David A. Schwinghammer
· Soldier's Gap
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 8
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Eight
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Eight
· Bereavement Blues
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 7
· Speed Dating With 'Janeane Garofalo'
· The Cynic
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer - Chapter Seven
· Mengele's Double, Chapter 7
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Six
· The Nuclear Option
· Empty Mansions, book review
· Pilgrim's Wilderness, book review
· WWII Cartoonist, book review
· Write Yourself Into a Corner, book review
· Roanoke Island, book review
· Billboard Theology
· Baghdad Without a Map, book review
· Into the Wild, book review
· The Zookeeper's Wife (review)
· Alumni Game
· Girls Who Wear Glasses
· The Do Drop Inn
· Ode to Neve Campbell
· Jacks or Better 101
· Never My Love
· 3 O'Clock
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As the police investigate the kidnapping of a local girl, Rev. Dewey Fischer settles in as assistant pastor at St. Boniface Church in St. Gervais, Minnesota.
"Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace!"
At the diocesan meeting, Dewey met a number of likely golfing partners, but Roger Udermann, a priest from Rich Prairie, stood out. A fellow grappler in high school, Udermann and he bonded immediately. Over dinner at the local Embers, they gabbed about broken collar bones, obsessive coaches, and inept refs. While the waitress poured their coffee, Udermann explained his circuitous route to the priesthood. Med. school, something missing there. Found himself spending more and more time in the hospital chapel. Thought about the monastic life, but his bishop put the kibosh on that notion. "Bishops are like that," Dewey said, checking his watch. One-thirty!
Dewey agreed to meet Udermann at the Wapicada club house in St. Cloud the following Sunday, then raced back to St. Gervais. Got there just in time to collide bumper to bumper with Father Czech, who'd backed the Lincoln out into the road without looking. Not a scratch on the tank-like Lincoln. Dewey's Renault, on the other hand, suffered a bashed-in headlight. After a smoldering tongue-lashing from the pastor, Dewey and Father Czech set course for the Leyk residence, Dewey at the wheel of the Continental, the huge car handling like a racing yacht.
Still no sign of Andrea. For several hours Dewey and the pastor watched the cool, Aryan demeanor of Ron and Helen Leyk, and the married daughter slowly erode. No one really believed the runaway scenario, especially after the technicians pronounced the blood human.
After a suitable amount of time, Father Czech promised Helen that either he or Father Fischer would return on the morrow, and that she should not hesitate to call the rectory no matter the time of day or night.
Dewey and the pastor hurried through the automatic doors at Fletcher's, two hours late according to the old priest. All Dewey's fault. Father Czech loaded a bushel of sweet corn and a dozen tomatoes (love apples in Czechian dialect), into his cart and proudly unpacked the produce at Alicia's check out, where he shamelessly set out to charm the girl with bachelor eccentricity.
The next week flitted by like a video on fast forward. The National Guard scoured the farms, woods, and lakes surrounding St. Gervais, unearthing nothing in addition to the blood stains already found at the abandoned farmhouse. The sheriff's office interviewed people who lived along The Runway. No one contributed anything new, but, nonetheless, rumors ran rampant about possible suspects: A suspicious character peddling aluminum siding door-to-door; a Stillwater inmate recently released and living in Rich Prairie; Pipeline workers; a high school bandmaster with a habit of flirting with his female students
His mind awhirl from the hectic pace, Dewey barely heard any of this. More meetings with parish groups and power brokers. The Knights of Columbus, The Christian Mothers, even The Rosary Sodality. Al Schaefer, who ran the funeral home. Al and Dewey hashed over the mortician's preferences–one of Schaefer's pet peeves the donor designation on drivers' licenses. He liked to talk his clients out of that silly notion. Dewey wanted to choke the overfed clown.
On Thursday, due to another diocesan meeting, Dewey missed his first mass, and on Sunday, he had to forego mass and his golf date with Roger Udermann, hurrying home to attend to his father, who'd suffered a stroke.
Not until the next Monday night after dinner did Dewey and Father Czech find time to really talk again.
A cold snap had hit St. Gervais and the pastor had built a fire rivaling Mrs. O'Leary's. Every so often he'd boost himself up out of the recliner and hurl another branch on the pyre. Mutt, the golden retriever, slept peacefully before the fire as usual, unfazed by the old priest grousing about Viktorija. On gnarled fingertips, he ticked off his grievances: His explicit warning against her cleaning his desk; couldn't find a damn thing. Not enough salt in the pot roast either, and clean shirts and socks? Forget about it.
Dewey wiped his forehead with his discarded shirt. "Well, you know, she was close to Andy Leyk; she's probably grieving. And your doctor says you shouldn't have any salt. If you don't watch it, you'll wind up like my dad."
"How is your pop?" Father Czech said.
