The Deposition Of Brother James

Fiction
Nicholas Finch


Photo Credit: John Baker/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Christopher walked the nearest aisle towards a wall of windows that overlooked a patch of flat, manicured grass that ended on its far side at three docks and a brackish lake. Along the window were a few tables, armchairs and lime green La-Z-Boy beanbags. There was an older man in black slacks and a navy-blue Saint Leo polo sitting in a beanbag. Christopher, in his cobalt blue suit and black pinstripe tie, felt overdressed—cartoonish. In his defense, it was dark when he dressed this morning and it wasn’t his suit. It belonged to the husband of the woman he was having an affair with. That’s where he’d just come from.

“Ah, you must be Mr. Szmyt,” the older man said with a hand in the air.

Christopher didn’t think he’d be able to get up as easily as he did.

“Hi. Good morning, Brother James,” said Christopher.

“A pleasure to meet you,” said Brother James. They shook hands and Brother James placed his free hand on Christopher’s outstretched forearm and squeezed. It felt as though there were marbles wedged behind the lawyer’s eyeballs. He needed something to fix his hangover, desperately. Christopher could work depositions tipsy, sometimes a little more, but hungover he found concentrating difficult. Also, in this state, his patience was brittle.

“No Mr. Rifino? Yesterday he said he was coming back with you today?”

“Unfortunately, he was called out to Ocala. But thanks for meeting with me, Brother,” said Christopher.

The monk smiled, “Not to worry. Let’s go upstairs. It’s quieter, more secluded. I’m glad you’re here, I’ve been looking forward to your company. We’re a bit partitioned off in the abbey. The company is good for me. These excursions are good for me.” Brother James glanced back out of the windowed wall. A few students—three girls and one guy—strolled across the green towards the lake, notebooks and towels perched beneath their armpits, iPhones in hand. The boy had a pen or vaporizer in his mouth; it was too far to be certain.

In front of the elevators there was a white-clothed table with a standard Keurig machine, an assortment of Keurig cups, sugars, Styrofoam cups, biodegradable stirrers and an empty Heinz can with a Post-it note attached—$.25! written on it. Brother James said, “You don’t have to pay. It’s really a donation.”

“I’ll be all right,” said Christopher.

Brother James led them to their table. Christopher was directed to sit first. “Are you of faith, Mr. Szmyt?” The monk sat across from him. There was a window like the one downstairs on the far side of the room. The light from it shone through the aisles, reaching them in thin strips and divided the table into three even portions.

“Actually,” said Christopher, “I was raised Catholic. I went to TC. We had Msgr. Michael back then. Do you know him?”

Brother James squinted, the meat of his cheeks clumping beneath his eye sockets. “Can’t say I do,” he said, his face falling back into place once sure he didn’t know the name. “But that must’ve been long ago. I wasn’t consecrated as a brother yet.”

“Of course,” said the lawyer.

“I was a CPA then,” said the monk.

“I know. I read that in Mr. Rifino’s notes.”

“Mr. Rifino is a lovely man,” said Brother James. “We ended up talking a great deal yesterday.”

Christopher hated this. This would be shorter compared to Derek’s meeting. He would ask the simplest questions. He would say goodbye and then swing by the Abbey for a coffee and soda water to flush everything heavy out of his skull. Once arriving home, he would sleep for a good couple of hours. If he woke before his wife came home and he didn’t feel groggy, he’d masturbate, conjuring up images of Mrs. Rifino from the night before, from the early morning—the slight bulge of her calves as she led him through her marital home, the bend of her hip bones—remembering what her hands did to the back of his arms during, what she tasted like—the way she kissed the back of his neck right before he left this morning.

“Mr. Rifino is a cool dude, yeah,” said Christopher. “Should we get started?”

“Raised Catholic and of faith are not mutually exclusive,” said Brother James.

“I’m not an atheist. And I can’t say I’m agnostic.”

