Doug Bramley was different, the kind of kid who would have stuck out even if he wasn't coming into class in the middle of the year. The first night he showed up on my doorstep for eighth grade religion class, he was twenty minutes early.
"My dad dropped me off, Mrs. Matthews, is that okay? Or do you want me to wait out here?"
"No, come in," I said, thinking it was snowing and February cold. "You can help me get ready." He was a boy big for his age, nearly man-size, with a thick, square body, long arms, and dark hair curly and dense as carpet. His head was square shaped, too, and he had a booming voice, not so deep as it was boisterous.
"You just moved up here from Tennessee, didn't you?" I asked him, taking his coat which was too thin for the weather. "How do you like it?"
He nodded his head as if he were reading my words on a screen. "Real fine, real fine."
"Are you going to Emmerich?" I asked, mentioning the junior high that my kids attended.
Again he bounced his head up and down. "1 ride Bus 29. I have to ride in the back because all the other seats are taken."
I pulled a stack of bibles from the bookshelf and handed them to him. "Well, I'm glad to have you here. Just put one at each seat." I pointed to the dining room table where my home group usually gathered. I was as nervous as usual. I'd volunteered because someone had to teach these kids, but I wasn't sure it should be me. Eighth graders were full of doubts and attitude and I had doubts enough of my own without trying to be their role model.
"How do you like your classes?"
"Real fine," he answered again, in that same outsized voice. He finished with the books and leaned down to extend his hand toward my dog who had stopped cold in the kitchen when she d seen him. She skittered back when he took a step toward her. "Hi there. I won't hurt you," he assured her, then to me, "What's your dog's name?"
"Princess. She's pretty friendly, but she doesn't like men. I'll put her in the family room."
l like animals, he said. "I have two dogs and a cat, too."
He kept holding out his hand to her and she approached him gingerly, then jumped back. "Here." He reached into his pocket and extended what looked like a round dog treat shaped like an oversized gumball. "Come on."
Princess edged closer, then sniffed the proffered hand, taking the treat from his palm and glancing at me as she crunched. With his other hand, Doug pet her silky ears.
"Someday she's going to get herself poisoned," I said.
"I would never do that," Doug said, his voice offended.
"I'm sure you wouldn't. I didn't mean that." I tried to explain, but the doorbell rang. Princess ran toward the door, barking. I grabbed her by the collar and pulled her toward the family room. "Com'n, girl, you'll scare them away."
"I'll get it!" Doug said, and yanked the door open, pushing wide the storm door. "Hi, I'm Doug Bramley."
Brian and Joshua stepped in, shaking snow from their jackets and stamping it from their boots. They didn't introduce themselves, looking back and forth one from the other as if they'd just shared a private joke. From the family room doorway, I could see Joshua smirk, then start to giggle.
"Cool shirt," he said to Doug, pointing at the stylized panther on Doug s tee shirt.
"Hey, thanks!" Doug turned around to show his back where the tail end of the panther appeared, creating for a moment the illusion that the person wearing the shirt was the big cat's body. "That's my school's mascot," he said. "My old school, I mean."
"East Ridge, Tennessee."
"You mean Hillbilly Holler?" Joshua hooted, laughing and elbowing Brian.
For a moment Doug looked puzzled. Then he laughed, saying, "I reckon so. Leastwise to all you Yankees!"
"That's enough, boys." I interrupted them, giving Joshua and Brian a warning glance and herding them all toward the table. The doorbell rang again.
Brienne and Margo came in, giggling. When they saw Doug they quieted immediately, piling their coats on the chair and going into the dining room.
"I saw you at school today, didn't I?" Brienne asked Doug. "Did you get a detention for being late?"
"No," he said. "But I will if it happens again. I get all turned around."
"Is Emmerich bigger than your old school?" I asked.
"It surely is." I could hear a pronounced twang in his voice as sweet and marked as molasses. "My old school went from kindergarten to eighth grade. Next year I would have gone up to the high school. The whole school wasn't half as big as Emmerich altogether."
I handed paper and pencils around, then answered the door again for the last two stragglers, Amber and Bobby.
Brienne's high pitched voice filled the room. "Did you see the fight today? Danny Klaas dumped Jim Sparco's books and he got more than he bargained for. I saw it. I was coming out of German, going up the steps, and it happened right on the landing. I was afraid I was going to get hit. Wow! Klaas is really gunning for him now!"
"I saw it, too," Amber said, wrapping her coat around the back of one of the empty chairs. "Jim pushed him right up against the wall. They're both suspended for three days, I heard."
