A SHORT STORY
BY TOBIAS WOLFF
FATHER LEO HAD STARTED OUT WITH THE IDEA OF becoming a missionary. He had read a priest’s account of his years among the Aleuts and decided that this was the life for him—trekking from trapper’s hut to Indian village, a dog for company, sacramental wine in his knapsack, across snowfields that gleamed like sugar. He knew it would be hard. He would suffer things he could not imagine in that polar solitude. But that was the life he wanted, a life full of risk among people who needed him and were hungry for what he had to give.
Shortly before his ordination he asked to be sent to Alaska. The diocese turned down his request. The local parishes were short of young priests, and their needs came first. Father Leo was assigned to a parish in West Seattle, where the pastor took an immediate dislike to him and put him on what he called “crone duty”—managing rummage sales, bingo, and the Legion of Mary, and visiting old parishioners in the hospital. Father Leo worked hard at everything he put his hand to. He hoped that the old priest would notice and begin to soften toward him, but that never happened.
He stayed on in the parish. The old priest kept going, though his mind had begun to wander and he could not walk without a stick. He repeated his sermons again and again. There was one story he told at least once a month, about an Irishman who received a visitation from his mother the night after her death, a visit that caused him to change his whole life. He told the story with a brogue, and it went on forever.
The parishioners didn’t seem to mind. More of them came every year, and they kept the old priest busy from morning to night. He liked to say that he didn’t have time to die. One night he said it at dinner and Father Leo thought, Make time. Then he felt so ashamed that he couldn’t eat the rest of his meal. But the thought kept coming back.
Finally the old priest did die. Father Leo collected his papers for the diocese and found copies of several reports the old priest had made on him. They were all disparaging, and some of them contained charges that were untrue. He sat on the floor and read them through carefully. Then he put them down and rubbed his eyes. It was the first warm night of the year. The window was open. A moth fluttered against the screen.
Father Leo was surprised at what he’d found. He couldn’t understand why the old priest had hated him. But the more he thought about it the less strange it seemed. Father Leo had been in love once, before entering the seminary, and remembered the helplessness of it. There had been no reason for him to be in love with the girl; she was no better than other girls he knew, and apart from loving her he didn’t like her very much.
Still, he probably would have married her if he had not felt even greater helplessness before his conviction that he should become a priest. He thought that as a priest he would be necessary to people. She didn’t seem to need him all that much. Nevertheless, she was desolate when he told her what he was planning to do, to the point that he nearly changed his mind. Then she lost interest. A few months later, she married another man.
Vocation was a mystery, love was a mystery, and Father Leo supposed that hatred was a mystery. The old priest had been pulled under by it. That was a shame, but Father Leo knew better than to ponder its meaning for him.
A monsignor from the chancery was named to succeed the old priest. Father Leo brooded. He began to fear that he would never get his own parish. One night, driving back to the rectory from a visit to the home of a sick woman, he suddenly began to shake. He was shaking so badly that he had to pull off the road until it passed. For the first time, Father Leo considered leaving the priesthood, as many of his friends had done. But he could not get it out of his head that he was meant to be a priest. Patience, he told himself.
The monsignor asked Father Leo to stay on and teach religion in the parish elementary school. Father Leo agreed. At the end of their interview, the monsignor asked if there were any hard feelings.
“Not at all,” Father Leo said, and made himself smile.
When school began in September his feelings of resentment left him. The students liked Father Leo. They were troubled and cruel to each other but they were still curious about things that mattered: what they should believe in, how they should live. They paid attention to what Father Leo said, and he felt happy enough to be where he was.
EVERY COUPLE OF YEARS OR SO THE DIOCESE SENT out new books to religion teachers. Father Leo found the changes confusing and stopped trying to keep up. When the books came in he put them on a shelf and forgot about them. That was how he got fired. His classes were inspected by a priest from the education office that sent the books, and soon afterward Father Leo received a summons. He went before a committee. After they questioned him, the chairman sent a letter to the monsignor saying that Father Leo’s ideas were obsolete, and peculiar. The committee suggested that he be replaced.
The monsignor took Father Leo out to dinner at a seafood house and explained the situation to him. The suggestion of the committee was actually a directive, he said. The monsignor had no choice in the matter. But he had been calling around and had found an open position, if Father Leo was interested. Mother Vincent at Star of the Sea needed a new chaplain. Their last chaplain had married one of the nuns. It so happened, the monsignor said, looking into his wine, swirling it gently, that he had done several favors for Mother Vincent in his days at the chancery. In short, if Father Leo wanted the position he could have it. The monsignor lit a cigarette and looked out the window, over the water. Gulls were diving for scraps.
He seemed embarrassed, and Father Leo knew why. It was a job for an old priest, or one recovering from something: sickness, alcohol, a breakdown. Father Leo looked at his hands folded on the tablecloth. He thought of Bishop Thangbrand, who had come among the savage Vikings of Iceland and converted the entire population in three weeks by beating to death with a heavy crucifix anyone who dared to argue with him.
“Where will I live?” he asked.
“At the convent,” the monsignor said.
SOMETHING HAD GONE WRONG AT STAR OF THE SEA. It was an unhappy place. Some of the sisters were boisterous, and their noise made the silence of the others seem that much deeper. Coming upon these sad, silent nuns in the corridor or on the grounds. Father Leo felt a chill. It was like swimming into a cold pocket in a lake.
Several nuns had left the order. Others were thinking of it. They came to Father Leo and complained about the noise and confusion. They couldn’t understand what was happening. Father Leo told them what he told himself— Be patient. But the truth was that his own patience had begun to give out.
He was supposed to be spiritual adviser to the convent. Many of the nuns disregarded him, though. They went their own way. The director of novices described herself as a “Post-Christian” and at Easter sent out cards showing an Indian god ascending to the clouds with arms waving out of his sides like a centipede’s. Some held jobs in town. The original idea had been for the nuns to serve the community in some way, but now they did what they wanted to do. One was a disc jockey.
The rowdy nuns ran around together and played pranks. Their jokes were good-natured but often in bad taste, and they didn’t know when to stop. A couple of them had stereos and played weird music at night. The hallways echoed with their voices.
