Excerpts > Fall 2003
Valerie Sayers
An Education in the Faith

An Education in the Faith

Seven is the age of reason in the Catholic Church. When I was seven, I followed my brother Francis to Camp Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a catechism camp run by the Diocese of Charleston with the help of missionary nuns from up North. Camp OLPH obeyed the rising of the tide: if the Okatee River was up at ten a.m., that was when we swam. Then at low tide, our hair still damp, we sat on the bluff at picnic tables to learn about the Magnificat and the Immaculate Conception and the sorrowful mysteries.

My teacher, Sister Claire, was a gray-eyed New Yorker, her skin pale as the oyster shells on the bottom of the river. She was a vision in her black habit. Her fingers were long and slender, the nails chopped straight across. I drew her as a saint in the margins of my catechism.

The boys tripped over each other to run errands for Sister Claire, and when she told them she couldn't say for sure, because she'd never actually read it, but she thought Mad magazine just might be an occasion of sin, so she probably never would read it, they all ran to the barracks and flushed away their latest copies. My friend Margaret said she'd have to pretend she liked Mad any way, at school, because her mother didn't want her calling attention to their faith. They lived in a hot little midlands town called Pauls, and her mother was afraid of the Klan. But we didn't have those worries on the coast. We had plenty of Irish, even Italians, in Charleston and Savannah and Due East, plenty of boys who graduated from Bishop England and went straight into the seminary and came back to coach baseball or teach the high school kids at Camp OLPH.

I went to camp six summers straight, but then they shut it down. My father said they were having trouble finding enough children to attend a catechism camp, but my brother Francis told me it was because three counselors were pregnant in August, by three different seminarians.

My heart was broken.

When I was eighteen I followed Francis to New York. It never occurred to our parents to send the two of us to school down South. Francis went to Fordham and recommended Marymount Manhattan as safe for me. I didn't care which school, as long as it was in New York City. I meant to paint until my arm dropped off.

Francis went back to Due East after he graduated, but I stayed in the city. It was 1971, and all Manhattan was giddy. Every time I missed the lowcountry –– the crazy green of the marshes or the pure blue light –– I signed up for another class at the Art Students League or bought a new brush. I was sharing a little apartment on the east side with six other girls, girls with names like Maryagnes Haddigan and Rosemarie Rossini and Maura Donnelly. They were the only girls left in New York in 1971 who still wore cardigans and plaid skirts and low-heeled pumps. They called me bohemian. I was scared to open my mouth and contradict them.

One of my roommates was an old girlfriend of Francis's named Terry Devlin. Terry was a sharp-faced redhead with a tiny bow mouth, too shrill and too sure of herself. She sneaked boys into the kitchen after everyone was asleep, and Maryagnes threw black pumps at them from the pull-out bed. One night a thin graying man dropped by for her. From the doorway, his eyes bounced like pinballs around the apartment. Terry introduced him as Joe, her mentor, but she said the word a little sarcastically. Actually, Terry said everything sarcastically –– she was a grad student in philosophy. When Joe went off to the bathroom she asked me to come along with them for supper.

I'd lived with Terry Devlin for six months without sharing a meal, but she whispered why she needed me. "The other priests," she said, looking round, "think we're having an affair. As if he'd have the nerve."

"He's a priest?" My voice skidded, trying not to sound shocked. I had the bohemian reputation to uphold.

"Can't you tell a Jesuit? He might as well have a collar on." Terry said that the grad students had a rule: if the professor looked tortured and charming and flirted through conference hour, he was married. But if he looked tortured and charming and only flirted after he'd poured a fifth of Scotch down his throat, then he was a priest. "And it all comes to nothing anyway," she said. "They'd ask to be sent to South America sooner than fall in love."

In silence, Joe drove us to an apartment building on the west side, and in silence the three of us took the elevator upstairs to the common rooms. It was seven o'clock, and the dining room was filled with fifty men in navy sweaters and gray turtlenecks, fifty men eating and drinking and smoking and talking. There was a good deal of loud laughter. Joe sat us down with two priests in work shirts while he went to get us beer. The two priests nodded at Terry. One of them fidgeted.

"My roommate Maisie," Terry said. "She's from South Carolina. No kidding. Frank Ventemiglia and Martin Doppler."

The priests grinned and straightened. "Father Ventemiglia," said the fidgeter, trying to make a joke, I think. He was hook-nosed, with a face that looked as if someone had gone over it with coarse-grained sandpaper. He wouldn't look us in the eye either.

But the blond one called Martin stared straight at me. He could have been a slick salesman, or else an actor: he had a long angular face and a wide mouth with full lips, the kind of lips they called sensual in the movie magazines when I was a kid. He might have been in his thirties or forties: his fine sandy hair was just beginning to recede. "We were discussing Ireland," he said, and leaned his head back to laugh. "Frank thinks the Republic should send troops over the border to fire shots in the air. Then it would be an international incident and the U.N. could move in."

"It would take a Jesuit to come up with that one," Terry said.

Frank's sanded face turned pink and Martin laughed again, the same Jesuit laugh that filled the room. It involved throwing the head back, emitting mirth in a low manly register, then stopping abruptly to continue the conversation: "Frank, you call sending troops over the border a pacifist notion?"

"Creative nonviolence," Frank said.

"Jesuits," Terry said again. "The Society of Gee-Whiz."

A deep flush seeped down Frank's face. The other priest –– Martin, the laughing one –– tilted his chair back. The silence and the stain on Frank's face spread until he pushed his own chair back. "Gotta go," he said. "Class notes."

