Page 7


Even as Brendan lifted the maniple, kissed the cross in its center, and placed it on his left forearm, he felt nothing. There was just that cold, throbbing, hollow ache where belief and joy had once existed. As his hands were occupied with that task, his mind drifted back to a melancholy recollection of the exuberance with which he had once approached every priestly duty.


Until last August, he never doubted the wisdom of his commitment to the Church. He had been such a bright and hardworking student of both mundane subjects and religion that he had been chosen to complete his Catholic education at the North American College in Rome. He loved the Holy Citythe architecture, the history, and the friendly people. Upon ordination and acceptance into the Society of Jesus, he had spent two years at the Vatican, as an assistant to Monsignor Giuseppe Orbella, chief speechwriter and doctrinal adviser to His Holiness, the Pope. That honor could have been followed by a prized assignment to the staff of the Cardinal of the Chicago Archdiocese, but Father Cronin had requested, instead, a curacy at a small or mediumsized parish, like any young priest. Thus, after a visit to Bishop Santefiore in San Francisco (an old friend of Monsignor Orbella's), and after a vacation during which he drove from San Francisco to Chicago, he had come to St. Bernadette's, where he'd taken great pleasure in even the most ordinary daytoday chores of a curate's life. And with never a regret or doubt.


Now, as he watched his altar boy slip into a surplice, Father Cronin longed for the simple faith that had for so long comforted and sustained him. Was it gone only temporarily, or had he lost it forever?


When Kerry was dressed, he led the way through the inner sacristy door, into the sanctuary of the church. Several steps beyond the door, he evidently sensed that Father Cronin was not coming after him, for he glanced back, a puzzled look upon his face.


Brendan Cronin hesitated. Through the door he had a sideview of the towering crucifix on the back wall and the altar platform straight ahead. This holiest part of the church was dismayingly strange, as if he were seeing it objectively for the first time. And he could not imagine why he had ever thought of it as sacred territory. It was just a place. A place like any other. If he walked out there now, if he went through the familiar rituals and litanies, he would be a hypocrite. He would be defrauding everyone in the congregation.


The puzzlement on Kerry McDevit's face had turned to worry. The boy glanced out toward the pews that Brendan Cronin could not see, then looked again at his priest.


How can I say Mass when I no longer believe? Brendan wondered.


But there was nothing else to be done.


Holding the chalice in his left hand, with his right hand over the burse and veil, he kept the sacred vessel close to his breast and followed Kerry, at last, into the sanctuary, where the face of Christ upon the cross seemed, for a moment, to gaze at him accusingly.


As usual, less than a hundred people were in attendance for the early service. Their faces were unusually pale and radiant, as if God had not allowed real worshipers to attend this morning but had sent a deputation of judgmental angels to witness the sacrilege of a doubting priest who dared to offer Mass in spite of his fallen condition.


As the Mass progressed, Father Cronin's despair deepened. From the moment he spoke the Introibo ad altars Dei, each step of the ceremony compounded the priest's misery. By the time Kerry McDevit transferred the missal from the Epistle to the Gospel side of the altar, Father Cronin's despondency was so heavy that he felt crushed beneath it. His spiritual and emotional exhaustion were so profound that he could barely lift his arms, could hardly find strength to focus on the Gospel


and mutter the lines from the sacred text. The faces of the worshipers blurred into featureless blobs. By the time he reached the Canon of the Mass, Father Cronin could barely whisper. He knew that Kerry was gaping at him openly now, and he was sure that the congregation was aware that something was wrong. He was sweating and shaking. The awful grayness in him grew darker now, swiftly turning to black, and he felt as if he were spiraling down into a frighteningly dark void.


Then, as he held the Host in his hands and elevated it, speaking the five words that signified the mystery of transubstantiation, he was suddenly angry with himself for being unable to believe, angry with the Church for failing to provide him with better armor against doubt, angry that his entire life seemed misdirected, wasted, expended in pursuit of idiotic myths. His anger churned, heated up, reached the boiling point, was transformed into a steam of fury, a blistering vapor of rage.


To his astonishment, a wretched cry burst from him, and he pitched the chalice across the sanctuary. With a loud clank, it struck the sanctuary wall, spraying wine, rebounded, bounced off a statue of the Blessed Virgin, and clattered to a stop against the foot of the podium at which he had not long ago read from the Gospels.


