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Thomas M. Disch

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THE PRIEST

by Thomas M. Disch

FIRST AMERICAN EDITION

THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK

PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.

Copyright 1994 by Thomas M. Disch All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Millennium, an imprint of Orion Books Ltd., London, in 1994.

ISBN 0-679-41880-6

For Phil Marsh Hoopster, hipster, excellent role model Kill them all. God will look after His own.

—ARNALD-AMALRIC, Abbot of Citeaux, at the massacre of Beziers, 1209

Kill ‘em all! Let God sort ‘em out.

—a popular U.S. T-shirt, 1986

1

The grass was unnaturally green. Jelly-bean green or the green of golf games on television, though come to think of it that was grass too, televised grass but grass nevertheless. Golf was the only game she enjoyed watching because there were no rules to keep track of. You only had to sink the ball in the hole and count the number of times you’d hit it. People could have played golf here except for the headstones. So many names and for the life of her she couldn’t remember which one she was looking for. This one was nice, all speckledy gray-pink, ALPHONSE BURDETr, but imagine being married to someone called Alphonse, and in any case Alphonse Burdett had died in 1951 at the age of—? She did the arithmetic from his birthdate, 1878. Seventy-three, when he died in 1951. She could be pretty sure that ruled out Alphonse Burdett.

And look, right here on the next stone, CECILIA BURDETT, BELOVED WIFE, 1904—85. She felt almost as though Cecilia had caught her flirting with Alphonse at one of those awful senior socials with Kool-Aid and Oreos. She could remember things like that, general things, but not particulars, the names and faces of people who assumed she remembered them and when she couldn’t then assumed she was an imbecile. But there were places she could remember with the clarity of a slide being flashed on a screen. Living rooms with all their furniture, backyards, the enormous produce department of a supennarket somewhere, a room in a basement with just one tiny window near the ceiling and large rhubarb leaves screening the window. She only had to close her eyes and they were there for the summoning.

It was like a detective story, in a way. If this is the bedroom I remember, with this wallpaper with a tangle of pastel blue and pink roses, and this maple chest of drawers, and this crucifix with a frond of dried palm bent double and attached to it with a rubber band, and this rug that’s faded to match the greenish tan of the chenille bedspread— then who am I, the person who can remember it all so clearly? Was it my bedroom? For that matter, is it still?

She sat down on Cecilia Burdett’s headstone with a sigh of gratitude and looked at her poor tired feet and marveled at her shoes. A woman of her age wearing tennis shoes. Though if she’d had to walk about all over this grass in a proper pair of shoes it would not have been easy. The sunshine was nice. She could feel it right through the sleeves of her sweater. A cloudless blue sky, a friendly sun, the lawn yielding with each footstep, what could be nicer.

It occurred to her to wonder, what if she were Cecilia Burdett? How could she be sure she wasn’t? What if this was heaven? With the beautiful weather and no one around, it was peaceful enough to qualify, and four headstones off was a bouquet of her favorite flowers, daffodils. It might not be the heaven she’d been led to expect, but probably no one really knew what heaven would be like, or God for that matter. Once, perhaps, she’d had clearer ideas on the subject, the way she’d known whom to vote for, once, or how to sight-read a piece of music, but all those clear things had gone blurry.

Usually that blurriness didn’t bother her. It could even be pleasant. She could settle for a heaven without trumpets and angels and everyone speaking in Latin, a heaven that was just an increasing, agreeable blurriness with everything slowly darkening until the stars began to be visible.

But what presumption. To suppose she was in heaven, without so much as a stopover in purgatory, not to mention the worst and likeliest possibility. She might not be able to remember her name but she could remember her sins well enough, and all the confessions that had been lies, because she
knew
she’d go right back to the same sin, like a Weight Watcher returning to sticky buns.

Even now, if she went to confession, could she make a sincere act of contrition? Once the temptation was gone, could you claim any credit for resisting it? Assuming it was gone. At least of the birth control that was a safe assumption. But of him? When she reached for a memory of him it was always of some cheap motel room or the backseat of a car. Or a booth in a bar with neon beer signs and his long white fingers playing with a cardboard coaster advertising Hamm’s. She could remember the fingers but not the face.

She could remember the guilt but not the love that had made the guilt worth bearing.

A black car, a very nice one, long and expensive-looking, glided into view and moved toward her with a sound of crunching gravel. It came to a stop like a boat butting up to a dock, and when the driver got out she could see, even this far away, that he was a priest. It was almost as though her guilt had summoned him here. The priest lifted his right hand, greeting her or blessing her, she couldn’t tell which. She waved back and then, lowering her hand, felt the back of her head to be sure her hair was presentable.

When he’d come near enough not to have to raise his voice, he said, “I thought I might find you here.”

How to reply? He seemed to know who she was, but she couldn’t return the compliment, though there was something vaguely familiar about him. Perhaps he just had that kind of averagely good-looking face, less than a movie star, more than a nobody. Mousy brown hair with the part a little off center like the younger sort of TV personality. Well dressed, of course, but what priest isn’t, really, in his uniform of black suit and Roman collar? The shoes, however, struck a false note. They were sneakers disguised to look like proper shoes by being all black. A priest shouldn’t be wearing sneakers, even black sneakers.

