“Dying Sea” by Frol Boundin
People said that Father Mark was working at Macy’s. It all started with his sermon during the last Mass of Thanksgiving weekend. Evening services drew two crowds: those who slept-in, and others who enjoyed the nearly empty church, silent from music. Father Mark was a traditionalist: no female altar servers, no Eucharistic ministers, no deacons, and he always delivered his sermons from behind the pulpit. No roaming the aisles like a motivational speaker.
Most of that particular sermon was usual Thanksgiving fare: this is the time of year to bring families together, whether we like them or not, because to like is lower than to love. We can dislike, we can perhaps even hate, but we must love. Fair enough. Easy for you to say, some thought, you without a wife and in-laws and needy cousins. But what Father Mark said next passed most by, stomachs still full, Christmas shopping and decorating already on their minds.
He said that during this time of year, we should think of those beyond our families. We should include our friends, our coworkers and colleagues, and others in the community. This was the time of year for sadness and depression, and that some groups were more inclined toward such malaise. He said the Catholic Church is really a place of inclusivity. And that it needed to start acting like that when it came to those with alternate lifestyles. It needed to recognize those differences and rejoice in them. Amen.
He was gone the next week. A visiting priest, a theology adjunct from the local university, didn’t even mention his absence. Only a note in the bulletin that a Father Peter from upstate would be the incoming parochial vicar.
“What is that?” Mariel shifted back, her purse knocking against the narthex wall.
“It’s a fancy name for a priest,” Catherine said.
“So he’s really gone.”
Catherine pointed to the sheet. “Look. His name is still there. He’s probably just going to share the parish. Needs some help. That’s common nowadays, for a second priest to be involved.”
“Well, I swear to you that I saw him at Macy’s.” Mariel smiled at the visiting priest, who half-shook hands. The front keys already hung from his fist.
“No, working. He was folding clothes.”
Catherine shrugged. “Some people just do that.”
“Some people go to Macy’s to fold clothes?”
“No, they see an unfolded shirt lying there and decide to fold it.”
“You do that?”
“I’ve thought about it.”
Mariel led Catherine onto the church steps. It was warm for December. She took off her jacket. “Lady’s clothes. Cashmere sweaters. And he was wearing that tag, that ID thing employees wear.”
“Did you take a picture?” Catherine asked.
“No. That would be awfully rude.” Mariel hadn’t figured out how to use the camera on her phone. Her daughter had bought her an iPhone for her birthday, but hadn’t warned Mariel about the monthly charge.
“Well, he’s probably working during the holiday season. For a few extra bucks.”
“Can a priest do that? Doesn’t the diocese take care of them?”
“I’m sure with all the lawsuits they don’t quite have as much cash as they would like.”
“Oh, I think they do. Aren’t those lawsuits out West? Seattle, or Milwaukee?”
“I don’t think Milwaukee counts as the West.”
“West of here, at least.” Mariel turned back to the priest, who closed and locked the doors. “He could be taking a sabbatical.”
“I don’t think that’s true. This is the busiest part of the year for them.”
“No, it’s Advent. People get in the mood for church. They’re getting ready for what’s coming.” Catherine shifted her purse. “Well, I like this priest. He reminds me of Dan Rather.”
Mariel raised her eyebrows. “I thought you hated him.”
“It doesn’t matter. I like to recognize a person’s face like that. It helps me concentrate.”
“I don’t know. God, do you think that he did something wrong?”
“Like with a child?”
“No. He was a sweet guy.” Mariel nodded at the man who swept the steps after Mass. “I didn’t always agree with him on everything, but you know he had a good soul. He had a calling.”
“It could all have been an act.”
“Then he deserved an Oscar.”
“When he was at Macy’s, was he wearing his collar?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean anything.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“He would not be working at Macy’s with his collar on.”
Catherine nodded. “Then he’s no longer a priest.”
“It’s not that easy. Or quick. The Church moves as slow as sand.”
Catherine grabbed Mariel’s arm. “We should go see him.”
“And say what?”
“We don’t have to say anything. I just want to see him there.” Catherine nodded. “What did he say, exactly? During that Mass.”
“That we should love gays.”
“I don’t think he would say that.”
“I know. Gays aren’t really welcome. Right?”
“The Church doesn’t hate gays. That’s ridiculous. They might think it’s not a good idea, but they don’t hate gays.”
“Don’t they call it an abomination?”
“I don’t think so. That sounds awfully fundamentalist. I see no reason,” Catherine said, “why a man can’t be gay and be a priest.”
Mariel smirked. “As long as he doesn’t act on it.”
“No priest should act on it.”
They got into Mariel’s car. They’d been carpooling since June. Catherine had bought a “Husbandless” bumper sticker, but didn’t want people getting the wrong idea. Not about their sense of humor–both of their husbands had passed a few years ago, both from strokes. Their kids had long since moved out, and both spent the first year at home, cleaning for no one, overeating and then falling back asleep after breakfast. They’d first met at the Chaplet of Divine Mercy prayer group: Mariel had known of Catherine, but always thought her so forward and liberal, one of those Back to School mothers whose hand remained raised through the teacher’s entire presentation. She had begun to appreciate that trait, and thought of Catherine as her protector. It was nice to have such a person on her side.
