Father Wallace was generally able to keep an open mind when it came to the new members of his parish, so he was surprised by the strength of the dislike he felt when he first met Jordan Sullivan. The feeling wasn’t immediate. When Father Wallace first noticed the handsome new face in the congregation, his initial reaction was pleasure that St. Michael’s was drawing a younger crowd. It was only after the service when Father Wallace introduced himself to Jordan and his wife, Mia, that he noticed an ugly pride behind Jordan’s attractive features that dulled their effect like a sheet of wax paper. Their ensuing handshake reminded Father Wallace of high school basketball games, where the goal was to win an early advantage by spraining your opponent’s hand. Father Wallace scolded himself, startled by this upwelling of animosity, and did his best to feign surprise when he heard that Jordan had been promoted to a management position at one of the one of the aggressive businesses across the river.
“That pharmaceutical plant that just opened up,” said Mia Sullivan, with a light Southwestern drawl that contrasted oddly with the Maine voices that prattled across the reception hall. Unlike her husband, Mia gave off an eager cheer that only accentuated her beautiful features.
“This is the most demanding job he’s had so far, which has been a problem lately because I need him around to help me with the house. He doesn’t know this, yet, but when we get home, I’m recruiting him to help me tear up the carpeting on the stairs.” She guided her husband away from his silent perusal of the reception hall by touching him lightly on the small of his back.
“Slave driver,” said Jordan, proving that he was still engaged in the conversation. If Mia’s accent was charming, Jordan’s sounded like something from “Stagecoach.”
“Did the two of you have a home church while you were living in Houston?” asked Father Wallace.
“Yes, we did,” said Mia. “St. Agnes. We both grew up there, and it’s where we got married a year and a half ago. We miss the people, but everyone here seems very friendly.”
“This seems like an old building,” said Jordan, who was now inspecting one of the cracked walls. “The upkeep must add up fast. Is it hard for your congregation to maintain it?”
“Our sanctuary is one hundred and twenty years old,” said Father Wallace. “It’s expensive to keep it in good condition, but we’ve never had problems taking care of it. The congregation isn’t large, but they’re dedicated.” Jordan nodded, his eyes still on the walls.
“And how long have you been here?” asked Mia. “Everyone here has been singing your praises.”
“I’ve been here for a just a little more than fifteen years, now. They’ve gone by quickly. This is a wonderful group in this room. Whatever anyone has told you, it’s the congregation that keeps things moving here.”
“I don’t see too many kids around,” said Jordan, turning to him abruptly.
“We have a few. They like to go outside as soon as mass has ended.”
Jordan nodded, then turned and looked at his wife expectantly.
“Well, we should probably get going,” she said with a smile. “It was very nice to meet you.”
“And you. Good luck with the carpeting.”
Jordan nodded to Father Wallace with a brisk, automatic courtesy, and then the two were gone.
* * *
Father Wallace treasured the time he spent alone in the confessional booth. During his first year in the priesthood, it had felt so tiring to wait in the tight room. Now he loved the silent intimacy. When he was inside, it felt as if he were floating through his own mind, separate from the outside world and yet never so deeply connected to it. God seemed as close as the walls surrounding him.
Father Wallace hadn’t always wanted to be a priest. Growing up, he had always viewed himself as a Catholic, but even into college it was a practice he exercised more out of love for his mother than anything else. When she died during his junior year, Father Wallace hated God for six months. His mother had raised him alone, she had treated everyone with compassion and respect, she had worked harder than any woman he had ever known to become a certified teacher at age thirty-nine, and she had died on the highway three years later. God was never as real to Father Wallace as He was when he was hating Him for His unfairness, for His unfaithfulness, and for His stupid plan. Father Wallace was Isaac, lying bound with his father’s knife pressing into his throat, and all the while God smiled with distant approval. Father Wallace looked in disgust at the fiery glory of a sunset spread out over the river, the product of a God who would meticulously design a lifeless panorama while His children suffered quietly beneath it. It was easy for Father Wallace to avoid Catholicism during these months�religion mattered little to his friends or to the aunt and uncle with whom he lived that summer�but it was impossible to avoid God and His handiwork. God was always unstoppably, infuriatingly there.
God was certainly there when the priest from Father Wallace’s church stopped by his aunt and uncle’s house and dragged him along for a drive in his worn-out Chevy. “Don’t let yourself believe that God wants bad things to happen when they do,” he told him. “It’s this world that isn’t right. That’s why the other one matters so much. The best we can do is keep this world afloat until the better one gets here.”
