Sunday, May 20, 2012

Fig Leaf by Andrew Coburn

An encounter on a New England nudist beach sparks off an unorthodox relationship in Andrew Coburn's characterful work.

They met on a Cape Cod beach, he a man of God and she an assistant district attorney, the two of them starkers. It was that kind of beach. He approached while she stood in a near-trance at the surf's edge, the cloud-soaked sun little more than a lemon stain. The cloud was shaped like Italy, a Sicily floating near its toe. The man's sudden shadow interrupted her reverie, and his voice put her on alert. His belly dished in, he told her she looked familiar and asked her name.

Margaret. His was Todd.

He knew no Margarets. She knew no Todds.

His inky sunglasses were perfect circles, hyphenated, around which Margaret sought to read his face while editing away the rest of him. Not bad-looking, but what was he, an overage hippie with a traditional haircut? A weekend naturist? She certainly wasn't, despite the circumstances and surroundings. With her modest breasts and supple legs, she was, for the nonce, a sprite.

His voice was pleasant. "First time?"

Before she could respond, a pair of sea monsters emerged from the surf. Goggled in frog masks and sealed in wet suits, they were anonymous while she stood unequivocal and unmistakable in her skin.

"Yes, first time," she murmured. The visitors from the sea had shed their masks and were staring openly and at length, wry humor in their smiles. One was unmistakably a woman. "They shouldn't be here!"

Todd spoke softly. "Don't be embarrassed."

"Then tell them not to gawk."

"I've a better idea."

He guided her away, and they began meandering the shoreline, where remnants of waves foamed their feet and crushed their toes. Seagulls swooped and shrieked over wet sand, seeking dead fish that stank to high heaven, little fish that passed for slivers of torn tin, tiny ones that looked like anchovies, some like spittle.

"I saw the sun come up this morning," Margaret said as they wandered beyond the stink.

He murmured, "A sunrise can be shrill, but only a sunset can scream, like a cat being fed to a furnace. That's something I stole for one of my sermons, can't remember from where."

She was taken aback. "You're a minister or something?"

"Don't let it bother you."

Dogs were not allowed on the beach, but one of no particular breed nosed its way over soaked sand, its owner in tow, a woman whose overabundant hair miniaturized her face. Splashing in from a swim was an abnormally thin man, with ribs resembling spare parts and genitals shriveled nearly out of sight. Margaret wondered whether he had AIDS or something equally ominous.

"This is surreal," she murmured. In a normal voice, she said, "Do I call you Father, Reverend, or Rabbi?"

"Todd will do."

"I'm here on this bare-ass beach because my shrink suggested it . . . to rid me of certain hang-ups. What's your excuse, Todd?"

The sun transformed gray specks in his hair into silver sparkles. Despite the sparkles, she guessed he was still under forty, no more than five years older than she. Their eyes conferred.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," she said, "but my shrink would say you're struggling to know yourself."

"Your shrink would be off target. This was my mother's idea."

"Now you're putting me on."

"I never lie."

"Do you always do what your mother says?"

"Only when it makes sense."

This does not, she thought and glanced at the watch she wasn't wearing. "Time to go," she said with a polite smile.

His initiative, they shook hands, which immediately made her feel silly. Separating, they strolled off in opposite directions. Neither expected to lay eyes on the other again.



Dr. Wall had a fuzzy ball of hair that capped a head overstuffed with other people's secrets, including many of Margaret's. Margaret sat in a deep leather chair meant to relax her but tending to swallow her while Dr. Wall reigned from behind an ample desk bearing gilt-framed photographs of his family. His signature bow tie was not a snap-on but the sort he tied himself, with a swirl and a flourish. "So tell me about it," he said.

"What was supposed to be natural wasn't," Margaret said from the depths. "Everybody was on display, and not everyone was in displayable shape."

"Talk with anyone?"

"Briefly. A man who implied he was a clergyman."

