Fiction by Rick Ewing
And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through—
Jesus Christ. Salmon on crackers and cranberry juice made Sister Kathleen Jude Kelly’s stomach feel worse than the frankincense had and it was getting late. Like one of the hymns she’d soloed at the funeral mass, soon and very soon there would be rivers to span and mountains to clamber to make it back to Emmitsburg by midnight.
Or maybe…she thought, and tapped away on the phone to be surprised by what she had never once realized all those years knowing Tommy. Turned out the Jersey shore would take the same travel time as getting home to Maryland.
With him at the wheel yawping scandalous tales, braying along with reggae on the radio, consistently a half-note flat, making her laugh like a twit, Allentown always twinkled into Point Pleasant in a blur of ecstasy.
This shoaling, teeth-baring host of clergy was not what she needed just now. Sister could feel the power-tilt underway, what Father Schaefer would’ve called the school’s court intrigue congealing by the minute. Oh, how they despised Tommy. An afternoon of feigned solemnity was as much as they could handle. Now she watched them finning for position, enlivened by booze, as the oblates considered the vacuum left by his death. Interspersed were short gusts of passion about the game the next day. On the upside, they were goring her food with rapture.
Sister Kate had striven to appear not the least proprietary about preparations for the funeral, only volunteering to shop for the wake, but even that had its moment—the cashier with her comment So why does the wife always have to run out for her man’s Super Bowl goodies? She merely smiled sickly, brushing by the Valentine’s Day frou-frou and fled the scene.
Edging to the community room’s archway, Sister peeked down the curved hall, Tommy’s room out of sight around the circling corridor. Could she do this?
Brother Jim, she saw, was giving her an up-from-under look from over by the bar. Long lashes shuttering relentless eyes like one of his theatrical spotlights. Father’s sole clerical ally on campus could be shaping up as her nemesis. He’d spied her tears during the first song, which was fine, but she wondered if following up with By the Rivers of Babylon was a mite bold, an odd choice that said too much.
Brother’s own emotional wattage seemed to undergo a jolt as she sang. Had he sensed that she was somehow declaring her place? Fulfilling a request from the beyond? Or did Brother Jim’s anguish also derive from the unspeakable?
At least Jim McCawley, librarian and lighting designer, had been his friend. The rest resembled Father Hanlon, who recited Tommy’s achievements in the eulogy as if at gunpoint on a hostage video. How he’d put this bitsy cow-college in a Pennsylvania cornfield on the map, how now it was an accredited university thanks to his intellectual brawn, bristling talent and ambition. How two of his texts in dramatic lit criticism were now staples in higher learning. That Father Thomas Schaefer was a double threat, scholar and artist—his directorial flair had lured former Broadway luminaries to the department he created, now ranked as one of the top in the US for training theatre folk.
“He inspired people like Sister Kathleen,” the Humanities Dean intoned, “Sharing her beautiful voice with us today, to replicate our success in miniature below the Mason-Dixon Line in her own college.”
Yes, yes, she was aware Schaefer, to colleagues, had appeared remote, arrogant, with a show-bizzy charisma. He was a maverick with swagger; his priestly brethren found his erudition sinister and menacing.
Sister Kathleen Jude Kelly knew he was all these things and none. She knew worlds more that she was helpless to tell. What was real, what false? Tommy loved to say each was critical, only a gorgeous lie could illuminate truth. Five minutes after learning the 51-year-old priest had been felled by a brain aneurysm during rehearsal for The Misanthrope, dead before his forehead hit the stage, Sister’s mind—wild with grief, hysteria geysering—went to the talking ass.
It was what she thought of as their first excursion to the sea.
How many animals speak in the Bible, he asked, while they waited for take-out on the boardwalk. Only the Serpent, she giggled, and he’d still have his legs if he’d kept his yap shut. “Wrong guy to ask for menu ideas,” Father said, “Speaking of, you gotta try this habanero sauce I brought along. How about Numbers 22, Balaam’s ass?”
It would become one of their routines, a leitmotif in their time of knowing. Even better, her way of paying him back for getting it wrong.
“Why,” she’d say, grinning in a way caught in certain closely-held photos, “You must mean the female ass brainy and spiritually perceptive enough to shy away three times from the angel blocking the road. And when her brute master beats her, asks…” Here the Bronx girl came tumbling forth. “Whattid I evah do to youz? Is that the ass in question?” Excepting And the Lord shall make thee the head and not the tail, his answers were invariably unrepeatable. But precious.
