling if he's even still there.
Which is maybe a good thing, too, Ray realizes, staring at the piece of evidence in his hands.
It's a little galling, actually, that Alvarez would be so sure of Ray, so certain Ray would hold his tongue - that Alvarez would take that, take Ray himself, for granted.
Of course, even if he called the police, turned over the card, what proof is there that it's from Alvarez? Ray's certainty?
The phone calls he should have reported weeks ago?
What will you give me if I deliver him to you?
He comes home the next week to the same kind of card from Ocean City, a couple of layers of stylized blue waves drawn under a sunset-orange sky on this one. "Greetings from" is in black block letters, this time, and a single picture, one long vista of the beach, boardwalk down one side, underlies the letters of "OCEAN." There's a look inland from the surf stretching through "CITY," buildings white and beige and tan with terra-cotta colored roofs, reminding him of the outskirts of Rome in the dusty, humid summers.
Stone Pony be damned, he wonders briefly why Alvarez is wandering around the armpit of the Eastern Seaboard before chiding himself for his uncharitable thoughts. That's the kind of guy he is, the kind of guy he's always been - he'll feel bad about that, even though he didn't say anything to anyone, out loud. It makes him feel a little bit cranky, really, for feeling bad about it, when he didn't even say anything to anyone, or maybe it's just the increasing heat.
Who wants to be stuck in Jersey when the weather's heating up like this?
The message space has been left blank once again, and the handwriting of Ray's name on the address is messy, spiky, the print of a kid who never cared much about the precise lines and loops Ray himself practiced over and over in second grade, under the watchful eye of Sister Stephen Clare.
He finds himself studying the cards, trying to suss out what Alvarez is really telling him; all he knows for certain is that it's breaking his heart to listen and not have any good advice to give, in return, as if Alvarez can't expect anything to really change, and there's only so long you can live your life in protective custody - ... rest of my life in a little fucking box ... - and he just needs, can only ask for someone to bear witness, and that's Ray's role, always his role.
Where was God when my son died?
The same place he was when his own son died.
He catches himself examining postcards at the Quik-Mart in the mornings, windows misted around the edges with the temperature difference as the air conditioning in the store pumps out frigid air; he stands by the wire rack with a cup of coffee in his hand, studying typical tourist fare: the canal outside of town, manmade waterway crossing the river, a tugboat with frills of whitewater in its wake as it leaves the lock; Nott Memorial Hall at the nearby college - inside and out - elaborate curves and dome of the exterior giving way to the air and space of the newly refurbished interior, all reds and blues and light; an aerial view of the city, river winding to one side, bands of buildings separated by the green of trees fading into the distance - too far west to show the industrial sector or Oz, itself. He pulls one from the rack to rub a thumb along its edge, a reproduction of an early 20th century color illustration, a brick resort hotel, framed by pine trees, rising massive and vaguely institutional in the background on the other side of a bridge arching over the river. Some small yellow flower has been shot all through the green grass that carpets the ground and Ray tilts his head at the long-forgotten artist's handiwork, studying the vantage point, trying to situate it in relation to a familiar landmark, wondering how to get there from the rectory, from the Quik-Mart, from the prison.
Maybe it's not an entirely metaphysical question, he thinks, as he puts the card back.
He convinces Thomas to make another fruitless appeal at Mass for volunteers for a prison visitors program that weekend, sends Jeremy home to OLF with a similar request for Fathers Brady and Ficaya. When he was a little bit younger and much more naïve, back in his early days at Oz, he'd wondered about some kind pen pals program and he thinks he's probably glad, now, that never got off the ground - he can only imagine the ways it would go horribly wrong. Sometimes all he can do is wonder if anything good will ever come out of this prison, wonder if it's possible to cobble together something truly good in the search for something worth fighting for.
He spends his Saturday with Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose and in his veins, fresh fish with haunted eyes and tight lips, Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams, Cyril's weekly confession of frustration and bad words.
"I want him to handcuff me," Ward says. "Is that fucked up?" - and Ray can only sit there blinking for a minute, because that's a new level of detail, and also, why do they always insist on telling him these things? Now he has to look Mabrey in the eye with that visual in mind.
Do you want me to elaborate? Keller's voice asks, in his head.
It's a little sad, he thinks. Ward's hopeless crush might have been the closest thing this prison had to pure devotion - compared to the rest of the relationships in Oz, it had seemed almost chivalrous.
Masters doesn't show up until the afternoon round of confessions, a tale of woe, worried about Zonioni and put out by the upheaval and asking if Ray can, please, Father, get some news about Pinkerton, because he's been left in Em City without the rest of them, and, wait, Ray thinks. What?
"What are you talking about?" he asks, forgetting himself so far as to turn around sideways in his chair to look at the man at his back.
"They moved us out of Em City, Father," Masters says, shifting to look at Ray in turn. He's missing his characteristic scarf, dressed now in the standard prison grey shirt instead of his usual blue. "All of us gays - except Pinkerton. They left him there by himself, with out anyone to watch his back."
"I'm sure he'll be fine," Ray says, an attempt to be reassuring, although he should probably know better than to assure anyone of anything in this prison. Sometimes all you have are platitudes, he thinks. "Steve, do you know why they moved you?"
"Do they need a reason?" Masters sits moodily looking down at his hands clasped in his lap.
Ray's afternoon rounds include a visit with Don Zanghi, who's apparently asked to see him, and he's surprised when D'Agnasti leads him to the Hole, instead of Em City. Zanghi tends to walks around without his shirt fairly often - Ray's celibate, not blind - but he's always had his pants on when Ray's seen him, until now. The lack of privacy has left him with the same lack of modesty that everyone else in this prison has, and he offers a hand to Ray casually, like he meets people all the time without his pants. Well, maybe he does, Ray thinks. It's the kind of body that you probably expect people to see - that's why you'd put that kind of time into it.
"Father," Zanghi says, standing from his position sprawled in the corner once he sees who's coming through the door; it looks like he might have been tapping out the beat to something on his own chest when Ray showed up.
"Don," Ray responds, keeping his eyes firmly on the other man's face. He shoves his hands in his pockets against the chill of the room, a pocket of damp deep inside the cavern of Oz, despite the rising summer heat outside the walls. "You asked to see me?"
"Yeah. I thought, you know ... I've missed Mass this week, and confession. Maybe I should make a confession."
"You convinced them to let me in here so you could make a confession?"
Zanghi shrugs, and Ray almost thinks there's some - false - modesty in it. Apparently the wiseguys still have some pull in this prison, even if not in Emerald City, even without Nino Schibetta or Antonio Nappa. Speaking of which ...
"What are you doing making confession, anyway?" Ray folds his arms over his chest, shifting to stand braced on both feet as he asks the question. He still has the faint feeling of being used by Nappa, suspects the old guy wanted his conscience - and his soul - clear before he committed suicide-by-enforcer, as he had to know would happen when he decided to write a book. Antonio Nappa didn't make it as far as he did without intelligence and - more importantly - cunning. Ray was outmaneuvered on that one, but he's not dumb, and he's generally a fast learner.
"I mean, of course there are things I don't have anything to say about, Father." Zanghi lowers his eyes briefly, almost demure, before looking back up at Ray through his lashes, body loose as he leans against the damp wall of the Hole. "Anything I have to confess will necessarily be of a ... personal ... nature."
Ray takes a breath to say something, thinks better of it and turns toward the door without a word, but Zanghi stops him with a plea before Ray can raise his hand to knock for release. He backs off from Ray's shoulder when Ray turns back to him, one finger raised in warning, grants him space to breathe.
"Don." Ray tilts his head and studies the other man, huffing out a laugh at the idea. "Are you fucking with me?"
"Father, have you seen this place?" Zanghi slouches against the wall, one shoulder braced, still unconsciously unselfconscious. "If it takes telling you how many times I've jacked off this week to get a visit from somebody, I'll even work at feeling sorry for doing it. Well, kind of sorry. A little bit, at least. A tiny bit.
"Not that it's tiny, or anything. But I mean, you can probably see that, right?"
Ray goes a week or so without hearing anything, agonizing days of nothing, coming awake late, early, two in the morning, with a sharp drop and a jerk from troubled dreams of broken wings, bruises smudged like ash across the inside of a wrist, sharp scent of phosphorus and blood marking a doorway. He lies in the silent darkness, kicks off the sheet, too hot in the summer stillness, temples damp with sweat, and runs his fingers over his own lips, presses against his chest, feels the rise and fall of his breath, measures the length and breadth and shape of himself.
Something's going on, Zanghi told him, something's up in Em City, and Ray remembers the influx of COs into Unit B, more uniforms following Murphy - white guys, all of them, now that he thinks about it, sifts through the faces he's seen increasingly often. He tries to remember the last time he was in Em City, feels again the instinctive way he shied away from the entrance gate two days ago, like skirting a predator, some sixth sense alerted, something developed over years that he has to balance with charity, hope, love. If he's going to be honest with himself, lay himself bare, it was a small twist of relief he felt when D'Agnasti led him to the Hole to see Zanghi, instead.
Ray's no fresh meat, and he knows he can't give in to these insecurities, these doubts, this kind of hesitation, not if he hopes to survive Oz. So he finds an excuse the next day to visit Beauvais, who hasn't been to Confession for three weeks, Mass for two, finds him playing himself at a game of checkers in the common area of Em City, avoiding the podmate lying sprawled across the bunk.
"High," Beauvais explains with a shrug, over the clatter and din, and Ray feels a prickle of wariness along his spine, just stops himself from turning around to see who might be watching him from the upper levels.
He remembers this feeling, like an itch in the back of his mind, invisible fingers ghosting over the nape of his neck, and it ended with the world exploding around him in a blaze of fire and blood and a swarm of hands and arms and bodies taking him down, ended with a gun and four dead, Tim McManus having a breakdown in front of God and everyone at a memorial service.
He learned early on to walk with confidence, back straight, head up, shoulders set, no hesitation, like he was walking into the wind. Oz didn't teach him that, life taught him that, and so he takes calm measured steps up the stairs to the unit director's office - McManus' office, he can't help thinking, every time - trying to pull gravitas around him like a cloak.
"Father Mukada," Querns says, opening the door to Ray's knock - hearty, jovial - and something ghosts across the nape of Ray's neck. "I'm surprised to see you here."
"Really?" he responds, fixing a smile on his face, seating himself serenely at the edge of the couch facing the desk. McManus' Invisible Man poster has disappeared from the wall, he sees; Querns has replaced it with a handful of framed citations and awards from various institutions. "Why wouldn't you think I'd be in Em City?"
"I wasn't sure many of my prisoners would be in need of your services." Querns leans back in his chair as he speaks, and Ray wonders if he's deliberately cultivated that smug air, part superiority, part insolence, in a way designed to make him as infuriating as possible to deal with.
"Why wouldn't they need my services? I'm here to bring God to anyone who's searching for him," Ray spreads his hands. "That's my job."
"I wasn't aware many people spent their time in Oz searching for God, Father."
He sounds almost sincere, Ray thinks.
"You'd be surprised." Ray forces his smile back into place. "People find Jesus in prison all the time."
He remembers the conversation a few days later, when John Paul announces the Day of Jubilee for Prisoners, asks for gestures of clemency for prisoners in his message of the day. A small, blasphemous thought worms its way through his mind that maybe there's something related there, when Governor Devlin is shot by Clayton Hughes, one more kid fucked up by this prison, and Ray can't help thinking of Miguel's hoarse voice over the telephone line in the dark - I never had a chance, man. That prison, it's in my blood and my bones. Like pollution in the water.
Like original sin, Ray thinks, generation to generation, and then no, a visceral denial, abnegation, renunciation, and he catches himself making a gesture of revulsion, as if to physically push away the thought.
Abgott sends him the text of the Pope's message a few days later, attached to the monthly email, pressing on the sore spot. Of course he does, Ray thinks, sitting in the dim quiet of St. Margaret's office after hours, when he opens the message, clicks to send the proof-of-receipt notice back to Abgott's office. It's something he wouldn't be able to resist, even though it's not as if he actually has much sympathy - Christian freaking charity, a voice mutters in the back of Ray's head - for those in prison. Render unto Caesar, and Abgott's always supported the death penalty, anyway, on the grounds that it will encourage conversion and repentance in those who are facing it - it's one of the things Ray was most vehemently, vocally mutinous about, and sometimes he wonders if that was what ultimately got him sent to Oz.
Showed me, huh? he thinks, twisting his lips in distaste. He still has some lines in the sand, and the ends don't always justify the means.
And anyway, that's not real repentance, not any more than Keller was sorry for what he'd done just because he was afraid of going to hell.
Those who are in detention must not live as if their time in prison had been taken from them completely he reads on the screen, bright glare in the dim office. Even time in prison is God's time.
Hard on the heels of the Jubilee message comes a string of postcards, showing up across a couple of days - three bundled together one day, two the next - moving fast, out of order, down I-95, he can see when he stops at the Quik-Mart on a Thursday morning, a thought and a jump, and buys a map. It makes sense - all of the cards look like they could have been bought at truck stops, all postmarked on the same day. He spreads out the map, draping it against the magazine rack - covering a Sportsman Hunter with his high-tech bow and a limp-necked turkey, a Playboy bunny with her come-hither look - to trace the postmark path with the tip of a finger, moving out of Virginia, across North Carolina, into South Carolina.
"Going on vacation?" asks the clerk, leaning against the register as her other customer jingles out the door with his pack of Camels - Asha, her nametag tells Ray, and he's seen her in here before, stopping for gas or bad coffee on his way to the prison in the early mornings, both of them sleepy-eyed and soft in the dawn light, the taste of cinnamon toaster pastries and Prime still on his lips (O let my mouth be filled with thy praise that I may sing of thy glory and honor all the day long; O Lord, turn thy face from my sins and put out all my misdeeds ...). Her belly's just moved past the soft swelling stage to obvious pregnancy, pushing against the cheap woven material of her uniform burgundy golf shirt.
"A ... friend," Ray says, shaking himself, trying to come back to the here and now, shying away from the thought of what-if.
It's not a consideration he's entertained, but it's there, now, suddenly, the idea.
"You guys get to go on vacation?" she asks, leaning her chin into the well of her palm, elbow carefully placed on the register, a small sprig of dark curls escaping one of her barrettes as Ray raises a hand to rub a thumb up the open vee of his shirt, across the button placket at his throat, an automatic gesture, before he remembers he's been in here plenty of times in the winter, when it's not so hot, with the collar on.
"They try to make us," he says, quirking a smile her way before the door jingles again, and Tony - his name's embroidered on the pocket of his navy blue shirt, and Ray's exchanged nods with him a couple of times over gas pumps in the mornings - pushes into the store brandishing his bank card.
"It wouldn't take it," he tells Asha, voice laced with confusion and a touch of impatience, and Ray turns back to his map, folding it up, tucking it away in the glove compartment of his Tercel when he gets back to the car.
He puts the postcards in order that night, in his room at the rectory, arranging them down his bed by postmark, north to south: Fredericksburg, with a photo of the bronze monument to Richard Kirkland, the Angel of Marye's Heights, in the National Military Park, hand clenched in the fingers of a fallen soldier, captured in the moment of tipping water into the mouth of the dying man; Petersburg, a reproduction of a lithograph print, dirt berms and trenches, some kind of earthen fortifications, probably from the Civil War, with "Welcome to Fort Hell" printed across one corner. The card postmarked Fayetteville - "Mess Hall, Fort Bragg," the legend on the back tells him - is another reproduction, an old photo this time, colorized, late '50s or early '60s, maybe, with GIs lined up on a dusty field of bare sandy dirt, waiting their turn to get inside a low-slung white clapboard building with a red roof; their olive drabs blend into the landscape, and a few scraggly pines rise in the background - it looks hot, probably about like the place actually is, this time of year.
The card from Lumberton is black-and-white, a shaded line drawing, another reprint, Ray thinks at first, but no, maybe not - it's yellowed around the edges, with a matte sheen to it, and on second thought, maybe it's been sitting around in a stack somewhere for years before being re-discovered and put on the sales rack. More than anything, it's an advertisement for the "El Reposo Motor Court," on U.S. Highway 301-A South. A swimming pool hangs in midair on one side, cabana in view, above a neat little one-story building - a blocky horseshoe layout - with a "Vacancy" sign in front of it, a view from the highway, apparently. A smudge on the address side breaks the stark quality of the images - too smeared to be a true fingerprint and of some indeterminate color that could be ketchup, could be coffee. Could be blood, but no, Ray tells himself, clamping down on a hollow fluttering in his chest, there's no reason to think that, there's not, and anyway, it seems a little ominous for a truckstop postcard displaying what's essentially a motel advertisement. It's not as if it's the Bates Motel, and the quality of the drawing is old-fashioned enough that Ray would be surprised if the El Reposo is still around.
In his mind's eye, he can see Miguel sucking whatever the substance was off his thumb and wiping the hand on his pants, before trying to scratch away the smudge, and he runs the edge of his own thumbnail over the mark before he lays down the postcard in its place and shuffles the remainder of the stack for the next.
Florence is represented by a postcard from South of the Border, for God's sake, their mascot all lit up in electric and neon lights, giant sombrero pushed down on his forehead, holding a sign for the place. The photo on the card was taken in the dark, so Pedro really pops, red and yellow bulbs brilliant against the deep black of the night sky, made infinitely dark by the glare of the lights set against it. There's a vaguely carnival flair to the quality of their light; there's so much wrong with the photo, Ray hardly knows what to do when he looks at it. He entertains a brief, irreverent thought of exorcism before laying it down in place.
The postmark on the last card in the batch shows the route hiving west, off of I-95, to some place called Lancaster, and the brightly colored drawing on the front of the card displays a cartoonish map of South Carolina, the entire state rising up off a white background like it's being thrust from its bedrock and into the air, glowing the iridescent green of the perfectly manicured grass on a golf course. Notes off to the side inform Ray that the state flower is the jessamine and the state bird is the wren; a cartoon tobacco leaf marks the upper right-hand corner of the state, and a caricatured couple are diving off the right edge - the eastern edge - of the state into the Atlantic Ocean, near where a boat marks Myrtle Beach. Beaufort's symbolized by a peanut, and a cartoon statehouse holds down the center of the state, where a red star marks Columbia; Ray stares at the entire jumble for a couple of minutes, wondering if there's any kind of hidden message somewhere in all this, before his eyes track back toward the center of the card, gaze suddenly captured.
There actually is a message of some kind on it - although Ray's not sure exactly how to interpret it.
Proof of life, he thinks, randomly, and shakes the thought off with a prickle of skin, an admonishment to himself for his morbid thoughts.
An additional red star's been inked in on the card, a little above the state capital, along the line representing I-20 as it cuts west across the state; it looks like it's been added with a felt-tip pen, soft-focus and blurred around the edges, and Ray rests a fingertip over it on the glossy surface of the card as if he can feel the breath, quick and light, that Alvarez might have blown to make sure it was dry before feeding his laundromat quarter into the stamp machine and posting it. Ray smoothes the finger over the small mark again and again, like trying to pick up the sense and meaning of it through his fingertips, like Braille, and tries to sort through his own feelings.
He's still trying to untangle himself as he sits in his office the next day, staring blankly at his "Real Men Love Jesus" bumper sticker, mulling over the stack of postcards in the drawer of his desk back at the rectory. No, he tells himself, forcing himself to admit it - he dwells on them, thoughts intruding despite the quiet of the cafeteria outside, as he tries to concentrate on Sext - Extinguish thou each sinful fire and banish every ill desire ...) - and focus at None - Cleanse me from my secret faults; keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins ... - as the clattering starts outside his office, four shifts of dinner to get through before evening count and lockdown at 5 p.m.
He had to stop himself from tucking the postcards into his sock drawer, like a junior-high girl with a diary, and he finally slams his desk drawer shut and abandons his office for the evening, leaving files spread out across the desktop, wandering though the cafeteria, pausing in a thrumming stillness before skirting the Em City entrance to emerge into the blaze of a late evening summer sunset. It's hot outside and getting hotter, heat still baking up from the asphalt that lies like bedrock all around the prison and air thick with humidity, stifling like the atmosphere inside the building, and he undoes the second button on his shirt, tugs at the collar of the T-shirt underneath.
He's got his collar always in his pocket, these days - wearing it feels like smothering, a band drawn hard around his throat, choking off his breath, too much to endure with the weather outside already pressed against his face like a damp towel and the atmosphere inside the prison no better, helplessness and the problem of Alvarez suffocating like a palm clamped over his nose, his mouth, or a pair of thumbs digging into his throat, pressing right ... there. A thunderstorm brings down two big branches from the half-rotten oak in the yard of the rectory but brings no relief - everyone spends half a day on edge from the latent electricity in the air, waiting, anticipating, nerves rubbed raw, then flinches at the crack and the sharp scent of burnt ozone, gasp like a knife-blade through suddenly open lungs, and nothing cools off, anyway. The next day's more of a sauna than ever.
They're well into Ordinary Time, but nothing feels ordinary about it and Ray struggles to pull in a deep breath as he lays out his green vestments, tries to lose himself in the ritual, the weight of tradition, kissing the small cross embroidered on each piece of ceremonial clothing, murmuring the traditional vesting prayers. He eats peanut-buttered crackers and Ramen in the break room after solitary Sext in his office - Némini quidquam debeátis, nisi ut ínvicem diligátis: qui enim díligit Próximum, legem implévit. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another, for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. He sits in on the staff meetings as they plan the new electric perimeter fencing for the prison and feels the walls draw in tighter.
