2nd Place Prizewinner
Bridget Brewer grew up short and Catholic outside Portland, Oregon. She recently graduated from Bates College with a B.A. in English and Studio Art, and is currently a social worker in Austin, Texas. In addition to this publication, her fiction has been published in The Wordstock Ten, a collection of finalists for the Wordstock Literary Festival’s short story competition. Raymond Carver is one of her favorite writers.
The former Father Peter acts the same as always, from what we can see. He still washes his laundry with Tide for Bright Colors. We know because we watch him, from behind the blinds in the library, when he slinks from his station wagon into the Coin Laundry on Mondays. Always Mondays. He stays for the entire cycle. For a long time, we thought he read the Bible while he washed his three pairs of khakis, until Jeremy snuck across the pot-holed parking lot to look closer. When he peeked through the muck on the window, he says he saw Father Peter just sitting in a scuffed orange bucket seat, holding a Bible in front of himself.
He eats the same food he’s always eaten. Oatmeal. Whole milk, a half gallon. Baby carrots. A gallon of dark, generic soda pop. Always paper, never plastic. Kenny Jenks, the bag boy at Albertson’s, gave us his receipts. He also told us that he never touches Father Peter’s groceries without wearing transparent, waxy gloves he stole from the meat section. It’s because when the photo of Father Peter first appeared in The Oregonian, he’d been bagging the priest’s groceries and couldn’t stand to touch the items that would soon be in his home. Now Kenny does it out of habit. He never looks at Father Peter’s face.
The rest, we have to guess. If he’s any kind of normal, we figure he does things like our fathers. He must use the same brush to spread shaving cream along his jaw line twice a day—he always had a five o’clock shadow that deepened when he stood under the spotlights during evening Masses. He probably still gets pimples on his back where, because of aching joints, no grown man has the hands to scrub. He definitely doesn’t use swear words, like our fathers when they can’t find the remote or when the Blazers lose again—those sick fucks, goddamn it, son, I’ve never seen anything like this fucking disgraceful display, if only they’d stop pedaling drugs and get down to goddamn fucking business, I mean Jesus. Father Peter would never say things like that. Even if he did laugh that one time we told him our way of remembering how to make the Sign of the Cross: “spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch.”
Peter mostly acts the same as always. So when a former parishioner leaves a message on his machine, or yet another segment on the evening news uses the same badly lit photograph from the parish directory, Peter repeats a creed of these mundane, normal tasks. Creeds, after all, mean consistency: he has always done these things, and always will do these things, until his life drifts to a stop.
His list includes the following. He washes his few items of layman’s clothing with Tide for Bright Colors, at the Coin Laundry on Mondays. He brushes his teeth twice a day with the same blue anti-cavity toothpaste. He eats the oatmeal he’s always eaten, with whole milk and nutmeg. Sometimes in the shower, or curled against the wall in his bed, he presses uncertain fingers to his testicles in search of anything threatening. He uses the same brush to spread shaving cream along his jaw line twice a day. Pimples still swell on his back. He continues to stack his dishes on the right side of his graying sink.
But Peter knows this creed sounds pathetic when compared with the things in his life that are so, so different. He doesn’t wake at dawn for vespers. He can no longer see a cathedral in a red pepper when he slices the waxy, hollow body. He knows the boys, and the whole community, watch him—Jeremy was hardly subtle at the Coin Laundry, his body looming behind the glass when he wiped a hole in the grime to spy. He dreams of moving away, something he never considered before. He’s heard of a Benedictine abbey two hours away from Cedar Mill called Mount Angel. It sits on the top of a hill and cultivates a biblical garden so verdant, so devastatingly beautiful and lush, that every other garden feels like its weak imitation. Maybe this garden is just a myth, but he dreams of it anyway. He can smell the heather when he sleeps.
Peter no longer wears his robes and collar. They belong to St. Claire’s, so he left them there. It occurs to him, as the glow of the television bathes his hands in a dead sort of light, that he never once washed his own collar. That he always left it in the rectory and returned to find it clean, fresh, and starched. This means, he reasons, that the collar was never actually his, and so should not count as a loss. Still, he finds himself feeling at his neck, trying to adjust a collar that isn’t there and feeling a sharp prick in his chest when he remembers why it’s gone.