As I watched him leave I could feel the one called Martin staring at me. I'd done enough self-portraits to see myself in a clear light: I was short and slight, my mouth so thin it was a slash across my round face. Francis always called me pieface. My hair was the color of burnt toast, and pretty much the texture of toast too. Ever since I declared as an art major, I'd worn it cropped short. I'd had boyfriends, sure, but first they saw my work, and then they noticed me. I couldn't remember one of them ever watching me like that.

Nowadays, of course, it’s the child abuse that has everybody scandalized, but that sneaked up so gradually I can’t even tell you when it started. In 1971 parish priests still looked like Bing Crosby, and we were all in love with them. We were pretty sure they all had to hold themselves back, take deep breaths and do push-ups every time a pretty woman rang the doorbell, every time a co-ed showed up for office hours. And they did hold themselves back, that was the point, that was why it was so pleasurable and safe to go all moony over a priest.

But this guy Martin Doppler didn't look like he was holding back much. So the next night, when Terry said she really needed company going to the residence again, that she'd almost had an affair with Frank Ventemiglia –– that he despised her –– I started to shake my head no. Terry knew she had me, though: she'd seen that look of Martin's, too.

We took the crosstown bus, and when we got to the common rooms there was no sign of Frank Ventemiglia. We sat again with Joe and Martin Doppler and a new priest, John, who wore his gray hair brushed straight back off his face. He was in his collar and he sipped one Scotch and then another; when Martin and Joe and Terry rose to fetch their dinners John stayed behind to tell me he was glad I'd come along. "Not that there's a thing going on," he said.

I probably shifted in my seat.

"Your friend's attractive. I hope you won't mind my saying this, she's. . . aggressive, too. Not that that's a bad thing. A woman in philosophy needs to push hard. But look around –– everybody's breathing sighs of relief that Terry's brought a friend. That makes it innocent." He smiled and finished his second drink. He was as familiar as my father and he'd drawn the line just as straight. I felt myself growing smaller in my chair. I imagined the men at the other tables whispering about pushy young women who invited themselves to dinner and tried to seduce a roomful of priests.

John sat with us through dinner and dessert, and when the dining room was almost empty Martin brought out cards and we all played nickel ante poker. For an hour we sat in the rhythms of opens and raises and folds. Martin and John argued about the Viet Cong: John said they might turn out to be as oppressive as the South was corrupt and Martin said they were freedom-loving people, how many cards? Terry tried to say a word from time to time, but they cut her off.

Martin unlocked an old cabinet to get a bottle of Drambuie, and once we'd filled our snifters he lured John round to talking about abortion. John said he suffered for the women, he suffered for them, but he suffered for the unborn children too.

Terry stubbed out her cigarette. "You suffer."

John gazed at her. "I know you make light of any man intervening in a woman's affairs, Terry. But it's tearing this community apart. We've got Michael Boyle working with Catholics for Freedom of Choice, witnessing abortions, calling them beautiful. And we've got priests in this dining room who will not acknowledge his presence." He began to speak breathlessly, as if he were physically unprepared for his own passion. "If life does_begin at conception, we have an obligation to preserve it. I know it's unfashionable."

Terry shrugged. "When the Provincial gets wind of Catholics for Freedom of Choice," she said, "it'll be another Jesuit gone from the fold. Come on, Maisie."

The old girls-to-the-bathroom trick. Really, she acted as if we were leaving our dates behind at the table. She propelled me by the elbow and when we got inside ––it was an old apartment bathroom –– she plopped on the toilet and I sat on the edge of the clawfoot tub. "I saw Martin Doppler watching you again."

I braced myself against the cold enamel.

"You know," she said, "the peacenik types come around here trying to catch sight of Daniel Berrigan, only he's always off in jail. So they fix on blue-eyed Martin Doppler instead. Don't let him fool you. He's a flirt –– shit, he's had a girlfriend or two –– but he's a real priest."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh don't get all coy and southern. You haven't said a word all night."

We stumbled back, but John had left and Martin Doppler's long feet, in brown work shoes, rested on the table. "You better get Joe up to bed," he said to Terry. "He's too damn quiet." Then he stared at me again. "You too. You've been too quiet all night." He smiled, professor to student. "But you're a pretty good poker player." It was a lie: my chips made the smallest pile. He closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep with his feet in the air, while Joe and Terry and I stood there silent, all of us averting our eyes.

My father wrote long letters from Due East: Francis had quit the Church, Francis was involved with all kinds of crazy schemes that the V.I.S.T.A. volunteers were cooking up –– transportation co-ops on the islands, hearings on food stamps, God only knows what all –– and he could understand that, because young people had to find themselves and Francis had a good heart. But Francis was twenty-three now and unemployed and this business about leaving the Church was just the last straw. He asked me if I remembered what Francis looked like as an altar boy, the only red-headed altar boy in Due East, if I remembered how the bishop had tousled his hair that time after Confirmation, picked him out of the crowd. Did I remember how Francis had written home, that first year at Fordham, about HAVING A VOCATION. This wasn't Francis, this was someone else. This was not the boy who had more mass cards than baseball cards. This was someone who drove around in vans with girls who didn't wear make-up and, from the looks of it, didn't wear bras either. I mean, he said, vans and pot was one thing. Maybe I'd write to Francis and just drop a little hint about the faith.

Terry Devlin said Martin Doppler had invited her to his place for dinner, to divert her from Joe. She'd been with Joe in the common rooms every night for three weeks, "to talk about about my thesis. Ha, ha. Anyway, come with me. You were asked specifically."

