by Steven Lance
"CAN I GETCHA anudda drink, Faddah?"
Elderly, tall and lanky, with a face full of trauma-grooved wrinkles, "Father" O'Gordy stirs himself from his perpetual stupor. Drunkenly perched atop a stool at the short end of an L-shaped bar, he grunts as he pushes his slumped body away from the wall. He groans as he pulls himself, with large, arthritic hands, closer to upright and center; his bony wrists made naked by the riding up of too-short black jacket sleeves.
Maintaining a bloodless-knuckled hold of the bar rail, his silver-bristle whiskers reflecting the erogenous colors of neon pulsing beer signs and blinking strings of lights that give this smoke-filled pub its only source of ambiance beyond the usual juke box tunes of an era long gone though still lived out by this place's regulars, "Father" O'Gordy attempts to focus his pale blue bloodshot eyes as he replies in his best Irish brogue, "Sure an' beggora! Aye...that ya can, me fine young friend. That ya can."
Aldo Amoroso -- not young, nearing fifty-two, although somewhat of a friend -- grabs the old man's empty glass, adds ice and pours out four fingers of rotgut whiskey. The squat, very round bartender puts the drink in front of O'Gordy.
"On me, Faddah. Merry Christmas." His voice is, as it always is, monotone. Tired sounding. As if he had witnessed all too much of a lousy world and will never again be (if ever he had been) impressed by anything at all. His five o'clock shadow glistens like symmetrically applied grease paint. Aldo's expression is emotion-neutral.
"Thank ye kindly, me boy," says a grinning Sean O'Gordy with eyes a glint and spirit afire now that he has something to swill.
The middle-aged cadre, nightly frequenters of Wee Folk Pub, the majority of them bulky from their carbo-rich diets, nudge each other with elbows, or prod with fingers, or signal with comradely squeezes of shoulders. All of them exchange knowing looks. Their smiles and half-muffled laughs clearly convey twinkly-eyed amusement; a form of gaiety, however, that vibrates with sinister undertones. For these patrons, having served a twelve-month acquaintanceship, have grown accustomed to "Father" O'Gordy's inebriated ramblings, by now unerringly able to identify the signs that precede his homiletic story telling binges.
Dale Peters, a huge, burly, unemployed truck driver, leaves his table of friends and ambles up to the bar. His blue-collar cronies are doubled over from out winded, gut-wrenching spasms of hilarity. "Big Foot" Peters hoists one thick leg over a stool, half-sitting, and leans his enormous flannel-clad torso up against the bar.
Aldo's eyes move rapidly side-to-side checking for facial indicators to gauge the feel of this confrontation. The pudgy barkeep senses no danger. In fact, he struggles to keep from snickering. Dale Peters, though extremely capable of mammoth violence, is tonight, this minute, his usual peaceful but prankish self.
"Hey, Aldo -- " says the trucker in a voice surprisingly higher than might be expected from such a big man. "Praise the Lord and pass the beer."
Snorting sounds of people trying to stifle their laughter emanate throughout the pub. "Father" O'Gordy's face twitches but otherwise he shows no offense taken regarding the snide comment.
Not yet finished, being pretty well loaded on good spirits and holiday cheer, "Big Foot" says in a loud voice, "Jus' thought I'd rescue yer ass from Hell. The Hell of havin' to listen to his same ol' shit all by your lonesome."
Aldo's eyes roll. He quickly grabs Big Foot's mug and pivots, moves towards the beer tap before cracking a smile.
Of course, most everyone else is less discreet. All but one lets loose with fits of uproarious laughter. There is hooting and howling accompaniment from Dale Peters' buddies back at the table.
The sole holdout is a very striking, sixty-three years old woman, Elvira Vargas. Dressed in festive red dress festooned with ornate organza framing mocha mounds of promising dimension, she sits at a table against the far wall with a gentleman friend in his fifties who has been plying her with drinks for hours and now, though understanding no English, howls merrily along with the rest. Stony faced, Elvira watches.
Father O'Gordy shakes so badly that the whiskey seems to boil in his glass as he raises it to his lips with both hands and gulps down half of the elixir. He stares glassy-eyed, straight-ahead, places the glass back down on the bar and wipes his mouth on his sleeve.
Aldo returns with a foaming mug of beer.
"Here ya go," he says without looking at Dale.
The trucker slides a dollar across the countertop. "Keep the change."
Anticipating more entertainment, the crowd of about twenty silences itself. At mellow volume the jukebox oozes White Christmas as sung by Bing Crosby.
Big Foot takes a swig from his mug, sucks the foam from his upper lip. He contemplates his next humorous ejaculation.