"Got him on blood thinner. We think he'll be all right. This'll give Mom an excuse to make him retire."
"What's he do?"
"God, you'd think he'd've had a stroke before now."
"Know what you mean. Anything new on Andy Leyk?"
"Lots of rumors. But they've got it narrowed down to either her boyfriend or Roman Platz."
"Who's Roman Platz?"
"That reminds me. I promised his mother I'd visit her after mass tomorrow. Leukemia, you know. Roman's retarded. She's more worried about him than she is about dying. I won't be able to go because of the Leyks. Take your stole and your oils with you in case she's really bad off; you may need to give her last rites.
"I'll do that, Father. She'll be my first."
"Really? I thought they made you people practice on the senior citizens these days."
"Yes, they did. I meant my first as an ordained priest."
"I forget how new you are, Dennis. You seem so mature."
Dewey's first opportunity for a close inspection of St. Boniface came the next morning. The volatile Father Czech remained asleep and would not divert his attention.
Chipped paint on the molding outside the yellow brick church caught his attention, and as he entered, one of the handles on the big double doors almost detached in his hand. Once inside, he noticed the pews required refinishing, and the carpet bore stains from the congregation tracking in slush during the winter. Dewey glanced up at the ceiling. Wet spots, in curious Dadaistic designs. The church cried out for a new roof.
Dewey searched for something positive. Off to his right, the early-morning sun shone through the ruby reds and pale blues of "The Assumption of the Virgin," The Blessed Mother ascending in the center panel. He knew a thing or two about glasswork, and that one rivaled anything you'd find in Cologne.
When he climbed the stairs to the choir loft, he experienced something close to an orgasm. A Wicks-Hendrickson pipe organ took his breath away. He stroked it, sniffed the lemony finish. A scuffle would ensue if he asked to play this baby, he'd wager. Organists marked their instruments like wolves scored their hunting grounds. Dewey straddled the piano stool, pumped the foot feet, played a few bars of the Hallelujah Chorus. A tingle wound its way up his spine, the euphoria almost unendurable. If there's any better feeling, the Lord kept it for himself, he mused. After mass, when he returned to the rectory, he'd beg Father Czech to let him play at Sunday's high mass.
Dewey chose the confessional on the left, the one down the aisle from the Blessed Virgin's side altar, the candles beneath her in their little red cups reflecting upward, like flowers reaching for the sun.
A parishioner entered the confessional. Before she even opened her mouth, he sensed an adolescent girl, the foresight due to a combination of soap–the fancy kind a guy would never use–and perfume and acne medication that had so often tantalized him prior to the time he'd settled on his vocation.
As he slid the partition aside, it caught, and when he pushed harder, it worked free and hit the frame with a thud. Had to have frightened her.
"Um, forgive me, Father, for I have sinned," she said. "My last confession was a month ago."
Such a sweet voice, couldn't be more than fifteen. "Yes," he said. "Go ahead, my dear."
"I missed mass on Sunday twice," she said.
He tried to visualize what she looked like. Strawberry blond hair, held back with one of those oversized Russian ribbons, or would she be wearing tortoiseshell combs to keep the stray hairs down? He loved those.
"And I sassed my parents four times," she said.
Keeping track was she, like one of those Wild West gunfighters notched his gun, or just a guess? But that was mean.
"And I had r-relations."
Tried to sneak that one in there behind the last sin, thinking him old and tired, having heard it all. Not this time, cutie.
"We had sex," she said, in a voice that should be gossiping with her Barbie Dolls.
"A boy penetrated your vagina?"
"Did you resist?"
"Yes . . . he was so . . . persistent . . . then I gave in, Father."
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to make this difficult, but I have to ask these questions."
How had he ever persuaded himself he could remain celibate? Just sitting next to a woman, touching her silk dress, would make his head swirl. And the Bishop expected him to teach young girls.
"How close are you to this boy?"
"We've been seeing each other for almost a month now."
"Almost a month, eh? You know, of course, that he can't be trusted. Boys are like that. I know, I am one."
"He isn't like that, Father."
"Yes, I know, our boy is a saint, who holds you in such awe that he wouldn't take no for an answer. Boys only want one thing. It doesn't matter whether you're pretty. You could have a kisser like Margaret Hamilton and he'd still want you, just so's he could brag to his buddies in the locker room."
"Who's Margaret Hamilton, Father?"
"The witch in The Wizard of Oz."
"Oh, her. He said I was pretty and that he loved me."
"Did he use protection?"
"You mean like a rubber?" she said.
"Yes, prophylactics. Did he use one?"
"No, Father, but he did pull out before he . . ."
"Before he ejaculated? I hope you know you can still get pregnant. All it takes is one sperm. I want you to go to the school nurse and ask for prophylactics. Boys are very unreliable when it comes to providing birth control."