"Oh come on, Terry. He doesn't even remember my name."

"I told you he was a smoothie. He said to ask the little mick he played cards with."

So three weeks after I first laid eyes on him, we sat in Martin Doppler's living room and let him serve us manhattans. He roomed with John, who still wore his collar, and from their corduroy couch I could see straight into both their open bedrooms. John had covered one of his walls with icons and neat pine shelves crammed with dark-covered books. He was a college chaplain in New Jersey. Martin Doppler, it turned out, taught math at Fordham. His room had pictures torn from newspapers on the wall: later I'd see they were Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, John Lewis, the freedom riders covered in blood. Around his baseboards were rolls of computer printouts and stacks of Ramparts and Win and Liberation.

Martin had steamed knockwurst, which we ate in the kitchen around a crowded wooden table. It was the closest I'd been to home since Due East. Martin and John were rehearsed: they had choreographed who fetched bread and salad and wine, and they raised their hands slightly as they took their turns at the conversation. John asked Terry how her thesis was coming, and Martin asked me what I did for a living. I said I had a job waiting on tables: the lunch shift in the Delphi coffee shop.

Terry laughed. "She's not a waitress, she's a painter. Last year she covered our apartment with these bizarre madonnas."

Martin and John leaned forward together. "What do you mean," Martin said, "bizarre madonnas?"

"They weren't bizarre." I could have been a little kid with my flaming cheeks. My work was so lurid and obvious. My madonna period! It didn't take much to figure that one out. I didn't like talking about painting at all, but I would rather have lain on a bed of nails than talk about my own.

"They'd call them bizarre in Bensonhurst," Terry said. "One of them had a scar from her mouth to her eyes, no kidding."

"Surrealistic?" John asked, happy at the thought.

"They weren't, exactly," I said. "Really, I'm just a waitress."

"Think of Mary and Martha," Martin said. "Sounds like you're an artist."

It sounded so silly, capital-A Artist, that I burst out laughing, but they all stared at me, even Terry, as if they knew better. John rose to open another bottle of wine. "You're not practicing anymore, are you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Not so many artists in the Church anymore. Not so many young people in the Church anymore. Everybody's out marching."

"That's where you should be too," Martin said. "Go after them!"

John sighed. "I suppose I should," he said. "I suppose."

After dinner, John left for a wake and Terry went downstairs to meet Frank Ventemiglia for a drink, to talk over some nonviolent resistance he was planning. "As if oily Frank's going to snooker me into it," she said.

Martin Doppler told me he'd be glad to drive me home. When we rose together from the table, he stood a foot over me. I had a little trouble standing straight, because of the wine and because I flashed on a museum postcard Francis sent me once: Bosch's Saint Jerome, shackled to the cross. Martin Doppler looked like Saint Jerome, long and gangly, and he looked like Francis, too. He had my brother's big pale eyes, and spindly eyelashes the light shone through, and the same habit of staring. That must have been what called back home. On the back of the postcard Francis had written: Now this is what I call painting.

Martin led me into the living room to hunt for the car keys and said: "I overheard Terry's harangue the other night. Some voice on that girl."

Suddenly I began to look for the car keys too.

"I almost feel I should defend myself."

I told him there was no need and tripped over the words.

He kept his back to me and turned a pile of newspaper upside down. "I think she's given you the wrong impression," he said. "We are priests. Terry's confusing her own problem with the community's. Here. Here they are." He turned around with the keys and looked down on me through the pale eyes. "The funny thing is, half of us are hoping that Joe will just go ahead and admit he's in love with Terry. Cast off all that tension and give himself permission to be more human."

"More human? Are you stoned?"

He leaned his head back and laughed just the way he had when I first met him. "Come on," he said. "Terry's sharp tongue is rubbing off on you."

The next day my father called, to say Francis still believed in God and he thanked the Blessed Mother's intervention for that crumb. What Francis didn't like was the hierarchy of the Church. O.K., O.K. This was a phase that would pass. Once the war was over and the V.I.S.T.A. volunteers left and everybody started getting jobs instead of living in the back of vans, then Francis would come back to the faith.

Didn't I think? And my mother said to send slides if I had any new paintings, but no nudes this time. No nudes is good news. "Just a joke, sweetie. Just trying to lighten up these crazy times."

On Sunday night, Terry answered the yellow wall phone, then waltzed around the kitchen with a knowing smirk. Martin Doppler: for me.

He wanted to know if I'd be willing to write to convicts upstate, to keep up their spirits with short gossipy letters. War resisters? I asked, but he laughed and said no, rapists and armed robbers and Lonely Souls. He said he could give me some addresses over the phone or, if I liked, drop them off in case I had any questions. About what to write. He was going to be in midtown the next day.

Well. There was no reason in the world he should have thought of me to write letters to convicts. This was how a priest put the moves on? He sounded so natural over the phone: was he kidding himself? Kidding me?

He met me at the coffee shop after lunch hour and we sat in a booth for a half-hour over prisoner stories. Then he offered to drive me home again. "If you ask me up, I could look at those fierce madonnas Terry was telling us about."

"Oh no," I said, panicked. "Terry was joking. That was just a phase." I told him that lately I'd been doing nothing but landscapes, marshes from home, and that I wasn't pleased with them. "Too hard to work from memory," I said.

"Use what you can see, then. Do cityscapes." He sounded as bossy as Francis, and he hadn't even seen my work yet. "Use what's right in front of you."

