VENERATING (short story)




 Copyright 1999  held by author

  That morning, Steve’s wife, Natalie, already dressed in her typical wall street get up of blue blazer, knee-length, dark plaid skirt and white blouse, sticks her head in the bathroom while Steve dries himself off from the shower. She tells him she will be home late.

            He dresses quickly, chinos, denim shirt, paisley tie and tweed jacket. He’s an editor of trade magazines. Two of them. The piping Industry. One is a news tabloid which covers changes in the business side of the industry, the other’s a technical journal which covers developments in piping technology. Natalie, a stock broker, gets to work at eight and he gets to work around nine. She rarely leaves work before seven, Steve rarely has to stay past five.

            In the kitchen, he drinks coffee and reads a few pages of The City of God by Saint Augustine. It’s an old hard back he bought in a used bookstore. He has what he says is a religious, spiritual, philosophical reading bent—except for sincere dabbling in the Zohar and Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s almost exclusively Roman Catholic. Last week he finished The Oblate by J.K. Huysman.  He even attends Mass, but not every Sunday. Contemplating Catholicism is something besides piping to stimulate his intellect. Everything else about it, he’s able to ignore. The Augustine reminds him of philosophy courses in college—a pleasant way he feels to start his day.

            Muddy leaps to the counter and hisses at him, fangs bared. Steve looks up from the page. Muddy snaps his jaws like an alligator. He’s brown with spots of white and a piece of his ear was ripped off. The cat hates everybody, except Natalie. He’s the nastiest house pet in America. He’s worse than the zombie cat in that movie Pet Semetary. Natalie rescued him from the alley behind her old apartment. He’s an old tom whose claws were removed. To compensate for this loss in defenses, he is prone to biting and hisses more than he meows.  He’s never liked Steve, but that’s fine, since Steve has never liked Muddy, and has never liked cats, really. He gives the cat the finger, and listens to its enraged howl as he locks the door and  heads to the elevator.

            That afternoon he takes a long lunch. He browses in a bookstore. He is in the mystery section. He’s thinking that some pulpy noir might be a nice break from the religious stuff he’s been feeding his brain. As he scans the titles on the lower shelf,  from Jim Thompson to Cornel Woolrich, somebody approaches him. He sees a woman’s slender  legs.

            “Steve,” she says. He knows her voice immediately. For a moment the years, the resentment, the anguish doesn’t exist and he smiles and Theresa smiles back. But as he straightens his back, his face slackens into a frown.The truth always returns. After a four year relationship, only a month after his father’s death, she said she was moving to California with another boyfriend. He was devastated. He contemplated suicide. Instead, he went to a shrink and got his life together. Tried to forget about being in love, about the long sexual marathons they shared and the agonizing loneliness that plagued him for months and months.

            He still thought about her. At times, it required effort not to, even though he feels he loves his wife.

            The last time they saw each other was  when she said goodbye.

She is wearing a leather mini-skirt and black stockings and a  long gray cotton sweater,  with a black and white enamel ying/yang pin near the collar. Her hair is black and short—it fell below her shoulders last time—and she still favored bright red lipstick, like she just kissed a freshly painted fire engine. He looks into her obsidian eyes, and remembers how they used to glow even at night, like two shiny black almonds shadows couldn’t hide. Whether she was whispering I want you inside me or declaring I don’t want to marry you, I want more out of life, their glint didn’t alter.

She says, “You look good.”

            He doesn’t respond. Sweat  seems to slither out of every pore on his forehead. She points at the shelf of  books and says, “doing noir now?”

            “Can’t be reading theology all the time.”

            She nods. There’s another long pause. She says, “I better get back. It’s good to see you.”

            He says nothing.

            “Can I call you,” she stammers, her voice quiet. “I still remember the office number.”

            “I’m sure you do.”

            She touches his arm, “Steve, you know I’m sorry about what happened, I have felt bad, it hasn’t been easy for me.”

            “It’s always about you,” he replies, backing away.

