The Examen – a preparation for Confession. To the boy with the pellucid blue eyes and the Lysol-sprayed cowlick, it almost sounds like an exam for men. He does not think he’ll pass. After final reflections, as though time is up and he must put down his yellow #2 pencil, he solemnly exits the pew.
Earlier at home, his concerned mother rushed to comb his moppy bowl-cut hair. She became distracted and grabbed what she thought was the Aqua Net when she smelled ash on his white dress shirt. Then she noticed it was missing a point button, the collar tip unfastened. Also, the placket and his olive cords needed ironing. But it was too late to change or wash. She coolly said his scalp would be fine, and he believed her. She dropped him off at church, rolling through stop signs and speeding up through yellow traffic lights, in time for Confession. She squeezed his hand. He knows she then whipped around town like a baseball around-the-horn, picking up two of his older brothers at camp, his sister from a sleepover, and going grocery shopping where his oldest brother’s shift as bagger was ending.
Now, out of reverence, the boy gingerly genuflects to the gold-plated tabernacle – where the Body of Christ resides, the consecrated hosts in an ornate cup called a ciborium. Fort Knox for Jesus, he thinks. It’s veiled as a bride by a cubit of purple linen. The church, unlike his conscience, is quiet and almost empty. The organist has left, only the priest remains. “George,” the boys says to himself. “Call him George.” He approaches the confessional, no longer able to hide his limp. He wishes his body and soul were disinfected like his sticky hair. He recalls how he hoped meeting the new priest he must now call George would change all that and be a cure-all, like touching Jesus’ cloak. But it hasn’t been that way, starting when the boy’s mother said the priest was coming from social services.
“And not church?” he said with a lisp, still imagining steeples, white Roman collars, vestments that looked like cloaks.
“His name is Father Georges Ayman,” she said with a smile.
“Amen? Like the Amen we say at Mass?”
“I believe. Close, anyway.” Then she said, “He’s on sabbatical and volunteers with Big Brothers.”
“What’s a sabbatical?”
“Paid time off. Anyway, they thought you two would be a nice match. He’s from Lebanon.”
“Near the Holy Land.”
“Holy Land,” he repeated. He thought of a desert, low-lying hills, sacred tablets to live by. “Does he know The Pope?”
“I doubt it,” she said, resigned. “Wrong country. But he’s on loan from the Jesuits.”
“Can we keep him? Do we have to give him back?”
“Jimmy, don’t be silly,” she said. “He’s not an orphan puppy or going to live with us. He’ll be at St. Michael’s for Mass and Confession.”
He wanted to confess that Confession scared him; he might not pass the examination of conscience. And, he thought, she might call him a baby, like when he skinned his knee, sliding across home plate. He winced for days. It’s only a scrape, she said. Don’t be a baby. But he ached to the bone.
“In the meantime,” she said, “God took your father to heaven when you were a baby and is now giving you a Catholic priest as a big brother. Enjoy your time with him. Maybe he’ll have better luck teaching you a language.”
“Like Spanish?” He knows that is her native tongue.
“Is that what Jesus spoke?”
“Hebrew and Aramaic. Close enough.”
He said, “I think I know an Arabic word.”
“In math class, Sister Katherine said Algebra is an Arabic word.”
“Is that right?”
“She said it means the reunion of broken parts.”
“That doesn’t sound like math. It sounds like a doctor mending a broken leg.”
“But that’s what she said.” It caught his attention, what the nun said; he thought it might show up on a math test or somewhere. So he remembered, like many things voluntary and involuntary. He wondered if there was an equation for mending a leg broken in two. He imagined: ½ + ½ = whole.
“I’m sure she did. She knows what she’s talking about. She’s a smart nun.”
He agreed. Then he said, “So, what else will Father and I do?”
“The zoo, movies, the beach.”
“Do I dress up?”
“For the beach?”
He was thinking of church, of wearing a cassock and serving Mass as an altar boy. At the washing of the celebrant’s hands, holding the ridged finger bowl, he’d show the priest he knew what a lavabo was. Then he said, “I hope he likes baseball.”
+ + +
Jimmy opens the heavy oak door that says Private Confession engraved on a gold placard. The other door says Face to Face, finger-smudged with papillary ridges. He looks up past the Stations of the Cross at the distressed transoms, then the raftered cedar beams – the wood of professional baseball bats? No, that’s ash and maple, he recalls. Babe Ruth used hickory. In Little League, Jimmy uses aluminum.