“Father,” she said, “how nice to see you.”

He stopped beside Alphonse Burdett’s gravestone and gave her a peculiar look, a mix of puzzled and peeved. “Mother,” he said softly, “how nice to see
you
.”

She realized at once and with a keen sense of embarrassment that she’d done it again, forgotten everything. But even with him there before her, calling her his mother, she didn’t recognize him. Her memory was as useless as a dead lightbulb.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Oh yes, I’m fine. It’s such lovely weather.” Then, when he just stood there with the same perplexed smile, she asked, “And how are you?”

“Worried, actually. They called from the Home right after breakfast when they realized you were missing, but I was away from the rectory all morning.

So it wasn’t until noon that I finally heard from them, and then there was a parish business meeting I had to be at.”

“I’m not
missing
,” she insisted, a little resentfully. “I’m
here
.”

“No one knew that, Mother.”

“Well, I knew it.”

For no good reason she began to cry. The warmth of the tears on her cheek was an actual comfort. A luxury, like the sunlight and the smooth, mowed lawn. Maybe in heaven you would also cry a lot.

The priest took a small package of Kleenex from the inside breast pocket of his suit, removed a tissue, and offered it to her. It seemed unpriestlike to be giving someone a Kleenex instead of a clean handkerchief. But she accepted it and dabbed at each cheek, blotting up the tears, which, obediently, ceased to flow.

“I don’t know why I do that,” she declared, forcing a smile.

The odd thing was that she did know that she was prone to such outbursts but that she didn’t know a basic fact like her own name. Couldn’t remember, even now, this man who’d addressed her as his mother. A priest!

Did she have other children as well? A husband somewhere? She’d no idea.

Yet she knew she was a Catholic, as surely as she knew her own sex. She knew she was old, but not how old; poor, but not how poor; educated, but not how well. She could remember being in churches and schoolrooms and even hospitals, but only abstractly. Their names, like her own, had been erased, like names on a blackboard, leaving just a smear of white chalk dust.

“Would you like to go visit Dad’s grave?” her son the priest asked her.

She made a joke of her own unknowingness: “Your dad or mine?” He bowed his head and lowered his eyes and offered not the glimmer of a smile. “My own.”

“Sure, why not. Is it far? I mean, can we walk from here? I’d prefer to walk.”

“It’s not far,” he said, and led the way among the markers, following no path but as sure of his direction as if he were walking through the rooms of his own house. They went by the graves of MARTIN 5WEIGER and his wife GERALDINE; of SGT. JOHN KOSKINEN, who’d died in 1944 at the age of twenty-two; of ED WARD and PATRICIA MANGAN; and of an entire SHEEHY family who’d all died on the same day in the late seventies. She pointed out to the priest how each of the markers had the same date of death.

“Don’t you wonder what happened?” she asked, to which he only nodded.

“Probably a car accident,” she theorized.

“Probably,” he agreed.

She wondered if he knew what actually had happened to the Sheehys and if he thought that she ought to, too. He must be irked by her forgetfulness.

After all, what people said about someone who had gone through some enormous change was that his own mother wouldn’t recognize him.

“Well, here we are,” he said, taking up a semiprayerful position in front of a wide, white, knee-high marker not far from where the Sheehys were buried. It was set up like a double bed with the husband’s name on the left, PAUL BRYCE, and his dates beneath:

FEB. 9, 1902

*

NOV. 23, 1949

On the left side of the marker the name of MARGARET BRYCE had already been incised in the marble, and a birthdate as well, MAY 14, 1919. Apparently Margaret Bryce was not yet dead.

Apparently,
she
was Margaret Bryce.

“A little premature, isn’t it?” she remarked caustically.

The priest raised a questioning eyebrow.

“My name on the stone,” she explained. “It seems a little overeager to me.”

“Well, Mother, it was your decision. Maybe it was a way of economizing.

I wouldn’t know. You didn’t consult Petey or me at the time.”

“How
is
Petey?” she asked, in a tone that dared him to doubt she knew who Petey was. “What’s he up to?”

The priest made a little grimacing frown and then a glance that showed that he knew what she was up to. “Petey’s fine, I imagine. We’re not that closely in touch, you know.”

Of course she
didn’t
know, and he must know she didn’t, and so his vagueness was deliberate. He was being mean.

Well, she could be just as mean.

“Father,” she said, “I have to go to confession.”

Already he looked embarrassed, and she’d just got started. “Here?” he said.

“We could scarcely have more privacy, could we?”

“But don’t you think… another priest… ?”

“It came to me just now. The memory.”

He sighed. “As you please.” He made a sign of the cross at her, and she did the same, kneeling down on the grass. “There’s no need to kneel,” he told her, but she stayed where she was, looking down at the fingernails of her folded hands. They were painted the pink nearest their natural color. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I don’t know when my last confession was, but this sin goes back to long before whenever that would have been.”

“It’s probably something you’ve confessed before now, Mother. So there’s really no need—”

“No, I’m sure I never spoke of it. It would have been too embarrassing.

BOOK: Thomas M. Disch
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