Fiction | September 01, 2001
Father White in the Torrid Zone
One by one the lepers’ tongues slithered for the Host. Father Lawrence White looked down upon the surfacing faces—one without a nose, one without ears, one with a whorled cavity in the cheek. He raised each wafer with an austere flourish, brought it near the supplicant’s tongue and then, like a deft croupier, tossed it in. He had practiced this shot with poker chips and a plastic cup in his Corn-fort Inn room in Freret, Louisiana, the night before he assumed his duties at the Gautreaux Hansen’s Disease Center.
By the time he had stepped off the plane in New Orleans, Father White knew plenty about Hansen’s disease, including the facts that it was no longer called “leprosy” by polite persons and that it was rarely spread by casual contact in sanitary environments. But all the science in Christendom could not dispel the images branded on his imagination: filthy, gaping, cave-dwelling specters lifting their galled limbs to an unblemished Jesus.
There were no children in Gautreaux. Forced incarceration of lepers had ceased decades before. All the remaining patients were elderly, long cured or in remission. Father White missed children, but he did not miss them in the way some had likely thought he would when he was sent to a place where there were none. The last child he had touched was perhaps the last child he would ever touch.
Father White read difficult books. He did not own a television set. When he had bent to tuck in little Tim Knudsen’s shirttail, both of them shivering in the foyer of St. Jude’s in Fausse Cascade, Michigan, he was ignorant of the nation’s latest hysteria. Mrs. Wally Vloedmann, gusting into the church door with an Alberta clipper at her back, owned three television sets.
“But I’m a healthy heterosexual man!” Father White wanted to shout in the foyer of St. Jude’s, and on many occasions after that. “I have impure thoughts about women!” In fact, two days before he was caught with his innocent hand down Timmy’s pants, he had heard the confession of a young woman who unleashed a pack of impure thoughts. Her name was Simone Caquelin; her voice he knew perfectly by its fickle pitch and girlish hoarseness. What her sins were, he had forgotten. He remembered wiping his wet palms again and again on his black trousers, tugging at his collar for air, clearing his throat and next day going to a strange priest in Menominee to confess himself.
He had been sent to the lepers for the wrong sin.
“Padre,” whispered a short, one-armed Puerto Rican man after the dismissal and blessing, “Yo creo que . . . Excuse me, I think the prisoners are planning to steal Henry from the lagoon.”
Father White stared at him, then saw him. “I’m sorry?”
“I think the prisoners plan to steal Henry and sell him to the sausage man. He is, like, our pet, our mascot. We feed him.” Several other parishioners, overhearing Faustino, gathered around him and Father White.
“See?” Faustino thrust his stump forward with counterfeit indignation.
The others rolled their eyes, but when Father White grimaced, they tittered. “Can you help us stop them?”
“Have you told the warden?”
“Not those prisoners, the other prisoners. The ones from the parish.” “This parish?”
“No,” piped a small, intense, white-haired woman from her adult’s tricycle. “The other parish. St. Swithins Parish.”
“I think they’re going to do it today!” said Faustino.
“On Sunday?” asked Father White.
“Big DUI litter-detail day,” said the woman.
“I see,” said the priest, who did not. “Whom should I inform about this plot?”
“The parish deputy,” said Eleanor from her trike. “The stout fellow sleeping in the orange truck by the helipad.”
Father White began dimly to perceive the circles of his new hell. The patients languished in one circle, the state minimum security convicts
in another, the community service prisoners in a third. And he had one all to himself.
“Father Discus!” shouted Eleanor archly.
The priest looked up. After a beat, he recalled his technique for delivering the Host, and he blushed to his collar.
“Henry is going to be on a stick at JazzFest if we don’t stop those rustlers!”
“Very well,” Father White said to his flock. “I will speak to the deputy.” Faustino patted the priest’s shoulder with his good left, and the group walked or wheeled out of the chapel. Father White watched them go into the blazing July noon, down the concrete ramp into the shade of an ancient live oak. There they stopped and turned to face the chapel. The priest gathered up and put away chalice, cruet and ciborium, removed his chasuble and cassock and strode out to meet them.
Eleanor lifted a firm arm from her handlebar and pointed like a prophet. “Go beyond the last dormitory. You will see the blue lights of the helipad. The deputy’s truck is parked next to the parish bus.” Father White nodded and set off at a brisk clip. He had covered no more than a hundred yards when he broke a torrential sweat that burned his eyes and drenched his shirt and the seat of his pants. White stucco walls blazed like a snowfield. He cupped his hand over his brow and panted. “Ich schwitze wie ein Affe,” old Broaddus, the church gardener, used to say as he tended Father White’s pansies. I’m sweating like an ape.