They called Father Leo “Padre,” or just “Pod.” When he walked past them they usually made some crack or asked a cute question. They made racy jokes about Jerry, the fellow Mother Vincent had hired to raise funds. They were always laughing about something.
One evening he went to Mother Vincent’s office and told her, again, that the convent was in trouble. This was his third visit that month, and she made it plain that she was not glad to see him. She neither rose to meet him nor invited him to sit down. While he talked she gazed out the open window and rubbed the knuckles of her huge red hands. Father Leo could see that she was listening to the crickets, not to him, and he lost heart.
Mother Vincent was strong, but old and drifting. She had no idea what was going on downstairs. Her office and rooms were on the top floor of the building, separate from the others, and her life took place even further away than that. She lived in her dream of what the convent was. She believed that it was a perfect song, all voices tuned, sweet and cool and pure, rising and falling in measure. Her strength had hardened around that dream. It was more than Father Leo could contend with.
He broke off, though he hadn’t finished what he had come to say. She went on staring out the window at the darkness. Her hands grew still in her lap.
“Father,” she said, “I wonder if you are happy with us.”
“Because if you are not happy at Star of the Sea,” she went on, “the last thing I would want to do is keep you here.” She looked at him. She said, “Is there anywhere else you want to be?”
Father Leo took her meaning, or thought he did. She meant, Is there anywhere else that would have you? He shook his head.
“Of course you hear complaints,” she said. “You will always hear complaints. Every convent has its sob-sister element. Myself, I would trade ten wilting pansies for one Sister Gervaise any day. High spirits. A sense of humor. You need a sense of humor in this life, Father.”
Mother Vincent drew her chair up to the desk. “If you don’t mind my saying so, Father,” she said, “you are inclined to take yourself too seriously. You think too much about your own problems. That’s because you don’t have enough to keep you busy here.” She put her hands on the desk top and folded them together. She said that she had a suggestion to make. Jerry, her fund-raiser, needed some help. The convent could not afford to hire another man, but she saw no reason why Father Leo couldn’t pitch in. It would be good for him. It would be good for everyone.
“I’ve never done any fund-raising before,” Father Leo said. But later that night, back in his room, he began to like the idea. It meant that he would meet new people. He would be doing something different. Most of all, it meant that he would be getting out every day, away from this unhappy place.
FATHER LEO HAD COFFEE WITH JERRY A FEW MORNings later. Though the weather was warm, Jerry had on a three-piece suit, which he kept adjusting. He was nearly as tall as Father Leo but much thicker. There were lines across the front of his vest where the buttons strained. Rings sparkled on his thick, blunt fingers as he moved his hands over the sheets of paper he had spread on the table. The papers were filled with figures showing what the convent’s debts were, and how fast they were growing.
Father Leo hadn’t known any of this. It came as a surprise to him to learn that they could owe so much—that it was allowed. He studied the papers. He felt good bending over the table with Jerry, the smell of coffee rising up from the mug in his hand.
“That’s not all of it,” Jerry said. “Not by a long shot. Let me show you what we’re actually looking at here.” He took Father Leo on a tour. He pointed out the old pipes, the warped window frames, the cracked foundations. He dug at the crumbling mortar in the walls and even pulled out a brick. He turned a flashlight on pools of scummy water in the vast basement. At the end of the tour, Jerry added everything up—debts, operating expenses, and the cost of putting the physical plant back in shape.
Father Leo looked at the figures. He whistled.
“I’ve seen worse,” Jerry said. “Our Lady of Perpetual Help was twice as bad as this, and I had them in the black in two years. It’s easy. You go where the money is and you bring the money back.”
They were standing beside an empty greenhouse with most of the windows broken out. Shards of glass glittered at their feet. It had rained earlier, and now everything seemed unnaturally bright: the snowcap on Mount Rainier, the grass, the white sails of the boats on Puget Sound. The sun was at Father Leo’s back, shining into Jerry’s face. Jerry squinted as he talked. Father Leo saw little scars under his eyes. His nose was puffy.
“I should tell you,” Father Leo said. “I’ve never raised funds before.”
“Nothing to it,” Jerry said. “But first you have to make up your mind whether you really want the money. You ask yourself, is it worth going after or isn’t it? Then, if the answer is yes, you go after it.” He looked at Father Leo. “So, what is it? Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Father Leo said.
“All right! That’s the big step. The rest is easy. You don’t mess around. You don’t get hung up on details. You do whatever you have to do and keep going. It’s the only way. The question is, can you work like that?” Jerry brushed some brick dust off his jacket. He straightened his vest. He looked down at his shoes, then at Father Leo.
“I think so,” Father Leo said.
“You have to be a gunslinger,” Jerry said. “No doubts. No pity.”
“I understand,” Father Leo said.
“All right,” Jerry said. “Just so you know how I work. My philosophy.” He pulled a flask from his jacket pocket, drank from it, and held it out to Father Leo. “Go on,” he said. Father Leo took it. The flask was silver, half-covered with leather, and engraved with initials below the neck. They weren’t Jerry’s initials. The liquor burned. Father Leo became aware of the sun on the back of his neck, the sighing of the trees. They each had another drink, then Jerry put the flask away. “Cognac,” he said. “Napoleon’s brand. So, what do you think? Partners?”
“Partners,” Father Leo said.
“Bueno,” Jerry said. He slapped his leg and brought his hand up like a pistol. “Okay,” he said, “let’s ride.”
The plan was for Father Leo to go with Jerry and watch how he approached potential donors. Then, once he got the hang of it, he could go out on his own. Jerry coached him on the way to their first interview. He said that the big thing was to make it personal. Nobody wanted to hear about old furnaces. You had to do your homework, you had to know your man—in this case, your woman. Here they had a lady who went to Lourdes every year. She’d been to Lourdes more than twenty times. That meant she had a special interest in crippled people. She had a big heart and she had money. Going to France wasn’t like going to Mexico.
The woman was standing at the door when they arrived. Father Leo followed Jerry up the walk, moving slowly, because Jerry had assumed what appeared to be a painful limp. He had endless trouble with the steps but refused the woman’s help. “I can manage,” he said. “There’s plenty worse off than me. I just think of them and it’s easy.”
