This is the fourth part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. The links will open in a new window. This story contains references to sexual acts. As always, feedback is welcome.
Isaiah Washington, Wash to his friends, Father Washington to his congregation, stood in the small, darkened apartment, listening to the sounds of the city five stories below. Rap rhythms floated up from the street, from a radio or from the teenagers who regularly gathered around the lit trash can for warmth, he couldn’t tell. Somewhere tires screeched. Farther off and then nearer, sirens wailed, their whee-ooo-whee-ooo bouncing off the crowded buildings. Closed-off buildings, closed-off lives.
It didn’t escape him that this was his real congregation, here on the cusp of the Capitol Hill district. Mere blocks to the east, high-rises housed the original young-urbans, lawyers, bankers, paper handlers, those who transferred virtual money from one virtual account to another. And mere blocks to his west were the crumbling buildings that some of those young-urbans owned, rat holes that sheltered homeless teens, amputeed vets, drug addicts with their needle-punctured arms scabbed or scarred over.
He knew that one in twenty of the men on that west side would end up in prison, thus beginning a seemingly unbreakable cycle of recidivism. What happened to “paying one’s debt to society”? It was nonexistent, at least for the west side. That drug deal, the oh-so-easy exchange of money for a small baggie of heaven, became hard to resist when the baby’s screaming because she’s hungry and Mother Hubbard’s cupboard is bare.
It affected the women as well. He had more than one young woman — girls, really — in his congregation who stripped for a living, sometimes offering more so-called intimacy for extra cash. He heard their desperation in the close, stifling air of the confessional. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days, five weeks, eleven months, twenty years since my last confession. “He offered me an extra fifty dollars if I gave him oral sex, Father”; “He said he would pay extra for me and another dancer to have sex while he watched”; “He hit me, but I wouldn’t let him hit me in the face”; “I don’t know what to do, Father. I’m losing money, because I’m too old,” — and that from a twenty year old. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee.
It would be nice to think that east of the divider he called his apartment were happier dwellings, richer lives. But he would be deceiving himself. He saw the small deaths there as well, alcoholic mothers, sexually abusive fathers, parents who drove themselves to early graves as they drove their children to football practice, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis; piano lessons, guitar, trombone, Spanish, French, German. It was a never-ending battle to get their children into the best preschools, only the first step in the long journey to the Ivy League. And that journey was riddled with its own drugs. Very often their fathers did lines of cocaine at office parties, ambition snorted with each gram. The mothers, on the other hand, did Prozac, Wellbutrin, St. John’s Wort, Paxil, Remeron, Celexa, Luvox, Lexapro, Zoloft. Their children did the designer drugs such as Ecstasy and other methamphetamines, drugs that the west side kids couldn’t afford to use, but could afford to sell. And there was always the ubiquitous Ritalin.
Even an intact family, such as Scott and Laurie Webber, had unbearable suffering. Their seeming functionality in a world of dysfunction had not protected them. He had a score of them in his congregation — not ones that Nietzsche would have termed “the boggled and the botched,” but boggled and botched nonetheless. Cancer, divorce, joblessness, depression, restlessness, herniated disks, adultery, abandonment, emphysema, muscular sclerosis, diabetes — the list was as long as were the drug names to chase the world of shadows away. Blessed be the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Wash sighed and turned away from the window. His gaze fell on the kitchen table. The cup of coffee, now cold and with grounds no doubt settled at the bottom, sat on the newspaper, still unread but now cup-stained from when he had been called to the hospital. Duty called as surely as it did any doctor. After he had sat with the Webbers, he had visited the old woman. Bitter woman, he thought now, as bitter as the coffee he threw down the sink. He had, though, been able to help somewhat. He had taken the paperwork to the Henry and Green Crematorium, the same mortuary he had arranged for baby Grace. Two bookended lives, he thought. The small baby, so full of unmet possibilities, and the old woman, empty of everything, even now of breath.
He decided against perusing the paper. It would only be more of the same, more death, more hatred, more war, more suffering.
Breathe, man, just breathe.
Television? More of the same. If not suffering, then inanities.
Like an alcoholic man trying to break a habit who returns to it with even greater devotion, he picked up his rosary. The beads had been worn smooth by the countless hours of prayer by his mother, her callused hands imbuing the wood with oil even as each decade prayed imbued her spirit with the grace of the Son and the Holy Mother. He remembered her teaching him the rosary, and the feeling of warmth from her hands as they guided his small fingers over each bead. Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. He had squirmed, anxious to be outside playing stickball, playing street hockey, playing anything, not understanding until much later the sacredness of the moment, not only between the supplicant and his God, but also between an only son and his mother.
