by FRANK REARDON
She stood underneath the green plant hanging in the corner of the living room. I could see she was shaking inside her skin. Vibrations that reached out from her sickly body and entered my brain like one of those long ago LSD trips I had taken in the 90s. “You don’t have to pay child support today,” she said, “if you buy me a bottle of vodka and hang out with me.” I could see that she was lonely. She was always lonely, and making up stories to keep me hanging around.
Against my better judgment I reached inside my black suit jacket and pulled out a bottle of three dollar vodka I had purchased earlier. Like every other time I knew it would come down to the vodka. From across the room her vomit filled eyes lit up like a child seeing a birthday cake full of candles. I then reached into my wallet and pulled out a check I had written for a few hundred dollars. I leaned over to her coffee table and placed the bottle on top of the check. She stood there waiting on my permission. I pointed to the bottle and she went straight for it. She didn’t even bother to look at how much I wrote the check out for. She unscrewed the top of the bottle and took a swig. In an instant she was fine. Shakes gone. Esophagus, stomach, and brain, a happy family again.
She walked past me and into the kitchen where I heard her go into the fridge and fill a glass. She returned with her fruit juice cocktail chaser. “Tommy,” she said, “how about you go across the street and get yourself some of those beers you like? We can hang out, play some music, just like old times?”
The booze had destroyed her looks. It had aged her. Turned her fifteen to twenty years older than she was. “We can play cards if you want,” she said. She didn’t take the time to blow dry her hair anymore. Her clothes had holes in them and her teeth had gone from straight to crooked. I knew she was somewhere in there, but it wasn’t in me to look for her. I had given up looking soon after the divorce.
“Lucy, I can’t stay here,” I told her. “You know I have people to see. It’s my job.”
“They’ll still be there tomorrow, just stay. We can drink and talk about anything you like.”
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I have obligations.”
She took another hit from the vodka bottle and chased it with the fruit juice. “Fine. Go see your stupid little people.” I let it slide. I knew it was the booze and bipolar talking.
I nodded my head yes and turned around to leave. Then, like always, she let me have it. “Last night I sucked one of my co-worker’s cocks. It was thirteen inches long. Hard as a rock and he stuffed it in my mouth real good.” I didn’t want to take the bait and ask, Why do you do this to yourself? I grabbed the knob of the door. “In fact,” she uttered, “I’ve decided to make cock sucking my new fetish.” I nodded again, opened the door, and left her inside with her booze, her music, her tall tales about big cocks.
I had driven a slow sixteen miles from Lucy’s home in Max when it dawned on me that I was running late to see a man in the hospital. He had been dying of lung cancer and requested my presence. He had asked me to sit with him because he had no one. I hit the gas and headed for Trinity Hospital as fast I could.
Cancer wards are some of the worst places to be. Over the years I have seen it all: babies pulled dead from a screaming mother. Soldiers back from the war, their minds and bodies ruined. Prison cells with men and women who had murdered people in cold blood. You name it, I’d been there, but nothing rips me to the core quite like a cancer ward in a hospital. There’s little hope, and if you see hope in someone’s face it’s usually to mask the fear that’s deep in their souls. Boris Ivanov was such a man.
“Father Tom,” he shouted, pulling himself up in bed.
“How are you feeling today, Boris?”
I hated asking questions like “how are you doing?” What are they going to say to me? “I’m fucking dying? The morphine’s wonderful? Have you tried the hospital’s peach cobbler?”
“Not too bad, Father. Not too bad.”
I took a seat in the green chair, kitty corner from his bed.
“That’s nice to hear,” I told him. I slightly grabbed his knee like he was an old buddy of mine, but he wasn’t. I hardly knew the man until he got sick. He sat in the back of the church every Sunday. He was a loner. He didn’t speak to anyone. He didn’t attend any education classes. He wasn’t involved. I can’t blame him though, I lost my faith years ago. I have been in the dark for years, shortly after I had taken my vows, really. It had been some fifteen years since I had heard God’s voice speak to me.
“Father can I ask you something?”
“Have at it Boris.”
“You’re not from here are you?”
“Yeah, you’re not from here.”
“No. I grew up in Bangor, Maine. Out in New England.”
