I had a few spare moments before confessions that Saturday evening, so I headed for the church loft to play the organ a little. The days were so busy that there wasn't much time to play it anymore, and this was one of those evenings when I felt like I was going to bust with frustration.
As I hurried through the dim old sacristy, Father Vance stopped me.
"Oh, Tom?" he said.
"Yes, Father?" I said, trying to smother my irritation at losing even one minute of music.
Father Vance had just finished his own confessions. They consisted mostly of old ladies in town who felt that the young whippersnapper (me) didn't know anything about souls. Now he was on his slow arthritic way back to the rectory for an hour of meditation before supper.
"Did you see Mrs. Pawling?" he asked me.
"I wasted an hour and a half with her," I said. "She says no."
Father Vance shook his head in amazement. "And all the money she has . . ." With one gnarled hand, he made a mute scrawl of frustration in the air. "I'm surprised you couldn't convince her. She even goes to confession to you."
"Well, she was real nice about it, and all," I said. "But she says she's doing enough for st. Mary's by giving money to the town. As if those trees she's planting are going to raise the GNP of Cottonwood . . ."
"Mrs. Pawling, of all people, talking like a modernist," growled Father Vance.
We both looked sadly up at the ceiling. Right in the sacristy, there were old and new rain stains along several big cracks. The church needed a new roof badly, especially since the earthquake, and we had no idea where to get the money.
Father Vance just raised his bristly silver eyebrows and tightened his lips above his bulldog chin, which always seemed to sprout a silver stubble no matter how often he shaved. He walked creakily out of the sacristy. In the doorway, he turned and shook at me a finger as knotted as an old pine branch. His rheumy blue eyes were hard.
"None of that modernist music, you hear?" he said. "Some nice old hymns, or Palestrina. You disturb the old people with that modernist stuff."
Father Vance knew that playing the organ before confessions was a venial weakness of mine. I had been a priest for two years now, but Father Vance assumed that I still got butterflies in my stomach when Saturday evening rolled around. He was kind enough to tell me that I'd get over it, and that not many priests really liked hearing confessions anyway. The fact was, I liked confessions. Dealing directly with people was the chief joy of the priesthood, and the music always calmed me for the hard work of the next hour.
Jamie Ogilvie, one of the altar boys, stood by the vestment racks listening to this conversation. Jamie was seventeen, and he was one of the few really devout high school boys in town. In fact, he was so devout that he was a pestÃ£always underfoot. "Father Tom, would you like me to take the dirty altar linens to Mrs. Bircher?" "Father Tom, should I sweep out the sacristy?"
I was irritated that he'd overheard Father Vance scolding me, even though it wasn't the first time.
As I turned away from the sacristy door, my eyes and Jamie's met.
"Father, I put the vestment racks back in order," he said.
"That's good, Jamie. Thanks. You run along now."
"Father?" said Jamie. It was me he hung around the most. Any day now he probably was going to tell me he had a vocation.
"What?" I said, every cell in my body yearning to get up to the organ.
"I shouldn't say anything, but Father Vance is awful mean to you."
"When we're old, Jamie, we'll have to hope that people will put up with us," I said, a little shortly, and headed out of the sacristy into the church.
I stomped up to the organ loft, trying to start working off my lousy mood. The old oak stairs creaked ominously under my 170 pounds. Switching on the light, I flicked a glance through the nave below.
The usual regulars were kneeling or sitting in the pews, examining their consciences and waiting for me. There were about fifteen of them, mostly women over forty. One of them was Mrs. Shaw, who was among my favorite parish ladies. A few more would straggle in before the hour was out. Father Vance was always saying he could remember when the church had been half-packed on Saturday nights. Now it was mostly the young people who were missing, partly because there were so few jobs to keep educated kids in Cottonwood, partly because the Church had lost so much credibility with them.
That was why I noticed the dark-haired young man right away. He was kneeling alone in a pew far away from the others. I didn't recognize him from that far awayÃ£his head was bent. I wondered who he was.
