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Anatomy of a Story: A Holy Man Named Marcus

I always like to share where I get different ideas in my stories. Obviously, my story homilies come from the readings, but others stories such as this one have different origins.

The following is an anatomy of the short story that appeared yesterday on this blog. This basically explains a bit of the process of writing it.

This story came to be in its basic form one day in February. I listened to several episodes of the podcast Wrongful Convictionon iheart Radio as I was heading for my days off in Chicopee, Massachusetts. When I arrived at my destination and began to relax, I started to put the story together.

That which is in italics and underlined are my notes, the rest belong to original post.

The following short story deals with adult themes of sin and redemption. The story includes scenes of racism, violent crime and corruption. Reader's discretion is advised.

This is the anatomy of the Story and is filled with spoilers, please read the story itself first which was published yesterday.

The character of the boy named Marcus and his Dad were actually vehicles to tell the story: and to put it into a Catholic context.

I was fifteen when I learned the origin of my name. It was such a strange story because, I never asked. I mean I never, ever asked why my mother and father decided to call me Marcus. It just never occurred to me to question its origin. I supposed my parents enjoyed the sound or something. But it was that day that I learned not only the reason for my name, but of my namesake.

The whole event happened with something that I wanted everyone to know: I hated to go to Mass. I was fifteen and it was during my Christmas vacation. OK everyone attends mass on Christmas, but only three days later it was Sunday and I had to go to mass again. I figured I attended for the week on Christmas. That should be enough for one week, many who were also there on December 25th felt they attended mass for the year. But three days later, My father woke me up to go to the seven o’clock morning mass on December 28, 1986. Usually, we went as a family, but my mother had the flu and, of course, could not even get out of bed.

I tried to “volunteer” to stay home with Mom, but Dad would have none of it.

Mom had the flu because I wanted Marcus to come from a two parent Catholic home, but I needed the father and son to be alone. So I gave Mom the flu. Sorry, Mom.

“She’ll be fine, Marcus.” My Father handed me my jacket as if to say ‘Nice try.’

I reached out for my winter parka and put it on looking to my father with that pouty face that fifteen year olds make to show that they are not satisfied with your demands. My father ignored me as he always did when I used the pouty face. I had yet to learn it did not work, not in fifteen years and not with Dad. He was a tough guy, but gentle. At fifty years old, I guess he had seen it all. Secretly, I think he was smiling inside along.

That Mass was even worse than most. I just hated to go and this day I just felt even more how much I hated to attend mass. I even said “Amen” as if I was protesting that I was actually receiving the Body of Christ. Despite being surrounded with poinsettias, the creche and so many others happily celebrating the Christmas season. However, for me the season ended on midnight December 25th. What is worse is that the more I hated to attend Mass, the more I hated having it known that I attended mass. Clearly, my behavior at school, although I was never in trouble, would still not indicate to others that I was a church going student of a public school. My language alone would never allow people to think I received communion with that tongue.

I picked the date of December 28 1986 because that day is when the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday. I wanted them to attend mass on that day, but it had to fall on a Sunday for that work. Originally the year was 2003, but I wanted something earlier and the next time December 28 falls on a Sunday is 1986.

Billy Anders was there at that Mass on the other side of the wide Church. He was in the pew under the window of St. Thomas the Doubter, about half way between the altar and the front door of the church. We sat on the opposite side of the church wall under the window of St. Augustine. Billy was with his mother and father and two younger brothers and we both looked at each other as if we were atheists standing in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

St. Thomas is chosen because he is the doubter, St. Augustine because he needed his mother to pray for years for his conversion.

He rolled his eyes at me and I smiled. This was just before the creed after the boring homily the priest read. I have no idea what it was about. If you quizzed me on it, I would say "something about Jesus." But that was always correct.

