If I get nothing else from this flash fiction exercise, I’ve just gotten this lovely quote by Joseph Roux: “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” According to Wikipedia, Roux was a French Catholic priest and a poet, and that is perfect for tonight’s story. A boatload of other good quotes are attributed to him, too, but I’m sticking with this one for now.
Truth in Sunday Clothes
Richard took his bike down from its rack in the garage and strapped his bag into the font basket. He was glad the weather had finally thawed enough to melt the ice and compacted mounds of snow that made him drive in winter instead of ride. He needed the he strength and power he felt when he used his body instead of just conveyed it along.
He knew the conversation he was headed for would be difficult at best, so the extra boost of biking in was that much more welcome. He smiled as he turned onto the bike path, waved at Sheila Tate and her kids as he glided past them. He hoped Sheila would come back to church now that her baby seemed to be a bit more manageable. He wouldn’t push her about it, though.
Since he’d come to Saint Agatha’s, he’d worked hard to change the community’s perception of priests as stern task masters. He knew both of his predecessors had seen their role as similar to angry, long-suffering parents. Both had used the mainstays of strict parenting to guide their parishioners, scolding and punishing anyone who dared stumble or stray outside the clearly demarcated lines, boldly reshaping the behaviors of their congregants to match their harsh, Puritanical visions of “right.”
Riding past the industrial park, Richard was pleased to see that posters for Valentine’s Day Love Song Karaoke were already up, their bright pink and red hearts and flowers flashy enough to catch anyone’s eye. When the teens in the youth council had suggested the event as a fundraiser, he had laughed. Their courage to broach the idea revealed the comfort they felt with him, and he’d agreed immediately.
He turned into the parking lot behind the high school and hooked his bike into the rack near the door. He’d been up late the night before planning for the discussion he was about to have, hoping it would actually be a discussion and not an argument, not anything worse.
He’d spent his two years at St. Agatha’s trying to roll back the ugly curtain of shame, distrust, and rigidity that had been draped in sodden, sagging folds over the community. Between them, the Fathers Hall and Neeson had spent 43 years in town, shutting down any spark that challenged their narrow views. Richard, as thrilled as he’d been to see that people were embracing the karaoke night, knew he hadn’t turned any kind of tide, that two years of gentle nudging wasn’t enough to do that trick.
He straightened his clothes, rand his hands over his face and hair and went inside. He wasn’t surprised to find such a large group of parents and nearly the full school staff waiting to see him. He was happy, though, to see some of their faces relax into genuine smiles when they saw him. It was a start, and that was usually all he needed.
His late night had been spent combing through books of poetry, pulling out a stanza or a couplet here, taking an entire piece there. He had a clean, typed copy of his arsenal folded neatly in his bible, marking the start of Psalms.
He’d left his last position — chaplaincy at a small private school in Syracuse — because he’d felt emasculated by the limited authority and scope of his role: hear confession, lead mass. Done. No community events, no dinners for saints days, no counseling of any kind. A few extra duties at Christmas and Easter, but that was all.
He could have found himself overwhelmed by the dramatically expanded scope at St. Agatha’s, but he drank it like water. He’d drawn up a five-year strategic plan at the end of his first six months, and real changes had slowly begun to take hold.
He’d been broadsided by the news that a teacher had been suspended for using Lucille Clifton’s poems in class and that now all of Clifton’s work was to be banned and a review of all contemporary poetry would be conducted with unacceptable works put on a list and removed from the library. Never mind that Clifton was one of his favorite writers. The censorship rocked him. Each of his small successes felt very small in light of that. But at least the reign of Hall and Neeson guaranteed that he’d been called to counsel them before anything more drastic would be done. At least no one was talking about burning anything.
He smiled as he shook hands with the principal and was surprised by the strong wave of longing for his dad. And, if his father were still alive, Richard would have called him during his night of research, told him his battle plan … and told him, too: “I went to seminary like you wanted, but this — this right here — is why I needed to be an English major in undergrad.” His father would have laughed, would have reminded Richard that he, too, had been an English major before math had stolen his heart.
He was ready. His father, who had given him Dylan Thomas as a high school graduation gift — his first “grown up” book of poetry. His father would walk with him up to the lecturn, nod his head in approval.