“So you are.”

“When something bad happens, the Lord’s Prayer slips out. When my daughter was first born I was saying the Hail Mary over her bassinet.” Neither of these were true; these were things Mrs. Szmyt did, not Christopher. “But I don’t go to church. I don’t say I’m religious.” Both of those were true.

“Well, would you mind terribly if we begin with a prayer and end with one as well?” asked Brother James.

“Oh, no. Of course, we can. Sure.”

“Good. Good,” said the monk. Whilst making the sign of the cross, Brother James said, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Christopher also crossed himself, careful not to confuse the sides of the Holy Spirit.

With his eyes closed, head bowed, and hands clasped together, Brother James went on, “Heavenly Father, we come to you today seeking your guidance, wisdom, truth and support. Help us to engage in meaningful discussion; allow us to grow closer as a group and nurture the bonds of community. Fill us with your Grace, Lord God, as we make decisions that might affect students, staff, faculty, alumni, our humble abbey and friends of Saint Leo University. And continue to remind us that all we do here today, all that we accomplish, is for the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of You, and for the service of humanity. And please help our dear Christopher Szmyt, baptized in your light, humbled in your glory, on all his endeavors, as difficult as they may be. We ask these things in your name, Amen.”

The room was warm, stagnant.

Christopher pulled out a small camel-colored Leuchtturm notebook and pen from his pocket followed by his cell phone. “Do you mind if I record us talking?” asked Christopher, holding his phone up between them.

“No, of course not,” said Brother.

Christopher placed his iPhone face-up on his side of the table with the speakers facing the monk. A bead of sweat bloomed on Christopher’s nose which he wiped away with the back of his hand.

“Though, would you mind that we repeat our prayer,” said Brother James. “I think the records ought to show we did it.”

“All right, yeah.”

And so, they did.

“So, could you tell me what you do here at Saint Leo?” asked Christopher, deepening his voice. It was the voice he answered the phone with.

“I’m a brother here at the abbey. The Ignatius Order. And I also do a bit of accounting.”

“How did you get started doing the books for them?”

“I was a CPA. Before my wife died.”

“When did you become a brother exactly?”

“I was consecrated in 1994.”

Christopher’s shirt began sticking to the armpits.

“Brother James, is there anything you miss about things before becoming a monk?”

“My wife, sometimes,” Brother James laughed before falling back into a pensive seriousness. “There’s a lot of spare time in the secular life. Lots of time to waste. When I am feeling low, rotten, I think about all my past idleness and I don’t necessarily miss it, but there is a melancholy. Prayer fills me and my empty minutes. But when I’m too tired to pray, or too hungry, the abbey is an awfully lonely place. Days can pass and no one talks. And we’re segregated, truly, from the rest of the campus. We’re on it but separate somehow. As though one population might infect the other. You know what—what I miss most? Going places. To and from. Being a part of the bustle.”

“Well, this is a college campus. There’s a lot of students around.”

“Of course. But I’m not a part of that. Again, separate somehow. TV, too. That was a good thing I now miss.”

“You can’t watch TV?” asked Christopher.

“Of course, you can. Brother Zachary has the NBA season pass. Loves the Pistons. He has a Ben Wallace tattoo—remnants from his secular life.”

“Do you have any, uh, remnants?”

“Probably. Likely so.”

The iPhone vibrated. Both men looked. The number wasn’t programmed—an 813. I can’t believe it but… Christopher didn’t let himself read the rest and quickly flipped the phone over.

“Sorry, Brother James. I should’ve turned it on airplane. What does an average day of yours look like?” asked Christopher. “What do you do all day?”

“Pray, mostly. I’d like to pray more. Do you pray with your family?” asked Brother James.

“I’d like to do it more, too,” the lawyer said. “What do you pray about? Is that appropriate to ask?”

