by Robert Payette
I awake to the smell of coffee, sausages and eggs, to the sound of church bells echoing through my open bedroom window. While the dissonant notes of the melody are carried along by chaotic molecular collisions, a myriad of quasi-selves inside my head vie for control over visions and arguments that keep forcing themselves to the surface. Enough to drive anyone insane; and it would be the case with me if it weren’t for the solitary, unified something that lies in wait, that lets the others play, pulls the strings when it really matters.
Slowly, I get up from my soft mattress, put on my silk bathrobe, my designer glasses, and slide my feet into my conveniently placed slippers. How nice. But when I get to the hall I notice fissures in the plaster near the stairwell, varnish worn thin over the floor. I grab the railing, it’s loose.
“Get up, John!” Linda calls out to me. “Breakfast is almost ready.”
At the kitchen table, my wife tries to keep Danny from choking on his meal, so eager is he to get back to his new video game. “Done.” he says, running to the sink to rinse his plate. He hugs Linda, then rushes to his bedroom. “Thanks, mom.”
Linda takes a sip of her coffee. With both of her hands, she gently places her cup on the white tablecloth — such a powerful gesture, a reminder of what I’m up against. I can barely look at her. I look down at the dregs of my coffee, at the half-eaten breakfast. “I’m finished here.”
“Don’t let Danny get too comfortable, we have to get ready for church soon.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he’s ready.”
As I’m crossing the living room I consider my strengths, and despite the extent of my abilities which reach far beyond the herbs and lotions of pagan thaumaturgy, I still find myself wondering if it will be enough when reason alone fails. Frightened personalities emerge, voicing similar concerns and vehement opposition to my plans, but a few promises of future reward and instantly they are appeased.
In his bedroom I find Danny tinkering with a joystick, kneeling in front of a large computer monitor surrounded by black, monolithic speakers. How do you tell a child his world, the only world he knows, is about to come to an end? He would never understand.
“Okay, you guys,” Linda shouts, “you have to start getting ready for mass.”
An hour later, outside St. Joseph’s church, my wife is nudging me in the arm and pointing to Mr. Wallace who is climbing the steps. “Look at him,” she says, “and alone as usual.”
It is very hard to remain indifferent to the sight of Mr Wallace towering above the crowd, flashing his thick mane of black and grey hair. On several occasions he has ousted young hecklers from the church which is why he is more commonly known as “Bouncer.”
Inside, after we’ve casually passed Jesus dying on the walls, my wife is pleased to find a space in the third row. Father Frampton notices us while he’s removing a book of psalms from the altar. He nods, smiles, and then returns to the vestry, lugging his seemingly burdensome pot belly with him.
I know Father Frampton very well. This week I had the privilege of meeting with him in his study. I can still see that blinding white cloth on which he had neatly arranged his sundries. There was a small leather case, an oil lamp, and a silver, pocket-sized sprinkler. The smell of burning incense filled the air:
“So you admit it was political.”
“Of course. ‘In the hearts of men’ meant a paradigm shift: Men regardless of their colour or political orientation were to be regarded as brothers under one kingdom.”
“Revolution here on earth?”
“Definitely, yes. The outer world was to be a reflection of that inner vision.”
“So was he just a man? And is there nothing outside of time, outside of history?”
He laughs. “ John, if I didn’t know you so well, I would suspect you of plotting extortion; God, the things I’ve admitted to you.”
“Don’t worry, father; no tape recorders in these pockets.”
He pauses, his smile disappears. “Yes, I would say he was just a man, but with an extraordinary will and powers we still don’t understand.”
“Why do you uphold the gadgetry, the formalities? It’s so much like the Jewish priests of his time: the same adherence to conventions not unlike those he himself rejected.”
“I agree, but what would you have me do, break the Sabbath? Look, John, I have a task to perform, just like anyone else. Maybe when I was your age... Anyway just wait and see: you’ll mellow out too.”
At 11:30 the church is almost full.
“A reading from the book of wisdom,” begins Mrs. Janet Andrews in a sing-song cadence. When it’s time for the Liturgy of the Word, I suddenly find myself distracted by the green, embroidered stoles that overlay the priest’s cassocks, by the laudian cloths that cover the pulpit, the altar, and the lectern. The incredibly high, Romanesque ceiling is dizzying. I close my eyes, but there is no escape. Images of modern-day Tibet loom: prayers made along side of water-wheels, in the flapping of flags; Abbots and priests scurry about in giant temples where people lie prostrate in front of a gold statue called Buddha. Suddenly I feel thousands of years old, looking through the eyes of someone long dead. I don’t like what I’m seeing.
