He was like a bomb about to explode! His fist drew blood in the scratches he inflicted upon himself as he punched the bark on the oak tree. He had tried for three weeks to seduce Mary Jane Williams in any number of ways, and each time something had stood between him and his goal. Either Jack Sampson wouldn’t loan him his car to keep a date with her, or his mom and dad had ‘cracked down’ that night and didn’t want him meandering into those darkened, devilish areas of the city; he dreaded another brawl. Besides, everyone knew she was an easy ‘make.’ A pretty one, but an easy one.
And now he had an oil stain on his shirt from an unfinished burglary attempt at ‘hot wiring’ an old car down the street. Even though he had wrapped his jacket over the smudge, and zipped it shut, you could smell the heavy odor of oil. Some dirt had caked into the grooves of his fingers, and he was unaware that a streak of it was across his chin. He wished he could have gone home, but he was locked out of the darkened duplex which appeared to him as a foreboding evil and sick. He needed to be in a nice warm bed—he needed someone to talk to—some friend. As he analyzed that feeing, he became unconsciously ware of his next destination, somewhere along the river where its hourly chimes would echo across the lower-income neighborhood.
The traffic bothered him, and he had stepped-back three times at the demands of angry motorists who honked at him impatiently. “What a cruddy-looking kid,” shouted one girl from the backseat of the last auto to pass by. She rocked back into the seat as a bundle of laughter. Bud Hendricks made his way at a frantic pace across the street, glancing back on the passing hulks of metal, he spit on the street in contempt. He looked over his shoulder, up Vermont Avenue to the confectionery two blocks north. The Pepsi sign outside was waving in the chill wind. It would lap against the wind, then hang somber. After a moment, it would lap again.
He’d go there and play the pinball machine and think—think as to whether he should knock on that solid oak door with a small stained-glass window in the center: a radiant picture of the Good Shepard. Then a gentle swing its pewter-like hinges, the doorway would be graced by the slim shadowy form of an older priest, who was no comparison for the younger priest, Father Raymond Herbert. Bud recalled his last discussion with Father Herbert:
“I’d like for you to keep coming back, dig man?” asked the young priest. Father Herbert kept talking, flipping his almost shoulder-length hair behind him. Bud had heard about some of the liberal innovations the younger priests were bring about in the Catholic Church, especially since the most recent Vatican Council. But seeing them in person was a little more startling.
“Like, we have made quite a few changes, dig? And I don’t think you understand what is in store for you? Right?” The priest was bouncing around before the boy, looking much like one of his wisecracking exuberant boyfriends. It made Bud feel comfortable, familiar, identifiable with the priest; yet, at the same time, he felt a sight revulsion, a disgust at these theological innovators.
“Like, you know, new things are happening. The Holy Spirit promised to lead into all truth! Well, man, it’s happening—-it’s today—-it’s the New Creation! You’re part of it, cat! Dig? The Church is not against you. Why not split to my office now and then, we’ll have a little discussion? I don’t know if I can talk to you every time you come—-Father Eugene O’Brien usually handles the Religious Study, but don’t split the scene. Keep coming.”
He did keep coming back. He returned. Bud was split between exhilaration , and, yet, a form of disillusionment.
The boy was still sipping on the Pepsi when he walked away from the pinball machine in the corner of Pat’s confectionary. He paced back and forth by the glass window—-restless, wearily, like a lion in a stinking cage, but only more discouraged. His freshly washed hair shone in the store’s ceiling light highlighted by a recent palmful of Brylcream. He hiked one leg, put it down, then placed the other up on the store window counter. From there he could see the girls coming home from school, carrying their books close to their sweaters, brazenly flaunting the rear ends from the hem of the miniskirts.
“The bitches, how do they keep their asses from freezing?” Bud mumbled to himself in a low growl.
The trees outside bent and bowed in the wind. His soda dribbled down his chin as he set the empty bottle with a thud on the counter. He smeared the auto oil streak away from his chin with the soda drippings. A bunch of teenagers, gruff, disheveled, shaggy, bustled through the door. The bell above the door rang tinnily and was drowned out by the kids.
“Praise the Lord, praise the Lord Almighty!” sang one teenager demanding change from the cashier to play the pinball machines.
“Sing man, sing! What did Father Hubert give you in Science, Dan?” another asked from the midst of the confectionary.
“B? B-plus? I don’t know. Should have been an A,” the other boy cracked back. “Hey, give me those nickels!”
The bundle of flesh and noise had finally moved over to the pinball machine carrying their customary confections and soda. They took their usual vulgar stances intermingled with the traditional “go to hells’’ and other “ah go screw yourselves”-type obscenities. Later they would settle down to their nightly routine of doing their schoolwork—-provided they felt like doing it.
Though a high school drop-out himself, Bud could feel nothing but contempt for the parochial school kids. “So, you are the Light of the World?” he thought to himself as he casually lit a cigarette. It was a term derived from his talks with Father O’Brien. Too many talks, Bud protested to himself, but it was getting to be a habit for strange reasons. It was about to be fulfilled again tonight.
Bud forced his way outside in a brisk manner. There, he took two robust puffs on the cigarette. He threw it down and crushed it lifeless. He walked swiftly to the street corner. Bud noted it was about to rain, placing him in a somewhat somber mood.
“What about those rumors telling of the Communists and their takeover?” Bud had asked the shaggy-headed Father Herbert during one visit. “Wasn’t there something said about an avowed ‘psychological infiltrations’ starting way back with Lenin?”
“Bunk!” the flippant priest jested back. “Christ hid the purpose of the New Creation until after his death, and now the Holy Spirit has that Church into ‘all truth.’ Communism is not an enemy but a phase, a necessary transition to the ultimate conquest by Christ of the universe. Even democracy.’’ The priest smiled mysteriously.
“Yah, but didn’t consecutive Soviet leaders avow Lenin’s same purpose to ‘debauch us from within?’” Bud brought the question up during one visit. “Wasn’t there something about an avowed ‘psychological infiltration’ starting way back in history with Lenin?’’ Still, they sometimes barred rock music and censored dirty movies and such in their naïve country, Khrushchev said that he would ‘bury us,’ meaning….