I gave him a vague smile. I had no intention of painting gray clotted air.

Terry was lying on the couch, playing possum, when we came in. We tiptoed around the living room, where I'd hung two landscapes. A stretch of marsh beneath a trestle: in my memory I could see Francis daring freight trains while I hung back, but on the canvas I could only see that I'd used too thick a stroke, that the brown was muddy.

I led him back to Rosemarie's room, the maid's room, a tiny white cell where I painted when Rosemarie was at work. A half-finished canvas was propped against the wall: more marsh, more trestle, and this time the train bearing down. Martin stood staring. Finally he said: "It's so human."

I started to ask if he was stoned all the time, but bit my tongue. I really didn't know what to make of him. Was this some sort of date, or prelude to a date, or was he just a good guy, a good priest, trying to figure out something about me? The year before, to drive my father crazy, Francis showed him an article called "Sex and the Single Priest" in Playboy. Now here was a priest stretching his hand out in the direction of my paintings. The first night I met him his smooth routine scared me; now he seemed so sincere, so duddy. I hadn't had a conversation like this with a grown man since I'd been in New York. My last boyfriend, whose middle name was Irony, did computer art at Cooper Union. He had a braid down to his belt and all his t-shirts had cartoons on the front. I don't believe he'd said a straight sentence to me the whole time we were together, not unless it was Want to get under the sheets? Now Martin called my empty landscapes human and acted like it was perfectly natural for us to be bumping up against each other in Rosemarie's room, her unmade bed stretched out below us.

"Well thanks," I said, finally. "But I don't think I'd call them human."

"O.K. What would you call them?"

"Oh I don't know. I guess I'd talk about the colors being gooey. Or mucky. I'm not so great with adjectives. But they're not human. That's a train and a trestle."

Martin sank into a director's chair under the window. "You must know what the odds are, making a living from your painting. That's what I admire. I'm sure you could have a safe life –– marriage, babies. . . ." He trailed off. I could see from his twitching hands that he'd alarmed himself. Maybe he didn't know what to make of what he was doing, either.

"That was another time," I said, "when women were thinking about babies." I wasn't trying to be sharp, really I wasn't, but he looked as if I'd slapped him. This time it was his cheeks flaming. This time he was the one looking down at his feet.

"Anyway," I said, fast as I could, "I wasn't brought up for that marriage-and-babies stuff. I was supposed to want to be a nun."

"And did you?"

"Not exactly. It was more like I was in love with one." He raised his eyes and this time I met them. For once I couldn't stop talking. I told him about Camp OLPH, about the boys pushing each other out of the way to fetch Sister Claire's pointer, about the morning she showed up under the oak trees with a nasty scratch that ran from her eye to her mouth. "The girls all thought Sister Mary Patrick raked her fingernails down Sister Claire's face. We thought she'd been dancing naked maybe, or kissing a seminarian."

"I thought only the boys were thinking those thoughts."

"Oh, Sister Claire was like a movie star to us." The light streamed in suddenly and obscured his face. Looking at him all hazy, I could see her. The other nuns had fit into their habits like potatoes into their skins, but Sister Claire was born to be adored. I'd wanted somebody to stroke her downy lip, her translucent skin. I wanted a man to love her as much as I did.

"But you never had a vocation?"

"I knew I'd never be any good at living in large groups."

He threw up his hands ––_he could see how many girls were living in this apartment –– and said: "Very funny."

I took a bow.

"Are you still a Catholic? You evaded John's question very neatly the other night."

"I think I'll evade it again," I said. I liked talking about religion even less than I liked talking about painting. I went to Mass when I was home, to avoid a major scene, and otherwise I steered clear. I wasn't an atheist: I didn't know anybody who was. We were the children of Vatican II, all the girls who went to Marymount. Once a Catholic, we joked; maybe we believed it. Only some of us, the ones with the bohemian reputations, were starting to imagine a different God, a sweet Jesus-Buddha God, a God who was maybe more female than anybody'd let on before. It was all pretty vague. The nuns egged us on. I could hardly remember that other God, the one everybody said we'd been raised on, the God of sin and punishment. "Not so easy to go with the Church in this day and age." Martin said he'd fretted over his own vocation –– no, I'm not getting it right. I'm embarrassed by what he said, so I'm toning it down. What Martin Doppler said that afternoon was that he'd agonized_over his own vocation. That was the kind of word he used, without a gulp or a cough or the least little spittle of irony. He agonized. It was as if we'd switched places and now I was his confessor –– or maybe I was more like the mistress who hears all the married guy's troubles. He began to stir in his chair, as if he might pop up any minute and advance on me. I still had no idea whether he'd put his hand on my forehead to give me a blessing or lean down and kiss me.

We heard Terry stirring in the front room, and we both froze as if we'd been caught at something. Well, we had. She'd heard that word agonize too, naked as a body on Rosemarie's sheets.

"Sister Claire," I said, "used to tack up a chart of the Seven Deadly Sins on a live oak tree." It was supposed to be a joke, but Martin was already rising, his long legs struggling up out of the little canvas chair.

On Friday night I delivered the letters in person, when I could have just stamped and mailed them myself. Martin made a fuss: he stirred manhattans again, in a sleek pitcher, and served them with cherries in long-stemmed glasses. We drank them down too fast.

From the couch I looked in again on Martin's bed, made up all spit-spot with a checkered bedspread. They'd have a cleaning lady, I realized, the way they had someone downstairs to cook for them. They were grown-ups, and I was still a kid. What did he want with me? "Where's John?"

