A landscaper is compelled to attend mass while on the job.
Derek Berry Thorpe
The man with the white T-shirt was only twenty feet from the steps in front of the church doors. He looked down at his muddy hands and smeared the soil from his fingers onto the cotton fabric. Seconds earlier, he had been stooping, tending to the gardenias that bordered the paved entrance to the small Catholic church. Now, he was striding purposefully to the building. He paused at the bricked steps to kick the soil from his boots. Reddish dirt splattered across the paving stones and he proceeded up to the open door.
Although she was merely a treasurer of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Virginia Callahan liked to be called Sister Virginia. A pious, heavy set woman with a determined jaw, she prided herself on maintaining standards. Sister Virginia had joined the church in the fall of ninety-three. She’d seen five priests come and go, but she knew how things needed to be done. The service was just eight minutes old and she inhaled the beautiful swell of the organ. But there was an imperfection. A persistent, intrusive whirring sound- a weed whacker, came from the grounds. A potential distraction from Father Alvarez's God-sent Homily. His delivery of the word, ought not to be disrupted by labourers. Didn’t they know Mass wouldn’t be over until ten thirty?
She walked with brisk into the sun-lit atrium to close the heavy wooden door. As she released the wedge stop to let the oak door swing shut on its hinges she noticed one of the maintenance crew coming up the church stairs. He had taken off his baseball cap revealing his tangled unkempt hair, and it looked to her as if he was going to enter the sacred house. She eyed the brown streaks of mud on his clothing. Surely he was not coming to worship in his dirty T-shirt to sit amongst the clean, well-dressed parishioners.
Then, in a moment of clarity, she understood; He must be entering to identify the broken pew that was due to be repaired. The base of the long wooden bench had all but succumbed to termites and it was in danger of falling over. The last pew on the East corner of the old church was so bad that it had been cordoned off from anyone sitting there for fear of collapse. Sister Virginia frowned at the poor timing of the worker. She straightened her olive-laced dress and waited with folded arms beneath her large bosom.
The stranger in the dirty T-shirt and muddy boots stepped into the vestibule and paused. He looked up to the rafters and admired the construction of the curved collar beams.
Sister Virginia cleared her throat. "We weren't expecting you until after mass was over. Can't you see the service is just getting started? The pew that is to be repaired is over there at the back but I'd like you to come back in an hour or so."
Smiling, he said. "I am sorry, Señora. What did you say?"
She leaned in ever so slightly, her right eyebrow elevated. "Come back after the Mass is over and I'll show you the damaged pew. Okay?"
"I am here for the Mass, Señora. I need to hear the sermon today."
Sister Virginia put her palms to her ample chest as she watched the man with his unkempt hair, walk forward through the vestibule and into the church. With rising revulsion, she saw him kneel in the aisle and make the sign of the cross. He chose a pew and sat at the very end of the row closest to the aisle. He seemed to move his lips in silent prayer as he scanned through the order of service. Finally, his eyes rested on the priest.
She watched as he sat next to a well-dressed parishioner with a scarf around her shoulders. The elderly lady looked askance at the landscaper and angled herself away from him, her lips parted in distaste. She moved her handbag to her other side, ostensibly to give him more room. With discretion, she glanced to where sister Virginia stood and sprawled her eyelids in silent aghast. Sister Virginia returned it with a concerned shrug. Her face pinched in disapproval.
Father Alvarez intoned from the pulpit. He read the third scripture from the old testament, then allowed the congregation to sit before his Homily. His message was clear and concise as he paced confidently behind the pulpit. His voice was deep and soothing with just a tinge of an accent. Father Alvarez' voice rose and fell with a pure poetic cadence. He looked resplendent in his white and green vestments draping down from his broad shoulders. He hardly needed the text, such was his familiarity with its message: 'The brotherhood of man and the evils of greed'. The overhead spotlights glinted off his jet black hair and his hazel eyes solemnly scanned the congregation as they sat, hushed and reverential, their faces transfixed. Father Alvarez filled his lungs hoping to inhale his fair share of the Holy Spirit. May God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…Sister Virginia could sense his inward pride.