“So,” Father Herbert countered, “America has room for Communism, rock music, liberal movies—-those are very charitable acts. Christian acts, dig? Like, Christ said His Father’s house had many mansions….’’ The priest smiled with an Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat expression.
“Sounds a little strange. But, yah, it could mean that,” exciting visions and scenic sights burst in the boy’s head. “But Father O’Brien disagrees. He feels that the Anti-Christ is personified…’’
“Father O’Brien!” The priest suddenly became solemn, a barely subdued sneer upon his lips. “Father O’Brien,’’ he continued more softly, “will have to learn of the evolving trend of the New Creation, as will everybody else!”
On Shara Avenue, Bud noticed one unusual house in the middle of the block. In its small front yard was a solitary flagpole with an eagle with outspread wings atop the pole. The front porch desperately needed painting and strips of the old paint lay on the ground. There was a light within the house and a certain melancholy atmosphere hung over the structure. Who lived in the house? An elderly couple? When was the house built? Before the Second World War—-earlier, when? Bud identified closely with the house. He wondered how little houses—-little people—-could survive in this big town, this big nation, this big world.
And then he noticed many things around him. Maybe it was the damp, dark weather that was requesting persons and things to silently ask humanity to cuddle, examine and befriend the scenery: there was the yellow crabgrass that sprouted out from the edges and creases of the sidewalk, how many years ago could it have been when they made sidewalks out of red brick laid in a cris-cross pattern? The gas station on the next corner had an ancient-looking building next to it; its chimneys were bent, broken and ready to fall; the windows were boarded; rubber ties; automobile oil pans and general litter lay in the front yard. Sixty, eighty, or a hundred years old? How old was the building?
The flashing beacon on top of the filling station that Bud’s vision encapsulated seemed to recede to a dot between revolutions. It reminded him of the little white dot that appeared at first when the television is turned on and a picture appears an instant later.
(“Tingle Soap,” the broadcaster in the television commercial had been saying, “will give you that magical feeling from head to foot, as if a beautiful Polynesian maiden had caressed you.” A teenage boy in a bathtub was wiggling his toes at one end of the tub as he exhibits a broad grin. “Tingling,” the broadcaster continues, “like the new dawn freshness of a beautiful south sea day.” Off comes a bosom halter from the maiden. The boy’s toes wiggle fanatically, and the boy’s smile turns into a lusty grin. “Tingling,” the broadcaster continues, “like a boy rejuvenated by the desire of a South sea goddess.” The boy appears to be erotically aroused. The girl in the commercial laughs exhilaratingly—-off comes her skirt. “And now, back to our movie feature THE BONTUS: THE FLESH EASTING SEA FIEND.)
In two more blocks, Bud would turn down a side street heavily pockmarked with cracks in the hard topped street. The city needed to repair it but it probably would remain dilapidated for a year or more. From where Bud stood, Bud would be able to see the stately lawn to the priest’s parish house and its plush evergreens along the small white and spotless walkway to the noble redbrick building.
The setting Sun, an enormous orb looming from beyond the buildings and homes to his back, had thrown a golden hue on everything. The dark clouds of the late autumn afternoon had dissipated briefly as if to allow the Sun to give a final goodnight salute. Bud turned the corner towards the priest’s house, and the two-story vacant house diagonally across the street seemed aflame with the golden red rays of the setting Sun and the multiple windows defiantly reflecting that source.
When Bud reached the lawn of the vacant house his eyes rolled in anxiety as he examined the scene. He glanced back and forth across the street, up and down the extent of the building and the church on the conner, then back to the vacant house with its first-floor windows overlayed by strips of plywood nailed diagonally across them. The thick front door was boarded shut with two big boards. The shrubberies were unkempt with long reeds thrusting through them, the concrete steps were chipped and crumbled. The lawn was bare in spots with stubs of crab grass spread about. Bud felt just as emotionally desolate.
Bud stood there momentarily, shivering, undetermined. Suddenly, another youngster came shuffling along the street out of a nearby alley. He barely noticed Bud standing there and was snapping his fingers to the latest Hit Tune, a melody which could be heard coming from the bulge of a small radio in the boy’s hip pocket. The strolling youngster’s hair had been combed high onto his head and the nape in a Duck-Butt fashion. His shirt was a plaid design of red and black, barely discernable beneath a leather jacket—a jacket much like the one Bud wore, but much more soiled and torn. The strolling-youngster’s face was strained and enveloped in pleasure to the tune he was hearing.
Bud watched the boy disappear around the corner as the boy’s feet made a horrid sound of something dead being pulled across a concrete lot: it was the boy’s black boots being dredged along the pavement.
Bud spat on the street, then drew his eyes back onto the priest’s house. Bud lazily climbed the lawn to the front porch of the vacant house. When he sat down, the streetlights flickered on and he noticed several homes already appeared well-lit in the dusk of the evening. The rectory windows added their radiance to the scene. Bud suddenly realize the time as the church bell chimed the hour. A tugboat on the river gave a low moan adding to the melancholy.
“Why do I want to waste my time looking about a small Catholic rectory?” Bud questioned. He would have been at Louie’s house right now, Bud told himself, planning an evening at Betty Breg’s place. Her parents were never home and there was always a refrigerator full of food—-and a whole evening for ‘games.’ Bud liked Betty. She was a real swinger. He thought he could ‘make’ her if he really tried. That is if Louie didn’t run interference.
Maybe Louis wasn’t even home now. He never seemed to be home much lately. Often, he and Louie would end-up to be sitting in that two-room shack that Louie called home, staring into the pot-bellied stove for hours on end, talking about cars and sex, and then, sex and cars. What he needed was Jack Sampson and his car. That would make things right, Bud rationalized. If only Jack could suddenly materialize and help rid him of this insufferable ache of loneliness. “I need to screw Mary Jane, damn it,” Bud told himself; Bud knew where Jack was tonight, and it wasn’t playing guitar out at Hartsville like Jack’s sister said, it was more like Mary Jane than Hartsville. He had to fill this hole of loneliness, this stabbing in his heart caused by many drunken fights of his mother and stepdad, the screaming threats, banging of human bodies against hardwood floors, the smashing of beer bottle glass, and the guggling of someone’s fist on a human throat. Bud couldn’t recognize the teenage elements of fear, the deep shame of his acne, the puzzle-pieces of the love-hate relationship his mother carried within her ( probably going back many generations to hear her tell of her own family discipline episodes), and general childhood angst living in their lower-class scenery.