“I knew it!” He shouted, “I was talking to Addie, that nurse who comes in here,” he leaned in to tell me a secret. “Between you and me, Father, wow, what a looker.” I halfheartedly smiled and he continued. “I said to her, that Father Tom, the one who visits me. He ain’t from here. She said you were from here, but I said there’s no way, and you know what? I was right.”
His victory tickled him something fierce, and in a strange way it let my faith pass through me like a brief wind. It returned for a second, then it was gone, again. Light to dark in a half-of-a-second.
“I have another question for you, Father,” he said underneath a hacking cough.
“Maybe you shouldn’t talk, Boris, just relax. I’ll sit here with you and pray if you’d like?”
“Later on…later on,” he said. “All I do is sit here in silence wondering when the Good Lord is going to take me home.”
I agreed to let him ask his question.
“You have a daughter, no?”
“I do. Her name’s Rebekah.”
“How does a priest come to have a daughter? I thought all you guys had to keep it in your pants?”
“I used to be a Lutheran Preacher years back, but I lost my way. When I discovered the Catholic faith I converted. And since I was married and with a child I was allowed to become a Catholic priest with a family.”
“They do that?” he asked with a blood soaked tissue close to his shocked face.
“It’s rare, but it happens.”
“You are divorced, too?”
“Even more rare, but that too also happens.”
“Why are you divorced?”
I wanted to open up to this man I hardly knew. I wanted to tell him about Lucy’s cheating, and the booze, and millions of big dicks floating all around her head. I wanted to tell him about her violent outbursts and how she chased me with a knife. I wanted Boris to hear it all. I wanted him to be my priest, but I kept it locked inside a place of hurt, loss, and regret.
“That’s a story for another time, Boris.”
He wasn’t pleased with my response.
“Mr. Ivanov,” a nurse said. “Time for your treatment!”
“Saved!” I thought. And he wasn’t wrong, the nurse was a real looker.
I leaned over Boris and made the sign of the cross. I blessed him with a simple prayer and left a small card with a photo of Saint Padre Pio on it. He looked on the back and saw the prayer of intercession. It pleased him and with my help he got into the wheelchair the nurse had brought.
The rest of my afternoon went like all other afternoons: I blessed a house for a woman who thought she had evil spirits living in her home. I received a few texts from Lucy about big cocks in her mouth. I had tea with a group of elderly women who viewed me as some kind of hunky B-movie celebrity. And I prayed The Liturgy of The Hours with my two fellow priests from Saint Michael’s, Father Greg and Father Brian. They’d been hardcore about the God life since birth. I hid my doubts from them best as I could.
It was my free night, so I drove to the North side of town where Mindy lived. She cooked us a crock pot soup, then we drank beer, and made love several times. I liked Mindy the moment I met her. She was curvy with an enormous smile that excited me. She was also an amazing artist. She painted these pictures of horses that punched and tickled me. Not some stupid horse standing next to some foolish barn, but horses in places they shouldn’t be. Like a horse on a surfboard. Or a horse floating around in the middle of a colorful galaxy. Or my favorite, one horse mounting another horse in a Buddhist Temple. Whenever I looked at it, I thought that’s where I’d like to mount Mindy, in some far away temple in Thailand or Japan.
“You know we shouldn’t be doing this, Tom,” she said, but it went in one ear and out the other because she said it every time after we had sex.
I decided to change the subject.
“I have some free time how about we go on a trip somewhere?”
“Where are we gonna go?” she asked.
“I dunno, some place warm. It doesn’t matter. I’m tired of the negative temps.”
“That sounds wonderful, but you know you can’t. You’re needed here. Besides what’s everyone going to think if you’re not at Saint Michael’s and neither am I? And what will they think if we return to church at the same time? We can’t do it, Tom. What we’re doing now is bad enough. It has to remain a secret.”
“I could leave all of that religious nonsense behind,” I told her. “We could escape together. Live together, and be together.”
She looked at me like I committed a crime.
“Don’t be a fool, Tom. You know your faith is what attracted me in the first place. That deep seeded faith you hold in your heart. You’re a saint. you know?”
