The Life of Raymond Cole
By Ben Nardolilli
Father Krasinski let Mr. and Mrs. Cole into his office. He offered them coffee, but both of them declined. He sat down in a black leather chair which made him appear bigger than he was, since it was the same shade as the cassock he was wearing. The couple took their places across his desk in small wooden chairs that they tried not to look uncomfortable while sitting in. Father Krasinski spoke first in order to preempt any questions they would have.
“I’m afraid that it’s just not possible. I talked with the bishop about your situation and he cannot allow your son to be buried in our cemetery. To be honest, I agreed with the position, but I presented your case because I told you I would and you have been faithful parishioners. Unfortunately what your son did is unacceptable to the Church, and we cannot burry him. It was a mortal sin, Mr. and Mrs. Cole, and he did not die in good standing with the Church according to all those who knew him, including you.”
Mrs. Cole started to cry. Mr. Cole tried to console her while talking to the priest. “Father, I read that the position has changed, that the Church will bury a victim of…such circumstances.” He choked up a bit and took out a handkerchief to dab over his eyes.
“The Church has changed its position on suicide, yes, but it should be remembered that the decision was made in regards to the question of mental illness. Since such things can diminish a person’s capacity to the exercise of free will, well, how could someone suffering from such anguish be blamed for taking their own life? It is a reasonable and I do think compassionate position. However, the case for your son Raymond is very different and falls outside the typical situation. From what I have gathered about it, illness did not seem to be involved at all.”
“How could he have not been sick?” His mother asked.
“It is a complicated issue, you have my sympathy there. But I have examined his case I cannot, in good conscience, say that he was driven to suicide.”
“Then what was it?”
“I suppose the accurate description would be to say it just found him, and he let it in. It was a temptation that he gave into, so I have to say it was a sin, a terrible sin. This should not be a surprise to both of you, as this has always been the Catholic’s Church’s position.”
“How can you be so sure he was not sick? I mean, he killed himself. Isn’t that sick enough?”
“We want to avoid circular reasoning Mr. Cole.”
Mrs. Cole shook her head. “I just don’t understand how you can say these things.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Cole, I have been following your son’s life for a long time. I was the one who baptized him. You may not know this, but we occasionally kept in touch after he moved West.”
“You were close?”
“Well, he thought we were close, or at least close enough to send letters back and forth. Maybe he felt there was no one else to talk to, that I was the only person from his old life that he could trust. ”
“He could have talked to us.”
“You have to understand that Raymond may have felt differently.” Father Krasinski leaned back in his chair. “He was a bright boy, and I don’t just mean smart, he was bright in personality too, though I don’t mean he was happy all the time either. He just had this aura about him, a glow that others could feel. When he said something you often ended up agreeing with him because it just seemed like he was a conduit for something greater.”
“He was hard to argue with,” Mr. Cole said.
“I remember when I baptized him and held his head. It was very warm, like any human head should be, but he was very still when I held him. The oil on his forehead glistened like nothing else I have seen, as did the water. It reminded me of a sunset on a lake. Forgive me, I am only saying this because I want you to understand that I realized how special Raymond Cole was, and how you must have felt about him.”
“Yes, yes, it’s all right.”
The priest got up from his chair and pulled the curtains back on his window in order to show the Coles his view of the schoolyard. “He never lost that glow, never once, at least when I saw him. When he went to school here I would see him on the playground by himself, but he never seemed lonely or made me feel sorry for him because no one played with him. In all my years I have seen plenty of children who were just, and I use the word in its older sense here, pathetic. You had nothing to give them but pity as they wandered from game to game trying to join in. Maybe they had a physical condition or they just looked funny to the other kids, but you knew their whole lives they would never fit in and it would break your heart. But Raymond was different because he always turned down invitations to play so that he could contemplate things by himself.
