Staring vacantly, I say, "You shouldn't be here," then look up at the stained glass window in the corner of the hall, beyond the drab, grey concrete wall that surrounds it. I focus on the radiance as the sunlight surges through the red, blue, and yellow panes of glass. It reflects against the checkerboard tile on the floor making small patterns of color. A spotlight of beauty in these otherwise dim surroundings. I turn and look back at him more confident. "Leave, will you?"
"A little rude, Sal," he says, arching an eyebrow. "Why shouldn't I be here? Because I play on the other team? One of the bad guys?" He throws me a dismissive wave. "Pish-posh. I'm a demon. You're a priest. Mere details in the overall scheme of things."
I hold my stare on him. That lumpy grey body and those stumpy legs make him look like a fat, charcoal briquette. While his face is cherub-like and melon-round, it's pockmarked as if he once had an eruptive, disfiguring disease and his scalded coloring only enhances the scarring.
"Oh, for crying out loud," he continues, "does it matter? We meet, we talk." He shrugs his shoulders. "What's the harm?"
"Don't be absurd."
His face wrinkles. "Come now, you enjoy our conversations as much as I do."
He leans back and starts to chuckle, then begins to laugh until it becomes a loud guffaw. The sound is horrid, like a tire spinning on gravel and the blast of air from his throat reeks of sour milk.
I am somewhat taken aback by his behavior here and I stand and turn away from him folding my arms across my chest. "You frighten me when you get like this. Go away."
"But...I didn't mean to frighten you."
I tighten my jaw. "Uh huh."
He cocks his head to the side and says, "Truly, Sal. You see, I like you."
I roll my eyes.
"You're not as much fun as the last soul I latched on to, but..." He shrugs.
"If you were having so much fun with this last bauble of yours, why aren't you 'conversing' with him?"
"It was a her. Alas, she died." He sighs and pouts. It's fake.
I sneer and say, "What did you do? Pester her to death?"
"What is your problem today?" A pause, then a quick shake of his head. "Come now, what shall we discuss this morning? I'm feeling existential. A hearty talk on self determination perhaps?"
I turn and look into his eyes. He smiles and his teeth are stunningly white. This always surprises me for some reason and I find myself starting to grin. After a beat, I say, "Look, just go away, okay? I don't feel like it today."
He pauses with a combative stare, narrowing his eyes and clenching his jaw. Then, with a leer he says, "By the way, I saw that look you gave Joanna Fungili this morning in mass. And, oh, Sal, the thoughts that went through your mind...naughty, naughty, naughty," he chides, rubbing one bony index finger over the other.
My eyes grow wide.
"Can't say that I blame you," he smirks, giving me a nudge and a wink. "A young, good looking man like you has needs and she's one hot babe."
I point my finger at him. "Stop that!"
"Oh, what's the matter? Feeling a little guilty? You didn't at the time. As a matter of fact, I seem to recall you getting all tingly as you placed the host--the body of Christ!--into her mouth and your index finger gently brushed against her tongue--"
I turn my back to him, covering my face with my hands. I slowly pull them down and rest my fingertips on my chin. Exasperated, I finally blurt out, "Why did you just do that?" and then turn back and face him.
His expression sobers and he reaches over and touches my shoulder. "Sal...I'm...I'm sorry..."
I roll my eyes. "You are not."
He removes his hand and shrugs. "You're right. I'm not. But you're being so damned annoying. All I want to do is talk. Now, come on, where shall we start, hmm? Sarte? Camu?"
I turn and look at him with that whiter than white grin only this time I remain expressionless.
His smile slowly melts and he turns, giving a slight shrug. Then, he's gone.
I am momentarily surprised and look from one side to the other not quite sure why that was so easy. Nevertheless, I turn and nod my head with conviction.
As usual after an encounter with him I feel the need to pray so I walk back to the church and kneel at the altar, asking for what? Intercession? Release? I fold my hands, clenching them at my chin, and stare at the wooden crucifix hanging above me.
