Paula Casey rocked up on her heels. She moved within inches of her father’s chair in their Brooklyn, Ohio home. Hands on her hips, she waited for his response.
“Our agreement precludes a relationship with Mark Schroder.” Barry Casey’s voice wisped icy cold. He glared at her.
“It won’t be a relationship.” Paula struggled to keep the venom in her mind from spilling into her words. The smell of his Old Spice nauseated her. “I turn eighteen soon, and you know what that means. Forbid Mark from taking me to my prom, and you’ll regret it.”
Barry’s face reddened. “What do you think you’ll gain? He’ll find you disgusting once he discovers who you really are.”
“I want this. I want one night. After everything I’ve done, you owe me.”
“I don’t owe you.” His voice was strained, almost cracking. He spoke slowly. But she had no problem translating his words into feelings. “Agree to my proposal, and I might change my mind. It’s in your hands.”
“Never.” She stepped closer, possessing the power to ruin his fantasies and his dreams. “Listen carefully. When I graduate and turn eighteen, you’re not my father anymore. You’re just sick Barry Casey. I agreed to play my part in your dream. But I can play it with fire, or I can play it like a limp dishrag. Which would you prefer?”
Barry stiffened. He lowered his head, hands and jaw trembling. Then he edged to his feet, but she didn’t step back. “If I say yes, you’ll never bring up Mark Schroder again? You’ll forget about this childish infatuation and go on with our life and your violin career as you promised? I’ll hold you to this.”
The trap of her past and her promises for the future overwhelmed her. She swallowed her disdain. “I will, exactly as we planned.”
Barry put a finger under her chin and forced her to look up at him. “All right, Paula. You go to the prom with him. But I’ll drive you.”
“Mark drives.” She pushed away. “And we go to the after-prom events and breakfast. Other people will be around.”
“Fine. Have it your way.” He drew in a long, deep breath. “But remember, one word from me, and Mark Schroder will run from you.”
Paula nodded, turned, and hurried to her bedroom. She had only one chance at happiness, either for a night or a lifetime. Mark might take her away. She’d make love to him. She’d plead with him. If her plan failed, at least she would have the love of her life for one night, and his memory would stay with her forever.
October 13, 1966, eighteen months earlier.
Embarrassed, Mark Schroder mumbled, “It’s impossible. I can’t master Bach like you want me to.”
“From the beginning,” Paula huffed.
Her technique was exquisite as they rehearsed the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D Minor. She soared closer to perfection each time they practiced, while Mark struggled to strike the notes cleanly. Driven by passion and emotional control, Paula’s eyes were closed, and she seemed engrossed in the music. Yet, with an effortless slide, she nudged Mark’s hip with hers, and then stepped away. He couldn’t return the bump and keep pace with her. He’d pay her back when she least expected it.
As they came to the allegro, Mark stopped. He grunted and felt himself flush. “I lost my place.”
“We only have three weeks. You can’t lose your place. We have to have the piece memorized by then, or Christoph will be furious.”
“But you’ll still like me.”
“I love you.” The words rang out like the sound of her violin, clean and crisp. “Show me your soul as you play and quit complaining.” She poked him. “Look at me. Perform. Eye contact. Synchronize our bowing on the parts where we’re a bit off.”
Mark shook his head. Doubling his practice time wouldn’t make up for the difference in their talent. “I’ll try, but I’m having enough trouble putting Bach to memory.”
She nodded as if she hadn’t heard him. They played the piece a second time. Midway through, Paula stomped her foot. “You’re like a typist. You hit all the notes with your fingers, but not with your heart.”
“I can’t give what I don’t have,” he said.
“You could give more, but you think too much.” She rose up on her toes. “Relax, and flow with the music.”
“How do you not think when you’re trying to remember what comes next?”
“Okay. Think of me naked. That ought to arouse you.”
A burning fever flushed his face.
“Again,” she said, and they finished the piece.
Paula pointed to the score. “Let’s make a change. We’ll trill the B flat in the next to the last bar, time it together, and give it a unique ending.”
