Weightlifting for Catholics

Harry suddenly wanted to find God. His confessor, a renegade Dominican priest, had problems of his own
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It was what—a society of ambulatory good works? Eagan considered what they did, leaving books lying around in public places, benevolently flaky. Someone he knew had picked up a John Grisham hardcover at Union Station. Someone else scored that thick Barbara Kingsolver about missionaries in Africa—something with "wood" in the title. You were supposed to read and return the favor, drop a book in a public place like a bread crumb for the next hungry bird. When Eagan went into a stall in the men's room at Cinema Arts, there it was, waiting for him on the toilet-paper dispenser: The Confessions of Saint Augustine. As if somehow they knew he was having a problem sleeping, which he didn't deny. He was having some difficulty getting to sleep, and this just might do the trick. A page and a half of Augustine and he'd be sawing wood.

After leaving the theater, he sat down on a bench in the mall. He couldn't remember the name of the movie he'd just seen, or the actors' names. Then he couldn't remember what the film was about, which bothered him. Something about gamblers and fast cars, about people's ugly hidden habits. The female lead with the inflated lips was Jennifer something—he'd put money on it. He refused to look back at the marquee for the name of the film. He had no explainable basis for his resentment of the movie business, but there it was.

Harry Eagan was fifty-five years old and kept a two-column ledger. In the negative column, his knees cracked when he walked, loud as two drums. In the positive column, he could see well enough to pluck the hair that grew out of his left earlobe every so often. His children were grown and mostly gone. He had stuck with it, done his fatherly duty, which had involved certain competitive workplace behaviors he preferred not to dwell on. His sexual fantasies bored him, which was either a relief or one more thing to worry about, depending. His wife, however, was in several respects still a handful.

Cathy had plans. She was agitating for them to leave the suburbs of northern Virginia and buy a bed-and-breakfast in New England. Then what? he'd wanted to know. Then we beguile our discerning guests, she explained. Evidently beguilement was a two-way street, but Eagan preferred the solitude of his own dark alley.

As he walked to the car, his knees cracked like firecrackers. The Poisonwood Bible. That was the name of the Kingsolver book. He hadn't read it, though Cathy had. He had the idea that it was a book read by more women than men. That was one more way things were different now. Men and women read different books. Maybe that was a good thing. He had no fixed opinion on the subject, not because he hadn't thought about it but because he mistrusted his instincts, which usually took him in the same wrong direction.

At home, in the garage, under the overhead glow, he read a few sentences of the Confessions. They distressed him. It was like being tapped on the shoulder—congratulations, you did it, you distracted yourself with such success that you forgot what you were about. In the sixth grade he had been a member of the Future Priests' Club. Not that he'd ever had a vocation, but he did have a hunger, and eyes to see how the world burned with God in it. He remembered the blaze of shook foil, but as if the story had happened to someone else.

Cathy was out playing Bunko. Bunko. He had no definite opinion about his wife's game of choice either. He went to bed and slept instantly, as though he'd just ridden his bicycle twenty miles—something he thought about doing but had not yet actually done. At three he woke. Cathy lay like a mystery continent next to him in the bed. Asleep, she smelled like herself, like his all-time favorite: raisin bread.

He surrendered to the idea that came: drink some bourbon on cracked ice while reading Saint Augustine. He made himself a nest downstairs. Along with Maker's Mark, crackers were in the nest, and leftover sausage. But instead of putting him to sleep, the book woke him up. God. He had forgotten. It was like a fever, that longing for God. With fever came thirst. By the fourth page Eagan was parched. How could he have forgotten?

Pain. The shame of sin. The longing to be clean. It was still in him, all of it, secret and heavy. He was an animal with a tail that would not stop swinging.

On the train into Washington the next morning he was bleary, too tired to forget what he had read. He took a long lunch with his door closed, Dorothea keeping intruders at bay. He went back to Augustine. Every sentence hammered the same nail: Wake up. On the train home he napped to forestall second thoughts about the conversation he felt fated to conduct with Cathy.

Which happened while they ate. A casserole. Thin wavy noodles were involved, and a Thai-like sauce. Cathy still liked cooking. He still liked eating.

"I think I'm Catholic again," he told her.

