My Brothers' Keeper

My Brothers' Keeper

One side effect of the priestly vocation is that you measure your life through the accomplishments of others. That is to say, you marry those in love, you baptize those newly born, and you bury those newly dead while being none of them yourself, at least not while you're a priest. This is perhaps doubly true for men like myself, Jesuits and teachers, whose main concerns are young men who appear at age fourteen, grow to age eighteen, then move off into the larger world, leaving you behind to shepherd on another cycle of youths. It seems to me that there is something timeless in the life of a high school teacher.

Because of that timelessness, the instances when you are called to marry, bury, or otherwise partake in the lives of those past age eighteen become particularly special. I remember, for example, the first time I married a former classmate. I hadn't kept up with him after school, but he'd heard that I was a priest and, though he and his bride had moved out to the suburbs, wanted to be married by an old friend under the grand old nave of St. Coleman's. I was new on the job then, and I still felt some envy seeing normal men carry on normal lives, loving spouses and loving children, acting out the lot of regular humanity in the way my vocation prevents me from doing. It made me feel anxious, but also happy. I, who had not only taken up the priesthood but come full circle to teach in the very classrooms where I had once sat as a student, felt glad to partake in the normal progression of life, if only for a few hours.

These events are not always happy, of course. I remember, even more vividly, the first time I had to bury a classmate. It was, I recall, only a year or two after the marriage, and it was not an event casually forgotten once the ceremony was done.

When I first saw it in the paper I barely paid it notice. This was during the time of the violence in Glenville, when any other events were pushed to the back page of the paper. Flicking past all the racial violence and political drama I spotted an article in the Plain Dealer, on the second-to-last page of section one. It said: brooklyn hts man drowned. Business partner under investigation. I glanced over the content, just a few paragraphs in white pulp and black ink: Karl Frederick, age 35, was found dead inside his car, both submerged in the Cuyahoga River near Granger Road. Despite initial indications that it was a suicide or accident, the police were now investigating Gregory Haborak, also age 35, his partner in a small company that sold parts for textile machinery.

I went back to reading about Glenville after that, but the names sounded vaguely familiar. Two days later I got a telephone call from Frederick's widow, who said her late husband had mentioned me as a friend from high school and asked me to perform his funeral.

I'd already learned that I have a wealth of such "friends," barely-remembered boys from decades back who have heard from a friend's friend that one of our class joined the Jesuits. So I was not surprised that I was called on for the ceremony. I was only surprised at myself for my inability to recall anything about Karl Frederick beyond his name.

On the first floor of the school there is a hallway where the walls are lined with photos of graduating seniors from every class, stretching back more than a hundred years. When I go down that hallway I don't like to linger among its ghosts, but that day I went down and sought out our class photo. I scanned the faces, arrayed in easy alphabetical order, until I found the one labeled Karl Frederick. I saw a boy beaming back at me with a cocky smile and unkempt hair. There were many such faces like that, but in a flash I remembered, because his memory was attached to another's, and Maxim's I can never forget.

Frederick and Maxim both had been active in the school theater. Both boys loved to throw themselves onstage, beaming white smiles into white spotlights, ever-thirsty for the attention of the crowd in a way I never was. Frederick, I remembered, had grown up not far from the West Park street where Maxim and I had played since boyhood, though we'd not met him until going to the fancy Jesuit high school halfway across town. He'd been a St. Patrick's boy; Maxim and I went to Our Lady of the Angels every Sunday, less than a mile away. Maxim and Frederick, brought together by geography and chance, more similar in temperament than he and I ever were, had struck up a passing friendship their sophomore year. I recall feeling faintly jealous on the few occasions I was with them. In later years Maxim had drawn in on himself, away from theater and away from Frederick, concentrating on his studies and worrying about the war in Korea that was waiting for us after graduation. I was there for him to fall back on, as always. I think I was glad for that, and soon I forgot all about Karl Frederick. In two days I was to give his eulogy.

My eyes skirted a bit further down the class photo. I spotted another face, clearly marked: Gregory Haborak. I stared harder at this one, the face of a suspected murderer. It was a narrow face, with dark hair cropped short, and a fainter smile. There was something familiar here, too. I tried to picture Haborak and Frederick together, but nothing came. I spent the rest of the day thinking of Haborak, passing down halls and climbing up stairwells I'd known for twenty years, trying to anchor that ghost to familiar geography and failing.

I ended up finding my anchor where I was not expecting it. The next day I paid a short visit to the public library on Fulton and on my way back down the steps I saw a pair of children playing on the green lawn, chasing each other in circles around a park bench, trying to spray each other with water pistols. Their shots arced out, flared brilliantly white in the midday summer sun, and mostly tumbled down into the grass, far from their intended target. I froze on the steps, staring at those two boys and their glowing water-arcs, until they heard a call from their mother and scampered off.