The Gothic brick church was as stately and as creaky as its old pastor. It had been built in 1889, the year that Montana became a state. Many of the bricklayers had been devout half-blood mÃˆtis who built the little settlement on the river that became Cottonwood. Later on, some of them left Cottonwood to rejoin that lost tribe with neither American nor Canadian citizenship. They left behind the church, a monument to their confused identity, their faith and their loving workmanship.
In the last years of the nineteenth century, white man's livestock money and goldmining wealth had put in the church's magnificent stained glass windows, and its altar of imported Italian marble, and its carved pews of good Victorian yellow oak. A little-known Montana painter, Frederick Sommer, had painted murals on the nave walls. The murals picked up on the Indian half of the building's schizophrenic identity, and depicted scenes from the lives of Father DeSmet and his Jesuits as they converted the Flathead Indians.
Now the mÃˆtis, the mine owners and the livestock men lay in the little cemetery on the west side of town, and the murals were faded and draped with cobwebs. The church had been damaged in the earthquake seven years ago, though not as badly as the old parochial school building. Now several big cracks ran up through the white walls on the north side of the nave. One crack cut in half the scene where Father Point was boating down the Missouri and making his famous drawings of Indian life on the banks. In fact, the crack went right between Father Point's eyes, shifting one eye upward and giving him a kind of crazy look.
The church was half dark (we were trying to hold down our electricity bill). In front of the side altar of Mary, the few votive candles that flickered in the red glass vials were throwing strange wavering shadows on the mural, making the Indians' robes and feathers move as if alive.
I wondered who the strange young man was.
We didn't often see somebody new appear in this church. It was more usual to see them disappearÃ£to another state where there were better jobs, or to the cemetery.
I flicked on the switch, and the old organ started to pulsate deep in its wind-chests. Now the whole building felt alive.
The organ was supposed to be the finest in the state, finer even than the one in the Helena cathedral, which I'd also played. It had been imported from Germany as a gift to the church by the very Pawling family, silver-mine owners, whose descendant I'd argued with all afternoon. Its curlicued gold pipes and its banks of painted cherubs seemed more fit for an eighteenth-century German baroque church. Ever since the quake, the organ hadn't been quite the same eitherÃ£the vox humana and a few other stops were knocked out. I had lobbied in vain to have Father Vance get a doctor of infirm pipe organs to examine it. The church hadn't even had a regular organist since old Mrs. Seckle took to her bed two years ago. So now the parishioners heard it only when I played itÃ£which was during Father Vance's high mass on Sunday and before my confessions. They told me they liked my playingÃ£except when I did those awful modern things.
I sat down and pulled out the stops for one of the few Bach fugues that I remembered. Then I glanced up into the flyspecked mirror over the console.
The mirror gave the organist a clear view to the front, so he didn't have to twist around like a pretzel to keep track of what the priest was doing at the altar. The strange young guy was right there in the mirror. He was sitting slumped over, playing nervously with his hat. I wondered if he was feeling poorly, or was crushed by some despair that I'd hear about shortly.
It was one confession that I was looking forward to. Something in me rushed out to embrace him, and to say, "I'm here. I can help."
My hands came down on the yellowed ivory keys, for the opening voice of the fugue. Behind the dusty painted cherubs, the pipes opened their throats and split the silence like a lovely earthquake. In the mirror, I could see the kneeling people turn and look up at me, wreathed in smiles. The young man turned and looked up too. When the others had turned back, he stayed twisted around, still looking up at me. I was glad he was listening.
As the fugue grew and boiled in the church, I had a sudden rush of exhausted feeling.
Ever since my own 7:30 mass that morning, I had been running around like a crazy man. With Father Vance so arthritic, I was the only priest within a fifty-mile radius of Cottonwood. I made half a dozen visits to parishioners' homes. I worked with the boys' football team, for which I doubled as chaplain and coach. I hassled with Mrs. Pawling about the money. I drove up the valley to the tiny community of Hernville, to give the last sacraments to a dying sheepherder, and drove down the valley to Whalen to visit a sick old lady. I went over the bills, and had an argument with Father Vance about the size of my phone bill. There was no time to eat any lunch.
Now the day came over me like a cloud shadow over a wheatfield, and I thought the buttons on the front of my cassock would fly right off. It was a pretty funny kind of exhaustion, because I was only twenty-eight, and built like a halfback, and I had no business being tired.
