River Adams

Father Aiden Brennan lined up the gun with a bottle of whiskey and a coffee mug on the table in his room, on the second floor of the rectory. The table was covered by a seasonal tablecloth, orange with grimacing brown pumpkins on it, some of whom had legs and others arms holding a scythe. Then he sat in front of the arrangement on a pinewood chair, which groaned under his weight. 

            Behind him, the room lay in a mundane disarray: a mess of blankets on the bed; a closet of clerical suits with its door ajar; tomes spilling off the bookshelf, the nightstand, and the printer cart, which hadn’t held a printer since the Millennium. From high under the ceiling, the crucifix was drilling him in the back with a burning look, but Aiden didn’t turn around. Instead, he gave a splash of whiskey to the coffee mug and poured its contents down his throat in a single gulp, the way he’d seen his father do upon coming home from work, every day of his childhood. The whiskey scorched him, and he gagged and coughed and breathed wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

Aiden Brennan grew up in Pittsburgh on the edge of the Irish cliché, or that’s how his father had accustomed him to think of it. “God took a wee bit of every Irish stereotype and made a Brennan pudding!” Sean would say, then burst out laughing, usually by himself.

            Sean Brennan was a decent neighborhood plumber, when he wasn’t late to a job, and a daily but functional drinker; Mary stayed home with the kids. They were tolerably poor and tolerably Catholic and went to church most Sundays but slacked on occasion, having gotten too hassled or too tired. The four boys and the youngest girl, named appropriately Colleen, were hugged and whacked about in equal measure. They smelled often of cabbage and potatoes and less often of pork and, now and then, of chicken lo mein from The Yummy Kitchen take-out. 

            Aiden was the runt of the male litter. He had trouble making friends and gravitated toward lonely games, on occasion shared by Colleen, who was only a year and a half younger. Tall for her age and athletic, she bossed him around, though lovingly, and copied the older siblings in calling him “little brother.” No matter how Aiden fought it, the pet name stuck. He adored her and lived with it, having become used to diminution. All through his childhood he was teased for being frumpy and bookish, not so cruelly as to elicit thoughts of violence—mostly nicknames and stolen glasses and whale sounds behind his back, and once a picture of a pig eating a calculator stuck to his locker. Still, it was enough to make him seek escape someplace less carnal than the world, and so he enjoyed the church.

            At St. Nicholas parish, Father Lucius Harbinger served as pastor. He’d been a pastor for two dozen years, three of them at St. Nicholas by the time he began noticing the youngest Brennan boy. Aiden lingered in the sanctuary after Mass, turned out the lights and picked up worship aids, helped the custodian sweep the floors. On weekdays he could be found playing chess with himself lying prone in the pews, invisible but for the scuffed, muddy shoes that waved above the backs of the benches. When Father Lucius asked Mrs. Brennan if her son would like to be an altar boy, she shrugged and said, “You take him, Father. Do him good.” And the boy’s life seemed a done deal after that.

            Aiden didn’t join the priesthood for God but for the Church, for camaraderie and cause, the way other kids went off to the army. It would be a family that would never die on him, or get married and move to Boston, or write “Father Fatty” on the wrapper of his Christmas presents. 

            He liked imagining himself as a drop in the stream of holy water that ran through time, liked incense, hymns, and formulas, and the vestments that imbued his unremarkable present with mysterious Roman antiquity. He liked the memories of those early, church-sheltered years, when he’d stay late on Vigil nights with Father Lucius for tea and cookies, and he could see himself doing the same for the kids of his future parish. His professors in seminary called all these things “the tradition,” and so he, too, began to call them that.

            He liked the Mass. It was the only time that Aiden liked the people. Out in the world he found humans generally weak, shallow, and fake—walking peel-off stickers—but before Mass, behind the confessional’s door, in their penitence and gasping, bullies and misers and liars opened up to him and became vulnerable, striving to be better. Then, at Mass, they stood forgiven and reconciled, turning their burdenless faces to him, and they were lovely. Not an embracing thinker, Aiden had a critical mind, and he recognized that the Church had saved him from becoming a misanthrope. 

