My father came from the old country in middle age, and to his last he instilled in me the peculiarities of his native tongue. Even now, at the age of seventy, I am left with his manners of speech, his inflections and growls. He left me with his sayings, and I recall one in particular, his favorite, a hall-comic shout of equal parts exasperation and petition: "Help me, Father Alphonsus!"
Most often this was uttered in moments of high disgust. My father worked as a hod carrier until he was seventy, a job that condemned him through all those years to being eternally strong and eternally exhausted. At night, sitting in his chair in the parlor of our tenement, he would brood over the five of us, his children, as we bickered over one thing or another-the last scrap of the night's loaf, a new toy pilfered from a classmate-and he would take on the resigned look of a condemned man, and invoke the name of this priest, a man he had known long ago. And then, if my mother didn't rush from the kitchen to herd us from danger, my father would often hit one of us.
Even late in life he had ridged muscles along his chest and back. His face was etched with a sunburned and skeptical squint. When we were young, he hit hard. When he sat down again, walled in now by the wails of a child, he'd rub the sting from his cracked hands and fall into a black mood. "Forgive me, Father Alphonsus," he'd mumble. The meaning always seemed clear. My father was a man of weakness and vices, and he made no apologies. He prayed for strength in the face of us. Much later in life I found myself praying aloud to Father Alphonsus a time or two, such as when my own son stole a car. The matter was quietly settled in the office of a police-department captain, with the victim of the theft staring at me from across the table and my son quietly sobbing. Father Alphonsus, the faceless man of grace, hovered ethereally over the proceedings.
Alphonsus, my father told us, was the most well-intentioned man he had ever known, "if such things should count for anything." Alphonsus was a near relation, the keeper of faith in Fenagh, the hamlet on Lough Ree where my father was born.
"He was a man who knew nothing but to offer the best he could," my father said. "I have neither his patience nor his benevolence." My father wasn't cruel, but he lived a life of bricks on his back, the stabbing workday sun, and day's end liquor bought with the desire for the most liquid at the lowest negotiable rate. He'd drink and play our battered phonograph, closing his eyes and giving himself over to the crackling arias. Though he often invoked the name of his old village priest, he found no priest here to be worthy, and he fell away from the Church despite my mother's prodding. When I was seventeen and was offered a scholarship to Boston College, he complained bitterly that I could do better than to deal with Jesuits, insincere bastards that they were. I suspected that my father could have done much better than his dire life, but he seemed not to want to, couldn't fully engage in the way things were. It didn't seem unusual that a hod carrier would prize his books, his Greek classics and sweeping histories. He was Irish, and illegal. He could not become lace-curtain Irish, and my father had nothing good to say about those who were. He maintained through his life the sidelong glance he had learned when he first came off the boat, before he found my mother and married her.
This Father Alphonsus was one of the few people mentioned from my father's youth. I had no sense of what the man was like, his look or manner. At times I wondered if he was real. But one day, late in his life, my father came to feel a desperate need to tell me a story.
This would have been 1952. My father was about the same age as I am now, but he was much closer to death than 1 assume myself to be. A resolute smoker of filterless Camel cigarettes, he was in the advanced stages of cancer of the larynx, which at the time was virtually incurable. In the nursing home, in a wicker wheelchair, he talked compulsively despite the ongoing strangulation of his voice box. He'd take a deep breath and then release it in long, rattling phrases, and I would sit and listen to monologues about his job and friends and enemies and crooks and aces. Later, in his yellow-walled hospital room, he'd go on and on while I watched the rectangle of sunlight glide imperceptibly across the waxed floors and then fade and die. I sensed in all this talk a spiraling movement toward something central. He had, he told me, things he needed to say. Important things. What happened on Father Alphonsus's final day was one.
Alphonsus had been the youngest of six, born six weeks after his father's death by pneumonia, and from the moment of his birth his mother had unshakable plans for him. Alphonsus would be her last chance, and she was the kind of woman who felt that producing a priest was a fitting and necessary act of completion to her maternal career. From the earliest age Alphonsus was groomed for sacred duty. She made him tiny knitted vestments and pasteboard altars as playthings, enlisting his older brothers, rougher boys, to encourage Alphonsus to believe that he was different. Alphonsus's mother spoke to him nightly about the duties he would assume, bedtime tales about faith and good works. His oldest brother, Eamon, explained, to him about celibacy, and none too charitably. But Alphonsus listened and nodded. The details Eamon so eagerly shared, using examples of his own sordid exploits as proof of what Alphonsus would miss, horrified the younger boy. Eamon waited then for a response. Alphonsus's nightly sessions with his mother allowed him to apply the appropriate word: sacrifice. "Good lad," Eanion said. Aiphonsus, even as a child, was looking forward to the priest's solitary life. His heroes were the Irish hermits of the Middle Ages. He read stories of their lives on the rocky islands off the west Irish coast, lives of gray skies and gray seas. These stories filled him with awe for the heroism embodied in shunning the world.
