“Laying on of Hands” by Matt Muilenburg

23 February 2018 on Blog, Nonfiction   Tags: ,

I unwillingly entered the priesthood in seventh grade. My name appeared on the slip of paper my teacher drew from the fake chalice we would later use during our staging of a Stations of the Cross all-school Mass. My teacher pointed at me like hers was the Hand of God and told me that I was to be the star: the priest. She selected my classmates for less significant parts, those amongst us who acted as altar boys the only ones considered experts in their role. Quiet, shy, as reserved and nervous as an orthodox working on the Sabbath, I had no desire to assume such a spotlighted position.

Before dipping her fingers in the chalice, our teacher had told us that we had the option to decline the roles for which we were chosen. When I invoked that right, she waved me off and said, “No, no, no, you’ll be great.” It was settled: I was to become Fr. Faux.

Shit.

For the next few weeks, I crucified holy water t’s upon my classmates’ pimply foreheads, which felt like Bible verses scribed in braille. I abhorred each “hallelujah” and “hallowed be thy name” I uttered, detested them so much that I was too embarrassed to admit that hate to the real priest later that month during reconciliation. And because of that, as the tenets of Catholic cause-and-effect avow, my soul remained so, so dirty.

*

There is much evidence of my father’s mid-’70s Afro. The Afro, as evidenced in yearbooks and photo albums, looks as if it had been styled inside a rusted cotton candy dispenser. Brown. Fluffy. Mesmerizing. My father’s senior year class photo showcases this hairstyle best, the Afro complemented by an orange and brown checkered leisure suit and oversized orange bowtie, the color palette of someone raised during the post-hippie apocalypse of fashion. He has a serious look in this photograph, and stories passed from his generation to mine confirm to me that this look was, in fact, a reality. My father, even as a teenager, was not someone who cared what others thought of him.

Fr. Hugh, while showcasing a much subtler personal affect than my father, also looked like a man who was confident enough in himself to not care what others thought of him. The priest taught at the Catholic high school my father attended, schooling students in Latin in the classroom and the pick and roll on the court, serving as the freshman boys’ basketball coach. My father never studied under Fr. Hugh, leaving Latin to classmates who envisioned a life in surplices, vestments, and denial of their biological need to spread their seed instead of the Word. My father—bless his soul—had no such desire.

Fr. Hugh possessed the look of a drill instructor, short and muscular, with hair buzzed to bristles. In the only photo I’ve ever seen of him, Fr. Hugh is smiling. Not a thirty-two-tooth salute, but a smile that trends toward grin, like his mouth is a wrinkle that his face can’t quite iron out. He has a beard that touches no part of his face, fuzzy gristle running roughshod beneath his chin and halfway down his thick neck. His Adam’s apple is a bicep, his jawline a scythe. The photo is black and white, but it’s obvious his dark eyes would be no brighter in color. Fr. Hugh, as expected, dons the black garb of servitude, the many muscles beneath emasculating the other priests with whom he shares the camera lens.

The photograph shows much of Fr. Hugh, but it doesn’t show his temper, a red-faced mythos my father heard rumors of when he arrived in ninth grade. Fr. Hugh’s rage lurked beneath his collar like a demon molesting the possessed, a fervor that likely served him well during his preclergy days as a Golden Gloves boxer. Despite all of this, my father assures me that Fr. Hugh was a lamb, a docile and kind man whom my father liked—admired, even. Something of a nunc idoli, in the parlance of the priest. Fr. Hugh was a man for whom my father was happy to hustle. And hustle was his game.

During my father’s prime, eyewitnesses to his hardwood exploits tell me that he was molded in the manner of Bill Laimbeer, Charles Oakley, and Metta World Peace, one Tomjanovich haymaker short of committing a Kermit Washington each trip down the court.  My father’s mission: beat bruises into the tender flesh of the point guards and small forwards foolish enough to enter the paint. He paved the way for teammates to score and boarded like big Chief Parrish if they missed. He dove after loose balls like they were children falling off cliffs, needled referees, set picks. He threw elbows. Jabbed shooting guards. Kneed small forwards. Wedgied mascots. Pissed in Gatorade. Slept with the other team’s cheerleaders.

And then their mothers.

Once, he played in the A-team and B-team games on the same night and fouled out of both.

Afro, Chuck Taylors, shorts with hems that cuffed eight inches above his knees, my father was hustle come flesh and blood. And he played for the Catholics, the blood on his elbows the opposite of stigmata: The wounds he opened were not miracles. They were inevitabilities.

My father, on the court, was an asshole.

Fr. Hugh loved this about him. The priest had other players to fill up the scorebook with glory stats like points and assists. He had my father for rebounds—the most blue-collar statistic in basketball, the custodial metric of the hardwood. That’s not to say my father couldn’t shoot.  I bore witness to his accuracy hundreds of times during lopsided affairs at the hoop in my grandparents’ driveway. My father and I frequently battled during my adolescent years, mainly in the form of H.O.R.S.E., Around the World, and, occasionally, Twenty-One. He never let me win, of course. While my father was deadly from midrange and better than most from twenty feet, Fr. Hugh used him as his one-man infantry, a role my father relished.

One weekend, Fr. Hugh sent his Bruins into battle against the Panthers, an area rival. The Bruins leapt out to an early lead, maintaining the advantage for much of the first half. Then sloppiness settled in and the scoreboard soured as the Panthers chipped into the lead.

Chip.

Chip.

Chip.

