weekend-readsThe Penance Practicum

Erin McGraw

Father Dom was pleased with his reflection in the mirror. To the front of his cassock he had stapled a big dot cut out of white paper; below the cincture he had stapled two more. Tonight was the seminary’s Halloween party. He was going as a domino.

He was ready to enjoy himself, although the party was one of the things that had turned iffy around Saint Boniface. Some of the younger seminarians, shiny men of God who ran every five minutes to look something up in one of John Paul II’s encyclicals, had raised objections: The proper end-of-October celebration for Catholics was the Feast of All Saints, not Halloween.

“We’ll celebrate the All Saints’ Mass,” Father Dom told the stern contingent who came to his office. “We always do. But the Halloween party is harmless. People like dressingup.”

“The magisterium has not approved Halloween as a holiday for the faithful,” said Sipley. His beefy face, above the Roman collar he’d worn every day since taking his first vows, was implacable. Two of the men behind him shook their heads. Father Petrus called this group Rome’s hall monitors.

“It isn’t forbidden,” Father Dom said.

“We won’t be attending,” Sipley said.

“There’ll be punch,” Father Dom said wearily. He wouldn’t miss them, but he hated to add more mortar to the wall separating the men who fluently discussed the mystical gifts of the Holy Father from the rest of them, eating pizza and telling jokes down the hall. Father Dom bought the pizza.

He smoothed one of his dots. He himself had been on the admissions committee the year Sipley applied. Even then the man was talking about Holy Mother Church, coming on like cutting-edge sixteen hundreds. Still, the committee had voted to admit him. The committee had voted to admit every applicant, all five who sought one of the thirty slots. Saint Boniface’s picking-and-choosing days were long gone. But every time Father Dom thought about a priesthood filled with Sipleys leaning over their pulpits and confidently instructing their congregations, his heart hurt. Father Dom had never felt as certain about anything as Sipley felt about everything.

Hearing voices in the hallway, he opened his door. Several men were heading toward the lounge, laughing, dressed for the party. McCarley wore a cardboard cone taped over his huge nose; he’d drawn
lines of scurrying bugs around the end. “Anteater,” he said cheerfully. Father Dom’s spirits started to rise.

“I hope you have a good sacerdotal defense. You never know when the magisterium’s going to be checking up.”

“Anteaters are God’s creatures. Nobody can challenge me. What about you?”

“I’m a domino. I intend to impart valuable lessons about tipping over.”

Behind McCarley, Terley shook his blond hair out of his eyes and fiddled with one of his pencils. He had a dozen or so, sharpened and taped to his shirt as if they’d been shot into him. There was always at least one Saint Sebastian. And beside the two men, to Father Dom’s delight, walked Joe Halaczek, dressed in salmon-pink Bermuda shorts, a plaid shirt, dark socks, and sandals. A cushion under his waistband gave him a burgher’s paunch. “I give up,” Father Dom said.

“The Race Is Not to the Swift. It’s a concept costume,” Joe said. Then his voice took on its usual marshy unease. “Is that all right?”

“It’s perfect,” Father Dom said, hoping the white leather belt came from the second-hand store and not Joe’s closet. Someone must have helped him with this—the concept of a concept costume was beyond him. With his frightened hands and unsteady eyes, ordinary conversation was often beyond him. Father Dom could hardly bear to think about his arriving at a parish, this damaged lamb attempting to lead the obstreperous sheep. But right now it was a hoot to watch Joe stroll along, hands behind his back, imitating a confident man.

“We tried to get him to come as Joan of Arc, but nothing doing,” said McCarley. Already his cardboard nose was starting to work loose.

“I was afraid someone would set me on fire.”

“Only if you start hearing voices,” Father Dom said, smiling when worried Joe glanced up.

Inside the lounge, festivities were puttering along. Four men shared the couch in front of the TV, talking and half watching an NFL roundup. Another group was playing darts. Everybody else was hovering over the snack table, from which most of the buffalo wings were cleared out. Most of one of the pizzas—cheese—was left.