"Sparco's such a wimp," Bobby said. He was a small boy who reminded me of a fighting cock, polite enough, but always ready to defend himself from any slight, imagined or otherwise. "Klaas will cream him when they get back."
"How do you know? Are you friends with Klaas?" Joshua asked.
"Nah, but I heard him talking."
"Perhaps we should stop talking and start class with a prayer." Bobby all but rolled his eyes. The rest shuffled and wiggled, flipping their weekly booklets to the first page. "This week we're going to do something a little different. We'll each write a prayer on a piece of paper and put it in the prayer basket." I felt naked praying out loud, trying to think of something that was impersonal enough to share without seeming phony. I was sure they felt the same way.
Obediently they started writing, Only Bobby sat doing nothing. Doug was printing his prayer in thick strokes, while Brienne scratched out her request in turquoise ink with a Squiggle pen. The folded notes made a paper mountain in the basket.
"Let's each mention something we're thankful for." Thanksgiving seemed safer than petition. I motioned toward Bobby.
"I'm thankful we have only five more of these stupid classes."
Joshua smirked, enjoying Bobby's bravado. "I'm grateful I'll be living with my dad after he gets his divorce." His face was unreadable and I wondered what he really felt.
"I'm glad I have my mom," Brienne said, adding, "I hate my dad." Her adolescent face twisted and her eyes seemed vulnerable and cruel at the same time.
"I'm grateful I passed the math quiz today," said Brian. I was grateful for his innocence which seemed more appropriate to his age. Most of the time I didn't know what to say to these kids.
"I'm thankful for having a warm house this time of year," Amber said, pushing her bangs behind her ears. There was a moment's silence before Doug spoke, and then his voice rang out like a bell, "Dear Lord, thank you for the doctors who will operate on my mom's ears. Thank you for us being able to come to Ohio, and for letting her get her hearing back because I know you will. In Jesus' Name. Amen."
His hands were folded and his eyes closed and in what seemed like a small eternity no one said anything.
"Amen." My voice sounded like a distant echo, and it was a moment before I remembered the lesson and we went on. After class, everyone jostled out the door except Doug.
"Will you pray for my mother, Mrs. Matthews?" he asked. "Her surgery is on Monday."
I promised him I would, moved he would confide in me. "I'm sure it will go well."
He nodded. "I pray for her every night," he said, and then he left.
The next week Doug came early again. He brought Princess a handful of treats which she gobbled down like they were miniature steaks.
"She didn't bark at me this week," he said. "Animals like me." He was putting out the Bibles again. "I got in trouble this week, Mrs. Matthews."
"What kind of trouble, Doug?"
"I hit a boy and got suspended."
"What happened?" Somehow I couldn't imagine this boy, big as he was, hitting anyone.
"He called me a retard. Said I was dumb as a post." He looked at me guilelessly. "Said my mother was deaf and dumb as an ox. I lost my temper."
"How long are you suspended?"
"Ten days. But it's okay. There's plenty of work to do around the house. My cousins are staying with us and I have the rabbits to take care of. And my mother."
"How is your mother?"
"The operation didn't work."
"I'm still praying for her. The doctors said they will try again. I know God will heal her."
I wanted to warn him that God doesn't always do what we think is best, but I couldn't find words that didn't seem heartless. I decided to let God test his faith and I kept my mouth shut.
That night I asked Doug to read the Gospel reading. His voice was strong and rich with conviction, but when he stopped and asked how to pronounce word after word, I realized I'd put him on the spot. The other children smirked and sniggered. I tried to glare them into silence, but Doug's face reddened as he struggled on, his knuckles clenched around the edges of his book. I didn't know what to do.
He didn't come the next week and I didn't have a phone number for him. Amber said she'd seen him at school again.
"He always says hello, like I'm his friend or something," she said, wrinkling her nose.
"He's such a dork," Brian said.
"A toad," Joshua chimed in.
"Stop it, all of you!" They hung their heads, hiding their mouths with their hands. That night the Gospel was on loving your neighbor as yourself.
On Monday after school I drove to Doug's house. It was a tiny bungalow with dormer windows on the second floor.
The house was so low to the ground it seemed anyone upstairs would have to crouch down just to see out the windows. I parked in front and walked up the driveway, keeping to the packed down snow of the ruts made from the cars backing out. The front walk was snow covered too, so I went to the side door and knocked on the storm door. The afternoon sun cast pale shadows and although the sky was blue, it was cold, even colder out of the shelter of the house. No one came to the door.
I saw footprints leading around to the back, and just as I was wondering whether to follow them, Doug rounded the corner of the house. His face lit up with a happy smile.
