Two years had passed since the collision, and now Father Jim spent a great deal of time lying in a recliner, looking for patterns in the cottage-cheese ceiling. He liked to pretend the flattened globs of Sheetrock were ice floes in the Arctic Ocean, and he was in a skiff trying to find a way through them to help a stranded person. He could never travel far before his mind just lost track of any direction and wandered back to the starting point at the central light fixture.
The diocese allotted him this small, outdated house on the edge of a North Carolina mountain town, a place with no Catholic church. The bishop told him he was now a pinch hitter, and occasionally he was summoned, as a last resort, to drive to a nearby town and say an early Mass or handle a Bible-study session for children. For a long time after the accident, Father Jim felt like a robot he’d seen blown apart in a movie, its many pieces scattered, all still blinking, still functioning, but totally disconnected. Sometimes his nose itched, but he couldn’t think of what part of him was supposed to scratch it. Now and then he would feel a sadness rise above the painful healing that he had to endure, but the sad feeling wouldn’t quite make it across his brain to the part that could really appreciate it. Sometimes he would close his eyes tight and try to remember what had happened—how, in the heavy forest south of Passion Gap, a train had been trumpeting a monstrous chord of warning through the snow, but Father Jim, driving toward his church, creating a new homily in his head, had failed to hear it. He was proud of his sermons and wanted to get this latest one just right. The road twisted through a railway crossing, but with no crossing arms or blinking signals, Father Jim never saw the locomotive of a 100-car coal train explode into his vehicle, shoving it a quarter mile in a veil of flames and coppery sparks. The impact thrust the priest through a million diamonds of windshield and he landed in the middle of Highway 16, his skull fractured like a dropped melon, his hands tracked with cuts, both legs broken and bleeding. He lay in the snowy road for an hour while an ambulance crew came up the mountain through the developing blizzard, the engineer and brakeman crouching over his body, trying to stop the bleeding with shop rags.
Few Catholic priests were available in the mountains, so, despite Father Jim’s infirmities, he was called on to pitch in when a priest became ill or was called away from his church. He was always the last to be asked, of course, because most of the other priests knew he was forgetful of the most-basic things and had developed a horror of giving homilies, a talent he had completely lost after the accident. And then, he was very scary to look at, his forehead and face heavily scarred, one of his eyes fixed and blind; the muscular, 6-foot-4 priest often seemed ready to tumble over because of damage to his feet. He discomfited several adult congregations with his homilies, though when asked to help with children’s church, most of the youngest ones liked him very much, perhaps thinking he was a reassigned troll from their books of fairy tales. Or maybe they liked his smile, the only facial expression he could still control.
The one rehab he remembered to do was weight lifting, because every morning he’d bang his ankles on the 200-pound barbell next to his bed. Sometimes he questioned why he had to put up with so much discomfort. Now and then he wondered if God had sent the train to run over him. He’d also considered two or three times why God hadn’t finished the job, but then he’d forget what he’d been wondering and move on. The doctors said his brain function might gradually improve. Physically, he would have to put up with some malformations. Since the many surgeries, he’d lost most of the hair on his misshapen head, and a rail yard of scars ran diagonally down to where his eyebrows once had been. He seemed to have misplaced his sense of humor. His sister, in a failed attempt to make him laugh, told him he resembled a lesser space alien in a set of Star Wars action figures.
So, early one Saturday, Father Nguyen, up at the Bluff Mountain mission, saw Father Jim’s name on a list of retired or partly abled priests. Father Jim was in his recliner, trying to make sense of CNN and its runway-model anchors when his phone rang. He looked up in the air for the sound, wondering for a moment what it might be. Then, on the fifth ring, he remembered and picked up the receiver. After a few seconds, he recalled how to say hello. Father Nguyen needed to catch a last-minute flight to attend an aunt’s funeral and asked if Father Jim would cover the 5 p.m. vigil and hear confessions for half an hour before Mass. Father Jim pressed a button on his answering machine, which began to record the call, and he asked for specific directions. The other priest reminded him that Bluff Mountain was only 10 miles away and that he’d driven there several times. It was on the same highway as his little house. Father Jim, who for some reason still had a driver’s license, told him he would be there on time. He wrote himself a note and placed it under a cheap battery-powered travel clock that he set to ring at 3 p.m. Later that day, it did, and he followed the sound to the note, got dressed, and went out with his vestments over his arm to sit in his vehicle and try to start it. It was 10 minutes before he remembered that his car wouldn’t start unless he stepped on the brake. Out on the road, he repeated his destination to himself every minute, and before long he was pulling into St. Timothy’s parking lot. He got out and stared down the highway toward where he’d come from, remembering nothing of the trip.
