The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 7: THE CALL
In the rectory kitchen, Father Chapas hung up the wall phone, mildly flummoxed over his misconduct. Como un colegial, he admonished himself. Te comportaste como cuando los fieles visitaron Santa María. Idiota, mintiéndote a ti mismo. La verdad es un deseo tonto.
He went to the refrigerator, foraged in it, and decided he wasn’t hungry, at least not for food. It was best to divert his mind from what it dwelled upon; it dwelled upon the inexorable prodding of the devil. When el diablo tormented him by dangling temptation before his soul, prayer or work was his salvation, not indulgence.
He crossed into the living room that also served as his office and knelt at the prie dieu he stationed in front of the picture window. He inherited the kneeler from his predecessor, who had kept it in the second bedroom. He moved it because he enjoyed performing his diurnal office of praise and thanksgiving gazing on God’s magnificent creation, in particular the copse of evergreens, three in a row, the two rows paralleling each other, that stood between the parking lot and the street, and not on a plasterboard wall in dire need of painting; at night, as he executed his nocturnal office of preparation for eternal life, he examined his reflected expression and demeanor to ensure his attitude was properly humble and yearning inside and out.
Now he prayed for strength. He prayed to forget. He prayed to banish the idolatry of his attraction to her from his body and soul.
When prayer failed him, he stood and flexed his knees. He followed with a few awkward squats. “Espero que el ejercicio funcione donde el rezo no lo ha hecho,” he said to his desk, as he settled in his chair. The job at hand was a sermon for tomorrow, a homily of gratitude to those who had given of themselves for the people of Knox County, for those like the Brick children, Billy Brick off assisting people in reconstructing their lives, and Mrs. Brick, Maryam, like Mary, a Madonna, such a pure and wondrous creation, a truly magnificent creature of God.
“Oh,” he murmured, pushing back from the desk, “esto no.”
He rubbed his eyes to purge her from them.
“Otra cosa. Ve otra cosa.”
Imaging himself in his pulpit in front of his congregation was another remedy for a trespassing mind. Nothing like picturing himself before expectant worshipers enraptured by his interpretation and explication of the holy word to fix himself on the challenge.
The pulpit was a glorious perch. Up high on Sundays as he spoke, his eyes flitting from face to face, engaging his parishioners, helping them appreciate the frequently elusive ways of the Lord, he felt like a god. How it must be to look down on your creations, marveling and reveling in what you wrought. One day, he believed, he would know. Not just him, all would be revealed to everybody who believed. The key was keeping God’s word, leading a life pure in thought and deed.
What he saw from up there! What he saw when people deluded themselves with the illusion that no one would notice. Like God, little escaped the capering eyes of Father Chapas from on high. What he sought was faith in the eyes of his people. What he found was … was lust. Lust in the house of God! ¡Oh Dios misericordioso, perdónalos, perdóname! Es inocente, Padre, incoente. But He knew, as did Father Chapas. The idea was as real as the deed. Sin did not require physical execution to be sin. If your thoughts were evil and, especially, if evil set your heart racing with excitement and hunger, you were in a state of sin.
Regardless, some behavior was laughable, and he tittered in the silent rectory at the vision of the men and boys. Boys were a special case, bundles of raging hormones; he understood their roving, randy eyes. He had been like them, overflowing with the urge to ogle and touch girls. Even after his calling to the service of the Lord and his commitment to the difficult celibate life, the desire stalked him. Innumerable nights he lay in his seminary bed imploring God to free him, to elevate him to the plane on which his religious teachers resided, impervious to the attraction of fleshy allurement. Most times, the Lord showed him mercy. But there were other times.
“Detente, diablo,” he said, rustling the still air with his demand. “¡Detente!”
He tried again to concentrate on his writing pad. Scrawled on it was “Knox County.” He sighed at his meager progress and envisioned himself struggling through the afternoon with what should be simple. The words should jet from him; they should leap from the compassion in his heart; they should resound in the church and raise all up, up to the heights. They should contain such power that every man, every married man, with his wife on the right and his children on the left, in the presence of his Creator …
Men, with full knowledge of right and wrong, of sinful thoughts and deeds, they were quite another matter. Such fools that they did not comprehend He, and Father Chapas, saw them behind the women, casting their eyes down, studying backsides and legs, conjuring images, unholy, disgusting and perverted scenes of entwined bodies, of forbidden fornication, of worse condemned acts.
“Diablo, estás en todas partes,” he muttered.