“His classmates all felt the same way I did, they noticed he was different, but a good kind of different. He had a natural way of sowing peace. I watched children go up to him, ready to have a fight over some small disagreement, and they would walk away without touching him. It was not that he intimidated them, he just refused to trade insults with them. Raymond would just smile and anyone who wanted to start trouble with him would always realize that it wasn’t worth it and they would walk away.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” his mother said.
“Yes, yes they are. I’m sure you knew that he wanted to be a priest.”
“Of course, though Raymond’s father was skeptical.”
“It is not an easy life. So when a child says they want to take it up, we encourage them, but we know most are not truly serious about it. They do not yet realize what must be given up. Often, they only say they want it in order to please other people, their teachers, their friends, even the priests and nuns. It is harmless at their age. Children imagine all sorts of occupations for themselves, many of which are impossible. When I was young I wanted to play sports on the moon. I thought that it might be fun to try and dribble a basketball with so little gravity. Becoming a priest was the last thing on my mind.”
“We weren’t sure how serious he was.”
“Well Mr. Cole, he was serious, more serious than anyone his age, he genuinely wanted to become a part of Holy Orders. We speak of having the true desire as a calling, and Raymond lived his life in those days as if he was hearing it all the time. I remember when I went into the classrooms of the school, asking who was thinking of becoming a priest. I asked the little kindergarteners sitting Indian style on the floor and the eighth graders trying to amorously steal glances of each other as I talked to them. Every year I did this, and whatever room Raymond was in at the time, the reaction was the same. The students would either turn to look at Raymond, or they would outright point to him. Sometimes, even the teacher joined in.”
“I had no idea,” said Mr. Cole.
“Neither did I.”
“I see that you listen to me as if these facts are new to you. You must have only been familiar with his public-private life, the way he was at home in the kitchen or living room. It seems I am the only one who knew his private-private life, the world of thoughts inside his head. I’m not judging, it often happens to parents, especially when their children grow older. Because I was a priest, perhaps, he turned to me and opened up. I never treated him any different from the other children, but then again I never had to. Raymond behaved well and was never tardy for class. When he went to high school I lost the ability to oversee him directly, but from time to time he would let me know how he was doing. Since the road he took to get to school passed by the church, he would stop by and see me.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Everyday trivial things and theology. His ideas were serious and questions quite probing. I told him that he should think about studying philosophy in college, hoping that it would become a gateway to theology. There’s nothing wrong with being a parish priest, however, in Raymond’s case I could see that he would be of better service to the Church in a different capacity. I envisioned him having the words ‘leading intellectual’ following after him whenever his name was mentioned. He could be a close advisor to a cardinal, or even the Pope. Perhaps he could head a university or edit the books read by the faithful.”
“He was a philosophy major.”
“Here is something you probably did not know, he started the coursework before he even knew which college he would go to.”
The Coles were not sure what this meant.
“See, this is what I was talking about. His private-private life. He insisted on beginning his readings and testing the waters of philosophy so that he could be ready for college. I couldn’t argue with him for wanting to be prepared. I didn’t give him anything subversive, certainly nothing modern. The only things I recommended were written by the Greeks and either I had them, or they could be found in his local library. Plato, Aristotle, and Epictetus, the thinkers that can help provide a foundation for a more intellectual faith. I did not start him on Aquinas, without Aristotle one cannot understand him. Rest assured, I never told him to read the Epicureans or Diogenes, or even worse, Kierkegaard. He read them later at the behest of his professors even though I told him to try and stay from anyone who assigned all the atheists and other heretics. I’m not for censorship, but I think that one has to be careful with what the young are told to tread. They adopt positions to please their teachers and it can lead them to moral ruin.”
“So he can’t be buried in the cemetery because of a few battered books?”
“No, no, sorry, I’m sure these names are foreign to you. I am just telling you what we talked about and what I told him to do. As you know he went to college and changed, not in a way that anyone could see in public, but which anyone could tell in private. He became aloof, don’t you think?”
“He was always separate.”
