(While I'm at it, I'll give you the second 'people' in that chapter. Hold onto your hat....)
BUTTERFLY (God bless him…)
I’ve changed people’s names up to now, but there is no way to do that with Butterfly. I considered calling him “Moth” or “Bumblebee” or “Hummingbird”, but none of those or any other would do justice to who and what he was. He was Butterfly—I’ll change his ‘real’ name to Michael Caruso from what it was…but that (or his ‘real’ name) does not do him justice. He was Butterfly. He signed his ‘art work’ Papillon, which was his misspelling of the French for Butterfly—“Papillion”. So even he couldn’t come up with a name that worked besides the one he was: Butterfly.
He was 6’6” tall and probably weighed 150 pounds—10 pounds of which was the jewelry he wore around his neck and in his ears. He told me he had a total of 27 earrings, 13 on the right ear and 14 on the left. I never counted, I simply took his word for it. And most of the earrings were of—you guessed it—butterflies. He also wore dozens of ring bracelets on each arm and a ring on every finger of both hands, including his thumb. And bling around his neck before ‘bling’ was the word for it—countless chains and necklaces. And all of that, like his earrings, had a definite theme: butterflies. I cannot imagine where he found so much bad jewelry with butterflies on it. I know he didn’t buy it on E-Bay since he had neither a computer nor money. But over the years of his life, he had found all this stuff and covered himself with it. There is a scene in a novel by George MacDonald, a writer who was a friend of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, where a character is completely enveloped by a flock (is that the right term?) of Monarch butterflies. Every inch of his body is, for a moment or two, covered by butterflies. I’m sorry I never found that passage and shared it with the Papillion I knew. He would have danced around the room—all arms and legs and jewelry—with delight and wonder just reading about an event like that. He WAS Butterfly.
He was long since a character around down-town Waterbury before I arrived. Eccentric doesn’t do the job in describing him. Neither does odd, odd-ball, unconventional, unusual, peculiar, strange or weird, which were the synonyms my computer’s thesaurus gave me for ‘eccentric’. I won’t even bother going to Roget’s. Every word there will apply but not describe. He usually wore a Mohawk which revealed a huge gash on the back of his head.
“Where’d you get that scar, Butterfly?” I asked.
“When I was in prison,” he said, “I sort of incited a riot.”
“Where were you in prison?”
“Cal-i-for-ni-a. ‘California there I was, til I got arrested by the fuzz….’ He danced around my office where we were talking.
“What were you in prison for?”
“Weed, Reefer. Possession is the devil’s workshop….” He showed my how to inhale and hold it while offering me his imaginary joint. The ones he’s had earlier weren’t imaginary. I could smell it across the room.
“That’s ‘an idle mind’,” I told him.
“What is?” He continued smoking his non-existence marijuana.
“And idle mind is the devil’s workshop….”
“I had one of them too,” he cackled, moving again. He was hopelessly ADD, he couldn’t sit still for a minute. “It was the 60’s, man….”
“How long did you serve?” I asked.
I was astonished. “Eight years for possession of marijuana? In California? In the 60’s? Everyone would have been in prision….”
Butterfly smiled at me and shook his head, “I possessed 50 acres,” he said.
And he was as flamboyantly homosexual as anyone I ever met. Gay and lesbian folks I knew gave him wide berth. He wore skin tight clothes, his shirt open to the navel (“so you can see my jewelry,” he told me when I asked him why he didn’t button his shirt at least a little) and always had glitter all over his face and head and chest. He wore lots of eyeliner and mascara but drew the line at lip-stick. “Only faggots wear lipstick,” he told me once, letting me in on his make-up philosophy, “and I’m not a faggot—I’m a god-damn screaming queer….”
Did I leave out the tattoos? Dozens and dozens of tattoos on every part of his body you could see—and during the summer, when he wore short shorts, there was lots of skin to see. Most all of them were, you probably guessed, butterflies. When I asked him why he became “Butterfly” he grew serious for one of the few times I knew him and started talking in a soft, almost dreamy voice, unlike his usually rapid staccato falsetto. “When I was a boy,” he told me, “I knew ‘something was wrong’ with me. Everyone said it when they thought I couldn’t hear them. I was strange and freakish and didn’t do well in school and didn’t have any friends. I used to wonder what I’d ‘rather’ be than me. Then one day, I watched a butterfly out in the yard for about an hour. It didn’t go in a straight line. It was so beautiful. It could flit and it could soar. After a while it came and landed on my face and it’s little feet were sticky and so tiny, like eyelashes. I was in love.”
