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Vestments A Novel by John Reimringer

Read Online Vestments A Novel by John Reimringer Classics Book

Overview: Let me begin today, illumined by Thy light, to destroy this part of the natural man which lives in me in its entirety, the obstacle that constantly keeps me from Thy Love . . .
Taught this prayer as a boy by his grandfather, James Dressler recites it each time he’s tempted by earthly desires. Originally drawn to the priesthood by the mystery, purity, and sensual fabric of the Church, as well as by its promise of a safe harbor from his tempestuous home, James nevertheless finds himself—just a few years after his ordination—living at home: saying Mass for his mother at the dining room table; avoiding his pugilistic father; playing basketball; preparing to officiate at his brother’s wedding, and becoming attracted again to his first love, Betty García.
Torn between these opposing desires, and haunted by his familial heritage, James finds himself at a crossroads. Exploring age-old yet urgently contemporary issues in the Catholic Church, and infused throughout with a rich sense of the history and vibrant texture of St. Paul, Minnesota, this is an utterly honest novel filled with “thoughtful themes and lyrical prose”


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Vestments A Novel by John Reimringer

Read Online Vestments A Novel by John Reimringer Book Chapter One

SATURDAY MORNING IN SAINT PAUL, church bells ringing the hour. I was in the dining room of my mother’s house, celebrating Mass, when we heard my father arrive—the rattle of a rusted exhaust, the backfire of a badly tuned engine. He’d come to drop off his alimony. For a moment I lost my place in the small sacramentary that lay open on the dining-room table. “It’s just the old man,” I said, then put a forefinger on the words of the Eucharistic Prayer and went on. Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body, which will be given up for you. My mother’s eyes rose with the Host. My Lord and my God, she mouthed.
At breakfast, she’d asked me to say Mass: “It’s your first weekend home, let’s make it special,” and we left it at that. I stood at the dining-room table—its scarred walnut top cleared this morning of Mom’s fabric patterns and sewing machine—with my mother in her bathrobe for a congregation and the neighbor’s teenage son out front on his skateboard. The back-and-forth rumble of the wheels and the clatter of the board when the boy tried a jump kept interrupting the introductory rites and the readings, but with the consecration of bread and wine the sounds outside faded. I set the chalice back on the corporal—In memory of his death and resurrection, we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup. We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you—and at that moment I could have been back on the altar at Saint Hieronymus.
Of course, I wasn’t, and now my father was getting out of his old Buick and coming up the walk. He stopped to make a gruff joke to the neighbor boy, and I turned a page and intoned: Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen.
“Amen.” Mom bowed her head for the Lord’s Prayer, and in the middle of it, we heard Dad’s heavy steps in his work shoes cross the front porch. Then he barged through the open screen door without knocking and came to a stop in the living room, taking in Mom and me facing each other across the dinner table.
The skateboard rumbled down the sidewalk. Dad glanced over his shoulder. “Goddamn, Maura, don’t you ever get tired of that fucking noise?”
Mom shook her head. “He’s not out there much these days,” she said. “He’s got a car and a girlfriend now.”
The old man frowned. “Hell, I’d’ve known that was all it took, I’d’ve bought him a whore down on University about four years ago.”
“Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day,” I said, raising my voice to remind Mom we hadn’t finished. Dad started, then came and leaned in the dining room archway, burly forearms crossed, pale eyes following my every gesture.
At the Sign of Peace, after I’d hugged Mom and kissed her on the forehead, I offered a hand to my father. His eyes flicked about, over my outstretched hand and Roman collar and red stole—red for today’s feast of Saint Matthias, the apostle who’d replaced Judas—then back to my hand. We shook. Dad’s face was puffy, cheeks and nose blotched by broken veins. He wore a dark blue T-shirt starting to pull apart at the collar, a pack of cigarettes rolled in one sleeve, exposing the Marine Corps anchor-and-globe tattooed on his bicep. I glanced from that to the blurry tattoo of the Crucifixion on his right forearm. “The Right Fist of the Lord” my father calls it when he holds court in the neighborhood bars. He stood too close, an ex-Marine and onetime Golden Gloves boxer.
“You’re looking good.” The small lie came easily, and I chucked him on the shoulder, then stepped back to the table. Two consecrated Hosts lay on the gold paten; I took Communion and held the remaining Host up to my mother, then pressed it into her cupped palm.
“Guess I don’t get fed,” the old man said.
I hesitated. The Host lay in my mother’s hand.
After their divorce, my father briefly remarried, a union that lasted all of six weeks. By Church law, he couldn’t receive Communion, though in this, as in so many things regarding my father, the facts were murky: he was no longer living with the woman, and he might or might not have bothered to get a second divorce. His answers about what had happened changed depending on his mood, and here at home, where the act wouldn’t be a public sanctioning of the adultery of a second marriage, uncertainty and mercy might well have prompted me to give him the Sacrament. I could have picked up the wafer, broken it in two, and given Communion to each of my parents. But at ordination I’d taken vows of obedience, and, however confusing the old man made things, as a priest I represented the Holy Roman Church. That had always been my compass.
“No,” I said. “I can’t.” Satisfaction and shame wavered over my mother’s face in turn. She hadn’t remarried, only slept with a man now that I’ve been abandoned by your father, and I confess that to Father Phil every Friday, though the Good Lord knows I’m not the one ought to be in that confessional. Then she put the Host in her mouth, lifted her chin, and smiled at the old man. I shook my head and finished Mass. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
“Thanks be to God.” Dad murmured it in unison with my mother, his voice solemn with a cradle Catholic’s reverence for the Mass. I realized I hadn’t heard the skateboard in a while. Guilt at denying my father the Eucharist caught me by surprise, and I busied myself with lifting the stole from my shoulders and arranging it over my forearm as I passed him in the living room. I had a foot on the stairs when he called out, “Always good to see you too, Father,” and I paused, then walked deliberately up the stairs, wondering how it was that the old man could so reliably manage to make me feel like a prick.