Sean O'Gordy steps down from his stool. He stands holding onto the brass bar rail, swaying, legs wobbly. His black pant legs fall to just above his black, elastic-less socks that are bunched up below his bony ankles. He moves away from the bar, slowly, carefully, placing one well-worn black shoe in front of the other, making a wide sweep around Big Foot. Father O'Gordy uses the backs of chairs to steady himself until he has circled the trucker and moves back to the long length of L-shaped bar in order to utilize its rail. His ambulatory difficulty gives rise to knee-slapping, table-banging laughter the intensity of which gains momentum with every step he takes.
Feeling very prankish, indeed, Dale Peters slides from the stool and tiptoes up behind the old man, plucking a hold of O'Gordy's jacket tail with thumb and forefinger. Just this resistance is enough to retard the "Father's" progress towards the bathroom. Unaware of this impediment he takes three steps without moving forward. Only now does he realize that something is amiss and counters by straining, leaning into his next step.
Big Foot lets go.
"Father" O'Gordy forges ahead, loses his balance and grabs for the bar rail to keep himself from falling face first to the floor. His hold swings him fast towards the bar. He crashes into it, sprawling across unoccupied stools.
The crowd explodes with laughter. Dale Peters fetches his mug and ambles back to his table of buddies. He is applauded and cheered.
Sean O'Gordy rights himself with as much dignity as he can muster and makes it to the bathroom without further incident.
Aldo chuckles despite his feelings of pity for the old codger.
Elvira Vargas waits until the bathroom door closes before whisper-shouting, "iJou ought to be ashame'! iAll of jouse! iLeaf heem alone!"
The crowd's laughter subsides but does not end.
Big Foot whines, "Awww...C'mon, Elvira...We're only funnin' the ol' coot. No harm's been done. Loosen up, huh?! It's Christmas!"
As if on cue, the jukebox offers a rousing version of Deck the Halls, which immediately impresses itself on the crowd, and they spontaneously sing along.
"...WITH BOUGHS OF HOLLY...FALLA LALA LA LA-LA LA LA...T'IS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY...FALLA LALA LA LA-LA LA LA..."
But as the song progresses, fewer and fewer know the words. Soon, some hum, though no one sings.
Elvira finishes her drink and motions to Aldo to bring her another. Her thin companion grins. He gulps the remainder of his own drink, stands, picks up her glass, puckers his lips and makes kissing sounds before walk-dancing merrily to the bar; feeling at least a foot taller (or a head higher) than his five-feet one-inch reality. While waiting for his order to be filled, he stares at his lovely date; hoping her finely shaped lycra sheathed legs may forget themselves and part to provide a more enticing view.
Elvira maintains her stony composure. Big Foot notices, yells over to her.
"Come on, huh?!...Elvi-i-i-ira!" Getting no response he takes up a quick collection among his friends, walks to the bar and slaps down dollars. He turns to face Señora Vargas.
"Okay, Elvira? He'll drink all night, free, on us. Huh?!"
She warms only minimally. "Es bueno. But, jou should be nice to El Padre. Hee has no' had an easy life."
Dale Peters looks at his friends, at the rest of the crowd. They watch him intently.
"AWWWWWWW...Geez, Elvira. Okay! You're right. C'mon gang, what d'you say? Let's try an' be nice to the ol' goat tonight, huh? I guess it won't kill us. I mean, hell it bein' Christmas Eve, an' all..."
A chorus of affirmations fill the air.
Elvira softens more. She nods her head. Everyone cheers and Big Foot grins like a baby. But, before he can get back into his seat, just as Winter Wonderland begins to play, Ms. Vargas cautions, "Jou know, hee really hwas a Padre once. A long time ago. No one knows ah-hwhy hee leave the Church. But, hwhatever it hwas, eet put heem in the casa de loco." She uses a finger-circling-ear gesture to get across to the crowd that Father Sean O'Gordy had gone insane.
The Wee Folk Pub patrons are shocked, not knowing whether to be scared or sympathetic. The odd tone of Elvira's voice had been substantiation enough to prove to them that Ms. Vargas had not been fooling around.
"Dhat's da woid I got," adds Aldo; the "word" being the gospel of neighborhood gossip. "Rumor has it dhat he escaped from an asylum upstate durin' a fire. He was real lucky to make it out alive. Most of da inmates boined up! Said so on da news. Anyways, a lot o' da old folks 'round da neighborhood remember him. Dhey don't wanna cause him no more grief. Besides, he's harmless enough."
Realizing they had known nothing at all about this old man even though he had been in their company every night now for twelve months makes the entire crowd uneasy, some much more than others. This latter group drinks faster, some chugging down their alcohol remains, some already wrapping themselves up in outerwear ready to venture back out into the cold, snowy night.
And the juke box singers sing, "...walking through a winter wonderland."