This--what?--relationship with this demon makes me question my purpose and my faith. I feel as spent as an eighty year old field hand rather than a forty year old priest. I am out of control with my parish, an observer of all that is going on around me rather than a source of comfort. I clearly see that I am failing. The congregation is dwindling; the children of this neighborhood are scattered without guidance. I feel no comfort therefore I can give no comfort.
I close my eyes and lower my head, placing my clenched, folded hands against my forehead. My face tightens. It feels as if there is a tourniquet binding my soul, twisting...wringing my purpose out of me drop by drop. I mourn this loss of my faith and it is unbearable.
"Anything else, Father?"
I jolt and look up and see Miguel Giapetta leaning against the altar railing. One of the neighborhood children. I quickly stand and rub my hands across my eyes, smiling as best I can. "No, nothing. Thank you for coming today, Miguel. Finished dusting all the pews already?"
"Yup. Cleaned 'em real good. Real shiny. Wanna see?"
"No," I respond, smiling. "I trust you, Miguel. I'm sure you did a fine job."
He's short for a twelve year old, at least a foot shorter than the other boys in his class and his curly, black hair hangs over his eyes, snagging on his eyelashes when he blinks. His body reminds me of a plank of wood. Impressive when it's facing you, but turn it to the side and it all but disappears.
I really didn't need his help today but he likes hanging around me and the church and I dare say I'd be foolish not to encourage it.
"Okay. I guess I'll see ya around," he says, shrugging his shoulders.
I nod. "I'll see you Sunday at mass."
As he turns and starts to walk away, I call out, "And get a haircut, Miguel. I can barely see your eyes anymore."
"Yes, Father," he says as he opens the sanctuary door and trots away.
I smile and shake my head as I turn and walk back to my office.
The next morning I stay in bed much longer than I should but I find myself doing that more and more these past months. I neither relax or sleep in my bed anymore. Most nights are spent staring at the ceiling, my mind flooded with thoughts of everything and nothing. Important things like the dwindling Sunday collection, to mundane things like hymn melodies. Indeed, I wish there were a switch on my head that I could just flick and turn everything off. Sometimes I get angry...sometimes I weep...sometimes I feel nothing. Last night was the latter. Nothing. Empty.
I rub my eyes and roll out of bed and, after showering and dressing, head over to the sanctuary and my office. As always, a small, steaming cup of espresso from Sister Cecilia is waiting for me on the desk. The hearty, bittersweet aroma blankets the office and welcomes me like an old friend making me smile and giving me a sudden bolt of vigor. Isn't it amazing what a simple cup of coffee can do?
Cecilia's been part of this parish for years and is stubborn enough to probably be here long after I leave. She's old. I don't think anyone here knows how old but there's no denying it when you look at her. Kind of like an ancient parchment, clear signs of age and wear but nonetheless exquisite and highly valued. She still wears a full habit, God bless her. Her puffy, round face encased in that headpiece causes her jowl to slightly hang over her collar like a wattle. I have no idea what her history may have been but I'd guarantee that she's been around the block a few times. I don't know what I'd do without her.
I smile and walk towards my desk but I am instantly startled by Miguel Giapetta seated in a chair in the corner of the room. He is crying. "Miguel, what is it?" I say rushing towards him. "What's wrong?"
He cowers, saying, "Don't be mad, Father. Sister Cecilia said I could wait in here."
"No, no, I'm not mad. It's okay. You can come and see me anytime. I saw the excellent work you did on the pews yesterday. You were right. Real shiny." I smile.
He cocks his head to the side as his lip begins trembling again. My brow wrinkles but I say nothing. He continues to stare at me with those saggy eyes, then shrugs his shoulders and purses his lips.
"Miguel, what's wrong?"
He looks upwards and with an exasperated sigh, says, "My dad..."
My eyes widen. Miguel's father is a real piece of work. Leaves for months then comes back for a few weeks and departs again leaving a wake of misery for his family, me, and county hospital to clean up.
Miguel swallows hard, then says, "He came back three days ago. He said he was all better. He said he wasn't the same. He said he wanted to be with us and that he missed us." He opens his mouth to continue, but then stops short, sniffs, then wipes his nose on his sleeve. "He hasn't changed, Father. He's still doing it. The first couple of days were good. They were! It was like we were all so happy to be together. But...last night was bad. He was bad."