The ambitious thought entered my head (it wasn't the first time) that I wasn't doing the right thing by wanting to serve God in a small town, through everyday folks. The right thing was to try to climb the diocesan ladder, to try for monsignor, maybe even for bishop. That way I would have more power to deal with the Father Vances of this world, and to help all the confused young people who were leaving the Church or hesitating at the door.
I put these thoughts down as venial sins of pride. I had already confessed these little sins to my confessor when he heard my monthly confession. I saved them up for my once- a-month trip to Helena to see my parentsÃ£my old confessor and spiritual director was there, teaching Thomist theology now at Carroll College.
I kept looking at the young man in the mirror. He looked familiarÃ£had I seen him before? I wondered what he was going to tell me. Was he truly sorry he'd balled his girl friend? Had he been guilty of disrespect to his mother and called her a bitch?
I broke off the fugue. I was not in the mood for Bach.
Furiously I pulled out some different stops, and crashed into a Gabriel FaurÃˆ piece that I'd always loved. The bedridden old organ was just about going to have a coronary. Its aged wind-chests and its thirty-foot bourdons were rattling with the thunder in them. The bizarre chords made the stained-glass windows buzz. In the mirror, I could see the parishioners all turned around to look at me again. This time they looked startled and pissed off.
The young man turned around too, and grinned. That was when I remembered who he was. He was no stranger in Cottonwood at all. Now and then I had passed him on the street, but we'd never talked. He was one of the more colorful, mysterious and disreputable people in town. His name was Vidal Stump.
I played the FaurÃˆ all the way through, whaling away at the four keyboards and the foot pedals like a maniac. I must have looked like the Phantom of the Opera bending over his underground organ, except that I wasn't a masked monsterÃ£just a blond young priest in a dusty cassock.
When I finished, a sweat had broken out all over me. Silence flooded the church again, and I could hear a few discreet coughs from the parishioners. It had been as relaxing as jogging for a mile, and I felt a little better.
I looked at my watchÃ£it was 8:05. I was five minutes late. Shutting off the organ, I rushed down the stairs. In the sacristy, I grabbed my stole off its peg in the incense-scented closet, kissed it hurriedly and slipped it over my head. It, like all the rest of the vestments, had been made by two old parish ladies, Missy Oldenberg and Clare Faux, and it was embroidered with crosses and some less liturgical bitterroot flowers.
Moments after I'd sat down in my side of the confessional, the musty red velvet curtain made its muffled noise, and someone kneeled down noisily on the other side of the lattice. I slid it open. A kitchen smell came through to meÃ£dishwater and cooking grease. This was a housewife who had hurried away after dinner.
A woman's halting contralto voice began, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . ."
The baring of souls began, for the week of June 12 through 19, 1976, in Cottonwood, Montana, Zip Code 59701.
The sins of a small Western town today are pretty predictableÃ£or at least I thought so when I started that night.
There were two old ladies suffering from the scruples that old ladies have always had (did I or did I not repent such and such a sin?). There were three teenagers with spiritual acne. There was a rancher who was heartily sorry he'd wanted to shoot so-and-so for stealing two inches of his water out of the main irrigation ditch. And a young wife who'd driven over to the university town, Missoula, to see Deep Throat because, she said, that kind of movie never came to Cottonwood.
I was well into my second year in my first parish. I was finally learning how to get along with Father Vance, who resented the Bishop's sending him a no-good greenhorn assistant. Father Vance was born on a ranch near Livingston, he was sixty-seven now, and he really couldn't manage alone anymore, but he called me a "pilgrim"Ã£the old ranchers' word for a useless outsider. Father Vance took out his resentments on me by making me do most of the hard legwork in the parish.
Father's biggest resentment came from the fact that he'd unthinkingly run the parish deep into debt. The reason was his rigidity about old ways and his conviction that st. Mary's should be run with as much pomp as st. Peter's. But Bishop Carney had decided that it was humiliating to have one of Montana's most historic parishes about to be snapped up by the bank. So he bluntly ordered both of us to get st. Mary's back in the black, or else.
