|My Son, the Priest
Jimmy sat on his bed and threw a battered baseball against the ceiling. Each time the ball hit, he flinched like it was the first time. He could hear them all downstairs, their whispers, their glasses clinking, his pompous cousin Eton talking over his stupid, mouthy bride. Not ten minutes ago Jimmy had told his family that he had decided to join the priesthood. Hed waited for his moment, after Etons bride had finished describing their "Mexican doormans" funny mannerisms. If Eton was marrying a racist shrew like that girl, nobody was going to balk at Jimmys news.
"I have an announcement."
Were there a girl at Jimmys side, everyone would have taken their forks to their glasses. But there was no girl. Everyone just stared. Etons bride clapped many claps, small and pointed. She raised her eyebrows and sat up straight. Uncle Walt yawned, as he was Etons father and not such a fan of Jimmy and his announcement, whatever the hell it was. Jimmys mom leaned over her plate and looked at her son, her beautiful son. He would have a girl like Eton had some day. She didnt worry. He did everything slowly. He was Jimmy. And thank goodness, Thanksgiving came but once a year. Only once a year did the snooty Harpers of Park Avenue trek to Jimmys familys house on Hope Street in Providence. Theirs was a lovely homeJimmys mom had an eye for antiquesbut in the presence of her brother and his family, everything seemed to rust suddenly. That morning, Uncle Walt had picked up one of the knives. "These wont cut a turkey, Ethel. Hell, these knives wouldnt cut butter." Nobody had heard the remark but Jimmy. And it was right after that that hed poured his first ounce of vodka. They were all sitting around the living room when Jimmy had made his announcement.
"Ive decided to become a priest."
Jimmy had expected everything in his life to change as those words came out of his mouth. He expected his mother to cry with joy for it was an honor to have birthed a man of God. He expected Uncle Walt to say something majestic and curt and raise his glass. He expected hugs and a sort of instant adulthood and a sense that by saying it he was really doing it. Instant priesthood. Sometimes, when hed thought about what it would be like to tell his family, hed even imagined an ongoing montage, each of them seeking him out - as he put dishes into the dishwasher, as he stood in the backyard getting air - to approach him, ask him for advice. And he expected the world to look different after hed announced it, the way it did when he was fourteen and got eyeglasses and suddenly could see things. He expected to be a little more there in some vague way, to have back pain set in, to feel older. He expected that his family members would look at him more, wait for his input because now they would know what he was. Thats my cousin Jimmy, hes a priest sort of thing.
He was the first to admit that he was a difficult person to get to know. At Providence College he had majored in anthropology, a thing that daunted his family at holidays, a thing that shut them up. What was anthropology? What was Jimmy doing studying Africans? Hed had three jobs in two years, none of them noteworthy. Now he was an assistant manager at a bookstore on Thayer Street, a few blocks from Brown University, which had rejected him. Two Thanksgivings ago, Uncle Walt had asked him, point-blank, "Do you wear a uniform? Seems like such a waste, going to college and wearing a uniform and a nametag."
Now he sat on his bed eating a Mars bar. He was the exact same oddball hed been before the announcement. Throwing a baseball, hiding away, being the weird cousin who doesnt ever bring a nice girl home for the holidays. The weird cousin who works in a bookstore, helping Brown students find Christmas presents for their families. A knock at the door.
"Jimmy honey, we want you to come downstairs."
"I'm not gay, Mom."
"I don't want to talk about that. I just want you to come back down."
"It's a calling, you know. Some people get callings."
She said nothing. He took a big chomp out of the Mars bar and nearly choked. A memory slapped him now, his mother on the sidelines at a soccer game in third grade. She didnt know he could see her from the field. Hed kicked the ball in the wrong direction and shed crossed her arms, stuck her hair behind her ears, and made a dozen little shameful gestures. And then after the game, hed gotten into the car and shed said, "Sorry I missed the game. Tell me then. What did I miss, big boy?"
Hed worked hard to love her and he liked it. So if she wanted to know why he was going to be a priest, she need only remember all the times hed seen her when she hadnt known hed been watching. Of course, this wasnt the kind of thing people could do. He couldnt tell her that he was becoming a priest because he saw things he shouldnt see, wasnt meant to see, that he overheard Uncle Walt belting cousin Eton that time they went to New York in the third grade. Jimmy wasnt gay, which is what everyone assumed when someone decided to be a priest. He wasnt exactly straight either. Hed slept with four girls and found the process satisfying but unnecessary. He preferred jerking off, and priests could do that. But these werent the kinds of things he could say to his family.