She waited for the punch line.

"I'm hungry for God," he said. "Again. Like I used to be." He would have been more precise, more specific, but he was stumped for vocabulary.

His wife shook her head. "Did you get a chance to look at that B-and-B for sale in Ogunquit? It's on the coast of Maine, in the south. I sent you the URL at work."

"I don't want a bed-and-breakfast, Cathy. I want God."

Cathy was good at ignoring ignorable things. She was five years younger than he, and the one in the family who rode a bike—outdoors, in all weather. She was still more blonde than not. "Classy" was what men called her, whereas women said "classic"—Cathy Brindle-Eagan was a classic beauty. Neither judgment was exactly right. You had to live with her to appreciate the small structural flaws, a kind of visual imbalance that could still make him queasy with desire. At fifty-five Eagan saw his wife better than he had at twenty-five, and acknowledged his luck.

"You didn't sleep last night again, did you? I think you should call the doctor, Harry. This insomnia is wearing you down. You're too young to wear down."

Too young to wear me down was what he heard, though that was unfair. A man who wanted God back ought to be fair.

"I slept fine."

"You left your mess on the desk in the den."

"I'm taking tomorrow off."

"How come?"

"Going to church."

She nodded as if that didn't surprise her in the least, never mind the fact that he hadn't been to mass in how many years?

At nine the next morning he was sitting in a middle pew at Saint Mary of Abundant Grace, waiting to be visited by God but not surprised when He didn't show. Eagan had never liked this prosperous suburban church, especially now, when the parking lot filled up every Sunday with SUVs and minivans and luxury sedans. He saw something martial in the way so many scrubbed families filed in to mass as if to an outing to the mall. At communion they consumed the body of Christ as if it were on sale and they knew a bargain when they felt one disintegrate on their tongue. Unfair? Okay, he'd be unfair. He and Cathy had brought the kids to mass here for years. They hadn't wanted their kids to grow up and become video clods, and the kids hadn't. But Saint Mary's had never been Eagan's church. His was darker, allowing a person to appreciate such light as made its way in. In Eagan's church a mass was always going on, the same one and only sacrament perpetually looping, full of grace. The trick was showing up.

In the parking lot the pastor was pulling into his designated space. A man of sixty with a square red face, Father Ransome had been an executive at Xerox before becoming a priest, in his forties. His homilies were hits, his orthodoxy was not grating, his mildly effeminate manner had disappeared in the tunnel of time and come out at the far end as endearing quirkiness. Eagan knew better than to talk to him about God; not this one.

"Father Ransome, Harry Eagan. You got a minute?"

"You don't have to introduce yourself to me, Harry. Of course I have time. What can I do for you?"

"It's a big parish. You can't be expected to know everybody's name. Do you remember a while back we had this visiting priest? Short guy, kind of bald, very muscular, like he lifted weights?"

"As I recall, he did lift weights. Father Simeon."

Eagan heard "Simian," and thought the pastor must have something against the man, which was all to the weightlifter's good, as far as Harry was concerned.

"That's the one."

"A Dominican. He spent many years overseas doing mission work."

"I'd like to get in touch with him."

"It's been a while since I've heard anything, Harry. I'm betting he's retired. He must be in his late seventies by now."

To Ransome's credit, he didn't ask why Eagan wanted to find the old priest. To his further credit, he deposited Eagan in front of a secretary with instructions to help him track down Father Anthony Simeon. To Eagan's own credit, he wasted no time making up his mind. He had plenty of vacation accrued at work, he had wheels, he had a burning thirst. Which was why on the afternoon of that same mild day in late September he found himself parking his car on a pleasantly tree-shaded street in Staunton, Virginia, in front of No. 387, on the banked front lawn of which was planted a rooms to let sign.

It was a big house, three assertively piled stories, with gables and gingerbread and a porch on three sides. None of the old men in rocking chairs on the porch was short enough or bald enough to be Father Simeon. The priest's room was in the attic. Winded from the climb, Eagan knocked.

