Murphy's Flight

by Isak Romun

      He turned at the knock, opened the door. It was Mrs. Danneway. She held out an envelope. He saw his name carefully printed on it, noted it bore no return address.
      
"This came for you in the mail, Father Murphy," she said. "While you was saying Mass. Will you have breakfast? Father Bax already had his."
      
He took the letter from her. "I'll be down in a bit."
      
"You should have something. To build your strength. After your ordeal."
      
"I'll be there," Murphy said. "Were there any more callers?"
      
"No. They must of quit when you wouldn't talk to any of them after you got in yesterday. What happened must be cold for them."
      
"After Mass, one came after me in the sacristy."
      
Mrs. Danneway tch-tched.
      She left. He watched her walk down the hall, swing around to go down the stairs. She didn't see him watching her, or made as though she didn't see him. He thought of her, as already downstairs, waiting-ten, fifteen minutes, maybe as much as half an hour-waiting and then clearing his breakfast things from the dining room table. The food wouldn't go to waste. There was always a down-and-outer sitting outside the rectory kitchen.
      
He closed the door and went to the table in his dark little room. He sat down, slumped over a bit, resting his arms on the table surface. He held up the
envelope in one hand and looked at it without really seeing it. Indifferently, he read and reread his name and address, examined the smeared postmark. Neither the envelope nor its sealed contents really interested him. His reading, rereading, examining were part of a try at keeping his mind off what it was on most of the time.
      
I could use one now, he thought.
He raised his head so his eyes saw the cabinet across the room. The cabinet held the reason why, at fifty-two years of age, he was only an assistant pastor, had never been charged with the management and leadership of a parish. He reflected on the many times the bishop had sent him off for a wring-out. That was what the Holy Land trip was about, a hope the sacred would succeed where science had failed.
      
It's a pity we can't get the bracing spirit now when we need it most. But, then, we wouldn't want to fall again on our way to the potty, would we?"
      
Murphy looked over and down at Mr. Patch who had taken care when the group boarded the plane to claim the seat next to the priest. Patch always made a point of telling Murphy and anyone in the group who'd listen how close he was to the bishop. Murphy sometimes thought, half amusedly, that Patch might be a spy for that prelate. Now, under the circumstances of the flight and what it had become, he could care less what special diocesan role Patch might or might not have.
      
Murphy pointed out, "Remember the plane lurched just about then?"
      
"I don't remember that," Patch said.
      
"Well, that's why I stumbled. Turbulence."
      
"No problem now. The Monkey took care of that matter."
      
"What matter?"
      
"The booze. As I say, the bracing spirit is denied you-ah, us. The Monkey went back and broke all the bottles. I hear they don't believe in drink. Did you ever hear of such a thing?"
      
Murphy thought about the broken bottles, the smooth liquid disappearing into a drain. A small pit formed somewhere inside him. "So that was what that noise was."
      
"The Monkey, yes."
      
There were just two of them, quickly typified by Patch as The Snake and The Monkey. The former was the leader, the one who icily told them the limits of their confinement on the plane, the few privileges left them, the penalties for abusing those privileges or for stepping over a limit. The Snake's eyes let you know he meant every word he said. The Snake hadn't told them they couldn't talk, but nonetheless, when anyone spoke, he did so in a whisper as if there would be punishment if overheard.
      
The Monkey was a different case. In another context, he might be comical, the way monkeys are comical, running up and down, switching interest from one moment to the next. Looking at him, you couldn't believe anything he said. Until he did things. Then you believed him. The Monkey liked to speed up and down the plane's length, smacking the heads of passengers sitting on the aisle, sometimes with the butt end of a submachine gun. Patch had received one such smack. His left hand was over the area of contact, occasionally rubbing it as he spoke to the priest.
      
Despite his dislike of Patch-his personality, in any case, with its tinge of congenial anticlericalism-Murphy felt sorry for him. "Does it hurt?" the priest asked.
      
"It don't hurt as much as some others will be hurting," Patch answered.
      
"What others?"
      
"The Jews. Why do you think that one"-Patch nodded furtively at The Snake, whose back was turned to them- "Why do you think he had the stewardesses pick up the passports? Jewish names."
      
"I figured that, too," Murphy said.
      
The passengers on the flight were, for the most part, pilgrims, the popular name for religious tourists, journeying to and from the Holy Land. Murphy himself headed up a group of them entrusted to him by the bishop. There were other groups led by priests from other parishes and dioceses. The pilgrimage groups just about filled the plane. Just about, but not quite. A number of passengers, not belonging to one of the groups, had been taken on for the return trip to the States. It was not inconceivable that some of these "extras" might be Jews, perhaps Israelis. Murphy had talked to one of them, an older man, gray and bent, the fine, soft lines of the scholar across his face. They talked for some time, mostly on Scriptural matters. This was before The Snake and The Monkey, who were sitting in the seats behind this passenger, revealed themselves.
      