            Her mouth trembles. He remembers right then kissing that mouth and when he was kissing it thinking his life made sense only to have the same mouth deliver words he still hears when his wife’s asleep and he has insomnia and can’t quite fight off the dread. She rubs her dark eyes, then reaches into her designer leather pocket book and pulls out a pair of sunglasses and puts them on. They’re cat eye shapes,  leopard print plastic. She stifles a sob.

            “Call me if you must,’ he says then turns around and walks swiftly out of the store, resisting all urges to look back.

            That night, he goes to Mass. He doesn’t know why he wants to. Better than getting drunk he rationalizes. He didn’t get much work done for the rest of the afternoon. He wants to stop replaying the past. But nothing seems to prevent it. He needs to divert his thoughts.

            There’s a small sign on the door of the church: Tuesday Night, devotion to Saint Anthony Du Puda. He’s not sure what this is, but goes in anyway. There are old people there, some with rosaries in their hands. He’s the only one without memories of World War II.

Natalie doesn’t have the patience for church, but doesn’t mind that he goes. Not always, but often, he goes to Sunday morning Mass and comes back with bagels, newspapers and gourmet coffee. She’ll go on Christmas with him, makes her feel the spirit of the season she says, but otherwise, she has no interest. Her parents are divorced. Her father was Methodist, but never inflicted this on his children and her mother, despite a Catholic upbringing, taught yoga and meditation, threw the I Ching. She was intent on instilling in Natalie a different value system.

The ceiling above the altar curves like a dome, and is covered by a painting of Mary, mother of Jesus, blessed virgin. She’s depicted as queen of heaven. She wears a gold jeweled crown over the veil on her head, which is encircled by a gold halo. Her face is serene, smooth, feminine There are golden curls popping out of the side of her veil. Angels hover holding a rosary made out of roses around her waist. A snake, it’s skull crushed, is coiled under her foot.

There’s only about a dozen or so people in the church, all sitting in the pews close to the altar. Steve is towards the back. He notices an old man, but the rest are women  It’s a parish of widows. The priest is from their generation. He’s slightly stooped, the green vestment drapes from his shoulders like a flag on a skeleton. He folds his hands over his chest. His elbows shake and his voice seems to wheeze out the words, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I’ve sinned through my own fault…”

            The routine of reciting the prayers he’s known since childhood and following the Simon Says responses of kneeling, sitting and standing at the appointed times,  begins to disperse the anxiety lingering from his run in with Theresa. The ritual of the Mass, the litanies, the petitions, the consecration, the Our Father and the kiss of peace, always the same. You could depend on Mass.

He’s not even sure if he believes in a personal god, much less the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His presence in the transubstantiated host. He’s not even sure he is really praying when he is kneeling, with his eyes closed, after communion. Is he begging for guidance? Giving thanks that he is not poor and homeless or sick and dying? Or praying that the people he’s known who have died are in heaven? Those notions may flash through his thoughts for a few seconds but eventually he is thinking not about God or spiritual issues, just boring life stuff. What should he do about dinner?

            The priest stands and so does Steve.  But the women and the man remain kneeling. The priest announces: turn to page two of the prayer book. The priest and the congregation begin reading out loud: “Oh Holy Saint Anthony, gentlest of saints, your love for God and charity for His creatures made you worthy, during your time on earth, to possess miraculous powers.”

            Steve kneels and reads along.

            “Miracles waited on your word, which you were ever ready to speak for those in trouble or anxiety. Encouraged by this thought, I implore you to obtain for me (make silent petition.)”

            When he gets to the parenthetical Make Silent Petition, for nearly a minute, the congregation is quiet, not even a murmur.

            Then the priest continues, “The answer to my prayer may require a miracle; even so, you are the saint of miracles. O gentle and loving Saint Anthony, whose heart was ever full of human sympathy, whisper my petition into the ears of Jesus Christ, who was forever with you. And my gratitude will be forever yours, amen.”

            Then the Priest says, “Saint Anthony.”

