If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Friday, February 24, 2012

Eve Wilkinson: The Vengeance is Mine

On her 31st wedding anniversary, Annie Burgess, a mother of four grown daughters and my friend for thirty years, learned that her husband was having an affair.

It started with the cards. While cleaning out her husband’s half-ton work pickup, she noticed some greeting cards addressed to him in the backseat. They were handmade cards with lace decorations and messages like “you’re my everything” and “you make me feel alive”. She read them over and over, and then little by little she felt the foundation holding up her world crumble into dust.

As the days went by, she noticed that he was working late several nights per week and going to office parties where spouses weren’t invited. Or so he said. That’s when she borrowed a small voice-activated recorder and bugged his vehicle. She retrieved the device after one night and listened to it alone in her kitchen. Thirty seconds of drivel and, “I get so ramped up talking to you,” was all she needed to hear.

After hearing her husband having phone sex, Annie, who had previously focused on things like where to shop for toilet paper, forgot her hopes, dreams and housework. She refocused her energy on getting even.

Here you go, snake. Watch me slither too.

Annie refused to consider that life is not so black and white. I used to cringe when I heard them swearing and calling each other names, contrary to my philosophy of how husbands and wives should interact. I don’t think a marriage breakdown happens in a void; Annie didn’t see it that way. She felt cheated in many ways beyond the obvious one. She had never worked and had no marketable skills. Substantial debt would leave her in financial ruin. She felt he had stolen her life and identity, thrown it away, and that her years as a housewife were a mockery. All Annie could think of was revenge.

She started small. Mr. Wonderful had recently decided out of the blue that he wanted to get “fit”. He started lifting weights and taking vitamin supplements. One night while he was at a“meeting” she took his bottle of Glucosamine and Chondroitin, took apart all the capsules, emptied their contents into the garbage, and patiently refilled the capsules with pancake mix.

Here you go, dough head.

Annie and I laughed heartily about it,although the laughter was bittersweet and short-lived. I was nervous about where all this was going to lead, but Annie was determined to take her game to a new level. That’s when she started to help her husband’s desire for a physical transformation by adding dog food and laxatives to his hot supper. In spicy soups and stews, he never noticed a thing.

Here you go, horndog.

I just shook my head when I heard about this. Being divorced myself, I could not imagine doing this to a partner. I asked her, “Didn’t he ever notice anything odd?”

“He comes home late and eats by himself,” she said. “I add everything at the last minute to his portion only. He scarfs it down with lots of bread and butter. He says it’s great. ”

Next, Annie wanted to find out the name of the other woman. In shortorder, Annie had lined up a long list of friends and relatives, all delighted to follow Mr. Wonderful around. In two days, Annie learned that the woman was from his office.

Annie called her at work and said she was Olga Sokolov from Public Health.

“I have some very bad news,” said Annie in a muffled and thick Slavic accent. “You have been in contact with someone who has a sexually transmitted disease.”

“What?” was the startled reply.

“Yes,” said Annie. “You must go to your doctor and get tested. That is all. Thank you.”

“Thanks,” was the whispered reply on the other end.

Here you go, home-wrecker.

While Mr. Wonderful may not have been aware of Annie’s shenanigans behind his back, he was certainly aware of her open hostility. As soon as Annie learned that he had continued his affair throughout months of marriage counseling, it was Guadalcanal at their house. He left late one night with two suitcases. Annie thought that presented a perfect opportunity to dispose of whatever belongings he had left behind. So she went to the local grocery store parking lot and sold clothes, sports equipment, and tools out of the trunk of her car for ten cents on the dollar. Documents and keepsakes went missing too.

Here you go, you thieving bastard.

An acrimonious divorce was now underway, and I was worried that my sensible friend would self-destruct and wind up in prison.

I told her, “This has to stop. Nothing good will come of this. You have to let go.”

I finally staged an intervention for her with all of her kids at my house. All the grown daughters were angry and depressed and everyone cried. They felt crushed and betrayed, and although sympathetic to their mother’s plight, they wanted the fighting between their parents to stop. They said it was unbearable for them. After listening to her children, Annie finally grasped that her antics were hurting her relationship with them.

“Move on, Mom,” they said in unison.

The next night, Annie came to my house. We had fun, and for the first time in many months there were no tears shed. I bought her a subscription to an online dating club, which I figured would offer her a few laughs.

“I have something for you,” Annie said before leaving, and she handed me a revolver with a box of bullets. “I want to let go. Can you get rid of these for me?”

I nodded yes, but after Annie went home that night, I decided to keep the gun and bullets and hid it all in my basement drop ceiling.

Here you go, Mr. Wonderful. Just in case.