He had been her fifth child and her only son, and he had never thought to ask why they all had different fathers, except for Teena and Tyra. His two oldest sisters were older than him by thirteen years and had been the product of his teenaged mother’s elopement. Their father had lasted only until his young bride turned twenty, and then he had left while getting a pack of cigarettes. Queenie had come next, a lighter skinned daughter whose father was never mentioned. It was assumed by all that she had been immaculately conceived. Tyra, though, had told him when he was seven that his mother — his mother! — had been lonely and a little drunk and the good-looking white boy at the bar had swept her off her feet and into his bed. He was gone the next morning, although he had left a twenty on the dresser.
Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.
Therise came next. Her father, whom everyone called Uncle Jim, still came by a couple of times a year. He always brought Therise a toy, sometimes a frilly dress, once a little puppy that widdled over everything until his mother gave it to the grocer in exchange for a bottle of Children’s Tylenol. When Uncle Jim came to visit, he usually brought Wash something as well. He bought Wash his first copy of Nicholas Nickleby; even now, decades and many editions later, it remained his favorite book. He couldn’t imagine the poor streets of London, but he didn’t have to imagine his own poverty. He saw all around him, as Dickens must have, the poor, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the abused, and he knew because he read it that even the poor have a place of belonging, a love beyond circumstance. The book showed him that words could create worlds beyond this one, and more importantly, beyond the easy school primers. It gave him a love of learning that never abandoned him.
It might have bothered him to have been raised by his mother, never knowing his father, if he had attended the white school a mere mile away. There, most schoolchildren lived with mother and father and knew grandparents who came to visit on weekends. At his school, no one enjoyed such luxury. Mother, aunts, grandmothers, older sisters, occasionally a grandfather. It was a world ruled by women.
It was only natural then for him to gravitate to Regina, the Queen of Heaven, to hear the prayer Salve Regina echo more in the depths of his soul than in the chambers of his ears. It had been his favorite prayer as a child, and he remembered the smell of candles and incense as he had lit a candle and prayed, “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our hope. To thee we cry, poor banished children of Eve.” When he was ten, he tried telling a boy in school that he also was a banished child of Eve. He got punched in the stomach for his efforts and from that moment kept his love of the Mother Mary to himself and to his Christ our Lord. Dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
He remembered as a teenager trying unsuccessfully to correlate the dates of Therise’s birthday and his own with the date his mother “found religion.” Queenie told him that the crucifix with its sad-visaged savior had gone on the wall the year before Therise’s birth, three years before his. But how could that be? How could the woman who taught him to pray Ave Maria, gratia plena, the woman who slapped his cheek so hard his head rocked when he muttered “goddamn” under his breath, how could she have had sex with someone without being married?
He had carried that idealism with him to the seminary, where he had been destined since the moment of his birth. It was many months before he suspected that Uncle Jim might be his father as well as Therise’s, and many more years before he could understand his mother’s normal longings for simple companionship, and years before he could begin to comprehend in the smallest way the grace that was offered by the blessed pierced Hand to all those poor banished children of Eve. Sed libera nos a malo. Amen.
That comprehension led him to offer grace to whomever asked. He couldn’t endure his evangelical counterparts who, with all their talk of freedom in Christ and Bible studies and fellowship groups, placed a heavier burden on the children of Eve than ever the Catholic Church had done. They couldn’t understand how he could let prostitutes and homosexuals in his doors, and he couldn’t understand how they could not. The chasm seemed uncrossable.
And yet, Scott and Laurie Webber had come to him, as were others who had become disillusioned with a religion contained in a plain brown wrapper. They wanted stained glass and holy water and candles. They wanted beauty and tradition and transcendence. They wanted Mystery.
He contemplated the Sorrowful Mystery, Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden only hours before His trial and crucifixion. Our Lord was abandoned by the Father. Now there was a mystery! Did Scott and Laurie feel abandoned, now that their prayers had been proven fruitless and their child lay cold in the mortuary? If there was anything that gave lie to faith it was that building, stone cold and unyielding, its smokestack silent during the day but belching out the remnants and illusions of life at night where none could see, its cemeteries filled with flowers that had outlived the person in the ground, graves covered with fake grass.
Were Scott and Laurie taking comfort in Mystery tonight? He doubted it.
And yet, he was their priest. He stood as representative between the all-too-solid and the Mystery. He felt his inadequacy. He rubbed the beads between his fingers. O my Jesus, forgive us our sins.
He felt his knee cramping up, its complaint at the long hours of prayer. He kissed the crucifix, said one last Our Father, and finished with, “Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”
He stood and returned to the window. Sirens still wailed, rap rhythms still punctuated the night, tires screeched, drugs deals were begun and concluded, loneliness was allayed by love bought and sold. If his prayers had had any effect, it wasn’t in the streets below, the streets over which he kept his vigil, over which he wept as had Jesus over Jerusalem.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Pray for us sinners. Now. Pray for us sinners. Now now now and at the hour of our death.
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