He sniffs a couple more times and looks away. "He came home all drunk and staggering around with some prostitute on one arm and a bottle in the other."
"Where was your mother?"
He turns to me with wide eyes. "She was home! Do you believe it? He brings a goddamn whore in the house like he doesn't even care that he has a wife and kid at home." He begins sobbing and looks down to the floor, saying, "Sorry. I didn't mean to swear like that. I--"
"That's okay, Miguel. Try to calm down."
He looks up at me and sniffs again. I pull a handkerchief from my pocket and hand it to him. "Now, go on."
"My ma, you know? She starts yelling at him, saying, 'get that whore out of my house,' and, 'I knew it. I knew you couldn't change,' and stuff like that. And she kept calling him bad names and, man, he didn't like that. I kept telling her, 'ma, knock it off. Don't get him pissed off,' you know? Because I knew what was coming next if he got pissed off. I knew why he brought that lady home and I would've rather just let him do it and get it over with then get him all pissed off. But my ma doesn't give up, even though I'm practically begging her to just let it go." Miguel looks away and inhales sharply. "Then...he just starts punching her. She's crawling on the floor, you know? And he just keeps hitting and kicking her and the whiskey keeps spilling all over her cuz he can't stand up straight cuz he's so drunk. Then he tells her he wouldn't need other women if she wasn't so ugly." He sobs for a moment, then wipes the tears from his eyes with the handkerchief. "All this time the prostitute is laughing and telling my dad to be careful not to waste all the whiskey by spilling it on my ma and stuff like that. Finally, when my ma is just lying there crying hysterically, he leaves her alone and turns to me and tells me to get in his bedroom."
I scrunch my face and lean forward. "Wait...what?"
He looks directly at me, jolting upright. "I told him no! But, he starts coming towards me with his teeth showing and his eyes all fiery. My heart was banging so hard that I thought it was gonna shoot right out of my chest. I try to run away but he grabs me by the arm and practically pulls it out of the socket and throws me in the bedroom." Miguel looks down to the floor and lowers his voice, "It was just like before, Father. He made me do things with him and that lady in bed." He begins sobbing again and looks directly into my eyes. "I didn't want to! I didn't want to do any of those things with him or that lady. I know it's bad. I didn't want to. I was scared. I was just so scared!"
"Shh, Miguel. It's okay." I lean forward and embrace him as he continues to sob into my shoulder. It's convulsive, uncontrolled. "It's okay, Miguel. I know you didn't want to do those things. You're a good boy. I know it, and God knows it."
It takes several minutes for him to calm down but when he does he pulls away and blows his nose, saying, "I hate him, Father," and starts crying again. "But I don't want to, you know? He's my dad."
I sigh and place my hand on his knee. There is silence for a moment, and then I ask, "How's your mother?"
He shrugs his shoulders and looks down, saying, "She's okay. At least she says she is. She's got a couple of bruises on her face. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to see her like that. It used to be practically every day."
"How are you, Miguel? Do you want to see a doctor? Does your mother?"
"I think you should," I say, standing. "Come on, I'll walk you."
"No, Father, please. I don't want to. I want to stay here . . . with you. Please."
I don't want him to get hysterical again so I concede. "Okay. That's fine for now." I walk towards the door of my office, open it slightly and ask Sister Cecilia to bring me some juice for Miguel. Then I turn and walk back to my desk and pick up the phone.
"Who are you calling?"
"The police. We have to tell them what happened."
"No, Father, please, no! I don't want anyone else to know what I did. Please!"
I put the phone down and sit again in front of him. "Miguel, you didn't do anything. This isn't your fault. We have to tell the police what your father did. He has to be stopped and it's the only way to do it."
"No, Father, please. He'll go away. He always does."
"Probably. But for how long? He'll just come back. And then what? Do you want him to do this again to you? To your mother?"
There is silence as he sits there and stares directly at me. I can almost see the thoughts synapsing in his mind through those eyes. Am I doing the right thing? "Miguel, do you understand that we must tell the police?"
His eyes well with tears again as he nods his head.