Father Vance had no choice but to sit down with me and do some drastic cost-slashing. First to go was the decrepit academy, which the earthquake had made unsafe anyway. The children were hustled off to the Cottonwood public schools, and the $53,000 that Father Vance had cached in the Union Bank in Helena toward building a shiny new parochial school went to pay off part of the mortgage.
Next was the utility billÃ£the church was now a little chillier on winter days and lit less lavishly. We stopped buying flowers from Fulton's Greenhouse and made do with potted plantsÃ£they lasted longer. We slashed our salaries. We lived leanly at the rectory, with several meatless days a week by necessity, not devotion. Our best parishioners contributed many good ideas for saving money. Housewives with too many tomatoes in their gardens would drop a basket of them by our kitchen door. Or a rancher who'd shot an elk would give us a quarter to throw in our freezer.
We scrounged, haggled over pennies, bought on sale. Now we were living more or less within st. Mary's low income, and we were making regular payments on the rest of the mortgage. But it was all very hard on Father Vance's ego.
Father Vance had no use for what he called "pilgrim morals." While college students over in Missoula lived in co-ed dormitories, and even the Bishop was liberal about young priests' lifestyles, he still insisted I had to be in the rectory by ten every night. I had to have his permission to stay away overnight, and I had to tell him whom I stayed with, even if it was my parents. He even made me wear a cassock around the church, though I usually managed to shuck the thing when off the premises. To keep the peace, I gave in on these things, to have freedom in other areas.
Curiously, he could be a kind man when he took a notion to be. He was a real old whang-leather pioneer priest, upright as a man on horseback. He had the undying admiration of his older parishioners. He was as faithful to his traditionalist view of the Church as the hayfield that comes up green every spring.
I didn't like him much, but I respected him. It had to be hoped that I could be as true to my view of the Faith as he was to his.
The hour of confessions wore on, and I began to wonder when the colorful, mysterious and disreputable Vidal Stump would show up. So far I had known all the voices that had come through the lattice, and none had been his. There had been the manure smell and boozy breath of a ranch hand who had a drinking problem. There had been the musky perfume of one of the town's teenage queens, and a recital of her misbehavior at a pot party in her parents' home while the parents were in Butte for a K of C convention. There had been Clare Faux, who lived with Missy Oldenberg on the other side of town. Usually the two old ladies walked to church, each carrying a big old-fashioned black umbrella, rain or shine. But Missy hadn't come today, for the first time since I'd been assigned to st. Mary's, and I wondered if she was sick.
I peered at my watch. It was just about nine o'clock. My stomach was rumbling, and I started to think worldly thoughts of the supper that the housekeeper would be getting ready. On Saturday night she always made a dish that we now regarded as a luxury: fried chicken.
The watch hand said nine sharp, then five after. Vidal Stump must have chickened out. I felt pretty sad. Maybe he would come next week.
I was just about to push out through my own musty red velvet curtain when I heard a man's footsteps approaching the confessional. They were stumbling, shaky foot- steps. I had already learned to read footsteps. These were a drunk's.
The other curtain swished, and the man kneeled heavily. His head pressed against the wooden lattice that separated usÃ£I could see the dark wavy hair pushing through the openings. His breath nearly knocked me outÃ£booze, garlic and pot. Pot has a funny hayfield smellÃ£I know, because I had worked on a little drug program in Helena High School, and I had also toked on a few joints myself, long long ago. He must have had supper at Trina's Cafe, a little Chicano place on the bar side of Main Street, and gotten himself high enough to face me.
He had one hand against the grille, and the fingers curled tensely through the openingsÃ£dark young fingers with broken nails and smudges of black motor grease.
"Father," he said in a thick voice. Then he stopped.
This had to be Vidal Stump.
Vidal must be a Catholic, or he wouldn't have called me Father. But he couldn't have been to church for ages, or he would have rattled off the "Bless me Father" right away. If I had been Father Vance, I would have made him go back and say the formula.
Instead, I said, "Yes, I'm still here."