And his gardening. His favorite prayer, the Salve Regina, with its longing sort of birdsong. The trill of repentant Latin from behind gritted teeth while he dug out celery or worked fingers deep into the heady mulch. So certain, then, that the Virgin was listening. These days the prayer of habit starts his hands running over the taut skin of a tomato when: stop. He looks up at the sky, a sky so white with low-slung clouds that it blinds him, and a cold feeling creeps through his arms. He presses his lips together. No, these days he does not sing to her, and she will not sing to him.
One other thing differs from before.
The first time he passed a playground, two young boys raced each other down the slides. He saw flashes of blue tennis shoes and sunlight glimmering on their downy legs. They clambered up the stairs, shot down the tin chute, and raced to the top once more. Their faces looked familiar: Weren’t they from the family that always sat in the front pew? The ones who snored softly against each other while he delivered a homily on awakening to God’s will? He remembered laughing about it afterwards, in the rectory, while the altar ministers scrubbed diligently at the chalice. Now when he passes by, their tiny, chirping voices claw at his eardrums.
Tide. Toothpaste. Oatmeal, he thinks, and avoids that playground, that street, and that neighborhood altogether.
We don’t know each other by choice. We didn’t decide to be friends. When you go to school and youth group and Boy Scouts with the same fifteen boys, you can really only sit with the ones who look the least like they’re going to lick their fingers and jam them in your ear. Then you quit Boy Scouts because it’s for nerds, and you start sneaking into high school parties where older kids hand you sweating, patriotic cans of PBR without even asking if you want it. And while you’re watching your neighbor’s older brother suck beer straight from the keg, you see that same group you sat with in youth group and Boy Scouts, sweat glistening on their faces and their eyes glued to the froth bursting forth from the tap. After that, things just kind of fall into place.
At St. Claire’s during recess, while the girls move in packs of plaid jumpers, we vault rocks at the gym’s tin roof to see who can make the biggest dents. We hide behind the dumpsters and cough through packs of metallic-tasting cigarettes, purchased from Jeremy’s older brother Brad. We take over the top of the jungle gym by the tire swing and play Marry, Fuck, Kill. Clearly, marry Mrs. Kelly, Social Studies; fuck Mrs. Binghamson, Language Arts; and kill Ms. Jenson, Science. Once you play Marry, Fuck, Kill with someone, you’re friends for life. Or at least until the end of seventh grade, which is the same thing. No additions, no exceptions.
Then there was that time Ms. Jenson put Kyle Freeman in our group for Dissection Day.
There are only thirty kids in the seventh grade class at St. Claire’s, and all of us stayed away from Kyle, even before the whole Father Peter thing. When we change for P.E., he hides in the bathroom stall as we yell and whip each other with our towels and try to bore peepholes through the plaster into the girls’ bathroom. He always has half-moons of dirt under his fingernails, which are too long to be normal. During class, he spits on his arm, scoops the goop into a pen cap, eats it, and spits it out again. White flecks fall from his black hair to his shoulders, making snowdrifts of dandruff on his uniform. The worst part about Kyle, though, is those far-away eyes, set so wide apart. They hide on opposite sides of his face, his pale skin stretched tight, and they never blink. Even the Filipino kid, Efren, takes one look at Kyle and sits on the other side of the room by the radiator. If forced to hang out with either Kyle or that ginger nerd Tommy, whose hair looks like a spongy red afro and who picks his nose behind cupped hands and pretends he’s just itching the top of his nose… if we had to pick between Kyle and Tommy, we’d pick Tommy. Every time.
Dissection Day came. Ms. Jenson sent Kyle shuffling to our table. We moved back before we could help it.
Jeremy had been pissing Ms. Jenson off all week, begging to be the one to distribute the trays of baby pigs to each lab group, so when she finally, wearily nodded, he was up on his feet and sprinting to the transparent, plastic body bags stacked on the radiator, leaving us with Kyle. She cut open the first body bag, releasing a dull, sour, sweaty stink. We choked. Then Kyle started pretending to vomit on Hilary Walsh, which made her scrunch her face and squeal, “OhmyGod you are so gross.” Shocked, we stared at Kyle with open admiration, unaware until now that he could be funny. His eyes suddenly seemed comical, frog-like, and not remotely frightening. He grinned and fake-vomited some more, pretending it spilled all the way down the back of her jumper. We sniggered.