The monk laughed. “Oh, well, what a question. I pray for all matter of things. Generally, I ask that my prayers are used and divided in God’s wisdom. But, specifically, recently at least, I’ve been praying for the Church, Pope Francis. I’ve often prayed for that Sara Waldbauer girl and her family. And I’ve been praying for you, Mr. Szmyt.”

“For me? Sorry. What about me?”

“Beforehand it was inadvertent—a part of the unknowable masses that needed prayer when they needed it—but after yesterday, after meeting with Mr. Rifino, I’ve been praying for you.”

“What did—never mind. Never mind. What about Ms. Waldbauer. You said you’d been praying for Ms. Waldbauer and the Waldbauer family?”

“Safe passage to heaven. Their well-being. Horrible things do horrible things to the soul.”

“Brother James, could you describe the event? What happened to Sarah Waldbauer on April 2nd?

“Dear, Mr. Szmyt, you’re sweating profusely,” said Brother James, his brows furrowed. “Are you okay?”

“It’s kind of my thing,” said Christopher. “Sweating. Florida kills me.”

“I didn’t register what’d happened. Not immediately,” said Brother James.

“Pardon?”

“The girl. The accident. She was crossing Lee Road and then she was just gone. There must’ve been a sound, but I didn’t hear it. I don’t hear things if I’m concentrating.”

“Do you know why she was crossing?” asked Christopher. An image of Mrs. Rifino’s lower-back—the dimples there, his fingertips gingerly circumventing the right one—struck the lawyer.

“I’m fairly confident to get to the Abbey. The bar on the golf course.”

“Was she on the crosswalk?”

“No one ever uses that crosswalk. It’s, tragically, thirty meters too far from the gate exiting the school.”

“You said you didn’t register everything that was happening, but what, if anything, did you register, Brother?” asked the lawyer. The iPhone vibrated, again, then again. The buzzing made it turn a few degrees clockwise.

“If it’s important,” said the monk, “you can answer.”

“No—it’s nothing.”

“Is it your wife?”

“No.”

“Is it Mr. Rifino? I can’t remember all I told him. I wish I did, then I’d give it to you the exact same way, but we spoke about a great number of things.” Brother James leaned back in his chair, crossing his left leg over his right. The uppers of his shoes were pristine, but the wooden sole of his left shoe was blue in parts but otherwise badly worn through.

“According the notes from your meeting with Mr. Rifino, you didn’t see the car coming, correct?” asked Christopher.

“It was a truck, actually,” said Brother James. “And no—not beforehand. I just saw her bounce off the road shoulder first, then land again on her front. Her shorts and bathing suit were badly torn. It was tough to tell where the damage began. The car—the truck skidded to a pause. It was cobalt.”

“Cobalt?” asked Christopher.

“It’s a type of blue.”

“How long was the truck there on scene?” asked the lawyer.

“Seconds,” said the monk. “It was gone by the time I reached her.”

“You don’t remember the plate, do you?”

“No, but one of the girls she was with memorized a part of it.”

“How close were you to the road?” asked Christopher. “When Ms. Waldbauer was stuck?” He’d meant to say struck. He was so tired letters were slipping away.

“Well, I was close.”

“How close?” asked Christopher.

“I don’t see the point of the question.”

“It’s just you said the vehicle was there for a few seconds before leaving but that you were on the road before it fled. I’m trying to work out where you were in proximity to the crash.” The phone went off, once again.

“Mr. Szmyt,” said the monk, “someone is desperately trying to get ahold of you.”

“Why were you on the side of Lee? Why were you leaving campus? Were you about to cross, too?”

The phone, again.

“Fuck. Shit—I’m sorry, Brother. I’m sorry to curse. I’m putting it on airplane,” said Christopher, reaching for his phone.

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

“Pardon?” said Christopher. “What did you say?”

“Is it Mr. Rifino?” asked the monk, smiling.

“Actually,” said Christopher, “it is. Would you mind if I stepped downstairs to answer this? Maybe grab a coffee, too.”

