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THE POST-MEMORIAL DAY weather in St. Louis opened cool. Unseasonably chilly the newspapers called it. To him, nippy was a better word. So cool was it for the entire month of June that George Bernard was forced to wear a sweater whenever he ventured outside, particularly on those foggy predawn mornings when the chilled air compelled him to run to chapel. As usual, the chill didn't last, and the city rapidly warmed up to its typical stifling character once Independence Day arrived.
His parents had called him on one of those cool days, misting and windy, the pasty clouds hurriedly rolling to the southeast. It was late afternoon and George sat in chapel, sharing it with a handful of other seminarians who, like him, needed the time to rid the mind of lapses in judgement that periodically dogged their souls. It was the feast of St. Norbert. He had just said a prayer to the good Saint as he did each afternoon to the saint celebrated on that day. As he finished the prayer he was reminded of his third-grade teacher at St. Michael's Sister Mary Norbert. He felt a small tremor in his gut when the good nun entered his thoughts. Then the tap on the shoulder and Father Burnside whispering against his cheek that his mother had called and wished a call back. George looked at the priest asking with his earnest gaze if the call was urgent. Father Burnside sensed the unspoken question, shrugged and walked toward the door. George hurriedly crossed himself, an act normally done with more reverence, exited the pew and genuflected. In quick time he headed to the lounge in the dormitory, picked up the receiver and dialed.
After the usual pleasantries and seminary related questions were offered and answered, his mother, Gena, announced with a vocal animation he had never associated with her, that she and his father were moving to Arizona near the end of the summer, just before Labor Day. It wasn't a very timely call and certainly not favorable for him and his responsibilities at the seminary. Since when did his parents ever do anything in a timely manner?
His mother was excited about the move, and George permitted her the enthusiasm, even though much of what she had told him on the phone was jumbled. Her mental confusion always escalated when she was overwhelmed by excitement or sadness. After stammering and giggling for a couple minutes and making other sounds George connected with her enthusiasm, she handed the receiver to George's father, Art. While just as excited, his enthusiasm was marginally more composed and he was able to explain some of the details of the move. Art was only three years from retirement when the company he worked for, a food manufacturing corporation, decided to move its corporate office from the cold winters and fickle summers of Chicago to the more accommodating climate of Phoenix. George was sure the move was more for financial reasons, but his father always simplified things. He didn't think the company planned to take him along as old as he was – sixty-two – and there was a buyout involved, a hostile takeover George knew, and, as with any change of corporate ownership sometimes the employees of the company being bought don't have much job security, especially the more expendable senior ones. When the buyout deal was announced, Art feared he would be discarded just three years from his pension. That would make a huge difference in income, he had complained at the time. It wouldn't be the first time; he had seen others lose it all when on the brink of retirement. He was wrong. The company told him he was invaluable and he was going to Phoenix. He had repeated to his son several times how the company told him he was invaluable, as if the repetition cleared up any doubt he or his son may have had about his self worth. Since Art had planned to retire to Arizona anyway, the whole deal made him ecstatic. Now the company was paying for the move. "Invaluable. Can you believe that?" Art told his son as he ended the conversation. "What a deal."
Somewhere within the chaotic call, George implied that time constraints at the seminary gave him little opportunity to come and see them before they left. The fervor of his parents diminished. Their enthusiasm abated, George promised his father he would find a way to see them before they moved. Being so close to ordination, he realized some persuasion was required and a few favors must be called in. In the end he was able to take a short leave from the seminary before the big move. In return, before he hung up the phone, he extracted a promise that they would not miss his ordination. Two years, he reminded them. No excuses. Not that they had missed important events when he was younger, but there had been some recent episodes when they had been remiss in remembering some significant events, like some birthdays and his graduation from college. They were late to the latter because his mother marked the wrong date on her calendar. He had said it all teasingly, but knew from experience they had developed that tendency to overlook or forget some things that others deemed important.
The seminary rector, Father McGreely, allowed only four days for the visit. So on July 10, the hottest day so far of the season, George went back to see his mother and father two months before their scheduled move date. He doubted there would be many times, if any at all, he would see them again before ordination.
