Fiction Fiction Issue

Specific Gravity

Father Timothy’s generosity had caused money problems. How much would he give up to solve them?

Celibacy had never been a problem, thank God. But it was, at this point, about the only thing that wasn’t. Now 59, Father Timothy felt beset. His old friend and confessor, Father Thomas Grady, didn’t know the half of it.

“How’s it going, Tim?”

“Well, Grady—I mean, Father—things could be worse.”

“Things can always be worse.”

“On the whole, I’ve been pretty lucky.”

“Damn lucky. Trust me. I would know, am I right?”

“You would know. No doubt about that.”

“You’re a lucky man.”

“Amen.”

“Don’t be flippant.”

“Sorry.”

And Tim was sorry—sorry to bring his piddling sins to Grady, who’d had his own problems, celibacy included. And still did. Poor Grady. He’d spent the past four years ministering to gang members in the housing projects and inside juvenile hall, and he regularly heard the confessions of cold-blooded 12-year-old killers. It had done something to him. The garden-variety sins that Tim was willing to confess to now tried his patience.

Since Catholics were encouraged to do everything face-to-face nowadays, confessions included, the two priests sat in Grady’s office. Had someone glanced in from the hall he or she might have concluded the two men were discussing baseball scores.

“And I was uncharitable to old Mrs. Drummond last Tuesday,” Tim said.

“Jesus,” Grady said. “Pick up the tempo, Tim. Have a heart.”

“But Father, I was uncharitable to Mrs. Drummond. I said her grandson was past redemption.”

“Well, is he?”

“You know as well as I do that no one is past redemption.”

“Don’t hand me that. Is the boy irredeemable?”

“Absolutely.”

“There you go. Haven’t you any real sins, Father? Something we could maybe get our teeth into? I don’t know why you’re still bringing me this scrupulous crapola. We’ve been out of the seminary about 200 years.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sure you are.” At this stage in the proceedings, Grady knew that Tim was unlikely to confess to anything worse than taking the name of God in vain, so he seized the opening: “Three Our Fathers, five Hail Marys, and a solid Act of Contrition, and then let’s call it a night—unless you want to unburden yourself of something particularly heinous. You haven’t chewed gum before offering the sacrament, have you?”

Later, when Tim made to leave, Grady said, “Stay a while. Let’s have a beer and watch Bill Maher’s show. Old Barry’s on it tonight. He’s got his own TV show now, you know.”

“I know.”

Over the past couple of years, Barry Forman, who’d been a seminarian with them, had made something of a name for himself in the pro-life movement on the West Coast.

“Thanks, Grady, but I’ve got the early Masses tomorrow.”

As Tim drove home on the Hollywood Freeway, his thoughts went back to his real problems. He hadn’t lusted after women in years, much less altar boys. He’d never experienced a crisis of faith, at least not as he understood the term. His troubles were crushingly prosaic: He was in hock—up to his ears. He owed more money than he’d ever seen in his life, and with interest accruing, his debt increased daily. His creditors had begun pressing him for payment, and if something didn’t happen soon he might go to jail, or worse. Was anything worse? He rolled down his window to let in the city’s stale night air, to dry the sweat that was popping out on his brow.

He’d never dreamed he wouldn’t be able to pay back the money, none of which he’d spent on himself. Well, OK, he’d bought the set of Britannicas. Was still buying—would be buying for the rest of his life.

His problems had started in those carefree days of a booming economy and easy credit, when his housekeeper, Mrs. Loomis, had needed new false teeth. The poor woman was living on tapioca, and when he noticed and asked why, she said she couldn’t eat solids because of her teeth but was saving up for new ones, a project that would take her at least four months.

A person ought not to have to wait for teeth, Tim decided. You had to chew now; you needed teeth now. He told her to get the teeth—he’d be happy to pay for them. He’d taken out a little loan on his life insurance, thinking that as soon as his elderly mother died he’d have more money than he knew what to do with. Mrs. Loomis had gotten her new teeth.

Unfortunately, she’d been unable to resist boasting of Father Tim’s kindness to her, and so, practically overnight, parishioners began knocking at the rectory under cover of darkness, telling stories that were even sadder than Mrs. Loomis’s. He sent them to Catholic Charities or the county, but sometimes when he knew the agencies would be unable, or unwilling, to help, he dug into his own pocket.

And so, over the course of the next year, he became a beloved figure in his parish. People who’d once slipped out of the church directly after Communion lined up outside after Mass to talk to him. Widows brought him jars of homemade jam and pickle relish. People finally stopped comparing him unfavorably to his predecessor, a salty old Irishman who’d been famous for his 20-minute Masses.