"Good. You're a good boy, Miguel and you're doing the right thing. I'll be there with you."
"Okay, Father," he says wiping his eyes.
There is a knock at my office door and I walk over and open it a crack. Sister Cecilia is standing there with the juice so I open the door fully. "Sister, would you take Miguel to the rectory kitchen and give him a little breakfast?"
"Certainly, Father," she says, entering the room and handing the glass of juice to Miguel. Then she turns to me and whispers, "Is everything all right?"
I give her a wink. "Yes," I say aloud as convincing as I can, and then mouth the word, "later."
She gives me a knowing nod and then escorts Miguel towards the office door.
"You'll be around, Father?" he asks.
"Yes, Miguel. I'm not going anywhere. I'll be right there to join you. Sister, don't let him eat all the Sugar Flakes."
Cecilia smiles, saying, "I won't, Father. Come along, Miguel."
They exit and I stand there with my hand on the doorknob just staring...expressionless, blank. The tourniquet tightens.
"Morning, Sal." I turn and recoil, seeing him reclining in my chair with his drumstick legs crossed on the top of the desk.
I rub my fingers across my forehead, muttering, "I don't know what to do."
He shrugs. "Pray for him. Isn't that the church's answer for everything?"
I squint my eyes and clench my jaw. "Praying isn't what that boy needs right now and you know it."
He squints and smirks for a moment, then arches his eyebrow and looks towards the ceiling. "You know, Sal, as much as I hate to admit it, there is good that can come of this."
"Oh, for crying out loud..."
"No. Think about it. You're the first person he came running to after it happened."
"So, what do you think? Miguel was just born with his strong faith? I know you're not that stupid. Miguel has a strong faith because of his upbringing. An upbringing filled with grief from living with his father's abuse day after day, and then living with the grief of having no father when he leaves him, over and over again."
"So you're saying that Miguel has a strong religious faith because of the evil in his life? That's ridiculous. Miguel could have easily gone the same way as his father."
"True, true. He did make a conscious effort to choose to be righteous at first. But do you think his faith would stay as strong if everything were perfect in his life?" He pauses for a moment, then smirks and says, "Would yours?"
His question makes me hesitate. I remember as a child seeing my mother slouched on the sofa, drunk and half-conscious. Her head would bob back and forth on her shoulders as if the weight of it were too heavy for her neck; her once beautiful hair now grey and matted against her head always filthy and uncombed. I used to look at her and cry. She looked so worn, beaten, ravaged by life. I would run to the refuge of my faith when I would see her like this. But for what? Comfort? Escape?
"Well?" he says, crossing his fleshy arms across his chest.
I look at him, straightening my posture. "Of course!"
"Oh, really?" he says, raising an eyebrow.
He scoffs, than sneers at me as if a new thought was just handed to him. "Okay, tell me this. How many wealthy, happy, popular, beautiful people do you know with strong religious faith. I mean really, really strong religious faith. And don't you dare name the pope or any of those right-wing zealots. Even I'm more righteous than those hypocrites. But go ahead, name five in your congregation. Hell, name one."
I roll my eyes and look away. "You know this congregation is low income, working class."
"Ah-ha. My point exactly."
"I can't believe I'm getting caught up in this. Then, how do you explain all the evil and crime that exists in this neighborhood?"
"As I said before, it is a conscious choice to stay 'good,' but the point I'm trying to make is that those who choose to stay, remain strong because of the evil that is around them. And it works both ways. Consequently, it's always easiest to tempt someone who has been cloistered by religion. The forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest, right?"
I am incredulous. "So, you're saying that there must be a--what?--a balance?"
He smirks and shrugs his shoulders.
I look at him for several seconds. My mind is crowded with conflicting thoughts of all that I have been taught throughout my life and his obvious prevarication. I squint my eyes and say, "So, you would prefer this balance to a world of pure evil?"
He laughs. "Don't be an idiot. I would like nothing better than a world of pure evil, just as you would like nothing better than a world of pure benevolence. But even you can see this as a ridiculous flight of fancy." He rolls his eyes, again. "Look, all I'm saying is that we obviously have to exist together so it's just natural for us to feed off of each other. It is just the way of things."