“Separate, yes, but distant, no. He was distinct, but he understood what was going on around him. He had girlfriends, went to parties. Raymond could converse with ordinary people about ordinary things. It was not a challenge for him. But college changed that. Didn’t you notice how impatient he became, how frustrated he was when he spoke? It seemed like he had somewhere else to go to, someone else better to talk to. I do not know where this was, or who he had in mind, maybe a person back in college. There was certainly nothing around here that he cared for.”
“Now that you mention it,” his father nodded, “I just thought he was just bored.”
“Well, he was bored, and that was a change. As a child in this school his eyes treated every crack and corner with awe and wonder. He investigated everything he could. When he came back to see me during his vacations, he had trouble focusing on anything or keeping eye contact with me.”
His mother agreed. “It was the same at home.”
“He quoted me some Marx, and I was alarmed. It was only his saying about philosophers needing to change the world, but it raised an eyebrow from me. At least he did not tell me God is dead or any of that nonsense. He respected me enough to only think it and believe it, but not say it in front of me. It would have broken my heart to hear it. Raymond wanted to lead the contemplative life, he told me, but with so many people suffering, how could this be done? Even though he was disillusioned I told him to stick with college and philosophy, and then pursue his own interests after graduation. These continued to narrow every time he came back for break. He was involved in political campaigns, but these disappointed him. He turned to radical groups, but the protests achieved nothing. He dabbled in poetry, yet this offered him no relief. Others could hear his words freely but their minds remained made up the same way.”
“Then he decided to be a teacher.”
“Yes, he wanted to help one student at a time, educate and open up a young mind. It was a noble idea and one I supported. I put him in contact with people I knew so he could get experience through tutoring and assisting. Raymond enjoyed the work and told me he wanted to make a career out of it. He would join a program to help teach kids in the inner city and would then work for his necessary certification. It was a good plan with an admirable goal. I had my own personal reasons for encouraging him, I admit. I wanted Raymond to teach here at this school someday, and maybe then he would remember his calling.”
“You only wanted the best for him.”
“We all did Mrs. Cole. We tried, but we could not reach him. Times being what they are these days, men like him are put in a difficult position. They are not materialistic enough for the world of business, but the monasteries are not big enough anymore.”
“That makes sense,” said Mr. Cole.
“What can we do? I think it is one of the major problems of the age. Our society does not provide a place for every person, especially those who are unique and talented in ways that are not readily apparent. The cracks are many and too big, people like Raymond fall through. It is a shame.
“A real shame,” answered Mrs. Cole.
“Raymond tried his best, God bless him. The teaching job was hell for him. Excuse my language, but that is the only way I can describe it. Students were rude, they refused to listen, and they stole school supplies that he had to pay for out of his pockets. His supervisors did not help him and then one of the kids accused Raymond, who was too gentle for tag and hide-and-go-seek of hitting him. Even if Raymond did do it, the student probably deserved it. They tied the poor boy up in knots at that school and they broke him down. I saw him after he was let go and he looked terrible. There were cuts on his body which I should have asked him about.”
Mrs. Cole was alarmed. “Cuts?”
“He had wounds on his face, and some on his arms. He was wearing short sleeves so I could see them. I asked him the students had given them to him, and Raymond said he had punished himself with half of the injuries. Maybe I should have steered him towards help, but part of me wanted to believe Raymond was taking on an aesthetic life that would eventually help him become a priest. He was eating less, did not have a girlfriend, and lived simply by himself. We exchanged letters and he told me of how he had cut out every luxury from his life, even shutting off the heating during the winter. His clothes were in tatters and his shoes full of holes, but he felt more alive inside than ever, knowing that he could live without most of our modern conveniences. I became convinced that Raymond was living the life of a saint, except for the prayers. His whole life was one of struggle and sacrifice. He did odd jobs to make his money, as you know, sharing what he did not need with the poor. If he had not become an atheist, I would have gone looking to see if any miracles were attributed to him.
“We never heard of any.”
“No, you didn’t. Miracles can only come through those who believe. We don’t consider what the Wright Brothers did or Edison to be a miracle, do we?”
