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The Natural Order of Things by Kevin P. Keating 

Kevin P. Keating is an adjunct professor at Baldwin-Wallace. His fiction and essays have appeared all over the literary map. His debut novel, The Natural Order of Things was a finalist for the L.A. Times Art Seidenbaum First Fiction Award. It's comprised of 15 interconnected stories in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio or John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven. The novel con cerns the adventures and exploits of a small group of students, teachers, employees, and priests at a Jesuit prep school in a dying industrial city. No surprise that Keating himself is a St. Ignatius High School alum. The Natural Order of Things will be published by Vintage in April, 2014. This is its opening.

For more than one hundred years, the Jesuit school has been regarded by its students, administrators, and staff as a beacon of uncompromising moral standards, an important symbol of Catholic piety located at the center of a labyrinth of winding boulevards, blind alleys, and crumbling brick lanes; streets that seem to twist and turn and double back on themselves so that even the slavering packs of stray dogs, the most intuitive of cartographers, have great difficulty navigating the chaos of slate sidewalks as they scrounge for rancid gobbets before vanishing like ghosts into the dripping cellars of abandoned houses; a once picturesque quarter of the city now overrun by liquor stores, empty factories, and a small cheerless café that has garnered notoriety as a literary demimonde where uninspired poets squabble with the barista over the price of a cup of coffee; "the old neighborhood" as it is sometimes called—old because the Gilded Age mansions and Depression Era brownstones are in advanced stages of decay; the rooftops leaking, the foundations sinking imperceptibly into sandy soil, the copper pipes waiting to be harvested from the plaster walls and sold for scrap; old because no developer has been willing to risk the necessary investment to tear down these decomposing behemoths—the grand movie palace, the marble rotunda of a failed bank, the famous hotel ballroom with its Corinthian columns covered in gangland graffiti—to clear enough land for a sparkling new shopping center, a high dollar bistro, a fashionable boutique, a well-lit parking garage.

Of the city's glorious past, little now remains. The school alone endures as a kind of living artifact; a manifestation, depending on one's perspective, of Milton's Pandemonium or Augustine's City of God. With its immense gothic tower of rough-hewn stone and its anarchy of corridors and antechambers and enormous frescoed galleries, the school has grown into a city within a city, a citadel of secrets, one with obscure and hidden geometries designed to keep the curious away from the ancient and forbidden rites rumored to take place inside. And yet this formidable reputation has never deterred a boisterous battalion of prostitutes from marching up and down the avenue in broad daylight.

The brooding, elderly priests, draped in heavy ecclesiastical attire, glare at the women and shake their heads in stern disapproval. Long lines of submissive students, some bearing candles and rosaries and Missals, slink across the campus to the chapel where the priests stand guard. Desperate to catch a glimpse of an exposed tit, the boys pause outside the chapel doors until they feel the sharp jab of canes and shillelaghs prodding them into that ponderous reservoir of silence where they kneel in the pews and, with their hands clasped in what they hope passes for prayer, pretend to gaze in adoration at the tarnished statue of the martyred saint for whom the school is named.

The whores find these rites so absurd that they perform a little mock ceremony of their own, twirling in the iron gloom like ecstatic dervishes, their voices collecting into thin, muddy puddles of laughter. The boys wonder at this. Certainly the whores have little to laugh about these days. A madman is at large, preying on the homeless as they sleep in alleys and on park benches, disfiguring his victims with the simple tools of his trade—a bottle of lighter fluid, a book of matches. Despite the danger, business remains steady, and since the whores rarely read the papers or watch the nightly news they go about their usual routine without taking additional precautions.

Few bother to solicit business from the high-strung prep school boys, many of whom, the sons of trial lawyers and investment bankers and successful entrepreneurs, have the means to offer these women a safe haven from night-roaming lunatics. Such boys tend to be idealistic; they believe true love really exists in the world and are convinced, or have been convinced by the propagandistic priests, that a girl of rare and exquisite beauty—and one whose fidelity is beyond reproach—will in due course come along and deflower them, but only after a proper wedding ceremony.

A certain boy of unusual daring, William de Vere has risked eternal damnation by visiting a woman who goes by the name Tamar. Every Friday afternoon he meets her at the nearby Stone Town Café where they sit in the same corner booth, far from the big picture window and the mystified stares of passersby, and split a generous slice of cheesecake draped with thin ribbons of milk chocolate. In addition to being well-versed in the art of love, Tamar also happens to be an accomplished raconteur with a thousand stories to tell, some bawdy, some comic, all hopelessly tragic.

