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Patrick J Murphy

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Member Since: May, 2007

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The Exchange of Gifts
By Patrick J Murphy
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Tim Darcy, a young Irish priest recently assigned to a new church in California finds himself in one awful dilemma none of which happens to be of his doing.

Some people wait a lifetime for the answer that fell into Tim Darcy's lap that morning when he was only half listening to the priest from California decrying professions that any sane person would kill for. "Doctors, dentists and lawyers, my dear boys, all very honorable and prized careers, and yet," continued the priest, "not one of them can compare to the fulfillment a person feels by serving God in the priesthood." And still the priest wasn't finished. "And were there any questions now, boys?" "And yes, of course, that was a very good question and certainly, some people might consider celibacy as a minor drawback and yet, weren't there drawbacks to every career when you thought about them? And so, in conclusion, let everyone remember that for this, the greatest career they could ever imagine, all anyone needed was a high-school diploma and a full heart to serve the Master."
And that latter part is where the priest struck a magical cord with Tim who had been wondering for some time what work prospects the City of Dublin had to offer a "lunkhead" as his father was wont to mention from time to time. Come this June he'd have a high school diploma and the full heart should pose no problem. And as for the celibacy part, on that he'd have to take a chance and put a lot of trust in what he'd just heard about priests getting along fine on a fervent prayer life and a lot of golf.
And so seven years went by until that day that Father Tim arrived to the Sacramento valley in the summer of '67 that everyone remembered as hot enough to blister an elephant's back. Within one week he had been assigned as assistant pastor to a small suburban parish and given the goal of visiting twenty homes each day in search of souls to be saved. Each evening he was to report progress to the pastor after setting out every day with a full heart and a black serge suit made to battle the icy winds of an Irish winter.
Most of the time people were courteous to the smiling young priest standing on their doorstep inquiring eagerly, "Any Catholics here? Anyone interested in knowing about the Cathlolic faith?" But a lot of the time they would often close the door in his face with a muttered, "no thank you," uncertain about how else to respond to this man of God who looked sunstroke bound at any moment. At first none of this bothered Tim since, in his line of work, every rebuff meant a future jewel in his heavenly crown. But by the end of that first month when all he had to show was a bunch of jewel futures and damn few souls saved, he couldn't help but wonder if maybe another's hand might be at work here. And sure enough, on a typically murderous afternoon when he found himself wilting in the oppressive heat, the evil one finally showed his hand.
With his twenty home quota visited for that day, Tim was more than ready to head for home, when he found himself standing outside an apartment complex that called for his presence in some mysterious way. For a moment he stood there in consternation. God's work was always paramount but running a close second right then was the cool fizzy glass waiting back at the rectory that he had been looking forward to so much. It was a difficult dilemma and yet, with some time left before dinner, should he not be willing to stretch God's workday out a little longer? And thus did Tim, by allowing fervor to overrule common sense, make the kind of rookie decision his more experienced colleagues would easily have passed up.
Once inside the complex, Tim could see right away how well maintained the place was from the ivy covered second floor balconies and immaculate lawns, to the nicely raked paths leading to the ground floor apartments. Without hesitation Tim thought to answer the mysterious call by heading for the first door he saw and then the second and on to three more without one single response. And that's when he made his decision. Call or not, this apartment complex could wait for another day and this time nothing could stop him from his appointment with that cold glass back in the rectory. Well, virtually nothing!
She was young and she was voluptuous, a really dangerous combination, and she was slowly descending the stairs leading to the swimming pool no more than ten steps from where Tim had paused to close his briefcase. And to complicate matters even further, she was attired, if you could dare to use the word, in the briefest of two piece outfits topped off by oversized sunglasses and a large floppy hat.