There’s no true faith until you learn to blaspheme like the damned, he said. Do it. Get the feel.
She was stunned to hear herself blurt back a now-that-you-ask response: Right! Who has the funniest names in the Bible? After he stammered a few lame offerings, she threw a shrimp at his darling face, gave the correct answers and that’s how she became Huppim and he Muppim. Hey, Mupp. Hey, Hupp. Feel like taking your luscious talking so-and-so on a roadtrip?
Earlier at the requiem, she saw nothing of Thomas in his only surviving family member, Jack. His older brother arrived from Sedona smiling queerly, babbling about his pool business and transfigured energies and wasn’t it a blessing that Tommy had passed over so seamlessly? Before leaving he doled out boxes of carob-covered crickets, describing their therapeutic properties.
Father Schaefer’s lunacy, by contrast, was coherent; it tracked logically in its own demented way. He emptied his mind on Kate and over time she got with the program.
“You’ve got to chuck it all away,” he said, “Heap up in a pile our clerical studies, our PhDs and post-docs and take a big ol’ whiz all over ‘em. Can’t stand guys who tell me all they’ve learned, what they’ve processed and reconciled. Challenge bullshit always. Be a kid! A brat! Tell me what makes no sense to you. Do like whoever-the-hell-that-was who wrestled overnight with God. You don’t just get to ask Him stuff, you know. You get to demand He treat you well, keep your sorry self sound. You can upbraid Him, wake Him and wise Him up. Ever notice how often Moses had to bully Him to pay attention, as if he’d been napping half the time?”
“Do it,” he said, “Be brave enough to be stupid. Good or bad. Go stupid on me, Kate.”
Of course it was their usual room at the Wave Crest, a block from the beach. There had been, um, activities. Then wine, scallops wrapped with bacon and curly fries, goings in and goings out, more wine, further activities, and at last a pause while Tommy blew Marlboro smoke out the window.
They may have been outfitted like pre-apple Adam and Eve and she may have been jumping up and down on the bed, whirling a beach towel featuring a leering dolphin, while saying:
“Gotcha, gotcha. Now listen…all right, you read the New Testament, just read it right smack, ticky-tock through and you end up thinking Wow, if Jesus wasn’t Jesus he should have been Jesus! I mean, this dude’s really cool-beans slick. Even if he was faking, they should have elected him Jesus or—“
He interrupted to say she was a rare loon, but speaking of faking, he had one. What he loved about the Shroud of Turin, even if it was bogus, was the face on the cloth. Look at that mug, he said, that there ain’t Christ your fey British rock star. That there’s Jesus the ass-kicker. Same idea as that single portrait of George Washington leaning on the canon. No wussy-boy, kindly daddy of your country there. That was George the romp-stomper, girlie-goo.
“How ‘bout when he called himself Son of Man,” Tommy said, “Doesn’t that sound like a bit of a hedge? A little late-stage back-pedaling? What about that?”
What about some more activities, she said.
In the beginning, seventeen years ago, in D.C. at Catholic University, Sister Kathleen learned to love the way he married the sacred to the naughty. In her second year of initial vows, she enrolled in Father Schaefer’s Master’s seminar on Liberation Theology and Street Theatre. She’d heard he was an emerging dynamo and there he came, hurling into the stuffy room in a gush of clean spring air.
“I do set my bow in the cloud!” he bellowed, quoting God, arcing a forefinger toward the window and the quieting rain. He followed with the joke about Rene Descartes entering a bar, ordering whiskey, being asked if he wanted a beer chaser, answering I think not—whereupon the philosopher promptly disappeared.
Disappeared. Brother Jim McCawley seemed to have. Peering around the wake and into the hallway of the priests’ residence, Sister decided that now was the time to act. Mills Hall was a round building, with the chapel in the center and the clergy’s quarters in the ringed corridors. She sidled to her guitar-case and withdrew a large plastic bag.
Activities, she thought, bring a universe of consequences, requiring activities undreamt of. She was long past chiding herself for pettiness about what she must do. There was no way she would let lesser men recover anything that may allow Tommy’s name to become an astonishment, a proverb and a byword among all nations. Nothing would sully his legacy.