As I walked back to school all the pieces fell into place. The Fourth of July, a long time ago. We'd been invited by Maxim's aunt to a celebration in Lincoln Park (in Tremont, near where the hills roll down into the Cuygahoga's iron-choked Flats and the towers of downtown rise beyond the mile-wide gap carved in the landscape by time and meager water) where sunlight and shade fell alternatively on bright green grass and people filed in and out of the park's white gazebo for food and drink. Maxim and I had brought water pistols and engaged in spats with some neighborhood boys, not caring that we were already in high school and probably too old to be running around the park like hyperactive grade-schoolers. I believe I also may have doused my little sister, and got a scolding for it later.

At some point we were joined by another youth similarly unencumbered by pretensions of maturity: Gregory Haborak, who lived in the neighborhood and who we knew from school (How well? I don't know. I assume he was one of hundreds of faces whose blandness grew familiar as we passed in the halls day after day). I remembered chasing Haborak all around the park, or him chasing me, until I was able to steer him across the street and into Maxim's ambush, in the red-brick alley outside St. Augustine's church, where Maxim's aunt worked at the time and where I give the occasional liturgy a lifetime later. Maybe that's why I remembered Gregory Haborak at all; because every visit to St. Augustine's breathes a little life into ancient memories of a summer when the whole world seemed warm and bright. And that's what I remember about that day, more than anything (certainly more than Haborak's face; after an hour I'd already forgotten that black-and-white photo-print face on the wall). I remember the brightness of it. The vivid green of water-slick grass, the pearly white of arcing water-sprays catching the noon sun, the red-brick alley where Maxim and I sprung our ambush and won our victory.

I found that Haborak was more on my mind as I sat down that night to look over the things Frederick's widow had given me to prepare for the funeral. I learned that Frederick had, like the rest of us, been shipped off to Korea after graduation, then (unlike some of us) come home, worked days in a tool-and-die factory while doing theater in the evening. It was in this way that he'd met his wife, but the double-life grew tiresome and he dropped theater after a few years. Feeling restless, he started his own small manufacturing company at age thirty after taking out substantial loans to buy the property and equipment. He left behind his spouse, four-year-old daughter, parents, two siblings, and many friends, clients, and employees who loved him. I was forbidden from mentioning the circumstances of his death, or Haborak at all.

And that is exactly what I did. I had given a few funerals before, mostly for elderly people I knew through community ministry, and I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that in eulogizing this young man I stole a lot of lines I used for the old ones. I threw in a few bits, mostly true, about our high school days together. I called him an "old friend," and praised his vitality on the stage. His parents cried more than his wife. His little daughter, doll-like in a black dress, was restless during the ceremony. I don't think she understood a thing.

After they laid him in the ground, my job seemed over. My interest wasn't. Two memories, distant and wholly separate, had combined to ambush me after almost twenty years, and I wanted to know more. One other side effect of the priestly vocation is that, barring the occasional Protestant partisan, most people are willing to talk to you about anything so long as it isn't themselves. It also helps that, as had just been demonstrated, I had a lot of old friends, though I had to look through the school's alumni directory to remember they existed. One of them was Ben Campbell at the Press, whose face I could not picture and whose voice sounded foreign over the phone, he but greeted me warmly anyway and was willing to tell me a little bit more about Haborak and Frederick's company. Young and never big, it had been struck by familiar woes that were hitting other manufacturers in the area — increasing costs, lower demand, and the rest. The company's insurance policy included, among other things, a healthy payout for the death of one or both partners.

I found another "old friend," this one was Adam Pilsudki, who I vaguely remembered as a football player, now a police lieutenant. We met downtown for lunch one day, where I implied without saying that I had been counseling Frederick's widow (I thought with more bemusement than guilt that this was particularly Jesuitical of me). Pilsudki told me that the insurance policy had been one big indicator against the initial presumption of accidental death. The bigger one had been that they found Frederick strapped into a car seat pushed too far back for him. Witnesses had come forward placing Frederick and Haborak both at a bar earlier that evening, having a private conversation that, while not outwardly hostile, looked tense. Pilsudki reminded me that I could sit in on the trial when it came up. It would be fall then, and I'd have classes to teach, but I said I would make time, and I did.

The trial of Gregory Haborak ended with a conviction for homicide and a sentence to thirty-five years in prison. I spent every part of it that I could sitting in the back of the courtroom. Unlike some priests I prefer to keep to the Jesuit blacks even when off-duty, as it were. In this case I went in mufti, mostly because I was afraid of Haborak's eyes drifting over to me. It was bad enough on the first day, when a man sat down next to me and talked for five minutes before I figured out he must have been Ben Campbell of the Press.