Dr. Wall's gaze held steady, weighted by a silence full of the unasked and the unsaid. The doctor was, Margaret suspected, in love with her. Imagining him on the beach, she pictured a pink ball of a belly, a loose knot of a navel, and a bandy pair of legs. Finally he broke his silence.

"Did the supposed clergyman's nudity embarrass you? Repulse you?" He hesitated. "Attract you?"

"None of the above. We were passing ships in the sunlight."

"I guess we could call that a plus, a positive. Would you agree?"

"I don't know what I'd call it, but leaving the beach, I began feeling silly, stupid even, no longer anonymous." For no compelling reason, her eyes began to tear up, which made Dr. Wall less distinct and herself more poignant. "What's the matter with me?"

"Something's the matter with everyone. Why should you be different?"

"Because I am. I'm smarter, quicker, and prettier than most." She blew hair from her eyes and dabbed the corners with a tissue plucked from her bag. "But I'm afraid of death."

Dr. Wall had a unaccountable urge to reach out, to breathe her in, to encase the beat of her heart in his hand, as if it were a canary. "Then don't die."

"My mother did."

"Mothers do. So do fathers. Fathers usually go first."

"It didn't happen that way in my family. Damn it."

"I know." Sitting back a bit, Dr. Wall imagined Margaret opening herself and displaying a Georgia O'Keeffe flower. "If you're truly afraid of dying, tell yourself you'll live forever. Then, when your time comes, it'll be so fast you'll never know it. Just as if it never happened. You'll be gone. You'll be nowhere. It will be as if you never existed."

Margaret began to cry.

"OK, OK." Dr. Wall's color sharpened. "You won't be gone. You'll be in Heaven living on a cloud. Is that what you want to hear?"

"Yes," she said. "I prefer the bullshit."



They came upon each other on a busy Boston street and for a second or so neither recognized the other, perhaps because neither was naked. He was in his collar, she in a smart skirt-suit tailored to her figure, a briefcase in hand. She said, "Jesus Christ, you're a priest!"

He guided her toward a parking meter to free themselves of the swift sidewalk traffic and spoke with a smile. "You knew I was something."

"Sure, a Unitarian minister maybe, but not a..."

He smiled as her voice trailed off. "Let me buy you a cup of coffee."

She accompanied him past a street vendor hawking Celtics sweatshirts, circumvented a crowd draining into the hollow of a subway entrance, and rejoined him in descending a few stone steps into a basement coffee shop. Over decaf, they scrutinized each other.

"This is a surprise," he said.

"Who'd have thought?"

He hesitated. "Margaret, right?"

"Right."

"Who'd have thought?"

"That's my line."

"So it is."

They exchanged bits of data. She was a B.U. grad, never mind what year, and a member of the bar. He was impressed. She was a prosecutor, which impressed him more. He had spent a year in Rome, but that was some time ago. Now he tended a flock in Haverhill, an old shoe city vandalized years ago by urban redevelopment. She lived, not all that far away, in Lowell. His mother, whom he'd been visiting, lived here in Boston, second floor of a grand old brownstone.

I'd like you to meet her sometime," he said.

"Why would I want to do that?"

He didn't have a ready answer and decided to respond with lethal honesty. "I'm sorry to say I'm going through a bit of a crisis, Margaret. Worst yet."

"Join the club, Father."

"Please, call me Todd. You did on the beach."

"This isn't the beach."

He agreed. The beach was where he'd gone to get away for a while, to breathe different air. The beach was fantasy, Adam and Eve, Brooke Shields and the blond boy who played opposite her. Nature at play. Nakedness. But with no snake needling through the garden. No shark intruding into shallow water, jaws set to strike. No distinction between right and wrong, no need for it.

Margaret replaced her cup in its saucer. "I can recommend a good shrink. In fact, the same fellow I see, office across from the Common."

"I'm afraid I'd bore him. I'd dearly want to know if God was excessive in creating the universe or merely experimenting with fireworks. More than that, I'd want to know if Mary had any say when God impregnated her, or was he just another god having his way with a woman. Greek deities did it all the time."