Rookie or not, Tim never hesitated. He was fresh from the manual and page one of that manual was most clear on this point. "Flee the danger before you are consumed by its noxious flame. But before all else, first avert your gaze." Within one second, Tim was averting with no problem, but the fleeing part was a whole other matter that could easily make him look like a thief or bandit. Far better then that he seek after one more soul and let the she-wolf be on her way to wherever she was going.
"Please, please," prayed Tim as his knuckles pounded on the hardwood of that sixth door, "this time more than any other time in my life, let someone be home and save me." And yet, as so often happens in life, what we desire so greatly, so seldom comports with the divine plan for our overall well-being. And thus it was for Tim, who heard only the sounds of silence in reponse to his frantic knocking. Behind him the she-wolf hadn't moved, of that he was certain from the rivulet of the sweat that had now begun to trickle down his back.
Bad luck to her and her kind anyway, thought Tim still pounding on the door, why can't she just go on about her business and leave decent people like me to their work? But no answer would be forthcoming to that question as further evidence for Tim that the evil one must be somehow lurking about.
"Father--Father Darcy, is'nt it? You're the new priest down at St. Patrick's, right?" Back there her voice sounded soft as a summer mist that had Tim turning like a rabbit to face down a weasel. There she was the brazen hussy standing there practically naked and now complicating matters further by removing her hat and glasses. Once again the manual flashed before Tim's eyes. "Flee the scene..." except that now another voice had begun whispering in his ear that however wayward her path and practically naked or not, this was still a child of God. Now what was he to do? Certainly, he shouldn't ignore the manual, but then again, didn't he often hear that God's children came in all shapes and sizes?
"Well, yes, it is as you say," he somehow managed to get the words out despite the dried apricot he now had for a tongue. "May I be of help to you?" And somehow, that question she found to be amusing.
"Help, did you say, and just how are you at managing apartments? No, just kidding, Father, why just seeing you here is plenty of help, believe me." And to show her appreciation Tim suddenly found himself on the receiving end of a warm hug while he stood still as a statue like the manual must surely recommend.
"What's the matter, Father?" she asked upon finally turning him loose, "you do remember me don't you?'
"As a matter of fact, I do not," replied Tim feelling the first hint of defiance creep into his voice.
"Well, you should you know, I was one of the crowd in that baptism ceremony you conducted for the Freitas baby last Sunday."
"Well, as it happens I don't remember you, and anyway, people look different in Church."
"What do you mean?" she asked, and then understanding right away as she checked out her brief attire. "Actually, this is what most people see me in all summer since it's always so toasty, and speaking of heat,what are you up to in that stuffy black outfit anyway?"
"I'm afraid it comes with the job."
"But it's so hot," she persisted, "you look like you're about to pass out. Why do you fellows have to go around in black anyway?"
"Because," said Tim feeling slightly annoyed that he, the correctly attired one, was being made to feel like an oddity. "Because, it's--it's required by Canon Law."
"Oh, really!" she replied clearly not understanding him, "well anyway, I'm glad it's you and not me, although no disrespect intended because I'm really glad to see you. Did you come here to visit me by the way?'
"Not exactly," said Tim, "actually, I'm here to see if I can find anyone interested in being Catholic."
"Well, bless your heart," she said appreciatively. "Would you like to take a little time out for a glass of cold lemonade and the chance to cool off for a bit?"
"No thanks, I'm fine," he lied now really feeling anxious to be on his way.
Sensing his discomfort, she sought to put him at ease. "Don't be silly, Father, anyone can see you're about ready to drop. The ice-box is right in the office over there and besides, I need to check on the baby."
It was awfully hot just as she had said and her offer was inviting even if Tim could still feel the lurking presence of the evil one.
"Is your husband around?" he demanded suddenly.
"No, as a matter of fact he's not," she said laughing. "But don't worry, I'll put on a robe, and besides, that hug is as dangerous as I get. Now come on before you drop."