... rest of my life in a little fucking box ...
Violence is down in Em City by 92 percent, Leo tells them when McManus storms in, complaining about what a shithole the unit has turned into, and Ray can't help feeling that shouldn't be the only measure, and he can't help feeling it's a skewed statistic, anyway, violence hanging heavy in the air, submerged just under the surface, latent electricity in the air, nerves rubbed raw, and they all flinch when it breaks with a lightning strike.
Ray catches himself staring blankly at the calendar in his office, afterward, after Adebisi's body has been taken down to the morgue, after the turmoil as Said is hauled off to the Hole, after the shouting in Leo's office - Leo and Querns, and Tim barged in, too, Sean tells him, when Ray finally ventures out for coffee in the break room. He stands at his own door, closed inside his office, for a while before opening it, blankly running his gaze over the books of the Bible posted on the back of the door - Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. Song of Songs. Wisdom. Sirach, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations.
He blinks at his own hand clenched on the doorknob, remembers Gloria's knuckles tight and pale.
I will fear no evil, he tells himself. I will fear no evil. No evil.
He considers scrounging something from the kitchen so he doesn't have to go far from his own door, grabbing something and darting back, quick, to his bolthole, before the feeling of shame at taking food from the prisoners' mouths sets in, because that's the kind of guy he is, he doesn't even have to do anything, all he has to do is think about it. It makes him wonder where his sense of shame is when it comes to Alvarez. The thought connects up with the date in his brain, floating around from staring blankly at the calendar, and he realizes it's been weeks since he's heard, since even one of the postcards showed up, and even longer since he heard Miguel's voice.
It's a feeling of inevitability that wells up - at least that's what he tells himself - when he gets back to the rectory that night to find a postcard from Augusta, Georgia, the first one that's maybe a little artistic instead of simply scenic: black-and-white again, sepia-toned, a skeleton of ironwork - the bones of a small bridge, wood railings still lining the side you can see from the camera's angle, maybe over a creek, something not too wide or big. It's hard to tell because the composition draws your focus upward to the exposed metal ribs of the roof, an arch like bleached wings, all that remains of the covering. The trees in the background are blurred, out of focus, ethereal; Ray imagines the photographer, Miguel, Ray himself, standing at one end of the bridge, maybe taking a few steps onto it, before his attention was drawn up, caught and held.
Once again, the reverse of the card has been left blank, no message - or maybe there still is a message, maybe there's a message in every single one of these cards, voiceless but imperative ... but Ray finds himself missing the sound of Miguel's voice, quick light breaths over the phone line, even the silences - a different kind of silence, more present, somehow, than the blank white fields on the backs of the postcards.
He always feels like he should help with the dishes, even though he never seems to get there until Lou and Thomas are already clearing up dinner, and then they make him eat while they finish the work - like it's the 1950s and he's got a couple of wives, although he supposes you'd have to go further back than the '50s to be allowed two of them. They make him pet the cat, Angus, a bird-boned calico with graying whiskers, who's developed a predilection for curling up on whoever's warmest and moving the slowest, which is almost never Ray.
("You have an Italian guy, a Polish guy and a Japanese guy in the rectory, and the cat is named Angus?" Jeremy had asked.
"You gotta have the Irish represent, somehow," Thomas had said. "It's like you're not Catholic without the Irish."
"We were going to call her Agnes, originally," Lou had said.
"Before she turned out to not be a her?"
"No, she's a her," Thomas had said.
"Of course she is.")
Ray scratches her ears and she preens under the attention while Thomas finishes putting away the plates and the pots, and Ray has to admit, it's nice to feel like he's being taken of somehow, in at least one place, although a vague tendril of guilt works its way through him. They act like he's just off the front lines, every day, and maybe Oz looks like that to guys who are only used to CCD drama and parish interpoliticking over funding for the new stained-glass window, but Ray's no fresh meat. This is all just his job, his everyday life, and he's made it this long, survived the world exploding around him or crumbling slowly, silently, piece by piece, and he's managed to pick himself up each time, to walk back into that prison like walking into the wind. This is all normal.
For whatever values of "normal" still exist in his world, God help him.
It's Lou who asks him, later, after Thomas wanders off to the study to work on a homily for the next week, asks him - finally - where the postcards are coming from, who's on the summer roadtrip, trying to lever Ray out of his nest, to take a break, get some light on his face outside of the prison, and Ray pauses, struck, because could that be what Alvarez is doing?
"College friend?" Lou asks. "Family? Someone who could convince you to take a break for a week or so?"
"You're a good one to talk," Ray says, tracing the edge of the table absently with a thumb. "They've been trying to get you to take a vacation for years, now."
Literally, he thinks to himself. Years.
"Well, I probably only have so much time left here," Lou says, and that sounds more ominous than it should, and Ray tells him so, eliciting a laugh before he sobers again. "No, seriously, though Ray," he says, leaning forward, elbows on the table, "Seriously. You're stretched thinner lately, or wound tighter. Both. What's going on in that prison?"
He looks more at home here in the kitchen than behind a pulpit, Ray thinks, abruptly, shoulders too big for his cassock and constrained by his white collar, the collar Ray's never seen him without unless he was in his pajamas, late at night, barefoot because he'll never bother with slippers, even in winter, and wrapped in a threadbare robe that an great-aunt bought him years ago.
Ray puts his head in his hands and scrubs over his face, elbows on the table. Why the hell did this guy have to end up in the position of his confessor, he wonders, because he likes Lou, despite himself, maybe, and he doesn't like hiding stuff from him. Lou's not the enemy, Ray doesn't feel like some kind of righteous rebel when he hides stuff from Lou - even if the guy is kind of conservative. Maybe not as much as Abgott, but then, come on. Who is?
"I need a cigarette," he says, through his fingers. He's kind of sorry for the admission but not really; he knows how Thomas and Jeremy feel about him smoking, and he actually tries not to do it here, at the rectory, and also, Lou shouldn't smoke. But Ray needs a cigarette, maybe more than he ever has in his miserable life, and so he follows Lou out onto the porch, where Ray can have his cigarette, and also - maybe more importantly - time to figure out what to say.
"Now," Lou says, once he's seated in the ancient swing on the porch, Ray leaning on the railing beside him, sweet smell of butane from the lighter and curl of smoke rubbing rough at the back of his throat, inside his lungs. "Talk."
And so, pinned down, Ray obfuscates - in a way - by telling him about Adebisi and Said. It's a sin of omission, not of commission, he consoles himself, and he wonders if that makes it any better, but he also does wonder what they're saying about it on the news tonight, and as it tumbles out of him, it feels a little bit like relief, a little bit like the unburdening of a confession, freely given, as if he just needed someone to bear witness. It probably wouldn't even register on anyone's radar if it were most prisoners - he thinks about Richie Hanlon in a pool of his own blood in the showers, about Kipkemie Jara bleeding out in the kitchen - but Said, at least, was high-profile, always courted the cameras, and a murder charge will play out sexy. Ray can feel his face pull into lines of distaste as he says the word, and he takes a last drag on his cigarette, down to the filter, inhaling hard before jerking back at the flare of heat.
"A very smart woman once said, 'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,'" Lou tells him, and Ray realizes he might miss the guy when he's gone.
He goes into the Quik-Mart to pay for his gas the next morning, a Monday - the first day of Asha's "weekend" too, he remembers when he sees the Monday-Tuesday early morning guy is there, his nose in a book and vaguely impatient when he has to pay attention to Ray. The guy's own nametag says "Ray," Ray realizes. Register-Ray, unlike Asha, expresses zero interest in Ray's purchases, and Ray stands at the postcards for a couple of minutes, holding the package of powdered donuts he picked up in the snack aisle and running his fingers down one side of the wire rack before he picks one out and takes it to the register.
It's a stupid, impulse buy, a thought and a jump - he knows it - but he pulls out the card and stares at it twice during the day, shoving it back into his bottom desk drawer before lunch and then again before None: a shot of the river he drives over every day to get to and from the prison, somewhere upstream, out of the city, a stretch that's still heavily forested, the deep green of pines lining either bank to the bend in the distance. The water reflects the rising foothills in the distance, the faintest hint of mist rising off the river in a light that looks like morning; at the photographer's, Ray's, feet, there's a short, dilapidated pier, a skeleton of gently rotting wood.
Now, the very fact of being is a good, and so all things desire to be, he writes on the back, finally, pulling the words out of memory, refuge in Aquinas, doctor angelicus. Therefore, every action and movement are for the sake of a good.
It feels weirdly like a homily, like something he's worked out ahead of time, which he doesn't want it to be, but there's not much space for mistakes or crossing out or starting over. It strikes him that his card is the flip side of the coin to the growing pile in his desk drawer - all those cards left blank save for Ray's name and address, and meanwhile Ray writes but has no address to send it to. It's achingly typical he thinks, and he wants to laugh, or maybe he wants to weep: Miguel can't manage to say what he means, and meanwhile, Ray can't manage to get what he wants to say to Miguel.
The next day, he raids some pushpins from the church office at St. Margaret's and liberates a red felt-tip from the junk drawer in the rectory's kitchen. He spreads out the new map that's been riding around in his glove compartment, smoothing out the folds on the top of the desk in his room - it'd be easier if he used the larger kitchen table, but he doesn't want to answer any more questions, any more pointed questions, any questions he can't manage to deflect - before he pins it to the wall, behind the door, at an angle where you can't see it in the mirror when you stand in the open doorway. He can really only see it when the door is closed, like a confessional when the sins come out, and he wonders what kind of absolution, what kind of reconciliation he is - or isn't - looking for.
No one else should see it, because no one else should be in the room with him when the door is closed - it's not that anything untoward would happen, but there's no reason for anyone to be in there when the door is closed - so no one will see it. He's alone in there when the door is closed, and yet, he quickly realizes, it's as if there's a presence hanging just over his shoulder. He gets the strange feeling that he's doing something wrong, that maybe something untoward is happening when he's in there with the map, just him and the map, door closed so he can see it.
Of course you're doing something wrong, dumbass, he tells himself. You're withholding evidence about a fugitive from the police. What the hell is wrong with you? And you're not even confessing it, like there's nothing to be sorry for, like there's nothing you should be sorry for.
But Ray was always obstinate like that - child of Pfc. George Mukada, of Alice Choi Shegeta, stronger than any other tree - and this may be something he needs absolution for but he's not sure he wants it, because he's still not sure what to pray for, other than Miguel's continued safety, not sure that there's any such thing as justice any more, and even if there is, whether it's possible to find it in Oz ... and that's probably something he ought to have to carry,
I can't ask for absolution and mean it.
He doesn't want to confess it. He wants to hold it private and secret and safe.
He tacks up the postcards along the route, uses the red felt-tip to trace a line from city to city, but the thin red line seems like it's not enough, so he buys some red string, some kind of soft wool, and stretches it along the route, looping around the metal spikes of the push pins to hold it in place before seating them more firmly into the wall.
Before he goes to bed each night, after Compline, he runs his fingers along the string, feels it burr soft under his fingertips, feels it catch on a hangnail, a sharp spark of pain, there and gone again.
He gets a postcard from Birmingham, an odd little thing, vertical instead of horizontal, a close-up photo of a rainy day on a city street, blurred figures with their black umbrellas, wrapped up in black coats and striding away from the vantage point, so you can only see their backs. Running a fingertip across the top of the frame, he traces the stark branches of a bare tree in the median between sidewalk and street, ghosts a touch over the arch created with another tree - practically a mirror image - growing in a patch of grass on the other side of the sidewalk, against the wall of a dusty-rose old brick building.
It's followed by a card from Memphis, an off-kilter spiky starburst of neon color - pink and blue and yellow - over a lighted restaurant sign. It's a diner, maybe, owned by the proverbial Joe; by tilting the card and squinting, Ray makes out that the March special, advertised on the marquee sign in the parking lot, was West Coast Wings. Telephone wires string across one side of the tilted picture, and the sky's a little dark, a shade of bruised bluish grey Ray can't quite place - there's either late-afternoon overcast or it's way-too-early o'clock, just before the sky's brightened enough for the sign's light sensors to click off, and he's reminded of the silvery light of pre-dawn on the day Shirley died.
He tacks both postcards to the map, threads an additional length of red yarn across them, tying them into the growing, lengthening trail from Oz to wherever Miguel's headed, whatever he's searching for, the tenuous thread binding them together.
Two days after First Saturday Devotions at OLF, after another round with Ward and Ellis and Kaminski, with Cyril's weekly childish misdeeds, all the usual admissions and non-admissions of graft and extortion and sex and despair, Ray comes home to a package wrapped in brown paper with his name on it, and he stands in the kitchen blinking at it for a full minute, heart in his throat, ticking off the seconds, before he realizes it has a return address, one he recognizes, out in Torrence. He unwraps it at the table, Thomas laughing at his shoulder as he pulls the wrapping paper off the birthday gifts, an indulgent collection of Maeterlinck from Jan and Mark and Eri and Jack. Like Thomas, they know he started working his way through a comprehensive version of the Church's defunct Index Librorum Prohibitorum years ago - it's a long list, a lot of formerly banned books, but a small enough rebellion, and he figures he'll die before he has to polish it off with de Sade, which would surely kill him with embarrassment, anyway, before he got two pages into it. The four books have been wrapped separately - and in varying degrees of neatness - before being bundled into a single pile and tied together with a slightly tattered blue ribbon. The first-edition English version of The Treasure of the Humble is from his sister, The Life of the Bee with its trendy cover from Mark; Jan probably helped Jack pick out Pélléas and Mélisande - at least Ray hopes so, or maybe he hopes it was just a random choice by a 9-year-old pulling whatever he could find off the shelf, he's not sure which - but Eri's copy of The Blue Bird turns out to be in French, and Ray's pretty sure that's all her.
Thomas pages through it, making "hmming" noises as Ray eats a piece of the chocolate cake they put together from a box, a cake that looks like someone's stuck one of the corners back on with extra frosting, probably after it fell off while they were trying to get the cake out of the pan. It bears a surprising resemblance to the attempts the kids from CCD always put together for Lou or Thomas or Jeremy on their birthdays, and Ray smashes the cake crumbles and buttercream together with the tines of his fork absently before licking off the resulting mess of sugar sweetness, blinking in the glare as Lou flicks on the overhead light to banish the growing twilight. It's been a while since he was technically allowed cake as dinner, he thinks and can't help a small grin to himself.
"This is what I get for buying her a collection of Streatfield for her birthday, a couple of years ago," he tells them, gesturing at L'Oiseau bleu with the temporarily clean fork, and Lou shoots him a look, brows drawn together in incomprehension.
"Ballet Shoes?" Ray says, before he shrugs, going back to his cake - he supposes not everyone is privy to the vagaries of adolescent girls and their preferred reading materials and their questionable senses of humor. Ray, himself, has only Jan and Eri to thank for it, after all. He's dragging the fork through more buttercream when a thought strikes him. "Tom, do you think Katie Wojcik might like that set to read while she's still over at Benchley Memorial? Eri must have torn through them, by now, and I can almost guarantee Jan would be willing to ship them back out here."
He asks her for the favor when he talks to her that night, late - it's three hours earlier in Torrence - between tales of Jack's latest ventures into rubber cement and balsa wood - "That kid's going to be the engineer his grandparents always wanted one of us to be," Jan says, ruefully missing the back half of her sun room, "if only I could get him to actually read a book ..." - and Eri's final tournament at basketball camp. She's already set as a starter on her middle-school team in the upcoming season, Jan tells Ray, and Mark's so fucking excited he could pee himself about it.
"That's what you get for marrying a guy who grew up in L.A.," Ray says absently, lying head-to-foot on his bed, picking at the inside of his sweatshirt zipper, where a seam has come loose and an edge is unrolling, and studying the line of red on his wall, stretching westward, now. "You've got more basketball fans than Catholics out there, even with the overlap."
"Our Lady of Staples Center," Jan says with a laugh, and tells him about the double-takes Eri's already getting, showing her father's height - she's probably close to being as tall as Ray already, if reedier, and nobody expects a 13-year-old Japanese girl to look like that. She's been playing guard, but if she puts on some more bulk, they may move her to forward - Ray detects a hint of smugness in Jan's voice with the news, remembers her coming home from school one day in Toledo and slinging her books across the room to dent the wall, a vicious "Fuck your cherry blossom!" ripping out of her, sometime around volleyball tryouts, he thinks.
Jan had offered to beat up Joey for him, too, Ray remembers, after the spaghetti incident in World History. She'd always been the athlete in the family - track in the fall and softball in the spring, lifeguarding at the pool in the summer, once she was old enough. Joey had run track with her - and cross-country - and he'd had the good fortune to be on the team during a winning season, two years after Jan graduated and was already off to college. St. John's was small enough that they never managed much of a football team, and allegiances shifted like the wind - whichever team was winning that year became the stars of the high school. Joey's team had been runner-up at the state championships their junior year.
Ray remembers Joey studying him - the weight of that soft dark gaze on his adolescent limbs and increasingly sturdy frame, the hollow of his throat, assessing the length and breadth of him - and advising him that he wasn't a sprinter, that he was built for distance. Joe was probably right about that, in any number of ways. Ray never was much of an athlete, though, never was inclined to run if nobody was chasing him. And sometimes, he didn't - doesn't - even have the sense to run then, he supposes. At least not away.
That lack of sense, the inclination to walk into danger like the wind - is probably one reason he finds himself staring down at the card postmarked Texarkana a couple of weeks later - still with no message, at least not one handwritten, and nothing unspoken that he can quite catch, that he can chase around and pin down, although he's got some hazy, half-formed impressions floating around, ideas that he finds himself oddly reluctant to put words to, not wanting to lock their chameleon nature into singular form. This card has a reproduction of another old photo on the front, black-and-white in tone and subject: a small, self-contained black woman, older, like someone's grandmother, and dressed all in white - a long dress, a wrap covering her hair. Hands folded in her lap, she sits serene and tranquil in front of what looks like a mess of a house torn to pieces by a tornado or a hurricane or some other disaster. The legend on the back of the postcard does tell him she's Francis Black, 87 years old - her picture preserved as part of the Federal Writer's Project of the USWPA, collecting narratives from former slaves.
He finds himself wanting to show the picture to Said, something about the woman's self-contained focus pushing the idea - like maybe it will call Said back to himself from whatever barely contained place he's vibrating so painfully, ever since Simon Adebisi's death. Adebisi's death, that's how Ray thinks of it - not a murder, not even a killing, really, as if Adebisi had fallen on a blade he'd been sharpening for himself as a last ditch escape attempt, collateral damage as he beat himself against the inside of his cage, and Said was just more of the same. Ray can't remember if he's told Alvarez, if Alvarez even knows that Adebisi is dead, that the geography of Em City has fractured and shifted so radically.
Each postcard he gets, now, he buys one of his own, and after Francis Black, he stands in front of the rack for fifteen minutes, debating with himself, before pulling out a card with a photo of Amelia Earhart - an advertisement, really, for the nearby aerosciences museum, tucked in among the Skyhawks and the Corsairs and the Wild Weasels. The black-and-white image is soft-focus with age, showing Earhart in front of her plane, legs crossed and chin in hand, dressed in a white button-up and tie, hair cropped and eyes fixed on the distance with a Mona Lisa smile like she's resting only momentarily, poised for flight.
Every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it, he writes on the back, along with a notation about the not-guilty verdict in Said's trial - the not-guilty verdict that's come through so quickly, Ray's not sure whether to be relieved on Kareem's behalf or offended on Simon's.
Before that, there were a couple of postcards of the falls out at Plotter Kill Preserve, photos snapped at practically the same spot - purchased separately, weeks apart, and Ray didn't even realize the progression until later, when he pulled out his stack of cards to tuck Amelia at the back, rifled though them before tucking them safely back into his desk drawer, behind the files where he keeps copies of his quarterly reports to the diocese, to the bishop and Abgott, chronicling the state of ministry in the prison. One of the images captures a frozen cascade of winter-white ice, crystalline sprays fractured and knife-edged, leaving an impression of water arrested in midfall. Jagged terraces of rock thrust out sharp and clear on either side of the falls, and Ray's handwriting is similarly spiky and broken on the reverse of the card, a simple Bible verse with no elaboration: What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? The second view - spring, maybe, or more like summer - shows the entire rock face softened and blurred by green, moss grown over the knives of shale thrust through the earth's surface, shrubby foliage taken root on a particularly deep ledge here and there. At the bottom of the image, the free-rushing falls send up a haze of mist droplets from the river; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living, Ray's handwriting says on the back, grooves of the letters deep, left by emphatic strokes of his pen. There's no mention of Oz on this one, either; instead, he's noted the birthday presents from his family.
He thinks he might tell Alvarez some of this stuff when he finally talks to him, reminds himself to say some of it the next time he gets a phone call, as if he actually will.
He gets another phone call, finally, the next week, but all of his plans are set aside at the unbroken silence on the other end, unease creeping through him like ice.
"Hello?" he says, suddenly uncertain until he hears the hitching breath, and then he knows, like the very first time - surety in the sound of lips parting and breath drawn, in the shift of the telephone receiver against the bunched fabric of Miguel's shirt at his shoulder, in the light gasps, quick and frantic - and his heart slams against the inside of his rib cage, tries to slam its way out of his chest.
"Miguel?" he hisses in the darkness, scrabbling awake and up in bed, on his knees, half-crouched, the same old helplessness running under his skin like adrenaline, nowhere to run, nothing to fight. "Miguel, are you alright? Are you hurt? Alvarez."