A vision of his rectory at St. Jude’s, a beech-shaded, faux-Tudor cottage of black brick, sent a pang of nostalgic fury up the priest’s neck. In the Michigan version of summer, its large windows let in cool breezes from Lake Michigan, fragrant with Broaddus’ Queen Elizabeth roses. In winter—he would see no more winter or children—its steep, slated gables shed snow like rain; they stood black and signal against the town’s pallid gloom. Deep in his paneled study he sat, through all sea-sons, beating down his robust heterosexuality with Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Camus and Mann. Snug among his books, he had matched wits with atheists and believers alike. He considered himself an enlightened Christian, well versed in the secular thought of his age—a man who could reconcile faith in Christ with what passed, in his books, for the Absurd.
But there were more things in Louisiana than were dreamt of by Father White’s philosophers. With the helipad in sight, the priest stopped in the manicured cemetery to pull out his handkerchief and mop his face. He cast a worried look toward the orange-vested convicts, some of whom did indeed seem to be clustered near the lagoon. Replacing his wet hankie in his hip pocket, he suddenly felt a crawling sensation on his calves. “Formication.” The word drifted into mind as he stared toward the lagoon: the sensation that ants are crawling on the skin. He imagined it to be a harbinger of heat stroke. But the very instant he looked down and saw that his shoes looked wet, hundreds of fire ants—creatures whose existence was known in Michigan only to television viewers—heeded a mystic signal in unison and injected his
legs with venom.
Halted on his mission to rescue Henry, Father White learned a little something about the Absurd. “Jesus!” he bawled, leaping, jigging, doing the Highland fling. He shucked off his shoes, peeled off his socks and trousers and cuffed his own legs as if they were bad dogs.
The fire-ant victim’s learning curve is inevitably steep. Father White dervished over and between the crusty dunes and then ran for the safety of an asphalt drive. He spun his pants in the air, flinging several ants onto his face and neck. He thew down his pants, unfastened his collar and ripped off his shirt, which (again learning quickly) he beat on the pavement. There was a squeal of brakes, and the priest looked up to see the parish deputy rolling out of his pickup cab with a large red water jug. “Hole on, I gotcha,” the deputy said. He pried off the lid, lifted the jug over the priest’s head and doused him with five gallons of ice water. Father White inhaled sharply, blew water out his nose, and then sighed blissfully.
When he opened his eyes, he blearily saw two dozen convicted drunk drivers converging on him, their weed scythes, machetes and trash spikes bouncing on their shoulders. It came to him later that they were not unlike the mob an ancient leper might have seen just before he was driven from town. But the convicts did not see a leper. They saw a scrawny, pallid man of fifty standing in a heap of ice cubes, clad only in a very wet pair of violet bikini briefs.
“Them redants is a bastard. Pardon my French. The prisoners woke me up,” ” said the deputy as he thumped the empty jug emphatically on the road.
“Nice package!” called one of the women convicts, pointing with her machete.
The deputy moved toward the assembled multitude. “Y’all get back to work, now. Gwan.” With catcalls and laughter, they turned and walked out of the cemetery.
“Thank you very much, Deputy . . . Hines,” he read the badge. “Yore welcome,” Hines said, picking up the jug lid. “Always happy to dunk a man in need.”
“By the way,” Father White said, bending to retrieve his trousers, “my parishioners—patients—” he waved a hand toward the dormitories, “have asked me to tell you that they suspect some of your charges are going to, uh, steal an alligator from the lagoon and sell it to a butcher. The patients think of this alligator as a pet.” He shook his pants and eyed them closely. “They call it Henry.”
“That’s what you was comin’ to tell me?”
Hines smiled and wrinkled his nose. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No. I arrived yesterday.”
“Still, some of those peckerwoods might steal a ‘gator.” Hines gazed thoughtfully toward the lagoon.
Father White picked up his sopping black shirt, and Hines saw the collar. “You a priest?”
“Deputy Hines, do you have a cigarette?”
* * *
The priest soon rejoined his parishioners in the live oak’s half-acre shade. He was barefoot, his pants rolled up above swollen, white-pocked calves.
“We should have warned you about the red ants,” Eleanor said. “They’ve been a part of our lives so long, we avoid them by instinct. Don’t break those blisters. The bites will heal more quickly.”
