Selected by Bernardo Aparicio García, President
It was time to test the meat.
Father Dunleavy squeezed his left hand into a fist, and, with the tip of his right index finger, pressed down on the bulging swath of flesh that stretched between the knuckles of his clenched thumb and forefinger. He noted the bounce of fingertip off skin, something like a drumstick repelled by the tautness of the drumhead. Keeping his fingers curled, he relaxed the muscles of his hand and pressed again. He still found tension there at the surface, but it was underlaid with softness—a jellified center. Father Dunleavy smiled. That’s it.
Just to be sure, he unclasped his hand, let the fingers hang loose, and pressed again. The slack muscle slid aside like a heavy curtain, like one of those purple velvet jobs they used to have over the entrance to the confessional—heavy enough to muffle the private recitation of sins, but not so stifling (to both priest and penitent) as a solid door.
His investigation completed, Father turned his attention back to the column of beef sizzling amid the sputtering butter in his sauté pan. Reaching out past his belly and over the heat of the stovetop, he sent his finger plunging down onto the filet—a full ten ounces. It yielded to him without a struggle, and Father knew from reading his new, economically-named cookbook Meat to wait until he got that firm-exterior/jelly-center feeling if he wanted just-past-rare doneness. Still . . . he checked the second hand on his watch. Four minutes a side seemed a long time, but he had to admit that this was an especially thick round of meat.
The butcher at The Beef Palace had thought so as well. A meat-thickened man himself, he had nevertheless stolen a quick glance through knowing, piggy eyes at Father’s belly when he took the order for the custom cut. Had Father been expecting company, he could have selected two of the pre-cut five-ouncers. But he didn’t, and so his intention seemed clear to the butcher, who, lapsed but subject to a lingering regard for the collar, stifled an urge to ask, “Company tonight, Father?”
The belly-glance was involuntary, really; it couldn’t be helped. Even in The Beef Palace, you didn’t often see such a belly—a weighted billowing that spread wide but spread still further forward—let alone such a belly wrapped in unbroken black. (The only variation came from the modest square of white at Father’s throat, and even that was overhung by a great waggle of extra flesh spilling over the top of his collar.) The effect was almost ominous. Had Father draped himself in the cassock of a Jesuit, he would have been a frightening thing—a wraith-cloud, perhaps, or the shade of some medieval epicure. But Father was a diocesan man, and most days, he wore a short-sleeved, buttoned-down black Oxford about his middle, his pale arms poking out from the darkness.
What was not so involuntary (but no less automatic) was the judgment that came hard upon the glance. Father was almost used to it by now; the condemnation of his gut had become as monotonous as any other sin. His belly preceded him in people’s first impressions—a fat priest, often calling to mind to the comical Friar Tuck and never the saintly Thomas Aquinas, the Great Ox himself.
It was just as well. Moments after Father had arrived at his new home in the rectory of St. Martha’s parish, he had been greeted by the usual band of church-minded inquisitors. They always seemed to know just when the new priest would be pulling into the driveway—never hovering, just happening by. “Well hello there, Father! Can I give you a hand?” And when Father raised the gate on his little U-Haul trailer, there was no escaping the triumph of gastronomy over theology in his belongings.
“Did you bring any bookcases, Father? I’m afraid they didn’t put in many built-ins when they redid the rectory. Ah, here’s one—a beauty. Is that cherry? Shall I dolly it into the office?”
“Ah, no—the kitchen, please.”
Then, to a youngish woman in an ankle-length denim jumper: “Ah—careful with that box, please. It’s glassware.”
“Glassware? But it’s light as a feather.”
“It’s a pair of big-bowled crystal Bordeaux stems—a gift from an old parishioner.”