“The Assyrian swept down like a wolf on the fold,’” said Father Benni, the rector, nodding at the decimated food.

“At least they’re not letting the pizza get cold. Where’s your costume?”

“This is it. The Good Priest.” He folded his long arms and assumed a benevolent expression, and Father Dom forbore from reminding him that generations of students, reacting to his firm command, had called him Sheriff. “Bing Crosby will play me in the movie. I don’t know who’s going to play you.”

“Robert Redford.” Father Dom reached over to the table and snagged a wing.

“What do you think, Joe?” Father Benni said. Joe’s head snapped around when he heard the rector say his name. “Do you think Robert Redford could play Father Dom?”

“It wouldn’t be easy. A man of Father Dom’s experience,” Joe said carefully.

Father Petrus, standing nearby, snorted. “Hey,” Father Dom said.

The rector was still looking at Joe. “Have you asked Father yet? I think this would be a fine time.”

It wasn’t a fine time, whatever they were talking about—Father Dom both did and didn’t want to know. Joe was braiding his fingers, looking at the carpet, and the color had dropped from his face. When he spoke, Father Dom had to lean close to hear. “Father Benni would like to observe our class tomorrow. I told him I’m not the one who makes the decisions.”

“You are, actually. You can say if you’d rather not be watched.” At this moment Father Dom would happily have strangled the smiling rector, who was, of course, within his rights.

“What’s the point of the class, if you’re not watched?” Joe said.

“The practicum is the best of all the seminary classes,” Father Benni said. “Getting feedback is a real gift. You’re able to see yourself as others see you. I miss that.”

Joe’s face was expressionless beside Father Benni’s basking, nostalgic smile. Father Dom said, “We can give you a taste of the old medicine, Greg.”

Father Benni said, “I was seminary champion in practicum. Everybody wanted to confess to me, because I gave the easiest penances.”

“What made you change?” Father Dom said.

“I haven’t changed,” the rector said sunnily. “I’m a lamb. Isn’t that right, Joe?”

Joe was studying his shoes. “When I first got here the fifth-year guys told me that you were easy.” His mouth twitched. “They said you were easy, but to go to Father Dom if I had anything bad.
He forgave everything.”

“That’s why we have him teach the practicum,” Father Benni said equably. Glancing at Joe, he added, “It will go fine. You’ll see.” His voice was full of reassurance, but Joe’s proto-smile had dissolved, and Father Dom guided the rector to the other side of the room.

“The practicum isn’t Joe’s best class,” Father Dom said quietly. From the couch came a small whoop; the TV was showing a beer ad that everybody liked.

“I’m not sure Joe has a best class,” Father Benni said. “His paper for Mission & Ministry was a page and a half. In homiletic practicum he fell apart completely—got up and just couldn’t speak. He doesn’t look like a man on his way to ordination. He looks like a man on his way to the electric chair.”

“So what do you want?”

“To be reassured.”

Father Dom studied Joe, standing in line for darts. He lingered at the side of the group, not the center, smiling at someone else’s joke. But there was no rule that said the priest needed to be the life of the party. Plenty of parishioners would appreciate Joe’s gentle manner, his ability to listen rather than talk. While Father Dom watched, Joe hitched up the pillow that held his shorts in place—his concept costume, worn in wistful good faith.

“No problem,” Father Dom said.

• •

Problem, all right. No course could be designed better than the penance practicum to showcase Joe’s shortcomings. Every week, in front of the rest of the class, the students role-played priests hearing confession, with Father Dom as the penitent. He tried to keep things light, presenting goofy sins—once he’d played a woman having visions of the Blessed Virgin saying, “You must wear natural fabrics.” Sometimes the hardest thing for the students was keeping a straight face.

After the simulation the other students provided feedback, pointing out where the role-playing priest had done well and where he showed room for improvement. The men were considerate with one another, but there were still so many ways to fall short—hints gone unheard, hobbyhorses saddled up. In their responses the students revealed themselves, which was why Joe had been ducking the role-play all semester. Now Father Dom would have no choice but to call on him. He’d have to call on Sipley, too, who volunteered all the time.

