The Religious – Big Hark
September 16, 2021
Smelled Like Fish
That first priest sounded Dutch. Vanderwaal. Vandekamp. Something like that. Interviewed Preston in khaki shorts and hippie sandals. Gnarly yellow toenails on display. Old old old. Father Van Something-Something. Are you Catholic? Yes, sir. My whole life.
First week on the job, Preston agrees to let Father Hickens take a walk. Hey, Chief, the old man says. Give us a hand with this thing, huh? Preston works the handle, pushes the heavy door wide open. Father says, name’s Bill Hickens—rhymes with chickens. Then he disappears. After dark he comes back in a South Bend squad car. Officer Navarro found him at a Wendy’s by the highway. How’d I get here from Portland, is what Father wants to know.
The nurses giggle because the mortician is handsome. Preston will help with the body. Jun looks out the window for the hearse. Ginny, young and pretty, fusses with her hair. I never make sense when he comes here, she says. I always stumble over my words.
Consecration and Commitment
Father Andre, the community’s religious superior, lives downstairs, as does Father Jack, his number two. Downstairs also is Preston’s cell, one of six. Guests, when they come, are quartered there. The other religious, sick and dying, retired and old, live in the infirmary upstairs. Fifty beds they have in all. Fourteen vacant. No, wait. Vanden-Something. Make that fifteen.
For the Missions
Moving out day. At the college, Brother Clarence fills his truck with coffee makers, dartboards, and comfy chairs. He takes carpet remnants, electronics. He can’t believe the things the students leave among boxes of takeout and bottles of beer. Garlic sauce pizza ruins a pillow. Vintage Schlitz swag lamp ought to fetch a good price. Brother will replace the lamp cord and cluster socket in his shop by the garage. Good as new, he’ll sell it for fifty in autumn to the same boy who left it behind.
Free from Defect, Resistant to Blight
Inside a stifling greenhouse, Brother Teddy inspects 20 hibiscus seedlings. The community’s oldest resident, he turns 95 in September. Brother is able-bodied, limber, and strong. He evolved from gardening to botany in his 70s, and presently tries to verify the creation of his first hearty cultivar. If he’s successful, Brother will name it hibiscus rosa-sinensis “Basil Moreau”—after the founder of his order—for reasons that soothe but fail to nourish, like when desperate, becalmed sailors guzzle water from the sea.
Acts of Contrition
The men cry, I detest my sins!
Panthera Tigris Tigris
Father Bill Hickens Rhymes with Chickens served forty years in Bangladesh. Jesus Christ, dysentery, Holy Spirit, rotten guts. Hickens was a builder. In the jungle up came clinics. In the jungle up came schools. Hickens sheltered orphans, purified their water. Once possessed Hindi and Urdu, just enough Bengali. In his retirement, all has gone to seed. Father always wanted to see a wild tiger. Forty years in the jungle. Not a single one.
Father Beeper beeps and clacks and clicks. Batshit crazy. Won’t say hi. At night, he paces his circuit. Dining room, library, chapel, den. Hard to say how old he is. Hair as white as his Roman collar. Says proper Mass in private to himself. In English or halting Latin. Father Andre commands it. Beep! Bloop! Beep! You’re a priest, Jerry Beakner, you took vows. Beep. Father. Tic. Father. Tic! Father, you will say your Mass in a language I can understand.
On off-nights, Father Jack works with the Niles Police Department. He takes confession, counsels, and prays. Father Jack was a Navy chaplain. Served twenty years on ships and bases. He likes policemen, speaks their language. His counterpart, a Baptist M.D. from the Southern Convention, practices psychiatry. Talks to the men about their feelings. He’s not supposed to do that, Father Jack complains.
The dayroom’s drink cart features old-man booze, the cheap stuff. Black Label. Rich & Rare. Christian Brothers. Seagram’s. They roll it out on feast days with plates of crackers and cheese.
