Tuesday, May 29, 2012
I Don't Know If I Want You To Read This Yet
***I've started to post this fiction piece three times and then changed my mind at the last minute. It's sort of a short story, though I've mainly written it in an attempt to "get to know" a character I want to use in a later writing project. I've been at a standstill with it for a while now, and while it's not quite ready for prime time, it's doing me no good sitting in my "unfinished stuff" file either, so here it is.***
It was a gray March Sunday, and the Boston Celtics were warming up to play the New York Knicks on TV. Adrian McAllister was just settling into his recliner, preparing to crack open a beer and take in the basketball game. The can was just inches from his lips when his wife Melissa called out from her computer desk in the next room.
“Adrian, don’t forget we’re going to confession over at St. Cecilia’s this afternoon! There’s a service and everything.”
Adrian had indeed forgotten. Going to confession was his least favorite part of being Catholic, but he made it a point to go at least once a year. Actually, Melissa made it a point that he went at least once a year. Melissa made it a point that Adrian did a lot of things that he would rather not.
Clicking off the television, Adrian bundled up against the late winter winds to make his way with Melissa the few blocks to St. Cecilia’s. He noted that there were only about twenty cars in the parking lot as he eased his pickup truck into an empty space.
“Looks like we won’t be waiting long to get in,” Melissa observed.
“Yeah, but when the lines are short, the priests tend to be kind of long-winded in the confessional,” Adrian replied. He hoped to be back in front of the television before the halftime show ended.
As Adrian and Melissa hurried inside the church, they saw that a brief prayer service had already begun under the direction of Father Dave, the senior pastor of St. Cecilia’s, who was accompanied by two other priests. After the prayers, the priests available to hear confessions were introduced: in addition to Father Dave, there was Father Martin, his assistant pastor at St. Cecilia’s, as well as another priest whom Adrian had never seen before. The stranger, those assembled were told, was Father Betelgeuse, a southern California native and old college buddy of Father Martin’s, who was visiting after having done several years of missionary work among the Inuits of Nunavut in northern Canada.
Father Betelgeuse was unlike any priest Adrian had ever seen. Looking near 60, he was at least seven feet tall, with a longish, bleached-blond hair streaked with some gray and a few days’ growth of whiskers on his chin. His sleepy-looking blue eyes were piercing, and even under his garments it was clear that he had a muscular build. An easy grin slid across his face frequently.
“He’s a bird of a different feather, isn’t he?” Melissa remarked in a whisper to Adrian, who nodded in agreement.
Adrian, who had always been a bit insecure, found that his discomfort with the idea of baring his sins to another person was lessened somewhat if he went to confession with a priest whom he did not know. As the priests filed into the various locations around the church to hear confessions, Adrian angled himself in the direction of the big missionary priest fresh in town from Nunavut. Since few of the people gathered seemed to be in a hurry to see him, Adrian found himself first in line. Melissa had headed toward Fr. Martin’s area.
Entering the dark confessional booth, Adrian kneeled down, and the small sliding door to his right slid open. Through the grate, he thought he heard reggae music, ever so faintly. Chalking it up to his imagination, Adrian began his confession in the traditional way.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been about a year since my last confession.” He paused, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement from the other side of the grate. When nothing came but more tinny Bob Marley, Adrian recited another short prayer often made by a person going to confession. Still nothing. After about a minute, Adrian gave a gentle rap on the screen.
“You alright, Father?”
“Oh, sorry dude!” Father Betelgeuse finally replied in a SoCal beach bum drawl. “Having some technical harshness over here. You know anything about mp3 players?”
“Umm…no,” Adrian said slowly. Between the unexpected mp3 question and being called ‘dude’ by a priest in the confessional, he was feeling a bit flummoxed. “Why, uh…why do you have an mp3 player during confessions?”
“Oh, I only keep one earbud in. Marley chills me out,” Father Betelgeuse said. “Trust me, I still hear every word you say, even with sweet tuneage in one ear.”
“Okay then,” Adrian said, wondering if coming to this rather unconventional priest was a good idea after all. “I guess that’s fine, if it makes things easier for you.” For all Adrian knew, priests did that kind of thing on their side of the screen quite often. It could be worse, he supposed.
“Sweet! I’m glad you dig my groove, dude,” Father Betelgeuse replied. “Soooo, what’d you do?”
Despite feeling like he was confessing to Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Adrian went ahead and recited his laundry list of sins. There was nothing especially outstanding in what he told. Anyone who spent any time with Adrian would not have been shocked by anything he said.
As Father Betelgeuse injected an “um-hmm” and “okay” and “yeah” every once in a while, and intoned the traditional prayers that every priest says in the confessional, Adrian began to relax. He said his final prayer and thanked Father Betelgeuse as he stood up to leave when the priest spoke up.