Jerry did all the talking when they got inside. Now and then the woman looked over at Father Leo, but he would not meet her eyes. Jerry was describing a number of projects that Star of the Sea had developed for the handicapped, all of them imaginary. He implied that most of the nuns were devoted to this particular work and that he himself had been rescued by their efforts. Jerry’s voice cracked. He looked away for a moment, then went on. When he finished, the woman served tea and wrote out a check.
Not everyone they visited gave them money. One old man laughed in their faces when Jerry told him that the convent had been built on orders from the Blessed Mother, and that she was taking a personal interest in the fund drive. When the old man stopped laughing he threw them out. “You must take me for an idiot,” he said.
Not everyone gave, but most people did. Jerry would say anything. He said that the convent helped orphans, lepers, Navahos, earthquake victims, even pandas and seals. There was no end to what he would do.
Jerry had a saying: “If you want the apples, you have to shake the tree.”
Father Leo knew that he should disapprove of Jerry’s methods, but he didn’t. That is, he felt no disapproval. The people they visited lived in Broadmoor and Windermere. They had plenty of money, too much money. It was good for them to share it. Anyway, Jerry was a performer, not a liar. Lying was selfish, furtive, low. What Jerry did was reckless and grand, for a good cause.
Father Leo did not want to go out on his own. He would never be able to carry on the way Jerry did in front of complete strangers. He did not have the courage. He would fail.
Besides, he was having the time of his life. Jerry called him “Slim,” and he liked that. He liked getting into Jerry’s big car and driving through the convent gate with no idea what would happen that day. He looked forward to the lunches they ate downtown—club sandwiches, fruit platters, big salads covered with diced cheese and ham. Then the coffee afterward, and one of Jerry’s stories about his days in the Navy. Father Leo came to need these pleasures, most of all the pleasure of watching Jerry have it his way with people who were used to having it their way.
As it happened, they did not split up after all. Jerry tallied their take for the month and decided that they should stick together. The receipts were almost double the average. He said that as a team they were unbeatable. He had the blarney and Father Leo had the collar, which Jerry called “The Persuader.”
They would go on as before. Father Leo’s job was just to sit there. He didn’t have to say anything. If someone should look at him in a questioning way, all he had to do was close his eyes. No nodding. No murmuring.
“We’ll rake it in,” Jerry said, and they did.
WHEN THEY FINISHED THEIR ROUNDS, JERRY AND Father Leo usually had a drink at a fern bar on the wharf. They sat in a booth and Jerry told stories about his life. He’d sold cars and worked as a private detective. For two years, he had been a professional fighter. He had been everywhere and seen everything. In Singapore he had witnessed a murder, one man shooting another man right in the face. “Just like you’d shoot a can,” Jerry said. Later he’d heard the men were brothers. He had seen men make love to each other on board ship. In Dakar he’d watched a woman with knobs where her arms should have been paint pictures of sailors, take their money, and give them change, all with her toes. He had seen children chained to a wall, for sale.
So he said. Father Leo did not believe all the stories Jerry told him. He couldn’t. Roughly speaking, he believed about half of what he heard. That was fine with him. He didn’t mind having his leg pulled. He thought it was the sort of thing men did in lumber camps and on ships—sitting around, swapping lies.
Just before Thanksgiving they had a meeting with a vice president of an airplane corporation. The man wore sunglasses during the interview. It was hard to tell what he was thinking. Father Leo guessed that he was trying to keep his temper, because in his opinion Jerry had chosen the wrong line to follow. Jerry was going on about missiles and bombers and instruments of destruction. He suggested that the man had a lot to make amends for. Father Leo wanted to get out. When Jerry was through, the vice president sat there behind his desk and stared at them. He said nothing. Father Leo became uncomfortable, then angry. This was obviously some technique the vice president used to bully his subordinates. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Father Leo said.
The vice president suddenly bent over. He buried his face in the crook of his arm. “You don’t know the half of it,” he said. His shoulders began to jerk.
Jerry looked at Father Leo and gave the thumbs-up. He went around the desk and stood behind the man. “There, there,” he said.
Finally the vice president stopped crying. He took off his sunglasses and wiped his eyes. “I needed that,” he said. “By God, I needed that.” He went into the adjoining room and came back with a plastic garbage bag. It was full of money, but he would not let Jerry count it in the office or give him a receipt. He insisted that the gift remain anonymous. As he showed them out of the office he took Father Leo by the sleeve. “Pray for me,” he said.
They counted the money in the car. It came to almost seven thousand dollars, all in twenties. Jerry locked it in the trunk and they went to the fern bar to celebrate. Jerry’s cheeks were red and they grew redder as he drank cognac after cognac. Father Leo did not try to keep up with him, but he drank more than usual and became a little giddy. Now and then the young people at the bar turned and smiled at him. He could see that they were thinking, What a jolly priest! That was all right. He wanted to look like someone with good news, not like someone with bad news.
Jerry held up his glass. “The team,” he said, and Father Leo said, “The team.” They toasted each other. “I’ll tell you what,” Jerry said. “We have a bonus coming, and I’m going to see that we get it if I have to break Vincent’s arm.” When Father Leo asked what kind of a bonus Jerry had in mind, Jerry said, “How about Thanksgiving in Vegas?”
“You bet. We’re riding a streak. We’ve made plenty for Vincent, why shouldn’t we make a little for ourselves?”
Father Leo knew that Mother Vincent would never agree, so he said, “Sure. Why not?” and they touched glasses again.
“Slim, you’re something,” Jerry said. “You’re really something.” He shook his head. “You’re as bad as I am.”
Father Leo smiled.
Jerry said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before. Maybe I shouldn’t even tell you.” He lit a cigar and blew smoke at the ceiling. “Hell with it,” he said. He leaned forward. In a low voice he told Father Leo that Jerry was not his real name. Royce, his last name, was also made up. He‘d taken it from Rolls-Royce, his favorite car.
