The Holy Mark: the Tragedy of a Fallen Priest," by Gregory Alexander, came to my attention about four days ago. It is a dark, first person novel, narrated by a corrupt and self deceiving priest that lays bear his pathology as well as the Catholic world of New Orleans in which he has lived for decades. Troubling as it is, I found it irresistible. And when you cannot put a novel down, when you cannot stop reading it, no matter how disturbing it is, the author deserves immense credit. I found in this novel the same language and attitudes I find in Gillian Flynn---this is the literature of disgust, alienation, and rage. And it is profoundly compelling. I'm recommending this to all who value originality and talent, especially in debut novels --- to all who value new voices in fiction that embody awesome power and the capacity to take over the mind of the reader. This is not a supernatural novel; it is not a detective novel; it's not a thriller. It is a brilliant portrait of a sick mind that contains truths about all minds. I think many of you will find it as spellbinding as I did. But be prepared to be repelled, shocked, and at times offended even as you cannot stop reading. Highly recommended. ~ Anne Rice
By Gregory Alexander
(Excerpt from published Novel)
It was all so absurd. I thought I had heard every cockeyed birthmark theory when I was a child, but now Ronnie was making it out to be some kind of portentous symbol out of Hawthorne and I a Catholic Arthur Dimmesdale. The analogy of the sinful, disgraced priest plagued my sleep that night, precipitating a terrifying dream:
It was Easter in New Orleans and for reasons unclear I had become the most exalted priest in the city (a rival to the Archbishop?), chosen to carry the Cross in a televised re-enactment of the Stations that began with a public sentencing by Pilate (the mayor of the city) and a mock scourging before a crowd in the French Market. After being draped in a magnificent violet cloak and capped with a papier-mache “crown of thorns” by two beefy Saints players dressed as Roman legionnaires, I began my circuitous trek through the Quarter that was supposed to culminate in a glorious Crucifixion at noon in Jackson Square, after which I would celebrate Mass in the Cathedral before television cameras and the largest Easter crowd ever assembled in the city.
Wielding the vertical portion of a fiberglass cross and followed by a crowd of worshippers, I made my way down Esplanade and into the Quarter at Decatur, where a contingent of the “women of the city” offered me their tears and a drink. After I admonished the women to weep not for me but for themselves and their children, the crowd applauded and began to strew petals of spring flowers in my path as I turned down Ursuline to the sounds of the cheering multitude, solemn strains of Easter hymns from speakers lining the streets, and the clicking of a thousand camera shutters like locusts in the oaks at dusk.
Somewhere along the way, though, after I had “fallen” for the second time in front of an oyster bar on Royal, the tenor of the dream took a nightmarish turn. It started when I began to sense a discomfort on my scalp, which I at first attributed to my makeshift headdress. But that wouldn’t explain the change in the demeanor of the crowd, which was beginning to appear amused and distracted as my discomfort became a searing heat as if someone were focusing the sun’s rays onto the back of my head with a magnifying glass.
By St. Philip the crowd, which had so lately been admiring witnesses to the solemn Passion Play, was completely transformed into a jeering, foul-mouthed mob, laughing, cursing, and pointing at me as if I were the village hunchback or some defiler of virgin innocence. It was no longer Holy Week, I came to realize, but Mardi Gras, its irreverent and antithetical precursor; and I was soon covered not in azalea and magnolia petals but horse droppings, offered not sips of cool mint tea but doused with cheap beer and spoiled seafood. My violet robe was now a garish purple and gold calico costume of the cheapest polyester, my crown a foolscap with bells atop. The “holy women of the city,” who had been following my steps since Decatur, singing hymns of the Resurrection and offering to dab my brow with cool, disposable cloths, were gone. In their stead appeared a wicked chorus of Bourbon Street hookers—cruel and dissipated expressions painted on their heathen faces, taunting my obesity, holding up their little fingers to mock my manhood, and dancing an obscene jig with corrupted, half-naked men to a hideous hybrid disco mix of Professor Longhair.