Eve Wilkinson is taking target practice under an assumed name at an undisclosed location north of here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Richard Luftig: You Never Know

You never know when you’ll run out, get caught short, be unprepared.

That’s why I stock up on shampoos from the maid’s cart in the motel hallway, pilfer packets of ketchup from McDonalds, sweeteners from Starbucks and chopsticks from every Asian take-out place I visit. I even take matchbooks from restaurants and I’ve never smoked.

And pens, you can never have too many of those. I probably have a pen from every bank, insurance agent and doctor’s office in Southern California.

I’m one of those people who plan for every contingency. In short, I don’t like surprises.

So, you can imagine how jarring it was to learn that my company was moving me from Los Angeles to Killdeer, North Dakota.

In hindsight, like the bogus clairvoyant who got busted by the police, I should have seen it coming. I’m forty-five years old, and I’ve worked for a gas and oil company the last twenty years here in Los Angeles. I’m born and raised in Southern California and I’ve never been east of Denver. Still, its not like I’ve never heard of North Dakota. I probably read about it in elementary school and while I could find it on a map, I sure as hell never heard of Killdeer.

I had read about the oil boom in North Dakota and knew that our company was sending engineers and drilling teams to the fields there. But it never crossed my mind that they would need support staff like accountants. After all, I’m not exactly a first line field worker.

But I got the memo that I was being transferred, and the company gave me a month to close up my life here and start one there.  Yes, a memo. Nothing like the personal touch.

After I got the word, I decided to take an early, rest-of-the day lunch to try to sort it out. I mean, where were they going to send me as punishment for skipping work? Siberia? I was already headed there.

I called my son, John and asked him to meet me for lunch. He’s really all I have
in California. Carolyn and I divorced fifteen years ago when he was eight. My youngest son, David never forgave me for the split and hasn’t spoken to me in years. Sometimes things work out that way.

“Gee, Dad,” John said. “It’s kind of short notice. I’m not sure if I can just leave the office. I’m pretty swamped.”

“It’s important,” I said. “I really need your advice.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone. I’m not known to ask my kid’s opinion. I’m more of a “teller.”

“Okay,” he said. “How about Mako’s in Little Tokyo at 11:30?”

I don’t like Japanese food but I figured this wasn’t the time to argue.        

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll see you then.”


When I walked into the sushi place, John was already there and sipping on his miso soup. I ordered tea and some sort of rice dish. I don’t eat raw fish that was swimming somewhere two hours ago.

John put down his bowl. I always marveled about how much he looked like his mother; thin, with brown hair that always had a curl in it, dark eyes that could flash on a moment’s notice, lips that didn’t smile as much as I would have liked. I’m pretty much the opposite; stocky, or as I like to say, short for my weight, with black hair, now rapidly turning gray, and hazel eyes that are hard to see behind my glasses.

“What so important that we had to meet at a moment’s notice?” he said. “It’s not like you to be spontaneous.”

I ignored the dig. “You hear from David?”

John moved his chopsticks from the left to the right side of his plate. “Yes, we spoke last week. He’s fine.”

He hesitated. “And no, we didn’t talk about you. You’re not his favorite topic of conversation.”

“What about your mother? How is she doing?”
“Dad, I hope you didn’t ask me here to get a report on the family. You said on the phone it was important. What’s going on?”

My efforts at conversation were only serving to annoy him. I needed to cut to the news.

“I’m being transferred.”

I could see that he was surprised. “Out of LA?”

“Further than that,” I said.

“Out of California? Where?”

“North Dakota.”

“Excuse me? Did you say North Dakota? THE North Dakota that’s at the end of the universe?”

“One and the same,” I said.

Our food came but John didn’t touch his. “Jesus, Dad, I’m not sure I could find North Dakota with two hands and a flashlight. Why are they sending you there?”

“They’ve found huge oil and gas deposits and are starting to drill as soon as possible. Guess they need a pencil-pusher to keep the records straight.”

“And you’re going?”

I tried to pick up some rice with my chopsticks but it was a lost cause. I switched to my fork. “I have to if I want to keep my job.”

John poked at a piece of sushi and dipped it in some sort of mustard paste. I once tried the stuff, and it made my nose fall off.
“Where are they sending you?”

“Killdeer” I said. “About 130 miles from Bismarck. Not far from the Montana border.”

“Killdeer? What is that, a town from Song of Hiawatha?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“When would you leave?”

“Well, the good news is that the company is giving me a month to work things out. I’m flying there the day after tomorrow to scout out the place, see if I can make it my new home.”

“And you would move there?”

