FATHER BOB MORTON had always enjoyed the wedding season, until this year. Of course, the proper mood came upon him when he felt the adrenaline of bride, groom, and family, and he delivered his homilies, presided over the vows and rings, consecrated the Eucharist, and attended the receptions per protocol. But he did not eat much and formed a habit of leaving early, before the dancing started. When he got home, he checked on the Pens, who were well on their way to a Stanley Cup rematch with the Red Wings. His father, dead of cancer twenty months, would have been in heaven, where Morton hoped he was now, literally. Afterward, he switched off the set and said his prayers in bed.
The first weekend in June he had an unusual double whammy: nuptials both Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday wedding proved a tiresome affair—elaborate and belabored. The bride was particular and did not get along with her mother, who objected to her particularity though she had probably been the author of it. Even the sole infant in attendance could feel the tension and squalled until he was taken outside. Morton considered skipping the reception altogether, but decided he should at least make an appearance—and wait for the bridal party to arrive and be announced, if they ever got through their photos. So much fuss to get people paired up and ready to procreate, he thought, with guilty surprise. Though sometimes ironic, he did not consider himself cynical, much less callous or vulgar.
When at last he could take his leave, he drove home in relief, welcoming the silence and solitude of the car. But when he switched on the television, he found the Red Wings were leading 3–0. It was not the Penguins’ night. “Series isn’t over,” his father would have said. When not rooting for the Penguins or the Steelers, Bob Morton Sr. had been a happy workaholic, a hospital administrator who liked running things, managing people, and making friends. He relished attention but worked for it honestly. A good man, who died a good death, Morton and his mother agreed, eschewing treatment and succumbing gracefully. No reason for violent grief, even if he had died somewhat before his time, barely retired. “Retirement wasn’t made for men like him,” his mother told people. She was doing well, very active, lots of friends; she had always been independent. And Morton, their only child, was doing fine. A whole cycle of seasons had passed, not that this put him in the clear. Grief could be funny, he knew. It could take its place above you, inconspicuous, not even blocking out the sun, and hover there almost unnoticed until suddenly it engulfed your sky and sent a squall.
The couple getting married on Sunday had been students when Morton was doing campus ministry, and he had sincere affection for them. The university’s Heinz Chapel was familiar too: a Gothic affair, modeled on Sainte-Chapelle, including the tall stained-glass windows so crowded with symbols and scenes and blue glass that sunlight breached them but feebly. It swallowed flowers. Yet today they struck him as unusually vivid: orange and aquamarine, tropical colors that were at home in the shadowy, wavering hues of the chapel. He recognized tiger lilies, but the blue were unknown to him and looked like miniature painted sunflowers. When he complimented the bride, Sarah, she said her sister was a florist, one of her sisters, the maid of honor. It was a family of four daughters. All three sisters were bridesmaids in filmy blue gowns cinched at the bust and waistless, and wore their hair pulled up into buns that sprouted curls. Sarah was next to youngest, at twenty-seven. The florist maid of honor, Tamara, was next oldest and had a husband, whom she kissed and sent into the pews. The other two were the bookends, easy to distinguish because they had probably ten years between them. The oldest, Andrea, was angular and intent, and also, he thought, pensive. Her smile had the shadow of tired anxiety, a worrier grown bored with worrying, while the youngest, Leah, was plump and effervescent, with a boyfriend she clung to happily and kept turning to smile at during the service. Leah would be married soon, Morton surmised.
His homily began well enough. Sarah and her groom, George, were loving and loveable people. He truly believed that, and told them they had only to “give in to their own natures and respond to what was natural in the other.” Not that this would always be easy (he had to say something about the challenges).
“Sometimes,” he noted, “we get tired of being who we are and tired of those closest to us, just for being who they are—that is, too familiar. We want adventure instead of peace and comfort. We want the unknown instead of warmth. Maybe it cannot be helped, and we just have to find our way back when we get tired of the alternate path.” He winced; that last sentence came out a little dark. How could he fix it? “But I have faith that these two can always find their way back.” He grinned at them. “Indeed, I think they will take the adventure together, growing and changing in and for each other as their expanding hearts dictate.” He was glad to step down and would have liked to relax a moment and let the creed carry him into the liturgy of the Eucharist. But instead they had the vows. He forgot that George and Sarah had them memorized and started with the usual “Repeat after me…” only to have George give him a look. “Whoops. Never mind. These guys have got this,” he said to the crowd. And indeed they both recited the whole thing without hitch or hesitation, then did the same with the rings. Morton felt superfluous, but at last he was able to declare them man and wife and preside over their chaste kiss.