Brother Clarence likes to gamble. Once a quarter, his brother’s widow, Margaret, takes him out to Michigan City for an afternoon of penny slots. The Blue Chip’s where they like to go. Specials like crazy. Seniors get a free buffet.
Tired of repeating herself, Ginny tapes a poster to the nurse’s station. ATTENTION: Reverend William J. Hickens, CSC. Today is ________. You’ll return to Portland tomorrow. We serve meals at 6 am, noon, and 4:30 pm. You can rest in room 225, and we have extra socks and underwear and pajamas in your size.
Eros, Philia, Agape
Of the seven sacraments—Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance and Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick and Dying, Holy Orders, and Matrimony—Father Mitchell has had six. At eighty years of age, he’ll be anointed soon enough. Mitchell lost his wife in ’82. Cancer of the breast. He mentors seminarians now. When they visit, his grandkids are a hit.
The men are fed like middle school. Tater tots and chicken fingers. Green beans from a can.
At chapel, the men accept the Eucharist directly. No hands. They open up those mouths of theirs to take their Jesus on the tongue.
On the Feast of Saint Bartholomew
On the night shift, Jun needs Preston’s help changing Father Larry. You don’t have to, but I could really use the help. Ginny won’t be here ’til after two. Of course, Preston says. Show me the way. Father Larry smells of sick. Balms and ointments. Excrement. Piss. Preston lifts the old man’s legs, slides a fresh diaper underneath. A whimper. In the cool night air, Father’s feeble penis shrivels. Young man, he says, hands on his heart, don’t you know you’re beautiful?
Star of the Sea
Sober thirty years before the Parkinsons wracked his body and resolve, Father Peter sneaks warm sixers of Black Label whenever he’s able. Washes the empties in his sink, wraps them up in newspaper silos. Down the garbage shoot they go! Doesn’t matter which disease causes the tremors now. Alma Redemptoris Mater, he cries.
Undressing Brother Jerome, Preston spies a moldering hula girl on the old man’s forearm. Shore leave, grunts the former seaman. You could used to see her bosoms before I took my vows.
Wheel of Fortune
Brother rubs his angel bangles. Brother rubs his beads. Nineteen different charms he has: a bunny, a horsey, a kitty, a bear, a boombox (a boombox!), and good luck and dollars and jackpot and flush and angels and angels and eight over time angels. He rubs them on the money bucket. Rubs them on the slots. Kisses leather scapular. Pulls that handle down.
The St. Joseph County Philately Society
Father Andre ends the hobbies. If it can’t fit in your room, I want it gone. Brother Teddy demolishes the greenhouse. Father Joe donates his stamps (he’s permitted to retains three pristine 1988 first-day Knute Rockne covers along with the shoebox of Edwardian kiloware he was gifted as a boy). Brother Clarence keeps his workshop. The money, after all, always goes to the missions.
Never Was No Girl in Mestre
While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, Teddy Rezac lay very flat and sweated and prayed. Oh, Jesus Christ, get me out of here. Dear Jesus, please get me out. Christ, please, please, please. Christ, if you’ll only keep me from getting filled, I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please, please, dear Jesus. The shelling moved further up the line. In the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet.
Game of the Century
Midnight. Father Joe drinks coffee, smiling still about his Irish. What a game, what a game, what a game, oh boy! Ginny mans the nurse’s station. Jun completes her rounds. Preston prepares the old man’s meds and laments his lack of backup. Father is a chatterbox and lonely. He will keep this up all night. How ’bout that Charlie Ward now, huh? Whaddya say now ’bout that crazy Charlie Ward? What an athlete! What a kid! Preston rubs his bloodshot eyes. Didn’t quite make it, Preston obliges. I’ll say, Father Joe continues. Never even had a chance.
Father Phil goes from zero to metastatic in forty-nine days. Spends the last of his time with visitors. Nieces and nephews. Former students. Parishioners from way back. Also plans his requiem. Beethoven’s Ninth, he wants. Fourth Movement. Ode to Joy.