The Call of Gideon
The deacon’s arrival was unexpected—a Tuesday morning, pounding at the screen door, trying the doorbell (which did not work). The deacon said he called Father Thomas B. Durr on the drive from Syracuse, but there had been no messages, no missed calls. The deacon sits in the kitchen, still in his boots and coat. He has come to tell Father Durr, at the request of Bishop Cunningham, that St. Matthews Catholic Church of Tunis, New York, will close.
“I guess we’ve reached a sort of…point of no return here,” the deacon says. “It sounds like the finance council has talked to you about the possibility, and of course the bishop has talked to you about it, but I wanted to get your blessing before we actually started moving on anything.”
The deacon wears a black and maroon bomber jacket and a skull cap fronted with the green shield of the Syracuse Diocese. In one hand he holds a blue folder, in the other a folded newspaper.
“Maintenance had a contractor come out just to assess the roof,” the deacon says, “and it’s, we’re talking six figures alone there. Plus sub-zero temps in the mornings, the heating this winter has just soared.”
“Contributions won’t hold up until summer?”
“They’re barely covering the church downtown.”
The diocese bungalow is spartan and cold, mostly furnished with bookshelves and plastic idols of Jesus and the apostles. There’s a clock above the sink, a gift from a parishioner in Nevada, with a different songbird at each hour. And the kitchen table is a padded folding table, the one Father Durr has carried with him since he first left Tunis, which he’s never wanted to replace because he knows the church would buy him one.
The deacon slides off his hat. “We’re looking at less money everywhere in the diocese. We’re certainly not alone in this, but we’ve got to let ourselves accept the idea that it’s only going to get worse. Plus there’s the, I’m sure you’ve seen the bill in the state legislature that opens up the look-back window for priests.”
Father Durr offers the deacon a cup of coffee, but he declines. So Father Durr makes one for himself in a machine he bought for Christmas—he lifts a lever and a small mouth appears, and this is where he puts the little cup filled with coffee grounds.
“There’s no doubt there will be effects to the diocese,” the deacon adds, “and it’s sad, really, but we’re at a point where decisions like this have to be made. All I’m asking is that you acknowledge it’s going to close, Father, and maybe just start mentioning something at Mass.”
“St. Matthews was the first Catholic Church in Tunis,” Father Durr says. He clears his throat. “Did you know that?”
The deacon opens the blue folder. “I didn’t.”
Father Durr explains that the turn of the twentieth century established the entire cultural trajectory of Tunis. In a ten-year span the city’s population had almost doubled with European immigrants, who were lured away from New York City by the prospect of more lucrative construction and manufacturing jobs (and aided west by the advent of the electric railway). In 1912 the bricks that would become the foundation of St. Matthews were laid by a handful of Sicilians and Campanians, agrarians who had fled the penury caused by Crispi’s colonization policies. Many intended to work in America for a few years and return home. Few actually did. Instead, they recruited their families to cross the Atlantic and live in a twenty-block radius around the church, a neighborhood that exploded with schools and bars and restaurants that filled with second- and then third-generation Italians who learned English at school and Italian from their grandparents—Italians who discussed the legacy of DiMaggio and the correct amount of baking powder in struffoli dough. Most of the third generation eventually moved to Tunis suburbs like Elmfield and Van Buren, leaving their ancestral homes for new waves of immigrants: Bosnians, Vietnamese, and Syrians (among others). That was partially why Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church was built downtown, really a kind of sociopolitical backhand to—
“There,” the deacon says. He slides a piece of paper across the table. “The estimate for the roof.”
Father Durr looks down at the paper, looks up at the deacon. The deacon’s head is a tuffet of white gray, smoothed back. Teeth too large, too aligned to be original. His pale neck like the melted coil of a car’s suspension.
They are all old. Every one of them, old and tired.
“I guess my point is that the church has history,” Father Durr says, “and that I’d be remiss if we didn’t explore any other option to keep it open in some capacity.”
The deacon slaps the newspaper on the table. “History! I remember Easter masses at the Cathedral, people sweating through their shirts, damn near fainting from the body heat. Part of the reason we printed out the hymns were so people had something to fan themselves with.”
“The stations of the cross,” Father Durr says. “We’ve the stations built into the windows at Matthews. How do you replicate that?”
“The bishop says not even half of Matthews was full for Christmas.”
Father Durr nods, sips his coffee. In the deacon’s hand the newspaper unfurls, in slow stretches, like a pulp snail. Father Durr looks at the clock, then out to the backyard, which is covered in snow.
