He wasn’t kneeling, merely sitting. He turned and saw me come in.
No one else seemed to be in the church except for Father Reilly. Everyone was outside, enjoying the seaside summer evening. Everyone except for Father Reilly and me, that is.
I genuflected and came over to where he sat.
“Father,” I said – whispering, God knows why, “it might be a good idea not to stay here.”
“I think Miss Evans might be following me.”
“Get up. We can go into one of the confessionals.”
“That would be sacrilegious.”
Father Reilly and Sister Mary Elizabeth – both of them worrying about the niceties of sacrilege when their very sanity was on the line.
“Father,” I said, leaning over into the pew, “I don’t know about you, but I’m hiding in a confessional. When she comes in I only ask you not to give me away.”
He paused, kneading his hands. It had never occurred to me before, but he’s actually a handsome man, of the poetic dark Irish type, medium height, very slender. He seemed in great moral pain. But it occurred to me that he would soon be in infinitely greater moral pain if he didn’t get a move on.
“Father –” I spoke.
“Okay,” he said.
He stood up and I stepped back to let him get out.
“Come with me,” he said, and he left the pew without genuflecting, and started down the aisle.
He was silent as we walked, quickly, almost but not quite trotting, down and to the right of the tabernacle, down the steps toward the side entrance and finally to a door on the left with a plaque reading “Sacristy”. He took out a key, unlocked and opened the door, and we went inside.
The room was dimly but colorfully lit by the failing light coming through a couple of stained glass windows. He locked the door behind us, and we went past the sacrarium and the sacristycredens to another door, this one unmarked. He unlocked it and beckoned me in.
He locked this door as well.
“We should be safe in here,” he said.
It was a wood-paneled office, with a desk, a leather armchair on the right beside a small lace-covered table, a few wooden chairs, a bookcase on the wall to the left. The only light in the room came hazily through a closed stained-glass casement window depicting Jesus during one of his forty days in the desert.
“Sit anywhere,” he said. “That leather chair is comfortable.”
I sat down.
“You can smoke if you like,” he said. “I’m going to.”
He was leaning back against the side of the desk. He took a pack of Camels out of his shirt pocket and leaned forward, offering it to me.
“I decided to quit smoking this morning,” I said, then gulped at the very sight of that delicious packet filled with wonderful unfiltered tubes of tobacco, perforce pausing before I could say what I as going to say, which was something like but I guess I’ll have one now, thus justifying Father Reilly’s withdrawing of the pack and saying, as he did:
“Oh, good for you. Horrible habit. You don’t mind if I have one, do you?”
“No,” I said, racked with envy and unsated addiction.
He shook one out and lit it with a paper match. He dropped the matchbook on the desk, and I noticed that they were Pete’s Tavern matches.
Then he leaned back against the desk, half-sitting on its edge, staring off toward the stained glass window, which was over my right shoulder. I noticed that he still had that lipstick smudge on his mouth, but I didn’t say anything about it.
He sighed, and smoked silently, occasionally tapping his cigarette ash into a large cut-glass ashtray. The dim light from the stained glass made the various planes of his face and his white shirt rose-colored, or orange, or purple, depending on his slightest movement.
A portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mother hung on one wall, and on the other walls were pictures of Jesus in several different stages of His career, as well as a large crucifix. None of these depictions looked very much like the Jesus who had been visiting me lately.
I really wished I had taken a cigarette. At the very least it would give me something to do if he was just going to lean there smoking. I was halfway tempted to get up and take a look at the books in the bookcase.
He had smoked half the cigarette when finally he spoke.
“I’ve disgraced myself, the Church, and the priesthood.”
I didn’t quite know what to say, or even if I should say anything. Fortunately, he helped me out.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he said.
I was certainly relieved to hear that.
He switched on a goose-neck lamp on the desk, but then at once switched it off.
I discreetly glanced at my watch. Another fifteen minutes or so and I could get out of here, and with any luck Miss Evans wouldn’t be lurking outside and I could make a mad dash for Elektra’s place.
“I know who you are, by the way,” Father Reilly said, looking at me now. “I recognized your voice from the confessional. You’re the one who thinks he’s being visited by Jesus.”
“The one who’s having sex with the Jewish girl.”
“The one who says Jesus says it’s okay to have sex with with this woman.”
“Uh, yes, Father.”
“Gertrude – Miss Evans – told me all about you. She seems quite impressed by you. I expected someone – well, I expected you to look different than you do.”
I had nothing to say to this.
“The way she described you, you sounded like a cross between Rock Hudson, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck.”
“Father,” I said, “I think Miss Evans is not quite right in the head. And I speak as someone who knows something about mental disorders.”
“Yes, she told me you had been hospitalized. But she doesn’t think you really have mental problems. She thinks you’re some sort of mystic.”
“Well, like I said, Father –”
“Yes, she’s not quite right in the head. And I – I took advantage of her. I – I came very close to – to –”
“Father, if I may so so, she also took advantage of you.”
He paused, smoking.
“Do you think so?” he asked.
“I’m thirty-five years old,” he said, “and I’ve never been with a woman.”
He looked at the window again. I glanced at my watch: just a little bit longer.
“I often wonder,” he said. “Have I denied life? Am I wasting my time? Is there a God? Am I praying to something that doesn’t exist? Is Catholicism all just a superstition?”
He looked at me.
“Well?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Father,” I said.
“What did you do before your breakdown?” he asked.
“I was a brakeman, for the Reading Railroad.”
“See, at least you did something useful with your life. What do I do? I’m just a glorified medicine man. I might as well be in the jungle somewhere, dancing around a fire shaking rattles and beating tambourines.”
For the first time I noticed that he had a slight accent.
More to change the subject than anything else I said, “So, were you born in Ireland, Father?”
“Yes,” he said. “I came over when I was seventeen, right after the war. But don’t change the subject.”
“Well,” he said, “there’s nothing to be done but go to Father Schwartz straight away and confess.”
“But you didn’t do anything,” I said.
“I kissed her,” he said.
“But that’s no sin,” I said, without really thinking about it. “Is it?”
He didn’t answer me.
Now that he had brought up the subject of kissing I was really tempted to mention that lipstick smudge on his mouth, but I held my tongue. I stole another quick glance at my watch and this time he saw me doing it.
“I suppose you’re going to see your lady friend tonight,” he said.
“Uh, yes,” I said.
“And I suppose you’ll have sexual intercourse with her again.”
I cleared my throat, even though it didn’t really need clearing.
“It’s okay, Arnold,” he said.
“Why not? Why shouldn’t you behave like a normal human being? And, besides, this Jesus of yours gave you the go-ahead, didn’t he? I wish he would appear to me. Just once. Just once so I could know for sure that I’m not wasting my entire life.”
The funny thing was that Jesus did appear just then. Suddenly he was sitting there in one of the chairs on the other side of the office near the bookcase, in his raffish beach bum attire, smoking one of his usual Pall Malls, with his legs crossed and dangling a sandal from one foot. He looked at me, smiling, and put his upraised index finger to his lips, bidding me silently not to mention his presence.
(Continued here. Kindly look to the right hand side of this page to find a complete listing of links to all other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, a Real American Production.)