Mariel turned on the car. “Do you think he’s working today?”
“Of course. Everyone goes shopping on Sunday.”
Sure enough, it was Father Mark. He wore a cable sweater from the 80s, rolled back at his forearms. He smiled at a woman as he folded a pair of pants, and then moved to an open register. He waved forward half the line from another.
Mariel moved behind a mannequin, and nodded for Catherine to follow. “Queen of the obvious.”
“Well, we came here to see him. So I wanted to see.”
“You saw. Now we leave. You shouldn’t gawk.”
“You have a tendency to gawk.” Mariel looked over at the register. Father Mark seemed happy, at least.
“If I do, then why did you wait until now to tell me?”
Father Mark handed over a receipt to the last customer, turned his key in the register, and began to walk toward them.
“Damn. He saw us.”
He waved at them, his hand dragging along a table as he moved forward. “I saw you staring over here.” He shook both of their hands; his was clammy.
He had no reaction to that. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Mariel realized that they shouldn’t have been so empty-handed. They had obviously come hunting for him, waiting to catch him hiding in retail. No place felt lonelier than this, weak fluorescents muting old, beige computers and piled receipts. “Yes. I’m looking for something for my daughter.” Father Mark had baptized her, in fact. She cried straight through the ceremony but he never raised his voice. He was either trying to keep her calm, or he couldn’t care less.
“I know what you’re thinking.”
Mariel looked at Catherine, who tugged the bottom of a blouse on a hanger.
“Where are the Christmas sales?” He smiled. “The real sales are hidden.” He lifted the sleeve of a sweater and pushed back a small plastic bag with a button inside. “The Clearance at the front isn’t really on sale. It’s a pulled back price. These are the real bargains. Tucked in the back.”
Mariel looked anywhere but him. “I should look at shoes for her.”
“Good luck. I hate shopping for shoes for other people. I always feel like I’m guessing.”
She nodded her head and moved away. Catherine patted his shoulder. “It is so good to see you.”
Catherine leaned a bit closer. “You know, we miss you, Father Mark.” Mariel tried to shake her head, but Catherine wasn’t looking.
He nodded. “Certainly. Change is difficult.”
“Mariel and I, we saw you here and we were wondering when you were coming back.”
Mariel laughed. “That’s silly. We didn’t mean anything by it.”
Father Mark looked over to his register. A woman stood in front of the counter, staring behind it. She looked patient. “I don’t think I’m coming back.”
Catherine hugged him. She patted his back. “Know that we support who you are.”
“No.” Mariel bit her lip. “I mean, we do. But no, Catherine doesn’t speak for me. I really don’t know what’s going on.”
Father Mark shrugged. “I’m confused. What do you think is going on here?”
“The Church should accept gays for who they are.”
Father Mark’s expression didn’t change. He might as well have been looking right through Catherine.
“I’m sorry.” Mariel looked down and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“Don’t mind Mariel. She’s being such a little thinker.”
Mariel glared at Catherine, who smiled. She didn’t think anything was wrong.
The woman at the register turned. She shook a blouse peppered with gemstones. Father Mark nodded at her. “Listen. I appreciate your concern. But I’d also like some privacy.” He only looked at Mariel. “I would really like that.” He walked away from them.
Mariel had already started in the other direction. She nearly made it to the door before Catherine caught up and turned her around. Mariel shook away Catherine’s hand and crossed her arms. “Why did you say that? You embarrassed me.”
“Embarrassed you? I thought we were coming here to support him. It was your idea to go.”
“It was not my idea. And I said nothing about supporting him.”
Catherine laughed. “So you don’t?”
“You didn’t have to be so direct.” Mariel felt rushed. People were looking. Would they call security? Was it that bad? “I said nothing either way.” She put on her jacket. She was sweating, but felt like she needed it. She pushed opened the door. “You tricked me. This was an ambush.”
“What would I get out of that?”
Mariel didn’t know. She tried to figure that out during her drive. Only later did she wonder if Catherine was able to find a ride home.
For the Christmas Mass the new priest brought a folk group: two guitars and a woman with bells. Mariel had joined the choir, and stood on the left side of the altar. She hadn’t sung since middle school, but knew the choir didn’t have any standouts. They were all equally average. She never once looked at the bells or the guitars, instead at the audience. Catherine avoided eye contact. She didn’t look happy. Mariel wondered why: wasn’t this Catherine’s thing, a new, free-love way to celebrate God?
The new priest rocked back and forth in his chair, and his shoes only touched the ground at the heels. Afterward, Mariel shook his hand and said it was a nice service. She walked past Catherine, who blocked the holy water with her overstuffed purse. Mariel walked outside, but turned around. She wouldn’t let Catherine steal her grace. But Catherine was whispering to a few other women, saying that she would have preferred the quiet production of Father Mark. He was such a traditional priest, she said. You could count on him for no surprises. She loved most his story about fighting over the last cookie with his sister at Christmas: they’d tugged and broke it apart, and she came away with the bigger piece. He cried, but then his sister baked more for him, and they sat there, in front of the fireplace, and ate more than they both could because they were so filled with joy.