“I will have to let you go, deacon. I have confession at eleven and I try to pray my hours before it starts.”
The deacon stands. “I am not trying to be cruel here, Father. These are simply hard times, you understand?”
“Then you will tell them?”
Father Durr places his cup on the counter. Inside: shattered spangles, roiling coins.
“It’s probably selfish of me to say, but if it were going to be anyone to say anything, I would…rather it be me.”
“I am sorry.” The deacon rolls the newspaper, places it under his arm with the folder. “No one, and I mean no one, is happy about this.”
The deacon opens the door. He makes a slight, respectful bow before he closes it tightly behind him.
And really it was the sound more than anything that kept Father Durr up at night. This was long before he had come back to Tunis, long before the deacon visited him on a morning in January. It was the summer after graduating seminary at St. Bernard’s; after Bishop Joseph Hogan, who had studied canon law with an ordained archbishop in Washington, had assigned Father Durr to a small church in Logandale, Nevada. Bishop Hogan had told Father Durr there was the possibility he could return to Tunis when there was a vacancy for priests, which Father Durr had recalled the first time he crossed the Arizona border, into the region called the Valley of Fire, an irony that seemed especially apposite considering the sun and the endless sky and the dark ridge of the Arrow Canyon Range that met it.
The Reno bishop was a spirited man named Norman Francis McFarland; he had round, ruddy cheeks and cotton-white hair that belied an intensity for order and accountability. The bishop had told him the biggest challenge for a priest in Logandale was the ability to blend in—the parishioners, he said, did not respond to anything that challenged their sense of alienation. So Father Durr spent a majority of his first few months trying to ape the mannerisms of the fifty or so regular men who came to Mass wearing flannels and jeans stained with tobacco chaw or elaborate suits of garish plaid. (At the same time he tried to learn Spanish from a series on cassette, tried very hard but ultimately gleaned only a handful of phrases he awkwardly deployed to his growing Latino members.) The women, meanwhile, frightened him. He was nervous of their allure and flighty in their presence, as if he needed, for his sanity, to tell them he was a priest bound to spiritual laws, and as such forbidden from any immodest propositions (as if they didn’t already know).
Which is to say that the entire transition and subsequent adaption to Logandale was brutally stressful, dangerous in how it changed him. He began eating less. He caught himself grinding his teeth at idle moments of the day, and for a few months drank gin to stop it. He spent hours on walks behind the church, on dirt roads that snaked through creosote bushes filled with cicadas and scorpions, returning when the streetlights flicked on. His prayers before bed became convoluted, inane things. Because once they were done—once he was on his mattress, in the quiet of his bedroom—he began to hear the drops.
The drops began small, a slow, hollow pluck in a dry sink. But they always grew louder, wetter, a splashy echo to them like a basin filling with something viscous. In his first few days in Logandale Father Durr would get out of bed to see if he had left a faucet on (the kitchen, the bathroom, the shower stall always dry). It started again when he sat down—became faster, the drops multiplying in number, uniform in sound. Something filling, filling, until Father Durr heard an entirely different set of drops filling an entirely different space. Another room, a farther room. The drops varied in pitch, like words he could not understand jousting each other in a busy street. Dropping and plucking and growing until they became a torrent. Pushing into invisible places, filling turbulent pools. By then the pain of digging his fingernails into his palms migrated into a band at the back of his head, creating an array of phosphenes on the ceiling—wide, vague circles as transparent as the shadows of stained glass. Pinks, teals, golds spinning in the sound of falling water, falling into a pool of inscrutable width and depth, until everything faded in the sun and Father Durr stepped out of bed, clammy with anxious sweat.
The seminary had not made him credulous to the possibility of miracles. What happened at night was certainly an oddity, an enigma. But it was not inexplicable. After Masses he waited for parishioners in the church vestibule (as he had been trained to do), but instead of the usual course of small talk Father Durr asked them about the dripping. He figured it was from planes or helicopters passing overhead, the roar of their engines warped by radiation (there were rumors of a nuclear test site nearby). At first the parishioners ignored his questions, dismissing them as tasteless jokes, but they soon became suspicious. Attendance began to drop. One woman, whose husband had borrowed Father Durr a copy of The Keys of the Kingdom, wondered if he wasn’t suffering from a prolonged kind of heat stroke.
