Fiction Fiction Issue

Specific Gravity

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

Later that week Barry called on Tim at the rectory. Grady had phoned Tim that morning. “You’ll have to brave Mrs. Loomis and get some liquor in,” he said. “You can’t entertain Barry without Scotch, but for God’s sake, don’t try to keep up with him.”

About 10 minutes after Barry’s arrival, Mrs. Loomis brought in a tray with two glasses, ice, and a bottle of Teacher’s Scotch. She could not have looked more disapproving.

“Thank you, Mrs. Loomis,” Tim said. “I can pour.”

“I know you can,” she said.

“You’ve got yourself a treasure there,” Barry said when she’d shut the door. “I have to say, I miss parish life. I miss the little family, the housekeeper, the secretary—”

“I don’t have a secretary,” Tim said, gesturing at the clutter on his desk. “As you can see.”

Barry laughed. “You never were a neatnik.”

“No, not hardly. Well, I understand from Grady that you could use a hand with your speeches and such.”

“I need help all right. As I told Grady, I’m not the best writer in the world. I’m a speaker, not a writer.”

“Well, that’s perfect, because I’m a writer, not a speaker.”

Tim was trying to make his drink last, which was difficult, given how nervous he was—and given that Barry had already topped off his own glass.

“Grady said your mother’s last illness put you in the hole, and you’re looking for a way to come up with a little extra. It’s like our blessed Lord was looking after us, isn’t it? Putting us in one another’s way again. After all these years.”

“Serendipity.”

“What?”

“I was agreeing.”

“Well, see—there it is, you’re the word man.”

The word man broke down and poured himself a second drink. “Shall we discuss terms?”

The terms seemed incredibly generous to Tim—as long as he didn’t think about what he’d have to do to meet his end of the bargain.

“Tell me,” Barry said, leaning forward, “what are your own views on abortion?”

“Well, naturally, and of course, I abhor it.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“You just abhor it? It doesn’t make your blood boil?”

Abhor is a strong verb, Barry. It can stand by itself. Perhaps the subject doesn’t excite the personal passion in me that it does in you, but that could be a plus. I can be more logical about it. That could work to your advantage.”

Barry thought a moment. “You’ve got a point. Sometimes I get so mad I can’t express myself.”

Tim turned his empty glass around in his hand.

“I brought a copy of my stump speech. ‘Old Faithful,’ I call it. But I need a new version. Same stuff, pretty much, but put in words people haven’t heard a million times.” He handed a battered typescript to Tim. “And I’ll need scripts each week for the TV show. I have a live audience, and I take questions, but I always need an intro and a dynamite closing—something to leave them thinking.”

Tim handled it all too well; Barry’s ratings soared, and the show, already popular, took off. Barry was certainly right about his ability to bond with an audience. Women, in droves, left their children at home, in the care of whoever, to hear Father Barry expound upon the sanctity and duties of motherhood. Since motherhood was the one thing some of these women had accomplished, hearing it extolled was music to their ears. Particularly in an air-conditioned television studio where small children were not permitted.

Up close, these audiences scared the hell out of Tim, who attended the tapings in case Barry needed any last-minute changes. The first time he sat in the audience, to get a feel for the show, he found the women’s anger so palpable, he worried it might spill out of the studio and into the street. (Tim imagined something along the lines of the latter stages of the French Revolution.)

After the tapings, Barry liked to unwind with a few drinks in the green room. “I think this was maybe our best one yet,” he said one evening.

“Went off nicely,” Tim said. “Your timing was dead-on.”

“We’re turning into a couple of pros.”

Tim winced.

“Wait till you hear this. I’ve been asked to speak to the Sacred Life League. At their convention in Oakland next Saturday. Their speaker fell out at the last minute, and they called me!”

Tim made no reply. As a young priest, he’d been just this side of a liberation theologian. He despised the Church’s right wing and all of its pomp, and loathed the league in particular. In fact, the archbishop had posted him to Holy Redeemer to minister to aged widows in an effort to cool his ardor for “people power.”

“Of course, I want you to write it,” said Barry. “I’m sorry it’s such short notice, but opportunity doesn’t knock twice. This is for all the marbles, Tim. We need a lollapalooza of a speech.”

“I suppose that’s what’s called for, all right.”

“We need us a real stem-winder.”

“Right.”

“What a team we’ve turned out to be.”

Tim threw back his drink.

During the next week, Tim sat staring at sheets of paper in his typewriter. The lollapalooza wasn’t coming easily, and he had only a couple of days left to write it. When writing the TV scripts, he generally stuck to the big picture, indulging in poetic turns of phrase and rhapsodic descriptions of an idealized Catholic family from his own generation, from the 1950s—the family sitting together at the supper table, gathering around the hearth at the holidays, eating big breakfasts at the Waffle House after Mass on Sundays. As for the vituperative portion of the “talks,” Tim left that to Barry, who needed no assistance with that end of things, frequently working himself into a froth by the end of the show. At this point, at a hand signal from Tim, he switched back to Tim’s script, which brought the tone of his oratory down to a saner level before he closed. Tim was convinced that this muted finale was all that kept the audience from running riot in the street afterward like disappointed Lakers fans. One night early in the week, Tim had gone backstage and found Barry crying.

“What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

“Sure,” Barry had said. “I guess.” He pushed some papers across his desk toward Tim. “Read these. They’re e-mails people have sent to me. I printed them out to show you. I defy anyone to read these without breaking down.”

Tim scanned the messages, which contained no dates and referenced no sources except “the Internet.” They all featured a remarkably similar horror story, with matching, gruesome details, about the callous and illegal disposal of aborted fetuses in municipal dumps—which supposedly had occurred, depending on the e-mailer, in the Dakotas, Arizona, Arkansas, or Texas.

“Barry, I think we can safely say these aren’t legit. Not one of them mentions a specific place or date. They identify only states—no towns, not even counties. They name no witnesses and provide no quotes from law enforcement. I’ve heard about these Internet rumors. All they do is speed up the distribution of urban myths.”

Barry snatched back the pages. He blew his nose and poured himself a drink. “I thought we were a team.”

“Yes?”

“I want to address these in my speech to the league. How can you incorporate them if you’re not on board?”

“I thought you were happy with my contributions, Barry.”

“So far as they go.”

“Well, I can’t include these allegations. You’re free to express your opinions, but not to broadcast unfounded rumors. The archbishop is keeping a sharp eye on what you actually say.”

“I may have to find myself another word man,” Barry said.

Tim bit his tongue to keep from shouting, “Please do!” He didn’t, because he was that close to getting out from under his mountain of debt. If he could hang on another month, he could even put some money by—invest it maybe, so that he could help the people who came to him. He’d discovered that he hated pleading poverty to the faithful. Quite simply, it embarrassed him. Only after he’d been forced to give up the habit of largesse had he discovered how addictive it had become. He remembered how his late father—who’d never seen a check he didn’t pick up, who’d been famous for overtipping waiters and bellhops, who’d dispensed silver dollars freely to small children, who’d been in the unconscious habit of jingling the coins in his pockets, who’d traded in his Buick every year and bought Tim’s mother a new fur stole every Christmas—had often declared, “It’s only money.” All to demonstrate his willingness and ability to provide for his family. In his own way, Tim thought, he’d been following in his father’s footsteps, trying to provide for his family—the parishioners of Holy Redeemer.

Barry was still wiping at his eyes. He seemed genuinely grieved.

“Give them here, Barry,” Tim said. “I’ll check them out. If any of this is true, I’ll find a way to make mention of it.”

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