Written for Yuletide 2011.


He opens the door of the rundown tenement building with his case handle slick from his sweaty fingers and the streetlights are already on; the day has passed. The one fan in the apartment had been sputtering in the corner of the woman's room, and he's gleaming with sweat. He unlocks his car, checking compulsively to make sure the tires are still on, and puts his case in the trunk, hooks one finger under his collar and pulls it away from his throat.

He's always thought of these calls as either a battle he has a chance of winning, or one he doesn't. That doesn't change anything (he'll never know if he's pushing a rock another foot up a hill or not, and he knows it should make no difference either way) but he feels different after. The scene he just walked out of, he knows, is one of the latter.

He's not sure how Maria found him, in her blue cotton dress washed so many times it had faded to the color of a perfect summer sky, her eyes a little too close and her mouth a little too thin. He had followed her mostly pointed directions, his Spanish only good enough to pick out the words mother, now, quick, and sick, but when he arrived he'd known she was anything but sick.

Maria's mother was dying.

The bar across the street is close packed and so loud he can't hear himself think, which is good. Between his ears just sounds like a dull roar, while distantly some part of him tells an invisible rosary, like slow fingertips moving up his spine, tracing the knobs of bone beneath. He chants it because it's better than the nothing.

The two fingers of scotch in his glass feel like warm smoke going down. He glances up into the mirror behind the bar, and between the bottles he sees the gleam of teeth as a girl laughs at something a man is saying, ice in a glass, the lobes of a woman's ears.

Another laugh, different from the rest.

John

(is how he thinks of himself under the vestments, in that person he was and ever will be)

hasn't seen her in years, not really. He's seen countless reminders of her, in the flip of a girl's hair, the angle of an eyelid, the hesitation before a murmured word. Those mementos leave him firm and sure, but he doesn't know of what, only that afterward he spends too much time studying his well-worn Bible, letting those words drown out the others until all of him is unanimous again.

It's not that he didn't save her. But maybe that's everything. Maybe that's what he really wanted, to bury his fist in her brown hair and show her what he has long understood, that belief that has washed away all his doubts, over and over again. She's floundering the way he did.

He can't imagine that she has moved, in the interim. That she will be other than what she was.

But she is different. Her hair is different, this girl at the edge of the bar in a group of her bright-eyed peers. She seems at once assured and on edge, and part of him wonders if that's how it is, to have a part of her gone, forever.

John orders another. The room is still hot but the sweat is turning gritty on his skin, and he swipes his brow with his handkerchief. Scotch doesn't bring clarity, but he's mostly sure that there can be no clarity after he's heard a death rattle, his fingers slick with oil, lips moving in a blessing she would never hear. No.

She avoids his eyes. So she recognizes him.

He should be accustomed to it, but the thousand things he should be accustomed to are just that. Where others are expert at seeing joy, naivete, desire, all he can see is guilt, everywhere, in the shift of a gaze, the blank expression in the eyes. They glow with it, from the outside in, knowing. And because they know, he knows.

He orders another scotch. He'll wake up in the morning and this will all have faded, this feeling of total impotence, something verging on rage, all because he was called to a deathbed and then saw her. He will see a thousand more deathbeds before the last time he takes the collar off. A thousand more nights like this. More dinners with people who would have no clue about the plight of the Mexican family two blocks down, or the negroes who came in to wipe down the counter and deliver the groceries. Everything he wants to change and everything he can't.

There are nights when nothing works. This is becoming one of those nights.

He goes to the restroom and settles his tab and her group has moved closer to the door. The skirts flip and twirl, the men brush their hair back, and he can see what's written there, too, what he's had to carefully push away, into his fingers while he's strumming the guitar, into a whispered chant. Take this cup from me. O take this cup from me.

But he can feel it at his lips, the sweet numbing smoke, the flash of a stocking, and then she's beside him.

It's nice to see you.

She's hesitant, her light eyes flicking from his gaze to his hand.

It comes back, a fraction too slow from the alcohol, but it's there fast enough, the pleasant smile, the open gaze, just as much a mask as the collar he takes off every night. Peggy. How pleasant to see you. And how have you been?

Well. The group at the door calls to her, gesturing, and she gives a swift sweep of her hand, one that says Go on without me, and John doesn't think anything. Part of him is already in the next morning. Part of him is already past this. He's just waiting to catch up.

How— is the new parish?

Lovely. I hope the new priest has been by to see your family.

Another shift in her gaze. They never understand that it would be easier to say it, that the weight is so much less once it's spoken in something other than the fraction their eyes move or the nervous twitch of their fingers, even in the dark of the confessional.

I'm sure he has.

His throat is aching, and when the bartender comes over, brow raised, the customers have become even louder. John asks for a glass of iced water and Peggy does the same, and her lower lip leaves a print on the glass with her first sip.

That is what we are, he says, and he should have had dinner, but he couldn't leave Maria's house, not like that, and the scotch is warm in his belly. Peggy looks down to see his fingertip touch the glass, just under the mark of her lips. Just a reflection. Just a mark. Gone, and he rubs the ball of his thumb over the curve of the print, just like that.

Without getting to choose, she says, and she's not looking at him, and he thinks of a blue-stained egg like a broken promise.

Sometimes. Sometimes.

She's not wearing gloves, and then she puts her hand over his, on the bar. Her skin is warm and a little damp. The serenity he sees in her eyes is a lie, has to be. The way the serenity in his own is, on nights like tonight.

You want to talk about it?

He chuckles. That's... that's what I'm supposed to say.

Her fingers don't move. No one to confess the confessor, she says, and her lips turn up in a small tentative smile.

There are a number of things he doesn't think of in that moment. He doesn't think of the small span of her waist under his hands. He doesn't think of how the smart bows tied in her hair have given way to a bright shimmer in the lobes of her ears. He doesn't decide that he already knows what her lips would taste like.

She has never said that she's fallen. She has never said those words and in that night when it seemed the entire world was going to come down around them, she wasn't going to flinch. There's only a small, small part of him that loves her—

(no, no)

—for that, but he wonders sometimes if she has gone to a place where there is no guilt, when it has just been her and an unburdening and he was not allowed to witness it, not allowed to hold her doubt and remorse in his hands and soothe it away with the telling of another dozen beads.

He would count those small bones in her spine like another penance for this. Another sin to swallow the first.

You have your car here? She practically has to shout it over the music, the heat, and he nods. He has held that fist in him so tight for so long that just the thought of loosing it makes him tremble, makes him wonder if the morning will find it sealed tight as a tomb again, or if he will glance beside him to see her all tumbled, loose limbs and a spill of brown hair over the pillow.

Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered. It rises to him as one piece, half-remembered, from across that barrier he cannot pass. Before.

And she stands here still touching him, and oh, to drown.

Drive me home.

He doesn't even try to rationalize it. She turns and he follows, and the roar in him is just the faintest hum now.

He doesn't want to know how many other times this has happened, how many other men, how many other whispered lies in the dark. He doesn't need to. It's strange, how many lies he tells in the course of a day, to ease the way, to do a kindness, and never, never, even in the quiet of his own head, can he say it, will he say it.

He starts the car and her hand finds his in the dark, between their seats.

I think God sent me to this parish, for you.

For you.

His heart is telling the rosary now, for all he wants to do to her, with her, in the sweet darkness of an uptown apartment.