I heard a snicker behind me and then recognized Mary Lonsdale, another classmate two seats behind us under the Angel Gabriel window. I would wave to her at the sign of peace. She was a little more ‘holy’ than we were, after all she was alone. Her parents did not take her to mass, she just went on her own. She believed in God. I believed in God as much as I believe in Evo Morales: the president of Boliva. I know he exists, but I do not see how that affects me.

Lonsdale was the name of a street in my first parish. Mary sits under the window of the Angel Gabriel for that obvious symbolism. I picked Evo Morales because he is fairly obscure to many in the US.

The priest gave the blessing and the final song began. I waited for my Dad to leave, but he had to wait for the ‘father’ to process from the altar and, led by the faithful servers, walk to the front doors of the Church. It is then that Dad and I walked with the crowd out of the Mass. My father was silent. He could be garrulous at times, but never in Church. It was like he was programmed into silence the minute he removed his hat as he stepped into the building. The priest stood on the inside of the doors and greeted everyone as they left.

“Have a blessed week.” He said as he shook one hand after and another.

This is what I do at the end of Mass. It also shows a principle of writing. The writer puts him/herself in every story. This is why so many stories feature writers.

Dad shook his hand for both of us. I just gave a semi-smile/smirk. "Yes, have a good week which is six days I am not here," I thought as I started to cross the threshold and down the marble stairs to the street below. My Dad followed.

As we walked down the large stone stairs of the majestic church, leaving the marble altar and the stain glass windows behind us to say nothing of the thirty foot rounded ceiling above us, I finally had the nerve to ask my father if I could stop going to mass.

“I was confirmed two weeks ago, most of my classmates’ parents tell them they no longer need to go to Mass. Can I assume the same thing?”

“Sure,” my father began as we looked both ways and crossed the street. “As long as you meet the same condition that they do.”

“Really??” I smiled, “What is that?” I should have prepared myself for my father’s disappointing answer. Instead, I foolishly was expecting a condition I could meet.

“When, like them.” he started with that wry smile.

I knew even before he finished the answer, I was about to be played.

“You do not live in my house.”

“Dad!!” I started with whiny pronunciation that grows in children and begins to die out around sixteen.

We reached the parking lot. He grabbed the car keys out of his pocket and fumbled for door key. Shoving it into the lock and turning it in one simple move, he opened the door and pushed the unlock button before getting behind the steering wheel. I opened my door and fell into the passenger seat in one similar move as he put the ignition key into the steering column starter.

Originally when the date was in 2003 he used a fob. They did not exist in 1986 so I had to change that scene.

I grabbed my seatbelt and pulled it across my upper body, he sat back with both hands on the steering wheel. The car still remained unstarted.

“You know Marcus, it is about time you learn where your name comes from.”

I probably looked annoyed as we sat in the three year old Buick. He shifted his body a bit so that he could look at me a little better. His tall, thin frame made that easy to do. I could do the same. I could tell this was going to be a long story. So much for getting back to Mom so quickly.

“Did you know what I did before I ran your grandfather's hardware store?” He asked gently.

He is employed by his wife's father hinting that he could not find employment after being fired from his prison work. Originally, I wrote that he owned the hardware store, but I felt it worked better that he ran the store but did not own it. If he owned the store, it would have indicated that he landed well on his feet. Now we see that if it was not for his father-in-law he would have been unemployable.

I sat back, ready for us to be here long after the next mass started. “Some kind of cop, I always thought.”

Another hint that this is a time in the life of Jim Brennan that he did not want to remember.

“Kind of,” he began. “I was a corrections officer over in the next town in Enfield.”

I like to make a lot of my stories take place in Enfield, MA. It is one of the real towns that is part of Massachusetts folklore. It is a town that today no longer exists. It was eliminated to create the Quabbin Reservoir outside of Worcester, MA, which supplies water for the City of Boston.

“That big prison?” We had been by it many times, the stone walls surrounded by the barbed wire fence. It was the kind of place you could not help but notice.

“Yeah, the same on the outskirts of the town. Massachusetts Correctional Institute—MCI, Enfield, Massachusetts. The oldest prison west of Boston is there and that is where I worked as a corrections officer. This was before you were born.”

