When he was younger, when everyone still called him Father Mike, he could memorize pages of text at a time. Not just liturgical stuff, either. Sure, that too. But not only Scripture. Anything. Grocery lists, American presidents, the starting lineups and batting orders of both teams in the 1998 World Series (and each player’s batting average, regular and post-season). His fellow seminarians nicknamed him the Sponge.
Most of his classmates thought Mike O’Connor had a photographic memory. He didn’t. He had techniques, devices. He replaced numbers with images – often quite naughty ones – and objects with stories (also quite naughty). In this way he was able to transform forgettable facts into lascivious fantasies that captured and held his attention more effectively than if he inanely repeated digits or spoke verses out loud.
His extraordinary memory paid off – literally. While on vacation in Southern California, where he and three other colleagues from St. Eugene’s had bought a package holiday to Disneyland, Father Mike, goaded by his companions, auditioned for a game show in Hollywood called “Concentration.” It involved memorizing matching pairs on a square grid, which, to Mike O’Connor, seemed comically simple. The producers selected him for a taping, since a man in a uniform, especially a priest’s habit, made good television. Mike felt guilty about winning, guilty enough that he prayed on it and consulted the Bishop, who said it was OK. Still, Mike felt as though he were playing with an unfair advantage over the other contestants, which, in a way, he was.
The show’s host, a handsome fellow with a commanding voice, made jokes about “divine intervention” and “having a little help from the big guy upstairs,” but Mike O’Connor won fair and square, earning $1,244 (after taxes) and a new Buick, which he drove for the next nine years.
Since the troubles, though, his memory was shot.
All morning, without a radio or TV to distract him, Mike O’Connor sat in the only chair in his room, a sparse, cell-like dormitory in the Hollywood Hostel, on the Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, above a wig shop. He stared. He mumbled. He told himself what ought to have been unforgettable stories. But it was no use: He couldn’t memorize a single one of the damned parables, let alone all six!
It wasn’t enough to merely know and understand the lessons. That much was expected of all new members. To be ordained, to be a leader, you had to be able to recite. From memory.
The idea, Mr. Teacher had said, was to “illustrate devotion by devoting illustriously” – or something like that. Mike couldn’t remember his exact words, either. But the point, the idea, he got: You had to distinguish yourself; you had to be more serious, more deeply committed than the average person. Why else would anyone look up to you?
Dismayed, Mike glanced away from his cheat sheet, smudged with fingerprints and food-stains. Outside his window – he had one, just as he had a single chair – Mike could see the Scientologists across the street setting up for the day, arranging their books and pamphlets and their signs advertising “Free Personality Tests,” one of which he himself had undergone shortly after arriving in Hollywood, ten days previous. The evaluation, according to the perky girl who administered the questionnaire, was “pretty dramatic.” Based on the grading scale, she said he seemed to be “deeply discontented.”
O’Connor had nodded and said nothing, although the phrase Tell me something I don’t know crossed his mind.
“Dianetics could certainly help you,” she said, smiling. “I’m certain of it.”
“OK,” Mike replied, flatly. He had once thought the same of confession. And support groups. And, later, red wine.
The Scientology girl tried to sell Mike several books that, she promised, would provide a good introduction to L. Ron Hubbard’s revelatory thinking. He bought one – the least expensive, a paperback, only $10 – and grunted something noncommittal about attending a welcome reception (with free cookies and coffee) that evening, down the block, at headquarters.
Walking back to his rooming house, Mike felt momentarily cheered. He wasn’t hopeful. That feeling had left him long ago. But at least, he told himself, there was the chance, the possibility, however slim, that he could begin again. Renewal, and all that. He remembered the day, so long ago, when he was only 15, away on a camping trip in the Dells, that he felt God’s unconditional love for the first time. This wasn’t like that, exactly. But he felt inspired, and he allowed himself to imagine that something good, something healing, might be in his future.