"Oh" –– Martin waved his hand –– "off with his ancient mother. The family figures John can do all the visiting. He's the priest."

I hadn't heard such a bitter line from him before. He rose to pour us another drink, and when he went to take my glass his hand went into a spasm. "Are you all right?" I asked. His fingers trembled like an old man's.

"Just the usual." He poured the drink, both hands steady again. "I didn't know a man in the seminary who didn't have a stutter or the blinks."

"Come on."

"No, it's true. Anyway, if you didn't have a tic you had a nervous breakdown. There was this one guy," he started, but he began to chuckle and before I knew it he'd laughed himself into a choke. It wasn't the Jesuit laugh at all. The tears began to drool from his eyes. "There was this one guy teaching in a military school. . . . " He couldn't finish the sentence.

Maybe he'd been drinking before I got there, or maybe my seeing the spasm set him off. He sat down and doubled over. The sound coming from him could have been a laugh or a cry or a cough or a growl. I rose –– in alarm, I guess –– which made him sputter all the harder. I went over to his chair to slap him on the back, but I'd never touched him before and by then I could see he was just laughing himself silly. I ended up sliding down, all awkward, to sit crosslegged at his feet. Finally he took a long deep breath and got his story out:

"This guy –– he was a scholastic, nowhere near his final vows –– he made an entire geometry class take off their uniforms and listen to the lessons naked." He snorted and wheezed before he could go on. "Went around the room banging protactors and compasses on the desks. The boys were jumping out of their seats, naked as babes, calling out theorems. They'd still be sitting there if the prefect of discipline hadn't walked by."

He stretched his legs out and I found my knees up against them.

"He's still a Jesuit. Nothing a little retreat couldn't cure."

I pressed my knees down and he pressed against them with his feet. I could feel somewhere, high above me, his hand spazzing again, fanning the air. His shoes were polished black priest-shoes, not work shoes like the ones I'd seen the first night, and above them were thin black dress socks. The pant legs were black, too. He'd done some official priest-thing that day.

He cleared his throat. "I don't suppose you'd take off all your clothes just because somebody asked you to?"

' "I don't know any theorems."

He gave me a look –– don't you joke about this –– and then I knew he meant it. It just about broke my heart, the way he asked. I whipped my shirt off over my head before he could change his mind, before I could change mine. I'd posed nude a thousand times and I knew just what he'd see: my small breasts, my gray-clay nipples, my skinny arms. More than one guy had told me I reminded him of his little sister.

Martin didn't say a word. He sat up straight and stared down at me, a big smile floating. His hands weren't trembling anymore. He stood and reached a hand out to help me stand, too, and helped me tug off my jeans. He stretched his long fingers, stroked every inch of my face and my ears, then the back of my neck, then the length of my bare arms. When he was done with my hands he reached for my left breast and bent low to kiss it: I was half his size. For the first time in a long time I thought twice about standing naked in front of a window. I imagined somebody in apartment 3-D across 98th Street watching the priest make slow love to the schoolgirl. And I heard Terry: Shit, he's had a girlfriend or two.

I heard her all the while he made love to me that night, because he was so slow, the opposite of the hippies who leaped all over me and sometimes couldn't even grab their pants off before they came. His moans were measured, the sounds of a man savoring every patch of skin.

The next morning I was so embarrassed to wake up in a priests' apartment I couldn't see past my own nose. Martin was already up, grinding coffee beans down the hall, and by the time I got up the nerve to go into the kitchen his bagel was half-eaten and the Times was spread across the table.

"If there's no war crimes tribunal after this, we're even more corrupt than I thought." He slammed his fist down, and the table wobbled, and coffee stained the newsprint. He pointed to the page: the bombing in Cambodia. He wasn't in the least embarrassed to see me in his kitchen –– he wasn't looking at me at all, he was looking in disgust at his wet paper.

"So maybe there will be a tribunal," I said.

"Dream on," he said: not sarcastically, just straight out, the way he said everything. "It'll never happen."

I sat opposite him and drank my coffee, listening for John's key to turn in the lock. Martin ripped at his bagel with his teeth and turned the damp pages. Finally he rose and carried the dripping paper to the sink, and on his return trip bent to kiss the top of my head. I held a wad of bagel in my mouth. He hadn't even asked about birth control. Did he think I was taking the pill? –– I was –– and did that make it better or worse? I'd read a survey somewhere that said the majority of priests in America didn't believe taking the pill was a sin, though I don't guess they were casting their votes for Martin and me.

He rested his hands on my shoulder and said: "Sorry to be so distracted. It's infuriating."

I wanted to say, I agree with you, but I couldn't swallow the bagel down. Last night he'd seemed so needy, but this morning he was that smooth guy again, perfectly sure of himself. I had a feeling this was an old routine with him, and now we'd got to the part where he apologized for forgetting himself and promised it would never happen again. I had a feeling there were whole harems full of young women like me, women who went to Catholic girls' schools and graduated to being priest-groupies.

But he said: "Will you come next Friday night?"

Friday, a week away: that put it in perspective. With my old boyfriends, one of us would call three times a day, and every night we'd find an excuse to get our hands on each other. But Friday night was when John left to see his mother, so that was the time we would have.

Francis wrote: Maisie you're a big girl now and blahblahblah. I'd be the last to tell you who to sleep with but Father Doppler had a reputation when I was at Fordham. I mean, do what you like.