“Didn’t you have to leave so that you could take better care of me as I was being born soon? I always heard that.” I tried not to act bored.

“Well, son, that is what we always told you, but there was more to the story and we felt you were not ready to hear it. I guess now you are.” My father grew serious the likes of which I never saw him before.

“You see son, “ He began. “I was a bully growing up. I beat up kids in school and when I graduated I decided to to become a corrections officer without letting go of my bullying spirit. I will tell you that it was a big mistake, but then again, if I did not, you might not be here.”

I was viciously bullied in junior high school (today that is called a middle school), one of my bullies bragged in high school that his greatest desire was to be an assassin. He died about a year ago after being retired army, maybe an assassin.

I must’ve looked puzzled at him. That sentence did not make sense and I really did not appreciate learning that my father was a bully.

Tommy Jackson beat me up all the time and he used to tell me that that each punch was for my what my dad did to his dad, but I never understood what he meant. Of course, we were in the fifth grade, so how was I to know? They moved the following year. Tommy Jackson’s father became the CEO of a huge software company and now they live somewhere in Newport Beach, California. Now I knew, my father beat him up.

Literally, the example of the nerdy kid who grows up to be super rich. Newport Beach California is a well-to-do community along Pacific Coast Highway

I really now did not want to be there, this Sunday was turning into a nightmare. I wanted to be home studying. I was not much of a student, but even that was looking to be more exciting than where I was at this time.

“I remember the first day on the job, here I was entering that big prison facility for the first time, it was like being in the movies. I looked at the barred cells, that prison is so old that the cell doors are not doors but literally bars. The clanging of the metal upon metal. The screaming and the taunting by the most vicious of prisoners.

The prison is actually modeled after the Charles Street Jail in Boston. It is now a hotel.

“You would almost expect James Cagney’s gangsters or Robert De Niro’s tough guys to be sitting in those cells. The whole place was filled with sound that was so disturbing. But for me it was exciting. Stupidly, I believed by being the meanest of the mean, I was doing the best for society. I really should never have been a corrections officer. Today, I would be a walking lawsuit, but then, I thought I was just doing my job in service to the public.”

I started to get somewhat interested in my father’s words, maybe Sunday was not going to be too bad after all. I smiled at the thought of a Robert De Niro tough guy being a prisoner where my father was a guard. I did not at the time have any clue who James Cagney was.

I wrote this around the time Billy Graham died and was amazed at how many twenty somethings never heard of him. I used James Cagney to illustrate the same principle.

“There were some rough people there and each one had their own story, I had mine as well. So I began my job working in the oldest prison in the system. Back then, if they did not go to Cedar Junction, they went to us. Many of the men were tough and we had to be tougher. I broke probably every rule back then. I beat up prisoners who disagreed with me, broke one man’s nose, but there were no cameras and no one was going to rat anyone else. ”

Cedar Junction is the prison where Aaron Hernadez died. Malcolm X was converted to Islam and where the Boston Strangler was. It is one of the prisons where the toughest of prisoners are remanded.

I designed the behavior of Jim Brennan to reflect another prison in Massachusetts subject to the Boston Globe Spotlight Team investigation of abusive behavior by some corrections officers back in the 1990's. Inmates also told me of the behavior of some of these officers. The actions of Jim Brennan are based on the actions reported in this prison.

This was not making me see my father in any good light. I was looking at him as a bully who became a professional. Who wants to see that in their father?

“Everyone knew that no one crossed Jim Brennan and even those who did not cross him were still punished by me because I knew I could be the bully I was in school.

“That was until Quiet Man Jackson came in. A big, black guy who was sent right from the court after being convicted of raping a white woman and then killing her. I did not know why there was a trial at all. He confessed to the crime and then pled not-guilty. I hated most of these criminals and I saw the news about this guy. I was determined he was going to pay for every twinge of pain he caused to that white girl’s family and to that girl himself before he killed her. He got life in prison, but he was going to know who was boss.