The dam broke when the women discovered the cookware. Much of it came from the All-Clad Cop-R-Chef line. There was no mistaking its provenance; each piece had been carefully restored to its original box for the move. Stockpots, straight-sided saucepans, rounded sauté pans and sauciers, all in multiple sizes—seemingly the entire collection. No doubt they had seen these pots and pans gleaming in the Williams-Sonoma catalog; no doubt they had noted the price of each and wondered aloud who would ever spend that much on a Dutch oven. Now they knew, and poor Mrs. Denim-Jumper was showing the strain brought on by her newfound knowledge. Father stole glances at her, sensing her agitation. She looked hot despite the late-afternoon cool; her pale face had gone blotchy in places, and the slanting sunlight sparkled in the moisture gathering along her hairline and her upper lip. Whenever her hands were free, they fluttered upward, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, fixing her hair back into its scrunchied ponytail, fingering the jingling tangle of saints’ medals hanging from her throat. Finally, she could contain herself no longer.
“Those are some lovely pieces, Father. They must be wonderful to use.”
“Yes, yes they are,” he admitted. And then, defensive (had she glanced downward as she spoke?): “It was either them or golf clubs, and I’ve never been able to hit a decent approach.” The attempt at lighthearted deflection sank in the ensuing silence. Golf, of course, was not so tied up with one of the Seven Deadlies as food. And as Father Dunleavy learned later, the much-loved Father O’Brien—the pastor before the one he was replacing—had been a fixture on the links.
Father O’Brien, who took St. Martha’s through the ‘80s, had been both sportsman and sports fan, and had transformed the rectory’s parlor accordingly. Once, it had seemed a cross between clubroom and boardroom: oak-paneled walls, burgundy commercial carpeting, heavy gold drapes over the windows, a collection of substantial couches and chairs along the perimeter, and in the center, a long oak table lined with chairs. The parlor thus served as an all-purpose Serious Room. A hard-dealing kneeler-cushion salesman could be made to feel small as the only guest at the long table. The paneling and drapes leant a certain gravitas to discussions with the Liturgical Committee about the prospect of moving a drum set into the sanctuary. And a benevolent pastor could draw a frantic unwed mother or a divorce-minded husband into a secure and intimate corner. The parlor was the place.
But by the time O’Brien arrived, the cushioned kneelers were installed, the drum set was in place, and troubled souls had begun keeping their distance. The parlor had fallen into disuse, and so Father, who was much-loved, had clear sailing. Out came the table; in went an early-model big-screen TV, upgraded three times during Father’s tenure. Entertainment centers not yet being a furniture-store staple, Father had one made special for him, using the excellent wood of the old table as a foundation. The unit covered the better part of one wall. Besides the frame for the television, it included three-foot speaker cabinets, glass-fronted display shelves (Father’s sports memorabilia included numerous golf trophies as well as a mounted, signed bat used by San Diego Padre Tony Gwynn during his rookie season), video storage shelves, and a bar.
The bar might have raised a few eyebrows, but Father was a sociable priest, who delighted in hosting sports parties for the men of St. Martha’s. (It had been a brilliant move: The men got to spend time with a priest without fretting over his singularity, and the women got to keep their men close to the Church’s local representative without pious browbeating.) Father hosted Super Bowl parties, World Series parties, Masters parties, even World Cup parties—Father had a satellite dish. He was generous with the booze at these events, and modest in his own consumption, and so it was perhaps unknown outside the priestly ranks that such parties were, for him, exercises in moderation. Alone, Father Dunleavy knew, he drank like a fish.
O’Brien’s replacement for the ‘90s, Father Salmon—who had kept the TV but replaced the sports stuff with a mildly terrifying collection of toy clowns—smoked like a fiend. Father Dunleavy was reminded of this every morning when he took his shower, the steam sending brown rivulets of nicotine sliding down the bathroom walls, wafting their revived stink over his freshly scrubbed and scented self. Fish and fiend, they smiled out at Father Dunleavy from their framed portraits in the parlor. From their smiles, he imagined that neither one of them had ever suffered the sort of chill that fell over him that first afternoon in his new kitchen . . .
