Father Mike had a problem, the kind that wasn’t covered in the Bible or grandiloquently authoritative bulletins from Rome. Chad Evans, eldest son of the congregation’s most-respected (and, coincidentally, wealthiest) family, wouldn’t accept that he, Chad Evans, was special.
Anyone with eyes in his head could see that the boy was a remarkable creature. Really, most remarkable. But how to tell him? How to make him understand?
Chad, 11, was an average student and an average athlete and had more or less the average number of friends and hobbies and after-school activities. He had slightly more than average number of worldly possessions, but Father Mike didn’t think that counted. He was, on most accounts, perfectly average.
But of all the boys who attended St. Eugene’s day school, where Father Mike had been the headmaster and chief prelate for 26 years, Chad was easily the most handsome. Thick brown curls, green eyes, skin like vanilla custard. Certain people who had not dedicated their life to the Lord would surely say Chad Evans was beautiful, a beautiful, beautiful boy. So beautiful you could just eat him.
Not that Father Mike felt thusly. Father Mike didn’t allow himself such opinions. That was the first step toward wickedness, he knew. One wasn’t frequently mentioned in the Catholic press as a potential Bishop if one had a reputation for diddling, or a reputation for allowing thoughts of diddling. So one didn’t let oneself get caught up in judging a boy’s comeliness versus all the other lads in their blue oxford shirts and neatly pressed wool pants. One observed and made no choices. That was the best thing for everyone.
“Father Mike,” Chad implored, frowning ever so cutely, “why am I special? My mom says I’m special and my dad does too, sometimes. But why?”
They were in a corner of the playground, where Father Mike took it upon himself to supervise personally the games of basketball and chase, making sure nothing got out of hand. So many boys of a certain age playing contact sports; tempers could sometimes flare, and Father Mike’s observant presence, standing with his arms crossed behind his back, he felt, helped keep a lid on the outbursts.
“Chad, as I’ve told all the young gentlemen from time to time, not just you, you’re special because God made you.” Father Mike smiled reassuringly, and then he looked away, careful not to stare.
“But if God made all of us, then aren’t we all special?” Chad asked.
“Yes, we are, because we’re all God’s children. All of God’s children are special. Every single one of us. His only son died for our sins so that we could be special.”
“So even if you’re just like everyone else you’re special?” Chad was genuinely perplexed and troubled. Father Mike’s impulse, which he couldn’t possibly follow, not with all the trouble lately, was to hug the boy, to hold him close and whisper to him that oh, yes, he was so very special, and that’s how God wanted him to be.
“But you’re not like everyone else, Chad. You’re an individual, with your own personality and your own character. Nobody else likes exactly the same colors as you, or the same rock and roll bands. Nobody else tastes like you, has the same tastes as you. Or looks like you. Or has the special relationship with God you have.” Father Mike felt a bead of perspiration welling on his upper lip. It was humid in Milwaukee this time of year.
Chad frowned and put his hands on his slender hips. “But if everyone is special and I’m special too, then we’re all special equally?”
“Well, yes. In God’s eyes we are.”
“Is everything special in God’s eyes?”
“All that he makes he loves,” Father Mike said, calmly, focussing on a spot just above Chad’s head.
“Birds? Dogs? Fishes?”
“Everything. That’s right.”
“So even though a whole school of fishes is, like, identical, to God they’re all special?”
Father Mike looked down and nodded.
“Cool,” Chad said, scrunching his nose. “I guess.”
“You’re special, young man. God thinks so, and so do your parents, and so do I.” Father Mike hoped it didn’t come out sounding wrong.
“I’m just one of the fishes,” Chad said softly. “But that’s cool.”
“Well. . .” Father Mike felt an urge to smoke, to draw a hot gulp of spicy tobacco air into his throat. This was a test, no doubt. A small trial, one of millions he’d endured and passed since he took up the priesthood 28 years ago, straight out of high school.
Joining the ministry was an easy choice. He believed in God absolutely; it was difficult not to, being raised in a staunchly Irish-Catholic family with two older sisters and an older brother constantly explaining their behavior through the prism of God’s will. Michael O’Connor grew up knowing his Lord most certainly existed, but that He allowed older brothers and sisters to administer far more physical punishment than seemed humane and necessary.
Jesus Christ was a benevolent, kindly force, a gentle counterbalance to Mike’s dad, John, who blamed his business failings on Jews and gooks, and Mike’s mother, Maureen, whose aggressive ugliness – long mole-hairs; teeth yellowed from chain-smoking; daytime plastic hair curlers – made mealtimes in the O’Connor home a tense battle between forced civility and shouted curses. Michael O’Connor grew up distrusting food, and all other sensual pleasures. Any gathering at a dinner table made him anxious, and even eating in private was for him an unpleasant task that he preferred to finish as quickly as possible.
Before bed each night, young Michael would kneel before his mattress and clasp his hands in prayer. It was his favorite moment of the day. A calmness enveloped him when he closed his eyes and tried to picture God and not Nancy Rosen, one of the Jews from down the street who he found awfully nice, despite dad’s dire warnings about people of her ilk. He knew, if only for a few minutes, while he talked with God he was safe, particularly from his brother Brian’s stinging punches to his shoulders. God protected little Mike O’Connor from cruelty, and he loved God more than he could adequately express. Michael O’Connor grew up trusting God to shepherd him through life’s dangers, and with each proof of Jesus Christ’s beneficence, he became further convinced that what most of the unsaved masses considered “miracles” were, in fact, examples of God simply taking proper care of those who honored his name in their head and in their heart.
Michael O’Connor was also a serial masturbator in his youth, and with each stroke of his penis, each messy ejaculation, he considered himself further debased, farther removed from the kingdom of heaven. Yet he couldn’t stop himself. From age 10 on, until he joined St. Patrick’s seminary, at 18, Michael did vile injury to his soul twice and three times a day, sometimes more. Everything was fodder for his fantasies: television commercials; supermarket employees; his sisters. Especially his sisters. He imagined them in unspeakable poses, accepting ghastly overtures, and even sometimes liking it.
He could bring himself to orgasm in half-a-minute or less. He would collect the evidence of his depravity in toilet paper and flush it away, before his mother – or, God forbid, his sisters – discovered what he did in his bedroom when no one was looking. He fondled himself so frequently he was afraid he might produce calluses or scabs upon his wounded member.
Michael O’Connor loved his Lord, and he was attracted to the opportunity to bring comfort and meaning to others. But he joined the priesthood primarily to cure himself of his sexual illness.
He believed that immersing himself into scripture would deliver him from temptation, that the unimpeachable goodness of Jesus Christ would conquer the absolute badness of venal desires.
This was his plan.
And it worked. His thoughts, his despicable imaginings, never left completely, of course. But whenever Michael O’Connor felt himself giving in to vile urges, he concentrated on his God’s pure, cleansing love. He concentrated on Jesus Christ’s eternal goodness. And eventually everything that was bad and ugly and horrible in the world, like breasts and buttocks and tongues licking lips, would fade away in the bright glow of the Lord’s guiding beacon.
By the time Father Mike had been appointed to St. Eugene’s, his sickness had been in complete remission for more than 20 years. And it remained so until he met an astonishingly beautiful 5th-grader, an agent of Satan named Chadwick Jeremy Evans.