I sat in his silence, fascinated and not a little moved by his story. After a few moments he leaped up from the couch where he was sitting and started dancing around my office. “It’s the flitting part I like best!”
A remarkable thing was how many people were genuinely fond of Butterfly. There was something childlike below the weirdness—something playful and touching and inviting. The two women who ran the Council of Churches—a tough old swamp Yankee and the sweet, rural wife of the American Baptist minister in town both adored him. So did the nun—street smart and savvy—who was the director of the social service agency housed across the street from St. John’s in the First Congregational Church. So did most of the members of the parish—he actually was a communicant though his attention deficit kept him from sitting through a whole service. The oddest couple of his relationships was with Allie, a conservative Republican in her early 30’s who was a member of the American Rifle Association and carried a little snub-nose 38 in her purse at all times. Allie and Butterfly were always talking after church and one day, when Allie had told me she was pregnant, Butterfly came running up to me with her in tow. He embraced her—she was short and her head barely reached his nipples, which of course you could see because his shirt was unbuttoned—“Allie’s got a bun in the oven!” Butterfly announced loudly. “I’m going to be a fairy god-mother….” They looked at each other with genuine devotion and then he pressed her face against his bling.
It’s not that Butterfly wasn’t a problem. He was stoned entirely too much and so promiscuous that it made my eyes ache. I actually feared for him because he’d take about any man he found home. And he had a temper. His primary adversary was Justine, the local shopping cart lady, who hung out at most of the downtown churches the way Butterfly did. She’s a whole story in herself, but they were like the proverbial oil and water. I’d throw both of them off the property for a day or two with regularity. They couldn’t be near each other without fighting about something. Once, during a Tuesday morning Eucharist with the Clericus group, I heard them out in the hall way screaming like banshees at each other with remarkable combinations of profanity. I was half way through the prayer of consecration, but the din was so disturbing that I thought one of them might kill the other. To tell the truth, at that moment, I wished they were the gingham dog and calico cat and would simply tear each other to pieces.
I took off the stole I was wearing, dropped it around one of the other priest’s neck and went to scold the children. I was on them like stink on…well, you know. I got between them and screamed them into silence. “Why has God sent the two of you to me?” I yelled. They looked at me as if I were an alien from a distant galaxy. Then I banished them from the building for two days and went back to receive the sacrament I had only half-blessed.
But the real story—the story that intrigues, delights and haunts me to this day—was Butterfly and Millicent. Millicent was an elderly woman who lived in one of the less fancy “rest homes” that dot any city the size of Waterbury. We, somehow, as a culture, have to warehouse the elderly to keep them safe from others and themselves. Some ‘homes’ do it with a modicum of grace and care, in spite of crushing numbers and limited resources, but most don’t. Millicent’s ‘rest home’ was in the latter category. Once I met her, I visited her with some regularity, especially after Butterfly’s murder. And it was Butterfly who introduced us.
I pulled into the parking lot and noticed that Butterfly and an elderly woman who was dressed rather stylishly—1950’s stylishly, but stylishly none the less—were standing on the street near the entrance to the parking lot. I got out of my car and went to say hello. Butterfly was puffing as hard as he could on a joint while Millicent waited for him to finish toking up. Butterfly, always the gentleman, said, holding his breath, “Millicent, this is Fr. Jim. Jim this is Millicent Randolph.” That was quite a feat to say on an inhale and Millicent and I shook hands.
“Butterfly has told me about you,” she said, in an accent that hinted of Back Bay Boston. “He’s taking me to the A.A. meeting in your church this morning.”
I turned and saw Butterfly knock the ash off his joint and eat what was left.
“You’re going to an A.A. meeting?” I asked him with as much judgment as I could muster.
He swallowed and smiled. “It’s ‘Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said, taking Millicent’s thin arm and leading her a bit unstably toward the church door.
Over time I learned a great deal about Millicent. She actually was an aristocrat of sorts—not from Boston but Manhattan, though she’d gone to school at Vassar and picked up a Boston accent and a Boston Brahman to boot. They lived in Greenwich, summered on Nantucket and had a ‘little place’ in Miami Beach. But one of their perfect three children was murdered while attending Columbia—he was 19—and Millicent fell completely, totally, absolutely apart. By the time her therapy and her taste for scotch and her profound depression began to lift, even a bit, her husband had divorced her, her daughters given up on her, her friends abandoned her and her own family disowned her. She finally encountered her Higher Power in the basement of an Episcopal Church somewhere in south-west Connecticut and dragged herself back to ‘who she’d been’ (“though stronger”, she told me) but by then her body had betrayed her as well. And having used up all her own money, she’d ended up, through a social worker at a rehab center in Fairfield County, at the ‘rest home’ in Waterbury.