"Mrs. Matthews! How are you?"
"I'm fine. But what about you? You didn't come to class and I wondered if everything was all right."
His face clouded. "It's hard right now. My dad's still looking for work. He left this morning for Pennsylvania. He heard there's work there. My Uncle Ned is trucking. You may have seen his rig over at the Rini's. He parks it in the lot over there."
"How many of you are living here?" I asked, hoping he wouldn't take it the wrong way.
He shrugged and counted out loud on his fingers. "My mom and my daddy and us four, Uncle Ned and Aunt Sue, and my two cousins. Ten, I guess." He stepped back. "Would you like to see my rabbits? I'll let you hold one."
"Sure." I followed in his footsteps through ankle deep snow to an unbelievably large rabbit hutch. It was more like two or three rabbit runs stacked one on top of the other. "How many rabbits do you have?" I asked.
"Thirty two, and I take care of them all. I feed them in the morning before school and give them fresh water. Then after school I check on them again. Then once more before I go to bed. I clean their cages, too." He was opening the chicken wire door of one of the cages. "It's a big job." He squared his shoulders and lifted his chin with pride.
"Do you breed them or sell them or what?"
"Yes'm. We breed them and sell them. And sometimes we eat them - when we have to." He was lifting out a tiny black bunny for me to hold. I took it and even through my gloves I could feel its delicate softness. It lay still in my hand. I knew keeping rabbits except as pets was against city code. I didn't know whether to say anything or not. I hoped no one would turn them in.
"It's so sweet," I said. "I've never held a rabbit before. Is this a baby?"
"No. It's a miniature dwarf. It won't get any bigger." Doug was watching me as anxious as a new mother. "His name is Samson."
I laughed. "For this little bunny?"
He laughed too. "Yes'm, because God gives small things a strength of their own."
"Is Samson your pet?"
He shook his head, but his eyes betrayed him. "Are you wanting to see my mother?" he asked, as if suddenly aware that a visit from me probably meant that he was in trouble.
"1 was just wondering why you'd missed class - whether you needed a ride - or if there was something I could do." Even to my own ears I sounded foolish and ill at ease, my good intentions so unconnected to Doug and his life as to be laughable.
"That's mighty kind of you, Mrs. Matthews. I'm sorry for missing class, but I was taking care of my mother while my dad was looking for work. I'll try to be there next time," he said.
I knew I should go in to see his mother, to find out if she needed anything, groceries or a ride to the doctor's, but I didn't. Something held me back, a sense of not wanting to intrude perhaps, an awkwardness. I don't know.
He walked me to my car, his breath making little spurts of fog in the icy air.
"Aren't your ears cold?" I asked, noticing he didn't have on a hat. "And isn't that a new haircut?"
"I never wear a hat" he said, running his hand over his head. Then he grinned. "And this haircut's special, something just for me, my dad give me. His curly hair was cut close to the scalp, and every half an inch, v's were sculptured into it like falcons silhouetted against the sky.
A few days later I saw him at the grocery store. He was waving and pointing me out as I maneuvered my way through the canned vegetables and soup aisle. "Dad," he said, "this is my teacher, Mrs. Matthews. I told you she came by to see how we were doing."
His father was a huge man, towering over us, making us both seem insignificant. "Howdy," he said. I expected his voice to boom like Doug's but instead it was soft, almost hard to hear. "Mighty kind of you."
I felt tongue-tied, my mind darting first to his wife's illness, then his unemployment, then blanking on Doug's last name. "I hope your wife's better," I finally stammered.
He nodded, apparently a man of few words. He moved past me, with Doug pushing the cart behind him. He seemed as taciturn as Doug was voluble. "I'll be there," Doug said, as he passed, and I waved to him.
"Who is that kid?" my son asked, after they were out of earshot.
"The new boy in my PSR class. Why?"
"He's always saying hello to me at school, and I don't even know him."
"Just be kind," I said. Justin rolled his eyes.
The next day was a Friday and I was at the junior high to pick Justin up after track practice. It had been warmer through the week, teasing us with the prospect of spring, but the temperature had dropped into the thirties again, and the sky threatened snow.
I was parked in the far parking lot near the gym. I was early, but I'd brought a book to read. A crowd of cross country runners were jogging up the driveway, with a second gaggle straggling not far behind. I couldn't pick out Justin. Suddenly a boy in a red jacket sprinted across the drive, skidded to a stop, looking for someone, who, I couldn't tell. Nor could I tell from what direction he'd come. He was shouting loud enough for me to hear through my rolled-up windows.