He entered the little reconciliation room and sat behind a kneeler that was topped with a privacy screen. A plain chair had been placed four feet in front of him for penitents who wanted a face-to-face confession, a rare occurrence. Since his accident, Father Jim was embarrassed to hear confessions and felt sorry for the people describing their sins. At one time he’d taken pride in his ability to lend a compassionate ear, to give advice, but nowadays he felt he was no longer any good as a confessor, because he’d lost the talent for saying the right thing. He still tried, but the connection between a penitent’s guilt and any remedy he might offer would not come about in his thoughts. His ideas were like boxcars with no couplers, bumping together and drifting apart.
He heard the scuff of shoes and a woman came in, knelt behind the screen, and confessed that she’d missed Mass twice. Father Jim grew dizzy. He remarked that it was good that she’d missed Mass.
After a long silence, she whispered, “No, Father, I don’t miss Mass, I missed it. I didn’t show up.”
“Oh,” he said. “Then why don’t you miss Mass? You sound pretty devout, and you might feel incomplete if you let a Sunday go by without attending Mass.”
“I don’t think I understand,” she said.
He thought about this. “That’s probably true,” he said. “For your penance, you should try to learn to miss Mass.”
Five minutes went by and then a man came in confessing a variety of sins. He admitted he had a problem with watching pornography and had visited many sites. Father Jim was struck with fear. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He knew he should know what the man was talking about, but he didn’t. He mentally strained, and the effort made him think of building a church in Rwanda, which he had done as a new priest, lifting roof beams in the jungle heat.
“You mean you visited the sites of pornography, the studios where they film the stuff?”
A long pause followed from the other side of the screen. “Uh, no, Father. I just turned on the computer.”
Again, the priest’s mind didn’t register the words. His imagination had been set in motion in one direction and began to gain momentum. “You know, you really should go to those buildings and try to get on the set,” he began. “You’d see how young most of the girls are. How a lot of creepy people stand around working lights and sound, looking bored because they make this stuff every day.”
The more he talked, the more he thought he’d stumbled onto a new idea. “The girls are kind of desperate for money to go to college. Maybe they’re immigrants forced to work like slaves. They could be your next-door neighbor. Maybe your teenage niece.”
The man on the other side of the screen said, in an offended voice, “My niece would never do anything like that.”
“Oh, she has enough money to pay for college?”
“Well, no,” the man admitted. “She is old enough to work, though.”
“Oh yeah? Where does she work?”
“The Burger King down the mountain.”
Some sort of mental impact involving stars developed behind his eyes. He gave himself over to a thought forming like the tail of a comet. “For your penance, I want you to go watch your niece.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Show up and order a meal. Sit behind those plastic ferns, where you can see her work. For two hours. Watch the dignity of her work, her service, her efficiency, her mistakes and her successes, how she grows tired, how she helps people. Compare that to what you see on those sites.”
“Aw, can’t you just give me a rosary to say, or like 10 Hail Marys?”
“All right. But this is weird.” And the man began saying a grouchy act of contrition.
Father jim sat back in his hard chair and fell asleep. This could happen at any time. Once, after one of his tiny sermons, he fell asleep standing at the pulpit, and an altar boy had to tug at his vestments.
He heard a scuff and opened his eyes. In front of him in the chair sat his gardener, Nestor, a compact, sturdy young man who kept Father Jim’s small lawn as neat as a golf course.
“Did you remember to Weed Eat alongside the front steps?” the priest asked.
“Sí, Padre. But I have come for confession.”
“Did I remember to pay the last time you did the lawn?”
“You paid twice, and I kept the money. That is one thing I have to confess.”
“Oh. Well, just do it next time for free.”
