Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Mrs. Walsh had no idea whether Father Tom could swim, any more than she knew why on earth she was expected to know such a thing. “I’m just glad you had the car,” she said. “You know how he used to love to drive that Crown Victoria.”

  Father Mark looked at her.

  Mrs. Walsh looked back at him. “You did have the car?”

  “Shit,” he said, for he hadn’t taken the car last night. His companion had driven.

  “Bingo,” said Mrs. Walsh.

  They both regarded the closed door of the detached garage, the one place on the parish grounds they had not checked. Father Mark heard his name called and saw an altar boy waving to him as he entered St. Cat’s sacristy door. Father Mark consulted his watch. It was ten after ten, only twenty minutes until Mass was scheduled to begin, and the early birds were already filtering in. What he would’ve preferred, Father Mark realized, was to postpone further revelations until after Mass. Not possible. Not with the good Mrs. Walsh at his side, her very presence demanding action.

  “You stay here,” he instructed her, then crossed the drive, paused and finally peered in through one of the garage’s square little windows.

  On the back porch, Mrs. Walsh watched him lean forward and rest his forehead against the garage door. She counted to ten before he straightened up again. Better to be a competent housekeeper, she thought, than an incompetent priest.

  “WHEN GOD RETREATS,” so alive and accessible for the early Mass, proved elusive for the late. In fact, as Father Mark ascended into the pulpit, he offered up a quick, fervent prayer asking God to help him recall the main thrust of the sermon he’d delivered so eloquently just two hours before, only to discover that He had indeed retreated, forcing Father Mark to pore desperately over his handwritten notes while the congregation grew curious, then restless, then alarmed. What Father Mark was having trouble locating in his notes was the conviction required to say these things. Two hours before, he had believed them to be true. Now he wasn’t so sure.

  He had spent the evening before in the company of a young artist who taught at Fairhaven College, the same professor who, though Father Mark was unaware of this, had selected Christina Roby’s and John Voss’s paintings to represent the sophomore class in the citywide art show. The two men had met a few weeks earlier at the Bath Iron Works at a rally against the commissioning of a new nuclear submarine. Both had been arrested for criminal trespass, then quickly released. During their incarceration, Father Mark had suspected immediately that the young artist was gay.

  He was less certain what conclusions the artist himself had drawn, but a few days later Father Mark received a note asking him to visit his campus studio. The letter arrived in Tuesday’s mail, and Father Mark, his heart pounding as he held it in his hand, found himself pondering both time, which had just slowed, and how it might be speeded up. Normally he tacked invitations onto the kitchen bulletin board as a reminder, but in this instance he took the note to the desk in his room and put it in the middle drawer among some worthless papers, as if proximity to mundane matters might magically render it mundane as well.

  No such luck. He checked the drawer half a dozen times that first day, rereading the letter until he had it memorized. In addition to showing him some work in progress, the artist said there was a spiritual matter he wanted to consult Father Mark about. By Wednesday he was unable to delude himself any further. He was hiding the note, and that gesture told him everything he needed to know. Neither did it leave him much choice but to tear the sheet up, which he did, depositing its pieces into the wastepaper basket beside his desk, after which he crossed the lawn to the church, where he lit a candle and knelt at the side altar to offer a prayer of gratitude.

  He was about to begin this prayer when he heard a sound behind him and turned just in time to see Father Tom sneak into the confessional. The old man had clearly followed him, and before Father Mark could chalk up his batty colleague’s behavior to his dementia, he felt a terrible, righteous rage rising in his chest. He stormed over to the confessional, dragged the old man out, and walked him back across the lawn, dressing him down as they went. When they arrived at Mrs. Walsh’s kitchen, the old man was hanging his head in shame and looked so pitiful that Father Mark relented, telling him that of course he was forgiven. He did not, however, return to the church to complete his prayer. A prayer was a prayer, he reassured himself, no matter where it was offered, and Father Mark decided to offer this one in the privacy of his room. Once there, however, it struck him that he was making far too much of the whole thing. There was no reason to believe that the invitation wasn’t entirely innocent, and no reason that it shouldn’t be innocently accepted. It was not the artist but Father Mark himself who, by his thoughts, had turned this into an occasion of sin. Blessedly, he’d only torn the letter in quarters. He had a roll of Scotch tape right in his desk.