“If we try this at rehearsal, Christoph will have a fit.”
“When he hears it, he’ll wonder why he didn’t think of it himself.”
“I’m not so sure.”
Paula put down her violin. “We’ve got to go over this again.” She pointed to the clock. “It’s 5:45.”
“I want time to talk. When is he coming home?”
“Six-thirty, and you can’t be here.” She kissed his cheek, and he hugged her.
“Why does your father hate me?”
“He knows I love you.”
“You shouldn’t have told him.”
“I didn’t have to.” She grinned. “He’s watched us together and figured it out.”
Paula grabbed a pencil and marked the trill on the sheet music. “One more time.”
This time through she wouldn’t criticize him. Mark loved music. He loved the violin. She didn’t want to discourage him, even if he couldn’t convert love into sound. She glanced at the clock a second time. “Again.”
After they finished, Paula edged close to him and whispered, “You played very well.”
She put down her instrument and walked toward the kitchen. “I’ve got to check on dinner.”
A roast had baked in her oven all day. She cut off a small piece, tasted it, and nodded. She broke apart the carrots and potatoes with a fork and turned off the oven. “Too bad you can’t stay,” she said when she came back. “You’d love my cooking.”
She caught a mischievous gleam in his eye.
“A quick game of thumb war before we talk,” he said.
“Why? You always let me win, just like you do in arm wrestling.”
She reached out her hand and he grabbed it. In an instant he’d trapped her thumb and wouldn’t release it. She giggled, and he kissed her cheek and let her thumb go.
“That’s for the bump.”
“So you’re stronger than a girl.” Paula bounced away and put her violin in its case. She plopped down in a wingback armchair. Even in grabbing her thumb, he was gentle—always gentle, funny, and kind.
Mark eased onto the sofa across from her, and they talked. Well, Mark talked, and she absorbed him. He recited Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by heart. He’d learned the poem that week in school. How easily he memorized that poem, yet still struggled with Bach.
She barely passed her courses, having no interest in anything but the violin. If only the excitement he had for poetry could translate to music. At least Mark shared his passions with her. No one else did.
We’re way above the norm. Only Mark copes with that, and I don’t.
She touched his hand. “I can feel the snow when you speak. I absorb your emotions. If you played the violin with the same intensity, you’d be amazing.”
The clock chimed the half hour, and Paula jumped up. “Mark, go now.”
“So he sees me. What’s the problem?” He reached for her hand, but Paula pulled away.
“Don’t be a fool.” She pushed him toward the door. She risked more than he knew to have him in her house. “Go. I’ll be in trouble if he finds you here.”
To her irritation, Mark strolled out the door.
“Run,” she gasped.
“Love you, too.” Mark strutted away, violin case tucked under his arm.
Paula slammed the door and dashed into the kitchen. She peered out the window, and when she didn’t see him, she relaxed. But the rumble of the garage door opening stiffened her.
I forgot to put away the sheet music.
Back into the living room she ran, grabbed both parts of the music, and hurried into her bedroom. As Paula put the sheet music on a shelf, her father’s sugary voice called to her, “Paula, darling, how long before dinner?”
After dinner, Paula secluded herself in her bedroom. A twin bed, a small dresser, and a hope chest for treasured things, comforted her in this world where she lived with Mark and her fantasies. When Paula practiced in seclusion, she played Rachmaninoff romances and pictured herself in Mark’s arms. When he was eleven, his slate-blue eyes caught her attention. He was cute. Now at sixteen, gorgeous had replaced cute.
When Mark turned pages for her in the orchestra, his biceps bulged under his shirt. In her dream world, Mark rescued her, and she imagined him making love to her.
Dating him was forbidden. Her father issued specific instructions. If Paula didn’t have music lessons, she had to come home after school. On school days, she fixed breakfast, completed chores, and went to classes. After school, she cleaned house and cooked dinner. Her father called home to make sure she was there. But she practiced secretly with Mark when she could.
Paula stared out her window and pushed both hands against the pane.
“I hate him, Mother,” she said, in a low grating voice. “You taught me. You made me promise to stay. I hate you, too.”