“Está bien. Now for my other sin, for which I am very ashamed. I wanted some new spinners for my Oldsmobile, but I didn’t have the money. I stole my uncle’s shotgun and sold it outside the gun show.”
For a moment the priest tried to imagine what a shotgun was. Then he remembered he used to hunt rabbits himself. Yes, his father had several shotguns. Did he still have a father? He would have to check when he returned to his house. “How much did you get?”
“Five hundred dollars. My uncle found out what happened and he has shamed me to the whole family. He calls me ratero, thief. He even phoned the police. I didn’t think he’d miss it. He never hunts anything.”
“Would finding him another shotgun settle things?”
“He said I have to buy him a new one just like it. At least a used one in 95 percent condition.” Nestor began to weep. “Nobody in my family will speak to me, Padre. I can’t sleep at night. I’d sell my car, but the police have taken it away because I don’t have insurance.”
“Please don’t cry.” The one thing Father Jim could not stand, even before the accident, was the tears of other people. He told Nestor to pray for a solution. For his penance he was tempted to ask him to pull the monkey grass out of the flower bed, but decided on 10 Our Fathers instead.
Later, in the sacristy, he put his alb on backwards, but Anthony, the altar boy, pointed this out to him. Father Jim was terrified to say Mass. He carried his own big missal with the readings numbered with stick-on notes, 1, 2, 3, 4, for the order of the parts. The congregation, many of whom had heard him say Mass before, watched him very carefully during the ceremony.
He made it to the Gospel and read it aloud as best he could, then everyone sat down for the homily. Father Jim had a special fear of this Gospel. It was the one about John the Baptist being beheaded. When he’d read it to the congregation, he’d felt as if he’d never heard it before, and he was amazed, his good eye roving the page, his bad one fixed on the front pew.
He began haltingly, already sweating, “King Herod must have been knocked out by this dancing girl, right?” He scanned the congregation and saw two people nod, so he was relieved to know he was not speaking Spanish. He had nightmares about waking up in the mornings able to pray only in Spanish, which he didn’t understand very well. “Plus, the dancing girl was Herod’s stepdaughter, and you always want to support your kids, no matter what. Well, Herod was throwing a big party for the important people in his realm, and he made a promise to this dancing-girl daughter of his to grant her a wish if she did a good job. I guess Herod was just desperate to show off for his friends. We all know people like that, don’t we?” Father Jim looked out over the many wrinkled brows. He was tempted to just give up, sit down, and wave to the ushers to go after the collection. Looking off to the side, he saw the altar boy give him the “roll on” sign with his fingers, so he said, “Well, she asked him to chop off John the Baptist’s head, and he didn’t want to do that at all. Herod kind of liked to hear John preach, though he apparently didn’t understand what he said.” Father Jim took an enormous breath, his face turning red.
“Maybe Herod wasn’t a totally bad sort, but, you know, he felt he would lose face if he didn’t go through with his promise, so—whack!” Father Jim brought the side of his hand down on the pulpit like an ax, and the old women in the front pew sat up stiffly. “And that was it for old John.” Father Jim took another tortured breath, closed his eyes a moment, and waited for words to spark a light in his brain. After a while, he said, “I’m not sure what this Gospel means, but then, I’ve known people who do weird things at parties, just to show off. They get egged on by their friends. Judging by confessions I’ve heard, lots of alcohol and marijuana are involved. Country boys like to say things like ‘Hey, watch this,’ just before their friends bring them to the hospital. A drunken middle-aged husband will try to fly like a bird if a barmaid asks him to. So, I guess you should keep things under control. Think for yourself, or someone else will think for you.” He half turned away from the pulpit, but he worried that he hadn’t driven the message home. Turning back to the congregation, he said, “Don’t whack people who don’t deserve it.”
He sat down in a plush walnut chair, and the congregation was as motionless as an unlit candle.
With the help of Anthony the altar boy, who gave him many cues, he got through the rest of the service. Soon, he felt himself reappear in his recliner, nervously watching a National Geographic program about endangered lizards in Mexico. The next thing he remembered, he was getting out of bed and banging his ankle on his barbell. Sometimes transpositions happened. He would be one place and then, instantly, he would be somewhere else. The neurologist at the hospital said these episodes might fade as his brain tried to regenerate. The fact that he was aware of the gaps at all was a good sign, the neurologist said. This statement gave him hope; it suggested his brain was like the tail of a porch lizard that had been pulled off by a child and would grow back.