Father Dom lay sleepless until three-thirty. Then, moving softly—the walls separating the priests’ rooms were like cheesecloth—he turned on the light and started reviewing notes. His desk drawer was stuffed with class outlines, files he kept because he’d been trained to keep files, though he almost never returned to them. Now he was grateful. Surely these hundreds of pages held some forgotten scenario that would demonstrate Joe’s particular gifts.

Working without method, Father Dom riffled through the syllabi, glancing now and then at a note he’d written. He searched for a confession that required from the priest more sympathy than guidance, some transgression that would turn Joe’s shy heart into a bridge between the penitent and God. No splashy sins like murder or embezzlement. Nothing requiring close discernment or tiptoeing among competing ethical schemes. Nothing about girls, it went without saying. Simply the extension of forgiveness, which had always seemed to Father Dom so easy.

At one time that ease had worried him. He had yearned to be valorous, rich in the grace that comes from spiritual struggle. He had worked with burn victims, telling them how a turn in life’s road, even a terrible one, could be the beginning of a happiness never guessed at. “How, exactly?” asked a sixteen-year-old girl, gesturing at a face that had become a cluster of shiny ridges when she stumbled into her parents’ sizzling barbecue grill. Another patient, once a mother of three, had been folding laundry in her basement when the house caught fire. Of all her family, only she was still alive, and every day she cursed God with brilliant inventiveness, then yelled at Father Dom, “Are you going to forgive that?”

He did. The more he looked, the more he saw only God’s carelessness, work left undone when God got distracted, when God moved on to something else, when God went to get a cup of coffee and left Father Dom’s mouth filled with inadequate words. Anybody could be forgiven for cursing in a world where somebody like Father Dom was left holding the bag for the Infinite.

He tried not to think about these things anymore. Seminarians of his generation had been taught that every priest was given his particular struggle of faith—the struggle, Father Dom’s novice director had said often, that would last a lifetime. But Father Dom turned instead to the easier tasks of ministry, which were so plentiful—teaching, outreach. He could be a good priest without trying to solve the questions of suffering that even Augustine admitted were untraceable. He could help Joe.

He read until early gray light began to seep into the room and it was time to go to chapel. There he prayed his usual wordless prayer with more than common urgency, through breakfast, rising only when it was time to start class.

In the classroom students were seating themselves and pulling out their folders and books. Joe volunteered to fill the water pitchers. Then he volunteered to get cups. His face was the color of dust. He stopped beside Father Benni and murmured something; Father Dom watched the rector shake his head and gesture for Joe to sit down as Father Dom stood up. This week’s assigned reading had centered on difficult confessions, surly or abusive penitents. It was important to have coping strategies, Father Dom said.

“You have to listen,” said Hernandez, a thin-faced student with a smile like sunrise. “Don’t just listen to what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it. People bring in their shame and guilt, so they’re angry. If the only person nearby is the priest, they’ll get mad at him.”

“Have you ever had a penitent threaten you, Father?” Sipley asked Father Benni.

“I had someone pull a knife,” the rector said. “At least he said he did.”

“What did you do?”

“Gave him three Our Fathers and a Glory Be.” Father Benni waited for the mild laughter to die down. “All you can do is be a priest. Of course, that’s a lot.”

Father Dom returned to the text, dragging out the discussion as far as he could, but after half an hour every syllable had been covered, and Sipley volunteered to do the first role-play, striding to the front of the room where two chairs stood, separated by a screen. The burly man kissed the stole lying on one chair, placed it around his neck and said, “Hello, my son,” as if he’d been doing these things all his life.

Father Dom pulled out a dependable scenario: the teenage boy who liked to kill cats. Once he’d had a student sputter, “You did what?” But Sipley was smooth, listening through Father Dom’s resentful confession—his mother, he said, had forced him to come—and then talking about the sanctity of God’s creations. “We are called to be good stewards,” he said. “Our job is to protect the defenseless.”

