Inkslinger Award Winner
Issue No. 1 – September 2013
My brother Simon grows accustomed to his new life. Each dawn, under the bright gaze of the Smiley Face water tower, he dresses in his clerical black and walks the two snowy blocks to St. Gaspar’s Church. Those out at such an hour greet him. Old women walking their dogs. Men in flannel shirts delivering sacks of grain and animal feed. Children shoveling driveways for comic book money.
“Morning, Father,” these people say. “Don’t expect a thaw anytime soon.”
Simon nods. He isn’t yet at the point of warm handshakes, embraces, or sidewalk conversation. But they’ve accepted him without question, made him feel at home. Ashley City is the sort of gray Indiana town where people still read only the local newspaper.
The Diocese of Arlington transferred him out there after they found videos on his school-provided laptop of grown men fucking. After all the headlines, the bishop’s investigation, the young boys paraded through the St. Bede’s principal’s office until the counselors were certain Simon’s sins didn’t extend beyond that computer, they couldn’t leave him in his position at the school. So they shipped him to Catholic Siberia.
Does he think, This is no place for a thirty-three-year-old man? Does he miss restaurants that stay open later than nine o’clock? People who can talk about Degas, The X-Files, John Dos Passos?
In the sacristy, he stamps his boots on a rubber mat and unwinds his scarf. The lector, a small, hunched woman who speaks only while reading scripture, clatters around in the next room. Cabinet doors slam. The lectionary thuds against the table.
Simon clothes himself for Mass: amice, alb, cincture, maniple, stole. With each vestment, he becomes more and less himself. The alb swishes about his ankles, the stole drapes around his neck, and he feels them making him whole, stripping away any sense he has of a life outside those walls.
Months before Simon left, his parishioners threw him a going-away party. They were meant to judge him. Behind their smiles and sport coats, they were meant to shun and hate. I would appear, a vision of light and comfort, and tell him I understood. And Simon would think, this is what angels are. Not winged servants of God, the kind he spoke of in his Sunday homilies, but people. People who show up when you need them.
But those at the party refused to judge. In that stranger’s house—I didn’t go to church, didn’t know anyone present and craved a cigarette—people raised glasses of Italian wine I couldn’t afford or pronounce, shook Simon’s hand, patted him on the back, said they hated to see him go. The house was large, the party a blur of awful paisley neckties, too many bracelets, and dated carpets in geometric patterns. People gave toasts that sounded like prayer. Servant of God—shepherd of their flock—patient teacher—humble, gentle—wise beyond his years. A gray-haired man spoke of temptation. He spoke of God’s strength and forgiveness like he, not Simon, was the priest in the room.
“We all have our sins,” the man said, his voice solemn, noble. Heads bobbed. Brows scrunched over noses. Yes, people said. Yes. Amen.
Simon must have known the transgressions of every person in the room. He was, after all, their confessor. They hid behind the screen, but he knew their voices. He knew what they did in their bedrooms, in other people’s bedrooms. He knew when they beat their children, when they screamed at their spouses, when they stole printer paper from the office, when they drank too much and raked their leaves into the neighbor’s yard and swore at people who cut them off in traffic. He must have seen the irony in his outing, recognizing the way the others kept their secrets buttoned inside their Sunday outfits.
Simon wore the clothes of a layperson that night, khakis pleated, wingtips polished, the collar of his oxford shirt stiff against his neck, but he still looked like a priest. He smiled at something in the toast.
“I don’t think it’s beyond us,” the white-haired man said, “to forgive someone who’s done nothing but serve our community for the past few years.”
Those well-dressed Catholics, that small cadre of loving supporters, they weren’t the reason Simon was transferred. They were comfortable with him being around their children. They’d miss him, they said. Their children, his students, would miss him. It was easy enough to say. He’d soon be gone. But what would they do if he were staying? If, knowing what they knew, they had to send their children into his classroom each day? No—I was certain there wouldn’t have been a party if the bishop announced that all was forgiven, that Simon made a simple mistake and would stay on at St. Bede’s. These people had gathered to celebrate the fact that he was leaving. I drained my glass of wine.
After the toasts I cornered Simon by the fireplace.
“I want to talk to you,” I said.
“It seems like everyone does tonight,” Simon said. He looked over my head, his eyes scanning the crowd.
“Isn’t that what priests are for?” I said. “Talking to?”
Three gray women in dresses and shawls approached. They stood close by, smiling, clearing their throats.
“Give me a minute,” Simon told me. He turned away and the women embraced him, one by one, their thin, spotted arms encircling his waist like a favorite son.
Everyone at the party had a little too much to drink. That was one decent thing about Catholics—they could have fun. I found myself in the living room, the white-haired man leaning toward me to speak over the voices and music. His name was Roger. A crumb of cheese stuck in the corner of his lips.
“I know your parents,” Roger said. “Where are they tonight?”
“I don’t know,” I said, though I did. I thought of their reactions when they first found out. It had been a front-page story in the Post. I recalled my father, bald, round in the stomach, as he spread the paper out at the kitchen table.
“Oh my God,” he said.
“What is it?” my mother asked.