Sacrifice did not define the process of Alphonsus 's rise to the priesthood. He slid through seminary and took up his works back at St. Enda's in Fenagh, his boyhood church. When his superior, the aged Father O'Donnell, passed away on the night after Christmas, 1906, the twenty-six-year-old Alphonsus became his village's spiritual leader.
Nights, standing in his bedroom as rain washed the windows of the drafty stone rectory, he thought that he didn't regret what he had become but that he wouldn't ultimately measure up. The feeling wasn't new. He had completed his studies with neither distinction nor exceptional difficulty. He had never considered himself brilliant, but he had enough intelligence to see his own utter lack of intuition. Could a priest, confronted with the fluid nature of reality, afford not to rely heavily on hunches and inspiration? In his small room in the seminary he prayed long and searchingly, believing that a sudden feeling of enlightenment or resolve might be transmitted from the Creator. But when he finished with his prayers, he felt nothing.
In the first dozen years or so after ordination things went relatively well. His posting to the village seemed clear notice that not much was expected of him from his superiors. Alphonsus presided over the reassuring cycle of dawn masses, funerals, and weddings; he taught catechism and organized a football team of the younger boys. These were the things Alphonsus had imagined himself doing effectively. He'd stand at the edge of a rain-softened field, the winds off the laogh making the edges of his cassock snap and tighten around his legs, and he'd watch the boys, some playing bare-foot as they kicked the ball about. He felt like a giant then, affecting a sternness he recalled in O'Donnell. He hoped to instill in them the fear he'd held of the old man. But at the same time, he felt small and weak in the face of the unanticipated crisis. It had not yet happened, but he knew its inevitability, if not its form. He felt that these things could be seen by the shrewd among his parishioners: His stammering uncertainty when faced with the difficulty of a pregnant girl, Amanda Flynn, asking to be quietly married, even though half the town had already heard whispered dispatches of her condition. Or the town's thieves and adulterers and his sheeplike acceptance of them sitting in the front pews, their faces masks of haughty and false devotion. He would meet their eyes briefly and then look away.
One day, after years of this stoic service, Alphonsus awakened early to a knocking on the door. This tapping was light but relentless, on and on until he had let his eyes adjust and find the phosphorescent hands of his clock. It was three o'clock. An early riser, Alphonsus was surprised to be rolled out of bed, and the insistent softness of the knocks as he descended the stairs indicated to him a call for last rites, perhaps for the elder John Flanagan, who'd been kicked shoeing a horse and was not expected to recover. At the door he found a boy, perhaps ten years old, shivering.
"Father, you have to hear a confession," the boy said.
"A confession. You hear confessions, don't you?"
"Well, I thought you were. . ." Alphonsus felt a twinge of anger. "Of course I hear confessions. But I generally don't find children on my doorstep at odd hours. Now, get inside here. We'll do it in the study, and it had better be good."
"It's not I who needs to," the boy said. "The person is waiting inside the church."
What was this? Alphonsus made the boy stand in the entry while he ascended the stairs to change clothes. The oddity of this demanded confession made him suspicious. For a shaky moment he worried that this would be a robbery. He sat at the edge of the bed, still in his underclothing, his cassock across his knees. He tried to place the boy's face. The child was not one of his footballers; the face was reminiscent of the O'Neals, a family of beggars who lived in a beaten-down mud cottage outside the town, near the lough shore. Alphonsus heard the door below open and then shut. The thought of what might be afoot-being lured out by the boy and then thrashed for his pocket watch-made him wary. Alphonsus went to the bedroom window and looked out. The boy had left the house and now stood on the dark lawn with a man. They were shadowy forms, but he could see that they were looking up at him. The man raised his arm and waved. Alphonsus waved back and then held out a raised index finger: one moment. The man nodded.
When Alphonsus came out the door, he felt the glassy cold cutting through his sweater. The man and boy moved forward to meet him, in the steam from their own breathing. The man, his face hidden by the pulled-down front of his cap, was staring at the ground.
"The boy said you'd gone inside the church," Alphonsus said.
"No, Father. He's right inside the confessional."