Jeremy dumped a tray on our table. Peering inside, we saw a pink, rubbery pig the length of our forearms, floating in a pool of yellow formaldehyde. Its snout curled up, the tiny tongue frozen between two slivers of incisors.
“It looks like it’s screaming,” Ricky muttered.
“You’re stupid.” Kevin grabbed a pink hoof and waggled it at Ricky.
“Isn’t it gross?” said Jeremy, leaning over the tin tray. He grabbed one of the scalpels and nicked the pig’s nose. Yellow formaldehyde seeped out. We gasped, pleased and disgusted at the new smell in the room.
Suddenly Kyle thrust his hand into the tray and held the cut together.
“Whoa,” said Jeremy, “what are you doing, freak?”
His whole body tensed, white flakes falling into the formaldehyde pool. He blinked. For a brief moment, his skin looked like rubber.
“Whoa,” we said. “Chill out, it’s okay, it’s already dead.” We inched towards him until our lab group made a half-circle around Kyle and the dead pig on the table. Then we grabbed his arm.
“Kyle, Kyle, ease up, kiddo, what’s happening over here?” Ms. Jenson came running across the room. “Boys, let go, that’s enough!”
Ms. Jenson placed a hand on his shoulder, meaning to comfort him. But Kyle saw another threat and ripped his arm out of her grasp. The movement tore the rubber skin on the snout, exposing opaque, glistening cartilage and tiny rows of teeth. Hillary Walsh turned green and put her head between her legs.
The entire class was watching.
“Easy, Kyle,” murmured Ms. Jenson. “Just give me the pig.”
“Come on,” we urged. We were impatient with his game. We wanted to cut the pig open and see the miniature twisted organs, the white slivers of ribs, and—best of all—the tiny brown heart.
Kyle’s wide eyes flickered from all of us to the pig, a bead of sweat on his forehead, licking his lips. We moved back, Jeremy grabbing the scalpel.
“Not this one,” said Kyle, his voice a rasp.
Ms. Jenson sent him to the principal’s office, the pig clutched firmly in his fist. The way he rubbed at its belly made it seem, for a moment, like his touch would bring it back to life.
Peter moves around Cedar Mill in the same patterns: Coin Laundry on Mondays, Albertson’s on Saturdays, the library and Yung’s take-out providing occasional diversions, the same slick sky sputtering indignantly and spattering his coat. The movement of his congregation, however, is another matter.
They keep a wide berth, careful not to touch him or acknowledge him. Many of the women have started scrambling for their cell phones when he approaches, hurrying to fake a conversation so deep they cannot possibly have seen him. The men duck their heads and move past. Cowards, he thinks, even as his eyes smart. He bites down on his tongue so often, a divot forms in its tip.
And still, Kenny the bag boy won’t touch his groceries.
Everything comes down to the mothers, he thinks. Mothers have a gift for specific cruelty. Weekend after weekend of Masses once brought him their gossip as they polished the dishes, took his robe and collar for pressing, and emptied the extra wine into a sink that leads straight to the ground. (God’s blood can never touch the earth.) The mothers told him everything about each other without a second thought. He was informed when the Barry twins, who attend Findley Elementary, were sent to Girl Scout camp after Mrs. Barry found a package of blueberry-flavored condoms in their underwear drawer; when Mrs. Thompson was going to have another baby; when the parents were positive that Miss Henley, the kindergarten teacher, and Mr. Holiday, the gym teacher, were secretly dating.
Peter can feel what they think of him undulate silently across town. The shake of the head. The crease forming between the freshly plucked eyebrows. The snap of sugarless gum between white, shining teeth.
And when their children forget or don’t know any better and reach out, smiling, saying, “Father Peter,” about to tell him they won their soccer game or to ask him if God watches Saturday cartoons, their mothers pull them away. Hissing. Glaring at him until he feels as though he’s swallowed broken glass, each swallow carving a mark into his throat.
Peter is shopping for pork loin at Albertson’s when he almost walks into Nancy Burnside, the principal of St. Claire’s, who is perusing the chicken sausage links. Panic spreads across her sallow face. Her heels click on the concrete floor as she takes a step backward.
“Ah,” she says. “Father. Ah. I.”
