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
took the letter from her. "I'll be down in a bit."
should have something. To build your strength. After your
"I'll be there," Murphy said. "Were
there any more callers?"
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."
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
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
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.
pointed out, "Remember the plane lurched just about
"I don't remember that," Patch
that's why I stumbled. Turbulence."
problem now. The Monkey took care of that matter."
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?"
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."
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
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.
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
"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
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.
if reading the priest's mind, Patch said, "Your friend had
better pray like mad to whatever god he has."
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?"
has a secret resource."
hope Silverstein has. He'll be needing it. Anyway, you
should have yours out squeezing them little beadies for
all they're worth."
patted his coat pockets. "I must've mislaid
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
a pilgrimage and you forgot to bring your rosary?"
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.
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.
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
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
"Monahan, Father," a
voice at the other end said.
sat down on the bed. "How come you weren't out here
yesterday, Oscar, with the rest of the pack?"
you know, my thing on the AdvanceIndicator is features. Yesterday
you were news."
why are you calling?"
today you're features."
you people ever go away? I avoided you all day yesterday.
Even had one of you jump me in church this morning."
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."
you're banking on the fact you've lifted a few with Xavier's
"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."
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
"Yeah," Monahan answered. "Why
didn't you talk to the news boys yesterday?"
wasn't up to talking to anyone yesterday."
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."
was in the wire reports. But I have the idea there's something
"There is," Murphy
me if you want. If you don't want it printed, I won't
"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.
voice came out of the instrument, eerily resonant. "Still
"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."
names came over the wire this morning. Silverstein was one of
well, it didn't work. There was only a thin chance it would,
anyway. But, inside myself, I lost my head. I let myself
"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
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,
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.
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
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