On the evening before his ninth birthday, Sean Curtis announced that he wanted to become a priest. His parents, Kevin and Maggie, praised him, gave him long, warm hugs, and, as he gazed down modestly, exchanged winks as if to say, This too shall pass.
It was a Friday. Normally, Maggie served dessert only on Sundays, but after dinner she opened an Entenmann’s cake to celebrate the occasion.
Sean declined an offer of a second slice.
“Gluttony,” he said.
Maggie and Kevin smiled behind their napkins.
Sean went to his room to read his new Captain Underpants book. Maggie and Kevin cleaned up the dinner dishes.
Only then, the dishwasher loaded and the pots and pans washed and stacked, did the thought occur to Kevin.
“Oh, shit,” he said.
“I’ve been waiting for that,” Maggie said. “I know exactly what you’re thinking. But don’t be silly. Your dad’s not going to say anything to Sean.”
“I hope not. If he does . . . ”
“Don’t be silly. He adores Sean. He wouldn’t do anything to upset him.”
“Well . . .”
“I mean, just because he’s Protestant . . .”
* * *
Jack Curtis was raised a Methodist in Pekin, Illinois. He met Lizzy James of Rockaway Park, Queens, New York, when he was at law school at Northwestern and Lizzy was an undergrad at Chicago Loyola. After their wedding Jack joined his father-in-law’s law firm in New York. They bought a house in Rockaway Park and had a happy marriage, happier than most. But Jack never felt truly at home in the Rockaways, where white Protestants were something of a rarity. He just didn’t have the sands of Rockaway Beach in his veins, his brother-in-law Gerald said. It might have helped if Jack had converted. Lizzy and later their two sons were active in the St. Francis De Sales parish, and Jack was frequently seen at parish functions, but convert? No. Nearly every new priest in the parish eventually would take a shot at “putting the arm on me,” as Jack called it, and to each he’d make the same reply: “I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you convert to Methodism?”
It wasn’t that Jack was a devout Methodist. There was a Methodist church out on the island he could have attended if he were willing to drive a bit, but he never did. “I don’t need to go any more. I graduated,” he said when his older son, Peter, asked him why he never went to church. And it certainly wasn’t that he disliked Catholics. He never interfered with his wife’s or sons’ practice of religion and in general found Catholicism interesting and aesthetically compelling if at times a bit amusing. “Rigorous rationality alternating with the most primitive superstition” is how he described it to a colleague. Perhaps it was most accurate to say that he was drawn to Catholicism by his deep love for his wife and sons at the same time he was repelled by it as part of what made him feel an alien in his own home.
His sons grew up, married, had families of their own, Peter moving to Connecticut while Kevin, a dentist, lived three blocks from his parents, in Belle Harbor.
Four years after Sean was born Lizzy was diagnosed with acute leukemia and was dead in months. Jack was devastated. He could not reconcile himself to life without his best friend and lover. He abandoned the family home, “the old homestead”—“I can’t live there. I just can’t”—and moved upstate to Kingston, where he put up his shingle and did enough business to keep the wolf from the door.
Within a year he astounded his sons by announcing that he was marrying again, a timid little woman named Ann, who, when Jack brought her down to Rockaway, would sit in the corner “liked a rabbit in a roomful of foxes,” as Peter said. “I can’t live alone. I’m not the kind of man who can live alone,” Jack said, and Kevin said, “That’s fine, Dad. We just want you to be happy.” “She’s Episcopalian,” he explained. “That’s as close as you can get to a cross between a Catholic and a Protestant.”
* * *
Jack was coming the next day to help Sean celebrate his birthday. Kevin and Maggie decided it would be best to head him off and break the news about Sean’s announcement. No, Jack would never do anything to deliberately upset Sean, but Kevin knew his father. It would be hard for him not to make some gesture—a rolling of the eyes, a snort, a stifled laugh—and Sean would see it. Sean was very close to his grandfather. Because of his shyness, he had a hard time making friends, and he often described his grandfather as his best friend. Sean would see the eye-roll, the stifled laugh, and he’d be hurt—and maybe worse.
“Wouldn’t want the old man to do anything to cause Sean to dig his heels in. The kid has a stubborn side,” Kevin said that night as they were preparing for bed.