“They’re fine people,” Roger said. “Very involved in the church. They almost don’t leave anything for the rest of us to do.” He laughed, then coughed. “I met you, once. You were much younger. It’s amazing how time passes. What do you do now?” He leaned toward me, rested his elbow on the back of a chair.
“I just got a job writing for the City Paper,” I said. I didn’t explain that I was only an assistant listings editor, that all I did was call businesses to find out when they opened and closed. Roger was handsome enough, his skin weathered but still tight along his jaw. His suit was dark, his tie thin. He probably worked for the government. He probably spent his weekends in the garden, or rafting on the James. He smelled like salami and olive spread and too much cologne. “I live with a married man,” I said. Which was, technically, still true. Matthew hadn’t yet found a new place.
“Do you?” Roger looked around the party, maybe checking for his wife, then turned back to me. His eyebrows twitched.
Simon and I last spoke a year ago, though only because our mother asked him to call me.
She cried on the phone when I told her I’d moved in with Matthew. It wasn’t only because we weren’t married; it was because Matthew was. We met at a gallery opening. I dropped my plastic cup and splashed wine all over his chinos, then rushed to the bathroom for paper towels. We’d been seeing each other for six months before he left his wife, his children, and their big Fairfax home to move into my carriage house apartment in the city.
“I didn’t want to lie to you,” I told my mother over the phone. I put a pot of water on the stovetop to boil. Matthew had his kids for the night and he’d taken them to a movie. I wanted to have dinner ready when he returned. A part of me wished he’d bring the kids back to our apartment with him, but I knew he wouldn’t. I didn’t have a job at the time and I’d begun to enjoy playing housewife. Organizing his shirts by color in the closet. Keeping the freezer stocked with Cherry Garcia in case he had a rough day. Answering the phone with “Mrs. Clearfield speaking,” which confused the bill collectors. But I knew that’s all it was. Playing. “I didn’t want to hide anything,” I said.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” my mother said, blowing her nose into the receiver. I pictured her leaning against the refrigerator, its surface covered in family photographs, her back to the bay window. “Lying isn’t as big a sin as—what you’re doing.”
“Give me a break,” I said. “There’s no such thing as sin.” It sounded nastier than I’d intended. My mother muffled her sobs—in her shoulder, perhaps, or a tissue.
Later that night, Simon called.
“Elaina,” he said.
“Not you, too,” I said. I watched the street for Matthew’s car. Dinner had been ready for half an hour.
“I’m not going to scold you like Mom did,” he said. I hated how calm he sounded, how firm and confident. I supposed that’s how priests were supposed to sound.
“She didn’t scold me,” I said. “I’m not a child.”
“I just want you to think about what you’re doing,” he said. “That’s all. Just think about it for a minute.”
“You think I haven’t?” I said. “Matthew’s happier with me than he was with his wife.”
“Listen,” Simon said. “Sometimes we don’t understand the consequences of our actions until much later. It’s hard to see the full context when we’re in the moment.”
“You have no idea,” I said. “Look, Matthew’s home. I have to go.”
I hung up. Matthew wasn’t home. I leaned against the windowsill and waited.
Across the room, the women speaking with Simon drifted away. He stood there in front of the fireplace, shoulders hunched, glancing about like a schoolboy whose homecoming date danced with someone else. Pimple scars nested in the creases of his chin. He looked so young all by himself.
“I wonder,” Roger said in my ear, “if we could go somewhere a bit more quiet. It’s so loud in here. Don’t you think?”
It had gotten loud. Someone turned up the jazz on the stereo so it could be heard over the conversation, the laughs, the clatter of dishes and serving spoons.
“Excuse me,” I said.
I stepped around Roger and filled two clean glasses with Pinot. I handed one to Simon. He took it in both hands and blinked, like I’d shined a flashlight in his face.
“Come on,” I said, pinching his elbow. “You look like you need some air.”
We stepped onto the covered porch and leaned against the railing. The night was dark and wet. The leaves that now clumped in the gutters fell early. It was hardly October and too cold by far.
We didn’t speak for a time. I lit an American Spirit and listened to the fall of rain in the grass. I closed my eyes and visualized my love flowing into Simon as a wave of autumn leaves, all reds, golds, oranges and browns.
“Chilly,” Simon said at last. He glanced at the smoke I released from my lips.
“When did you first know?” I said, surprising myself. It’s not what I wanted to begin with, but I couldn’t unsay it. “I mean, I always had a feeling. Even before I knew how that sort of thing worked. You never had girlfriends.”
“This is a nice party,” he said. A muscle moved in his cheek. In the darkness he looked bigger, his crooked nose less charming than rough. “It was kind of them to do this.”
He looked into his wine, twirling the glass slowly. I wished he’d take a drink, loosen up a bit. The time for secrets kept between each other had passed. I wanted to tell him about my boyfriends, the ones I loved, the ones I hurt, the ones who hurt me. There were things I wanted to cry about. Things I’d told friends, but I’d never been able to tell Simon. I wanted him to be a big brother.
“For the record,” I said, “I hate what they’ve done to you.”
“I understand why they had to,” Simon said.