“Nancy.” He nods, impassive, though his knuckles tighten on his blue shopping basket. “How are you?”
“Oh. Well. You know. School is… Hmm.” Nancy swings her short gray hair out of her face, already trying to end the conversation. But Peter hasn’t spoken to another person in weeks, beyond thanking Kenny the bag boy. He presses on.
“Nothing to note in particular,” she says briskly. Then, with a tightening in the corner of her mouth, “The community garden is well cared for, no need to worry. Kyle gardens beautifully.”
Kyle. His jaw tightens.
“Well, Father,” says Nancy, looking at the silver watch on her pale wrist.
Suddenly, Peter feels the urge to slam his fist into something. He stares at her, his head pounding at the way she mocks him: the impatient hair toss, the grim set of her mouth, the way she and everyone else continue to call him “Father,” as though his entire vocation is now a cruel and sarcastic joke to tell between mouthfuls of chicken sausage links. And the mention of Kyle, so unnecessary, and now he pictures the wide eyes, the milky skin, the face turned to him above the basil. Peter shakes, shivers. Around them, a steady river of people swirls around the meat section and through the bread aisle, eddying between the fruits and vegetables before dumping into the row of registers. Peter watches the tide of humans, smells their wet hair still soaked from the downpour outside, imagines their hands as claws that click against plastic wrapping and bottles. I know what you’re thinking. The rage makes his knees lock.
Tide, he thinks, breathing deep. Toothpaste. Oatmeal.
“Be seeing you, Nancy.”
He watches the muscles in her jaw tighten.
One night, we tell our mothers we’re going to Tommy’s house while Tommy tells his mother he’s going to youth group. He’ll lie to her about anything for us. He’s just excited to be going somewhere with someone who at least pretends to be his friend for a while. And anyway, it’s not like our mothers wouldn’t be proud of us for this. They won’t care later about the lies we tell now.
We walk past the Dairy Queen along Saltzman Road, where there isn’t any sidewalk, and the sudden lights of cars make us teeter off the pavement and into a ditch. Using a parish directory we borrowed from Nancy the secretary, we find his house down a gravel road off Saltzman. It’s tiny, shrinking behind an immense, twisting oak, and we almost miss it at first. Rows and rows of vegetables in a neat garden out front. No chipping paint, like at our houses. A tiny path to the door. A single window. The red Station Wagon parked in the driveway.
Silently, Jeremy and Ricky creep up the path and slide a letter under his door before dashing back to the rest of us, red-faced from holding in laughter. We’ve crafted a note using letter cutouts from magazines. “Jesus Hates You, You Kid Dick Grabber, Go Die.” It’s genius, and he’ll never find out who wrote it. Could be from Kyle, for all he knows. In a way, we think to ourselves, it is, and should be.
The sun dies suddenly, the shapes and the air around us cast into cold, blue shadows. The light in Father Peter’s front window comes on. We jostle each other, breathing into our hands to warm them and whispering to be quiet, you buncha fucks, be quiet. Tommy, who never jostles or whispers covertly with anyone, squeaks with joy.
“Aw you fucktard, keep it down!” hisses Jeremy. “I mean Jesus, you might as well ring the fucking doorbell.”
We hunch lower around the trunk of the oak tree, our faces bathed in the buttery light leaking out of his house.
Father Peter walks into the room. He’s carrying a plate with a tiny heap of spaghetti in the center, a red bathrobe hanging off his sharp-edged frame and his dark curls plastered to his skull. He sinks into the only chair in the room and clicks on the television. The blue glow from the screen makes his cheeks look hollow. He presses buttons on the remote again and again.
“God does he look pathetic,” says Jeremy.
“When’s he gonna check his door?” Ricky breathes.
As if on cue, Father Peter rises. Maybe he decided he needs salt, or parmesan cheese, or his Bible to stare at. He takes a couple of steps, glances down, and stops.
We hold our breaths.
Father Peter bends slowly, then straightens with the white envelope clutched in his hand. He looks out the window. We stuff Tommy’s face in the mulch to shut him up. Father Peter can’t see us, though, there’s no way, there are bushes in front of us and everything.
He tears it open and gingerly removes the letter, unfolding it at the creases. His eyes rove over the cutout letters. Suddenly he bends over and shakes.