“Of course not,” said the monk, “you’re the one in charge.”

Christopher walked briskly to the elevator. Once inside and fully out of the monk’s line of sight, he read the messages.

813-222-1824 8:40 a.m. — I can’t believe it but you’re STILL dripping out of me.

Joel Rifino 8:42 a.m. — After Brother James Depo give me a call to recap.

Joel Rifino 8:42 a.m. — He’s a talker. Sit tight.

813-222-1824 8:46 a.m. — And there’s no way you gave me a full 20 min this morning. I’m calling in my final 5. Stop by after deposition? Joel isn’t home until early evening at worst.

The lawyer retreated into the first-floor bathroom and pissed. There was a penny-sized bullseye in the deepest part of the urinal; he aimed at it. His piss was honey-colored. After running a couple paper towels under the faucet, Christopher wiped his forehead, then folded the wet wad in half and repeatedly ran it down his nose. He plucked another paper towel and dried his face. His eyes looked just as heavy, but at least he’d be less greasy.

He left the restroom whilst rereading the messages, weighing in his mind how his life could implode.

He called his wife; it went to voicemail. Standing at the coffee table, he glanced around to be certain no one was looking. There were only Dunkin’ Donuts hazelnut blend cups for the Keurig. He popped one in. Christopher dialed his wife’s office number. Her secretary picked up and he left a message.

The miserable little coffee was ready. Christopher was glad Claire was in a meeting, it was a sign of normalcy, and that’s precisely what he needed—to see if his life remained at its line of equilibrium. Nothing was disturbed, yet.

The lawyer added a thimble of powdered creamer and a lump of sugar. There were no stirrers. The table had been devoured. He used his pen as a stirrer and licked it clean afterwards.

The voice recorder app was still running in the background of his phone—still recording. Christopher stopped the recording and rewound, fumbling through a few minutes before finding the exact snippet:

“Were you about to cross, too?”

“Fuck. Shit—I’m sorry, Brother. I’m sorry to curse. I’m putting it on airplane.”

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

“Pardon? What did you say?”

“Is it Mr. Rifino?”

“Actually, it is. Would you mind if I stepped downstairs to answer this? Maybe grab a coffee, too.”

“Of course not, you’re the one in charge.”

The lawyer rewound, again:

“Is it Mrs. Rifino?”

Christopher took the elevator back upstairs. The monk was gone from their sitting place.

Brother James stood at the floor’s windowed wall, his hands in his pockets. His left hand jingled something metal: keys, perhaps. There were a few dirty grey clouds loitering in an otherwise immaculately blue sky. The students from earlier that’d been crossing the green field were now splayed out on beach towels on one of the middle docks. One of the girls was face down, the back of her bathing suit undone. Her bare back was remarkably pale in comparison to the deep, lush golden browns of her fellow sunning peers. Christopher imagined Claire’s bare back, then Mrs. Rifino’s.

“Brother James,” said Christopher.

The monk did not look away from the window, the students.

“Hey, excuse me, Brother,” the lawyer said, putting his fingertips against the monk’s shoulder.

Startled, Brother James jumped ever so slightly. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. Shall we go back and continue.”

“I shouldn’t do this,” said Christopher. “This is totally off the record, but can I ask you what you and Mr. Rifino said about me? Why did you pray for me?”

Brother James turned and faced Christopher fully. The monk took in a sharp breath and exhaled a larger, more exaggerated one. “Mr. Szmyt, Mr Rifino thinks you are sleeping with his wife.”

“Jesus,” said Christopher. “What? How—what did he say about it? Why does he think that?”

“It’s mostly intuition grounded in small inconsistencies, suspicions, comments.”

“Sounds more like paranoia,” said Christopher. “What inconsistencies? Specifically.”

“Well, his wife travels alone, a lot. Weekends away in places not too far from home. And, sometimes, there’ve been coincidences in which you stay in a hotel the night before meetings or trials. It just toils in his mind.”