“No,” Mr. Cole responded, “we don’t.”
“Now, he fell into what others might call a wonderful piece of luck, but which was his undoing, the very public change in his life that came from that lottery ticket. I never knew him to be one who played such things, he told me and everyone else he just found it one day and became a millionaire when nobody else could claim it. I believe his story. A lottery ticket would have been a strange indulgence for someone like him, as it would only lead to more money. A drink, a cigarette, or even a woman of loose means, these I could see him paying for. They are temporary sensations and would not compromise his life in the long run. If he did not find the ticket, someone must have given it to him, I like to think it was maybe for a doing a good deed.”
“That would be nice.”
“Raymond surprised me when he accepted the money. I knew he was different. The sight of all those zeroes he had never thought to see in his bank account changed him. I asked him after the initial shock wore off why he had chosen to keep the money. I wasn’t trying to get anything for the parish or the school, just curious. Raymond saw me in my office, wearing a brand new three-piece suit and a fedora hat. It was a look I had never seen him wear before. What surprised me most was how comfortable he looked wearing it. I asked my questions and he laughed. He had become a disciple of chance, whatever the universe gave him, he would accept. When he was poor he lived with it, and now that he was rich, he would live with it as well.”
“He said similar things to us,” Mr. Cole said.
“Yes,” he wife chimed in, “we knew about that.”
“Well then,” Father Krasinski cleared his throat. “No need to waste time discussing it. I take it you don’t know what happened to him after he left to go live on the coast?”
Mr. and Mrs. Cole shook their heads and silently admitted their ignorance. The priest smiled at them.
“He bought a large house and filled it with all the things he had cut out of his life. At first it was interesting to be around so many new products that he had missed out on and to live the comfortable life of luxury. He sent me pictures of himself with his new camera enjoying all of these things. I was happy for him, but cautious. His life had changed so quickly I knew that it would create problems for him. Unfortunately I was right. He had come into wealth so suddenly and through no real effort that his trappings could not make him happy. They were not trophies to be proud of, but chains that bound him down. His life had been defined by sacrifice, now he had everything he could want and people who had shunned him before now wanted his friendship. He could no longer trust anyone the way he could when he was impoverished. People could get something out of him, so he had to be suspicious. Yet, he wanted company as all people do, and so threw parties to keep company nearby.”
“I can’t imagine our son throwing one of those.”
“Neither could I, Mrs. Cole. He had difficulties because he simply took what he knew about such things from music videos and movies. There were scantily clad dancers, champagne fountains, exotic pets, live musicians, and lots of chemicals who names and values I couldn’t keep track of.”
“Oh dear. We only went out there once, and it didn’t seem like he was doing of that.”
“Well he was rich enough to pay for the damages as well. Eventually, he gave up that scene and took to travel. He made his way to Rome one time and sent me back a rosary that the Pope had blessed.” The Father opened a drawer and produced a small white box he gave to Mrs. Cole. She opened it up and looked at the bright black beads inside as he continued speaking. “Raymond went to other places as well, Greece, Russia, Bombay, Australia, all over the world. His money was worth even more there. He could eat more, drink more, and spend more that way. Every excuse to keep from vice was gone and he sampled what was behind every door of temptation. I will spare you the details , but only because he managed to spare them from me.”
“Thank you.” Mrs. Cole gave the priest back his rosary.
“But he felt lonely abroad as well and being a foreigner, did not fit in. He came back to America and to his mansion, more depressed than ever. The last time I heard from him was late one night when he called me. He kept me up for over two hours, debating with me and asking questions like old times. I tried to steer him to accepting an argument for at least deism, if not theism, but he would not have it. He said that God added nothing to the universe and free will was probably an illusion. Chance was king of everyone. Even if God existed, there was no freedom either. He asked me why my God had made him an Atheist, and when I could not answer, he laughed, told me it was good talking to me again, and then hung up.”
“That was the last you heard of him?”