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In my room, I looked in the mirror and rubbed both hands over my scalp. I hung the stole with the rest of my vestments and changed from clerical black to a T-shirt and gym shorts, meaning to slip out the front door and go to the park to shoot baskets, leave my parents to each other. By now they were arguing, angry voices rising up the stairwell and spilling into my room. I’d moved back from my parish last Sunday, had boxes of books stacked along one bedroom wall. In two weeks, I was to celebrate my brother’s wedding Mass, my last official act as a priest for a year, and I had expected the old man to have something to say about that. Instead, he and Mom were fighting about her boyfriend. I listened for a while, then sighed and padded downstairs barefoot, stopping on the landing at the bottom.
They were in the dining room. The old man had taken my place at the table, and he leaned on it with both hands, head and shoulders thrust forward. I’d left the paten and chalice and cruets of water and wine out. “You bring that asshole to my son’s wedding,” my father said, “and I’m not responsible.” Between his hands, the paten made a gold circle on the walnut table.
Mom set down her coffee cup. “Your other son just got home,” she said. “He said Mass at this table, and this is the way you act?”
Dad straightened, hands fisting. “Don’t you disrespect me—”
I stepped into the living room, meaning to put the sacred vessels out of harm’s way. “Why don’t you leave Mom alone this morning,” I said.
Dad turned on me. “You’re getting a mite big for your britches,” he said. I started toward the table, but he moved to block me. “Don’t tell me what to do in my own house.”
“It’s not your house anymore,” I said.
“He pays his alimony,” Mom said.
I cast her a look, then the old man stepped forward with his chin tucked. He gave me a little stiff-fingered shove to the chest.
I put up my hands, palms out. “I’m just asking you to leave—”
“You can’t throw me out of this house.” He shoved me again, then harder. I pushed him away and he came back in a rush, working in close with his hands, slapping, wrestling me out the screen door and onto the porch, his face a jerking blur of bristles and washed-out blue eyes and curling gray hair.
The screen slammed shut behind us. Dad sent me skidding backward with a last shove and smacked his hands together. “I’m throwing you out, is what’s happening here.”
Forgetting myself, I balled my fists. He stepped in close again, eyes bright. “You want something, son?” He smelled of unfiltered Camels, last night’s bourbon, Old Spice.
“No, Dad, nothing.”
After he’d held me like that an instant, he smiled, satisfied, and turned to Mom, where she stood inside the screen. “I can see what it’s gonna be like around here this summer,” he said. “The goddamn money’s on the table. You need anything, you give me a call.”
Then he was down the steps and across the yard to his car. I gripped the porch rail and watched him go, noticing the way the broad V of his back disappeared into the roll of fat around his waist. Behind me, the screen opened and Mom came out. “You shouldn’t have done that,” she said. “Joseph Dressler’s not gonna show me anything new.”
I started to say something vicious and not fitting from either priest or son, but instead reached inside the screen for my socks and basketball shoes, then sat on the porch step to put them on. My hands shook with the laces, and I steadied them by rubbing at a mark on the toe of my sneaker.
Mom stood beside me, chipping paint off the porch post with her fingernail. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess everyone’s surprised at your being home.”
“That’s not it,” I said. She wanted to talk; I wanted to get out of there. I stood and picked up a basketball from the torn couch that shared the porch with rusting bicycles, broken chairs, and a greasy charcoal grill. “Where’s Jacky keeping himself?”
“I imagine he’s at Mary Beth’s.”
“If he calls, tell him I’m at the park.” I left her on the porch and dribbled the basketball across the postage-stamp yard, mostly dirt under the dense shade of the boulevard maple. At the corner of our lot, the neighbor’s lilac hedge hung over a chain-link fence, twisted trunks the size of small trees, deep green foliage nearly obscured by heavy clusters of dark purple blossoms. It was the middle of May, and the low sun threw long shadows from the maples and elms across the pavement. The air was cool and the world was raw against the scent of the lilacs. I was aware of the grit of the basketball in my hands, of the tense muscles in my legs and stomach beginning to relax, and of the sharp stink of fear.
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For a moment downstairs, I’d thought to reason with my father. I’d run a small parish for two years, presided over the rituals of other people’s lives and deaths as a priest now for four, and I’d forgotten that the king of the Gossip Inn, John’s Tap, and the Florida Tavern was a man who acted out of instinct, moving always against perceived threats to his sovereignty, threats that were real enough in his world. Mom had worked him up with talk of her boyfriend, and I’d been stupid enough to walk into the middle of it. Used to be I knew better. At the basketball court, I planned to forget again. I would practice my jump shot. I would chase rebounds until I was sweat soaked and breathing hard.
The park was empty. Two muddy ball diamonds, a hockey rink with a wooden fence around it, a playground, and a tennis court cracked by frost heave. The basketball court was bordered by small pines and oaks. Puddles of rainwater flagged low places in the concrete, splashing my ankles and calves as I dribbled. My aim was off at first, jumpers spinning out, bank shots banging off the front of the iron. When I warmed up, the shots started going in, the ball hanging in the back of the net for a satisfying instant before dropping. After a while, there was nothing to hear but the hollow sound of the ball, the scuff of sneakers on pavement, and the bang, rattle, and whoosh of shots falling; nothing to see but an orange rim, a white backboard, and the green-black tops of the pines against a high blue sky. The scent of resin washed the air.
I’d been at it like that for half an hour or so when the ball lodged between rim and backboard. I jumped to punch it free, and when I turned back to the court there was a group of Mexican teenagers standing at the far end. We stared at one another for a moment, then a tall, thin kid nodded and dribbled a ball onto the court. While I shot, more deliberately now, catching my breath, I watched them warm up, horse around, choose teams. When I was in high school, Mexicans wouldn’t have come to this park. There wasn’t a lot of violence, but certain lines were seldom crossed. The lines had blurred, but still there was tension when I walked down the court.
“Even your teams?” I offered. They fell quiet, exchanged looks. An older white guy wanting to play ball. Still, one team was a player short. Someone shrugged. Sure. Why not?