She moved away from the window, picked up her violin, and stored it away in her closet. As she turned to leave, Paula bumped a book of scales on a shelf, and a dry lily fell out and landed on the floor. She bent down and carefully picked it up. She rolled the stem gently in her hands. Mark gave the lily to her in a happier time.
The memory of the sounds and smells of the yellow city bus belching carbon monoxide and rolling to a stop at her street filled her senses. Mark had cleared the way for her through the thong. His bold and muscular frame guiding her between standing passengers. He lifted her from the last step and placed her onto the sidewalk.
“What are you passionate about?” she’d asked as they approached her house.
Mark reached into her flowerbed and pulled out a Resurrection lily. “I’m passionate about you.” He handed her the lily and whispered, “I’ll see you next Tuesday.”
A teenage boy uttering such words amazed her. Mature beyond his years and yet as playful as a puppy.
The lily was now dried, pressed, and as perfectly preserved as her memories. She put it back in her book of scales and went to bed. With Mark Schroder making love to her in her mind, Paula enjoyed a peaceful sleep.
Mark shot up in bed and stared at the clock on his nightstand—4:30 a.m. The irritating squeaking of his mother’s rocking chair had awakened him. He groaned. Most nights, fearful the whole world plotted against her, including the Pope, she’d rock in her chair and pray her rosary until the early rays of dawn calmed her. Mark used to feel her warmth, her sweet hugs and kisses, but not for the past few years.
He tossed off the covers and rolled onto the edge of the bed. Mark’s childish comments to Paula the day before ate at him. He should confront Barry Casey, but Paula would freak out. She transformed into a lunatic for fear of him finding them together. He’d apologize to Paula the next time they practiced.
John Schroder, Mark’s father, would be sneaking out the door in an hour, and Mark needed to talk to him. He dressed and went into the kitchen to fix breakfast, while his mother droned Hail Marys aloud.
As he finished eating, he heard his father’s footsteps coming down the hall.
“Up for Mass?” the elder Schroder asked.
“I’m assisting Father Tom at the six-thirty Mass.”
John made coffee. He seemed in a rush to get away as quickly as he could—a standard method of operation.
“Got a date?” Mark asked.
John scowled. “With my partner, if you must know. We’re heading to get donuts before we start our shift.”
“The policeman’s breakfast. It figures.”
“Don’t be criticizing policeman. I pay the bills.” John’s badge glistened as he put on his uniform shirt, grabbed his leather jacket, and hurried out the door.
“I need to talk to you.” Mark jogged down the sidewalk after him.
John’s partner moved over to the passenger seat, and John swung into his police car and rolled down the window. “You’ve got one minute.”
“Mom told me to forget about college. She says we can’t afford it.”
“Your mom’s loony. Nothing positive comes out of her mouth.” John revved up his engine. “The college money is already set aside. Understand? There’s one condition. You make the grades. Then you’ll get accepted into a great college. Got it?”
John reached through the open window and poked him in the chest. “Studying’s your job. Do your job.”
“No sweat there. I’m carrying a 3.9.”
Tom Kelly, John’s partner, mumbled. “I wish my kid could break a 2.0.”
“Could you leave me a couple of bucks?” Mark asked. “Miscellaneous stuff. You know like a movie once in a while.”
John growled. “Money, money, money, you sound like your mother. Use the money I give her. She never buys anything anyway.”
“She doesn’t know she has money. Her mind’s getting worse.”
His father shrugged. “Deal with it the best you can.”
Mark’s stomach tightened. Whatever happened between his mom and dad no one talked about it. “The Masonic Hall concert is coming up in three weeks. I can get free tickets if you’d like to come.”
“Can’t promise. My hours keep changing.” John shifted the car into gear and rolled up his window. Tires squealed, and Officer Schroder’s police car sped off.
Mark kicked the ground and mumbled. “Why do you even bother coming home at all?”