“A saint?” I asked her. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“You are, but you don’t see it. You make people happy. You help people during the hardest times of their lives. You don’t get involved in the politics that surround faith. Those politics are there to make people forget their faith, but you don’t fall into those traps.”
“Thank you, I guess.”
What turned her on was the fact that I was a priest. Would she still want me if I was Tom the Garbage Man? My thoughts didn’t matter anymore when she rolled over and tugged at me to kiss her.
I knew she was right about it all. Once I was granted a divorce, I had to agree to become celibate, but what was I supposed to do? God hadn’t said as much as “hello” to me in fifteen years. Was I supposed to live the same life as Father Greg and Father Brian? A couple of nerds who lived their lives to pack the church basement with old ladies so they could play bingo? No! All I wanted was Mindy, in between the sheets with me, but all she wanted was to screw a priest’s brains out in secret. I had no choice but to settle and be a part of her fantasy. My whole job was to settle for less. I wasn’t allowed to argue. I had to suck it up and agree with everyone’s desires and wants and needs for how I was supposed to live my life. She turned out the lights, the room went dark, and I let her know that she would always be in control when I returned the kiss.
Soon after I received a text from Lucy about some huge balls she tugged on about an hour ago, I was in my simple room in the rectory. It wasn’t much to look at: a twin bed, a dresser, and a bookcase resting on a dark yellow rug. I removed my copy of The Lives of the Saints from the bookcase. Maybe a little reading in bed about miracles and good deeds and people helping others would restore me. I made it two paragraphs into the life of Saint Patrick before I closed the book and returned it to its spot. I opened my curtains and looked out the window into downtown Minot. I watched the snow fall on cars, their windows icing over. I watched a man kiss a woman outside of a bar. They pulled apart and looked glowingly at one another. They made me think about Mindy. Her freckles, her pale white skin. I was aroused and touched myself, then I stopped when I saw an old man outside in the cold looking up at me. I wasn’t sure if he noticed my evil deed at the window or not. He kept walking and vanished into the night.
Down the hall I heard Gregorian Chants coming from Father Greg’s room. In my mind the words, “what a loser,” floated around, but I changed them to, “I remember when that music was popular when I was a young man in college.” My friends and I would take MDMA and we’d listen to the popular music of the day at Gay Peter’s house. I never liked calling him ‘Gay Peter,’ but he was in fact gay, and all my friends called him ‘Gay Peter,’ because he introduced himself as such. Some of that music was Gregorian chants mixed with ambient trance-like sounds. I still had no idea what to call it. I was a Pink Floyd fan, but we all danced to it for hours. Some of us vanished and had sex. Didn’t matter if it was straight sex, or gay sex, or lesbian sex, or an orgy. We did what we did. We were loose and experimental. Back then we felt like we owned the world, that we could change it one song, one sexual position, one doped up philosophy at a time. I missed being that way. When did I become so rigid? So cold? Why did the passion for being alive leave me? I held onto the past a little longer, then I let it go like it never happened. I pulled on some shorts and decided to go see what Father Greg was up to.
“Come on in,” a happy voice said after I knocked.
I entered and found Father Greg writing down personal notes from the bible. I was not to find an orgy on this night. He was wearing his Notre Dame college sweatshirt, and his dark rimmed glasses, the same kind hip young kids wore in Starbucks. You’d think everyone had lost their sight. Me, with coffee in hand, forty-three years old, and apparently the only person in Minot with 20/20 vision.
“How are you, Father Tom?”
“Can we stick to Tom and Greg? It’s just the two of us.”
“Good idea,” he said with a nerdy smile on his face.
I walked around his room. It was much the same as mine, except he had more religious art on the walls. My room had one simple crucifix hanging above the bed. “You ever go dark?” I asked.
“How do you mean?” He asked me.
“Do you feel Christ with you at all times?” I replied, looking at the spines of his religious books.
“Always, Tom. Always! Jesus hasn’t left me since I was a boy…Do you have doubts, Tom?”
“Not doubts, really,” I said. “More like questions that I’ve waited years to be answered.”
“Maybe I can help?”
“I don’t think so, Greg.”
