In the walled wedge of garden on the grounds of St. Bridget’s Church, in the cruel noonday sun, Father Stanley Stuart squatted before a bed of happy yellow marigolds and pale pink petunias, idly searching for aphids and mealybugs. Finding no trace or sign of decay, no visible tracks of invisible armies, he slowly backed away, his head humming in the violent heat. He allowed the petunias their frilly beauty but he grudgingly admired the marigolds—the way they resisted disease, tolerated dust and drought, and thrived on neglect.
He was onto the nicotiana plants—he’d planted these three summers ago as a fragrant balm to his thirst for cigarettes— and was down on one knee cycloning the top of them with his sharpest shears when Father Carlton appeared in the garden like an apparition, like a blackened plum that had fallen from a tree. He was in a dark t-shirt, black pants and sandals—no collar. He furiously fingered his silver crucifix. “Stan.”
Stan rose and crossed himself. He blinked at the poor priest standing before him—he couldn’t help it. Pity must have reshaped his whole face.
“I know—I look like hell,” Father Carlton said, a little wearily, as though he hated stating the obvious on such an extreme occasion.
In fact, no matter what the occasion, he always looked like a proper priest. He had a high forehead wall, now mottled and scaly—he was plagued by a persistent psoriasis—and thin, thread-like hair the color of silver beauties. His mouth was the mouth of the reticent—taut and perpendicular, seemingly sealed. His eyes were the strangest, saddest set of eyes
Stan had ever seen. They were at once willful and purposefully peaceful, and when they set themselves upon you in the heat of High Mass you would swear that you had withstood the stare of the Son.
Father Carlton lit a cigarette, and spent a moment considering the lit end of it, as though it signified something profound. “Along with everything else, it looks like I’ve lost the ability to sleep.” He said it softly, as though levelling a dangerous charge against himself.
It had been more than four days since he had slept, he told Stan. It had ruined one of his most precious theories—that with more hours in the day, a man could acquire a kind of wisdom ordinarily denied him. No, this was not the case. He was shattered and dulled, his capacity to understand things had diminished, not increased. He was positively stupid about life.
Stan shifted his feet in the soft dirt. “Have you tried praying?”
Father Carlton smiled. “I could never make a novena for myself. I wouldn’t know how.” He made a vague motion behind him, as though in the direction of the church and the deep, tangled woods that lay behind it. “Maybe now I can learn.”
Stan knew all about that. Priests habitually self-deny, they press their own prayers between the minutes and hours of a day, never making verbal or vocal petitions on their own behalf. To do so would be too bold a personal assault on heaven. The heaviest burden in the world is the burden of a priest carrying around his own private store of wishes.
“Then I’ll pray for you,” Stan said.
“And I for you,” Father Carlton said.
They stood, separated only by the small stalks of canterbury bells. It seemed to Stan that something was called for here—something—but he just couldn’t come up with what it was. He wanted to reach out to him, not knowing exactly how to do it, or if he should do it at all. If Father Carlton had been someone else, anyone else, Stan would have opened up his hands and cupped the person’s grief in them, even drunk of that grief himself. Rut this—this was beyond him, beyond words. This was his pastor, his mentor, his direct superior, and whether or not the Church still recognized him as such, whether he even recognized himself anymore, Stan saw him as he’d always seen him.
Tu es sacerdos in aeternum—Thou art a priest forever.
Not at all sure what to say, Stan finally said, “God’s will be done.”
Father Carlton waved his hand. He’d have none of that crap, not now, not for this. There was nothing to be done. He walked towards the rectory, lighting a fresh cigarette from the nub of the old one. In 24 hours, he’d be on a Peter Pan bus, heading down the highway toward a new life.
“See you tonight,” he called out, not once turning back to take a last look at Stan’s garden.
“And in the evening of your life, you will be judged on your love.”
The phrase popped into Stan’s head, unbidden and unwelcome, like a sinous and ugly weed, as he sat alone in the small refectory watching fat glossy fruit flies buzz around his lunch of cold buttered noodles. Where was it from? Which book, chapter, verse?