My mind was picking through the little I knew about him. He was in his late twenties. He was born and raised up in Browning. Although he looked Irish or a little Spanish, he was one quarter Blackfeet Indian. He had spent two years in the state penitentiary for petty theft and learned a mechanic's trade there. He was off parole now, and married, and had a little kid. He worked in Snow's Garage downtown, and was supposed to be a good mechanic. When he wasn't working, he was roaring around the county on his big Japanese motorcycle, or getting into monumental brawls in the bars. The police were tolerant, because he kept their squad cars on a racer's edge. People in town said he was a loner. At the garage, he worked hard and didn't say much. When he showed up at the bars to get drunk and play poker in the back room, he was always alone, and he always left alone. People said, however, that he seemed very devoted to his young wife. Few had seen her because she stayed in the house all the time, but she was said to be mentally retarded. Vidal was so good-looking that a number of "fast" Cottonwood girls had tried to get friendly with him. But he avoided them and went home to his wife. The joke around town was that maybe his wife was missing something up here, but she sure must have it down there.
I knew all this from Father Vance, who knew it from the Cottonwood police chief, John Winter. The chief was Catholic and a good friend of Father's. He loved to gossip when he dropped by the rectory for an off-duty cup of coffee. Father Vance was always saying that Vidal was the biggest lost sheep in town.
"FatherÃ£" Vidal said again. His fingers clenched hard on the lattice, and the wood groaned.
The recent encyclical Ordo penitentae gave priests a new kind of flexibility when counseling, and I took it literally. Among other things, I tailored my language to the age and viewpoint of the penitent.
"Relax," I said. "Take your time. I'm not going anywhere. I'm ready when you are."
"Father, man . . . the thing is, I've had a few drinks."
"I can see that," I said. "You smoked a little weed too."
"Hell," he said, "I forgot to eat a mint. I've seen you around town, and I figured I could talk to you. A guy can't talk to old whoozis, he's too goddam old and prissy."
I couldn't criticize him for that, since I was glad I could take my sins to Father Matt over in Helena.
"Well, just relax," I said. "I'm not here to be shocked or pass judgment on you. Just think of how God is ready to help you."
"I don't think God will help me," Vidal said hollowly. "I'm outside for good."
"Jesus can forgive any sin. Any sin. It's hard for us to understand that. I mean, there are some sins that really gross us out. For instance ..." My mind rummaged around for a good example. ". . . Somebody who did war crimes and killed a lot of women and children. Now if he was really sorry, God would forgive him, even though we might not be able to forgive him."
"I'll bet you my bottom dollar I'm the first guy ever walked in here and told you about my sin."
"Listen," I said, "if you've invented a new sin, the world is gonna beat a path to your door. But I can't help you if you don't tell me what it is."
"Uh, Father," he said, "the thing is, I don't know if I'm ready to confess tonight. I need to do some more thinking. But I wanted to make a start. You know? Maybe just talking to you a couple of times will help. Maybe you can counsel me a little."
"I'll be glad to talk to you," I said.
Vidal was silent for a minute.
Then he said, "Come sit outside here and talk to me." He rapped on the lattice with his knuckles. "This goddam thing reminds me of the visitor's screen in jail."
When I stepped out of the confessional, he was already standing beside the nearest pew, clutching his hat.
In the flickering red half-light from the votive candles, he was a strange sight.
He was wearing faded, tattered Lee Riders with a wide tarnished silver belt cinched around his narrow hips. His old walking boots were spattered with mud. His shirt was bright red satin, also worn and stained. His wavy black hair came down to his collar. Around his neck he had a couple of tarnished silver necklaces. The men in town had learned the hard way not to make fun of his necklaces.
He wore this outrageous rig nicely, because he was six feet two inches tall, just my height, and he was built slender and hard as a bronc rider. The hat he twisted in his hands was a black high-crowned thing, very Indian-looking, with a band of silver conchos around the crown.
Pushing aside the black leather motorcycle jacket in the pew, he sat down slowly and made room for me. I sat down by him.
He kept looking straight into my eyes with a hard, earnest look. It puzzled and disturbed me.