We started, and I ignored the extra elbows. I’d been too busy in my parish for a game at the gym this past winter, and the whole physicality of the game—the jostle of bodies, the drive of a dropped shoulder, the slash of one forearm across another—was something I’d missed without knowing it. Soon enough, though, I realized I was going to be plenty sore tomorrow without the added bruises of an inside game played against younger men. In high school I’d been a shooting guard, so I drifted out of the mix under the basket to the open edges of the court. After I sunk a couple of step-back eighteen-footers over the thin kid, Hector, he grunted “motherfucking Larry Bird here,” and I had a nickname.
The team I was on took the first game easily, then the second. We were ahead in the third when suddenly I could no longer keep up with those tireless seventeen-year-old legs and my shots started hitting the front of the rim again. Bent over and catching my breath afterward, I watched the kids shove each other around. Hector caught my glance and said, “Good shooting, Larry Bird.” I lifted a hand from my knee and gave him a little wave in return. When I had my wind back, someone tossed me my ball, and I caught it and spun it and joined the talk about the game. Then someone asked what I did, and I said, “I’m a priest.” There was a stir among the boys as they remembered the language they’d used during the game—tough, crude talk about faggots and pussy and cutting a guy a new asshole—and I felt the distance come then that always comes between people and a priest. “Good game,” I said, and walked away.
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Walking home, I could feel the slow ache of long-unused muscles. I dribbled the ball lazily from one hand to the other, enjoying the time to myself and the echo of the ball off the brick apartment buildings and the glass storefronts I passed near the park. I’d lived alone in the rectory of a country parish the last two years, and I felt crowded in the house with my mother.
By the time I’d showered and eaten lunch, though, Mom had gone up to Roseville to visit my sister, Anne. I watched college baseball on cable all afternoon, settling into the hollows in the couch that marked my father’s spot. The old man had moved out two years ago, but little else had changed. Stacks of yellowing newspapers still staggered against each other along the walls, and Mom’s fabric-covered sewing box sat open on the lamp table under the piano window, a few spools of thread scattered about. The only new addition to the room was an ashtray stand from my grandfather’s house, its bottom now crowded with Mom’s women’s magazines. The ashtray brimmed over with cigarette butts ringed with her lipstick, mixed with the half-smoked off-brands that belonged to her boyfriend, Samuel, and the room smelled of stale smoke.
After the baseball, I felt the buzzing drowsiness that comes from losing yourself to a book or the television on a sunny afternoon, as if a piece of glass had dropped between me and the world. I went out for air and ran by the dry cleaner to pick up my best priest’s suit, laundered and pressed for Jacky’s wedding. When I got home, Mom was setting the table, and I hung the laundry on the coat tree and went into the kitchen to pour milk while she dished up chicken and mashed potatoes.
“How’s Anne?” I asked, after we said grace. My sister had five children. Just catching me up on the kids would take Mom most of dinner, I figured, and leave the unpleasantness of the morning behind us.
“Worried about you. I told her not to, but I wasn’t very convincing.” Mom gave me a weary half-smile.
I patted her hand. They say behind every good priest stands a worried Irish mother. Mine is black Irish, and she has the moods and wary pessimism of Irish women, a look in her eyes that says she expects the worst. Being married to my father for a quarter of a century didn’t help this. Their fights in my childhood followed a predictable pattern, a few days of Irish squalls from my mother, then a German blitzkrieg by the old man.
“You know,” Mom said, “we all have to do things we don’t like for our jobs.” She nodded at me, then added in a resigned voice: “You sure gave me a lot of explaining to do.”
“All you have to tell your friends,” I said, pressing the serving spoon down into the bowl of congealed mashed potatoes until it bent a little at the handle, “is that I’m teaching at Saint John’s this fall and took the summer off.” It was probably all she had told them.
The full story was not that much more interesting, although it would have given her friends enough to talk about. There’d been, briefly, a woman. It was a serious transgression, but one that might well have gone unnoticed. When it didn’t, the archdiocese tried to transfer me to a hardship assignment, and I’d chosen instead an offer from the Benedictines to teach history. The fact that it was May of 1994, with the newspaper stories from Boston getting worse and no one wanting to see a priest in doubt for any reason, made the timing awkward, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that. I dished up a second helping of potatoes and straightened the spoon.
Mom gave me a sharp look. “What do you want, James?” she asked.
The direct question startled me, and I snapped back: “Want? I want to be back at my parish. I want not to have fucked up. I want Granddad at Jacky’s wedding. I want all sorts of impossible things.”
I shoved aside my plate and got a beer. When I sat down again, Mom had sunk into her own thoughts. We finished our dinners in silence. The only sounds in the kitchen were the clink of Mom’s silverware and, through the open window above the sink, the shouts of boys playing street hockey on Rollerblades. After dinner, Mom sat at the table and paid bills with a big glass of sherry at hand while I put away leftovers and washed dishes. By the time I dried the last coffee cup and sat down with another beer, she had started dealing a game of solitaire.
She’d been using my closet and chest of drawers for storage and hadn’t cleared them out; when I moved in I’d carried armfuls of winter clothes, extra linens, and boxes of Christmas ornaments into Anne’s old room. “You know, I could find someplace else to stay,” I offered.
“Oh no, honey,” Mom said. “You have a place here as long as you need.” She moved a file of sequenced cards onto an ace. “Samuel stays over sometimes,” she said.
“How’s the old man feel about that?” I asked.
“How do you think?” she said. Then: “Your father comes by Saturday mornings. You’ll notice Samuel wasn’t here last night.”
“There you go.” I slid my chair away from the table. “I’m getting together with Jacky tonight,” I said. No answer. I rinsed my beer can and dropped it in the recycling bin on my way out. Behind me, the sherry bottle rang the rim of Mom’s glass. It was going to be a long summer.