“Thank you,” Father White said. “I told the deputy about the plot to steal Henry. He promised to look into it.”
“Gracias, Padre,” said Faustino. “Would you like to have lunch with us in the cafeteria? Jambalaya and spinach on Sunday.”
“Thank you, but another time. I had better go back into town and clean up. I also have to check in with the Archdiocese about my other duties. I will be back for Wednesday mass.”
They wished him a good Sunday. He tiptoed warily back to his rented black Escort, which he had parked many hours ago in direct sunlight. Growing dizzy in the fiery interior, he grabbed the steering wheel to steady himself.
The lunch-bound lepers turned in alarm when they heard him scream.
* * *
At the E-Z-Go on U.S. 61, a young clerk whose nametag read EURINE pulled Father White’s wallet out of his hip pocket as the priest had requested, removed some bills and returned the wallet. Eurine had decided not to invoke the no-shoes-no-service rule when he saw that the barefoot man was a priest. He watched curiously as Father White pincered his bag, containing Marlboro Lights, a Bic lighter and a pint of Old Crow, between the backs of his hands and limped out the door, which he opened with his elbow. “Damn!” Eurine said.
Standing under a cool shower, Father White bent in sweet relief. Even then, his habit of reflection did not desert him. God had struck him with the leper’s throes and shown him the angry mob to boot. He was being chastened for his spiritual pride no less than for his impure thoughts about Miss Caquelin. He concentrated hard on God’s plan. It was swift, tactically neat and thorough to a fault.
But then he thought of Henry. The alligator. Some of Father White’s existential philosophers would have laughed at the idea of God’s plan. That didn’t bother the priest, who had beaten them time and again. But was Henry the alligator God’s spring? A cold shower couldn’t drown out the imagined snickers of the priest’s old intellectual foes. “And God prepared a great alligator named Henry to swallow up Father Lawrence White….”
He began to laugh in spite of himself. He covered his face with his singed hands and hoo-hawed like a farm boy. “Unclean! Unclean!” he shouted, after the commandment in Leviticus.
The fit passed. He turned off the shower with his elbow and toweled himself gingerly. Happily naked, he sat on his bed and through his pain lit a cigarette, removed a poker chip from a plastic cup and poured the cup half full of bourbon. He inhaled the one and quaffed the other. His first smoke, his first drink, in at least a decade. They made him giddy. He had another drink and another smoke. Soon he felt no pain in his palms and calves.
The day began to erase itself, and on its board appeared the ghost of Simone Caquelin in a trim wool suit cut just at the knees, where it could do the most harm. Father White reached into his duffel and rooted for a spell before locating his address book. In case of his death, he had given Miss Caquelin a pseudonym. What was it? He thought of anagrams, initials, whimsical names. Nothing rang a bell. So he began with “A” and worked forward. Under “G” he found it: Fr. Pierre Glendinning, a character from Melville. At the sight of this name, he became aroused. The address book rose in his hands. Whereupon he immediately called up the image of a maggot-covered leg of lamb he had once seen in a roadside pile of garbage. This image had served the priest reliably for decades, and it did so again in room 128 of the Freret Comfort Inn. The address book sank until his hands rested on his thighs.
As Father White plied his vices, he frequently put the address book away, retrieved it from his duffel and put it back again. He was forced to imagine the leg of lamb more and more often, for longer and longer periods of time. He tried to pray, but like old Claudius knew himself for a fraud. At some point the leg of lamb, the leg of Miss Caquelin and the Lamb of God swirled around on the carousel of his booze-addled brain, and he was certain he had lost his mind.
Instead of resisting impure thoughts of Simone Caquelin, he decided to allow himself pure thoughts. When an image of her kick-pleat troubled his mind’s eye, he would focus on the words of her last confession.
It would require some reconstruction, some invention. She was certainly an articulate confessor. He recalled phrases like “habitual disposition” and “disingenuous penitence,” and allusions to Flannery O’Connor and T. S. Eliot—was that right?—two Catholic writers Father White detested as sanctimonious homilists. But he put his prejudices aside. Simone Caquelin read difficult books, too. What the devil were the sins to which she had confessed? He stared at his address book. Her girlish hoarseness, the sight of her fine hams through the lattice-these had muddled his office. “Oh, fuck the leg of lamb!”
The good old English word, sounded in his room, shook him almost sober. He held the address book in a trembling left hand, memorized Pierre Glendinning’s number and reached for the phone. It rang.
He put his jaw and tongue on guard like any seasoned drunk. “Yes?”