It happened like this. He had been selling insurance in San Diego a few years back, and some of his clients complained because they didn’t get the benefits he had promised them. It was his own fault. He had overdone it, laid it on too thick. He would be the first to admit that. Anyway, he’d had to change names. There was no choice, not if he wanted to keep working and stay out of jail. The worst of it was that his wife left town with their son. He hadn’t seen them since, had no idea where they were. In some ways, looking back on it, he thought that it was for the best. They didn’t get along and she was holding him back. Always criticizing. If she’d had her way he’d still be in the Navy, pulling down a hundred and forty dollars a month. “She loved it,” he said. “So did I, at least for a while. We were just kids. We didn’t know from Adam.”
Jerry looked at the people in the next booth, then at Father Leo. He said, “Do you want to know what my real name is?”
Father Leo nodded. But just when Jerry was about to speak he interrupted. “Maybe you‘d better not tell me,” he said. “It’s probably not such a good idea.”
Jerry looked disappointed. Father Leo felt bad, but he didn‘t want that kind of power, the power to send a man to jail. He was also afraid that Jerry would start wondering about him all the time, whether he could be trusted, whether he would tell. It would spoil everything. They sat for a while without talking. Father Leo knew that it was his turn. He should open up and talk about himself for a change. Hut there was nothing to tell. He had no stories. Not one.
Outside it was raining. Cars went past with a hissingsound. Father Leo said, “Jerry?” His throat felt scratchy. He did not know what he would say next.
Jerry moved in his seat and looked at him.
“You’ve got to keep this to yourself,” Father Leo said.
Jerry pulled his thumb and forefinger across his lips as if he were closing a zipper. “It stops here,” he said.
“All right,” Father Leo said. He took a sip from his drink. Then he started talking. He said that when he was a senior in high school he had been waiting for a bus when he heard someone scream across the road. He ran over and saw a woman on her knees, hanging on to the belt of a man with a purse in his hand. The man turned and kicked the woman in the face. “I guess I went berserk,” Father Leo said. The next thing he knew, the police were dragging him off the man’s body. The man was dead. Father Leo said that they’d had to pry his fingers off the man’s throat one by one.
“Jesus,” Jerry said.
Father Leo looked out the window. “That’s why I became a priest,” he said. “To atone for the blood on my hands.”
“Jesus,” Jerry said again. His face dissolved and came together in a way that was new to Father Leo. He looked young and amazed, fresh as he must have been when he stepped for the first time onto a strange land, before his name was Jerry. There were tears in his eyes. He looked at Father Leo and tried to smile but his mouth wouldn’t hold the shape. Finally he reached out and squeezed Father Leo’s shoulder. He squeezed it again, then got up and went to the bar.
Oh, no, Father Leo thought. What have I done?
Jerry came back with fresh drinks. He sat down and slid one over to Father Leo. His eyes were still misty. “Vegas,” he said, and raised his glass.
“Vegas,” Father Leo said.
MOTHER VINCENT GAVE THEM THE BONUS. Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas, all expenses paid—air fare, hotel, meals, and a hundred dollars apiece in gambling coupons. The trip was arranged at discount by a nun who worked as a travel agent.
When Jerry picked Father Leo up for the ride to the airport he shook his head. “I knew it,” he said.
“The outfit,” Jerry said. “There’s nothing in the rules that says you have to wear your outfit on vacation, is there?” He stopped at a clothing store and bought Father Leo two Western shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons and a pair of Western pants. The store did not carry boots. Father Leo was glad, though he could see that Jerry didn’t think much of the square black shoes showing beneath his cuffs.
“Something is going to happen,” Jerry said later, on the plane. “I feel it. Something big. We’re going to come home with gold in our saddlebags.”
“I don’t know,” Father Leo said.
“Listen,” Jerry said. “We are two serious hombres and we are about to bust this town wide open. We’ll never work again. It is written.” He leaned past Father Leo and looked down at the cluster of lights that pulsed in the darkness below. “Vegas,” he whispered.
They found a commotion in the hotel lobby when they arrived. A woman was yelling that her room had been broken into. Two men in fringed leather jackets tried to calm her down, and finally managed to lead her to an office behind the registration desk. As he stood in line Father Leo could hear her voice, high and breaking. He picked up the room keys and meal coupons and gambling chips, and turned around just in time to see Jerry win twelve dollars at one of the quarter slots by the Hertz counter. The coins slid out of the machine onto the tile floor with a steady ringing sound and rolled in every direction. Jerry got down on his hands and knees and crawled after them. Nobody paid any attention except a red-haired man in silver pants who went over to Jerry and touched his shoulder, then hurried away.
They ate dinner in the hotel, the only place where their coupons were good. Jerry spent his winnings on a bottle of wine, to celebrate. He couldn’t get over it—a jackpot the first time around. “Figure the odds on that,” he said. “It’s an omen. It means we can’t lose.”
“I‘m not much of a gambler,” Father Leo said. It was true. He had never won a bet in his life. The chips they’d been given were negotiable and he intended to cash them in just before he left and buy his sister something nice for Christmas, something he would not usually be able to afford. For now they were squirreled away in the bottom of his suitcase.
“Who’s talking about gambling?” Jerry said. “I’m talking about fate. You know what I mean.”
“I guess I don’t,” Father Leo said. “Not really.”
“Sure you do. What about the guy you killed? It was fate that put you there. It was fate that you became a priest.”
Father Leo saw how the lie had grown. It had taken on a meaning and the meaning was false. He felt tired of himself. He said, “Jerry, it isn’t true.”
“What isn’t true?”
“I never killed anyone.”
Jerry smiled at him. “Come off it.”
“I’ve never even been in a fight,” Father Leo said.
Jerry looked at him. “Then why are you a priest?”
Father Leo wanted to explain, but the words wouldn’t come. The moment passed.
Jerry leaned forward. “Look,” he said, “you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. It was that kind of a situation. I would have done the same thing in your shoes. That’s what I told Sister Gervaise.”
“No,” Father Leo said. “You didn’t.”
“Don’t worry,” Jerry said. “She promised not to tell anyone. The thing is, she made a crack about you and I wanted to set her straight. It worked, too. She went white as a ghost. She looked about ready to hemorrhage. You should have seen her.”
“She’s a gossip,” Father Leo said. “She’ll tell everyone. She’ll tell Mother Vincent.”
“I made her promise,” Jerry said. “She gave her word.”