As Father O'Gordy emerges from the men's room, he finishes stuffing his long-tailed, short-sleeved black shirt into his trousers that he hikes up by the waistband. Oblivious to the staring crowd he adjusts his filthy-white collar using the same thumb, fore- and middle-finger squeeze applied to his Adam's apple that he always uses, many, many times a day, accounting for the collar's soiled condition.
By the time Sean O'Gordy wends his way back to his stool, amidst the exchange of season's greetings and best wishes for the new year, more than half of the crowd has departed or is now about to depart. Within minutes, the only patrons remaining are Ms. Vargas and her sleepy-eyed companion, Big Foot and his four buddies, and two attractive divorcées, both in their early thirties, their blond frosted permed hair carrying the charge of static and sexual energy, both wearing short skirts, tight cashmere sweaters with color-coordinated tights and high leather boots.
The music seems louder without so many competing conversations. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer brightens the crowd's mood. Big Foot and his friends, Dirty, Lotta Rod, Fat Man and Chugger, sing along with the record, out of key but with lots of spirit.
Lucy and Brenda, the divorcées, giggle.
Even Elvira smiles; one golden tooth glinting, her eyes a-shine.
Father Sean finishes his drink, is told by Aldo that he can drink the rest of the night for free, compliments of Dale and his pals. The old man's eyes tear up. He slides his glass across the bar for a refill.
Aldo thinks, "What da hell!" and reaches for his topshelf whiskey.
Father O'Gordy is already on his way to Big Foot's table.
"Oh, wow!" exclaims the rugged looking Chugger.
"Here he comes, good buddy!" warns Fat Man.
The leather-clad Lotta Rod and a weaselish Dirty raise cupped hands to hide their snickers.
Big Foot says, "Be cool, huh." He twists around in his chair to face the wizened old man.
"T'is a fine bunch o' lads we have sittin' here. Sure an' beggora! Thank you so much. You've made an old man very happy. May the good Lord bless each an' every one of ya."
The men at the table are struck with Father O'Gordy's sincerity. Their guilt feelings from having treated him so badly these past twelve months swell within them, wiping the smirks off the faces of Dirty and Lotta Rod and making Chugger, Fat Man, and Big Foot (all of these men in their forties with wives and children), feel like naughty little boys in need for repenting.
"Father..." says Dale in a respectful tone of voice, "why don't you join us."
The others chime in with approval. Dirty gets up and grabs a chair from the unoccupied table behind him. He offers it to the ex-priest.
"C'mon...Have a seat."
A swaying Sean O'Gordy clasps his hands together, throws his head back, looks heavenward with misty eyes; closes them and bows his head. "Oh, Lord...Bless you for answerin' me prayers and sendin' me such fine friends on this most sacred holiday."
He swoons. Dirty reaches out to keep the Father from toppling over. Big Foot moves faster than he has in many years, out of his seat to the ex-priest's side. He and Dirty help the old man into a chair.
Lotta Rod hustles to the bar and brings back Father O'Gordy's drink.
Even while catching his breath the old man thanks them all again for their kindness. After taking a swig of his whiskey, which squints one eye upon noticing the quality and raises the glass to Aldo in salute, Father O'Gordy says, "Why don't we join the tables, lads? Have everybody sit together like one big happy family?"
It takes a moment for the idea to settle among the men. The Father looks eagerly from one face to another.
Perry Como sings a mellifluous, O, Holy Night.
Without discussion or signaling looks, the men come to a unanimous decision. Chugger: "Sure!" Dirty: "Why not!" Fat Man: "Got my vote!" Lotta Rod (wolfishly eyeing the divorcées): "Yeah, good idea."
Big Foot puts out the call. "Let's do it!" Within minutes tables and chairs have been drawn together and the patrons sit as a single group. On one side Lotta Rod and Dirty flank the divorcées Lucy and Brenda. At one end sits Chugger. Fat Man, the Padre, Big Foot, Elvira and her beau, occupy the other side. At the head of this table an empty chair waits for Aldo who is nowhere to be seen.
The group chats. There is laughter and good cheer. Intermittent shouts for Aldo to join them are finally answered as the pub owner arrives with a huge tray of cheeses, cold cuts, lettuce, sliced onions and tomatoes, pickles and olives. The patrons whoop and applaud his generosity. Not yet finished, Aldo asks for and receives assistance. Chugger jumps to the task. Elvira nudges her friend into also helping. They return with rolls, butter, condiments, utensils, napkins, three bottles of champagne and four pitchers of beer.
The jukebox imparts a rousing version of Joy To The World.
These eleven people celebrate with gusto. Eating. Drinking. Talking. Laughing. Caroling along to the records when the spirit so moves them.