I hesitated, wondering the best way to phrase what I wanted to say. “That’s the reason I called you.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just that you and David are the only reasons I have to stay in California. If I knew that you and I could be closer, that your brother and I could start up a relationship again, I’d turn the move down in a heartbeat, even if it meant losing my job.”

I could see that I had missed the mark, that John was annoyed. “Jesus, Dad, that’s a hell of a trip to lay on somebody.”

I nodded. “I agree, but it doesn’t change the situation.” I gave him a few seconds to ponder. “What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know how to react,” he said. “I realize we’re not close, but with me married and with kids, you know, I don’t have much time.”

“That’s an excuse.”

“Yeah, maybe it is. But the fact is, you and I just don’t see the world the same way.”      

“And your brother?” I asked.

“I can’t speak for David. But if I had to bet the farm, I’d say that I don’t see you two reconciling in the near future.”

I was disappointed but not surprised. I reached for the check. “Well, that’s the input I needed. All things considered, I’m going to fly to North Dakota with an open mind.”

He took the check from my hand. “Let me get it. It’s the least I can do for a man heading into the great unknown.”

We got up and he gave me a hug. I wanted to tell him I loved him but decided it might seem like I was trying too hard.

“Well, look on the bright side,” I said, trying to keep it light. “At least there I won’t have to watch people eat fish still almost moving on their plate.”

I pocketed a couple of packets of soy sauce before I left. I didn’t know if they had the stuff in Killdeer.


I had never seen North Dakota from an airplane. Hell, I’d never seen any of the Midwest. My initial reaction was shock. How could land be this flat? You live in Southern California you take the snowcapped mountains for granted.

And while I was new to the place I was pretty sure that farmland wasn’t supposed to be underwater.

It was clear as we approached Bismarck that the rivers were flooded over their banks. It was funny, though. I hadn’t read anything about floods in the California newspapers. I guess what happens in North Dakota stays in North Dakota. Kind of like Las Vegas without the slots.

Our plane approached the Bismarck airport. Let’s just say that the single runway didn’t remind me of LAX. There were standing puddles of water everywhere and the picture of our skidding on contact and showing up on the local 11 o’clock news flashed before my eyes. But the pilot must have been eager to make it safely home for dinner because we touched down perfectly and coasted to an easy stop.

If I was expecting a gateway, I was disappointed. The hatch opened and we walked down a steep flight of steps to the tarmac. I wasn’t prepared for the late autumn gusts and sheets of rain bearing down from the northwest. It whipped dust devils into my eyes. I saw that my fellow passengers were holding their hands to their foreheads like folks in California driving west in the late afternoon trying to keep the sun out of their eyes. I couldn’t walk fast enough to the lone terminal.

Inside, I looked around for someone to direct me to the rental car desk. But outside of our arriving flight, the place was deserted. I looked up and followed the signs to baggage claim. If Bismarck was anything like the rest of the world’s airports, rental cars were near where one picked up their bags.

I’ll say this for the place; there wasn’t a line at the one rental car desk. I was in my car and out of the airport in fifteen minutes.

It’s supposed to be a two- hour straight shot from Bismarck to Killdeer, ninety miles due west on I94 and then north on State Road 22, but we never have freezing rain in Southern California and the steady downpour quickly turned the drive into a four hour white-knuckle trip.

I gratefully pulled into the only motel near Killdeer, grabbed my room key and collapsed onto the bed. The paneling was ancient and spotted with bad art prints. Overall, the place looked like it was last remodeled during the Kennedy Administration. Between the cold that gripped every bone in my body and the steady rain pounding on what seemed to be a metal roof, I fell into an uneasy sleep.


I’ve heard those stories about waking up in a strange bed in a hotel and the panic of not remembering where you are. That didn’t happen to me. I opened my eyes and heard my brain yell, “North Dakota.” My second thought was that I needed emergency coffee if I was going to survive even one day here.

I looked around. There was no coffee maker in the room. It figured. This wasn’t exactly the Killdeer Hilton.

The rain was still playing the “Anvil Chorus” on the roof. Did the sun ever come out around here? I thought I was going to the prairie, not a rain forest.

I dressed and dodged the raindrops to the motel office.  The guy who checked me in last night was still behind the desk. I didn’t know if he was the owner but I really didn’t care. I just wanted something to eat.

“Morning,” he said. I didn’t know if it was a statement of fact or a greeting. I opted for the latter.

“Good Morning. One hell of a day. Does it ever stop raining? I feel like I’m in the Amazon.”

He didn’t break a smile. Either he didn’t get the joke or I had inadvertently insulted the State of North Dakota.

“Been awhile since we’ve seen sunlight,” he admitted. “Two weeks to be exact.”