“I think you’re more worried about Sean really becoming a priest than you think your dad will be,” Maggie said. “Strange attitude for a Catholic.”
“Oh, so you’d want to see Sean become a priest?” Kevin said.
“All I want is for my son to have a happy ninth birthday. So just make sure you talk to your dad in the morning before he sees Sean.”
* * *
Jack arrived a little before noon. Kevin had been pottering around in the garage and was on him as soon as he got his car parked in the driveway.
“Got something to tell you, Pop—about Sean,” he said, trying to laugh but realizing he was sounding portentous instead. “One of those phases every Catholic boy goes through. Says he wants to become a priest. Every Catholic boy says that at some point.”
Jack got out of his car, pressed his hands into the small of his back, and groaned.
“Every Catholic boy, huh? I don’t remember you saying that.”
In fact, Kevin never had. He was nonplussed for a moment, then managed to say, “Well, that was something I probably kept between Mom and me.”
Jack had just opened the trunk and had bent over to take something out, but at the mention of “Mom” he froze for a moment. Then he lifted out his travel bag and a gift-wrapped box and said, “Well well, a priest, huh? They get time-and-a-half for working on Sundays?”
“It’s just a phase, Pop. It might not even come up at all. But if it does, no jokes, OK? No wisecracks or anything. Just let us handle it.”
“My one regret about not being Catholic is I’m out of the loop on all the good priest jokes, so I think you’re safe there.”
“I know, Pop, it’s just—”
“Hey, what the hell do you think I’m going to do, anyway? I’d cut my arm off before I’d do anything to make that boy feel bad about himself.”
“I know that, Pop.”
“Well, OK, then. What are we doing standing here? I’ve got to make a pit stop, and fast.”
They walked on up the drive toward the back door of the house, Jack carrying the present and Kevin his travel bag.
At the steps leading up to the door, Jack stopped and said, “There is one thing I always wanted to know about this priest business. In the seminary, that required course, Sodomy 101, is that mostly theory or is it a hands-on course?”
* * *
Inside, Jack paused long enough to give Maggie a hug and peck on the cheek and then hurried on to the bathroom. Kevin carried his bag up to the spare bedroom. As he passed Sean’s bedroom, he gave the door a knock and said, “Your granddad’s here,” and then went on downstairs.
Jack was just coming back from the bathroom. Maggie looked around quizzically and said, “Where’s Ann?”
“My God, I totally forgot Ann!” Kevin said. “You didn’t bring her, Pop?”
Jack looked a little hangdog. “Well, the truth is, things didn’t work out. We’re separated.”
“It’s OK, really. It didn’t work out. My fault. You know, your mom, she was so vibrant, such a ball of fire, and I think I set out to find somebody just the opposite so, you know, so I wouldn’t be reminded too much. Turns out opposite of your mom wasn’t what I really wanted.”
“I’m sorry, Pop,” Kevin said, and Maggie said, “We’re both so sorry. I know it must be hard on you. I hope it doesn’t put too much of a damper on your visit. Sean’s been so excited about seeing you.”
“You’re sorry? About me?”
The voice came from behind them. Sean was standing in the door of the kitchen.
“You told Granddad about me . . . that you’re sorry?” he said, his voice cracking. Sean was a great kid, thoughtful and generous, in many ways very mature for his years, but also high-strung and easily hurt.
Kevin and Maggie rushed to him, gave him hugs and kisses, assured him they hadn’t been talking about him.
“It’s your Granddad,” Maggie said, then glanced back at Jack. He nodded. “He and Ann, he and his wife have separated. They’ve decided not to live together for a while.”
“We won’t ever be living together,” Jack corrected. “It’s over. But that’s OK. Don’t worry about me, Jubilation T. Cornpone. I’m fine.”
When he understood they hadn’t been talking about him, Sean almost laughed from relief, but then he assumed an air of concern and gravity.
“I’m sorry, too, Granddad. If you need somebody to talk to . . .”
“I’ll come right to you, sport. Count on it.”
“Did they, did Mom and Dad tell you? About my decision, I mean?”
“About becoming a priest? You bet. It was the news of the day.”
“Well, what do you think?” Sean asked a little shyly.
“I think you’ll be the best priest ever. You’ll probably go around converting every Protestant in sight.”