"It's open." An elderly wheeze. He turned the handle and went in, and saw the priest bent over, with his hands wrapped around the bar, trying to perform a two-handed clean and jerk. He was indisputably old, and even shorter than Eagan remembered; he couldn't have topped five two. The attic air was stifling. Waterways of sweat traced eccentric paths across Simeon's bald skull, down his face, his back, and his shoulders. A fan in the open window accomplished nothing.

The priest straightened up, looked at Eagan, and nodded. Then he bent to the bar again. This time he lifted clean. Then, with an immense effort of control, he lowered the barbell to the mat from which he had picked it up. "If I ever built a house," he said. "Not that I ever will."

Already this was the conversation Eagan was longing to have. If hearts could sing, his did. He said, "But if you did."

"I'd face it east to catch the sun coming up to get me the day I die."

Eagan didn't know how he knew what to do, but he did. He crossed the room, picked up a hand towel, and tossed it to the priest. "I think I'm becoming Catholic again."

Simeon nodded, threw down the towel, and took a Gatorade from a small brown refrigerator. "So maybe you're one of the lucky ones."

"I think I might be."

"Excuse the living conditions. The Dominicans threw me out of the retirement home."

"Because of the weightlifting?" Harry said.

"I sent some letters to the pope."

"They were considered heretical, I guess."

"Heretical was the least of it."

"My name is Harry Eagan."

The priest extended a still perspiring hand to shake. "Tony Simeon."

"Do I call you Father?"

"Not unless you want a fist in the face."

"But you're still a priest."

Simeon nodded. "That, God gave to me. They can't take it away. You want a drink?"

Harry was happy to find that Simeon meant Scotch, though Harry's drink was bourbon. They sat in lawn chairs on a widow's walk off the attic, looking down on Staunton.

"I've drunk better Scotch," the priest commented. "I'm economizing lately."

"The Dominicans took away your retirement, too?"

The priest shrugged. In a black T-shirt and baggy blue gym trunks that went down to his knees, his chest was still powerful, his legs still strong, for an old man's. His head, with its great bald crown and wide brow, was huge. Eagan was in awe of that head, which obviously contained a universe of understanding. Simeon offered Eagan a Dutch Masters Presidente. They lit up.

"I'm not the kind of man who smokes cheap cigars by choice."

"In the wrong hands," Eagan said, "cheap cigars are an affectation."

"You said it, brother. If I had a few bucks, I'd spring for a decent cigar."

"So what do I do?"

"Do?"

"Where do I go from here?"

He felt deeply satisfied, sitting in the late-afternoon air, Scotch in a jelly jar, the bitter bite of the Dutch Masters on his tongue, below them Staunton behaving like the small southern city it was. Eagan felt close if not to God then to a room He had just stepped out of. The air tingled, as though its very molecules were jazzed by proximity.

"You looking for some kind of twelve-step program, Harry?"

"No." Eagan shook his head. "Just God. I was reading Saint Augustine."

"Confessions or the City of God?"

"Confessions."

"Good," the priest said. "That's the one you want."

Eagan waited for more, but was only slightly disappointed when Simeon told him, after they'd finished their cigars, that he was tired. "What can I say? I'm seventy-five, and no longevity in the family. It's a minor miracle I've lasted this long."

"Don't get up," Eagan said, and showed himself out. From his motel room he called Cathy. "I'm in Staunton."

"Does this have something to do with God, Harry?"

"It has everything to do with God."

He didn't intend it to be a test, but that was what it was for Cathy. His regret was tender and conjugal, but hard to convey over a phone line. He waited.

"Do you think you'll ever come home again?"

"Of course I will," he said, a touch too eagerly.

Then the zinger, so round, so smooth, that he couldn't get a purchase on it. "Here's the thing, Harry," Cathy told him. "You're still capable of loving me. In case you were wondering."

He felt ambivalent writing the check. Money wasn't the issue. What was the purpose of disposable income if you weren't going to dispose of it? But when he had gone seeking enlightenment from the only priest whose words had ever moved him as an adult, the idea of paying for it had not occurred to him. Still, he sensed the promising beginning of a master-disciple relationship. And the old man was hard up.