“Is it like this a lot?”
“Depends on the time of year you visit,”

I decided to forgo the small talk. “Any place around here I can get a cup of coffee?”

“There’s a café in Killdeer. But it isn’t open.”

A genius, I thought, Why would he tell me about a restaurant that was closed? I tried to remember if today was Sunday or a National holiday.

“Why’s the café closed on a Tuesday morning. People not eat around here on Tuesdays?”

Still, not even a smile from the guy. I wondered if everyone around here was such a tough audience.

“Floods,” he said. “The Little Knife jumped its banks yesterday. Everybody in town from banker to school teacher is sandbagging and trying to build a levee.”

In Southern California, we have earthquakes and fires, landsides and smog alerts, but the trickle that we call the Los Angeles River has never been a flood threat.

“Sounds serious,” I said.

He looked at me sharply as if trying to gauge if I was truly empathetic or just a big-city smart-ass. “Only if you’re worried about losing your house by nightfall.”

I didn’t want to sound crass or unfeeling, but I still needed my fix of caffeine. “So where is the closest place to get something to eat? I really didn’t bring any provisions with me on the plane.”

He thought for a moment. “Not really sure. Lots of people from different towns have come to Killdeer to help out, so I don’t know what’s open and what’s not. Your best bet is to backtrack to Bismarck. Lots of choices there.”
Welcome to North Dakota, I thought. Towns too small to have a restaurant. What was next; learning that people took turns operating the one traffic signal in the state?

I didn’t want to argue with the guy but I sure as hell wasn’t retracing my steps to Bismarck just for breakfast. I saw from the map that there were a number of towns to the east; Hazen, Halliday, Dodge. Something had to be open. I drove into Killdeer to pick up State Route 200.

It looked like a town during World War II trying to defend itself from attack. Only this time the enemy was water. People, maybe fifty or more, were in a line, some shoveling dirt into sandbags, others passing the bags from person to person until they reached three or four men piling the things into a three-foot high levee. A guy in a bulldozer was delivering scoops of sand from a pile some hundred yards distant while another machine was pushing mud and other debris into an earthen wall.

I pulled my car over to the side of the road in front of the post office and watched. Nobody seemed to notice me or ask what he was doing. They simply continued their work.

I don’t know why I did it; after all, it wasn’t my town. But I got out of the car and walked over to the snake-line of workers.

“Where do you want me?” I said to the guy who seemed to be in charge.
If he was surprised to see a stranger standing in front of him, he didn’t let on. I guess the need for volunteers trumped curiosity. He nodded in the direction of another line a little farther down the street that I hadn’t seen.

“We could use folks over there. That part of the levee is beginning to give way. Just get on the line and begin passing bags.”

I waded in. Immediately the freezing water reached above my ankles making my feet numb. I cursed not bringing my insulated boots from the motel room.

My world quickly focused on three things; taking the ten-pound sandbags from the guy behind me, swiveling, and passing it to the woman in front.

“My name’s Denise,” the woman said, accepting my sandbag.

“Rob,” I said. I wanted to be polite and hold out my hand but another sandbag poked me in the small of my back.

Denise seemed pretty, but amid the rain and grit and mud it was hard to tell. Her complexion was red from the wind. She had blue eyes and her hair, what little peeked out from her kerchief, was almost iridescent red. To me, she looked like the epitome of the Scotch-Irish folks who I read had settled this area generations ago.

“You’re not from around here,” she said. I noticed there was an odd lilt to her speech. I tried to pin down where I had heard it before. Then I remembered. Every character in the movie Fargo had spoken like that.

“No, I’m checking the place out,” I said. “My company wants to transfer me.”

“From where?”
“Los Angeles,”

She whistled. “Jesus. Talk about culture shock. Well, welcome to North Dakota. I guess if this weather doesn’t turn you off to this place you’ll be a flatlander for sure.”

We kept passing bags from hand to hand. Ten pounds might not sound like much but sand is dead weight. Besides, I figured I was passing about five bags per minute and that equaled 3000 pounds in a single hour.

I don’t know how long we kept at it. Two hours, maybe three. All I can tell you is that pushing paper in the office never trained me for this kind of exertion. I cursed myself for not exercising more. Okay, for not exercising at all. My back was screaming in revolt and my arms felt ready to rip away from my chest.

Finally, some people came from across the street to relieve us. I was ready to hug them and dig into my wallet for $10 tips but thought better of it.

“Free at last,” Denise said.

She looked at me and laughed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look like crap.” I looked down and saw that my coat, pants and shoes were covered with mud.

“Yeah, I’m afraid I have to agree with you. Not a great way to make a first impression.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not every stranger passing through that would climb out of his car and get down and dirty with total strangers to help save their town. When folks figure out who you are they’re going to think you’re a hero. You might even get a statue in front of the post office.