In the discussion afterward, everyone praised Sipley’s clarity. Joe said that he admired Sipley’s calm demeanor. Hernandez suggested that Sipley might have spent a little more time exploring the reason the boy was tying firecrackers to cats’ legs. Sipley nodded, taking notes.

An anxious silence took over the room when Father Dom asked for further comments; the air seemed to prickle. Joe was already trudging to the front of the room, where he hung the purple stole around his neck and sat down. “OK,” he whispered.

Reciting the opening prayer and adding that it had been six years since his last confession, Father Dom wondered if he looked as nervous as he felt. He hoped so. A good priest would try to put a parishioner at ease.

“What brings you here today?” Joe finally asked. His voice was faint. Sipley jotted a note.

“I didn’t think I’d ever come to confession again. I don’t really believe in this. But I just saw my doctor. He says I’m HIV-positive.” Father Dom paused. “I’m twenty-six years old.”

He had gone over Joe’s transcripts. Part of the young man’s fourth-year field education had been hospice work; he could draw on his experience with real patients, people he’d known and liked. But now, while Father Dom waited, Joe didn’t say anything. “Are you there?” Father Dom said.

“Go on.”

“Did you hear me? I’m twenty-six years old, and I’m HIV-positive. I just left the doctor. You’re the first person I’ve told. I’m not sure I can tell anybody else.” Father Dom left room for Joe to ask about his family, or to murmur that the church was a good place to come. “How could this happen to me?”

The silence stretched and thickened until Father Dom felt anger start to buckle his thoughts together. What was the matter with Joe? All he had to say was Are you afraid? Do you feel alone? God is with you, even now. Especially now. A kid who tied firecrackers to cats could figure out that much.

“The only place I could think to come was here,” Father Dom said bitterly. “Don’t ask me why. It’s not like the church has ever helped before.”

“Have you made plans for your death?” Joe said.

Air actually seemed to fly out of Father Dom’s lungs. When he looked up, every one of the students was writing. Even Sipley looked stunned.

Joe was still talking, his voice like sand. “. . . in its teachings the church is very clear about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. You should have come here sooner.”

“That’s not good enough,” Father Dom said. He’d never mentioned homosexuality. Twenty-six years old! Maybe that sounded old to this reedy voice behind the screen. “What am I supposed to do now? I need help.”

“There are several hospices in the area.”

“What is the matter with you?“ Father Dom said, and when the furious tears rose, he didn’t try to stop them. He stuck his face up close to the screen. “Can’t you even pretend to care? Can’t you say anything?”

In the long silence, Father Dom imagined Joe standing at the top of the cliff. His hands were tucked safely up his priestly sleeves while Father Dom slipped off the edge.

“Peace be with you,” Joe said.

Father Dom opened and then closed his mouth, unable to think of one more thing to say. The students were silent until Sipley, of all people, laughed, a little tattoo of sound. At that the others exploded, roaring miserably, looking at their feet. Even Father Benni, whose lips had been tight, joined in. But Father Dom, weeping, felt nauseated. When Joe stood up, Father Dom saw the dark spots on the stole where the boy had sweated through it.

“I want to be a priest.” Joe’s voice was desperate.

“Why?” Father Dom said.

• •

Father Benni called a faculty meeting that afternoon. “What are his strengths?” he said, palming back the thick hair he was normally vain about. He didn’t have to explain what had happened in the practicum. Word was out before lunch.

“He pitches in,” Father Petrus said. “He’s not a shirker.”

“Or a know-it-all,” Father Wells said.

“There’s a real sweetness there,” said Father Radziewicz, who didn’t generally talk in these meetings.

“I know we all like Joe,” Father Benni said, “but this sounds like we’re describing the president of the Altar Society. How would he do with a headstrong parishioner? With a parish council? Can he lead?”

“He hears a call,” Father Dom muttered.

“Calls can be misheard,” Father Benni said.

“You think he doesn’t know that?” Father Dom stared at the whorls in the table’s laminated surface. “He goes around listening all the time. Priesthood is the one thing he wants, and he’s terrified that we’re going to take it away from him.”