Margaret glanced at two women nibbling vanilla cupcakes. "If it's bullshit you're after, Dr. Wall will accommodate you. He's wonderful that way."

"Yes, maybe it is bullshit I'm after. Are you a Catholic, Margaret?"

"Sort of. Probably the sort you're becoming."

His smile was almost boyish. "Look, would you like to see a Celtics game? It's the season's opener."

She was not in the least interested in watching young men monotonously tall and underdressed throw a ball at a hoop during stampedes from one end of the court to the other. "Not really, Father Todd. Sorry."

"Father Todd. I suppose that's a compromise."

She was blunt. "Are you on the make?"

He was honest. "I suppose in a way I am."



In the busy old court building in Cambridge, Margaret's office adjoined that of the district attorney, who had not prosecuted a case in decades. He left that business to his assistants, of whom he ranked Margaret the best. Margaret perceived him in terms of bulk and smell, for he was overweight and wore a strong aftershave, the kind his grandchildren gave him for Christmas. His white hair lay flat, his complexion ran ruddy, and his protruding blue eyes were bullets. Looking in on Margaret, he said, "How was your weekend?"

She glanced up from an open file folder. "How it always is."

"That doesn't tell me anything."

"It wasn't meant to." She could get away with being flip, for she was his pet and his go-to person in high-profile cases. Cool-headed and poised, dogged and determined, she made no procedural errors, avoided surprises, and seldom let a defense attorney trip her up. The district attorney's biggest concern, which she was well aware of, was that some man would sweep her up and take her away. "Actually I've met someone," she said, "but marriage may be out of the question."

"Anyone I know?"

"Not sure that I know him."

The district attorney pulled a face. "Watch yourself, girl. It's a wide world out there, lots of weirdos."

Sometimes he got on her nerves, but she had more affection for him than she did for her own father. And she didn't need to be told about weirdos. She had recently listened to a defendant confess to killing his aged aunt with one whack and watching her collapse like a bag of bones. Told it all with a smile sliced from ear to ear. And how about the businessman who, wearing a blond wig and an elegantly simple dress, visited powder rooms to pee like a lady while seeking prey.

Moving closer to her desk, the district attorney spoke low. "You've got a long future here. When I retire, you'll be the one to fill my shoes. What do you think of that, girl?"

Unless voters turned their backs on him, which was unlikely, the only way he'd leave office was feet first. He knew it, and she knew it. Certainly, secretly, she had political ambitions, but her real satisfaction, to a degree that made it seem personal, was putting bad people away, which made her feel more alive. She said, "That is definitely something for me to look forward to, boss."



Rev. Todd O'Brien sat in a leather chair that tried to consume him but failed, for he kept his head up, his shoulders stiff, his back straight. Dr. Wall said, "Help me on this. Are we concerned with your psyche or your soul?"

"Aren't they rather one and the same?"

"I think so, but I'm an atheist and a Polish Jew to boot. If you're experiencing a crisis of faith, Father, I may be the wrong one to see."

"I don't see a problem. And please, call me Todd. Or if you prefer, Father Todd." Briefly Father Todd concentrated his attention on the doctor's bowtie, whose tiny polka dots seemed all ajitter in the sort of dance exposed under a microscope, the Lord at work on a minuscule scale. Holding his posture in the deep chair, he said, "Another priest once told me we know God only by the quiver of His absence. I can accept that, but there's so much more I can't. I could believe in Adam and Eve only if they had protruding jaws and hair all over their bodies. How much of the Bible do you buy, Doctor?"

"Let's put that aside for a while." Dr. Wall floated a smile. "In the meanwhile, please go on."

"The Old Testament God demands sacrifices, the best lambs. I have images of God being served the choice cuts, a napkin under his chin. God demanding his due and man wielding a bloody knife in obeisance. What're your thoughts on that, Doctor?"

"I would say that if your faith is essential to your well-being, you should stick to the New Testament and forget the Old."

"The New gives me even more trouble."