“Oh, wait a second, dude! I forgot to give you your penance,” he said. Penance is the task that the priest gives to the person whose confession he has just heard. Typically, it is to pray a given number of prayers. “For your penance today, I would like you to say two Our Fathers and two Hail Marys, and go surfing with me later this afternoon.”
“Okay, Father.” Adrian said automatically in response. Then, moments later, the second part of Father Betelgeuse’s penance for him sank in. “Wait…what?!”
Melissa did not believe Adrian at first when he told her why he couldn’t go home with her. He was trying to explain when a short, timid-looking guy in a plaid sweater vest named Bob walked up to where they were in the church vestibule. He said he was told to wait here with Adrian until Father Betelgeuse was done with confessions, so he could do his penance. At this, Melissa saw that Adrian was indeed being serious. She gave her reluctant-looking husband a kiss on the cheek and wished him luck as she headed for the truck by herself. Adrian watched her go, longing for the comfort of his home.
He turned to face the chubby, balding little guy who was to be his fellow surfing student, but before Adrian and Bob had any time to get acquainted, Father Betelgeuse came up to them with that lopsided grin. “Oh hey, you dudes ready?” he asked.
“Umm, well…” Adrian began. But that was as far as he got.
“Great! I’ve got some spare boards on my van, and I know a guy who owns a sporting goods store down by the bay. He’ll get us some wetsuits. This is going to be sweet! Do you a lot of good too!”
On the 15-minute ride to the beach, Father Betelgeuse chattered in an almost non-stop monologue with more Bob Marley music in the background. He believed that a penance should be a spiritual cleansing. It should be something that makes an impact on you and makes you think. In his mind, surfing did just that, especially to someone who had never done it before. While he couldn’t issue this penance to everyone, Father Betelgeuse said he would if he could.
Adrian was at a loss for words, and Bob was too busy puffing on his asthma inhaler to say anything.
A short time later, after having been outfitted with wetsuits courtesy of Father Betelgeuse’s friend with the sporting goods store, Adrian and Bob found themselves seaside, encased head to toe in neoprene, standing next to their borrowed surfboards on an empty, gray, windswept Maine beach. The waves crashing along the shore looked like small mountains. Adrian yearned for the warmth of his easy chair and the Celtics game, which by that point must have been nearly over.
“Okay dudes, follow me!” shouted the lanky priest as he waded into the crashing waves. Adrian and Bob gamely followed. While the water was very far from warm, it was not as shockingly cold as Adrian anticipated. The wetsuits were doing their job. They stopped when they were in up to their waists.
“First, lie on your board and just float to get the vibe,” Father Betelgeuse said. Adrian found himself up on his board first. An occasional splash of frigid water hit his face, the only part of him that was actually exposed to the open. From his bobbing vantage point, he watched as Father Betelgeuse managed to hoist Bob up onto his board, though just barely. Bob had dipped underwater at least three times in the process, coming up sputtering and gasping each time.
It was about that time that Adrian heard the puttering motor of a small skiff coming toward them from the direction of the wharf. At the tiller was a crusty old fisherman in yellow raingear accompanied by a large, goofy-looking dog with a lolling tongue. The amused look on the old man’s face indicated that, in spite of his many years, this sight was a new one to him. He cut the engine and floated about ten yards out. The huge dog put his paws on the side of the skiff and barked enthusiastically.
“Settle down there, Galen!” the old man said. He had a thick downeast accent, so “there” sounded more like “thaya”. Then he called out to the three men in the surf. “Lose a bet?”
Father Betelgeuse was pounding Bob’s back, trying to help him cough up some of the seawater he had swallowed, so Adrian spoke for the little group. “We’re, um, learning how to surf.”
“Ayuh,” the old man said. He paused for a few seconds, letting Adrian’s explanation sink in a little. “Why’s that now?” Having spent his whole life on the water to make a living, he couldn’t understand why someone would be out in it for fun in this kind of weather.
“Kind of a long story,” Adrian replied.
“Ayuh.” The old man settled back in his little boat to watch the unfolding spectacle. Galen bounced up and down, yipping loudly and wagging his tail. The lanky dog was rocking the skiff back and forth more than the waves.
While Adrian was far from being a surfer at that point, he was clearly miles ahead of Bob, whom Fr. Betelgeuse could not even keep on his surfboard for more than a few seconds due to his rather round physique. He looked a lot like a small orca in his black and white wetsuit, actually. Bob was going to need a lot more of the surfer-priest’s attention. After a couple more dunks in the frigid water, Bob was gasping even more and looking blue in the face.
“Adrian, dude, I’m going to help Bob here back to the van to get his inhaler and catch his breath. You wanna wait here?” Fr. Betelgeuse asked. Adrian nodded that he would. Adrian grew up near the water and was a decent swimmer. Since the wetsuit was keeping him pretty comfortable, and he was actually starting to enjoy bobbing up and down on the board, taking in the late-winter seaside scenery.