Between sips of coffee she tells Will the story of her namesake, the infamous lover of Onan, the patron saint of all randy Catholic schoolboys. Will has heard this story a hundred times before and politely reminds Tamar that the Jesuits are, above all else, experts on the subject of biblical harlotry. Besides, it's not her storytelling skills that he finds so appealing. Unlike the other women who walk the streets, Tamar doesn't try to disguise her features beneath layers of garish makeup. She has large dark eyes like pieces of polished black agate and wild hair that hangs loosely around her shoulders and courses down her back and a prominent mole on her left cheek. These are the things he likes about her. He also appreciates her sense of style—the shiny red boots and purple miniskirt and tremendous hoop earrings. Most of all he likes her lean sinewy body with its dazzling array of bruises and welts and angry scars.

After paying the tab, Will gallantly takes Tamar by the hand and leads her a few short blocks to the Zanzibar Towers and Gardens, a spectacular ten-story flophouse with a cracking limestone façade that rises high above the surrounding hovels like some monstrous, teetering cairn. He rents an apartment there to host weekend parties and practice his bass guitar with the other members of a death metal band he has formed. Naturally, he does this without his parent's permission or knowledge—his father in particular would not approve, not at all—but Will is eighteen now, and there are no laws, at least none with which he is familiar, prohibiting him from having a pad of his own.

Once inside the apartment, the two quickly get undressed and tumble into bed. The uptight prima donnas that Will sometimes dates from an eastside boarding school refuse to do the things he pressures them to do—even an innocent handjob is too much to expect—and he has come to regard Tamar as a kind of secular saint, one who is generous with her body to the point of martyrdom. With an impish grin he reaches beneath the greasy sheets to fondle her breasts, and as he presses his school-boy hard-on against the cryptic emblem branded to her thigh—the letters IHS encircled in sunbeams that look not unlike the daggers Roman soldiers used for their assassinations and suicides—he is suddenly struck by a rare flash of creative insight. He has been suffering from a terrible bout of writer's block and no longer trusts his own ideas, but after giving the matter some thought, he decides to invite Tamar to one of his wild parties with the intention of getting an illustrious classmate laid.

Tamar consents to the plan. She isn't the sort to turn down a job, especially one so close to home. She lives upstairs in a two bedroom flat with her three-year old daughter, a filthy little madhouse littered with cigarette butts and empty bottles of booze, but she never divulges this information. She is only interested in the work and in this boy's unlimited supply of money. Her professional life may be an open book, but her private life is strictly confidential.

Will kisses her on the lips. He can still taste coffee and chocolate at the corners of her mouth. "You're so sweet," he says. Then he climbs on top of her and in a tireless, mechanical frenzy begins pumping away.

II

Residents of this neighborhood once shared a gleeful contempt for the Jesuits, but after a slumber of one hundred years, the reclusive priests started to buy up the crowded shacks and cavernous industrial plants that encircled the school like the deteriorating fortifications of some ghastly dystopian city. The local government, an ineffectual crew of villains mired in corruption, took little interest in halting the widespread unemployment and subsequent foreclosures that, for the past decade, spread through the streets like an epidemic. Only the priests, who controlled the school's massive endowment, possessed the power and political clout to heal the neighborhood and to resurrect it from the grave possibility of further decline.

Most residents accepted the fair market price for their homes and escaped from under the monolithic tenement buildings and the long shadows cast across the glass-strewn lots. Others were less cooperative. A group of aging and sanctimonious bohemians, unsuccessful at its own piddling attempts to gentrify the neighborhood, went before committees of weary aldermen, insisting that a number of structures in this district were important historic landmarks that should be preserved no matter the cost. The Jesuits attended these public hearings. Though outraged by the insolent tone of these peevish urban pioneers, the priests were not overly concerned. The school was blessed to have hundreds of gifted alumni who were partners in prominent law firms, distinguished men who successfully argued high profile cases before juries in courthouses across the country and who, with great aplomb, could decimate any frivolous lawsuit that used, as the basis of its claim, the tired cliché "historic landmark."