He remember those first nights on the line, long minutes of silence from Alvarez, non-verbal, bruised and shaking, as he hears a series of long shuddering breaths, and he just starts talking, inanities - Pinkerton and Kiki's Showgirls performance at this year's talent show (complete with sequins, thumbs up), the kitchen crew's latest breakfast egg experiment (leftover canned yams, thumbs down), Lopresti's exploding burrito (cheese and salsa down the front of his uniform, two thumbs up), all the little details of life in Oz, until Alvarez makes a pained, hurt little sound that reaches into Ray's chest like a fishhook, and he switches to the parish bulletin, bake sale and book drive and upcoming plans of the 14-15 CCD weekend retreat, until there's a soft click and he's left with the vacant sound of dead air on the line and his own speculation about what could have driven Alvarez silent again.
Jeremy's at the table drinking cold coffee from the bottom of the pot when Ray wanders into the kitchen later, anxious and edgy, half-moon crescents dug into his palms, lingering scent of phosphorus and copper and salt in his head, on his tongue.
"Don't you have your own room, over in your own parish?" Ray says, curling his toes against the linoleum floor. "And by the way, your choice of reading material is appalling."
"This is a classic, you know," Jeremy says, looking up from the copy of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God that he's annotating in the margins. "They teach this in English classes, not just theology."
"I hope you're working on debunking it," Ray responds, sliding plates from dinner into the cupboard before taking a mug from the dish rack, swirling the dregs of the coffee as he tries to decide whether he wants to just give up on sleep for the night and make another pot, half-reminded of all-nighters in the library at Boston, late-night theology sessions with Davide and Paul in Rome. "That's the kind of thing that would have turned me off Christianity permanently, if I believed it. I can't believe your guys over at Fatima allow that sort of thing in the house." He turns around for a minute to peer at the kid. "Is that why you're here at three in the morning?"
Jeremy looks at him askance, and Ray shrugs his shoulders, before stealing a spoonful of the pudding the kid's got sitting in a cup beside his book. He's never been a big fan of the Great Awakening all around, really - maybe a result of growing up Catholic - and he supposes he can appreciate the passion and intensity of hellfire-and-brimstone sermons with a sort of horrified distance, but it's not something he can approve of, really, not something that fits into his own theology. It's probably something Abgott is a huge fan of, but scaring the shit out of someone ... that's not true conversion, not true belief, Ray thinks - that's not belief freely given, and unless it's freely given, where's the value in it?
"None are righteous - no, not one," Thomas says from the doorway, smirking at Ray, who throws up his hands, because, seriously? They're going to start quoting Saul of Tarsus at him? "Nobody told me we were having a midnight snack," Thomas continues, making his way to the refrigerator to poke around, scrub of blond hair stuck up on one side, vague Polish accent inherited from immigrant parents stronger while he's still blurry with sleep. "Is there any pudding left? There isn't, is there?"
He looks over to the table, and Ray points at Jeremy, who's earned no himself no favor by his reading material; Ray gives him up like it's going to earn him a week's worth of free time and five cartons of cigarettes, like it's going to get him out of the Hole, and schools his own features into blank innocence at Jeremy's responding look of betrayal.
"Selfish bastards," Thomas mumbles and ambles over to the pantry.
"That's no way to talk to a guest," Jeremy says, and he must have been practicing Lou's reproving tone, because it's pretty good but Thomas has heard it too many times to be anything other than immune, looking back over his shoulder as he pauses in his rustling around like a good-natured bear.
"Who's a guest? Where?"
"Own bed," Ray says, meaningfully, raising his eyebrows and emphasizing his point by jabbing a finger on the tabletop. "Own parish ..." There's a clatter and a crash from the pantry. "There's a new pot of coffee, you know."
"Some of us want to go back to sleep tonight, Ray," Thomas says, emerging from the depths, clutching a package of old graham crackers, probably stale by now - Ray can't even remember the last time they had graham crackers. "The thing you have to understand about Ray, Jeremy, is that he desperately wants to believe that God isn't as hard on people as he is."
"You're kidding, right?" Ray says, torn between outrage and ... well, thinking that maybe Thomas isn't exactly wrong. "Have you seen some of the things God has pulled?"
"That ... kind of makes sense," Jeremy says, tilting his head to study Ray.
There's a postcard from Plano, Texas, a few days later, an advertisement for the annual hot air balloon festival, and Ray can only stand in the hallway holding it and blinking at the inanity, turning over the desperate edge to Alvarez's breaths from that last phone call, trying to figure out what this means juxtaposed against that frantic reach for some kind of connection across the phone line. He knows something was wrong, he knows it, he just can't figure out what could have swung the pendulum so far, so fast, or maybe there's no meaning in any of it at all.
The card from Whitesboro that follows is a photo reprint, a close-up of a couple of lines of bait fish strung on the outside wall of a building - white wooden siding, bright sunlight, crisp color quality, although the red "SERVICE STATION" logo painted on the wall, half-hidden by the upper string of bait, is fading. Water stains dot the postcard, and Ray can't help thinking about water in the desert, which is ridiculous - it's not like Miguel's out there in the middle of literal nowhere, wandering in the desert. If the postmarks are to be believed, he's in the scrubland section of the country, first of all, and anyway, it's not like he's Moses, for heaven's sake.
It's just that Ray can't help mentally placing him there.
My soul thirsts for thee, he thinks, my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.
The entire bizarre extended metaphor is only emphasized by a phone call one night, when Miguel finds himself at the ass-end of nowhere and can't find a postcard worth sending but manages to get his hands on a bottle of something. He's drunk again when he calls, or maybe he calls because he's drunk, specifically because he's drunk, when he might not have, otherwise, and Ray's beginning to have a sneaking suspicion of at least some of what's going on with the wild mood swings, remembers these periodic desperate depths all too well, and where's Miguel going to get his hands on any meds while he's on the run?
Well, any appropriate meds, Ray thinks to himself, listening to Alvarez ramble.
It's not as if a vocation as a parish priest was what Ray ever really envisioned for himself - he wouldn't have been working in Abgott's office, if that had been his goal - and in a lot of ways, he's not, but in a lot of ways, he is: pastor to a bedraggled fucked-up, fucked-over flock, one that has a lot of wolves in sheep's clothing, damaged by their experiences in ways that a lot of outside pastors and ministers wouldn't, couldn't quite understand. And every now and then, it's not so different, or maybe it is, in little ways that do and don't matter, he thinks, as he sits in Cooper Banks's cell in Unit B, accepting offered hospitality in the form of Skittles from the prison commissary and listening to Banks ramble about his concerns over his daughter's upcoming wedding.
He worries about her boy, Banks tells Ray, and he's not there to make sure the guy is treating his little girl right. He was kind of a shitty father, but his little girl shouldn't have to pay for that, and the worst part of being in here in Oz is that he can't make sure she doesn't end up with a bastard like her daddy. Kira, she says the guy's reliable, has a good job at the cannery, that he loves her, that she loves him, but girls, they never see the bastards coming, you know, Father?
They're getting married down at St. Clare's on Saturday, and Ray almost wishes he could go, in loco parentis, but it's a three-hour drive either way, so he promises, makes a mental note to at least find out who the local pastor is and make a telephone call.
He remembers performing a wedding not so long ago, an eternity ago, here in Oz, Jefferson Keane and his proxy wife, and of that entire wedding party, three of the four are dead now, Keane and Adebisi and Johnny Post - only Poet left alive, still subdued in the wake of Pierce and Wangler's deaths, and silent for even longer than that, poetry gone quiet and still, hibernating, maybe, and Ray wonders what it would take to spark it again.
He spends the rest of his Saturday with Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose and in his veins, fresh fish with haunted eyes and tight lips, Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams, Cyril's weekly confession of frustration and bad words - the general misery of the human condition - but the next day, at Mass, Terrence Chicot comes forward just like they practiced to start the rite of Christian Initiation, and for just a few minutes, Ray thinks, this is what it must feel like, when those little girls get up there in the sundresses, boys in pressed Sunday suits, carrying flowers to lay at the feet of the Virgin, or candles for All Saints.
"What do you desire?" he asks, formally.
"The grace of Christ."
"What do you ask of God's Church?"
"What does faith offer you?"
When Ray signs the cross on Terry's forehead, though, he can't help thinking of another ritual, the weight of tradition, ashes smudged like feathery bruises across the arch of a throat, along the line of a jaw, symbol of mortality rather than immortality, of being all too human. Unto dust, he can't help thinking as he steps back to allow the designated sponsor - Sister Anna Michael, one of Pete's compatriots, graying and portly and maternal - to take her turn.
He sets it on his calendar, the weekly counseling sessions, the upcoming baptism - something to look forward to for the next Easter, a reason to be in this prison, in this place that was supposed to extinguish his career - proof that he has a pastorate, just like a priest at any other parish, and now he has a catechumen, but he can't help remembering the last baptism he performed, blood-warm curve of a fragile skull cupped in his palm and a fluttering, faltering heartbeat under his fingertips and breathless gasps; Maritza's wordless sobs and her face as she looked at Ray, pleading, like he could take it all away, the look more than words could ever say, like something too big to carry alone; Miguel's gaze fixed on the baby, like he could take in enough of him to last for a lifetime, could hold all the baby's might-have-beens and lost futures in bleeding hands.
Gabriel Antonio Alvarez y Valdes, yo le bautizo en el nombre del Padre y del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo.
I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
He'd had to ask one of the nurses in the Parker Women's infirmary for the full name before conducting the rite, he remembers - had only realized at that point that they'd never, none of them, called the baby by his name, maybe on purpose.
He's forced to scrounge for dinner for himself that night when he gets home, despite it's Sunday - Lou has been called over to the capital for a meeting with the area bishops, and Thomas is typing furiously on the computer in the study, muttering to himself, probably wrapped up in the long-running war of words he's been having with someone in some newsletter or other over the intricacies of vestments for Mass and indults and who has them and where they apply. Ray remembers him telling Jeremy and Ficaya they were no good to him, he needed someone who could discuss choir dress for the Dominicans, and he might have only been half-joking. It's all very esoteric, even for Ray, who can still manage to lose himself some days in the solemnity and ritual of putting on his vestments before each Mass, the meditative preparation of smoothing his fingers over the stole and pressing his lips to the cross embroidered on each garment, more or less visible, sometimes like a slogan emblazoned across his chest and
sometimes like an intimate secret over his heart.
He pokes around in the fridge and ends up making himself a sandwich - there's the tail end of a meatloaf someone brought over some time in the middle of the week, just enough ketchup left to scrape across one piece of bread, and he wipes one hand on the back of his pants to scrummage around in the junk drawer for a pen to add a note to the ongoing grocery list they keep on the front of the fridge. He's surprised at the staleness of the bread - surprised a loaf of bread lasted long enough to go stale, honestly.
He's ready for his weekend, he thinks, sitting alone, chewing listlessly, crumbs collecting on a paper towel.
One more day to get through.
He gets a postcard from Hondo, Texas - he doesn't even have to check the postmark on this one, a picture of a green municipal welcome sign on the front, with white cursive script, "Welcome," at the top and then in standard block text, "This is God's Country. Please don't drive through it like hell." The signoff at the bottom - "Hondo, Texas" - seems almost like an afterthought.
God's country, he thinks, the next week, as he stands in the cafeteria and watches Silvio Abergel and Nico Benady from Unit C prepare for the Kol Nidre, accompanied by the clatterings of the kitchen crew.
We have transgressed, he thinks, ... we have willfully sinned, we have done violence, we have imputed falsely ... we have provoked, we have been disobedient, we have committed iniquity ... we have oppressed, we have been obstinate ... we have gone astray, we have led others astray, and he can't help feeling that every single person in this prison - and he's including the staff in that learned and clinical and impartial assessment, including himself, maybe most of all - should be in here with them for Yom Kippur tomorrow, falling on their faces, at least metaphorically. He supposes that's part of the point - like mass, like the confessional - and he thinks of the Confiteor, twice a day, every day, Prime and Compline, striking his own breast.
I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed - through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault.
Scapegoat, he thinks - the one cast out, sacrificed to the spirits of the desert, left broken in the end, and he shivers, stuff his fists in the pockets of his sweatshirt, wraps it tighter around himself.
Scapegoat, he thinks, again, when McManus and Murphy have another spat and Murphy ends up in confession again, beating his breast, but this time the thought is just tired. Ray wonders if Murphy doesn't realize that Ray realizes this pattern, or if maybe Murphy himself doesn't realize it. Ray supposes he's cheaper than whatever shrink McManus is seeing, but he's not so cheap a date he doesn't wish Murphy would just buy him a beer one night if all he wants is a bull session.
"Don't you owe me a beer?" Murphy asks him, when Ray finally leans forward, elbows on his desk, to point this out.
It turns out, what Murphy means by "beer" is O'Doul's for himself and "whatever you want, Padre, I'm buying" for Ray during the darts championship with some of the other COs, and Ray can't help filing away all of that information for future examination. Sean threatens to make Ray wear the collar, because of what people are gonna think when they see him buying beers for a pretty thing like him; refreshingly, he doesn't apologize the way most people half-heartedly do after saying something like that, smirking over their dilettante outrageousness, tee-hee, what they just said to a priest. No, if Ray had more experience with that sort of thing, he might even say Sean follows up the remark with a leer, before taking a swig of his O'Doul's, earning a half-choked laugh from Anderson that turns into a coughing fit when Ray's response is "Fuck off."
"Such language, Ray," Sean says, shaking his head as he pounds Anderson on the back. "And from a man of the cloth."
Ray studies him in the neon half-light before someone calls him away to take his turn at darts, and then he sits there sliding his thumb around the rim of his pint glass before lighting a cigarette. He remembers lunches with Sean and Diane before she ran away from home or got the hell out of Dodge or whatever she did, but he makes the other COs nervous, he can tell - they think he can't understand their all-too-human feelings, despite being all too human himself, despite hurting and aching and wanting and loving, and he supposes it's good, sometimes, that supernatural authority, but it's lonely, too.
Sean is different, somehow, he's figured out - Sean doesn't have some weird reverence for him - Sean respects him, because he respects the uniform, the same way he respects a police or fire uniform, and by default the person who wears it, but somehow he's figured out there's a man in there.
"You don't treat me differently," Ray says to him, a couple of beers later, long after Sean's washed out of darts. "Why don't you treat me differently?"
"Should I?" Sean asks, raising an eyebrow at him. "I didn't think so, but, you know, I don't want to be inappropriate or anything ..." He gestures vaguely with his faux-beer bottle.
"I have a hard time believing that," Ray says, and leans his chin on his hand as Sean laughs. "I was just wondering why."
"My cousin, Matty - he's a priest," Sean says, leaning forward so Ray can hear him over a sudden outburst of jubilation by the darts board, where Aguilar seems to have just massacred D'Agnasti. "I grew up with that kid. Once you've seen a guy throw up at the dinner table during family Thanksgiving when you're both 8, you're pretty much done, you know?"
"I suppose I should have figured that," Ray says, and gets momentarily distracted by the movement of his own jawbone against the side of his hand as he talks, before he can return to his train of thought, chase it around, pin it down. "Good Irish family, got to have at least one in each generation, right?"
It's like you're not even Catholic, without the Irish.
"One priest, one cop, one fireman," Sean says, raising his bottle in a mock toast.
"Not as much anymore, though," Ray points out and scratches with his thumb against the tabletop, nail catching in the grooves where someone's carved "AL + DG '99." The table top's tacky with spilled beer, and he rubs his fingers together. "Not as many guys becoming priests anymore."
He wonders if he should go ahead and start planning his move to OLF, yet - Lou warned them yesterday that the diocese had made the decision to sell the old house that the St. Margaret's rectory is in; they won't say yet that they're going to collapse the two parishes into one, but Ray can't see it going any other way. What are they going to do, put up Lou or Thomas in a rented room? The parish office is in the dining room downstairs, for God's sake.
"Ray, you didn't warn me you were a maudlin drunk," Sean says, breaking into his thoughts, and Ray waves a dismissive hand at him. "I think maybe it's time to get you home."
Admittedly, he hasn't really had a lot to drink since college - sacramental wine is not going to build up your tolerance, and he never has more than a single beer with Pete - so Ray's a little bit blurry around the edges when they pull up to the rectory. Sean thankfully doesn't walk him to the door or anything, although he mocks him for being a lightweight while Ray wrestles with the door handle on the passenger side of his car.
Thomas raises an eyebrow at him from the kitchen when Ray comes in.
"I did not tell anyone about catching you dancing Angus around the room to Hall & Oates that one time," Ray tells him, pointing severely. Or something. "I expect similar circumspection in return."
"I'm impressed," Thomas says, rinsing out the teapot. "'Circumspection?' And you didn't even miss a syllable."
No more beer, Ray tells himself in the morning. Or, at least, only one at any time.
The air's turned sharp, sliding chilly fingers down the back of his collar, and he misses the scent of leaves burning, and he comes home late one week to an envelope, thin paper and crumpled, with a postmark from Ransom Canyon that has him walking carefully toward his room, determined not to bolt, not to draw attention. Something slides inside the envelope with a shirring, metallic sound; he's unsurprised when he tears open the end and tips out some kind of necklace, a medallion about the size and thickness of a dime, cheap silver chain like an afterthought. Balancing the medallion on a finger, he can read the raised lettering arcing around the edge - "IMMACULATA CONCEIVED WITHOUT SIN PRAY FOR US" - all caps, no punctuation, circling the Virgin, who stands holding her cloak extended in invitation, an echo of the Madonna della Misericordia, although no souls are shown taking refuge beneath her hem, and he wonders if this has anything to do with why Miguel's wandering, seemingly unwilling to break for the border the way Ray's been anticipating.
What's he looking for, Ray wonders, tracing the lines on his map, trying to find some kind of connection, some kind of meaning - because it's clear Miguel's searching for something, something more than simple escape, even if he can't figure out what it is, or where to find it.
The envelope isn't postmarked Lubbock, but Ray knows that's where the medallion's from, even before he tips out the prayer card, the only other item enclosed, the name of the church on the back along with the Salve Regina, familiar cadence from Compline each night this season - A ti clamamos los desterrados hijos de Eva ... - and a child's-picture-book drawing of Mary on the front, Golden-Reader illustration that actually captures how young she must have been when she made her leap of faith, a thought and a jump, with a cupid's bow mouth and a crown of stars, rosary clasped in her folded hands. He remembers tales of messages, apparitions in a hot Texas town, dancing suns and fountains of light and golden rainfall, remembers the hot debate in his final year at the Gregorian among those from the Americas and those who'd made pilgrimages to Medjugorje - still part of Yugoslavia, then - looking for a touch of mystic revelation in an age of greed ascendant, wanting to believe, even if they weren't sure in what, or where to find it.
Signs and wonders, he thinks and rubs his thumb over the face of the medallion. He knows it's a trick, his own body warming the thin metal, but he imagines he can feel the heat from a desert sun trapped in the silver disc. It's getting colder in New York, now, and Ray's no stranger to winter, but he misses the mild breezes of Sacramento and the ottobratte, the October days golden sunny and warm in Rome, walking the Campo de' Fiori under the watchful bronze gaze of Giordano Bruno, puzzling his way through "Cause, Principle and Unity" in the original Italian, tongue stumbling over unfamiliar words and a frisson of excitement in his stomach at his first banned book.
He pretends to study the postcards in the rack at the Quik-Mart, but he already knows which one he's going to buy, this time, remembers it from previous purchases - a card that shows a photo of the West 146 in autumn, looking toward the steel span of the Mohawk River bridge, a yellow bicycle sign at the edge of the roadway and splashes of color from the scrub oak just starting to spread across the forested backdrop, growing patches of crimson and gold in the distance. It's not the first roadway in his growing collection - a few months ago, during a stretch of radio silence from Miguel, he'd picked up an out-of-season card, found tucked in the back of one wire rack, probably missed and forgotten since last year, showing the East 7 in winter, empty and as yet untrammeled, a stoplight misty and opalescent green in the distance and the metal arced neck of a single streetlight the only signs of civilization on a grey morning, everything muffled in a layer of white snow; lowering clouds hid anything in the distance. But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, he'd penned across the back in dark diagonal slashes, Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter ...
I am no prophet - and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
He spends the morning working on intake files, meeting with new prisoners - two Catholics who don't seem terribly interested in the schedule for Mass or confession, not here long enough to want some break in the routine desperately enough, yet, he figures; a new Jew, Ashkenazi this time, adrift in a sea of Oz's more numerous Sephardim and Mizrachim; an Episcopalian who shrugs and says, sure, he'll come to Mass. The afternoon slides away on the telephone, working long-distance with a deacon at Holy Cross in Buffalo, trying to find resources for Des Gallagher in Unit B, scheduled for release in a couple of months, finished serving his sentence and nowhere to go except to live with his sister. He hangs up in time for None (... to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve ...) before he makes his rounds. He visits Said - back now, in Em City.
"I did not ask to see you," Said says, as Ray stands in the doorway of his pod.
"No," he responds. "I asked to see you."
If the unit is quieter, more subdued, after the recent crackdown - McManus ensconced in his office again, and Murphy ruling with an iron fist from the guard tower - Said himself is no calmer than when he sat in solitary awaiting trial, all too human, still vibrating with the pain and barely contained anguish that's gripped him since Adebisi's death. It's not Ray's absolution that Said needs or wants, but Ray remembers stepping in front of a CO's baton wielded by Leo Glynn, shielding Alvarez with his own body, thoughtlessly, instinctively, and it was only later that he felt any reaction, shaking on his knees in his office, every muscle strained and aching from the rush of adrenaline, and it wasn't until he came to Oz that he really understood, with his body - in his blood and his bones - that instinctive drive to martyrdom, not in pursuit of faith or grace or dry doctrine, but simply to save another. It was like waking up, and Ray's not sure he would - not sure he should - go back to sleep.
