Read The Gospel of Winter Online
Authors: Brendan Kiely
Mark went the other direction on the bridge, and I let him go on ahead of me. I waited, hoping the dope would wear off and I'd sober up before I got home. I stood on the bridge for a while and looked down into the black slick of river that tumbled forward into the saltwater harbor beyond. I thought about Josie's tongue and humming lips, Mark's voice springing from his strong jaw, and Sophie's laughter. I jumbled all their body parts together in my mind like a fractured Picasso, shifting the images so they split
and re-formed into a new shattered mosaic like a kaleidoscope shifting colored crystals. I wanted to keep shuffling the piecesâtongues, lips, fingersâuntil I found some language to the patternâbecause there was something deeper than only sex, wasn't there? I had to believe that when our bodies came together, it was a bridge to something deeper and more meaningful, a conjoining of parts to make a fuller whole, just as a breath is not only an inhale and an exhale but one act in which they complete each other. That was all I wanted: a sense of stability, of completeness, an assurance that any fear could be dissolved, that loneliness was a sickness cured when someone else's exhale became my inhale and, together, neither of us could ever feel alone.
As I stood on the bridge I began to feel sick. I only wanted to be told everything was going to be okay. I could give and give and give, and go and go and go, but I would wander aimlessly forever unless I had a road map that said,
Aidan, go straight ahead, turn right, then left, then left
again, and you will be where you want to be.
Isn't that what Father Greg kept promising? “A better home,” a way to feel at peace wherever I was?
This is what our Lord asks of you, Aidan. This is what I ask of you. Shhh, shhh, soon you will feel much better. Soon everything will be better. You'll know love. This is love, Aidan. This is love.
I kept hearing his hush in my head as I stared down into the river from the bridge. His voice was in me, endlessly shushing. Occasionally, a shaft of ice shot out from beneath
the bridge and cut through the river until it passed out of sight into the dark distance. I couldn't stay focused and fixed. I wanted a sense of direction, to be able to see myself clearly and say
Yes, yes, yes, this is me
, but my thoughts emerged and rippled over one another chaotically, and I couldn't see through the mess.
he most important things in life require a leap of faith,” Father Greg once told me. “Jesus did not turn stones into bread when he was starving in the desert, nor did he throw himself off the temple to prove he was the son of God. He knew he could survive on faith, not bread, and he knew he need not test his faith to believe in it. You must believe in me, Aidan. You must believe that I love you. Everything will be okay if you have faith in this love between us. Love is God in action.”
And I did. I believed him. I continued to believe him when he was the only person to give me a birthday card in September, and when he gave me a copy of a photo he'd taken of Saint Aidan in a stained-glass window in England, and when he tore a clean handkerchief so we could each have a half one day when we both were sneezing, and when I laughed because he made me, and when he told me
I would not feel this way forever, and when I cried and he held me and didn't say “don't cry” or “take care of yourself”; I believed him when he said “I will take care of you” and that it was okay to cry because it gave him the chance to take care of me more. There seemed like nothing else other than the strange, painful gravity he could provide.
I was certain we had agreed that I would return the next day, the day after he'd asked me to leave his office for the first time, and I did not want to disappoint him. I left earlier than I had the day before, and I had the car service drive me over to Most Precious Blood again, with instructions not to pick me up until that evening. On the way, I thought about what I was going to say to Father Greg. I wanted to talk about Josie and Mark and Sophie, but I also didn't. It meant I had something against which to compare, something that frightened me more and more on the drive over.
When I got there, the lights were dimmed in the rectory, and it was quiet. The gate to the kitchenette was closed, and no one moved around in the main hall. The remnants of the phone-a-thon from the day before were littered about the far end of the hall. An easel held a poster of a schoolhouse lined with hash marks indicating escalating amounts of money. Across the top, scrawled in marker and in big, green handwriting I knew was Father Greg's, it read S
HILLIP'S IS NOW A REALITY
The light in Father Greg's office shone through the cracks around his door, and Father Dooley's door was open.