“I was in a fog,” she told me, long after that meeting on West Main Street while Butterfly fortified himself for the A.A. meeting, “that lasted almost 15 years.” Her son had been one of those ‘oops’ children when she was 36 and her daughters were 11 and 9. So the fog set in when she was 54 and didn’t lift until she was 69 going on 85, penniless, forsaken, extremely ill.
“How did you meet Butterfly?” I asked her shortly after meeting her. She was sitting in the church, waiting for Butterfly to smoke some dope before walking her the three blocks back to the home.
She smiled and looked her age instead of a decade older. “He volunteers at the home,” she told me. "He picks up people’s prescriptions from the drug store and goes to get folks some fast food when they want it and brings around newspapers each morning."
I shook my head. Like a diamond, Butterfly had many facets.
She took a deep breath. “This church is very beautiful,” she said. “Butterfly told me to ask you if you’d do my funeral here when the time comes?”
I nodded and mumbled, “of course.”
Then she continued, “He wants to be buried from here too. He told me. Don’t forget since I doubt he’s told you.”
Nodding more I told her I wouldn’t forget. But then, in the end, I after all, I had to scramble hard to keep my promise.
Butterfly and Millicent became an ‘item’. He began to bring her to church—she’d grown up High Church at St. Thomas’ in New York City and had to get used to our less formal ways. But she always had something insightful to say about the sermon and Butterfly, flitting around, unable to sit still, would make sure he was there to help her up to communion. She became the den-mother of a quite unruly A.A. meeting. Most of the people who came were court ordered and just wanted their paper signed. But she adopted them all—having only dead and estranged children of her own—and kept a discipline and insured that the crowd noise at the break was at a minimum. And Butterfly saw to her every need and every whim (though Millicent didn’t have many ‘whims’ any more—she was down to ‘needs’ and nothing else).
I feel like the author of John’s Gospel: “there are many more stories about Butterfly than are written here….” Just a couple left.
One day, the week before he was murdered, Butterfly simply opened the door of my office and came in. I was with a woman who believed her child was on drugs and her husband was having an affair. I was looking through my Rolodex to find the numbers of a psychologist and a drug hot-line for her to call. I had been present to her pain but she needed a real ‘professional’. She was sitting on the couch, wiping her eyes, when Butterfly butted in, waving a piece of paper and shouting, “I passed! I passed! I don’t have AIDS!”
The woman jumped and looked horrified that such a creature had intruded on her pain and suffering with such a message. Butterfly didn’t ‘work’ for the uninitiated. His charm was an acquired taste. I threw him unceremoniously out of my office and told him to wait on me in the library downstairs. He turned, just like a 10 year old showing you their report card and being rejected, would have turned. He shut the door softly behind himself and I started writing phone numbers on the back of my calling card.
I was furious with him. When I went into the library he was sitting working on one of his ‘art works’. What he did was trace characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and then surround them with leaves and flowers and rainbows and stars and color them in with Crayons and glue stick them to a piece of cardboard. He always signed them “Papillon” (sic) and gave them to people as if they were Picassos or Rembrandts, which, in the last analysis, they were. I’m looking at one he did for my wife as I write this. I keep it near the desk where I work. Her name, BERN is outlined in green, colored yellow and the two little balloons in the B are hearts colored red. Practically everyone I knew in those days had a Papillon original and most people kept them somewhere in sight.
But I wasn’t thinking of that the last afternoon I ever saw him. I was thinking of how inappropriate and intrusive he had been, how he had crossed a line and shattered a boundary, how he had fucked up big-time.
“Aren’t you happy I don’t have AIDS?” he asked, as if nothing had happened 10 minutes before, as innocent as a child…which was the truth.
“I’m very happy for you,” I said, trying not to let my anger show, “and for me…since I’ll have you around to drive me crazy for a long time.” He laughed at that, but I continued, doing my lamentable duty as the “authority” in his life, trying to do “what was best for him”, wanting to “teach him a lesson.”
“Butterfly, you can’t come barging into my office whenever you want,” I said, watching him flinch and twitch, wanting to get up and move but knowing I would disapprove. “You really fucked up today. You’re banned from the church for four days.”