An Asian couple — Japanese? Korean? He could never tell for sure — their heads down, looking at the sidewalk stars, held hands and chattered excitedly. A woman dressed as Marilyn Monroe brushed past him, talking on a cell phone. A bespectacled smallish man (Jewish?) wearing a red-fur jumpsuit and carrying a red-fur Elmo head rode through the boulevard traffic on a bicycle. Handsome young Latino guys in white golf shirts and black sunglasses handed him cards offering discounts on Hollywood star tours. A tall black fellow with the stentorian declamation of a town crier announced, “Free tickets! Free tickets to TV tapings and movie screenings. Free tickets!” and he made his body ripple, like a Slinky.
Here you could be anyone you wanted to be. Nobody cared where you came from, or what you once did.
That’s what Mr. Teacher had said, O’Connor recalled. Or something like that. And at the time it seemed to be true.
Now, with his brain not working right, nothing sticking, Mike O’Connor wasn’t sure. “God damn it!” he yelled, flinging his parables, all six of them, at the wall.
For the briefest moment, the time it takes to assess if one’s dead or alive, Mike felt an overwhelming sense of shame and regret, just as he did when Chad Evans cried for him to stop, and he couldn’t. That debilitating shame stayed with O’Connor for years, forever. The horror he felt at cursing the Lord, the same glorious Lord who had seen him through years of unimaginable darkness and who allowed him to begin anew – this horror was different.
This horror was instantly supplanted with an equally overwhelming sense of giddiness and arousal. The shame was still there, but the more ashamed he felt, the more excited he became. It was like the first time O’Connor had masturbated: He felt so appalled at the pleasure he had given himself that thinking about what a very bad boy he had been only magnified his pleasure.
“God damn it!” O’Connor repeated.
He felt tiny tremors in his nipples, and a tingling in his balls. I really am an agent of Satan, he thought. I’m infected. I’m sick. I’m sick…I’m sick. And every time Mike O’Connor told himself he was unwell, he felt so much better.
Mr. Teacher had said he would. Well, maybe not in those exact words. But Mike remembered the confidence in the man’s voice, in his gaze, in the sureness of his diction. He said something along the lines of, “Once you let go of everything that shames you – be it your lust, your weakness, your selfishness, whatever it is – once you just let it go, crumple it into an insignificant ball of refuse and dispose of it like trash – well, then, you’re ready to live life fully, the way it was meant to be enjoyed. That’s our way of thinking.”
This was a novel approach, O’Connor thought. His beloved Catholic Church, and the Jews, and almost everyone else that he was aware of, made grand promises that would only be fulfilled (and could only be proven or disproven) in death, when complaining at being swindled was no longer possible. If he understood Mr. Teacher properly, this new way, this modern religion, guaranteed results immediately, now, when the believer was still around to see some return on his spiritual investment. He had heard him say it: You’ll feel better.
Mike O’Connor didn’t feel better. What was he to do with his remaining days? What did he have to look forward to? Not being reviled, at least not to his face? Well, that was something. But enough to live for?
People who had never been ardently admired and revered couldn’t understand it. The average person thought being revered meant an easier life, with more doors opened for you, more people eager to help you a fraction as much as you’d helped them. There was that, yes. But what was awe-inspiring, what he missed most, was the way they looked at you. Like dogs when Master returned home. Like women when they spotted George Clooney on a red carpet. Like children; beautiful, trusting, innocent children.
It was like being a kind of God, blasphemous as that sounds. A demi-God, maybe. No wonder so many people wanted to be famous, badly enough to endure soul-killing humiliations. It was intoxicating, thrilling. It was. He could admit it. Being looked at as though you were something special, that you knew a tremendous secret and we’re willing to share – oh, it was marvelous! We should all be celebrities, thought Mike O’Connor, even if it’s in our own little community, our own family, with ourselves.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Not bad. Not bad at all for 48. Almost 49. Like a young Karl Malden, he had been told.
