The sacred and profane, facing off across a nearly empty street in a big small town.
I stood on the sidewalk before St. Jerome’s Church, which put me closer to the good guys. Snow thinly coated its tier of steps like diamond dust. Not a single footprint darkened the sparkle; not a sound came from within. Light bloomed softly through the stained glass windows.
Kitty-corner across the road, Jim’s Harmony Bar glowed a neon welcome through the bitter-fresh air. The snow before its humble door looked scarred. Jukebox tunes and raised voices seeped through its walls.
Sins of the flesh.
Blinking against drifting flakes, I glanced at the sky. Where should I go first? Stars pricked through a darkness that was skin-lapping close yet fading-memory far… like Frank himself.
He didn’t answer, but I could imagine what he would’ve said: Go where you want, Steven. You’ll figure out once you get there if it’s the right place to be.
Considering I was on a pilgrimage, or something like a pilgrimage, I knew I should start at St. Jerome’s. It was evening, but Catholic churches were never locked… were they? For some reason, I had that impression.
As I mounted the steps, a minor squall kicked up in my stomach. This was a visit I’d put off for eight months. I still didn’t feel at ease with it.
One of the sturdy double doors did open when I pulled its bronze handle. No turning back now. A shiver sank into me as I crossed the dim, quiet vestibule and approached a set of inner doors. Through their small windows, I saw figures moving about and heard a muffled, mechanical drone.
Three people were working. Two older, pear-shaped women lightly polished the golden oak pews and occasionally put red-covered books into racks attached to the pews’ backsides. Missals or hymnals, I supposed. A man ran some kind of cleaning machine fixed with a large circular brush over the stone tiles of the floor. One woman and then the other glanced at me as I eased into a pew at the rear of the space.
The nave, I thought, trying to remember all the terms for the building’s various sections. It only seemed right that I at least try to remember.
A crossing area separated the pews from the altar rail. The rail separated the nave from the sanctuary. There sat the altar, draped in a linen cloth with deeply scalloped, crocheted edges. A multifaceted amber fixture suspended from the ceiling illuminated the Tabernacle, front and center, where the Blessed Sacrament was housed. A pulpit to the left, where the Gospel was read; a lectern to the right, where the Epistles were read. Since this was an older church, the altar’s backdrop was rather elaborate: a large, ornate crucifix surrounded by painted panels and pale statuary.
Set off by pillars, broad aisles ran along either side of the nave. There was a name for these, too, but I couldn’t remember it. Near the head of each, a nook formed a protective embrace around a statue. One appeared to be the Virgin Mary. I couldn’t see the other from where I sat. Votive candles in tiered racks flanked the kneeling rails in front of the statues. Tiny flames swathed some of the cups in red. They flickered occasionally, stirred by stray drafts I couldn’t feel… or by a ghost I could.
Suddenly Frank was here. Not with me but everywhere else in St. Jerome’s. He was in the intertwined scents of warm beeswax and lingering traces of incense, of lemon-oiled wood and scrubbed stone. He was in the marble drapery of the statues and the velvet curtains of the confessionals. He was at the altar, lifting a gold chalice, serene and dignified in his vestments, and he was at the altar rail, delicately placing pristine white wafers in people’s hands or on their tongues.
My throat knotted. I blinked and looked down at my cool, bleached-knuckle hands. I couldn’t have explained what I was feeling if my life had depended on it.
Come on. It’s not like you just found out. You’ve known for four years. You’ve envisioned this scene countless times.
I hadn’t shed any tears over Frank in the past several months, and the only time I’d wept publicly had been at his memorial service. So why this upswell of emotion now, in a place I’d never been with him?
Only one answer came to me: being here was my catharsis. I had to wring myself dry, purge myself of every last drop of grief before I could really move on.
I swiped both hands over my face and looked up. One of the women was watching me. I again lowered my gaze.
To secure some composure, I guess, I fixed on the most innocuous sight in my line of vision—the tall man cleaning the floor. Soon, his simple movements arrested me. He gripped the machine with such easy mastery, swayed it over the tiles so gracefully, he seemed to be dancing with it.
I smiled at the image.
At just that moment, as if he sensed my attention, he glanced at me. He had a weatherworn face but not an old one—mid to late thirties, most likely—and his long-lashed eyes were dark and warm. Rosy swatches abruptly colored his cheekbones. After an initial second of surprise, he tried politely to return my smile. The effort wasn’t entirely successful and didn’t last long. He soon refocused on his work.
Poor guy, I thought. He’s volunteering his time to help out his local parish, and he catches some citified stranger giving him the eye. That wasn’t actually the case, of course. My mind was vacant and my heart was heavy, and my smile had felt detached and wan. I wasn’t in the mood to ogle anybody. But I could understand how a provincial man might see things differently.
Staring again at the muted color and glimmer of the sanctuary, I realized nothing was ever askew here. Not openly, anyway. Everything had its place and every place had a name, and all the people ever contained within these solid walls knew exactly what was expected of them. Any misalignment was artful and intentional, like the marble folds of each statue’s raiment or the droop of Jesus on the cross. Frank had certainly known what was expected of him and had known he was out of alignment. He’d once told me the ongoing tussle between his vocation and his sexuality had made his spirit feel permanently disheveled.
I hadn’t fully understood that statement until now. Frank was one of the loveliest men I’d met in my thirty-two years on earth, and it hadn’t seemed possible someone so full of rightness could feel so wrong inside, even temporarily.
More tears threatened to well just as one of the cleaning women hobbled down the center aisle. She sent her kind gaze and smile in my direction. I didn’t know where to look. I couldn’t decipher her intentions. With some difficulty, she slid into the pew I occupied, but she did so from the opposite end. As she inched her way toward me, I got up and met her halfway. Some affliction seemed to impair her movements. Arthritis, maybe.