“Knox County” winked at him. Deep in the night, Knox County would repeat itself on the page, on page after page, and he would assume his station above the congregation delivering an eloquent sermon consisting of Knox County pronounced over and over again, and look into the sneering eyes of the sinful men when they tired of their rump gazing, into the bewildered eyes of the children who would intuit his stupidity, into the amused eyes of the women, the benevolently amused eyes of the women who would sense his need, weakness, his desire to be cuddled in the valleys of their breasts.
“Knox County.” He pressed the pen hard against the paper until it penetrated to the next sheet, not deterred by the tearing. “Knox County,” he dug, “was a blessing. We can’t always understand the mystery that is our God. We do know God is good and He desires only good for us. Embedded, then, even in the worse events, is God’s goodness. We search for it. We faithful find it. From this week’s tragedy emerged …”
Nothing? Did nothing emerge from the tragedy? Much emerged, he was certain, much good, and it all eluded his pen. If only he could look into the eyes of those who helped and read their feelings, fathom and absorb the lessons they learned, be kindled by their spirit, and be renewed by their sacrifices for the sake of others. Writing the sermon would be easier if some who participated assembled before him in his rectory and spoke to him. Imposible.
No, posible, whispered something from within him.
He swung his eyes to the shelf above his desk. On it rested the Bible, several guidebooks to better homilies, a rites volume, a dictionary and thesaurus, and what he sought, the fruit of a year of labor, from conception to fulfillment, the first of what he planned to be a yearly chronicle of church life, the Holy Redemption Album of Parishioners. All but a handful of members had sat for family portraits and nearly every family had purchased a copy.
He eased the album from the shelf and set it on top of the recalcitrant sermon. He ran his finger over the leatherette cover and traced the gold embossed outline of Holy Redemption Church. He opened to the first page, a letter from him in which he praised God, the lay leaders and volunteers, and the faithful who enthusiastically proclaimed their devotion to their Catholic Church by posing and agreeing to have their pictures included. Instead of thumbing from the front, he flipped to the back and began perusing from the higher end of the alphabet. Lovely families. Beautiful children. Such strength, unity, and love. The album delighted him, as it always did, for it was a manifestation of the goodness of God, of what was deprived him, of what he dreamed until God summoned him to His service: a strong family committed to God and earning His grace through their belief and their good works.
Here was the inspiration he sought. Page after page of God’s spirit in the beautiful, beaming faces of his flock, each face lovelier than that preceding it, lovely, lovely, until he stared at the loveliest of all.
“Señor, te excediste cuando creaste a Miriam Brick,” he whispered, unaware, a secret prayer escaping from his heart.
She sat on the stool provided by the photographer, a cushioned swiveling affair on chrome legs the man lowered and raised and upon which subjects turned this way or that at his direction. She held Dominica on her lap. Dominic stood to her right, straining to convince Father Chapas and everyone else who leafed through the album he was taller than he was. Father Chapas couldn’t help smiling for he too wished to be taller. Judging by his father, Dominic would be, unlike Father Chapas, for whom height was another unfulfilled dream. Behind Maryam, behind the family, towered Billy. His hands rested on Maryam’s shoulders. Clearly, the pose declared to anyone who looked, to Father Chapas in particular, that he possessed her. This, regardless of how hard Father Chapas tried to suppress the sinful emotion, always caused his heart to beat a bit faster and twinge with a small spark of jealousy.
Father Chapas chuckled remembering the families. How differently everyone dressed. Most chose to pose in the clothes they wore to mass, neat, casual attire. Some treated the session like a wedding, the men in suits, the women in cocktail dresses, boys in ties, and girls in party dresses; there were a surprising number of these. Others believed it was an opportunity to make a statement about their lifestyle. A motorcycle couple sported their Harley regalia; two farm families dressed as if Father Chapas had commissioned the spirit of Grant Wood to immortalize them. One couple chose to proclaim their undying passion for their disco-era youth in the gaudiest rayon attire.
The Bricks, however, were the perfect representation of the American family. While they dressed casually, they brought it off more skillfully than the others, especially Maryam. She wore modest heels and pressed blue slacks. Father Chapas couldn’t see Maryam’s shoes and only a portion of her slacks, but he’d been there, in her presence, and he could never forget them. Her blouse was plain, bright white, with a mannish collar, heavily starched, high against her neck, contrasting in the most delightful way with her lightly tanned skin, lending her flesh a certain beckoning quality.