Only the two ladies remained. The men had said their good-byes after the few heavy items—Father’s leather recliner, his book boxes—had been hauled inside the yellow brick rectory. Besides Mrs. Denim-Jumper, whose name turned out to be Ash, there was Mrs. Keating, a stout Irish bulldog. The two women drifted into the kitchen and began unpacking a few of the many boxes. They were not putting things away, just taking them out and setting them down wherever they could find room, sometimes on top of other boxes. Father thought they were making the kitchen look like a boutique, everything laid out for consideration instead of actual use. But he didn’t mind. He liked to make his own arrangement. He looked around, noted the stove (electric), the cabinets and counter space (decent), and the lighting (poor), and set to work unpacking his pantry.
“It shows you how far things have slipped that a parish priest has to cook his own meals,” said Mrs. Keating, glancing at Father. “As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, tending to his flock and his own soul. It used to be there was a housekeeper, or at least an associate pastor.”
“I don’t mind,” said Father cheerfully, hoping to dispel the gloom. “I had a housekeeper at my first post—St. Sophia’s in Rancho Francisco—and I usually ended up wishing I had done the cooking. She had an unhealthy fear of butter. ‘Look at Julia Child,’ I kept telling her. ‘Butter and cream and eighty-odd years of good health!’ But it was no use. I sometimes suspected she was trying to save me through dieting. And she kept putting my good knives into the dishwasher—which ruins the handles, of course. Besides, cooking keeps me humble; I’m still amazed when my Hollandaise holds together. It’s almost a kind of mystery.”
Mrs. Keating regarded Father with horror. After all the trouble with Father Salmon, after all those long-suffering go-rounds with the bishop, this was what they had been given. A gluttonous priest blathering on about knives and butter, and tossing ‘mystery’ about with less care than he gave to his glassware. Too upset to reply, she resumed unpacking with a ferocity that proved to be too much for the crystal Bordeaux stem about which Father had warned her earlier. The box opened in the front, but she forced it from the top, popping the little gobs of adhesive that held the cardboard tabs together. As she seized the glass within, she felt the razor-thin lip of the bowl collapse with the melting ease of spun sugar into a thousand tinkling shards.
“Oh, dear!” blurted Father, looking up from his terra-cotta spice jars when he heard the tinkling and the choked cry that followed it. Then he caught himself. “Ah, well, it’s the way of all things. Please don’t worry about it.”
Too late, Father realized that her outburst had been caused not by distress over the shattered glass, but by the neat incision in her finger, which was bleeding freely. When he did realize it, he paused a moment over his mistake—he had thought himself the pardoner, but he intuited that through his ownership of the glass, he had become the offender.
The hesitation cost him. Mrs. Ash stared, motionless, at her wound; blood had already curled its way down her finger as she held it aloft, and was snaking its way through the crevices of her knuckles and palm, sliding toward the absorbent cotton of her shirtsleeve. Mrs. Keating grabbed one of Father’s cloth napkins and pressed it to the cut; the fabric blushed red. At the sight of it, Father roused himself into motion. He removed the napkin, took Mrs. Keating’s hand and held it under cold water running from the kitchen faucet. He strained to gauge the cut’s severity; the blood fought against the cleansing stream, welling up and obscuring his vision. He could tell, however, that the glass had carved a slice of flesh nearly parallel to the broad plane of the fingertip—a greater length of incision than a straight-on stabbing. He grabbed another napkin, ran it under the water, and pressed it to the wound.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he offered as he worked. “I hope it isn’t deep. Those things really are ridiculously fragile.” Mrs. Keating just looked at him.
“Have you got any antibacterial ointment?” asked Mrs. Ash. “Or at least a Band-Aid?”
“I’m terribly sorry; it’s all packed away, and I’m not sure where. I could go look . . .”
“Don’t bother. Come on, Mary; I’ll take you home. Please excuse us, Father.”
“Certainly. Thanks very much for your help.”
As he watched the fleeing minivan from his front step, Father had a sense of the disaster that had just occurred, but he hadn’t any idea what to do about it. Miserable and suddenly weary, he returned to the kitchen. Though he had packed a special “bare essentials” box just for this evening—two pans, two knives, two mixing bowls, measuring utensils, spatulas, butter, flour, salt and cream—he decided he would not cook tonight. A thick-pattied cheeseburger at some local eatery, plus a mound of fries and a chocolate shake, would have to suffice for his first meal at St. Martha’s. He didn’t even have the heart to finish unpacking.