But above all this, Bud wanted to believe his mother deeply loved him.
“It’s not that you’re so shy, Bud,’’ his mother had told him one night, “you’re simply different from your friends. You like to read, for instance. You don’t particularly like to get your nose into hard dirty work like your pals—-you are just more serious about mystical things than they are. But why do you get involved with such punks?”
Bud couldn’t reveal his feelings of the terror and longing he carried like a bundle or bricks on his back or the slab of concrete in his stomach. Instead, he euphemistically tried to state it more commonly: “I want to be just another happy guy, Mom! Doesn’t a guy have a right to have fun?”
Bud wanted to tell her that he had to make ‘the scene’ the same as his buddies; they were natural at the art of seduction; but how does a guy tell that to his mother?
“But you have good friends. Go back to Church. You went to Sunday School once before, Bud…’’
“Mom, you don’t see the ‘picture’…’’
“Mom…” How could the boy explain? Explain that the world was not what she said it was. That a whole jungle of insects and bugs and green slimy things grow out in the world that aren’t even listed in her encyclopedia of facts—-or, perhaps the worst possibility: she wasn’t telling all the facts!
The sky had become dark. The Moon was partially hidden behind passing bundles of grey-white clouds. The trees swayed in the autumnbreeze, and Bud noticed that in his ongoing anxiety he had knotted his protruding shirt cuff into a winkled ball. “Ah, the loneliness, the infernal loneliness, the gnawing loneliness!’’ I’ll go home, he thought at first. No, no. Try Jack’s place again? Nope, he wouldn’t be home, and besides Bud couldn’t stand his old lady coming to the bar smelling of Hill and Hill whiskey and eyeing Bud seductively. Anyway, Jack’s got a dog that barks worse than a herd of hyenas. And then Bud felt growing rage. He needed to expose his soul, he screamed in his thoughts, waving his hands about as if a lecturer, a rather pitiful sight as he stood on the steps of the deserted property. He was now acting-out his frustration—-not just looking at bodies on the covers of magazines (hurriedly hidden beneath a stack of shoes), and the pornography inside, or the faces of cute girls……he meant OUT!
His eyes had developed an intensity of rebellion as he glared over to the rectory door.
“Who do you think you are fooling, Father O’Brian? I’ve read my Bible. Can you prove any of it? Isn’t just more of this gobbledygook – those myths mankind and the Church have been handing out?’’ His thoughts were bold and direct.
The ornate rectory stood mute before his silent charge. The moan from the tugboat whistle from the muddy waters of the river gave another nocturnal sigh. Bud could smell that opaque odor of the muddy river—-so much soft dripping dirt, so many trunks and limbs of trees protruding the water as if thorns on some submerged victim: It was also the smell of so much urination and human waste from the city drainage; so much green foliage; and just so much dank mud that could have been likened to as the smell of the blood of civilization’s torn flesh.
From somewhere he could smell the heavy stink of sickening garbage from some alley nearby, of which he directed his thoughts to other memories in an act of avoidance.
Bud shoved himself erect. In his lingering frustration he kicked bits of gravel aside with his shoe (noting the rents alongside of the high- heeled boots). In lessened anger he glanced over at the rectory door as he skipped down the steps of the old house:
“Okay, O’Brien, okay. At least it’s warm inside your little office,’’ Bud was thinking, “if you’ll have me; yah, if anybody will have me.”
Bud was greeted at the door by the elderly housekeeper. She was wiping her hands on her apron. “Yes?” she asked in a quivering voice.
“Ah, Father O’Brien here?” Bud asked politely but nervously. The old woman recognized Bud from a previous visit and eyed him curiously.
“Just a minute please.” She hobbled off into a well-lit backroom. Bud was thinking to himself: “Why do places like this always seem to cater to older people?” Bud was leaning on the doorway, and visions of the fictional Hunchback of Notre Dame came to mind as the classic Hunchback crawled amongst those medieval spires and steeples; places like this seem to attract the old and downtrodden and emetic; but then, what did he expect: movie actresses like the late Elizabeth Taylor?
Within the hallway a dark shadow appeared at the bottom of a stairway; soon the light from an antiquated chandelier reflected on the face of Father O’Brien. O’Brien’s slippers slapped on the floor like a snap of a belt strap. Father O’Brien was still unaware as to who had come to visit him. The priest’s face held a slightly grim business-like expression.
“If you’re busy Father, that’s all right, I just took a chance and dropped by again. So…” Bud was apologetic.
Father O’Brien immediately recognized the youth and his face lit up in a warm smile. “Ah, Bud, yes. Yes. I did say that.’’ I must have gotten the old man at a good moment, thought Bud, but so what, he might change his tune after hearing me out.
“Come in. Come in,’’ the red-faced priest instructed, holding the screen door open, “what brings you tonight?” Yes, what, indeed brings me, asked Bud inwardly.
“Well, you said if I had any questions, to come over. I got a copy of the New Testament from a publishing house in California a translation from the original Greek, you know, like you said. Well, I found those passages we talked about last month…’’
‘’Did you bring that Bible with you?” the tall, thin priest asked ushering the boy into one of the side offices off the corridor. He gestured that the boy to be seated in front of a huge oak desk. The priest took out a cigarette from his pocket and began to light it as he situated himself in the large, cushioned desk chair. “Did you bring some notes?” queried the priest.
“Naw, no, I didn’t. However, I did stay up late several nights to read, so I still have a fairly good idea of the passages.” Bud informed the priest. The priest looked amiably at the boy, with his arms folded on the desk and his face somewhat clouded in a puff of cigarette smoke. As the evening progressed, the priest would place the cigarette in an ashtray near him following a series of nervous puffs. “It’s a literal translation of the original Greek, ah, it’s put out by the Concordant Publishing Concern. Ever hear of it?”