November 4, 1966
Mark combed his hair in the restroom at the Masonic Hall. He visualized Paula’s face, pushing the bad memories away. Katherine Schroder lost her battle with insanity on a sunny, fall afternoon only a week earlier. She was a permanent resident in the Massillon State Mental Hospital. Mark asked the hospital attendants to tune her television to his performance, even though his mother lived in another world and probably wouldn’t notice.
John Schroder never requested any tickets. Living alone angered Mark. His father showed up occasionally to check on him, but rarely stayed to talk. John did a quick property inspection and left. If Mark dwelt on his loneliness, his performance would suck. Concentrate on Paula and tonight would be glorious.
Mark strutted onto the stage for the final rehearsal, having thrown his very being into mastering the Bach. His encouragement came from Paula alone. That was enough.
Christoph, their conductor, praised and raged. He complimented Paula and Mark on their progress, then chastised the orchestra with comments like, “Lightning! Strike the note together like lightning. Paaa!”
Shouting was an understood act of love with Christoph. “The sound must be crisp. Violins, you’re supposed to sound like one instrument, not sixteen. Your last entrance mimicked marbles falling, dink-a-dink-a-dink. It’s Bach people. Paaa! Again.”
Black curly hair, slightly under six-feet tall and remarkably fit, Christoph bounced once on his toes, and the orchestra snapped to attention. His musicians understood he wanted the best from each of them. He befriended them all, and Mark considered him a mentor.
After rehearsal, Christoph released the orchestra, and the students freshened up for the performance. Mark slipped backstage by himself to wait for Paula. She wouldn’t take long to change. So he positioned himself across from the ladies room and paced.
As Paula came out, she looked around and waved when she saw him. She hurried over.
“Hold me.” She snuggled against him. “My father’s in the audience.” She teased him with a breathy voice. “I want to feel the excitement of disobeying him.”
She batted her eyelashes and ran her hand across the low cut neckline of her dress. Mark’s heart beat like a runaway horse.
“I wish we could sneak out after the performance and never look back,” she said. “I want you to kiss me and run your fingers through my hair. You’ll play better.”
Hands trembling, aroused and nervous at the same time, Mark stepped backward. “I can’t mess up your makeup. We’ll be on television.”
“I didn’t mean for real, silly. You didn’t get my point.”
If she didn’t mean it for real, what did she mean?
“You’re such a little boy,” Paula snapped, as they stepped away from the restroom area for privacy.
Her words smacked him. What did she expect him to do? He didn’t understand girls.
“Right now I’ll love you in the music,” he said.
She leaned close to him, the bodice of her gown touching his arm. She licked her lips, puckering them and closing her eyes.
Christoph hustled down the hallway, his curly black hair bouncing as he came. Mark almost tripped as he passed them. “Szell is in the fifth row center, acoustically the best place in the house. As you’re playing, direct your eyes right over that row. It’s time to perform. Break a leg.”
The conductor rushed away.
Paula stepped back, rose up on her toes, and pulled down the bodice of her dress revealing her breasts. “Wait a moment before going on stage. You’re red as a beet and bulging nicely.”
She opened her violin case, took out her violin and bow, and with an impish grin strutted on stage.
Brazen. His mother would have called her a hussy. Which Paula would show up on stage? Exposing herself to feel the rush? He’d never seen that Paula before. He took in a deep breath of air and joined the orchestra.
Masonic Hall dwarfed most concert halls. With over twenty-six hundred seats, only half would be filled for their performance. The Egmont Overture would be played before the Bach. A good thing. He needed the time to recover his composure.
Paula sat poised and serious. How she managed to switch her emotional state amazed him. She was practicing scales in the concertmistress’s chair when Mark edged into the chair next to her. As he warmed up, he scanned the audience. Cleveland Orchestra personnel, family members, friends of musicians, and Cleveland’s elite greeted each other as they scrambled for their seats.
The Hall lights flashed. An oboe sounded an A. Paula tuned her violin to the note, and then the whole orchestra tuned their instruments to hers. The Hall echoed with rustling, a few coughs, and then silence.
Christoph appeared from the left side of the stage entrance and took his place at the podium amid approving whistles and applause. He shot a broad smile at his orchestra, and the program commenced.
