A "Vorare" Story
Start at the beginning of the Vorare series
Gordon raced across the icy parking lot until his right foot slipped from under him, forcing him to slow to a walk. He had stayed for another plate and a half of dinner with Sylvie, and then for a kiss underneath the mistletoe which lingered much longer than he had expected. He hadn't been kissed like that since he was a teenager, hungry and desperate for the touch of someone who understood him. Breathless and torn between desire and duty, it had only been a last-minute glimpse at the snow outside which prompted him to do the right thing and leave.
Still, he was late. The cab was a necessity – trying to park in the church lot on Christmas Eve was a losing proposition. With too many people showing up once a year to be reasonably held within the blacktop confines, cars were packed into both spaces and throughways like cattle in a holding pen. He'd made that mistake last year, and didn't mean to repeat it once he realized how many cabbies drove past the churches at the end of Mass.
The lights outside the church had none of the color of a secular Christmas, but to Gordon's eyes more warmth was packed into them than in a hundred window displays. For the first time since leaving Sylvie's apartment, Gordon made himself stop as he took a deep breath. God understood. He was here, after all, and fulfilling his promise. He looked to the statue of Saint Raymond and bowed his head to listen to the strains of the hymn already in progress. The deep burr of the organ pipes brought him comfort, even as the muffled voices of the congregation came through stone and glass to fill him with a sense of belonging, a desire to lift his own voice in song and praise. He shouldn't have been late, but it would be poor form to enter in the middle of a hymn. He waited for the final strains of Amen to ring through the night, then pulled open the heavy wooden door as the organ's drone began to fade.
Warmth and light spilled out, almost dazzling him. He'd grown more accustomed to the cold than he would have thought possible back in South Carolina, and the sudden rush of artificial heat startled him into flinching for a second before he stepped quickly across the threshold and into the church.
As he had expected, even the entrance foyer was packed with the faithful. Men, women and children stood shoulder to shoulder, sweating from the combined heat of the furnaces, their woolen coats, and their proximity to one another. Still, Gordon was content to stand with his shoulder against the door, feeling the slight chill along his right-hand side contend with the pressing heat of the church's interior.
From this vantage point he could see neither priest nor altar, but the blessing of a loudspeaker system enabled all to hear the words of comfort and joy coming from the sanctuary. Still, the loudspeakers were old, which meant that the priest's voice was interspersed with scratches and a continual buzzing in the background. Standing so close to the speaker, it was abnormally loud, and Gordon winced as the initial burst came across his shoulder.
"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian. For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD … will perform this."
The good father's enthusiasm on the name of the LORD had set up enough feedback to block out a few of the following words, and set the crowd to a collective murmur of irritation. Several heads turned toward the loudspeaker, and, in turn, to Gordon. He gave the a half-smile and a weak shrug, as if apologizing for guilt by association. Only one smile answered his, the rounded face of a baby drooling over its father's shoulder. The other faces wore various expressions of exhaustion, discomfort, and even disapproval.
Gordon realized he was leaning against the door, pressing his side against its wooden surface as an escape from the heat. Of course, it would look disrespectful. He quickly straightened up, but even as the congregation turned away from him he was still aware of those looks of disapproval, of judgment. Nobody was watching him, but still he felt the hot flush on the back of his neck that made him think he had consciously done wrong, that he was expected to pay for the wrong that he had done.
Still, only the baby, with its fat Buddha-face lolling first to one side, then the other, was even looking in his direction. As he tried to refocus his attention on the unseen priest's litany, he couldn't help glancing about to make sure he wasn't being stared at. Nothing, nobody, only the baby. Gordon sighed, suddenly very aware of the difference between the warmth of the apartment and the heat of the church. He felt as if he were coming down with a fever, and as he began shrugging off his heavy winter coat he realized that his armpits were soaking in sweat.
The thought made him queasy. Getting sick on Christmas Eve was miserable enough, but coming down with something when you were far from home and unable to even sit down was much, much worse. Maybe he should just duck out and call the cab service on his cell phone, get back home and call it a night.
But he'd promised, and he had left a wonderful woman at home alone on Christmas Eve to keep this appointment. He couldn't just leave, no matter how he was feeling. No matter how upset his stomach was rapidly becoming, between the heat and the thought of getting sick and the scratchy, monotone lecture ringing behind his right shoulder and the sudden, unmistakable smell of a full diaper...
