Authors: Ralph McInerny
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For Lynn and Alasdair
We are but pilgrims, and the skin
That covers us, the tent wherein
Awake or sleeping, we abide
Till death a dwelling-place provide.
âJohn Bannister Tabb
The huge facade of the Hesburgh Library is visible to fans in the Notre Dame stadium, particularly those on the south end, and, of course, to the millions watching on television. On it, Christ the Teacher lifts his arms in a way that has led the irreverent to refer to Him as “Touchdown Jesus.” Foes of Notre Dame will not be convinced that this designation sprang up spontaneously and was nurtured and broadcast by perfervid sports commentators. Critics see in this yet another instance of a woeful mingling of the secular and sacred on the South Bend campus, with football elevated almost to the status of a liturgical rite. Of course the mural must have been designed with this in view.
Some errors are interesting, and perhaps this is one of them. The theologically illiterate have even been known to object to the bumper-sticker legend G
. But who would imagine this to refer to the football team rather than to Our Lady Theotokos? It is of course otherwise with the illuminated number 1 atop Grace Hall, outlined against the blue-gray autumnal sky. This glowing numeral shines brightly through good seasons and bad, unaffected by the actual ranking of the Fighting Irish. To the skeptic, this electrified hubris is on a par with the huge statue of Moses on the east side of the library, arm raised, one imperious digit thrust upward. How does one see this as different from the illuminated sign? And then, of course, there is “Fair Catch” Corby.
Father William Corby was one of the priests of Notre Dame who went off to the Civil War as a chaplain, attached to the famous Irish Brigade from New York. He was at Gettysburg and before that bloody battle gave general absolution to the troops, so many of whom were about to meet their Maker. The event is commemorated on that battlefield by a statue of Corby blessing the Irish Brigade. The twin of the statue stands before Corby Hall on campus. The hand raised in absolution, like the finger of Moses, like the uplifted arms of Christ the Teacher, has received an athletic interpretation, as if the intrepid priest, who went on to become president of the university, were indeed signaling for a fair catch.
These items of Notre Dame lore formed the heart of the book
copies of which were being signed by its author, Magnus O'Toole, in the campus bookstore just hours before the game with Georgia Tech. It has been said that anything not nailed down can be sold on game day to the thousands of faithful fans who converge on Notre Dame, filling local motels whose rates have tripled, even quadrupled, for the occasion. Cars come bumper to bumper along the Indiana Toll Road from east and west; they descend southward and ascend northward on the Jacob's ladder of U.S. 31; they come as well on lesser modes of access known to the initiate. For days before a game, private planes descend on the Michiana Airport, taking their turn in the landing pattern with commercial flights whose seats have been reserved for months. Scattered about the campus are fragrant charcoal fires on which hamburgers and brats send up propitiatory smoke as if invoking divine patronage for the team. Crowds move about the campus in the hours before the game, marveling at the beauty of the grounds and the majesty of the buildings. The devout kneel at the Grotto or pay a visit to Sacred Heart Basilica. Others stand as if mesmerized by the great golden dome atop the Main Building on which Mary, the patroness of the university, gazes serenely southward. Seasons come and go; coaches rise and fall; players and students are quadrennially replaced as if in some metaphor of the ages of man. She has seen it all so many times.
Sub specie aeternitatis
, as it were.
And in the bookstore, Magnus O'Toole was doing a land-office business autographing his book for eager purchasers, many of whom regarded it as a souvenir rather than as something to be read. Their decision perhaps may be the wiser.
He sat at a table on which copies of his book were piled, but, given his small stature, he might as well have been standing. Beneath his tweed jacket, he wore a green turtleneck. As he scrawled his name in book after book, he seemed to flash his Notre Dame ring, Class of 1977, like a proud girl displaying her diamond. His beard exaggerated his fixed smile. The occasion was successful beyond the dreams of avarice, and this despite the formidable competition. At other tables other books were being bought and signed by their authors. Gerry Faust, who had sold his soul to Notre Dame, a bargain not exactly reciprocated, was there, of course. Regis Philbin was hawking a DVD on which his singing was mercifully eclipsed by a chorus. Monk Molloy was signing a book made up of his otherwise unmemorable presidential addresses. For Magnus to prosper in such a setting was success indeed. Two bookstore minions kept the line moving and replenished the supply of books. Magnus was ecstatic.