His mother coughed. He had to say something. He wasnt being fair let alone priestly. He rose, but couldnt bring himself to open the door and let her in.
"I'm not hungry. The whole scene made me lose my appetite."
She opened the door. Mother in the room. He slid the Mars bar under his ass, dropped the baseball and watched it roll across the wooden floor and into his closet. God, their house was beautiful. Uncle Walt was wrong. It wasnt dilapidated; it was charmed. As was his mother, a mother on Thanksgiving, messy with traces of hope and effort hanging all about. Mushroom sauce on the elbow of her dress, teeth red with wine, hair that was high before the relatives arrived and had since come down, low and unflattering, dragging her face to her feet. If he were becoming a doctor, he could give her a face-lift at no cost. But he wasnt becoming a doctor. He looked at her. He believed that if you were the one to walk into a room, then you should have something to say.
She spoke: "Jimmy, love. When I was your age, I wanted to be a dancer."
He sat up straight, convinced that the chocolate was melting and seeping through his pants. She brought the heat of cousins and anger with her and surely it was softening the chocolate. "You're not me. You raised me to think for myself and when I do it you dont get to say that Im wrong."
"Just come eat something. We'll all be nice. Etons always teased you. Its just the way he is."
"Etons an asshole."
"Said the priest."
Jimmy had no comeback. His cousin Eton had been the first to talk after Jimmy made his announcement. "What are you, gay?" Everyone laughed and the announcement had instantly become the very opposite of an announcement in that nobody was interested in the truth and religion behind it but just the gross possibility that it was some kind of cover-up. Jimmy wanted to kill Eton.
"I want to kill Eton, the little shit." Jimmy grabbed the bedspread. "And thats because Im a priest and I know bad when I see it."
She sighed for him, a performance sigh, like he was a crazy person. He didnt like his mother when Eton was around. She switched sides.
"Oh, Jimmy, lighten up. Etons a joker. Half the time you dont even realize when people are just teasing you. Nobody really thinks youre gay." She put her hands on her face, her hands, wet with veins and mashed sweet potato. Were she a platter in a restaurant youd want to lick her clean. "I dont know how to talk about this in front of everyone. Just come eat and well talk about nothing."
He lay back down.
"Honey, I know youre not gay."
He closed his eyes. "Like I said, I'm not hungry."
The baseball idled. Nobody downstairs said a word. He could picture them one by one, what they were doing, how they were listening and getting to know this Thanksgiving as the one where odd Jimmy declared himself a priest. Cousin Eton was smoking a cigarette and stroking his fiancées banker-blonde hair. Eton and his bride were living in a two-bedroom apartment in the West Village, in what sounded like a made-up existence, new sheets that had a high thread count and a cat named Knickers. They mentioned places they liked to go for brunch; Etons side project was sampling every single eggs Benedict in Manhattan. They were the kind of people that had hobbies, they were a couple that made Jimmy loathe coupledom. What people like Eton and the banker blonde did to love was a travesty. They destroyed it. They made it simple, a matter of credit cards and thread counts and poached eggs. They brought it down to rent control, similar taste in sheets and the safety that went with loving someone who made the same amount of money as you. The first girl Jimmy had ever kissed, Susan Winokur, she had committed suicide her first week at college, jumped into a gorge. And Jimmy liked love that way. The girl he loved was dead. And he loved her for that, for giving him the impossibility of ever seeking her out and taking her out for eggs Benedict. Unconsummated love beat clean sheets every day of the week.
"Would you say something, honey? Would you talk to me?"
"Its not like you ever stand up to Walt."
"And you do?"
"Hes my brother."
"Hes my uncle."
She grabbed her hair. "That doesnt count. Do you hear yourself? Hes my uncle. Hes my uncle. So what? Whats an uncle? You could defend me but instead youd rather sit up here and feel sorry for yourself."
Jimmy didnt belong in this world or to it. He felt nothing when Etons bride showed him her ring, asked him did he want to touch it. As if their getting married made marriage interesting. It was the problem with all people. They had sex and suddenly they were the first people who ever had sex. They got an apartment and suddenly sheets were acceptable as conversation. He didnt care about sheets, and perhaps this is why he wanted to be a priest.
His mother bent down, looked at him, tried to see inside. "Are you there? Where do you go, Jimmy, where?"