I laughed. “Fat chance. Besides I needed the exercise.”

“Still,” she said, “let me buy you breakfast and a cup of coffee.”

I looked at her. Her pretty face was tan, like she had spent the summer in the sun. I wondered if she was a farmer. “Breakfast?” I said.“Where? I heard everything was closed.”

She pointed across the street to a café. “It is except to the locals working on the sandbagging lines. Roberta’s is open, and she’s serving free coffee and half-priced meals. Disaster like this hits, and everybody does their part.”

We entered the café. Almost all of the tables were filled with townspeople as dirty and gritty as us. Evidently, they were taking a break before returning to the levee work. We ordered coffee at the counter and found a table and two chairs at the rear of the restaurant.

Denise took her coffee black. I looked around for some ‘Sweet and Low’ but there was only the tall, glass sugar canister with the little metal flap where you pour a stream from the top. I remembered the packets of artificial sweetener in my jacket pocket that I had pilfered from the Starbuck at the Los Angeles Airport. I took one out and emptied in my cup.

Denise looked at me quizzically. “You come prepared. Is that a California thing?”

I tasted my coffee. “No, more like a neurotic thing. I hate to be caught short.”

We drank our coffee, talked, and ordered a second cup, I was impressed that refills were free. Try that in Los Angeles. I told her about the time I had run up a $25 iced-tea bill in a restaurant thinking that there were no charge for refills. She thought that was hilarious.

Denise asked what I was doing in North Dakota near the onset of winter and I told her about the job transfer. She ordered a third cup of coffee. I was nearly floating away on the two I had already put away.

After awhile, she said she had to get back to work on the sandbags. I apologized but told her that I needed to return to the motel change and check in at work.

She drained her cup and got up. “So what are you going to do, move out here in the middle of nowhere, or stay in California and take your chances? You’ve probably guessed it’s going to be total culture shock for you if you move out here.”

I looked at my half-finished up and then up at her. Standing there in her mud- splattered, loose fitting workpants, so many layers of sweatshirts that I couldn’t tell if she was small or big breasted, and work boots that extended halfway up her calves, she was nothing like any of the well-heeled, hair-in place, lipstick and maybe-botoxed-women back in L.A. In short, I liked her.

“I’m not really sure,” I said finally. “I have to check out the job, living arrangements, everything. Then there’s my ex-wife and kids back in California, although to tell you the truth, I really don’t have much of a relationship with any of them.

“But I agree with you on one thing. If I’m going to move out here, I better be sure because it’s going to be one hell of an adjustment.”

Denise searched in her pockets but came up empty. “You have anything to write with?”

I reached again into my jacket and took out a matchbook from a L.A. Chinese take-out place and a pen I lifted from my credit union. I handed both of them to her.

She ripped out the matches and wrote her phone number on the inside and handed me the book. “Tell you what; here’s my number. You make up your mind you want to come here and I’ll give you the ten -minute grand tour.”

She gazed at my coat. "You have anything else stashed in there, like a coffee pot and silverware?”

I laughed and put her telephone number carefully in my wallet. I knew I wanted to see her again.

“I hate to run out or be unprepared,” I said, trying to explain to her my philosophy of life.

“After all, you never know.”

Richard Luftig is a professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi-finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines including Bloodroot, Front Porch Review,  Silkscreen Literary Review, and Pulse literary Magazine. He is a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Donal Mahoney: Life and Death at St. Pancratius