There was another reason Father Chapas always found the Brick family photo startling. No other family, no other woman reached out and arrested the viewer with her eyes as did Maryam. Hers were black eyes, lustrous, like polished obsidian, inviting eyes that sparkled with life and love; eyes that more than spoke: they sang a complex tune of understanding, compassion, delight, release, and fulfillment.
Father Chapas felt himself swelling. His eyes bulged and scratched. He realized he hadn’t blinked since coming upon the Brick photo, and he fluttered his lids rapidly to produce soothing tears, tears of contrition. He had changed into his full clerical uniform; he wore it whenever he wrote a homily because, usually, it inspired him to scribe a stirring piece, at least by his lights. Now the collar bit into his neck; it choked him to the point where he believed he might faint. He undid it and it hung open on him like the disheveled necktie of a drunk. His black pants were notched too tight, further restricting his breathing, bringing him closer to keeling onto his desk, onto the lovely photo of Maryam Brick, marring it.
He felt himself in a dream. He floated. His chair seemed to vanish from beneath him as he unhitched his belt. The belt strangled him and he needed to be free. Undoing the belt was nothing; it was an innocent deed; it was a necessity, simple human necessity; otherwise he would pass out.
He felt compelled to massage his stomach. Rubbing his belly was nothing more than therapeutic. He rubbed and rubbed but relief eluded him. He ached farther down. His hand slithered in pursuit until it encountered the root of his affliction.
“Dios, Dios, esto es malo,” he cried, as he withdrew his hand that seemed a sentient creature. “Dame fortaleza, te lo ruego.”
He exhaled sharply. He covered his face with his hands, shielding his eyes from temptation. It wasn’t possible, though; she lived in his mind; she had invaded every part of him; she possessed him: head, heart … his personal godhead. The sacrilegious name, what it demanded of him, how it attempted to overrule his reason and the principles of his life sent a shudder through him.
“Ruega. Debo rogar. Debo rogar para tener fortaleza. Dios dame fortaleza y guíame.”
He stood and started toward the prie dieu. He staggered, tripped, and fell. “Malditos pantalones,” he swore. “Deberían ser mi armadura y me están matando.” He pushed them down violently, as if they were his enemy, and they took his underwear with them. He shrugged them off and crawled to his kneeler.
He kneeled and hunched forward. He clasped his hands, a two-handed fist of prayer. “Maryam,” he muttered. “Maryam.”
And there she was, where the grass and the trees should have been. There she was, a vision, an apparition, but not descended on a cloud; before him on a bed, his bed; before him not garbed in flowing robes, not veiled; before him as God had created her, as Eve had appeared to Adam, glorious, splendid, pristine.
“Maryam,” he prayed, hand griping hand, hands white with panicked effort, “excedes belleza.”
He prayed and wept and clenched his hands until they jerked in spasm and they forced him to release each other, convinced him they would break each other if he continued to restrict them. To quell their rebellion and relieve the agony, he acquiesced. He stoked his thighs with them. His right hand strayed and happened upon the blasphemous godhead. The throbbing was unbearable and he fondled it and he saw her fall back in response and he pulled and she smiled and he caressed and, finally, they moaned in unison.
Empty, relieved, he slumped on the prie dieu.
When he looked up, he saw God’s earth, except he saw it differently; he saw it through the eyes of a sinner.
He cried uncontrollably for a long while, shaking and gasping for breath.
When he cleared the last of the tears from his eyes, God seemed to have worked a miracle upon him, for he saw His creation just as he should, as he always had, better than he ever had, its beauty and immaculacy enhanced. In that instant, he comprehended what had transpired as best as any mortal could. God, wise, merciful, and infinitely mysterious, had bestowed a mission upon him, and it involved Maryam Brick.
In his flash of revelation, he grasped that God had enlisted Maryam to make him aware of his human weakness, a weakness implanted and amplified in him by an evil spirit, a deadly weakness unperceived fully by him until God had compelled him to purge it from his heart and soul.
There was more, for Maryam was a righteous woman; she could not be a temptress by her own will. God, he convinced himself, was compelling him to help her. If she was good yet bewitching him, he deduced, was she not operating under the misguidance of an evil scepter? God had inspired the expunging of his sin to prepare him for his role in saving her. It was a strange and mystical plan embodying as it did the opposites of evil and good. The mission and the manner in which God had presented it to him were mysterious, as enigmatic as the Creator Himself. He could ponder it for a lifetime and never comprehend it. However, not a mystery, not a subject for interminable, unyielding deliberation, was that God required him to accept the calling on faith, and act.
He would begin with an offering to show Maryam God had a plan, yet to be revealed, for the two of them.