Stalling, he looks back at the vacated oiled pews. The missals leak crimson ribbons from the slotted racks. The library-style pencils in the holders make him want to fill out a baseball scorecard. But he’s the last penitent and enters the dark cubicle, wider than a batter’s box and taller than, he imagines, his father’s standing casket. Candlelight wavers through the woven lattice. He shuts the door; the lock fastens, and he kneels on the cushioned prie-dieu. Plica clicks, patella aches. He caught six innings the night before. From his sore knees behind the plate (he did not stand up), he threw out a runner who tested his arm, a runner as fast as Roberto Clemente trying to steal second base. Or was it Lou Brock? Jimmy has done other things from his knees. Now afraid, he shakes and makes the sign of the cross.
“Bless me, George, for I have sinned.” There, he’s done it. He’s thankful he got it right. “It’s been—”
“In here,” a low, hushed voice admonishes through the secret screen, “call me Father.” The cigarette-smoked Chaldean accent Jimmy has quickly warmed to – it is the next best voice to God’s – has recently been going cold. It no longer seems funny, comforting, or inviting.
Jimmy is confused. “At the soccer game, you said not to call you Father.” Jimmy remembers genuflecting out of habit before entering the row in the packed stadium. The lights were ablaze, the field green with white chalk lines, goals, and braided nets. Fifty thousand saw the great Pele (Jimmy marveled at his every brilliant move) get tackled with no penalty kick. Not even a yellow card. Father, did you see that? After the blown no-call, the plainclothes priest booed, pinched his own nose, and called the black-shirted ref skubala. He wouldn’t translate it; Jimmy still caught wind of the meaning. The priest used other foreign words. Jimmy says, “You said to call you George. For weeks you’ve said it.”
“That’s because people look at us. People at the zoo always look at us. They look at us when you hold my hand.”
Jimmy has noticed the priest will hold his hand warmly but not in front of company.
“They think we’re some strange, stuffy British family. Father, Father, you always say like a poppet.”
“What’s a poppet.”
“A sweet English child. Look, just don’t call me Father out there.”
“But you are.” His voice nearly cracks.
“Out there I’m George.”
Jimmy interrupts. “Is that why you never wear your Roman collar?” He nearly says cloak.
There is no response. Jimmy recalls the city newspaper reporter at the house with a tattered notepad, sharpened #2 pencil which he sometimes licked, a camera with a slow aperture, and a zoom lens for a soft expose. It was a human-interest story and publicity for Big Brothers. Nine-year-old Jimmy Burman doesn’t know if he wants to be a baseball player like Hall-of-Fame Roberto Clemente or a Catholic priest like Father George Ayman when he grows up, the article began. But he’s enjoying his new mentor. There was a black-and-white picture of them kneeling at the fireplace, adding cordwood to the flames. Their hands were overlaid on the same split piece. In between the camera shots, the point button on his dress shirt unraveled, fell unnoticed and bounced into the fire. The cowlick on the crown of his head was perfectly sprayed. The priest, just past the messianic age, had a lasting paternal smile, sepia sloe eyes and, Jimmy thought, a messy Reggie Jackson afro. Or was it George Foreman, the boxer? Sans Roman collar, George wore a gray turtleneck with a cross on a chain. Jimmy’s mother bought extra newspapers. She Xeroxed copies for everyone.
“Should we send one to Lebanon?” Jimmy asked her.
+ + +
In the confessional, Jimmy hears, “What are your sins?”
His itchy scalp floods with sweat. He does not scratch with his chewed fingernails but touches the thorns of his sticky cowlick. He thinks of sins: original, venial, mortal and cardinal and where his lie. He crosses himself again and lisps, “I stole your rosary.”
It happened the morning he and George were sitting in the priest’s Corolla. Jimmy was trying to confess about his baseball coach at the amusement-park motel – his birthday weekend away.
Earl showed up unexpectedly at the house in a Merino wool cap and Magic Mountain tickets in hand. Jimmy’s mother said it was a wonderful surprise and for them to have fun. Jimmy felt obligated but was more afraid of roller coasters than Confession and hoped the trip might be postponed like a baseball game. They drove up the coast Friday night. It started to rain. Earl went eighty and weaved through traffic. No highway patrol was ever in sight. Jimmy prayed for no wrecks, his feet pressed against the floorboard (like each ride the next day), trying to slow them down. They stayed in the dingy motel with the blue-green neon sign across the street, so they’d be the first ones in the park in the morning. No waiting in line for The Revolution that made a big loop; the whole world went upside down, and Jimmy thought he would fall out.
That night, in the motel, Earl said he had something to show Jimmy. He told him to close his eyes, then hold out his hands as if for Communion. It would be like holding hands with Jesus, Earl said. When Jimmy looked, it was as purple as the tabernacle veil and erect as a baseball bat. Then Earl asked to see Jimmy’s. Unable to speak, Jimmy was paralyzed. Earl told him to strip and kneel. The next day, when Jimmy hadn’t slept and could barely walk, Earl said, “You’ll be fine.” Driving home in the pouring rain to the clupping sound of windshield wipers, he said, “Don’t tell your mother.” And Jimmy, already cloaked in guilt, said, “Okay.”