*********

Back in the safety of his room at the rectory, Tim turned on the stereo and lit a cigarette as he tried to relax before dinner. In a little while he would change into the more formal cassock stipulated by his pastor as the correct dinner attire. Thankfully, the vision of himself in that long black robe provided him an extra measure of comfort as he watched the smoke curl upward in the soft glow of the reading lamp. Overall, his chance encounter with Laura, for that was her name, had gone very well and she had seemed especially pleased that he had tried to hold the baby even for a little while.
True to her word she had put on a white robe before serving him that very refreshing glass of lemonade. Not that her covering up had put an end to those couple of wholly unfitting thoughts flitting through his mind at the time. But that was all in the past and now back on his own turf, he knew for sure those same thoughts could all go to hell where they likely belonged in the first place. With that, Tim reached for the brandy snifter on the table by his chair and took a long thoughtful sip.

********

In contrast to Tim who was just starting his priestly life, his pastor, Monsignor Hickey had arrived at a wholly secure place in his sacred ministry. A distiguished military chaplaincy had brought him high papal honors and a healthy retirement income coupled with reasonable health had left him with few worries. Other than Martha, his housekeeper and faithful companion for over twenty years, his only other love was for God and a well ordered life. Punctual as always, he had been standing at the head of the large oak dining room table for several moments before Time came scrambling in to dinner that evening with his cassock still partially unbuttoned. With an effort, the Monsignor managed to conceal his annoyance now that the moment of blessing was at hand. Sufficient for now was the brief mental note he made to bring up the importance of punctuality with young charge at their next staff meeting.
Following the blessing they sat and reached for their napkins with Tim knowing better than to initiate any conversation until advised by the Monsignor on what this evening's topic might be.
Between the soup and salad Tim's pastor cleared his throat.
"I have decided," he began, scrutinizing Tim over tight wire rimmed glasses, "I have decided to address myself this Sunday to the subject of our parish fund drive. As you know, we are now a little more than half way through the campaign and I believe it may now require just the right touch to carry it on to the full tide of success."
"That's a good idea, Monsignor," said Tim, not with total sincerity, but also declining to ask for fear of rejection, if he might ever be peromitted to address the people about the hallowed fund drive.
"Why, thank you, Father," said the Monsignor indulgently, "not that you don't also have an important role to play also. I'm thinking of your work in visiting our parish homes, which can also be very helpful, and especially, if you manage to secure additional pledges when you come across those of our less active members." The Monsignor paused to ring for the entree, giving Tim a moment to offer a thought.
"As a matter of fact I got two pledges today," he begam proudly, "although neither one was very big I suppose."
"Did you now?" replied the Monsignor, "and from anyone I might know?"
"I don't know if you would know her, Monsignor--do you know a young lady by the name of Laura Dias?"
Now for anyone unfamiliar with rectory life, that kind of question is asked
all the time, and so Tim might reasonably have expected "yes" or "no" or some other passing comment as appropriate. But no way under heaven could he anticipate what happened next as he looked up, in the absence of any response, and saw that his innocent query had somehow pole axed the Monsignor. Once before in his life Tim had seen something similar on a face--the face of a pig that is that had just been clobbered by a mallet between the eyes in his uncle's slaughterhouse back in the old country. Fortunately, the old housekeeper, who had just shuffled in with the entree was busy clearing away the salad stuff right then and noticed nothing before making her way back to the kitchen. As the dining room door closed behind her the Monsignor finally seemed able to drink from his water glass before carefully drying his lips.
"And what exactly were you doing around that--that slut, may I ask?"
So that's what had gotten the Monsignor in such a state. Here, Tim thought he was doing a great job by visiting parishioners and now all he was doing was consorting with sluts. And judging from the tone of the Monsignor's question, no answer Tim had was going to satisfy the man either. That left only one option.