Mass begins at 6 a.m. every day at St. Pancratius. Despite the early hour, and no matter the weather, elderly parishioners come out of their little bungalows in the dark to walk to Mass. Some have canes, others have walkers, and there's one man who pushes his wife in a wheelchair. For the most part, they move in silence down the surrounding streets and converge on the big Gothic church in small installments.
Patrolling the neighborhood at the end of his night owl shift, Officer Thomas Gursky likes to watch the old-timers make their way to church. Having worked that shift for 15 years, he wants to make certain they make it to the church. But every few years, no matter how vigilant he is, one of them falls.
One morning, just a few winters ago, after a bad storm, there was "black ice" on the sidewalks, invisible even to a young pair of eyes. One of the parishioners fell, and it was Officer Gursky who rushed him to the hospital. The elderly man had a new hip installed and lived another six months. He was buried from St. Pancratius. Just about everyone in the tiny parish turned out for the funeral.
Every so often, Officer Gursky reminds his wife about this parade of ghosts “in dress rehearsal” that he sees every morning. He tells her that if the two of them live long enough, they will one day, God willing, be part of that parade. Mrs. Gursky admits that one day God may be willing but she certainly hopes He’s not in a hurry.
At least an hour before Mass, Deacon Emeritus Patrick Rafferty is the first to arrive at St. Pancratius. He unlocks the big front door, turns on the lights, and then settles in the front pew, usually with a sigh. Unless disturbed by an unexpected sound, he sits there like a mannequin, his lips moving in silent prayer, and stares at the tabernacle until the priest comes onto the altar and Mass begins. 
Rafferty didn’t always occupy the front pew alone. His wife, ever attentive to his needs, used to sit next to him. But one Sunday afternoon, while taking a nap, she died of a cause not yet disclosed. If Deacon Rafferty remains true to himself, the cause may never be disclosed. "It's nobody's business," he told one inquiring parishioner. "She should still be alive. I'm the one with all the ailments."
A man of few words, except when miffed, Rafferty has been a widower now for almost 10 years. He still sings louder than anyone at the High Mass every Sunday at noon. Otherwise he keeps to himself, although he keeps an eye out for any situation that requires his attention. Once a deacon, always a deacon, Rafferty likes to remind anyone who will listen. He’s ever watchful, he says, because you want to stifle a ruction before it starts. But there is no record of any ruction ever disturbing a Mass at St. Pancratius in the last 50 years, according to the oldest parishioner who has been a regular there for all that time.
Each morning, after Rafferty has settled in his pew, two ancient nuns, crisp in the veil and wimple of their order, arrive at the church. They always walk in a few yards apart, never together. Each takes a different side aisle to reach a pew distant from the other and at least ten pews to the rear of Rafferty. After Mass, the nuns leave as they arrived, apart, never with each other.
One of the nuns, Sister Mary Margaret, then walks west to her small apartment while the other nun, Sister Mary Magdalene, walks east to hers. On the way, Sister Mary Margaret passes the empty convent where both of them once lived for years with other nuns. And Sister Mary Magdalene passes the empty school where twenty nuns, most of them now deceased, taught hundreds of children for many decades.
That was during the Golden Age at St. Pancratius, when families were many and children plentiful. It was an era that seemed to slip away slowly, beginning in the Seventies, after the demise of the Latin Mass and the introduction of the Liturgy in the vernacular.
Another daily worshipper is the elegant widow who makes it to the church just before Mass begins. She is always the last to arrive. In contrast with those who make it to church on canes and walkers, the widow is never early. Just before the priest comes out to start the Mass, Mrs. Brannigan sails like a swan down the center aisle, dressed as if every day were Sunday.
Some say she began to dress that way after Rafferty was widowed. But Rafferty has never shown any interest in Mrs. Brannigan, comely as she might be to some of the other widowers in attendance. In fact, legend has it, that Rafferty told one of the nuns after Mass one day that “a little powder and a little paint make the ladies what they ain’t.”
Mrs. Brannigan is also a departure from the norm in her seat selection. Every morning she sits in a different pew, a maneuver not understood by the other worshippers who always sit in the same pew.
Without exception, the regulars have been sitting in the same pew—i.e., their own pew--every day for years. And the pews they sit in are spread all over the cavernous church, making it possible for everyone to find an island of their own that is perfect for contemplative isolation. Even after one of them dies, the deceased’s pew is left vacant out of respect for his or her memory. At its best, and possibly at its worst, this is what some wag once called Catholic fellowship, markedly different from Baptist fellowship celebrated every Sunday in the church down the street. Even the Unitarians, a half a mile away, are said to be a little louder.
Mrs. Brannigan is perhaps the best example of this kind of Catholic fellowship. Once she has settled into her pew du jour, she kneels, bows her head and prays devoutly, oblivious to all around her. After Mass, she leaves immediately, sailing back up the aisle, with her head down and with her pocket book tucked to her side. No one would ever be able to steal that purse. She remembers quite well the tall young man who one Saturday at the mall tried to do just that. She screamed and finally he let go of the purse and ran off, never to be seen again. Mrs. Brannigan would recognize his sneer in a minute if she ever saw him again. She even bought a cell phone to call the police in case he turned up. A couple of other parishioners carry a whistle in case they encounter a similar attack but they have never had to use it.