With effort Eagan came up with a pair of Cupido Churchills that gratified him as much as they did Tony Simeon. In a small park a block from the rooming house the two men sat in the bleachers watching kids in uniforms scrimmage in soccer. Around them cheering parents made an unnecessary show of being disgusted by the cigar smoke. They were outdoors, and the wind took the smoke away, and sidestream contamination was not an important thing to have on one's mind. Being around an old man provided useful cover. If people didn't respect the elderly, they did seem to be afraid of them.

"You know what makes me sad?" Simeon asked.

"What's that, Tony?"

"These kids are what—twelve, at best? And they're already organized. They've been roped and hog-tied and dragged into the behavior corral."

"Nobody plays in their back yard anymore," Harry said. "It's like that everywhere. Teams, leagues, the whole nine yards. My kids, too. It was what they wanted."

The priest's husky voice was gangsterlike in its reference points, its clipped assurance. "Ten years from today, mark my words, they'll strap on a pair of bureaucrat shoes and march toward the logical society. Of course, I won't be around to enjoy being proved right. You didn't show up any too soon, you know."

"I called my office. I told them I needed a couple weeks off."

"This is a fine cigar, Harry. It's a quality smoke."

"How many years did you spend in Africa?"

"Twenty-seven."

"Does God love poor people more than he loves the rich?"

"You rich, Harry?"

"Comfortably middle-class."

"What you want to do is, you want to cleanse your heart."

"That's what Augustine says."

"Well, he ought to know."

Back at the motel, replaying the conversation, Eagan had a hard time recapturing the certainty he'd had that he was in the presence of wisdom—maybe even of holiness. The words were stimulating, but outside the priest's orbit they lacked the punch Eagan had felt behind them when Simeon opened his mouth. The weightlifting worried him. The priest was lifting more than a man of his age should attempt. After he worked out, his old limbs trembled and his face stayed purple for twenty minutes. But it was not Eagan's place to criticize. In this relationship he was the disciple.

As disciple, he picked up that God did indeed hold him in the palm of His hand, but at the same time he, Eagan, had disappointed Him. Why? His choices? His hard-wired predispositions? His willingness to compromise? Did that also bother God? Eagan went back to the Confessions looking for answers, but Augustine's passionate certitude deflected him. When he finished the book, he asked the priest what he should read next.

"Read? Reading's okay. Books are beautiful creatures, Harry. Like horses. But what you want to do now is do. Time to stop thinking so much and do something."

"Like what?"

"I thought you didn't want the twelve-step method."

"I want God. I just want God."

Then Simeon told him an anecdote about Mozambique—the lengths some war orphans went to in order to survive the horrors of their inheritance. Taking the story as an indication that he should help his fellow man, Eagan hunted up a soup kitchen and offered his services. Short of volunteers, the woman who ran the place said sure, and Eagan began serving hot meals to homeless people. On the morning of the second day a Spanish-speaking man with a lightning-bolt scar on his face threw his plate of beans and hot dogs in Harry's face.

"Afuera," the haggard woman ordered him. "Ahora."

Shocked and curious, Eagan cleaned himself off and followed the scar-faced man into the street, where the man screamed and waved his arms. He threw the twenty Eagan slipped him on the ground; then he picked it up again and loped up the block, disappearing around a corner.

Eagan didn't finish the shift. He recognized judgment in the eyes of the woman who ran the place: You're not tough enough. But as he drove nowhere, the humiliation of his failure with the angry man allowed him to notice first a big old church of umber bricks and then a crew of Mexican workers on the grounds surrounding it. In their green uniforms they worked with calm intensity, as though making the place immaculate had something to do with getting into heaven. The church was in a neighborhood of small homes with tiny yards, like a doll's dream. Nobody seemed surprised when Eagan picked up a rake lying on the grass and began piling and bagging leaves. Did they think he was working off a penance?

Raking in the cool, clear sunlight, he made eye contact with the quiet men from the landscaping company as often as seemed decent. Intently aware of the movements of his body, he was blindsided by the memory that clipped him: serving a funeral mass. Outside, the ice was onyx. Smothered in black, the widow followed the casket up the aisle, moaning a word Harry never understood: Anazio? Adagio? She stumbled and fell, embracing the casket, which skidded sideways on its wheeled cart. Her screaming grief frightened Harry. Afterward, in the sacristy, the communion wafers and the wine he put away smelled like God's dust, what got left behind, and Harry was appalled, in awe not so much of death as of God's hugeness beside death, an immensity that could be mistaken for indifference. Light glinting on Monsignor Duggan's glasses obscured his hawk-hard eyes. He knew but kept quiet, letting Harry stew in his new knowledge.