  The artist, Father Mark learned when he visited his studio on Wednesday, had been raised in Nicaragua, the son of a low-level American diplomat, who’d died there in a car accident, and a woman from Managua. As a young man he’d come to the United States to study, but after the Sandinistas fell he stayed on. His paintings—Father Mark thought them extraordinary—were expressly religious in theme and imagery, and utterly devoid of irony. American artists were no longer able to paint without irony, the young man agreed, pleased by Father Mark’s observation. While there was nothing overt in the paintings he was shown that day in the studio on the top floor of the red-brick building in downtown Fairhaven, Father Mark came away more certain that the artist was gay. Only on the drive home did it occur to him that the spiritual dilemma the man had mentioned had not come up.

  That followed two days later, over the phone. Father Mark took the call in the den, purposely leaving the door open. The young art professor began by apologizing for dragging Father Mark all the way to Fairhaven and then not finding the courage to bring up the subject that was troubling him. Not at all, Father Mark said. The paintings themselves had been well worth the trip. The simple truth was, the young man said, that he’d enjoyed Father Mark’s company so much that he hadn’t dared say something that might very well make him loathsome in his new friend’s eyes. At least he hoped they were friends. But now, since Wednesday, he felt ashamed of himself in an even more complicated way, so he’d decided that the best and only thing to do was the honest thing, and confess his sexual orientation.

  Yes, said Father Mark, looking up from the phone to find Father Tom in the doorway, and he continued to stand there until Father Mark made a motion for him to move along. If the old priest had any recollection of what had transpired between them earlier in the week, he gave no sign. Listening to people talk on the telephone, to Father Tom’s way of thinking, was the next best thing to hearing confessions.

  This pregnant silence was exactly what he’d been afraid of, the young artist blurted, sounding distressed. Father Mark hastened to explain that he’d been interrupted and that his silence indicated neither shock nor mortification nor revulsion. He assured the young man that he now had his complete attention, after which he proceeded to talk for half an hour, during which Father Tom found occasion to pass by the open door four more times.

  The artist’s crisis of faith had been occasioned by the betrayal of a friend who—if you can believe it, he said—also happened to be a priest. He hadn’t seen the man in nearly a decade, not since they’d known each other in Texas, where he’d been in graduate school and both had been active in the Sanctuary movement, helping illegal aliens cross the border into the United States, providing them with temporary safe houses and, eventually, forged documents that would allow them to work. Many of these refugees had given their life savings to “coyotes,” smugglers who would abandon them to their exhaustion and the hot Texas sun; the majority were rounded up and taken back across the border. The lucky few who slipped through the net wanted nothing more than the kind of hard, dirty labor most American workers spurned, and half of their meager wages they sent back to famil
ies in Guatemala or El Salvador or Nicaragua or Mexico.

  Both the activists had been arrested on numerous occasions, and it was in jail that the young artist confessed to the priest that as a gay man, he felt as lost and abused in an increasingly hostile church as the illegals did when they were off-loaded from trucks in the darkness and turned loose to find their way, or not, across the Texas desert. If there was no place for him in the Catholic Church, where was he to go?

  The priest did more than anyone ever had to put his mind and heart at rest, assuring him that the church was as large and diverse as the world itself. All of God’s children were welcome in it. True, there were many who condemned what they did not understand, who made the church seem small and cold as a prison cell. Far better to remember who it was that Jesus Himself chose to befriend during his brief tenure upon the earth. Far better to be an outcast here than in heaven. But the priest was stern, too, reminding the young man that God demanded of him the same degree of fidelity He required of His other children. In His eyes, promiscuity and carelessness were the true offenses, no matter one’s sexuality.