As Beethoven resounded throughout the Hall, any nervousness Mark had evaporated. When the Egmont Overture ended, Christoph bowed to the applause and acknowledged the orchestra. Then he introduced the violinists, not with words, but with a wave of his hand and a smile. Dorothy Fuldheim, Cleveland’s most acclaimed television personality, read the formal narrative for those present and the television audience.
Mark found Fuldheim’s voice commanding. Paula probably didn’t hear her. She glanced at Mark, then at Christoph, and her eyes sparkled like fireworks.
Bach and Mozart wrote crystal-like pieces. One mistake could shatter an otherwise grand performance. Mark vowed not to make a mistake and forgot about everything but Paula. His emotions mingled with hers. He focused his eyes on her and let the music flow, as Bach’s Double Violin Concerto resounded through the venue.
Time flew by as Mark absorbed himself in the moment. When he realized the music had wound to its finale, he looked for Paula’s lead. She turned and focused on Szell seated in the fifth row center and Mark followed. They hit the B flat trill fully facing Szell, struck the final notes, and bowed.
At first the silence seemed eerie. Then an enthusiastic ovation filled the air, like the sound of a thundering Niagara Falls. Paula and Mark accepted the admiration of the crowd and the curtain fell for intermission. As Mark followed Paula offstage, Dorothy Fuldheim addressed the audience. “How wonderful it is to hear such beautiful music performed by ones so young.”
“Good job both of you,” Christoph said offstage. He grinned at Paula, “Your idea for the ending? Brilliant!”
As Christoph dashed off encouraging others, Mark bent, gasping for breath, blown away by their accomplishment. Tears ran down Paula’s cheeks, and he put his arms around her.
“I’m not that good,” Mark whispered in her ear. “That was amazing. And I owe it all to you.”
“We have five minutes.” Paula’s face morphed from teary-eyed to seductive in seconds. “Hold me. Tell me you love me. We sang out there, because we’re meant to be together.”
Orchestra members came by to congratulate them. Then Christoph rushed up again signaling the end of the intermission. “It’s time for the Mendelssohn.”
Paula broke away from Mark’s grasp and headed for the stage, as if she’d been out on a smoke break. As Mark turned to follow, Christoph clasped his shoulder. “Enjoy these feelings now. What just happened may never happen for you again.”
Softness showed in his mentor’s chiseled face. “You absorbed each other with your eyes. She played better than I’ve ever heard her play. You responded by exceeding your reach. That performance soared. It happens once in a lifetime.”
Mark returned to the stage and took his seat. He shook off the gentle blow to his ego in favor of the meaning behind it. Paula loved him, and even Christoph could see it. Enjoy the moment? Yes, he would.
As Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony found its rebirth on the stage of the Masonic Hall, Mark visualized the cliffs of Scotland and waves beating against shards of rock. A heartbeat inside the orchestra. The conductor, performers, and a composer long since dead became one living being. New life poured out into waves of music, a pulsing organism of humanity and sound, like God weaving the tapestry of creation. Mark almost forgot Paula sat next to him, even though he mindlessly turned pages for her.
The complete performance lasted ninety minutes, including a short intermission for recognition of public and private sponsors of the arts. When the curtain came down, Christoph held the orchestra in place. The curtain rose once more to a tumultuous roar of approval. In front of the orchestra stood George Szell, Music Director of the Cleveland Symphony. Mark fidgeted in his chair. Rumors abounded that Szell meted out a brutal critique and expected perfection.
Szell’s smile eased Mark’s fear. He congratulated them all and turned to Paula. “Bravo young lady, after graduation you have a job if you want it.” Then he whispered, “Stay with your teacher, Neil Clements. Hone your skills. You display a unique talent.”
He rushed off acknowledging the cheers of the audience, and Mark swelled with pride for his Paula. The orchestra remained seated until the curtain fell a second time. After cheers and giggles, orchestra members exited. Paula pulled Mark close and kissed him. “I love you, only you, all my life.”