Oh, God, he thought, as the baby's eyebrows drew together and its lips began to slide against one another, not now. His silent plea went unanswered, and the baby took a deep breath and began to howl. The father brought it around in front of him, gently bobbing the child up and down, up and down, but the motion did nothing to stop the gasping screams.
With the murmuring congregation now focused on this new irritation, Gordon brought his right hand up to loosen the top button of his shirt. It was now unbearably hot, and as the father turned around to get the baby into the bathroom for a change the smell hit him full-on. Pictures flew unbidden to his mind – he'd never actually changed a diaper, but had seen it done now and again, and the visual sent the top of his stomach on a greasy roll.
It wasn't possible to keep standing. Disapproval or no, he needed to sit down, get a handle on things and settle down. He realized he hadn't really heard a single word of the mass after his entrance, that the electronic buzzing and scratching of the loudspeaker was more real to him than the words he'd come to hear, so getting a little break wouldn't be a disaster. Still, the only place to sit down was the bathroom, and the baby was in there getting changed. God, why couldn't the mother have taken it, and given me some kind of break?
The heat and the noise and aches in his body, the now-continual flip-flops of his stomach, the greasy feeling all over his midsection and the stickiness of his chest, the sweat plastering his bangs...
It was suddenly too much. With a lurch he pressed the bar to let himself out, ignoring the exasperated sighs of the people around him, welcoming the cold air and the stinging wind in his face. A young blond man grabbed the door behind him and began pulling it closed with a black look and a growl: "If you're going out, then stay out, dammit. Let decent people listen in peace.”
Gordon scarcely heard as he staggered over to the statue of Saint Raymond, bent over, and started to vomit. Thin and watery brown bile splashed against the snow-covered ground and set it to steaming, the sour taste and filthy look of the thing bringing more and more waves crashing in its wake. He sank to his knees in the snow with the terrible sounds of an animal in pain, heaving again and again, aware that something was horribly wrong, that nothing would ever be completely right again, that he was desecrating the ground in which he had sought sanctuary on the holiest night of the year.
He was aware of the graven eyes of the saint upon him, no longer sad and filled with the martyr's pity for the world but transformed into a stare of heavenly and serene contempt for the abject figure huddled in pain at its feet. They'd threaded a padlock through his lips, right through his lips, burning hot metal and the taste of iron and torment, that was how it ended for Saint Raymond, and with the thought of that searing pain came another series of heaves. Inside the church, the organ started again, and the thin strains which had held forth such comfort only twenty minutes earlier now seemed shrill and mocking to his ears.
He had no idea how long he knelt there, right hand grasping the pedestal on which the saint stood, left hand going numb from its burial in snow, thick saliva rolling slowly from between his gasping lips. The wind had picked up, and he was shaking from weakness and sickness and cold and fear. He wasn't just sick. He was hallucinating. Nobody had been judging him, watching him. The statue looked the same as it always had, though crouching at its feet over a lake of sick...
Once more. Then, he simply knelt, shutting out all thoughts except the cold, focusing on nothing more than getting his body to stop. It was done. He was finished. Whatever bug had been in him, it had to be out now. He kept his eyes closed and shakily got to his feet, still gripping the cold stone pedestal for support. He didn't open his eyes until he had turned away, brushing his left hand against his trousers to remove the snow and sticking it under his right armpit in search of bodily warmth. His coat lay in the snow alongside him, and he snatched it to bundle up quickly. As hot as he had been inside, now he was well aware that he'd walked into a Midwestern winter damp with sweat and coatless. His hair was actually freezing from the sweat on it, and if he didn't act fast he wasn't sure what could happen.
Gloves. Stocking cap. Scarf. He'd laughed in November at how much space the winters here required you to have in your pockets, but now he was more than grateful to Sylvie for making sure he had what he needed to stay warm.
Sylvie. She'd asked him to stay. Her apartment had been everything the church was not – intimate, comfortable, filled with emotion. She had shared with him what the crowded press of people behind the door never had, a real sense of peace, a sense that he was a part of something, that he was important to someone, that he had something to belong to. He'd go back. It wasn't too late. Promises be damned, he wasn't welcome in there any more, and the man who closed the door had made sure he knew it.
He walked toward the church, away from the wind and the brown stain of his sin. If the church's inside would be no shelter for him, he would take it without. Wedged in a corner between two stone walls, as protected from the wind as possible, he removed his gloves and called the cab company. He'd be away from here within the half-hour. He'd be home. He'd be safe.
Everything would be all right.
Story by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2006
Photo by Rory Clark, Copyright 2006, Stopped Motion Photography