His second drink went down more easily. He was getting used to the caustic odor of Old Crow. Its smell reminded him of the cheap Scotch his father drank, the same bitter severity. Aiden had avoided hard liquor until now. Afraid of having inherited Sean’s addiction gene, he’d figured he’d be the wiser never to take the first drink in the first place. 

            He walked to the open door and called out, “Hey!” His voice sounded owlish in the empty rectory, ricocheted off corners and shuttered windows, rebounded in the cavernous spaces of the building. “No!” he shouted and listened to the echo, then turned around and looked up to the crucifix. It hung obtrusively on the opposite wall. “This is no Book of Job, my dear goddamned fellow,” Aiden said to the crucifix. “Don’t you know we’re too good for normal sins?”

Colleen had never accepted the idea of Aiden as a diocesan priest. “You’ll be wasting your life,” she kept telling him. “You should be making some girl squeal-happy, maybe teaching. You’re good with kids! Is this because I’m moving to Boston? You’re not renouncing the world out of spite, are you, little brother?”

            “Mom would’ve been proud,” he said.

            “Mom thought, if you produce a priest or a nun, you get a free pass at Pearly Gates,” Colleen parried. “Aren’t you going to, you know… miss girls?”

            To his own surprise, Aiden didn’t experience celibacy as a problem. Before entering the seminary he’d figured out that he liked women and that everything worked. Father Lucius insisted on his dating, though, naturally, not on nonmarital sex. 

            Most of Aiden’s dates were local girls, one was a Malaysian cytologist (exotic, transient, and fragile to the touch, in Pittsburgh for a month at some sort of conference), and one was a cello student in the Pitt music department. This final affair had lasted the longest, almost a year, and from time to time Aiden still recalled the way she’d spread her knees as she nestled the cello between them and arched her back into it with her elbows out and her ear to the instrument’s neck, as if the music weren’t coming from the bow but poured from her fingers, sliding, stroking, trembling, melting into the strings.

            Still, when his time came to give it up, they parted after a final night and a pact to keep in touch neither made an effort to keep. Aiden’s attention was already on the future. It’s not that he wouldn’t miss sex. It’s that sex came with a side dollop of anxious, nuanced interaction Aiden had never managed to understand, and it required giving his well-being over into the hands of lay people, whom he never managed to trust. If he could have sex or the Church, the choice was easy.

            After the seminary, he was sent to Our Lady of Good Counsel, on the far side of Pittsburgh. The pastor was a septuagenarian, Father Blagden Zeazel. He ran the parish with a smooth, slightly creaky hand and groomed Aiden to take over. Evenings, over the table in the rectory’s common room, Father Blagden blew into his coffee mug and pulled prickly humorous stories about how not to be a priest, one after another, from his inexhaustible memory. Aiden ran the choir and the outreach ministries, gave an occasional homily, kept his tongue mostly in check, and made frequent visits to St. Nicholas, where Father Lucius was never short on advice nor on tea. From a mentor, Lucius grew imperceptibly into a friend, and there were between them reminiscences of Aiden’s childhood, warm and prepackaged as the ready-to-bake cookies Lucius made in the rectory oven. 

            Priests were already in short supply by then. Clerics got pulled to serve from Africa. The pews had been thinning for decades. Parochial schools were being closed, parishes merging for lack of pastors and lack of money and lack of butts in the seats. Aiden’s brothers all had lapsed after their mother’s death. They called themselves “recovering Catholics,” and when he asked what that meant, they were vague and bitter about it. 

            In his eyes, the Church was a lone woman, out in a storm. A cheated-on wife. A neglected mother. It was this need that he had answered, a favor of loyalty he’d returned for having himself been made, once upon a time, to feel adopted. He never thought of himself as “lucky.”