"Ah, that's where Jesus comes in. Mankind's second savior. Prometheus was the first. Jesus was hammered to a cross, Prometheus chained to a cliff. Each bit off more than he could chew. But I'm being cynical, so let's see if we can keep this simple." Dr. Wall floated another smile, this one more genuine than the first. "I'm told God keeps His distance until we sniff a flower or pick up a child. Then something comes over us."

"I can buy that."

"I may have heard that in a popular song." Dr. Wall glanced at his desk clock. "Time to tell me what's really bothering you."

"I don't think I've ever forgiven my father. His name was Patrick, and he did an unfair thing. He died."

"Then he must be in Heaven, right?"

"He's in an urn, Dr. Wall. Unless my mother threw it out."



The two women smiled politely at each other over delicate teacups. Mrs. O'Brien manifested fashionable dowdiness, her oyster-white hair yanked back and held by a rubber band, her mohair cardigan flaunting its age. Her eyes were gray-green, her features sharp. "Nice of you to come, Margaret."

Margaret diverted her attention from richly flocked wallpaper and the ornate drapery that enshrined two tall windows. "Nice of you to invite me. You have an attractive place, Mrs. O'Brien. I love old brownstones."

"Have a macaroon, dear."

Margaret lifted one from a crystal dish, near which cut flowers stood in milk glass. Mrs. O'Brien's handsome head tilted slightly.

"I'll ask right away, if you don't mind. Are you and Todd just friends, nothing more?"

"Certainly nothing more. He's a priest."

"He never should've become one. His father was the Catholic, a happy-go-lucky Irishman, good-looking but without a dime to his name. I came from money. When I found myself pregnant, I considered an abortion but said to myself, 'What the hell.' To Patrick I said, 'Guess what, we're getting married.' How was I to know I'd bring a priest into the world?"

Margaret munched the macaroon. "Why are you telling me all this, Mrs. O'Brien?"

"Don't you find it interesting? Of course you do. We're talking about my son, sensitive and smart and as handsome as his father was. He'd be quite a catch, wouldn't he, if it weren't for that silly collar." Mrs. O'Brien shook her head in a gesture of regret. "Patrick was a Catholic in name only, but Todd, as he did everything, took his Catechism seriously. I thought he'd outgrow it - and he would have if Patrick hadn't dropped dead of a heart attack. Todd was only twelve."

"That must've done a number on him."

"It did."

"That's sad, but what exactly are you telling me?"

"What I'm telling you, Margaret, is that I'd like a grandchild. It seems only fitting. So it's high time my son took a wife."

"I don't know what this has to do with me."

"Of course you do." Mrs. O'Brien set aside her teacup. "To hell with this tea. Would you like some sherry?"



"My father wasn't devout. He believed without believing. He had no questions. If I had questions, he told me to ask the priest. When my father died, I asked Father Flynn why. Why my dad, and Father Flynn told me God's will."

"Did you accept that?"

"Not at first," Father Todd said, "but later. Because it helped."

"And now?"

"Now it doesn't matter. My heart holds his presence as well as his absence." He drew his eyebrows together, gripped the leather arms of his chair, and listened to scattered sounds in his head, memories making noises. "But to this day I miss his physical presence, his hand on my shoulder, his voice in my ear, and I try not to blame my mother for not missing him as I do."

Dr. Wall said, "Tell me about your mother."

Father Todd shrugged. "She was against my going into the seminary. She said people right away would think something was wrong with me. Like what was I hiding. What was I afraid of. Women?"

"Were you?"

"I don't think so, but my mother was afraid I might be gay. I'm not, but she didn't want to take any chances and made sure I had dates in high school. She even gave me condoms."

"Did you ever use them?"

"A few times, but I always felt I was using the girl because I didn't love her. My mother told me that doesn't always matter."

"What do you think?"

He gave Dr. Wall a narrow look. "Of course it matters. Don't you think it does?"

"Evidence indicates we're human animals first, spiritual beings second."

