Authors: Brendan Kiely
I tensed. He and I hadn't really spoken much since I'd started the school year, and I couldn't remember any time when he'd tried so deliberately to speak with me. “I have to go soon,” he continued. “I have to get back to Brussels.”
“Yeah, well, that seems pretty typical.” I wasn't interested in his conversations anymore anyway. “Look,” I said, “I'm going to call a car. I'm heading over to work today.”
“Don't you drive yet?”
“I didn't start driver's ed this semester. I've been working.”
“You couldn't do both?”
“I haven't seen you in over a month.”
He rubbed his forehead again. “What do you expect to gain from a non sequitur like that? You still haven't addressed the question. I know you've been working on the campaign at Most Precious Blood. I admire that work. It's important. You already know that. Let's collect some information we don't know, huh? Do they offer driving classes in the morning, before school? Is there a private company that will do it on the weekends?”
“I don't know.”
“Ah! That's the reason for the non sequitur, then. I'm glad we cleared that up.” He sipped his coffee. “There's so much of your mother in you.”
“I'm going to work,” I said. “Welcome home.”
“Now hold on,” he said. “I'd like us all to stay home today. You'll go off to work, your mother will do errands, and before you know it the day will be over, there will be other expectations, and the weekend will have slipped away. Just stay put here today. Got it?” He tapped his finger on the table. “I know this isn't easy, but I need your help. You can do that, right?” Steam shifted over our mugs. He fished out another cigarette and lit it. He smoked and smoked and let the silence move toward me like a cloud, closing around me until I was completely smothered.
In his years rowing crew he had built up a back that still carried him all these years later. When Mother met him, he had the physique of a man her age but the more determined and wiser mind of a man who had conquered an industry. He was thinner now, but he was still strong, as if he had condensed and ossified. “I'm not going back there for work, not right away at least,” he finally said. “I know you're only a boy, but I'm going to tell you something you can't tell your mother. Can you do that? Make me trust you, son.”
I stared at him across the table.
“There's a woman in Brussels.”
I thought I was supposed to do something now, but I had no idea what. I didn't want to do anything. I wanted to watch him cough againâcough until his eyes blistered red and the veins in his brow bulged.
He stood up and stubbed out his cigarette. “Be a man,
son. Keep this to yourself. Can you do that? Think of it as a kind of contract for the holidays. I'm telling you now because, like I said about the importance of a son? Well, I want to be up front with my son.” I nodded, and he smiled to himself as if he'd just walked some blind man across the street.
Later that day, there was shouting. He told Mother he was leaving and would not be home for the party or for the holidays. Then he was gone againâeven earlier than he had planned.
That old bastard. He had no idea. I didn't say anything to Mother, but that was easy. Most Likely to Keep a Secret: That could have been my goddamn superlative for the CDA yearbook. To think how valued that skill was, and how I'd learned it so quickly. Days later, over the phone, Old Bastard shared the rest of his story with Mother, and everything finally fell apart.
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The past summer, with no one to call, I'd found myself under Elena's feet almost every day and, exasperated, she convinced me to volunteer at Most Precious Blood. She suggested I would find people there with whom I might engage. And not insignificantly to her mind, she thought it would do me good to get a little closer to God. My parents were Catholic in name but not really in practice and, to her, I was moving through life without proper religious instruction. If nothing else, committing to the church community would
be more meaningful than lying around the house, waiting for someone to bring me to life.
When I began working at Most Precious Blood, I began attending Mass more regularly too. Our family was “culturally Catholic,” as Old Donovan had once said, and we'd rarely attended Mass more than a holy day of obligation or two. Father Dooley had been the priest to lead me through confirmation and first communion, and I knew the value of the rites and the purpose of the prayers, but I went to Mass to hear Father Greg recite themânot Father Dooley. Father Greg didn't just go through the motions like everyone else. He'd drop a fist for me to bump, right there on the church steps after Mass. He'd talk about divine grace in
On the Road
. It was Father Dooley's parish, technicallyâhe was Father Greg's superior at Most Precious Bloodâbut when we did the rituals and asked for forgiveness for our trespasses and forgave others theirs against us, Father Greg created the real bridge from the person I was to the person I wanted to become. The faith everyone talked about in church was what I found in our everyday conversations: He listened, and by doing so, he elevated me.