In the fall, though, that history lectureship was waiting for me up in Collegeville, where the Benedictines were willing to take in a wayward diocesan priest. I pictured myself moving into a monastery room in August, unpacking my clothes, arranging my books. I saw a simple chest of drawers beneath a crucifix on the wall, and a study desk at a window overlooking a walled garden and the blue waters of Lake Sagatagan, one bough of a tree crossing the window’s upper left-hand corner. There would be a twin bed with a ticking-striped mattress, a set of crisp white sheets neatly folded at its foot, and a single pillow at its head. I’d make the bed, take a nap or read at my desk until the abbey bells rang for vespers, then hurry across the lawn to join the rest of the community at prayer. In the fall there would be Johnnies football games. Jacky could come up, or some of my priest friends.
But as I walked out of Mom’s kitchen, my father’s angry face blocked out the ticking-striped mattress, the lake, and everything else. The old man named me and Jacky after the Apostles James and John because Jesus called those brothers Boanerges, meaning Sons of Thunder, in reference to their passionate tempers. When we were boys, the old man would sometimes call us “my bone-urges” to make us laugh. More often, though, he called us “my Sons of Thunder,” making us proud and a little afraid. That our father was the thunder was not lost on us.
2
I MET JACKY FOR BEERS at John’s Tap. He nodded at the bar when I came in, but I’d already seen the old man’s Buick in the parking lot. Our father sat hunched over the remains of ribs and fries, a fresh beer at one hand, an ashtray full of cigarette butts at the other. While I watched, he shook a cigarette from his pack, clamped it in his teeth, and cupped his hands to light it. The Twins were on the TV behind the bar, and the old man nudged the guy next to him, gestured at the game, and said something ending with “Hawhaw.” His neighbor, a compact man in a Ford cap and company shirt, muttered something and stared into his beer. The old man leaned back and smiled at him. I held my breath, and then my father returned his attention to the game.
I sat down across from Jacky. Dad would figure out I was here soon enough.
“Heard you had a run-in with him this morning,” Jacky said.
“I got between him and Mom. He shoved me around a bit.”
Jacky toyed with a beer coaster. “I always thought he’d leave us alone someday.”
“Fat chance,” I said. Dad had tipped his big shoulders into Ford Cap’s space again, his cigarette waving over the other man’s beer.
“One of these days I’ll make him pay,” Jacky said.
“If you do,” I said, “it’ll just mean he’s gotten old. There won’t be any pleasure in it.”
Jacky took a sip of beer, licked foam from his mustache. “I never thought of that. Shit.” He shook his head. “That’s you, James, always seeing things cockeyed.”
The barmaid brought out an iced mug and poured me a beer from Jacky’s pitcher. I ran my thumb through the frost on the glass. “Do you and Mary Beth have everything straight with the parish?” I said. “Did you pass Pre-Cana class? Get the license?” Jacky was liable to forget things like that.
He ignored me and punched in selections on the wall-mount Wurlitzer, its chrome dull and greasy with fingerprints. John Prine started singing “Angel from Montgomery,” his scratchy voice tinny on the cheap speakers.
Jacky sat back. “This gonna take with you quitting?”
“I’m just going on leave.”
“Sure,” Jacky said. “You get your wick dipped, and you’re gone for good.”
I laughed. A priest’s life is full of people who apologize if a hell or a damn slips out. And my rougher parishioners—corn farmers, grain-elevator workers, long-haul truckers, even the guys I played ball with—made the apology into a slight with a condescending grin: Sorry, Father, didn’t mean to offend you. But I didn’t have to worry about that with Jacky.
“Let’s talk about the wedding,” I said. “Father Phil did your Pre-Cana. You’ve got the license for me to sign? Everything’s in order?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jacky glanced around the bar. “Mary Beth took care of all that shit.”
“You should have a hand in this.” I leaned forward so he couldn’t look around me. “Conflict resolution, handling money, how you’re gonna raise the kids—you want to think about all of that now.”
“And you’re the expert?” Jacky took a drink and eyed me over the rim of his glass.
“C’mon, Jacky.” I sat back. “I know Phil went over this. I’m just asking.”
“I didn’t come here to talk with a priest.” Jacky dug a finger in his ear. It felt like we were in junior high again and I was trying to help him with his homework.
“Then we’ll sit down with Mary Beth next week,” I said. “As the officiating priest, it’s my pastoral duty.”
“Pastoral who?” Jacky gripped his beer. “That’s bullshit talk.”
“Shit.” With my fingertips, I traced initials someone had carved into the table and inked in with a pen. My ordination might not have made any difference to my brother, but my education had. It filled me with ideas, gave me ways of talking that angered him.
“What’s the matter?” Jacky said.
“Forget it.” At the bar, the old man swiveled on his stool. Great. Now he’d be over in a minute. “I’m going to the john,” I said. I walked past the bar and nodded at the old man, who turned his attentions back to Ford Cap.
Down the hall in the back room were a pool table with worn felt and one leg shimmed, the door to the men’s toilet, and empty beer kegs stacked at the screen that opened on the alley. The bathroom was cramped and smelled of urine. Paneling warped from the walls. I checked the mirror, pulled at the shoulders of my black T-shirt, too small now because I’d lifted weights all winter. I fingered the skin of my throat above the soft neckband and missed the harsh white square of the Roman collar. More and more these days, young priests wore civilian clothes, but Father Phil, the priest of my childhood, had taught me that it was a priest’s duty to be a public and available representative of the Church. So I’d made a habit of clerical black, one that ended when I came home last weekend. On leave I couldn’t say public Mass without permission, and my collar felt like false advertising.
Someone tried the bathroom door, rattling the knob. “Just a minute.” I splashed water on my face and went back out front. At the bar, Dad had turned full on his neighbor, expansive, talking, laughing, gesturing with cigarette and beer glass. Ford Cap glowered, leaning as far away as his bar stool would allow. Jacky was watching them with his feet up in the booth.
“That’s Terry Doolin’s dad,” he said, as I slid in across from him. “Pop better lay off.”