"We're fornicators first, lovemakers second. Is that what you're saying, Doctor?"

Father Todd, rising, had enough. "That's my problem, Doctor. It's not my kind of world."

"It may be the only one you have, Father."



Mrs. O'Brien refilled their sherry glasses for the third time - or was it the fourth.

"Who's keeping count, dear?"

Each was a little tipsy. Mrs. O'Brien's voice was a sedative, at times a narcotic, soothing and mellowing Margaret. It was as if Margaret had her mother back, but with the two of them so much older and, in clever ways, radically different. With a snort, Mrs. O'Brien said the faces of the male personalities on Fox News mimicked the consistency of turds. Margaret said that her father made her ashamed of her body. "He told me farting was my body misbehaving."

"That's hysterical. What did he want you to do - slap your ass? Naughty, naughty."

Margaret nibbled on the remaining macaroon. "No one ever told me about menstruation, though I think my father once alluded to it. Something about a woman attending to nasty business. When I started my period I thought I was bleeding to death because my body was guilty of some unspeakable crime. A teacher - Miss Mills - told me I was far from dying, I was becoming a woman. I said I didn't want to become one. She said I had no choice."

Mrs. O'Brien sipped sherry. "A real doozy, your father."

"He had a lot of hang-ups and passed a bunch on to me."

"Tell me, dear, why ever in the world did you go to work in the district attorney's office? All the sordid cases you must handle."

An old outrage welled up and gave Margaret a feverish awareness of herself. "I can tell you when the seed was planted. My second year of high school an older boy tried to force himself on me in the coat room. I scratched his face, he struck me, I screamed. A woman teacher came to the rescue and escorted me and the boy to the headmaster's office. The boy claimed I led him on, and the headmaster, with a big smile at me, said it sounded like much ado about nothing."

"So now you're getting even."

A nerve, touched too much, caused a seizure of a smile. "That's what my shrink says."

"You've never married, have you?"

Another nerve was touched. "I've had candidates for my hand, none suitable."

"You're choosy. I can understand that. More sherry, dear?"

"I've had enough." Sitting straighter, Margaret endowed herself with the semblance of a prosecutor's presence, her thoughts hardening on her face. "Let's get back to what this is all about. Why me?"

"That's easy," Mrs. O'Brien's smile was effortless. "I want the best for my son, and you may well be the best."

"What makes you think I want to marry him, and if I did, which I don't, what makes you think he wants to marry me?"

"I know my son."

"But you don't know me."

"I know you're still young enough to bear a child, and between your looks and Todd's, the child would be a beauty."

"He's a priest. What makes you think he'd walk away from that?"

"He's a man with natural needs,"

Mrs. O'Brien said offhandedly.

"Is that why you put him up to visiting a nude beach?"

"I wanted him to get his priorities straight, with no fig leaf for his feelings."



Margaret lay in the flex of Father Todd's arm, the two of them stretched out on a soft sofa and watching television. It was her sofa, her TV, her condo in a luxury unit in a converted mill building overlooking Lowell's stretch of the Merrimack River. They had watched an old Sherlock Holmes movie, Holmes dueling Moriarty, Watson stumbling in and out of the way. Now it was a string of unpleasant commercials promising underarm sweetness, hemorrhoidal relief, and vaginal freshness.

"Times have changed," Father Todd murmured.

"They always do," Margaret murmured back. She gathered her breath, then let it collapse. Father Todd stirred.

"What were you going to say?"

"Your mother has big ideas. What makes her think you'd leave the priesthood?"

"Because I've been mulling it for a long time. It's a tough decision. I like my fellow priests. Most of them. I like the pomp and circumstance, and I like the way the faces of the choirboys seem washed clean of impure thoughts, the way my face was scrubbed at that age."

"What don't you like?"

"The fairy tales."

She wanted to look up at him but would need to wrench her head back. She stayed still. "If you left, what would you do?"

"Teach maybe. Yes, teach."

On the TV screen were cops and killers, courtroom lawyers in a Law and Order episode she'd probably seen before. Aiming the remote, she changed channels. "What would you teach?"