Eagan threw down his rake and sat on the stiff, cold grass of the churchyard, the muscles in his torso twitching. The landscape guys ignored him, joking back and forth. How could he have forgotten what he knew when he was eleven? How could he have fallen so far away from … what? From the place where light and dark came together? Was that it—the bright line above the abyss? From feeling so full he was saturated, he was thickness itself. God, or the knowledge of God, or maybe just God's good mood, was packed inside him so tightly he didn't want to breathe; if he breathed, these feelings would change and go away, and he would be the empty sack of himself again, his human bones and nothing more.

On the cold ground Eagan measured his breathing. The leaves had all been raked, so he knelt at one end of a flower bed and began weeding. One of the landscapers gave him a burlap sack to kneel on, and when they stopped for lunch, they shared their food: tacos stuffed with beans, and the Mexican version of pigs-in-a-blanket. Someone passed him coffee from a thermos. Eagan ate and drank gratefully. Stiff and sore with an ache of remembering that was really a kind of longing, he worked with them until they left the church. Then he drove to Simeon's rooming house.

He tried to be accurate with the details: the wailing widow, the smell of the cassocks and surplices in the closet, Monsignor Duggan's hard hidden eyes, working with the Mexicans.

"It was like communion," he explained, "eating those tacos out behind the church."

"And the coffee was the blood of Christ, I gather. You had yourself a regular mass, didn't you, Harry? No priest required. No intermediaries—just you and the gardeners and God."

Eagan couldn't tell whether Simeon approved or disapproved. "Is that sacrilegious?"

But the priest was in a foul humor; it had to be his health. "What were you doing in a soup kitchen?"

"I thought it was the kind of thing a person who wants God ought to do."

"You might have got yourself killed. Dying before your time? Gimme a break. I like having you around, Harry."

"I'm confused."

"You should be. Here, drink this. It'll settle your nerves."

It didn't bother Eagan, it really didn't, that the first thing the priest had done after cashing his check was to buy a bottle of single-malt Scotch. It was a Zen kind of thing to do. Simeon was a Zen Catholic, and those were rare.

Simeon told him, "I've been having some pains in my chest."

"Let me drive you to the emergency room."

"What for—so they can lock me up in an institution?"

"The doctor, then."

"Same difference. Once you surrender, you're theirs. Forget it. What's on my mind is something different."

"What's on your mind?"

"I owe my landlady six months' rent. Mrs. Tribble is a Catholic. She's honored to have me as a boarder, but I don't like to take advantage."

On the way out Harry dropped off a check for Simeon's back rent with the landlady, who took it as her due—which of course it was.

That night Eagan called Cathy and told her he thought he was making progress. She was making progress too. She had found three more small B&Bs up for sale, one in Maine and two in New Hampshire. Cathy had lived her whole life in Fairfax County. While she was growing up she'd seen more fields than housing developments, more farms than malls. When the population of the county topped a million, she hit her personal tipping point. She'd worked out the money, shown Eagan how they could swing it.

"So, will you go with me, Harry?" she wanted to know, meaning north in its most heavily freighted sense.

"I'd like to go with you," he told her, "if I can. But first I want to find God."

"Well, then, keep looking, why don't you?" she said. And the splendid thing, the remarkable thing, about her wifely exhortation was its lack of irony.

He was grateful, because he was having difficulty. He could not rid himself of a niggling doubt about the money. On the one hand, he felt good helping out an old man. On the other hand, he didn't want to be taken to the cleaners. The money was the least of it, though. What loomed large was the possibility of failure. What if God didn't care for his approach? What if He just wasn't listening, or loved only those He chose to love, and Eagan didn't make the list? Eagan worried that God might never answer his weakling knock.

He took Simeon out to dinner. The old man wanted steak. All those years as a missionary he'd missed good beef, so they ate porterhouse.