Of course, as might be expected, the most animated of all is Father O'Gordy. At first quiet, his tongue has progressively loosened. Now, with the food eaten and drinks being consumed with abandon, the old man has become the center of attraction. His stories delight the crowd. So hilariously true-to-life are his tales that the exaggerations only serve to enhance. In fact, Father O'Gordy's stories are true accounts of his boyhood adventures in Ireland, of his move to the United States, of his experiences growing up here. By the time he begins to tell the tales of his seminary days and subsequent priesthood, he has the complete attention of every twinkly-eyed patron.
As a string and choir rendition of Jingle Bells plays in the background, Sean O'Gordy relates some of his spicier stories to his groggy audience.
"An' then there was Father Martin. God love 'im. Why, the poor fella had a hell of a time there for a while. It seems this, uh...this one particular parishioner, a very respected member of the community, havin' a seat on the parish council no less, a lady she was and a very wealthy one at that, well, it seems this woman had, I guess you'd call it a bit of a fetish that put a great deal of pressure on Father Martin. You see, this, uh...this lady was no lady at all once she got inside the confessional. She not only always managed to get poor Father Martin but would also plan it to be his last confession of the day. Of course, none of the rest of us had any idea. We never even noticed that she always had chosen Martin to be her confessor. Not until Father Martin, at his wit's end confided in me, did this situation come to light. He had me join him one evening when he was to hear confessions.
"Ah, there we were, crammed into the confessional, me havin' to be quiet as a church mouse, both of us prayin' we wouldn't be discovered by the Monsignor. God forbid! Anyway, when all the others had come and gone, she showed up. Well, I tell you, that lady nearly shocked the frock right off me!"
The group howls. Father O'Gordy continues.
"She talked non-stop about her imagined and real sexual escapades in a way that made the most extraordinary pictures come to mind. My Lord! In twenty minutes she had graphically detailed every perversion known to humankind! All the while we could hear what she was doin' an' before long we could...well, let's just say it wasn't her perfume we were smellin'. And, she did this every week! I understood completely Father Martin's problem as well as me own. I mean it made me realize just how human priests can be, if you catch me drift. And, to make matters worse, this woman, after receiving her penance, would always take up a position at the nearest pew so that she could see the Father leaving his post. Every week she would watch the poor man walkin' slightly hunched over in an effort to conceal his, uhm...problem."
The group explodes with laughter. Lucy and Brenda turn crimson; their mouths, circles of surprise. Even more rubescent than the divorcées are Dirty, Aldo and Fat Man; though, with the latter it is difficult to know if blood pressure or embarrassment should be considered the culpable factor.
Father O'Gordy, a glint in his eyes and hugely smiling, peers at every face around the table. Obvious is this man's happiness. With the timing of a polished comedian he waits, sensing the perfect moment for the punch line. It arrives. He waves his finger at them, back and forth, including everyone before he says, "Aye...T'is precisely how poor Father Martin and the lady reacted. She laughed. An' he turned red as a beet, he did."
The group's hilarity erupts anew out peaking their last eruption by a good measure.
"Aye, that was a real test o' faith for Father Martin. Which, I hasten to add, he passed with flyin' colors."
Totally engrossed in the story, Big Foot inquires, "So, what happened? Between the woman and Father Martin, I mean?"
Father O'Gordy had been hoping someone would ask that question. His expression promises yet more humor prompting members of the group to giggle in anticipation.
"Why, Father Martin prayed for strength and a solution, an' the lady got hit by a bus."
Again an unrestrained outburst of laughter and table pounding spasms of merriment take hold of the patrons.
The jukebox plays a spirited Frosty the Snowman. Aldo notices a few of his friends checking their watches. He picks up the tray now heaped with used napkins, knives and forks, and jars of condiments, and heads back to the kitchen. He quickly returns with an urn of fresh brewed coffee, a stack of plastic wrapped Styrofoam cups under one arm, an unopened quart carton of milk under the other. He sets them down on the table and again heads back to the kitchen.
Big Foot is up and following the barkeep closely. "Can I give you a hand, Aldo?"
All smiles, Aldo turns his head and says, "Yeah, get us a couple o' bottles of da Bailey's," before he disappears into the kitchen.
Big Foot gladly goes behind the bar, locates the Irish Cream liqueur, and grabs two bottles.
Aldo walks from the kitchen holding a heaping tray of assorted pastries.
Both men get a round of applause as they return to the table.
Elvira has already taken charge of dispensing cups of coffee to everyone. Big Foot takes his seat while Aldo administers the Bailey's; a goodly sized shot for each cup.
Father O'Gordy launches into another tale about a priest named Father Timothy who would grill young couples about to enter matrimony with questions regarding their premarital sexual proclivities.
"T'is a part of any priest's duty," says the Father to an enrapt audience. "To be sure. Ah, but...Father Timothy took it too far. An' this is no hear-say."