“This is Eleanor Hennessey, from the Hansen’s Disease Center. The woman on the tricycle.”
“Yes, hello, Eleanor.”
“I know you have had a very trying day. Bizarre, would you say?” “That would be correct.”
“First, you should know that your intervention in the matter of Henry bore fruit.”
“Fruit?” Father White struggled with the word.
“Yes. Deputy Hines discovered Henry lashed to the bed of the bus trailer, where the implements are kept. He—Deputy Hines—ordered the driver back to the lagoon and personally cut the lashings with his pocket knife. Henry thrashed his way back to the lagoon and enjoyed a long swim. Deputy Hines sends his regards.”
“To be precise, he said, ‘I never seen a nekkid priest. I hope he’s not gimp-laiged.'”
Father White burst into delicious laughter. He thought of several ripostes but could not wrap his tongue around any of them.
“We would like for you to join us for lunch after mass on Wednesday. It’s meat loaf, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, that would be happy. I mean I would be happy to lunch.”
“You’re certain you’re well?” Eleanor sounded doubtful.
“Never better. See you then.” He hung up quickly, threw the address book in the duffel, zipped the bag shut and took another long, cold shower, during which, with great determination, he kept in his mind’s gaze the image of Eleanor Hennessey sitting beatifically on her tricycle.
Monday morning, Monday afternoon and Monday night, Father White paid for his sins. He gobbled aspirin to fight searing pain in every nook of his corruptible body. Since there was no phone bill to Michigan charged to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, he had only to rinse out a half ounce of bourbon and stash the bottle and the rest of his cigarettes in his duffel for later disposal. He took several cold showers and pampered his galled body. Tuesday he phoned his superiors and straightened out his duties as a sort of circuit priest ministering to the aged and infirm in several parishes. Wearing cotton work gloves, he drove by his new residence in Baton Rouge, twenty miles from Freret, and was delighted to see a sturdy faux-Tudor cottage, this one with blue vinyl siding, shaded by banana trees. Its steep gables would shed rain like rain. Things were looking up for Father White.
Turning away from the Mississippi levee Wednesday morning, the priest drove up to the state minimum security guardhouse, was waved through, and stopped to take in the campus with a fresh eye. The Spanish dormitories gleamed in the morning sun, which also lit the enormous live oaks. A great blue heron, whose name he did not know—except that it was not “Henry”—squawked out of its roost in a water oak and beat awkwardly out over the river. To the east of the campus, beyond the cemetery, there was indeed a bright golden haze on the meadow. With his new Louisiana eyes he saw beneath that haze hundreds of little fire-ant redoubts, like volcanoes viewed from space.
Now that he recognized them, all he had to do was walk around them.
At mass he laid the Host firmly on each worshiper’s tongue. The nose he had thought missing on Sunday was not missing at all. It was simply smaller than most noses. Nor were the missing ears truly absent but reshaped and laid a bit flatter. The cheek cavity was in fact a large acne scar. From his place at the altar, Father White was hard pressed to see much difference between these victims of Hansen’s disease and his own congregation at St. Jude’s. They were well dressed, attentive and kind.
At lunch, over his meat loaf and mashed potatoes, Father White learned that the Hansen’s patients had welcomed the state minimum security prisoners when they had arrived the year before. The two groups were segregated in the dining area but often mingled at other times.
“We needed some fresh faces in this place,” Faustino explained. “We get sick of each other.” He glanced at Eleanor, who was frowning. “Sometimes.”
Another patient lauded the talent shows the convicts put on once a month.
“Oh, yes,” Eleanor said. “These men are white-collar criminals, most of them. Embezzlers and cocaine dealers are likely to have been privileged children. Last month we enjoyed the second Mozart horn concerto, performed by a young man who looks just like Tom Hanks.”
“Pues, tell the rest, Ellie.” Faustino winked at Father White.
“Modesty forbids!” she laughed.
“You accompanied him?” asked the priest.
“Si, she did,” said Faustino. “I think she is in love.”
“I have always been in love with Mozart,” she said, turning her glittering eyes on Father White. “Mozart and Melville.”
“That man,” she said with a grave face, “showed me that there are worse prisons out there”—she pointed through a sunlit window—”than this one.”
Father White, stunned, looked out the window.
Eleanor shrugged off her ponderous statement and fell to her lunch with relish. “So you know Pierre?” he asked, after a time.
She swallowed, laid down her fork, and raised her brows in mock reproof. “Father White! That is a naughty book!”
He was forced to admit that it was.
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