At the Square, instead of the rest of my cross and the television cameras that were supposed to record my speech at the end of the symbolic journey, a nightmarish tableau awaited me. Stocks out of Puritan New England had replaced the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. Ratchett and my Uncle Anthony were among the hateful crowd surrounding what was looking to become the scene of my humiliation.
Once I was secured helpless in the stocks, a shirtless, black-hooded and muscle-bound negro grabbed my foolscap to strip it from my head. One of the bells had become entangled in my hair, which the negro brute yanked off with the cap in one fell and humiliating swoop. As the brute stood by, brandishing his trophy like the scalp of a vanquished foe, I could see what had turned the crowd so viciously against me: My birthmark had become a red-hot brand, searing a hole in its own image completely through my hairpiece. Noticing that the hourglass shape of the hole had turned the wig into a hideous and hirsute visor, the negro fitted the ersatz carnival mask to my face, turning me into a mortified werewolf before the cruelly cheering crowd. I awoke just as the throng had set upon me, yanking me from the stocks and stripping me of my garments. They drove me to the river, where they forced me onto an anchored barge—the very one my cousins had played on as children—and sent me drifting naked down the river.
As chilling as that dream was, I couldn’t let it upset me. It was just Ronnie’s stupid little allusion to the birthmark as symbol coupled with my rereading of The Scarlet Letter for one of my classes at Tulane that brought it on. I had a great deal to console myself by: I had just recently begun to do some very good work among the boys at the Den with the promise of much more to come. And one undeniable fact proved that I was no Dimmesdale and Ronnie’s theory was a pail of hogwash that showed my cousin to be no more an intellectual than he was a dancer: Unlike Hawthorne’s weak and hypocritical cleric, I had been true to all of my vows for over four years. I had committed no sin.
Gregory Alexander was born and raised in New Orleans. After completing degrees in Psychology and American Literature, both of which disciplines factor prominently in his novel, he taught English at several Catholic schools in the city. His short stories, including the genesis of The Holy Mark, have appeared in independent and academically connected literary magazines across the country. Mr. Alexander has been a contributing book reviewer for the New Orleans Times Picayune. He currently works as a Human Resource professional outside of New Orleans.
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by Sunny Savage
(Excerpt from a novel in progress)
It's cold in October on the St. Lawrence River. The water’s frigging freezing. Dr. Irwin told me that some people may think of jumping off Jacques Cartier Bridge as the perfect way to end their troubles, but probably still kind of hope that God will step in. The coroner calls it “blunt-force trauma,” like a car accident. Crashing squashes your heart. I think that probably happens way before somebody jumps. Nobody understands things falling from the sky.
I should’ve realized how screwed up we were, at the end. I should’ve recognized the pain and sensed the danger, but it was like Zach had reserved the right to be wretched. I think that one big difference between guys and girls is that guys always get so pissed off when they get hurt. Girls just want to make it stop. It just wasn’t something that I wanted to get into after smoking a joint. All that personal stuff right there in the middle of Leader’s Pool Hall, with stupid Lennie Keane shouting, “Hey Sweet-Tart! Get on your knees and I’ll make you a Lik-A-Maid.” I should’ve left, too. Then, I could’ve told Zach what the counsellor at the drop-in center said about nailing Elton and then, he would’ve realized that perverts don’t stop at only one kid.
* * * * *
Zach’s funeral really blew my mind. Everyone seemed so uncomfortable just to see me standing there. I’m much better now…after the hospital stint and all of those treatments and everything…just needed a safe place to figure out how to be “me” instead of “we.” It’s tough to know where to begin when you’re feeling guilty for every breath. Then again, maybe I just decided to get better because I didn’t want that Doctor Electric to hurt me anymore.
I still embarrass myself a lot, though. I sort of bob when I walk and kind of spaz out, for no good reason…even my shadow looks like a big question mark…other times, I just feel kind of invisible. Man, I wish this stupid blouse would stop twisting all around. It’s really hard to get exactly the same amount of Kleenex on each side, but I’m sick of waiting for Mother Nature. I want boobs, now! It’d just be nice to blend in with the other kids at school, that’s all. Some of them have started calling me “the mental marvel”…or “marble”…not too sure what they mean but everybody laughs like crazy. I do hang out at the library a lot, but that’s mostly because it’s peaceful and it gets me out of the frigging house. Once in a while, the delivery boys give me lifts in their grocery baskets and my voice always goes up an octave whenever I try to speak with them. I don’t know, but it all makes it tough to trust myself.
