Fiction Fiction Issue

Specific Gravity

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

So now, the night before he had to deliver the completed speech, Tim was staring at a blank page in his typewriter. He’d asked Grady, a shrewd explorer of the Internet—he’d laughed at Tim for buying the Britannicas, suggesting that he invest in a quill pen while he was at it—to look into the stories.

Grady quickly confirmed Tim’s suspicions: The stories were bogus. He’d traced them to an ex-seminarian in Winter Park, Florida, who put out what he termed a “newsletter” on his Web site. Tim called Barry to say they couldn’t use them.

“So they’re not from TheNew York freaking Times,” Barry said. “I’m tired of being dictated to by the elite press. You know me—I’m all about listening to the little people, about giving them a voice. Goddamn it, Tim, find some way to get this stuff into the speech.”

When Grady called later to see how Barry had taken the news, Tim, without actually saying so, allowed him to conclude that Barry had seen reason.

Tim sat crouched over his typewriter. He knew Barry was convinced he’d been placed on Earth to be the voice of what he called the “little people,” but by now he also understood that Barry intended to make them feel as betrayed and angry as he himself felt. Why Barry should feel this way Tim could only guess, but he knew that the only time Barry got any relief from the sense of betrayal and the corrosive anger—which, along with the Scotch, threatened to consume him—was when he was addressing his followers. Only when he was in full cry, or dead drunk, did he find any measure of peace. Tim had so often seen Barry in his vulnerable green-room moments that, as he’d tried to tell Grady, he’d begun to feel genuine compassion for the man.

Tim was still sitting in front of the typewriter, wondering if he couldn’t find some way to make some obscure mention of the e-mails, when Mrs. Loomis called him to dinner.

She placed a plate of pot roast and vegetables before him, then stood back from the table and announced, “My sister’s husband’s in the hospital.”

“Misko?”

“Yes, and it’s serious. They’ve hooked him up to one of those dialysis machines. They think he’s maybe got a tumor on his kidney. They’re waiting on some tests. My sister can’t make it, not with these extra expenses, if Misko doesn’t get his wages from here. So she asked could we keep paying him until he can come back.”

“I guess I could for a couple of weeks, but that would be about it. There’s not enough money in the budget to pay Misko, if at the same time I have to pay someone else. The parish is wide open to a lawsuit until we get that new railing up on the stairs at the side entrance to the church. This can’t be postponed much longer, because Misko was supposed to have done it months ago. Now our insurance grace period is about to run out.”

Mrs. Loomis stood balkily, feet a little apart like a sailor on deck in rough seas. She didn’t say anything.

“Look, I’m very sorry about Misko,” Tim said, laying down his fork. “I wish I could continue paying him indefinitely. I might be able to get your sister some temporary help from CC. And I’ll go see Misko tomorrow. Which hospital is he in?”

“St. Joseph’s. But I can’t see how you going over there is going to help anybody.”

“A pastoral visit may not be the same thing as cash, but some parishioners appreciate it.”

“I suppose you want your coffee,” Mrs. Loomis said, and went back to the kitchen.

Back in his office after dinner, Tim searched his mind for a way to accommodate Barry’s wishes. A brief rhapsody on the infancy of Christ, a vague allusion to the Gospel’s injunction to bury the dead, the blessing of a Christian burial to the faithful. He sneaked into the kitchen, liberated a couple of beers, and returned to his typewriter.

Later, watching on the ancient console TV in Grady’s study, Tim saw the most inflammatory snippets of Barry’s speech on CNN. He was ashamed to hear the crowd roar its approval at the exact places he’d written in the margins of the script “Wait for applause to die down.” Barry had added some rants of his own, taking the spurious e-mails for his text—and these occasioned yet more enthusiastic outbursts. When the speech was over, Grady snapped off the TV and poured a drink. Tim followed suit.

“You said he wasn’t going to include that Internet drivel.”

“Grady, I couldn’t have stopped him with a gun. I just tried to keep it from sounding quite so—well, you know.”

Ill-conceived?” Grady suggested. “Insane, maybe?”

“The second, I think,” Tim admitted.

“I’m speaking as your confessor now, Tim. Why did you do this? You, presumably, knew better.”

Tim considered playing dumb, but that had never been an option with Grady. He blurted out, “I did it for the money.”

“I see.”

“Not for myself, Grady. For people in my parish in real need. With what Barry’s paying me, I can help them.”

“I’m not sure that’s what this is about, Tim. I’m worried you wrote that speech so you could go back to playing lord of the manor. Which is how you got in trouble to begin with. Being a parish priest doesn’t seem to be enough for you anymore. You want to think about the implications of that, Father. Because if it’s not enough for you, you aren’t making much of a job of it.”

“Aren’t you being a little harsh?”

Grady sighed. “Maybe, I am, Tim. We both knew from the start that the deal with Barry was a deal with the devil, but the timing made it almost seem providential. I know I encouraged you to do it, but short-term, Tim—just until you could pay down your debts. After which, if you’ll remember, I said quit. You led me to believe you were out of the woods, but you haven’t quit him and you took this league thing on.”

“You don’t understand, Grady. Mrs. Loomis’s sister’s husband is in the hospital, I needed money to give Misko one month’s salary, and extra to put away for things like it—when they come up. Well, you know.”

“And you will. But the poor really are always with us, and the money you get from Barry will be gone in no time.”

Tim nodded miserably and gazed into his empty glass.

“This is part and parcel of your old trouble, Tim—pride.”