“Jeremy,” breathes Kevin. Jeremy watches wordlessly, panic scrawled across his face. We instantly know the same thing: inexplicably, we feel our stomachs roiling, our chests seizing. We begin to crawl away.
But Father Peter crumples the letter, opens the door, and we throw ourselves to the ground as he storms past us to his garden by the gravel road. He drops, shoving his hands into the ground and burying the letter with dirt again and again, moving his mouth in words we can’t understand with our ears pressed so hard into the dirt, until we lift our heads and realize he’s whispering.
“Tide,” he says brokenly, raggedly. “Toothpaste. Oatmeal.”
The things about him that we know to be true spill into the bruised, blue air as he hits his hands against the earth. He slams his face against the wide, thick basil, their smashed leaves sticking to his forehead. Then he turns to the tomatoes. He rips them from their stalks, and we watch, horrified, waiting for him to throw them or smash them or tear at them with his teeth, but instead he just holds them. He cups their red bodies in his hands and weeps, his shoulders quaking violently.
This is what Kyle remembers.
He wouldn’t give up the pig. No one—not Those Boys, not Ms. Jenson, not even Principal Burnside—could make him give up the pig. At home his brothers and sisters always make him give things up, because they’re mean and know they can make him do it, even with the tiny locket Mommy gave him before she left, or the snail’s shell he found while digging in the community garden with Father Peter. And then, when he won’t give up the things he loves, Kyle’s dad hits his backside with the big, metal clip on his leather belt. “Share,” he yells, even though he knows Kyle hates yelling.
That day, Kyle was tired of sharing. He loved the pig. It was his.
He sat alone in Principal Burnside’s office, where he’d been exiled, looking down at the pink toy in his lap and sighing with relief. The skin felt surprisingly smooth. He’d thought pig skins were bumpy, like they had a million chill bumps all the time, but this skin felt slick. Like it had been dipped in butter. He liked that.
Kyle tried, again, to pinch together the rip in the pig’s nose and lip, ignoring the formaldehyde puddle on his khakis. The baby pig wept, its beady white eyes leaking each time he jerked the snout. He felt the same swooping sensation as when Jeremy dragged the scalpel through the skin. Why’d he do that, he thought, swallowing hard. He liked Those Boys, watched them on the jungle gym, had his answers ready for Marry, Fuck, Kill if they ever asked him to play, could recite their version of the Sign of the Cross like it was a password: spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch. But they never asked him, maybe because of that thing he did with his spit. He only did it because he was so bored all the time, and because spit tasted different when it came out of a pen cap. Tommy picked his nose. Kevin stuck his hand in his pocket to secretly scratch his balls. Even Jeremy, so cool, looked at his snot after he blew his nose into a tissue. Why was the spit any different? But it was different. They’d made that clear. Today in Science had been the first day they’d seemed to like him, and he’d blown it in the end. “They don’t like me, either,” he reassured the curled body in his arms. It seemed to snuggle up against him.
Instinctively, Kyle hunched over the pig’s body, but then relaxed: it was only Father Peter. Father Peter, who always asked him to help in the garden with the basil, which was the best plant with the best, peppery, sugary smell; who hugged him and put his arm around his shoulders like they were friends; who rubbed his hands when he cut them on a spade or got a sliver from the wood stakes holding up the tomatoes. Father Peter, who winked at him during homily when his dad made him serve as an altar boy. Father Peter: okay. “Hi, Father Peter.”
But Father Peter frowned. “What do you have there, Kyle?”
“I saved it,” he sighed. “Want to pet it?”
He held out the pig, the same pig Jeremy tried to cut up but he, Kyle, put a stop to that. Who wouldn’t want to hold this pink, buttery pig? Who couldn’t love it? And who wouldn’t try to stop a bunch of boys—even Those Boys—from cutting it up like a pork dinner? Father Peter took the pig from Kyle’s hands, and Kyle flushed with pleasure.
“You can’t keep this, Kyle.”
For a moment, Kyle stared, slack-jawed. “But I love it,” he said. “I saved it. It’s mine.”
Father Peter shook his head. “Kyle, this pig does not belong to you. I’m sorry, but you can’t keep this.”
Kyle’s legs began to jump up and down against the floor. He watched the skin glimmer under the fluorescent lights, the legs tiny against Father Peter’s thick fingers, the hooves smaller than a fingernail.