“That’s hardly our job. Still, when I compare him to some of the other men—” Father Benni shook his head.

“That’s exactly why it’s important for Joe to be here,” Father Dom said. He wished he could curb the desperation rocketing through his voice. “He has his own gifts. The seminary isn’t supposed to turn out identical priests, each one perfectly sure of himself, rolling off an assembly line with his collar in place and his opinions set for life.” He stopped under the weight of the rector’s sharp gaze, then added, “A little uncertainty isn’t a bad thing.”

“What I saw in your classroom was not enough uncertainty,” Father Benni said. “If that had been a real confession, the poor man would have left the church and walked in front of a bus. Joe did everything but push him.”

“Why don’t we assign him a mentor?” said Father Radziewicz. “Someone he can talk to, who has better judgment.”

Father Dom couldn’t hold back his sigh. Was the mentor going to follow Joe to his parish and slip into the confessional with him? But Father Benni was steepling his fingers, pondering the suggestion, and Father Dom’s imprudent heart lifted.

“Joe might improve if he’s taken in hand by someone at his own level,” the rector said. “He might be less defensive. Some of the men have volunteered to help.”

“Greg, you’re not thinking of assigning one of the students?” Father Dom said.

The rector nodded, apparently indifferent to the horror in Father Dom’s voice. “It’s win-win. A fine opportunity for growth on both sides. Besides, none of us wants to stay up as late as the students do.”

Fathers Wells and Berton, those toadies, laughed. Father Dom said, “Students don’t have the experience. They think they know more than they do. Joe needs trustworthy guidance.”

“He’s had the benefit of your guidance for four years,” Father Benni said. “I’d say it’s time for a new approach.”

“Just not this one,” Father Dom said. The priests laughed and pushed back their chairs. Dependable Dom, always good for a joke. He stayed at the table until he and the rector were alone in the room. “Nobody wants Joe to succeed more than I do,” Father Dom said. “But it’s going to take a miracle.”

“Good. That’s our turf.”

“Right,” Father Dom said bitterly. “I keep forgetting.”

• •

Father Benni chose Sipley to be Joe’s mentor. And he chose Father Dom to oversee Sipley—to mentor the mentor. Father Dom was overscheduled with classes and field experience and his outreach program at the youth center, but he was glad for the assignment. Every night Sipley came to him to describe Joe’s progress, and Father Dom imagined Joe as a fragile boat that he could still see in his spyglass.

“He’s shy, is all. Once you get him in a situation where he’s comfortable, he opens up.” Sipley was sitting in Father Dom’s office, cradling between his big hands the cup of coffee Father Dom had offered.

“Where is he comfortable?”

“You should have seen him in the soup kitchen. He was jawing with everybody who came through. ‘Hey, how’s it going, you want gravy with that?’ And nobody gave him a hard time. I think they could see what he is.” Sipley shifted his bulky thighs on the hard chair. “In his way, he really brings out the best in people.”

“But can you imagine Joe setting up the soup kitchen and overseeing it? A priest needs to show initiative.”

Sipley shifted again. Even in his discomfort he gave the impression of being fundamentally comfortable. “He’s heard a call, Father. It isn’t up to me to question that.”

“It is up to the rector and me to question that.” Looking at Sipley’s polite, averted face, Father Dom added, “In the service of the church Joe will be a representative of the Holy Father. And we’re asking you to help us make sure he can be a good representative.”

The speech had the desired effect: Sipley leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. When he spoke, his resonant voice was confiding. “Joe’s never going to be a take-charge guy. He’s all heart. But if he’s working with somebody who can direct him, he’ll give a hundred percent. He wants this so much.”

Father Dom analyzed the young man’s ruddy face and broad, chapped hands. Everything about him breathed with vibrancy. Had he ever wondered why quailing Joe could be drawn to the same priesthood Sipley was so confident about? Had he thought about the role of a man in society but not of it, safely shut away from human contact by vestments and a collar? Probably not. Sipley himself wanted to be a priest so he could tell people what to do.

“I can’t believe there’s no place for him,” Sipley was saying.