As if reading the priest's mind, Patch said, "Your friend had better pray like mad to whatever god he has."
      
"What?"
      
"Your buddy, Silverstein. That's a standout name. I heard the stewardess checking them in. The others have neutral names, maybe changed, like Warren, Pierce, Stanley. But Silverstein?"
      
"Mr. Patch, I hope you're not as ignorant as your first statement makes you out to be," Murphy said. "If you're not, you know our God is the God of the Jews. And how can you be sure Mr. Silverstein is Jewish? Because a man's name is Silverstein doesn't mean he's Jewish. After all, the name just means silver stone. The name is more German than Jewish. Remember the Nazi, Rosenberg? He sure wasn't a Jew."
      
"That'll stop The Snake? I don't think he's quite as hot as you on-what's that called?""Etymology?"
      
"That's it."
      
"Everyone has a secret resource."
      
"I hope Silverstein has. He'll be needing it. Anyway, you should have yours out squeezing them little beadies for all they're worth."
      
Murphy patted his coat pockets. "I must've mislaid them."
      
"You know, it might help to have some in your hands when The Snake comes by. When he comes looking for the Jews."
      
"You don't think this'll put him off?" Murphy touched his collar. "Don't let me keep you from saying yours, though."
      
"Don't have any," Patch muttered.
      
"On a pilgrimage and you forgot to bring your rosary?"
      
"Haven't said them since first Communion."
      
Murphy couldn't fathom whether he heard boasting or desperation in Patch's voice.
      
"Well, let me help you out." Murphy pulled up a thin briefcase from the floor. He put the briefcase on his lap and unzippered it. From it he took a tangle of beads made up of several rosaries. He undid one rosary and dropped it in Patch's lap. "There. Now you can play at being what you are and, maybe, pray for those on this plane who aren't." Patch scooped up the beads-gratefully, the priest thought.
      
Murphy worked another rosary from the tangle and dropped the remainder back in the briefcase. "I'll do the same," he said, his mind on Mr. Silverstein. Murphy returned the briefcase to the floor, settled himself in his seat, and began fingering his rosary, his lips forming words as he said them in his mind. Despite his calling and the good intentions that should go with that calling, he seldom felt hopeful about saving grace and divine deliverance. His personal demons had whispered away what hope he could muster from time to time. But just then, as he rubbed the beads in his hands, he did feel hopeful. He felt that he and Patch and all the others, including Mr. Silverstein, would get out of this thing with their skins still around their bones. He was doing his best to see to that. Then, before falling into the detachment of prayer, Murphy thought of the liquor destroyed by The Monkey and felt unaccountably lifted by this act. The pit inside him seemed to close.
      
The phone rang. Murphy looked over at the instrument. He let it ring again. And again. The rule was if the phone wasn't picked up downstairs after three rings, someone upstairs should pick up an extension. Murphy figured the pastor, Father Bax, was probably making parish rounds and Mrs. Danneway was likely in the garden.
      
Murphy placed the letter on the table and rose. He went over to a bed stand and picked up the phone.
      
"Francis Xavier rectory," he said to the instrument. "Father Murphy."
      "Monahan, Father," a voice at the other end said.
      
Murphy sat down on the bed. "How come you weren't out here yesterday, Oscar, with the rest of the pack?"
      
"Well, you know, my thing on the AdvanceIndicator is features. Yesterday you were news."
      
"So, why are you calling?"
      
"Well, today you're features."
      
"Don't you people ever go away? I avoided you all day yesterday. Even had one of you jump me in church this morning."
      
"Pressure, Father. My editor knows I've had a few meals at the rectory and you've sampled my sister's good cooking at my place."
      
"And you're banking on the fact you've lifted a few with Xavier's assistant."
      "What I'm telling you is this: if you want to give me a story, fine," Monahan said in a careful, precise way. "But if you don't, don't let a couple of friendly beers make you. Just tell me to butt out and that's what I'll tell his nibs."
      
Murphy thought for a second or two before answering. "Okay, Oscar. Come over tonight. Mrs. Danneway serves at six-thirty. I'll tell her to set another plate."
      
"Thanks, I'll be there." But Monahan didn't hang up. Murphy could hear him breathing into the receiver.
      
"Anything else?"
      