My old friend Haborak's trial was neither long nor dramatic, though the press got a good run out of it. The bit about the car seat was damning, especially since Haborak was just the right height to reach the pedals that Frederick could not have. The insurance policy was a big strike, too, as were the eyewitness accounts. Haborak's lawyer was young but energetic in his defense, pacing up and down the court room, looking the jury in the eye, and pounding in the fact that all of the evidence was entirely circumstantial. He admitted that Haborak and Frederick were having professional disagreements, and why shouldn't they? Their business was struggling, as business was struggling all over. He left it vague as to whether Fredrick had driven into the river in a state of intoxicated confusion or had done it willingly. He said that what happened was a tragedy, because a family had lost a loving father, husband, and son, and because the city had lost the kind of risk-taking entrepreneur it so needed. He said it would be an even greater tragedy to convict Haborak, because it would mean another loss for a struggling family and a struggling city. He ended his defense rather poignantly, I thought, saying Haborak and Frederick both were victims of market pressures and supply chains and the system of the world that could ruin the lives of two educated, bright, ambitious men. It would do no good to make Haborak a victim of misguided law as well. But of course, poignancy lost to circumstantial evidence.

Haborak never testified at all. I spent most of the trial staring at the back of his head, slightly bowed. His wife sat off to one side, attentive. Once I saw her with a young daughter. She reminded me very much of Frederick's.

I looked into his eyes once, at the very end. After the sentence had been read he was led out of the courtroom. I was standing in the back, where the press was gathered to snap their photos and bottleneck the exit. Haborak kept his head bowed, but once, as he waited for the police to clear the way for his escape, his eyes lifted from the floor and locked onto mine. Twenty years fell away in an instant and I could see his face as it had been, red with exhaustion and wet with water-spray, in a red-brick alley on a hot bright Independence Day. Then his eyes dropped back to the floor, the police escorts pulled alongside him, and he was gone. I don't know if he recognized me at all.

When I went back to the school I found my mind lingering on unanswered questions. Few of these had to do with the case itself. To be honest, if I were on the jury, I would have likely joined them in siding with circumstantial evidence against poignancy. I was thankful not to have been put in that position. Earthly judgment is a perilous responsibility.

No, my thoughts were on other unknowns. I wondered when, how, Frederick and Haborak had come together to join in the enterprise that would end one life and ruin another. I had no recollection of them being friends in high school. They were both West Side boys, but one had grown up on the edge of town, the other along the banks of the Cuyahoga. According to the alumni directory, they had gone to different colleges, and before starting a business together worked at different companies. Perhaps they had been friends in school and I never noticed. I've come to picture them reuniting at some stray social gathering, stumbling upon each other out of a haze of years and, seeing half-remembered faces in each other, latching on to those old memories and attempting to construct something new out of them, at the time congratulating themselves on such a fine coincidence, such good luck.

After coming back from the trial I went into the school and climbed the stairs to my classroom. Classes were over but a few boys were loitering on the third-floor landing, sitting cross-legged on the tile floor, quietly pouring over their textbooks. All of them seemed focused on the looming trials of tomorrow or the next day. What lay one year beyond them was a mystery; twenty years, as inconceivable as the ways in which they might be betrayed by time and each other.

It has now been over forty years since Gregory Haborak went to jail for murder, twice as long as the time separating his sentence and the time when Maxim and I ambushed him with water-pistols on the red-brick alley outside St. Augustine's, on a perfect summer day.

In all those decades I had, frankly, forgotten about Haborak and Frederick. I have said that life as a high school teacher is timeless, but of course that isn't true. Years, students, fellow teachers and priests, all cycled before my eyes, over and over again, while I remained in one place. School buildings have been torn down and built anew. I celebrate mass in a chapel built on the site of what was, in my day, a furniture store. The old hallways where Maxim and I loitered have been gutted and refurbished several times over. I can no longer remember how they looked sixty years ago. And yet, one day, I got a phone call, from the director of a nursing home in Parma. He said that a newly-deceased patient had requested that his old friend perform the funeral. The patient, of course, was Gregory Haborak.

Haborak was released from prison after thirty years after a parole for good behavior. When he went in, his family had loudly proclaimed his innocence and exhausted every appeal. When he got out, his wife had remarried. His daughter had grown up with her new father and half-brothers in Cincinnati, gotten married, and was expecting a child. He exchanged a few letters with his former wife and daughter, but when he asked to meet with them, his requests were politely ignored. His health declined gradually but surely. He spent two years in the nursing home before he died. When I spoke to the director he said Haborak had been a model guest.

To my surprise, a few people attended his funeral. They were all old, friends from the nursing home. Four of my students acted as volunteer pallbearers. The ceremony was held, on Haborak's request, at his boyhood parish of St. Augustine's. It was a fall day: cold, windswept, gray. As I stood on the church steps, watching the pallbearers carry his body into the hearse, the park across the street looked brown and barren, the red-brick surface of the alley at my right jagged and worn.

Still, I could imagine three boys standing there in summer clothes damp with sweat and water-spray, panting for breath, two flushed with victory and one with defeat. Haborak, whose life ended forty years before I finally put him into the ground. Maxim, whose bright flame was extinguished somewhere in the icy waters east of Korea. And, finally, me. Timeless to some, perhaps, but truly anything but: The one who is always there to do duties that normal men living normal lives cannot do for themselves. The one always waiting for old friends to return things that are never lost, not even after sixty years, but instead lie waiting, somewhere in time.

Scott Ondercin is neither a Jesuit nor an octagenarian. This is his first published story.

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