Kerry McDevit stumbled back in shock, and in the nave a hundred people gasped as one, but that response had no effect on Brendan Cronin. In a rage that was his only protection against suicidal despair, he flung one arm wide and swept a paten of communion wafers to the floor. With another wild cry, half anger and half grief, he thrust his hand under his chasuble, tore off the stole that lay around his neck and threw it down, turned from the altar, and raced into the sacristy. There, the anger departed as suddenly as it had come, and he stopped and stood there, swaying in confusion.


It was December 1.


7.


Laguna Beach, California


That first Sunday in December, Dom Corvaisis had lunch with Parker Faine on the terrace at Las Brisas, in the shade of an umbrellatable overlooking the sundappled sea. The good weather was holding well this year. While the breeze brought them the cries of gulls, the tang of the sea, and the sweet scent of star jasmine that was growing nearby, Dominick told Parker every embarrassing and distressing detail of his escalating battle with somnambulism.


Parker Faine was his best friend, perhaps the only person in the world with whom he could open up like this, though on the surface they seemed to have little in common. Dom was a slender, leanmuscled man, but Parker Faine was squat, burly, beefy. Beardless, Dom went to the barber for a haircut every three weeks; but Parker's hair was shaggy, and his beard was shaggy, and his eyebrows bristled. He looked like a cross between a professional wrestler and a beatnik from the 1950s. Dom drank little and was easily intoxicated, while Parker's thirst was legendary and his capacity prodigious. Although Dom was solitary by nature and slow to make friends, Parker had the gift of seeming like an old acquaintance just an hour after you first met him. At fifty, Parker Faine was fifteen years older than Dom. He had been rich and famous for almost a quarter of a century, and he was comfortable with both his wealth and fame, utterly unable to understand Dom's uneasiness over the money and notoriety that was beginning to come his way because of Twilight in Babylon. Dom had come to lunch at Las Brisas in Bally loafers, dark brown slacks, and a lighter browncheckered shirt with a buttondown collar, but Parker had arrived in blue tennis shoes, heavily crinkled white cotton pants, and a whiteandblue flowered shirt worn over his belt, which made it seem as if they had dressed for entirely different engagements, had met outside the restaurant sheerly by chance, and had decided to have lunch together on a whim.


In spite of all the ways they differed from each other, they had become fast friends, because in several important ways they were alike. Both were artists, not by choice or inclination but by compulsion. Dom painted with words; Parker painted with paint; and they approached their different arts with identical high standards, commitment, craftsmanship. Furthermore, though Parker made friends more easily than Dom did, each placed enormous value on friendship and nurtured it.


They had met six years ago, when Parker had moved to Oregon for eighteen months, in search of new subject matter for a series of landscapes done in his unique style, which successfully married suprarealism with a surreal imagination. While there, he had signed to give one lecture a month at the University of Portland, where Dom held a position in the Department of English.


Now, while Parker hunched over the table, munching on nachos that were dripping with cheese ared guacamole and sour cream, Dom sipped slowly at a bottle of Negra Modelo and recounted his unconscious nocturnal adventures. He spoke softly, though discretion was probably unnecessary; the other diners on the terrace were noisily involved in their own conversations. He did not touch the nachos. This morning, for the fourth time, he had awakened behind the furnace in the garage, in a state of undiluted terror, and his continued inability to get control of himself had left him dispirited and without an appetite. By the time he finished his tale, he had drunk only half the beer, for even that rich, dark Mexican brew tasted flat and stale today.


Parker, on the other hand, had poured down three doubleshot margaritas and already ordered a fourth. However, the painter's attention was not dulled by the alcohol he consumed. "Jesus, buddy, why didn't you tell me about this sooner, weeks ago?"


"I felt sort of . . . foolish.


“Nonsense. Bullshit,” the painter insisted, gesturing expansively with one huge hand, but keeping his voice low.


The Mexican waiter, a diminutive Wayne Newton lookalike, arrived with Parker's margarita and inquired if they wished to order lunch.


"No, no. Sunday lunch is an excuse to have too many margaritas, and I'm a long way from having too many. What a sad waste to order lunch after only four margaritas! That'd leave most of the afternoon unfilled, and we'd find ourselves on the street with nothing to occupy us, and then without doubt we'd get into trouble, attract the attention of the police. God knows what might happen. No, no. To avoid jail and protect our reputations, we must not order lunch sooner than three o'clock. In fact, bring me another margarita. And another order of these magnificent nachos, please. More salsahotter if you've got it. A dish of chopped onions, too, please. And another beer for my dismayingly restrained friend."


