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James Carroll
From An American Requiem
(Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996)

The Leap of Faith

The leaves had already turned and begun to fall into the lake. The changing season prompted an argument about when the lake would freeze over. It was the size, say, of a suburban shopping center's parking lot, perhaps three hundred yards across. None of us had been there the previous winter, but ignorance did not prevent us from taking firm positions on the subject: January at the soonest! Late November! Christmas! Lent! We argued about such things at Mount Paul.

Finally one of my classmates, a short, stocky Boston kid named Patrick Hughes who had said nothing until then, declared, "On December eighth, I'll skate across this lake. Who wants to bet on it?" Just like that, the discussion turned from a bunch of experts pronouncing to a handful of guys who had to put up their bets or shut up.

The novitiate was like ravaged Europe after the war in that we didn't use money for currency. In Europe they used cigarettes and silk stockings. At Mount Paul we used desserts, our rice puddings and Jell-Os, our kadota figs and Sunday apple pies. If I lost a dessert in a bet, the winner could wait until something he liked was served, and then send the waiter, another novice, over to collect. Desserts were not only our currency but our one source of power, totems of our subliminal defiance of two of the three vows. That Patrick Hughes had offered to bet all takers made his gamble a monument of daring and foolhardiness. We all took him up on it, and soon Patrick had desserts for the next four months riding on his ability to skate across that lake on December 8.

Read other passages from An American Requiem

  • "An American Requiem," from the April, 1996, Atlantic
  • "Elvis Disappears"
  • "A Defender of Justice"

    * * *

    Read a passage from The City Below, a novel

  • from Chapter Three

    * * *

    Read essays by James Carroll

  • "The Cardinal of Repression," from the July, 1992, Atlantic
  • "God's Patriots," from the July, 1992, Atlantic

    * * *

    An Essay on James Carroll

  • "The FBI and Leo Tolstoy" by Martin Green, from the July, 1994, Atlantic

  • By Thanksgiving the lake showed no sign of freezing. Patrick would get up early every morning, don his cassock, slip down to the water to check, and then walk up to the chapel for morning prayer. We all knew what he was praying for. On December 3, when we woke up, there it was, the first thin glaze in the corner of the lake. That afternoon there was a delicate necklace of ice around the shore. Having bet against him, we gathered on the shore and groaned. By December 5, a thin sheet had spread all across the lake, but it would hardly hold a leaf. On the nights of the sixth and seventh, the temperature dropped, and in the daytime the sun hid, because on the morning of December 8, the ice looked good -- or bad, depending on your bet. Desserts as the sublimation of poverty and obedience, if not chastity; all those coins, all that power. We knew nothing of these meanings, but neither could we have explained why the condition of the lake that morning had come to matter so much.

    Right after chapel, hiking our cassocks, we clambered down to the water's edge. Not water. Ice. Someone picked up a rock the size of a softball and dropped it on the surface, and the ice held. We all groaned except for Patrick, who sat down to put on his ice skates. Then someone else picked up a bigger rock, the size of a football, and threw it out. The rock broke the ice easily and disappeared. We all cheered. But Patrick kept lacing up his skates. An undeclared expertise was on display. Later we would learn he'd been captain of the Boston College hockey team. I, for one, had never seen shoelaces handled so deftly.

    I stepped out onto the ice with one foot. I bounced it a couple of times, then my foot went through. "Pat," I said, "you can't do this. It's impossible."

    My words registered not at all with him. He stood and went up the hill a little, to get a running start. I felt a real fear for him. To the sound of a gun inside his head, he took off, launching himself out onto that shimmering surface. He hit it in stride, his legs pumping away. But he hit it with a great crack, and sure enough the ice broke. It was too thin. It was too soon. Oh, Patrick!

    Then we saw that the ice was breaking and opening not under him but behind him. He was ahead of the break, skating so fast and so lightly that even the thin ice was support enough for the instant he needed it. All of us on that shore, watching him barreling across that lake, were transformed. We forgot our desserts and all they meant to us. We began to cry after him, "Go Patrick! Go Patrick!" As he shot across that ice, leaving behind a great crack, a wedge of black water, we knew we had never seen such courage before, not to mention such savvy knowledge of the ice, a Quincy kid's knowledge. We had never seen such a capacity for trust -- a man's trust in himself. Even before he made it all the way across, and of course he did make it, I thought, This is a man I want to be with.

    My friendship with Patrick Hughes became one of the pillars of my life. We helped each other get through the seminary. He taught me how to sail a boat, and I taught him how to use the Library of Congress. He introduced me to the Red Sox, and I helped him write sermons. He was a great athlete, a skilled carpenter, a singer and banjo player, an entertainer, a rare man whom others instantly trusted, yet he used to act as if our friendship were his privilege, not mine. Patrick was the first person who did not respond to either my cultivated self-importance or my deep-seated, mostly hidden conviction of worthlessness. He made me feel that, as he used to say to me, I could do no wrong. In that uptight, homophobic era, I never used the word "love" for what Patrick and I felt for each other -- later I would -- but the simple, pure pleasure I took in his presence remains one meaning by which I measure love today. I learned to measure happiness by the knowledge, which eventually became rock certain, that he rejoiced in my company as much as I did in his.

    Friendship with Patrick opened me to friendship generally. It was the precondition of the first of three distinct but related revolutions -- interpersonal, religious, political -- that I underwent as a Paulist. I had grown up with four brothers, each of whom I now cherish, but for whatever reason -- Joe's polio, our parents' emotional inhibition, my own narcissism, or, for that matter, the Irish Famine's melancholy legacy of bitterness and self-doubt -- I knew little of the consolation of fraternal intimacy. Gradually I began to feel, first with Patrick, then with other Paulists, even including priests on the seminary faculty, a warm comradeship, intellectual and emotional both.

  • Return to The Story of My Life

    Copyright © 1996 by James Carroll. All rights reserved.