St. Vincent's is a church on the corner of Fifth Street and Lydia Avenue. In the fall this will become my church, after my mother's sudden stroke. I will move in with my father. I will attend a new school. They will say it's for the best. My father will say St. Augustine's, my current church, is too far away. He won’t make the drive. I will be in the seventh grade. It will be hard to make friends. St. Vincent's will become my church, my place of worship. It will also be a place of murder.
The church is enormous. All stone. Decorated on all sides by stained-glass windows. Light passes through them, through vibrant blues and vivid shades of red. Today, snow lightly powders the front stairs as the parish priest works hard to sweep it away. Soon a young assistant pastor, one still learning the way, will come out and lay down some salt. He will approach his duties with diligence. He will show others the way.
An enormous mosaic of St. Vincent de Paul, patron saint of the needy, hovers above three tremendous archways and seems to guard the church. The cathedral marks not only a place of worship, but also the edge of the neighborhood where my father grew up, and where I will come to live: Kansas City’s Piccola Italia—Little Italy.
Thirty years from now a man will enter St. Vincent's Church late at night. It will be freezing cold outside, dark and windy. It will be two days before Halloween and black as midnight. Candles will light up the church. A few steadfast believers will sit in the first two pews praying and sliding their wrinkled fingers over black rosary beads. Fallen leaves of orange and yellow will sneak into the vestibule.
This man, his face haggard, will walk into the confessional and quietly close the door behind him. He will be tired, his clothes wrinkled. Several minutes will pass until that assistant pastor, now a middle-aged priest, balding and thin, will enter the adjoining room on the other side of the black iron screen, likewise quietly closing the door behind him.
The man will fidget a little. He will clear his throat several times. He will quietly rub his hands together. He will think. When he finally catches his breath and calms down, he will whisper, "Bless me, father, for I have sinned." His voice will be deep. He will taste bitterness in his mouth. He will feel a chill on his neck. He will hold his hands tightly together, staring at a nasty scar on his left hand. The scar will be old and puffy. Then slowly, the man will stop fidgeting.
The priest, having done this many times, will ask the man, "How long has it been since your last confession?" The man will say it has been twenty-three years, and the priest, listening carefully, will look down at the hardwood floor and then ask, "What sins would you like to confess today, my son?"
"Just one, father. I have held onto this sin for many years.” The man’s forehead will bunch. His cheek will quiver slightly, like a fly landed on it. Silence will fill the confessional. The chilly air outside will blow in hard, then soft, then hard again. Dust motes will float throughout the vast sanctuary, landing on bibles and hymnals filled with songs of praise. The priest will be patient. He will think about his life's work, the promise he took before God. He will exhale, content. After some time, more leaves will blow outside near the church doors. It will look like they’re dancing. The priest will exhale. Having waited long enough, he will eventually say, "My son?" Then the man, having paused, thought, and finally gathered his courage, will say, "For many years, Father, and even tonight, Father, I have wished to kill you."
The priest will be stunned, then afraid. He will look up at the screen's small black swirls. His eyes will be large orbs. He will not see the man's face; the night's shadows will hide him, so the priest will slowly look down again, frightened. He will gather his own courage.
"My son, why… why do you say this? I am a servant of God."
The man will sit there; his fingers woven, as if forming a cup to drink from. Small hairs will poke out from his knuckles. He will think about many things. He will smell the incense burning earlier, sweet soot. Things he fought for many years to forget, but was reminded of by his own father's death.
"Son, come closer," his father had said, coughing in his bed earlier that day. "Closer. Son, I hope… I tried to be a good father. To teach you what a man is, how he conducts his business. I hope I've done that."
Tears will well in the man's eyes and one will wet the confessional floor. He will remember things done to him years ago. He will remember things his father said, how to handle dilemmas and tribulations. He will take a deep breath, then exhale, slowly. He will unweave his basket to wipe the tears from his face.
"Why do I wish to kill you, Father Michael? Because of what you did to me, Father. Because you touched me, Father. Because you took things from me, Father. Because you stole my innocence, Father."
The priest will become very afraid. He will tremble.
"My son, I, I… I am afraid you are mistaken. I would never –“
“No!” The man’s yell will echo loudly throughout the church.
The priest will feel it in his bones. He will think. Moments later, he will speak again.
“My son, I… You have to understand, we are only human. Man often knows not what he does," the priest will stutter. "Perhaps, maybe, you, we… can ask today that the Lord will forgive us, us both, for our sins."