The old fisherman continued to stoically survey the scene from his skiff nearby, and Galen the dog continued to bark and rock the little boat. Adrian did his best to strike up a conversation with the man, but the one-word responses he got, usually “ayuh”, indicated that the old salt was a man of few words. From his vantage point, Adrian could see Bob and the priest leaning against the van, Bob puffing his asthma inhaler every few seconds.
Suddenly from behind him, Adrian heard a splash, and he whipped his head around to see that the old man’s skiff had overturned, dumping him and his dog into the frigid water. The dog’s exuberance and the choppy waves had proven to be too much for the small craft. Adrian could see the dog paddling toward more shallow water, but saw no sign of the old fisherman. Immediately, he pushed himself off the surfboard and into the water, swimming in the direction of the upside-down boat.
Adrian had taken lifeguard training for a time in high school, though that was over twenty years ago. He never finished the course, and had barely been in the water since then. He prayed that what he had learned back then would come back to him. He stopped mid-stroke to see if he could locate the fisherman. About twenty feet beyond the skiff, he caught sight of a yellow flash on the gray water. It was the fisherman’s rain slicker. The current was pulling him out to sea. Adrian saw the old man’s head bob above the water for a moment, and then go under again. He wasn’t moving much at all, it seemed. Adrian feared that he didn’t have much time.
Running on adrenaline, Adrian powered himself further toward the struggling old man, keeping his eyes on him as best he could. His muscles were beginning to ache, and the freezing water on his face was almost unbearable. The old fisherman was weakly waving his arms, trying in vain to stay afloat. It seemed obvious to Adrian that, like many others who worked on the sea, the old man had not learned to swim. Even if he had, his advanced age and the frigid cold of the sea would have made it nearly impossible for him to stay afloat. Adrian wondered if Father Betelgeuse had noticed the predicament.
With every stroke Adrian took, the old fisherman seemed to be dragged an equal distance away by the current. His movements had suddenly stopped, and Adrian could no longer hear gasping. He was beginning to wonder if the old man was even still alive.
At last, Adrian was able to grab hold of the old man’s yellow rain slicker. A slight groan escaped the old man’s now-blue lips, and his eyelids fluttered. He was barely conscious, but still alive. Though it seemed like hours to Adrian, only a few minutes had passed since the skiff had turned over. Keeping the fisherman’s face above water, Adrian turned his head toward shore and began to swim with all his might. He could see Father Betelgeuse racing toward the water now, and Bob on the shore behind him, speaking frantically into a cell phone. Galen stood in water up to his chest barking madly.
Swimming while supporting another person’s dead weight was exhausting, especially to someone as out of practice as Adrian. Every muscle in his body was screaming, and he thought his lungs were going to burst as he dragged himself and the old man closer to the shore. It seemed to be taking an eternity, but they were getting closer. Adrian was unsure of how much longer he could hold on to the old man and keep himself afloat at the same time.
They were no more than a few feet from the point where Adrian’s feet should have been able to touch the bottom, when a searing pain shot through his exposed face. In his shock, Adrian let go of the fisherman and grabbed at his nose and cheeks. He had swum into the path of a jellyfish, and its tentacles had brushed his face, stinging it badly, missing his eyes by mere millimeters. The pain combined with exhaustion and stress was too much for Adrian, and darkness began to descend upon him. As his own muscles went limp, Adrian felt the body of the old fisherman bump up against him. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Adrian was dimly aware that this was the end. He felt heavy and was sinking fast. He tried with all his might to will himself to move, to make for the surface, but just couldn’t. Seawater rushed into Adrian’s mouth, and he lost all vision as he sank deeper and deeper. He felt the pressure of the water building on his eardrums. The last thing he remembered was the feeling of a vice-like grip on his right arm, and then everything went black.
When Adrian opened his eyes, he found himself still clad in the neoprene wetsuit, lying on a gurney in the emergency room, as near as he could tell. He had never felt so exhausted in his life, and his face was burning from the stings of the jellyfish. His right arm felt sore and bruised. A nurse taking his blood pressure looked up and smiled when she saw he was awake.
“How are you feeling, Mr. McAllister?”
“I’ve been better, “he said. Then he remembered the old salt he had been trying to save. “Is the other man okay?”
“They’re looking him over now, but most likely it’s just a case of hypothermia and exhaustion,” she told him. “The other people you were with are fine too. They’re out in the waiting room.”
“That’s good.” Adrian closed his eyes again and let his mind wrap around everything that had happened. “How did I get out of the water anyway? Do you know? The last thing I remember before blacking out is someone grabbing my arm.”
“Just rest, Mr. McAllister. Your friends will fill you in on the details later.”
That sounded like a good idea to Adrian. Before falling back to sleep, he reached over to his sore right arm with his left hand. He felt what he could have sworn were tooth marks in the neoprene.