“Yes. A month later I received a call from Raymond’s lawyer. Raymond had died and I was named executor of the estate. I went out to where he lived, not sure of what to do. Thankfully he had a cousin who lived near him-”
“Jon, who helped me with everything. I never studied law myself, you see. Believe it or not I was an economics major, but in the end the philosopher ended up making more money than me. I digress.”
“You put Raymond’s affairs in order?”
“Oh Jon did most of that, I spent my time doing my own investigation into what happened to Raymond in those last days. I knew that you all would probably want him buried here in the cemetery and I wanted to be certain he was qualified for it. The circumstances of his life were strange enough to warrant concern.”
Mr. Cole shifted in his chair, revealing his impatience. “And what did you find out?”
“He shot himself, which you already know. However, I tried to find out what specifically drove him to it. I asked his friends, his associates, even his neighbors. No one saw him during those days so they could not say with certainty how he was. I was inclined to believe Raymond Cole was overcome with mental anguish and killed himself, having lost the capacity to reason right and wrong. Then, Jon put me in contact with one of his maids, Christina, and she relayed me her story. She was the only one nearby when he died and the moments leading up to it.”
“What did she say?”
“She said he had made her very afraid and that she was thinking of quitting. He would throw things around the house and laugh at them breaking. He even took his television out of his room and threw it into his swimming pool from the balcony to see what the water would do to it. He paid her well and cleaned up many of these messes himself, or told her to leave the debris where it was. She said that he was not drinking or on drugs and that he was lucid the whole time, though he often talked aloud to himself since there was no one else to debate with. He had a gun and would wave it around her, saying that she was not in danger because chance would protect her, unless it didn’t, in which case she was supposed to be harmed anyways. Every night, Raymond took the gun out, gave the same speech to Christina to put her at ease, and then would play Russian roulette with it. “I have as much right to live as die,” went his line of thinking. She said that he had decided to give his life up to chance, and one night, chance came for him.”
Mrs. Cole began crying again. “But he sounded crazy. He sounded sick!”
“Maybe he does now, but she said he was very clear and never seemed distraught. He argued his way into suicide it seems. Since it was a deed clearly chosen by one whose faith was shaky and thin to begin with, I do not see any way in which his internment here can be justified.”
Mr. Cole stood up, “how can you judge him? How can you turn him away?”
“The same way he turned away from all of us. This Church is under no obligation to bury him here. We can say prayers for him and have certain services done, but he cannot have a funeral in my parish and be buried in the cemetery, not here or anywhere else in the diocese. To let him rest here would make things too difficult for the congregation and would set a bad example to the youth.”
“Because whenever I talk about the calling to join Holy Orders, the children will be skeptical that such a thing exists, or is that powerful. They will say that Raymond Cole had it, and look what happened to him! If it was so real and so strong, how come he, who should have been Pope, was allowed to have such an unhappy life and die by his own hand? I’ve taught them that no one can turn away from the calling, or reject it for long. If he was buried close to the school, the kids would come to think otherwise, his memory hovering right close by them. I’ve taught them that if you tried to flee, things would immediately go bad for you until God would soften your heart and bring you back into the fold. Yes, I believed this all about Raymond even as I watched him go off what I thought was just the shallow part of the deep end. I thought to myself Raymond would end up like Jonah, making a detour through the body of a whale on his way to Nineveh. I was wrong, very wrong. Now I’m not sure how strong the call really is, or if it can sometimes just be an echo.”
© Ben Nardolilli
Bio: Ben is a twenty-five year-old writer currently living in Montclair, New Jersey. His work has appeared in the Houston Literary Review, Perigee Magazine, Canopic Jar, One Ghana One
Voice, Baker’s Dozen, Thieves Jargon, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae,Poems Niederngasse, Gold Dust, Scythe, Anemone Sidecar, The Delmarva Review, Contemporary American Voices, SoMa Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, Shakespeare’s Monkey Revue, Black Words on White Paper, Cantaraville, and Mad Swirl. In addition he maintains a blog at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publish his first novel.