“Magnus, you old crook.”
The startled author looked up. A hand was thrust at him, and then faulty recognition shone in his bloodshot eyes. He shook the hand of a classmate, trying desperately to remember his name.
“Quintin. Quintin Kelly.” A frown came and went before this correction was made.
Well, it had been years since the two men had seen one another, and Kelly had the advantage, as Magnus's name was prominent in forty-point type beneath the flattering photograph on the poster propped behind the signing table.
“How long will you be here?” Kelly asked.
A bookstore assistant pointed to the poster. Magnus's allotted two hours had twenty minutes to go.
“I'll wait for you outside.”
“Do you want a book?”
“That may be too late.”
Shamed into a purchase, Kelly took the autographed book and sidled through the crowd to a doorway. Resentment at not being recognized by his old classmate came and went. Would he have recognized O'Toole without the help of that poster? Outside, he took a package of Pall Malls from his jacket pocket and inserted one between his thin lips. Before lighting it, he looked out toward the parking lot as if a firing squad had been mustered there. He might be waiting to be blindfolded. Then he lit his cigarette and drew smoke into his wheezing lungs. This was his first return to campus in twenty years.
In their apartment in one of the hundred and more villas that make up graduate student housing east of the library, the Knight brothers, Roger and Philip, were at table enjoying a pregame brunch.
“What a crock,” Phil said, closing a copy of
“Why did you buy it?”
“I didn't. It was sent to you. Inscribed.” He pushed the book toward his younger brother.
There is obesity and obesity, and Roger's enormous bulk suggested virtue rather than vice, as if God meant him to weigh three hundred pounds and anything less would be a flaw in the providential plan. The Huneker Professor of Catholic Studies took up the book his brother slid toward him and opened the cover. He read aloud.
“âTo a fellow much-admired author. Magnus O'Toole.'”
Roger smiled at the self-referential inscription. “Does that mean he actually read my monograph on Baron Corvo?”
“When did it come?”
“Half an hour ago. You were still in the shower. Hand delivered.”
“By the author?”
“He said he was in your class. A kid named Lanier.”
“Ah. Caleb.” But the smile of recognition faded. “Why would he have brought it?”
“To get rid of it?”
Roger had begun to leaf through the book, half-murmuring sentences as he went. “He has been badly served by his translator.”
“O'Toole is a sportswriter from Atlanta.”
Roger looked at his brother. Phil might have been the After to his Before in a weight-loss ad, except that he was several heads taller. “How did you know that?”
“Read the dust jacket.”
Roger fell back in his chair, repeating the phrase. “Dust jacket. Dust jacket. An expressive phrase. As the body clothes the soul.”
“You sound like a sportswriter.”
Roger returned to the book, holding it open on the table with a huge and pudgy hand. He read in silence for a moment. “He's got Corby all wrong.”
“He seems to think he was with the Confederate army.”
“Didn't he bless both Southern and Northern armies?”
“I'm sure that was his intention.”
Phil stood, stretched, and touched the ceiling with his fingertips. “Sure you don't want to go to the game, Roger?”
“Not today. I'll be preparing dinner. Be sure to bring Father Carmody back with you.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Caleb ran back to the car after putting his uncle's book into Philip Knight's hand and hopped into the passenger seat. At the wheel, Sarah Kincade looked at him, waiting. “Well?”
“What did the great man say?”
“I gave it to his brother. And don't knock Roger Knight until you've had a class with him.”
“I think of him as a rival.”
“We should have walked.”
As Sarah returned her car to a student parking lot, negotiating several checkpoints that kept the unauthorized off campus, Caleb tried to feel satisfaction about fulfilling his Uncle Magnus's request. He had gone to Atlanta during the midterm break, wanting to see the sites he was hearing about in class, and had babbled on and on to his uncle about the course he was taking from Roger Knight.
“Notre Dame and the Civil War?” Magnus had asked. “What kind of a course is that?”
Magnus became excited as Caleb described the courseâno surprise there. Since settling in Atlanta after a stint in the marines, Magnus had become a member of that passionate species, the adopted Southerner. He had read all three volumes of Shelby Foote, all four of Allan Nevins, and the three of Bruce Catton. His apartment was stuffed with other books on the Civil War. An accent few would have ackowledged as Southern had altered his Minnesota dialect. He had succumbed to what Roger Knight had called that most seductive allegiance, a lost cause.