"Call 911! Someone call 911!"
I pushed open my car door. No one else seemed to notice what was going on. I didn't see any other adults.
"What happened?" I shouted. The crowd around him parted at the sound of my voice.
"Someone fell through the ice at Holme's Pond! Back there!" He was pointing through a copse of trees. Over his shoulder I thought I could see a shimmer of ice and something black bouncing like a ball on the horizon.
"Run to the office and have someone call 911," I told him. When he hesitated, I gave him a little shove. "Run!"
I started off toward the pond, remembering the warning I'd read in the school newsletter for kids to stay off the ice, that in the changeable weather the surface was soft and unreliable. I pushed past shoulder high bushes that sprang back like whips, wondering if I had anything in my car that might help. I couldn't think of anything. I came out on a path overlooking the frozen water. I could see footprints and sled tracks going down a little incline out onto the pond. The ice looked solid enough, but about thirty feet out the water broke open, black and menacing, and in the rift, a head bobbed.
I stepped out onto the ice, feeling it shift under my weight. I wondered how deep it was. In the summer the pond was a favorite spot for neighborhood fishermen, and long piers extended out into what I always thought to be shallow water not deeper than four feet. The head disappeared.
I was afraid to run across the ice, afraid I would break through, but in the same moment I couldn't stand there doing nothing. I grabbed a heavy tree limb, a thick piece of deadwood, that had been blown down over the winter. I yanked it out of the underbrush on the shore and dragged it across the snowy surface, leaving a swath like a rake in a Zen garden. I was about five feet from the hole when a boy's head popped up. His eyes were wild, with fear I thought, his hair plastered against his head, when suddenly he pulled what looked like a rucksack out of the freezing water and held it out at shoulder level. The bundle was a child, not more than four or five years old, sodden, still. Not struggling. The boy put the child on the rim of the hole, pushing him as far from the water as he could. The ice looked to be about three inches thick and it held the child's weight, but I wasn't sure it would support me.
I dropped the tree limb and laid flat on the slushy ice, stretching out to pull the child back toward me. I couldn't quite reach his leg and I crawled forward. I wrapped my hand around his jacket and started ooching backward, away from the treacherous hole. The boy in the water dropped out of sight again. I heard the water splash and saw his gleaming head duck under the ice as if he were looking for something. Then it was still.
For a moment a terrible silence filled my ears like an echo. I felt completely alone. The ice beneath me creaked and shimmied.
"Dear God, help me ." My knees and elbows scraped against the ice and my shoulder muscles burned from pulling the unconscious child. I was nearly to the shore. I stood up and carried the child to the bank. I knelt in the snow beside the little body. He wasn't breathing. I tipped his chin up and, putting my mouth over his, blew my breath into his lungs. I did it again and again. I don't know how many times. Behind me I could hear branches snapping and voices shouting, and suddenly, across the pond, I heard someone yelling, "Help! Help!"
I looked up and saw the dark haired boy in the water struggling with another bundle that must have been another child. This child seemed bigger and heavier and the boy was flailing, slipping into the water as if his legs wouldn't support him, as if his knees were buckling or he was being sucked into the mud. I blew another breath into the lungs of the little boy between my knees and be coughed and started to breathe, shallowly, soft as a sigh. I turned him over, looking around, wondering why no one else had found us yet. The boy in the water cried out again.
His voice was hoarse and weak. I ran part way onto the ice. He was clutching the edge of the broken ice, sagging down, exhausted. I was afraid my weight would dump both me and the rescued child back in the water. I dropped to my knees and crawled toward the hole. In front of me I pushed the heavy limb I 'd dropped before, thinking the boy might be able to grab on to it, that I might be able to pull him out with it.
"Hold on!" I shouted. At the sound of my voice his shoulders surged upward as if he were pushing himself off the bottom. He tried to pull himself onto the ledge of ice, but it snapped off under his hands, and in the moment before he twisted and sank into the black water, his eyes caught mine, and I realized it was Doug Bramley.
His eyes were glazed as if he were looking at something far off, something he could see, but I couldn't. Then he shuddered and a slow, sweet smile transformed his face and he slid under the water like a penny into a slot. I could hear people on the shore, shouting at me. I crawled closer to the other child Doug had rescued and pulled him toward me. Crawling backward I tugged the child across the slushy ice. We left a swath like an animal dragging its kill to its den.
