An American couple in Italy investigates the suicide of a cleric in the picturesque city of Orvieto—and finds themselves plunged into a conspiracy that may destroy the Catholic Church in the new thriller Upon This Rock (Pace Press, publication Sept. 1, 2020) by David Eugene Perry.
San Francisco business executive Lee Maury and his husband, Adriano, come to the historic and beautiful Italian city of Orvieto following the death of a close friend. Lee and Adriano immediately fall in love with Orvieto’s beauty, history and tight-knit community—but Lee becomes fascinated by a local tragedy.
One year earlier, Deacon Andrea, a much-loved candidate for the priesthood, was denied ordination and committed suicide by flinging himself off the cliffs of Orvieto. Lee is struck by the parallels between his life and Andrea’s—both are the same age; both were candidates for the priesthood; and both attempted suicide. Growing obsessed with learning the truth about Andrea’s life and death, Lee can’t resist playing amateur detective.
Chapter IX – Andrea
Sunday, December 1, early afternoon, Orvieto
Peg was already waiting for them at “her” table at Café Volsini. Kisses exchanged, the trio sat down just as a tray of wine and nibbles descended.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you. Grazie mille, Signora Volsini!”
La Madrina nailed them with a look and slipped the bill underneath the stem of Peg’s wine glass.
“I don’t think she likes us,” Adriano grimaced.
“She doesn’t like anyone. She doesn’t need to,” Peg smiled while popping a pizzetta into her mouth. “She just is. So, how was your first full day in Orvieto? Isn’t it a treasure!”
For the next 20 minutes or so, Adriano and Lee shared their impressions and Peg nodded, smiled, and tacked on recommendations for day trips to each of their revelations and queries.
Somewhere between “You simply must do the walk to Bolsena” and “Don’t miss the Etruscan necropolis,” Lee noticed La Madrina Volsini walking quietly behind the counter of the antique bar to light a small, white candle—definitely not electric or battery powered—in front a faded Polaroid photo of what looked to be a young, almost boyish, priest. She said nothing as she did so, but Lee noticed that as she struck the match, the other three bar staffers stopped what they were doing, bowed ever so slightly, and said nothing while the elderly café owner lit the votive. Delicately, she let her wrinkled fingers caress the photo. Crossing herself, she turned abruptly, once again all business. As if momentarily in suspended animation, the café staff quickly returned to life, pretending not to have noticed the almost-sacred machinations of their boss.
“Who’s that?” Lee asked quietly, nodding towards the mini-memorial behind the bar.
Peg looked to where Signora Volsini had just lit the candle. Her smile cracked, and her face froze. “Oh dear, yes. The Feast of Saint Andrea. It’s been a year. Let’s go outside. Arrivederci, Signora!” and Peg was up and out the door with astonishing speed, as if wanting to be anywhere but inside Café Volsini. Lee didn’t know a dress with that many pleats could move so fast or dexterously.
Outside, Peg hustled them down the pavement half a block before she spoke. “Deacon Andrea. Bernardone. She found his body, last year, after he jumped from the cliffs here in Orvieto.”
Lee’s face went ashen.
“Oh my God,” Adriano said, squeezing Lee’s hand and looking at him for a reaction. Lee barely felt it and avoided Adriano’s eyes, avoided his own thoughts.
Suicide. Adriano squeezed harder. Lee came back to the present.
“Yes. It was quite the scandal, let me tell you! A week before he was to be ordained fully into the priesthood, the bishop got a letter directly from the Vatican in Rome saying that Andrea was ‘unfit’ or some such excuse. The rumor was that Andrea was gay and that an embarrassing secret was about to bust loose. It was all highly unusual. They told him by fax, if you can believe it. Anyway, poor Andrea just broke down. He jumped from the cliffs right after Mass—on his birthday! Signora Volsini found him the next morning while she was out for her morning walk along the Rupe in front of Floriano’s altar.”
“The Rupe. What’s that?” Lee asked.
“The Anello della Rupe—the Ring of the Rock. It’s the walking path that circles the entire city at the foot of the cliff. It’s quite a drop. Horrible. His body and face were terribly mangled. Probably died right away. One certainly hopes at least. His body fell right in front of the Chiesa del Crocifisso.”
“The Church of the Crucifix,” Adriano translated.