After the Mass, he felt better, refreshed and released, and looked forward to the reception. Sarah and her sisters charmed him. They were so kind and attractive, and they laughed at his jokes. He hoped, rather absurdly, that one of them would ask him to dance. This was very unlikely, as he knew lay people hardly thought of him as a person like themselves. He had few friends among them now and saw even these infrequently. They had once been full of curiosity about the priesthood, religious life, what it was like to perform Mass. Of the latter, he had said it was impossible to describe, playing up its profundity, though it was like all repeated acts—never meaningless but only occasionally transcendent, like runner’s high for a person who runs every day or inspiration for a working artist. You had to be mindful to appreciate it. He realized the truth of that even more acutely now. Meanwhile, in their forties, his friends’ interest had diminished. He was the person they sometimes forgot or were not able to fit in when they visited Pittsburgh, and for his part he was not very good about staying in touch.
He was not asked to dance, so he drank his wine and talked to the girls’ mother, Leslie. Her hair was drawn back from her face and loose behind, an arbor of rich brown curls. She wore a simple but elegant orange evening gown (everything was color-coordinated here, even more so than at the wedding of the particular bride and clearly without the strife). It had two filmy scarves attached to the back, which added something airy to it. The straps were spaghetti-style, the waist conventional, and she had a very nice figure for a woman with four children. Her shoulders were overly tanned and darkly freckled, perhaps her one blemish—that and the wrinkles around her mouth. But she was happy, grateful for her blessings. Her husband had a successful design firm, and she herself was an interior designer. That good taste ran in the family was obvious, and Morton said so. Leslie smiled and said a wedding was a creative endeavor, though Sarah was very traditional. Morton said he liked traditional and what made this one stand out was the pervasive good humor.
Sarah’s father, Tom, came over then. He was handsome: thin and fit with dark blond hair and an active charm—in fact, aggressively attentive, though his wide eyes darted about the room. Tom was curious about Morton’s connection to the cathedral, his relationship to the bishop, and the governance of the diocese, but Morton explained, affably, that he was an Oratorian, which meant he did not have a parish and was not involved much in diocesan affairs. At this point, something caught Tom’s eye and he excused himself, lightly touching Morton’s arm with the promise that he would be back shortly. Morton knew he would not and scanned the room for Sarah and George in order to say his goodbyes. Before he found them, however, his eyes alighted on the eldest sister, Andrea, sitting alone at one of the tables with a strange expression on her face. On impulse, he decided to join her.
“Hello, Father,” she said.
“Hello. Mind some company?”
“No, have a seat.”
“Couldn’t help noticing you were solitary.”
“I am often solitary,” she said.
“Me too,” he told her.
“Ah.” She smiled and grew quiet. He saw that, unlike her parents, she did not consider it her responsibility to make conversation.
“Beautiful wedding,” he remarked.
“Oh yes, splendid.”
“Your family can throw a party.”
“They can. I’m afraid I had nothing to do with it. Not my thing. I’m the black sheep.”
“What is your thing?” he asked.
“I’m a writer. Freelance. But not the journalist sort—more the grant and speech circuit. I teach, too—composition, when I have to make ends meet. Sometimes I edit.”
“Maybe I could pay you to write my homilies.” A joke. He grinned.
“I’ll give you a card,” she said.
“Please do. I’m writing a book and I may need an editor.” This was another impulse. Usually he did not like to mention his project, in case he never finished it.
“On what?” she asked.
“Saint Philip Neri.”
“Whatever I knew about the saints is gone now. I’m afraid I’m a little lapsed.”
“Well, you don’t have to confess to me.” Another joke, weak.
She smiled again and looked at him, he thought, a little more closely. “I suppose people ask you all the time why you became a priest.”
Silence. They stared at each other.
“Are you asking?”
She thought a moment, her eyes narrowing a little. They were a sea-green blue.
“How do you feel about it now?” she asked instead.
“Hm. That’s a more interesting question.”
She took a sip of the wine before her.
“I don’t regret it,” he said. And he didn’t. That was true. He had entered the seminary when he was twenty-two, just months after graduating college with a degree in psychology and philosophy, not by default exactly but because it had felt right at the time, to explore it anyway. And then it had been easy to stay, though sometimes only easier than leaving. But now…. “I’m comfortable,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m the most devout or holy priest there is, but I believe, and I feel its meaning—what I do.” He paused. “I liked doing campus ministry. That’s how I met your sister.”
“My responsibilities have changed. We have a research center on Cardinal Newman—the English theologian—and I administrate that. Coordinate scholars and programs.”
“And write your book.”
