Everyone dreams of an idyllic life with fulfilling work and quiet retirement. This is exactly what the reverend John Leffingwell expected, but his world is turned upside down when his son is diagnosed with AIDS. The emotional and financial drain of his son’s illness leads Reverend Leffingwell to a poor neighborhood in Seattle, where he finds crime, devastation, and most importantly, himself.
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About the Author
Virginia Myers has written many novels for the general market, historical and contemporary, published by Pinnacle, Dell, Fawcett, and Harlequin. Several of her books have been translated into other languages. She teaches writing workshops and has participated in panel discussions at several writers’ conferences. She is an active member of her Episcopalian parish.
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Vessels of Honor
A Novel of Love, Hope and Redemption
By Virginia Myers
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Virginia Myers
All rights reserved.
Man, it is cold. Mark Bascomb carefully stretched out his thin aching legs inside the dumpster. The church people's singing had wakened him. It must be Sunday again. Cautiously, he sat up, pushing aside the smelly trash that surrounded him. He paused, listening to the singing and organ music richly rolling out across the church parking lot to the alley.
I gotta get outta here. It was broad daylight now and the church parking lot would be filling up with people leaving the gray stone church. Going home. Probably to eat. His empty stomach ached at the thought and he eased the lid of the dumpster up to peer out, up and down the alley. Sunday was a long way from Tuesday. He better get out and hustle some money today. He wished he could find Henry.
On Tuesday and Friday nights the church people put a sign on their recreation hall door by the alley. It said FOOD PLACE, and street kids could go in for a free hot meal in a warm room. It was okay. No hassle. No preaching. They did it right.
He wondered who was on duty at the gas station on the corner. If it was the guy with the bleached hair, or the heavy guy with the pony tail, he could go into the men's room and relieve himself, wash up, and drink some water. Neither of them would run him off. He lifted the lid of the dumpster and climbed out, slowly, stiffly. Cold. And it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet.
Uh-oh, he hadn't been fast enough. Somebody was already coming out of the church—an old guy in a black overcoat, skinny, with white hair. He was coming slowly toward the alley with his head bent down. Okay then, might as well hit him for some money.
"Got any spare change?" Mark asked without even thinking, he had said it so often. He blinked sudden wetness from his eyes. What a lousy way to live.
Irma Blalock sang with the rest of the choir, her soaring soprano clear and true. How odd that she could sing and sound the same as she always did. Forty-five years old and pregnant. The thought crashed into her mind again, along with Roger's stricken, outraged voice. Good God, Irma. We can't have this child. We've just got the other two into college and I'm busting a gut paying for it. I'm only ten years from retirement. His voice had skated upward, touching hysteria for a moment. She had ached with pity for him, for herself. It was her fault, all hers. They came together as husband and wife so seldom now that she had been off the pill for weeks. Too busy. Too careless. Then suddenly one night he had reached out to her. She could not have refused him. He was too unhappy. Now this. The hymn ended and she closed her book. Father Dunne was already by the front door to shake hands and beam as the parishioners left. He turned and began the closing words. He had a fine, ringing voice and he knew it.
"Let us now go forth into the world in peace ..." This was his last Sunday at Saint Polly's. Thanks be to God. He didn't envy his successor, whoever he might be. Parish work was fine for those who had the stomach for it, but he was an educator. Well, he had stuck it out for five years. He should never have taken on parish work, but decent-paying teaching jobs in private schools were hard to find. Now God had granted him a small miracle and he had found a headmastership in a good old Eastern prep school. Oh, thanks be to God. Now, downstairs to the rec room where the ladies were giving him a little party-type sendoff. An hour or two at the most and then—out of here.
Malcolm Griswold sat silently in the polished wooden chair inside the altar rail, watching the other parishioners leave. Some would go home. Most would stay for the little bash downstairs for Father Dunne. The Vestry had already started their search for his replacement and the word from the bishop's office was that an elderly retired priest was coming to fill in for a few months. Father, I have sinned ... I hate my mother. I wish her dead. Yesterday I struck my mother. She didn't come to church today because her face is bruised. Today I read the lesson for I am a licensed lay reader in the Diocese but I wish my mother dead ... Father, what is happening to me? Better go downstairs now or people will wonder. "No, Mom isn't here today, just wasn't feeling up to it. Thanks very much. I'll tell her you asked." Maybe he could talk to this fill-in priest, ask him to hear his confession, something, anything.
Natalie Pruitt pushed Peter's wheelchair up to the coffee end of the long table to get coffee for both of them. The rec room was filled with the milling crowd, talking, laughing, grouping and regrouping. She kept her smile fixed as she felt Peter's held-in anger.
"Everything looks so good," she said brightly. "What would you like, Pete? One of those brownies?"
"I'd like to go home, if it's not asking too much," and he added under his breath, "now that you have spotted your loverboy."