It was dawn when he left the seminary to answer his mother's call for a final visit before they left for Arizona. The sun never appeared, instead hiding behind compact gray clouds, as the bus left the depot, the sky darkening more as the bus moved north. The ride to Chicago from the seminary just outside St. Louis was about eight hours. The gloom allowed him to doze, thwarting the nausea he often experienced when confined in a rapidly moving vehicle. He had always had a problem with bus rides, his queasiness the result of misguidedly watching the landscape race past, forcing him to lean his head against the seat back concentrating on the deep in and rapid out of his breath, a method that staved off sickness. The deep breathing helped and he was able to relax for a short time, but the thunderstorm just north of Springfield, Illinois and traffic wedged in one lane from construction at Bloomington renewed the queasiness and restarted the deep breaths. Fortunately, the seat next to him was empty as was half the bus, giving him the opportunity to put his feet up, another tactic to settle his stomach. Once in Chicago he stopped at a café across from the bus station for a cup of coffee and a few moments to get his stomach back into shape before climbing into another vehicle. Once the relief he sought was achieved, he caught a cab to his parent's house, grabbing a nap in the twenty minutes it took to get there.
He awoke when the taxi swerved abruptly toward the curb, the jarring motion causing him to bump his head lightly against the window. As he fished in his pocket for the fare, he surveyed the house in which he had grown up, the red brick and stone porch with the high walls he and his friends used as cover in the winter to assault city busses with snowballs; the attic windows facing the street where he sat for hours reading his comics, taking breaks to watch the cars pass, or the neighbors mowing or raking or performing a sundry of chores; his favorite was spying Mr. Leitner playing his accordion on his front porch, and Mrs. Leitner bringing him a cool lemonade or iced tea and placing a delicate kiss on the top of his bald head. He would sip his drink and return to his music, giving his wife a faint smile before she returned to the kitchen. For hours he played that instrument, lamenting his forced move to the United States from his native Austria before the outbreak of World War II. He turned and looked across the street at the Leitner home. They had died years ago, both in the same year and both in their nineties. He didn't know who lived there now, but the building hadn't changed.
The porch of George's childhood home was lost in the glare of the sun, but he knew every red brick, which ones were loose, those he had pulled out and stuffed childhood treasures behind to retrieve later. He wondered if he had gotten them all and from the back seat he began to examine each brick to perhaps find one he missed. The driver's reminder of the fare jolted him out of his daydream. As he handed over the money, he realized that the house would be sold and the thought distressed him.
Grabbing his valise, he opened the door and stepped out of the taxi. The front lawn slanted downward to the curb forcing him to firmly grab the arm rest and push for leverage to rise from the back seat. He closed the door and jumped away from the curb as the taxi sharply pulled away, showering his shoes with debris from the gutter. A giggle arose from the direction of the house. Looking up he noticed someone sitting on the top step of the porch, but the glare of midday sun prevented identification. As he neared he recognized the shape of the face, the tilt of the head, the long brown hair that always carried red highlights, and finally the scent, an unforgettable bouquet, etched in his mind, a haunting scent. Jennifer Roland. He was unable to tell if she was smiling or squinting, or both, so he squinted and smiled too. Moving closer he saw it was a smile.
"Hi, Georgie," she said, followed by another giggle, this one more adolescent in tone. He started when he heard it; a familiar sound, one returning him to another time, an adolescent time, a singular time; like when she released that same titter under the viaduct so many years ago. He moved up the stairs and again became absorbed by the scent of her sweet cologne. Not too strong, but noticeable. Another memorable recollection. Hyacinths. It made him shut his eyes briefly and savor the scent. His first impression was of someone he recognized from years earlier, but different; the recollections that he savored over the years, but, my God, how she had changed since they were thirteen years old and the best of friends. It overwhelmed him.
When his foot hit the first step, his face conveyed a worried frown, an uneasiness brought on by where his thoughts were taking him. Like many times before, he found it effortless to recall the first time he really noticed her cologne. He and Jennifer were thirteen years old, and he was only a month away from leaving for the seminary. They ran into each other in the produce section at the A & P. Next to the tomatoes a smile filled her lips, a sensuous offering she had never made before, one that had him looking at the floor instead of where he wanted to look. They had been friends since kindergarten, and except for the one time they were forced to dance "close" at her cousin's wedding, their relationship had always been affably conducted as friends; but the look she gave him in the A & P produce section, along with the smile, was more than he ever expected from her; it was attention-grabbing and it made him uncomfortable. With his index finger he unconsciously tapped a cucumber as he stammered to make conversation. After uttering a few absurdities, as a thirteen-year-old boy might do when accosted by a girl, even one of Jennifer's status, he then made what would become a mistake of agreeing to walk with her on their way home. He never before gave it a second thought walking with her, but this time there was a feeling of trepidation that made him consider it an unwise move. He didn't know why, at least while standing in produce he didn't. His hand had moved to the zucchini, again tapping the vegetable in time to his tremors. When she asked him and he reluctantly muttered 'yes,' it was the only thing coming out of his mouth that sounded intelligent. He pushed the zucchini aside and followed her out of the store neglecting the small list his mother sent him to the store to fill.