“Exactly. Evidently it was one of Andrea’s favorite spots. He always helped with the annual Mass in honor of Floriano. So tragic, and ironic, that he should die there.”
“I don’t recall a St. Floriano,” said Lee, searching for historic information, but only as a mask for his own darkening memories.
“He wasn’t a saint. He may have been no one at all,” said Peg. “His legend is one of Orvieto’s most treasured tales. Supposedly, Floriano was a Roman soldier stationed here in the sixth century. Orvieto has always been somewhat rebellious of Roman authority, then and now. Anyway, Floriano, who was Christian, was falsely accused by his fellow soldiers of some horrible crime—murder, theft, adultery, the accounts differ on what was the trumped-up charge. Whatever it was, the stories all have the same ending. Overcome with hopelessness, Floriano threw himself from the cliff before his comrades could do the same.”
Lee listened without really hearing. Next door, a ballerina in a mechanical jewelry box popped up while a shop owner finalized a sale to two tourists. Lee’s mother had one just like that. He pushed away the thought.
“And the Chiesa del Crocifisso is where he was buried,” Adriano stated with none of his usual irony when discussing Catholic shrines.
“Oh no,” said Peg with a dramatic holding up of her palms. “He didn’t die. As he fell, the story goes, Floriano clutched a crucifix he was wearing around his neck and landed completely uninjured. In gratitude, he immediately carved a cross into the soft tufa, volcanic rock … with his hands.” With that Peg put down her arms.
“Is it still there?” Lee asked.
“Yes, if you believe that sort of stuff. I mean, really. There’s a little chapel there now, and every year, around the middle of September as I recall, there’s a small service. For the last few years, Andrea was quite in charge of it.”
“So,” Adriano ventured, “Andrea was popular in Orvieto.”
“Popular is the understatement of the decade,” said Peg, with none of what Adriano and Lee had already come to expect as her signature theatricality. “Everyone in town just loved him. If there was a good deed to be done, Andrea was doing it, quietly. He didn’t call attention to himself. He just moved through the town helping people. It was his birthday the night that he jumped. He killed himself right after Mass at Sant’Andrea. His funeral two days later was immense.”
That must explain the scuffle during Mass last night, Lee thought. The two young men must have been friends of Andrea, come to pay their respects exactly a year after his death. Was one of the boys Andrea’s lover? Both, perhaps? Was La Madrina trying to shoo them out of the church because they were gay?
“Wow. Two days after he celebrated his birthday, he was buried from the same altar,” Lee stated quietly. Adriano squeezed his hand again. This time he felt it, and was grateful.
“Oh my God no.” Peg grabbed her bosom and threw back her head, once again the drama queen holding court. “No. He was buried from Il Duomo, the Cathedral! Sant’Andrea isn’t big enough to hold all the people that came to Deacon Andrea’s funeral, let me tell you. There was even a cardinal who came from Rome. The press was all over, but the bishop refused to let them inside. I, of course, was an exception.”
“You went?” Peg didn’t strike Lee as the church-going type.
“Everyone went, the whole town. I did a special blog post all about it,” Peg said, releasing her chest and drawing her scarf closer to her neck. “It was the biggest thing to hit Orvieto since the town was liberated from the Germans in World War II—and no, I wasn’t around for that.”
“His name was Andrea, and he was born and died on the feast of his namesake,” Lee said quietly, more of a statement than a question.
“Hmmm, yes, I hadn’t thought of that.” Peg frowned a bit and stopped walking. “That would have been a good angle into the story. Can’t believe I didn’t use it. Oh well, I can always update the blog, but, maybe not. I wouldn’t want people to think I was trying to promote myself using Andrea’s memory.”
I can’t imagine that would stop you, Lee thought. Fear of pissing off La Madrina was more like it.
“How old was he?” Adria asked.
“Twenty-nine when he jumped. Yesterday would have been his thirtieth birthday.”
“My age,” Lee said. “To the day.”