Above the old man’s head there was a Hamm’s beer sign that scrolled at a glacial pace through a northern scene of river and waterfall with a tent and a canoe on a gravel beach. It used to remind me of childhood trips to cabins offered by one or another of Dad’s friends or Mom’s supervisor at the bank where she worked as a teller. I stared, waiting for the tent, until I realized the sign wasn’t moving, the motor apparently having broken since I’d last been in.
Mr. Doolin stood suddenly, threw a bill on the bar. He said something sharp to the old man and walked out fast, settling his cap over his eyes. Dad, quickly on his own feet, watched him go, the corners of his mouth working in amusement. Then he caught my eye and came our way, carrying his beer mug, shoulders back and gut out, pleased as punch. “Uh-oh,” I muttered.
The old man loomed over our booth. “That Doolin,” he said, swaying slightly. “I been listening to him run at the mouth for years.”
“Yeah, Dad,” I said, “you never run at the mouth.”
Dad sat down beside me. “What’s this I hear about you giving up being a priest?”
“Damn it,” I said. “I’m on leave.”
The old man tilted his head back and peered at me. “Little sensitive, ain’t ya?”
“Lay off, Dad.”
He nodded at Jacky. “Your brother,” he said, “I get on his nerves.”
“You get on everyone’s nerves,” Jacky said.
Dad reached across and cuffed him gently on the side of the head, the table tilting under his weight. “Watch it, Jackyboy.”
Jacky smiled, and Dad turned back to me. “I always raised you to stick with shit.”
Here it comes, I thought.
“But—” he took a swig of beer, “I reckon you’re old enough to know what you want.” He smirked. “Giving up pussy’s got to have been hard.”
I drew in a breath, thought better of it, and had a long pull at my own beer. “Sure,” I said. “Real hard.”
The old man leaned into me, dropping his face next to my shoulder and staring at the tabletop. “You know what’s white and moves across the sky at five thousand miles per hour?” He squinted up slyly.
“The Coming of the Lord! Haw-haw!”
Jacky spluttered beer over the table. I frowned, which wasn’t enough for my father. He stood. “Christ, it’s a terrible joke,” he said. “Blasphemy. I’m going to the Gossip.” He went to pay the barmaid, who paused in the middle of wiping down a table. She laughed at something he said, swaying against him and shaking her hair. Then he walked out, stopping at the cigarette machine on the way.
As the door closed behind him, Jacky and I looked at each other, then cut our eyes back and forth. We heaved heavy sighs at the same time, which set us to laughing.
“What’s with the Gossip all of a sudden?” Jacky said.
“Beats me,” I said. “The old man’s like winter: you can try to predict him all you want, but in the end you just hunker down and dig out after he’s gone.”
The Gossip was the roughest bar around here, and we knew that if the old man went there he was looking for a fight. That he would sit at the bar, smoking one cigarette after another, holding them like darts, knocking back whiskey with beer. That he would argue religion or sports or city politics with someone at the bar, and that, late in the evening, a point of argument would grow into a physical challenge. The old man seldom lost, and if he did, he’d fight the guy again until he beat him or the man found another place to drink. “You don’t fuck with Joe Dressler unless you want to go to war” was the common wisdom of the Gossip’s regulars.
Jacky said something I couldn’t hear. “What?” “Nothing.” The bar was getting crowded and noisy with softball teams coming in after practice, and the beer was making me sleepy. “You want to shoot some hoops tomorrow?” I asked. “About ten?” I gave myself time to go to early Mass.
“Sure.”
I finished my beer. “I’m going home.”
“How’s Mom?”
“Moody.”
“Wait’ll you meet Samuel.”
“I have. He’s a piece of work.”
“Like a nasty old woman.” Jacky yawned, stretched, and glanced around. “Think I’ll see if Cheryl wants to play some pool.”
Cheryl, who waitressed here sometimes, was sitting at the end of the bar smoking a cigarette, a screw-together cue in a case at her elbow. “Don’t put too much on it,” I said.
“Hell no,” Jacky said. “Don’t tell Mary Beth. She’s a little jealous.”
With effort, I kept my mouth shut. Last spring, after years of dating Mary Beth on and off, Jacky had cheated on her with Cheryl. That’s when Mary Beth asked for a diamond.
I looked at Cheryl, who was wearing black leather pants. Once this winter, when I was having a beer with the old man, he’d claimed to be sleeping with her. I thought about hitting Jacky with that one, then settled for “You’d best take your vows seriously, little brother.” The old man had likely been lying, anyway.
“Mary Beth can take care of herself,” Jacky said. “I mean, would you cross her?”
“You did,” I said. “Anyway, I wouldn’t cross either of ’em.” Mary Beth rode her own motorcycle, and Cheryl was a tall, raw-boned girl who entered and won men’s pool tournaments. I stood and lifted my denim jacket from the hook between the booths.
“James,” Jacky said.
His voice made me pause, the jacket on one arm. “What?” I said. I took out a bill for my half of the beer.
Jacky hesitated, then shook his head and waved off the money.
“Thanks.” I put my billfold back. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Jacky hopped out of the booth and walked to the bar. He’s lean, a welterweight, with Mom’s dark complexion, high cheekbones, and Irish temper, but he swaggers just like the old man. Me, I’ve got the old man’s bluff German face and blue eyes, and a sweet nature all my own.
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On the way home, I drove down University by the Gossip Inn, wedged between a Vietnamese take-out place and a head shop. Through the grated front window, I could see my father’s bulk at the bar. It occurred to me that he was there, looking for a fight, because he was still worked up from this morning.
The Gossip’s the kind of place that gets its windows shot out, where the guy on the next stool might carry a gun or a knife. Twenty years ago, some men pulled a gun on my father as he sat at the bar there. They took him out back to the alley lot, where they beat him with a baseball bat. They took turns, the old man said later, passed the bat around like a grudge. After he heard the bat clatter into the bed of a pickup truck, after he heard footsteps and tires grind away over gravel, the old man pulled himself into his car and drove home. He drove by clinging to the steering wheel to hold himself up, while streetlights and the headlights of oncoming cars split and drew back together, half the world a dark pink haze because his right eye was filled with blood.