“So did you.”
Jerry tore out a coupon and put it on the table. He ground out his cigar. “This conversation isn‘t going anywhere,” he said. “What’s done is done. We’re in Get Rich City now, and it’s time to start raking it in.”
There was a small casino on the other side of the lobby. Jerry suggested that they start there. He sat down at the blackjack table. Father Leo moved up and watched the play. He was pretending to study Jerry’s tactics, but none of it made any sense to him. He could think only of Sister Gervaise turning white. He felt as if he must be turning white himself. “I’m going upstairs,” he told Jerry. “I‘ll be back in a little while.”
FATHER LEO SAT ON THE BALCONY OUTSIDE HIS room. In the courtyard below he saw a pool, turquoise, heart-shaped, lit by underwater lights. He gripped the armrests of his chair. His body felt strange to him and far away. He could not stop thinking of Sister Gervaise, stricken and pale. What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t have Mother Vincent and the others believing that he had killed a man. It would terrify them. On the other hand, he didn’t want them to think that he went around telling crazy lies about himself. In its own way, that was just as bad. He put his head in his hands. He couldn‘t think. Finally he gave up and went back downstairs.
Another man had taken Jerry’s place at the blackjack table. Father Leo couldn’t find Jerry at any of the other tables and he wasn’t at the bar or in the lobby. On the chance that he’d gone to his room. Father Leo called upstairs on the house phone. No one answered. Finally he went outside and stood under the awning beside the doorman. A greyhound wearing a sweater and pulling an old woman behind him stopped and lifted his leg over a small border of flowers in front of the hotel. While the dog relieved itself, the woman glared at the doorman. He looked back at her but didn’t say anything.
People spilled over into the street, all moving in different directions. Everyone was shouting and the cars were blowing their horns. All along the street colored lights flashed names and pictures. Farther down was a sign that must have been twenty feet high, showing a line of girls in cowboy boots and bikinis. Every so often they kicked up their legs this way and that. They were smiling, and every tooth was a little light.
There was no point in looking for anyone out there. Father Leo went back inside and took a seat at the bar. From the bar he could keep an eye on both the lobby and the casino. He sipped at his drink and glanced around. A young couple in identical Hawaiian shirts sat silently side by side. A heavy-set Indian was poking out numbers on a punchboard. At the end of the bar a pretty woman was ransacking a handbag and muttering to herself. Finally she found what she was after—cigarettes. She lit one, pursed her lips, and blew out a long stream of smoke. She had on bright red lipstick. Her hair was blonde, almost white against her sun-darkened skin. She noticed that Father Leo was looking at her, and she looked back. She smiled. He gave a little nod. His drink was almost full, but he finished it off and left the bar.
Father Leo sat in the lobby for an hour, reading newspapers. Every time someone came in he looked up. When he felt himself beginning to doze off he went to the desk and talked to the clerk. Jerry had left his key, but no message. “That‘s strange,” Father Leo said. He walked across the lobby to the elevator. The woman from the bar was standing inside, holding the door for him. “What floor?"she said.
“Five. Thank you.”
“Coincidence,” she said. “That’s my floor, too.” She smiled. Father Leo stared at himself in the mirrored wall. Next to him the woman kept smiling at his reflection. She was about his age, older than he’d thought. He saw that she was badly sunburned except for a white circle around each eye. He could almost feel the heat coming off her pink skin. She was tapping one foot.
“Been here long?” she asked.
He shook his head. The elevator stopped and they got out. She walked beside him down the corridor. “I flew in two days ago,” she said. “I don’t mind telling you I’ve been having a ball.” When Father Leo put his key into the lock she read the number of his door. “Five-fifteen. That’s easy to remember. I always leave work at five-fifteen. I could leave at five but I like it when everyone’s gone. I like to just sit and look out the window. It’s so peaceful.”
“Good night,” Father Leo said. She was still talking when he closed the door. He sat for a time on his balcony. High palms surrounded the pool, and overhead shone a silver crescent moon. Father Leo thought of a band of marauders camped by a well in the desert, roasting a lamb over a spitting fire, the silver moon reflected in the chasing of their long inlaid rifles; veiled women moving here and there in silence, doing as they were told.
Before he went to bed Father Leo called the desk. Jerry’s key was still on its hook.
“It’s only twelve-thirty,” the clerk said. “You could try later.”
Father Leo turned out the lights. The ceiling sparkled. He was staring at it when he thought he heard a sound at the door. He sat up. “Who’s there?” he called. When no one answered he said, “Jerry?” The sound did not come again, and Father Leo lay back on the bed. After a while he slept.
On his way to breakfast the next morning Father Leo stopped by the front desk. Jerry still hadn’t come in. Father Leo left a message—“I’m in the coffee shop”—and when he finished eating he changed it to “Went out. Be back soon.”
Though it was just after eleven, the street was already jammed with people. A dry breeze blew, bearing a faint smell that was strange to Father Leo but made him think of the word “sage.” The light shimmered. Off in the distance, purple mountains floated on a lake of blue that appeared and vanished to the beat of Father Leo’s pulse, which he felt in his temples and wrists. The sidewalk glowed.
For the rest of the morning Father Leo searched the casinos across the street. He thought that Jerry might have wandered over and got caught up in one of those games that went on forever. But he didn’t see him, or if he saw him he didn‘t recognize him. That was possible. There were so many people. Bent over their machines, faces fixed and drained by the hot lights, they all began to look the same to Father Leo. He couldn’t make out who he was looking at, and it wore him out to try. At two o’clock he went back to the hotel, intending to search the casinos on the other side of the street after he’d eaten lunch.
He sat at the counter and watched the crowd move past outside. It was noisy in the coffee shop, which was full of Japanese men in business suits. They all wore cowboy hats and string ties with roadrunner clasps. At the back of the room a bunch of them were playing slot machines. There weren’t enough machines to go around so they took turns, standing behind each other in little lines. Finally one of them hit a jackpot and all the others, including those at the tables, stopped talking and applauded.