In the car, Father Wallace had maintained a stony frown, but the words stayed with him. Eventually, they transformed him. If God wouldn’t let Father Wallace hate Him, he concluded, then the second best thing was for him to hate the chaos and the sin, and to spend his life working to overcome it. Whatever Father Wallace had given to God in the twenty-five years since that time God had returned to him tenfold. He had a congregation that he learned to admire more every day, a congregation that tried hard to love others the way God loves. If only they heeded his pointed comments about the value of attending Penance regularly.
But it appeared that someone had been listening, after all. A parishioner stepped into the adjacent booth and tugged the old door to a close. Father Wallace traced the sounds of the familiar creaks as the parishioner turned and settled on the prayer stool.
“Forgive me my Father, for I have sinned.” The mesh could not mask the alien drawl. John Wayne had come to Penance. Father Wallace was embarrassed by his pessimism about the legitimacy of Jordan Sullivan’s faith.
“It has been eleven months since my last confession.”
Father Wallace smiled wryly. Maybe some pessimism was warranted. “Tell me your sins.”
“I have used the Lord’s name in vain. I have not honored my father the way he wants me to. I have not come to mass as regularly as I should.” A moment’s pause. “I struck my wife.”
Father Wallace turned towards the mesh that cut him off from the expression beyond it. “When?”
“Two nights ago.” The drawl paused, waiting.
Father Wallace tried to release some of the tension that had stiffened his shoulders into rigid wings. “Tell me more.”
“We got into an argument. My wife accused me of forcing her to give up what matters to her and making her play housewife so that I can achieve everything that I want to achieve. I asked, wasn’t it a little late for her to bring all of this up to me, and she said that she’d tried to tell me before, but that it’s hard to communicate with someone who doesn’t care about anything but himself. That made me so angry that I hit her. I realize that I shouldn’t have, but I was so frustrated at how unfair she was being.”
“Where did you hit her?”
“On the cheek.”
“Is she alright?”
“Yes, she’s alright. I apologized to her immediately and grabbed her some ice.”
Father Wallace closed his eyes. “Had you been drinking?”
“Have you hit her before?”
“Never in the face.”
“We have a very physical relationship. It’s how we’ve always expressed ourselves.” The drawl paused uncomfortably. “It’s why I came. I know that I made a mistake.”
“Clearly,” said Father Wallace, anger eating at his chest. He tried again to relax it. “And God is pleased that you came to confess it. Do you have other sins to confess?”
The list ended lamely: it was obvious that Jordan had named the sin that was distressing him.
“When you hit your wife in the past, did you confess it?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t think about it. People have different ways of expressing anger. We fight physically. It’s just that no one was ever hurt before. If someone had gotten hurt, I would have confessed it then like I’m doing now. I know that I’ve made a mistake.”
“God deplores the sin you have committed in His sight,” said Father Wallace, attempting to keep his voice even, “Striking someone in anger is sin enough, but striking your own wife is inexcusable. God gave you the gift of a good, kind woman, and you swore an oath that you would cherish and protect her. Not only have you hurt one of God’s children, you have broken your oath and you have turned your back on God’s love. Do you understand how deep your sin is?”
Father Wallace prayed that this man would listen to the words that he was about to speak. “Here is your penance: read 2 Samuel chapters eleven and twelve. It is the story of David and his affair with Bathsheba. David committed a horrible sin by stealing a woman that God gave to another man. You have sinned just as deeply by mistreating the gift that God gave to you. God punished David firmly, and I promise you that He will deal with you just as severely if you continue on with this sin. Read the story and reflect on it.” Father Wallace stopped for a moment to let his words sink in. “I also want you to make an appointment with a marriage counselor. If you want suggestions of who to contact about this, you can call the church and we will help you find someone. When you do these things, your sins will be forgiven. Do you understand?”
“I understand about the Bible chapters, Father. But I think that counseling is too extreme.”
“Yes, Father. This is an unusual time for my wife and I. We’ve just moved into a new place, and we’ve both been extremely emotional. I’ve never hurt my wife before this, and I immediately regretted my actions. I came as soon as I could to confess to you, and I have resolved to change. I don’t think that counseling is necessary.”
“It’s critical. I’m very disturbed by the casual way you talk about violence in your relationship with your wife. God has been disturbed by this attitude since long before your wife was actually hurt. Whether or not you are willing to acknowledge it, you are moving towards a treacherous sin that can easily destroy your marriage. If you have resolved to change, you will trust my advice.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust your advice. It’s that I wouldn’t do well in a counseling situation. And I’m not at the point that I need it, yet. If I’m wrong, I’ll call a counselor like you suggested.”
“I don’t want you to take that risk. Call the church and we will find someone for you. You need to trust me about this. Counseling is uncomfortable at first, but it will become easier.”
“Yes, Father,” was Jordan’s answer, but the grim silence that preceded it made Father Wallace believe otherwise.