Terry must have told Francis what was up. Everybody seemed to know. Maryagnes and Rosemarie tittered like girls at the Dominican Academy Prom every time they answered the phone –– Maryagnes called Martin Father Robert Redford –– but Terry was furious. She finally ferreted me out in the painting cell, where I'd been hiding.

"Do you know that The Edge of Night currently features a philandering priest? A soap opera, for Christ's sake."

"Which one is The Edge of Night? With the alcoholics?"

Terry glowered. "They're all alcoholic." She lit a cigarette, sat in the director's chair, sighed. "Look, you think I'm a hypocrite. But it's one thing, I go to dinner with Joe. I add some romance to his life, he protects me in the department. We both know it's never going to lead to a damn thing. Certainly not to sleeping with him. Do you honestly think Martin Doppler is going to choose you over that order? Over the life he's got now? Good food and liquor, nice teaching jobs, a little safe political action. You really think he's going to choose you?"


"Well then." She blew smoke. "You better start to think what you're doing. That man takes his vocation a hell of a lot more seriously than you take it. Frank says the whole community's in an uproar. You've replaced abortion as the issue of the year. You don't think the provincial's going to get wind?"


She waved her cigarette wildly. "John has to avoid everybody because he's terrified they'll ask him if you're staying over every night."


"You know, you're not some Abelard and Heloise. Martin's just in the middle of a goddamn mid-life crisis and if you've got this priest thing so bad you'd be smart to find somebody who hasn't made it up to the final vows."

I thought she was done, but she was just picking up speed. "Besides," she said. "They only want the ones who keep their mouths shut. Is that what you want, to keep your mouth shut for the rest of your life?"

I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't want to get married and have babies, or tug priests away from their orders. I wanted to paint till I was an old lady with my skin hanging down. I wanted to wake up with Martin's long fingers stroking my thigh. When he slammed his fist and threatened to arrest Henry Kissinger himself, I wanted to be that sure and straight about something, anything.

We went to the movies in the afternoon, with all the other adulterous couples. I didn't show up at the residence till late on Friday night: I was trying to avoid the other priests in the elevator, and mostly I did. In the morning I left by the stairwell. Martin never did ask about birth control. Sometimes he was the smooth older man who knew everything, and sometimes he looked at me as if he might weep.

I moved to Brooklyn, to a cheap two-room garden apartment in a crumbling brownstone. I'd never lived alone before. After I moved to my own place, so I could see Martin more, I saw him less. He was working in a soup kitchen, and his classes were all the way up in the Bronx, and he'd started doing research on computer warfare. Some days I could hardly remember what he looked like. He told me I should come to the poker games –– Terry and Joe and John and Frank still played two or three nights a week –– but I couldn't face any of them.

"You don't have to hide out in shame," he said. "I'm not ashamed."

"Don't you dare say your life is more human. "Well it isn't. You watch that sharp tongue." He bent down and kissed the top of my head. "Look," he said, "I regard what we do in that bed as much a sacrament as –––"

Maybe he saw the look on my face: he stopped dead. He seemed to know, though we never exchanged a syllable about it, that any mention of religion made me the one to twitch now. I was like Mad magazine, an occasion of sin.

We stretched out together on my bed, and I reached out for his face, my hands on either side of his sharp jaw. I made myself stare at him, steady, the way I stared at something I was painting. Terry was wrong: he wasn't blue-eyed Martin Doppler at all. His eyes were gray. I stared till his gray eyes watered from staring back. When he wasn't there I lay on the bed, alone, and thought about stripping him bare the way he'd had me strip that first night. Now I reached to unbuckle his jeans and he jerked as if I'd given him an electric shock. He'd let me hold his face, but he wouldn't let me undress him. He reached for my shirt instead, and tugged it up over my head.

Now he was the one to stare –– at my little girl's breasts –– and I wondered if he'd ever slept with a woman his own age, a woman who knew as much as he did. When he wasn't there I found myself straining to remember the sorrowful mysteries –– wasn't the agony in the garden one of them? –– and thinking how little Martin and I could talk about. I'd been educated in a Catholic girls' school, but we'd never read Aquinas or Augustine. I was afraid to confess my ignorance to Martin. Jesuits could be so snotty.

It was a million years since I'd gone home with a boy in paint-splattered carpenter's pants. Now if I went to a party in the East Village, I waved away the pot and left alone, back home on the subway to a bottle of bourbon I kept on the mantel for Martin. Bad enough I'd been the quiet one in that Irish-Italian mob on the east side. Now, alone in the dark in Brooklyn, I could hear the hunchbacked man set out the metal garbage cans on the curb. I could hear the street cats in heat.

"Maisie," he said, "I've been thinking about leaving the order."

He rolled over, flat on his back, and looked at the ceiling instead of my breasts. I had no idea how much it might have to do with me. I had no idea whether it was more to feel guilty about or more to hope for. He was still lying on his back but he reached over across himself to knead my breast, and I felt lonelier than ever. I always wanted to make love: it got you past language so fast. Now I longed for words the way I'd once longed for Martin's gangly body. Now I wanted him to say something straight and duddy and true.

One Saturday morning I asked him to sit in his blue flannel shirt in the box of light that opened in my front window. I handed him a book of Bruegel prints to keep him still. I'd been looking at the Bruegel myself. I had some vague idea that I needed to put people in my landscapes, and I was doing portraits again, for starters. I was doing them straight. No surrealistic scars: what you see is what you get. I sketched Martin for an hour, his long torso slumping down over the book. When I took a break he was staring down at Christ Carrying the Cross, a jumble of bodies in a deep landscape.