The coffee mug Aiden was holding read, I’m a priest not a saint! It had been a birthday gift for Father Blagden from a Sunday school class some years ago, and only after seeing Blagden’s name on the grand jury report did Aiden realize why the old priest hadn’t taken it with him. 

            He remembered Tommy Kovinski presenting the gift to the pastor. It had been wrapped by the children into a shapeless, sticky ball of paper and tape, and the boy held it out on two straight arms, double-jointed elbows jutting up like insect limbs, his whole body so light that he had to lean back from Father Blagden, to balance the weight. It occurred to Aiden that he would likely never know if Tommy, too, was among the lucky. 

He took his third drink but threw his head back too far swallowing the whiskey; it burned his throat, and he coughed again, staring mindlessly at the words on the mug. Father Blagden used to lift it up and wink instead of an apology whenever he’d been late, or if Linda complained about the mess in his paperwork, or after the altar server training had run long. He’d wink and smile and point and shrug: Hey, I’m a priest, not a saint!

            Aiden put the mug down and pushed it away from him, too far. The mug slid off the table and hit the floor with a pathetic thud, leaked the remnant of alcohol into a tiny dark lazy puddle on the wood. He picked it up and wiped it off with his sleeve.

The Boston diocese exploded in 2002, when he was in the first year of seminary. They said “exploded” when they talked of the revelations, as if a volcano had erupted under the pressure of hellfires and rained down flames, burying crumbling bodies under the ash. 

            There was an assembly for the students and faculty after the words “sex,” “abuse,” and “scandal” had begun to be tossed about in mass media. The words combined and recombined, mocked from every direction like a monstrous game of shells. They held a prayer service for the embattled Cardinal Law. Colleen called, spitting with toxic rage, and for the first time used that word: “lucky.” Her son hadn’t been molested. “Must’ve been lucky,” she said.

            “I’m sorry,” he said to her. “There’re cockroaches in our house. I’m sorry.” 

            “How can you be with these people?” she asked. And, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

He filled Blagden’s mug a quarter way up, took another swig from it and didn’t feel it burn this time, but he was getting hot. Standing up to take off his jacket, he toppled the chair and nearly swept a glass off the table. I must be getting drunk, he thought. He listened to his sensations but found no pleasure in them, no “scotch lightness” his father boasted about, and certainly no clarity. Only a slow nausea rose up to his throat and subsided, and the handgun blurred out of focus and reconstituted itself.

            The gun had been easy to get. It was his father’s.

            After Sean Brennan had lost his wife to a quick descent into ovarian cancer in ’96, he undertook to join her by drinking himself to death but couldn’t succeed in over twenty years and lived now permanently in alcoholic vapors. Mary’s funeral was the last time he was sober. Aiden and Colleen still lived at home then: Colleen was a junior in high school; Aiden, a senior. 

            “At least Mary’s got your kids brought up,” somebody said at the graveside. “Your youngest are almost out of the house.”

            “Lucky me,” Sean answered, and Aiden was thankful for the sarcasm in his voice. 

            Since then Sean had been working his way through liquor stores with purpose and bullish perseverance. Aiden looked in on him no more than a son’s duty required, spent a half-hour in the hazy kitchen, where bottles crowded the rusting sink, and both of them knew that nothing could be done. 

            Aiden had to push himself to visit. Sean’s apartment made him queasy. It was just everything there: its odors, its colors, the odd things from the Brennan family house, now sold. Pictures were piled up in the corners, half out of cardboard boxes, unfamiliar things mixed in with his mother’s. It was the family’s old sofa, where she’d sat and knitted, which now smelled of cigarette burns and mold and stagnant grief. It was all burdensome. Hopeless. Heavy with Mary’s settled ghost. Aiden felt immediately helpless there, so tense his muscles ached, and Sean rarely registered his presence. He did what he always did: drank and stared. Whenever Sean swallowed, his sharp Adam’s apple sawed the inside of his neck, and, just as he had in all of Aiden’s memory, he shook his head after every Scotch, as though he couldn’t believe the sensation. A spark momentarily went off in his eyes, and, setting down the glass, he said, “Clarity!” 