He was about to burst into tears, as he sometimes did. But when he wiped his face with his forearm, he was reminded that he was wearing a black leather jacket, some sizes too large. Then he smiled and got up, coming over to show me the jacket.
“It’s my new boyfriend’s,” he told me, “isn’t it delicious.”
“Where’d you meet this new boyfriend,” I asked, touching the leather. It was delicious. I wished I had one.
“Library Park,” he said, dancing away, his head leaned back, a child with a new crush. “He’s from Brooklyn. Just got into town last night. I got the test for him. He’s really fab-u-lous….”
“He’s really big,” I said, referring to the jacket.
“Oh, I’ll find that out tonight!” Butterfly said, moving toward the door, swishing as hard as a skinny, 6’5” man could swish. “I’ll let you know.” Then he stopped and counted on his fingers. “This is Tuesday,” he told me, “four days will be Sunday. See you then….” Then he was gone.
“Be careful, Butterfly,” I called after him. But I don’t think he heard me. And I didn’t see him Sunday because on Saturday night at some time, his new boyfriend stabbed him to death with the large pair of scissors Butterfly had to cut the cardboard so he could glue stick his art work to it.
And Sunday was Palm Sunday, the first day of the octave that includes Holy Week and Easter—the holiest week of the Christian Year. A police officer who knew Butterfly (didn’t they all?) came by the church about 9 a.m., after the early service, to find me and tell me that Butterfly had been murdered and the murderer was in custody.
I found words in spite of my shock and horror and gathering shame about my last encounter with my friend. “Why did he kill him? Do you know?”
The police officer looked back through his little notebook. “One of the detectives told me it had something to do with Butterfly wearing his leather jacket without asking….”
Everything got very confusing after that. Holy Week at St. John’s was filled with mourning and passion—not just for our Lord, but for our dear friend, Butterfly. Everything was suffused with his murder. Every homily for 7 days mentioned him. I’m sure it was his ‘corpus’ and not Jesus’ that people saw on the cross that year. But his corpse was up in Farmington, at the State Police Forensic lab. I can only wonder what the technicians and pathologists thought of Butterfly’s body—the piercings, the Mohawk, the tattoos, his great height and tiny weight. The scar and metal plate in his head from a prison riot in California decades ago. And the stab wounds, examined, excised, analyzed three ways to Palm Sunday—did they find ‘trace evidence’ of cardboard in the wound from the scissors? What did they make of that?
I couldn’t get a straight answer from the police or the coroner or the prosecuting attorneys office about where Butterfly’s body was or when it could be buried. I burned up the phone lines days past Easter and got nothing helpful back. But I must have been on a lot of those pink “Someone called when you were out” slips, because a local mortician called me to let me know he had Butterfly’s murdered and filleted body and was going to bury him—via his brother’s instructions (His Brother—I had no idea Butterfly had family!) in a pauper’s grave on Friday morning at 9 a.m. I wasn’t familiar with the particular cemetery so the funeral director promised me he’s have someone meet me at the gate at 8:55 a.m. to bring me to the grave. I was there at 8:40, coffee and newspaper to fill the time. At 9 a.m. I started driving around the huge cemetery and saw no one, anywhere. I went to the office that was just opening. I told my story and the cemetery director, a huge Irish man with Spencer Tracy eyebrows and a whisky voice explained to me that contrary to cemetery rules, the grave had been opened the previous afternoon and the funeral director had disposed of the body at 8 a.m. and paid a half-hour of overtime to have the grave filled before 9.
I was so beside myself that Spencer Tracy drove me out to Butterfly’s newly filled grave and I sobbed the burial office over it. On the way back to his office, I asked the cemetery director why, o why, would the mortician have misled me so?
He waited until he got back to the office and we were out of his car to answer. “This was a ‘state burial’,” he told me. “I would venture that paying overtime to have the grave filled was less expensive than a real coffin.”
The concept of a ‘real coffin’ had never occurred to me. What would an ‘unreal coffin’ be?
“He was buried in a very large cardboard box,” the man told me, very aware of how upset I was, “that’s my best guess….And he didn’t want you to see that….”
“He was my friend…,” I said, about to start blabbering.
The man rubbed his thumb against his forefinger and said, sadly, I think, “not to the funeral director.”
When I was back to the church I called a funeral director I trusted implicitly and blabbered out the story. “He didn’t break any laws,” he told me, “but he lied to a priest and was certainly unethical. You could call the State Board about him. Lots of paperwork, not much results. I don’t know what to tell you—he was a bad man….But then, I knew that….”