"You see, I was bein' groomed for advance, all the way up the ladder. Monsignor...Bishop...Then, well...I shant be so egotistical as to suggest my becomin' a Cardinal but, you get me point. I was very much trusted I was. Which I suppose is the reason Monsignor Rogoleski enlisted me to investigate Father Timothy's tactics; there havin' been a few complaints registered."
"So, I took to hiding in the closet, I did. With a tape recorder whenever Father Timothy was to question a couple. It took me a number of times and, in fact, I began to wonder if the complaints had been on the up an' up. But, I kept at it in order to provide evidence the Monsignor wanted, to make sure it was nothing more than misinterpretations.
"Well, to make a long story short, there finally came a conference with a young couple during which Father Timothy had asked all the proper questions, just as he had the times before when I'd been eavesdroppin'. Likewise, he then asked the groom-to-be to wait out in the hall. This, of course, is a common part of the conference procedure. An' then...Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday, I do. The girl, such a sweet young thing. She was so trusting of Father Timothy. Havin' never gone through the process before, she assumed his questioning was standard practice that all couples must go through. She answered Timothy's every query honestly and with much embarrassment. But his questions became more and more explicit until he was actually askin' the girl to detail individual sex acts that she had engaged in."
The men at the table are entranced. The women are aghast.
"Aye...As I said, part of the job is to ask about pre-marital coition. It is, after all, a sin that must be expunged before matrimony. But a simple yes or no should suffice. So naive was this lassie, however, that Father Timothy was able to push the questioning to the very limits of her endurance. He told her that some sexual positions were so abhorred by the Church that if she and her boyfriend had used any of them the marriage might not be sanctified that to lie about this would constitute a mortal sin. The poor girl...that poor, poor girl...I knew then an' there Father Timothy's days as a priest were numbered. But, I...I had to get the evidence."
"I heard him get up from his seat, walk to the door and lock it. Father Timothy then, in his most gentle voice, began to be untruthful to the girl. He told her that in order to be absolutely sure the positions she had engaged in were not the forbidden ones she must demonstrate them."
Everyone at the table spontaneously proclaim their feelings of contempt for such devious behavior on the part of a trusted priest.
Father O'Gordy nods his head. "Exactly how I felt. I remember thinkin', 'To hell with me oath to the Monsignor! This has gone quite far enough.' An' I was just about to jump out of me hiding place, but...right at that moment, Father Timothy's voice turned so compassionate, his words so reassuring, that I was frozen to me spot. I began to think that maybe I, as well as those couples that had complained, truly had mistaken his intentions. Perhaps bein' young himself Timothy was bein' a little overzealous in the performance of his duties. But, then I heard him calmly say to the cryin' girl...'Okay, get on your knees and pretend I'm your fiancé. Go ahead...I am consecrated as the body of Christ, The Redeemer. Kiss it, my dear. Take Jesus in your mouth and receive His holiest of sacraments'...I knew the bastard was no good."
The table crowd is wide-eyed and open mouthed from repulsion.
"Twas at that moment that I thrust open me closet door just in time to see that little lassie, on her knees, head movin' forward decidin' she'd had quite enough an' haul off deliverin' a tremendous wallop to Father Timothy's private parts!"
The groups pent up hostility turns itself loose with highly charged cheering, foot stomping, and table banging.
Father O'Gordy waits for the tumult to die down before adding, "Needless to say, I got in a few good punches meself."
Another cheer arises. Smiles return all around.
"Of course, Father Timothy was roundly turned out. Well, at least from that parish. But, the Church allowed him to remain a priest. Some therapy. Rumor of another incident. Another move. Lost track of him eventually. No good bum! I tell ya...In all me years, he is the one person I've never been able to forgive for what he'd done."
This story, with its just ending, has restored the positive, if not festive, atmosphere to Wee Folk Pub. A lull ensues that is both warm and pleasant. The group sips on their second or third cups of Irish coffee. Silent Night fills the room with a true sense of Christmas spirit. So friendly and contented is the mood amongst these eleven men and women that everyone is secretly wishing time would stop, enabling them to maintain this beautiful instant forever.
In fact, so strong is this camaraderie no one remembers the comment that had turned this evening around. The mood is extremely comfortable, as if they have always been very good friends. Even Elvira has forgotten the gossip concerning Father O'Gordy's decades-long bout with insanity and his subsequent escape. Bathed in the multi-color glow of holiday lights and flashing beer brand signs, this group savors the moment.
"So, Father..." begins Lucy with glazy delivery, gliding a liquor high, recalling the old man was no longer a priest but forgetting why. "...Why'd you leave if, well...It sounds like you loved everything about being a priest. And you still wear the outfit...the collar, an' all."