            He always said “clarity.” 

Aiden remembered this woman because she’d been the first to make him afraid. The woman was new in the parish, with children, and he came downstairs into the office from the living quarters as she was registering with Linda, the parish secretary. “Father Aiden’s only been with us a year,” Linda said, and the woman stopped filling out some form, stopped smiling, and stood up, sizing him up.

            “Were you transferred here, Father?” she asked. Suspicion shaded her face like a gray veil.

            Aiden still remembered her name, even though she hadn’t stayed at Good Counsel beyond a few months: Lorenza Ricardo. She was the first to make him feel ashamed. Dirty in his own house. And a ghastly little worm of a thought wriggled in his mind: his Church, the rock of ages, may not, after all, be altogether unbreakable. 

            He had seen lava flow once on television, a creeping thick mass, crusted over black but glowing red and eerie through the cracks, nauseously soft, and it ignited anything it neared with an instant blaze. Aiden thought it looked like Satan’s shit. Satan’s shit that had overflowed its pot. 

            At first they were just sporadic looks. Judging. Questioning. Suspecting. But news broke one after another—Oregon, Chicago—and it became an expectation. Eruptions along a volcanic chain. And wave after wave of foul odor gusting in Aiden’s face. He lingered in front of the mirror before running his errands, tempted to leave behind his clerical collar. Philadelphia. A discernment weekend for high-school boys had to be canceled. It was titled “Many Are Called,” but only the deacon’s son signed up to go. Ireland, Austria, Germany, Brazil. The parents informed Father Blagden they wanted to observe altar server training. The young mother they sent to deliver the message had a sour, apologetic face and finished every phrase with a question mark. “Just one parent?” she said. “We won’t be in the way?”

            Later that day in the rectory’s common room, Aiden was going over the parish volunteers’ clearance forms: an FBI background check for each person who had the slightest chance of interacting with the children. He glanced up at Father Blagden’s sharpened profile and thought the old priest looked like a sentry bird pondering something beyond the window—the Sunday homily, or the catastrophe beneath their feet. Or that he’d been left a sentry too long. 

            Aiden also thought that an FBI background check wouldn’t save them. Wouldn’t have saved almost anyone flattened by Satan’s shit. 

            When the trial began in Philadelphia in 2012, a stranger stopped in front of him and spat on the pavement before his feet. It felt surreal and melodramatic, biblically old-worldly, and the stranger was an old man in an odd, shaggy hat. He spat and walked away muttering, the way people must have done when they actually did that sort of thing. When they believed in the power of spittle to exorcise, and they spat on the ill and on the evil. 

            Aiden called Colleen. They’d mostly avoided the issue since that original, venom-filled exchange, tip-toed around it on the phone, and checked their tongues with her family when he came up to Boston for Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. Whenever the mention of it crept up between them, they both felt strained and stilted, as if she had to squeeze pus from his boil. She called it “the issue,” and he, “the thing.” Dialing her number this time, he didn’t expect anything better, but he was desperate to tamp down this wriggling panic, to take a breath. Just to hear an outside voice. The thing was cutting off his air supply.

            “I told you to get out of that God-forsaken snake pit a decade ago,” she said. “Do it now, little brother. As fast as you can.”

            He’d heard this from her before but never knew what to say. How do you tell your sister that, to you, God is but a rationale for the existence of the Church?

            “You are the only person I love outside the pit. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.

            She seemed to dwell on it a minute, and he dwelled on his end of the line. Then she offered, “My in-laws might hire you at the PR firm.”

            He hung up.