“Unless you do this penance, God will not forgive you.”
“Yes, Father.” The voice was sullen like a grounded teenager, but the situation was too grave for Father Wallace to be remotely entertained. Father Wallace had never heard another instance of spousal abuse in his congregation, but he remembered vividly the couple that had lived in the apartment above him while he was growing up. They were members of his church, but he was sure that it would never have occurred to that husband to tell the priest, no matter what he had done the evening before. Father Wallace remembered the sickening thuds that he heard against the ceiling and the relief he felt when her obscenities broke the silence, proving that she would at least get up again. His mother had told him that she sometimes wished that the couple had a child so that she could try to call the police about it�the wife certainly never did. He wondered how much his priest knew about that, and how he attempted to keep that couple afloat. In this situation, Father Wallace still had an opportunity to make an impact, but he doubted that his efforts had made a difference.
“Pray for forgiveness.” There was nothing else for him to say.
“My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments�” The words flowed quickly and easily for someone who had not spoken them for almost a year. Whatever Jordan believed, he had obviously learned his prayers thoroughly. Father Wallace gave the Prayer of Absolution and made the sign of the cross.
“You are forgiven. Now go in peace.”
Once again, Father Wallace traced the sounds of Jordan Sullivan standing, turning for the door.
“Call the church for that phone number.”
The door shut on his words.
* * *
Father Wallace didn’t see Jordan again that month or the next, but in that time Mia became a familiar sight at St. Michael’s. Each Sunday she sat in a pew on Father Wallace’s far left, listening to the homily with her delicate eyebrows furrowed into an expression of soft, unblinking concern. Father Wallace often found himself preaching a disproportionate amount of his sermon to her half of the congregation so that he could check for bruises on her face and arms. He never found any.
This was the most he could do. The Church was emphatic about maintaining the privacy of the parishioners, and it forbade priests from mentioning information revealed in confession, no matter what the context. If by some miracle (and Father Wallace was praying for it) Jordan Sullivan appeared in his office in search of counseling, canon law commanded that Father Wallace pretend to have no recollection of their encounter in the confessional. Not to do so would be to violate the seal of confession, resulting in automatic excommunication. It was one of the peculiar aspects of his job, and a difficult one to maintain. He led a small congregation, and it didn’t take a unique accent for him to recognize idiosyncrasies in the faceless voices that linked them irrefutably to the churchgoers who greeted him in the reception hall. How could he always remember what to forget?
At times Father Wallace still wondered if Jordan and Mia had found a marriage counselor without the church’s help, but when he remembered the rebellion he had heard in Jordan’s voice, he knew that they hadn’t. He prayed for Jordan, but his real hope was that Mia would come and talk to him. She never mentioned the situation, and although she attended services and had even been dragged into helping manage the annual garage sale, she had not come to confession once. Father Wallace continued praying.
* * *
It was late afternoon when Father Wallace pulled up in front of the Sullivan household. He sat still for a moment, clutching the wheel to keep his fingers from trembling. His body always seemed to revolt openly against him when he hadn’t had enough sleep, and there had been no hope for sleep the night before. It had already been fairly late when he received a call from Mrs. McGavin, the head of the new members committee. “She fell down the stairs and broke both of her legs, but it sounds like she’s going to be alright. She’s very lucky: the doctors say that things could have been a lot worse if she had landed differently. Yes, it sounds like what happened is that she was in a hurry and she just slipped�who knows why she couldn’t just take her time on the stairs like everyone else.”
Mia was still at the hospital, but the Sullivans had asked that visitors give her a day to recover. It was unclear how much longer she would be in the hospital. Now Father Wallace sat buckled next to a cooling plate of angel hair pasta. Luanne hadn’t had time to run it over to Jordan herself, and Father Wallace had been looking for an opportunity to talk to him. He slammed the door of his station wagon and skirted the patchy green lawn on his way up to the porch.
Jordan opened the door with a thin smile that suggested that he would have been just as happy to close it again. Part of Father Wallace knew that it was a sin to take pleasure in that discomfort. Upon seeing Jordan’s face, the instinctive feeling of dislike had returned, accompanied by the acid anger in his chest. Father Wallace willed it to subside and lifted up his offering of cold pasta.
Jordan stepped back to let him into the house, speaking with forced cheer. “I see you come bearing gifts. You didn’t have to do that.”
“I didn’t. The leftovers are from Mrs. Maguire, who assumes that all men are helpless on their own,” said Father Wallace with an ease that surprised him.