I had him go by Quiet Man to hide his first name for the climax. Notice that he confesses to the crime, but pleads not guilty. It is a hint that he gave a forced confession under duress.

“Quiet Man Jackson entered the prison on my shift. He had his prison clothes in his hands as he walked to the cell where I was standing. My job was simply to make sure he got in, I added the role of showing my worst hate in the name of his victim, I think the woman’s name was Maria. I put on the meanest face I had ever made. This man was a monster and he had to know that my specialty was monsters.

"When I first laid eyes on him, I did not see the monster I expected. He was clean shaven, well, that was to be expected, after all he just left the court. Taller than me by about a two inches. He was thin and wiry, certainly not someone who could wrestle anyone to the ground, much less rape or kill them and he had a gentle spirit. Of course, I overlooked all that. Looks, especially in prison, can be deceiving. I was not going let him use his gentle demeanor to make me any less tough.

I am hinting more that he was falsely accused and convicted.

“At the time, I did not go to Church. I was like you, I stopped going after Confirmation so what scripture I could quote was just words that backed up my attitude, it was certainly not an indication of knowing the Bible. I always kept in my the mind ‘the devil appears as an angel of light.’ So I looked at him not in any other way but the devil dressed in that gentle spirit. He was a monster and he would know to the day I left the prison, which I expected to be at the end of a long career, that I saw him as a monster and the devil himself disguised as an angel of light.

We learn the true monster who appeared as an angel of light is the prison guard who abuses the inmate. He goes by his own rules and even rejects God.

“He went into a cell with one other man in it. I forget who he was, probably someone in for petty theft. I just pointed Quiet Man Jackson to his bed, which was really nothing more than a cot. The cell was, of course, small. It had the two beds with a small space between them to walk to the sink and toilet in the back. The window in the wall was barred and looked out over the yard. That was about it.

New inmates do not end up with their own cell.

"That day, I began to make his life a living hell. I yelled at him all the time, roughed up his personal belongings, wrote him up for things he never did and even beat him. I can’t say he grew to hate me, but he did fear me. One day, I caught him crying in his cell. I just taunted him more.

Corrections officers can hold inspections and ransack an inmates cell for cause. The crying ignored and causing further taunts is what my Jr. High bully did to me. It also indicates how mean and hard-hearted Jim Brennan was. My own bully laughed when I finally broke down and cried in the seventh grade. I have to admit, I hated school from that moment on.

“I got so bad, other corrections officers told me to back off. I even got written up twice. The lieutenant told me that one more complaint and I could lose my job. I started to back off of him, but still saw nothing I did as being wrong. I later learned that inmates would not sit with him at meals because they were afraid of my hatred falling on them, even after I backed off.”

Most corrections officers are not like Jim Brennan. They have professional standards and choose to meet them. Jim Brennan I needed to show as the rogue.

I guess inside I felt almost numb. It was as if my personal hero showed himself to be a phony. I was so disappointed to learn this, I was speechless. I may have appeared interested, but I really only wanted my father to stop. I felt myself shifting, actually squirming in my seat as I listened to detail after detail. I really did want to go home and study or even just hide my head in shame at my father. I hoped it could not get worse. It did.

“It was around this time that your mother and I were engaged. Then we had our wedding. It was a huge one right here at St. Michael’s in Enfield. The pastor at the time Fr. Paul Saulus married your mother and I. Uncle Peter was the best man and Aunt Mary was the maid of honor. It was a wonderful wedding and the honeymoon was even better. We went to New York and had a great time. It was there that first night, we figured that you were conceived.”

I wanted to show the two sides of Jim Brennan the side only those in the prison saw and the other only those outside the prison saw. Many professional government (any country) torturers are like this.

Now I had the images of my parents doing it on the honeymoon and that was where I came in. I really wanted him to stop, but I said nothing. I think I was just in shock.