His face was the most arresting thing about him. It was handsome, but marred by the clash of races. His skin was so fair that it showed his beard, but it had a faint, patchy lookÃ£a pigmentation fault common in mixed bloods. His eyes were alert, hard, expressive, set off by long sooty lashesÃ£but only after a minute did you notice that one eye was blue and the other was green. His features were so fine-cut and Caucasian that he didn't look Indian at all.
Yet these flaws gave his face great character, like the pockmarks on Richard Burton's face. It was the face of someone who had done a lifetime's living before thirty.
He leaned forward tensely, one hand gripping the edge of the pew. He smiled a little.
"How do you stand it in that lousy little box?" he said.
"It's funny," I said. "We've passed on the street a lot."
"You remember that?" He said it almost shyly.
"What do you want to do? Come see me once and maybe tell me more about what's troubling you? Then, if you want to go on, we can take it from there."
He looked a little suspicious. "Do we have to talk here in the church? It's always crawling with people."
"No. We do counseling at the rectory. I have my own office, so it'll be completely private. And don't worryÃ£I don't discuss anything with Father Vance."
At this, he seemed to relax.
"That sounds okay," he said. "How about tomorrow?"
I shook my head. "I have to play for Father's high mass at nine, and then I'm driving to Helena to see my family. It's my mother's birthday. Could you come Monday at seven-thirty?"
He seemed crushed that he had to wait two days. Now that he had made up his mind to act, the pressure inside him must have been unbearable.
"Okay," he said. He clapped his hat on his head.
We stood up. "I'll see you Monday."
He pulled on his black motorcycle jacket. "Good-bye, Father," he said, with that funny shyness again.
I didn't have the heart to tell him to take off his hat in church.
As he turned to walk away, I saw the back of his jacket. There, where bikers usually have the name of their gang or club, or a death's head, was printed the word ME in large silver studs.
He walked away down the aisle with a graceful cat-like swagger. I had seen that walk before, in militant young Indians on the state's campuses. They had borrowed it from Super Fly.
As he opened the door, I saw a patch of glowing turquoise evening sky above the mountains. Then the door banged shut. A minute later, his bike coughed into life outside.
I couldn't help smiling. His unconfessed sin wasn't funny, of course. But he had left me with the poignant impression of a strong personality: harshness and wildness mixed with humanity and warmth.
I couldn't remember the last time I'd smiled.
Father Vance would be mad at meÃ£I was now fifteen minutes late for supper. I hurried to turn out the lights and lock up.
It was a cool summer night in the Rockies. You'd know it was June even without a calendarÃ£the lilacs were in bloom, and their perfume was a blessing after the staleness of the confessional. Masses of the old shrubs grew around the church and the rectory, where they had been planted a century ago. They were now nearly fifteen feet high, tangled and woody, and the children had made paths and tunnels through their jungle.
I walked slowly along the sidewalk to the rectory, feeling a strange savage joy. God had sent Vidal to me.
The rectory was built in the same year as the church, of the same dark red brick. It looked like a regular one- story Victorian house of the period, with tall windows and a wide pillared porch. The lilac bushes had grown up in front of the windows, and Father Vance refused to have them pruned down. "When you're doing the Lord's work," he said, "you don't need a view out the window."
As per our penny-pinching policy, the only lights burning in the rectory were in the kitchen and the dining room. I went up the steps and into the side door.
"I've put your chicken on the back of the stove," said Mrs. Bircher kindly. "Sit down, and I'll bring it right in."
"Thanks," I said. "Sorry I'm late."
The dining room was paneled with yellow oak. On the walls were large framed photographs of the two forbidding gentlemen who had preceded Father Vance as rector. The brass chandelier had been converted from gas to electricity. In its mellow light, Father Vance sat reading the Cottonwood Post. His plate was covered with chicken bones clean enough for an anatomy lesson.
"You're late," he said, in his gruffest voice.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Just at nine, someone wanted to confess."
"I understand the famous Vidal Stump was there tonight. Mrs. Bircher saw him when she went to fetch me something from the sacristy."
"Yeah. In fact, that was him that came at nine."
"Amazing," said Father Vance. "If God's grace can reach him, it can reach anybody."
THE FANCY DANCER Â© 1976 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.