The old priest stood by the big front doors of the church and watched the blizzard. “I feel like I’m in a snow globe,” he said to only the falling snow. After a few moments of reflection, he closed the doors and shuffled back inside the chapel. Most of the parishioners stayed home locked safely in their warm houses, only a few of the regulars braved the snowstorm to come to church that evening. After seven o’clock, nobody came. The chapel was empty except for one man who had been sitting on the same pew for most of the evening.
It was not an unfamiliar sight to the priest. He had seen more than a few poor souls racked with torment and guilt. But this man didn’t once look around to find a priest or to search out a confessional, he kept to himself. That intrigued the old cleric.
The priest watched all evening as the younger man alternated positions of having his head rest on the pew in front of him and stretching back and looking at the ceiling. Even though his old body was beginning to slow down, the priest was proud of the fact he still had a pretty good memory – especially when it came to faces. He knew he had never seen the young man in the church before.
The priest started a systematic check of each row to make sure hymnals were put away. As he worked his way down the chapel, row by row, he glanced at the man from time to time. When he finally got to the man’s row, he asked, “Excuse me, are there any hymn books on this row?
The man, who appeared to be about thirty, looked to the side of him and then back at the priest. “No, sir.”
“Mind if I sit?” The priest pointed to the pew in front of the man.
The younger man sat up and straightened his tie. “I’m not a member,” he said and waved his hand to signify the building. “I just came in here because I need a place to think.”
“Oh yes,” the priest nodded his head and sat down. “Everyone is welcome here.”
The young man looked at the priest and forced a laugh.
The priest looked at the expensive suit on the young man and noticed it seemed to contradict his appearance. It had been soaked through with snow and still looked pretty damp. A puddle of muddy water formed at his feet from snow. It also looked as if he had worn that suit for several days and it had been awhile since he had shaved. His black, thick hair had apparently been greased back at one time, but now was frizzing giving the young man a wild appearance. “You don’t believe me?” The priest rested his right stubby leg on the bench so that he could see the young man’s face.
The man played with a wedding band in his fingers and stared down at the floor.
“My son, what troubles you?”
The young man leaned back and ran his hand through his hair. His red eyes began to fill with tears. “What have I done?” he asked and snorted.
Suddenly his brown eyes met the priest’s and the priest could see a torment so vivid and deep it made him shudder. “What has happened?” the priest asked slowly.
The young man started rocking back and forth and dug his palms into his eyes. “No, no, no,” he started crying.
The priest looked around and double checked to make sure the chapel was empty. He laid a hand on the man’s shoulder and eyed the troubled soul warily. “Have you hurt another person?”
The man looked at him and forced a laugh while he wiped his eyes.
The priest asked again, “Have you done something you’d like to talk about?”
“What have I done?” the young man almost screamed. “What has society done?”
The priest squinted at the young man while thinking of a few of society’s evils.
“Let murderers go!” The man rocked back and looked at the ceiling. “Someone who takes another person’s life should remain locked up. He…” he spit out the word, “should never be able to experience the kind of freedom that his victim can never experience.” He started shaking again but regained control of his emotions.
The priest nodded and thought to himself, so that’s what this was about. Someone has killed someone obviously very dear to this young man, probably his young wife, and he’s trying to make sense of it all. How many sermons have I given on that topic?
“Did someone hurt a family member?” the priest asked as he gently pushed his thick glasses up on his round nose.
The man nodded and swallowed as he leaned forward and rested his forehead on the pew.
The silence was so still the priest thought he could hear his own heartbeat. He studied the young man. “Who was killed?”
“My father was killed about twenty years ago,” he mumbled.
“Twenty years ago? That was a long time ago.”
The man looked up and glared at the priest.
“A loss of that kind, is permanent.” the priest spoke quickly. “We carry that person in our hearts with only our memories,” the priest looked ahead at the wall and avoided the young man’s stare.
The man nodded. “I was so young, there were a lot of things I can’t remember or didn’t even know,” the man’s voice softened again.