“Hi. My name is Peg,” she said. Her voice was as quiet and gentle as that of a mother singing her child to sleep.
I tried to match the volume, if not the tone. “Hi. I’m Steven.”
“Oh, I like that name.”
Peg seemed like the genuine article: a sweet, matronly woman who actually gave a shit about people, strangers included. I immediately trusted her face. Like an irregular pearl resting on a fraying woven mat, it seemed cushioned by her gray-threaded perm. The upper lids of her eyes were in a state of slow collapse, but a twinkle of blue still managed to escape.
“You’re not a member of St. Jerry’s,” she said, without making the parish sound like an elite club.
I appreciated that. “I’m not even a resident of Prism Falls. I drove here from Minneapolis… in memory of a friend.” I couldn’t bring myself to name Frank. I didn’t know how he was remembered by these people, what public propaganda or rumors had surrounded his departure.
“I hope we haven’t disturbed you.”
“No,” I said quickly, shaking my head. “No, not at all.”
Peg touched my arm. “Why don’t you light a vigil candle? That’s a good way to honor a loved one. You say a prayer, and the flame represents your prayer.” She didn’t bother asking if I was Catholic. I appreciated that, too, her instant acceptance.
I looked from one bank of votives to the other. “I wouldn’t know which side to pick.” It was a dopey reply, but I didn’t know what else to say.
Peg didn’t seem to care. “Most people go to the Blessed Mother,” she said, leaning closer, “but I go to Jerome.” She discreetly flipped a forefinger to the niche on the right side of the nave. “I figure Mary’s spread kind of thin, considering how many churches she’s in, but Jerry is ours. Well, not just ours, but his name’s on this place.” Her smile was a little playful, a lot encouraging.
“I guess I’ll do that. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I hope you feel better when you leave.”
She must’ve seen my earlier distress.
More fluttering filled my stomach as I eased out of the pew and headed for St. Jerome’s cubby. I tried to lighten my footfalls after the first two echoed through the gloom. Peg called softly to somebody named Evan, who was likely the man buffing the floor. Out of curiosity, or maybe because I needed a small diversion, I glanced over my shoulder. Yup, Evan was the buff buffer. He bent at the waist as Peg murmured to him. I turned away.
St. Jerome loomed ahead. He had a full beard, a patriarchal demeanor. I found him intimidating.
I’ll bet he hated homosexuals.
Oh Christ, just keep me from bawling.
A small, locked box secured to each candle rack made it obvious donations were expected. I didn’t mind. Hell, the church must go through scores of candles in a year. I pushed aside half of my coat, felt in my trouser pocket for money, and pulled out some bills. A ten was the first I extracted, so into the box it went.
I lifted a bamboo stick from a tall jar, borrowed a piece of flame from a lit candle, and asked Frank if he had a preference. My hand descended to a dark cup on the left. The wick immediately caught. I interpreted that as a good sign, but a sign of what, I had no idea. Taking a deep breath, I sank to the hard kneeling rail and rested the wrists of my folded hands against the equally hard prayer rail. Maybe supplicants had to sacrifice comfort in addition to money if they expected something in return.
At least, I thought, I won’t have to flagellate myself.
I turned up my eyes to address Jerome. Actually, I first looked at his statue’s pedestal. A plaque affixed to it read:
Be at peace with your own soul,
then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.
~ St. Jerome
(Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, 340-420)
My gaze crept up to his face. Please don’t look at me. You might be the patron saint of orphans and abandoned children, but you are one scary fella.
After that, my mind pretty much went blank. I realized for the second time in my life that I didn’t know how to pray. The first time had been after Frank’s accident. Now, I didn’t know how many or what kinds of requests my ten dollars and sore knees had secured me or what words would give them wings. Although my father was Jewish and my mother was Catholic, they were old hippies and hadn’t put too much stock in organized religion. I’d been exposed to it but never steered down a particular path.
Miserably, I mouthed Frank’s name. Then, I miss you.
A yammering began in my mind, a rattling, falling, bouncing, and scattering string of words, like poorly matched beads sliding off a broken necklace.
Steven Brandwein here. Please oh please bless the soul and anything else that’s left of Frank Connor and grant him eternal joy and peace, he was once your loyal servant and I know he was a damned good one, but he wasn’t created according to most men’s interpretation of the rules of creation, hell, you know that, so he was forced to stop serving, he didn’t want to but he couldn’t deny his nature, I don’t know why any good man should feel pressured to deny his nature, what the fuck is wrong with people, please fix them, douse them with enlightenment or give them a kick in the ass or something, this shit has got to stop, there are too many Franks out there, but thank you for the gift he was, only why did you let him get ripped up so much before you sent him my way, oh just please let him know how much he meant to me and give him a pat on the back for a good job well done and stuff him with happiness even if it’s in the form of hard dick because he’s earned it, pardon my crudeness… oh, and assure him I don’t mind.
As the syllables tumbled, I’d unwittingly made a basin with my hands and dropped my face into it. My breath and shoulders hitched lightly. The skin of my fingers felt damp.
I’m all right, Steve. I’m home now. It’s perfect. You must go be happy.
I lifted my face, wishing I could tell the difference between words from beyond the veil and words from within the well of wishful thinking. Fuck.
My knees cracked faintly as I rose.
Peg and her coworker were conversing quietly at the opposite side of the nave. It seemed their tasks were completed. Manly Evan and his dance partner were nowhere to be seen. I strode as quietly as possible down the ambulatory—yes, that’s what the far aisle was called—and decided Jim’s Harmony Bar was where I now needed to be.