* * * * *
Chaz looked very strange today...all fired up and messy...I may need to call in Dr. Irwin if life is getting confusing for her again. We’ll nip this in the bud. Some folks just need to learn to fend for themselves. I am sure that he could find her a bed somewhere. He really understands what these children have put us through and how difficult all this has been for me. You just never know what you’re getting involved in and at the end of the day, DNA is DNA.
The two of them were not even that much alike. Some people will do anything for attention and always manage to come up with wild excuses for bad behaviour. Chaz surely has her own problems, but Zach was ignoring his schoolwork, disrespectful towards his elders and disappearing for days at a time. If you ask me, that boy simply painted himself into a corner. It’s high time for Chaz to just let go of a few things and move on. I’m giving her until the end of the week to snap out of this.
* * * * *
Man, Mr. Luc really looks like a rat, right now. All hunched over his desk and perched on his elbows, he keeps twisting his fingers around in front of his zitty face. Where do they get these guidance counselors from, anyway? With those icky beads of sweat on his lip and no noticeable bones or muscles, it’s like his pasty skin is the only thing holding him together. Please, make it stop...enough about how hard it is to lose a twin…only Mr. Luc is giving me grief, right now, smiling all strange and telling me how important it is to get in touch with myself. I’ll bet that this guy touches himself a lot.
To be honest, I sort of prefer shots of madness straight up, anyway. Seriously! It’s kind of weird, but I’m okay with some whacko wandering through the metro in nothing but a grass skirt and a necklace of garlic sausage. You know, that “in your face” bonkers. What really freaks me out are “blurps”…those flashes of insanity poking through the cracks of normal…like Elton and Mildred Motley.
The Motley family home has a lot of “blurps.” Last fall, Elton repainted the outside in “Wisp Gray” and stained the shutters a glossy mahogany. The snow came so early that he only managed to finish the upper level. This spring, he tackled the rest. The overall impression is that something is just a little off. Although the top is the same color as the bottom, the bottom looks much shinier than the top…kind of like someone wearing brand new runners with ratty jeans...it’s just not quite right, somehow.
Mildred used to keep a beautiful rock garden in front of the house. It was truly amazing and the cars would slow down just to see it. Since she lost her boobs, five years ago, she doesn’t seem to have the heart for it. Lately, she’s taken to filling a sugar dispenser with wildflower seeds and scattering them willy-nilly all over the front yard. Now and again, she lucks out and everything comes up like some feathery Impressionist painting. Other times, it sort of looks like Jackson Pollack got busy on our lawn.
It’s not that I have trouble with randomness or anything. Somehow, I just know in my heart that I can’t be spending all my time trying to get a hold on life and expect to have anything truly magical happen. That’s what all the nerdy kids do and they wind up shooting themselves in the foot, in a strange way. I mean, it’s always very cool to come across a single flower that’s managed to push itself up between the cracks of the sidewalk. Still, it kind of spooks me when someone smiles just a little too broadly, flashing a set of gums that have receded so high that I get a fleeting glimpse at the roots of their teeth.
* * * * *
Elton never seemed to have time for either one of them, frankly. I know that he found it complicated when we first brought them home and he often mentioned how odd it felt for him to see me as “Mother.” Not that he was ever jealous or anything…just somewhat puzzled…ill at ease with it all. You got the feeling that he could hardly wait for them to just grow up.
It wasn’t so simple for me either. The sisters at St. Pat’s Orphanage weren’t especially affectionate and my upbringing was focused on God and discipline. They always used to say that kids were like plants and that one just had to know when to snip them back and where to pitch the stakes. All in all, I did the best that I could with the tools I was given. Not that I should ever have to explain myself to anyone.