Mrs. Rifino traveling alone was something she always did. It watered her, she claimed, it kept her going. It was something Christopher admired. She nourished herself—not by a career, or husband, or children, but by indulging in herself. He loved that.

“How did this even come up with him?” asked Christopher.

“In allusions, then forthright. Mr. Rifino asked a lot about my wife, that half of my life, and, in turn, I asked about his.”

“Well, I’m not. I’m not.”

“Aren’t you?” Brother James asked.

“No. Let’s go back and finish this. I’ve taken up too much of your time.”

“Don’t be upset,” said Brother James. “It wasn’t my intention to upset you. I say things I shouldn’t. You haven’t taken up any time at all. This is important.”

“You need to get back to prayer, Brother,” said Christopher. “Prayers about me.”

“Yes, I certainly will. But you aren’t eating into that.”

The lawyer led the monk back to their table. Christopher put his coffee down, turned his phone on airplane mode and began recording. Brother James crossed his legs, once again, but a little more tightly to where the back of his knee crossed over and the remainder of his left leg hung loosely.

“Do you play golf?” asked the lawyer.

“Not anymore.”

“Do you ever go to the Abbey—the bar next to campus?”

“Never.”

“Could you give me a breakdown of your entire day on April 2nd? A play-by-play from the moment you woke until you went to bed?”

Brother James waited a few seconds before speaking, “I started with the rosary and—”

“Sorry,” said Christopher. “This is going to be crass, but do you do the rosary naked, Brother?”

“No,” said Brother James, “I did not do the rosary without clothes. I dressed first.”

“No shower? No teeth brushing?”

“No.”

“What did you put on?”

“A habit.”

“All right, continue please. Habit, rosary,” said Christopher. “What else?”

“I consecrated myself to Mary.”

“More prayer, okay. And after that?”

“More prayer,” said Brother James.

“In Aramaic?” asked Christopher.

“And English, and Latin.”

“Good for you.”

“Is there a problem, Mr. Szmyt?”

“No breakfast?”

“I fast for the first half of every day.”

“Fine. Go on, please. No more interruptions, Brother.”

“I have a small office for my accounting work at the abbey. I went there and delved in for a few hours. In need of a break, I left and walked to the ROTC building and watched them perform afternoon drill. I love their meticulous attention to detail. After that, well, I pottered about campus. It was hot, so I took advantage of the library. I was in the library for a while. I combed through a few America articles. Then—”

“Okay, I’m interrupting—sorry. Where do they keep America here? Which floor, which aisle?” asked Christopher.

“This floor. Ninth aisle. At the end there they have a few theological periodicals,” said Brother James who pointed out the ninth aisle. Christopher stood and walked over and down the aisle. The America magazine and other religious periodicals were at the very end of the aisle right next to the windowed wall. The students were still sunning themselves. The pale girl’s top was back on and now she sunned on her back. She was the only one not doing anything but laying there. The others were either on their phones or reading.

“Brother,” said Christopher loudly for the monk to hear him from where he was. “Did you go to the road after the library? Was that your next stop?”

“It ended up being so, yes.”

“Did you follow Sarah Waldbauer there from the library?”

Brother James did not respond.

Christopher walked back over and asked again, “Did you follow Ms. Waldbauer to the road?”

“Yes.”

“Did she appear to be intoxicated?”

“Not especially,” said Brother James.

“Did you see her drink?”

“Yes, though, I couldn’t be sure what it was.”

“Where? When?”

“At the dock. She was sunbathing and took sips from a silver water bottle. I’m not sure if there was anything.”

“What was she wearing?” asked the lawyer.

“Jean shorts and a black bathing suit top. Flimsy, plastic sandals.”

“What were you wearing, Brother?”

“I’ve already said. A habit.”