"There's another boy," I said, when I reached solid ground and other hands picked up the second child and started mouth to mouth resuscitation. The first child had already been carried off to an ambulance. "He rescued these two. We have to help him!" The front of my jacket and pants were soaking wet and I was starting to chatter, not so much from the cold, but shock, I think. I closed my eyes and saw again Doug's face as he slipped into the water. I watched the frantic preparations to rescue him, overheard snatches of sentences, words like hypothermia, miracle, how many minutes, but I knew they wouldn't find him alive. Someone put a blanket over my shoulders and led me away.
I saw the track coach and my son in the parking lot.
"Are you all right? What happened?" Justin asked. His voice was jagged, his face twisted with shock and fear.
I shook my head. The coach offered to drive us home. I didn't want to, but I went. Later, reporters knocked on the door, but I wouldn't talk to them. "Just tell them I'm not the hero here, Doug was," I told my husband to tell them.
I went to his funeral. There was a crowd, and I saw his mother. She was a big woman in a flowered dress. She seemed bewildered and I remembered she was mostly deaf. I was too ashamed to meet her. I felt I'd let her down, that she must blame me. Later, people clustered around her, offering condolences. I stood to the side, watching her shake the hands of strangers, people who wanted to thank her for her son's sacrifice. Her face wearied and she looked away. Then, by accident, her glance caught mine and for a moment I saw in her eyes the same serenity I had seen in her son.
"It was mighty nice of you to come, Mrs. Matthews." I heard Mr. Bramley's voice behind me. "Doug said he leaned a lot about God's word from you."
I didn't know what to say. Words stuck in my throat and tears spilled over my cheeks. "I'm so sorry," I said finally. He patted my arm and moved away, his oversized shoulders leaving a wake in the crowd.
The next Monday night, on the last night of my PSR class, the children gathered around the table, subdued. In the middle of the table, I'd lit a single candle. Its flame flickered, guttered, flared, then burned steady. I turned off the electric lights and we sat in the candle's glow.
I took a deep breath and started to pray. My voice rang out, strong and clear, the words tumbling out like healing water from a fountain, and I thanked God for all his gifts, great and small. And all his children, every one.
Father Adams lived in a one bedroom apartment overlooking the lake. From his vantage point on the seventeenth floor he could look out of his living room window and see the iron ore freighters picking their way into port. He could see the weather rolling in from Canada, fast dark rain clouds rolling like armor inland.
He'd lived most of his life in a rectory, with a room of his own, of course, but always someone to share breakfast with, and supper if his schedule allowed. Brothers and sisters in Christ. Not family really, but closer than family in some ways. Spiritual family. He didn't have much flesh-and-blood family. An aunt in Omaha. A brother in Denver. His parents had been gone some twenty-three years and there had been only the two sons. He, of course, had never married, and Michael, well, Michael was a widower. He had two daughters. They were married and had children, how many he couldn't remember, but he always got a card at Christmas from one or the other, and sometimes even a package of cookies. He used to share them around the rectory since he didn't like sweets.
And now he was retired. Father David Adams, S.S.S., retired. He was only sixty-eight, but his health wasn't robust. The demands of parish life, even an older parish like St. Helen's, had become too much for him. Of course in some ways a priest never retires, he told himself, but he remembered the sense of solace he felt when for the first time he closed his apartment door behind him. His own space. He'd put down his bags with a sense of coming home. His own space. He hung two prints in the living room above the couch. One of goldenrod in the summer. The other of the Holy Land, the view overlooking the Mount of Olives. Above his bed he hung a crucifix. The rooms were simply furnished, which suited his taste. Although he'd never taken a vow of poverty he'd never developed the habit of acquiring possessions. Except books perhaps. He had bookshelves built along the wall shared by the living room and dining area. He put the overflow in the bedroom, plus a desk. Very simple, almost spartan. His parishioners had given him a TV as a going-away present. He didn't use it much except to listen to the news.
In the beginning he had to buy dishes and pots and pans. And a coffee pot. He wasn't used to doing his own cooking, but he managed. Eggs, sandwiches, an occasional pot roast.What really bemused him was grocery shopping. The prices of things! He learned to steam fresh vegetables and bake potatoes. He stocked up on things he used so he wouldn't have to shop as often.
He hadn't made out a schedule yet. He was enjoying his freedom. Oh, he went to Mass everyday. Early, 7:30, when there were just a few people, old women, an occasional sinner, and he could slip in and out without fuss. He'd never served in this parish and so he knew no one. He liked the anonymity. It was like walking around incognito. Of course he'd introduced himself to the pastor, but Father Spacek respected his privacy. Besides he knew Father Adams wasn't well. His heart among other things.