The emptiness of the house on the day after Christmas seeped inside me, and I felt hollowed out. I found some stiff, leftover sushi from the party in the refrigerator, and I picked at it while I sat at the island in the kitchen reading
. It was easy to understand why the monster wanted a mateâwithout one he was utterly alone. After a
while, I decided I wouldn't bother calling the rectory to look for Father Greg. I was just going to show up on my own and remind him I was there.
They were offering late-afternoon services that day, so I thought it was best to find him before then. I had the car service drop me off at the foot of the driveway so I could make the long walk uphill, reciting the lines from Psalm 31 that were earmarked for the day. I'd spent time memorizing the reading and the response. I was not an altar boy, and I had not participated in the rites and rituals of the services, but I'd grown to appreciate them all the more while listening to Father Greg, and I hoped a little extra homework on my part would set the right tone between us.
The door to the rectory banged shut behind me and sent a dull echo up and down the stairwell in the entryway. The main hall was softly lit with only the sconces along the walls and the muted winter light coming in through the windows. Father Greg's office door was closed, and I worried that he wasn't around. I took off my coat and hat and hung them on the standing rack, and Father Dooley shuffled out of the kitchen across from the offices. Although he was old and stooped, Father Dooley never admitted to struggling. He still drove one of the parish cars around town and refused to accept help unless it was absolutely necessary. I walked over to say hello and tried to help him throw open the metal shutters to the service windows. He waved me off and pushed them up with the crook of his cane.
“What's going on?” Father Dooley asked me. He rubbed and flexed his bulbous knuckles. “You're not due today,” he said.
“I am,” I said.
“You're back next week, I think.”
He caught me looking over at Father Greg's door. “I thought I was working today,” I said.
“I know the schedule. We have the phone-a-thon tonight. We're hosting the volunteers from Saint Joseph's home.”
“Is Father Greg here?”
“He's in a meeting. I haven't seen him much today.”
“Can I say hello?”
“Not when he's in a meeting, Aidan. You know that.” He looked toward Father Greg's office. “He's not to be disturbed. I'm sorry you came all the way out here.”
“I just arrived,” I said.
“I know. I know. There must have been some confusion with the schedule,” Father Dooley said. “I don't know what to tell you. We're very busy, and I can't look after you. The volunteers will be here soon, and we have today's service to get ready. I'm sorry, Aidan, but you'll have to come back when you're scheduled.”
“I'll wait for Father Greg,” I said. He hesitated, and I continued. “I can help with the phone-a-thon. I'll start logging thank-you notes in the database. He won't mind.” My car had already left and it wasn't coming back for a few hours,
and what the hell would I do if it took me back home? “Just tell him I'm here, okay?”
“I can't go barging in,” Father Dooley said. He blew out a long, frustrated sigh. “Aidan, we're busy, okay? I'm sorry, but you're going to have to head back home.” With his hand behind my shoulder, he guided me back around to the coat rack. He handed me my coat and hat and urged me forward until we reached the linoleum entryway.
“Head home,” he said softly, but I didn't like the way he said it. I wasn't used to being asked to leave Most Precious Blood.
He was about to reach for the door when it opened from the outside instead. “Father Dooley!” A man as old as the priest stood in the doorway. He was bundled in a wool cap and a thick overcoat, and the wind rushed into the rectory. Behind him, a line of other elderly men and women slowly made their way to the rectory from a bus in the parking lot. “I hope you have some coffee brewing,” the old man in the doorway said. “We need some warming up.”
Father Dooley shook his head. “I was just getting to it, Fred.” He gestured for me to step aside and let Fred into the rectory; then he turned around and made his way back to the kitchen.