Well. I should have known that was the picture he'd study. There have to be a hundred stories in that painting, but I knew that his eye would go to the foreground, where the soldiers are pulling Simon of Cyrene away to come help shoulder the cross, and his wife is tugging him back. They both have this startled look in their eyes. And that just about summed us up, didn't it: everybody thought I was trying to grab Martin away from the Jesuits and now he was really thinking of leaving the order. We both walked around looking like we'd been hit by 2 x 4s. "Jesus," I said.

"Exactly." He smiled, sort of. It wasn't really his kind of joke. "Listen," he said, "how about I come back tomorrow and let you finish up?"

I hadn't told him how a long it took to paint a portrait, and I didn't tell him then. "Tomorrow," I said, but already I had a feeling already that this was one canvas that would never get painted. The next day he called to say John wanted him to concelebrate a mass in New Jersey, that he'd have to make it next week-end. "I bet you say that to all the girls."

A long pause. "Don't ever joke like that," he said, before he hung up. "Ever again."

I stood at the kitchen counter, the busy signal droning away. Lately I'd been replaying that line of Terry's, He's had a girlfriend or two, and working myself into little fits of jealousy. Was it one or two or a half-dozen? And who was I to be jealous of an old girlfriend? Look how many boys I slept with, as soon as I got away from Due East. Martin wasn't seeing anyone else. I knew it sure as I knew he wasn't going to leave the Jesuits.

I spent that Sunday wandering the neighborhood, looking at the limestone mansions and the big churches. Men in their sixties and seventies strolled around, on the make, their ties hot pink and their sideburns lush. One of them winked at me. I was miserable. It was too horrible to think that Martin was just a man of his time, just caught up in this new year –– by then it was 1972 –– that he never would have asked me to take my clothes off in 1962, or 1982. It was too awful to think I was just a small-town girl who got hold of the pill, that I was just some priest's mistress. Father Movie Star.

The hours stretched out before me, and I was less and less inclined to fill them with painting. I didn't know enough about anything to paint. That was why I was so jealous of Martin: I thought then that he knew enough to know what he believed. I thought he believed it all, so clear and so whole, that I was only the test he held up against it.

My mother couldn't reach me on the phone, so she sent a telegram: Dad had mild heart attack. O.K. but depressed. Asking for you.

He was already out of the hospital by the time I made it down on the Greyhound bus. My first day home, he drove me deep into the country, down toward the Georgia line, to show me a mission church he'd help build: St. Mary, Star of the Sea. In the car he snapped the radio off, then on again, crazy without his cigarettes. When he passed the road that cut off to Camp OLPH, he told me the nuns had made it a home for unwed mothers.

"How ironic."

My father asked me what the hell I meant, and when I brought back Francis's words –– three counselors pregnant by three different seminarians –– he twisted the radio off for good and drove on in white silence. "Probably just a rumor," I said.

"Francis has the wrong idea about the world. Everything's dirty. Everything's contaminated. He can't believe there's someone on the face of the earth holier than he is." He coughed, and the roadside oaks and pines and tangles of undergrowth spun up at me in a violent green I hadn't seen for a whole year.

My dad coughed again, a sputter as angry as Martin's. We drove over the Chessy Creek and the fishing boats puttered away below the bridge, the marshgrass verdigris in the April light.

"I didn't mean anything by it, Dad."

"I know you didn't." His neck pulsed. "Everything's changing so fast you don't know which end is up. Pregnant counselors! I don't believe a word of it."

A week before Martin had paced my garden apartment, fretting. He hoped I could stand the waiting, he_could hardly stand it, but it had to be the right decision. If only Nixon would be impeached, if only Michael Boyle would win his fight to stay in the order. He chewed his fingernails straight across, below the quick.

"Don't you slip away from us," my father said. "Don't you change." He turned off onto a narrow road, and the car slipped under drapes of moss. On one side of us a cow pasture stretched out, flat and wide and lush, and on the other side we approached the little red church my father had painted. "Don't you," he said, but he couldn't go on. We sat in the shadow of the church, under the trees, until he caught his breath.

I was gone for almost a month. When I called Martin's apartment, John said he'd gone on retreat. He asked if I'd like to come to dinner one night, maybe play a hand of poker. I said I'd like that. Retreat sounded ominous.

He showed up early one Saturday in a Roman collar. I'd never seen him in full gear before: it wasn't as if he could ask his girlfriend to come watch him celebrate mass. His skin was washed out against the black suit, and his forehead was a weave of purple veins. His hair was graying fast now, or maybe I hadn't let myself see it before. Old enough to be my father –– wasn't that the expression? "I have to go to a meeting," he said. "They expect this sort of thing."

I made him coffee and he looked through my prints of Due East. When he put the pile of pictures down, I saw that his fingernails had grown out a little, but his hand still trembled. "Maisie," he said, "they've offered me a job at Georgetown."

I was sitting on a crate, facing a wall of old canvases, and the morning light, the light I was supposed to be painting with, was streaming in so that I could only see the outline of his gray head and black suit.

"It's not you I'm running away from," he said. "I'm going back to my vows."

We both took sips of coffee at the same time. "Maisie, I love you," he said, for the first time, in that duddy way he'd used in Rosemarie's room. Who was this guy? I'd been sleeping with him for a year almost, and still I had no idea.

"Oh, for goodness sake." I thought I was trying to keep it light. "What do you think this is, The Edge of Night?"