Jennifer and he had gone through grade school together and were always good, and, in times of need, close friends. It never had been inferred by either that it was more than friendship directing their relationship, and George was comfortable with that. Halfway through their walk home, in the viaduct under the railroad tracks, his estimation of the bond they shared shattered. It was an instant transformation of Jennifer's status from friend to vixen, almost as if she had an urgent need to wreak havoc on the mind and body of the budding priest.
Near the end of the viaduct, where the daylight drifted in and the dense layers of dampness floated out, Jennifer stopped. George didn't notice until he was a dozen or so steps ahead of her and almost out of the viaduct. She called his name. He didn't give much thought to her odd behavior, although she had been fidgety, quiet when usually talkative and avoiding eye contact with him since they left the A & P. Suddenly recalling the look she gave him at the store, the look that dangerously pleased and, at the same time, disturbed him, he hesitated, examining the graffiti packed walls instead of looking at the girl who was causing him so much trepidation. With an anxiety usually reserved for being sent to the principal's office, he walked toward her. Before he was able to ask why she stopped, she grabbed his shoulders and kissed him, not gently, but with a frightening force that startled him and, most unnervingly, aroused him. Not like the principal's office at all. Worse, much worse.
When she pulled away he remained frozen, arms pressed snugly against his body, knees slightly buckled, unable to dislodge the trauma preventing any movement. Eyes closed, cheeks clenched, his mind assessed the cause for this assault from this girl he thought he knew. An alarm buzzed in his head, waking him to the recognition of what just happened, an unexpected impulsive action, but even more bewildering the resulting physical excitement following her grasp, her kiss, her body next to his. It frightened him. He trembled. His head turned upward away from her face; he rigidly turned on his heels and walked away from her, toward the light, toward some place where he could find solace. He quickened his step as he exited the viaduct. He heard her hurried footsteps behind him and Jennifer caught up as they both entered the sunshine. She put her hand in his and again he trembled, quickly pulling away. Demurely, with smile subdued and eyes repentant, she told him she wanted to say goodbye before he left for the seminary. That was more than just a simple goodbye, he argued, but stopped when he could not think of how to proceed with an irritated line of reasoning. Instead, he stared straight ahead and walked steadily forward. Her action was one he couldn't grasp. He didn't understand, but said nothing more to her. They parted at the corner, her saying she hoped that they would always be friends but never apologizing, which he thought was required. He began to mouth a good bye and decided to just wave. After he was out of sight, he shook, all the way home, unable to stem the quaking.
For the next month up to the day he left for the seminary, their friendship remained fragile. George gave Jennifer an arm's length, realizing how instantly she had ambushed him in the viaduct and how easy it would be for her to do it again. The incident was never repeated, and never broached, but whenever they were together the conversation was stilted.
In letters they exchanged as he progressed through the seminary, the incident had become implicitly banned from written communication. For him it was a matter of defense, actually survival, protecting his vocation from any misdirection that the episode in the viaduct might trigger; for her, she was too busy in high school and then college, and all the boyfriends he was sure she had, to give the incident's recall any attention. Eventually, about a year ago, when she finished college and moved on, the letters stopped.
"Hello, Jennifer," he said, and immediately followed with, "You've changed." He examined her face and then added. "Quite a bit." Then he frowned. She continued to smile. "And by the way, don't call me Georgie."
"Don't want me to say 'Georgie Porgie, Puddin' and Pie. ...'" He pursed his lips and shook his head. She stopped. "Okay. I guess we're a lot older now. Need to be mature." They both laughed. "You look good," she told him.
"Thanks. I added a little weight," he said, looking down and lightly patting his midsection. He felt a little awkward by her compliment but added, "You too." He moved around her to go inside, but she didn't follow. He turned. "You're not coming in?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ugly Priest"
Copyright © 2018 Richard Stickann.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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