She smiled into her glass—to herself it seemed. Then she asked, “And why Saint Philip?”
“He founded my order. The Oratorians.”
“Oh, yes. Sarah mentioned you were part of a special group.”
“It’s not really special. We just don’t have parishes, and we don’t get moved around. We live at the Oratory.”
“Why is it called that? Do you specialize in speaking?”
“No, an oratory is just a place of prayer. But our use of it goes back to Saint Philip—in the sixteenth century. He was one of those rare souls who was both charismatic and intensely solitary and spiritual. He created these prayer meetings for lay people and religious both that became so popular Pope Gregory XIII formally recognized their community as the Congregation of the Oratory. And that’s what we are, some four hundred years later.” It was the sound bite he had developed over the years.
She nodded. “You seem to have both qualities. The charismatic and solitary.”
He felt himself flush with pleasure. “Oh, I’m…not at that level. I en—” He stopped, feeling that “envy” was inappropriate in talking about a saint. “I admire his prayer life, his intensity. It is said—and this is his famous miracle—that when he was keeping vigil one night in the catacombs a ball of fire—the Holy Spirit—appeared before him and actually entered his mouth. Then it lodged in his chest, and his heart became dilated so that two of his ribs broke and curved into a sort of arch—they discovered this after his death many years later. And his heart after that would always beat wildly whenever he prayed or engaged in any kind of spiritual activity.”
“Sounds frightful,” she said.
“From a medical standpoint maybe.”
“You think it really happened?” she asked.
“Well….” His attitude towards these stories was skeptically indulgent. He accepted that the church called them miracles while not denying there might be some plausible worldly explanation—or simple embellishment. But tonight he felt something else. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did?”
“A ball of fire going into your mouth and lodging in your chest?”
“You’d have to believe.”
“I don’t think it would make me a fan of prayer.”
“Grace isn’t always gentle.”
She nodded, wearily. “I suppose you’re done drinking for the evening,” she said.
“Uh, yes. I’ve consumed my quota.”
“Too bad. I need someone to get drunk with me, preferably a trustworthy stranger. I’ve never been drunk.”
“Never?” he asked.
“Nope. I don’t really want to get drunk now. I just want to experience something. Maybe a ball of fire going into my chest. I suppose you have to work for that. Mortify the flesh and all.”
He watched her now with curious wariness. She finished the half glass of wine before her.
“Come with me to the bar,” she said.
He did. She ordered a gin and tonic, and he got a glass of ice water. Then she drew him over to a tall table, sans chairs, where they stood silently for several moments, until she said, “Sarah’s actually my half-sister.”
“Yes. Tom’s not my father.”
“Sarah never mentioned anything.”
“It’s all history to her.”
He was moved to look for the other girls now and compare, but Andrea might notice. As it was, she anticipated him.
“We all take after our mother, basically. Except maybe Leah, who does not much resemble anyone. We think Mom had an affair with a cherub, if that’s not sacrilegious.”
Morton laughed, then said, carefully, “Is your father…alive?”
“Oh yes, he’s in Canada now, I think. He travels a lot. An engineer.”
“You see him?”
“Have a good relationship?”
She smiled. “You counsel people for a living, don’t you?”
“Oh, I’m not trying to counsel you.” He felt his face reddening.
“We’re all right. He married a woman I didn’t like, after Mom. Of course I was only five. Then they split up when I was in college, and now he’s married again. I don’t know her very well, but she’s nice enough. I’ve just always been sharing him.”
“A father has a special place in his heart for his daughter.”
“Trite but true. The problem is other women know it, and they automatically resent me.”
She nodded and sipped her drink. At last, she asked, “How old are you? If you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Forty-six.”
She nodded. Did she think he was older? Younger? She couldn’t think he was much younger. His hair was graying, all at once it seemed. It had been his mother’s light brown, almost orange. Just now it wasn’t really any color—as if he had done a poor bleach job and gotten dishwater. His beard was the same, though it looked better than the hair, and since he had always worn one, thin, over his cheeks and chin, he felt inclined to keep it. He was comfortable with his size—flabby in the middle, he knew, but that had been the case for ten years or more, and he looked well enough in his black and his vestments.
“I’m thirty-five,” she said.
“A good age.”
She snorted. “I guess I’ll think that at forty-six too. Right now it feels old.”
Forty-six must seem ancient, he thought. But this was not about him. Almost nothing was.
“And for a woman it is old,” she went on. “Only a few decent childbearing years left.”
“Do you want children?”
“I don’t know. But the time for ‘I don’t know’ is quickly passing. For men, no such problem—they can have a kid when they’re seventy if they can recruit some young woman to the program. I’ve been recruited by a few—not seventy, but still.”