When the old man appeared at our back door, he was swaying, ready to topple, gravel from the parking lot ground into his swollen face and forearms. I was ten, sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal before bed, and I yelled in fright, only half-conscious that what was in the door was my father. Then Mom was there, holding the door open, reaching for him and drawing back, unsure where to find an unbroken place to support him. “They hurt me bad, Maura,” he said.
He had broken ribs and a broken collarbone. The thick muscles of his upper back and his shoulders were a mass of bruises, and once, when he’d rolled his head from the protective cradle of his forearms to cry out, the bat had caught him just forward of the right temple, cracking the bone at the outer orbit of his eye. To this day, his vision is bad in that eye; he misses objects, movement, to his right.
But he refused to stay at the hospital for observation after the doctors set his breaks, and that summer he lay on the couch, using first his sick leave and then his vacation. Mom was working two jobs, and it fell on me to tend him, rubbing salve into his muscles and watching his back turn from blue and green to sickly yellow, shot with the purple of burst veins. It was hard to look at and harder to touch. I’d never been this near my father except when he taught Jacky and me how to wrestle. Up close, his skin was old and oily and darkened by years of working shirtless in our backyard, and there was a strong smell to him. My hands seemed small against his broad back and sloping shoulders, and it scared and thrilled me to know that someone could beat him up. I thought the men from the bar might come to our house, and I rehearsed how I would lock the door and run to where he kept his handgun. And when the men broke down the door, I would point the gun steadily at their leader. “If you take one more step, I’ll kill you,” I’d say, and he would know I meant it.
My father didn’t know how fiercely I meant to protect him. He bullied us from the couch, kept us all running to the kitchen for cigarettes and beer, changing the channel on the TV. He flew into rages, screaming and cursing if he were left alone in the living room, even if he woke by himself in the night. “Where the fuck is everybody? I could die down here while all you sleep.”
In the evenings, though, as I sat on the floor by the couch watching the Twins, he would tap my shoulder and point to the TV. “Look at that young Blyleven’s big curve,” he’d say. “When it works it’s great, but if he hangs it, it’s gone. Fucker’ll give up a lot of home runs.” On those nights, locusts hummed outside, the cooling evening air came through the open screens into our close living room, and the smoke from my father’s cigarette drifted out so that you could smell it if you were sitting on the front porch with a book, half-listening to the game inside. That summer, he taught me how fielders shifted depending on the batter, how the middle infielders called the pitch to first and third behind cupped hands. Watching boxing, an obscure middleweight match or a rerun of Ali and Frazier, he showed me how smart boxers adjusted to their opponents from round to round, how they used their thumbs and elbows in a clinch. When he tired of TV, he read passages from the Bible and we argued. I was getting a 1970s Catholic grammar school education, and the old man was pre-Vatican II at best. I know now that his thinking was more that of a fundamentalist, primitive and contradictory, but he was not a stupid man, and I learned a lot from dealing with his shifting arguments, which roamed from salvation to theories about how Zoroaster was actually Satan. One night he told me how sorry he was that he’d fucked up and couldn’t get to my Little League games that summer. And when Mom tired of his slow convalescence and said that maybe she ought to find a man who could provide for his family, I stood next to the couch and cried out that I was sticking by him even if she wouldn’t.
3
AFTER DRINKING BEER WITH JACKY, I slept well and woke Sunday to green light slanting through the oak leaves outside my window, stirring finches and house sparrows loose from the night. I knelt by the bed and said my morning office, trying to ignore the closeness of my childhood room and the sour, ever-present stench of cigarettes that hung over the house like a dirty blanket.
I remember waking in the dark once, a Sunday before Christmas in seventh grade. Mom and Dad had yelled at each other until late the night before. Anne was learning to make dinner, spaghetti and meatballs, and the old man, just home from a bar and not knowing that, had been angry about how spicy the meatballs were. “Christ, Maura, do I look like a dago?” Mom let him go on about it while Jacky and I exchanged glances and Anne’s face whitened, her mouth tightening until it almost disappeared. When Dad threw down his napkin and said, “I can’t eat this crap!” Mom turned to Anne and said sweetly, “I’m sorry, honey, you did your best.” The old man froze in place, standing at the head of the table with his chair pushed back. Then he turned on Mom. “You fucking bitch,” he said. Years later, I can still remember the low pitch to his voice, the unsurprised venom in it. The fight that followed was vicious, Mom going at the old man from all sides like a terrier and him blundering around like a bear, angrier and more helpless by the moment, until he finally put his fist through the paneled wall alongside the stairs.
At dawn, I lay in bed dreading the tense ballet that would go on in the house all morning, the two of them tiptoeing around each other and we kids tiptoeing around them. Mass might break the tension, but Mass was a sometimes thing in our house. More often than not, if anyone took us, it was our grandparents. My grandfather Otto, the old man’s old man, would call Mom Saturday night and announce: “We’re taking the kids to Mass tomorrow, Maura. Have ’em ready by 9:30.”
That morning, with the Advent wreath my father had placed on the dining-room sideboard a month before dropping needles, unused candles tilting now at odd angles, I decided to go to early Mass on my own. Maybe Father Phil would need an altar boy. In the dark, I dressed in my best Sunday clothes, even putting on a tie, tightening the knot before the mirror like my grandfather had taught me. Going downstairs, I kept close to the wall where the steps were quieter. The old man would be sleeping on the couch.
I lifted my parka from the coat tree on the landing and wrestled into it. A few feet away, the TV hummed with a test pattern and my father snored, the coffee table littered with empty Grain Belt cans and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. The dead bolt squeaked when I turned the latch. Behind me, the snoring stopped. I dared a glance over my shoulder. Dad turned on his side and snorted, but didn’t wake. The doorknob rattled under my hand, and I paused, then eased the door open and was ready to slip out when I heard a floorboard creak and was caught by the biceps in a hard grip.
The old man swung me back against the wall. He peered at me, breath stale with beer and tobacco. “The hell time is it?” He shook me by the arm.