Afterward, he returned to the garden and began weeding, half-heartedly at first, then at an almost maniacal and messianic pace. He’d recently acquired a newfangled handheld weed puller, a steel wheel with jagged teeth and sharp hooks, almost like a facsimile of a medieval instrument of torture. It was a gift from a parishioner who owned a hardware store. The roots came tearing up from the earth like multi-headed monsters, and Stan shook the loose dirt from each one and tossed the carcasses into a plastic bucket.
He thought of Father Carlton’s habit of shaking out the folds of his cassock before he put it on.
He saw Father Carlton preparing for the Funeral Mass of a child, his shoulders caved in from grief.
He had read somewhere that by the 25th year nearly 20 percent of all American priests will leave the priesthood. Strange statistics such as these mysteriously worked their way inside his head, and once they lodged there he was helpless to displace them. He knew there were something like 300 resigned priests in Massachusetts, 800 in New York State, and 227 in Louisiana. He knew that in Latin America and parts of Europe, married priests were as common as daisies, as ordinary as rain.
In a two-priest church, according to the odds, one priest has nearly a fifty-fifty chance of abandoning his calling. He wondered about these lost priests sometimes, in the same way he thought of starving Africans or the blind or the terminally ill. He had never met—had never heard of—a priest who left because his faith had waned or flickered out altogether. That just didn’t happen. When a priest received the “favor” of laicization, when he was released from his sacred promise and loosed upon the wider world, his office lay in shambles but his faith remained in place, stubbornly, like a root system too deep to destroy. Some were forced to leave—though that was rare enough, and the Church had all kinds of blind spots for weak, willful, even criminal priests. Some perfectly good priests despaired of the political machinations, deserting the Church but not Christ. Some left on the day their mother died—the single most popular day for priest resignations. (He had known one such priest, a Father Thomas from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, who told him that he could bear the eyes of Christ locked upon him as he shed the skin of the priesthood, but not the judgemental hawk-eyes of his mother.) The bulk of it was pretty plain. Most priests who left the priesthood were driven out by those two polar opposites, loneliness and love, by too much of one and not enough of the other.
Now he was forced to fit Father Carlton into this clan of exiles, of the dispossessed and the repossessed. In Father Carlton’s case, he had “accidentally fallen in love.” It sounded to Stan as though love were a giant crater that had been cruelly placed between the rectory and the church, and one day on his way to vespers Father Carlton had dropped into it unawares, and now lay helpless inside it, looking up at the yawning sky and the gaping vault of heaven.
Stan saw “the change” come over him slowly, like a veil being lifted, and it was horrible and beautiful at the same time, as most absolute sins are. At first Stan thought it might be drink or theft or avarice., but then all at once he saw what it was, and he knew it was the most terrible thing of all—it was love. Father Carlton began disappearing for long stretches in the afternoons, for overlong walks in the evenings, for blocks of time for which there could be no rational accounting. Then he started getting careless, so that subtle but foreign smells clung to him, and buttons were missing from his shirts, and his moods swung high and low and back again.
One day, he simply said, “Come take my confession, Stan. I need you to hear it.”
They took their places in the confession box. Stan had the instant sensation of being underwater, of everything slowed down to a languid weightlessness, of words floating towards him like strange and exotic shapes he’d never seen before and would never see again. He imagined Father Carlton’s dark face bobbing slightly as he described the chance collision at a Catholic Charities meeting. He had not even intended to go—that was the irony of it. He had mountains of paperwork to do, and was fighting one of those spring colds that seem to linger interminably, but Father Jeffers from St. Anne’s had prevailed upon him at the last minute.
He arrived late. He announced himself with a hacking cough. Rain fell off his coat and hat. There were 10 or 12 people sitting around in a circle of chairs. He sat next to her, in the only empty seat. He fidgeted. He couldn’t sit still. He would have killed for a drink. And the fact that no one was smoking nearly drove him crazy. He began to intone a prayer to settle himself—Jesus is my lightest load, Jesus is my highest road. He heard a soft, sibilant voice accompany him—hers. Her voice. Her.
