The Bells of St. Michael’s
by John W. Steele
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
part 2 of 3
At the corner stood St. Michael’s Church, the heart and soul of River Street. Its majestic golden domes soared into the sky, their enormous Caravaca Crucifixes pointing the way to heaven like the dial of a compass.
Norman stopped for a moment and leaned against a sheet of plywood that covered a broken plate glass window. The window belonged to what used to be the county employment office. The abandoned building stood directly across the street from St. Michael’s.
Norman stared at the shining domes and thought about their meaning, his mind thirsty for answers to the questions that had tormented him for so long. He thought about Veronica, how she suffered and her untimely demise. She was too young to die, someone as beautiful and full of life as she was.
Norman’s muse darkened. A vague but menacing apprehension burned deep in the nether landscape of his memories. He looked up at the third floor of the building and an engram unfolded in the mist. An image of an empty broom closet with the numbers 317 stenciled on the door reflected in his mind’s eye. Norman remembered the dark and starless night, the plaster-strewn steps, and the promise he made. He closed his eyes and a chill ran down his spine.
* * *
Like the chorus of a thousand angels, the bells of St. Michael’s began to chime. The splendor of their voices drew Norman from his portentous reverie. He removed his sunglasses and gazed at the church.
The light reflected in the snow burned his eyes. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped them. They felt like two orbs of dried sponge that had coagulated in his head. He pressed hard on his eyes as if to squeeze one final tear from them, but there were no more tears in him; he’d expended them all. Yet, Norman missed the savor of mercy that becomes tears, and he wished he could once again find the tolerance within him that had once so permitted them.
With a grimace, he shifted the weight of his mailbag and crossed the street. He followed a tidy, shoveled walkway to the rectory behind the church and rapped the brass knocker on the oak plank door. The door opened with a sigh, and a blast of warm scented air slammed into Norman’s face.
Father T. stood in the tiled foyer. A rich emerald-colored Persian rug lay beneath his feet and his black wingtips shone. He was balding man and had let all the hairs on one side of his head grow long. He combed the hairs over the top of his naked dome and lathered them down with what looked like Vaseline.
The priest’s face was pitted, and his complexion had a subtle luster that made it appear incandescent. Father T. was a tall, dignified, imposing figure and the deep contours of his face gave it the impression it was made of wax.
“I’ve asked you not to come here, Mr. Whipple,” the priest said.
Norman folded his hands and looked down at the ground. “I know you did, Father, and I apologize, but I need to talk to someone.”
“We’ve had this discussion before, Mr. Whipple. There’s a time and a place for everything, and this is neither. That is why the church holds confession.”
“I’m sorry, Father, please understand. I’m not sure where else to go. It’s seems like everything inside of me has died and I’m totally alone. I don’t know if I can handle my thoughts anymore. I can no longer see any difference between good and evil... and I’m afraid.”
The priest’s forehead wrinkled and the corners of his mouth sagged. “When the burden of sin becomes impossible to bear, it expresses itself in the mind as guilt and pain, Mr. Whipple.”
“Yes, Father, but...”
“And when the sin reveals the naked truth hidden behind the mask of avarice and sensuality, God calls the sinner home through the blessing of the rod! Guilt is God’s way of telling you what you’re doing is wrong, Mr. Whipple...
“The church is open. I suggest you enter in and meditate on the Blessed Virgin. Communion begins tomorrow at ten a.m. and you would do well to attend.”
The Father looked down upon the postman and raised his hand in the air. He made the sign of the cross, rendering the gesture with unfeigned commiseration. His eyes shone with authority. The postman raised his head and they shared a long, sustained look. For the first time in his life, Norman understood the depth of his own insignificance. He broke his gaze from the priest’s and looked into the distance.
In a flash, his world imploded. Norman’s heart took its final step and fell from the tightrope of cherished opinions and concepts that had kept him suspended over the crushing black vacuum of the unknown. Everything he’d ever believed deflated like a giant balloon and, in this moment, there was nothing left but a blank canvas stainless and void of meaning.
An epiphany paraded across this barren landscape and a fragment of intuition shone in his mind like the shards of a broken mirror reassembling. There is no good or evil... It’s only me.
The Father softened his gaze on the repentant sinner shivering in the snow.
“This is the last time I’m going to ask you not to come here, Mr. Whipple. Consider the consequences of your actions, my son, and the effects your decisions may have on your career.” He forced a smiled and eased the door shut with a muted thud.
Norman stared at the empty space where the priest had stood and the final tear he would ever know trickled down his cheek. When the door closed, a new door opened and Norman at last understood why he’d been chosen to endure what no one else could fathom.
A feeling of tranquility swept through him and it felt as if a tremendous burden had been lifted from his shoulders. His mind grew clear and buoyant and, for the first time in years, the fetter of guilt that so encumbered him had disappeared.
The calling of his life was revealed in this single moment, and his destiny lay naked and exposed before him. The battle was over, and the conflict within retreated into the shadows, like whipped dogs cowering in the darkness.