“No, but it sounds interesting.” The priest continued to smile as he reached into one of his desk drawers. The veins in the underside of his wrinkled arm seemed to have risen prominently, denoting his age. How tired he looked, Bud was thinking, but the smile on that pixyish Irish face caused Bud to ask of himself: I wonder if my laughter looked as amiable, a smile that had perpetual look of youth. “And I…and I have my Jerusalem Bible,’’ continued the priest. He placed the Bible squarely in front of him like an attorney presenting his court brief, or an oriental marketman presenting his wares, placing his hands on the item in a show of authority.
(Well, already it felt like home, Bud was thinking, and he began to relax. But his easing was short-lived as his memory starkly found himself in the terror of on-coming conflict in his single room, waiting for the sound of the front door to open and bang against the vestibule wall.
“You son-of-a-bitch! Don’t talk to me! Go on! Go to bed! You…” would come the shouting, the slurred drunken diatribe of his mother.
“Go to hell! Go to hell!” answered the rough drunken monotone of his stepfather, “I do what I damn well want!”
“Go watch your TV….” Came his mother’s intoxicated slur.
“I’ll do what I want! Why don’t you, dear, go back down to your friends…’’
Then would come a few quick steps. The floor would violently vibrate as if wall boards would give way. Someone pushed someone else against a dresser drawer and knocking perfume bottles over, midst grunts of pain and even terror. Then in exasperation:
“All right! All right!’’ his mother was saying to the stepfather. “You lousy…lousy…’’ A huge crash as his mother slammed the front door. Bud could hear plaster fall from parts of the house from the vibration.)
Outside the priest’s office window from the hilltop location, looking along the curve of the river towards the north, Bud could see the lights of the downtown area of the city. Red and white lights trailed all along the river’s bend indicating factories, granaries, and barges. One could still hear the vague drone of the tugboats, even though the sounds of thunder outside said that a storm was either coming or finally going.
“You like to read, Bud?” the elderly man asked as he ran his slender fingers through his hair. The priest relaxed into the desk chair. He had taken off the heavy black coat and was down to his white shirt and that magnificent clerical collar that always was attractive to Bud. The cigarette was hidden in his hand long one side of his head, giving the impression that the smoke was somehow arising from there.
“Well, yes, I guess it’s one of my secret pastimes. I have a good-sized library at home. I guess I am different from other kids that I know.” The priest nodded understandingly.
“Don’t get me wrong, father, I dig girls and cars, I collect jazz and rock records. I…”
“But still, you seek something more?” the priest interjected.
Something more! Something more! Something more! The words rang deeply in his mind and caused discomfort in his chest. “Em, yes, I guess. I guess.” Bud viewed the man curiously. Bud has heard those words before.
“Another thing, Father, while I’ve read the Bible, even gone to Sunday School, I want you to understand that I don’t dig all this Scripture stuff! You hear? I mean, you’ve got a lot against you, Father. You know?”
The priest smiled serenely, stood up, placed his hands to the arch of his back and stretched. Then he walked to the window and looked out.
“You have a lot against you too, you know.” The priest wasn’t trying to be directly sarcastic. He turned to look at the boy, “we all do.”
“Well, I know what you mean by that, Father, but get my point: I believe in the truth, and I’ve seen nothing but perversion of the truth in my life.”
The priest quickly turned to look at the boy. The priest still held a grin, though it was slightly subdued. “Truth?” the priest emphasized, “Bud, I have heard men, famous and infamous, spout that word: Truth! Are you familiar—yes—you said you were familiar with the stories of the Marque de Sade? Now, there was a man who believed that every wicked, idiotic thing he did was some form of the ‘truth.’”
Bud quickly recalled the thick glossed-cover paperback he had hidden in his closet. The book was a colorful history and photographic portrayal of the Marque de Sade, all the bloody orgies and sensuous rituals. There had been one picture that overwhelmed Bud greatly: a nude female with her face looking outward, her one hand upward and stretched in anguish, her eyes agog, as a man, painted a vile devil scarlet was performing some anal sexual act on her. “Yes, but de Sade felt that ‘act’ could be done or not—-that the truth was yet to be discovered in its totality. That no one had that right to say what ‘act’ was or was not to be done. I mean, just maybe de Sade was on to something good.”
The priest shook his head. Boy, this fella seems to have changed his tone since I last talked to him, the priest confided to himself. The priest touched a tapestry made by the Christian Youth Council, it bore a big crucifix and the words ‘Come forth Holy Spirit, come!’ in big jovial-felt letters. Then the priest turned back to his desk and sat down again. He folded his hands one more time and eyed Bud mysteriously.
“If someone came to you, Bud, pointed a gun to your head and fired it pointblank —-would you,’’ the priest’s forehead wrinkled when he said those words, “say something good has come of that?”
Boy, the teenager’s thoughts were whirling about him: You can pick some ‘good ones’ can’t you Father? Bud gave a sick little smile and nervously crossed his legs. Bud noticed that the office had appeared somewhat dull for what he had expected of a rectory. There was a well-used filing cabinet. A buffet table with religious books. The desk. Two chairs. One tapestry. One crucifix. And a small picture of Christ hanging on a cross with an aerial view of mourners praying at His feet.
“Well, I guess nobody wants to die. But who can say what would come out of my death?” Bud began to speculate. “I mean maybe somewhere there are cults of murder…”
“There are!” Father O’Brien interrupted sternly. “But come on, Bud, are you trying to tell me that people—-that you—-wouldn’t care if somebody blew your brains out? That’s fine in theory—-nutty theory—-but in actuality? Don’t you see, Bud, it’s more of this ‘abstract’ mumbo-jumbo various people are handing out today.”
And the Church, Father, and the Church, Bud jeered to himself, but we’ll get to that shortly, my pixie-looking friend.
“You see, Bud, Jesus was just that way. He was a down-to-earth, so-to-speak realist, but an idealistic-perfectionist too. He said that your conversation be ‘Yes, Yea and Nay, Nay,’ not this mystical jargon and doubletalk. He laid things down in black and white Remember what he said about His Law? That it should not pass away; that Heaven and Earth could disappear first. He said that He came not to destroy, but to fulfill the Law.”
The scream of automobile tires were now flooding Bud’s memory. One, two, three dragsters pulled out of the auditorium parking-lot of Saint Jude’s parish. It was a breezy-night and Bud and two of his friends stood around a petite, nice-looking teenage girl. All three boys chomped rudely on chewing gum wads; Bud had his hands astutely entrenched in his pockets. His collar was turned up in hipster style.