“If it isn’t five-fifteen.” The woman from the night before sat down at the next stool and offered Father Leo a package of Salems with one cigarette sticking halfway out. He shook his head. She slipped the cigarette from the pack, tapped it once on the countertop, and put it in the ashtray. “For later,” she said. “I can’t smoke on an empty stomach.” The color of her face had gone from pink to red. It was painful for Father Leo to look at her and to think of how hot and tight her skin must feel, and how it must hurt her to keep smiling the way she did.
“By the way,” she said, “I’m Sandra.”
Father Leo did not want to know this woman‘s name and he did not want her to know his name. But she kept waiting. “Slim,” he said.
“Then you must be a westerner.”
He nodded. “Seattle and thereabouts.”
She said, “I met a fellow in the casino named Will. In Chicago you just don’t hear names like that. Will and Slim. I love it. It‘s so different.”
The waitress took Sandra’s order and slipped Father Leo’s check under his plate. He picked it up and looked at it.
“Let me treat you to a refill,” Sandra said, pointing at his coffee cup.
He stood. “No thanks,” he said. “I’ve got to be going. Much obliged.”
Jerry hadn’t called in yet or used his key. Father Leo left another message for him and went upstairs to his room. He thought he would lie down for a while before making another tour of the casinos. When he stepped inside he saw that his suitcase was open, though he could remember closing it. On the table next to the suitcase a cigarette was coming apart in a glass of water.
He knelt and went through the suitcase. He sat back for a moment, caught his breath, and searched the suitcase again. The chips were gone.
Father Leo flushed the cigarette down the toilet and dropped the glass in the wastebasket. His heart was jumping; every time it struck it surprised him and shook him as if he were hollow. He sat on the bed and felt the hollowness spreading up from his chest into his neck and head, down into his legs. When he stood he rose up and up. He saw his shoes side by side on the rug, a long way below. He walked over to the balcony door and back. Then he began to talk to himself, just to hear the sound.
The things he said didn‘t make any sense. They were only noises. He kept pacing the room. He struck himself over the heart. He gripped his shirt in both hands and tore it open to his waist. He struck himself again. Back and forth he walked.
The sounds he made grew soft and distant, then stopped. Father Leo stood there. He looked down at the front of his shirt. One button was missing. Another hung by a thread. The room was hot and still smelled faintly of the thief’s cigarette. Father Leo slid open the glass door and went out onto the balcony. The desert was hidden by casinos but he could feel it all around him and taste its dryness in the breeze. The breeze ruffled the surface of the pool below, breaking the sun’s reflection. The broken light glittered on the water.
Two young girls came into the courtyard. One of them had a radio as big as a briefcase. She turned it up full blast and they started doing cannonballs off the diving board.
When the desk clerk saw Father Leo coming he shook his head. Father Leo walked up to him anyway. “No message?”
“Not a thing.” the desk clerk said. He went back to his magazine.
Father Leo had meant to report the theft, but now he didn’t see the point. The police would come and make him fill out a lot of forms. They would ask him questions, and he felt uneasy about that, about explaining his presence in Las Vegas.
For the rest of the afternoon he went up and down the street, looking for Jerry. Once he thought he saw him going into a casino but it turned out to be somebody else, a much older man with a pink, shiny face. Father Leo returned to the hotel. He didn’t feel like going back to his room, so he sat in the lobby for a while. Then he bought a copy of Omni and went out to the pool.
The two girls were still at the pool. The radio sat there screaming. Father Leo tried to read an article about the creation of the universe but he couldn‘t keep his attention fixed. After a time he gave up and watched the girls, who sensed his attention. They began to show off. First they did swan dives. Then one of them tried a flip. She hit the water with a loud crack, flat on her stomach. Father Leo started out of his chair, but she seemed to be all right. She pulled herself up the ladder, grabbed the radio, and left the courtyard crying. Her friend walked carefully out to the end of the board, turned around, bounced twice, and executed a perfect backward flip. Then she walked away from the pool, feet slapping on the wet cement.
“Coincidence,” Sandra said. “Looks like we‘ve got the pool to ourselves.” She was standing beside the next chair, looking down at him. She stepped out of her high-heeled clogs and took off her robe. Then she raised her arms above her head and stood on her toes. Her head blocked out the sun. She dropped her arms and touched her feet several times.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” Father Leo said. “Not with that burn of yours.”
“This is my last day,” she said. “I wanted to catch the sunset.”
Father Leo glanced up. The sun was just touching the roof of the hotel across from them. It looked like another sign.
Sandra sat down and took a bottle of baby oil out of her tote bag. She rubbed the oil along her arms and across her chest, under the halter of her bathing suit. Then she raised her legs one at a time and slowly oiled them until they glistened. They were deep red. “So,” she said, “where’s the wife?”
“I’m not married.”
“Me either,” she said.
Father Leo closed his magazine and sat up.
“What shows have you been to?" she said.
“You should go,” she said. “The dancers are so beautiful. I don’t think I‘ve ever seen such beautiful men and women in my whole life. Do you like to dance?”
Father Leo shook his head.
Sandra drew her legs up. She rested her chin between her knees. “What do you like?”
Father Leo was about to say, “I like peace and quiet.” He stopped himself, though. She was lonely. There was no reason to hurt her feelings. “I like to read.” he said. ”Music. Good music, not weird music. Eating in restaurants. Talking to friends.”
“Me too.” Sandra said. “Those are the same things I like.” She lowered the back of the deck chair and rolled onto her stomach. She rubbed baby oil over her shoulders, then held the bottle out toward Father Leo. “Could you give a lady a hand?” she said.
He saw that she wanted him to oil her back, which looked swollen and painful, glowing in the little sun that was left. “I’m afraid I can‘t do that,” he said.
“Oh.”she said. She put the bottle down. “Sorry I asked.”
“I’m a priest,” he said.
“That’s a new one,” she said, not looking at him. “A priest named Slim.”
“Slim is my nickname,” he said.
“Sure,” she said. “Your nickname. What kind of a priest are you, anyway?”
Father Leo began to explain but she cut him off. “You‘re no priest,” she said. She sat up and began stuffing things into her tote bag—lighter, cigarettes, baby oil, sunglasses. She put her robe on and stepped into her clogs. “If you were a priest you wouldn’t have let me go on like I did. You wouldn’t have let me make a fool of myself.” She stood there, looking down at him. “What are you, anyway?”