“But,” he stammered, reaching to rub the skin, needing a touch, wishing desperately he’d never handed it over, wishing he’d hid the baby pig up his shirt so that it could curl against his chest, safe, warm.
Father Peter moved the pig away. “No,” he said softly, and placed a hand on Kyle’s neck.
Kyle was sent out to recess, pigless. Those Boys saw him and edged over to where he’d thrown himself onto the yellow-painted curb. They looked uneasy to Kyle, as though waiting for him to lodge a hatchet into their ankles.
“We saw you and Father Peter come out,” they said. “What happened?”
Kyle saw Father Peter stalking across the dark blue parking lot and saw the cruel, curious faces of Those Boys. He thought of the way Father Peter had tricked him, just like everyone else, into giving up the thing he had loved more than anything he’d ever owned. A sentence unfurled in his head.
“He just,” Kyle began, and his shoulders shivered.
“I’m very grateful to you, Brother Arnold.”
“Ah, all right, then, Peter, that’s enough. It’s you who’s doing us the favor, believe you me.”
The singing of monks extolling the Liturgy of the Hours creeps out from the wet stone of the abbey like a soft, euphonious mist. The bell tower bellows twelve chimes. Brother Arnold, his black robes brushing the heather dripping in the afternoon rain, reminds Peter of a shining wet statue. The garden stretches to the bushy blue forest beyond, swollen with flowers. Peter breathes. There: the smell of wet earth and plants raising their heads to drink. He feels his head swimming with the music and the bells and the rain like beads scattering on the stone path before him.
“What do you think?” asks Brother Arnold, watching him.
“I can stay here?” he stammers.
Peter feels Brother Arnold’s eyes search his face, green and piercing. He saw the advertisement in the parish newsletter that morning: “Knowledgeable Gardener Needed for Benedictine Garden, Mount Angel Abbey.” He left thirty minutes after. Brother Arnold found him in the parking lot, gazing up at the golden bell tower, his hands shaking. They discussed Peter’s experience with biblical gardens at St. Claire’s. Then they discussed everything else.
Peter’s heart thuds dully. Please, he prays.
“We have a shed,” Brother Arnold says finally. “You aren’t a part of the Order, so this is all we can give you, but it should suffice.”
“Thank you, so much…”
“Good. I’ll come back for you after the Liturgy so we can get you registered, Gardener.”
Brother Arnold turns and leaves down the dim hallway behind them. Gardener. The way he said the word makes something in Peter flutter. A truth. A new creed. Leeks, he begins, figs, sage, barley, juniper, flax, olives, wheat, the mustard seed. Then he remembers the passage from Luke: for figs are not gathered from thorns, nor grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man, evil.
Leeks, he begins again. Figs, sage, barley.
He kneels to brush the heather with his fingers, the bell tolls again, and from the schoolyard in the valley below are the voices of children, at play.
One by one, they all moved away: Jeremy. Kevin. Ricky. Tommy. I don’t remember much about what happened to them. That’s the thing about seventh grade friends. You mean forever, you spit and swap blood to ensure it, you do terrible things and wonderful things that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, but most times “friendship forever” really does only mean until the end of seventh grade.
Jeremy was the first to go. I lost touch with him the easiest, even though—or maybe because—I clung to him the hardest. I’m sure he got through high school and college just fine, fucking and grinning and leading his teammates to triumph. My mother said she heard a rumor that he was living with his boyfriend in a studio apartment in Los Angeles, but my mother died a year ago of Alzheimer’s. Maybe she confused him with someone else.
Tommy must be making millions somewhere. There’s no doubt: ginger nerds have all the luck when they graduate from throwing rocks at gym roofs.
I knew Ricky for a while longer, although after seventh grade our friendship became a system of rolling joints and lighting them down by the creek that ran behind our neighborhood. Right now, I imagine Ricky could be a poet. Ricky could also be dealing pot out of a tin trailer in New Mexico. He always seemed like one of those guys who saw both paths as viable options.
Kyle moved away too. How could he stay? His complete mental breakdown while he was at Sunset High, when he stabbed a kid with a protractor and ended up missing the lung by inches… and then his admittance to the Mental Learning Clinic, which everyone calls Moron’s Last Chance because it really is the pits for messed up kids…. Who would stay in Cedar Mill after that? Who could face them?