“Come on doll, Jake’s got his car running; it’s a buet, ain’t it” Bud asked the shyly smiling girl. ‘‘Let’s swing. We’ll drag out of here; get some sodas. Take a little ride.’’ Bud winked at one of his friends casually leaning out of the car door. His friend smiled fiendishly back, “And then, well, we’ll take you home.”
Her smile broadened and she nodded sheepishly. “All right, but I have to be home before midnight. I must go to Mass tomorrow morning.” Jake’s words “it only takes a little while” were drowned-out by the squall of a dragster’s tires.
“You made a point of the fact that I like to read, Father,’’ Bud fidgeted with the pages of a Living New Testament that he found on the corner of the desk. “Well, it’s a little more than a pastime. I think I am looking for something—-the truth. The truth. Have you read some of the Higher Critics?” Bud smiled wickedly.
The priest looked a little alarmed. He tapped the ash from his cigarette somewhat nervously. What a weird twist for a neighborhood renegade, the priest was thinking! I would have expected this conversation to be saturated with cars, girls, and beer. “Yes. They claim that Jesus hadn’t really been the Messiah, just a human being who did no real miracles.’’
“I know them,” the priest answered coolly, “ and they hadn’t added one bit for or against the question.” He lowered his eyes just for a moment and parted his lips slowly. “You know Bud, I ‘ve heard this argument before. And it has usually been put forward by those who are often less than honest.’’ Twitch, twitch, twitch tingled Bud’s nerves in his chest. ‘‘One man,” the priest lowered and raised his right hand as if to show it floating on an air-cushion, “wants to see Christ as anything but the Supreme. He wants to see Him as a man as weak and mundane as himself, so he goes into the written history of the Man —- or his bibliographies —- and begins to tear them apart bit by bit —- like a nefarious attorney.”
“And what do they hope to gain by that?” the boy asked innocently. The priest smiled dryly and again grew sober suddenly: “Their lust, Bud. Their lust.”
“Lust?” asked the boy. Twitch, twitch, twitch continued tht nervous tingle.
“Money. Those that feel that they need large amounts. They want more. Christ somehow stands in their way. Power: some see great gains in position and ownership. Christ, again, seems to stand in the way. Or, Bud, they crave human flesh. Sensuously, they worship one creation of God—fiendishly—-all out of proportion and more than their Creator’s intention.”
“And if they’re correct?” the boy began to narrate a few biblical passages as he spoke. The priest looked nonplussed; his mind began to wander as he gazed at the sheen of the boys hair. For a moment, the priest saw himself so many years ago; much, much healthier then; missing was the arthritis that completely tacked his aging body—-and the stiffness and aching of his left arm which caried a stinging sensation that would reach all the to his fingertips. It was cancer! Cancer, the priest thought solemnly, cancer! But that was a recent development and the priest thanked God again that it hadn’t always been like this. Soon the effects of drugs would wear off and he would feel somewhat guilty for being so selfish to think of his own infliction.
“Let us make one thing clear, Bud. Either Christ was everything He said He was, or, He was the biggest liar that ever existed, for He claimed to be God’s Perfect Son!” The priest looked statuesque at the boy; the gaze was different than any other he had seen from the older man. It was a gaze that seemed to say that ‘games’ had beginnings and endings, and that some moments were more than frivolous pastimes, moments to be flitted away; that life and death were stark realities; and here was a person who had a different—-sober and different—-way of looking at the situation. And just as suddenly, Bud began to feel a rage building-up within himself: partly due to an adolescent vanity, but also due to the alarming indifference, compliancy, and dank degeneracy that he had crammed into his nineteen years of life.
“And if he wasn’t?” Bud asked gristly. Someone, perhaps a fellow priest, had a stereo playing upstairs. The strings of Tchaikovay’s Piano Concerto No. 1 weaved its way downstairs. The priest raised himself up again and shut the door cautiously, all the while as if in deep thought. He began to caress his aching arm, successfully camouflaging the pain.
“We’ve been through all this before, Bud. You don’t think this big organization called the Christian Church began out of a hoax? There is something there, Bud. Do you remember what Christ said about the Holy Spirit and the guidance of His Church?”
“Yah, I read that, Father. I also remember where Saint Paul said that ‘wolves’ had entered the fold way back then. Besides, if all those churches are Christian, how can they qualify for Christ’s description as a small flock?”
“Comparatively speaking,” the priest answered rapidly. “Christianity comprises only a tiny percentage of the world population. So, you see, Bud, we still are a small flock.”
“Yeah, well, you might just have thrown it in a drain. It’s done no good.” The fury in the boy had begun to build.
“Wait a minute, let’s be fair. I know that you are going to say. But Christ said His Church was flesh and blood human beings; and they did make mistakes.”
‘“ Be ye perfect even as you Father in Heaven is perfect…’” The boy was reading a passage in the Bible.
“Yes, but not totally in their present human bodies!”
“But ‘God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness,’” Bud cited another passage he saw after flipping a few more pages.
‘‘Ah, this won’t get you anywhere. First things, first, Bud.” said the priest. “Your ignoring quite a bit of Church History. The lives of the Saints. Some of the better Popes. Modern miracles. It’s a matter of logic and priorities. Have you heard of the Miracles of Lourdes—-or even the Vision of the Virgin at Guarabandel, Spain?’’
The smoldering frustration within his limbs had finally exploded, but the fumes of that explosion leaked through his mouth slowly but more delicately.
“Let me tell you something, Father, when I was seventeen, I was dating a girl who had been a Catholic since her childhood. When I first met her, she was attending Mass every Sunday! Every Sunday! She mut have attended Confession too for I recall her telling me that the Confessional priest had told her not to see me anymore. He was right: I was seducing her quite often, at least once a week in the leisure of her own home. She was sixteen.”
The two people just stared at each other momentarily. The priest looked completely paralyzed. O’Brien was thinking: I don’t want to ‘tear’ into this kid, for he is much more than one single boy—-he seems to be ‘every’ boy—- any boy, any person, that needs a loving father; at least, how often have I heard that? But then, when Satan is face to face with you, O’Brien conferred to himself, you only feel contempt.