"I go to a Catholic school, Father."
"Then go to the druggist. I'll tell him you're coming."
What a dreadful pun! He gave her absolution, and ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers for a penance, and reminded her to say an Act of Contrition. The girl gasped. She'd obviously been going to an awfully lenient priest in the past.
Dewey brushed aside the curtain separating the main altar from the sacristy, where his next surprise awaited him: one of the altar boys hadn't shown up, and the boy who had, one Jimmy Judek, was reluctant to do a solo. Dewey promised Jimmy he'd buy him a pizza if he'd go it alone, and the kid's face lit up like a BMW's headlights. Jimmy helped Dewey on with his Kelly-green vestments, then led him out toward the altar, jangling the bells to announce Dewey's entrance.
Mass went well until the readings, at which time Dewey took the opportunity to inspect the congregation. Only thirty or so trusty souls, most of them in their advanced years, occupied the pews, some of them asleep. After the first reading, Dewey introduced himself as the new assistant and asked the parishioners to pray for the safe return of Andrea Leyk.
The second mishap occurred during Communion when Jimmy dropped the paten as Dewey administered the holy wafer. The Eucharistic plate bounced off the carpet, kicked off a communicant, and landed face down in the aisle with a plop. Jimmy raced over, retrieved the paten, and wiped it on his cassock. Dewey tried to scowl at the kid, but the scowl brightened into a smile, Jimmy grinning back at him.
As Dewey intoned the blessing, "Body of Christ", over and over again, his naturally curious bent led him astray. He noticed none of the seniors would take the host in their cupped hands, and how their tongues, like fingerprints, boasted different hues, shapes, and fissures. Also, most of the communicants shunned the lay helper, standing off to his left with wafer poised and an expression on her face rivaling the last one picked for playground softball.
After mass, Dewey gave Jimmy the money for the pizza and the boy said, "Wow! That's enough for a large pepperoni with extra cheese. Paul is going to kick himself for sleeping in this morning."
"This happens often then?"
The boy's face puckered. Caught ratting on his friend, he stuttered, inventing on the fly, "Not his f-fault, Father. He lives with his grandmother and she, ah, s-spoils him."
Dewey needed to consult the nun who supervised the altar boys about this Paul character. That is, if there was a nun who supervised the altar boys, nuns being as rare as dodo birds these days.
The farm on the edge of town resembled a Norman Rockwell cover on an old Saturday Evening Post–the barn a faded red with a Skoal Chewing Tobacco ad on one side, Rhode Island Reds parading back and forth before a sway-backed chicken coup, the house white clapboard with a chimney climbing one entire side.
As he could find no doorbell, Dewey knocked on the door, and shortly, a boy in bib overalls with straw-colored bangs plastered down on his forehead appeared. He would not meet Dewey's eyes. Dewey would fix the boy's age as anywhere between fifteen and twenty-five.
"May I see your mother?" Dewey said. "Father Czech sent me. I'm the new assistant at St. Boniface."
The boy said nothing, turned, and wandered off. Dewey opened the screen door and followed. He found the boy in the living room, rocking to-and-fro on a shabby mustard-colored davenport. Several half-empty jars of Skippy Peanut Butter, the chunky kind, lined the coffee table before the couch. Something from a psychology text he'd studied told Dewey that rocking was symptomatic of some kind of psychosis or serious neurosis. A divider hid the kitchen to some degree, but not the sink filled to the brim with dirty dishes, nor the smell of garbage left to ferment.
"Where's your mother?" Dewey asked. The boy ignored him.
"Is that you, Father?" a voice coming from an interior room implored. Dewey followed the sound to a bedroom, where a woman lay with a patchwork quilt pulled up to her chin. The smell of sickness, a combination of urine, vomit, and body odor, slapped Dewey's face, causing him to stifle a choke.
"I'm Father Fischer, Mrs. Platz. Father Czech sent me."
Startled by circles beneath her eyes akin to the lampblack Twins outfielders wore, Dewey searched for a phone. Had to get her to a hospital.
He sat down on a corner of the bed, took her hand. "Mrs. Platz, I really do think you--"
"I was hoping for Father Czech," she said.
"Father is with the Leyk family. There's been a kidnapping, you know. Last week. They haven't found her yet."
"Yes, I know. I heard on the radio." Despite her haggard appearance, the woman couldn't be more than in her mid-fifties, although her hair was streaked with gray. "It's . . . too bad. She was nice to my boy Roman. I want you to give me extreme unction now, Father."
"I don't think--"
"I've had a premonition. I won't be here tomorrow. I want you to take care of my son. The sheriff will try to blame him if
something bad happened to that Leyk girl. That's him out there, rocking. Always rocking."
"We need to get you to a hospital, Mrs. Platz."