“Fuck that,” I said, and refused to be ashamed of my language. “What’s the big deal, anyway? If it had been pictures of, you know, women. On your computer. Would they have reacted the same way? I’d be mad as hell, if I were you.”
“I’m not angry,” Simon said.
“You should be,” I said. I flicked my cigarette into the yard, lit another. “But you should be relieved, too. Not having to hide that anymore. Why are you even going back to them?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Clearly. You’ve done nothing wrong. And even if they think you sinned, or whatever, there are worse things. You know what I mean. So forget about them. You’re free, now.”
He turned, and there was nothing kind in him. Standing with the porch light at his back, he’d become a silhouette. I recognized nothing in the dark form. Something small and painful curled inside my chest.
“What are you?” Simon said.
“Describe yourself. In one word.”
“That’s a hard thing to do,” I said, my voice soft, barely more than a whisper.
“Okay,” I said. I held my cigarette between my fingertips, placed my other hand on my hip. Tried to look cool, unconcerned, but my words came out clumsy and rushed. “Sincere, maybe. Creative. Spontaneous.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Simon said. The hardness had gone out of him. His shoulders slumped forward again. It seemed as though some unknowable part of his body had retreated into the darkness. He set his glass of wine on the railing, held it in place with a trembling hand. “I meant, what are you doing with your life. A noun.”
I couldn’t think of one.
“Okay,” Simon said. He leaned against the railing again, looked out at nothing.
I wanted to say more. But my lungs expanded, my heart tightened, and I hated him. I didn’t have to explain myself, didn’t have to apologize for anything. I thought, I could go inside and fuck Roger. I could tap him on the shoulder, lead him to the basement, sit on the dryer, wrap my legs around him. It would be quick. No one would notice we’d gone.
I finished my wine, gulped down Simon’s untouched glass, stamped out my cigarette and rejoined the party.
The wine was free and there was plenty of it. I stayed for a few more drinks, talked to those righteous people, pretended to be interested in their jobs, their families, the vacations they planned for winter. What I really thought was, how sad. How very, very sad.
Simon moved through them all, comfortable, talking, laughing.
I found Roger—he sat on the living room sofa beside his wife. She was small, pretty, her bangs too short for a woman of her age. I walked right up to them, crossed my arms, smiled the most innocent smile I could manage.
Roger looked at me, then at his watch. “Well,” he said to his wife, “it’s getting late. We should probably get going.” They stood.
“Hello,” Roger’s wife said to me. “Have we met?”
“I don’t believe so,” I said.
Roger shook my hand. “Good luck at the paper,” he said, smiling a tight, thin smile.
The party emptied. Coats draped over arms, keys were retrieved from pockets. The house seemed to expand and brighten with each couple that left. Someone switched off the stereo. Maybe I stayed longer than I meant to. I, like Simon, am a lingerer. It’s one of the few traits we share.
When it was time, I gave Simon a brief hug, pressed my nose into his shoulder. His fingertips rested on the muscles of my back, but his forearms kept their distance. I smelled Old Spice on his cheek. The embrace was quick, habitual. The sort of hug exchanged between the spouses of friends.
“I guess I’ll see you at Christmas, then,” I said.
“Maybe,” Simon said. “Around then. I’ll have to say Mass at the new church, though. Out in Indiana.”
“Right,” I said. “Indiana.”
I’d parked my car at the end of the driveway. I started the engine, switched on the windshield wipers. It’s a well-used Civic, the first big thing I purchased as an independent adult. I love that car. I wash and vacuum it weekly, replace the cinnamon air freshener often. Matthew once pointed out that those were my scents: cinnamon and American Spirits. I liked that. I lit a cigarette. The wipers packed wet leaves into the corner of the windshield.
Simon stood in the doorway, saying goodbye to the partygoers, framed in warm light.
But imagine my brother doesn’t grow accustomed to his new life.
Maybe he tires of kind, simple people, people who work and go to church and fall asleep early. People who don’t throw parties. He tires of the short walk between his house and St. Gaspar’s, of endless snow, of the same diner and pizza shop and Chinese place. He looks out his window at the Smiley Face water tower, bright on the horizon, like it’s replacing the absent sun. He thinks of what he could have done differently. A lie he could have told; not even a lie, but a partial truth. Some fact withheld, some detail added that explained everything. He doesn’t know what that could have been.
Maybe, even alone, I still keep the apartment clean. I hang potted plants, smoke only with the windows open. I make myself meals. I take care of my little car. From time to time I drive to my parents’ house, and I don’t even mind the friendly, tense dinners, the unspoken judgments across the table, the avoidance of conversation that might bring discomfort, hurt feelings. When we talk about Simon, we talk about how he’s doing now, when he’ll be able to visit. Never about what’s come before.
Maybe, one day, as he’s preparing himself for Mass, Simon realizes he’s been holding his breath. He doesn’t know why, can’t remember how long he’s been holding it. But his lungs ache. So he lets the air rush from his lips. He relaxes. He sits down in the sacristy and writes me a letter.
Ian Riggins is a graduate of Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He lives and teaches writing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is currently working on a novel about the 1937 Dominican baseball season. He can be found at www.ianriggins.com.