I could hear the mumble of his low voice on the phone, and I didn't want to walk past his office and have him see me. Father Greg knew I was coming. If I didn't knock on his door, he'd know where else to find me. I turned and went down the stairwell to the basement.
At the foot of the staircase, a dim overhead light showed the cracks and damp blisters in the walls along the hallway to the storage room. The gray metal door looked heavier than it really was, and I realized that I'd never actually opened it before, Father Greg always had. Inside, the naked bulb swung loosely when I tugged on the chain, and it cast a jaundiced glow around the entrance to the storage room, the faint light reaching only as far as the workbench in the middle of the room. Underneath the workbench, the orange coils of the electric heater glowed, and I knew Father Greg would be coming down later. He had set up the room like this before. He wouldn't push me away again.
The boiler murmured in a dark corner. Banging and hissing pipes crisscrossed the ceiling, hushing the room. Clutching my coat and hat, I walked over to the two small, barred windows in the far wall that looked up into foxholes in the yard alongside the rectory. Through them, afternoon light faded into the makeshift workshop. Other guys my age would have looked out this window and wanted to go surfing down the long slope of the icy lawn on cafeteria trays, but I just waited and let my eyes adjust to the darkness of the basement. I preferred where I was: the cold
comfort of the shadows. The pipes finally settled down, and in the stillness there was nothing but the heater humming one long buzzing note. For once, doing nothing seemed like all that was expected of me. He would be down here soon; there was nowhere else for me to go.
I was still standing under the windows, in the shadows of the metal shelves, when I heard the door open. I pressed back against the wall and hid myself beside the shelving unit in case it was Father Dooley. I was relieved to hear Father Greg's voice instead, but he was speaking to someone else. They made their way toward the workbench, and although I couldn't see them, I knew he was with another boy, one younger than me.
“Is it okay to be down here?” the boy asked.
Father Greg laughed. I heard a thud on the workbench and glasses knocking against each other. “This is where we have to come,” Father Greg said. “Remember, this is only between you and me. This isn't for anyone else. No one else can know. No one.”
“I remember,” the boy said, and I recognized the timidity. It was James, the eighth grader, Cindy's son.
“This is a man's drink,” Father Greg said to James.
“I can take it.”
“But I don't feel well,” James said after a moment.
“Come on. Go ahead. I like sharing this with you.”
“No, it's just that I don't feel well, I think. That's all.”
“No. Maybe I should go?”
“There's no one else here,” Father Greg said. “We don't have to be afraid. This is all right. You don't have to be afraid when you're with me.”
“I don't feel well,” James said again. “I'm sorry.” There was a moment of silence and then a glass coming down hard on the workbench. “No,” James said. “Please.”
“It's all right,” Father Greg said. “It's all right.”
I couldn't see anything, but I didn't have to. I knew then that Father Greg was pouring out two glasses of scotchâmore for himself and a smaller one for James. Even without standing next to him, I knew how it smelled on Father Greg's breath; I knew the heat; I knew how his breath would soon blast against the shoulder and move slowly like a hot wind up along the neck to the ear and stay there, making you wonder if it was ever going to run out.
“We've talked about this,” Father Greg said to James, and as the familiar words rolled out of him I was gripped with a fear I hadn't felt since the first time Father Greg had walked me down into the basement. “This is part of what makes what we have together so special,” Father Greg continued. “It's only you and me, Jamesâthat's important. You don't want them to take that from us, do you?”
“No,” James said.
“I care about you, James. I don't want to hurt you. You don't want anyone to hurt
, do you?”
“Shhh,” Father Greg hushed. “I can help you. You'll see. Shhh.”