“Sometimes priests will have a crisis of faith. Not that I ever experienced it before, but I’m willing to listen and help.”
It had always been Father Greg’s weakness, his overly excited response to helping others at all times. He could have the worst case of diarrhea, ass literally exploding all over the room, and he’d go out of his way to save a snail from the wheel of a car. “Every living creature is of God,” he’d say. And I have to admit, I enjoyed his zest for life and humanity, but sometimes you have to be closed off. You have to depend on yourself. You have to do what you need to do to get through the thick muck of the years. Open hearts often lead to unwanted suffering.
“I was just curious what you were up to, Greg, never mind.”
“Are you sure, Tom?”
“I’m sure,” I told him as I turned to leave, “ And Greg?”
“For what it’s worth, thanks anyways.”
Me thanking him for doing pretty much nothing pleased him a great deal. I closed the door and left him to his studies.
I returned to my room and got on my knees in front of the simple iron Jesus hanging from the cross above my bed. I folded my hands. “Jesus,” I asked, “what do you want or need from me? And why am I so filled to the brim with questions and no appetite to do what you called me to do?” I sat there in the dark quiets of my room as if he was going to reply, there wasn’t one. All I could hear was my breath and the snow plow on the street. I didn’t know what I should do next.
I continued my simple prayer and question session for a few more moments until my phone lit up the room. I walked over hoping it was Mindy. While I had been in Greg’s room I had received many texts. One from Rebekah. One from Mindy. Both pleased me. Rebekah was in Utah hiking with friends. She sent me a rock climbing photo. It moved me to the point of joy to see my daughter so happy and daring like I used to be. Mindy sent me a photo of her in a new green bra. It excited me and I saved it for later. Then there were numerous texts from Lucy. The first few were about the white cocks, black cocks, Mexican cocks, hippie cocks, that she had sucked off. Then there was an apology text. She asked me to come on over so we could talk. When I didn’t respond she continued about random cocks. I asked Jesus to help her with her disease, and I decided to go to bed.
It was nearly eight-thirty when I finished Wednesday morning Mass and I had to open for office hours. I didn’t care for office hours. People would come to complain about what they didn’t like: their kids, or wives, or husbands. They came to ask me if I was behind the President, or for or against abortion. Not many came in to talk about faith, compassion, kindness, or forgiveness. It was always a complaint of some kind. I couldn’t blame them because I’m full of complaints, but they’re my complaints and I keep them to myself. I don’t want to deal with their bullshit, but I have to. I get a roof over my head, decent health insurance, a simple Honda Accord, and my burial plot is 100% free. I guess the trade-off is worth it, but then I think, is it? I can’t help but think “What happened to the Christianity I learned about? When did it become us vs them, especially now in our own country?” Every day I look around the church and see pews full of people with so much hate in the hearts that it leaks out from their eyes.
Thou Shall Not Kill, doesn’t apply to only unborn babies in the womb, but they think it does. It also applies to our soldiers in war, and not just our soldiers but the soldiers from other countries also in the fight. It applies to people sitting in prison cells awaiting the death penalty. We drone-strike entire villages, killing children, fathers, mothers, entire families, to get one guy. I never could understand it.
Our Bishop even backs the senseless world we live in. Just last month he came to Saint Michael’s for a meeting. He had dinner with me and Father Greg and Father Brian. He went on about the children in cages at the border. How he supported the President, because it’s all about American pride. And he said it all while jamming chunks of rare roast beef into his mouth. Blood oozed out the corners. He didn’t even bother to wipe the bloody mouth river from his face as he tried to rationalize babies being separated from their mothers and fathers. I tried to switch the conversation to our local Saint Vincent De Paul, how they’ve handed out hundreds of meals to the poor and needy. I told him about our winter coat drive and how we collected a bunch of coats from local merchants to hand out to families who couldn’t afford them. I wanted him to know about the Good Works we had done and continue to do. He looked at me like I had eleven heads, like he wanted to say, “How dare you interrupt me with that insignificant do-gooder B.S.? I’m talking about God and country, mother-fucker!” He continued to stare right through me, until I shut up about it. I couldn’t finish my meal. I was sick to my stomach for the rest of the night. Later on, I prayed to Jesus before bed and asked for guidance. Like always, none came.