Father Todd thought for a moment. He wanted something ironical, some-thing students could chew on, if so inclined. Spreading his hand against her hip, he said, "I'd teach that God is an American but speaks with a foreign accent."

Margaret responded to his hand. Were it near her lips, she'd kiss his ring, as a joke. "I had a law professor who said nothing is crystal clear except the life span of a snowman."

"I'm with him."

"What makes you think it's a him?"

"You're right. Sorry. Tell me about your work."

"It's what I do best, but the truth is I want my boss's job. I want to be Middlesex County DA. If you don't go anywhere, you drift." She raised her wrist and consulted her watch. Her cat, deprived of its usual place on the sofa, rested on the carpet like a miniature heraldic lion. "This is just a question, but are you staying or leaving?"

"Staying."

The cat followed them into her bedroom. The bed was big, the pillows fat, the sheets patterned. Father Todd eventually established himself in her and then stayed perfectly still. She waited. After a reasonable interval, she said, "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Do something."

"I'm relishing."



Jeremiah Dooley was a fellow priest, a partially bald Augustinian thin enough to be a slice of himself. He was the same age as Father Todd but looked older. In a pleasantly pitched voice, he said, "Do you love her?"

"I think I do." Father Todd said. "No, I know I do."

They were strolling the grounds of Merrimack College, where Father Dooley taught Religious Studies and led a choral group and Father Todd was putting out feelers for possible employment. The bright faces of two female students smiled in passing. "Who do you love more," Father Dooley asked, "her or God?"

Father Todd was unsure that rated an answer. Margaret, naked in lamplight, looked new, never touched. God, quite likely, was pie in the sky. "You've been to a zoo, Jeremiah. There's always mockery in the eyes of the monkeys. They see us not as we are but as we were."

"You believe that?"

"I try not to. In the seminary my faith was bigger than my life. Now it has shrunk quite a bit."

They walked over bright grass. The sun wounded Father Dooley's eyes, and he quickly shielded them. "You say you love her - does she love you?"

"She's trying to decide."

"What's to decide?"

"She has a lot on her plate. Her career means as much to her as my faith once meant to me. That can be pretty compelling."

Father Dooley slowed his step, stayed it, then slowly resumed it as Father Todd waited. Unfortunate business. Father Todd remembered when freckles occupied Father Dooley's face. Now, drained of them, his face was wan and splotchy. Not long ago at the monastery Father Todd had glimpsed him with his top off. Poor bugger. Ribs protruding, he looked like spare parts.

"How've you been feeling, Jeremiah?"

"Good."

"You don't look good."

His smile showed teeth that used to be better. "Nobody's permanent."

They turned left toward Cushing Hall, where Father Dooley had a class waiting for him. Father Todd said, "Do others know?"

"I'm sure they've guessed. You did. As you said, we all have issues."

A bird feeder was nailed to the trunk of a birch. Father Todd visualized a hawk swooping from the sky and tearing up a songbird, leaving only a feather, and he imagined a terribly long-ago day when fire was not yet a fixture, when stomachs gambled on meat hacked from animals and gobbled raw, when the living looked little different from the dying.

They reached the steps of Cushing Hall. Time to part, they shook hands as Father Dooley stood as a renegade version of himself, a priest with secrets no longer worth keeping and with a deep-rooted habit of using a crucifix to scratch his back. With everything else, he suffered eczema. Father Todd would miss him.

"If it comes to it, Jeremiah, do you think I could get a job here?"

"Stranger things have happened."



Margaret and the district attorney lunched at a nearby eatery, where they knew everybody, most of them lawyers, judges and clerks. Two police officers in mufti, one gripping a ketchup bottle by the neck, were exchanging anecdotes while at a corner table, virtue confronting vice, a Methodist minister was counseling a prostitute in danger of losing custody of her children. Margaret, familiar with the case, had put the two together.

