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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.”

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.”

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.”

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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