The organist struck up the introduction to Hymn two hundred and seven, startling the gardener. The lush chords soared, shaking him from his reverie. May God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit...Sister Virginia passed him a collection plate and stood over him with watchful eyes. She wanted it obvious to the stranger, that her intense surveillance was to discourage any attempt to take money from the collection. It was a heavy, velvet-lined plate, brimming with notes. He felt her stare, but he had no money to give – and he thrust the plate into the hands of the scarfed parishioner as if it burnt his hands.
People began to line up in the aisle: men and women, as solemn as judges, stood looking straight ahead at the altar. The man slipped from his seat and joined the queue as it shuffled forward.
“Body of Christ…” murmured Father Alvarez as he offered the sacrament to each of the communicants. They moved, as if choreographed, to an altar boy who offered them the chalice, his young face grave with the task. Blood of Christ. They sipped from the cup.
The man smoothed his T-shirt and stood before Father Alvarez.
“Body of Christ,” intoned the Priest. Their eyes met only for seconds. He placed a wafer on the man’s tongue. The landscaper swallowed without hurry and moved to the altar boy. The boy paused, his expression wary as he held the cup like a coveted trophy, in his pale, slim hands. The man waited. The young assistant glanced at Father Alvarez. The priest gave him a signal - a discreet nod – and with fresh confidence, the boy offered the chalice. The man in the T-shirt sipped and stepped away. Behind him, in the line, the elderly woman with the scarf hesitated. As plainly as if she had spoken, the altar boy understood. He wiped the rim of the chalice with such vigor the crimson liquid sloshed almost over its brim. He stood straight, ready once again to serve. But neither she nor anyone else stepped forward, for who now would want this Blood of Christ?
He retook his seat in the pew and knelt and prayed until the end of Mass. The center aisle filled with the exiting congregation. They smiled and greeted acquaintances behind the receding entourage. Father Alvarez eventually turned and stood in the vestibule shaking extended hands and offering well wishes.
The stranger rose, performed a final genuflection to the cross and made his way to the vestibule. He was the last in line to shake the Father's hand and he bowed his head with reverence as he approached. Sister Virginia smiled with rising anxiety and edged closer to the Father as the man approached. She was at the ready in case the landscaper man posed a threat. Father Raul Alvarez extended his right arm to him with a full genuine smile as he walked up.
"Bless you, my son... I hope the message gave you spiritual fulfillment today."
"No, it did not, Padre...I was disappointed," said the man, as he shook the priest's outstretched hand with a strong masculine grip.
"Well, I am sorry to hear that, my son. We try to cater to all needs at Our Lady of the Rosary...Let us know in the future how we can help," his smile now fading.
Without releasing their friendly handshake, the visitor said. "I need your help right now, Padre, I really do. I have something to confess."
The bearded man with the uncombed hair looked directly into the eyes of Father Raul Alvarez and increased the vice of his grip.
"Ahh, I am sorry..." the Priest winced.
Sister Virginia interrupted. "Okay, that's out of the question sir. The Father has no time for Confession at this hour. Can you please return to your duties outside," she attempted to break the extended handshake between the two men.
"No. I think the Padre sees the urgent value of a sinner to reconcile with his God. Right Father?" said the man, still holding tightly in the handshake and locked in stare.
He tugged to retract his hand but it was held firm. Then... a squinting of the eyes. A subtle half blink by the Father and the smile returned.
"It's okay, Virginia...I will not deny this man the Sacrament of Confession. He clearly needs to purge his transgressions," he said turning away to her.
"But..." she protested.
"He will be fine. The Savior will cleanse his burdens."
Then and only then was the pressure in the handshake released.
"Give me a moment to gather a few things and get seated in the confessional. You may join me shortly on the other side, my son."
Sister Virginia wrestled with her bias. She did not like the preferential treatment extended to this poor and dirty vagabond one bit, but acquiesced to the Father's wishes. She nodded and excused herself to tend to closing matters in the office.
The man with the soiled white T-shirt stepped into the confessional chamber, closed the varnished cedar door and sat. Within the quiet confines, even in the dim light, he appreciated the detail of the complex craftsmanship. The cubicle offered a calming embrace of aroma. A mixture of frankincense and turpentine. A wooden lattice separated the two men and the priest parted a red velvet curtain on his side.
"Forgive me, Padre, for I have sinned," he began after a heavy breath.