She nibbled on a chef's salad while the district attorney, whose aftershave took something from her appetite, ate wolfishly, his onion soup armored with a plate of cheese, his roast beef rare, his mashed potato drenched with gravy. He knew the foods to avoid but ate them anyway. His jaw stuffed, he managed to ask, "How's the trial going?"

A vagrant had killed a man, stripped him, and wore his pinstripe suit, a near perfect fit. The English-leather shoes were another matter. The shoes and suit were among items Margaret had placed in evidence. "The jury won't take long."

"Good show."

An occasional victim of acid reflux, the district attorney held his breath for a few moments, and the crisis passed, a false alarm. "My doctor wants me to lose weight."

"Sounds like good advice.

"My wife wants me to retire."

"Fat chance."

"I know what you're thinking, but a body isn't meant to stand the test of time. Time always wins out, leaving you in a ditch."

Margaret propped an elbow on the table. "You sound serious, but are you?"

He winked. "But what would I do at home? I don't play golf, and I hate Florida. And you're my right arm."

"I might not be forever, boss. That man I've mentioned has asked me to marry him. He wants a home and family."

The district attorney's face dawdled over his plate. "And?"

"I'm giving it serious thought."

"How serious?"

Should she tell him she was tired of always waking alone to a false dawn, never the real one, and then failing to fall back to sleep? "Very serious."

"Who is this guy?"

"Don't let this shock you, boss. He's a priest."

The district attorney's eyes, blue bullets, drove into her as if in retaliation for the knife in his back and for the dishonor to his faith. "You would do this?"

"Yes, I would. Please understand."

"Understand?" He pushed aside his plate and swiped his mouth hard with a napkin. The dessert he was looking forward to, chocolate cake with ice cream, was now out of the question. "You just took away my appetite, girl."



Nursing a mug of coffee, Father Todd said to his mother, "I think she's about to say yes. So why am I nervous?"

"You're a big boy. I'd say go for it." Clad in pink sweats, Mrs. O'Brien stepped off a treadmill and began working with two five-pound weights to maintain arm strength, bone density, and muscle tone. "It's what you want, isn't it? I hope you're not doing it solely for me."

"Certainly not."

"Then I'm pleased. It's better than you living an unnatural life as a priest."

"It's not all that unnatural."

"Of course it is." The strain from the weights reached into her voice. "Anything happening with your getting a teaching position?"

"I'm preparing a syllabus. I've dubbed one of the courses 'Plotinus to Aquinas.'"

"Catchy."

Father Todd knew fully well that such matters didn't interest his mother. Quite emphatically and simply, she believed that the primal parents of soul-bearing animals were Adam and Eve - not chimps, not apes, not anything from the wild. She believed Eve had been a beauty, Adam a hunk, with neither able to keep hot hands off the other, their tumultuous union pleasing to God's voyeuristic eye.

Suddenly she put the weights down. Sometimes enough was too much. After a long swig from a water bottle, she said, "Don't be surprised if Margaret keeps her own name. She seems the kind."

"Is that a dig?"

"Hardly. It means she has a mind of her own, as I do. I don't suppose you know whether she has money. Doesn't matter. It didn't matter to me. I hope you don't put off having children. Time isn't on your side."

"What would I do without you, Mother?"

"I don't know. Burn in hell?"



The district attorney scarcely spoke to her anymore, and when he did he spoke curtly, without bothering to look up. Important cases he rightly should have assigned to her, he gave to others, leaving her exposed to fits of anxiety. Well, to hell with him. She had another life waiting for her. All she had to do was say Yes!

"Then why haven't you?" Dr. Wall asked.

"Good goddam question. And I don't have an answer. Isn't that what I'm paying you for?"

"You hold the answer, Margaret, but you're hurt, angry, and scared."

"Scared? What am I scared about?"

"You've fallen from grace. And you feel betrayed and vulnerable, wedged into a corner and forced to decide something that will affect the rest of your life."

Dr. Wall's voice was calm, effortless, unhurried, and his slight smile was cryptic. "What's most important to you?"