“I came here with a friend,” Father Leo said. “He‘s been gone ever since last night. I don’t have any idea where he is. Then, this afternoon ...” He shook his head. “I think I’m a little confused.”
“I don’t know what you are,” she said, “but if you come near me again I’ll scream.”
She left. The sun went down. Father Leo sat by the pool and stared up at the window of Jerry’s room, which was next to his own. The breeze picked up, rustling the palm fronds overhead. The water slapped softly against the sides of the pool. A boy and a girl came into the courtyard, holding hands, and sat on the diving board. They stared down at the water. After a while they started to kiss.
Father Leo didn’t know what to do. He was afraid to call the police, because if they did find Jerry they might discover his real name and put him in prison. He borrowed a telephone book from the desk clerk and wrote down the numbers of all the hospitals in town. There were seven, including one convalescent home and one women’s hospital. He tried them all. There was no Jerry Royce registered at any of the hospitals, but at Desert Springs the nurse who took the call said that on the previous night they had admitted a John Doe with what she called “a sucking chest wound.” Father Leo asked for a description of the man, but she did not have his file and the line to Intensive Care was busy “It’s always busy,” the nurse said. “If you‘re in town, the easiest thing to do is just come over.”
Father Leo rode up to Intensive Care in a padded elevator. When he stepped out, a gurney almost ran into him. He moved aside and watched it pass. One nurse was pushing it at a brisk pace while another adjusted a strap across the knees of the man lying on the gurney, who smiled at Father Leo.
The John Doe was dead. He had died that afternoon and they had sent his body to the morgue. Father Leo put his hands on the desk. “The morgue?” he said.
The nurse nodded. “We have a picture,"she said. “Would you like to see it?”
“I guess I’d better,” Father Leo said. He was afraid to look at the picture, but he didn‘t feel ready for a trip to the morgue. The nurse opened a folder and took out a large glossy photograph and handed it to him. He looked at it. The face was that of a boy with narrow features. His eyes were open, staring without defiance or shyness into the blaze of the flash. Father Leo knew that the boy had died before the picture was taken. He gave the picture back.
The nurse looked at it. “Not your friend?” she asked.
He shook his head. “What happened?”
“He was stabbed.” She put the folder away.
“Did they catch the person who did it?”
“Probably not,” she said. “We get over one hundred murders a year in town.”
On his way back to the hotel Father Leo watched the crowd through the window of the cab. A group of sailors ran across the street. The one in front was throwing coins over his shoulder and the rest were jumping for them. Signs flashed. People’s faces pulsed with reflected light.
Father Leo bent forward. “I just heard that you get over one hundred murders a year in town. Is that true?”
“I don‘t know,” the cabby said. “I suppose it’s possible.” He shook his head. “This place has its drawbacks, all right. But I’m glad to be here. They’ve got a foot of snow in Albany right now and there’s more on the way” He grinned at Father Leo in the mirror.
There were no messages. Father Leo sat in the lobby for a while, then went up to bed.
At a little past two in the morning Jerry called. He said that he was sorry about the mix-up, but he could explain everything. It turned out that while Father Leo was upstairs that first night Jerry had met a fellow on his way to a poker game outside town. It was a private game. The players were rich and there was no limit. They’d had to leave right away, so Jerry wasn’t able to tell Father Leo. And after he got there he’d had no chance to call. The game was that intense. Incredible amounts of money had changed hands. It was still going on, he’d just broken off to catch a few winks and let Father Leo know that he would not be going back to Seattle the next morning. He couldn’t, not now. Jerry had lost every penny of his own savings, the seven thousand dollars from the airplane executive, and some other cash he had held back. “I‘m really sorry,” he said. “I know this is going to put you in an awkward position.”
“I think you ought to come home,” Father Leo said. “We can make it up. We can work something out.”
“No,” Jerry said. “I don‘t think so. I still have four hundred left. I’ve been down further than that and bounced back. I’m just getting warmed up.”
“Look.” Jerry said, “haven’t you ever had the feeling that you’re bound to win? Like you‘ve been picked out and you’ll get taken care of no matter what?”
“Sure,” Father Leo said, “I‘ve had that feeling. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
“That’s what you say. I happen to feel differently about it.”
“For God‘s sake. Jerry, use your head. Come home.”
But it was no good. Jerry said good-bye and hung up. Father Leo sat on the edge of the bed. The telephone rang again. He picked it up and said, “Jerry?”
It wasn’t Jerry, though. It was Sandra. “I’m sorry if I woke you up,” she said.
“Sandra,” he said. “What on earth do you want?”
“Are you really a priest?” she asked.
“What kind of a question is that? What do you mean by calling me at this hour?” Father Leo knew that he had every right to be angry but he wasn’t, not really The sound of his own voice, fussy and peevish, embarrassed him. “Yes.” he said.
“Oh, thank God. I’m so frightened.”
“Someone’s been trying to get into my room” she said. “At least I think they have. I could have been dreaming,” she added.
“You should call the police.”
“I already thought of that.” she said. “What would they do? They’d come in and stand around and then they’d go away. And there I’d be.”
“I don’t know how I could help,” Father Leo said.
“You could stay.”
“My friend still isn’t back,” Father Leo said. “We have to leave tomorrow morning and I should be here in case he calls. What if you were dreaming?”
“Please,” she said.
Father Leo slammed his fist into the pillow. “Of course.” he said. “Of course. I‘ll be right down.”
After Sandra unlocked the door she told Father Leo to wait a second. Then she called, “Okay. Come on in.” She was wearing a blue nightgown. She slid into bed and pulled the covers up to her waist. “Please don’t look at me,” she said. “And in case you wondered, I‘m not making this up. I’m not so desperate for company. Almost but not quite.”
There were two beds in the room with a night table in between. Father Leo sat at the foot of the other bed. He looked at her. Her face was red and puffy. She had white stuff on her nose.
“I’m a sight,” she said.
“You should have that burn looked at when you get home.”