I had enough of everyone and everything so I traded nights off with Father Greg. He was more than willing to have tea with the old ladies’ group. He didn’t mind being treated like a celebrity if he was allowed to tell them all about The Faith. I needed a drink, something strong. I hit up the Lamplighter and upon entering I was greeted by drunks, gamblers, and sports fans. Everyone knew who I was in one way or another. I was dressed in my New England Patriots’ hoodie, Pats’ ball cap, and jeans. I thought they’d have no idea who I was, but they knew. I ordered a whiskey on the rocks and tried my best to sit in the far corners of the bar, away from everyone because I knew sooner or later the alcoholics would ask me questions about faith and morality. They’d look for me to tell them it was okay to be wasted if they had a good enough reason, but I didn’t care if they were wasted or not, I just wanted to be left alone with my thoughts.
Half-way through my drink Mindy texted me. I told her I was at the Lamplighter and she should come out, too. She reminded me that we couldn’t be seen in public together, but she had something special to send me. I drank the rest of drink, ordered a tall beer, and the text arrived. It was a photo of her. She was wearing a light blue corset and garters and stockings to match. Her thick red hair fell on her shoulders and touched the tips of the lace. Underneath the photo was an emoji kiss with the words: “I bought this for next time.” I didn’t even respond nor save the photo. I knew in my ragged soul it would never be. Texts from Lucy started to show up. I didn’t even bother to read them. Her house could’ve been on fire and I didn’t care. I was tired of her bullshit, too. I motioned to the bartender for a shot. He knew I wanted Jim Beam.
A voice rang out, “Father’s getting drunk tonight!”
I couldn’t see who it was, but I replied, “Go fuck yourself!”
There was this silence. This incredible, on-going silence. Like I wasn’t allowed to feel pain, or regret, or loss. As if me putting them back meant I wasn’t who I said I was.
“Well fucking excuse me,” the voice replied.
The President was on the television giving some speech about some bullshit, but they all bought into it. I took the shot and downed the beer, and ordered another beer.
“And fuck that asshole on the television, too!”
“Listen, Father,” a six-foot bearded man to my right said. “I know you’re a priest and all. And God knows I have all the respect in the world for him. But in my mind it’s all about God and Country! And I don’t care who you are, you don’t go disrespecting my President,” he went on with a finger pointed right at me, “and your president, too.” Everyone to his right and throughout the bar agreed with him.
“He’s a hypocrite!” I shouted. “He separates families. He doesn’t give a damn about women, or the poor, or the sick, or the mentally ill. He claims to be Christian, but he’s not. You name me one Christian thing he’s done, truly done, and I’ll buy everyone a round.”
They thought about it for a second, hard and long. I could hear the one collective brain cell they all shared grinding away in the air. It was painful for me to watch. “And you know what else?” I asked. “Fuck the God and Country speech, save it. God doesn’t choose sides. He doesn’t pick countries. To say he’s only loyal to one country goes against everything God stands for.”
Several tall men, also with beards, walked over to me. They surrounded me. “Look, I don’t care that you’re a priest,” the one in the middle said to me. “You say one more bad thing about this country and I’ll personally throw your ass out the door.” He took a sip of his beer and slammed his mug down. “Not one more negative word about my country and my president.”
I stood up, a little more off balance than I thought I’d be and made the sign of the cross over the three of them. They looked at me funny. “I’ll pray for the three of you tonight,” I told them. It seemed to please them enough that they started to walk away from me and the smell of the stale popcorn machine behind me. “I’ll pray that the three of you will stop being in denial and be who you truly are.”
“What’s he mean, Rick?” One bearded man said to the guy in the middle. Truth be told I couldn’t tell any of them apart. They looked the same.
“I think he’s calling us faggots,” Rick replied. “You calling us faggots?”
“I didn’t say that,” I said, “But now that you mention it…”
Before I could finish my sentence I found myself being dragged out of the bar. People clapped and hollered. One man yelled “Kick his ass, Ricky!” They tossed me out the door and I landed on the icy parking lot. It hurt so bad that I looked up at the winter moon and looked for God inside the craters. I hoped he’d save me from what I knew was coming next, but he didn’t. One boot after the other, one punch after the other hit my body with perfect movie-like sound. I was then dragged to the outside of my car and kicked some more. My skin ached, my bones screamed out.