“I’m just going to early Mass.”
He stared, puzzled, gripping my arm hard enough to bruise. I shivered, trying not to let fear make me look defiant, and noticed for the first time that his right eye had been skewed by the damage the baseball bat had done two years before. He shifted his hold, then shoved me toward the door. “Jesus, I’m raising a Holy Joe. Get the hell out of here.”
The heavy wooden door caught me in the ear, and I scurried onto the porch. Halfway down the block, I stopped, looked back at our house. It was stinging cold out, and I rubbed at my ear with a mittened hand, then pulled my hood tighter. I wanted to be back in bed. But by now the old man would have the percolator going and be sitting in the dark in the living room, brooding over the orange glow of a cigarette. I started walking again, which made me feel better. I crossed the railroad overpass, face lowered against the north wind, then slipped on a frozen patch of sidewalk and looked up; ahead, the church’s blocky red-brick bell tower and tiled roof rose among the morning trees.
In the chill vestibule, I dipped the tips of my fingers in holy water, breaking a thin film of ice. The church was almost empty, lights dim, and I sat in the shadows in one of the side pews with my coat on. The scent of candles drifted from the altar, along with the turpentine smell of sap from boughs newly cut to freshen the Advent wreath. A kneeler thudded, and, reminded, I knelt, easing my weight slowly onto my knees because that was the year I had a knee condition called Osgood-Schlatter. It was common in growing boys and eventually it went away, but at the time, even on a padded kneeler, it felt like kneeling on bone bruises. When I served Mass and had to kneel on the marble altar steps, I offered the pain for Jesus.
Votives flickered, and the stained-glass window beside me was deep blue and red, like night and wine. I tried to pray, but kept remembering the old man’s bad breath in my face, last night’s shouting, my sister crying. It amplified the dull ache in my knees until I couldn’t think. Then the lights came up. Father Phil entered from the door behind the altar to the ringing of small bells, and I found refuge in the litanies of the Mass—I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do—until my mind slipped again and I had shoved my father up against some wall, any wall, and was hitting him with little slaps to the face the way he did with Jacky and me sometimes when Mom wasn’t around: “Listen to me, you listen to me—”
“Deliver us, Lord, from every evil,” Father Phil said. “Amen,” I said. “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” Father Phil said, and, far away, the Host shimmered in his upraised hands. Father Phil, who was good and strong and happy in the Lord. “Happy are those who are called to His supper.” “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” I whispered, “but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I found myself moving up the center aisle with the other people to take Communion. “The Body of Christ, James.” Father Phil held the Host before me. “Amen.” I let him place it on my tongue and swallowed without chewing. I, too, could be whole. The dry taste of unleavened bread lingered in my mouth as I returned down the aisle, renewed. I knelt with my back straight, ignoring the pain in my knees, and turned my eyes to Father on the altar, purifying his fingers with wine and water. I imagined myself like him, robed in white, pure and strong.
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My mind had drifted from my prayers. I was thirty years old and there was no one fighting. I got off my knees and went to shower and shave, then dressed for Mass in slacks, a sport shirt, and loafers. Before leaving, I made coffee and leaned against the kitchen counter, drinking it black while I woke up. The house felt strange without the old man’s presence, though, as he’d made clear yesterday, he was still very much around. The house was also empty: Mom hadn’t come home last night, not wanting, I guessed, to sleep with her boyfriend under the same roof as her priest son. After Jacky’s wedding, I’d sublet an efficiency or see whether I could move up to Saint John’s early.
Halfway to church, I remembered how Father Phil felt about priests in civvies. I wasn’t ready to see him yet, and so I decided to go to Guadalupe, the Mexican church across the river. I hadn’t been there in years, but in high school I’d dated a Mexican girl, Betty García, and we’d attended Mass together. I liked the simple, open church. I’d be anonymous enough there.
The streets were empty, and I took the long way to Guadalupe, driving over the sleek new High Bridge, climbing toward bluffs and memories. The old bridge, dynamited and rebuilt a few years ago, had figured in the nightmares of my childhood, a spidery iron structure that seemed to rise a thousand feet above the Mississippi. One morning in high school, I walked home across it after spending the night with Betty García at her grandmother’s house off Concord Street. I remember the brilliant January wind, the plummeting flutter of a knotted condom onto Mississippi ice.
Early for Mass, I knelt near the side chapel of Our Lady and said the Rosary with the old Mexican women there. As I began reciting the mysteries, I twisted my rosary around my hands so that the beads dug into the tendons and flesh. In the shadowed chapel, votive candles lit jewel-colored glass holders, but the sun was up and the church—a cinder-block rectangle with high clear windows—was filling up with light like a sand-bottomed pool in spring sun, wavering shafts where dust motes turned in air currents like tiny fish. I turned my forearm and watched light slip over my skin, so tangible it nearly tickled the hairs there. The air was cool, full of whisperings. This time of the morning was for the old, for those who went to bed early or slept badly or woke alone.
The church of Betty García. The deep scent of her body, twisted sheets, the squeaks and rattles of the different beds and couches and backseats where we made love. We were high-school lovers, frightened and made passionate by the delights of sin. I had other lovers after Betty; my vocation came late, during the fall of my senior year of college. After that, I’d been celibate for eight years, had, in pride, thought I was past temptation, and then in an unguarded moment betrayed my vows, my Church, and my congregation. I prayed for forgiveness, fingering Our Fathers and Hail Marys, while people drifted into the church in ones and twos.
When Mass was ready to start, I left my spot near the chapel for a pew midway up the aisle. The turnout for the early service was sparse and I was the only Anglo there besides the priest, one I didn’t know, a bull-necked man with crewcut black hair. His homily was from the old school, popular again with conservative young priests: he lectured the congregation about the things they’d let get between themselves and God. There was a satisfied glint in his eye, and no hint that his own relationship with the Lord had ever been less than exemplary. Maybe it hadn’t. When Communion came, I found myself trembling in the slow line. I stepped up in front of the priest and cupped my hands to receive the wafer.