He prayed for a way to decode the sounds, and when this didn’t work he prayed for them to cease. He analyzed his pallor in the naked light bulb of the bathroom, rubbed the hollows beneath his cheekbones, felt the novel sensation of his ribs through his skin. Perhaps God was speaking to him about his calling. Perhaps other things were happening in his head, like a psychologist had suspected when he was a teen.
The answer came to him the day he decided to talk to Bishop McFarland. What he would have told the bishop, what he would have asked if he had arrived in Reno, he wasn’t sure. On his drive Father Durr stopped for gas at a Chevron in Crystal Springs. Inside the store, on a small rack below the counter, he spotted a foldable map of Nevada. He paid for the gas and the map. In his car he approximated the location of the parish house, drew an imaginary line out of his bedroom window, through county highway markers and t-crossed railroad routes, into an intricate cross of major thruways. Within this nest was a large dot with a circle around it for Las Vegas, and to the right of this, at the end of a blue crescent that began near Logandale, a red star that marked the location of the Hoover Dam.
He laughed hysterically and turned the car around. On his way home he bought a pair of ear plugs and a cassette of nature sounds. He never asked himself how the dripping might have transmitted all the way from the Colorado River; how it might have bent and twisted over fifty or so miles of undulating land. He was simply relieved that it had stopped — relieved he could sleep again, eat again, and talk about anything else.
Modern heating, cooling systems, lighting. Sure, Our Lady of Mercy has all of that, but it has a lowered ceiling, too. Put the organ and the woman who’s practicing it in a business park for a sense of how the sounds die. Like Muzak, Father Durr thinks, listening to the muted chords from the confessional, a small room on the back wall of the church.
His second confession of the afternoon knocks before entering. Because he is behind the large screen used for anonymous confessions he can only see a small pair of white sketchers. A woman’s voice asks if he is still holding confessions. He says that he is. She kneels on the bench before the screen. She makes the sign of the cross, then places her nose between her laced fingers and thumbs.
“Bless me Father,” she says, “for I have sinned.”
The voice is young, maybe late thirties. East Coast without the nasal twang found west of Albany. He straightens in his chair. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“Ten, fifteen years, maybe, I’m not sure.”
“And what sins do you confess to since then?”
The woman says nothing. He rubs his knuckles, which are sore at the joints. They’ve been sore since noon.
“There is no need to be nervous,” he says. “There is no such thing as a bad confession, only one that isn’t—”
“I have engaged in sins of detraction against members of the church.”
Father Durr nods so that she can see. It is nothing he hasn’t heard before, nothing he won’t again. But the nod helps them get it out, helps them clear their conscience. He leans forward in false gravitas and looks directly at where her face would be without the screen.
“How did you perform detraction?”
“I am an editor at a newspaper.”
“And we’ve published stories like them before, Father.”
Her breaths gain weight. Her head vacillates. She unfastens her tongue from the roof of her mouth and inhales.
“On what?” he finally asks.
“On sexual assaults by priests of the diocese.”
The sounds of the organ fade. Her shadow collapses to a single point on the screen, as do the walls and floor, his knobby hands — form a single waving mass like a mirror on a riverbed.
“The ones we’ve written about before.”
“And the paper? The paper this is going in?”
She does not respond, which is how he knows it is local.
“A story,” he says.
“Like a look-back,” she says. “A—a retrospect, something that combines all the things we’ve reported on while also looking ahead.”
“Something big,” he says.
This is not expected, not allowed. His questions are out of the normal routine of confession. They have taken away his vestments and presented him as something simple and pathetic. Something small.
He digs his thumb into his palm.
“I mean it’s, the whole thing isn’t for sure yet,” she says, “but one of our reporters—every week a reporter has to present a Sunday story package to editors like me. And we have to decide whether it should be printed.”
“And you’re here because you think it’s fit to print.”
He thinks about the church. Thinks about any one of the parishioners leaving Sunday Mass to kitchens and living rooms, to televisions or computer screens. He imagines them all as the deacon pulling open the rolled newsprint and seeing the names and pictures of priests they’ve known. Priests that have baptized them, confirmed them, their children. The connections they will make to St. Matthews.
The editor says, “Right now the new angle is that the story will look at the impacts of the allegations on local Catholics. The reactions, the attendance. Since the abuses happened for years.”
“And the stories of the abuses need to be told, but I see the impacts they have on the churches and the dioceses, and I wonder if this is too much. I know feeling bad isn’t always indicative of a sin, but it just feels like a sin does. And it’s painful, Father, it’s all just deeply painful.”