"I was wondering about the letters you sent to the pope," Harry said when the waiter brought their salads.

"What about them?"

"What were they about?"

The priest was inspecting his salad with a fork as though looking for insects, a habit Eagan assumed he'd picked up in the missions. "I suggested he consider selling some Church assets to pay for the sexual-abuse litigation, for starters. What did they need more—a palaceful of Renaissance paintings or a good name? An acknowledgment of responsibility would go a long way."

"You sandbagged him."

"The pope? He never saw the letters. He gets a lot of junk mail. The Vatican has screeners. Too bad. I thought we might get a correspondence going."

"I'm sorry it didn't happen, Tony."

"So what convinced you to look me up?"

"I was in the elevator at work a couple of years ago. They'd just told me I was the new vice-president for government liaison."

The priest seemed to understand. "Not a good thing, was it?"

"The woman I beat out for the job—she really wanted it. And I really didn't. In the elevator, for about seven seconds, I felt a burst of triumph."

"Followed by?"

"Shame, Father. Tony. Not because I won but because I was playing the wrong game, the wrong way. It was like I grew claws, and then I looked down and saw blood on them."

"Which led you where?"

"Being in the elevator was like being in hell. More than anything what I wanted was not to be anymore. No Harry Eagan—that's what I wanted. Never mind it was Harry Eagan doing the wanting."

"After which you promptly forgot it all and went back to your regular old life."

Eagan nodded, doubly shamed now in the telling.

The priest reached for his glass but drew back his hand. "I'm not feeling so good just now, Harry. I guess you'd better drop me off at home."

His great white face had turned the color of fireplace ash, and panic flustered Eagan as he drove the priest back. At the priest's insistence he left him sitting on the porch outside, gathering his strength to make the climb to his attic room, unwilling to see a doctor.

In the parking lot of his motel Eagan turned off the ignition and began crying quietly in the dark. The tears came in waves, as though pushed up and out from a wet interior about which he had known nothing. He had never cried like this. Not when his parents died, or when his brother was killed in Vietnam. Not even when Cathy told him about her exploratory fling, way back when. This was a different kind of crying. It had to do with being abandoned. And as he locked the car door and walked blindly toward his room, he hoped it was a prelude—the high step you had to take before you got somewhere.

He stayed away from Tony Simeon the next day. He took a walk downtown, and called Cathy.

"Maybe I should give this whole thing up and come home."

"I don't think you're ready."

"You can tell?"

"If you were ready, Harry, you'd come home without warning and take me out for Chinese."

"So you'll give me some more time?"

"If I'm not here when you get back, I'm on my way to New Hampshire."

"I love you, Cathy."

This wasn't how the mystics did it, he knew. The mystics said good-bye to everything and headed for their own superior elsewhere. But Harry was no mystic. The effect of his crying the night before was to make the world sparkle, as though everything had been coated in glass: the denim cap on a trucker, the Styrofoam coffee cup in his own hands, the tangled arms of the willow tree behind the motel. Such sparkle, in such a desert. He thought he should feel grateful, but experienced only a kind of despair. He debated leaving Staunton, but where would he go? He was his own shadow, dragging that mortifying tail.

The next day the landlady met Eagan at the door of the rooming house. "He's sick."

"How sick?"

She shrugged. Mrs. Tribble was a large, athletic woman with a braid of shining gray hair. Eagan pictured her playing volleyball; she'd know how to spike. "I'm setting up the projector," she said.

The priest lay on his back in bed with the covers up to his neck, his head at an awkward angle on the pillow. He watched as Eagan helped the landlady set up the slide projector and the screen and mount a tray full of slides. "Popcorn?" he said when they were ready, and she disappeared to make some.

They spent the morning watching Simeon's African life: red dirt, green hills, tiny white churches, a thousand black faces wearing every conceivable expression. No safari pictures. The only animals that figured in the priest's slides were beasts of burden.

"Did you butter this popcorn, Mrs. Tribble?"

"Butter's bad for your system, Father."

"Don't make a special trip, but if you go downstairs would you mind bringing some up?"

She shook her head but got up to go melt butter. When she was gone, Simeon said, "Don't give up, Harry."

"Who's giving up?"

