Editor’s note: Writer’s Bone favorite Anthony Breznican asked me recently if we wanted to run an illustrated excerpt from his novel Brutal Youth and I couldn’t have been more excited to oblige. When you’re done reading, be sure to check out my interview with the author, as well as his chat with author Steph Post. Enjoy!—Daniel Ford
With school back in session, the artist Cassandra Siemon has created new illustrations to accompany excerpts of Anthony Breznican’s dark coming-of-age novel Brutal Youth, which is new in paperback.
The main villain in the novel is a character named Father Mercedes, a priest who is literally stealing from the church collection plate and planning to scapegoat the parish’s troubled high school if the shortfall is ever detected. That won’t be hard—it has become a dumping ground for delinquents, misfits, and troublemakers.
The character was inspired by a real priest named Fr. Walter Benz, who was caught embezzling more than a million dollars from the churches he served in my hometown.
In this scene, we meet Father Mercedes for the first time in St. Michael the Archangel’s gymnasium, which has been converted into a chapel after a catastrophic church fire. Sister Maria, the school’s principal, has come to give him she needs money: the school is literally crumbling around them…
His back was to her, his face turned up at a ceramic statue of the resurrected Christ, suspended from the ceiling with its arms extended in the shape of the cross and a peculiar neutral expression on its face—less the throes of agony than the boredom of a minimum-wage employee at the end of a long day: Don’t ask me, I’m going off shift.
The dark figure in the pews looked back at Sister Maria, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. His eyes were shadow pits, and his thin gray hair was neatly combed across his scalp, though a little damp with sweat. His face had a similar expression to the impatient Christ.
“Good afternoon, Father Mercedes,” she said.
He smiled, and the cigarette bent upward toward his nose. “Sister,” he said. “Let me guess—bad news?”
She walked toward him down the central aisle of the church. “The ceilings are leaking again—four of them,” she said. “You’ve seen the problems, I take it?”
The priest’s unlit cigarette danced as he spoke. “Oh, that and a lot more.”
He held a gold-plated Zippo in his hands, sparking the flame, touching it to the tip of his cigarette, and exhaling a corona of blue haze into the air. She despised this about him, smoking in a church. He did it all the time when no one was around—no one he cared about, anyway.
Father Harold Mercedes was only seven years older than her but always seemed much more ragged and tired. Many parishioners found his roguishness charming. To the students, his bad habits made him a maverick, a fellow rebel—the priest who bought rounds of beer at the P&M Bar, placed bets on the Steelers, took annual vacations to Vegas and Atlantic City, and occasionally let slip a curse word.
His Friday-night poker buddies would tease the priest, “Ah, better go to confession, Father!” And he would close his eyes and say: “I forgive myself.”
Behind his back, the older parishioners called him Diamond Hal. The kids called him Father Pimp.
“We’ll need money to repair the damage, Father,” Sister Maria said. She reminded him about the eroding brick and the past failures of temporary fixes. He smoked his cigarette and let her talk, not really listening. When she finished, he rose from the pew and shrugged. “Why bother fixing a school that may not exist in another year?”
The nun crossed her arms. “I don’t think that’s very funny, Father.”
The priest blew smoke through his nose. “That’s because it’s not a joke, Sister. When I ask for things, when I ask for extra money—a special pass of the collection plate—our parish council tends to ask two questions. First is: ‘Why are we supporting a school that only causes humiliation for the parish?’ And the second question is: ‘When will we finally rebuild our burned church?’ My answer to the second one is, ‘We can’t afford it yet.’ And so the parish council’s response is to repeat the first question—‘Why, why, why’ . . . ,” he said, exhaling smoke again. “. . . ‘Why are we supporting a school nobody wants?’”
In the twelve years he’d served as pastor, Father Mercedes had proved himself adept at wielding the parish council like a bludgeon. He didn’t need the panel’s approval for much, but it was always easy enough for him to manipulate them into whatever cause he supported.
The nun’s shoulders sagged. “Shall I control the weather in the meantime?” she asked.
“I’d prefer you control your students,” Father Mercedes snapped back. “If you want to keep this school, you’d better force these students to become something worth saving. Frankly, a lot of parishioners believe you’re the worst principal we’ve ever had at St. Mike’s. Do you like the idea of being the last one, too?”
The nun closed her eyes. The priest was waiting for an answer. “No,” she said finally.
“Good.” He nodded. “Then we’re going to see some changes around here, yes?” He reached out his hand, and the nun shook it reluctantly. “Take care of that for me,” he said.
As the priest left her, the silence of the empty school returned, that great after-hours stillness she had once found calming. For the first time, Sister Maria felt lost there—and, finally, afraid.
She sat down in the pew, opening the hand that had just shaken the priest’s.
In her palm was the blackened stub of his cigarette.