Father Adams took a daily walk for his health. After lunch, weather permitting, he walked along the narrow promenade built along the lake. There was an iron railing, and below a concrete breakwall sloped down to the water. There was no beach as such, just concrete, and no trees to break the wind. Just an open field surrounding the seventeen-story high-rise, with a naked concrete path leading down to the promenade. Sometimes he would see a fisherman perched on the breakwall that jutted out into the lake. Usually he saw no one and he would watch the waves break, sometimes calm, sometimes white.
Of course he prayed. Mostly out of habit. He never felt alone. He enjoyed the silence. His mind was filled with scripture and prayers and when he listened he found that interior dialog comforting like a radio station playing in the background.
One day he was walking along the lake when a young child appeared seemingly out of nowhere and asked him, "Do you see that ship out there?"
Father Adams looked where the child pointed. "Yes," he said.
"My daddy's on that boat," the child said.
"Oh yes I see," said Father Adams.
"He'll be coming home tonight, I think." The child watched the boat inch along the horizon. Then the gray sky swallowed up the last glint of the hull and they looked out over the water as if it had been a mirage in the heat of the desert sun.
Father Adams cleared his throat, not knowing what to say. Children always tongue-tied him.
"I'm sure he'll be glad to see you," he settled on finally.
"What's your name?" the child asked, his wide blue eyes catching Father Adams's own like a mirror.
He hesitated a moment, then answered, "Father Adams," as if giving up some of his freedom. "What's yours?"
"John David Tucker." The formal name rolled off the boy's tongue like someone else's.
"How old are you?" Father Adams asked.
"Four," the boy answered. Then he darted off into the open field behind them, scattering sea gulls like confetti as he ran into a flock huddled on the ground.
Father Adams watched until he disappeared around the corner of the building. He walked back slowly himself.
"Why is your name Father?" the child asked the next day, walking next to Father Adams, trying to match his stride with his own.
"I'm a priest," Father Adams replied shortly, feeling his blessed solitude broken. "Ah. . .John ," he started.
"Oh, people call me David," the boy interrupted. "Is a priest like a minister?" he asked.
"Yes," Father Adams sighed.
"We had a minister once," David said. "But he was younger than you and his name wasn't Father. It was Jerry or something."
Father Adams half closed his eyes against the sound of David's voice. Let the little children come unto me, Jesus had said. Resignedly Father Adams obeyed.
"Are you like a real father?" David asked.
"No, I don't have any children of my own, but in a sense all children are my children."
David looked puzzled. "How?" he asked.
"In the sense that I love all of God's children."
"Like me too?" he asked.
Father Adams was startled. "Yes, I guess so," he said, "I mean, yes."
David looked up at him, his eyes earnest and serious. "My daddy didn't come home. I think he's lost."
"Oh," Father Adams didn't know what else to say.
"I don't think he loves me anymore."
"Oh, I'm sure "
"Look!" David suddenly pointed over Father Adams's shoulder. "There's his boat!" He clambered onto the metal railing and watched the heavy ship slip along the horizon. "I'm sure he'll be home tonight," he said, as the boat disappeared from view.
Father Adams reached out to steady the little boy as he hung over the railing. "It's cold in the wind," he said. "Where are your mittens?"
David shook his head. "I'm not cold," he said, but he climbed down and put his hands in his thin pockets. "Do you ever go fishing?" he asked.
"No, I haven't fished since I was a boy." Father Adams smiled at the memory. He and his brother would fish on summer afternoons down by the pond. They'd only catch gillies, as they called them. Michael would keep his, but he'd always dis-entangle the hook gently and let his go. Still, he liked the peacefulness of the summer day and the excuse to sit in the sun, so whenever Michael suggested fishing, he went.
"I don't have a fishing pole," David said, " but I talked to Joe over there and he said maybe someday he'll let me fish with him." David motioned toward the old black man perched atop the stones of the breakwater. "I'm too little to climb down there now," he said. "Besides, I can't swim and I might fall off Sometimes I pretend to fish thought. Would you like to pretend with me?"
"All you have to do is have a stick." David ran into the grass and brought back two short wind-broken sticks, and handed one to Father Adams. "Then you come over here and swing it back over your shoulder like you're casting and then wait for the fish to bite." Seriously David hung his stick through the steel railing. He looked up at Father Adams expectantly.
Awkwardly Father Adams lifted the stick over his shoulder and pretended to cast an imaginary line into the water below.
"Boy, you got yours out farther than me. I bet you catch a big fish."
They stood in silence for a minute listening to the sound of the waves on the concrete breakwall. A gull cawed.