There will be silence. The priest will sit and wait for a response from the man concealed by the shadows. The priest will look down at the floor, ashamed. He will then hear a clicking sound and he will again look up, terribly afraid, into the blackness beyond the iron screen. A dead leaf will dance outside; a floorboard will creak near the first pew. The priest, now very nervous, will wipe sweat from his brow.
There will be a sound like a firecracker. It will be loud and frightening. The two remaining parishioners will quickly look up toward the confessional, and then walk as fast as they can, out the church's side door. Leaves and chilly wind will blow in and extinguish several candles, which have been lit for the sick, the dead, and the dying.
Hearing the priest's body drop to the floor, the man will quietly leave the church. Two days later that man will be found dead, hanging from a rope in his father's garage. His pants will be soaked with pee, his sandy brown hair limp and unbrushed. He will forever burn in hell for taking his own life. He will know suffering like never before. His torment will last forever and ever and ever, without end.
But today, I'm riding with my father in his dark blue Cadillac. He came to my mother's house this morning and picked me up. This week at school we've been studying for a test on all the Catholic saints, but he said not to worry about it today. I make straight As, he says, so I'll be fine if I miss one day.
My mother agreed. She hasn’t been feeling well lately. I'm going with my father to run errands, he says. I never get to see my father. He has another family. In a few minutes, my father will beat a man in the street, almost killing him.
I will feel sorry for the man. At school, we are taught to love our neighbor. He looks like my father, only shorter. His hair is brown. My father’s hair is black. I will feel sorry for the man. I will learn later that he owed my father money, gambling debts. After this day, I will begin praying for my father, hoping that his soul will go heaven. I will pray that when I die, I will see my father in heaven. I will pray that when we die, I will see everyone in my family who has passed away, like Grandpa Joseph and Mom's mother and father, Grandma Saraphine and Grandpa Charlie, who was a minister.
In a few minutes my father will be kicking a man, punching him, making him bleed all over the sidewalk in the snow. He will look like a strange child. Like he was forced to create a sad snow angel, one with broken wings. My father does this, not worrying if I see it, but hoping that I do. He will say, "Tommy," as he swivels to the right, clapping his shoes together to shake the snow from them, and then placing them in the car. Out of fear and curiosity, I will turn to him, no longer pretending that I didn't see him beating that man.
"Son, you have one life to live," he will say as he slams the driver's side door. The car will shake. He will stare into my eyes. "Uno. And so help you God, if you come across a piece of shit that wants to complicate it, you do whatever you have to do to make sure things don't stay complicated."
I will be afraid. Not of my father. Just, afraid. I will nod. He will say, "Do you understand? You never want to be the one getting kicked. Capiche?"
I will nod again, and he will smile.
Right now, we're heading north through the city, from Seventy-third Street to streets where the numbers get smaller, passing liquor stores, homeless men and women bundled up against the winter, and hustlers and whores looking to make money.
His car cruises north on Troost Avenue from where the poor black people live, across the railroad tracks to where the poor white people live. Mostly old Irish families, along with a few Germans, and most recently some Vietnamese and Laotian families.
My father makes a wide left turn on Fifth Street near an old factory and drives five blocks to the corner where St. Vincent's stands. My frosty breath fills the car. Fumes spew from the Cadillac's exhaust pipe. The tires slide in the snow, only a block from the unsuspecting maker of snow angels. I will learn that he often runs errands like this. When I am old enough, I will hear my father's words again. A few years from now I will have my own problems. After my father conducts his business today, we will go to my grandmother's house. My father's mother. She will ask about my grades, and why my sandy brown hair looks a mess.
In seven months I will meet that young priest, the salt layer. His name will be Father Michael. He will be so friendly. We will talk. Through his encouragement, I will become an altar boy. I will spend a lot of time at the church. Serving at Mass on Sundays. Helping at the pantry with food drives and collecting canned goods. Father Michael will tell me that he's Italian. I will tell him that my father is Italian, and that my mother his Irish. I have her last name (they never married). I will tell him my father had a family. My mother never knew he was married. Father Michael will tell me how Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man, and how we should all strive to live by his example, to live his dream. One day, I will cut my hand cleaning up broken glass near the altar. Father Michael will bandage me, and comfort me. He will tell me that my mother will be okay. That God has a plan for all of us. We will spend a lot of time together, Father Michael and I. He will be nice. He will listen. He will understand. We will talk about what it means to be Catholic. And most importantly for me, he will tell me what I need to do, to secure God's blessing, and the gift from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He will tell me everything I need to know to receive the Lord's gift, the gift of heaven, the gift of life everlasting.