            The people resound: “Intercede for us.”

            Priest: “Saint Anthony.”

            People:  “Pray for us.”

            The priest picks up a gold crucifix that is in the corner of the altar. Steve hadn’t noticed it before.  Sculpted gold light rays shoot out from the center of the crucifix, in which is a glass circle. Then he remembers what the object is called: a reliquary

            The priest holds the reliquary and a small  white cloth and stands at the foot of the altar. The women mosey out of the pews and in single file go up to the reliquary, and kiss the center. After each kiss, the priest wipes it with the cloth.

            Steve gets in line, behind the old man, who walks with a cane.

            The priest gives Steve a warm smile. Steve leans his head forward, touching the cross with his forehead and nose but his lips don’t actually make contact with the glass center. He crosses himself then turns and walks out of the church. The old man is by the doors, talking with one of the women. Steve asks him, “what was that?”

            He says solemnly, “it’s the relic of saint Anthony. We venerate the relic every Tuesday.”

            Steve thanks him. He feels good. It was so completely medieval, Huysman would have loved it. They didn’t venerate any relics during Steve’s Catholic childhood in suburbia.

            This has to be good luck, he thinks. Then he calls home from a pay phone and tells Natalie he will pick up dinner and asks her to check if they have olive oil.

            He stops at the grocery store and buys the most expensive, extra virgin brand with an unpronounceable Italian  name they carry, as well as fresh broccoli, pasta, garlic, boneless chicken breasts and a loaf of Italian bread.  He stops at the liquor store for white wine.

            “Going to Mass on the weekdays and it’s not even lent,” jokes Natalie, who had changed into her comfortable sweat suit. She hugs him hello. “Are you praying for our marriage?”

            He slips his hand up under her sweatshirt and caresses her breast. “Give me some sin and I won’t need to pray at all.”

            She laughs, “let’s see how good this dinner is first. I’ll open the wine.”

            When he has the water in the pot and the pot on the stove, he goes to the CD player, choose The Best of Jim Carroll and then begins to chop up the garlic.

            Muddy leaps to the counter, issues a viscous squeal.

            “Get down,” he shouts. Muddy nips at his hand.

            “The guy’s just hungry, put some dry food in his dish,” says Natalie who is on the couch drinking her second glass of wine and reading Business Week.

            “He’s the only cat in the world who never purrs.”

            Natalie says, “he purrs  for me. Not too often, but he’s been known to do it. The guy’s had a hard life Steve, show some compassion.”

            Later, after they’ve made love, Steve listens to Natalie fall asleep while he stares into the darkness. When Muddy jumps on the corner of the mattress, he kicks him off.

            Theresa calls him the next day. “It was nice seeing you.”

            “Well, nice isn’t the word I would use. Let’s say, interesting.”

            “I  can’t live with you hating me, I think.” He hears the sound of the plastic sunglasses being unfolded. Her voice cracks. “Do you?”

            “I only hate you because I loved you so much, Theresa.”

            She clears her throat, then whispers. “So you are going to blame me for everything? Do you want to hate me forever?”

He thinks about the answer, before whispering, “Probably I don’t.”

            That night he’s looking through a book on Catholic Saints. There’s a famous shrine of St. Anthony, a basilica in Puda, Italy. In 1263, 32 years after his death, while his flesh rotted, his tongue and vocal chords remained intact. Incorrupted.  Pilgrimages are made to the Basilica of St. Anthony in Puda to see the incorrupted organs. The book also says that the bones of St., Anthony are “venerated as relics” in churches all over the world.

            “Why are you reading about saints,” asks Natalie.

            “Just killing some time, better than TV,” then he reads to her about the incorrupted tongue and vocal chords.

            “That’s disgusting,” she says. “My grandparents prayed to Saint Anthony.”

            “They venerated him?”

            “I don’t think so. When things were lost, they said pray to St. Anthony. They did it all the time. Dear St. Anthony, something is lost and cannot be found. They repeated it  again and again. Dear St. Anthony, something is lost and cannot be found. Dear St. Anthony, something is lost and cannot be found. They used it like a mantra until they found what they lost.”