“I’m not quite helpless, but I’m sure it will get eaten up at some point. I’ll have to remember to say thank you the next time I see her.” Jordan dropped the plate on a glass coffee table and eyed the door. For a moment, Father Wallace considered taking the hint�Jordan looked tired, and he was feeling weak, himself. But he rooted himself to his placed. Something could still be done here.
“May I sit?” he asked.
Jordan gestured to a modern-looking couch that gave like a sheet of plastic and sat down in the armchair across from it.
“How are you feeling, Jordan?”
“It’s been a difficult forty-eight hours.” Propped comfortably in his chair, Jordan might have looked relaxed if it wasn’t for the wary edge in his voice.
“I’m sure it has been. What happened?”
“Didn’t anyone tell you? Mia was running around on the second floor and tripped while she was rushing down the stairs. I heard her when she fell, and when I saw what had happened I called the ambulance.”
Father Wallace nodded. “It’s lucky that you were there to help.”
Jordan watched him, saying nothing.
“I thought we might make it through the summer without an accident like this, but they just always seem to happen,” Father Wallace continued. “Accidents are a part of the disorder and the evil that makes this world so difficult to live in.” He was wondering if Jordan might shrivel visibly when he spoke, but the only change he noticed was a new steeliness behind Jordan’s eyes.
“Is there something else that you want to ask me?” Jordan asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I hope you won’t be offended if I tell you that I don’t believe that you delivered this plate of food and sat me down to talk about accidents being a part of the world we live in. It seems like you have something else that you want to ask me, but for some reason you’re not asking it. Is that right? Is there something that you want to ask me?”
The impudence in his voice made Father Wallace’s jaw tighten. “Yes.”
“Then why don’t you save us some time and ask it?” Jordan maintained his relaxed posture, but it was a thinly-concealed lie. Despite his tough talk and lazy drawl, his features were brittle.
Father Wallace spoke deliberately in an attempt to hide the anger in his voice. “I’m not allowed to ask it. If we’re going to talk, you’re going to have to start the conversation.”
“What do you want me to say?” asked Jordan with feigned confusion.
“I just told you, I can’t say. If you don’t know what I mean, then we have nothing to talk about, after all. But frankly I think you know very well.”
“No, I’m still lost,” said Jordan, grinning darkly. For the first time it looked like he was enjoying the conversation. For a moment, his expression shocked Father Wallace into silence. It was an expression he had seen countless times growing up: the leer of a bully who thinks he has won.
“Did you push your wife down the stairs?” The words were out and then gone, beyond Father Wallace’s control.
Jordan stared, then stood in a livid blur. “Get out of my house!”
“Tell me that this was an accident and I’ll leave,” said Father Wallace, his last attempts to remain calm shattered. “Tell me that this was an accident!”
“I don’t have to tell you anything! What, do you think the confessional booth walks around with you?”
Father threw himself up from the couch before Jordan’s stocky frame. “You won’t tell me because I’m right! I’ve watched you since you came into my church, and nothing you have done since then has surprised me, not one thing. Are you going to tell me that I’m wrong now? No, because you know as well as I do that I’m right!”
“I’m not telling you anything because you’re not worth my time! Now get out!” Jordan grabbed Father Wallace by the arm and flung him towards the door.
Father Wallace scrambled to regain his footing. “I am here because I care about you and your wife. You are slipping down a terrible slope, and you will not be able to pull yourself back.”
“This may be your last chance, do you understand?” asked Father Wallace.
“You want to talk about slippery slopes?” asked Jordan. “If you don’t leave right now, I’m calling the police and after that I’m calling the bishop. I can get you more than fired, and you know it. You’re way out of line.”
Through the adrenaline, Father Wallace felt the sickening rise of fear in his stomach. More than fired. Excommunicated.
“One more word and I swear to God I’m calling the police.”
“I’m trying to help you.” Father Wallace was feeling weaker, his anger twisting inward.
“Have it your way.” Jordan turned around a corner. When Father Wallace heard him pick up the phone, he turned and stumbled into the yard, a sick horror growing within him.
He drove away in his station wagon, which still smelled faintly of pasta, and pulled into a high school parking lot several blocks away. He sat for a while, letting his hands shake against the wheel. Had Jordan called the police? Surely he didn’t want to speak to them any more than Father Wallace did. But as Father Wallace felt a terrible, growing shame, he wondered if the question really even mattered. Already the memory of his actions was taking on frightening clarity, and he felt the weight of what he had betrayed.
He closed his eyes and realized that he felt no love for Jordan, only loathing. Surely that was sin enough, even aside from the vow he had broken. How had this happened so fast? When had God left him behind, and how had He departed unnoticed? The car was as silent as the confessional, but the intimate presence was gone. Father Wallace waited in silence and hoped that it would come back.
Eric Lang ’09 is an English concentrator from Quincy House.