* * *
The snow had stopped falling and a scant glimmer of sunshine peeked through the sky. Norman walked out to the street and headed up the limestone steps that led to the arched cathedral doors of St. Michael’s.
Once inside, he placed his mailbag beneath a mahogany table that stood in the corner. Norman dipped his finger in the bowl of water and made the sign. The church was as still as a tomb save for Agnes G. who lived in one of the tenement buildings on his route. She knelt in a pew beneath a statue of St. Joseph and stared up at the icon as if transfixed.
The rumor was that she had drowned her newborn son in a bathtub nearly thirty years earlier. She claimed it was an accident, and she was never charged. Ever since that day, she’d spent nearly every afternoon in the church, gazing into the eyes of the towering icon.
Norman slipped past her, approached the altar, and bent his knees. He searched for the words that had once so comforted him but, when he looked within, all he could find was a gaping black hole where the pain used to be.
Words no longer held any meaning, and Norman marveled when he thought about how much trust he used to place in them. The enigma of words within was now resolved and, after what seemed like a lifetime of anguish, the master had emerged.
From deep in the catacombs of his psyche a hollow voice reverberated like the rumble of thunder in an empty gray sky. It is God they seek and it is God you shall reveal to them. For who but I has never abandoned you? Even now, when the world has forsaken you, and all that sustained you has been revealed as lies , is it not I that have remained steadfastly at your side?
Making not a sound, Norman stood up and headed for the door at the end of the aisle. He entered the vestibule behind the altar and searched the cupboard for the chrismatory set. When he found the cut glass jars, he fished the vial from his jacket. Norman broke the head off the ampoule and poured the entire contents of the powerful hallucinogen into the wine. He shook the jar and placed it back on the shelf.
When he returned to the altar he glanced over at Agnes. She hadn’t moved and remained mesmerized beneath the image made of clay. Norman crept down the aisle, retrieved his mailbag, and headed into the street.
* * *
It was six p.m. when Norman entered the kitchen of his bungalow on Maple Street. The house was dark and very warm, just the way he liked it. He filled a glass with vodka and limped into the living room.
He eased his ravaged body into his overstuffed leather chair and turned on the television. Talking heads laughed and argued with each other on the evening news. The heads were beautiful and Norman had fallen in love with one of them.
It didn’t matter what the heads said. He’d stopped listening to their babble long ago. The lovely smiling faces eased his loneliness, and it comforted him to know that they existed.
On the marble-topped end table sat his medications. There were antidepressants, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and anti-anxiety agents. The small amber containers stood like soldiers awaiting his command, but their tour of duty had ended. Norman pulled the wastebasket to the edge of the table and swept all but one of the bottles into the trash bucket.
He removed the lid from the container of morphine and poured several of the white tablets into the palm of his hand. The postman raised his glass. “Here’s to destiny and the great paradox.” He tossed the pills into his mouth and washed them down with the vodka.
Even in the electronic vacuum of television, the exquisite features of his female ideal enamored him. Norman felt he’d grown to know the adorable blonde woman with the smug coquette expression on her face. He believed he could love her as much as he had loved Veronica. But he knew as well this was only a fantasy and that the sweetness of love was forever behind him.
He raised the glass and took another swallow. He wondered if perhaps it would be better if he’d never loved anyone than to suffer the agony that love had bestowed upon him.
The blond woman articulated her words with great care as she recited her lines. Norman admired her exterior beauty and the depth of her practiced sincerity. She has a beautiful face, a beautiful face indeed... And for a moment, he held her in his arms.
A caress of chemical compassion surged through his body and tingled in the nerves of his spine. The dressing on the ulcer needed to be changed, but Norman lacked the strength or the motivation to do it.
He’d been to every wound care specialist in the county, but none of them could identify what the abscess was, why it wouldn’t heal, or where it came from. Despite the anguish the ulcer gave him, Norman had grown dependent on its presence and the sense of expediency it provided.
The pustule had moved beyond the realm of annoyance and had evolved into something that lived inside him. He’d grown to accept that the wretchedness of it all provided him with the courage to complete his mission on this planet. The hellish abscess had scarred him with the idea that sometimes what is most painful reveals the greatest truth.
The hard edges of his world were now smooth and even, and the throbbing ache inside him transformed into a warm glow of euphoria and peace. Norman reveled in the rapture of painlessness and pondered why the gods had never shown him such mercy. The lines of agony drained from his face and, for a moment, there was solace.
He glanced over at a leather display box that sat on top of the oak desk in the corner of the room. Inside the box hung three bronze medals. One had a red ribbon, one a blue ribbon, and one a purple ribbon. On the wall directly above the medals hung a triangular folded flag in a wooden display case.
Norman remembered the day the soldiers knocked on his door. It seemed like only yesterday the two Green Berets had sat like mighty titans in his living room. They expressed their heartfelt condolences and offered their hand when he wept.
Then they were gone, and now there was nothing left but three round lumps of bronze and a flag lying beneath a blanket of dust on the window. Timmy, Timmy, Timmy, my little boy, my brave, brave son.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by John W. Steele