He talked and talked and talked. He told Stan how he rocked himself to sleep to beat back the temptation. He literally tried to pour himself out till there was nothing left. After that, he tossed up hypocritical prayers, mumbled apologies, curse words, tears.
“What dispensation are you seeking from the church?” Stan said at the end of it, knowing he sounded too officious and harsh but unable to modulate his tone of voice.
“Nothing,” was the cold, clinical answer.
The days passed. At first, Stan didn’t want to see her picture. He didn’t want to SEE it. Let her remain abstract and inchoate, an idea of a great and permanent betrayal. When he finally saw it—Father Carlton had pinned it to the sleeve of Stan’s robes where they hung silently in the sacristy—the woman’s face seemed to rise from the photograph and turn to actual flesh. Her eyes had a certain heaviness and a sure knowledge of the world that filled Stan with a kind of jealousy and dread. Her mouth was caught in a sleepy half-smile. On the flip side of the photograph, Father Carlton had written: “4/11/62.”
Out in the garden, a blast of hot air swept over Stan’s bent back. His hands were covered with dark dirt, and dirt had worked its way to the bottom of his fingernails, and all along the crevices of his skin.
Love. Dirt. Sin. Sun.
Eventually, he heard the sharp tinkling of a bell. It was one of the sisters, one of the dutiful daughters of Christ, calling him back to his duties.
In mid-afternoon, Stan heard confessions of the usual kind, of child kleptomaniacs and housewives who ate chocolate in secret, of policemen who confessed to exulting in their power and losing sight of the law of mercy, of neighbors who bore intractable and infinitesimal grudges against neighbors. It was a small enough parish that everyone knew everyone, and the priests knew all there was to know. It was a town with a very low ceiling, Father Carlton liked to say. You had to be careful not to always be bumping your head or skinning your scalp.
Later, completely exhausted, Stan lay fully dressed on top of his bed, in his original room in the rectory, the one he had occupied for 21 years. The summer sun was sinking, and a sweet orange light suffused the room.
He saw no reason to move his things to Father Carlton’s larger, airier rooms. The bishop’s letter to Stan last week made it clear that as acting pastor, Stan would be just that—acting. Candidates for the permanent position were now being considered and would soon be interviewed. His glorious duties to God and the Church would continue unabated in their same, subtle ways, and the bishop went so far as to make special note of the particular and peculiar brand of humility he practiced, one that would well serve as a model to all true priests.
So he would stay in his old room, which was a simple square, with a window, a crucifix on all four whitewashed walls, and in the box of a bathroom the image of the Virgin over his sink, so that when he looked up, flushing water from his eyes, he saw her.
His bed had an iron frame and a firm, unforgiving mattress. Mostly, he slept on his left side, his shoulders hunched, his knees drawn up mantis-style. A thin man of delicate constitution, with little tolerance for night air, he was always cold, and kept his one window closed, even in the dead of summer. He also had to have the radio on all night as a running commentary against the steely silence—not to music but to radio plays and comedy shows and newscasts, the ceaseless drone of the human voice. He knew without being told that it was a good thing that he slept alone; no other creature on God’s good earth could ever have adjusted to his mounting idiosyncrasies.
He was 54 years old now, suspended in mid-air, caught between weariness and resistance, fleshy around the middle, afflicted with ailments of one kind or another, and now his gums bled every morning when he scrubbed his teeth. He had once had very definite ambitions, and whether or not he had them still even he couldn’t say with any certainty. By now, the powers had branded him as a setback—set back from the forward rush of the Church, clearly not of the first rank. Men 15 and 20 years his junior surged past him like seeds borne on the wind. Sometimes, lying in his bed, or in odd moments at the altar, he could almost feel the air oozing out of him, as if his spirit had been torn, if only imperceptibly, and had acquired a slow but steady leak.
His one good distraction was gardening. He learned early on that in the church, it is good to have a passion, a pursuit, preferably one that takes you out into the open air and gets you working with your soft idle hands. Most of the nuns, the housekeeper, and even Mr. Rodriguez the handyman took on vocations, they collected things (stamps, coins, porcelain Virgin Marys of the world), they built things, they comforted and distracted themselves with little bits of the external world.