At about seven, he went to get the newspaper in the driveway and saw Nestor getting out of his cousin’s car, pulling a sling blade after him. “Hola,” Father Jim said. “Dónde est su Weed Eater?” Nestor stood in the gravel and stared after his cousin as he peeled off down the road.
“Father, you don’t know how to speak Spanish.”
“Yeah, I guess not.”
Nestor put the tool on his shoulder. He was strong-looking, straight in the back. Normally, he would sing under his breath as he worked; he was a man who smiled easily, but today his eyes seemed worried. “I pawned my Weed Eater to start building a shotgun fund. I’m just going to pull grass by hand today and knock the brush down at the edge of the backyard.”
Father Jim remembered the stolen shotgun, and the returning thought heartened him. He imagined four or five of his new brain cells lifting weights behind his forehead. “What kind of gun was it?”
“A Browning Auto-5 Light 12-gauge,” Nestor said. “Barely used. My uncle wants to beat me up. He’s called the police on me again. Every time I’m around him, he raises his arm like he’s holding a hatchet.”
Father Jim went inside and wrote down the information about the gun. He felt really sorry for his yard man, who was his friend, who would sit on the back steps on hot days and drink lemonade with him and tell of his parents back in Mexico, who lavished praise on him for every cent he sent down across the border. Father Jim sat in his recliner and studied the gun’s description in his shaking hand. He remembered very little about firearms. That part of his memory was lying somewhere out beside a mountain railroad track. Taking the phone book into his lap, he looked up a local gun shop, wrote down the address and directions from the ad, and went into his room to dress. He thought he shouldn’t purchase a firearm dressed as a Catholic priest. Before the accident, he’d owned no casual clothes, wanting to be the type of cleric who wore his collar and black shirt everywhere he went. He stood before his closet and looked in vain for something that seemed secular. Then he ran through his chest of drawers, where he found not even a white T-shirt to wear. In a box under the bed he found short pants, black, some black socks, and a joke item his brother had sent him years ago, a black wifebeater undershirt. He put this on along with black trousers and looked in the mirror at his hairy shoulders. He seemed to remember seeing similar attire somewhere. His glossy black lace-up shoes contradicted his clothes, so he removed them, along with his socks.
He left Nestor in the yard and drove off toward the gun shop, which was 14 miles away at a crossroads, far away from the nearest town. The shop bore the name Lead Twilight Guns and Ammo, and was perched at the side of the road, cantilevered over a cliff. He got out of his black car and was surprised when his feet pained him as he hobbled over to a heavy door crisscrossed with iron straps.
The six people in the store glanced up when he entered, and they did not look away. The wrinkled clerk behind the counter had surely met his share of bizarre weapons seekers in his time, but when he saw the scarred, barefoot, 300-pound man wearing a coal-black wifebeater undershirt standing in his door, his mouth began to twitch.
Father Jim walked toward a counter showcase holding Beretta pistols and put his hands palms-down on the glass. “I’m looking for a gun,” he said, rather too loudly, as his hearing had been damaged in the accident.
The old man swallowed. “I bet you air.” His eyes focused on the priest’s high, ruined forehead.
“A semiautomatic shotgun.”
“What you aimin’ to do with that shotgun?” the man asked, taking a step back.
The question seemed odd to the priest, and he thought the salesman wanted the most basic answer. So he intoned, in a priestly voice, “Kill.”
The other clerk in the store, a skinny boy dressed in camouflage, slipped in behind the old man and asked, “You ain’t lookin’ to visit them what messed you up, is you? You know, the feds been watching us gun dealers like red-tailed hawks.”
The priest looked down at the stainless-steel pistols in the case. The clerk’s question began to make sense. And then he forgot it. “I need a Browning Auto-5 in nice condition.”
The clerks looked at each other, slightly relieved at the request for a hunting gun. “We got one in nice shape. You want to see it?”