But heart or no heart, he did find and unwrap his gilt-framed print of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, remove the taped-on wall hanger, tap the nail into place with a meat mallet, and hang the picture in its usual place over the sink. Only then did he seek the comfort of first-class diner food.
That had been a week ago, a week full of kind quietude. Father Wilson, the retired priest who had been filling in between Salmon’s departure and Dunleavy’s arrival, had offered to continue driving in from his condo to say daily Mass for another week. Father Dunleavy had accepted gratefully. Even without priestly duties and the social obligations attendant upon the New Pastor, it took time to set up a new kitchen. Now things were beginning to find their places, and Father had chosen tonight to welcome himself into his new home.
The celebration had begun with Bach’s French Suites for piano and the opening of a ‘95 Guigal Cote-Rotie; not one of his very best bottles, but certainly a standout Syrah. Father had decanted the wine, pouring slowly, letting the stream spread wide against the side of the wide-bottomed crystal pitcher for maximum aeration. Then he poured some into a glass, swirled, sniffed, noted the aromas of bacon and smoke, and set to work.
Now he was almost finished. The potato gratin burbled creamily in the oven; a loaf of good crusty bread warmed on the rack beneath. Rounds of zucchini, battered and fried, were draining on a paper towel. A slice of cake, chosen at a local bakery that afternoon, waited in the fridge. And the pan-fried steak was almost perfect, almost ready for the fresh rosemary, the Gorgonzola cheese and the Cognac reduction. A simple meal, a homey meal, the sort he could prepare without even consulting one of his cookbooks. Father sipped his wine, held it for a moment on his tongue, swallowed and smiled. Then he heard the knock.
At first, he didn’t recognize it; few knocks sounded at St. Martha’s back door. It was the door you used after driving your car past the rolling electric gate guarding the driveway and parking in the garage. A person would have to hop the fence to get to it; there was no rear approach, since the rectory backed onto a steep canyon. The intervening strip of land was barely wide enough for Father’s as-yet-unplanted kitchen garden.
For that matter, you didn’t hear many knocks at the front door, either, and even if you did, the priest almost never had to go through the business of discovering identities. Visitors arrived in front and spoke to the parish secretary through the intercom. Then they waited in either the parish office or the parlor for the priest to emerge from his living quarters. For emergencies after business hours, they could call and leave a message, and the priest would get back to them.
The back door led into a small, square laundry room just off the kitchen. Lacking a real pantry—a common flaw in post-’50s kitchens—Father had set about fitting one in around the washer, dryer and deep-bottomed laundry sink. He had lined every unoccupied inch of wallspace with shelves, and lined the shelves with all manner of bottles, jars, cans, boxes, plastic containers, and overspill cookbooks. Father adored the pantry; to him, it was a triumph of universality, the result of years of gradual accumulation. A Tupperware tub stuffed with Chinese Wun Yee fungi shared shelf space with a jar of homemade vanilla-infused sugar. Mexican peppers, Belgian chocolate, 100-year Balsamic vinegar from Modena, olive oil from Greece (so hard to find these days), cans of San Marzano tomatoes from New Jersey (overcropping in Italy)—the bounty of the entire culinary world had been gathered into his care.
A second knock confirmed the first. Father considered; it was not clear to him that he was obliged to answer. He might not be home. More honestly, he might not wish to be disturbed. If people needed him, they could use the telephone; his number was there in the bulletin. The steak was nearly finished; to leave it now would be imprudent at the very least. Father gnawed on the inside of his cheek and lower lip. A third knock barked its way into his thoughts. He gave the steak a quick press—almost there, maybe, not quite—and turned off the burner. He pulled on an oven mitt, opened the oven door and removed the bread, setting it on a small cutting board. Without removing the mitt, he ambled into the pantry, the glass of wine in his free hand, and opened the back door halfway.