The priest looked at him again. “That would be hard on anybody.”
“Yeah, it was. It still is. But life goes on. I look at all my kids are doing, and I wouldn’t want to miss a single thing. I try to be there for them, I go to all their games, recitals, everything. I’m there for them.”
“Sounds like you’re a good dad.”
“I try to be, usually,” he looked down at the floor again. “Until about a month ago.”
The priest tapped his fingers on the back of the pew softly. “What happened a month ago?”
There was silence for a moment. The man leaned back again. “A parole hearing for J.T Brinker.”
The priest waited for more explanation. “The man who killed your father?”
The man nodded, “My parents were always welcoming in strays. Animals or people, all found refuge in our home. We didn’t have much but there were always people who were worse off than we were,” his face relaxed. “I remember one time, a neighbor found a bird with a broken wing. She brought it over to my mom. Even my dad didn’t think the bird could be healed, but my mom, she believed. She always believed. Or hoped, whatever you want to call it. It took some time, but that bird eventually healed.” He smiled.
“How many times had my mother taken J.T. in and fed him? Or my dad slipped him some money? Only to have him spend it at the bar.” A scowl darkened his features again, “Apparently, one of the times he was in our home, he noticed my mom’s gold cross. It was a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. That was the only value it held for my mother. But for old J.T., he saw a ‘fix.’ One night, when my parents were gone, my brother and I were in our bedroom sleeping and J.T. broke into our apartment. He must have been pretty desperate to break into our little two bedroom place. My parents came home while he was there and J.T. pulled a gun on my dad. My dad tried to calm him down, but J.T. was just a jittery old drunk. The gun went off. My brother and I came running into the room to see our mom crying over our dad’s body. What ten year old needs to see that?”
“What adult needs to see that?” The priest asked. “And he was paroled?”
The man nodded his head again.
“Is that why you’re here tonight?” the priest tried filling in the blanks in his mind.
The man forced another laugh.
“I have found forgiveness eases my burdens more when I give it, than receive it…” the priest quoted from one of his sermons.
“Where were you a month ago?” the young man looked past the priest to the front of the chapel.
The priest swallowed so that he wouldn’t answer, ‘Right here.’ Instead, he looked at the man silently.
“My brother went to the parole hearing on ‘behalf’ of the family.” The young man stared in front of him without focusing on anything. “I thought we were on the same page but I was wrong. He went there and told the board the family had ‘forgiven’ old J.T. Forgiven?” he hissed, “I haven’t forgiven anybody. I can still hear my mother’s cries as she knelt over my father’s body. I haven’t forgotten, how could I forgive?”
The priest sat quietly as his mind raced to another of his sermons that would be more applicable.
“My brother had forgiven him. Now he’s out.”
The priest studied him. “Is that what brings you here tonight? Because J.T. is out of prison?”
The young man looked down. “That’s all I could think about, J.T. being out of prison. He was free to experience life again. What about my father? Can he be here with me again?” he said through clenched teeth. “No.” He brought his fists up to his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut. “That thief and murderer is out of prison. He murdered my father, stole him away from me, from his family,” he swallowed. “He stole my mom’s hope and belief. How is that right?”
He leaned forward in the pew again then sat back and ran his hand through his hair. “I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, my work, my family. All I could think is what J.T. was getting to do now. Soon, I had to find out, I had to see what he was doing. I started skipping work and following him all day. Just follow him. I had to see what a man who was once again free would do. Then I started thinking, well, if my dad were here, what would he be doing? And the more I saw what J.T. got to do the more I thought about my dad and the angrier I became. I wouldn’t go home until late. When I did see my wife and kids, I was short and angry with them. That’s not me, I’m not that kind of person but I seemed to be losing control.
“I could see the worried look on my wife’s face and she’d try to get me to talk, but I couldn’t. How could I explain that I hadn’t forgiven J.T. yet? My brother already had.” His voice trailed off.
The priest continued to look at him, unwilling to say anything more.