Anything in his room that may implicate him in forbidden matters must be removed.
A priest squealed that the drizzle had turned to snow. On her knees, she stalled, staring at her guitar, reliving that afternoon in the graveyard. Tommy would’ve snickered to see how precisely the mourners mimicked Emily’s burial scene in Our Town, the clustered umbrella-circle…a bloom of ebony mushrooms. Sister Kate hovered at the back, volleying between dread, inexplicable joy and nausea, swaying queasily like the incense-thurible over his body during mass. God seemed to have sent his regrets. Prior engagement. Otherwise occupied. Hiding His face. Maybe napping.
He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.
And all the people shall say Amen. So be it? Say again? Amen? Now he goes in the ground?
She turned her back, instantly deranged, letting the umbrella fall and the rain come, humming the Billy Joel song he loved. Yeah, Tommy Schaefer, for eternity… you’ll be waiting here in Allentown.
How that man adored the goofiest music, she brooded, rubbing her fingers along the guitar strings, how his passions ranged and raged. The contradictions in his soul, so at odds with the highbrow image he brandished to the wider world.
This ain’t a song for the broken-hearted
No silent prayer for the faith-departed—
Room 13 in Point Pleasant with the boom-box on and Father Schaefer enacted his ritual, cleaning sand from her toes with granular attentiveness, muttering about a horrible pit, out of the miry clay and setting her feet upon a rock, his words contrapuntal to the singer’s insistence that it was his life, he wanted to live while he was alive and so on.
When it got to Don’t bend, don’t break, baby, don’t back down Tommy bowed his forehead to the bathroom floor, sobbing.
“First time I heard this was that concert after nine-eleven,” he said. “Oh God, the people…”
Now Sister Kate surveyed the padres huddled around the buffet, one clicking on the TV. She took up her purse and the large bag, as if to visit the restroom, and entered the hallway, electing to go left around the circled corridor. What could possibly be my excuse if I’m caught?
To divert her nerves, she pretended only the best could happen and after she’d phone Maria or Joey to reserve the room at the Wave Crest. It was off-season; surely it would be available. Maybe she would spend a few days, make plans, necessary plans, big plans.
Yet another Tommy quirk, that was, always Room 13. Lucky for us, he said, the only one for us. He had a twisty rationale she never completely untangled. Some half-and-half concept about their thirteen- year age difference plus his vision of her as a…thirteenth disciple?
The closest she came to catching on was two months ago, her thirty-eighth birthday, the night he complained about headaches and his eyes seemed to bulge. She emerged from the shower to find an opened copy of the apocryphyal gospel Philip on top of a pizza box, him in the chair, beaming like a kook. He’d drawn an arrow to the passage:
Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth.
Later she would learn there were crucial gaps in the line of the recovered manuscript. This rendering was supposition, the way humans do, she imagined, unlacing mystery at will, creating the world they wish.
Just before the circling hallway turned out of view of the community room, Sister Kate looked back, no one in sight. The priests’ rooms had no locks and she reached for the knob on Tommy’s door.
“Sister. Kate.” From the other direction, hips in advance of his twiggy frame, Brother James approached. They squared off in silence.
“At least…one of us…” he whispered, finally, then stopped, wagging his head. He extended a taupe fabric carry-all. “Laptop, phone. And, uh, paperwork.”
Frozen, she looked into his glazed, vivid eyes, with her own asking every question since the universe was a gleam in God’s…
After worlds formed and imploded, she mouthed Thank you, taking the bag.
“Let’s just say…” He nodded, “It is finished.” He turned, halted as if to say add something, then shook his head again and went into his apartment three doors down.
Sister’s chin drooping, she trudged the other way around the corridor. Finished.
Tommy believed the nature of every moment, every instant, also held its opposite. Every first kiss prefigures strife and separation. A crying jag foreshadows ecstasy. The greatest faith seeds suicide.
Once, no, twice, there were Muppim and Huppim. Hey, Mupp.
He will swallow up death in victory.
Sister Kate wondered how familiar Brother Jim is with his Genesis, if he knows about Benjamin’s and Rachel’s other funny-named kiddo. She rested her palm on her curving belly.
Hello, Ard. Up for a roadtrip?
Rick Ewing holds an MFA in a field unrelated to writing. A short story collection, most of which was written while he was homeless in NYC, will be published later this year.