I called the funeral director who had planted poor Butterfly without my presence. “I told you 8 a.m.,” he said, butter not only not melting in his mouth but becoming chilled. “And he was just a bum.” I hung up. All else was futile. Before I hung up I did get a phone number in Rhode Island for Butterfly’s brother and told him I was planning a memorial service the Wednesday of the next week and invited him to come. He was startled and stunned. “Will anyone come?” he asked.
“Oh, my goodness, yes,” I told him. I’m not sure he believed me but, God bless his heart, he did come.
Three hundred people showed up for Butterfly’s memorial service. No kidding, three hundred people showed up. Instead of a homily, there was a microphone down in the center aisle and people were invited to speak. I lost count at 19 because Justine, Butterfly’s nemesis, came to the microphone and said, in the 5 year old language she has, “I love Butterfly. Fly, Butterfly.” Then she kissed her hand and blew it toward the ceiling of the church. (She also rambled on in ways no one understood for a few more minutes before I went down and stopped her gently.) Butterfly’s brother, who obviously remembered the little boy who had no friends and was weird and got put in prison and beaten there, but didn’t know—had no way to imagine—that his brother was so profoundly loved dissolved into tears and sobs to the extent that I considered calling 911.
It was Millicent who spoke last. After she spoke there was nothing else to say. Something like this was her eulogy for Butterfly: “He became my son—not the son I lost, but the son I never deserved. No one—no one—ever cared for me with more compassion and love and joy that Butterfly. He was a good boy—the best boy ever. I’m not sure how to live without him….”
After talking to his brother at the reception that people had organized in the library—though the library was too small and the food ran out, but the people in the soup kitchen brought in more and more and more because they loved Butterfly too—I took Justine to Butterfly’s grave. Butterfly’s brother told me over and over, “I never knew, I couldn’t have imagined….” He was referring to the love he had witnessed for his deranged, odd, weird, eccentric, crazy brother. Who could have known? Who could have imagined?
I have a dog—well, not actually a ‘dog’ because he’s a Puli—who is hell on wheels to ride in a car with. Unless I strap him down with this gadget I bought at a pet store, he is all over me: barking at the key until I turn it, barking at the gear shift until I engage it, barking at the gas petal until I push it. Then he puts his paw on my arm, as if to direct me where to go—one of his walking places or another. I actually believe he could drive if his legs could reach the brake and he had a thumb to turn the key and change the gears. Well, that was a dim reflection of what it was like to take Justine the 12 miles or so to Butterfly’s grave. At that point in her life—and she’s exactly my age—she was much like a child raised by wolves in France. Since then a couple in the parish have unofficially adopted her and tamed her (to some extent) and transformed her into something rare and wondrous. That’s a story in itself. But on the day of Butterfly’s memorial service, she was like a Puli in my front seat. I belted her in but she kept yelling and reaching over to touch the windshield wipers and the steering wheel and the gear shift. And because there are so many graveyards in a place like Connecticut, she kept seeing them and hollering, “Butterfly? Butterfly?”
Once we got there and I showed her where he was buried, she wept and mumbled something that must have been ‘good-bye’ and was calmer on the way home.
(A few months later I was sitting by Millicent’s death bed. One of her daughters was there and the other was flying in from Oregon the next day. She would have her funeral at St. John’s but the daughters would take her ashes back to Greenwich to bury beside their father, who, rich as Midas, had thrown an embolism two years before and passed through that wondrous, mysterious, terrifying door. After Butterfly’s death, Millicent had called her daughters and, since grace abounds when you least expect it, they had ‘come home’ to their mother. Some sad stories have happy endings, thank the Lord.
I had given communion to Millicent and her daughter—no wine for Millicent, she was through with Demon Rum in all its manifestations. And, with Millicent’s permission, I had said the prayers for the dying. “Surely I am,” she told me when I hesitantly asked, “why not?” I was thinking it might be time for me to leave when Millicent’s daughter took my hand and her mother’s and said, in that upper-class accent she shared with Millicent, “Jim, you must tell me about Butterfly, my mother’s son by another mother.”
I smiled that she knew enough street language to say it that way. The afternoon was just beginning. I had nothing but time.
“You better get a chair,” I told her, “this might take a while.”
Millicent was drifting off to sleep as I began, but her daughter was on the edge of her chair, drinking it all in.
Sometimes you get lucky and things turn out like that….)
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