"When was your last sin and what was it?"
"I last sinned one hour ago while tending the flower bed in the front of this church. I called the Lord's name in vain out loud when I looked up and read the name of the Parish priest for this church on the bulletin sign."
Father Alvarez spoke with just a hint of vocal tremor. "This is a minor moral failing...say three 'Hail Marys' and sin no more."
"Thank you, Padre...now it is your turn," the gardener replied.
"Now it is your turn to confess your sins, Padre," he said with a dutiful calm.
"It is your turn to confess!" shouted the voice once more from the other side of the partition.
Sister Virginia heard the outburst and whipped her head around to the source.
"What in the sweet Jesus...?" she thought.
"You know you are in no capacity to administer a confession," said Father Alvarez. The depth of his breathing changed dramatically and the soft line of flesh above his collar pulsed visibly.
"Oh, but you know that I am...You especially know that I am! Do you want me to start it off, Padre? Say after me, 'I am a thief. I have sinned for I am a thief!'"
Sister Virginia peered from her office, craning to hear more.
The priest leaned closer to the partition. "Lower your voice, Hector. Now is not the time..."
"Do not call me Hector! Not me, of all people! I am Raul...Raul Juan Alvarez! The same name as that on the big bulletin sign outside. You stole my life, Hector! The lie ends today!" said the now trembling gardener with the soiled white T-shirt.
"You have lost weight, Hec... All that hair...I barely recognized you, brother," said Father Alvarez.
"Yes, twelve years in a Mexican prison will get you used to very few calories, my brother. It took you a while to remember our special handshake eh."
"What is it that you want from me, Hec... Juan?" said the Priest.
"I want back my life, you bastard. You forced me to give up my identity in Mexico and take the blame for your reckless crimes. You destroyed our family Hector. How could you threaten the lives of our dear mother and sister. You have any idea what was done to me in that prison? Eh, Hector!"
"I am different now Juan... a changed man. I cannot go back to being Hector. I am a man of God now. Can you not see that?"
The voice of the robed clergy was now far less confident. His tone pleaded for restraint from his brother.
"No! Never! You are a fraud. You are not even a real priest. You never went to seminary school. You stole all of my degrees and crossed the border. Left me to rot you stinking bastard!" The real Raul Juan heaved. "Changed? I doubt that. Changed?... And there is so much money in those collection plates from those overweight Latinos with big rings...yet your church has rotting pews. How is that possible huh Hector? Maybe you are making their dirty money, clean, through the church, eh, Brother?"
The church was essentially empty by that time and the staff had all but left. But Sister Virginia stayed and lingered. She lingered close enough to hear the heated terse exchanges. Of course, she was initially concerned with the safety of her beloved Father Alvarez, but the things overheard...cemented her feet to the ground and spittle drained from her open jaw down onto her olive-laced dress.
But when she heard the gardener say that the other had to die... she decided then that she needed help. She scampered on her wobbly high heels towards the vestibule. She took the corner at the last pew with great speed and had to hold on to the bench seat to steady herself. She forgot about the precaution and applied too much force for the rotted base and the entire pew fell backward onto the tiled floor with a single, thunderous bang.
The noise was tremendously frightful and it echoed around the church walls with acoustic riot. Three doves in the rafters flapped their wings in aerial confusion and she screamed at the loss of tranquility.
Two brothers emerged from the confession chamber at the same time from separate doors. One held a revolver that spewed smoke from its barrel. Raul Alvarez dropped to the floor... dying on the way down before he hit the tiles. Blood seeped from his chest through the white material he wore.
Sister Virginia's hysteria was difficult to quell even after summoning the nearby police. Before they arrived, she watched as Raul Alvarez crouched and placed the warm revolver into the grip of the dead man.
He swiveled to her and spoke, looking from his haunches up past her heaving chest.
"As you know... I am bound by Vatican decree to never reveal what is said in the confines of the Sacrament of Confession... under any circumstances... with the threat of immediate excommunication."
She nodded. His hazel eyes holding her ransom.
"And that also goes for anyone who overhears the conversation from the outside."
After having disturbed the body, a mix of blood and soil smeared his fingers. Father Raul Juan Alvarez stood. He put his dirty thumb on her forehead, made the sign of the cross and walked away to welcome the police.