  When his degree work was finished, the young professor moved on with great reluctance from one marginal teaching post to the next, and it was clear to Father Mark that he’d fallen in love with the priest and had held his memory sacred over the intervening years, which was why it had come as such a shock to get a phone call from him a month ago. His heart had leapt at the sound of his old friend’s voice, and his first thought was how much trouble it must have been to track him down in Fairhaven, Maine, of all places. But his joy was short-lived. At first he didn’t understand that the priest was calling him to explain that he’d offered misguided spiritual counsel all those years ago, that further reflection and prayer had forced him to concede that while the church was indeed as large as the world it embraced, it could not be infinitely flexible in its doctrine—that is, all things to all men. In matters of faith and morals there could be neither doubt nor dissent, and where its teachings were clear and unambiguous, a true believer had no choice but to accept these as the very will of God. Further, it was the duty of all who were ill to seek the cure.

  “You want to know the sad part?” the young man concluded, his voice weak with emotion and on the verge of breaking.

  Father Mark, listening both to the voice on the phone and to Father Tom’s relentless shuffling in the hall, already knew the sad part. “You suspect he was gay himself, don’t you?”

  ALTHOUGH FATHER MARK had composed much of “When God Retreats” in his head while lying awake in his bed during an interminable and restless night—during which, he now understood, Father Tom was making his escape—he’d been thinking about the sermon since he’d had a long afternoon’s chat back in September with Miles, who told him a story about the week he and his mother had spent on Martha’s Vineyard, when Miles was nine and his mother, trapped in the unhappiest of marriages, had, Miles believed, a brief affair with a man she’d met on the island. Father Mark had never met Grace Roby, of course, having arrived in Empire Falls years after she died, but according to Miles, after the affair she’d returned to both her marriage and the church.

  Hers was not, Father Mark believed, an unusual story. Most people tried to be faithful, though few could boast an unblemished record. What had struck him about Grace Roby, at least as she was revealed by her son’s account, was that by falling in love, she had become an entirely different woman. It wasn’t so much that her behavior changed, but rather that she became astonishingly beautiful—so beautiful, in fact, that her beauty could not fail to impress even her nine-year-old son, who’d so taken her for granted to that point that he’d never really seen her as a woman, but only as his mother. For a brief span of a few sun-drenched days, she’d been truly happy, perhaps for the first time in her life, and that happiness had been manifest in a radiance that had turned the head of every man they met.

  Though common, it was still a remarkable story, and Father Mark couldn’t help being a little in love with Grace Roby himself and, even more disturbing, glad for this woman he’d never met, that she’d enjoyed at least this fleeting happiness. That she had betrayed her marriage and her faith seemed almost too fine a point, perhaps because Father Mark, knowing Max Roby, understood that her married life must’ve been a trial. That she ultimately returned to both her husband and her faith seemed far more significant, and he said as much to Miles, who confessed his lifelong worry that the intensity of his mother’s brief joy had somehow been the root cause of the illness that killed her a decade later. “You’re telling me that happiness is carcinogenic?” he’d asked when Miles explained how his mother was never truly the same after their return to Empire Falls, that she’d immediately begun to lose weight, that she became pale as a cave dweller and fell ill several times each winter, that she’d nearly died giving birth to his brother, David. Odd that Miles should’ve concluded as a child that happiness, not its loss, was what had stricken his mother. Odder still that he apparently hadn’t been able to revise his thesis later in life. Was this what it meant to be a Catholic?

  But it was only last night, as he lay awake in bed, that the meaning of Grace Roby’s story, or one of its meanings, became clear to him. By this time Father Mark’s own crisis had passed, leaving him weak and relieved, as if a fever had broken.

