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.

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