Searching for self-truth, a religious, teenage “detective” confronts Heaven and Hell as he struggles to solve the mysteries of sexuality and faith within a family full of secrets.
In Jupiter's Shadow
Growing up in rural Western New York in the late ‘70s/early '80s, Greg is the youngest in a devout Catholic family. They rely on faith to cope with adversity, including a brother's congenital hydrocephalus and the father's alcoholic mood swings. Greg dreams of escape through detective stories, which prepares him to tackle the profound mystery he stumbles across—in the bathtub on the second floor. Fictional detective, Jupiter Jones, provides guidance to explore the clues; mentorship from a Jesuit priest (an actor with a Hollywood past) ultimately forces Greg to solve the mystery between the shadow of "should be" and light of self-awareness.
Chapter One: The Plan (1974)
I was visiting my gram the day I hatched my runaway plan. A way to escape from everybody telling me what I should do.
At eight, the youngest in our crowded Western New York farmhouse - Big Brick - I was different from the rest of them; I sensed it. Everybody else had a regular name, but I went by nicknames: The Caboose to my dad; The Baby to my mom; Greg-ums to the others.
I longed to get away through the craggy forest behind our property and discover my own adventure. Something like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys might encounter.
My grandmother's living quarters had originally been a two-car garage attached to our laundry room. Before she moved in, Dad and some workers converted the space into a one-bedroom suite with a kitchenette and separate entrance. A bay window in the dining area looked out over the three-tiered lawn. Beyond, an expansive field ended in a grove of fruit trees down by the creek.
Gram was not satisfied.
Dad gave her the initial tour because she was his mom. I tagged along.
She looked at the new appliances and fresh paint, her old-lady golden wig and large white earrings dipping forward in silent evaluation. As he showcased the living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath, I watched her bracelets slide back and forth loosely on her bony wrists.
When they had seen the entire apartment, she drew back, clasped her hands, and nodded toward the tan walls of the living area. "Now, if ya had it to do over again, would ya have picked that same color?"
I held my breath and watched my father closely, to see if he'd yell. A heavyset man, he could raise his powerful voice to shout or swear at a moment's notice.
Instead of shouting, he only snapped, "Aw, Mom," and brought the tour to a quick finish. I breathed more easily.
"They put me in the garage," Gram told me later, her muted tangerine dress gathered about her legs as she sat in the living room. I knew she meant my mom and dad, but it was hard to understand why she didn't like the place. I had to share a bedroom with my brother, Mike. With five older siblings, somebody was always telling me what to do. To me, her three rooms seemed spacious and private, a place where she could do what she wanted when she wanted.
I visited her often, after school or during summer days, winding down the back hallway of our home, through the laundry room, to the double doors that entered her apartment. She served me maple walnut ice cream when we sat at her small Formica table in front of the bay window. She told true crime stories my mother didn't approve of, stories of life ending mysteriously for unlucky victims she'd encountered in her eighty years. Kids, dads, drunks - no one escaped the cool hand of death in her tales.
"He was never up to no good," she shared one day, about a man she'd known a long time ago. "He was a hard man. A drinkin' man. That night he wandered out on the tracks, he'd been drinkin', don't you doubt it." She stared at me over her gray-framed glasses and stabbed an index finger at my face. "That train came along and good night shirt!" I recognized one of the strange phrases that often accompanied her stories. Phrases like "Get off my foot!" Or if she balled up her gangly fist and shook it in the air,"Smella that, Brother."
My mind spun. A train clacking through the night. The guy - maybe a crook! - crushed like a soda can, right here in our little town. I sat riveted to the chair, soaking up the intrigue between mouthfuls of creamy maple.
I hadn't been planning to run away. The idea just sprouted one day as I looked out Gram's bay window at the two hundred acres of farmland beyond the barn. Logistics immediately pushed their way through the folds of my mind: what mysteries I might encounter (find a lost treasure); which direction I would head (north); what gear I might need (a compass).
Gram interrupted my thoughts of escape. "Go into the bedroom and get me the picture with five boys in it," she instructed. "They took that picture and a week later one of 'em drowned. Good night shirt!"
I located the small frame on top of her sewing table. Reaching for it, I noticed the bottom drawer was not completely shut. A hint of Reese's orange peeked out at me. I opened the drawer another inch, slowly, so it wouldn't squeak. There with her stationery and envelopes lay a ten-pack of peanut butter cups. Perfect sustenance for my trip. I looked around the room. The window was open a crack.