I am suddenly startled by a commotion and the sound of Miguel yelling outside my office. I run and open the door, letting it swing and slam into the wall with a loud bang, calling out frantically, "Miguel, Mi--" I stop short, seeing Miguel's father standing at the doorway to the rectory kitchen. His back is towards me but he turns with a jolt after hearing my voice and I see his eyes are filled with the fire that Miguel had so vividly described from the night before. I stop and take a deep breath.
He looks the same as I remember. Tall and meaty, like a sausage encased in jeans and a white T-shirt. His hair is long and curly like Miguel's but it looks dirty and greasy today, sticking to his neck and forehead.
"Stay out of this, Father," he demands, holding his arm outward towards me.
"I can't do that, Vinnie."
"Father," he insists, "now, this has nothing to do with you. Stay back!"
I look at Miguel, his eyes wide, sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of Sugar Flakes in front of him. Then, I look at Vinnie again saying, "No!" and begin to walk towards him. Cecilia, who is standing behind Miguel, raises one hand to cover her mouth and places the other on Miguel's shoulder.
Vinnie's face hardens as he begins to approach me and I can hear his heavy breathing before he is even near me. My first instinct is to stop but I don't. I continue to walk towards him hearing only our shoes clop on the tile floor and my heart hammering in my chest. "Vinnie, I'm not going to let you take him. Can't you see that he doesn't want to go with you? Look at him."
"He doesn't know what the hell he wants. He's just a kid."
"Yes, a kid who is scared to death of his own father."
We stop walking and he is directly in front of me. With his face only inches from mine, he sneers and says, "What lies has that boy been telling you?" He turns his head and looks back to Miguel for a moment; his breathing still heavy and strong. Then, he looks back at me and I can feel the fury emanating from him. "Don't you believe a word that boy says," he whispers through clenched teeth. "Miguel is coming with me!" He turns and walks back towards the kitchen.
"No, Vinnie," I say lunging towards him. I grab his shoulder and he turns, plowing his fist into my jaw. This was the last thing I expected and, consequently, fall back onto the floor in an awkward heap shaking my head vigorously to regain my bearings. When my vision clears, I see Vinnie standing above me and Miguel running towards him crying out for him to stop.
"Damn it," exclaims Vinnie looking down at me through wide eyes, "I didn’t want to do that. Jesus! Now, let me take Miguel home and I'll be out of here."
Miguel kneels beside me. "You all right, Father?"
"Yes, Miguel." He helps me up off of the floor.
When I am standing, Miguel walks over to Vinnie and says, "C'mon, dad. I'll go with you. Let's go." A tear spills down his cheek.
Vinnie smirks at me.
"Miguel, no!" I say, grabbing his arm.
Vinnie yanks my hand off of Miguel. "Stay out of this, Father, or, God help me, I'll hit you again."
"No!" yells Miguel, pulling Vinnie's arm towards the door. "No, dad, don’t, please. Come on. I said I would go. Let's go."
Vinnie thrusts the door open, yanking Miguel outside, and they disappear just as the door slams with a loud bang that echoes in the great expanse of the hallway.
Cecilia shoves the chair where Miguel was sitting aside and stomps out, saying, "I'm calling the police!"
I stand there in the sudden silence...the tourniquet again tightens. I start to tremble, feeling it compress, wringing out the last drop of me. All at once, I am void and yet so very heavy.
"You see, Sal."
"See what?" I say, staring blankly at the floor.
"I get what I want, and you get what you want. There is no failure here."
I cover my eyes with my hand and sigh. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, I won't go into what Vinnie will do to Miguel when they get home, but I can almost assure you that the next time Miguel comes to you, his faith will be even stronger."
I remove my hand from my eyes and look directly at him. "Or weaker for being let down yet again."
"No, Sal. I don’t think so. You said it yourself. He's a good boy. And, Vinnie…well…Vinnie's bad." Then he smiles and says, "A nice balance, don't you think?"
I squint my eyes and look at him. He turns to walk away but then looks back at me with that grin. "So, same time tomorrow?"THE END