“Body of Christ.”
“Amen.” I met his eyes, worried against all reason that he’d recognize in me a troubled fellow priest.
He turned to the server, exchanged the paten for the chalice. “Blood of Christ.”
“Amen.” I’d held his gaze an instant too long. There was a hint of alarm in his eyes now. What kind of needy soul was I? Would I bother him after Mass, disturb his routine? A priest’s Sunday afternoons are sacred—time to watch sports on TV, have a few beers, maybe talk on the phone with old seminary buddies scattered across the diocese, sharing complaints about bad pastors or the latest special fund-raising campaign ordered by the Chancery.
I returned to the pews and knelt and bowed my head. This was my first Sunday not giving Communion. For years, I had looked forward every week to the quiet shuffle of long lines of communicants, the solemn exchange. If a small child accompanied his mother, I would make the sign of the cross on his forehead with my thumb, saying, “May the Lord bless and keep you,” and watch him swell with importance. The young and middle-aged received by hand, but old people—thinning World War II veterans like my grandfather—still received by mouth, ecstatically, sticking out their tongues with heads tilted back and eyes shut. In the pew at Guadalupe, I made my hands into the steeple the nuns had taught us in first grade and closed my eyes.
After Mass, I paused in the parking lot and watched families on their way in for the next service. Near me, a Mexican teenager shuffled his feet and tried to talk to a black-haired girl, who answered him in a clear voice—that Mexican lilt—tucking a stray bang behind her ear with a nervous hand. The boy was as awkward as I had been and the girl’s gestures were familiar shadows of Betty García. I watched them with affection and said a prayer that they would be happy and chaste—or at least careful—and make no mistakes that couldn’t be undone. Back at the church, the priest stood on the steps energetically shaking hands. My hand closed briefly over the rosary in my pocket, then I got out my keys and went on to the car.
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“Dad said you wouldn’t give him Communion.” Jacky brought it up on the court later that morning, hunched over the basketball, elbows out. Sweat dripped from the ends of his mustache.
“You gotta be kidding,” I said. Home again after years of purposeful distance, I kept getting caught off guard by how quickly word passed around my family, how easily sides were taken and quarrels started and forgotten.
Jacky swayed, and his eyes darted back and forth. He was going to drive to the basket. Right or left? I leaned one way, and when he drove the other I reached out and flicked the ball out of bounds.
He chased it on the grass. “I just think,” he said, picking up the ball and catching his breath, “that you’re getting a little high and mighty.”
“You sound like the old man,” I said. “Dad goes to Mass a few times a year. He’s like a little kid; he only wants it because he can’t have it.”
Jacky walked back to the edge of the concrete. “What do you care?”
“I’m a priest, remember? Who if not me?”
My brother nodded, looked from me to the basket. He was still thinking layup; his jump shot hadn’t worked all morning. Then he said, “You’re a bigger pain in the ass than Father Phil and all that Pre-Cana crap.”
He drove left, and I bodychecked him under the basket, hard into the creosote-blackened telephone pole the backboard was mounted on. The ball rolled across the court.
“Fuck me,” Jacky said. I saw the change in his eyes too late, and he popped me in the nose. I tackled him, and we grappled and rolled around in the grass at the edge of the court for a minute before separating and sitting up, breathing hard, brushing grass trimmings off our arms and legs. “Okay, maybe that was a foul,” I said. My nose was bleeding, and I swiped at it with my wrist.
Jacky rubbed his shoulder. “Yeah,” he said. “A foul.”
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That afternoon, I called Betty García. We’d been friends since a few years after our high-school breakup, meeting once or twice a year over coffee to talk Church and city politics, discuss our professional lives, and, lately, to lament Clinton’s problems. Betty was a labor lawyer who knew the ins and outs of local politics much better than I did, and sometimes she had inside news from the archdiocese.
She answered on the third ring—“García,” she said, and then: “James. Mary Beth said you were in town,” and we started talking about Jacky and Mary Beth. I told her about scuffling with Jacky on the basketball court. “Don’t know whether he’s wound up about the wedding or I’m pissy about being around the family so much,” I said. “Probably both.”
“Understandable,” Betty said. She knew my family.
“I can’t believe Jacky’s finally tying the knot,” I said.
“I can’t believe Mary Beth waited so long,” Betty said. Betty had been engaged in college, married while in law school at William Mitchell, and had a five-year-old son.
“She had to catch my flighty brother,” I said.
“That’s what I mean,” Betty said, and I laughed, then told her about playing basketball with the Mexican kids the day before.
“I’m surprised you didn’t recognize my cousins,” Betty said, a long-running joke about her large family. We visited a while longer, the talk disjointed because I was trying to figure out how to bring up being on leave. When Betty suddenly went silent on the other end of the line, I thought she’d caught on that my mind wasn’t on the conversation. Then I heard the click of a lighter and the sound of Betty taking a drag on a cigarette. She wasn’t a smoker, but she kept a pack of cigarettes in her purse. “For my nerves,” she always said.
“Ethan and I—” Betty said, and I heard her exhale, “—are separated.”
I pressed a hand against my forehead. “God, I’m sorry,” I said. She hadn’t said a thing about her marriage in the fall. But then, why would she? There was only one answer a priest could give in that situation, and people tended not to talk to me unless they wanted to hear it.
“Maybe we should have coffee,” I said, studying the calendar of holy days Mom had thumbtacked to the wall above the phone. Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost, Assumption. . . .
“Just what I need,” Betty snapped, “to talk to another goddamned priest.”
My head jerked back a little at the profanity. “Betty—” I said. “I’m ending my marriage, and I don’t need your pity.” She took a deep breath. “Look, I’ll see you at the wedding.” Her voice softened. “I’ve never seen you say Mass.”
“That’ll be nice,” I said. The anticipation of saying Mass filled me, again and as always, with a sense of light and air. Then I said good-bye, hung up the phone, and put my fist into the wall, which hurt like hell and knocked a chunk of plaster loose. I moved the church calendar to cover the hole until I could repair it.

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