Authors: Bryant Delafosse
Uncle Hank (Father Hank to the rest of Haven) was Dad’s big brother by two years. He was the middle child. Their older brother, Norman, died in the Vietnam War. They say he died protecting our men during one of the troop withdrawals in 1972. I never met him or my grandfather, who died when Dad was eighteen. Heart attack. The Graves family was ripe with bad tickers. That’s why I think that Uncle Norman had the right idea. If I had to go, I’d rather go out fighting with a rebel yell than in a hospital with a whimper.
As I stepped into the Religious Education hall of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, it occurred to me that I last set foot inside when I was twelve or thirteen. When I arrived, Uncle Hank was finishing up a surprise visit with the second grade CCD class (or what Roman Catholic’s call Sunday School on Wednesday’s). He was giving a magic show, pouring a carafe of milk into his fist, making things levitate, choosing the correct card from the middle of the deck. Y’know, the classics.
My earliest memory of my uncle was of him rising from his seat at a picnic table at one family function or another (usually one that included Claudia and Mrs. Wicke) and telling some elaborate joke with a surprise ending. Growing up, I never laughed harder than when I was with Uncle Hank.
Now after the oohs and ahhs and applause of the children died down, Uncle Hank would ask one of the kids how he thought he was able to do the things he did.
“Magic,” at least one of the children would invariably answer.
Uncle Hank would then ask for the teacher’s dictionary and ask the child to read the first entry of the definition of the word.
Here’s how the American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘magic’: “The art or alleged art of controlling natural events, effects, or forces by invoking charms, spells, etc.”
Then he would ask another child to read the next entry, which read: “The use of sleight of hand and other tricks to entertain.”
“Now which of these definitions seems most likely,” Uncle Hank asked the class as I entered the room. He gave me a knowing wink and chose a member of his audience.
“Because you need some kind of special powers to do real magic.”
“How many think that Jesus was a magician?”
Several brave hands shot up.
“How about Moses? Was Moses a magician?”
A few more added their hands to the first ones.
“Did Moses or Jesus invoke charms or cast spells?”
A little dissension in the ranks.
“Let me ask you this. What did both of these men have in common?”
A sheepish little hand peeked up in the back. A little red-headed girl meekly answered, “God?”
“Did everyone hear Olivia? She said that God was the common denominator.”
Billy Baskin withdrew finger from nose long enough to raise it in the air. “Is a denominator those things that guard Azkaban in the Harry Potter movies?”
“No, Billy,” Mrs. Price, the Catechism teacher replied with a clearly disapproving tone to her voice. “Harry Potter is a make-believe character. Jesus and Moses really existed. Please, Father, go on.” She gave Uncle Hank a bright smile, the kind of smile that was reserved for men that were not only respected but a little attractive as well.
Uncle Hank nodded. “God is the source of all that is good. He allowed Moses to part the Red Sea for the Israelites.” Uncle Hank threw his arms up dramatically and swept them toward the kids. “He was there with the Lord Jesus when he multiplied all those fishies for the crowd.” Uncle made a fish face, complete with protruding lips and bulging eyes. The kids in the front row tittered and elbowed each other.
“No, they weren’t magicians because the source of their power came from God, not from any power rooted here on earth. Not even their own quick hands,” he finished his sermon by materializing a coin from behind the ear of one of the giggling girls, “which is the only talent through which I’ve been able to do these tricks tonight.”
The kids clapped as Uncle Hank took a bow.
“Does God allow bad magic, Father?” Billy Baskin asked.
Uncle Hank gathered himself and seemed just about to launch into a response when the dismissal bell rang, sending all the children, including Billy, clear out of the room.
When he saw me he did a dramatic double take, put on a serious expression then pretended to assess me with almost scientific curiosity. I held out my hand to him and he scowled and shook his head. “We stopped taking those here after the first of the year.” Then he turned and declared at the top of his lungs: “Attention everyone! This is my nephew! The one that is far too dignified for hugs!”