Then he began getting letters in the mail, saying he’d been preapproved for various credit cards. He really should have one, he thought—in the event of an emergency. He’d been told that you couldn’t even rent a car these days without one. Before long, he had three. When he’d borrowed the limit on his life insurance, he switched to the cards.

As long as Tim could make his minimum monthly payments, he didn’t worry. Things rocked along like this while his mother, who’d been a semi-invalid all her life, to her son’s and doctor’s consternation, went for the family longevity record. By the time his debts became pressing, he could no longer ask her for an advance on his inheritance: She had him confused with her long-dead brother, Joseph. Every Sunday, when Tim visited the convalescent home, she begged him to give up drink and to take “The Pledge.” To ease her mind, he took it, over and over, just as his uncle had before him.

By the time his mother died, her long stay in the nursing home had exhausted her resources. Tim found himself liable for certain of his mother’s taxes that had fallen through the cracks, as well as medical bills incurred in the last weeks of her life that Medicare hadn’t covered. After the reading of her will, he left her lawyer’s office hopelessly in debt.

On his way home he stopped at a bar for a beer, sardonically raising a glass to his Uncle Joseph. In mufti, and out of his own parish, he felt he could safely sit at the bar. Normally he sat at a table, but that day he needed the comfort of human bodies on either side of him. While he nursed his beer, he thought about what to do. First, get a new loan to pay off his mother’s debts. Second, what? Maybe he would die before they could haul him off to jail. Maybe what was waking him in the middle of the night wasn’t just heartburn. In the last two years he’d attended, or celebrated, a dismaying number of funeral Masses for priests in their 60s.

He ordered another beer. He was imagining the eulogy Grady would deliver at his funeral Mass when a voice from behind him said, “Father?”

It was Misko Kindura, his housekeeper’s brother-in-law and Holy Redeemer’s handyman. Mrs. Loomis maintained that he’d been an attorney in Hungary, but Tim doubted this; Misko had the predatory air of a petty criminal, of a con man. He wasn’t much of a handyman either. Tim kept him on only to stay in Mrs. Loomis’s good graces.

“Misko, how are you?”

“Fine, Father. And you?”

“Fine, thank you.”

“I was sorry to hear about your mother.”

“Thank you.”

“I didn’t know you drank.”

“I like a beer on a hot day, like anyone else.”

Misko smiled. He knew all about hot days. In the summer and fall in Los Angeles, they came one right after another.

Back at the rectory, Tim went through an ominous pile of pink While You Were Out slips, two having to do with hospitalized parishioners, the rest from finance or credit-card companies. Then he headed for the kitchen and got another bottle of beer from the fridge. Mrs. Loomis was washing spinach in the sink.

He lifted the bottle to her and said, “Going to be another hot one, Mrs. Loomis.”

She nodded, but didn’t look up. As the widow of an alcoholic, she couldn’t cut anyone slack, not even Father Timothy, who drank before the sun went down.

Back in his office he rechecked a column of figures and got the same dismal sum. He swiveled his chair to look out the window at a shaggy palm tree he’d asked Misko to trim two weeks ago and pounded the beer. Then he lay down on the sofa and went to sleep.

At four o’clock Mrs. Loomis woke him. His head was fuzzy, and he couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. He had a visitor, was the gist. He had time just to smooth his hair back and take up a defensive position behind his desk before the visitor waltzed into his office.

Tim invited the man to have a seat. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

“Ron Smith.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

“I believe it’s what you can do for us,” Smith replied. “J & C Financing. Six hundred twenty dollars and forty-seven cents. We’ve not had a payment on this for some time. If you can’t make one today, I’m afraid this debt will be called in.”

“Called in?”

“You’ll be asked to pay the entire amount immediately. No more payments.”

“Ah,” Tim said. “I see. Is that usual?”

“For a debt this old, with this many late payments, yes. You can pay off the debt, or you can make a payment. Those are your options. Of course you could do nothing, but then we come after you. Which in your line of work,” he said, looking around the pastor’s office, “could be a little embarrassing.”

“When you say ‘come after you,’ what does that entail?”

“For starters, whatever you put down for collateral we confiscate. If that doesn’t cover it—and a word to the wise, it never does—well ...” Smith shrugged.

Tim steepled his fingers and smiled cordially. “You take the gloves off?”

“That’s right, Father.”

Tim dug his checkbook from the desk drawer and wrote a hot check.

The question now was where to borrow the money to cover the check—and other checks he’d be writing in short order to the convalescent home and the IRS. Grady was the first person Tim thought of asking, but Grady was notoriously broke. Not in debt of course, but pretty nearly always broke. Even so, Tim decided to go see him, because Grady, being unafraid of his own housekeeper, kept whiskey in the rectory, and Tim badly needed a real drink.