With each chip, Fr. Hugh’s rage clicked up a level, and by the time the Panthers took the lead, the priest was hotter than the hell he’d been warning everyone about. Fed up with his team, Fr. Hugh called a timeout and stomped halfway onto the court, waiting for the five riders of his personal apocalypse to arrive. Fr. Hugh boiled, furious over what he perceived to be a lack of effort from his cadre of fourteen-year-olds. My father, ever the hustler, hurried to the sidelines, arriving first. Knowing he and his teammates were about to get an earful from the man who swore to champion commandments one through ten, my father dropped his eyes.

That’s when Fr. Hugh punched him in the face.

My father hit the court, shocked more than hurt, unsure what had happened. He knew Fr. Hugh had slugged him. He knew everyone saw it happen. He knew this was abnormal behavior. But he didn’t know what he’d done wrong. The answer: My father made the mistake of being the first player to the huddle, becoming the outlet for the priest’s Old Testament wrath. His only mistake was hustling.

Before each game, my father peered into the stands to make sure my grandparents were watching. He looked in the stands again as he lay on the court to see if they’d witnessed the punch. My grandmother was there, her hand over her mouth like she, too, had been kissed with a four-knuckle blessing, but my grandfather, Merv, was gone, rampaging down the bleachers, his face redder than the blood that trickled from my father’s lip. My grandfather, a churchly man, would’ve excommunicated Fr. Hugh from his collar had he gotten to him, but he never did, corralled by half a dozen fans. Pinned back, Grandpa Merv spat out expletive after expletive like he was rewriting the “Our Father” with four-letter words. In the end, however, Fr. Hugh’s punch was the only one thrown that day.

*

Serving was the one extracurricular activity that ran the gamut of seventh grade. Basketball: October-February. Bowling: September-April. Serving: every goddamn week. A few weeks prior to my performance as Fr. Faux, the altar boy director assigned me to a midweek morning Mass before school. The priest we were to serve that day was, like all the priests I knew, an elderly man, kind and light-hearted, even funny at times. He’d converted me from Lutheranism back in second grade with two perpendicular swipes of his thumb on my forehead. Years later, he did the same to my mother. I liked this priest more than the others.

The night before I was to serve, some friends and I explored the creek a few blocks south of our neighborhood, staying there until the sun crashed. Later, I fell asleep without washing and woke too late the next morning to shower. I threw on my school uniform, slung my backpack over my shoulders, and zoomed to the church on my bike, bursting into the sacristy a minute or two before the first “hallelujah!” “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” the priest spat. Out of breath, I tossed on my cassock and surplice and rushed to the back of the church with the priest and the other altar boy.

The Mass, like most, was unmemorable. After we left to love and serve the Lord, I returned to the sacristy to squirm out of my vestments, still bleary-eyed from the early morning rousing. I grabbed my backpack and went to leave when the priest grabbed me by my shoulder and spun me around. He seized my wrists and flipped my hands over like he was scanning for nail punctures. He shook his head, his grip tightening, the color leaving his fingers. “You couldn’t have bathed this morning? Couldn’t have even washed your hands?” I looked down: My callouses and soft spots were browned with the detritus of a good time at the creek. The priest had noticed them when I handed over the water and wine just prior to transubstantiation. There was disgust in his voice and on his face, burst capillaries on his nose reddening as the blush settled into his cheeks and forehead. The heat from his eyes could have melted his bifocals. I couldn’t respond to his inquiry, excuses and answers locked in my throat. Couldn’t explain, couldn’t lie. And I certainly couldn’t have been more ashamed. For a moment, I thought he might slap me—the sins of the father, and all.

“This is highly inappropriate,” the priest huffed, dropping my wrists. “It will not happen a second time or you’ll never serve for me again.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue and left me alone in the sacristy. I crumpled into the chair next to the closet and put my face in my dirty, dirty hands.

*

Spared the wrath of Grandpa Merv, Fr. Hugh looked at what he’d done and crumbled. He helped my father off the floor then sat next to him on the bench. The handsome young priest, the former boxer who blessed my father with brass knuckles, offered him a penance full of apologies as play resumed, seeking forgiveness like he was on the kneeling side of the confessional for once.  “I’m so, so sorry,” Fr. Hugh repeated over and over. This man whom my father admired, whom he respected, begged for mercy, teary-eyed and choking on self-inflicted regret.

My father, just fourteen, still a boy really, forgave him. What else could he do?

I’ve heard several variations of the events surrounding the punch, each only slightly deviating from my father’s account. Even my father-in-law, who met my father for the first time thirty years after the punch, had heard the story from a mutual friend who was in the stands that night.

This is a story we laugh at now.

This is a story that will be passed down for generations.

This is a story that will make me stop when I tell it to my kids so I can explain to them what a priest is because we don’t attend Mass.

My father does, though. He sits in the pew each Sunday, like he once sat on the bench next to Fr. Hugh, praying and asking for forgiveness.

-----

Matt Muilenburg teaches at the University of Dubuque. His creative nonfiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Southern Indiana Review, Storm Cellar, Superstition Review, New Plains Review, and others. Matt, a 2018 Pushcart nominee, holds an MFA from Wichita State University and lives near the Field of Dreams movie site. You can follow him on Twitter @mullyburg.

Dora Wang, originally from China, is currently a senior in the Illustration undergraduate program at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She has received awards from 3x3, Applied Arts, Society of Illustrators LA, Communication Arts shortlist, and Creative Quarterly. Her work is in the Permanent Collection of the Godine Library at MassArt. You can follow her work on Instagram at @dooora_w.

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