I slid down the wall and tucked my knees to my chest. I jammed my fists over my ears and squeezed my eyes shut, even though I couldn't see anything anyway. I didn't have to seeâI knew how Father Greg's embrace swallowed you, took the air away until your breath was something you gave him, too. Father Greg was twice the size of James. I knew the earthy air that was up around James now. I knew how to take it all in silence, and I held myself tightly in a ball while it lasted. I couldn't hear anything except the voice in my own head, Father Greg's voice telling me,
This, too, is a part of love
this is love, our loveâonly for the two of us.
There were tears in my eyes when they finally began the Our Father, and I said it along with them to myself. Father Greg made him repeat it until James said the words loudly and clearly, with force, as if he meant it, or at least had calmed down. Then, in silence, Father Greg switched off the heater and the light and urged James upstairs, beckoning him with those words I'd heard so many times before. “This is only between you and me, James, remember that. No one else can know.”
I stayed squatted in the dark corner beside the shelves, and tears slid down my face. I hated James, and it wasn't even his fault.
, I could hear him say. It repeated within me.
I hadn't been able to find that word last summer, when
Father Greg had led me down to the workbench and offered me that first sip of scotch. I had just let him come up against me as I closed my eyes and sank into myself. Father Greg's thumb had pressed up against my Adam's apple and I had wondered if that was itâif Father Greg was bringing me right up to the end of my lifeâbut a glow of pleasure had washed across Father Greg's face and I felt strange and oddly important because I knew I had given it to him. I took it, again and again, until it seemed familiar.
I sat there, listening to my own teeth chatter, until the beams of a car's headlights shot through the foxhole window above me. I didn't know how long I had been down in the basement. When a horn beeped out in the parking lot, I knew it was my car returning for me. I couldn't stand the thought of climbing into the car and trying to make conversation with the driver, but I had to get the hell out of there. It beeped again, once.
Still clutching my coat and hat, I ran to the door. It swung open and smacked against the brick wall with a hollow bang that clattered up through the stairwell. The hallway was dark, but light filtered down from the rectory above. I took the stairs two at a time but came to a stop at the landing.
Father Greg stood in the doorway to the parking lot and looked outside, one arm holding the door ajar. I could see the headlights of the livery cab shining in the darkness, out toward the lawn in front of the church. I heard a voice in the
parking lot, but it was too far away for me to hear what it said.
“No, I'm terribly sorry,” Father Greg called out. “He wasn't here today.” He turned around. His frame nearly filled the whole doorway. He wore a wool, knit hat and a flannel shirt without his Roman collar, and his overcoat was open and loose. He glared at me for a moment, hesitated, and then turned back to the parking lot. “No. No, he definitely wasn't here today. Sorry I can't be of more help.” Father Greg waved. “That's right. All the best. Merry Christmas.”
He pulled the door closed tightly and clicked the lock. “Aidan?” His eyes were red, and he breathed heavily. “You scared the hell out of me. You're not supposed to be here.”
I didn't say a word.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me. “Were you downstairs?”
“You told my driver I wasn't here,” I said. “You saw me. You looked right at me.”
He folded his arms. “Calm down,” he said. He scratched his jaw. “We should talk. I'll drive you home.”
“No,” I said quietly.
Father Greg straightened. “We need to have a talk in my office,” he said.
“I want to leave,” I said with a little more volume.
Father Greg relaxed his shoulders. He peeled the wool hat from his head and stuffed it into his coat pocket. He
flattened the tousled hairs on his head. “Aidan, come on,” he said. “You know who you're talking to here.”
“No,” I said again. I looked out toward the main hall. It was completely dark except for a broad pane of light spreading out from Father Greg's office.
“The driver said he dropped you off earlier. Have you been down there all afternoon?” He wiped his face and sighed. “Okay, all right. Calm down. Calm down, Aidan. Calm down.” His voice had the whoosh and hiss of too many drinks. He approached me as he spoke, and before I could move, he took hold of my arm. I tried to jerk away, but I couldn't free myself. He marched me through the rectory to his office and shut the door behind him.