He sits at his desk in the rectory that night, door closed behind him, map visible at the edge of the mirror, and studies the postcard of the West 146 - the bridge and the road, the changing foliage in the distance, before he gets up and rummages on the small set of bookshelves that sits to one side of the bed, leaning over so the edge of the mattress digs into his ribs, and then he folds himself cross-legged, back to the door, book resting on his pillow to flip through pages until he finds the poem he wants to copy carefully, short transliteration in the blank space on the back of the card.
kasa kite waraji
He considers adding the Japanese characters, following the strokes and lines as carefully as a second-grader learning cursive script under the watchful eye of Sister Agnes, like a cradle tongue long forgotten; he can hear a light echo of Jan's laughter in the back of his head, but then, she's always been a poetry snob, always mocked him for liking what's essentially the pop music of the Edo period, for all she gave him the book in the first place, back when she decided to get in touch with their family roots. Ray just figures that like Vivaldi, or U2, there's a reason so many people have been drawn to Bashō over the centuries. He settles on a simple English translation:
another year is gone
a traveler's shade on my head
straw sandals at my feet
He lies awake that night, hands pressed to his own chest, feeling the rise and fall, and finally drifts to sleep thinking about the sound of Miguel's breath, quick and light and frantic.
"Your favorite governor apparently showed up for Mass over at Fatima," Thomas says, banging around a couple of pot lids, as soon as Ray walks into the rectory kitchen.
"What's Howard Dean doing in the state?" Ray wanders over to poke at the mashed potatoes and gets his knuckles comically smacked. He can still smell roast chicken, and he's willing to bet the other pot is gravy Thomas put together from the drippings for Sunday dinner.
"Funny. Go sit down, Ray. I'm going to put some of this in the microwave. You eat like crap most of the time. You should have a decent meal on Sunday night, at least, even if they never let you get home on time."
"Devlin really showed up for Mass?" Ray's given up on fighting the coddling at this point, and drops - gratefully - into a chair, leaning his elbows on the table.
"It is campaign season," Thomas points out.
"Did he leave a scorch mark on the pew?" Ray shares a knowing look with him over the open microwave door.
"Ray," Lou's tone is reproving as he turns from the sink to fix Ray with a gimlet eye, wiping wet hands on the apron he's tied around his waist. "Everyone is welcome in the house of God. 'We ought to see far enough into a hypocrite to see even his sincerity.'"
"'There are some people, nevertheless - and I am one of them - who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe,'" Ray responds as he leans across the table to grab a leftover roll.
"Chesterton for Chesterton, eh?" Lou dips his head like a fencer conceding a hit. "Touché."
"'Charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice,'" Jeremy pipes up, and they all turn to look at him, sprawled against the counter by the sink, dishtowel still hanging from one hand. He closes his eyes as if trying to picture the words on the page. "'It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all or exists wholly for them.' ... What? I can read, too, you know."
"You are surprisingly well housebroken," Thomas admits, and Lou laughs.
Devlin comes through Oz several times, too, in the run-up to Election Day, showing up roughly twice as much as usual, according to Mineo's running tally, which he expounds upon at length one evening in the staff break room over tuna salad sandwiches after Devlin's wrapped up another speech designed to make them all sound like scrappers devoted to justice and order, taking over the cafeteria with news cameras and throwing off the inmate dinner routine in the process.
"Translation: 'No raises next year,'" Phelan says, flipping a blue packet of Equal between her fingers before she rips off the top, one corner of her mouth quirking as Mineo snorts into his sandwich.
One of the visits includes sitting in at Mass, and Ray's sanctuary suddenly doesn't feel very safe - Did it ever? Sean's voice asks, in his head, and he struggles to remember that sense of security, of peace, that he found in the cool stained-glass light of Blessed Sacrament or the intricate curves of San Carlo winding in on itself, Escher-like.
It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers, Ray thinks to himself, and he's pretty sure Devlin doesn't think much of him. It's not as if it's a surprise - he knows he's just enough of a bleeding heart to be held in contempt, yet not quite enough of one to gain any dispensation from it. Ray has no doubt Devlin would prefer someone like Tomás Ficaya as chaplain, or even Jeremy - someone from one of the orders who's gone so far as to take a vow of poverty, so the state could offer even less salary compensation - as if that's what a vow of poverty would mean.
It's probably why there's such a strong Catholic presence in Oz to begin with, Ray points out to Pete - God knows whether they could pay a lay psychologist what they'd need to get them to work in the place. Of course, they probably wouldn't pay it - they'd take the burners at the end of their careers, or the bright young kids who are still idealistic, fresh meat who'd end up getting chewed up and spit out by the system as well as the inmates.
Ray might have been idealistic, might still be idealistic on his better days, but at least he was never so naïve as to choose this, he thinks - but he keeps his mouth shut on that front as Pete pats his hand and calls him her little socialist.
"Thank you for the backhanded compliment," she adds, before she heads back to her office with her coffee.
The next time Devlin shows up, Ray throws off the order of his readings, goes back and digs out Wisdom - although he's not sure how much actual wisdom accompanies the decision - for his reading of the day.
... though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us ... you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins ...
He watches Devlin's mouth get smaller and smaller with each verse; he catches Masters' puzzled look in the congregation, a whispered question from Velez as he leans over to Guerra - didn't we just hear this, like, a couple months ago? - and Chico's answering shrug, but he continues along with the recycled homily. Like a lot of them, it pretty much boils down to "don't be a dick," but there's a rush of visceral satisfaction accompanying it this time, a heat in his belly. It's a small enough rebellion - and little enough satisfaction - but Ray will take what he can get. He doesn't even feel bad about the bully pulpit ... much. If Abgott can use it all the time, Ray can take advantage of it once in a while. It's not as if he expects Devlin to be swayed by it, anyway.
"Nice sermon, Father," Tim tells him in the break room on Tuesday morning - the second day of Ray's weekend, but it's All Saints, Holy Day of Obligation, white vestments and lighted candles, and Ray has an obligation to his flock.
He narrows his eyes at McManus.
"You weren't even there," he says, trying for stern but sounding more impatient, he thinks.
"No, but I heard all about it," Tim says and grins at him, pushing the door open with his hip and slipping away.
Ray spends Saturday with Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose and in his veins, fresh fish with hunted eyes and tight lips, Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams, Cyril's weekly confession of frustration and bad words, the small selfishnesses of a child. He takes a minute after solitary Sext and the Angelus - Fiat mihi secumdum Verbum tuum. Be it done unto me according to your Word. - to send up a prayer, piggybacking on First Saturday Devotions at OLF, a constant awareness in the back of his mind, some kind of spiritual energy pulling at him or maybe just a longing for air. He really does try to avoid framing it in his head as a prayer for the goddamned soul of this godforsaken state.
He gets a postcard from Carlsbad, sepia-toned photograph, a small stone building that looks abandoned, blending in with its dusty, sandy surroundings like it's a natural occurrence, part of the earth around it, and he stares at it a minute, wondering when Alvarez decided he was some kind of tourist and whether the Grand Canyon would be next, before he realizes the postmark is from Carlsbad, Texas, not New Mexico. This is bad enough, he thinks, tracing a line along the map with a fingertip, the drunkard's walk Alvarez is taking around the Southwest, and Ray's not sure why he's surprised, because Alvarez has always had a problem committing to anything, to following through, blown by whatever wind is in his face or at his back or buffeting him at the time, a thought and a jump, jack-rabbiting through life on impulse.
Not fair, he tells himself - admonishes himself - and not true, besides.
You killed him over that baby.
Fair or not, it looks like Alvarez is just wandering all over the Southwest, at this point, and Ray runs his fingertips over the front of the latest postcard, the derelict building, as if he could suss out its meaning, as if there's some kind of meaning there. The legend on the back tells him about the mineral springs boom that that peaked and then died in Texas in the early part of the century, and maybe he's overthinking all of this, searching for signs and wonders, trying to find meaning that isn't there in whatever postcard was grabbed off the front of a rack, easiest to hand.
Proof of life, he thinks, and traces the wandering path on his map again, red trail burring against the pads of his fingers. Is Miguel waiting for something?
Be looking over your shoulder, Miguel Alvarez ... comprende, amigo?
I'm responsible for your soul, he'd said, that first day, when he walked into the infirmary to find Miguel framed in a window, haloed by what smoggy sunlight could fall through bars and screens.
He studies the map, looking for a pattern in randomness, some kind of sign, as he waits, for weeks, and not hearing is worse than hearing. Proof of life, he thinks again, with a prickle of skin, and admonishes himself for his morbid thoughts, but he can't shake the memory of Miguel's voice, stripped and threadbare over the telephone line, cursing Hernandez and his death sentence. He can't escape the sound of yells and fists on flesh from the other side of the door to a solitary cell as he beat against the door, thoughtlessly, instinctively, trying to make it stop, his own body still aching, collateral damage as he tried to place himself between Miguel and the bars of his cage. He can't forget the look in Leo's eyes when the baton smacked down on the table or the thin raw slices on Miguel's face, his hands, or the look in his eyes when he woke up with bruises around his throat, after trying to hang himself.
Ray's tired, so tired of being God's witness, held down while he struggles against the hard silk of his own stoles.
I won't let them beat you, he'd said, and they were just more promises, broken, like useless wings.
As fucked as the proof of life comparison may be, it's not like it isn't true.
Ray pulls out his purple for Advent, tucks away the Gloria at Mass again, tries to turn his focus - at Mass, at least - to the coming of the Savior, commemoration of His birth, anticipation of His second coming, which hopefully will be better than a lot of people are imagining it to be. He catches Davis reading those awful Tim LaHaye books in the break room and thinks, uncharitably, that it explains a lot, before he admonishes himself.
"They're not even well written, though - never mind the atrocious Biblical scholarship," he argues to Sean, and he's vaguely aware he's being ignored in favor of sandwich construction; meanwhile, Tim's paused halfway through a can of Ravioli - Ray thinks it might be a can of his Ravioli, come to think of it - leaning his head on his hand to actually listen, but Ray's on a roll and too worked up to do more than note the role reversal as he bangs a cabinet door shut. "I wasn't sure there were Christians who actually read the Bible less than Catholics, but those guys don't seem to have much an acquaintance with it. Honestly. Also, the characterization is appalling."
"So, you have strong feelings about Revelations, then," Tim says, sounding amused, mashing a rogue ravioli with his fork, and Ray shoots him a scathing look.
"I have strong feelings about literature."
"Well, there's the problem, then, right at your starting point." Tim spreads his hands and shrugs, and Ray can't say he's wrong.
He pulls out the Advent wreath from the back of his storage closet, lays it out in his office in anticipation of Mass, conscious of the underlying hum of the days of this time of year, just gearing up - anticipation, or the tedium of commercialization, or the misery of a bunch of guys who'll have to spend the holidays locked up with each other, or some combination of it all - bringing home, again, the differences between his flock and St. Margaret's or OLF. Thomas is already wandering around the rectory humming "O come, O come, Emmanuel;" Ray's never been able to believe how dolorous that song sounds, what a downer hopeful expectation can be turned into. The song's got the same kind of weight pressing down as days in Oz - heavy, dragging, pregnant with expectation - the same kind of expectation of salvation, maybe, that someone like McManus has for redemption coming out of Oz - for himself or the prisoners. The same kind of expectation of salvation that Abgott's got for Ray, maybe.
He's restless, dissatisfied, can see it coming out in his work, feels the weight of the liturgical new year, and he wonders what resolutions he should be making. As he walks outside in the cold air, the bracing chill slips intrusive fingers inside his coat, underneath his collar to ghost across the back of his neck. There's no snow yet, but the wind is always wet, a raw chill that reminds him of hacking coughs the winter he came down with bronchitis, 13 years old and convinced he was going to cough up a lung.
It's been a while since he heard from Alvarez, and not hearing continues to be worse than hearing. He should remember that, he thinks, staring at his map, running his fingers along the wandering, looping route.
He's waiting for the return of the Light, waiting for the return of light, like all midwinter festivals, he supposes, present across so many cultures, everyone hitting that point in the middle of winter, that point of cold and misery and despair and well, crankiness, his grandmother would have said, like they were all 5 years old, but looking for something to cling to, as well, a literal spark of hope, a promise of warmth and life, halfway through the long winter, something at the end of the tunnel - and please, God, not another oncoming train, he can't help thinking. He gets the appeal of the midwinter festival. Every time he lights a candle, he feels a little bit better - the actual fire, itself, seems to help, gives him a focus when he's tired, down to his bones, tired of the dark days, his windows grey when he comes in, in the morning, and pitch dark already when he leaves.
He presses a hand to the grid of the mesh screen over his office window and remembers the heat of summer beating in through the glass, dust motes languid in the rays of sunlight.
December brings another Holy Day of Obligation, Feast of the Immaculate Conception - that we may, at her intercession, be delivered by Thee from the dangers which beset us - but it's easy to go to Mass when he's the one presiding. He's always a little amused that his routine is someone else's special event, but he supposes that's how a lot of people see Mass - something outside of their ordinary day. It's one of the reasons he became a priest, isn't it? To try to keep that sanctity as part of his everyday existence?
The fact that it's an ordinary day for everyone else is brought home more forcefully when he gets home and realizes life has been going on as usual - there's a stack of mail for him, mainly junk mail, but it's not that stuff that sets his heart beating, and maybe, suddenly, it's not entirely an ordinary day.
It's not a postcard, this time. It's an envelope, again, postmarked San Antonio, heavier than a letter, something stiff and unbending inside. He runs his fingertips over the surface, over the spiky letters cut into the envelope with dark ink, and he imagines he can feel the heat against his fingertips again, from sun and sand and skin, like the envelope's been permeated with it, carried it all the way through the churned-up slush and the frozen mud and the chilling wind to his door, and he catches himself before he can press it to his cheek. He shuts himself in his room before he allows himself to open it, heart rabbiting against his ribs, crimson webwork visible in the mirror out of the corner of his eye, but he keeps his gaze focused on the envelope, avoids looking at the map on the wall. Still no words, he thinks, as a folded Polaroid falls out onto his lap, but when he unfolds it, emulsion tacky against his fingers as he tries to smooth it out, he realizes he's wrong.
… no me pongan en lo oscuro moror como un traidor
yo soy bueno, y como bueno moriré de cara al sol …
I am good, and like a good thing, I will die with my face to the sun.
He doesn't recognize the words right away - he understands them, like a fist to the throat, heart and breath squeezed tight in his chest - but he doesn't recognize them, can't quite place them, can't chase them around and pin them down, although they're clearly poetry of some kind.
I don't want to end up like my grandfather ... I don't see it going down any other way … rest of my life in a little fucking box …
The tattoo's still a fresh wound, red and weeping, like stigmata, but no, that's more appropriate to Easter, isn't it? Easter, back when Miguel had only been gone for a few weeks, bird on the wing, and Ray blinking at wide-open sky, determined not to break his heart over a handful of feathers left behind. He knows it's Miguel's back in the photo, recognizes the lines of his body, the curve of his shoulder, the arch of his shoulder blade like wings, even though the top of the frame cuts off below the spider – or whatever the hell that is, Ray's never quite figured it out. He runs his fingertips over the picture again, smoothing over the lines of text, pads of his fingers catching on the cracked line where the picture broke when it was folded inside the envelope. The words have been inscribed in the flesh in script that's not quite Gothic, and it's halfway decent work, he thinks - not as crude or makeshift as some of the others Alvarez wears, raw grace and stark meaning inked into his skin, the flower on his hand, the jumble on his arm. This one reminds Ray of the spider, if a bit more baroque than the modernistic design of that one, and it's clearly the work of someone operating with some actual tools, this time, instead of retrofitted mechanical pencils and transistors and ink from stolen ball-point pens. If Ray tilts his head, he can maybe see a little bit of San Antonio in the flow of it, like a map of where Miguel's been, a map of where's he going.
I will die with my face to the sun … he thinks, ghost touch on the nape of his neck, and admonishes himself for his morbid thoughts.
The lines turn out to be from a José Martí poem - a poem that's easy enough to find, really, once Ray sets his mind to it, and he wonders which abuela had a book of Martí on her shelves.
"Do not put me in the dark to die like a traitor ..." he murmurs aloud, running his fingers over the translated words like he needs to suss out a meaning that's all too clear, a shiver of gooseflesh over his skin when he reads the poem, easier to make out on the page than set into the still-swollen skin along the arch and dip of Miguel's lower back, running over the curve of his spine to wrap around his flank.
Ray looks at his little pile of picture postcards, looks around his room, and he can feel the walls drawing tighter (… rest of my life in a little fucking box …), and he knows he has to go, has to get out. Vacation, he thinks, staring at his tatty little Advent calendar on the wall, waiting to go soft around the edges. There's a sweet, pathetic monstrosity of one in the kitchen that one of the younger CCD classes made for them with glitter and crayons and copious amounts of glue, but Ray's is pre-made, purchased, and somehow sadder for that. He supposes he's lucky he can ride on Lou and Thomas and Jeremy's coattails. It's not as if any of his parishioners are going to make him an Advent calendar. They're probably not allowed to have glue, for starters, even if Masters convinced Zonioni to offer up some glitter for the cause.
Shakedown, he thinks, and laughs out loud, a little bit hysterically.
Christ, he's got to get out of here, he thinks - and it's not even blasphemy as much as a cry for help.
The map catches his eye, crimson tracery of a web, his own kind of craft project - his and Miguel's somehow - and he stares at it, tracing the interstices, the connections, finally turning the idea over in his head, finally letting it take shape and form, chasing it around and down, pinning it in place.
Fuck your mathletes, he thinks. Fuck your expectations.
Pete's been trying to get him to take a vacation, anyway.
They're always excited when a priest actually takes a vacation – they've been trying to force one on Lou for literally years, and so they're perfectly willing to give Ray the time off, if it'll delay burnout for a few more months, as if two days in Oz isn't all it takes to take you down just fine. The diocese office staff - whoever over there is working with him on setting this up - they want him to go to Marygrove up in Michigan, or somewhere in the mountains, like he hasn't had enough of the cold in his bones, as it is. It's not where he wants to be, not what he wants to be doing, he knows that, even if he's not sure what is, even if he's not sure what he's looking for, what he needs. He's already missed the Marygrove priest's retreat for the year, so at least he doesn't have to find a way to beg out of that, but still - he's not interested in spending five days in prayerful contemplation with other people, no matter who they are. He wants to be alone, maybe, to search in peace, and he has to shake his head at himself, midlife crisis or delayed teenaged angst or whatever he's going through.
I still haven't found what I'm looking for, he thinks, and then laughs at himself, maybe with a little less bitterness than has become usual.
He can't deny the sense of urgency driving him, though, the need to go, adrenaline just under his skin, pointed at the desert, cage door ajar, a thought and a jump ... only not really. He spends weeks more going through the dutiful motions to make sure everything's in place. They work hard, over in the diocesan office, at setting up a temporary replacement to his exacting standards - because if he can't manage two days off in a row, there's no way his guys in Oz can handle two weeks without a chaplain, and they shouldn't have to, it's why they need someone with a vocation and not just a job, even if it isn't where Ray ever wanted - ever expected - to end up. He spends a week in anxious limbo, a stomach-hollowed, breathless feeling of freefall like missing a step, wondering who's going to turn up in his doorway and wondering what he'll do if all of his plans get snatched out from under him because the guy doesn't pass muster.
He can't just turn anyone loose in Oz, but he can't just say "no," not when the idea's already floating around out there to bring in one of the guys from his own parish, or a sister church. The thought of Jeremy thrown into the deep end of Oz ... Ray should probably worry just as much about a stranger, but at least with that option he's not setting up some small woodland creature he knows to be run down by a threshing machine.
He couldn't even understand how his grandparents could eat the chickens they named, on the farm.
Father Greg Makaki is Aryan blond and plays soccer in the local rec league, falls somewhere between Ray and Thomas in age. He let the kids in the last parish he covered call him Father Monkey, and he'll bust out the Monkees theme song at the least provocation. Thomas is gravely disappointed in his lack of Polish, but two days into his stay at St. Margaret's, he convinces Jeremy and Lou to stay up with him watching a Star Trek marathon - original series, of course - until 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. He's a giant dork, as well as being built and athletic, the kind of guy Ray would have been silently, painfully in love with in high school, and Oz is either going force him to thrive like a hothouse flower or it's going to spit him out and kick him in the kidneys for good measure.
Ray's met Oz, and he knows where he'd lay his money. He tries to console himself: How much trouble can the guy get into over two weeks?
There's a bad moment when it looks as if the security clearance might not come through, as if all of Ray's plans might be scuttled at the eleventh hour, and he's not sure who makes the call from the diocese to fix it, doesn't want to look too close. He spends a couple of days giving Makaki something that could be loosely termed "orientation" - for whatever values of prep you can give someone in Oz - memory of the hunted eyes and tight lips of all the fresh fish lingering. Makaki's impassive as he leans against the back wall, looking more like a CO in severe black, with his brush cut and broad shoulders, during Sean's intake spiel for three new inmates - no fighting, no fucking, no yelling, always overlaid with Diane's tone and cadence, in Ray's mind.
And really? he thinks, suddenly and only now, after all these years. We build up to the yelling, like it's the most important? Or do we leave it 'til last, because it's least important? Not that the whole thing isn't equally applicable, and probably as much to the staff as the inmates - at least in Ray's learned and professional and clinical assessment.