Finally, I gave him a hug and helped him put his implements of magic back into its black leather case. As long as I’ve known Hank, he’s been a fan of parlor tricks, watching them and then figuring out how they were done.
At one point, he just held me at arm’s length and stared at me with a smirk on his face. “Can’t tell you what a surprise it was to see you at the Vigil mass on Saturday.”
I was a little shy about my recent curiosity about religion. I started going over the summer and now averaged about once a month. My folks weren’t churchgoers. I’m not sure what had initially driven me to go. All I know is that I took comfort in it.
“And how’s my good for nothing little brother? Driving your mother crazy in his retirement, I’ll bet?”
“They’re both still sane.” Call it Catholic guilt or just a need to fill a nervous silence, but before I could stop myself, the words were out. “I told them on Saturday that I was going to the movies. Is that wrong?”
“Well, I’m sure you’re going to tell them at some point and are just looking for the appropriate time, right” he replied, giving me a firm squeeze on the shoulder.
I felt myself nodding.
“Are you afraid to tell them, Paul?”
“I guess I am, sort of, but I don’t know why.”
“How do you think they’ll react?”
“Dad will probably be happy that I’m saving money by not going to see a movie.”
Uncle Hank laughed out loud. “Sounds like Jack to me.” There was a glimmer in his eye and a smile on his face but his expression was one of sadness.
“So I heard that Pat and Claudia were back in town. Why are you threatening to go to the movies alone when you could ask Claudie?”
He glanced at me with a smirk when I’d refused to answer.
“Mind walking with me back to the office?”
I escorted him back through the hall, stopping periodically to talk to this person and that, our conversations being interrupted over and over. I knew this was not a good time to ask him the question I wanted, not if I wanted a complete answer.
We went into the lamp-lit rectory office and dropped his briefcase on the corner of the dark cherry wood desk. He removed his spectacles, and stood over his laptop, rubbing his glasses clean as he scanned the list of emails before turning back to me. I was, of course, standing, hands in pockets, shifting nervously from foot-to-foot.
Uncle Hank replaced his spectacles and gestured for me to take one of the leather chairs before his desk.
“How were you going to answer that kid’s question? The one about bad magic?”
Uncle Hank plopped down in his own comfy leather chair and took a moment to assess me before saying: “The simple answer, the one I was going to give the kids, is built on the ‘everything good comes from God’ premise. Children are pretty instinctive, so I tell them, if it feels bad, it probably doesn’t come from God, even if you think it comes from someone you trust. That answer covers a lot of ground, even molestation, something the Church is pretty adamant about lately.”
“What answer would you give
Uncle Hank continued to study me. Finally, he took a Bible off the well-stocked shelf behind him and riffled through its post-marked and dog-eared pages. When he found what he was looking for he spun the book around and turned the lamp onto its highest setting. “Deuteronomy. Chapter 18. Verse 10. Read that aloud, if you don’t mind.” Uncle Hank was big on the whole “letting other people read” thing.
I read: “Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spell, or seeks oracles from the dead.” I swallowed awkwardly at this point, attempting not to give away my state of mind but suspecting nonetheless that Uncle Hank’s sharp eye was missing nothing. “Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the Lord, and because of such abominations, the Lord, your God, is driving these nations out of your way.”
“It’s easier to counsel children. They don’t argue opinions. That’s why I always try to find the appropriate scripture passage first. You can’t argue with that.” Uncle Hank took the Bible back and rested his hand on it while he addressed me. “Y’see, our God is a jealous God and the Occult is a violation of the First Law, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’”
“Why the sudden interest?”
“The kid asked the question and I felt I needed to hear your answer, y’know.”
Uncle Hank nodded, but I could tell he remained unsatisfied with my answer. “So is Kathy doing her Halloween party again this year?”
“Every year. Are you going to make an appearance?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Uncle Hank turned back to his laptop with a devilish smirk.
“Now what would be the fun in it if I warned you?”