"That's the ticket. I'm convinced you're going to do this."

"Find God?"

"It's like weightlifting," he said, but would not go on.

At eleven-thirty Mrs. Tribble excused herself to go make lunch for the handful of men who took their meals with her.

"Shall I leave so you can get some sleep?" Eagan asked the priest.

"What's your hurry, Harry? Stick around, for crying out loud."

"You know, I looked at all those slides, but I still don't have any idea what your life was like over in Africa."

"You want to know what it was like?"

"Yes, I do."

Simeon sat up in the bed, leaned his back against the headboard, brushed popcorn crumbs from the covers. "In Niger," he began. Then he stopped, and Eagan figured he'd lost his train of thought. He was not the kind of man you prompted.

"A pretty little church in the country," he said, and Eagan realized that the part he'd missed ran underground. "Killed a man there once."

"A traffic accident?"

"Nothing accidental about it. He was the local hard case. Bleeding people, bullying them. No offense too small to commit, or too big. He contracted malaria. I had some medicine."

"But you didn't give it to him."

"Watched him suffer and die while his neighbors celebrated. A priest's not supposed to do that, Harry. It's God that determines a person's guilt, and the punishment."

"Are you sorry about what you did?"

"I'm sorry I don't feel sorrier."

"Did you confess it?"

"I'm confessing now."

Hearing that first shocked Eagan and then delighted him.

"There's more," the priest said.

"Go ahead."

"It's worse, in a way."

"Worse than letting a bad man die?"

But the priest changed the subject. "That elevator story you told me."

"What about it?"

"That's not the real reason you came looking for me."

"I know," Eagan said, because now he did.

The priest closed his eyes and began to snore. For the next ten minutes Eagan debated whether he should leave. He was still sitting by the bed when Simeon opened his eyes and said, "Let's take a ride."

"A ride?"

"Out of the city. I need to see some sky."

The impulse didn't seem prudent, but Eagan knew not to stand in Simeon's way. The weather had turned cold, and the raw air invigorated the old man. He was full of stories as he directed Eagan out of Staunton and west toward Heron Hill Park, a nature reserve of rolling hills across which deciduous trees were beginning to show their fall colors. Inside the park Simeon guided Eagan to a graveled lot at the top of a knobby hill, from the crown of which rose a lookout tower.

Eagan was skeptical. "You're not thinking about climbing the tower, I hope."

"Of course not." The priest shook his head. "All the same, it's a knockout view, Harry. It pleasures the eye, which in turn pleasures the soul."

"What do you say we go find a place to sit down?"

Even as he said it, Eagan knew that Simeon intended to climb the tower. Eagan counted four landings on the stairs' winding way up to the observation platform. For a few minutes they both pretended, but soon enough they wound up at the base of the steel-staired tower.

"This scares me, Tony. The whole idea scares me."

"You think I'm better off dying in some nursing home with a tube in my soul?"

Eagan touched the cold steel railing and told him, "I'll carry you."

"You can't carry me. You're not in such great shape yourself, you know."

"I'll carry you up to the first landing. We ought to be able to see pretty well from there."

If Cathy were here, Eagan realized, she would have the strength to carry the priest, who couldn't go more than 130. He felt a wave of desire for his wife as powerful as nostalgia, but not backward-looking. And then he was doing it, lifting the old man and climbing, feet finding the safety treads. Simeon wrapped his arms around Eagan like a little kid, and Harry smelled cigar on him. By the time he set the priest gently down on the landing, his legs were trembling. An arrow of pain shot up his back.

"Pretty terrific," the priest said, waving at the view of the brilliant valley.

"I couldn't stand my life anymore."

Simeon shook his head. "You'll have to do better than that."

"Living like your shortcomings, your mistakes, don't matter. You tell yourself, at least I'm not a fundamentalist. You soldier on in your dirty skin, and once in a while maybe you go see a movie."

"Here's the thing, Harry: they matter, those flaws."

"I can take you up one more landing."

On the second landing Eagan's arms trembled as badly as his legs. "When I was twenty-five," he told Simeon, "I could take a walk in the woods and believe that what I saw was a parable. Intimations of the divine, smoke signals from God, I don't know."

"And by the time you were forty-five?"