"He's not as pretty as you," Sean tells him over beers, smirking, the night before Ray's last day in Oz. "He won't decorate that sinkhole quite the way you do."
"That's why I'm there," Ray says, and takes a prim sip, wondering if Sean will take Makaki out for beers, go to him to confess his sins when he's fighting with McManus. "For my looks."
"Don't come home until you get some sun," Pete tells him the next day, lounging in his desk chair while he packs up some of his personal belongings, feeling strangely like he should say good-bye to this office, like he won't be back after Christmas.
It's only two weeks, he tells himself. You'll be back right after New Year's, after all.
He brings his tatty little advent calendar to the office before he leaves. They don't need it at the rectory, and maybe Makaki can use it, and so he lays it in the center of his artificially neat desk before he closes and locks his office for the last time - or at least for the next 15 days.
He packs light that night, the last night, moving swift and sure, shoulders set, no hesitation, like walking into the wind, and he keeps his mind blank, familiar soothing litany - last refuge of the helpless - running in the back of his head to prevent himself from thinking about what he's doing.
Speculum justitiae ... Mirror of justice ... pray for us ...
Sedes sapientiae ... Seat of wisdom ... pray for us ...
Vas honorabile ... Vessel of honor ... pray for us ...
Rosa mystica ... Mystical rose ... pray for us ...
Turris Davidica ... Tower of David ... pray for us ...
If he thinks about what he's doing, thinks too hard, he might panic.
Janua caeli ... Gate of Heaven ... pray for us ...
Stella matutina ... Morning Star ... pray for us ...
Refugium peccatorum ... Refuge of sinners ... pray for us
... he thinks as he takes down the postcards and the yarn from the map, winds most of the red string into a ball that he leaves in a corner of his desk drawer. He saves the section that ran down I-95, the first days, weeks, of the journey, uses it to tie his bundles of postcards - Miguel's, his own, carefully separated into two stacks - before he tucks them into a side pocket of his bag. The photo of the tattoo he tucks inside, nestled into a small zippered pocket; the broken edge where it was folded in the envelope catches on the pads of his fingers and he unfolds it long enough to run fingertips over the fresh wound, red and weeping, like stigmata.
Sacrificial lamb, he thinks, has a flash of phosphorus and fire and blood marking the door, before he shoves the Polaroid into his bag.
"You're off, then," Thomas says, standing in the doorway, more of a more of a statement than a question. and why not, Ray thinks. He's never going to get to sleep. He might as well get some miles under his belt. It feels like being in college again - road trip, he thinks and remembers Jan, impatient with their father's overprotectiveness, announcing that her car had headlights, you know.
He says goodbye to Lou like he's never going to see the guy again and smokes a last cigarette on the porch, Thomas hovering disapprovingly, before he hefts his bag into the back seat of the Tercel. The last thing he does, after staring at himself for a moment in the mirror, reaching out to touch the reflection of the curve of his own lips, the arch of an eyebrow, the edge of his jaw, taking the measure of himself, is slip on the medallion Alvarez sent from Lubbock.
Then he heads out under the stars to find ... something ... in the desert.
Chapter 3: Book III: The Book of Ray
I'll be on time, and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
It's not the quickest route to his destination, but he traces the path of the postcards: a quick jump over to I-95, then down the Eastern Seaboard, into South Carolina, miles of pavement and Slim Jims, convenience store coffee and drive-thru burgers, Fritos and the sound of the latest U2 CD on repeat from his radio, an early Christmas present from Thomas. He smokes too much the first day, throws out his pack of cigarettes as he skirts DC, stops in Rocky Mount by the next day at noon to buy a new pack. Interstate 20 is a long stretch of nothing - wide bleached pavement cut through miles of empty rolling foothills, with almost none of the corridor development Ray's used to seeing along major highways, and he sheers northward again outside of Atlanta to hit Memphis. It takes him just days to cover ground that it took Miguel months to move across - although who knows what kind of stops and starts and doubling back and going to ground Alvarez did on his version of this trip?
Ray's pretty straightforward, always has been - he doesn't always get what he wants, but he generally knows what it is and how to achieve it, unerring forward motion like walking into the wind, steady roll of the wheels under him, eating up the miles. But this time, he's following someone else's lead, and it's not the quickest route, and he's not entirely sure why he does it - it's not as if he can ask people along the way if they've seen Alvarez, for heaven's sake. He gets that human drive for connection that makes people ask, infuriatingly sometimes, if you know Clarence Lee, when they find out you're from Toledo - as if, of all the people out there, you're likely to know that one guy who was Bridesmaid Number Two's brother-in-law from their sister's wedding that one time - but he's not going to fall into doing that sort of thing himself. Anyway, it's not as if he should be drawing attention to Alvarez, not as if he should be jogging anyone's memory.
Aiding and abetting, says a voice in his mind, and it sounds suspiciously like Devlin – which is almost a relief, really, because it makes him feel less guilty than when it was in the pained tones of Leo or, later, Murphy's betrayed imaginary voice – and he tightens his hands on the steering wheel, knuckles pale and taut.
He drives backward through changing seasons, slush of snow and ice giving way to sere hills of brown, sun-bleached grass, bare branches less stark among stands of pine, growing greener as he travels farther south. He never quite makes it back into summer - he can't drive fast enough for that kind of time dilation, but he watches the world thaw and soften outside his window, finally shifting into ochres and reds among grey-green foliage as he heads far enough west, red clay giving way to fine sandy dirt packed hard under the pale wheaten gold of winter grass. He stops a couple of nights at cheap motels, pulls in when his eyes start feeling sandy, sunset blooming crimson in his windshield, but he's back up and on the road before the sun can rise in his wake, and one night he drives straight through, restless urge sliding jagged under his skin, pulling him west like a fish on a line, and Birmingham already in his sights, Springsteen's Nebraska in the CD player. He feels recklessly like something out of Thelma and Louise, out under the stars - has to laugh at his midlife crisis or delayed teenaged rebellion or whatever this is - and he contemplates pulling off somewhere to buy a bottle of whiskey, just to complete the entire dramatic picture he's somehow succeeded in painting, steady, solid, reliable Ray.
He'd still pay for it, though, instead of holding up the place. That's just how he is. He doesn't break the law, he thinks, and he has to laugh at himself, again, out loud, alone in his car, because he's on the trail of a fugitive, got a stack of postcards in his back seat that he's been accumulating for months while a multi-state manhunt went on, is tracing the wandering path of flight as best as he can reconstruct, all while carrying a second stack of postcards he has no doubt he would have posted, if only he'd known where to send them.
What, exactly, does he think that all means?
San Antonio rises in his windshield midway through the fourth day, after too much time to think, and he's immediately distracted by what an exceedingly stupid idea this was. It's one thing to play headgames with himself about what Miguel's looking for, waiting for, and whether he's trying to draw Ray out, but then, what's Ray supposed to do, now that he's here? He waited days, weeks, while he made his preparations, hoping for another call that never came, and now, how is he going to find Alvarez - now that he's here, a thought and a jump, jack-rabbiting down the hole like he's got no more sense, no more foresight or planning ability, than Miguel, himself? How is Alvarez supposed to find Ray, when there are - without exaggeration - 80 Catholic churches in this city, turning even the most likely place for Ray to be into a crapshoot?
He ends up going to ground at St. John Neumann, a spare bed at the rectory offered by someone who knew someone who was related to someone in the diocesan office back home, doors willingly open for a fellow priest on a much-needed vacation, a place to doss down between wandering the city, temporary home base and sanctuary. Immaculate Heart, Holy Redeemer, St. Matt's - they'd also had spare beds where he could have holed up, but when he was arranging this, he touched the medallion over his heart, under his shirt, and dialed the number for the pastor at St. John's without a second thought. He doubts Miguel will make the connection - it's kind of a stretch, the same church name and nothing more - but there was, literally, nothing else to go on, and so he greets his hosts with the formal handshake and politic smile he learned at Abgott's elbow, laughs at their joke about pressing him into hearing confessions, doesn't tell them that he could listen all day to admissions about affairs with co-workers, or shoplifting, or lying to bosses, spouses, parents, children, nosy neighbors - as long as nobody is confessing to actually being a serial killer, it's practically like being on vacation.
He thinks of Lou, of Thomas, quick snatches of meals in the kitchen with the clattering of dishes around him and the purr of Angus where she lay draped over his feet, bird-boned and warm, and they'd acted like he was just off the front lines, every day, but that's all just his job, his everyday life, and he's made it this long, survived the world exploding around him or crumbling slowly, silently, piece by piece, and he's managed to pick himself up each time. It's all normal.
For whatever values of "normal" still exist in his world.
Advent's in full swing, despite the fact that it feels like summer to him, now, and he's reminded of his childhood in Sacramento, purple candles and open windows, Christmas lights and shirt sleeves, and he folds up his coat, tucks it away into the trunk of the Tercel. He thought he'd be glad to get out of the penetrating cold of Oz, but it's 69 degrees, and the fake snow on the store windows looks out of place, and can't help thinking about how many of these holiday traditions were developed in colder climates.
He fills his days with tourist fare, like an actual vacation, working his way around some of the attractions his hosts probably expect of him: He visits the Alamo and actually stands in the former chapel and offers up a prayer, hoping, maybe, to get some kind of answer about what he's doing here, some guidance about where to go next, and he's not entirely sure he's only asking about this mad quest to San Antonio. He goes to the River Walk, three times, and then he's been to the River Walk three times; a bridal party catches his eye out on Marriage Island on one trip, white gown brilliant among the cypress trees that remind him of Rome. It's still humid - he's not nearly far enough north or west for the dry heat to have set in, and the cool breezes that manage to cut through the air remind him of Ostia, and he remembers the ottobrate again, sunny and warm, the candy-colored double line of umbrellas along the river's edge - extra restaurant seating - a reminder of cafés and trattorie.
At night, las luminarias trace along the riverbank, signature decoration of the season, and he follows the path of their flickering flames, wishing his own were that easy to find. The other lights make him uneasy though, hanging heavy to drip from roofs and branches, reflected in the water like the river and its banks have been set ablaze, lightning flash burning from tree to tree. It reminds him of Miguel's postcard from South of the Border, and it's nothing like daylight; he can't help thinking the saying "bright as day" is always wrong - the quality of the light isn't the same, the shadows somehow more slippery and yet stark.
He goes to daily Mass, every day at a different church, working his way around the city. There's no immediately apparent best plan of attack, and so he begins scattershot, letting his own desires guide him. He could pretend he's paying attention to the different styles of different celebrants, the way he'd listen to Tomas or Father Brady's homilies back at OLF, but why lie to himself? He doesn't know why he thinks he's going to find Miguel at church, but it's better than nothing. He can remember Miguel front and center, every week, at Mass in Oz - Chico by his side, no matter what they had going down between them the rest of the time - and it's not like Ray's willing to fool himself into thinking Alvarez was there for him. He's not that far gone. Anyway, he worries too much about Alvarez to prefer that he'd look to Ray, rather than God, for answers - God, who's maybe the only one able to handle some of the shit Miguel gets himself into, especially this time.
That's what Mass is for, Ray supposes - the place where you can put some of it on the shoulders of someone big enough to carry it, and he genuflects at the end of his pew, signs himself with holy water, because isn't that what he's doing? At least, he tries to tell himself so.
What are you going to do when you find him, he thinks, noting clinically that he asked himself "when," not "if." He avoids the thought of which "him" - or "Him" - he means.
Thomas calls one night, checking in, Ray thinks, although he's also got a message, tells Ray that someone called looking for him.
"We told the guy you were out of town," Thomas tells him. "He didn't sound very happy about it. Got a little belligerent when we wouldn't tell him where you were."
"Ah," Ray says. "I don't suppose he left his name?"
"No, he wouldn't. Ray, is this someone we should be concerned about?"
Well, probably, yes, if Ray's going to be completely honest about it, but why start now?
"It's probably just one of the guys from the prison," he tells Thomas, and he supposes it's even sort of true.
"That's why we wondered if we should be concerned about it, Ray," Thomas tells him, patiently, as if this sort of thing isn't just Ray's job, his everyday life, really.
"No, forget about it," he says, adding an emphatic please silently, to himself. "I'll check in with Father Makaki. He's probably already taken care of whatever it is."
At St. Anthony's, Ray thinks maybe he sees Alvarez, a couple of rows deep in the nave - something about the way the guy carries himself reminds him of Miguel, but it's not the first time he's been fooled since he's been here. It's one of the few times it's taken him so long to catch on - there's a lot of slender dark-haired guys in this town, but not all of them have the same kind of sloping, loping grace that runs under Miguel's skin, whether he's still or in motion.
When he visits the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, he wants to walk in there and get lost – although the color scheme is actually sort of tatty, he thinks critically. Apparently, he has strong feelings about architecture, not just literature; he has to admit the main altar's done up in some glaringly Precious Moments-style coloring and far more ... aqua than he really likes. The flickering votives set back in their dark alcoves, though - they soothe some place in his soul like a balm, like the candles from the advent wreath, like las luminarias, calming something in him, something animal, or maybe so very human, responding to the light of the flame in the short days, even under the hot Texas sun, responding to the living fire in the cool dim sanctuary. There's a Spanish mass going on, and he slips away after, to the smaller chapel, something indefinable there reminding him of the chapel at the Gregorian as he kneels and studies the altar frontispiece - Elijah being fed by the raven. He closes his eyes and reaches for grace and tries to let everything wash through and out and past him, thinking of the flickering candle flames, wondering - maybe hoping - that this was what he was really looking for when he headed out in the direction of the desert.
He's through his first full week in San Antonio when the postcard shows up, a map of Texas looking as big as his drive through the state felt, with messy, spare handwriting on the back that conceals a wealth of meaning. His skin prickles and his stomach hollows out as he turns the card in his hands, because this time Alvarez has written a message, along with Ray's name and the address of the rectory where he's staying: antes de morirme quiero echar mis versos del alma
before I die I want to loose my verses from my heart ...
Ray recognizes the line immediately - more Martí, and not subtle, but then, when has Miguel ever been subtle?
The card's postmarked San Benito, but there's something inked on it, down in the lower right corner of the state, almost as far south as its possible to go and still be in Texas, a thought and a jump from the border, something drawn with red felt-tip again. It's a stylized dove, he realizes, recognizing the shape from any number of liturgical banners, and he rubs a thumb over it contemplatively, like he can suss out its meaning through his fingertip, before he pulls out his map.
A thought and a jump – impulse, instinct - only not really, because he's already come this far. It's three days before Christmas when he puts his bag in the back seat of his car again and heads south.
When he hits La Paloma, he turns around and drives back out - well, a little way, at least, because there's not a lot of choice about where he's going to stay. Once he gets out to the Tierra Alta Motel, though, he's got his pick of rooms. The place is on US 281 - Military Highway, it's called - near the intersection with the stunningly literally named Farm To Market Road, about six miles out from the ... what is La Paloma, anyway, he wonders. A colonia, probably - it's not even incorporated, apparently, and despite the fact it's got two truck dealerships and three houses with swimming pools, it was either the Tierra Alta or the back seat of his Tercel if he was looking for a place to stay. The next closest motel is the Super 8, northward toward San Benito, but that's not what was marked on the front of the postcard, even it was where the postmark indicated it was mailed from.
It's possible he's spent too much time searching for hidden meanings in what's probably a random assortment of postcards - whatever was closest to hand on the rack - but there's been little enough that Alvarez has added to any card, short of Ray's name and address, and so Ray will take whatever clues he can get and hold on tight.
The motel is ... not 5-star: 1970s-style paneling on the walls and a single bed with a comforter - cheap, thin, synthetic - in a shade of maroon that should make it easy to hide stains, particularly if you're planning on needing to hide a body. The brown carpeting seems clean enough, but like the comforter, it's a cheap, tight knit designed for high traffic - or long wear, Ray thinks, considering the low-level of traffic it looks like the place must get. There's a tiny mini-fridge though, and a small round side table with a cushioned chair that's shockingly comfortable, although he has to get up to change the channel on the television - the remote's been bolted to the end table on other side of the bed.
He's not surprised Alvarez couldn't find a postcard worth sending, he thinks, staring out his window at the scrub and dirt of the place's "yard," the two bedraggled palm trees standing guard at the entrance to the parking lot. He's not sure how Alvarez can even manage to get along in a place like this - how does anyone survive somewhere this small as an outsider, when you're not part of the tribe, when you're not born or networked in? Nowhere to disappear to, although Alvarez admittedly has better camouflage. Ray, himself, is the subject of stares like he hasn't been since moving to Toledo at eight years old, meets them with smiles that try to hide the edge of discomfort, the paranoia of a fugitive.
He hears the story of La Paloma and el Arca de Noé during his second meal at nearby Benny's, a greasy-spoon with some of the best coffee he's had since Rome. A Native American myth, his waitress tells him as she sets down his chilaquiles - although she really says "Indian" - the dove from Noah's ark originating in the area, or at least that's what the Indians told the Spanish settlers who showed up in this part of Texas.
"Or at least, that's what the Spanish settlers said they were told." She flashes him a wide grin that emphasizes her cheekbones, leaning hipshot against the side of the booth across from Ray, and he wouldn't be surprised if there was some Native American blood there, somewhere.
She's not wearing a nametag, but she tells him her name's Marty, says she'll be back around to check on him once he's had a chance to taste his breakfast, but that the guys in the back - she jerks her thumb in emphasis - do a pretty good job, most days. She reminds him of Asha, at the convenience store back home, if Asha had been dialed around to the Latina version, something about the friendly inquisitiveness and no-nonsense attitude, although Marty's shorter, curvier, compared to the stripped-down leanness that had only emphasized Asha's growing belly. Ray feels a brief pang at the thought- Asha must be due sometime soon.
Every time he goes to Benny's, he leaves Marty more money than he really ought, particularly when he's paying for a motel room, now, instead of staying at a friendly – and free - rectory. Their sandwiches are all kinds of crappy - various lunch meat on vaguely stale bread - but the pancakes are to die for, and, inexplicably, they seem to have the only line cook in America who can actually do poached eggs medium instead of soft-but-not-snotty. When Ray compliments on it, he learns the cook is Marty's cousin - whichever of the ones back there, it doesn't matter, they both are, the entire back of the house is a hotbed of nepotism, she tells him. She doesn't use the word "nepotism," of course, but she grins again, like she knows he's thinking it. She leans on the counter and reads a book between customers, with a casual disdain for looking busy and efficient that he's only ever seen from waitresses on TV, never in real life, but he thinks the owner or the manager - or whoever the guy in charge at the register is, Ray's not sure if he's the eponymous Benny or whether Benny even exists - puts up with it because she's almost invariably there to fill Ray's cup of coffee or his water whenever he needs it. She's usually got half an eye on the tables and half on the book, which is better odds than if they had her in the back cleaning something, she tells Ray in an undertone, early in the morning, as someone bangs around pots in the kitchen and she returns from rummaging in the refrigerated case for some half-and-half for his coffee. She flatly refuses to allow him skim milk and claims they don't keep non-dairy creamer in the place.
The couple of times she does get wrapped up in the book, Ray doesn't make a big deal about it when he runs out of water for a few minutes. After the first couple of meals, he foregoes a booth and sits at the scrupulously clean counter, generally with his own book - he's re-reading his Spinoza, and there's some Dumas in the wings for light reading next. Marty's halfway through The Phantom Tollbooth, he discovers with a frisson of delight when he comes by for his second dinner at the place. Well, she's reading La Caseta Magica, in Spanish. It was one of his favorites when he was a kid - the English version - and he's not sure how a lot of the wordplay, the idiom and pun, will translate, but he puts it on his mental list to pick up. Maybe he'll buy it for Eri, for her birthday, in return for the French Blue Bird - maybe package it with an Alice in French and a Peter Pan, which he might be willing to leave in English, unless he can find a copy in Italian.
Marty, he learns, went away to UTSA for three semesters before the money ran out - she's on deferred status, working at the diner while she lives with her brother Vince and tries to put away enough money for at least her next semester, before she expects to go through the cycle again. She'll probably graduate by the time she's 30, she says, rolling her eyes and lacing the number with the disdain of the still-young. She likes the idea of public policy, although it would probably mean staying in San Antonio, or moving to Dallas, or Houston, or Austin, for work, and she's torn over abandoning El Valle where she grew up, and Ray thinks about Jan's return to California.
He tucks his collar away in a side pocket of his bag back at the Tierra Alta, doesn't tell anyone he's a priest, keeps the fact small and secret and safe. When Al, one of the morning regulars, asks him what he does "back East," he tells them he does counseling - not technically a lie, he supposes - and goes so far as to mention it's in a prison. He tells them he grew up in California, is glad no one asks why he isn't with his family for the holidays, but then, looking around as the dinner crowd slowly filters out on the second night he's in town, he figures he's not the only one who isn't with his family for Christmas.
He should call them, really - Jan and Mark will coax his parents out to Torrence and from there, the family will head north of Sacramento, not far from the old farm, to visit Nainai at least for the day, and he makes a mental note.
Meanwhile, he never loses sight of the fact that he's waiting, and all he can do is wonder where Alvarez could possibly be hiding now.