            In the common room of the Good Counsel rectory, Father Lucius shook his head, twirled a tea mug between restless spider-leg fingers. He’d been transferred to the diocese personnel office by then, so they were meeting at Aiden’s. Father Blagden wandered out of his room and joined them at the table with his afternoon decaf. 

            “How…?” Aiden asked. “How could this happen?”

            It wasn’t a question he could hope to have answered, but the two old priests sat in the same pose, bent down and leaning on their mugs, not drinking, buckling under the same weight. Aiden recognized that pose. He’d spent so much time in it lately it made his shoulder muscles ache.

            Blagden didn’t look up, but Lucius did. “Sometimes good people do bad things, Aiden,” he said. “It is for God to judge.” His words were rehearsed and monotone, a stock answer from the priestly workbook. 

            “You’re a better person than me, Father,” Aiden said.

He downed another splash of the brownish liquid: his fifth in an hour. It wasn’t working. He felt ill and flushed but no closer to any decision, and the outline of the gun on the garish tablecloth was doubling and changing colors. His feet and eyelids were leaden, but he stood up against their pull and took a few steps around the room. Despite the queasiness, moving felt good, and he walked out into the common room, then downstairs to the parish office, cloudy in the twilight. 

            The office had been looking orphaned since Linda had left, even though she hadn’t taken much with her, only a few tidbits from her desk: a meaty cactus with a single pale flower, several cheesy greeting cards from past birthdays and Christmases, and a picture of her husband and six assorted children on a canoe trip. Aiden kept forgetting which two of the six were Linda’s. 

            She cried when she told him she was leaving, and cried situating the cactus in a printing paper box. Neither of them brought up even a week’s notice. “I’m so sorry, Father, I just can’t. I just can’t.” She sniffled out the door, and Aiden could swear he heard her whimpering across the parking lot. A faint murmur (“I just can’t!”), then the noise of a car door and of the engine, and he was alone in the empty rectory.

            This was last month. Two days after the grand jury report on the Pittsburgh diocese had been released with graphic details. With victims’ stories. And the names of ninety-nine priests. Among the ninety-nine were two of Aiden’s seminary friends, five professors, Father Blagden Zeazel, and Father Lucius Harbinger.

It had been quiet in the rectory, quiet in the church for the past three weeks. Quiet air. On Saturday nights and Sunday mornings he celebrated a compliant Mass and withdrew back to his room. No one stopped him. No parishioner asked about the church picnic, or when a new secretary would be found. He dreaded the thought of looking, the chatty interview: Would your current secretary bring me up to speed, Father?

            No one asked if he had known and kept silent, but Aiden was convinced he read the question in every pair of eyes. He couldn’t sleep. The hours bled into the gloaming, into his ringing, rumbling footfalls on the office floor tiles. He paced through the rectory, upstairs and downstairs and up again, and avoided only Blagden’s former room, which remained closed and locked. 

            Father Lucius came to the door three days ago in the evening, unprompted. He’d been calling, but Aiden hadn’t answered. Still, when the bell rang, Aiden opened, and they stood on two sides of the threshold as if it were a glass wall. Nothing was said for a while, and Aiden realized that Lucius was waiting to be invited in, or to be asked a question. Aiden planned to do neither.

            Then Lucius said, “I was worried.”

            Aiden laughed, rattling the echoes. He noted without surprise the ashen hollows of the older priest’s cheeks. Or it could be the lighting, the single bulb above the rectory door. They lingered again in silence.

            Then Aiden asked: “Why not me, Father? You never touched me. Was it because you didn’t like me? Or because you did?”

            For a moment, the face under the bulb became misshapen, like wax that had overheated and begun to slide off; then Lucius recomposed himself. “You think you can judge me now, boy.” His voice scraped against his throat, and he pulled at his collar. “You’re like me, you know. You’ll be like me, you’ll see. Try serving in this cassock for fifty years and then stand before God, and you stand before the mirror and face the things you’ve done.” The old man stepped up and put his hand on the door post, and his expression changed to something achingly warm—Father Lucius from the past, who smelled of cookies and mothballs. Fleetingly his lip quivered, and he opened his mouth to say something more, but Aiden let go of the door, and it swooshed closed between them. 