“Are you seeing anyone?” he asked.
“No. The only time I care is events like this. Did you enter the seminary very young?”
“The year after college.”
“Wow. That’s devotion.”
“Don’t have a ball of fire rattling around in there?” she asked.
“No.” He felt himself grinning again, stupidly, like the Cheshire cat. He didn’t feel like grinning. He was thinking of something he had not thought of in a long time: a young man who died of a heart attack in the seminary. It had probably been caused by an infection, but it was during Lent and he had been fasting, staying up all night, sleeping with his window open. There was a rumor he had lashed himself, but he died sitting at his desk writing a letter—to his mother.
Andrea drank the rest of the gin and tonic and set the glass down. Then she said, “I’m going to have a baby.”
“Not yet. I’m not pregnant. So don’t worry about the drinks. But I’m getting pregnant. I’m getting pregnant next week, if all goes well.”
He stared at her. Was he supposed to ask for details? Offer his congratulations?
“Does your family know?”
She let out a fluty laugh. “No. I’m going to disappear for nine months.”
“You don’t plan to…raise the child?”
“I’m having it for a friend. She lives in Oregon.”
They became quiet. This happened to him regularly: sudden revelations. It came with the territory. He was not alarmed. Only now the evening was different, and something was maybe required of him.
“It’s altruistic,” Andrea said. “I’m not getting paid.”
“I trust you’ve thought this through.”
“Oh you can’t imagine. All I do is think—about everything. I think it’s time to do something, at last.”
“I’m a thinker too,” he murmured.
“My friend should be a mother,” she went on. “Her kid will be a good citizen of the world. And I will have done something—one useful, lasting thing in my life.”
“You might do a few more before you’re through,” he observed. “You’ve got some time.”
“I know the church is against it.”
He sighed. This also came with the territory. People flung their controversial decisions at him and waited for his judgment so they could attack it. He remained silent, but this seemed to disappoint her.
“At least tell me what you think,” she said.
“Well…it’s not exactly natural.”
“I have never understood what is so holy about natural. Much of what happens in nature is frightful.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
She went abruptly back to the bar then and ordered another gin and tonic. When she returned, she said, “Go ahead. Make your case against it.”
“My chief concern would be the emotional distress—for you. It’s very difficult to give up a child.”
“I’ll be able to see it. I’ll be like an aunt. I just won’t have to raise it.”
“I think when you give birth you want to raise it.”
“I don’t know. I’m selfish.” She drank. “I’m disciplined. I can be gracious. But I’m selfish.”
“We’re all selfish,” he said gently. And then, “I think you should at least tell your family.”
“I’m not very close to my family. We love each other, but closeness is something else.”
He glanced at her and found her looking out at the room, which he now surveyed. The musicians were just coming back from a break. It was a jazz band, but they played some pop covers, the traditional wedding favorites. Now the singer, a gawky, beak-nosed man, began “When I Fall in Love,” and a collective ah mushroomed up from the scattered crowd. The lights went low. People were making for the dance floor: Sarah and George, Tamara and her husband, Leah and her beau, the groomsmen with their wives or dates, Tom and Leslie.
“Not quite Nat King Cole,” Andrea scoffed.
“A little before your time.”
“And yours. Forty-six isn’t so old. You couldn’t be my father.”
“Eleven would be young.” And then he asked, “Would you like to dance?”
“Would you like to dance? With me.” His grin now felt desperate. His face ached with it.
She frowned and swirled her drink. He removed the glass from her hand and led her to the floor. There he put his hand on her waist and felt hers settle on his shoulder. Her other hand he held in his. She was taller than he was. He had once felt his shortness to be a bane, but it became unimportant when he realized he did not need to be imposing and, in fact, had no desire to be. Andrea glanced around at the other couples.
“Father Bob!” Sarah called. “Andrea!”
George grinned. Morton grinned back. Andrea, he thought, grimaced.
In a restless world like this is, love is ended before it’s begun.
And too many moonlight kisses seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.
It was a sad song, he thought. When it ended, Sarah rushed over. “Andrea!” she exclaimed, hugging her.
Was this not closeness?
“Having fun?” George asked Morton.
“Yes, thank you. This may be the longest I’ve ever stayed at a wedding.”
“Oh, the photographer!” Sarah said. And they gathered together for a shot, Morton and Andrea on either side of the wedded couple. After that, Andrea went back to the high table near the bar, where they had left her drink. But it was already gone. The wait staff was getting more assiduous as the evening advanced. They wanted the event finished. Andrea ordered another drink while Morton chatted with Sarah and George.