“That’s a Catholic girl,” Bud continued, “but I could say the same thing for Lutherans, Methodists….”
“I’ll be damned!” The words fumbled out of the priest’s mouth.
“That’s another thing, Father, that a religious person could curse so…’’
“It’s only an expression, no one is making a solemn oath.”
“Sodom and Gomorrah were damned,” Bud continued, “that’s supposed to be real and very solemn.”
“It’s an expression, you’ll hear priests and Catholics say it,” the old man explained resolutely.
“So, if fornication and drunkenness are accepted, does that mean we can do as we please?” the boy protested disingenuously.
“Those are realities, Bud, not just expressions!”
(It had been a rough day for Father O’Brien in many different respects. The Parish was in bad need if funds. It was a common problem in the Church. Annually, budgets were far from being met, and the extravagant measures that various priests invented to raise money, in the least, were ludicrous and sometimes dishonest. For Father O’Brien, it meant the debt of $4,000 to the carnival supply for the school picnic. The picnic proceeds had gone immediately to pay the salaries of three High School teachers who had been threatening sojourns. The Covent Nuns were limited to Grade School instruction and all appeared, based on rumor and experience, horrified to face High School students. Admittedly, there seemed to be a general and growing unrest, a continual anxiety as to the general quality of the Catholic Education here and at other Parishes.)
Father O’Brien rubbed his diseased arm, looking at it sympathetically. His affliction turned for the worse this day. Upon another visit to the hospital, the worse that he had suspected had come true: he had only a short time alive, to be on this Earth. Maybe a few months, he was told, maybe a year; but certainly, no more.
The priest looked at his covered arm, his Armageddon personified and covered before him. The Hill of Midiggo mentioned in the Book of Revelations, became more than just a description: It became the towering walls of the seemingly small priest’s office. The whole world seemed to suddenly converge on the youngster; a mysterious substance of love, hate, warmth, cold. The priest suddenly recalled the conversation he had with Mrs. Holleran just the week before as he and the parish housekeeper prepared an evening meal:
“I get so confused, Father, by all the unrest and confusion in the world. It worries me sometimes,” Mrs. Holleran was explaining as the priest smoked his after-meal pipe. “But the one place a person should feel completely safe, Father, is in the Church.”
“That’s one of its functions,” the priest spoke amiably as he puffed on the pipe.
“But that’s not my point: It is not! It’s not safe, not like it use to be,” the woman interjected, “it seems to me that years ago one heard the word ‘Sanctuary’ of the Church; and that meant a lot of things, but mainly that a person could look to the Church for sanctuary for himself, I suppose. That the disciplines the Church asked members and society to adhere to be a way of people protecting themselves from the world and themselves. Now, Father, it seems to be so confusing, so upside-down, anything goes — nealismistic—is that the correct word?”
‘‘Nihilistic, Mrs. Holleran, nihilistic. Yes. But if that’s true, for the Catholic Church, then it’s true for all Churches; Lutheran, Baptists….” The priest paused for a moment. “Besides didn’t Christ say that He guaranteed the safe existence till he returned? That was a promise!”
Mrs. Holleran stopped placing dishes on the kitchen sink to soberly look at the priest . “I’m not a Bible Student, mainly I thought we Catholics weren’t allowed to read the Bible until about 1947, and it was always in Greek, literally that is. But I know a few things, Father, and no one has adequately explained how this hodge-podge of murder, wicked politics and rebellion that’s going on today, can’t be partly blamed on the Church. There’s a conspiracy of assort, Father, and some of these new teachings don’t hit the nail on the head. They just don’t.’’
“Well. The Church will always have problems, Mrs. Holleran. But people tend to see things in a limited light. If Christ is in the world, how can anything be really wrong?”
“I read Matthew the 10th Chapter the other day. Are you sure, Father, that Christ is in the world?’’ She smiled slightly.
‘‘You mean that He doesn’t exist?”
“Oh no. I mean, maybe we aren’t a part of his plan – maybe ‘ we’ aren’t on his side like we thought. Maybe, maybe, Father, we misinterpret His strategy!”
Strategy! Strategy! Strategy! The words rang in the priest’s mind causing a vibration that ended when he put out the stub or his cigarette. He began to rub his arm nervously. The pain had rapidly reached a certain level, and he knew it would only be a few more minutes before he would leave the room least he make a spectacle. Why are all the forces of evil working against me tonight? Now and then, flashes from the past, pleasant little memories of his days at the Seminary, and of his childhood, would filer through to his consciousness.
“You mean, Father, that as long as a Church-member has ‘faith,’” Bud was beginning to jeer, “that this allows him to do as he well damn pleases? Ha! You mean a family could be in some dire situation, personally ought about by themselves; poverty; crime; some degeneracy; but if they keep a Bible out on a dresser that is glanced at every now and then, that these people are virtuous hiding behind this so-called ‘faith?’’’
“No, no, Bud.’’ The priest gritted his teeth to hide growing pain in his arm. “It takes obedience to God’s Laws.” Father O’Brien was planning an exit strategy to get himself out of the room and out of the conversation and somehow to masquerade the pain.
“God’s Laws?” Bud smiled wickedly. “I attended a Catholic Mass a few times, Father; first your greeted by shapely thigh of a well-stacked female parading in front of you; then two, three or four and more girls wearing short skirts. I don’t suppose you realize how much a girl’s buttocks incites a young man’s passions?”
“We don’t approve of all these questionable fashions,” the priest said grimacing. “We have an organization in the Church that criticizes immodesty of dress. Besides, you can’t keep people from Church just because of the way they’re dressed.”
“But it’s okay for a man to ‘lust’? Let me tell you something else, Father, I know come of the kids that go to Church and I can tell you some of the stupid, lewd, dirty things they do when they go home and venture about. Not just Catholics, but Lutherans and a glut of the neighborhood. Betty Carson had invited me to her Youth Fellowship Night at the Messiah Lutheran School last year. Oh, they had basketball and ping-pong; but do you know what went on behind open doors, in the shadows, he hallways. Sex, Father, plain, raw sex.”