"I was a blunt instrument. Let's go up one more landing."

The priest told him, "You're looking kind of gray around the gills."

"I feel great."

So he scooped Simeon up again, aware as they climbed of the old man's huge head, the universe therein. For one bad moment he thought he might heave.

"Forty-five is ancient history, Harry," the priest prompted him. "How do you feel now?"

"Now? It's like I'm naked on a high hill and the wind's blowing real hard."

"Maybe we better not go up any higher. If anybody's going to kick the bucket, I should be the one."

But truth, Eagan remembered, was an odd number. He knew he could make it to the fourth landing, and the observation platform made five. After a long rest on the fourth landing, they reached the top. The trembling in Eagan's limbs was replaced by a tingling blue vertigo that enveloped him, body and mind. Closing his eyes made it worse. He opened them to see the priest, hands wrapped around the railing, staring at the spectacular view. Above the shining woods a single cloud patrolled an ocean of sky beneath a generous sun.

"How you feeling, Harry?"

"I'm fine. I'm great."

"You want to know what's worse than not giving malaria medicine to a thug?"

"What?"

"I can't seem to forgive God for the pain and suffering He causes. Although that makes it sound like a lawsuit, doesn't it?"

"I know what you mean."

"I thought you might. It's monstrous, the suffering. I guess that's why I took up weightlifting."

Eagan waited until they were safely down from the tower and back in the car before admitting to him, "I don't get it, Tony."

"Get what?"

"Why you took up weightlifting."

Simeon raised one hand in what was probably a dismissive gesture, but Eagan chose to take it as a blessing. "It's all in how you approach the bar, Harry. The secret's in the approach."

Eagan was pouting in his room the next afternoon when Mrs. Tribble tracked him down. "I had to call six motels to find you."

"What's wrong?"

"I was cleaning up the kitchen after lunch when I heard a crash. By the time I got to the attic, he was laid out on the floor. It's that damn-fool weightlifting of his. This time it was too much for him."

"Is he dead?"

"Not yet, thank God. But he's in intensive care. He's unconscious."

"Where's the hospital?"

"Don't bother. They won't let you in. But you can come here, if you would. The other day he told me to stay in touch with you. If something happened to him, I was to ask you to come over and straighten things up for him."

"Straighten things up?"

"Go through his papers, that sort of thing. That's how I took it, leastways."

When she met him on the porch, Mrs. Tribble had tears in her eyes. Eagan wanted to hug her, but she was not the kind of woman you hugged. She gave him the key to the priest's room, where he sorted papers, rifled through drawers, folded Simeon's laundry. Among the interesting things he came across were a Virginia lottery ticket and an unopened bottle of Speyburn single-malt Scotch. And a hatchet, old, with a nick in the blade. The likelihood that he would never learn the story behind the hatchet produced such a feeling of loss in Eagan that he had to sit down.

He sat for a long time. The window was open, fall air blowing in like the cruel breath of death itself. From the park the brazen sound of distant cheering came—budding bureaucrats at their deadly game.

Eventually, when he felt a shudder pass through him—except it wasn't a shudder; it was more like an internal lunge—he stood up. The air was lighter than he remembered air as being, and thinner. Simeon's barbell lay crosswise on the mat, like evidence of a crime.

Eagan walked to the mat and bent over. He curled his hands around the bar and then uncurled them and straightened up. You were supposed to do something with your back; there was a proper way to bend so that you wouldn't get hurt, but he couldn't remember what it was. He sucked in some of the strange, cool air that had invaded the attic. A line of sweat ran down his cheek, not a tear. It's all in how you approach the bar, Harry.

Standing there, he lost track of time. Then of where he was. Eventually he simply stood with the bar at his feet. Like fog across a field, understanding rolled slowly toward him. What mattered was how you stood, the stance you took in your dirty skin, your tawdry, secret despair. Like surrendering, only not that passive. You became a tube, bent at just the right angle for wind to blow through your hollowness. The wind was light, a bonus. The light was strength.

He bent over the bar again. He lifted. What came up with the weight was rushlike and semisweet. The elation of lifting was equal to the feeling of being lifted. It terrified him. It was, he understood, a given thing.

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