Mark caught a glimpse of an approaching figure. Then the steely eyes of Paula’s father glared at him from behind Paula’s left shoulder. Barry Casey touched her arm, and she jerked backward.
“Time to go.” His voice sounded soft, but his body loomed stiff and taut. Paula shriveled and looked down. With a swift move of his arm, Barry wheeled her around, and they walked off without another word.
Mark wanted to say, “I’m in love with your daughter.”
But he said nothing.
Paula looked back for an instant, but Barry stepped into her view. He stared at Mark with a cold, hateful look that froze Mark’s soul.
Mark didn’t move, not until they were completely out of sight. Her eyes revealed terror, and something else he couldn’t identify. The scene sickened him. Barry Casey was his enemy, and he feared all the more for Paula. What had her father seen? Enough! What had he heard?
I love you, only you, all my life.
The following day, Mark jogged from West High to James Ford Rhodes where Paula went to school. She froze midway down the main entrance stairs as Mark approached. She clenched her fists. “He should have never seen us kiss. I was stupid.”
A horn beeped behind Mark and he flinched.
“I can’t fight him. My father rules my life.” Paula hurried past him and jumped into an old rusted Ford truck.
“I’ll find a way to see you,” he called to her.
As the truck pulled away, he bent to get a glimpse of the driver, a gruff guy, who looked like a Hell’s Angels biker and drove like one. The truck disappeared around the next corner with a squeal and a puff of yellow-gray smoke—definitely not Barry Casey.
Mark raced back to West High, dodging people and traffic, trying to relieve his frustration and anger. He entered the locker room to find a note from the office taped to his locker.
Mark, Paula’s changed her practice time and requested to work only on solo pieces. So we’ll select a concerto for your senior contest. I’m thinking Mozart’s 4th.
She changed her practice time?
A nauseating knot formed in his stomach. First his mom was hospitalized. Then his dad stopped coming around. Now Paula abandoned him. Mark flushed and headed home. He called, but Paula didn’t answer. Forsaken by the people he loved, Mark dialed his father’s precinct number. In a rare moment, John Schroder picked up. Mark explained the situation.
John scoffed. “Why did you call me? I don’t understand women. I’m a better policeman than I am a counselor.”
You bastard. Mark couldn’t reach through the phone and hit him.
“Look in the center drawer of your mom’s dresser,” John said. “You’ll find a bankbook to a savings account at Society National Bank. There’s a total of eighteen thousand dollars in it, and it’s in your name.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“I’ve done my job. I’ll stop by a couple of times a week, but don’t expect to see me often. I’ll give you one piece of advice.” His voice sounded strangely distant. “Next to the bankbook you’ll find two condoms. Don’t waste the money I’ve saved by getting some girl pregnant.”
“Screw you,” Mark shouted, as John hung up.
Fine. If he never saw John Schroder again, what would it matter?
Darkness fell. He hadn’t eaten. The thought of food made him gag. He hurt for Paula. That domineering father of hers, pushing her to achieve perfection every waking moment. Mark couldn’t help her. He couldn’t help his mother or himself.
Mark willed the tears from forming. Crying indicated weakness. Go to college. Succeed. “I won’t rely on anyone but myself. Ever.”
He wondered if God knew he was alone. Would God help him? He wanted to believe He would. Time after time, he’d read where Jesus said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
“Are you there?”
The words resounded in an empty house.
Mark showed up at Saint Wendelin’s early Saturday afternoon for confession. The Ladies Slovak Union held their quarterly meeting. Father Tom would be busy later. How much sinning could those little ladies have done? Yet they lined up at the confessional by three p.m. and kept Father busy until after five o’clock.
The church smelled old and musty, like half-rotten potatoes. Mark’s footsteps echoed like a B-movie horror film’s sound track. He entered the confessional and crossed himself. “Bless me Father for I have sinned. My last confession was a week ago.”
Behind the veiled curtain, Father’s mellow voice brought peace and recognition. “A blessing to you, Mark, my boy. What do you have to tell God?”
“I saw her breasts.” Mark gulped. “She pulled down the front of her dress, and I took a good look.”