“It’s been a few years since your last visit.” Five actually.
It used to be that every year Uncle Hank showed up to the Halloween party dressed as someone different. One year he showed up dressed in rags as a homeless person and walked right inside off the porch. One of the parents were so shocked that this strange man had walked in “off the street” that she picked up the phone to call the police when Dad broke into laughter. “What, the town’s tithes aren’t enough that you have to go begging door to door?”
Lately, though, Uncle Hank hadn’t been around and I guess a part of my returning to church might have been as simple as wanting to visit my uncle again.
We went through the struggle again and Uncle Hank stole his hug from me. I turned and started away when something occurred to me.
“That wasn’t the answer.”
Uncle Hank was by now totally absorbed in reading one of his emails. “Huh?”
“The kid. He asked if God allowed bad magic.”
Uncle looked up and replied by rote, almost as if I’d asked the simplest question in the world. “God allows us choices. Free will is the basis of faith.”
This statement brought me back to that day three years ago on the worst Tuesday of my life, after the buildings fell, when my Uncle opened up the church rectory hall to comfort whomever needed to talk about the events of the day. Everyone wanted a piece of him. Everyone wanted an answer to the question, but no one knew quite how to put it into the correct sequence of words. It took a five-year-old boy named Samuel to ask the question with the conciseness only a child unburdened with the baggage of Life could: “Why did God let this happen, Father?”
Uncle Hank looked down at the child and all the oxygen seemed to vacate the room from the simultaneous intake of breath from the fifty or so people present. He went to one knee before the child, held him by the shoulders, and looked him straight in eyes wise beyond his short years.
“God allows evil and good alike, Sammy.”
The answer didn’t provide the comfort the child had sought and his eyes began to tear up, so rather than give him a saccharin sweet coda to wrap everything up neatly for the child, my Uncle Hank just held him, placing his small head gently on his shoulder. He wasn’t one to water down the truth for anyone, no matter how young.
On the way home, I thought about Claudia and what she’d asked at the dinner table. I finally connected the dots and knew what was on her mind.
She wanted to contact her father.
Her dead father.
Together Claudia and I walked the route we anticipated decorating with a clipboard of schematics in my hands, a red correction marker in hers. We agreed on gravestones between the driveway and the big oak, but argued over the aesthetics of the classic hanging man versus scarecrow. We finally decided to use the stuffed man elsewhere.
We walked the porch and the foyer and finally into the living room where the kids would settle to watch the traditional Halloween DVD. (Tradition had that there would be a decision made based on democratic vote between
The Nightmare Before Christmas
and another DVD, but regardless, the little ones would inevitably choose
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Our preparations were cut short by Mom’s announcement that dinner was ready, graciously so, because Claudia and I had just begun another argument. This one involved traditional orange and black streamers versus spider webs and moss.
We said grace and Mom began the line of questioning.
“So how are you settling in, dear?”
“Does it feel like home yet?”
Claudia’s silence was almost an answer enough. Finally, she replied, “No, although we did just get Internet service up last week. I’ve been able to answer emails. I guess everyone back in DFW was starting to think I’d blown them all off.”
“Oh, did you have many close friends?”
Claudia shrugged. “Sure. I guess.”
“You’ll find friends here. It just takes time.”
Claudia concentrated on the food.
When dinner was over, we picked up arguing where we left off. Dad interrupted only once to tell us to go argue in another room or come back after the show he was watching was over. We took a break around nine and found the original
Night of the Living Dead
on a classic movie channel. Dad came back in the living room to toss his newspaper on the stack beside the coffee table.
He stood watching the attack on the farmhouse for only about thirty seconds before he made a disagreeable sound. “Paul!” I could tell from his tone that I’d done something wrong. “You walk her home tonight. Hear me?”
Claudia and I traded confused looks.
“Yeah, sure. Why?”
Seeming not to hear my question at all, Dad stood there watching George Romero’s genius flow, like the Hershey chocolate he substituted for blood, in all its black and white glory. “Why in the hell do you kids have to watch this crap?”