Father Jim took the shotgun they handed him and looked it over as though it were a stick he’d picked up off his lawn, comprehending nothing about it, except that it was shiny and unworn. He gave it back. “How much is it?”
“Seven hundred,” the old man said. “Plus tax.”
“Okay,” Father Jim said.
The young clerk put the shotgun back in the rack, but kept a hand on it. “You mean you want it?”
The boy furrowed his brow and looked closely at the priest, at the still eye, then the roving one, at the trembling fingers. “You ain’t never, like, been in the nuthouse or nothing, has you?”
“Not that I remember.”
“We sell to someone been in the institution,” he said more respectfully, “the feds’ll send us to Leavenworth for 10 years.”
“That’s a long time, isn’t it?” the priest sang.
“You got to fill out Form 4473, then we do a background check on you. You ain’t done nothing can keep us from selling you a gun, has you?”
When he heard that, Father Jim became anxious, wondering if there was a statute against clergy purchasing firearms. “No, no.”
The old man narrowed his eyes. “You kinda scary-lookin’, fella. You ain’t planning nothing bad, I hope. We sell you a gun and you do something bad, they’ll put us in the same cell with you.”
“No, no. I was buying the gun to give to a friend of mine who’s in trouble.”
The two clerks just stared at him, and one of the other customers tugged on the bill of his ball cap and said, “Oh, Lardy,” and headed for the door.
The clerks asked him to sit in a chair by the entrance and fill out the form while they set up a phone call for a background check. “You don’t know my name,” he told them.
“Just you work on the form there, feller. We got things under control,” the old clerk said.
He waited for half an hour, studying the shop, watching other people look at ammunition, bows and arrows. Finally the younger clerk came out from a back room, took the form out of the priest’s hand, and told him that he’d failed the background check. That he’d have to leave.
“Well, all right,” he said, and got to his feet. Then he remembered to ask, “But what failed me?”
The clerk was walking backward. “Uh, we can’t sell a gun to somebody who ain’t got no shoes.”
So Father Jim stepped out into the parking lot and was immediately arrested by two sheriff’s deputies almost as large as he was, handcuffed, and placed in a cruiser. They told him they were holding him for a federal gun violation. He was taken to Sap Valley, the county seat, where he was sent to a room to meet with an ATF agent who happened to be in the district on other matters.
The agent was a severe little man of about 40, thin as a teenage girl. “So, you are Mr. James Bowman?”
Father Jim smiled. “That’s me.”
“And you attempted to purchase a Browning semiautomatic shotgun at the Lead Twilight gun store?”
“I sure did.”
Here the agent paused and looked at Father Jim the way a bank teller looks at a customer who hands her a blank deposit slip. “For what purpose?”
Father Jim, for the first time, felt a little buzz of fear. The feeling was like hearing a distant train whistle when he was about to cross the tracks. The fact that he had been arrested and handcuffed and brought to a dingy room made of dented Sheetrock affected him not in the least. But the little man’s voice contained a trace of governmental demon, a connection to knotted regulations more difficult to understand than religious mystery, which at least could be believed through faith, as many arbitrary governmental strictures could not. “I wanted to give it to a friend.”
The agent straightened his back.
“Why couldn’t your friend buy it for himself?”
“Well, he’s poor.”
“What’s your friend’s name?” The agent spoke his words so quickly, it took a few seconds for Father Jim to comprehend them.
“Nestor Alvarez. He lives about 10 miles from here.”
The agent’s face became a rock. He left the room without a word, and Father Jim began to pray silently, not knowing exactly what to pray for. He had no idea why he had been arrested. For an hour he sat in the room, which was severely air-conditioned. His bare feet stuck to the tile floor.
Finally, the door swung open and the agent held up a handful of papers. “Mr. Bowman, you’re under arrest on federal charges.”
The priest’s still eye tried to move. “Federal charges. Like a bill? How much is it?”
“Buying a firearm for an undocumented alien who is also an indicted felon is nothing to joke about. Your young Mr. Alvarez is awaiting trial for felony theft and is out on bail.”
Father Jim nodded. “Yes. He’ll come by next week to cut my grass. It grows like crazy this time of year.” The priest’s brain was firing electrical charges like an accident at a fireworks stand.