+ + +
The priest was getting out of the Corolla; he had extreme unction. “Tell me later,” he told Jimmy in a curt way. “Tell me from the beginning when I come back out from giving Last Rites. The dying need me right now. They need anointing. You can wait. Think of the needy.” He shut the door and hurried across the hospital parking lot in a leather jacket the color of a broken-in catcher’s mitt. He carried a wooden sick-call kit with sacred oils, Holy Water, and Communion. Jimmy thought he looked like a hitman and not the priest he wanted him to be.
Jimmy waited in the stuffy Corolla and left the windows up. It was a hazy day, the sun was coming out. Jimmy squinted. He took the rose-petal rosary with the sterling cross from the glove box and examined it.
+ + +
“Then I put it back the next day.”
“Thought I’d lost it. I looked everywhere.” Then he says, “Why did you take it?”
“I hate calling you George.”
The confessional smells of burning candlewick, melting wax, sulfur. It’s as dark as the motel with the linen drapes keeping sunlight out. He remembers Earl’s snoring and wanting to run away. He interrogates himself: Why did I touch it?
The lattice opens. Candlelight flames through the window, the breath of God’s own dragon. Jimmy leans back. An olive-skinned fist then reaches through sans vestments or purple stole – the badge of the priest’s power. “Here. Take it and pray for me.”
Their hands touch briefly, Jimmy’s palm open. He receives the rosary, the beads like fifty-three mini-baseballs on a chain.
“I was going to tell you later, after the movie.”
“Tell me what?”
“Leaving? Back to Lebanon?” He leans back again, feels knocked back. He wonders if they’ll still see it, the new Batman movie. He thinks of a black cowl and a scalloped cape, popcorn and soda. Maybe red vine licorice. At the concession stand, he would have to remind himself not to hold the priest’s hand. Leaving?
“My sabbatical’s been rescinded.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s been canceled.”
“The order said so.”
“Didn’t they see the newspaper article? Didn’t they see the picture of us? The good you’re doing?” He wonders what could be more important. The needy.
“They saw. I still have to go.”
“Next week. The order is sending me to Nicaragua for missionary work. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes,” he says solemnly. Where Clemente was headed. Jimmy remembers the anniversary, December 31, 1972, like a feast day in an Advent calendar. The paperback biography, bookmarked with Clemente’s baseball cards from bubble gum packs, is shelved at home. Jimmy has done book reports, first written in pencil, then typed hunt-and-peck style on his mother’s IMB Selectric. Twelve-time All-Star Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash, taking food and supplies to the needy earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was thirty-eight, had a gun for an arm and exactly three thousand base hits. (Jimmy memorized more stats and figured some averages via algebra. The math, he thought, was cool.) Clemente lived five years longer than Jesus. Jimmy wonders if Jesus likes baseball or prefers soccer. Jimmy wears Clemente’s number 21 and brown-striped yellow stirrups for the Little League Pirates. Clemente played for the big-league Pirates, the absolute consummate player. Jimmy likes the sound of absolute. Jesus is absolute, he thinks.
+ + +
After a pause in the confessional, Jimmy says, “Do you speak the language? My mother does.”
“I know she does. I do too.”
“Will you wear your collar there?”
“Yes.” Then he says, “I’m sorry we didn’t get more time together.”
“I confess, I feel like I’m losing a son.”
Jimmy has the thought, hears his mother in his head: don’t be silly. He asks anyway, “Does that make you an orphan?”
“Sort of.” Then he says, “There’s no universal word to describe a parent or guardian who loses or is stripped from a child.”
“Not even in Arabic?”
“The closest is Mathkool.”
“Mathkool,” Jimmy repeats. He wonders if that makes God the ultimate Mathkool. And Mary, too.
Then the priest says, “At least you’ll have baseball for the summer.”
Jimmy is reticent, his desire to play wanes. There are two games left before All-Stars, and possibly the World Series. He’ll catch both and practice in-between, feeling Earl’s vulpine stare from the dugout, a #2 pencil behind his ear, scorecard in hand. Jimmy’s around-the-horn throws lose steam, the rosary in his back pocket like chewing gum in a pyx. Chaplets behind the plate, a decade of beads from the diamond. A self-imposed novena for his sins after, for agreeing not to tell, for having failed the test. His left knee aches and swells with yellow synovial fluid, a yellow not unlike the venereal pus oozing from nickel-shaped sores under his scrotum. They appeared after the motel, after The Revolution, after everything went upside down.
Thinking of the ablutions with toilet paper later, to wipe the chancroid itch and tear strips of fetid, infected skin, he asks, “May I have absolution, Father?”
“May I have yours?”