He turned and disappeared into the bedroom.
Claudia and I gave each other a look. I nodded toward the newspaper Dad had just thrown atop the pile. She retrieved it and hungrily spread the front page across the coffee table for both of us to read. I came around from the ratty green rocking chair to sit beside her on the couch.
The headline on the Haven Herald read: “Body of Teen Girl Found in Abner.” Claudia read aloud in the flickering light of the television. “Late Wednesday night the body of an unidentified female was found in a dry reservoir in Abner just off Farm Road 487.” That was forty-five miles northeast of us. “The remains are under investigation by forensic experts in hopes of determining the identity of the female and whether or not she met with foul play.”
Claudia pushed back from the coffee table, her eyes glazing over. “Of course, it’s foul play,” she scoffed.
I pulled the newspaper over to me and scanned it, the screams from the TV forming a soundtrack to the copy I read.
When Claudia called it a night, I followed her into the darkness down Cedar Street without discussion.
“I could tell by your Dad’s tone of voice that he’s already formed a theory about this. Retired or not, he can’t help but think like a cop.”
“A theory about what?”
“You can’t tell me that that girl fell into a reservoir all by herself,” Claudia announced. “She was murdered.”
“Murdered? What makes you think it wasn’t just suicide?”
“No, when a person commits suicide they do it in the privacy of their own home. Pills, razor to the wrists, rope to the throat. They don’t throw themselves into an empty reservoir.”
I shrugged. She had a good point.
Claudia nibbled her lip. “You think your dad might be getting a little bored in his retirement?”
“He still does consulting for a few security firms in Dallas. Why?”
“Paul, what did your father mean when he said that they didn’t think he was fit to return to duty?”
I took a deep breath and gave her a look. “That was kind of a big deal, okay, and I’m not all that sure I can trust you.”
She gave me an overinflated look of disbelief, but I could sense behind the melodrama that I had actually hurt her somehow. “Fine, Paul, keep your secrets.”
After walking in silence for a few moments, I knew from the stolid expression on her face I had indeed hurt her. She started to quicken her pace a little and I had to make an effort to catch up with her.
“Okay, if it gets back to my Dad that I told you, I’m a dead man.”
She slowed down and gave me a single nod.
“You know that my Dad shot a man, right?”
Her eyes lit up, but her voice remained casual. “No, I didn’t. What were the circumstances?”
“Routine traffic stop, guy fires on him, and he fired back,” I told her. “That’s how he got grazed incidentally. To hear my mother tell it, though, he almost had his arm blown completely off. The truth is somewhere in the middle, I guess.”
Claudia gave a nod and stared raptly at me.
“Well, every officer who fires his gun in the line of duty has to see a psychologist to get released back to work, but Mom told me that he couldn’t pass the psych eval.”
Claudia frowned at me. “What?”
“Yeah,” I said with a sigh. “I never got any of the details.”
“Are you kidding me? Wow, aren’t you the least bit curious? I would be.”
I made a sound of dismissal that ended the conversation as we turned up her driveway on Ash Avenue. I lifted and dropped my arm and started to back away from her. “What time are we getting together on Saturday?”
I glanced at her in confusion.
“Oh right,” she quickly recovered. “I don’t know. Ten?”
I started away with a final wave over my shoulder, but she called out once more.
“If this is a murder, there’s a possibility that he’s done it before and will do it again.” When I gave her a blank look, she said as way of explanation, “The body they found in Abner.”
“Oh, right,” I finally remembered. “What about it?”
“If it’s a serial killer, he won’t stop, y’know. They keep at it until they get taken out or die of natural causes. Jack the Ripper probably died of old age. Some believe the Black Dahlia killer did too.”
I was at a loss. All I could do was stand and gawk at her, waiting for a punch line that never came.
The last thing she said to me was, “Seeya,” and as she disappeared into the house, I couldn’t help but think how little I knew about the girl that had returned to Haven.