“The police report has a list of witnesses and descriptions of them. You’re in here—James Phinehas. But not in a habit. Khakis and a polo—no habit.”

“So? Why does that matter?”

“Why were you following Sarah? You don’t play golf. You aren’t a regular at the Abbey, are you? Why were you at the road?”

“I was just walking,” said Brother James, uncrossing his legs, planting his left foot onto the ground firmly and leaning over, elbows to his knees, hands braced together. “I walk to get away. To be a little free sometimes. It doesn’t matter. A girl died and I saw it. And I saw someone leave her dead and I just want to make sure there is justice—that something is done.”

“So do I,” said Christopher. “We all want that. But, as of right now, your testimony doesn’t hold up. There are too many inconsistencies. You’re a liability. Too many questions to ask.”

“Like what? What questions? What inconsistencies?” asked Brother James.

“You misidentified the vehicle. You were following the girl from the library after spying—”

“I was not spying.”

“You weren’t even sure what you were wearing.”

“I don’t like wearing the habit around campus. It makes me unapproachable.”

“We can end here, Brother. Next week the three of us—Mr. Rifino included—will get back together, but I think it’s best we end now.” Christopher stopped the recording app and swigged the dregs of his coffee. “I appreciate your time, Brother.”

“Let me ask you something, Mr. Szmyt.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you love your wife?” asked the monk.

“Yes. She’s everything to me. She should’ve been a fifties film star—truly. We got married at the Isabella Gardner’s Museum. She stepped out and could’ve been Grace Kelly. She’s amazing.”

“What does she do? For work, I mean.”

“She’s VP of Sharpens Title. She does well.”

“And you two have kids?”

“We do,” said Christopher.

“Sounds like a pristine life. Picturesque.” Brother James closed one eye, made a rectangle with his hands by putting his thumbs against his opposite index fingers and stared through it like a camera.

“It is.”

Then Brother James’ hands dropped to his lap. “Then why are you sleeping with Mr. Rifino’s wife?”

“What?”

“Are you dissatisfied in marriage? Is she dissatisfied with you? Does she want more than what you can offer? Is she not to your liking?”

“This is too far. I’m off.” Christopher stood up from the table, pocketed his phone and notebook.

“Matrimony is sacred. It mirrors the covenant with God.”

“I don’t need you to save me. You know nothing. You know fuck all.”

“I was married. Remember,” said Brother James.

“And now you are a monk. And you’re jealous of me because I’m not glued to some shithole in the middle of bumfuck.”

“Precisely. Bravo.” Brother James offer a small golf clap.

Christopher flicked the lip of his Styrofoam cup—it flipped a few times across the table until coming to rest on its side. “You wouldn’t mind taking that when you leave. I’m sure you’ll be here for a little bit,” said Christopher, pointing towards the window on the other side of the room. “They’re probably still there. Not to worry.” He began to leave.

“What about prayer?” asked Brother James. “We agreed to end on prayer.”

Christopher didn’t turn back. “Pray for me, please. Thank you.”

“I will. For your fidelity. For your wife.”

“Fuck bag,” he said sternly still facing forwards. The elevator doors opened.

“There’s lipstick on the back of your collar,” said Brother James.

Christopher stepped inside the elevator. He licked his forefingers and ran them along the back of his collar. He believed the monk, but nothing came off.

Brother James did stay behind, and he did pray. He started by invoking Mary, then moved to a prayer of fidelity and ended on the Our Father. He moved to the window and watched for a while, but soon made the trip back to the abbey.

pencil

Nicholas Finch was raised between England and South Africa before moving to Florida. After serving as the assistant editor of Neon Literary Journal, he attended University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and Saint Leo University. He has pieces published or forthcoming in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Molotov Cocktail, Avis Magazine, Fields, The Florida Review and elsewhere. He now calls St. Petersburg, FL, home, where he teaches English and cohosts The 73. Email: finchandcrown[at]gmail.com

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