“We’re still looking,” Father Dom said.

Sipley nodded. “If you don’t mind my asking, Father—did you question my call, too?”

Startled, Father Dom said, “You don’t present the same issues.”

“But still.”

Sipley’s wide-set eyes were alit with new curiosity. This chance would not come again. “Of course we do,” said Father Dom. “There’s no such thing as an automatic priest.”

“All my life people have told me I was born to be a priest. My mother, for one. Half the time it’s a compliment.”

“It’s not something to be taken for granted.”

“So I’m being tested? Is that why you asked me to help with Joe?”

“You’re likely to pass,” Father Dom said. “Don’t lose any sleep over this.” But he could see already, as Sipley stood and shook Father Dom’s hand, how the young man’s body was bright with new energy. Father Dom should have been grateful; his own weariness had increased a hundredfold.

In the days that followed, Father Dom expected Sipley to lay siege to Joe, intent on their mutual salvation. But Sipley was a better psychologist than Father Dom had given him credit for. He met Joe casually, in the halls or over coffee, and twice he reported to Father Dom that he hadn’t spoken with Joe that day. “Figured he could use a vacation from me.”

Father Dom was giving Joe a vacation, too. Aside from the weekly meetings of the practicum, he saw Joe only from a distance—in the library, the dining commons, on the walkway in front of the
soccer field. When he believed himself unobserved, Joe took his place easily with the other men, and from time to time he tipped back his head in laughter. But as soon as he saw Father Dom, his gaze dropped again, and dread clung to his pale, chewed mouth. Father Dom understood that Joe had assigned him the role of the enemy, obstacle to Joe’s happiness. The perception wasn’t wrong, but still Father Dom felt stung.

Every day he defended Joe to one priest or another, pointing out how the young man was the first to help clear tables, the first to donate to clothing drives for countries rent by earthquakes. He heard the words’ puniness as they rolled out of his mouth. Everyone in the seminary was waiting for Joe to prove himself with something more than a clothing drive. In these priest-starved days, when Father Radziewicz predicted that Saint Boniface would have to start ordaining dogs, it was a special humiliation to be reevaluated, and Father Dom knew that Joe felt persecuted.

So Father Dom was relieved when, after three weeks of mentoring, Sipley told him that he had a new idea about Joe, a breakthrough plan. “It’s nothing that you’ll object to. I’ve put in a few phone calls, and I’m waiting to hear.”

“Give me a hint, in case the rector asks.”

Sipley paused. “The battle is not to the strong.”

“That’s not going to be much help if he presses me for details.”

“Joe just needs the right chance to shine.“ Sipley beamed. As always, he was confident in the goodness of his actions. But Father Dom wondered if the young man remembered the end of the passage he had quoted: “All are subject to time and mischance.”

• •

A week passed before Father Dom returned to his office and found a note tacked to the corkboard. Could you join Joe and me in the dining room? We’d like to propose something. Father Dom turned left, toward the cafeteria, worrying at a hangnail as he walked. We.

The dining room was empty except for the two men sitting by the window, whose heads swung up in unison at the creak of the swinging door. Sipley said, “Thank you for coming, Father.”

Father Dom seated himself beside Joe. Since the young man was pretending he hadn’t edged away from the table, Father Dom pretended he didn’t notice.

“An opportunity has come up,” Sipley said after Father Dom turned down coffee or iced tea. “I think it’s too special to miss. One of the staff members at Saint Thérèse House had to leave, and they need someone to step in right away. Joe and I could go together.”

“Are you serious?” Father Dom said.

“It’s a special opportunity.” Joe’s voice was dim. “Our men don’t usually go there.”

They sure didn’t. Saint Thérèse House was a two-story facility downtown for terminal children, youngsters dying from cancer or brain lesions or frenzied infections Father Dom had never heard of. Children went to Saint Thérèse House when they couldn’t survive another faltering transplant or more scorching chemotherapy. A hospice for six- and seven-year-olds, it drew patients from three states away. Doctors in the area were proud of the institution, which appalled Father Dom. Sweet Jesus, it was not to be proud of.