I stood there with my hat and coat in my hands, helping the volunteers through the doorway. One by one, they slowly made their way past me and wandered into the main hall. From behind they looked like a herd of cats, prowling,
pausing, and stepping forward cautiously and unpredictably. “It's a little dark in here,” one of the women yelled to Father Dooley.
“Then let there be light!” The overheads snapped on, and Father Greg stood by the far wall, smiling. He had the only voice I knew that could fill a room the size of the rectory's main hall, push way up into its rafters and still want to go farther. With its gray vaulted ceiling and simple kitchen off to the side, the rectory could have felt lifeless, but it was filled with the anticipation of his voice.
“The troops are here,” he continued. “Ready to bring in the procrastinators?” He held a stack of papers in his hand and waved them in the air. “These folks have five days left to get their gifts in and reap the tax deductions for the year.” He smiled. “Hey, even those of us living on fixed incomes can claim the right deductions.” There was some mumbled laughter, and Father Greg came around to help them take off their coats and drape them over chairs. He pulled a few seats over to a set of folding tables near the piano and the sound system. A row of telephones ran down the middle of the tables.
I grabbed two folding chairs by the kitchenette and walked across the hall to join Father Greg by the tables. “I thought I'd help with the phone-a-thon,” I said.
He glanced at the volunteers taking seats around the table. “You don't have to,” he said.
“I want to.”
Father Dooley placed a basket of scones on the table and glared at Father Greg. Father Greg sighed and turned back to me. “Not today, Aidan. We're fine. I can't have you underfoot.”
“Look,” Father Greg said abruptly, “why don't you go wait for me in my office.”
I did as he told me. In his office, only the desk lamp was lit, and if it had been a normal day working with him, a quiet day, everything would soon wind down and there would be time to talk. There wouldn't be a dozen voices asking questions; there would only be my voice, or Father Greg'sâwhat I was used to and what I needed. Instead, he was in the other room, quieting the elderly volunteers. While he explained the basic script for the phone-a-thon, I stared at the thick Persian rug beneath my feet. The impression of my footprints crushed into the design. They faded as I shuffled and the rug fit itself back into form. I recited the psalm as I waited:
You are my refuge and defense;
guide me and lead me as you have promised.
Look on your servant with kindness;
save me in your constant love.
When Father Greg came in, he flipped on the overhead light and dropped into the swivel chair behind his beveled
mahogany desk. He left the door open, leaned back in his chair, and folded his hands over his belly.
“It'll be a good night,” Father Greg said. There was no joy in his voice. I knew he had already made his goal for the capital campaign. Whatever the phone-a-thon raised was a bonus. He tilted his head back in his chair and stretched out his feet in front of him. The ceiling could have collapsed right on top of him and he wouldn't have flinched.
I glanced over at the open door. “I was hoping we could talk,” I said.
“I know,” Father Greg said. “It's a busy day, though.”
“I didn't get to say good-bye the other night,” I said. Father Greg sat back up in his chair. “I kind of ditched the party.”
“It's okay,” Father Greg said, and then we were both silent for a moment. I could hear some of the volunteers practicing their scripts in the other room. He smiled at me calmly, almost blankly, as if there was nothing on his mind. I wanted to talk about the cold rushing down into my throat as I yelled into the darkness outside the party, or how I was certain Josie, Sophie, and Mark hated me and how all of CDA was going to make a blood sport of me after winter break.
“Are you too busy? I was hoping you were free for a little while.”
“I am, Aidan. Too busy. I have to be out there. That's my role. You know itâparish cheerleader.”
“You should feel good, Aidan,” Father Greg said. “This has been a successful year with your help. You're a part of all this.” He stood up, came around the desk to the water-cooler beside the couch, and pulled a plastic cup from the sleeve. He sat on the arm of the couch and handed me a cup of water. “You're such a special young man,” he said. “You have to start feeling better.”