Mrs. Brannigan is also unusual in that during Mass she receives the Holy Eucharist on the tongue. This is the way the Eucharist used to be received by all Roman Catholics decades ago, back when the Mass was said in Latin. Today, however, almost everyone receives the Eucharist in hands that are cupped like a saucer. Then the communicants place the Host on their tongue, make the Sign of the Cross facing the altar and return to their pews. Most do this with great reverence. A few, however, pop the host in their mouth like popcorn.
Rafferty noticed the popcorn syndrome years ago and mentioned it to his pastor at the time. They both agreed there was probably no delicate way to address the issue since the "popcorn" communicants probably had no idea of how irreverent they appeared to be in receiving the Sacrament in this manner. This would be just another "reform" that would have to be made over time in response to a change in the Mass made after Vatican Council II.
The older folks, of course, remember the Latin Mass well, especially Deacon Rafferty, because when the Latin Mass was said in every Catholic Church in the western world, there were no laymen ordained as deacons. Lay deacons had no role on the altar during the Latin liturgy.
Back then there was also a surplus of priests, which is not the case now, as Rafferty likes to point out. In fact, he says, that’s why there are so many rumors that Rome may soon begin to ordain deacons as priests. This would be a major change since most deacons are married men at the time of ordination even though they cannot remarry if the wife dies. Some women, too, have begun to lobby for ordination to the priesthood as well as to the diaconate but no woman with that notion has surfaced so far at St. Pancratius.
In the old days, a priest would say the Latin Mass alone, assisted by an altar boy or two who would bring the cruets of wine and water to the altar prior to the Offertory. An altar boy would also ring the bells at the Consecration. Otherwise, the priest could--and would--say the Mass without assistance.
Back then, no one called the priest celebrating the Mass the “presider,” as he is called now in many parishes today. And there were, of course, no altar girls either, in the Latin Mass. Altar girls were introduced as another of the changes that surfaced after the Vatican Council.
During the era of the Latin Mass, Rafferty had been an usher at St. Pancratius. In fact, for many years he had been the Head Usher, which was pretty much the top job that any layman could have aspired to in a Catholic Church during those days.
As Head Usher, Rafferty was tasked with commingling the collections taken up by his six assistant ushers after the three crowded Sunday Masses. Now there are only two Sunday Masses but attendance at both would suggest that St. Pancratius could easily get by with one and suffer no overcrowding, except perhaps at Christmas and Easter when the prodigals come back for the holiday.
In the past, the Latin Masses drew large crowds and the collections were indeed hefty, according to Rafferty. It was he who had to stay after the final Mass to count all the money and then take it in a big canvas bag over to the rectory. "Brinks" is what some of the younger men had called him. Sometimes he didn’t get home until 3 p.m., an inconvenience at times for his wife, Opal. Both of them agreed, however, that as Head Usher, Rafferty was obliged to make the sacrifice and take as much time as necessary to count the money accurately. She knew that words always came easily to her husband but numbers required him to concentrate.
To mollify Opal, Rafferty would usually take her to dinner every Sunday evening. They would go to Priscilla’s Buffet, where the roast chicken and green beans seemed to pacify her for the time she had spent at home without her husband. For such a tiny woman, Rafferty said Opal had been truly a terror with a knife and fork. She left nothing on her plate, and she sometimes took a roll home in her purse, a practice not countenanced by the restaurant but not an infraction of sufficient magnitude to fall under the aegis of serious sin.
These days, however, Rafferty, the widower, sits alone in the front pew at St. Pancratius seven days a week. Every morning, Father O’Brien, the eighth pastor Rafferty has known, says the Mass in English. In many churches today, however, it is no longer called the Mass. Instead, some call it the Liturgy, another term that became popular after the reforms of the Vatican Council.
During the Latin era, the Mass was always called the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the term most of the elders at St. Pancratius still use today because they know that without the re-presentation of the Sacrifice on Calvary that occurs during every Mass, there would be no Holy Eucharist. The bread and the wine can be consecrated only during the Sacrifice of the Mass and at no other time. It’s not like blessing a fresh batch of Holy Water, which can be done at any hour, even by a priest in a hurry to make a sick call.
Today, Rafferty points out, there seems to be far less demand for Holy Water among the laity, another reaction, he says, to the reforms of Vatican Council II. In the old days, ladies would sometimes bring empty, well-washed cough syrup bottles to take holy water home to fill the small fonts they had mounted on door jambs. Children were encouraged to dip their fingers in a font and make the Sign of the Cross before going to school or out to play. It was simply another form of prayer.
A humble and pious man, Father O’Brien is aware that he is young enough to be the son, even the grandson, of many in his pews. He has held up well since his illness, thanks to a second stent installed by a cardiologist from India, a gentle man with many colorful turbans, "a Sikh who ministers to the sick," as Father O’Brien affectionately likes to call him. Many in the pews know Dr. Singh themselves. Some, in fact, are indebted to his pacemakers, which last a long time and are said to be worth the money.  