When he arrived at Grady’s study he found Barry Forman lounging there. Grady, who seemed glad of the interruption, stood up to greet Tim. Barry stood too, as Grady reminded him that Tim had been a fellow seminarian.

“Of course. How could I forget Father Tim?”

“Barry, nice to see you. In person, that is.”

“Sit down,” Grady said. “Have a drink.”

“Just what I had in mind, actually. Thank you.”

“Barry’s fund-raising for his organization, but I’ve explained that if I had any ‘funds’ I’ve got my own priorities.”

“Me too,” Tim said, pouring himself a generous tot.

“Grady acts as if I were trying to pick his personal pocket,” Barry said. “Not at all! What I’m proposing is that he raise money from his congregation. He’d be raising not just money, but the consciousness of his flock. The holy father himself has been very clear about this. He wants the American Church in visible conformity with Rome’s stand on the sanctity of life.”

Tim was enjoying the sensation of whiskey sliding down his throat, and consequently his expression was magnanimous. Encouraged, Barry smiled. “Perhaps,” he said, “I could interest you in our program?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Tim said. “My parish is constituted of people of an age to already be in conformity, as you call it, with the holy father’s encyclical.”

Barry nodded. “Yeah, I heard they’d stuck you over at Holy Redeemer.”

“Widows require the sacraments too.”

“Indeed,” Barry said. “Oh, certainly. No offense meant.”

“None taken,” Tim said, pouring himself another drink. He’d drunk the first one straight off—like Uncle Joseph.

Grady stood up. “Barry, I can’t thank you enough for stopping in—it’s been grand. But actually I’m Tim’s confessor, and we had an appointment, so I’ll just walk you out.”

When Grady returned, he shut the door and said, “What were you thinking, chugalugging hooch in front of Barry?”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I can see that. What’s wrong?”

“I’ve got real trouble, Grady. Money trouble.”

“Don’t sweat it, I can let you have 50 until the first.”

“Thank you, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t help.”

“Every little bit helps.”

“Past a certain point, actually, no it doesn’t.”

“Have you got a gambling habit, Tim?” This was what Grady had been afraid of.

“Nothing like that.” The drink had loosened Tim’s tongue, and he found himself confiding the whole sad story. While Tim talked, Grady tipped his chair back and gazed at the ceiling. At the end of Tim’s recitation, he brought his chair back with a thump. “Jesus, Tim! Did you really think your mother’s stay in that home was free?”

“I never thought about it. I assumed Medicare covered it. And then I knew she had a considerable trust. Since I was her only heir, I would have inherited, had anything been left to inherit. That’s why I’d felt OK about borrowing, see? I thought I was eventually going to have to find a way to give all that money away. I thought I was just getting a head start on it. But instead, at the end, all she had was debts. They didn’t come to all that much, because she had so much money to start with, but I was banking on a considerable inheritance to pay what I’d run up.”

“It’s OK, Tim—you don’t have to convince me you’re not a thief. I see how it happened. What I don’t see is what we’re going to do about it. If you were an auto mechanic, you’d declare bankruptcy, but I don’t think that’s a good option.”

“Well, this side of robbing a string of 7-Elevens, how can I get that kind of money?”

“As I remember it, you’re a pretty good writer, aren’t you? I mean, back in seminary, weren’t you the editor of our little paper—what was it called, The Clarion? And didn’t Father Clement read your essays aloud in class?”

“I’m a fair writer, yes. Or used to be. I haven’t written anything but homilies in years.”

“I bring it up because when he was here, Barry said he was looking for a speechwriter. He’s got that weekly antiabortion TV show now. Anti-everything, really—gays, birth control, short shorts, hair dye, hip-hop, the whole shooting match. Plus those rallies for women that he holds. He ran out of things to decry years ago, but now he’s running out of words to do it in. He asked me if I knew anyone who could write for him.”

“My God! You’d expect me to write for Barry Forman?”

“You’re living in a glass house, Tim, one with a mortgage. My advice? Hold your nose with one hand, and write with the other. Anyway, you’re against everything he’s against, in principle—though I don’t think the Church has taken an official stand on hair dye as yet. You know, Barry’s topics aren’t objectionable, it’s the spite he brings to them. Maybe you could tone him down some.”

“I doubt that.”

“The TV people would actually pay you—and they pay handsomely. You could make enough in a short time to back your creditors off. Once you get the balances down, they’ll take payments. Then you’d quit. Should I bring it up to Barry?”

Tim raked his hair with both hands. “I don’t know if I could do it.”

Grady didn’t say anything.

“No. You’re right. Talk to him. Thank you, Grady.”

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