Actually, I think posted the last one, “Why Do You Hoard? Why Do You Squander?” on a Thursday night, but never mind. Here’s another short story I wrote a long time ago, just after I left Iowa, and revised around 1990. It’s called Lent, and in case you’ve ever had any doubt I was raised Catholic, you won’t after reading this one.
“I'm not late." Mullahay meant it as an apology. It came out as a denial. And a lie. The time was well after eight. If the Celtics hadn't been playing the Bulls away he'd have missed the tip-off by half an hour.
"Not at all, Bill." Dan Conklin wouldn't have said so even if he'd come in at midnight.
The children in the parish liked it when Father Dan policed the door at the early masses. He didn't consider anyone late until after the gospel. The monsignor, on the other hand, started scowling at two minutes to, and when he was watching you hurried to your seat without stopping to get a bulletin or look around to see which of your friends was there. You skimmed the holy water and finished the sign of the cross on the run, and you'd better remember to mention it in the confessional on Saturday too."They're not here yet?" Mullahay asked hopefully.
"They just stepped around, the corner."
"Oh." The news dejected Mullahay even further. He hated always being the last to arrive, because the reason for his chronic tardiness was not flattering to himself. That in addition to a law practice that did not pay he had to work extra hours this time of year doing his clients' tax returns did not advertise him as the kind of successful attorney he had planned to be at forty
Bill Mullahay was short and spare with a square, angry jaw and a comb-baiting lock of black hair across his forehead. Once upon a time he hadn't been a bad looking guy. But lately he appeared wrinkled, shrunken, and pale. He frowned more than was attractive, too, and glared, locking eyes with perfect strangers in a belligerent way. He did that to compensate for a permanent state of contrition he had worried himself into, apparently feeling he had to search out any eyes that might accuse him and stare them down first. He didn't like it, either, that Mike and Brian Kelleher had already gone to the store to get the night's supplies. They would not let him kick in his fair share when they got back, and it would be humiliating, arguing with them, trying to force them to take a ten spot, with both sides knowing how grateful and relieved he'd be when Brian inevitably stuffed the money back into Bill's breast pocket. "Next time," Brian would say, with too many next times having already come and gone.
And it would be just as crushing to sit quiet and not offer to kick in at all. He thought of dashing down to the Seven-Eleven and beating the Kellehers to the counter to push his money at the clerk before Brian or Mike could stop him. "Maybe I'll run up, see if they need a hand. Remind them to get things, like the dip, they never remember to get dip."
"They left twenty minutes ago, must be on their way back by now. Relax, Bill, take a load off," Father Conklin said, and he turned Mullahay by the shoulders toward the stairs to the rectory basement.
As a gift for his golden anniversary in the priesthood, the monsignor had received a twenty-five-inch color television complete with cable hook-up from the Holy Name Society. Some of the men in the parish had donated their time to turn a corner of the basement into a combination office and den, putting up panel walls, a dropped ceiling, and track lights, and laying a shag carpet. The monsignor's battered desk dominated the room at one end and the TV governed the other. Between those promontories was a short couch, a rickety coffee table, and an overstuffed arm chair with faded upholstery and lace doilies on the arms and headrest. Over the couch was a painting of the Sacred Heart; over the TV hung the crucifix. In the corner behind the desk was a small shrine to the Blessed Virgin. And on the desk in a silver-plated frame was an autographed picture of Tony Conigliaro and his brother Billy, who was never as good as Tony anyway but must have hurt himself at the plate even more, pressing to make up for things after Tony got beaned.
Every Tuesday night until he got sick, the monsignor had gathered here with the men in the parish he was closest to, if not exactly friends with. All the old man's friends were dead or retired to warmer climates. The men he watched the ball games with were all at least thirty-five years younger than him, but they'd all been altar boys for him during in the late 60s and 70s and he took their companionship for granted and ordered them around like they were still passing him the water and the wine.