Mary McAllister had met the Reverend Roy Phipps only once, but that had been enough to tell her that she never wanted to meet him again. It wasn't that she hated him, exactly. She had expected to hate him. She had seen him on the news, carrying his signs at the funerals of people who died of AIDS, saying that those people were right now burning in the fires of hell. If there was one thing Mary remembered with perfect clarity from her religion classes as far back as First Holy Communion, it was that no human being could ever know whom God had sent to hell. That was because no person could know what was going on in a person's mind at the very moment of death, when God gave everybody a last chance at repentance. Mary had always suspected that this was a chance everybody took advantage of, so that nobody ever went to hell at allâmaybe not even Hitler. She was sure that none of the men she had met so far at St. Stephen's, like that poor Scott Boardman who had just died, was in any danger at all of going to hell. It wasn't their fault that they were confused, or that the people around them had been so cruel to them that they felt there was nothing they could do but band together and fend off the world. In Scott Boardman's case, he had been molested by a priest. He couldn't be held responsible for his hatred of the Catholic Church. If she had been a saint, Mary thought she might have been able to bring one or two of them across the street to St. Anselm's and a life of principled chastity, but she
a saint. She wasn't even close. What she did instead was to make a point of being friendly to all of the men she met, and to tell them “God bless you” at every possible opportunity.
Now she pulled the soup kitchen van into the parking lot behind St. Anselm's and tried to get a look at St. Stephen's, but there was nothing to see there but the lighted doorway to the church. Ever since she'd heard that Scott Boardman had died, she had been worried about poor Chickie George, who took this sort of thing very badly. People laughed at Chickie, but Mary knew better. He was really a very sensitive person, very sensitive and deep, and she had learned that if she listened
to him long enough and with enough sympathy, he would start to tell her the truth. She had always had an intellectual understanding of how lucky she had beenâto have had parents who loved and cared for her; to have had a nice house in a nice neighborhood; to have had a good education and to have the possibility of more. Chickie had begun to make her feel it emotionally. There were times now when she lay in bed in her dorm room at St. Joseph's and stared at the ceiling for hours, trying to work it out. She couldn't make the world right. She couldn't go back in time and give Chickie the kind of parents she had had, instead of the kind he had had, who seemed to have been ogres with credit cards. The Lord God only knew, she couldn't straighten out the economic mess the world was in and make sure that everybody in South America had enough to eat. Soâwhat?
She got out of the van and checked the clock over the church. It was five-thirty. She locked upâyou had to lock up, even in the church parking lot, even in a neighborhood like thisâand tugged at the driver's side door to make sure it was secure. Then she started across the lot to the back door of the church. It was cold enough so that she knew she should have been wearing a coat, but she hated wearing them when she drove, so she hadn't. Instead, she had a thick wool sweater and a turtleneck over flannel-lined L. L. Bean jeans. She saw Marty Kelly's pickup truck and patted it as she walked by it. It made her feel instantly better, because Marty hadn't been in church for weeks. Bernadette's diabetes had been acting up. Sister Peter Rose had told her. Maybe Marty and Bernadette had come in for Scott Boardman's funeral, because Bernadette had been close to Scott the way Mary was to Chickie.
Mary had gone out to their trailer park once, to see if they might need anything, but they hadn't been homeâand then, last week, when she'd tried to call, the phone had been disconnected. She hadn't known what to think about that. She couldn't imagine Bernadette not paying the phone bill, but with their medical expensesâand no health insuranceâshe couldn't imagine them being able to move to someplace better. It was one of those cases that brought her very clearly to the understanding that she was not a saint. A saint would have known just what to do in these circumstances: to seek out Marty and Bernadette; to check with the trailer park to see if
they'd been evicted; to check with Father Healy and see what he wanted to do. Mary had to admit that she hadn't checked with Father Healy because she hadn't wanted to. Father Healy made her nervous and shy, the way Sister Superior had at St. Anne's Catholic Girls High School.
Mary got her keys off her clip and let herself into the church's back door. The small flight of steps led directly to the basement, which had been “finished” to provide meeting rooms and a cafeteria. She stopped at the statue of the Virgin and made the sign of the cross and a little bow. Sister Thomas Marie, who had taught her religion classes, had been very enthusiastic about the idea that they should all develop a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and Mary had chosen the Immaculate Conception to “focus her spiritual life.” That was why she wore a Miraculous Medal everywhere she went.
The basement was deserted, not only of people but of things, except for the things that were supposed to be here, like tables and chairs. Mary checked into both the conference rooms and the mudroom, where people were supposed to put their coats and shoes. If she hadn't seen people going in and out the door upstairs, she would have thought the entire church was deserted. She tried the cafeteria and saw that the chairs had been put up on top of the tables so that somebody could mop. The floor did not look as if anybody
mopped. What was worse, the rat traps were still all over the place, and probably filled with poison, even though several people had complained and everybody was very nervous.
She went through the cafeteria and out the other side. She was just about to go through to the other stairwell and up to the church proper when she saw Father Healy starting to come down, dressed in black but without his trademark cassock, tucking things into the pocket of his shirt.
“Oh, Father,” Mary said. “Good morning. I was looking for the boxes.”
One of the problems, Mary thought, was that he was so youngânot all that much older than she was herself. There were rumors that he had graduated from high school at fifteen and been out of the seminary before he was twenty-five. That might be true or not, but it was true that Father Healy was much younger than most priests were when they got to head
an entire parish. It didn't help that he looked even younger than he had to be, thin and dark, with a face still full of acne and scars.