Despite his heart condition, and a few other ailments unusual in a man so young, Father O’Brien always offers a daily homily superior, his parishioners say, to any of the homilies offered in other nearby Catholic churches. The man can certainly preach. He has the fervor of a Baptist minister and the vocabulary of an Anglican, quite a combination. 
After Mass, however, Father O’Brien doesn't hobnob with the congregants at the back of the church as is the custom in many Catholic churches today. Instead, he goes straight back to the rectory through the side door, always in a hurry to make breakfast for his bed-ridden mother who was disabled by a stroke shortly after Father O’Brien was ordained. She had been able to attend his ordination with her husband but then he passed away a year later. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t let its victims linger.
The pastor’s mother hasn’t been seen in years and she is still missed at the Wednesday gathering of the parish quilters. She was always good fun and she always brought a tasty pastry to share. Her Hot Cross buns were famous among the ladies and infamous among some husbands to whom the leftovers were distributed at supper. Rafferty certainly didn’t miss those buns. In fact, whenever he had to eat one he’d mention silently to God that he was eating it in reparation for his sins and for the conversion of Russia. And also to keep Opal quiet.
Caring for his disabled mother, rather than placing her in a home, endeared Father O’Brien to his congregation. Many of them have a number of adult children, most of whom are very busy, some in other cities, earning a good living. They are seldom heard from except at Christmas and sometimes at Thanksgiving. They also call home if a promotion or layoff occurs. Their parents have spent considerable money to put them through many years of Catholic education and now the young people are reaping the dividends, financially if not always spiritually, some of their parents maintain. 
In quieter moments, usually at night when the elderly congregants are at home reading the Bible or watching something decent on TV, they sometimes reflect on the possibility that one day Father O’Brien will be saying their funeral Mass as he has already done for so many of their friends. But, as the pastor himself once pointed out during a homily, his parishioners might some day have the opportunity to attend his funeral Mass. If that were ever to be the case, he has said that he wants no flowers but if anyone is moved to do so, donations could be made in his name to the parish food pantry.
After all, as Father O’Brien likes to make clear, a stent is just a stent and it is made by man and not God, a fact that tempers his confidence in the two stents he relies on. He also likes to mention during homilies that as good as God is, he doesn’t make any pacemakers, either—which Father O'Brien maintains is another good reason to frequent the Sacrament of Penance often. One needs to be ready to die at any time, free of any serious sin on one's soul, because the Lord Jesus Christ oversees the final destination of every soul right after death. There's no mulligan or second chance to do better. An unconfessed mortal sin is a one-way ticket to Hell, plain and simple, Father O'Brien says. That is one reality the reforms of the Vatican Council didn't change, he likes to emphasize.
Since the reforms of the Vatican Council were put in place, however, it appears that fewer Catholics are committing serious sins, Father O’Brien says. The evidence for this, he says, occurs every Saturday afternoon when the lines for going to confession are very short except during Holy Week and just before Christmas. Yet every Sunday at Mass just about everyone receives the Holy Eucharist, something not to be done if one has a serious sin on one’s soul. After all, Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, a factor that distinguishes Catholicism from other Christian faiths in which Holy Communion is a symbol, usually consisting of bread cubes and grape juice.
Shortly after the homily in which Father O’Brien mentioned that he might die in advance of some of his elderly parishioners, Deacon Emeritus Rafferty and his wife decided to place a small wager, just between the two of them. They agreed to it on a Sunday night when they were both in a good mood after a nice meal at Priscilla’s Buffet. Rafferty suggested the bet, all in good humor, right after they had watched another rerun of the Lawrence Welk Show. He was surprised when Opal, not a woman to gamble on anything, took him up on it.
The bet had to do with who would die first--one of them or Father O’Brien. The deacon had won the bet, of course, since Opal had died first. But every day since he buried her he has realized anew that he will never collect on that wager. Is it any wonder, then, that every morning at Mass he asks God in his prayers to remind Opal that when he gets to heaven, she owes him a chicken dinner.
Rafferty would certainly like to make the same bet with Father O’Brien, as to which one of them will die first, but he doubts the priest would go for it. He doesn't drink or smoke and he probably doesn't gamble, even when the stakes are paltry. It makes no difference, though, since the winner of such a bet would never be able to collect on it, either.
It is this kind of unfairness in the world that has always reinforced Rafferty’s belief in heaven. But even if chicken is served in heaven, he doubts that it would rival the version served at Priscilla's Buffet. At the moment, however, he realizes that only Opal knows whose chicken dinner is better, having by now had ample samplings of both. After he dies--and provided he passes muster and makes it to Heaven--Rafferty plans to take Opal by the arm and ask her where the dining hall is. He won't have any money but that should be no problem. For years now it's been Opal's turn to buy. 

Donal Mahoney has had poetry and fiction published in The Camel Saloon and in other publications in the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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