  They had gone to an opening held at a tiny gallery on a back street in Camden, and afterward the two men had had dinner at a nearby restaurant overlooking the harbor. For the first week of October, the weather on the coast was unseasonably warm, and in the evening it was still mild enough to eat outside under the suspended heat lamps. At the next table a man and a woman were sharing a bowl of steamer clams, which had reminded Father Mark of Miles’s story. The man and woman might’ve been husband and wife, or husband and someone else’s wife, but it was obvious they loved each other. When the artist noticed his smile and asked what was so amusing, Father Mark told him Grace’s story pretty much as Miles had told it, and in the telling he realized something he hadn’t entirely grasped in the hearing. Wondrous! he thought, how the heart leaps when one is chosen, especially later in life, after one would suppose the time for choosing and being chosen has passed. To be recognized as lovely, as desirable—to feel lovely and desirable—surely that was precisely what Grace Roby had needed. It was a God-given moment, during which God had mercifully averted His eyes and absented Himself. Hence the title of his sermon.

  Some of the paintings in the artist’s Camden exhibition had been ones Father Mark had already seen in the downtown studio, but others either were new or had been concealed from him before. The majority of these were specifically homoerotic, and when Father Mark examined them, he could feel the young artist’s eyes on him. Later, over dinner, Father Mark explained that his own counsel to homosexual men and women had always been similar to the activist priest’s, before, that is, his lamentable conversion to strict orthodoxy. Father Mark also said he wasn’t entirely surprised by such a midlife reevaluation. After all, Chaucer had renounced his own Canterbury Tales, and surely, as an artist, the young man must be aware of painters and sculptors who in later life disavowed their best work as vain or immoral. Father Mark intended all of this to offer comfort on the off-chance that the young man genuinely needed it, though in truth he was no longer confident that there was either an activist priest or a betrayal. He couldn’t say why, but he was suspicious. At the gallery it had also occurred to him that while there might be no single priest, there could’ve been many.

  What was undeniable was that Father Mark understood that he was being chosen, and his heart had leapt with recognition, just as he imagined Grace Roby’s must have. Was anything in the world truer than that intuitive leap of the heart? Could anything so true be a sin? Even though he now knew, as he had not before, that he wouldn’t surrender to this particular temptation, still, how wonderful to be desired! Surely this was God’s gift to fallen Man. Both the reason and sweet recompense for the loss of Paradise. How deft
ly God steps back out of view, as He had done with Grace, as He’d done with Father Mark himself, to let them muddle through on their own. Father Mark understood that he was not to feel virtuous, merely fortunate. Or maybe blessed.

  The general thrust of his sermon, which he tried in vain to remember as he stood awkwardly in the pulpit, searching his notes, had been to suggest that while God never abandoned us, neither was He on every occasion equally present, perhaps because His continual presence is what we desire most—that is, to be led away from temptation, away from ourselves. We want Him to be there, ready to receive our call in the moment of our need: lead us not into … Whereas God, for reasons of His own, sometimes chooses to let the machine answer. The Supreme Being is unavailable to come to the phone at this time, but He wants you to know that your call is important to Him. In the meantime, for sins of pride, press one. For avarice, press two …

  “When God Retreats” had seemed one of his finer sermons as he’d delivered it to his sleepy early congregation. Exhausted and happy, he could find little fault with it as a personal reflection. That God had trusted him to lose and then regain his path had seemed a wise, beneficent gesture. Though now it seemed that what God had actually done was allow him to lose Father Tom.

  AND SO FATHER MARK, feeling chastened by the day’s events, left the transparently unchastened Mrs. Walsh in her kitchen drying her pots. He crossed the lawn to where Miles Roby’s Jetta sat in the back lot. He’d hoped that Mrs. Walsh was wrong when she reported it was just Miles in the car, but she was right and Max wasn’t there, which meant that Father Mark could surrender that final hope against hope. The conclusion he and Mrs. Walsh had reluctantly drawn about the old man’s whereabouts held up, even though he wanted very much to be mistaken. Being mistaken, after all, was something he could usually manage. But he’d known the truth when he went through Father Tom’s wastebasket and found among the mint-green offering envelopes and discarded checks, a rumpled color brochure: Your New Life Awaits You in the Florida Keys!

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