Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
THE BOYS OF SAINT REGINA’S
They all sat there like ancient turtles, heads slowly turning back and forth. The Monsignor had called a meeting. Twilight was the best time to catch the old boys.
“Mrs. Hunnicutt,” he had asked earlier in his Irish brogue. “Might you stay a few minutes extra to serve the refreshments?”
As he knew she would, she made a face.
“I’ve got my own family to feed,” she said, looking him in the eye. “I’ve got the chicken and dumplings in the slow-cooker and don’t want them burning before I get home.”
Should he beg?
“Aw, Mrs. Hunnicutt, never there was a better woman, so very kind to the lot of us. Give us a few minutes of your precious time and then you’ll be on your way.”
The thirteen of them gathered in this conference room in what he thought of as their retirement colony – “retirement” being the worst word in the English language.
They sat around a huge oak table, with the blue and white linen tablecloth Mrs. Hunnicutt had flapped across, as part of her evening’s forced labor, sitting, all of them, as if they were on the board of directors of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Now there’s a man, thought the Monsignor, who had no respect for the word “retirement,” unlike the slaggards sitting here.
He envisioned, back in County Cork, Ireland, helping his mum in the garden. As one of ten children, he was glad for the attention, even if it meant removing sticky slugs. “Paddy,” said his mum, “they’re only snails without their shells and they won’t harm you, lad” – so, wearing garden gloves, he removed them with alacrity and made his mother proud.
Now plump Mrs. Hunnicutt hurried into the room and noisily plopped a tray of refreshments at the head of the table. Quite the martyr.
All eyes turned to Pastor Morales, who looked up at her with thanks.
“I’ll be going now,” she said with a nod of her head. She was a good woman, even if she was a Lutheran, icon-deniers all of them.
“Thank you Mrs. H. You have a good supper now,” said the Monsignor, imagining biting into a soft and fluffy dumpling.
Pastor Morales was as moved by the refreshment tray as if he’d seen the blasted Shroud of Turin in person.
“Chocolate-covered doughnuts,” cried Morales like a hot dog vendor at the Philly’s game. “Who wants one?”
Seven hands shot up.
“Look, I’m just gonna come around with the tray. First come, first serve.”
He got up from the table and precariously balanced the silver tea tray in his hands.
“Darn!” he cried. Some of the hot peppermint tea splashed onto his bare hands. He put down the tray and blew on them.
Quite a platter had Mrs. Hunnicutt prepared for her charges. Chocolate-covered doughnuts; croissants stuffed with – of all things – cheese and spinach; three Dixie cups of vanilla ice cream; and two Starbucks lattes which were unknown at the retirement colony, yet were quickly snatched up by the eager pensioners.
The gavel struck the oak table three times.
“Purpose of the meeting,” said the Monsignor in his resonant bass voice, “is to decide who will visit Pope Francis when he comes to Philadelphia this fall.”
A murmer hummed across the table, then rose like the sound of cicadas in the summer time.
“What?” said Father Joseph, some chocolate crumbs spilling from his mouth onto the table. “The Holy Father is coming to Philadelphia?”
The Monsignor explained that for the past three years, ever since he had moved into St. Regina’s, he had posted a notice on the bulletin board by the dining room that every one was supposed to read. He had typed it himself, he said, on yellow paper, so no one would miss it.
“Oh, for Pete’s sakes,” he said. “Don’t excoriate yourselves, just read the darn thing next time.” He looked down the table. “Can you remember that, boys?” he asked.
Not everyone, he explained, could attend the arrival of the Holy Father. There were a limited number of tickets available and only six people could fit into the black Lincoln Continental that a wealthy Catholic woman, with nice cleavage, had donated to them. Cleavage, thought the Monsignor, once held quite the appeal, but, at seventy-six, his thoughts turned elsewhere. Like, “How are my chances of arriving at the Pearly Gates instead of the other place, so well stated in Dante’s Inferno, which lay on his bed side table, next to The Practice of the Presence of the Lord by the obsequious Brother Lawrence.
Mrs. Hunnicutt had responded to his request to make sure that the three communal bathroom contained “rag rugs” one by the toilet and the other by the bathtub. She had nodded as he reminded her that sliding on the shiny slippery tile might lead to a dreaded fall – the hips and pelvis, were at their ages, as fragile as good china.
He cleared his throat.
“I, of course, as your Monsignor will be going to see The Pontiff, and we want to select the other lucky fellows who will accompany me in our air-conditioned car.”
“Big shot,” grumbled Father Joseph loud enough for everyone to hear.
The Monsignor ignored the comment, silently thanking the Lord for giving him patience to deal with these overgrown adolescents.
Men of the cloth. If only the congregants could see them now.
The agonized Christ on the cross was lit up by the odd sunbeam flashing through the blinds from across the room.
“A show of hands, please, if you’re interested in going,” he said.
Every single hand shot up as if he had asked “Who wants a martini with three olives?”
All hands, that is, but one.
Pastor Luke was asleep in his chair, slumped over the table.