A young man stood on the concrete stoop. His rapid breath betrayed exertion; he had jumped the fence.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Father, but I was wondering if you would hear my confession.”
The fellow was young, maybe about twenty-two, but Father’s impression of him was even younger. His plea had been polite, but it was clear he was desperate and a little helpless. Father felt his heart go soft. Still, the boy made him nervous. Nobody had ever sought him out for confession; the few people he did pardon each week seemed quite content with his hour-long stay in the box on Saturday afternoon. Had the boy just done something terrible? Did he want some crime off his soul before the authorities got hold of him?
Not that any of that mattered, of course. Father opened the door and stepped back to let the boy in past his belly. The boy kept his head down—a proper penitent—so Father could not tell if his bulk attracted the usual glance.
Father’s first thought was to steer the boy into the parlor, to keep his priestly business in its place, far from the sanctuary of his kitchen—especially this business. Whatever the boy’s sins were, Father didn’t care to have them aired amid his provisions. Though the guilt of those sins would be wiped away, they would still have been named. Their stink would linger, at least in memory.
But the parlor was all the way at the front of rectory. Precious time would be spent on the journey there and back, and Father did not want to abandon his steak any longer than absolutely necessary. The pantry, then. Small and private like a confessional, not quite a true living space like the kitchen, and supremely economical. Father stepped into a corner to indicate that this was to be the place, set his glass next to a Mason jar of homemade applesauce, pulled off his oven mitt and fished his purple stoll out of his pocket. The short strip of embroidered satin made a comical appearance against his oceanic torso, more like a rake’s unraveled bow tie than an ecclesial garment.
Father began. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. May God be in your heart to help you make a good confession.”
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s only been a couple of weeks since my last confession.”
The opening took Father by surprise, first by its formal construction. Though he himself used it when confessing, he was not sure he had ever heard it from a layman. It had gone out with the Baltimore Catechism, with checklist-style examinations of conscience, with numbers and kinds of offenses against each commandment. The content was still more striking. Besides a few graying holdouts from an earlier era, he didn’t suppose that anyone outside the priesthood confessed much more than once or twice a year, and then only at the big penance services held before Christmas and Easter. He peered at the top of the boy’s bowed head, as if searching for signs of well-hidden age, or perhaps something less visible.
“I have a habit of falling into lustful thoughts and masturbation. It starts with looking at pornography, and that starts by putting myself in the occasion of sin. Anyway, I fell. I know it’s a grave sin, and I tried to make a good act of contrition before coming to confession. But I started feeling tempted again, and that, since I had to go to confession anyway, I might as well . . . I know that’s presuming upon God’s mercy, but I fell again. That’s why I came here tonight; I know I need the grace of the sacrament in order to keep from sliding further down. My own contrition is too imperfect.”
Father was astonished. The boy’s delivery was smooth and even, and he had noted so many of the old ideas: habitual sin, near occasion, presumption, the sacrament’s power to perfect a soul’s contrition. Clearly, he was good at this. But though the words had the gloss of habit, they were not mere repetition—Father thought he detected genuine sorrow beneath the formal piety. Something in him stirred,
“So, you fell twice?”
If there had been a screen between them, Father would have asked if the boy was married or single, but as it was, he could see the bare finger on the boy’s left hand. He thought about dropping a few stern words about mortal sin—though it was clear that the boy knew about the distinction, he might benefit from the chastisement. But the boy’s finger had reminded Father of his dinner—how would his meat feel now? He decided to move things along.
“I’ve been backsliding on my prayer life, but the lust is the big thing.”
Don’t kid yourself, thought Father. What he said was, “Don’t be discouraged. Ask Jesus for help. Keep up the good things you do. For your penance, spend a few minutes in prayer to the Blessed Virgin, asking her for purity. Now make a good act of contrition, and I’ll give you absolution. God, the Father of mercy, through the death and resurrection of His Son . . .”