Her hand was unsteady as she handed him his cup. The coffee slopped over into the saucer. "Oops, sorry. Here, let me wipe it up with this napkin." How had she given herself away? She had tried not to even look at Evan. How had Peter found out? Evan wasn't going to wait forever. She must do something. Soon. She knew by the set of Peter's jaw that they were headed for another interminable quarrel. It would be just like last time.
Okay, we both know I'm not the man you married. You've made your feelings very clear on that, but you can forget about a divorce. Whatever happened to 'in sickness and in health?' Tell me that, lady.
Pete, please. Lucy's crying. She can't stand it when we fight. Just let it rest, will you? I apologize for being a woman with a woman's desires. Where is Lucy? Where'd she go? Then, when she had finally found their child, Lucy, I've told you and told you not to crawl into cupboards. You're eleven years old. You know better. You could get locked in and we might never find you. Now stop crying. I'm sorry, baby, Mommie's sorry.
Mark hesitated by the dumpster. The old guy was actually digging in his pocket. Mark took in the black suit, the backwards collar. How come the priest had left first? He usually left after, and out of the rec room door where they all stood around talking and drinking coffee and eating stuff they weren't hungry for. Besides, this wasn't either of the priests he usually saw.
"I'm sorry, it doesn't look as if I have much change," the old priest said, looking at the coins in his palm.
"S'okay," Mark shrugged and turned away. "Thanks, anyhow."
"Were you about to have lunch?" the old guy asked. "I think I'll stop for lunch now myself. Would you care to join me?"
Mark turned back to look at him. A nut case, maybe. What he wished he could tell the old guy was what he really wanted was enough money for one hit of crack. Just enough to keep going. On the other hand, he could get that later, maybe, and if the old guy was offering food, well, he had to eat.
"There's a burger place around the corner," Mark said cautiously. "That be okay?" Havin' lunch with a priest. How 'bout that? He better watch how he talked. No street talk.
"A burger place would do nicely, I think. You lead the way. I'm a stranger here."
"Stranger, huh? Yeah, well. Where you from?" Mark started walking down the alley. His legs felt stiff and creaky. He oughta put on some weight, get fit or something, stuff like that. Just as well to go slow though, considering the old guy wasn't too quick either. "It's just up this way." He'd have to talk the way Mom useda talk. No dirty words. What a pain, just to get a burger.
"I'm from Baltimore. I worked in Maryland most of my life, but after I retired from my last parish I came out here to Seattle."
They walked in silence the rest of the way to McDonald's, which was around the corner, facing the next street. Inside, they went to the counter and got in line.
"What would you like to eat?" the old priest asked.
"Quarter pounder? With cheese? And maybe fries? If that's not too much. And maybe a Coke?"
"No, that isn't too much," the old guy said. "You remind me a bit of my grandson, Timothy. That's why I asked you to lunch."
"Yes. He's a fair boy like you are. Slender build. About your age, I would guess, if you are fourteen or so."
"That's close enough. My hair's lighter than this when it's clean, you know."
"I'll get our lunch if you want to go to the men's room. Wash up a bit?"
Mark grinned suddenly. "I stink, don't I? It's the dumpster. The restaurant guys, they come and hose it out, but the stink stays. You get our stuff and find a table. I'll make it as quick as I can."
"Okay." The old guy actually smiled a little. "What's your name, by the way?"
Oh, no. He wasn't about to give his name. Do that and the next thing happens is some social worker is trying to get you back to another lousy foster home.
"Mark McGillicuddy, what's yours?"
The old guy smiled again. "John Leffingwell. Father John Leffingwell."
"I already guessed the father part. Back in a minute."
When he came back the old man had found a table by the window and was looking out into the street. The food was arranged neatly. Mark felt a sudden surge of sickness. When was the last time he'd had some food?
"Sorry to be so long," he said, sliding into his seat. For a moment he resisted taking the burger out of its wrapper. Instead he nibbled on a fry. Spit filled his mouth. Food tasted good. "I'm sorry I was so long. But after I washed and stuff I picked up the paper towels off the floor. Some people got no class. Slobs. They just throw stuff around. I gotta policy, see. Whenever I get to use somebody's real john I always leave it neater than I found it. Fair's fair. Hey, you got the big fries and Coke. That's neat. Thanks a lot."
He began to wolf down the food. Maybe the old guy wouldn't notice that his hands weren't too steady. He'd get steady later. The food tasted terrific. He oughta eat more often. Get healthy. Maybe he wouldn't feel so sick all the time. But that was the lousy crack. Well, he hadda have it. He finished his food and arranged the trash neatly in a pile. The wrappings still smelled terrific of the burger and fries. More spit. He swallowed. "So you retired, huh? You like that, retirement and all?"
"I would have, I think. I had gotten rather tired of ... what I had been doing." The old guy put down his Big Mac. He was looking out the window but he wasn't seeing anything, like he was way off in the galaxy, some place out there past Jupiter.