“Stop it, Bud!” O’Brien churned painfully in his chair. Briefly, momentarily, O’Brien visualized himself as a small boy of four-years walking in his mother’s garden trying to catch a beautiful butterfly. O’Brien would dip over the brick guard, politely trying to avoid crushing the flowers. Suddenly, he tried too hard, tripping, and falling. He began to cry. Within minutes the soothing voice and caressing arms of his mother were about him.
O’Brien’s childhood vision vanished from him and once again he became focused on the teenager seated before him. “I know some very fine and commendable people in the Church, Bud.”
“Father, I would just love to believe you. Heart and soul. But I can’t, not until I get this out of my chest: I need to make you see, Father. Can’t you see, Father?” Bud was vehement and pleading; the boy had been looking for that attracting lodestone of morality and truth! He had looked for it in the faces of his friends, of his schoolmates. He had looked for it in the stories of and tales of great writers and the not so great. There were always the various grownups that were able to produce an air of sophistication, nobility, and more so, popularity. But here, before him, was another type of individual —- a priest; the one type of person that he could have thought of as good and fine. Well, Bud would try —- if just a little; but no tricks, O’Brien, Bud announced to himself, no tricks.
“Bud, there is just so much that we could go into. Catholicism is built on an exceptionally fine tradition. Look at the Saints. Saint Sebastian, have you heard of him?” Saint Sebastian was the Captain of the soldiers who guarded the Roman Emperor but he also befriended suffering Christians. He was put to death for his compassion, he was martyred. “And there are many others: Saint Francis, Saint Lawrence…”
“What is a Saint considered today, Father? To be a Saint today, you must be a ‘demythologizer’—-denying all miracles in the name of what is called ‘natural science?’” Bud argued sardonically; his face barely hid a growing rage. “And what does that mean? First, that a lot of your ’Saints’ are nonexistent myths; that the New Testament miracles of Jesus are fairy tales; that Moses didn’t really make water come out of a rock; that modern visions such as Fatima are the works of mass hysteria. The psychologists call them hallucinations of the collective unconscious…” The boy wrestled uncomfortably in his chair. Outside, the soft pitter-patter of rain had begun with the cool trickles glazing on the windows. “…that we are the end product of a long line of animals formed from a primal primitive ooze at the dawn of time: Evolution, and some try to keep God in the picture—-theistic evolution, I believe…”
“I know that some of the younger priests like Father Herbert feel that way, Bud,” sullenly continued the priest. “Maybe quite a few of them do. But I assure you, Bud, that I don’t. I guess I am dedicated to that ole’ time religion, I don’t know. But it is true, there is a movement to liberalize what I would consider certain immutable teachings in the Church.”
In a moment of sad remembrance, and despite the increasing pain, Father Eugene O’Brien suddenly recalled a moment of himself as a 10-year-old as he walked the extra six blocks to Saint Jude’s Church. It was early Winter. Everything surrendered to the cold nip in the air. Eugene could have carpooled but instead walked twelve blocks out of the way, every morning now for several months so that he could attend an early mass.
“Eugene, don’t you think it’s a little special,” Sister Veronica had said to him one day, ‘‘that you walk several blocks out of your way everyday just so you could go to mass?’’
“I don’t know, Sister, I guess I never thought about it,” the young ‘priest-to-be’ said. Gene quickly grabbed a tissue from his pocket to wipe his dripping nose.
“It’s so cold these mornings, and most children haven’t been attending Mass regularly because of the weather. Do you think God’s been calling you?” The boy just looked at the Nun questioningly. “What do you want to be when you grow up? Have you thought about it, Eugene? Have you thought about becoming a priest?”
As the pain stretched further and further into O’Brien’s shoulder and to the foremost corners of his fingers, the priest swore to himself that he would order the boy to leave any minute. It was a short-sighted mistake not to have brought more pain tablets downstairs; and he would not feel guilty at all to ask the boy to leave. Still, the priest suddenly realized that some fateful reality depended deeply on him at this moment. It was as if he had a vision of things as never before, and slowly, things had begun to fall into place. Maybe he had begun to wake-up from the slumber so many others had particularly accepted as part of their struggle; at that, when did the priest begin to even think it was anybody else’s responsibility?
Before O’Brien sat someone that he could have sworn he had seen so many time before: in different seasons, different circumstances, but whose purpose was always the same. The moving lips, the quivering face of the boy, became the personification of the evils of other times, of other eras. Father O’Brien remembered the banner headlines of newspapers during his boyhood: the racketeers, the machinegun massacres. Why was it so convenient to pretend that the “New Creation” depended on something so untampered, so disassociated from this wickedness? What was the strategy of the Almighty, and wasn’t it a little foolish for a priest to be asking this question?
“Man, that’s crazy,” Bud stood-up quickly and began to pace the room, “‘certain Immutable’…I can only tell you what I see, Father. What do you priests do in your spare-time anyway, close yourself off from the rest of the world? Read only book out of the seminary libraries? You can read some pretty weird stuff there now, I understand.”
“You have to live up to it, Bud” the priest said, “you can’t just keep denying your part in God’s Plan…”
“I’ve been telling you what the kids today have been doing with ‘God’s Plan’——what’s the use?”
“Should we give up?” the priest grimaced, wrinkling his forehead. The priest began to perspire heavily.
“Should we keep pretending that colorful statues, pretty hymns, and wicked Church picnics are going to make any difference with the lewd ‘double life’ the people are leading?” Bud raced to the edge of the desk, leaned forward, smirking daringly into the priest’s face. Bud’s voice echoed within the room.
Was this the priest’s Waterloo? His Appomattox? His personal Armageddon? Or, was it the beginning of the end of all mankind? The answer was not available for the moment. Instead, O’Brien drew a folded handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed the perspiration from about his face. His diseased arm lay limply on his lap, and it appeared hard and swollen with a pale greenish color in varying degrees.
Sudden feverish flashes out of the past appeared in O’Brien’s memory. His Theology Studies at Jackson Seminary. The beautiful choir and the crucifix held high before the long row of graduating priests. He recalled his first administrating of the Eucharist (“The Body of Christ,” “The Body of Christ…”) going from one parishioner to the next. His first sermon before a live laity (“The New Creation begins—-we are The New Creation…’’ the sermon started.) And one of his most rememberable Confessionals (“Father, I have gravely sinned, I have murdered…”) between the priest and a middle-aged lady.)