Although he had never been in it, he could describe the place as if he’d lived there. For every child who died with a face filled with light, three others left this earth looking puzzled or disappointed or so crocked on morphine they couldn’t feel the oils of the last rites being thumbed onto their foreheads. His stomach turned heavily.

“Their people are trained,” Father Dom said.

“They’re short-handed,” Sipley said.

Joe studied his clear brown tea, and Father Dom automatically thought of Gethsemane. He wondered whether Joe was also thinking of that utter despair. In a brief burst of viciousness, Father Dom hoped he was. “When would it start?” Father Dom said.

“That depends on you,” Sipley said. “There’s only so far the staff can bend the rules. We can come, but a faculty member has to supervise.”

Father Dom opened his mouth and shut it again. “I don’t have medical training,” he said.

“The staff will be keeping an eye on the patients,” Sipley said. “They want someone to keep an eye on us. Since you’ve been working with Joe and me, I thought you should be the one. Of course, I could ask somebody else.”

And somebody would agree. Priests always went: the jails, the hospitals, the shuttered, stinking houses. “Beats reality TV,” Father Wells had said one day after a visit to the prison, his eyes blazing. He might very well go to Saint Thérèse House and train his gaze on those withering children. His gaze would also land on Joe, helpless at the bedside.

“I’ll go,” Father Dom said, lifting his chin. “I’ll go,” he added, not that Sipley or Joe had
asked a second time.

• •

Saint Thérèse House smelled like apples. Most of the children ate through feeding tubes, but one or two could manage soft foods, and every morning ferocious Sister Lupe, who looked thin even in sweat pants, made a fresh batch of applesauce. “At lunch you will feed them,” she told Joe and Sipley. “Until then you will visit with the children who are alone.” The two young men nodded, as did Father Dom, standing a step behind them. Sister Lupe glanced at him with flat eyes, then led them down a corridor.

Bedrooms unfolded in wings from the central hall, and in either apple-smelling direction lay children, one to a room. The children were bald and gray-faced, lying in what looked less like sleep than suspension. Parents, murmuring steadily, sat close beside the beds.

“How long do they stay here?” Sipley was asking.

“Two weeks, typically,” Sister Lupe said. “The one you’re going to see has been here almost three months, our longest ever. You’re getting her because she already knows all of our jokes.” Father Dom tried to imagine a joke coming out of Sister Lupe’s lipless mouth.

“What does she have?” Sipley asked.

“Leukemia.“

“Where are her parents?” Joe asked.

Sister Lupe’s smile was vulpine. “Several agencies would like to know.” She breezed into the girl’s room, then looked back and gestured impatiently for Joe and Sipley to follow. “Look, Cindy. Father Sipley and Father Halaczek are here to see you. And Father Dominic.” The girl smiled at them with half her mouth. Father Dom didn’t know whether she had lost motor control on one side or she meant the expression to look ironic. “Hi.”

Bruises ran in chains up her arms and around her neck, and around the bruises her skin was a dry noncolor. Her skull made a hard dent in the pillow. Father Dom guessed she was twelve years old, but
he could have been three years off in either direction.

“They’re going to visit with you until lunch,” Sister Lupe said.

“That’s a long time,” Cindy said.

“It’s good for you to see new faces,” the sister said, already on her way out of the room. “Enjoy yourselves, Fathers.”

Cindy’s expression was clearly long-suffering, and Father Dom revised his age estimate upward. “Are you here to talk to me about dying?” she said.

“Not if you don’t want to,” Sipley said. “What’s on your mind?”

“No offense, but I’m scared of priests. It’s not good news when you guys come around.”

Joe reached behind his neck and unsnapped his collar. “I don’t have to wear this. I haven’t been ordained.”

“You’re in training?”

“I’m on probation. I messed up, and I’m being given one last chance.”

“So you’re here to show your stuff.”

Joe nodded, and Cindy said to Father Dom, “What does he need to do?”

“Just be with you.”