Mark sucked noisily through his straw. No more Coke. The sound of it brought the old guy back from outer space. Mark tore his gaze away from the uneaten Big Mac. The old guy had only taken a couple of bites. He was looking kinda funny, like he wasn't feeling too great, white-ish. He took a small bottle out of his pocket and unscrewed the cap. He shook a tiny white pill into his palm and put it into his mouth.
"I beg your pardon?"
"The pill. What is it?"
"Nitroglycerine. I have a ... heart problem. Angina. When I feel an attack coming on I can use these."
"You're not going to have a heart attack, are you? You want me to call nine one one?"
The old man smiled. "I don't think so, Mark McGillicuddy. You needn't call yet. The drill is that I can take up to three of these, at five minute intervals. Then if I still don't get better, it would be time to get help. But we needn't worry. It's easing up nicely."
"What a relief. People getting sick kinda scares me. My mom..." He stopped himself and added, "You gonna finish your burger?"
"No. I think not."
"Can I have it?"
"Yes. Please help yourself."
Mark smiled. "You're sure polite. That's nice. Real nice." Mom woulda liked this old guy. He talked real classy. Sounded neat. He finished off the burger in seconds. "Thanks a lot."
"You're welcome. Would you like to finish the Coke?" The priest pushed it across the table and Mark started sipping it. He was feeling real good now. Terrific to be full again.
"You still not feeling too great, right?" he asked.
"Not really. To tell the truth, Mark, I'm having a dread attack." The old man was looking out the window again and Mark quickly brought him back.
"Haven't you ever dreaded something?" The old man's voice sounded far away. Mark bent forward to hear better. "Really dreaded it? Dreaded it so much that it filled you with sickness? That's what people mean when they say 'sick with dread.'"
"Yeah, I guess," Mark said uncertainly. Well, he sure knew what dread was. And like all other stuff, dread came in different sizes. The old guy must be carrying a load of it. He wished he could help since the old guy had bought the food.
"Why you feeling this way? You know? Sometimes you feel in a kinda way and you don't know why. That can really kill ya."
"I do know why, Mark. It is because I couldn't retire just yet. I must work for a while longer.
And ... I'm not sure I can. I'm very tired ... used up."
The old guy had that right. He sounded used up. He'd never thought of it that way before, but he could hear used up in the old guy's voice.
"Then why you doing it?"
"I must." The old man sighed gently and was quiet for a long time. "You see, someone in my family is very sick. And for the little time he has left I want him to be ... comfortable. I need the money, you see."
"Man," Mark said softly. "Dying. That stinks."
"Yes, it does, rather."
Mark shook his head. "So. How long do you have to work? Forever?"
"No. Just a few months, actually. They are looking for a new priest here at Saint Polycarp's. I'm going to be the priest-in-charge while they look for the right man. Six or seven months, probably." His voice trailed off again.
Mark didn't know quite how to ask it. "Is that gonna be ... uh ... long enough? I mean ..."
"Yes. The man who is dying will only last a few more weeks. So it will be time enough." The old man gave a kind of jerk, as if he had a little earthquake in his head.
"Well, then, when it's ... over, why don't you just split? Tell 'em where to go. You won't need to work any more."
The priest smiled slightly. "Oh, I couldn't do that. Not if I'd promised to stay until they find someone. It wouldn't be ethical, you understand? It would be like ... throwing paper towels on the men's room floor. I have a policy of keeping my word."
"Were you working there this morning? In the church? Saint Whatzits?"
"No. I just went to the service to sort of get the feel of it." The old guy was sweating now. His face looked slick in the light from the window.
"So how'd it feel?"
The priest sighed. "Like any other small parish, I suppose. I've served in four. More than forty years."
"Man. Forty years. That could make you tired, all right."
"Saint Polycarp's seems like all the others," he went on. He was looking far away again. "On the surface people gathering together in His Name. Beneath the surface—who knows? All sorts of things. I'm not sure I can help them anymore." Again he was quiet. "I suppose any incoming rector always hopes for a quiet parish, full of gentle, good people ..." His voice trailed off and he was headed out toward Jupiter again.
"What you see ain't always what you get, right?"
"Right, Mark." The old man really looked sick now. Maybe he should pop some more of the little whites.
"Mark, do you know how to drive a car?"
Talk about changing the subject! "Drive a car! Of course I can drive a car. Is the Pope Catholic? Anybody can drive a car. No offense about the Pope thing. It just slipped out." The old guy was sure shaky.
"No offense taken. Anyway, I'm a different kind of Catholic. You're right, what you said a moment ago. I don't feel at all well. I think I need a good rest. I haven't slept for a couple of nights. I'd like to go back to my hotel and sleep. I have to see the bishop tomorrow. I'll pay you five dollars if you will drive me to my hotel. I don't like to drive when I feel this way."
Mark felt his back stiffen. "Okay," he said cautiously, "where's your car?" It was ninety-nine to one that the old guy was being straight with him. Take a chance. Henry wasn't here to ask.
Excerpted from Vessels of Honor by Virginia Myers. Copyright © 1995 Virginia Myers. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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