A chill psychic current runs around the table, completing a circuit. It hums with mind-numbing presence. The magic mood is sucked into an abyss of regret. Each member of the group tries not to look at the ex-priest but their wills are nowhere near strong enough. They each witness the Father's facial abnormalities: Tics. Twitches. Expressions changing before fully forming.
Obvious to all is the old man's inner struggle. Some in the group wonder who, others what, could produce such a fierce battle. When at last the "Father" speaks it is with calm features and voice.
"Aye, loved it dearly I did. But, there came a situation that...that made it...You see, I...'Twas the calling that did it."
Again Sean O'Gordy wrestles inside himself. This time, however the group immediately senses that he is unaware of his conflict.
"iPadre, por favor!" pleads Elvira. "Do no' speak of such things."
Big Foot agrees. "Yeah...C'mon, Father...Forget about it. Leave the past where it be."
"I'm...I'm so sorry." Lucy feels miserable. "I didn't mean to stir up...I forgot about your-uhm...uh...Oh, hell!"
Father O'Gordy waves away the objections. His tone of voice very subtly conveys to the group that he is almost too calm and collected considering the intensity of this subject.
"I...I don't mind. Although, for some reason I feel as if I shouldn't be talkin' about it. But, I guess...Well, I guess it's just me own failure to accept what happened that makes me want to keep it to meself. We're all friends here...Aren't we? Besides, y-you all want to know. I know that. I...I can't blame you. I guess there's no reason not...to...to discuss..."
Sean O'Gordy fades off, into yet more inner wrangling. No one in the group seeing his discomfort wants him to go on but not one of them can think of anything to say to assuage the old man's mental turmoil. Perhaps this is because they all are truly curious and want to know, to hear this gossip from the man himself.
Another Christmas carol plays unheard. The patrons are totally focused on the ex-priest.
"I...I guess it all started way back in me boyhood. During me eighth or ninth Christmas, I believe...Always such a joyful, spiritual time. It was as if the church itself, the little one my family attended, as if it came alive at Christmas. Like it was smiling. It was true magic. Even folks that didn't like each other all year long would be nice to one another. This so impressed me I remember decidin' then and there to become a priest so that I might experience even more deeply the powers and glory of God and Church. True to me word, some years later I entered the seminary and worked very, very hard. It paid off. Eventually I earned me priesthood.
"Aye...I loved everything about bein' a priest. 'Twas the best part of me life." Father O'Gordy frowns. "That's why it's still a mystery to me why I ever started thinkin' about things I shouldn't have. Around Christmas no less, the most holy time of the year."
He falls into another lapse, in the grasp of a dejà vu phenomenon; a new jukebox carol acting like an hallucinogenic drug.
"GOD REST YE MERRY, GENTLEMEN, LET NOTHING YOU DISMAY, FOR JESUS CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR, WAS BORN UPON THIS DAY; TO SAVE US ALL FROM SATAN'S POW'R, WHEN WE WERE GONE ASTRAY...O' TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY, COMFORT AND JOY, O' TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY..."
Father O'Gordy turns paper white. "Odd that it should be playin' now. Just like back then. Oh...Yes! I thought they'd...Yes! Here they come. The same...the same thoughts as...NO!" His face shows fear. It returns to a perfect glassy-eyed calm.
The group shares a single shiver.
"But," he resumes; his voice somehow altered, eerie. "We are all friends here, now, aren't we? I...I can...tell...These thoughts come back to me. Aye...T'is a good question. Where does Satan go? What does he do during this most holy of holidays? Does anybody know? Has anybody wondered about this? We learn that Christmas is the Holiday of Lights. Everywhere around the world lights shine or candles burn at Christmas. Can it just be coincidence that this all takes place at the time of the winter solstice? When nights are at their longest? Is this why we Christians celebrate so intensely precisely at the time of year when darkness has the upper hand? After all, He is called the Prince of Darkness is He not? Doesn't this suggest...I mean do we truly celebrate the birth of Christ, the son of God? NO! Jesus Christ was born in the Spring. Even Church scholars know that. No. We combat our fear of Satan with fabricated celebration. Replete with a ritual of sacrifice; the life of a tree for peace of mind!"
Elvira shrieks, "AY-EEE!" She blesses herself feverishly. "Madre mia! Basta, ya!"
"Yeah, Faddah." Aldo's eyes are round and wide, his voice, thin and fearful. "Take it easy, okay? G-Get a grip on it, huh?"
In fact, everyone is frightened. Those nearest Father O'Gordy unconsciously push themselves in their chairs away from him. The old man's eyes stare straight ahead seeing nothing of his company. They are filled with flickering candle light. His kind, happy face transforms to one pointy, drawn and sallow. Nostrils flare. Lips curl into snarl. Like a man possessed he speaks to no one and everyone: Fast-paced. Not pausing for replies.