“Her father refuses to let me see her, and I’m mad at him.” Mark swallowed. “I’ve done nothing to the man, but he hates me. That’s all.”
Father Thomas Kelly’s shoes scuffed the floor. “Was it you who asked to look?”
“No Father. Once I saw them, I didn’t turn away.”
Father chuckled. “I suppose not. When do you need to be at school Monday?”
“Eight-thirty. Any later and I’m in trouble.”
“Say three Our Fathers and a Hail Mary. Join me for breakfast after the six-thirty Mass. You are scheduled, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Father. I will Father.”
“Have you heard from Oberlin yet?” Father had helped him apply.
Mark breathed a little easier on his jog home. He wondered about Monday’s breakfast. Mark feared confession wasn’t over.
After Monday’s six-thirty Mass, Mark helped Father Tom setup for the nine-thirty. Then the two walked over to the rectory. Father Tom’s living quarters were sparse but comfortable. Maggie, his cook, prepared a delightful omelet and pancake breakfast. Mark usually ate Cheerios and toast, so this feast sparked his appetite.
“How’s your father? I don’t see him at Mass.”
“He only stops in to check the house twice a week.” Mark poured thick maple syrup on his pancakes. “He’s reduced communications to an occasional note.”
Father frowned. “So you’re alone?”
“Most of the time. He stays long enough to keep his presence known in the neighborhood and pay the bills.”
“Like I said, you’re alone.” Father clicked his orange juice glass against Mark’s. “I’ll be stopping by lad, a couple of times a week. Just to talk mind you. I’ll not be checking-up on you.”
A broad smile crossed Father Tom’s face. Mark reached out and grasped Father’s hand. “What did I do wrong? I mean, I have friends, my cousins, my friends at school, but Paula and my parents are gone. I think I’ve pissed off God.”
“You did nothing wrong. Except for saying pissed off.” The priest looked down and breathed out a whoosh of air. “Pardon my Irish, lad. But your damn father’s a loser and your mother’s ill, poor woman. Your father’s at fault when it comes to your family, not you. Don’t repeat those words we said, or I’ll have you painting the rectory next spring.”
His finger wagged and they both laughed.
Maggie stuck her head through the doorway. “I can’t leave you alone for an instant, Father. There you go telling those silly jokes. You don’t have to listen to them, Mark.”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Novotny. If I laugh he goes easy on me in the confessional.”
Once alone, Father furrowed his brow. “I’m concerned about Paula. Her father seems too controlling. The girl needs a life outside of music.”
“I’ll pray for her daily.” Father Tom pointed at the clock. Mark grabbed his school bag and followed Father to his car. “It’s not normal for a sixteen-year-old girl to act the way she did. Let me know if you observe anything else.”
He drives like a nun, Mark thought.
“Teenage girls fall in love, get pregnant, and end up with a baby in their arms, and a kid as its father. No offense.”
“Are we having a Father to son talk?”
“Aye, we are, my boy.”
“Then answer a question for me.”
“Why did you become a priest? Every woman under thirty sins in her heart when she looks at you and all that curly red hair.”
“I gave up a personal life for a higher calling. Helping people like you.”
“Don’t you ever think about sex?”
“Sure, everyone does. But I took a vow, and I won’t break it.”
“I think about sex with Paula. I know she loves me. What can I do?”
Father pulled into Mark’s high school parking lot. “Look at the morning sun. You’ve got as bright a future. You can’t fight Paula’s father. So go on with life, and if she’s meant for you, God will work things out.”
“Once when I was four, I lay out in my backyard and looked up at the sky. I sensed God hovering over me behind the clouds. He was smiling at me. I don’t understand God. I believed He loves me. But what good is that without Paula?”
“God’s love is everything,” Father said. “And you have a healthy memory. But you need to be a normal teenager, Paula or no Paula. Sex before marriage is wrong. God made that rule so people don’t hurt each other.”
“Like my parents?”
“Like your parents. Make good choices. Dating girls will bring a spark to your life, and they can be fun without the sex.”