It was true that he was a limited gardener, with a likewise constricted imagination. He had grown only four flowers in 20 years—petunias, marigolds, zinnias, and dwarf snapdragons. He sprinkled in a few fast-growing, low-maintenance plant fillers. Only last year, he tried Catpanula medium, commonly known as canterbury bells, biennials that germinate the first year, flower the second year, set seed and die. But that was an exception, a rare departure. He deliberately shied away from experimentation. He was distrustful of the philosophy of gardening—of premeditated design, of manifold color schemes, scale, proportion, and focal points. Here, too, he railed against vanity. That was the main thing with annuals—they expired right on schedule. They honored their appointment with death, and here Stan recognized a certain correctness of spirit and an admirable adherence to duty.
There was something else, too. All in all, the gardeners were the least likely to be drinkers or insomniacs or victims of carnal temptation, the sure and certain afflictions that hunt out priests the way lace bugs light upon shrubbery leaves and devour them alive.
With the sky darkening outside his window, Stan slowly stripped off his clothing and hung it over the bed railing in the following order: collar, shirt, sleeveless T-shirt, pants, underwear, socks, sock suspenders. He stepped into his ancient shower cubicle and turned on a barrage of scalding hot water, adroitly turning his back to the nozzle and letting the violent spray burn his knotted, bundled shoulders. The gorgeous sensation briefly filled his eyes with tears.
Afterward, he wrapped himself in a white terrycloth bathrobe. Once the steam had dissolved on the mirror glass, he carefully combed his short stiff greying hair left to right in a perfect part. He snipped two stray nose hairs and a stringy strand of eyebrow that had been bothering him all day. He started to turn away when he did something he never did—he leaned toward the mirror for a general look at himself. He pulled at his face this way and that. He profiled left, profiled right, then held his head still and tried to drain away any expression or emotion. It was certainly a plain face, and he had always held the belief that plain faces are the best kind.
Just after eight o’clock, Father Carlton appeared at Stan’s door, his hair mussed, his face shaded by the day’s beard, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Emily has prepared a special dinner. She’s mad at me. She’s been in a funk all day. If we’re late, she’ll likely poison us.
The refectory table was lit by two tapered candles at either end. A basket of fruit lay in the middle consisting of red and green apples, pears, bananas, pomegranates, and mangoes, the very symbols of bounty and abundance. The priests sat at either end of the table and after a quick pause for private prayers began tearing apart their bread and greedily stuffing their mouths. Stan felt possessed by an almost savage hunger. Out of his peripheral vision he could see Father Carlton’s hands and mouth working steadily, his body bent forward in a posture of pure intensity.
Emily, their cook, a slightly retarded woman whose childish devoutness could stand up to any cleric’s, went from priest to priest, filling up their wine glasses as needed. At one point she lingered over Father Carlton until her sobs could no longer be mistaken for the wind.
“Now, now,” Father Carlton said, grasping her hand and bringing it to his lips. “Everything will be perfectly well.”
She fell to her knees and began pounding Father Carlton’s lap with her sizeable pink fists. “Hate you—you—you— you—you!” Her lower lip jutted out almost like a canine’s— her dull eyes glowed with the pain of incomprehension.
Stan rose but Father Carlton shook his head. Let her continue. Let her have this.
She seemed to be settling down—he was stroking her short frizzy fall of auburn hair—when she suddenly took his hand and bit down on it, hard. The priest gasped and jerked it away. Stan saw blood trickle from the fattiest, fleshiest side of his palm.
“Emmy!” Stan shouted.
“No!” Father Carlton said. “It’s all right.”
He made a circle of his arms and covered all but the very top of her hair while he whispered non-stop into her ear. Nothing reached Stan beyond sibilant s’s and steady “sh” sounds. Eventually, Emily stood up and smoothed out the front of her apricot-colored, ill-fitting dress.
“That’s my pretty one,” Father Carlton crooned.