Pride? In what? Of what? Being in debt? Pastoring a dying parish? Writing histrionic speeches for Barry Forman?”

“Don’t be obtuse. Granted, I got tired of banging my head against brick walls of my own. Lately I fell down on the job. You’ve deserved a better confessor than I’ve been lately—there, that’s my confession. But be that as it may, I did warn you about your precious scrupulousness. Why? Because it obscures the big picture. You concentrate on sins a normal human over the age of eight wouldn’t even know he’d committed! Pride in your work, that’s fine, but pride in yourself, in your imagined perfection and in your largesse? Not so much, Tim.”

Tim continued to study his glass.

“Don’t you think I’d like to reach into my wallet to help my parishioners? Get right down to it, they’re a damn sight worse off than your widows and their sisters- and brothers-in-law.”

Tim nodded meekly. He’d never understood how Grady stood it, looking on—helplessly, as Tim saw it—at the human misery that surrounded him in his parish.

“But I don’t have money. I don’t even have credit. We’re parish priests, Tim. We took vows of poverty. Together. Remember? All we have to offer our people are the blessed sacraments. All we can do for them is guide them toward a deeper understanding of the love of Christ. It’s his love that will sustain them in the face of the things neither I, nor they—nor you, Tim—can change. I’m sorry if that vow now prevents you from swanning about in front of your housekeeper’s brother-in-law, but you need to get your mind back on your pastoral duties; you need to go back to being a laborer worthy of your parishioners’ hire. You always were before. You can be again.”

Tim put down his glass. “I hope I can, Father. OK, I’ll quit Barry. You’re right, I should have done it a month ago.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow?”

“No. Today. And?”

“Get my mind back on my pastoral duties.”

“What else?”

“Embrace my poverty?”

“Good answer, Father.”

When Tim got home he typed out his letter of resignation. Following Grady’s succinct advice—“Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk”—he wrote only that the pressure of pastoral duties precluded continuing their arrangement. Then he walked to the corner and dropped his letter in the mailbox. When he got home, he went into the kitchen for a glass of ice water—it being the only liquid he could think of that fit into this new poverty scenario. Mrs. Loomis was peeling potatoes. “You need to call Father Forman back.”

“OK. First I’m going over to St. Joe’s to see Misko.”

“Did you know you’re out of beer?”

“Am I? Thanks,” Tim said, forcing a smile.

Misko wasn’t in his room. His roommate told Tim to check the roof, where Misko sometimes went to smoke. Misko was sitting on a folding chair under a NO SMOKING sign.

“Misko! Your roommate said I might find you up here.”

Beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, Misko said, “Nice of you to show up, Father. Considering you’re only giving me two weeks’ sick leave.”

“Yes, well, at least as soon as you’re out of here, your job’s still waiting for you.”

If I get out of here. I’m waiting on some new test results. The doctors say the last batch looked screwy.”

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“No.” Misko drew on his cigarette and exhaled slowly. “Hey, is it hot enough for you, Father? Didn’t you tell me once you only drink on hot days?” He reached into the pocket of his robe, winked, and tossed Tim a can of Schlitz. “A friend smuggles it in for me. He gets these little cans so they’ll fit in the pocket of my robe.”

“Thank you, Misko. And to answer your question, almost any day in L.A. is hot enough for a beer.”

“You’re telling me.”

The sun was setting. A hawk lazily rode a thermal over the jammed Ventura Freeway. The two men sat in silence.

Beer in hand, with a view of the sunset, Tim finally felt the relief he’d expected to feel when he’d mailed the letter to Barry. But along with the sensation of relief came another. He felt—and he could think of no other word for it—frail. As if he, rather than Misko, were the man who’d climbed out of his sickbed to take the air. The last time Tim had felt this vulnerable was his first month out of seminary, when the combination of his awesome new responsibilities as a priest and his inexperience had made him painfully self-conscious.

Sipping from the pony can, Tim knew he needed to proceed with caution. An ordinary parish priest, one unburdened of pride, has less specific gravity than a debtor or a lord of the manor. At that moment, he felt he might be blown off the roof by a strong breeze.

Misko crushed his empty beer can in his fist. “I could do that back when they were tin, before they made them of aluminum, but I probably couldn’t do it now.”

“I couldn’t even do it then,” Tim said, humbly.

At this moment, Misko wanted only a drinking companion, but he knew he would soon be needing his priest. “Well, it’s time to face the music,” he said. “I’m expecting the doctor to show up with the new test results. My wife’s coming, to be in on it. Since you’re already here, maybe you could stay, Father. A wink’s as good as a nod from these white-coat guys, so I’m pretty sure the news is bad. But I can roll with it. Hell, I once faced a Soviet tank with a handful of rocks—can’t be worse than that! My wife is the one I worry about. She cries at the movies.”

“I understand.”

“I’m glad we had a beer together, Father. For a while, I almost forgot you were a priest.”

“I’m glad too, Misko,” Tim said. “For a while, I remembered I am one.”

Getting up, Misko said, “Every man should have a couple of drinks with his priest before he actually needs him, am I right?”

Tim took Misko’s arm to steady him, and said, thinking of Grady, “It’s a lucky man who can drink with his priest.”

Presented by

Marjorie Kemper has written stories for The Southern Review, River Styx, Xavier Review, and other publications. In 2003 she received an O. Henry Prize for a story that had appeared in The Atlantic. She has published one novel, Until That Good Day (2003), and has just completed another, Between the Devil and Mississippi.

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