A couple of phone calls turns up the schedule for Mass over at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Harlingen, and Ray drives over on Saturday for confession - or some version of confession, he thinks, remembering Lou's patient voice and his own hedging words. He stays, afterward, spends some time with a parish group saying the rosary, beads slipping easily through his fingers as he loses himself, centers himself in the soothing repetition - Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros, pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. The vigil Mass starts not long afterward, and he slides into a pew near the back of the nave, the comfortable weight of tradition soothing and safe around him, scent of incense and flicker of candles; the rippling sound of water from the baptismal font at one side of the church is peaceful like the cool, stained-glass light of Blessed Sacrament or the intricate curves of San Carlo.
He pulls over at the Stop'N'Shop before he heads back to La Paloma, wanders the aisles, thinking it should cure any stray homesickness or feeling of displacement, because there's an essential sameness to convenience stores anywhere, everywhere – it's part of what makes them convenient, with their chocolate-covered mini-donuts and bad coffee and shriveled hot dogs turning greasily on the heater. A postcard captures his gaze as he passes by the rack, and he can't help pausing, pulling it down - a junkyard, and the shot is supposed to be artistic maybe, close-up rather than vista, the arches of twisted metal like the curve and snap of broken wings. The edge of the card feels crisp against the pad of his thumb as he contemplates coming back the next night - Christmas Eve - for Midnight Mass.
Any plan - every plan - disappears like it never existed when he pulls up outside of the Tierra Alta and sees a figure sitting on the curb in front of his room, picked out in golden and bloody vestiges of sunset, a cigarette in one hand and the other curled around his waist in a familiar slouch as he hunches in on himself. A flush edges Miguel's cheeks, and his eyes are a little wild, a little wary, as he raises them, watching Ray get out of the car; his hair's grown long enough to start curling into little waves.
"I'm surprised they didn't call the police on you," Ray says, crouching in the gravel of the parking lot in front of him, keys digging into the palm of one clenched hand, and Alvarez looks down past the toes of his Chucks, scuffs a random rock.
"Might have, by now," he says, voice low and raspy, before he shifts his gaze back up to Ray with a shrug.
"I suppose we'd better get you inside, then," Ray says, standing. He stops on his way to the door when Alvarez stays at the curb, watching him skeptically. "Well, come on. Come inside."
Alvarez sits carefully on the edge of the bed, neatly made under its cheap comforter; he's wrapped in a sweatshirt that almost swallows him and he's silent as Ray locks the door, makes sure the shade is pulled like he's the fugitive. Miguel's shivering when Ray turns around - baffling for a moment because it's not that chilly outside - not before the sun finally disappears, even in December, not in the Rio Grande Valley.
"Alvarez," Ray says and crouches down again, beside the bed, hand on Miguel's elbow.
Alvarez flinches, and Ray almost - almost - pulls away his hand. Instead, he loosens his grip so the decision is up to Miguel.
He's not cold, Ray realizes, suddenly - he's barely holding on.
"Miguel? Are you alright?"
"You're here," Alvarez says, before he coughs and clears his throat. Ray's not sure if it's a statement or a question, at first. "You're here, right?"
"Yes, I'm here, Miguel."
"That's good, because for a minute, I was worried, you know? I worried that maybe I died and I was in hell, or maybe, maybe I escaped from hell when I escaped from Oz, but I was still dead, and what was I gonna do but wander around for eternity? But then I saw you standing there, the sun all around you and shit, and I thought, well, maybe I am dead, but maybe I'm in heaven. 'Cause that must be an angel, right?"
He grins at Ray, eyes still a little wild, and shit, Ray thinks. How long has he been wandering around in the desert? And has he been doing it literally, not just metaphorically?
He reaches out a hand to press against the flush lying along Miguel's cheekbone, heat flare under his fingertips; as he moves to test the side of his neck, his forehead, Alvarez leans his cheek into the touch, and Ray's heart stops beating, for just a second, before it starts up again with a painful slam inside his chest.
"You don't use that as a pick-up line, right?" he says, forcing his voice to stay light, hoping he doesn't sound as out of breath as he suddenly feels, unable to pull in enough air, and no fever, he thinks - a little flushed, a little warm, but that could just be sun. "Because it's a really bad line."
"What, you got a suggestion?" Alvarez laughs again. "Maybe something about how your shirt looks great on you but it would look better on my floor?"
He reaches out and Ray thinks for a fragmented second of the white collar tucked into the side pocket of his bag as Alvarez winds fingers in the placket of his button-down, as those fingers tighten almost convulsively into fists, crushing the cotton material, pulling it tight against Ray's back, and Ray remembers solitary, Alvarez backed into a corner, skinny and scared, hands out to ward him off, remembers the press of Miguel's fingers against the curve of his jaw, his neck, remembers the frantic rabbiting of Miguel's heart against the palm of his hand, the scent of copper and salt and the hard silk bindings of his own stoles tying him down, and he knows the first thing he should do is call the police, but he can't make himself, because is that really justice?
He's not sure there's any such thing, anymore.
"Come on," he says, wrapping his own fingers around Miguel's wrists, rocking gently to loosen the death grip Miguel has on his shirt. He stands again, because he needs to focus, has to put one foot in front of the other, has to take his first step into the wind before he gets knocked over. "I don't know what you've been doing or where you've been staying out here, but you need a shower."
Miguel wears a match to Ray's medallion under his washed-out grey sweatshirt, glint of silver against his chest, and he leaves it on as he strips down on his way to the tiny bathroom, unconsciously unselfconscious, modesty stolen by years in Oz, and Ray's not sure what he's been doing to keep himself solvent lately, but he doubts it's simple hit-and-run on laundromats. Construction maybe, Ray thinks, turning over possibilities, day labor - something he could easily walk into and away from, quick cash under the table at the end of the day, and probably something outside. He's put on muscle, and he's darker from being in the sun. He winces as he tugs his threadbare T-shirt over his head, and Ray stops him with a word before reaching out, placing a hand along his side, running the palm across the span of his back, heat and muscle poised under Ray's hands as they skirt the edge of the tattoo.
"You haven't been taking care of this," he says as he realizes, counting back in his head, back to the feel of a Polaroid tacky under his fingers, and Miguel shrugs again, muscles shifting under Ray's touch.
It should be close to healed by now, Ray thinks, gaze running over the lines of script, across the bisecting ridge of spine - ... en un carro de hojas verdes a morir me han de llevar; in my tomb of green leaves, they are to carry me to die ... Alvarez can't have been taking care of it properly, and the realization winds a thread of concern tighter in Ray's stomach. Clearly, Miguel's been holed up somewhere in or around San Antonio for a while now - he's not actually wandering the desert, all hyperbole aside - so he should have taken the time for this. He was never one of those guys in Oz who let his personal hygiene slide, even in his most manic or depressive phases - always clean-shaven, hair neat, vestiges of that pride he'd tried to cut out of himself like a tumor, like a cancer, pride so hard to eliminate.
Of course, Ray feels like he knows, at this point, that it actually is possible to have all of the ego kicked out of you, and if he ever had a problem with humility, Oz surely has taken care of that.
You had too big an ego ... something tells me that's changed.
The room's cushioned chair may be a surprisingly comfortable place to sit and read while putting your feet up on the bed, but it's just shockingly uncomfortable to sleep in, Ray realizes on waking the next morning. He contemplates the birthday just past with distaste as he sits at the edge and tries to loosen up his neck, remembering all of Jeremy's futile attempts to get him hiking, or biking, or something, as if Ray ever had the time.
Miguel's sprawled face-down on Ray's pillow, where he'd finally drifted off after Ray examined the tattoo, still damp from the shower and feverish under Ray's fingers as he smoothed them over lines of text the way he's done dozens of times on the photo; the skin of Alvarez's back was even hotter than the rest of him, like the sun had set in his flesh, burning him up, and he'd flinched again, almost imperceptible, before he relaxed into Ray's touch. Ray rubs a thumb absently across the pads of his fingers as he studies Miguel for a moment in wintry morning sunlight: The longer hair looks silky, almost curling on top, reminding Ray of the first time he saw Miguel, so damn young in a hospital gown, but Miguel's face is drawn, dark circles under his eyes even in sleep, and his body hasn't entirely lost its wary tension, like a spring coiled tight, motion barely held in check.
Ray levers himself up to take a hot shower, pulls on his clothes in the tiny bathroom, making a face at the way they stick to his still-damp skin in the humid enclosed space - he's never liked getting dressed before he's completely dry, hated gym class in high school, and his mother's old photo albums are the bane of his existence, pictures of him at 1 and 2 and 3 years old, running around bare-ass naked, when he's not wearing his underwear on his head - although he supposes that's also bare-ass naked. Pausing at the sink outside the bathroom, he studies himself in the mirror like he's a stranger, and maybe he is; he's almost surprised to see the same, everyday face staring back at him - he somehow expected his planes and angles to be bent out of true, and he just stops himself from smudging fingerprints on the glass surface as he reaches out to trace the arch of an eyebrow, the edge of his jaw, remembering Jan's light touch lifting his chin to tilt his face, greasy feel of the eyeliner and a scrunch of her hand in his hair to spike it up and his own kohl-rimmed eyes staring back from his 16-year-old reflection.
He sits on the edge of the bed to wake Miguel, but he's barely touched his shoulder before Alvarez is in motion, zero-to-sixty, instantly alert, grabbing Ray around the wrist, rolling him over so that he's on his back, Miguel over him, pushing him into the mattress, and Ray has a fragmented flash of memory - salt and sweat, Miguel's weight pinning him, fists and tears and the walls of solitary closing in – a flicker of fear and maybe a little bit of resignation before Miguel freezes, poised above him, one hand clenched hard around Ray's wrist, thumb digging into the soft inner skin before he relents, grip slackening, thumb smoothing over Ray's skin in a slow sweep, up the tender flesh of his inner arm to the thin skin inside his elbow, sending chills cascading through him, followed by a wave of heat. Ray realizes he's shaking and pulls in a deep breath, tries to still the tremors.
"You ..." Miguel breaks off, and Ray lifts his chin. Miguel unclenches his other hand from the pillow beside Ray's head, makes an aborted movement like he's going to touch Ray's face, maybe trace his features the way Ray did to himself in the mirror, before he stops himself and rolls off. "Don't ..." he says, his back to Ray as he sits on the other side of the bed, hunched over his knees. "Don't do that."
"You can't wake me up like that. You have to give me some kind of warning."
"OK," Ray says again, from his nest in the tangled sheets, and he files away the reaction for future examination. "I'm sorry. It's time to get up?"
"What?" Alvarez rubs his eyes.
"Mass is at ten," Ray says, rolling his head between the pillows to study the long line of Miguel's back. He thinks the tattoo looks slightly less inflamed. "If you get ready now we can just make it to Harlingen in time."
"Mass?" Alvarez twists on the bed to look at him.
"Yes," Ray responds. "Christmas is a Holy Day of Obligation."
Alvarez looks at him like he's crazy, but Ray stares steadily back - he's done this battle of wills before - and Alvarez finally sighs and rolls out of bed.
"You can wear one of my shirts," Ray calls after him as he heads for the bathroom, and he waits for the click of the door before he draws in a shaky breath, rubs a hand over his own face, still trembling with the vestiges of adrenaline.
Alvarez eyes the button-down suspiciously, but what's roomy for Ray seems to meet Miguel's standards for snug – particularly with the muscle he's put on - and Ray's spare pants are a close enough fit. Ray hovers while Miguel buttons the cuffs of the shirt, lifts a hand to push back a stray wave of hair, smoothing it down above Miguel's ear.
"What?" he asks, catching Miguel's grin.
"Look at you, shining me all up nice to take me to church. You gonna to take me to home to meet your mama, too?"
"I'm taking you with me to church, Alvarez. That's sort of what I'm doing."
The entire experience of Mass is strange, disconcerting, in a way he can never remember it being, the sound of the choir off, the white winter sunlight sharp through stained glass - he's used to Mass in the nave just as well as the sanctuary, even after all these years, but not with Alvarez beside him, instead of in the congregation looking up at him. Ray can't shake his awareness of the body next to him, lying knife-edged against his skin - the heat and length and breadth of him, the breath of him, familiar from so many stolen minutes across miles on a telephone line, the light sound now accompanied again by the slow rise and fall of Miguel's chest at his shoulder, and he remembers the touch of Miguel's fingers on his jaw, his throat, his wrist, the slow sweep of Miguel's thumb over his skin, wrist to elbow, and he loses his place in the familiar litanies. Guilt threads its way through his stomach, his chest, as he stands to join the line for Communion, even though he went to confession just two days earlier.
Yes, but think of everything you've done since then, he tells himself.
We have willfully sinned ... we have been disobedient, we have committed iniquity ... we have been obstinate ... we have gone astray, we have led others astray ...
We have harbored fugitives, he thinks, wryly, then jumps as the woman in line behind him gives a discreet cough, a figurative nudge to get him moving.
He stares at the nape of Miguel's neck in front of him as they all shuffle forward, thinking that he probably should have heard his confession, if he was going to accept Communion today, although he wonders what good it would do, anyway.
Just fucking absolve me! Keller demands, in his head, and Ray knows Miguel won't ask forgiveness for the escape, Ray knows that, can see it, can practically hear him saying it – he knows what Miguel would say, how he'd respond if Ray said anything about it. Miguel won't ask for forgiveness for the escape because doesn't even think he should - doesn't think it's something he needs to be sorry for, or apologize for … although he probably thinks he deserves absolution for it, and Ray can't even say for sure that he's wrong about that.
... rest of my life in a little fucking box ...
Miguel's not sorry, and the last thing he wants is to be reconciled to Oz.
Ray isn't sure he can act as Miguel's confessor anymore, anyway, isn't sure he can act as his priest, his spiritual advisor, any kind of impartial counselor. Maybe he never could, or maybe he could at one point, but no longer, he thinks, counting back to quick, frantic breaths on his face and the hard silk of his own stoles tying him down. He remembers his own outraged words to Sippel - You were his priest! - and he almost balks as the priest holds up the Eucharist in front of him, rote muscle memory and the paranoia of the fugitive, the fear of drawing attention, the only things bringing up his hands, like puppet strings, and then the host is in his own open palm, and it's not like he can give it back, not like he can toss it away, not like he can do anything but follow through, the unleavened wafer papery on his tongue.
He's too compromised, he thinks, as he sits blankly through the announcements at the end of the service - he was too compromised the minute he hung up the phone after that first phone call and didn't pick it right back up to call the police. They are way past a fucking smuggled peanut butter and jelly sandwich, at this point. This whole thing has just been a process of getting deeper and deeper until ... what?
Benny's is closed, along with any other decent restaurant in a 20-mile radius, families gathered together around Christmas trees and dinner tables, and so they pull over at the Stop'N'Shop on the way back to La Paloma and get hot dogs, eat them leaning against the side of Ray's car in the convenience store parking lot. Seventy degrees and it feels almost like summer; Ray can't help blinking up at the sun, wants to stretch like a cat, like Angus in the window, on the sill over the radiator. Something's stirring to life in his chest, in his veins, slow and golden like warm honey, and he thinks of Sacramento winters and autumns in Rome, the scent of distant salt in the air instead of sand, but the same mild breeze gentle against his skin.
"So I guess no presents, huh," Miguel says, leaning back on his hands against the hood of Ray's car.
"I just bought you a pair of sunglasses," Ray tells him, crumpling up their napkins to toss in the trash can that stands outside the store's automatic door. "So I guess you mean no presents for me."
"Well, I already sent you something." Alvarez reaches out to press a fingertip against the medallion resting in the open collar of Ray's shirt, and Ray heart speeds up, fluttering against the inside of his chest, under Miguel's hand; he knows it's body heat warming the thin silver disc - his own, Miguel's - but it's like the sun's trapped between them, between his skin and Miguel's touch. "I mean, I know it's kind of cheap ..."
"No …" Ray says, lifting a hand to capture Miguel's wrist, and then he remembers, tries to speak normally, to find the space to catch his breath. "I do have something for you."
"What, you brought me something?" Miguel grins as Ray drives back to the motel, drops his head and shakes it, looks back up out of the corner of one eye; he's got his left knee drawn up, against the seat, his back to the passenger door so he can face Ray, and his tone turns wheedling, cajoling. "What is it? Come on. Tell me?"
Once back in the motel room, though, he falls silent as Ray digs through his bag, sits down with a thump on the bed, sheets tangled around him, when Ray pulls out the first small yarn-wrapped bundle of postcards he's collected, laying them aside; Alvarez picks them up, runs two fingers over the "ATLANTIC" in Atlantic City, flips over the pile to examine the postmark from San Benito, rubbing a thumb over it. He looks up when Ray shoves the second stack of postcards under his nose.
"Already tied with a red bow," Ray jokes, awkward suddenly, pasting on a smile to hide the fluttering anxiety in his stomach.
Alvarez shifts his gaze down to the new set of postcards - shot of the river on top, the river Ray drives over every day to get to and from Oz, but somewhere upstream, the deep green of pines lining either bank to the bend in the distance, water reflecting rising foothills, faintest hint of mist rising in a light that looks like morning and the skeleton of a dilapidated pier at the photographer's, Ray's, Miguel's feet. He raises his eyes to study Ray's face again before he lifts a hand to take the stack, flipping the bundle over and over, spotting Ray's spiky handwriting on the back of the most recent card - toshi kurenu - on the bottom of the pile.
"I didn't send these," he says.
"And I didn't either," Ray says, as he rises from kneeling over his bag, stomach still hollow but back straight, head up. "But I'm giving them to you, now."
Alvarez spends the afternoon lying on the bed, reading the cards - no, not just reading them, Ray thinks, surreptitiously looking up from Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge in quick snatches of a glance. He runs his fingers over the pictures and photos on their fronts like he's trying to suss out their meaning through touch, glides them over Ray's writing like he's trying to pick up the sense of the words through his fingertips, like Braille. When Ray gets up - because he's got to get outside for a minute, he's got to, the room is to small and too full - Miguel leans into Ray's brief touch on his shoulder like that's a gift too, and Ray has to get out of here, he thinks, frantic for a moment, barely holding himself still when Miguel grabs his hand, fingers curled into Ray's palm and brushing his wrist, thumb on the back of Ray's hand, a slow sweep across his skin before Miguel looks up to meet his eyes.
"Grácias," he says.
"De nada," Ray manages to murmur, staring at him a moment, wide-eyed, sure Alvarez can feel the pulse fluttering wildly in Ray's wrist, under his fingertips, before Ray manages to extricate himself, to escape to the curb outside in the chilly evening air, to light a cigarette and feel the steadying raw burn against the back of his throat, in his lungs, as he studies the flat, scrubby brushland like something new will have grown up overnight.
He sits and smokes until Alvarez joins him, collapses down with easy grace beside him, one knee drawn up to his chest, offering to share his own cigarette, but Ray shakes his head - he's smoked himself close to sick, can feel a cigarette hangover looming in his future. Alvarez takes a drag, lean figures curled around the cigarette, and Ray watches the cherry glow red in the dimness, remembers the scrape of brick and a bass beat against his back, scent of hair gel and sweat, a rough thumb along his cheek bone, over his own hot blush, but nothing ever happened, then.
"Mira,", Alvarez says suddenly, pointing up at the first couple of stars prickling their way into the night sky, before he takes another drag, exhales noisily. "You never see that back home. Too much light and pollution and shit blocking it out. That's one of the reasons I wanted out here, to see the stars like that. You think you'd ever see that from Oz?"
"Make a wish," Ray says, face turned to the sky.
"What, you mean like, 'star light, star bright?'"
"Yeah, I mean like 'star light, star bright,'" Ray says, almost challenging, and turns his head to look at Miguel, holds his gaze.
They study each other for moment before Alvarez raises his eyes to the heavens again. Ray watches him, doesn't look away until Alvarez drops his gaze to the horizon and takes another drag of his cigarette. He doesn't move away when Alvarez shivers and leans against him, shoulder to shoulder, in the cool night air, and they huddle there together while darkness falls around them.
"Come on," Ray says finally, nudging him.
Inside, they eat crappy turkey sandwiches from the cooler, over paper towels, sitting cross-legged on the bed, while Ray insists that turkey is traditional for Christmas and Miguel rhapsodizes about the empeñadas and roast pork his mama made when he was growing up.
"How did you find me, anyway?" Ray finally asks him, tearing slivers off the edge of his paper towel.
"I called around," Miguel says and laughs, a sharp bark, when Ray stares at him. "Yeah. I called the diocese office and told them mi abuela had something for that nice young priest from back east, the one whose church her other grandson attended, and could they give me an address I could send it to."
"You told them that, and they gave you the address?"
"Well, OK, not me. You got me. But they told the girl I convinced to call for me."
"That doesn't sound like a bad stalker movie, at all."
"You're the one following me all over the country, hermano."
"You wouldn't have left a trail of breadcrumbs if you didn't want me to find you," Ray responds, indignant, and he can't believe he said that out loud, feels his face heat, but Miguel ducks his head and doesn't deny it.
Miguel pulls the extra blanket out of the closet that night, gets ready to curl on the floor in some kind of atavistic nest as Ray turns down the bed, and Ray stops to stare at him.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm not putting you out of your bed, man, not another night."
"Well, you're not sleeping on the floor," Ray says,
"You think I haven't slept worse places in the past six months? At least I know the roof ain't gonna leak on my head and nothing else is going to try to get under this blanket with me."
"Alvarez, get in bed."
"I told you, I'm not ..."
"Alvarez." Ray knows his tone's gone sharp, but he can't get the image out of his head, Miguel curled in on himself in the dark and rocking, in his bunk, after the baby died, and he's not sleeping on the floor at the foot of Ray's bed like some kind of dog. "Get your ass in bed."