“We had a great time and we settled into a wonderful life. Your mother returned to her job teaching and I returned to the prison. She never saw me at work and everyone knew that if one person could control my bullying habits it was your mother. She was the one person who everyone knew was tougher than me. So at home I was the best husband and father to be I could think of, but at work, I was just a monster or as I thought of myself as a monster destroyer.

“Then my life changed. This is something we never told you, Marcus.”

Again the part of their lives they wanted to forget.

I suppose I had to appear interested, but now I just wanted it all to end. I would have returned to Mass if it would have ended this talk.

"Your mother was coming home from shopping and was followed by someone. We did not have cell phones then and she could not call anyone. She drove toward home, a little nervous. She had the groceries in her car and the person who followed her out of the store, stayed behind her in a small sedan, a Japanese car I think. It looked like he was stalking her.

While stopped at that light at Wilkins and Derwood Street . . .”

It was about half-way between the market and our house. I used to ride my bike there. Somehow my parents always told me that it was a dangerous intersection, but did not understand why it was more dangerous than any other.

Parents hated the intersection because of their history with it. Derwood I took from the name of Derwood Kirby a TV announcer in old time TV. The intersection is based on Washington St. and Middle St. in Weymouth, MA, my hometown. My parents are buried in that cemetery.

". . . this man rear-ended her. He jumped out of the car, opened her car door that she neglected to lock and dragged her into the cemetery at that intersection. There he beat her, raped her and left her for dead. She was in a coma which means so were you.”

I was now stunned. My mother was beaten into a coma, left for dead and I was in her womb at the time. I really did not know how to handle this.

“The man left her car in the intersection and returned to his car and drove off. The only reason why they found her was the police came upon the car stopped at the intersection with the door wide open and the seat belt cut off. They suspected foul play and looked around for her. They found her in the corner of the cemetary near the road but under a bush, barely conscious. She could not respond and her heart was just barely beating. They rushed her to the Enfield General Hospital.

“I received the notice while at work that Mom was in a coma in the hospital. They let me go for the day and I rushed to her and your bedside. She looked horrible. Needless to say, there were tubes and machines and the electronic sound of her heart beating. She had a tube down her throat and even a machine that monitored your heart beat.

“Her face was a mess, and I could hardly recognize her. This man really pounded her eye sockets and broke some of her bones. She was severely bruised, with blood around her eye and blood that dried around her nose. If you had not told me it was her, I do not know if I would have recognized her. I have no idea if she even heard anything I said and I spoke to her and told her how much I loved her as I wiped tears from my eyes. I asked them if you were going to survive and they said they were not sure but they were doing the best they could.

“They said she was critical with about a forty percent chance of survival and about a ten percent chance of not suffering permanent brain damage. There was an eighty percent chance of losing you. I was devastated and angry. I vowed to her lifeless comatose body that people would suffer for doing this and I knew it was another of Quiet Man Jackson’s kind. Yes, it was another black man, but I did not use that word, I had just figured. I actually had no idea who did it and do not know to this day. But back then, I was an angry vicious racist.

“I spent the whole night sitting next to her and hoping beyond hope that she was not gone. The doctors said they did not give us any hope. I was about to lose my wife and my son and I was only married two months.

“I had the next two days off normally and I went every day to her bedside from morning to night. I spoke to her and to you. I told you both how much I loved you over and over again. I also vowed to take vengeance for what this black man had done. The chaplain came in, a Catholic priest and I just waved him off. We did not need prayers, God was not who I wanted to talk to at this time, after all where was God when this happened. I was respectful but told him to get out.

Now the worst part of Jim Brennan comes out: racist vigilante. He assumes a black man did this but has no proof. We know, however, that Quiet Man does not do it, he is incarcerated. Another hint that Quiet Man is innocent.

“When I returned to work, I was filled with rage. I did not show it, but I was determined that Quiet Man Jackson was going to suffer for all that had happened to your mother. Guys warned me not to let what happened to affect my work. They reminded me that I had been written up twice and war