"Won't do no good."
"But . . ."
"My son cleans the ditches along the road where the Leyk girl disappeared, the one they call The Runway. She used to stop and talk to him. Roman never speaks to anyone but me, and that's rare. They traded little presents. When the law finds those, they're sure to suspect the worst. Roman loves cleaning those ditches, the only thing he takes pride in. Finds all kinds of embarrassments and dumps ‘em on me. Hypodermic needles, rubbers, women's pants." She let out a sigh and seemed to shrink into the bedclothes. "Do me now, Father. I don't have much time."
Dewey fumbled around in his satchel, withdrew his stole, draped it around his neck. Then he grasped his little bottle containing the blessed olive oil he would need for the sacrament. "Would you like me to hear your confession, Mrs. Platz?"
She choked out a kind of laugh, which started a coughing fit, and tears began to trickle down her cheeks. "When I was young, I was kind of popular with the boys. Did some bad things, and I got my boy Roman. I think I paid for that, don't you, Father?"
He whispered the absolution, then anointed her forehead and the tops and palms of her hands with the oil, at the same time murmuring the prayers of the last rites in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit; may the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up. Amen." Next he said the Our Father and laid the holy wafer on her tongue.
"Thank you, Father," she said. "Promise me you won't let the sheriff pin this kidnapping on my Roman."
"I think I better call the doctor, Mrs. Platz."
"Won't do no good. I'll be dead before he gets here. Promise me."
"But Mrs. Platz," he said. "I can't . . ."
She let out another long, rasping sigh, closed her eyes, and seemed to hold her breath.
"I'll do the best I can," he said. Dewey held her wrist, could not detect a pulse. He ran out into the living room, found an old rotary phone in the kitchen and dialed 911.
The ambulance attendants confirmed what he already knew. Mrs. Platz was indeed dead. When they left, Dewey took the boy's hand and led him out to the battered Renault. On the way back to town, Roman said, "Roman clean ditch."
Dewey said, "Not now, Roman. We have to make some living arrangements for you."
"Roman clean ditch," Roman said, a bit more insistently, and then when Dewey didn't immediately stop the car, he began to mewl and bang his head against the window.
"We'll get you a garbage bag, Roman," Dewey said.
Roman stopped banging his head against the window. Instead he reverted to the creepy rocking Dewey had witnessed back on the mustard-colored couch.
"Who is this?" Viktorija said, when Dewey returned to the rectory escorting Roman. She had changed into a red flannel shirt with the tails out, blue jeans, and boat shoes. A flowered silk kerchief hid her hair. Even more she reminded him of the teenager he'd mistaken her for the first time he'd seen her.
"Viktorija, this is Roman Platz. We'll be needing a garbage bag."
Father Czech's golden retriever, Mutt, sidled up to Roman and began to lick his hand. "Doggie," Roman said, and crouched to pet the dog.
"You wish a garbage bag?" she said.
"Yes, a garbage bag. Roman is maintenance engineer for the ditches along The Runway." Dewey motioned her toward the kitchen.
As Mutt and Roman cavorted, Viktorija and he stepped away. "His mother died, and I sort of promised to take care of him," he said, sotto voiced and close to her small, perfectly formed ear, once again inhaling her earthy scent. "The boy is retarded. And very persuasive. You'll have to take him out to The Runway and watch him while he cleans ditches. I know it's an imposition but . . ."
"I do not mind. I will sit in the car and listen to the country western music. I have been vacuuming the rooms all morning. They are quite dusty."
"You like country western?"
"Very much. Especially the one they call Tanya Tucker."
"Delta Dawn. I kind of like that myself," he lied. "I'll call Jim Miller, while you're gone, and we'll see if we can find a temporary home for the boy."
"Could he not stay in one of the empty bedrooms? I have been cleaning them. They are ready."
"I don't think Father Czech would like–"
"I would be responsible for him. He could stay in the room next to mine."
"Those suitcases, they're yours?"
"The Leyks–they feel I have not shown enough–how you say?–concern over Andrea's situation. And I am believing that I should be close by in case the pastor requires my assistance. I can do the typing as it is needed."
"It'll be good to have you here, and if it makes you happy, I'll ask the pastor about Roman."
She smiled up at him, a smile that would have cheered the early Christian catacombs. Somehow he knew that if he didn't persuade Father Czech to let Roman stay, she'd blame him.
Dewey checked his watch. Going on time for his religion class. As he ascended the stairs to change into more comfortable clothes, he watched, as Viktorija placed her hand on Roman's shoulder, whispered in his ear, and headed out the door, dragging a large black leaf bag. Prior to this, Dewey had not seen the boy make eye contact. The retriever, unleashed, trotted out behind his new friend, his golden coat gleaming in the morning sun.
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