"I...I remember now! The Holiday of Lights. The zenith of Christian belief. Aye, we don't go 'round flagellatin' ourselves like the Moslems. But our fervor is no less apparent. Peace an' brotherhood, a kindly smile, a helpin' hand...T'is the one time of the year when Christians truly behave in a Christian manner. Aye...This hypocrisy is what led me on, what led to my discovery..."
Father O'Gordy looks slowly from one to another. His right eyebrow is skeptically arched.
"Do any of you really believe Lucifer skinks away like some poor unwanted little bastard whenever we celebrate christmas? If you do, just where d'you suppose he goes? Back to Hell? HAH! Let me tell you where the Master Demon is and what He does at Christmas...He is, as always, everywhere! In the lights! In the flames of every candle and fireplace! Why, He's here in this room right now!"
The ex-priest gazes at the closest red-glass globe on the table, at its inner flickering candle. The light of the flame dances in his heavily glazed eyes.
"Yes...Satan is here. Laughing. At all of us. Mocking our frail beliefs."
The members of the group are spellbound, riveted to their seats, mouths agape. The hairs on their arms, on the backs of their neck, stand. Immobilizing fear sings through bodies and minds.
"...O' TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY, COMFORT AND JOY, O' TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY..." The carol enters its final verse.
Still focused on the candle flame Father O'Gordy proceeds with a voice sounding more and more unnatural. "We humans are a fearing lot. We're afraid of anything that we do not understand. That is why we pretend to know everything about everything. An' those that pretend the best progress to the top. They become our leaders. We adore them. Gods! For they breathe the breath of life into that illusion of order all of us so desperately need. They are the almighty counterweights giving us a sense of balance. Can any of you deny this? If it isn't leadership that you're fond of, don't you find your balance in a bottle? or pills? or...or anything else that'll help you forget the fact that there is no such thing as order? Not here...Yet we continue to accept as truth that for every plus there is a minus, that everything is black or white. We cannot accept that life is infinite shades of gray. We must believe that wherever there is evil there must be an equal amount of goodness to balance things out.
"So, why is it then, after Monsignor Rogoleski agreed, saying, 'Humanity's continued existence is proof of such balance and, therefore, a proof of God as well,' why did he have me committed? Testifying that I was insane because of my questions? Why? Fear...He was terrified! Plain an' simple. Because the facts are too overwhelming to counter unless one believes strongly in the Lord Jesus Christ, to the exclusion of all reason."
"That's what he told me...to strengthen my faith. Can you believe it?! Never mind the fact that proof of God is proof of the Devil! Never mind that Satan Himself spoke to me an' told me why more people die in fires at Christmas than at any other time of the year."
"ES STUPIDO!" cries out a fear-enraged Elvira Vargas. "Is many more candles an' lights burning! Jou say so jouself!"
Big Foot yells, his voice raised by fear. "Yeah! The Holiday of Lights, remember?! W-With more candles an' lights an' fires goin' in the fireplaces 'cause of the cold, 'course there's more chances for accidents to happen."
The rest of the group grumbles, unified in agreement. Together against one, they seek to reaffirm their belief as the correct belief.
Father O'Gordy chuckles, now, giggles with delight.
"That's what the Monsignor said! An' then he put me away. You're just the same. All of you. You're all too afraid to see it. Oh, don't get me wrong. I do whole-heartedly sympathize. You see, I'm every bit as terrified by the truth as you all are, as Monsignor Rogoleski was. The only difference is that I face this truth. I cannot make-believe it doesn't exist."
"WHAT TRUTH?!" screams Big Foot. "YOURS? HUH? TELL US THIS TRUTH OF YOURS! GO AHEAD. TELL US!"
The Father turns stony serious. "I...I already told you. When Christendom loses itself to orgiastic ritual, as it does at Christmas, Christians believe we are at our strongest. Indeed, we think of our faith as being invincible, omnipotent! And yet...While we chant, and sing, and light up the darkness, a very strange thing happens. When we believe our belief to be the brightest it becomes the darkest. For Satan's illumination blinds us. The more we pretend, the darker we become.
"This, my friends, is the truth of which I speak. The proof of God is the proof of Satan. And not because of some fallacious balance."
Every member of the group heaps upon the Father their negative epithets. This verbal assault continues non-stop even as they all rise, readying themselves to leave, and moving toward the door.
Sean O'Gordy holds out his hands to them in pleading gesture. "Don't you see? I know this is the truth! Please believe me. Satan told me so Himself, he did!"
Dirty pivots and charges the old man. Lotta Rod and Chugger move quickly to grab him from behind. He whines like an animal as he struggles to get at the ex-priest.
Big Foot hurries to position himself between his very angry friend and Father O'Gordy.