Despite all the heartache, the weight that threatened to crush the breath out of him, Mike O’Connor still had some charisma leftover. A spark.
He retrieved the papers from the floor, got onto his unmade bed, and began again to tell himself stories. He was going to memorize these fucking parables, and God could go damn himself.
Fuck God. He felt his hand instinctively reach for his zipper.
“Hhooooooooooooooooo,” he sighed, staring at the ceiling. No. Not now. Later. As a reward.
He told himself, “Let’s do it,” and sat up.
He squared up his papers, like a deck of playing cards. Each one was tall and thin, the size of an airplane ticket. Folded together properly, Mike thought, they could make a brochure. Actually, come to think of it, if you considered the four-color printing, the glossy paper and the retouched photographs, the literature was rather like a brochure that had come undone. Mike began to match the pages, end-to-end, and crease-to-crease, trying various permutations until his improvisation looked like a proper brochure, or a Star Map, like they sold across the street, a neat rectangle that unfolded incrementally, imparting more information, more secrets, with every turn.
He placed the introduction on top, where it belonged. There was hardly anything written on it. Just:
The 6 Parables Defining
Then the parables themselves, the unintelligible stories that Mike O’Connor thought would make sense as soon as he allowed them to. As Scripture had. As had that book about grieving the woman wrote when her famous novelist husband died. As “Dianetics” had not.
That’s all there was to it. He was going to allow the stories to make him feel better.
The parables weren’t numbered, so Mike arranged them alphabetically: The Chameleon; The Cookie; The Denier; The Dreamer; The Girl; The New Man.
He felt a wave of anxiety ripple through his guts. There was so much to memorize. If the test were today, he told himself, he would fail. He could sort of paraphrase maybe half the tales, but not word for word. As far as reciting? Forget it. No chance.
The only one he possibly had memorized, the only one he could reliably repeat, was The Denier, since it sort of reminded him of his relationship with his mom, albeit under different circumstances.
David came from a good family and had a proper upbringing. He graduated from a prestigious college and had an admirable job. He was married to a beautiful woman who also came from a good family and had a proper upbringing. David was respected by his peers and celebrated by his friends. He was a success.
David was also a drug addict. Marijuana. He smoked it every night, and sometimes during the day, when he thought no one would notice his red eyelids. Although his work never suffered, and he kept up the mortgage payments, David was wracked with guilt about his secret penchant. He felt he had to come clean before he could move on.
One day he visited his mother, the nice lady who had given him a proper upbringing. When she asked, “How are you, David?” he stared at her for a few agonizing seconds.
Then he said, “Mom, I’m a drug addict.”
She said, “No you’re not. Don’t be silly.”
“I am,” he said.
“That’s not funny,” she declared. “You’re married and successful and there doesn’t seem to be a thing wrong with you. You couldn’t possibly be a drug addict.”
“But I am,” said David. “I’m not proud. But that’s who I am. Successful, yes. And everything you say. But also addicted to marijuana. It’s more than a habit. It’s something I feel I need in my life.”
“What are you saying, David?”
“Mom, I’m saying I’m a drug addict!”
She smiled. “No you’re not.”
“No. You’re not.”
THE LESSON: Others will try to define who you are. Only you know the truth.
Mike recited The Denier out loud, to himself. Then he read the parable to check himself. Then he said it again.
He didn’t bother checking himself a second time. He knew he had it.
“My God,” he thought. “It’s true. It’s so true.” For a microscopic moment, Mike O’Connor felt as though all the bad things inside him might well up and explode through his forehead. Because, yes, the parable was right: Only he knew the truth about who he was.
The parable was right.
He looked out the window at lost souls on the sidewalk, all of them thinking they understood. They didn’t. But maybe one day they would, just like him.
The thought cheered him, and Mike returned to his papers with an enthusiasm he hadn’t felt in many years.