Suddenly David shouted. "I think I got a bite!" He pretended to reel furiously, pulling his stick up and back as if a huge fish were on the other end. "Here it is. Here it is. Oh," he said, his voice falling. "It's an old shoe."
Father Adams looked at him, bewildered, but before he could say anything David pointed to the water again. "Look! Your bobber's going way down! You have a big one! Reel it in! Reel it in!"
Self-consciously Father Adams pretended to reel in his imaginary line.
"Careful! Careful! You don't want to lose him!" David danced around him, his eyes shining. "Here I have a net!"
He reached through the railing and pretended to bag the fish with a net. "I knew you'd catch a big one!" he shouted.
He looked at Father Adams happily. "You're a good fisherman."
"So are you," Father Adams said.
David looked away. "No, I just caught an old shoe."
"I mean," Father Adams said, "I couldn't have caught my fish without you."
David smiled at him gratefully. Then looking down, he said, "I have to go home. . . . Thanks for fishing with me." He tucked his stick into his jacket and ran across the field. At its edge he turned and waved. "Bye," he yelled.
Father Adams waved back.
Later as he was fixing supper a clear picture of David's shining face rose in Father Adams's mind. He shook his head as if to clear it. He had been working on a scholarly translation all afternoon and he was tired. He planned to finish up some loose ends and go to bed early.
He turned on the news. His apartment was very quiet. He ate the omelet and salad he had prepared while watching reports of a hurricane along the eastern coast. Automatically he prayed for the victims.
When the phone rang he was surprised. It was Mark, a young priest he had worked with at his last parish.
"Oh, I'm fine," he said. "Working on my treatise of St. Symeon. No, I haven't met too many of my neighbors yet, but a few people in the parish. How is everything at St. Stephen's?"
As he listened to Mark's reply, a curious sense of unreality came over him. He struggled to remember the faces that went with the names and while he heard himself asking the right questions the answers seemed of no consequence. Finally he pleaded fatigue and hung up.
"I must be tired," he muttered to himself as he dried the dishes and put them away.
He switched off the television and in the silence heard the rain against the window.
The apartment suddenly seemed dark and dingy, small somehow, confining. Father Adams had the impulse to call someone, anyone, but as he flipped through his address book, no one seemed to be the right person to call. Finally he called his niece in Des Moines.
"I just wanted to say hello," he said. "To see how your family is." He heard children laughing in the background.
"We're all fine," she said, sounding puzzled. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, yes. I was just thinking of you and " he trailed off.
"We're fine," she repeated. "I'm just trying to get the children in bed and " She caught him up on her oldest's latest accomplishment and the youngest's cute saying for the day while he tried unsuccessfully to remember their names.
Then he hung up he realized his interior dialog had stopped. The steady flow of prayerful assurances, bits of scripture, spiritual guidance had stopped. In its place was a dark silence.
Father Adams went into the bathroom and switched on the light. He looked into the mirror. His eyes were dark, impenetrable, as if he could not tell what he was thinking. Otherwise he looked the same. Gray hair, thin face, thin straight lips. He felt oddly light and decided to lie down.
He lay with his clothes on, staring at the ceiling. It was a sort of swirled plaster design which, after a moment, made him feel dizzy. He closed his eyes and slept.
When he woke it was morning. A gray light filtered through the window. He felt stiff, and groggily he stumbled to the bathroom to shower.
"I must be getting sick," he thought. In the shower he prayed for the souls of the faithful dead as was his custom, but it seemed the prayers fell into a vast emptiness.
He had overslept the early Mass. The next one was at eleven. He could just make it if he hurried. As he dressed he hesitated, then decided to put on his Roman collar. He hadn't worn it since his retirement.
As a sort of penance he skipped breakfast and decided to walk to St. Mary's. It was only three blocks, but he usually drove.
It was bitterly cold. The rain had stopped and been replaced by a biting wind. Father Adams had forgotten his gloves and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. He passed another old man apparently waiting for the bus and a teenager who looked at him suspiciously, perhaps wondering if he had any money on him.
As he slipped into a side pew, Father Adams realized he had chosen a spot behind a young mother with three young children. He considered moving, but forced himself to stay.
"Glory be to the Father and to the Son " he intoned the words, concentrating on blocking out the little girl who was peering at him with insistent curiosity, and her brother who was jangling car keys in rhythm to music of his own hearing. He couldn't understand what the homily was about. He tried to listen, but the words seemed unconnected. He waited for the consecration with a sense of resignation. The children were trying to engage him in a game of peek-a-boo, but he ignored them.