The soup was cold beet soup with thickly sliced red beets, floating chunks of potato, and big dollops of sour cream. The main course was Father Carlton’s favorite—chicken caccia-tore. The chicken fairly swam in the red sauce. That was one of Emily’s things, oversaucing and oversalting everything. Now she stood off to the side, practically in the passageway that led back to the kitchen, waiting for the father’s reaction.
He wriggled a huge chunk into his mouth and chewed for what seemed like minutes. He closed his eyes and shook his head theatrically. “Like manna from heaven,” he said, and the woman burst into hysterical giggles.
From then on, they ate in virtual silence.
Near the end, they sopped up the sauce with their bread.
Father Carlton finally stopped eating and lit a cigarette. The smoke reached Stan in wispy drifts. “Sarah heard your sermon last week,” he said.
“She heard somebody’s sermon,” Stan said.
Sermons had never come naturally to him. He considered himself a terribly uneven writer and a mumbling speaker who drowned out the ends of his sentences. Since he had taken over the Sunday services, he subscribed to a kind of sermon service, where they arrived pre-fabricated, lifted whole and entire from someone else’s soul. Chastity. Charity. Arrogance. Sloth. Any topic you wanted.
The theme of the week club.
“She was in the way back of the church,” Father Carlton said. “She had to see you for herself.”
“Stiff and conventional,” Stan said. “A little old man wearing a dress.”
“She liked you.” He paused. “She liked your eyes.”
Stan looked away, looked down and to the side.
Father Carlton shifted uneasily in his chair. His mouth had a twisted, torqued shape. “I hate buses.”
There was a short burst of silence.
“I’ll write you when we get there. Within a week. Rut don’t tell the sons of bitches where I am. You’ve got to promise me.
Stan held up his hand, as though in acknowledgement, acceptance, and resistance, all at the same time.
“I’m going to live the rest of my damn life,” Father Carlton said.
Coffee was poured, sharp and acrid, the way Father Carlton liked it. Could Emily ever learn to make milder coffee?
Father Carlton slouched and sighed. He was gazing at Stan with an almost unbearable affection. “You be sure to tell them that you never listened to me or fell under my bad influence. You tell them you condemn me for what I did. May he rot in hell and twist in the hot wind and blah blah blah. You know how they think, Stan. They’ll think this thing is contagious, that you might catch it from me.”
He stood up. He delicately reached into his pocket and pulled out the black wooden talisman from which hung the keys to the parish car, a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Victoria hardtop coupe with red leather seats.
“I think these are yours now,” he said.
Stan said nothing, did nothing.
“The car’s YOURS now. Come on, take it. God knows when there’ll be a knock at your door, and it’ll be someone like Burns taking it back.” Father Burns was the bishop’s dirty jobber, a big red-faced priest from Cincinnati who had hard glittering blue eyes moist from too much drink. Father Carlton liked to say he suffered from a common form of institutional dementia. He confused his own role with that of the bishop—sometimes he even thought he WAS the bishop. Poor bastard couldn’t help himself.
Father Carlton came around to where Stan sat but Stan made no motion for the keys. He couldn’t. The pastor loved that car. He loved it like nothing else. It represented the only display of covetousness on his part Stan had ever seen. In that way, he was typical. Cars were part of the priestly consolations—big cars, soft wool, Cuban cigars, gold watches, glittering rings, and gifts of liquor, what some liked to call their “celibacy vaccine.” It was common to find quiet, unassuming priests who treated their cars like mistresses. Cars were the closest thing on earth to having wings. Cars were a corporeal delight. And besides, so long as you put your breviary down on the front seat, you were protected against moving violations, accidents, and the consequences of things moving too fast.
This car was two-tone, a seamless pairing of black and white, the lower body and roof coal-black, the hood and upper parts a creamy white. It had whitewall tires, a clean, rectangular full-width silver grille, protruding headlights that resembled owl eyes, tiny tailfins, and rakish side moldings, like lightning bolts. It had a V8 engine—it was divinely fast. Now six years old, it was in the prime of its life.
“I thought you’d like to take her for a drive,” Father Carlton said. “A maiden voyage.”
“It’s your time, Stan.”