“Did it work?”

“I remember it working. You never heard of that before?”

            “I’m not sure it sounds familiar.”

            “They did a lot of weird stuff those two.”

            Then she picks up Muddy, who rubs his head against her chin.

            “See, he’s purring,” she says, leaning towards Steve. The cat stops purring and hisses.

            He sighs, puts the book down and says, “I heard the Dow was up again today.”

            Theresa calls him every afternoon. They chat a bit longer each time. His hostility fades. She insists on getting together, for a drink. He agrees to do so next week, when  Natalie is out of town on a business trip.

            Tuesday night, his lips make contact with the glass. The glass is thin. As he glances at it, when he goes in for the kiss, he sees a tiny gray twig. It’s the relic. It’s the bone of a saint dead for nearly 800 years. He goes back to the pew afterwards, kneels with his eyes closed. He still doesn’t know if he’s really praying. He knows he should be thankful, so he says thanks but he is unable to formulate a request to this patron saint of miracles. Maybe just world peace, or good luck, or peace of mind. Eventually, a woman gently taps his shoulder, tells him they have to lock up the church

Outside, he slips his hands into his pockets and watches the blurry headlights of cars pass into the distance.

He meets Theresa in a bar after work. The place has a restaurant in back. In the bar area, there’s a long cushioned bench along the wall, with very small tables, barely big enough for drinks and appetizers, and chairs. The chairs are black metal. The tables are black metal. The bar is trimmed in black metal. Everything else is dark brown, wood. He sits on the bench and she sits in the chair and a waitress comes over right away. Steve orders a beer and Theresa, after inquiring about what sort of wine by the glass they offer, settles on a burgundy.

They clink their glasses together. After the sip, he jokes, “well, this is nice, isn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

He laughs out loud, waves the waitress back over. “Bring me a Bushmill straight up.” Then he looks into Theresa’s eyes. “I think I may need whiskey to get through this.”

The waitress brings over the hard alcohol and he takes a healthy swig. There’s music on, some kind of jazz. The volume is low. He says, “Look, I’m trying Theresa. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re here together right now.”

 She nods, says, “You will find me much changed. I’m a better person, I like to think.”

“I hope so.”

Her  bright red lips tremble. The bottom one mostly. She sniffles, puts on her sunglasses. “I’m sorry Steve. You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to tell you that. I’m just sorry.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“Forgive me please.” She sobs briefly. Her knuckles tap the table top. Then she exhales, clears her throat. “You’re the big Catholic, isn’t forgiveness the big thing. That’s what I was taught.”

“That’s not fair,” he says, then shakes his head, swallows the rest of the whiskey, waves at the waitress and points to the empty glass.

 “I was a mess. I had a bad breakdown, I was on medication for a long time. I had to do detox twice.”

“I hate cocaine,” he sighs. “Drugs can be fun for a little while, but in retrospect they’re a waste of time.”

“Well, you never were as bad as me,” She holds up her glass. “I only drink wine now.”

She takes out a cigarette, and he asks her for one. She holds the lighter for him.

They smoke for a few seconds. He’s still angry. “You ripped my god damn heart out. It was like you didn’t care about what we had gone through. I only slept with that friend of yours because you refused to break up with your other boyfriend.”

“Steve, I was horrible. I admit it. I don’t care about what happened with Stephanie, I really don’t.”

“We were just high. One of those nights I guess.” He feels tears in his eyes. He squints. “Why am I putting myself through this, I haven’t even told my wife.”

“I haven’t told my husband. They wouldn’t understand, would they?”

“I suppose not.”

“I do cherish the times with you.” She touches his hand. They look at this for a few long seconds, then he picks up his glass of beer.

“I suppose that’s good to hear, I wondered about it. I also wondered about love, Theresa. I mean, you lied to the other guy about me.”

“He never knew.”