* * * * *
It’s kind of depressing watching little kids play…all pure and hopeful…they have no clue that perfect crimes are committed, every day. I’m not sure what I expected as a kid, but things haven’t worked out so well. Mildred’s always said that we were lucky she and Elton adopted us. Yeah, right! Childhood was damn discouraging, but I remember learning that Place Ville Marie’s beacon wasn’t just random tricks of the light and loving how it sliced through the darkness…my trusty guide…a radiant windmill of togetherness.
Montreal is a pretty huge place to a kid. Bulmer Lane is Westmount’s western boundary…a line in the sand… the living end. Fifty years ago, somebody got lucky and built up one side of the block with 3-storey walk-ups for the less fortunate. Sandwiched between adjoining rooftops and an underground network of boiler rooms, pitch-black fire escapes dangle from their tiny balconies. Huge oaks from the neighboring tennis club block out the sun and the Claremont Theatre seals any exit.
Last year, one of the delivery boys caught the German boiler man feeling up old Mrs. Sheldon’s dim-witted daughter. Since then, he lets all of us neighborhood kids use one of the boiler rooms as a kind of clubhouse. We’ve fixed it up pretty good. Lennie Keane painted the iron boiler a deep purple and the cement floor an unearthly fluorescent-green. Somebody brought in an old stereo with a penny taped to the needle arm and some badly warped albums. I covered up the passageways to the adjacent boiler rooms with these really cool tie-dyed sheets. Nobody seems to know where the sand candles came from. A sweaty Jim Morrison leers down from the wall and begs for a light. Every so often the creepy boiler guy sticks his head in and cheerfully declares that smoking will stunt our growth, but he doesn’t really seem to care what we do down there. Last month, we lucked out and found some old mattresses and a velvet ruby throw in the trash. Someone had scratched “It’s hard being a rock” in block letters on the back of the metal door, but then Darcy McNulty went and painted this psychedelic mural of a butterfly that says “It’s not what you are…it’s what you could be.” It kind of makes you think. In one way, it’s all sort of sleazy and smells like sweat and soot and sweet rot but in another way, it sure feels good to have some place in this world.
* * * * *
Elton’s bedroom can wait another day. I’m running short on time and it’s always such a wretched rat’s nest. I don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling with that scotch stashed in his top bunk...silly old sot...keeps him from wandering around, though.
It’s always a bit unsettling to step into the children’s rooms, as well...such strange posters of melting clocks and long-haired pretty boys...disorienting, really. Who in the world are The Animals, anyway? Still, it’s vitally important to know what’s going on in one’s own backyard and it’s only a woman’s watchfulness that ensures a home’s tranquility.
* * * * *
It was the smell of scotch that woke me up. Elton was hovering over my bed in his ratty robe with a grim look on his face. I sort of thought that something had happened to Mildred. She went a little strange after her surgery…walking around the house with no shirt on like she’d actually had a sex change operation…guess she needed attention or witnesses or something, but it was still pretty bizarre. When I asked him if everything was okay, he just plopped himself down on my bed and started to sob. I reached up to put my hand on his back and suddenly he was right on me…smelly, slobbery, rock-solid…so frigging gross. I was pinned like a butterfly and couldn’t even breathe in. He just kept on drooling and rubbing and pulling at my bed clothes. Then, he held my arms up over my head and all I could think of were those magical snow angels that I used to love making as a little kid. I kind of expected him to start laughing or to get real embarrassed or something, but he kept right on going and going. Then, I just left…went and floated to the ceiling like a phantom and watched it all happen from up there…some strange sort of slow motion movie. I knew enough not to tell anyone, though…went and hid the bloody sheets in the crawl space…must have thought that I had it coming, in some weird kind of way.
* * * * *
It was really bad being me today. I forgot about graduation photos and wore one of Zach’s raggedy lumberjack shirts to school…woke up feeling pretty lame…just kind of weary, in a way. They had us fill out all those goofy questions that’ll go under our yearbook pictures and I sort of lost it, since I’d already blown it big-time. I ended up filling in nickname with “mental marble,” future plans with “medical school” and probable career choice with “dancing monkey’s organ grinder.” Later on, I had some way better answers and went back to the gym, but they wouldn’t let me change anything so I got really pissed-off and ducked out for a smoke. Everyone usually sneaks one in front of the armory and I rounded the corner only to discover that someone had scrawled “Chaz sucks cock!” on the building’s massive metal door. It must be permanent ink or something, because it didn’t come off with spit. Shawn Molloy laughed like hell when he showed up and caught me trying to rub it out. I took off and could still hear him cackling when I reached the other corner. Man, what a joke! I haven’t even been properly kissed yet.