Sean beamed. Maggie looked dismayed, Kevin furious. He gave his father a frantic finger-across-the-throat gesture.
“Oops!” Jack said.
* * *
After the awkward beginning of Jack’s visit, the rest of the day went well. Kevin grilled hot dogs for lunch, and afterwards Sean went to the beach with two boys from his class at St. Francis. He’d invited four but only two accepted. He seemed quite satisfied with that and came home talking about what a good time he’d had playing Whiffle Ball and taking waves on the new Boogie Board Jack had gotten him.
Kevin and Maggie had gone down in the middle of the afternoon with ice cream and other snacks for the boys, but Jack stayed at the house. He wasn’t fond of sun and sand. Hearing about how much Sean enjoyed himself cheered him up, though. Until then, he hadn’t realized he was in need of cheering up.
Maggie served cheeseburgers, mac ‘n cheese, and corn on the cob for dinner, a strange combination but Sean’s favorites.
Afterwards, the chocolate cake came out, they sang “Happy Birthday,” and Sean blew out the candles. As Maggie was dishing out the cake, vanilla ice cream, and hot fudge drizzle, the doorbell rang.
Kevin answered the door and came back with a fiftyish man dressed in chinos and a polo shirt. Even before Kevin introduced him, Jack had him pegged for a priest.
“Look who I’ve got here—Father Mike,” Kevin said. “Father Mike, my dad, Jack Curtis.”
“Mr. Curtis,” the priest said, nodding.
“It’s Jack,” Jack said, standing up and reaching across the table to shake hands.
“I’m sure you know everybody else here, Father Mike.”
“Hi, Maggie. Nice seeing you again. And yes, I know this guy, I know this reprobate, I know the birthday boy,” Father Mike said, giving Sean a mock-angry shake of the shoulders and ruffling his hair.
Sean grinned delightedly.
“I was just serving the birthdate cake, Father Mike. Sit down and join us,” Maggie said.
“I don’t want to intrude,” Father Mike said.
“Don’t be silly. Sit.”
“Well, it does look tempting.”
Father Mike sat down and ate his cake, ice cream and chocolate sauce and then ran his finger over the plate, licked it off, and said, “President of the Clean Plate Club.” They all laughed.
Jack wasn’t normally too comfortable around priests, but Father Mike seemed like a nice fellow. Jack didn’t even bristle when, after he learned that Jack wasn’t Catholic, Father Mike said with a wink,. “Well, there’s plenty of time yet.”
They chatted a bit more and then Father Mike stood up. “Well, I’ve butted in and, and now it’s time for me to butt out.”
“Don’t be silly. Sit. I’ll make some coffee,” Maggie said.
“Thank you, no. I’ll be on my way. I just wanted to drop by and wish this young fellow a very happy birthday.”
He took a little box from his pocket. It wasn’t wrapped but was tied with a piece of blue and gold ribbon. Sean opened it and took out a rosary. He gaped at it like it was the most marvelous thing he’d ever seen. Kevin and Maggie ooed and ahhed. It looked like just another rosary to Jack.
“I don’t do this for every child in the parish who has a birthday, I want you to know,” Father Mike said to Sean. Then turning to Maggie and Kevin, “But it’s not every child who makes the decision Sean has. I have the great honor of being the first person he told it to.”
There was an awkward silence. Father Mike turned back to Sean.
“I’ve never regretted my decision, young fellow. Not once.”
Jack said with a wink, “Well, there’s plenty of time yet.”
Father Mike laughed.
* * *
The next morning, while the others went to mass, Jack took a walk.
It was overcast and sultry, and he walked toward the beach in search of a breeze.
At the Boulevard, instead of walking on down to the beach, he turned left, walked three blocks, turned left again, and then he was standing in front of his old house, the old homestead. He hadn’t consciously thought about it until that moment, but he realized it was where he’d been headed all along.
Jack paid a lawn service a yearly fee for mowing the grass and keeping the hollies neatly trimmed, but green shoots were growing up out of the gutters on the eaves.
He walked up onto the porch but lost heart when he got to the door and didn’t even take the house key out of his pocket. He started to look through the window but instead turned away and sat down on the top step of the porch.