"Yeah," Monahan answered. "Why didn't you talk to the news boys yesterday?"
      
"I wasn't up to talking to anyone yesterday."
      
"I understand."
      
"No, you don't, Oscar. You know, those two killed all the Jews on the plane they could get their hands on. Thank God there weren't many-three men. But they just pulled them out of their seats, marched them to the front of the plane and shot them. Then they dumped them on the Cairo tarmac."
      
"That was in the wire reports. But I have the idea there's something else."
      
"There is," Murphy said.
      
"Tell me if you want. If you don't want it printed, I won't write it."
      
"I don't." Murphy swiveled and fell back upon the bed. He lay there for some seconds. He still held the phone, but didn't speak into it.
      
Monahan's voice came out of the instrument, eerily resonant. "Still with me?"
      
"There was one man," Murphy said slowly. He closed a hand over the phone cord and squeezed hard. "An old guy, Silverstein. One of those gray, studious types, very dignified. I had a pretty long talk with him before the uproar. Well, to keep it short, after the takeover, I kind of tried to help him stay alive. I knew what might be coming and I tried."
      
"The names came over the wire this morning. Silverstein was one of those killed."
      
"Yeah, well, it didn't work. There was only a thin chance it would, anyway. But, inside myself, I lost my head. I let myself hope."
      
"Your idea no one can make a difference biting you in the ass again?" Monahan said. "You're down on yourself again."
      
"The world is down on me, always at me!" Murphy suddenly exclaimed. He sat up and swung his legs off the bed. "Look, don't wait till tonight. I may not be able to talk to you then. Come over now if you want a story."
Murphy hung up before Monahan could reply. Murphy stood, looked across the room to the cabinet, then walked over to it.
      
He was almost two glasses into the bottle when his eyes chanced on the letter from the morning mail. It was in the middle of the table where he had dropped it when he went to answer the phone. He put down the glass, picked up the letter.
     
I should at least open this thing, he thought. While I'm still able to read.
    
He turned over the envelope, worked a finger into an unglued corner of its flap. He tore open the envelope, pulled out a single sheet of folded paper. He unfolded the sheet. On it, centered with what must have been planned exactness, were a neatly-typed salutation and paragraph. There was no signature box, no signature.
      
Murphy read the letter.

Dear Father Murphy:
I was sitting next to Mr Silverstein. I saw you stumble on your way to the restroom. I saw what you pressed into his hand as he helped you up. I saw his surprise when he saw or felt what you gave him.
Then comprehension when he figured out why you gave it to him. Well, you didn't save Mr Silverstein, you saved me. He gave me what you passed to him. I resisted-not hard, though. He explained his name was a giveaway, mine wasn't (changed a generation ago). His family was grown and secure, mine was still around me. He was old, I was young. The clincher: they probably knew he was a Jew from his conversation with you. Those jackals sat in back of us before they took over When they came looking, I sat there with your rosary, moving my lips, hoping I was holding it right and they wouldn't tell me to say the prayers out loud. They didn't search me as they did some others. If they had, they would have found enough interior Jewishness to raise the body count to four I won't give you my name. I'm still uneasy I was saved and Mr Silverstein wasn't. But I want you to know, in a way, you succeeded.

      After reading the letter, Murphy lightly touched his forehead with it and closed his eyes. He was trying to remember the letterwriter's face. In the plane, there had been a face in the front of his mind. But then, not now; the features were pushed far back in memory. Besides, what was the point? The important thing was someone was living who might have been dead. His eyes still closed, Murphy said a short prayer for Mr. Silverstein.
      
Then he returned the letter to its envelope and dropped it back on the table. He looked at the glass, some Irish still in it. He picked up the glass, carefully poured its contents back into the bottle, then put the glass back down on the table. He corked the bottle, returned it to the cabinet at the other side of the room.
      
Well, he thought, you win some, you lose some. And, he was sure, in the eyes of the Celestial Observer, he had won this one. It would take some getting used to, this business of winning. Could it become a habit? Or, at least, could it become occasional?
      
He looked once more at the cabinet.
      
So, he asked himself, Is it worth another try? He concluded it was. He opened the cabinet and took out the bottle. He first considered smashing it. Then he thought of pouring it down the commode. Making it disappear wasn't the answer, though, and, into the bargain, wasting what for some might be God's good gift. He put it back in the cabinet. He thought awhile about the splendid amber lost in the gloom of closed doors. Finally, he took the bottle out, put it on the table. Anyone who came into the room could see it. He could see it. It was the measure of his penance that he would always see it. Even when, as now, he turned his back on it and left the room.

The End


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