After overcoming the obligatory legal hurdles, the attorneys drew up the necessary documents and had them signed in triplicate by judges and county commissioners, most of whom were graduates of the school as well. A few weeks later, as television news reporters and a small number of dejected protesters watched from behind police barricades, a demolition crew arrived with excavators and bulldozers and a wrecking ball that came arcing across the sky like the pendulum of a celestial grandfather clock ready to strike the death knell. No one put up a fight for very long, and the structures were razed without further incident. The conquest of the neighborhood continued until enough space was cleared for a football stadium, a magnificent new temple for the modern man, a holy of holies that glittered in the night and drew riotous spectators who worshiped at this wellspring of myth and legend and who atoned for their own lack of athletic prowess through the purchase of indulgences—pennants and jerseys and overpriced refreshments.

In recent years the school has earned a reputation as a football powerhouse. Consequently, enrollment soars and fundraising doubles. Impressed by the team's success, philanthropists agree to finance other projects—a science lab, an auditorium, a state of the art fitness center. Now there is pressure to win a state championship. Coach Kaliher recruits heavily, makes promises he has no intention of keeping, ridiculous guarantees of fame and fortune. With the possible exception of the players and their hopeful parents, everyone understands the illegality of these practices, but should some misguided individual raise an objection or leak even the most innocuous bit of information to the press, the Jesuits will gladly unleash their attorneys, who will sort things out with characteristic speed and discretion and hound the traitors to the gates of hell as though partaking in a marvelous blood sport.

III

This season the star quarterback is Frank "the Minotaur" McSweeney, a strapping 17-year-old senior whose shaved head and icy stare intimidate friends and enemies alike. At six feet, three inches tall, he strides across campus like an invincible Goliath, eager to rip the head from David's scrawny shoulders and swing it from his fingertips like a lantern. No one can topple him. College scouts phone his house on game day to wish him good luck; on Sunday they call to find out if he has sustained any serious injuries; on holidays they call to make sure he has received the enormous gift baskets of exotic fruit and French cheeses and big tins of creatine. Local sportscasters, mesmerized by his agility and "monster right arm," feature slow motion footage of his 50-yard passes; from high atop the bleachers, thousands of inebriated fans watch him scramble outside the pocket, eluding a phalanx of defensive linemen, to make another incredible play; and in the blustery autumn night, the dreamy-eyed cheerleaders whisper words that have a certain storybook quality to them—Notre Dame, National Football League, lucrative endorsement deals.

Things are going his way, everyone says so, but Frank is starting to have doubts. The team wins its first four games of the season, routing its opponents with ease, but during the fifth game, his offensive line is decimated. The right guard's femur snaps during a routine play. Frank has never heard anyone scream like that before, a highpitched shriek that continues to echo in his mind at unexpected moments and makes him rub his own leg to make sure it is still intact. During the fourth quarter, the left tackle's fingers are horrifically mangled under a cavalcade of bloodthirsty boys in cleats. More screams. Frank is sacked half a dozen times and the team loses by three points. The next game is a total catastrophe. Without an adequate offensive line to protect him against a blitzing defense, Frank is clobbered, his ribs bruised, his nose bloodied. Another tough loss, and now there is a real danger that the team will not make a post-season appearance.

Lately he has trouble sleeping at night and has even lost his appetite for members of the opposite sex. A passing phase, that's all it is; 17-year-old boys are prone to episodes of this kind; it's quite natural, or so his confessors repeatedly assure him. The important thing is not to become distracted. He must concentrate. Tomorrow night is the big game, a rivalry known throughout the city as the Holy War, a must-win situation. The game happens to coincide with the Feast of All Saints, a day of holy obligation for Catholics, an irony not lost on the priests who assure Frank that the faithful will be praying for him. "With God's grace you will lead our team to victory." But before absolving him of his transgressions, the priests advise Frank to say three Our Fathers and a Hail Mary, and though this is not part of their usual prescription for spiritual health, they dole out a handful of black and white pills—the school colors—to help "focus his mind."

On Friday morning the P.A. system snaps on, and the principal's voice, a solemn, disembodied baritone that thunders through the hallways, makes an unexpected announcement: "Men, as you know we face a great challenge tomorrow night, and I would like us all to take a moment to pray for the team and for our quarterback. He is perhaps the most gifted athlete our school has ever produced. In order to set the proper mood for the game, I ask you to keep an all-night vigil. From this moment on, remain absolutely silent. Speak to no one. Save it for the game. At kickoff time I want our opponents to hear you erupt with school spirit. Calm before the storm, gentlemen, calm before the storm. Let us begin our vigil by bowing our heads and saying the words our Lord taught us... Pater noster, qui es in caelis: sanctificetur Nomen Tuum..."

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