They left me there and went back into the bar. For a moment I could hear the drunkards cheering on the victorious warriors who beat me up, then the cheers faded. I saw a woman push her way through the door and watched her light up a cigarette. Her breath in between exhales matched the smoke in the frigid air. She pretended I wasn’t there, but she knew I was. She was like the rest of them. I picked myself up and got into my car. I looked in the mirror and gazed at the welts that would hurt a lot more tomorrow. “All that punishment for telling the truth,” I said to someone, but no one.
I went to the liquor store and bought a pint of whiskey. The clerk took my money and looked at the bloody bit of tissue I had jammed into my left nostril. “You okay, Father?” The young man said, handing me the bottle he’d put inside a little brown bag. “You look real messed up.” I thanked him for noticing.
I drove myself and the bottle close to the rectory. I didn’t want to go inside. I didn’t want Greg and Brian see me beat up and half-drunk with a bottle of booze in my hand. They’d call the police and I didn’t want that kind of trouble. I decided to go have my drink inside the church. I locked the doors behind me and walked around the silent and dimly lit hallways.
Outside the sanctuary I noticed things I never cared to look at before: photos of me unloading food trucks for the soup kitchen with a big goofy smile on my face. Photos of me at the softball tournament for M.S. I struck out every time I got up to bat, but I looked happy to be doing so for some odd reason. Photos of me baptizing children, or photos of me preparing food for the soup kitchen. Photos of me eating with the poor because they’d been my friends. Photos of me standing with them in front of a Christmas tree. And I looked happy in every single photo. How come I never noticed any of the photos before? How come I don’t remember feeling like that? I took a massive gulp from the bottle and noticed a photo of only me. A head shot that looked like a high school year book photo. Underneath it, on a little gold plaque, it read: Father Thomas O’Reilly, Pastor of Saint Michael’s Catholic Church, Minot, North Dakota. I cringed at the ridiculous smile I was making in the photo and made a mental note to have that photo removed.
I staggered into the sanctuary. It was quiet and dark. In the back, above the alter, I could see plain as day the giant crucified Jesus hanging from the wooden cross. I took a seat in the front pew and enjoyed the feeling of only me. I took several more swigs from the bottle and put it down next to me when my stomach began to churn. I didn’t want to pray or think about anything or anyone. My heart ached for what once was, for who I once was. My back hurt from carrying around my heavy burdens for decades. A feeling of shame blanketed me. The pain from the beating I took started to set in. I didn’t want to carry any of it with me anymore. It hurt. Everything hurt. I looked up at the giant wooden Jesus I had stood under so many times before, but never gave much thought to. Life had turned from joy into a series of complaints, grievances, and anger. The same day over and over again. I wanted to leap out of myself and purge everything clean, but I couldn’t. I was who I was. I had become what I despised, what I wanted to cleanse from the earth. I was both loved and hated for it. There was no going back. I had set the series of events that are my life in motion the moment I gave myself over to the dark quiets that I have been forever trapped in. No one listened to me because I was the one who had to always be ready to listen them.
The wooden agony on Jesus’ face gazed down on me. The giant tree that some person used to carve the hanging statue felt like it was going to fall down on me and pulverize me into the ground. The weight of it all has become so unbearable, so other worldly, then so realistic, that I had nothing left inside of me to give to myself or anyone. All I wanted to do was climb up there, put my arms around the wooden statue, and ask, “Why don’t you love me?”
FRANK REARDON was born in 1974 in Boston, Massachusetts, and currently lives in Minot, North Dakota. Frank has published poetry and short stories in many reviews, journals and online zines. His first poetry collection, Interstate Chokehold, was published by NeoPoiesis Press in 2009 as well as his second poetry collection Nirvana Haymaker in 2012. His third poetry collection Blood Music was published by Punk Hostage Press in 2013. In 2014 Reardon published a chapbook with Dog On A Chain Press titled The Broken Halo Blues. Frank is currently working on more short fiction.