The agent studied Father Jim’s eyes. The left one was starting to roam like the bubble in a spirit level. “Hey, have you ever been diagnosed with mental problems?”
“My brain has been operated on several times.”
“But in spite of that, you knew that Mr. Alvarez was an indicted felon?”
“I guess so. He stole a shotgun, after all.”
He looked at the agent’s face and saw that he was experiencing some kind of incomprehensible happiness.
Father jim was put in a cell, where he had an extended conversation with a toothless meth addict recently blinded in a lab explosion. Father Jim explained to him how he could get into a program that would provide false teeth and recommended an eye surgeon in Raleigh who sometimes did free work on accident victims.
The next day the priest was allowed to call his father, who drove over from Charlotte with a lawyer friend. After a long discussion with the sheriff and the ATF agent, the sheriff was willing to let the priest go. The agent, however, insisted on proceeding toward a federal indictment.
The lawyer, a distinguished gentleman whose flowing white hair trembled when he looked at the agent, said, “Surely you have more dangerous individuals to pursue.”
“He broke the law,” the agent said.
The lawyer shook his head. “As usual, you’re going after low-hanging fruit and leaving alone the serious perpetrators who are harder to find.” The lawyer raised his chin and added, “Or more dangerous.”
A mean little smile slid across the agent’s lips. “Everybody who breaks the law is a target.”
The priest’s old father, still straight in the back, said, “Yes, especially those who won’t use you as one.”
Father Jim then remembered the lawyer, Mr. Randoll, the head legal counsel for the archdiocese and a partner in one of the largest firms in the Carolinas. He even remembered one of his famous suits when his team savaged an IRS agent for dragging an old widow into court. He was amazed that he remembered this fact, delighted not only with the memory of the incident, but also the fact that his brain had reached back into its history and plucked something out of its fragmented darkness. Maybe, as his neurologist had suggested, stress had some qualities of rejuvenation.
After his father arranged for his son’s enormous bail, he drove Father Jim back to the priest’s house. While the priest took a shower, his father confiscated the wifebeater undershirt and hid it in the trunk of his car. The father, a former airline pilot, was the size of his son, balding, muscular, smooth-faced, and placid.
“How are you feeling, Jimmy?” He was sitting on the bed when the priest came out of the shower wearing a set of black pajamas.
His son thought about the question as though it were a puzzling query about his sense of touch. Then he said, “I feel fine.” He sat next to his father, and the mattress rose up on the other side.
“I’m wondering if you ought to ask the bishop for more leave time. I mean, not totally. But for now, maybe you ought not to drive so much.”
Father Jim nodded. “I can get Nestor to drive me.”
His father looked away for a moment, then back. “Is he a good man, Jimmy?”
“I think he is.”
His father stood up and walked into the little kitchen next to the bedroom. “I’m going to fix us some coffee. You want some?”
Father Jim was still thinking about Nestor. “He’s just down on his luck.”
“You always thought everybody was as good as everybody else,” his father said from the kitchen. “Thinking that way can be dangerous.”
Father Jim frowned. Something happened inside his head like a cloud drifting clear of the sun. He thought about Jesus palling around with Judas. Sharing food with him. Teaching him things about life. How to get through it. He thought about this a long time.
The next week the bishop called and had a long conversation with him. The bishop was a kindly 75-year-old Irishman. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was pressing for an indictment, and the bishop said it would be a good idea if Father Jim would take himself off the Mass and confession availability list. And stop driving. However, he could perform other duties, if a priest needed him. Father Jim apologized for all the trouble he had caused. “I just stumbled into a world of regulations I didn’t know were there,” he told the bishop. “It’s like getting blamed for walking into a spiderweb at night.”
The bishop commiserated. “I know, James. Sometimes Washington thinks it’s the Vatican.”
A few days after his talk with the bishop, Father Jim began to worry, but was heartened by his distress, feeling that his brain was reknitting itself because of the pressure of facing jail time. He heard a knock at the door, and it was Nestor, who had been dropped off with a borrowed push mower and some pruning snips.