He tried to do the same for her, examine her with care and curiosity. It didnt work. She backed away. Now that she was here and everyone was awaiting her solo return, her odd Jimmy up in his room, now the world looked different. When she sighed, it was turkey and red wine and yes, he was hungry. He gulped, Adams apple up and down. He felt like a shithead, putting his mother in this position. She was a hostess, a goddess, a sister to a pompous brother, a widow. She knew that he knew that shed cut him up when she returned to the family. What an awful thing to give to a mother. Why couldnt he resist doing that?
"Fine. Be a priest. My son the priest. Happy Thanksgiving." She turned around, abruptly. God, she was good at pretending she wasnt drunk. His arms unfolded. His body seemed to do things like that, unfold at random moments, as if puppet strings were attached, invisible puppet strings controlled by he didnt know what. He heard Eton cough on his own smoke and thought to himself I could kill him, that would do it. The thought sickened him and he realized his mother was still there, still now, touching his walls, his wooden walls.
She turned to him. "Just don't leave the candy wrappers lying around. They attract bugs." And she slammed the door. Now the noise of Thanksgiving returned and he reached for his candy bar wrapper. His hand was covered in chocolate. Like a lover, he sucked each finger clean, savoring the warm badness on his fingers. He didnt go back downstairs. He heard the night go on, he heard Etons bride, whose name he refused to commit to memory, espouse the merits of buying coffee beans and grinding them oneself. He heard his mothers voice go into a lilt when Eton talked about an old movie that she happened to love, a movie shed tried to get Jimmy to watch many times but hed always refused. Aunt Sally was the one who suggested coffee, and again he heard Etons bride analyzing the coffee grinds and he found this nervy and knew that were he not becoming a priest, hed never bring a girl home who was the kind of person who thought coffee mattered. Coffee was for drinking. Enough said. The bride was like Unlce Walt, a professional fault-finder. You dont have any coffee beans, none at all?
"Am I interrupting?"
Jimmy looked up. Here was Eton. Jimmy shrugged. "Not a lot."
Eton. Collar up, glass of vodka and ice in his hand, his finger embedded in a wedding ring. Eton in Jimmys bedroom, like Thanksgivings when they were boys. Eton leaning against the Eton spot, the wall by the closet, even though Eton was here but once a year and it seemed silly that he should have a spot. Eton was like that. He occupied spaces aggressively, like a cat marking the world with its scent.
"So the priesthood. My cousin the priest."
"You gonna accuse me of being a faggot again?"
Eton drained the rest of the vodka. In this light, he looked old, and it was finally possible to imagine him being in the dumps. Maybe his stocks would all fall and hed have to leave the West Village. In this light, with his face puffy and red, bad fates seemed newly possible. "I was only kidding you, Jimmy. I always give you a hard time."
"There is no always. I see you once a year."
Jimmy sat Indian style and placed his hands under his buttocks as if he had to tie them down. Eton motioned towards the bed. He sat there now, on the end of the bed, digging his thumbs into the glass. The bedroom door was open, and somehow Jimmy noticed this, took note of it, as if it mattered.
"What are you not doing?" Eton asked, his eyes fixed on the baseball.
Jimmy could smell the vodka and he stifled a cough. It would be impolite to make a fuss. He swallowed. "What do you mean?"
Eton looked at Jimmy. His profile was sharp and seemed to burn itself into the clothes in Jimmys closet. He imagined it seared there, Eton and his damned presence.
"I mean, with this priest bit, what else would there be to do if not that?"
Now Jimmy saw that Eton was wasted, drunk, away from himself. It wasnt in Etons nature to ask questions. He ran a hand through his hair and crossed his legs. Jimmy brought his hands to his mouth and bit his nails.
"I dunno. I thought of becoming a psychologist but its so much work and half the time you only talk to rich brats who dont really want to get better but just want to hear themselves talk."
Eton grunted; rich brats.
"No offense, Eton."
"Anyway I thought of becoming a teacher but you lose the kids every year and get new ones and Im not that into people, you know?"
Eton laughed. He did know. Jimmy could tell just by looking at him.
"I meant, what else would there be?" said Eton. And the word be, it went on for miles, like an echo that keeps going even after you walk away, a life of its own.
Jimmy stood up. "You want some bread?"
"I dont want any bread."
"I mean for the vodka,"
"Nobody dips bread in vodka."
"I mean because youre drunk."
Eton looked at him hard. So many holidays and theyd acted on such very social terms. As boys, they played with trucks, grew bored of each other and went their separate ways. One year, when they were toddlers, Jimmy got bit by a raccoon and the local news teams came. The newscaster asked Eton why hed escaped and Jimmy got bit and Eton had said, "My cousins not fast."