He shrugs, denying his presence like he denied it then. “Anyway, I always wondered if you loved him more, but if that’s what you think of love, then maybe it was good that you loved him more because the type of love you give, it’s like a poison.”

“God damn, I said I was sorry.”

“Maybe I should go.”

“Don’t you think love chooses us. I mean,  love, it’s there then it’s not and it’s so much work and we were young and high all the time, snorting and screwing all night then going to work the next day  and pretending we were just friends. It was crazy. Love is crazy.”

Their eyes meet. But not for long. He puts out the cigarette. New customers arrive, two women who are meeting the two businessmen at the bar. The music has been changed to Aretha Franklin.

There’s a lull. They finish their drinks and order another round and discuss weather. There was a bad storm in January, over a foot of snow and the city was shut down for two days and they talk about that. Then she mentions a novel she liked, he had only read the reviews but had read a book by the same author.

This next lull is different. She takes off her sunglasses.  Those dark eyes make him think about her body.

She nudges the table to the side and then shifts her chair so the table is not between them. She moves closer and whispers. “No one has ever made me feel like you did.”

Then her tongue is in his mouth. Her fingertips on the back of his neck feel warm. Neither of them know if this kiss lasts  a minute or five or an  hour. The temperature in the place seems to go from Anchorage to Miami.

When she leans back her hands move down his chest and sides, lingering for  a moment at the top of his thighs.

He finishes the whiskey, then the rest of the beer, then asks her for a cigarette.

They don’t order another round. They walk to a nearby park and he sits on the bench and she straddles him by dangling her legs between the plank where you sit and the plank where you lean your back and they grope and kiss and she moves back and forth. It’s night and they’re nowhere near a street lamp and the park is empty and the sides of her jacket are positioned so no one can see him unbutton her blouse and unsnap her bra.

She calls him in the morning. There’s not a trace of animosity in his hello. She says, “next time I don’t want to stop.”

“Me neither.”

He goes to the Saint Anthony Novena. Please help me he tells Jesus. Please intercede for me he asks St. Anthony. He moves his lips when he repeats these statements in his thoughts. But to do what? He doesn’t know. When he kisses the glass of the reliquary, it feels cold.

That night he eats Pizza, drinks beer and tries to read South of Heaven by Jim Thompson but winds up watching TV. He gets out the scotch and a bowl of ice and by the second drink he’s throwing ice cubes at Muddy.

Natalie comes home after midnight, carrying her brief case and garment bag. She’s exhausted from the delayed, turbulence-besieged flight. The only sound louder than the informercial on the television is her husband’s snore. She sees  the empty beer cans, the open pizza box, paper towel wads, crusts, the scotch bottle on the coffee table and a bowl of water. Her bags thud on the floor. Muddy rubs against her calf. She mutters, “welcome home.”

Theresa calls him every day. She talks about a new show  at the gallery where she works. He declines her invitation to come to the opening.

“Won’t your husband be there?”

“He works at night. He’s a waiter. It’s a good restaurant.”

Steve picks up a pen and holds it like a cigarette, places it between his teeth and says, “I pictured you with like a movie producer or some kind of mogul.”

“Yeah, well life’s funny isn’t it.”

“Just hilarious.” He takes the pen out of his mouth and drums it against the edge of his desk.  “Look, do you really want to go through with this. Should we really do this.”

“Don’t you want to?”

“That wasn’t the question was it. We both took vows in front of God and our families and our friends, didn’t we.”

“Nobody cares about God anymore, Steve. God’s just a metaphor to believe in to keep us from killing each other.”

“History tends to indicate the reverese is true.”

“Oh Steve, let’s just get it out the way. I have feelings for you. Total, complete monogamy until we die, is so conventional.”

He taps the pen rapidly against the desk. “I do hate conventional.”

During Natalie’s next business trip, they meet. The small romantic Italian restaurant they used to frequent closed down, re-opened as a Thai restaurant, not as romantic, but they go anyway and in the middle of their spicy entrees, she takes her foot out of her shoe and drags her toes up his leg, and says, “why are we wasting time eating?”