I could do it.
As I slid the drawer fully open, my mind saw Father McFarland pull back the tiny window in the confessional at our church, Saint Patrick's. There in the darkness, I would have to shamefully whisper of my theft, praying the mesh screen masked my identity. He'd whisper back my penance, concern evident in his low tones. Would it be ten Hail Marys? Apologize to my grandmother? Something worse?
I loved most things about church. Mystery peeked out at me from every corner; darkened shadows whispering the secrets of Saints long dead. At Mass, I watched the priest lift his shrouded arms toward Heaven, muttering prayers only God could hear. Desire to be holy like him, like my mother, always flooded me. To be a son of God. To belong.
But the confessional was another story. Whenever I entered the tiny wooden room, I felt embarrassed and exposed. My budding crime came to an abrupt halt. I considered the Reese's carefully. Was it worth it?
"Do ya see it, Honey?" Gram called from the living room.
"Yeah, I got it."
I grabbed the frame and, with no time to consider further consequences, the candy as well. I shoved the ten-pack through the narrow gap of the open window. The orange wrapper flashed as it fell to the grass outside.
I handed Gram the frame. She pointed to the different children in the aged photo, including the one who had met with an untimely death. Normally this would hold my attention, but I worried about the peanut butter cups melting in the afternoon sun.
She talked mother's tears; I pictured tears of chocolate dripping off my candy. I finally told her I had to go and raced through the laundry to one of Big Brick's back doors. Outside, I crawled low under her window to snatch the Reese's. I felt them through the wrapper. They were intact.
I brought the orange package to my bedroom and laid it on my sleeping bag, then gathered more supplies. A pillow, some Hardy Boy books. I looked at the pack and evaluated. It needed a goodbye note.
I sat on the corner of my bed and wrote a long letter to my family, listing how sorry I was to leave, but for them not to miss me. I drew eight round faces - my mom, dad, gram, my five older siblings - and penned streams of tears running down their tiny paper cheeks.
There wasn't a dry eye on the page.
The goodbye note went in with the other supplies. I rolled the sleeping bag into a tight cylinder and hid it in the back of my closet.
The excitement of my impending departure distracted me from the guilt of my theft. I did worry that Gram would miss the candy and tell my dad but, as two days passed, the paternal wrath I expected never materialized. I continued to imagine my adventure, waiting for the right opportunity to escape.
The next morning I woke to rain, a steady, pounding curtain of water on the upstairs windows. Using the delay of weather to tighten my plan, I decided to add a map to my runaway kit. On my adventure, I'd travel further than our rural twin towns, Macedon and Palmyra, where I'd lived all my life. Heading to the downstairs bookshelves, I pulled out a thin road atlas - which promised Up-To-Date Construction Information in a little yellow bubble - and carried it upstairs.
Opening my bedroom door, I discovered Mike and Anne, my brother and sister, sitting in the center of the carpet.
Mike was six years my senior and wiser about everything. He wore his brown hair short and straight-cut across the bangs, giving him a serious, tough-guy edge. He wrestled at school - which showed in the tight bulge of his arm muscles.
Just a year younger than Mike, Anne was often at his side. My tomboy sister, her hair hung in a long dark splash to her shoulders, curling slightly near the ends, as if in defiance to the straightness of the rest. Her boldness earned my brother's respect. I envied her.
My sleeping bag lay between them on the floor, unrolled. Mike had my goodbye note in his hand and was reading it aloud.
They were in hysterics.
"What - is - your - problem?" he asked, barely able to get the words out.
I reached for the note, my face flushing with familiar warmth. He held it toward me, waving it back and forth. I grabbed, missed, then snatched it from him. I tore it up quickly.
"So you're gonna run away?" Anne transitioned from laughter to concern.
My meticulous plan evaporated into embarrassment.
"NO," I said.
The impact was gone - now that they knew about it. Besides, it was really raining outside, and the reality of sleeping on soggy grass diluted the portrait of my grand escape.
"Where'd you get the peanut butter cups?" Anne interrupted my thoughts.
"At the store," I said, mentally adding lying to the list I'd review with Father McFarland, as Mike tore open the package and divided the spoils among us.