When he went over to say goodbye to her, she smiled and shook his hand.
“Thank you for talking to me,” she said. “I didn’t expect to have a real conversation tonight.”
“I enjoyed it too. Here’s my card, in case you want to continue it.”
She looked at the card and then at him.
“Anytime,” he said. “In complete confidence.”
“Are you interested?” she asked.
“In me? In my…situation?”
What was he to say to that? “I am. It’s an unusual situation. I wish you all the best.” Then he grinned. Always grinning, he thought. It was the only way he knew how to deal with strangers, even after they were intimate with him.
One useful, lasting thing in my life, she had said. He thought about it walking back to the Oratory—this was a rare wedding with everything taking place close to home; he could have drunk more, he reflected. He could have gotten drunk with her, had it not been unseemly. He had not been drunk in many years and only once as a priest—with his cousins at a family reunion. What precipitated that? He cannot remember. One thing just led to another. He wondered why Andrea was not seeing anyone, if perhaps she was gay, though she might have flung that at him, too. It certainly did not have to be the case. He had once counseled a young woman who told him most people did not understand about singleness, how safe it felt once you got used to taking care of yourself, how uncomplicated. He felt he should not have danced with her. It made her uncomfortable. A real conversation, she had said—and seemed pleased when he gave her his card. That, at least, was reassuring.
She was going to have a hard time, he thought, and did not know what to pray for. At last, he prayed for everyone to be healthy and happy. Let God sort it out. Andrea had not questioned his belief. Sometimes people wanted to know how he reconciled things: evil, random tragedy, the metaphysical conundrums, the staggering lack of evidence. He was disappointing in this vein, for he tried to reconcile nothing. He had decided to devote his life to God, whether he existed or not, and Christ, whether he was divine or not. And the truth was, if none of it was true, he would never know. No one would.
On Friday that week, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in an action-packed 2–1 victory that came right down to the wire. Morton had another rehearsal dinner, but he made it back to the Oratory in time for the second period, then decided to change into street clothes and walk to one of the many bars. Most of the students were gone for the summer, but the bar was packed anyway with young people lost in the game, overwhelmed by it, experiencing it without any sense of perspective or self-consciousness. Their eyes were wide and pupils small. They swallowed drinks without tasting them. They embraced and high-fived and slapped each other’s shoulders. Morton was reminded of ’92, when they swept the Blackhawks. His father had held a hospital charity event for game four. Ordained only a few years and not yet thirty, Morton had been something of a celebrity in his collar and proud of it. He had felt separate then in a way that pleased him, like he was on an inside track, part of an elite, and enjoyed things, like the Penguins winning a championship, from inside this warm consciousness.
Now he walked home feeling more thoughtful than elated. The city was celebrating—cars honking, people pouring out of the bars into the streets—but they would all feel empty sooner or later. They could not avoid it. None of them. All anticipation and purpose came to a head and then an end. At least his father had accepted this and let go with grace. And maybe, thanks to morphine, that grace had been reasonably gentle in his case.
He had three more weddings in June, three in July, and only two in August. There were two in September as well and one in October. So the wedding season tapered off. Morton had several funerals in October and November, strangely coincident with the dying year. Then it was Advent and Christmas. Habit sustained him. Hockey season started again, and sometimes he watched part of the almost nightly games. He worked casually, not doggedly, on Saint Philip, while coordinating the work of other scholars, envying their intensity and resolve.
In February, Sarah and George were in town and came to Mass at the Oratory. Sarah had a brilliant blue coat and white gloves. George’s thin, intelligent face was calmly bright. He was about to get his law degree, and Sarah had applied to PhD programs in neuropsychology. No baby yet—or maybe there was, too early to announce. Then he asked after her other sisters, whose names he could not recall. Leah was engaged, and Tamara was pregnant.
“She decided to do it?” he asked. And got a strange look from Sarah.
“Well, they were ready, I guess.”
He realized his mistake then and felt his face redden. “Tamara, yes, yes. When is she due?”
“May. Just a few months and I’ll be an aunt!”
“And…your other sister?” he asked, face still warm.
“Oh, Andrea? She’s all right, I guess. Haven’t heard much recently. She’s living with a friend in Oregon—working on her book.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “She’s been working on it for years.”
He nodded, grinning. “What’s it about?”
“Oh, you’d have to ask Andrea. She’s tight lipped.”
When they had gone, he went to the sacristy and hung his vestments, his hands caressing the purple cloth. He was waiting for something, a thought, but it was slow to materialize. “Hm,” he kept saying, softly. “Hm.” Oregon. A book.