He asks the waitress for the check.

“I don’t want to go in the bedroom,” he says  when they get to his building.

“I understand,” she says. Muddy crouches in the hallway, hisses then curls his back, fur standing straight in a row along his spine. Steve kicks the cat away.

She follows him into the living room. He turns on a light and  asks her if she wants something to drink  She says no and takes off her jacket, then blouse, then  bra, then kneels down in front of him and pulls down his pants.

They make love like young twenty something’s high on pharmaceutical cocaine, Spanish fly and rhino horn. They do just about everything they can think of and everything they can remember.

After, they squeeze close to each other as they lay on the couch. Their perspiration soaks into the fabric. She listens to him smoke a cigarette, the fumes going from his throat into his lungs  then out again. She takes his hand and puts her lips to the filter and inhales. She blows  a rolling plume across his chest, then rubs his chest hair. “This feels so good against you, it feels so right.”

“Too bad the rest of it couldn’t be as good as this.”

Tears flow out of her eyes and into his chest hair. He puts out the cigarette and holds her closer. Suddenly, her expression changes and she screams in pain.

Muddy’s teeth grip her ankle. He clamps his jaw tight. Theresa thrashes her leg, raising the cat up and down in the air. Steve jumps up and punches the cat off her. He reaches over to the book shelf and starts flinging paperbacks at the animal. The cat disappears into the bed room, conceals itself in the shadows beneath the bed.

He gets paper towels from the kitchen to wipe the blood trickling down the back of her foot. She laughs, “ I just hope he doesn’t have rabies.”

“He’s healthy,” Steve assures her. “Bites all the time. Usually doesn’t break the skin, though.”

When the bleeding stops, she says, “I better go. I do have to be home.”

“You could stay the night.” Steve is thinking about how they used to have sex first thing in the morning. He pictures them drinking and calling in sick the next day. He’s hoping that the intensity of their passion can be prolonged, miraculously freeze time and erase responsibilities.

“I can’t. I’ll call you.”

“Sure,” he says, smokes another of her cigarettes and watches her dress and leave.

He stares at the night in the window. He doesn’t get up, he doesn’t turn on the TV or go to the bathroom, or get a glass of water. He thinks about a hundred things at once and doesn’t try to make them make sense.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep. He wakes up an hour or so before dawn, takes a shower then goes into the bedroom. When the clock radio alarm goes off, he is still awake.

Steve cleans the entire apartment, does the laundry. He washes every floor, dusts every space, vacuums every rug. When he’s finished, he’s exhausted and falls right to sleep.

That Tuesday night, during the Make Silent Petition part, Steve whispers, help me. He can feel his knees and hands tremble as he slowly walks to the altar. He puckers up, bends towards the reliquary. When his lips touch it, he extends his tongue and licks the glass.

The priest does not make eye contact with Steve. He frowns when he wipes off the glass. Steve quickly leaves the church, forgetting to dip his fingers in the holy water for a departing sign of the cross.

He’s shaking all over when he’s outside. He lights a cigarette. He’s been buying packs. He’s been smoking half a pack a day. At work, he stares at the phone wondering if the next ring will be a call from Theresa. At the end of the day, when he finally leaves for home, he’s always confused. Is he upset that she hasn’t called since they made love, or relieved? He simply doesn’t know.

Steve steps off the curb, a car screeches to a halt next to him and honks. The driver gives him the finger. Steve runs across the street,  then lights a new cigarette with the end of the first one.

At  home, Muddy rests on Natalie’s lap.

“Hope you prayed for my cat,” she says.

Steve’s calm and collected by now. “For nasty old fatso?”

She doesn’t laugh. “I think I will take him to the vet. Have you looked at his mouth lately?”

He shakes his head. Natalie places her thumb and fore finger beneath Muddy’s whiskers, pushes up the fur to reveal his teeth. “One of his fangs has broken off. Do you know how that happened?”

Steve remembers to shrug, eventually.