            The next day Aiden drove to his father’s apartment and poured him Scotch after Scotch until Sean fell asleep on the family sofa, leaking alcohol from his toppled glass into a small pungent puddle. Aiden went into the bedroom. The gun was where he expected to find it (in a metal box under the bed, the key on the nightstand, under a lamp, the way it had been kept in his childhood home), and he walked out with it under his arm.

He’d imagined that holding the gun would push him to make the decision, and the decision, once made, would bring about the courage, but none of that happened, and he spent the day rocking back and forth on the edge of the creaking chair, elbows digging into his knees, eye-level with the foreign, black thing, peering into the black slit of its barrel, not knowing what to do. The gun’s trigger was lying right on the hand of a cackling pumpkin with a black hole for front teeth. Briefly the idea of whiskey and clarity had given him a rise, but he should’ve known: as anything coming from Sean, it proved a disappointment. Here he was, half a bottle down, fighting waves of nausea in the stripped rectory office, and still didn’t know any better. 

            He didn’t believe in God, not in the way Lucius seemed to do and the people in his pews. Not in the way that would now allow him to turn to God for consolation, for company, or for counsel. As a counterweight to his natural conceit, Aiden had cultivated the notion that Christ was other people. Father Blagden had told him once that this was the way to guarantee he’d never lose his faith.

            Aiden kicked at the banister coming up the stairs.

            On the bright side, he didn’t believe in Hell, either, certainly not in the kind that would swallow him for putting a hole in the roof of his mouth. Today, however, he wished he could tell Father Lucius to go to hell, and tell Father Blagden the Christ-bearer to go to hell, and to imagine how they really would. 

            In the bathroom mirror there floated the familiar Aiden face: puffy, harmless, with encircled purplish eyelids and sparse ginger bangs. You’ll be like me, you’ll see… Lucius’s last words had been repeating in his mind like a ghostly playlist. There’d been a time when Aiden would’ve given anything to be like Lucius. 

            I bet Lucius didn’t go to his ordination planning to become a monster.

            He turned his back to the mirror. “I shouldn’t have done this drunk,” he said to the floor. 

            His mind was muddy; his legs, unsteady. He returned to his room holding on to the wall. The gun lay on the table—the one sure remedy for becoming a monster. It was patient, ready, and indifferent.

            Aiden grabbed the bottle and the mug, but the mug slipped through his quivering fingers and shattered on the corner of the table, leaving a shard that said “priest not” rocking sickishly on the edge. The trip down to the kitchen seemed untraversable, and he surveyed the room for alternatives. His baptismal candle stood under the crucifix on a tiny shelf, made just for that purpose and affixed to the wall under the crucifix in every room he’d ever called his. He pulled the candle out of its nest, laid it down on the shelf, and blew inside the candle holder. It was dusty and slightly grimy and just smaller than a shot glass. From the crucifix, the dead Christ finally met his gaze and gave him a quick acquiescent nod, then closed his eyes again and molded back into the plastic form. Aiden poured the whiskey into the candle holder, and it overflowed immediately and irrevocably and splashed down on the floor.

River Adams (they/them) grew up in the Soviet Union and came to America as a Jewish refugee. After careers as a concert pianist and professor of religious studies, they now live in Massachusetts, writing and caring for their noisy family of six humans, two dogs, and a cat. They are Jewish, Catholic Christian, a little bit atheist, and a little bit Zen. They hold an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College, and their short work appears in such publications as The CommonBellevue Literary ReviewArkansas ReviewDescant, and others. Their first novel, The Light of Seven Days, is forthcoming from Delphinium Books in 2023.

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