As young men, they retreated to the living room and watched movie upon movie, each of them independently choosing to stifle his own laugh. They didnt bond. They were comfortable with their distance. As teenagers, they played when-in-Rome, which meant that when they were with Etons family in New York, Jimmy followed Eton to a bar where other kids like Eton - kids who talked fast and drank like adults - smoked joints and boasted about conquests. And when they were here, at Jimmys, they watched movies in silence. They were old men together.
"Are you all right? You look sick."
All Jimmy could think about was the other Mars bar, lodged in his top desk drawer. He wanted chocolate. Drunken people seemed to make his appetite soar.
"Im getting married."
"Yes I know. Shes lovely and she knows all about coffee. You picked a good wife. Now let me get you some bread."
Jimmy was scared of Eton, which was new. Again he was aware that the bedroom door was open. He saw Jimmys jaw tighten.
"Remember the year we went out on the roof?"
Thats right. There had been one year, their freshman year of college, when something had equalized them and theyd crawled out on the roof and discussed their courses, their dorms, their dislike of Jimmys moms wine. Eton understood anthropology and theyd sat out there till their hands were frozen, like two boys in a painting from the late 19th century. Jimmy had forgotten all about the roof until now.
"I remember the roof."
"Cmon. Lets go out there."
Jimmy knew drunks from his volunteer work at the church. He knew you didnt argue with them. You agreed that the room was spinning, that the song on the guys radio was a sad one, that you were a best friend. If you agreed, you made sense of their world to them because people, even plastered ones without drivers licenses and homes, needed people to know that they were right. Affirmation had a hold on people. Jimmy got a wave of his forthcoming priesthood. Hed be doing this, in a robe. His charge burped and raised his glass.
"Lets go on the roof."
Jimmy heard Etons bride again. Now she was talking about chocolate.
"Lets go on the roof but first let me go to the rest room."
At this, Eton erupted in hulking waves of laughter. His large rowing mans body heaved on Jimmys bed. Jimmy worried Eton would vomit and grabbed a hold of his arm.
"Dont touch me."
"Im not touching you. Im helping you."
"I wanna go on the roof."
"First let me go to the rest room and then well go on the roof."
"Nobody calls it a rest room in their own house. A rest room."
Jimmy blushed. "Well go on the roof when I get back."
Etons pupils climbed all over the whites of his eyes. They were wet and sad. Etons milky pupils were why Jimmy hated holidays. This right here, this strong man, the better cousin, the cousin whose girlfriends were always joining them for holidays, was the weak one now. And Jimmy didnt like the order of the universe mixed up like that.
"Eton, sit up. Stand up."
Eton took hold of Jimmys hands now. "Im sorry."
"Dont be sorry, cuz. Its the holidays. Its what we do."
"Its not what you do."
Third time now, and Jimmy said it again. "Let me go to the rest room."
"Its your own house."
Jimmy regretted the word as soon as it was out. "What?" It was bad to encourage him.
"Rest room is in a bar. Bathroom, Jimmy. Go take a wizz."
Jimmy squeezed Etons shoulders. "Right cuz."
In the bathroom he could hear Etons bride again. She was loud. She was nothing like Etons mother or Jimmys mother or Jimmys other girlfriends. She had too many interests for a woman, Jimmy thought. She was a compilation of so many women that she wasnt a woman at all. As he relieved himself he listened to Etons bride discuss the scarf she was knitting. Another interest. He wanted Jimmys former girlfriends with their quirks and their moments of quiet and their sneezes and their mellow consumption of coffee to come parading into the party downstairs. It seemed like a funny thing to want, but Etons bride made Jimmy feel good about himself because she was nothing compared to the priesthood. She was nothing to write home about. No wonder Eton was so drunk. He was aligning himself with a knitter, a coffee bean grinder, a sheet selector. The Etons of Thanksgivings past got drunk and they were rollicking, entertaining everyone with stories from the bar, pulling hard on cigarettes and patting the years girlfriend on the behind as she left the room. Commitment didnt suit the guy at all, Jimmy concluded as he flushed. He turned on the faucet. And obviously, Eton was gay.