“Tonight when I got home, she was waiting for me in the living room. She said the office had called and asked if I would be in to work tomorrow. I could see the disappointment in her eyes. She asked if I was having an affair. I told her I wasn’t. She asked what was going on then.” His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “It turned out to be a pretty heated argument. She kept asking me over and over again if I was cheating on her. I’d tell her no, not to be ridiculous, but then she wanted an explanation. I couldn’t give it to her. Again and again we went, her accusing me and just wanting an answer, and me… I couldn’t tell her. She is my best friend and I couldn’t tell her anything.” His eyes watered, “She wouldn’t let up so I had to make her understand. I grabbed her by the arms and started shaking her. Maybe I was trying to shake some sense into her, I don’t know. But I guess I was shaking her pretty hard. Our son came in and there we were, me…” he motioned with his hands how tight he had held her, “and her crying.” He looked down at the floor and swallowed. “How do I explain that to my kid?” The young man looked at the priest. “I would never hurt my wife or my kids intentionally but that person that was in our house tonight, I can’t be sure of. I was scared what I might do so I ran out. As I did, I heard her calling 911.
“I ran to the local park and collapsed on a park bench. I couldn’t stop shaking and I couldn’t get control of my emotions. I hated being like that. Feeling like that. And I started thinking, wondering what was making me feel and act like a monster? The answer hit me…”
The priest looked down at his outstretched leg on the bench.
“J.T.” He leaned forward and stared ahead his face suddenly void of emotion. “Not only had he taken my father’s life, but he was stealing mine, also.”
The priest swallowed hard and wiped his sweaty palms on his pant leg.
“I had followed J.T. to the same places every day and I knew he’d be at some little dive off of Main Street. So, I went there. I went there with the intent to take his freedom away just as he had taken my father’s away twenty years ago.”
The priest’s leg was cramping but he didn’t dare move.
“I found J.T. just where I thought I would, sitting on a barstool, drinking his life away. I introduced myself and asked him to follow me. He nodded his head, took one last drink, then walked behind me. I didn’t know where to go, I just kept walking and he kept following me.
Somewhere deep inside, I think I was hoping he would run away, but he just walked behind me. I felt like a prison warden leading a death row inmate. I found some stairs, so I climbed them and opened the door to the roof. He followed me without question. I walked over to the edge and looked down. It was far enough if somebody fell,” he swallowed, “he’d be dead.”
The priest shuddered and bit his bottom lip. Sweat began trickling down his large forehead.
Just like that, I knew what I was going to do. I turned and grabbed him by his scruffy, old, smelly rain coat and pushed him toward the edge. I kept expecting the little man to put up a fight and I hesitated a little because I was waiting for him to struggle with me, resist me. He just stared at me with his gray, beady eyes as calm as an old drunk could be. I pushed his little body closer to the edge. No reaction, nothing.”
The priest leaned forward his eyes wide.
“Finally he spoke. ‘You don’t want to do this,’ he said to me calmly.
“‘That’s it?’ I screamed in his face, ‘is that the best you can beg for your life?’
“Those beady eyes seemed to bear into me. ‘It’s not my life I’m trying to save,’ he said calmly, “‘it’s yours’.”
“I barely heard his words, let alone comprehend them. Slowly, I could feel them sinking into my head then into my heart. But I felt as if I was on a runaway train and had passed the point of no return. I couldn’t move. We stayed in that position for who knows how long? He just stood there staring up at me, waiting for me to make up my mind.”
The priest couldn’t help himself. “What did you do?”
Just then, police sirens wailed outside the church. The man jumped out of his reverie. “That’s for me. I have to go. I just want this to end.”
“What happened? Did you push him?” the priest grabbed the man’s arm.
The man looked down at the priest’s hand, “Thank you for listening to me.” He turned and ran out the doors in the front of the building.
The priest stared at the doors as they quietly shut. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. Were the police coming because the young man had pushed J.T. off the building? Or were they responding to his wife’s call? There was only one thing left for the priest to do for the troubled young man, he bowed his head, and prayed.