"I'm really sorry, Monsignor, I had no idea I was doing anything wrong, really I didn't, I just ran into her on my rounds that's all." But by now, with his dinner ruined and his blood pressure spiking, the Monsignor was not to be so easily mollified.
"But where--why were you anywhere near that trollop to begin with--she wasn't on your list--I simply cannot fathom your going anywhere near her as God is my judge."
"Monsignor, please, I really didn't know I was doing anything wrong. You must believe that. God, I know so few people, being so new to the parish. I just would never have--"
"All right, all right," interrupted the Monsignor with the aggrieved expression of someone who has heard more than enough. There followed a lenghty pause at that point. "My Lord," the Monsignor, sighing deeply and confiding to his uneaten dinner at that point, "will this trial never be over?"
It wasn't much, but enough for Tim to sense a slight thawing start around the edges just the same. Maybe a kind word or two about the trials of life might be in order, or then again, maybe sticking his hand in a lion's mouth might be an equally smart move. With a side squint at the Monsignor to see if things were continuing to improve, Tim saw a troubled eye being cast in his direction
"I suppose, Father, I really owe you some further explanation about all this--yes, yes,I feel I do, if you will indulge me for a moment or two." Again, the Monsignor paused. "I suppose I should say at the outset, that this woman, whose name we need not make mention of again, has been at the center of so much grief for this rectory, and the Bishop as well, I'm afraid."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Monsignor," replied Tim now totally mystified, "I am indeed as a matter of fact."
With no acknowledgement of this profound commentary, the Monsignor struggled on. "You see, Father, about two years ago this woman and her new husband found themselves to be--ah---how shall I say this? They were biologically incompatible, so to speak." My God, thought Tim with his head now in a complete swirl, and just what the hell is that supposed to mean?
"They were--that is, his size made them unable to have normal marital relations. She, I have been informed would have had to undergo corrective surgery but was too frightened and kept putting it off. But the really awful thing was--well, one day she announced to her husband that she was with child."
"But, I would call that a blessing, Monsignor," interjected Tim unable to remain silent any longer.
"A blessing!" snorted the Monsignor, "you would would you? And just how do you suppose she came to be with child given the circumstances I have just related?"
"Did she go out and have it done artificially," ventured Tim still wondering how all this stuff could have caused such grief in the rectory--not to mention to the Bishop as well.
"No, she didn't have to do any such thing, although that course of action would have been clearly preferable. No, she had to go and do something much worse by finding a willing and compatible accomplice in your predecessor that resulted in his banishment elsewhere.
"By God," said Tim as the whole story finally began to make some sense, "and what about the husband?"
"He left her for another woman it seems and for which I cannot bring myself to accord him blame, I should add." With a surge of confidence Tim decided to let his own intentions be known in that moment.
"Well, Monsignor, you need have no worry abuot me because today she was perfectly polite and reserved as well."
Was it just Tim, or did he see a shudder rack the Monsignor right about then?
"And that's exactly what the problem was with your predecessor even as I did my utmost to warn him. 'I'm only offering her a word of comfort,' he'd say 'and what's the harm in that?' 'The harm,'I'd say, 'is that your kind words can often be interpreted differently unless you're most careful.'"
The Monsignor paused at that point to lay his fork very carefully alongside his dinner plate. It was time to ensure that a similar tragedy never occur again, and ia a voice resereved only for those headed for hell's fire, he turned one last time to Tim.
"Remember now what I'm telling you, no more visiting that woman, ever, do you understand?"
"I do, Monsignor," replied Tim speaking from a full and contrite heart, "I do for a fact." Nothing more needed to be said then as they both arose from the table to seek solace in the seclusion of their rooms. That evening no coffee would be served after dinner for the first time in ever so long.