Jimmy nearly fell over. He left the water running and he sat on the toilet seat. He could remember things now. So many glances. Of course Eton was gay. Look at the way he had come tonight, drunk, into Jimmys bedroom, wanting to be alone with him. Maybe he felt bad about his behavior earlier but wasnt it always the case that you hated in others what you loathed secretly in yourself? Jimmy felt like Sherlock Holmes. Of course all the girlfriends had left him because they were too good, they were real where this one seemed hungry for sheets and probably demanded nothing of him sexually.
Eton was gay. Jimmy said it out loud. It even sounded right. He turned off the faucet and thought of the questions Jimmy had asked. What arent you doing? As if Jimmy was running from something. Clearly Eton was running from something. A-ha! He wiped his hands on the towel and fought the urge to clap. Eton had touched him, too. And hed specifically told Jimmy not to touch him. Instead of a life pretending, poor gay closeted Eton had found a girl so dumb that she didnt care that her husband was gay because their sheets were so nice.
Jimmy looked in the mirror and saw a psychologist. He was good at people. He fled the bathroom and bounded down the stairs, having forgotten all about cousin Eton upstairs, cousin Eton wanting to go on the roof, gay cousin Eton asking him what he wasnt doing, cousin Eton and his thumbs pressing into the glass.
"All right everyone. Ive got something to say."
Jimmys mothers legs, crossed and up on the table, her beautiful feet sheathed in pantyhose, toes tickling toes. She was drunk. The night was long. Etons bride looked at Jimmy like she hoped he might get sick on their wedding day and not appear in her photo albums. The room reeked of coffee.
"Well go on and say it, priest." His mothers words were slow like Etons.
"Ive decided not to become a priest. Im going to be a psychologist."
Everyone clapped and toasted and Uncle Walt patted the chair beside him, threw the old cat onto the floor. Jimmy sat down and asked Etons bride to pass the yams. She obliged. Everyone asked him questions, drunks like having a new place to go. And Jimmy answered them all, going on about his passion for psychology, how hed always loved helping people and knew that he wanted to do this but how tonight, with all this family around, it had hit him that he could help people without sacrificing his own right to family. And anthropology, a great preparation for this line of work. The sound of his lives all falling into order, silly random jobs now kicking like Rockettes. Order. The family loved it. They wanted to know more about masters programs and clinical programs and he ate more and his stomach opened; there was room for more than Mars bars. It was at least a few minutes before Etons bride spoke. Shed been looking at Jimmy for some time, for when she spoke and he looked at her, he was surprised to find her eyes locked on him. He choked, slightly, on his potatoes.
"Is Eton all right?"
"Yes he is. He needed a nap is all."
"In your bed I suppose?" She pierced him with her eyes, where was the girl who liked coffee beans and sweaters?
"Yes. He came upstairs. He passed out."
The room filled with a fast-acting silence, like dishwashing liquid cutting into oil. Silence passed over the room, briefly. And then Etons bride nodded and poured something into her coffee, her precious coffee. Jimmy flinched and looked down. His mothers hand on his leg, squeezing and patting, approving. He smiled at her but she only squeezed his leg again. She couldnt look away from her brother Walt now, in her quaint Providence home, her psychologist son entertaining everyone.
He whispered to her. "Arent you happy I decided not to be a priest?"
She pulled her hand away and picked up her coffee. Walt had spoken, asked about the scent of the candles. She answered him, spoke of cranberries infused with vanilla in beeswax. Jimmy couldnt tell if shed ignored his question or just not heard him. She was hard to read at times like this and he grew quiet. Probably, he wouldnt make a very good psychologist after all. He had a sudden urge to go to bed and he remembered Eton there, sprawled out, closeted, engaged Eton. Maybe none of them was very good at anything, parenting, marrying, celebrating, picking spouses. Even Walts legal practice was off; theyd taken the train to Providence instead of flying, a fact his mother had avoided talking about, as if she liked it better with Walt as king, Walt as right. They were all failures somehow. But Uncle Walt was right. The candles, they were really something. And Jimmy wondered. Was there a future to be found in the candle making or selling business? Privately, he vowed to look into it.
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Caroline Kepnes is a Cape Cod native and Brown University graduate currently living in Hollywood. Her stories have appeared in Browns Clerestory and the forthcoming debut issue of Elixir Magazine. She was the winner of the Hemingway Resource Centers Fall/Winter 2004 Short Story Contest. She is the author of Classic Storytellers: Stephen Crane, a biography for kids. She has contributed to Tiger Beat, Teen Machine, AXM, JVibe and Entertainment Weekly. She is in development on an animated show which she created with a writing partner.
issue 47: March - April 2005