“Are you so sure you have any of the answers? Is not the Church a sinking ship that every able-bodied is trying to abandon by changing its doctrines and meaning to suite their own comfortable philosophy?” Bud said angrily, tauntingly pacing the floor in front of the desk, “That is, farther, if the doctrines of the Catholic Church are even accurate to begin with! Why, Concordant translators of the original Greek say there is no such thing as ‘everlasting hellfire’ in the Greek, the original Greek speaks only of ‘age-lasting chastisement,’” Bud picked the Jerusalem Bible up and then brought it down again with a slap, “they say that King James saw only what he wanted to see in the original manuscripts. They say that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t a part of the original. They say that two-thirds of the Old and New Testament prophecies pertain to our own present-day age and the destruction to come upon us!”
The priest wanted to interrupt Bud’s soliloquy but his pain prevented him from interjecting and he sat immobile in torture, his arm riddled with throbbing pulsations. Bud continued:
“They say Catholicism is replete with Paganism —- from its inception to the present day! They say the Church is the ‘whore’ mentioned in the Book of Revelations and that the Church is in apostasy. You see, Father, I’ve read a little!”
(Bud’s memory took him momentarily to another cloudy day. Bud had slowly walked to the front of an old Catholic Church and observed the Church’s medieval-style architecture. In the center of the towering steeples was the stature of some famous Catholic Bishop from a century now lost behind us. The statue’s nose was chipped and a few fingers were missing from the hand which was grasping a shepherd’s staff. Because of this vandalism, a mystery to passerby’s, the parishioners enclosed the statue in a hard plastic booth. What an odd religion, Bud had thought, and Bud immediately began to recall the conflicting views he had read in the circulars of the Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses that had been placed in the front screen door from time to time.)
As the priest tried to sit erect, he began to cough, and small strains of saliva dribbled out of his mouth, but he held the spit back successfully by coughing. He felt very nauseated, and he wanted to make a formal prayer, but what resulted was only a crushed alibi: Satan, why did you tempt me with such an amiable boy, turned dragon? Where there had been hope last month, now had turned into a curse.
(“Eugene,” the Archbishop told the priest several weeks before, “you’ve been doing a very able job at Saint Matthew’s. You know it, and I know it. But from what the doctor’s report is saying, your health is failing and the X-rays on your arm don’t look promising.”
(“We have some major projects going on here at Saint Matthew’s,” the priest retorted.
(“Yes, well, I think you’ll understand that I have to look after my people. You’ve always wanted to go to France and Lourdes. Well, go, and with my blessing! And when you come back, you will find that God will still provide you with a task in keeping with your strength.” )
“Satan is a myth!” the intense lips of the teenager continued, “The Scriptures are a myth! And now, are you so sure, Father, that you too aren’t a myth?”
“What of the realities? Nobody can deny the realities?” the priest rocked forwards as if to stand, but all he could do was to continue to feel the neurological stings of his disease. ‘‘Spiritual realities! What of Love?”
“Love? Is it love that caused my bother to die from venereal disease? Is it love that caused the massacre of thousands of infants in Red China during the ‘purge’? Was it love that allowed my mother to divorce my father, ruining the best years of my life? And what about the news headlines, or, is that a myth also? Is this all there is of the New Creation?”
Bud was now swirling around and around in the room as if to lecture to an invisible assembly gathered high above him.
“I am a priest! I am to give you answers! You must ‘Love’!”
The room began to swirl about Father O’Brien now as he tried to raise to his feet, holding a tight grip to the edge of the desk. “You must ‘Love’!”
“Oh, I’ll love all right, Father. I’m going to plow every able-bodied—-and maybe not so able-bodied—-female, one by one, in a bed, or any other place I can screw them. I’ll get mine!” Don’t fool me, old man, Bud angrily jeered to himself. “Drugs, liquor, excess—we’ll freak out, man: and in the end we’ll have ‘loved,’ yeah, sure, will have….’’
“You must ‘Love’!” the feeble priest demanded pounding his knuckles into the desktop, his face aflame with agony and his body quivering in exasperation. “You must ‘love,’ for God’s sake, ‘Love’!”
Instantaneously, the office door smashed against the office wall! The black smock of a fellow priest tore from a rack and thudded against the office window! Pencils and pens in a desk canister rose vertically several feet , suspended momentarily, and then went crashing against a wall. An accompanying office chair flipped completely over. In true poltergeist fashion, books on the office shelf propelled out into the office.
A fellow priest, Father Raymond Herbert, as well as the white apron of the housekeeper, appeared into the matrix. “Father O’Brien!” came the startled voice of Father Herbert. “Get out of here!’’ shouted the housekeeper. Bud could feel someone yanking on his jacket and forcing the boy out of the office. “Get out of here, you beast! Get!” The housekeeper was waving a broom in Bud’s face. Swap, lash, slap! Bud felt a peculiar exhaustion as if in a boxing match: everything was happening so suddenly.
The screen door slammed into his face, and Bud quickly got a glimpse of the elderly Father O’Brien being led into the hallway: no longer the stout priest who Bud had spoken to over the previous weeks, but a decrepit old man, doubled-up in in pain, whimpering as they led the priest to the stairway.
Bud exhaustingly found himself looking down at his shoes and outside of the thick rectory door. Stunned, Bud stood staring momentarily at his feet. Then he slowly walked across the lawn pillared by the forlorn evergreens. He glanced over his shoulder to see the stairway light turn on. The haunting sounds of the river businesses were being accompanied by rain drizzle.
Bud looked at one window on the second floor of the church rectory that he knew would light up any minute. It, however, seemed like an eternity, but finally a glow arose from within the room. Its yellow radiance stood out as a beacon in the darkened neighborhood.
Bud began to bite his lip as he was choking on his emotions. He knew now that the priest was no enemy: He could tell the difference between the teardrops and the raindrops on his cheeks—-he continually cried until near midnight when the light no longer shone from the priest’s window and another day was about to begin.
Mary Jane would just have to wait indefinitely. Tonight, Bud had felt and learned of a special and unique ‘love.’