He sits back in his chair, runs his fingers over his scalp. “What about the closing?”
“What closing?” she asks.
Really the first thing he thought of was St. Matthews. The Easter Masses full of people in pastels, shoulder-to-shoulder, the miasma of perfume and sweat. The baptisms and funerals, the weddings he’s officiated. He thinks about a night many years before Nevada, before the seminary, when he was just a boy, maybe twelve, after midnight in St. Matthews. No exit signs above the doors then, no ceiling fans hanging from the vault. There was only him, eyes closed, teeth vulning his shoulder—no sound but the blood pushing through his ears and the small mutterings he occasionally made to hear himself pray.
“I’ve gone to church for years with my parents,” the editor adds, “and all of this stuff is just killing them, which is part of the guilt, part of the reason it feels like a sin.”
“Do you believe it’s a sin?”
He was praying to forget. Father Durr remembers that. Something that happened on a farm that belonged to a soybean farmer north of Tunis. The farmer’s land bordered a clutch of acres purchased by Father Durr’s grandfather, who was in the process of building up a dairy farm (he had owned a buffalo farm in Italy). Father Durr’s dad sent him there to work over the summer. He fed chickens, cleaned horse droppings from the stalls, and sat through long, tedious conversations about Italian politics.
It was one of the weekends his grandpa had given him the day to play with the soybean farmer’s son, a boy Father Durr’s age with an almond-shaped head and bleach-blond eyebrows. Inspired by a Jean Latham novel Father Durr had read, they traipsed through the uncleared brush at the far end of the farmer’s land. This was how they found the pond—a long extant body of water that fed into the Mohawk River nearby.
“Yes, I’m sorry.” Father Durr wipes his face with his hands. “Detraction, as a mortal sin, centers around another person’s reputation. It’s like gossip that’s true, that truth being what separates it from calumny.”
“But these are—”
“Knowing that you will damage someone’s reputation, and knowing that act will constitute detraction before you do it, makes it a sin. Unless there is a more pure intention behind the act, is how I interpret it.”
She unlatches her fingers, scratches her nose, reconfigures.
“So how do you interpret the story?”
And Father Durr cannot remember whether he had wagered the boy to swim to the middle of the pond or if the boy had boasted that he could. Instead he remembers the water, black and wind-raked, and the dead tree limbs around the shore, speckled with green like moldy fingers. The way the boy had grinned and said that it was nothing to him to swim to the middle. The way the boy walked into the water in his overalls and shirt.
“In Job it is said that wicked men are tormented for the rest of their lives,” he says, “that they live in houses that crumble to clay.”
“Job,” she repeats.
The boy swam choppy and slow, his cupped hands pulling a heavy, spumous wake. Father Durr could see what would happen, how it would happen—the boy’s trajectory, the slowing rate of his pace, how his arms and legs compensated for those conclusions. A matter, Father Durr remembers thinking, of simple math. The boy had almost made it halfway before turning around. Spitting water, more and more of it, flailing, trying to lift himself above the waves he made. Father Durr saw the boy recognize the distance to the shore, saw him recognize Father Durr, who was unsure what to do. He tilted his head skyward, and the muscles in his face slackened. Like a person in sleep. It was something Father Durr would see many times again, when he was called to perform last rites—the painful recognition of the self as a mess of bones and tendons and its brief place in time.
Then the rough bark of the stick Father Durr grabbed from the shore, the water’s screaming cold as he swam to the boy. Seeing the boy’s head, and then not seeing the boy’s head, instead a knot of bubbles that had healed by the time he arrived.
“If that’s the case, do you think that sins are sometimes necessary?”
“I think I’m not in a position to really…make those kinds of decisions.”
Father Durr runs his thumb nail through a channel of palm skin. Looks up at the shadow on the screen. He asks, “Are those all your sins?”
“Are those all the sins you’ve made since your last confession?”
“I think so.”
“Pray an act of contrition and ten Hail Marys.”
She bows her head and makes the sign of the cross. She turns to the door.
The editor turns around. She walks close to the edge of the screen, so close he can see the toes of her sneakers. He considers it a miracle that she does not walk into view.
“Please be kind,” Father Durr says.
The door opens, closes. The room is quiet. Father Durr feels his fingers, the bones. Feels the joints, the bumps like beads, knobby but soft in their sleeve of wrinkled skin. He turns his wrist, expecting his watch, but instead finds a pressed mat of white hair. The watch is in the pocket of his jeans, the place he’s kept it for confessions since he became a priest.