He put his mug on the floor and shuffled through the photographs again. Maybe he thought that would give one of us a way out. I didn't say a word, but I must have radiated heat. I had no idea who he was, and he had no idea who I was. Not the least idea, I was thinking. All you know is what I look like when I do that little striptease for you. That's all you know, but it never occurred to me to say the words out loud. Finally he stuffed the pictures back in the envelope and stretched himself out of the chair and out of the light.

"I'm sorry. This is the hardest thing I've ever done." His voice was in the shadow too, and I said:

"Oh it's not so hard. They'll give you plenty of liquor and cards at Georgetown. You'll be safe your whole life long." I was still blowing bubbles. I couldn't even tell if I sounded mad or not.

"Maisie, I don't know about your faith ––"

"Don't you dare." Now I was the one who trembled, who spazzed all over like a Jesuit in the seminary. I had this terrible premonition that Martin was about to say one of those things he was so sure about. If he did I'd scream bloody murder and start swinging my fists.

"I better go now."

I didn't say another word –– I'd always choked on words. Martin slipped away, through the ground-floor apartment, without so much as a kiss to the top of my head. I heard the iron gate clang shut. A minute later I heard the hunchbacked man set the garbage cans back outside my window.

I'd never been much for crying, but I heard myself make a funny growling sound. I put my fist through the wall, and the plaster crumbled down. I could have been pregnant, for all he knew. I went to the kitchen and kicked the refrigerator till I'd dented it. That would have given him something to think about in Georgetown. I picked up the phone from the counter and ripped the wire from the wall, and then there wasn't much left to damage, not unless I started slashing my own paintings or something. I made myself take deep breaths and then I ran a cold shower, and tugged too hard on the shower curtain and brought the rod down on my head. "You agonize," I said to the wet mess of curtain, and dumped it on the bathroom floor._ I was scared of the sound of my voice. The first words I'd spoken, and what was the point? Martin was already on the subway heading back to Manhattan.

I wasn't sure who I felt sorrier for, him or me. He was the one who managed to cough up love, finally, and I was still spewing the bitterness that comes from holding your tongue. The closest I could remember to feeling this way was when they closed Camp OLPH, when Francis told me about those seminarians and pregnant counselors. I was a teenager myself by then, and I was scared for them, those boys who coached baseball, those college girls who hushed us up in the barracks at night. They had to know what really big trouble they were in now.

My father died that winter, of another heart attack. Francis asked to serve the mass and wept the entire forty-five minutes. He could barely hold the water and the wine for the three concelebrating priests. Within the week our old pastor had him teaching a catechism class at St. Mary Star of the Sea Mission. Francis told me at the airport that Father Berkeley had just swallowed him up, but he stared right past me, the way Martin sometimes used to do. The V.I.S.T.A. volunteers had left Due East.

The light in my apartment looked thinner and thinner, so every morning I went up to the roof to try cityscapes: water towers, clock towers, church towers. Maybe they were Martin's revenge or maybe I could finally remember his advice, think his name, without tearing apart my apartment. I'd come to know the hunchbacked guy who looked after the building, and he helped me haul my stuff through the narrow roof hatch.

The neighborhood was filling up with political types, refugees from Manhattan, and one Saturday in front of the Key Food I saw Frank Ventemiglia leafletting for a demonstration at the South African consulate.

"Maisie!" I was surprised he remembered my name. His eyes still shifted away from me, but he couldn't wait to spill his news: he'd been released from his vows, he did carpentry and painting now in Brooklyn. He asked if I'd seen Terry Devlin leafletting the night before. She lived in Park Slope too –– in fact she lived with him. They were in touch with Martin Doppler. They sent him the names of released convicts for a speaker's program he ran at Georgetown.

"Have you seen the churches around here?" He said he and Terry had been trying to hit them all. "Great faux marble," he said. "But I have to say, it's kinda hard to be looking from the other side of the altar." His jaw tensed.

"I'd like to get in touch with Terry," I said, not knowing how to take my leave. He wrote their number on the back of a flyer and I watched his hands tremble. Maybe he'd been in the same seminary with Martin, or maybe it was all the years of Jesuit drinking. He tried to smile and just then –– as his mouth opened wide –– I noticed that he had two chipped teeth and a funny gap in his lower jaw. I couldn't remember ever seeing him smile before.

I smiled back but I felt my hand shake as I reached for the flyer. When the paper itself started to quiver, we both laughed. "I drink too much coffee," Frank said, and I agreed. I drank too much coffee too.

"Listen, would you ever think about sitting for me, you know, posing? I've got this set-up on my roof, and when it gets warmer. . . ." I got it out as fast as I could: I couldn't imagine Frank wanting to pose.

But he surprised me. "I wouldn't have to take my clothes off, would I?" He smiled wider.

"Nah," I said. "Nah. Fully clothed."

He shrugged. Sure, he'd give it a try. After that we couldn't think of anything else to say, and his eyes started boinging around again. I'd never in a million years get Frank Ventemiglia full-face. Well, o.k. I'd get his bouncing eyes and his tight jaw, I'd get his sandpaper face. I could put him up against the chimney, and then I'd have the Fourth Avenue El tracks in the picture too. Maybe I could even get Terry to pose with him, if she wouldn't go all smirky on me. I could get a whole crew up there, maybe the South Africa protesters, a jumble of bodies, the thick city air gray behind them.

I was beginning to think I could hang on in New York, maybe get to know a thing or two. When I told Frank good-bye and walked on down the avenue, his twitching face had already started to paint itself.

While I was brushing out her thin gray hair and twisting it into a soft coil at the back of her head, Mrs. Harris told me that she wasn’

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