The trio walked on in silence for a few minutes. Then, Peg started up again with a list of sights for Adriano and Lee to visit. “ … And you simply must take in the British war cemetery just outside of town and the site of the Camorena massacre, kind of a locals’ WWII fetish if you ask me. And you must not miss Civita di Bagnoregio, like a mini-Orvieto and just a few miles away. It’s another one of Umbria’s delicious mountaintop villages and practically deserted. Less than a dozen people live there full-time. It’s totally isolated from the outside world and only connected by a tiny little pedestrian bridge that looks for anything like an Italian Great Wall of China. No, thank you …”
The same street vendor they had encountered briefly yesterday afternoon ambled up to them.
“How ’bout you, signor? CDs. Music for the soul.”
“No, thanks,” said Lee as he turned away.
“It’s great music. Why don’t you give it a listen, man? Please?”
“I told you no already,” snarled Peg with her hand uncurling like a fern in dismissal. “Now leave us alone!”
“You don’t have to yell at me.” The dark-skinned peddler shuffled away, dejected, like a puppy caught peeing on the rug. The two Chinese kids from Mass last night turned the corner, and the hawker perked up, in hot pursuit.
“CDs. Music for the soul.” The street merchant continued his plaintive and futile query.
“God, he drives me crazy,” Peg harrumphed, shoving her gloved hands into her coat. “I never take his crap and still he asks. I don’t know why the carbinieri let these people roam around like that. It didn’t used to be that way. Most of them are just drug dealers, pimps, and hookers from Africa. We’re getting overrun by immigrati!” She spit out the word, then instantly retreated into a practiced serenity. “Ah, here we are. My street. You can drop me here. Ciao!” And Peg was gone in a swirl of fabric and arm gestures.
“I guess she doesn’t like music,” Lee said.
“Yeah, so much for Ms. Nicey-Nice.”
As they started to make their way back to their apartment, Lee glanced over his shoulder. Head down, and backpack heavy with his wares, the huckster wandered down the street. It was pretty clear this guy was not Italian, likely illegal, probably from somewhere in North Africa. The papers were full of the exploding refugee crisis. Syria. Morocco. Libya. Every day seemed to bring another story of some ship, hideously crammed, crashing ashore on the southern coast of Italy. Or, worse yet, sinking with hundreds of petrified people aboard.
Lee could hear Brian’s voice now: “Everyone’s a refugee from somewhere and someone. Remember, our number one job here on earth is to make more love in the world.”
Even on his deathbed, Brian had been a priest. Sermonizing to the end. Suddenly Lee missed his best friend very much.
As the peddler wandered out of sight, Lee couldn’t help but wonder about the youthful deacon who had jumped to his death last year on the Feast of St. Andrew. November 30—both their birthdays. Thirty years ago. That day, two mothers labored to bring a child into the world, one in Italy, one in Virginia. Only one of those children remained. At some point, both had wanted to become priests. A strange coldness came over Lee, one that had nothing to do with the Italian winter.
Everyone’s a refugee from somewhere and someone. Remember, our number one job here on earth is to make more love in the world.
“Earth to Lee, come in Lee.” Adriano was waving his hands.
“Oh, sorry. My mind was somewhere else. What did you say?”
“I said, we’d better be getting home, or you’ll be bartering for black market CDs.” Adriano motioned with a nod of his head down the Corso.
The would-be music man was headed their way again, having terrified the Chinese couple into practically running into a nearby gelato stand. Lee didn’t want to be rude, but neither did he want to be pinned down for a sale.
“CDs. Music for the soul …”
Poor guy, Lee thought, looking at the immigrant as they quickened their pace and headed to their apartment. Must be rough having everyone treat you like a walking radioactive isotope. He certainly didn’t look like someone surrounded by a lot of love.
Love. According to Peg, the young deacon Andrea had been surrounded by the love of all of Orvieto, and still that hadn’t been enough to keep him from stepping off a cliff. Andrea must have felt terribly alone; terribly rejected; terribly afraid. Lee knew all about that.
“CDs. Music for the soul …”
Hand in hand, they walked homeward, leaving the peddler behind.
David Eugene Perry is the founder and CEO of the public-relations firm David Perry and Associates, Inc. For 10 years, he was the host and creator of 10 Percent TV, the longest running LGBTQ TV show in California history. He has written for such publications as The Advocate, San Francisco Examiner, Omni, The Desert Sun and The Utne Reader and hosts an online interview show, Ahoy! He and his husband, Alfredo Casuso (pictured below), live in Palm Springs with frequent trips to San Francisco, and when possible, Orvieto and Spain.