The night was still flushed with heat, like a warm palm. The car was parked under the big elm that protected the pastor’s private space. Stan was halfway around to the passenger’s side—pure habit—when he heard the jangling of keys, it was Father Carlton, reminding him that he was the driver now, the new proprietor.
He got behind the wheel and turned the ignition key. The engine rumbled, the crucifix hanging from the rearview mirror vibrated. The dashboard, when he turned on the lights, seemed like a shining, impossible city broken out in reds and greens.
Father Carlton leaned in through the open window and delivered a series of gentle advisements. “Always let her idle a bit,” he said.
“Move the seat up. Feel right on top of it.”
“Ease down on the pedals. Imagine they’re made of glass.”
“Don’t use detergents to wash the seats. A little Ivory soap and water will do.”
Stan locked on the great tender eyes that floated in the dead center of the window space. This was it, wasn’t it? This was the end. As though to fend off any possible last words or deeds Stan might try to muster, Father Carlton slammed his wounded hand against the door panel. “For God’s sake, go!”
Stan put it in reverse gear and felt everything shift beneath him. Father Carlton stood there with his hands in his pockets as the car backed out of its space and the tires chewed up the loose gravel of the church parking lot.
He drove slowly at first, past the lights at the rotary, across the railroad tracks, and onto the monotonous straightaway of
Route 22. The steering wheel felt strangely weightless in his hands, like a gigantic hollow ring.
The highway was deserted. Trees took on the appearance of charcoal flares, and houses and fields appeared haphazard and artificial.
He pressed gingerly on the accelerator, moving up to 50, almost 55, and it was the queerest sensation, one he could never quite get over, how your own body can be in a state of stasis and yet the thing that contains you is hurtling though space. Speed, change, disorder, chaos—Stan saw these as a family of related aberrations that had swirled around him forever yet never quite touched him. Somehow, he was always sealed off from life.
He found the silver knob to the radio, and twisted it back and forth until he found a listenable human voice, a female’s, her words punctuated by staccato laughter.
The speedometer reached 65 miles an hour.
The needle was trembling into the red zone when he saw something flickering up ahead, a hazy dark shape swaying by the side of the road. He slowed down, easing, easing, easing down on the brakes. It was true—they were marvelous brakes, responsive, delicate, perfect, like extensions of your own nerves.
It was a girl, a tall wispy girl dressed entirely in denim— even her coat was denim. She ran up to the car and paused with her hand on the door handle, trying to get a preemptive look at the driver. Then she got in, breathless, the sour smell of cigarette smoke rushing headlong at Stan.
“I thought I’d never see another car,” she said, dropping something heavy to the floor, a carry bag of some kind, an oversized sack. “And then I didn’t think you’d have time to stop. I was sure you wouldn’t. I mean, you were flying.” She looked around quickly, getting her bearings. “Great car.”
“It’s not mine,” Stan said.
“Too bad. I mean, if I were you, I’d wish it was mine.” She smiled at the thought. “So do you think you can take me as far as Eastbridge? Or at least as far as—.”
“Eastbridge is fine.”
Satisfied, reassured, she settled back, crossed her legs, uncrossed them, fixed her hair in the reflection off the dashboard glass. They had gone a ways at a very reasonable speed, Stan’s hands tight on the steering wheel and his eyes locked on the road, when he realized the girl had fallen asleep. Her head fell to one side the way a baby’s head sometimes will, too heavy for its own good. Her mouth was open slightly, her moist breath bubbling softly in her throat, as though she were gulping for air.
A strange thing rose up in him, unidentifiable at first, flimsy and nondescript, ephemeral as the faded white lines in the road, and as it took shape he dimly recognized it as the trail of his life. Here he was, practically an old man, on the threshold of physical extinction, at the beginning of his mortal end, and somehow he was still in love with God. He still loved the Virgin. He loved Christ. He loved the smell of candle wax. He loved the tart blood and the dry host. He loved the wind. How unremarkable he was! How quaint and foolish!
He arched his back and tried to catch his face in the rearview mirror, but he couldn’t quite get it full and square. Was it really him? Could it really be him?