Mary waited until he got to the bottom of the stairs. “Sister Scholastica and Sister Peter Rose,” she said. “They did a can collection at the school this week. I'm supposed to come pick up the boxes.”
“Wouldn't they be at the school?”
“Sister Peter Rose said to pick them up at the church. Maybe she wasn't thinking. I can check the school, next.”
“The sisters are in chapel,” Father Healy said. “It's time for theirâ”
“Office,” Mary said. “Yes, Father. I know. Don't you think the Sisters of Divine Grace are a very interesting order? They haven't gone all modern, like IHM. Did you see Marty and Bernadette? Their truck is in the parking lot. I was thinking maybe Bernadette wanted to come in for Scott Boardman's funeral.”
There was a small door in the other side of the stairwell that led to a storage closet. Mary opened that, but there was nothing inside but brooms and buckets. She closed it again.
“Maybe they're in the Sunday school rooms,” Father Healy said. “Let's go up and check. I've got the key to that if you haven't. And I haven't seen Marty or Bernadette today, but I've been back and forth a lot this morning. Maybe they're in the church.”
“I've heard that Bernadette wasn't well. Lately. With the diabetes, you know.”
“Last time I heard they were talking about amputating her left leg.”
To get to the Sunday school rooms, they had to go back across the cafeteria and out a door on the other side, but not the same door Mary had come in on. Whoever had designed this floor plan must have spent a previous life designing topiary mazes. Mary felt her stomach heave and her forehead break out into a sweat. Bernadette wasn't any older than she was. They had to amputate her left leg?
“That's awful,” she managed to say. “That's terrible.”
“It is, isn't it?” Father Healy was at the far door. He propped it open and shooed her through. “It isn't unusual, with
that type of diabetes. It's a strange disease. Sometimes it can be controlled, and sometimes it can't.”
“If it's that bad, Bernadette's never going to get to have children, is she? And she wanted six.”
“I don't know how it affects having children. To tell you the truth, I hadn't really thought about it. But you're right. She said the same thing to me. She wanted six.”
The hall was dark. Father Healy flicked a switch and it was suddenly light. Mary went down to the first of the classroom doors and waited while Father opened up. In some odd way, what was happening to Bernadette and the Reverend Roy Phipps went together in her mind. They were both things that defied expectationâexcept, of course, that Reverend Phipps wasn't a thing, even if he did move like a robot. Bernadette should not be in danger of losing a leg. She and Marty should be putting money in the bank every month until they could send Marty back to school. Then Marty would get a better job with health insurance and they could start putting money away again to buy a house. The Reverend Roy Phipps shouldn't sound like a preppie in some ancient college campus movie. He should have a twang, and buy his suits at JC Penney.
There was nothing in the first Sunday school room. They tried the next one. There was nothing there, either.
“Well,” Father Healy said. “I guess you'll have to try over at the school.”
“Right,” Mary said. She put her hands in the pockets of her jeans. The jeans were too warm. Her hands started to sweat almost immediately. “Look,” she said. “Do you think he's wrong? Reverend Phipps, I mean, the one whoâ”
“I know Roy Phipps.”
Father Healy seemed to have gone rigid as a board. It made Mary feel a little queasy again. She took her hands out of her jeans and rubbed them against the sides of her legs.
“I just wanted to know. He says they all burn in hell as soon as they die. Just because they're gay and they, you know, they do thingsâ”
“We can't ever know if somebody is in hell.”
“Yes, I know, but with these people particular, I mean like Scott Boardman who died, you know, I was just wonderingâ”
“We can't ever know who is in hell,” Father Healy said
firmly. “We can hope that every soul finds a way, even if only at the very end, to reconcile himself to God.”
“Yes,” Mary said again. It was exactly what she had been telling herself a few moments before, but for some reason it was now completely unsatisfying. She wished she liked Father Healy better, if only because he gave such a strong pro-life witness. Besides, she thought inanely, there had to be something wrong with taking so strong a dislike to her own parish priest.
“Well,” she said. “Thank you for all your help. I'll run over to the school and see if they left them there.”
“Good idea,” Father said.
“I won't be at Mass this morning. I've got to do the transport, you know, so that they all get to eat.”
“I'll see you on Sunday, then.”
“Yes,” Mary said. She was backing away. It was true enough. She would be at Mass on Sunday. She was at Mass on every Sunday, just the way she said a third part of the rosary every day and the Stations of the Cross every Good Friday. She had been doing these things all her life. She couldn't imagine not doing them. It was just that, just like Father Healy's explanation about how people did and did not go to hell, they suddenly seemed to be nowhere near enough.
She got to the door of the cafeteria and went through it. She went through the cafeteria and out into the hall she'd come in through. There was still no sign of light outside, although she could hear the bells ring out quarter to six. She went through the hall and out the back door and looked around the parking lot. After she had the food in the back of the van and the homeless people who wanted to come with her rounded up and organized, maybe she'd go look for Marty and Bernadette.
She was halfway across the parking lot to the back door of the school when the door to the convent burst open and Sister Peter Rose came running out, her long veil flapping, her long habit getting tangled in her legs.
“Oh, Mary,” she said. “Mary, I'm so sorry. I just remembered. You don't know where the food is.”
“Aren't you supposed to be in chapel?”
“Scholastica will forgive me. It's one of the great good things that came out of Vatican II. Follow your common sense
instead of the schedule sometimes. Although of course I don't like a lot of the other things that came out of Vatican II. Oh, never mind me. The food is in the convent pantry, out back, it's right inside the door. I should have told you.”