"Me. I'm important to myself," she said, even though she felt sapped of vitality and deprived of identity. Her face hardened into a faint frown. "But there are two of me, and neither likes the other."

"Why not?"

"What one wants, the other doesn't."

The session ended with little resolved, and an hour later Margaret was back behind her desk and reviewing the evidence sheet on an accused rapist as a favor to a fellow prosecutor who wanted her input. No problem. Glad to do it.

Anything to stay busy and keep her frustration in check. The door to her office, located near the main stairway, was open enough to give passersby a partial view of her. The district attorney, his dense face overly pink, paused long enough to grab her attention. The message in his eyes was that maybe he would forgive her, but not now, and probably not any time soon. Stew for a while was what those eyes said. Well, up yours, boss. It was high time she got the first slice of a goddam wedding cake.

Later, near quitting time, she heard sudden voices in the corridor, all frantic, some rapidly turning hysterical. What she hadn't heard was the heavy breathing of an overweight man ascending the stairs and the ominous thump of his fall.



"Is it a go?" Mrs. O'Brien asked and knew from his face it wasn't. Her disappointment was huge and obvious. She came from a family of determined women and understated men and clearly saw her son as an understated man. A pity and a waste! "What happened?"

Father Todd spoke slowly. "Her boss had a fatal heart attack, and she plans to run for his job. She'd rather be a district attorney than a wife."

Mrs. O'Brien placed an elbow on the scrolled arm of the settee. "Can't she be both?"

"Apparently not."

"How about motherhood? Not that important to her?"

"I guess not." Father Todd compressed his lips as the rest of his face seemed to crack and crumble. Several deep breaths kept him on his feet.

"Are you all right?" his mother asked.

He knew she had liquor in the house and considered pouring himself a fat finger of whiskey and downing it. "I simply didn't realize how much Margaret meant to me."

"Broken heart. You'll get over it."

His head pitched forward slightly as he staggered to hold his posture. "I'm sorry, Mother."

She shrugged. Some things couldn't be helped, and this obviously was one of them. She had half a mind to tell him to go find a nice nun and have himself a romp. Startled, she watched him plunge toward her as if driven by a dark force Oedipal in nature, as if the umbilicus had never been cut, as if her womb were still his world. He was on his knees, his hands cupping her knees.

"I want to be a good boy."

"You are a good boy." She patted his head. For a single moment he looked like clothes dumped on the floor. "Stay a priest," she said. "There's safety in numbers."



On Tuesday, Father Todd attended the viewing of Father Dooley, a narrow presence in a casket banked with cream and scarlet flowers, his features doctored in a manner that returned a few freckles to his upper face and suggested absolute serenity. His sister, who had flown in from Iowa, gripped Father Todd's hand and said, "Tell me Jeremiah's in Heaven. Please!"

"Where else would he be?"

"You know where, you know why. Or you must suspect. He stained his soul."

Leaning close to her head of tremulous curls, Father Todd whispered, "He's where he should be. In your heart."

On Wednesday, he sank himself in the familiar leather chair and told Dr. Wall that he knew who God is. "He's a personality. He can fill a room without being there."

Dr. Wall said, "That's a thought. Do you have any others?"

"Not at the moment."

On Wednesday, Father Todd phoned Margaret at her office and told her he understood.

She said, "I knew you would."

4 comments:

  1. Somewhat amusing at first, this story develops into a well-crafted narrative with gems of thought. Very clever.

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  2. The language is quite lovely; the end somewhat sad. Great opening scene on the beach. Don't feel that the newness of the opening is fully realized and carried through in the rest of the story.

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  3. Lovely writing.
    Great opening scene, though I didn't feel that the newness of the opening carried through the remainder of the story. The arguments/discussion of God and the priesthood seemed common place.

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  4. opening very good. it is of course the age old story, but
    very well presented, arguments nicely balanced. liked the role of Dr.Wall, underlines yet again life is all about choices, usually somebody loses out.

    michael mccarthy

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