Then as the priest held up the bread at the moment of consecration, Father Adams felt himself sink to his knees on the kneeler before him. His eyes felt glassy and he couldn't focus. A child cried out piercingly as if to acknowledge the presence of Christ, but all Father Adams could see in his mind's eye was the face of a little girl with flaming red hair.
He had been serving Mass, and like so many times before, a child had broken in at its most sacred moment, crying, carrying on, ruining that moment of perfect peace for him, no, for everyone, he was sure. But that day, the child was older and should have known better, and in the moment he held up the Host, she shouted in frustration, "Where's Jesus? I don't see Him?" and she turned around, looking at the congregation in confusion. Her mother shushed her, but the damage was done. To his dismay the congregation had laughed indulgently. After Mass the mother came up to him, and he hissed, "Don't ever bring her back to Mass again!" The mother's face went white and she pulled her daughter away as if from the devil.
Father Adams still remembered the look in the girl's eyes. She had looked back at him with a mute suffering that stung him even now. The memory of those dark bewildered eyes pierced him so that he could not catch his breath. The sound of the organ swelled around him, but he stayed on his knees.
"Forgive me," he said, but the words sounded hollow like an echo.
He sat back in the pew. He had missed communion, but his legs felt too weak to hold him. He sat there long after everyone had filed out. He didn't know what to do. The silence frightened him.
Finally Father Spacek appeared and asked him if he was all right.
"I don't know," he answered.
Father Spacek called an ambulance. While they waited, he asked if he wanted to make a confession.
"I don't know," Father Adams said. "Yes." And he confessed a number of inconsequential sins, leaving to last the suffering he had caused the little redheaded girl. "I'm sorry I hurt her," he said, "but she shouldn't have been in Mass if she didn't know what it was all about."
Father Spacek was silent and in the silence Father Adams heard the cries of all the infants he had baptized, claiming them for his heavenly Father.
"You must be as a little child if you are to enter the kingdom of heaven," Father Spacek said softly. He absolved him and rode with him to the hospital.
It was a heart attack. Not severe, more like a warning, but Father Adams was frightened. Aside from Father Spacek, he had no visitors. The nurses were pleasant, but they left him alone. He was afraid to admit he found no comfort in his prayers. It was as if God were waiting for him to do something and he didn't know what.
On the third day of his hospital stay he remembered David. He wondered if he were still walking along the lake shore, pretending to fish. The first snow of the season had fallen while he lay in bed. He imagined David making a snowman so he would have a fishing partner. Or perhaps he'd make snow angels, covering that forsaken field with their snowy wings. Father Adams smiled at the thought.
He stayed in the hospital six days. On his way home he stopped in the hospital gift shop and bought a knitted hat and a pair of mittens. On impulse he added a candy bar and a tiny stuffed bear that fit in his pocket.
The apartment looked the same as when he'd left. There was sour milk in the refrigerator he had to throw away, but nothing else had spoiled.
The doctor had warned him about walking too far, but after lunch he took the elevator down and walked down to the promenade along the lake. There were no benches, so he leaned up against the railing. It had snowed the night before and his were the only tracks aside from the seagulls'.
It was very quiet and as he turned to look out over the lake even the sound of the waves sounded muffled.
"Boo!" David jumped up on the railing.
"Boo!" Father Adams smiled back.
"The lake's going to freeze," David said. "Joe said so."
"Who's Joe?" Father Adams asked.
"The old man who's always fishing and going to take me someday. But he's not here today because it's too cold." David stuffed his hands deeper in his pockets, balancing on the railing.
"Here. I had these extra," Father Adams said, holding out the mittens. "If they fit, you can have them."
David jumped off the railing. "Are they for me?" he asked.
"Yes. And a hat. I thought you might like them," he added, suddenly feeling an explanation was necessary. "If your mother doesn't mind."
David put them on, pulling the hat over his ears.
"Now we can have a snowball fight!" he shouted gleefully. He gathered a handful of fluffy snow and tried to pack it into a ball. Instead it stuck to his new mittens and the rest scattered like soap flakes.
"I know," said Father Adams, "we can make snow angels. Lie down and spread your wings like this," he said, waving his arms in the air to show him, "and I'll help pull you up."
Delighted, David lay in the snow flapping his arms to make pair after pair of angelic wings.
Again and again Father Adams pulled him up until they were both laughing and covered with snow. Finally he said, "Come on. We'd better get you home and dried off." He leaned down and started to brush the snow off of him.
"Father," David said suddenly, "I thought you got lost too."
Carefully Father Adams straightened David's hat. "I thought so too," he said. "I thought so too."
Copyright © 2001 by Linda L. Rome