The brandy had been absolutely essential. It always was on Sunday nights, when Sister Ignatius took it upon herself to cook and serve Father Newberry a “proper meal.” In this part of Wisconsin, that usually translated to hamburger cooked in canned cream soup.
The shape varied with the good sister’s whims-sometimes meatballs, sometimes meat loaf, and on one memorable occasion, rolled tubes that looked disturbingly like a casserole of severed penises-but the basic ingredients and the resulting indigestion were always the same.
Father Newberry had learned long ago that antacids couldn’t touch it. Only the brandy helped, blessing him with a quick sleep where he passed the time in happy oblivion while his stomach fought the demons of Sister Ignatius’s kindness.
On this particular Sunday night the demons had been multiple. In some sort of aspiring gourmet fit the sister had baked meat loaf in God only knew how many different kinds of canned soups. When he’d asked her to name the ingredients of this daring culinary experiment, she’d tittered like a schoolgirl and locked her lips with an imaginary key.
“Ah, a secret recipe.” He had smiled at her rosy face, greatly fearing that clam chowder lurked somewhere in the ocean of oily liquid in which the meat loaf had drowned.
And so it was that the juice glass had been filled with brandy for an unprecedented second time, and Father Newberry had fallen asleep in the recliner facing the television. When he next opened his eyes, the screen was a snowfield of jittery flakes hissing static, and the clock face read five a.m.
When he went to turn off the lamp by the window, he saw the frosty car in the church lot and recognized it immediately. It was a Ford Falcon of indeterminate age, dying slowly of the cancerous rust that devoured old cars in a state that salted roads as liberally as they salted food.
In a moment of weakness, he wished he could just sneak off to his war bed and pretend he’d never seen it. His only sin was in the wish, however, for he was already moving toward the door, tugging his cardigan close around his abused belly before stepping out into the dark chill of an October morning.
The church was old and almost Protestant in its plainness, for these rural Wisconsin Catholics eyed all things magnificent with deep suspicion. The Blessed Virgin wore the gleam of plastic and bore an unsaintly resemblance to the mannequin in the window of Frieda’s House of Fashion on Main Street, and the only stained glass window was oddly placed on the north side, where the sun could never set it afire with brilliant color that might offend.
A dour place in a dour parish in a dour state, thought Father Newberry, missing the California of his youth, nearly forty years gone now, speculating again that all bad priests were sent to Wisconsin.
John and Mary Kleinfeldt were kneeling in a middle pew, heads resting on folded hands, utterly still in a devotion the Father had always though almost obsessive. It was not unusual for the aging couple to visit the church during off hours-sometimes he thought they preferred solitude to the company of fellow parishioners they believed corrupt with sin. But to the best of his knowledge, they had never come so early.
It did not bode well for a rapid return to the cozy rectory, and Father Newberry was loath to ask what trouble had brought them here this time, since he already knew the answer.
He sighed and moved slowly down the aisle, reluctantly propelled by a sense of duty and a good heart. “Good morning, John. Good morning, Mary,” he would say. “What trouble you today?” And then they would tell him they had discovered yet another homosexual in his congregation-a man whose lashes were too long or a woman whose voice was too deep, for this was proof enough for them.
It wasn’t simply homophobia; it was a zealous crusade against what they called the “abhorrent, unnatural offense to God’s eye,” and listening to their self-righteous accusations always left him feeling sad and somehow soiled.
Please let it be something else this time, Lord, he prayed as he drew near the middle pew. I have after all, already endured the penance of good Sister Ignatius’s meat loaf.
And indeed it was something else. What was troubling John and Mary Kleinfeldt this morning was not the suspected presence of homosexuals in the parish, but the indisputable presence of small, tidy bullet holes in the backs of their skulls.