“ ’Sup,” Nestor said. He seemed a little drunk, and Father Jim was thankful he hadn’t been driving. “Father, I hear you’re in a lot of trouble because of me. Some scary government men came by where I stay and tried to say I asked you to buy me a weapon. When they left, my wife was crying. I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“Me neither,” the priest admitted. “Come in, I just made coffee.”
The two of them sat down at a shaky table in the kitchen, and Nestor described how the ATF had notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement about his presence in the country, and now he and his wife were in danger of being deported.
“You want me to go see someone at ICE?,” Father Jim asked.
Nestor put up his hands. “No, no, Father. My uncle now feels sorry for me and has asked a man who helps Mexicans with immigration problems to help. Please don’t do anything yourself.” The yard man looked distressed.
“Father, I can speak English. Lately, better than you,” he said, smiling. But then the smile faded, and Nestor looked down at his hands. “You know, none of this would have happened if I didn’t steal.”
Father Jim poured Nestor a cup of coffee at the stove and sweetened it the way his friend liked, bringing it to the table along with his own. “Well, you’ve had your shame, and your regret as well, and now it’s time to move on.”
“I can do that. But what if, you know, they put you in jail?”
The priest experienced a little jolt of alarm and took a long swallow of coffee, hoping it would flow straight to his brain to speed his thoughts. “Don’t worry about it. John the Baptist was locked up in jail. Daniel, Saint Paul, Jeremiah—the Bible’s full of jailbirds.” They sat drinking their coffee in silence, the priest looking above an old Caloric gas range and through his kitchen window to a storm-damaged tree loaded down with apples. He realized his vision was improving. He closed his good eye and saw a blur of fruit.
Nestor was sent back to Nogales with his wife, and Father Jim’s case went to trial. In a three-day ordeal, the federal authorities, with the testimony of the gun-store clerks, who grudgingly gave their evidence, proved beyond a doubt that he had attempted to purchase a firearm for an undocumented immigrant who was an indicted felon. His defense lawyer did what he could, but the judge was very rigid in his instructions to the jury, and the next day the group of 12 cranky retirees and habitually unemployed individuals found him guilty.
Father Jim sat in court wearing his Roman collar and, for a long moment, didn’t understand why his father was hugging him or a huge deputy was carefully putting him in handcuffs. He tried to say something, but no words came out of his open mouth, and he began to panic. But then he said, “I’m glad Nestor wasn’t here to see the outcome of all this.” The statement made sense, and his father studied his son’s face a moment, nodding to no one in particular.
Father Jim was sent to a special West Virginia prison filled with politicians, tycoons, confidence men, hedge-fund managers, gamblers, financial-company executives—every one of them his least favorite kind of person. The local bishop arranged for him to give services in the dingy chapel, but only two Italian gentlemen regularly showed up, wearing sunglasses in the windowless room. The prison itself was a former county jail with a central hall bordered by rows of barred cells, but the doors were never closed unless the occupants wanted it that way. The bunks were wide and held thick mattresses, two to a cell, though some prisoners had cages to themselves. The prison had a lounge with books and a television, a small gym, and a large, grassy yard with basketball courts painted with fresh green enamel. Father Jim kept working out, getting a bit leaner on prison food.
During the year he was jailed, his mind began to come back to him like a book dropped in the ocean and washed up on shore, all there but slightly warped. A little hair began to sprout from his tortured scalp. When the Italian gentlemen came to confession, Father Jim wished he were a judge so he could add years to their sentences. But, still, he transferred forgiveness to them, and all that year they were loyal to him, sweeping the chapel, sharing sausage sent from home, and passing along little hand signals that he never understood when they slid by him in the hall.
After father jim was released from prison, the bishop told him that, in a few months, depending, he would be allowed to handle a large Mass or complex Lenten observance, but in the meantime he could fill in for vacationing parish secretaries, bring Communion to the sick, and participate in children’s church. Father Jim was disappointed. He thought he had come a long way since the accident and wanted to be assigned full duties in a busy church. At night, after the TV news and one beer, he’d think about his unlikely survival. The car he’d driven had been crushed to the size of a motorcycle. The only reason he’d survived was that he’d been thrown out of the vehicle because he hadn’t been wearing his seat belt. What made him forget to latch it? Why was he still here?