It's a little awkward again, when he turns out the light, something unspoken lying between them in the dark. Ray presses his hands to his own chest, feeling the rise and fall, the heat of Miguel next to him, the length and breadth of him, and he finally falls asleep to the sound of Miguel's breaths, familiar from long miles across the phone line.
They spend a couple of days holed up at the Tierra Alta, venturing over to Benny's for breakfast and dinner but otherwise doing a lot of nothing - Alvarez sleeps a lot, and Ray's gaze drifts constantly over to the bed from his chair, attention pulled from his book to study the easing of tension in the long muscles of Miguel's back, the lines of his face, as telling as anything he says in words. He looks young - younger than Ray's ever seen him, even that first day, years ago now - more years, it feels like, than you can count on a calendar, as if time sped up in Oz, some twisted form of faster-than-light-travel, where you age in stasis while everything goes on around you. When Miguel's awake, Ray catches him reading the postcards again, tracing the lines of the reproduction Ray found of Schiaffino's El Reposo in a small bookstore and couldn't help picking up. They both ignore the specter of Brownsville to the southeast - the prison, the border - mostly, anyway, never mentioned but always present like a humming in the back of Ray's mind, barely there, an incipient migraine that pushes his vision just out of true. At night, they sleep curled back-to-back on the single motel bed, like they're afraid to touch each other but they can't quite help it, and Ray suddenly understands Pete more than he ever wanted to - her questions, her uncertainties, those papers that were still lying on her desk when he left Oz, waiting for a signature to sever her ties to the convent.
They drive out into the surrounding scrubland, hours and miles of fine sand and dry wheat-golden winter grass, broad and empty and sun-warmed to shirtsleeve weather, Tejano on the radio as Alvarez searches the dial. They end up, one afternoon, near the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios, watching truck after truck haul used cars across the Rio Grande to Mexico, Alvarez intent as he studies the bridge, and something jagged slides under Ray's skin, scrapes his nerves raw.
"You know, from here, you could make your way through Mexico, down to Guatemala … Nicaragua … Columbia," Alvarez says, finally, pushing up his sunglasses, shading his eyes with a hand to study the bridge in the distance. "Go up the Andes through Chile, 'til you hit this little spot called Tierra del Fuego. You know about Tierra del Fuego?"
"What about it?" Ray asks, turning to look at him, but Miguel's eyes are still on the bridge, the border.
"It's the end of the earth. From here, you could walk all the way to the end of the earth, if you just walk long enough." He finally turns to look at Ray. "You think they'd go that far to find someone? The end of the earth?"
"I don't know, Miguel."
"What about you? Would you go to the end of the earth for someone?"
Have you ever loved someone too much?
And Ray looks back toward the bridge, at all the kingdoms of the earth, and wonders what his answer will be.
He wants to say yes, wants it to be that simple. If he's going to be honest, lay himself bare, this is what he's been headed toward this whole time - he can act like he hasn't known, couldn't guess, act like he's just now chased the idea around and pinned it down, given shape to its chameleon form, but all that dancing, it's only been avoidance, hasn't it? They are way past the stage of a fucking peanut butter and jelly sandwich, have been for a while now, and lying to himself, well. That's kind of a sin, isn't it? Just as much as lying to someone else would be.
He can feel the decision point coming, a deadline looming in his mind, and he knows he can't avoid the whole thing much longer, but he's still not sure what kind of prayers to send up for Alvarez, other than continued safety, no matter what happens. What even counts as help, at this point?
"Miguel, have you thought about going back?"
"Have you thought about turning yourself in? If you turn yourself in, maybe they'll go easier on you ..." He dies off because his words sound hollow, even to himself.
You are fucking this up.
How much time has been added on to Miguel's sentence at this point? How much more is he facing?
I don't want to end up like my grandfather ... I don't see it going down any other way.
"That's not funny," Miguel says, jabbing a finger at Ray before he gets in the car and slams the door.
"I'm not trying to be funny," Ray says, leaning down to look at him through the open driver's side window. "Miguel, you can't keep doing this ..."
"I can't go back there," Miguel says, voice rising with every word. "I'll die back there, why are you trying to make me go back there?"
"What are you going to do, Miguel? What are you going to do? Keep running for the rest of your life? Live like this?" Ray makes a frustrated, sweeping gesture with his arm, not even sure what he's trying to encompass.
"And what are you gonna do, huh? Are you gonna stop them from beating the shit out of me? You gonna stop them from beating me to death this time? We tried that once. That didn't turn out so well, did it? For me, I mean."
"No. We're done with this."
A tense silence lies between them all the way back to La Paloma, stretched almost unbearably, and Ray detours into the parking lot of Benny's with a sense of relief. Marty's off-shift already, but she's sitting at the counter, eating her own dinner, and she looks up from her book as they enter - Spinoza, passed on from Ray when he finished it this go 'round, and he thinks maybe that's the reason for the little furrow between her brows, before he realizes she's looking past his shoulder to Alvarez brooding behind him.
"He's not speaking to me," Ray tells her, lightly, trying to play off the tension without drawing too much notice, the paranoia of a fugitive.
"Debe tratarlo mejor, papi," she tells Alvarez, talking over Ray's head like he can't understand what she's saying.
"Estás celosa," Alvarez accuses, low, shooting her a death glare, as tiny blonde Celestina shows up to take them to a booth, and Marty grins and waves after them.
Ray sits up late that night with Dumas pére, in a small pool of light from the tabletop lamp; he can hear Alvarez shifting restlessly against the sheets.
"Come to bed," Miguel says finally, and when Ray turns another page, he sits up. "Hey, come get in bed."
"I hear you should treat me better," Ray says, looking up from his book, folding down the page corner to save his place.
"Are you kidding me with this?"
"Also, I highly doubt Marty is jealous," Ray continues, laying the book neatly in the center of the table. "She thinks I'm old. She won't say that to my face, but …"
"Jesucristo, will you get your ass in bed?"
Lying in the dark, Ray can feel Miguel's breaths, steady, measured, in and out, a puff of air against his shoulder, and he turns his head to meet dark eyes in the sliver of light cast through the curtains by the single sodium lamp in the parking lot.
"I have to go," Miguel says.
"I can't stay. I've already been here too long."
"OK," Ray repeats.
"I've been wanting to see Arizona again," Ray says. "We can leave in the morning."
Marty looks at Ray knowingly as he pays the bill after their last breakfast, asks him if they're heading out to the Lands Beyond.
"Don't get stuck en el Bache," she warns, as she offers La Caseta Magica to Alvarez, despite his protestations that he's traveling light. Ray leaves the Spinoza with her, and two slim volumes of Dumas, even though he hasn't finished both of them, yet.
They end up on I-10, actually out into the desert, suddenly, and Ray's still not sure what Alvarez was doing all that time wandering, where he was spending it, because there's a shitload of nothing, that's for sure, emptier than I-20 through South Carolina, and dustier, too.
O God, thou art my God, he thinks, sudden flash of Terry Chicot mouthing the Psalm along with him before Ray made the sign of the Cross on his forehead. I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.
He knows this area vaguely, from passing through during vacations and family visits - everything seems half-familiar, at least, but he's not sure how much he's seen and how much he's heard and how much this all just looks like Nevada, one big sand painting of bronzes and golds and terra cottas knifing into a cloudless azure sky. They drive most of the day, check into ratty motels at night, sleeping together, Miguel's breath on Ray's shoulder, his heartbeat under Ray's palm, the stroke of a thumb over the back of Ray's hand, the tender skin inside his elbow. Ray wakes up to find Miguel curled in on himself, back pressed to Ray's chest, like Ray's shielding him with his body, no more nor less than he's done before, the way he did when he looked up into Leo's angry face and heard the crack of the diverted baton against the table, Miguel's chest pressed to his shoulder - the way he did all those times he tried to thrust his own body between Miguel and the bars as Miguel beat himself against the inside of his cage, a human shield from the hurts of the world.
Sometimes those hurts aren't physical, he figures, lying in the silvery half-light of dawn, fist half-clenched against Miguel's chest - sometimes they're loneliness and despair, no one realizing that you hurt and ache and want and love, and he has to speak to Miguel in a language that means something. Ray learned long ago that Miguel will lapse into Spanish for emphasis, and at least Ray can follow that, but this new thing between them, it's a dialect Ray has no experience with, he's stumbling and stuttering his way through it, but he's getting a full-immersion course, locked up with Miguel in hotel rooms and the close confines of the car, sharing cigarettes and sodas and breath, standing under the bright, scouring sun in the middle of the desert. They came all this way from Oz, both of them, just to stay locked up together, breathing each other's air, smelling each other's skin, counting each other's breaths in the dark.
They drive and they stop and they sleep, or at least, they lie together in the dark, and Ray touches his fingertips to his own lips, his throat, his chest, feels the rise and fall of his own breath under his hands, remembers damp heat pressed against him, the length of Miguel's body, scent of copper and salt and smoke, weight pinning him, and he looks over to meet Miguel's eyes in the shadows, watches Miguel raise a hand, feels the light touch on the scar beside his eyebrow, unerring even in the dark.
"How'd you get this?" Miguel asks, voice still hoarse with sleep, and Ray laughs into the pillow, shifts to lie facing him.
"My sister," he says. "She knocked me into a bookcase face-first when I was six. I'm pretty sure it was an accident, but I milked it for four years before she decided I was too annoying to feel guilty over, any more."
"Sister?" Miguel asks, and his fingertip smoothes absently across the edge of Ray's eyebrow.
"She's a librarian. Married a doctor. Our parents would have preferred she be a doctor who married a librarian, but these things happen."
He catches Miguel's hand and traces the scar on his palm, cutting across life line, heart line - the physical reminder of his son that he carries with him, reminder of his helplessness in the face of forces he can't control, and Ray remembers walking away from him, restrained in an infirmary bed, face and hands newly stitched, voice rising as he begged for help to get out of the restraints, out of the hospital, to get to see his baby.
That was the first time Ray walked away from Miguel, head up, back straight, shoulders set. He did it again when Pete told him to stay away from the interventions.
He doesn't know that he has it in him to do it a third time.
You are fucking this up, he thinks and tries to avoid the voice in his head, the voice that sounds too much like his own.
It's not the fucking, it's the love, he thinks, remembers Keller, remembers the dangerous part, the intimacy his vow is supposed to guard against. But he's breaking the spirit of his vow already, every time he lets Miguel touch him, every time he touches Miguel, like they're picking up a sense of each other through their fingertips, reading each other like Braille, still unwilling to put words to it, to lock its chameleon, elusive nature into singular, recognizable form. But it's true, already, whether there are hands or mouths or ... other things involved - he still shies away, still unwilling to chase that idea down.
Ray is ... was ... is a virgin. Isn't he? But how can he devote himself to God if he feels like this when he lies down with Miguel - even if all they're doing is lying there? He feels the slow beat of Miguel's heart under his hand, and he knows Miguel's body more intimately than he knows any other, understands that Miguel knows his body, maybe more intimately than anyone else does.
Forbidden fruit, he thinks - going to get kicked out of the garden - but he clutches his fingers in tight, tight, while he still can.
He wakes in the morning curled alone in bed and rolls over to see Miguel framed in the window, shirtless, pants riding low on his hips to expose all the long lines of his torso, the stanzas of his tattoo bisecting the dip of his spine, just smooth skin and dark marks now. The curve of his body reminds Ray of those long ago pictures of St. Sebastian, of the first time he saw Miguel framed against an infirmary window, haloed in smoggy sunlight, all lean muscle, even if he did look small in the hospital gown, and tattoos peeking out of the bottom of the sleeves. He remembers thinking that Alvarez must have put a lot of thought into that pose, worked hard to perfect it, calculated its precise effect - like the cant of Keller's hips or the loose sprawl of Zanghi's body - and he thinks it again now, maybe a thought that should be unworthy of him, but he can't help a curl of pleasure, this time, low in his stomach.
Are you fucking with me?
Ray's long past the point, apparently, where he can deny Miguel. And what else does Miguel have?
My job is not to make judgments. My job is to be by his side. My place is with him.
Ray can feel the border to the south, to his right side as they skirt along it, humming like some kind of electromagnetic fault line. A right turn, he thinks - a right turn and then, what? twenty? thirty? minutes, and it'd be done.
They drive and they stop and they sleep, or at least they lie in bed at night, cocooned together, and what would they become if they break out of this chrysalis?
Ray wakes, restless in the dark, sprawled across the bed, Miguel asleep beside him, on his stomach, breath against Ray's shoulder and arm slung across his chest, two fingers twisted in the collar of Ray's shirt so his knuckles press into Ray's collar bone, familiar heat and scent and touch, and Ray can't figure out what woke him until there's another flash, and another, pop-pop, reminiscent of camera bulbs, and what the hell, he thinks.
Miguel makes a small, grumpy noise as Ray extricates himself to slide off the bed toward the window; he shifts against the sheets as Ray pulls back one side of the curtain to lean against the frame, trying to figure out if the eerie winter storm in the distance is just a dream - flashes of lightning through rolling clouds, high in the sky and distant enough that they light up the world in silence, too far to hear the accompanying thunder. He doesn't know how long he stands there, watching cascades of electricity arc across the sky - pop, pop-pop - before Miguel comes up behind him, rests a chin on his shoulder, sliding one hand along Ray's shoulderblade, tracing bone through the light cotton of Ray's shirt.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love, Ray thinks and feels his lips twist, wry, at his midlife crisis or delayed teenaged romanticism or whatever this is, before he turns to meet Miguel's gaze, close enough to share breath, trading it back and forth in the flickering light. He feels something in his chest, his stomach, hollow out as Miguel brings up a hand, rubs a thumb across his mouth, pad rough, pulling against Ray's bottom lip, and Ray can't help flicking out his tongue, slicking it along his lips, catching the tip of Miguel's thumb, taste of salt like the sea, and he hears the hitch of breath, recognizes the sound, scent of blood and phosphorus in his head as Miguel leans forward to press their lips together.
It's clumsy, still half-unexpected even after all this, sliding against each other, the chill of the window seeping into Ray's back, but he can feel heat run through his veins, lighting him up, spreading slow and golden like honey, something expanding in his chest, and he tilts his head, opens for Miguel's tongue as they stumble toward the bed.
He sits down hard, looks up at Miguel standing, bare-chested, wide-eyed in the dim hotel room, still lit by intermittent flashes of distant lightning; Ray notes absently that Miguel's mouth looks bruised, and he raises fingers to his own mouth, touches his lips curiously, pulls down his fingers to examine them like he's expecting blood. Miguel makes a small, pained noise at the gesture, and Ray almost doesn't know what to expect when he looks back up, holds out his hand.
They're almost as silent as the storm, dreamlike - and maybe it is a dream, Ray can't help thinking - all bright fire and midnight darkness, strange and yet familiar - the new taste of Miguel on his lips and the same weight solid above him, against him, around him, pinning him down, fingers around his wrists. He twists in the grasp this time, struggles against it, pushes back instead of going lax, and gets his fingers in the waves of Miguel's hair as Miguel works his way down Ray's body, laying open his shirt, following his progress with teeth and tongue. Miguel runs a thumb along the length of Ray's collarbone, dips his head to lay down a trail of moist heat, and Ray pulls in a desperate breath, digs his teeth into his bottom lips, feels the instinctive strain in his hips, all too human, rocking up into the weight above him.
Miserére nobis. Miserére nobis. Miserére, he thinks, one hand twisted in the sheets at his side, and then he can't think anymore.
He wakes in the morning curled alone in bed. Miguel's medallion is on top of the dresser, cheap silver chain pooled beside the messy pile of postcards Ray brought west with him, tangled in the sunglasses he bought in a Quik-Mart or a Stop'N'Shop or a 7-11 on Christmas Day.
Ray could say that he waits, that he thinks Miguel's just run out to pick up coffee, maybe some of the half-stale Danish these places always serve for breakfast, but he's been tuned to Miguel from the minute he laid eyes on him - years ago, framed in the window of a prison infirmary - and he knows from the minute he swims up from sleep, knows from the emptiness in the room. It feels curiously like abandonment, like he felt when Miguel escaped from Oz without telling him - although he thinks maybe he has a little bit more right to be angry about it, this time.
On the other hand, maybe it's what he gets for aiding and abetting a known fugitive.
Miserére mei, he thinks, scrubbing a hand over his face as he sits in bed, sheets pooling around his waist, and he wonders which of them is Bathsheba in this scenario.
Stop wallowing, he tells himself and stands to examine the fingerprints coming up along one hip, a smudge of shadow in the hollow of bone, a sign of mortality, of being all too human, and he remembers the sting of unhealed cuts, flesh split by knuckles and fingernails, taste of copper on the rare occasions when he tried to smile - lip torn open and him unable to stop poking at the puffiness with his tongue like a kid with an empty tooth socket. He's always bruised too easily.
Unto dust, he thinks, and gets down on his knees for Prime.
The first day of the new year is always the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God - Holy Day of Obligation - but it's also a Monday, special dispensation; he finds himself wondering if he should go to Mass anyway, paging listlessly through the phone book after he finds his pants and unwinds his shirt from the comforter kicked off onto the floor. He'd rather stay in bed, he thinks, fucking breaking his heart over a handful of feathers left behind.
I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone.
He stays one more night, long enough for the phone to ring in the dark.
"Come back," he says, as soon as he picks it up, half a ring in and still three-quarters asleep, and he's not even sure what he means, not sure where ... who ... where he's urging Miguel back to.
"Come back where?" Miguel's voice is hoarse over the phone line, voicing Ray's own question. "That prison? Or are we gonna stay locked up in a motel room for the rest of our lives? For the rest of your life? You want to live like that? Looking over your shoulder, waiting for a knock on the door? No. It's better this way. You can go back to your life now."
"So you're … what? Doing this for my own good?" Ray asks, and he can see himself in the mirror over the dresser, out of the corner of his eye, head tilted, furrow between his brows.
He's oddly touched for a moment by Miguel's altruism, and he understands - just a little - how he got himself so twisted up over this guy, before the anger hits, fist clenching in the sheets, because Alvarez thinks Ray can just walk back into Oz after this? Thinks he can disappear back inside those walls like a cloister, just another hack in black doing his rounds, casually pulling on that cloak of supernatural reserve, whatever defenses he needs to put on his uniform, walk through the halls of a prison every day looking like nothing's getting to him, like he doesn't ache and hurt and want and love?
... the rest of my life in a little fucking box ...
He realizes he's shaking, and he wonders if he'll ever forgive Miguel for this.
"I'm a grown man, Alvarez," he says, icy now, biting out the words like they've been ripped from between clenched teeth, sharp and bloody. "I can make my own decisions."
"No. I never should have sent you those cards, man, never should have called you in the first place. You burn that shit; you burn it, and you go back there like none of this ever happened."
"No," Ray tells him, and for the first time in the course of this, he hangs up.
Through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault, he thinks and tries to avoid the voice in his head, the voice that sounds too much like his own.
He lies in the dark, staring up at the ceiling, for half an hour, wondering if the phone will ring again, before he gives up, gives in, throws his clothes into his bag, moving swift and sure, shoulders set, no hesitation, like walking into the wind. Why not, he thinks. He's never going to get to sleep. He might as well get some miles under his belt.
He keeps his mind blank as he collects the postcards, piles them together, winds them with the chain from Miguel's medallion before he tucks them into a side pocket. His fingers catch on something and he pulls out the photo of the tattoo, nestled deep; he unfolds it long enough to run fingertips over the fresh wound, red and weeping, like stigmata, his touch ghosting over the dark lines of the poem set in Miguel's flesh:
Do not put me in the dark to die like a traitor ...
Sacrificial lamb, he thinks, has a flash of phosphorus and fire and blood marking the door, before he shoves the Polaroid back into his bag. Scapegoat - the one cast out, sacrificed to the spirits of the desert, left broken in the end, and he shivers, stops to stare at himself for a moment in the mirror, reaching out to touch the reflection of the curve of his own lips, the arch of an eyebrow, the edge of his jaw, taking the measure of himself.
Then he heads out under the stars to find ... something ... in the desert.
Eventually, he stops somewhere, he doesn't know where - the ass-end of nowhere - gathers his resources enough to slow his undirected flight and call St. Margaret's. He goes through three convenience stores before he can find one with a pay phone; he doesn't recognize the voice who answers at the other end of the line, in the parish office, just asks her to tell Lou that Ray would like to talk to him and yes, he'll hold - for the value of hold they manage with the ancient phone in the parish office, which is setting down the receiver, muffled in someone's sweater if you're lucky, and so he hears the rumble of Lou's voice before he's even on the telephone properly.
"Where are you, Ray?" There's a thin undercurrent in Lou's voice - concern, maybe? Worry?
"Carlsbad," Ray says, thinking, sure, why not?
"Arizona," he adds, because that, at least, maybe, is true.
"Arizona," Lou repeats.
"You remember how we called it a retreat when it was really a vacation? I think maybe I need a little bit of a retreat. For real, this time."
There's silence on the other end of the line, while Ray waits patiently, waits it out, because he's had this battle of wills before.
"Are you finding yourself in the desert?" Lou finally asks, and Ray can't tell if his tone is careful or joking, and he wonders if Lou himself knows, so Ray laughs to reassure him, a laugh he doesn't feel.
"Maybe?" he says and remembers Thomas, bed-headed and blurry, soft sock-footed in the middle of the night, accent burring through his vowels - The thing you have to understand about Ray is that he desperately wants to believe that God isn't as hard on people as he is.
That'd be nice, he thinks, distracted - to know God's not going to be as hard on him as he is on himself.