* * * * *
A tall guy strutted into our Saturday morning art class. He moved like a Spanish dancer and it sort of made him look like some mysterious gypsy. A clingy brown V-neck covered his coral shirt. His chiseled face was framed by jet-black curls and a weird piercing look flashed from beneath his sharply arched eyebrows. He was shaved and snazzy and raised his cap all debonair-like to our art class…the kind of cool everyone hates…the kind of cool everyone’s aching to be. The YMCA’s Director, Mrs. Baxter, beamed as Christopher Lacey quickly brushed aside her introduction as if he was burning with impatience to get down to work. The muscles of his neck and hands tensed when someone asked him what we would be drawing in this class. “Only what you can see,” he snapped. I can’t really remember much after that. There were long lists of course supplies, readings and class projects. It surely felt serious. He wound things up with his dark eyes right on me and said, “If you persevere, you could end up looking at the outside world with one eye and looking into yourself with the other.” It sort of spooked me, in a way...I went and wrote “Charlotte Lacey” in my sketchbook…just to see what it looked like.
* * * * *
I did fall sick for a time, but the kids were almost fully grown by then. Was it too much to expect everyone just to go about their business and take care of things for a while? These children have always been so needy and demanding. Sister Angele warned me that the woman was unruly and Lord knew who their father was, but all of our neighbours had kids and it seemed like the most level-headed solution to our predicament. Who could have ever anticipated such a jumble of emotional problems?
* * * * *
Working weekends at Murray’s is a pretty cool job. The delivery boys stop for milkshakes and I make them so thick that their straws stand up. It gets a little strange when the old people ask you to cut their meat, though. Last month, some snotty guy made me dreadfully nervous and I wound up spilling minestrone all over us. They sent me home because it looked too much like blood.
I turned the corner onto our street just in time to catch Mildred freaking out as the cops led Elton to their patrol car, in handcuffs. Too weird! He just seemed so frail and little. He wouldn’t even look at me. Mildred kept jumping around and screaming that it was a family matter. Finally, she just plunked herself down on the sidewalk and wouldn’t budge for anything, begging the nosy neighbors to call Dr. Irwin. He’s been treating her in the hospital for the last few weeks, but she still refuses to see me. The really funny thing is that I had nothing to do with it. The police received a complaint from the parents of a boy that Elton had been tutoring. They decided to carry on and formally lay charges of child molestation. Lots of other kids came forward after that.
* * * * *
Mildred and Elton didn’t make it to my graduation ceremony, but all the kids from Bulmer Lane did. Even the creepy German guy came. Christopher Lacey has suggested that a few of us move to New York, together, in July. He’s a great artist and everything, but he truly weirded me out one night down in the boiler room. Besides, I kind of just want to see what I can do by my own self. Mr. Luc helped me score a summer job at the Banff Springs Hotel and he’s walking me through the Banff School of Fine Arts application.
Some folks say that the road out of your home town is the hardest road to travel. I have to say that I really don’t feel that way. Man, I wish that Zach could have made it to the Rockies. Who knows? I think that he would’ve turned out perfectly fine. It must be sort of hard for people who have had safe and happy childhoods, I mean, what would be left for them to aim for after that? See, I’m kind of happy betting that “possible” is just waiting…right there…on the other side of “real.”
Sunny Savage trained in Fine Arts in Montréal, Québec and Alberta, has worked for numerous corporations, media sources, performing arts centers and community agencies. Her paintings are primarily abstract, utilizing acrylics, gel mediums, dish soap and industrial road kill. Her paintings are displayed in many private collections and corporate spaces throughout Canada and, her latest paintings have focused on issues related to incarceration and reintegration. She was actively involved in implementing Residence Leo’s Boys for long term offenders; she was also involved in managing community supervision services for provincial parolees.