"Best shut yer mouth, ol' man. Just shut the fuck up!"
Sean O'Gordy lifts his face from his hands. He is sobbing. "M-my God... What have I done?"
"It ain't gonna work!" says Big Foot visibly trying to restrain himself from launching his own physical attack on the ex-priest. He speaks through clenched teeth. "Forget the sympathy routine. ry all ya want, you pathetic old fuck! Nobody here cares. We tried to be nice. But...Well, just don't let us catch you in here no more. Ya got that?!"
"Dhat's right, old man" adds Aldo. "You...You stay away from here. Hear me? Or I'll...I'll call da cops on ya! Send ya back where ya belong!"
Father O'Gordy pleads, "Y-You don't understand! Please...Listen to me...He...He will prove I speak the truth unless...unless you believe me!" The old man attempts to choke back his sobs with only partial success. "Ev-Ev'ry time I-I tell this story, He...He..."
No one listens to the jukebox version of We Three Kings of Orient Are..."OH STAR OF WONDER, STAR OF NIGHT, STAR WITH ROYAL BEAUTY BRIGHT, WESTWARD LEADING, STILL PROCEEDING, GUIDE US TO THY PERFECT LIGHT..."
Sirens wail into awareness. Father O'Gordy buries his face into his hands and uncontrollably weeps. The group crowds around the barred window. The night is ablaze with firelight yet they see no flames. Petrified, they watch as the fire engines stop in front of the Wee Folk Pub. Only now do they notice the warmth from the flames raging through the floors above them. Only now do they notice the smell of smoke. There is panic. They scream. They pray for God to save them as they rush the door. It will not open. They scratch, kick, and claw at it without success. Every one of them screams for God's mercy.
The crackling of fire is now frighteningly loud. Hunks of planking come crashing down. Fire rages. Smoke becomes dense. The group grows hysterical. They rant and they rave. They renew their attacks upon the door. More of the ceiling gives way. The group turns as one entity, stands looking at the old man with maniacal expression and pleading eyes, silently begging him to help.
Father O'Gordy is sobbing. He gets up from the table and walks towards the door. The group seems hypnotized, dividing itself in two, each side stepping back to let him through.
"I'm sooooo sorry...Forgive me...I forgot I shouldn't ever speak ab...B-But...you all wanted the truth. And, I...I'm powerless to resist the calling."
He puts his hand on the doorknob, turns to look at the group as they re-form into single crowd of wild-eyed, terror-stricken people awaiting salvation.
Crying so hard now that he has difficulty forming his words, Father O'Gordy says, "If...If only y-you had believed me, maybe you'd all..."
The groan of ceiling beams overhead seem to freeze the moment. Ten faces look to him, a former priest, a man of God, to lead them safely out of the conflagration.
"Y-You still don't...don't see, do you? He will have your souls cleansed of false beliefs...by way of...of...by way of vastation before He accepts them into His Eternal Kingdom!
"REPENT!" he screams with all his might, as the ceiling beams begin their fiery descent. "REPENT YOUR SINS BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE! CAN'T YOU SEE?! SATAN IS GOD!"
Stunned, still, the group stares in unblinking disbelief. He twists the knob and the door swings open. Ten pairs of eyes glow fire red as the beams come down engulfing the group in flames.
Sean O'Gordy is thrown backward through the doorway. His own clothes on fire, he writhes on the sidewalk. Firemen rush up to him. But even as they try to smother his flaming attire with asbestos blanket, he shouts for them to help the others. He knows it is well past too late yet he keeps shouting until his throat is raw and bleeding, until their screams of sheer agony and horror combined, abruptly end.
Father O'Gordy throws off the blanket; his clothes ruined, smoldering. He tries to get to his feet, is suddenly grabbed by a medical team that drags him away from the scene, across the street, back to where the heated air seems cool by comparison.
After checking the old man over and finding him miraculously all right, one of the Medics comments, "You're a lucky man, Father."
The ex-priest fixates on this attendant, stares icily, says, "Lucky, is it?"
The other medic smiles, chides his partner. "Jerk! Look at him. He's a man of the cloth. That wasn't luck. That was God that saved him. Right, Father?"
The old man's eyes fill with tears as they behold the raging fire. He nods his head slowly, whispers hoarsely, "Aye, Lad...Truer words have never been spoken. 'Twas God's will all right. Thy will be done..."
Sean O'Gordy gets very slowly to his feet, ignores the medics' pleas for him to stay put, and walks away. Down the street. He weeps harder and harder. For he knows there will be another calling someday and that he will again be powerless to resist.
He prays. "T'is God's will...Thy will be done. On Earth, as it is in Hell..."++
* * *
Steven Lance has written a book of short stories entitled, Vulgarian Goulash, now available at www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com