"You are coming home, right?" Lou's voice breaks into his reverie, more laughter, less edge, but there's still an unspoken question there, and well, Ray thinks to himself.
He reassures Lou, of course, asks for his help in arranging some extra time - he had a few more days before he was supposed to be back, and they were planning on keeping Makaki for an extra week, anyway, but it would help if Lou can manage to squeeze another week or so out of the diocese, and if anyone can manage it, he can, Ray knows. When he hangs up the phone, he stares at his hand for a minute, clenched on the receiver, knuckles tight and pale.
Don't look at them like that. It only ends up costing you in the end.
If you were going to run away from home, you couldn't just, oh, join the circus? he asks himself. You're a little old to be the daring young man on the flying trapeze, but you could have tamed lions, eaten fire. Ridden in the clown car.
Finding himself in the desert, though - at least it has the advantage of being, maybe, true. He remembers tales of peyote and dancing suns, fountains of light and golden rainfall, mystic revelation - wanting to believe, even when you don't know in what, or where to find it.
He gets in the car and drives some more, gets as far as Sierra Vista before he stops to stand beside his car, exhausted and blinking in afternoon sunlight, taking in the encircling mountains. He finds an RV park with its winter migration in full occupation and uses its rundown public bathroom to wash his face, brush his teeth, shave. There's a group of kids - college-aged, maybe - playing dodgeball out beyond the bounds of the RV park, in the sunburnt winter grassland, and he sits cross-legged on the warm hood of the Tercel and watches them for a while, occasionally turning his face up to the late afternoon sun before he turns to the Liturgy of the Hours, losing himself in the familiar rhythms of None.
Rédime me, Dómine, et miserére mei; Redeem me, O Lord, and be merciful to me.
One of the kids sitting out the game, a girl in a long skirt, heavy sweater wrapped around a swelling belly, approaches him, grins at him when he tilts a look her way. He wonders what it is about him, why he seems to run into so many pregnant girls, before he reminds himself that this is what the majority of the human race does - is fruitful, and multiplies.
"You play?" the girl asks him. "They don't have even teams since I got too big to run around."
It's ridiculously easy to fall into the rhythms of the winter encampment, the routines of its inhabitants and hangers-on: Louisa and her sketch of hippie friends living off the grid; Johnnie, who organizes fantan tournaments in the dilapidated clubhouse once a week, the games well-attended by the aging population of snowbirds; Horace and Wallace - one white, one black, one from New Jersey, the other from Minnesota - who come out and sit with Ray most nights at the campfire that someone always gets going, making coffee in a tin pot over the flames as they compare endless fish tales. Ray supposes it's shitty coffee, but it can't be much worse than what they make in Oz, and anyway, he's grown up eating crap, still does most of the time - boxes of mac and cheese, packages of Ramen in styrofoam cups, mass-produced doughnuts covered in waxy chocolate. It's the food of his middle-class, suburban American childhood. Not bologna, though. He never could stand bologna, and he shakes his head when the guys fry it up in a pan and offer it to him.
On Saturday, he counts backward on his fingers to confirm the date, pulls out his Rosary, loses himself in the litany, the calm meditative space of it, beads slipping easily through his fingers – Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
It's the closest he's been to attending First Saturday Devotions in years, since he ended up in Oz. He could do the full devotions, he supposes, because church is wherever he is, Mass is wherever he is, right? And wasn't that one of the reasons he wanted to be a priest, to make sure he kept the sacred in his everyday life? But no, he thinks - he doesn't have the vestments he needs to say Mass, his chasuble, the alb, the silken stole. And he can't help wondering, is he still a priest? Do the formalities matter if he knows he's betrayed his vows?
He should go to confession, he knows, and he thinks about calling Pete from the phone at the nearby convenience store, or from the bar a couple of miles up the highway, even though it wouldn't really count as confession. Psychoanalysis is confession without the absolution, he thinks and laughs, the sound startling in the crisp morning air. Pete would be the one to call, then, wouldn't she? She always saw straight through him anyway, particularly where Alvarez was concerned. The potential for this kind of charlie-foxtrot is probably precisely why she banned him from the victim interaction with the Riveras in the first place.
Pete is apparently a million times smarter than he is, and he should listen to her more often, he decides. All the time, in fact.
The evil in things is not intended, he tells himself, refuge in Aquinas, but Ray's beginning to think that managing not to inflict hurt, in some way or other, is beyond man's ability. He briefly contemplates the idea, again, that they're already dead and in hell: Maybe Oz was just limbo, maybe he and Miguel weren't willing to do their time there, so they managed to move themselves into hell. He wonders when someone will be showing up to offer him all the kingdoms of the earth, before he remembers Los Indios in the distance and thinks maybe he already missed his chance to sign on the dotted line, already turned down temptation.
Funny, how it doesn't make him feel any more righteous.
He's living day-to-day out of the back of the Tercel, using the RV park's community bathrooms to shower and shave, avoiding his own gaze in the mirror, pulling the hatchback down to curl asleep at night, like some kind of fucking mystic, one of those crazy guys wandering around in the desert, undergoing his very own personal Catholic Enlightenment. He leans against the back passenger side tire of the Tercel, sitting cross-legged in the sun after Terce -- Sana ánimam meam, quia peccávi tibi; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee ... - and scrubs his hand through his hair, pulling strands between his fingers to fall tangling in his eyelashes. He'd already been due for a haircut when he left on this trip, and he hasn't bothered to think about it since.
He considers growing a beard. If he's going to be melodramatic, going to wallow in this midlife crisis or delayed teenaged angst or crisis of faith or whatever the hell this is that he's doing, there probably ought to be some actual trudging through the desert, thirst and heat, cracked lips and a croaking voice and hallucinations in the sand. But then, Ray's never been comfortable with the idea of a hair-shirt: too close, too real, no soft-focus centuries of myth like those laid over the martyrs of the early Church, just sweat and spit and misery, sharp edges and torn flesh, flashfire and midnight darkness. He's never been one for flagellation, mortification for the glory of God, although he's got to wonder whether he hasn't cut himself open as surely as Miguel did with a scalpel, whether he's got scars that he'll carry forever, scars that only he and God can see.
Do those count?
He vaguely remembers the feeling of looking for something - the urgency – remembers thinking he'd find it in the desert, but he doesn't feel like he's searching for anything anymore. He doesn't feel like he's doing anything, doesn't feel like he could move if he wanted to, suspended in still air, wrapped in some kind of muffling cocoon - waiting, maybe, although for what ... well, he doesn't know that, either.
Some kind of word. Some kind of Word.
A postcard or a phone call.
A burning bush.
An angel to break his fall, although it's little bit late for that, he thinks to himself, wry - he already cast himself off the temple with barely a glance around him - and he laughs out loud in the still desert air again.
He's doing this wrong, he knows. The thing about being an anchorite is, you're supposed to withdraw into your cell, away from the secular world - not run away from your vocation into the wide-open spaces. Not that the version of the secular world he's run to is what most would think of, he supposes, looking around himself. You've probably been locked up too long when the desert looks good by comparison.
Just ask Alvarez, he thinks, before he shuts himself down.
He tries not to think about Alvarez - especially when he wakes up in the back of the car, aching, hand on himself, in the middle of the night, wakes from dreams of breath and damp heat, edge of teeth and weight pinning him down, scent of copper and salt and smoke in his head, on his tongue, fingers tracing his wrist and the inside his elbows, the length of his thighs, taking the measure of him. He tries not to think about Miguel, who's out there somewhere, in the desert - maybe across the border into Mexico by now, into Guatemala, Chile, on his way to the end of the earth. He catches himself staring at the stack of postcards Miguel left behind: the Angel of Marye's Heights, bronze fingers clasped in a dying soldier's hands; the bones of a bridge in Georgia, skeleton of ironwork like bleached wings; the West 146, the bridge and the road, a blaze of autumn color behind them.
Not hearing is worse than hearing - he remembers that. He learned it, over and over and over, it's why he came out here in the first place. Well, he supposes it's one of the reasons he came out here, looking for something, in need of something, even if he can't figure out what, can't remember what it was or where to find it.
He takes to sitting around the community campfire in the growing twilights with Tanner, their army vet, who hunkers down in a tent each night on the outskirts of the camper city and says he's in the desert now because he never wants to see fucking ice and snow again, not after the slog to Tuzla through a Balkan winter, knee-deep mud sucking you down, flooding from the rivers washing your shit away no matter how you tried to tie it secure.
"Merry fucking Christmas," he says, reminiscently, toasting Ray with a battered tin cup of rotgut coffee - he doesn't have the money to be an alcoholic, he told Ray, when they started this nightly tradition. He still wears a shirt with a white-and-blue shield patch, "IFOR" in Roman and Cyrillic alphabets down either side - Task Force Eagle, he tells Ray - took over for the UN troops in Bosnia.
"Those poor fuckers." He shakes his head as the first stars prickle through the deep blue velvet swathing the night sky. "Nobody ever gave them the backup they needed to do shit. When you end up being used as a human shield by the people you're supposed to be keeping in line, your ROE are pretty fucked. What do you do with that?"
Ray worries his bottom lip with his teeth, remembering the sting of torn flesh and the taste of copper and salt, tape sticky and chafing around his wrists, the choking burnt-insulation stench of tear gas, and he supposes it's true enough.
"They should at least let you protect yourself, right?" Tanner pokes moodily at the fire with a stick. "Shouldn't have to put yourself in that position in the first place."
Don't look at them like that. It only ends up costing you, in the long run.
"They couldn't have set those poor fuckers up better if they were trying," Tanner goes on, conversationally, and Ray wonders if the Cardinal had any idea what he was doing, if the Cardinal knew exactly what he was doing.
At least Ray was never so naïve as to want it, right?
He spends his evenings listening to Tanner the way he listened to George when he was 14 years old, the way he listened every week to Marty Ward's hopeless longing for Officer Mabrey, to Jack Ellis and his constant quest to put anything he can up his nose, in his veins, endlessly inventive, and the punishment he inflicted on himself when he managed it, the way he listened to the fresh fish with their haunted looks and tight lips, to Kaminski's furtive whispers about the dreams, every night, the dreams where the two women he strangled came back for him. He listens the way he listened to Cyril O'Reily offer up his weekly confession of frustration and bad words, the small selfishness of a child, the way he listened to Miguel talk about smothering in the close confines of solitary, walls pressing in, Ricardo's voice whispering in his ear - all the graft and extortion and abuse and sex and despair, the general misery of the human condition.
"'Never again,' huh?" Tanner says, tossing the dregs of his coffee at the coals where the fire's burned down, and his words sizzle like liquid smoking away on embers. "There's guys I served with, already back in Kosovo, doing the same goddamn dance all over again. The human race - it's fundamentally fucked. Don't let anybody tell you any different, Ray."
The long decline, Ray thinks and drops his head back to stare at the starlit sky with open, sightless eyes.
A couple of bikers show up for few days, warily skirted by the regulars, although they do a little business with the hippies, and Ray's perspective is skewed, he thinks - maybe irrevocably - but he's not sure he could find anyone outside of a prison, anyone outside of a prison riot, remotely threatening anymore. If he could survive the riot - and Devlin's takedown - he supposes he can survive whatever happens to him. So he tosses a smile and a "good morning" to one of them - broad and graying, skulls tattooed across the backs of both hands - as he leaves the Stop'N'Shop one morning with a wave to Esteban behind the counter with the hand that's holding cigarettes instead of coffee.
The other - a little younger, a little slighter, dark hair held back by a red bandanna - follows Ray with his eyes after that, not precisely avid, but speculative. It's not as if Ray was completely oblivious before this, not as if he's never known, not as if he's completely naïve, but he can feel that gaze on his skin in a way he never did before, a heat and pressure that's almost tangible, like fingers on the nape of his neck, the slope of his back, the soft skin inside his forearms, blood pulsing close to the surface of thin skin, like a part of himself that's been asleep - that he's kept asleep - all this time has woken up and is stretching itself under the attention. The taste of smoke in his mouth brings back the pulse of a bass through brick and fingers trailing light along his wrist, the stroke of a thumb over the back of his hand, and he remembers Pete's words - A woman and a nun. All are parts of me ... - but he remembers Sippel's words, too.
A man but not allowed to be a man. A priest but not allowed to be a priest ...
You are a priest forever, like Melchizidek of old - the words from the psalm, from his ordination come back to him.
"No," he says. "Thank you," and he smiles, shoves his hands in his pockets and wraps his sweatshirt around himself when the guy offers him a toke at the campfire that night, and he can see himself again in his mind's eye, flashes back to college, the scrape of brick against his back, remembers tilting his head to look through his lashes as he accepted a cigarette, before he pulled the smoke into his lungs.
"No charge," the guy says and tilts his head to study Ray in the firelight, soft dark gaze brushing over him - the curve of his mouth, the line of his jaw, the hollow of his throat - like a thumb stroking over Ray's skin. "Not for a pretty thing like you."
He lifts a hand, and for a sudden, disorienting moment, Ray wants to tilt into the rough touch on his cheekbone. He can feel what it would be like, to let the guy lay him down in the back of the Tercel where he wakes up hard and aching, hand on himself in the middle of the night, can feel what it would be like to let the guy lay him down and fuck him. Frankly, it would be less of an affront to his vows than what he had back when he was curled with Miguel in a motel bed, fingertips barely touching, feeling Miguel's breath ghost across his lips. This would merely besmirch his chastity, not his celibacy, make him unvirtuous but not an oathbreaker.
It's not about the fucking, he thinks - it's about the love. He wonders if Keller has figured that out yet. He closes his eyes and remembers Miguel's light fingertips tracing the scar over his eyebrow, thumb dragging against his mouth.
Upon my bed by night, I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him but he gave no answer.
"Don't," he says, sudden, sharper than he means, ducking out from under the touch, one hand up in a visceral denial, a renunciation, unexpected enough that the guy rocks forward, balance lost, and Ray finds himself scrambling away before he manages to still himself, crouched beside the campfire, trying to clear his head enough to cobble together an explanation - for this stranger, for himself, he's not sure which - even if it's only half true, hedging his words. "I'm sorry. I just ... can't. I had a ... bad breakup. I'm not really ready for ..."
"I could help you get over him."
Yeah, well, I'm not really ready for that, Ray thinks, because this is probably something he ought to carry. He kneels in the flickering firelight, a rock sharp and uncomfortable under one knee, and his perspective is irrevocably screwed up, he realizes, because he's crouched beside a campfire in the middle of nowhere, facing a guy half again his size and weight, and he's not worried about this guy, it's not like he could worry about this guy, not after living through a riot and a takedown and the aftermath. Ray's no fresh meat, and he's made it this long, survived the world exploding around him and crumbling slowly, silently, piece by piece, and he's managed to pick himself up each time, walk back into it like walking into the wind.
May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end, he thinks as he shivers through the solitary walk to the outskirts of the encampment, familiar words of Compline, his bedtime prayer for more than twenty years, now, the weight and comfort of tradition behind it, and he closes his eyes, centers himself, lets it pass through him and out before he curls himself alone in the back of the Tercel, hands pressed to his own chest, feeling the rise and fall of his breath.
Tucked into his sweatshirt against the morning chill, cross-legged on the still-warm hood of the Tercel, he scalds his mouth on weak coffee from the Stop'N'Shop down the road and watches sunrise pink fade from the sky as Ruth pokes at a cactus in the garden outside her camper. She's collected close to a dozen of the spiky plants, short and tall and fat and squat, one with spatters of yellow blooms and another with a single florid orange flower at its crown. Ray rubs his thumb across two fingertips, remembers heavy silken fur and purring rumbles against his hands, and he never thought something prickly could bring someone so much satisfaction. But Leon, two rows south, told him this is something Ruth does every year, passing on the garden when she leaves each April. One of the hippie boys from the mini-commune of three tents on the campground's western edge comes around every couple of days to dig for her, shifts rocks, shirt open and bandanna holding back dirty blond curls, sticks himself on thorns and grins as he sucks on his fingers, working up a sweat in the afternoon sun while Ruth supervises. She used to transplant it all herself, she tells Ray - before she got so old and fat and creaky.
She drinks wine out of a box - one glass a night as she sits under the tiny overhang outside her front door and watches the sun set - and she paints, too, Ray discovers. "Bargain-basement O'Keefe" she calls her swooping detailed designs, and somewhere in that camper, she's stacked three or four canvases that she rotates, painting over them again and again. He spends a couple of hours one afternoon just watching her, sitting in the shadow of the Tercel, leaning against the back driver's side wheel with the minutes ticking from Sext to None - ... kindly mother of our redeemer, great portal of heaven ever open, the sea's far-shining star - succor thy people who, though fallen, strive to rise again ... - watching as she puts a wash of white over one of the canvases, the image growing hazier and more indistinct with each layer until it disappears into a clean, blank slate.
She travels light, she says, pushing an escaped strand of white hair off her forehead, and anyway, the point is not the having of them - it's the making of them. Like memories, she tells him, offering him wine in the other glass from the cupboard in her tiny kitchen as the sun goes down. That's not a place you can live, she says, the faintest question in her tone, as if she's still looking for her own answers. You have to build it and keep going.
"Walk on," he says, and she raises her glass with a tiny smile.
She's got two of everything, it looks like - two glasses, two plates, two sets of flatware, two small towels in the closet of a bathroom, although only one of them looks used, tilted slightly on its bar so the corners don't match up. All her friends back in Michigan were surprised, she tells Ray - as they watch purple bands chase red across the horizon = when she came back here again this winter, the first without her husband, but why would she want to miss out on a season in the canyons? He was a geologist, she says - he liked the rocks, never cared about the sweeping vistas, always wanted to look closer, deeper - and Ray's not sure she's even still talking to him, not sure it matters that it's him she's talking to, something like a confessional, maybe, when you need to put something on someone else because it's too big for you to carry alone.
Ray's in the Roadhouse on a Saturday night when he sees the news spot - sees it, because he certainly can't hear it - and he's not sure at first what made him look up, but then he's not surprised that he recognized and homed in on the flicker out of the corner of his eye like a hunting dog. It's not as if he's spent way too much time more attuned to Alvarez than is good for him, right? So he somehow looks over at the TV mounted up in one corner in time to see the b-roll shot - Alvarez in an orange jumpsuit and cuffs being escorted by guys in brown - and a mug shot, a graphic of a map with a red star further west, along the border, at Lochiel, dated two days ago.
He's got just enough change in his pockets to call Pete, although he probably ought to know better, and he huddles in on himself in the chilly air at the outside payphone, willing to pay a little discomfort for the privilege of hearing her over the din in the bar where he's left Horace and Wallace playing darts. Who would have guessed, he thinks, this time last year, that he would be the one who'd run away from home, who spent his time making furtive calls, hoping no one would catch him? How the wheel turns.
"You saw the news?" Pete says, when Sister Anna Michael calls her to the phone, and it's no surprise, Ray thinks, as he lights a cigarette - Pete's always been able to find out what's gone on in the privacy of the confessional, always been able to get Ray himself to confess to it. He knew she'd read him like a book. "When are you coming home?"
"Soon," he tells her, even as he wonders whether by "home," he means the city or the rectory, the church or the prison, the familiarity of concrete walls, the random banging clanging sounds, even the cooking smells, all the things he thinks of as "his" - his office, his cafeteria, his guys - and the way a constant flow of prisoners in and out, kitchen crews and mealtimes, marks his days as surely as the Liturgy of the Hours, a familiar cage that feels like home.
That prison, it's in my blood and my bones. Like pollution in the water, down to the molecular level, and there ain't no way to unwind it.
Maybe he's just as trapped as Miguel, he thinks, as he hangs up the phone, and he wonders how Oz has shaped him, how he's allowed himself to be shaped by the structure around him, wonders whether it was natural, inevitable, something he couldn't avoid, like the course of a river carved through soft rock. He wonders what kind of chance he gave up by not taking the opportunity for flight, remembers the sight of Los Indios, that long bridge, first step toward the end of the earth, remembers the sun on his back and Miguel's skin under his fingers, gritty with sand.
He can't carry that home with him, he knows - he won't survive the weight of it, back inside the walls. He might not even be able to walk back in, and what then?
Alvarez was right, he realizes - has to shut this down like it never happened.
Sacrificial lamb, he thinks, has a flash of phosphorus and fire, blood marking the door, and he shivers, takes a long drag on the cigarette, bouncing on his toes in an effort to stay warm as he thinks about Oz and about Tolkien, the lesson he learned as early as high school: You never defeat anything really, it's all just a long, slow decline. But it can be the genteel decay of a neighborhood going to seed instead of the world exploding around you, and he thinks about Ruth's garden, the spikes and the thorns and the care she lavishes on them.
He wonders if Abgott had any idea what he was doing when he sent Ray to Oz, wonders if the Cardinal knew precisely what he was doing. Either way, it's not like Ray can go back to the beginning, not like he can toss all this away - it's not like he can do anything but follow through. Maybe by the time he gets home, wherever that is, whatever it means, he'll be past it, he thinks. Maybe he'll have let it move through him and on, he'll be scorched and scoured clean and empty by the sun and sand.
He owes Alvarez that much, at least.
Dómine, avérte fáciem tuam a peccátis meis, et omnes iniquitátes meas dele, he thinks. O Lord, turn thy face from my sin and put out all my misdeeds.
Back at the winter encampment, he packs quickly, efficiently, the weight of routine behind it by now, throws his clothes into his bag, moving swift and sure, shoulders set, no hesitation, like walking into the wind.
Why not, he thinks. He's never going to get to sleep.
He might as well get some miles under his belt.