He sat there a long time. People began to walk past him in the direction of the beach, children wearing flip-flops, fathers carrying coolers and mothers pulling wagons piled high with beach towels, umbrellas, Frisbees, plastic rakes, shovels, and buckets. Occasionally someone would wave to him, and he’d wave back.
A boy by himself came up the street, and only when he turned up the walkway toward the porch did Jack realize it was Sean.
“Mom’s going to start making brunch,” Sean said.
“Right. How did you know where to look for me?”
Sean didn’t answer but, when Jack made no move, he came up and sat on the steps. He looked around at the house with the air of a prospective buyer.
“So, are you thinking of moving back here, Granddad?”
Kevin had been urging him to sell the house for years, or at least rent it out. All it was doing now was gathering dust and costing him a small fortune in property taxes. But Jack just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Jack could tell by the look on Sean’s face that he was working himself up to saying something. Finally, he did.
“I’m sorry you and Ann are going through a rough patch, Granddad.”
Jack smiled. “A rough patch.” Sean must have asked his parents about it, and that was the phrase they’d used. And “Ann.” Sean called her “Ann.” Jack couldn’t remember Sean ever calling her anything before. Jack’s fault—Kevin’s and Maggie’s, too. How was a kid supposed to know what to call someone in a situation like this unless he was told? Not “Grandma,” though. Jack wouldn’t have wanted Sean to call Ann Grandma. Lizzy was Grandma. He wondered what Sean remembered of her. Not much, probably.
“Don’t worry about it, Buster Brown. These things happen between adults.”
“But what will you do?”
“Do? Well, I suppose we’ll get divorced. You know what that means, don’t you? Of course you do. We’ll be friends, but we just won’t live together any more, that’s all.”
“But what will you do, then? Will you get married again?” Sean said with a grin like he was trying to tease his grandfather, but Jack could tell that it was a forced grin, that Sean was upset. He wanted to put his hand on Sean’s shoulder, give him a pat on the back, but he was too far away on the step for him to reach without scooting over.
“Well, who knows? Probably not, though. No, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting married again.”
“But what will you do?” Sean asked. His face had gone a blotchy bright pink and white as if he’d been playing too long in the sun.
“What do you mean?”
“Will you kill yourself? Are you going to kill yourself?” he said, his voice rising to a whine, and then he was crying.
“Sean! Why on earth would you ask something like that?”
“You said it. You told Dad that you couldn’t live alone—”
“But that was years ago.”
“—you couldn’t live alone, and now you say you won’t get married again.”
“But that doesn’t mean I’m going to kill myself.”
“So you’re not? You’re not going to kill yourself?”
Jack scooted over until he was next to Sean. He patted him on the back, suddenly remembering when Kevin was a tiny baby, and Jack would hold him on his knee with his left hand and pat him on the back to burp him. Kevin had been a hard baby to burp, but Lizzy said that Jack had the knack. That wasn’t true—Lizzy was better at everything when it came to the boys—but it was typical of her to say something like that to make him feel good about himself.
“You shouldn’t even be thinking about such things, Sean. Happy things, fun things, that’s all you should be thinking about.”
“So you’re not going to do it? You promise? Because it’s a sin. It’s the worst sin. It’s the sin God can’t forgive because you can’t ask forgiveness after you do it.”
“Well, what if I asked for forgiveness before I did it?” Jack asked with a little smile because he was trying to make a joke out of it, to lighten the mood a little.
But Sean, who’d had his head bowed and didn’t see the smile, looked around wildly like he was desperately searching for something.
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” he wailed. “I’m little! I’m still little! They haven’t taught us that yet!”
Jack patted him on the back and tried to make soothing sounds like Lizzy would have done, but his mouth was dry and all he managed to do was wheeze.
Sean continued to cry. “I’m little. I haven’t been confirmed yet. I don’t even know if I really want to be a priest!”
Jack didn’t know what to say. He patted Sean on the back.
Sean ran the back of his hand across his face, smearing snot. He tried to stop crying.
“I will too become a priest, though. I will. I’ll become a priest, and then I’ll convert you. You’ll become a Catholic and make your first confession, and then you’ll have God. Having God in your life means you can be alone then and you’ll still be happy.”
“I’ll bet that’s so,” Jack said, but he looked doubtful.
In fact, Sean looked doubtful, too.