I stayed. Having done nothing interesting other than dating one of the choirgirls for a brief year, I saw no alternative. I went to college twenty minutes away, bagged groceries at Albertson’s, got promoted to the cash register. Principal Burnside bought garbanzo beans from me once, and while I was ringing up the till, she said she remembered me as particularly strong in English. She was looking for a substitute on Thursday, never mind that I didn’t have a teaching license, could I do it just this once, for the old alma mater? I needed money, so I said, Fine. One Masters in Education later, I was the English teacher for St. Claire’s middle school. Now I’m the principal. It’s a terrible job. I have to discipline kids for things I did once, and for things I never imagined kids would ever figure out how to do—like hacking into systems, setting fire to the class hamster, wiring a porn video to start up every time someone opens the Internet browser on one of the school computers. Meanwhile, I have to discipline teachers for things I expect from the kids. Only last week I caught Mrs. Bracko chucking a box of tissues at Jason Larson’s head in Religion class for answering, “The Angel Gabriel put the Baby Jesus into Mary like a tampon” during a pop quiz. And I hate spreadsheets, and budget management, and dealing with parents. But these are the things I repeat to myself over and over again, and no matter how much I wish for it, they never alter, never transform into something more exciting. This is what life looks like.
Last Monday I was reading through the parish bulletin, staring absently at the crucifix on the wall in front of me. Our latest priest-in-residence is a Jesuit, and he likes showy crucifixes to be in every room of his campus. Personally, I’ve never liked the crucifix much. The stringy body stretched and sad on planks of wood. I stared at the extended tendons until I could see twin Jesuses hanging on two crosses next to two potted ficus plants. My head began to pound, and I looked back down to finish the boring process of reading the parish bulletin. There was a homily from the Jesuit, some announcements about activities, a page of advertisements for local businesses, the weekly Prayers of the Faithful for anyone ailing in our parish. I watch this last section the closest: I look for friends of my mother’s, parents of my old friends. People linking me to this place, dying off one by one.
When I looked, I saw his name.
“We pray for Peter Howard, former priest in residence at St. Claire’s Parish and current gardener at Mt. Angel Abbey, that his final days on this earth be blessed with peace and serenity.”
Without asking for it, without knowing that I wanted to, I found him. Just like that.
. . .
It wasn’t hard to find the hospital where he was admitted; all I did was say I was once a member of Father Peter’s congregation, and the monks of Mt. Angel gave me all the information I needed. I told my secretary I was taking the day off for personal business and ambled my car down the back roads to the Woodburn Hospital.
The building loomed gray against a sky pregnant with rain. There were no plants anywhere, not even trees with skeletal winter arms or sparse-looking bushes. Why had I thought the hospital he would die in would have enough flowers to be the Garden of Eden? I threw open the door, clutching the drooping potted daffodil I’d picked up at a grocery store as a present. It looked so inadequate for what I was about to do that I laughed humorlessly. A few startled grackles near my car fluttered away. Clearing my throat, I entered through the sliding doors.
I don’t remember walking down the hallways, or asking for his room number, or whatever I did to calm myself. I might’ve snuck a cigarette. I might’ve used the bathroom, or just sat in the lobby staring unseeingly at kids’ magazines with names like Jump! and Junior Adventures. I can’t remember anything about how I prepared for this new act of cruelty. I guess it doesn’t really matter. Whatever else I did, I eventually walked into his room.
He looked small. A few strands of hair hung in a white halo around his pink skull. Tubes trailed everywhere, machines beeped in a steady rhythm, and the dull light leaking through the one window in the back was kept from reaching his face by a ridiculously pink curtain separating him from two other patients. He reminded me of the stringy Jesus on the crucifix in my office: stretched too thin, face too long, eyes too sad. Only the hands looked just as I remembered them: dirt under the fingernails that clutched at the thin sheet covering his bird legs.
“Peter,” I said.
He looked up. “Can I help you?” he croaked uncertainly.
“I…know you.” Great. I wanted to slap myself.
Father Peter frowned. “Do you work at the abbey?”
I swallowed. “I went to St. Claire’s. You… you were my priest.”
The air in the room felt thinner. His heart monitor picked up its rhythm.
“Yes,” he said. “You were friends with Kyle.”