“Blessed be God forever” respond the churchgoers in unison, awakening me from my reveries. When Monsignor Martin and Father Brown begin removing ciboriums from the tabernacle, voices express concern over what seems to be uneasiness in the priest’s movements. “Do they know?” I keep hearing.
People pour into the aisles for communion. My wife stays behind; she won’t participate unless she has recently gone to confession, but Danny is in the line-up just ahead of me. I look beyond the priests, at the altar. It should be easy to get up there; these people have known me for years; they’ve seen me collecting money, greeting them at the door, sorting pamphlets for charities. “The body of Christ.” I hear the priests saying.
I look down at my son. I want to hold him, I want to tell him, but I can’t.
“The body of Christ.”
My son takes a wafer in his hands and walks away.
“The body of Christ.”
I nod my thanks.
Instead of following Danny back to our seats, I quietly take to the steps of the sanctuary. Mrs Andrews is on her knees in one of the upper reserved pews. Her head is down, her eyes are closed. I keep going without causing even a stir.
Once I get to the altar I grab its edges and apply a little force. It seems heavy, probably too heavy, but it doesn’t matter; everything rests on the laudian frontal. I draw the cloth upwards, pulling the edges of it away from the floor.
“Mr. Duncan?” I hear Janet whispering from behind me.
There is no turning back now. With all my force I pull the cloth towards me. The Bible hits the floor with a thud. The chalice, the paten, and the stainless steel tray resound like parts falling from a moving train. Glass cruets roll along the floor, spilling water and wine. I hear loud gasps and the screaming voice of my wife.
I turn to see her fighting her way through the crowd gathered near the priests who are staring at me in shock. Mr Wallace is stalking his way up the steps, yet his movements are slow: not the usual teenager wearing jeans and a T-shirt he’s used to dealing with. He stops, looking back and forth at Father Frampton and myself.
Monsignor Martin is holding back my wife. “Let go of me.” she cries out.
Janet Andrews runs to the rear vestry. I can picture the phone on the Father’s desk as clearly as if it were in front of me.
“Is there a problem Mr. Duncan?” says Father Frampton, a little hot under the collar.
“Yes, there is.”
“Could we not talk about this later in private?”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“What I have to say will be heard here and now, in front of all these people.”
“What are you doing?” Linda cries out, “Get down here!”
Danny looks frightened to death.
Mr. Wallace maintains his post.
“Look, John,” says the father, getting a little closer, lowering his voice, “I’m willing to overlook this, and I’m sure all of these people will, too. Everybody knows how much you’ve done here. If you walk down now, we can talk about this, and maybe everyone can try to forget it ever happened.”
“That is the last thing I want. And if it’s true that I’ve done so much here, then I should be given a chance to address the parishioners.”
“No. You will not. This is not how things are done.”
“That’s right: You have your rituals, I have mine. But take a look at these people! Have you ever seen them so attentive?”
The father’s eyes widen and a strange sensation comes over me. Suddenly, I feel his thoughts as though they were inside my chest: Why here and now? Why this church? I’m too bloody old for this.
“Yes. You are.”
“What are you talking about?” says the Father.
“You know damned well what I’m talking about! You’ve done what you can for these people. Might as well step aside now.”
“You,” he says, pointing a trembling finger, “will not speak to me in this manner! It is not your place to speak here at all. You’re crazy if you think...”
“If I think I can teach these people? Something the church has long forgotten how to do? This is supposed to be a school like any other, but it has become nothing more than a Sunday matinee. Unconscious rituals, parables with simple messages they forget by the time someone cuts them off on their way out of here, by the time their dinner is washed away with red wine: what does that give them? Do you honestly think people can just decide to be different? They need practical ways of changing. They need...” The sound of sirens erupts in the distance and Mr. Wallace is no longer in sight. I know it’s coming, and when I feel the force of his arm wrapping itself around my neck, I don’t resist.
“Let him be,” cries my wife, as though offering advice.
While Mr. Wallace forcibly ushers me out, I notice Miss Van Dongen in her wheel-chair. Her normally dull eyes are bright and firmly focused mine. Tonight she will get up from her bed and walk through her lit garden for the first time in twenty years, and she will be filled not only with joy, but with the certainty that my eyes saved her.
As for the eyes of the law: they will see only a public nuisance, not enough to lock a man up, not yet; but when fear and curiosity begin to mix, when the ridicule and the doubt subside, the laws and institutions of man will have reason enough. Then my story will end as quickly as it began. And when I’m beaten, like this story and so many others like it, all that will remain are my words, to be distorted over time, until another rises to sound the alarm, to resurrect words from the dead.
Copyright © 2004 by Robert Payette