As Father recited the words of the sacrament, he sensed a change in the pantry air. At first, he thought it was simply the boy’s relief at his impending absolution, relief that he no longer had to fear for the fate of his soul. The boy’s lowered head had dipped and risen, and Father thought he had seen the shoulders drop, as if, up until now, the penitent had been holding his breath, afraid that once he let it go, he might never take another, and so be sent unwashed to his judgment. Now he was in the clear. Even if God took him now, He would not deny him the mercy he had sought.
Yes, there was that, but something else as well. Some familiar dynamic, something recognizable but distorted, like a reflection in a carnival mirror.
“. . . and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace.”
“Thank you, Father.”
That did it. There, in that “Thank you,” beneath the expression of genuine gratitude, Father detected just the slightest note of politeness, of good manners covering disappointment. He detected it because it was the exact note that Father had sounded so many times at St. Sophia’s, after some kindhearted parishioner had hosted him for dinner. People had known about his culinary predilections, and women tended to get ambitious in his presence, sometimes outstripping their abilities in their eagerness to please.
Father had broken out that “Thank you” over stuffed chicken breasts that tasted of little besides tarragon, over meatloaf made with low-fat, low-flavor ground sirloin instead of good, basic ground chuck. He had murmured it after careful praises of over-oaked wines bought by the price tag. (“What do you think, Father?” “A classic California Chardonnay, wonderfully ripe and lush. Thank you.”) He had closed with it after soggy carrot cakes enshrouded in cream cheese frosting.
The expression was never insincere; Father was grateful for both the invitation and the effort, and it was rare that anything was utterly without appeal. But despite his sincerity, that note always sounded underneath, signaling the inherent distance of the connoisseur.
That was it, then; the boy was a connoisseur of confessions. It made sense that he should be so. The habit was usually attended by a hefty measure of shame; in persona Christi or no in persona Christi, it would be embarrassing to always come crawling back to the same priest for pardon. And in a big city like San Diego, the boy didn’t have to. Somewhere along the line, he must have noticed that one priest’s counsel seemed more spiritually illumined, more carefully considered, more practically applicable than another’s. The boy had begun to judge among them. And in his recognition, Father knew that his advice—perhaps even his penance—had been tried and found wanting.
Well, what of it? Could he be blamed for not saying more, for not saying better? Hadn’t he interrupted his dinner preparations to hear the boy’s sins? Hadn’t he left the beef at a crucial moment out of love for the sinner, or at least out of a sense of priestly duty? Hadn’t he risked everything by killing the heat under the pan, hoping that when he restarted the flame, the steak would finish out as if nothing had happened?
But of course, there wasn’t any flame. As Father ushered the boy out of the pantry and out the back door, resting a pastoral hand on his far shoulder, he remembered that his new stovetop was electric, not gas. Though he had turned the burner off, it had continued to radiate heat—was probably still radiating heat.
Father closed the pantry door and leaned his bulk against it. He felt his face go flush. He squeezed his eyes shut, pulling his mouth into a wincing smile. Then he balled his hands into fists, raised them as high as his forehead, and stood there, stricken. A jiggle rippled across his drooping second chin. After a few seconds, he sagged, as if spent. He lumbered over to the stovetop, feeling the weight of his belly even more than he normally did. He stood over the pan, looked down at the caramel-brown filet, and placed his finger on its surface. He pressed. His finger recoiled, bounced back by the unyielding beef, and Father knew it was well done.
The idea of slogging through the mound of overcooked meat, thinking of the boy, his lust and his judgment, with every bite, was too much. He thought of the dog he had seen rooting about in the rectory trash a couple of times, a grubby spaniel of some kind. He slid the filet onto the cutting board, cubed the meat with deft strokes of his chef’s knife and slid the cubes into a plastic bowl. He stepped through the pantry and out onto the back stoop, set the bowl on the concrete, and walked back inside.
He dished up what remained of his dinner and gazed a moment at the empty space on his plate. Then he took his place at table, refilled his wine glass, and pronounced the blessing. “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” But he didn’t eat.
Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper, and the author of the memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic. He lives in California with his wife and children.