She shrugged. “It‘s going to peel no matter what. In a couple of weeks I‘ll be back to normal.” She tried to smile and gave it up. “I thought Fd at least come home with a tan. This has been the worst vacation. It‘s been one thing after another.” She picked at the covers. “My second night here I lost over three hundred dollars. Do you know how long it takes me to save three hundred dollars?”
“This is an awful place,” Father Leo said. “I don‘t know why anybody comes here.”
“That’s no mystery,” Sandra said. “At a certain point it‘s the logical place to come.”
“The whole thing is fixed,” Father Leo said.
Sandra shrugged. “At a certain point that doesn‘t matter.”
Father Leo went over to the sliding glass door. He opened it and stepped out onto the balcony. The night was cold. A mist hung over the glowing blue surface of the pool.
“You‘ll catch your death out there,” Sandra called.
Father Leo went back inside and closed the door. He was restless. The room smelled of coconut oil.
“I have a confession to make,” Sandra said. “It wasn‘t a coincidence when I came out to the pool today. I saw you down there.”
Father Leo sat in the chair next to the TV. He rubbed his eyes.“Did somebody really try to break into the room?”
“I‘m scared,” Sandra said. “Can’t you tell I‘m scared?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then what difference does it make?”
“None,” Father Leo said.
“This has been the worst vacation,” Sandra said. “I won‘t tell you all the things that happened to me. Let‘s just say the only good thing that’s happened to me is meeting you.”
“This is a terrible place, “Father Leo said. “It’s dangerous, and everything is set up so you can’t win.”
“Some people win,” she said.
“That‘s the theory. I haven‘t seen any winners. Do you mind if I use your phone?”
Sandra smoked and watched Father Leo while he talked to the desk clerk. Jerry had not called back. Father Leo left Sandra‘s room number and hung up.
“You told him you were here?” she said. She was smiling. “I wonder what he‘ll think.”
“He can think whatever he wants to think,” Father Leo said.
“He probably isn‘t thinking anything,” Sandra said. “I‘ll bet he‘s seen it all.”
Father Leo nodded. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“It‘s strange,” she said. “Usually, when I‘m about to go home from a vacation, I get excited—even if I‘ve had a great time. This year I just feel sad. How about you? Are you looking forward to going home?”
“Not much,” Father Leo said.
“Why not? What‘s it like where you live?”
Father Leo thought of the noise in the refectory. Sister Gervaise shrieking at one of her own wisecracks. Then he saw her face go bone-white as she listened to the lie he’d told Jerry. It would be all over the convent by now. By now Mother Vincent would have heard. There was no way to undo it. When you heard a story like that it became the truth about the person spoken of. Denials would only make it seem more true.
He would have to live with it. And that meant that everything was going to change. He saw how it would be. The hallways empty at night and quiet. The sisters falling silent as he walked past them, their eyes downcast.
“What are you smiling at?” Sandra asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing. Just a thought.”
Sandra stubbed her cigarette out. “To get back to what we were talking about before,” she said. “Some people do win. You just have to be in the right place at the right time, that’s all. A friend of mine met her husband at the dentist’s. They were both in the waiting room and got to talking about one thing and another. If either he or my friend hadn’t made an appointment for that particular morning, they wouldn’t have met. If the dentist hadn’t taken so long with the patient he was working on, they wouldn’t have discovered all the things they have in common, music and so on. It happens all the time. Take you and me. Say you weren’t a priest. I know you are, but say you weren’t. If we were to meet and you were to fall in love with me, think how lucky I would be. 1 would have the man I always dreamed of.”
“You don’t know me, Sandra.”
“Not in the usual way, maybe. But I recognize you. I have these dreams, and the person I dream about is like you. Intelligent. Kind. Gallant. He even looks like you.”
“Gallant,” Father Leo said.
Sandra nodded. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
A group of people went past the door, talking loudly. When it was quiet again Father Leo said. “Too many ifs. We would have to be different people. Everything would have to be different.”
She said, “Don’t you think you could love me?”
“That’s not the point.” Father Leo said. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“But could you?”
“Yes.” he said.
“What for? What is it about me that you would love if you loved me?” She leaned forward and clasped her arms around her knees. She watched him. Her blue eyes glittered.
“It‘s hard to put into words,” Father Leo said.
Sandra said, “You don’t have to.” She shook another cigarette out of the pack, stared at it, and put it down on the night table.
“I like the way you talk.” Father Leo said. “Straight out—just what’s on your mind.”
She nodded. “I do that all right. Let the chips fall where they may.”
“Your spirit,” Father Leo said. “Coming here all alone the way you did.”
“Last year I went to Nassau.”
“How friendly you are,” Father Leo said. “The way you listen.“
She leaned back against the pillow.
“Your eyes,” he said.
“My eyes? Really?”
“You have beautiful eyes.”
Father Leo went on. He did not think, he just listened to himself. His voice made a cool sound in the stuffy room. After a time Sandra whispered, “You won’t leave, will you?”
“I‘ll be right here,” he said.
She slept. Father Leo turned off the lights and moved his chair in front of the door. If anyone tried to break in he would be in the way. They would have to get past him.
He sat and listened. Every so often, faintly, he heard the elevator open at the end of the hall. Then he tried to hear the voices of people who got out, to see if they were men or women. Whenever he heard a man’s voice, or no voice at all, he tensed. He listened for sounds in the corridor. Several people went by Sandra’s door. Nobody stopped.
The only sounds in the room were his own and Sandra‘s breathing; his deep, almost silent, hers quick and shallow.
After a few hours of this he began to drift. Finally he caught himself dozing off, and went outside onto the balcony. A few stars still glimmered. The breeze stirred the fronds of the palm trees. The palms were black against the purple sky. The moon was white.
Father Leo stood against the railing, chilled awake by the breeze. A car horn honked, a small sound in the silence. He listened for it to come again but it didn’t, and the silence seemed to grow. Again he felt the desert all around him. He thought of a coyote loping home with a rabbit dangling from its mouth, yellow eyes aglow.
Father Leo rubbed his arms. The cold began to get to him and he went back inside.
The walls turned from blue to gray. A telephone started ringing in the room above. He heard heavy steps.
Sandra turned. She said something in her sleep. Then she turned again.
“It‘s all right,” Father Leo said. “I‘m here.”