One Friday Father Jim was in Charlotte for a doctor’s appointment and got a call on his new cellphone from a friend who led a large city parish. His friend said he needed help on the weekend, that Father Jim could stay at the rectory, help out with hospital visits, hear confessions on Saturday afternoon, and handle the youngest children at children’s church on Sunday. Father Jim said he’d be happy to help.
On Sunday he found the annex where the children were led when excused from the main service. The tall lady in charge couldn’t hide her surprise at the sight of him, even though he was wearing a black golf hat to hide as much scarring as he could. She introduced herself and reminded him of what to do. “Father Ralph gives pretty long homilies, so we usually have a brief snack time after you read them a book.” And then the children came in. The 6- and 7-year-olds regarded him warily, but most of the other children were younger and ran past the legs of this big anonymous adult into the corner of the large room they knew as the story place. He remembered that they were people of the blissful lower regions of life, and that everything above an adult’s knees wasn’t worth their concern. Father Jim walked into the carpeted area, looked around for a big person’s chair, and, seeing none, sat on the floor Indian-style. In his lap he spread open a large illustrated book containing the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“We’ve got a good story today,” he announced. At once, the 3-to-5-year-olds flocked to him. A pair sat on each thigh; three leaned against his back, straining to look over his shoulders at the colorful drawings; and the rest formed a tight semicircle facing him, their bright faces baptizing him in light. Father Jim began to read in an expressive voice, pointing out details in the pictures. He explained that some Jewish people did not especially like Samaritans, and they would not expect a Samaritan to help the Jewish man beaten up by robbers. He looked around him slowly, into each child’s morning-clear eyes. He usually thought up a question at this point.
“So who can get this big question right? Here it is. This is a big deal.” But he didn’t know what the question was. He looked in their eyes for at least five seconds, stalling. Then something popped into his head like an e-mail. “Why did God let the Jewish man get beaten up?” There was silence for a heartbeat or two, then a babble of answers, many answers. One 4-year-old girl with blinding blond hair said the Jewish man got beat up because he was mean to the Samaritans. From her perch on his left knee, a 3-year-old with a face like a jewel said that maybe the man stole a Samaritan’s cookie. That she wanted a cookie. A redheaded 5-year-old said maybe the Jewish guy was bragging and made somebody mad. A 6-year-old who was in the wrong group, a dour country boy wearing a pearl-button shirt, raised his hand and said, “My name is Bill. God wanted to teach the Jewish guy a lesson.”
“Teach him a lesson?” Father Jim’s mind still occasionally hit a bump in the road, and the comment jostled his thinking. “I don’t know, Bill. That sounds mean.”
“I think it’s the point,” the dour boy said. “I bet the guy who got beat up liked Samaritans and everybody else after he got better. He got a attitude adjustment.”
And then the baby girl on his left knee, who had never really ceased talking, asked, “Did you get beat up?” She stood on his thigh in her hard Sunday shoes, reached over the child next to her, and touched the worst scar on his cheek with her feathery fingers, then sat down again.
“Well, sort of. I was run over by a train.”
The children all fell silent, and a treasury of small faces stared at him. “Did someone come to help you?” a child behind him asked.
Father Jim frowned. “The ambulance crew. I guess they were like Samaritans on salary.”
The children didn’t understand the joke, and by the movement of their eyes he saw them studying his face and hands. “Did it hurt real bad?” dour Bill asked.
“Oh, no. Not at first, anyway. They brought me to the hospital and took good care of me.”
“Did they give you a cookie?” the baby on his left knee asked.
“I don’t think so.” Other questions followed, and he began to feel like the Jewish fellow on the side of the road must have felt. The children were worried about him, and their concern was like medicine. Even so, his burdened legs were cramping up, a thousand needles shooting through them. He started to get up, but the tiny blond girl on his right thigh keened, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Who got the big question right?”
Father Jim settled back and realized that no one could know the reason for pain, unless it was that getting hurt was rewarded by visitations like the one around him. He grinned a little. “I’m thinking all of you are right.”
The 3-year-old jumped, landed a hand in his shirt pocket, and smiled in his face. “Snack time,” she yelled.