The Monsignor, who considered himself a man of compassion, walked over to Luke. He looked down at his fellow pastor and envied his full head of shining white hair, though the inside of his ears were so hairy they could attract bees.
“Interested?” he said out loud to Luke.
Luke failed to move.
He repeated himself.
“I said, Are you interested, Pastor Luke, in seeing our new Pope Francis?”
Luke jumped. He was actually dreaming, as the Monsignor spoke to him, dreaming that he was being attacked by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, in his shiny black cassock, a scene right from the movies they watched every Sunday night.
His cry was formidable. A cry of lamentation. The Monsignor had told no one but he had worried about Luke. Was he sliding into dementia? Alzheimer’s? He rarely came out of his room. Movies, yes. Meals, yes. But that was about it. The Monsignor felt he was giving up on life.
“We were talking, sir,” said the Monsignor, “about attending the Philadelphia arrival of his Holiness Pope Francis and I think that due to your fine service to the parish of St. John the Divine, you should meet our Holy Father.”
Luke steepled his hands and looked up at Monsignor Monaghan.
“Whatever you say, boss,” he said.
Some answer, thought the Monsignor. Well, that made two out of five who would witness the arrival of the new pontiff.
Lively debate followed. Was that the right word for it? Perhaps a lively “stink” would be a better word. The Monsignor remained tough and decided who would parade downtown, for reasons known only to himself. And good reasons, he knew them to be. He was a confident man. A soul searcher, a Jesuit himself like the pope. Who had once held the fate of Catholic schools in three counties – Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia - in the palm of his hand. Playing God, he knew. Which schools would live and which would merge or topple like big oak trees to the ground.
And now, here he was, Patrick Monaghan, living the hated life of Riley. He needed work before his brain shrunk into the size of a walnut.
“Morales,” he said, looking down the table at a man in a blue-checkered shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, “as the only Hispanic, as is the Pope, you shall accompany us.”
Without pausing, he looked at Father McPherson, whom he silently called Father McFatso, telling him, “You’ll be rewarded for your contributions to the American Catholic Magazine, by riding with us, with the proviso that you write about our trip.”
“Aye-aye, sir!” said McPherson in his faint Scottish accent that had undoubtedly lulled many a parishioner to sleep in the uncomfortable wooden pews of his church. The Monsignor had made the difficult decision to shut down The Holy Redeemer, with its beautiful white cross of the Lord Jesus beckoning motorists to come in and be saved.
Boarded up now, it had a for sale sign by the Jewish realty firm of Albert Greenberg. Double was the shame for closing The Redeemer since they did groundbreaking work settling Haitians, victims of earthquakes and cholera.
Where, for Christ’s sakes, had all the Catholics gone and what could be done to bring more of them into the fold, wondered the Monsignor.
Retirement was no excuse. He began making plans in his head. Finishing the last of the astoundingly delicious vanilla latte, he banged the gavel three times on the table.
“I’m proud of you all,” he said. “Have a good night’s sleep, may the Lord bless you and keep you safe, and I’ll see you manana.”
Like mama had taught him back in Cork County – he rolled the Celtic word “Contae Chorcaí” across his tongue like a holy wafer – and kneeled at the side of his bed for “vespers,” as they had called it.
“Lord God and Jesus, please show me the way to bring more lambs into the fold.” His bony knees began to hurt – he had changed into his baby blue pajamas – but like Brother Lawrence, he winced with pain, but would not stop his prayers. “Show me the way.”
When he awoke in the morning, an idea was swirling like a hummingbird inside his bald head.
Plans were made. Mrs. Hunnicutt was on board. The table was set with food and snacks that would appeal to young Catholic Boy Scouts from the wealthy parish of Saint Alphonse in Huntingdon Valley.
The Scouts arrived in full regalia: khaki-colored shirts tied with a yellow ribbon, matching khaki pants, button-down breast pockets and a variety of emblems sewn onto the shirt as if they were soldiers in the army.
After saying grace, the Monsignor stood up and made his speech. He shot a loving glance at these Catholic youth, but he was a man of many moods, and he remembered movies of Hitler’s Youth Movement, the idyllic expressions on the young men’s faces, and of course how could he forget the lunacy of priests of all nations preying on the innocence of children.
He stood up, all six-feet two inches of him, and asked “Do you know the meaning of proselytize?”
He paused a moment. “It’s a good Scrabble word. the “P” is worth four points, the “Y” another four and the “Z” he paused.
“Ten points, sir!” said a freckle-faced youngster.
“Right on!” said the Monsignor.
A week later, the “P” word came to life. The Monsignor sat in the audience of three morning television programs as the boys from St. Alphonse took the stage for all of five minutes, wearing their Sunday finery as they were interviewed by the local affiliates of CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS.
Every single young man – and there were nine of them onstage – shone like a bead in the rosary.
“I’d just like to say,” said a young fellow name of Danny on CNN, “that I’ve decided to become a priest. I’d always envisioned it, but my talk with Pastor Luke Sanders sort of sealed my decision.”
The Monsignor, sitting next to wide-eyed Luke in the audience, touched his elbow to Luke’s.
“You’re the bomb!” he told him, using the young Scouts’ language.