“No,” Dom said. “I'm only halffinished with this one.”


"That's what I meant by 'dismayingly restrained,' you hopeless Puritan. You've sucked at that one so long it must be warm."


Ordinarily, Dominick would have leaned back and enjoyed Parker Faine's energetic performance. The painter's ebullience, his unfailing enthusiasm for life, was invigorating and amusing. Today, however, Dom was so troubled that he was not amused.


As the waiter turned away, a small cloud passed over the sun, and Parker leaned in farther under the suddenly deeper shadow beneath the umbrella, returning his attention to Dominick, as if he had read his companion's mind. "All right, let's brainstorm. Let's find some sort of explanation and figure out what to do. You don't think the problem's just related to stress ... the upcoming publication of your book?"


"I did. But not any more. I mean, if the problem was just a mild one, I might be able to accept that career worries lay behind it. But, Jesus, my concerns about Twilight just aren't great enough to generate behavior this unusual, this obsessive . . . this crazy. I go walking almost every night now, and it's not just the walking that's weird. The depth of my trance is incredible. Few sleepwalkers are as utterly comatose as I am, and few of them engage in such elaborate tasks as I do. I mean, I was attempting to nail the windows shut! And you don't attempt to nail your windows shut just to keep out your worries about your career."


“You may be more deeply worried about Twilight than you realize.”


"No. It doesn't make sense. In fact, when the new book continued to go well, my anxiety about Twilight started fading. You can't sit there and honestly tell me you think all this middleofthenight lunacy springs just from a few career worries."


“No, I can't,” Parker agreed.


"I crawl into the backs of those closets to hide. And when I wake up behind the furnace, when I'm still halfasleep, I have the feeling that something's stalking me, searching for me, something that'll kill me if it finds my hideyhole. A couple of mornings I woke up trying to scream but unable to get it out. Yesterday, I woke up shouting, 'Stay away, stay away, stay away!“ And this morning, the knife . . .”


“Knife?” Parker said. “You didn't tell me about a knife.”


"Woke up behind the furnace, hiding again. Had a butcher's knife. I'd removed it from the rack in the kitchen while I was sleeping."


“For protection? From what?”


“From whatever . . . from whoever's stalking me.”


“And who is stalking you?”


Dom shrugged. “Nobody that I'm aware of.”


“I don't like this. You could've cut yourself, maybe badly.”


“That's not what scares me the most.”


“So what scares you the most?”


Dom looked around at the other people on the terrace. Though some had followed Parker Faine's bit of theater with the waiter, no one was now paying the least attention to him or Dominick.


“What scares you the most?” Parker repeated.


“That I might . . . might cut someone else.”


Incredulous, Faine said, "You mean take a butcher's knife and ... go on a murdering rampage in your sleep? No chance."


He gulped his margarita. "Good heavens, what a melodramatic notion! Thankfully, your fiction is not quite so sloppily imagined. Relax, my friend. You're not the homicidal type."


“I didn't think I was the sleepwalking type, either.”


"Oh, bullshit. There's an explanation for this. You're not mad. Madmen never doubt their sanity."


"I think I'm going to have to see a psychiatrist, a counselor of some kind. And have a few medical tests."


"The medical tests, yes. But put a hold on the psychiatrist. That's a waste of time. You're no more neurotic than psychotic."


The waiter returned with more nachos, salsa, a dish of chopped onions, a beer, and a fifth margarita.


Parker surrendered his empty glass, took the full one. He scooped up some of the corn chips with generous globs of guacamole and sour cream, spooned some onions on top, and ate with an appreciation only one step removed from manic glee.


"I wonder if this problem of yours is somehow related to the changes you underwent two summers ago."


Puzzled, Dom said, “What changes?”


"You know what I'm talking about. When I first met you in Portland six years ago, you were a pale, retiring, unadventurous slug."


“Slug?”


"It's true, and you know it. You were bright, talented, but a slug nonetheless. You know why you were a slug? I'll tell you why. You had all those brains and all that talent, but you were afraid to use them. You were afraid of competition, failure, success, life. You just wanted to plod along, unnoticed. You dressed drably, spoke almost inaudibly, dreaded calling attention to yourself. You took refuge in the academic world because there was less competition there. God, man, you were a timid rabbit burrowing in the earth and curling up in its den."

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