********

"Why didn't you just tell me your story anyway?" Tim's question to Laura was meant to convey the hurt he had been feeling for two days now. His question took her by surprise since she had been so glad to see him again. And now he was using that tone to her. She knew, of course, what he was talking about. Foolishly, she had hoped he would never find out given how painful everything had been, but maybe that was too much to expect. Now, his question had begun the hurt again and she came at him hard.
"And so what gives you the right to play God and think you have some special claim to know everything about everybody?"
"I never expect to play God," he responded quietly, "but I do have the right to have my parishioners trust me." There now, that should keep her at arm's length and leave no doubt about where the wrong doing should reside. And in this endeavor, he had succeeded only too well.
"Practice what you preach, Father," she said her chin trembling and the tears watering her eyes, "and speaking of trust, how much trust should any of us place in you fellows down at the rectory with my failings as your dinner conversation apparently. And just where was the right to my good name in all of this? Tell me!"
Tim didn't respond. For the first time in two days he was beginning to see her point even though his hearing about her troubles in confidence was hardly a betrayal of trust. For God's sake wasn't that exactly why had disobeyed the Monsignor by coming to see her with the assurance that her secret was safe with him? And that he also knew was a lot more than she deserved given what she had done to his predecessor. Well now, he knew for sure that the Monsignor had been right--he had best get himself away from this place and not tarry about it either. At the door he paused with the priest in him wavering about leaving her so desolate. Surely one word of comfort couldn't hurt.
"I will pray for you," he said. In spite of the tears she tried to smile bravely.
"Thank you, Father," she replied "and I will pray for you also."
It was a nice thing to say and once again the priest in him came to the forefront. It was the simplest gesture really, the same kind of hand he had seen priests offer a thousand times. And never for one moment had he supposed she would take the hand he laid on her shoulder and press it against her damp cheek. In some vague way it seemed to him that a line was being crossed when his other hand found its way into her soft brown satinly hair. After that he watched as though in a day dream as she slowly rose from her chair and moved close to him. Even then he might still have made it to the door had it not been for legs that no longer seemed able to support him and a body left breathless by some mysterious force never visited on him before. It seemed such a natural thing then to seek the warm comfort of her chair that he didn't even have time to resist.

**********

Later on that day, Tim knew he could never face the Monsignor at dinner without first going to confession. Not that it still wouldn't be hellishly difficult to walk into that dining room when the dinner bell rang, but maybe a little easier on the other side of a good dose of repentance. After an hour of driving around, Tim finally chose to make his confession to a man with a reputation for understanding. Sure enough, everything thing went well as Tim was given to understand that even if he had lost one of his priestly gifts, his loss had been more than offset by the newly acquired gift of humility.
"And not a bad exchange if you ask me," said the father confessor raising his hand in blessing. "And besides, Tim, since we're talking very privately here, I've always held the belief, heretical though that may be, that no man should have to end his life wondering about certain matters."
"Do you think it was the evil one that made me do it?" persisted Tim, not sure his confessor ought to be venturing dangerous opinions like that last one.
"Well, it wasn't your Guardian Angel, if that's what you mean," replied the confessor with a chuckle. Tim's jaw was set in granite.
"I'll be ready for that demon the next time he comes knocking, never fear about that," he said grimly.
"You will, indeed," said the father confessor.

********

Back in the rectory dinnertime had rolled around again and Tim presented himself for the prayer to be offered by the Monsignor. Now that he had been purged of his sin, a warm comfortable feeling had begun to take hold in his heart. Once again, Tim now knew that this treasured world of the Monsignor with its images of the Last Supper and the Pope kneeling in prayer, were really his world as well. And for this great gift he would always be thankful to God.
At approximately the same time that Tim was taking his first bite of salad, a beautiful young woman at the outer edge of the parish was rocking her baby to sleep. "I wonder now," she whispered to the drowsy infant "if maybe your daddy isn't waiting out there somewhere after all? You think so too huh? Well, we won't know the real answer to that question until a little time passes and a battle or two is lost and won. Like you, he's content for now to find happiness in the comfort and security of his surroundings. But all the same I wonder..." her words trailed off then so as not to disturb the sleeping infant.
And down in the nether world the evil one was evaluating progress to date on the Darcy file. No way could he claim anything like victory at this point, although certain inroads had been made leaving him room for cautious optimism. Right now, the evil one would be content to wait and let nature take its course. There was much that demanded his attention elsewhere in the world and he needed to be off and running. Before leaving the nether world the evil one briefly scanned the file once again before moving the marker to even money and replacing it in the "Check Back Later" slot. With that, he quietly closed the drawer.

THE END

C. P Murphy 2007
        

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