“Right.” The way he’d said Kyle was so hauntingly empty, I stuck my hands in my pockets to hide their shaking.
“I can’t remember your name, though,” said Father Peter, struggling to sit up. “I remember Jeremy… Kenny… or was it Kevin? And the redhead…. Which were you?”
“Joe,” I answered as I fiddled with the keys in my pocket.
“Joe.” Father Peter nodded. “Yes. You were quiet. Would you mind passing me that cup of water on the counter over there?”
“Oh. Yeah. I mean, no, I wouldn’t mind,” I stammered and rushed to get the cup. I could feel my face flushing. You’re not twelve, I thought. Stop being such an idiot. I handed the cup to him and hoped he wouldn’t notice my trembling.
“Thank you.” He drained the cup and sighed, leaning back on his thin pillow. His eyes were piercingly blue, and the way he fixed them on me made my armpits begin to sweat. “So,” he said. “Joe. What have you been up to these years?”
I stared at him, trying to drink him in, trying to understand what I was seeing and what I was doing. “I’m Principal at St. Claire’s,” I answered blankly.
Father Peter chuckled. “Ah. And?”
“It’s the worst job I’ve ever had in my life.”
“You weren’t the one who spied on me at the Laundromat, were you?”
“Uh, no. That was Jeremy. Jesus, I didn’t know you knew we did that—oh, ack, sorry, I mean, I didn’t mean to say ‘Jesus’ like that, sorry….”
“Joe,” said Father Peter, placing a kind hand on my arm. “I’m not a priest anymore, remember? Swear away.”
“Right.” I looked around the room. Not much there, just the garish pink curtains. “What… do you have?” I asked, awkwardly twisting my feet the way I used to when I was a kid.
“Pancreatic cancer.” He leaned back. “It’s not that interesting, I promise you. I’m old enough for it.” He looked at me expectantly.
It was the strangest thing: I suddenly felt my legs shrinking and my scruff disappearing, the hair on my head growing, until suddenly I was a seventh grader again, every last inch of me, my head barely able to reach the metal armrest on his hospital bed. I was afraid to speak and hear my voice crack.
“Fa- Peter. Um. There was. A letter. We sent you a. Letter.”
Father Peter frowned. “What’s that?”
I could feel every hair on my body standing straight up, could feel every drop of sweat dribble down my rib cage, soak my white shirt. “Jeremy,” I tried again. “Kevin. All of us. We sent you a letter, back when things were…. ”
“Ah.” Father Peter shook his head, the blue mounds of skin under his eyes making him look devastatingly fragile. “It’s all right. I knew. I could always figure out you kids. The adults were the ones I could never get right.”
“No,” I said, “but, the thing is.”
He was dying. My life was set in its route. Understand: I wasn’t trying to make things right. I don’t believe in redemption or the power of confession or anything so pathetically hopeless. This should’ve been Jeremy, I thought desperately. This should’ve been anyone but me. It was just that I needed him to know. We left him the letter without thinking. No, worse: we left him the letter, and we thought about every step. We knew exactly what we were doing. None of us really believed Kyle, but we’d backed him up anyway, because Father Peter had seemed so, so weak to us. An easy target. We’d supported Kyle all the way to that meeting with the archdiocese and then with the archbishop, who’d looked terrifying in his white angular hat, and even to court. Even then. People everywhere, cameras, shaking in that box in front of everyone, other things I can’t remember because I blacked out that day from my memory, and still we stuck to it because of the way Father Peter shivered when we looked at him; because of the way he’d liked Kyle better than us in school; because of so many arbitrary things that had seemed important and that I can no longer remember. How could we have been so cruel?
“Joe?” he asked quietly.
I looked at him, clothed in a paper gown, lying between rough, bleached sheets. The fluorescent lights above his bed were an X-ray: I could see every vein in his body, every flap of skin hanging limply off his bones, every wrinkle that looked so deep, it seemed as though he had canyons on his forehead and cracks down his neck.
“Here,” I said instead, and I handed him the daffodil.
As I was turning to leave, he asked, “What was that thing you boys used to repeat to each other? For the Sign of the Cross?”
I grinned. “Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch.”
“That’s it,” he laughed. “You really got me with that one.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
When I left, he was still laughing. I could hear it echo down the cold white hall.