“Some test.” She closed her eyes. Father Dom had stood beside hospital beds for twenty-five years; rarely had he seen a face so dwindled, death’s mark stamped across her bulging forehead like a thumbprint. He flattened his wet palms against his thighs. Sipley and Joe were talking to her. He could slip out of the room and no one would notice.

“Well, do it,” Cindy was saying, her eyes still closed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Joe said, “What do you want to talk about?”

“You talk. I’ll listen.”

Nausea brushed like a feather across Father Dom’s stomach. Shamefully, he couldn’t stop thinking that he was breathing the air that had passed through Cindy’s diseased membranes. He pulled a tissue from the box on the ledge and held it before his face as if he were going to blow his nose.

Joe said, “Our Father.”

“No,” Cindy murmured. “I don’t like that one. Do your own.”

Joe smiled crookedly. “Please. That’s the only good prayer I know.”

Cindy didn’t open her eyes. “Sister Lupe says the best prayers are one word. What’s your word?”

“Please,” Joe said promptly.

“Keep going.”

The smell of apples billowed softly from the corridor. “Please. God,” Joe said, the word like a cough. “You are in heaven. And your name is—praised.” His white face was damp, and he stood at a tilt, as if every muscle in his body were locked. “Help me,” he said to Father Dom.

“What do you want me to do?” Father Dom hadn’t meant to sound savage, and he was embarrassed when Cindy looked at him with interest.

“Aren’t you supposed to be telling me about heaven?” she said.

“Ask Father Halaczek. He knows,” Father Dom said, a bit of malice to add to his lifetime sins of evasion and cowardice, sins he yearned for now as his eyes slid away from the girl’s cheeks, molded to the bone. All a priest could do was plead for her release, not that pleading would do any good. Joe knew that lesson as well as Father Dom. Joe, who pleaded so much, knew it better.

The young man grasped the corner of Cindy’s sheet, his hand tightening and releasing, his voice shaking. “Please. Your will is going to happen,” he said, then broke down. Pressing his hands against his face, he stood beside the bed, his shoulders racked. “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. “And it’s going to get worse.” He wheeled to face Father Dom, who had backed up until his shoulders touched the wall. The smell of apples rose around him, and his nausea
was roiling like a sea. “Isn’t it?” Joe said.

“Yes,” said Father Dom.

“Are you going to stop my ordination?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Sipley said, “Fathers, we’re here to pray for healing.” He began to move his lips unself-consciously, a powerful man who could probably hold the seventy-pound girl in one hand. Here, Father
Dom realized, was the test Sipley had set for himself: to halt death’s advance, even though death was on the march. Death had captured the flag. Father Dom wondered when Sipley was going to acknowledge that.

“Why not?” Joe repeated, louder.

“Who else would come here?” Father Dom said.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to say those things where I can hear them,” Cindy said.

“Father Dominic is a special priest,” Joe said. “You’re
lucky to even see him. Why don’t you lead us in prayer, Father?
We need guidance.”

Joe probably didn’t hear the rage that rang through his words. And Father Dom would eventually forgive the boy—just as, when he looked at Cindy’s shrunken, darkening body, he already forgave her parents for running away. In the end he forgave everybody, which was half the reason Joe would never forgive him.

He dampened his lips to say something unobjectionable about faith and perseverance. He breathed in the apple-drenched air. The instant he opened his mouth, he vomited where he stood. Sipley managed to get a basin under Father Dom’s mouth for the last of it, but the room was full of the stink, and when he finished Father Dom could not lift his swimming eyes.

“Usually I’m the one who does that,” Cindy said.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, afraid to say anything more. Sipley was probably warming up to quote Saint Paul: the Spirit expresses itself in outcries that we ourselves do not understand. If Sipley said a word, Father Dom would retch again.

“Father,” Joe said. “You should have told us you were ill.” He pulled a chair beside Cindy’s bed. She said, “Do you mind not talking?”

“I’ll get you something to drink.” His thin voice wavered. When Cindy shook her head, he said, “We have such a long day ahead. Let me get you something. Please.”

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