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Father Al will not fly like Superman. He will not zip through the sky on his belly, hands extended as if stretching for something forever just out of reach. Father Al will not spin and bank like a fighter jet. Father Al will not be faster than a speeding bullet.
When Father Al flies, it will be more like his blood has been replaced with helium, and he has no choice but to leave the ground, and no control over what happens after that.
The Miracle Man
Father Al is the scariest priest Graham has ever met.
Father Al is old. Graham doesn’t know how old exactly, but does know Father Al’s head is completely bald and dotted with brown spots, and he has really pale skin, skin the color of milk, and it hangs in strange folds and flaps around his neck, almost like his skin is trying to slither off his face, Graham thinks. Father Al is tall, the tallest priest Graham has ever met, with long, thin arms and legs. He mostly reminds Graham of a withered daddy longlegs.
And Graham hates being an alter boy for Father Al.
Masses follow a script. There are always the readings, and then the homily, and then the communion, in that order. And the script is important for the alter boys because that is how they know the right time to hold the big red book so the priest can read from it or to bring the water for the priest to wash his hands before touching the Eucharist or to ring the bells. Knowing the script and following the script is what keeps Graham from making a mistake while up on the alter in front of St. Paul’s whole congregation.
But knowing the script isn’t much help for Graham when Father Al is saying mass. Father Al often forgets things. Sometimes he forgets little things. Sometimes when it’s time to sing, he forgets to turn off the mike that he wears, so instead of hearing the whole church singing all Graham can hear is Father Al’s deep, gravelly voice, and it sounds to Graham more like Father Al is yelling at kids to keep off the lawn, rather than singing to praise God. Other times Father Al forgets big stuff, whole parts of the script, important parts, like the homily or the prayers of the faithful. Then it becomes really difficult for Graham to know what to do, and if he ends up not bringing the big red book or the water to wash when Father Al wants it, Father Al glares at Graham as if Graham is amazingly stupid, right up there on the alter, in front of the whole congregation, with the big plaster Jesus hanging on the cross behind Graham looking down on him, his eyes closed, his head drooping, as if Graham’s mistakes are wearing him out.
So you can understand why Graham will be surprised when Father Al is the vessel for the miracle. You can understand why Graham will be so surprised when Father Al flies.
It is just a regular Sunday mass. Graham sits in one of the little chairs off to the side of the alter, where the alter boys always sit. Mark Kubiak, the other alter boy this Sunday, sits next to Graham. Mark smells like cheap cologne, like Old Spice or Aqua Velva, because he has started smoking and he thinks the cologne hides the scent of the cigarettes.
Graham’s mom stands in front of the alter, way over to the left side of the church, behind a microphone, facing the congregation to lead the singing, just like she does most Sundays. Graham’s Dad stands in the back, with the other ushers, just like he usually does. Graham’s family has the whole church covered. They are famous at St. Paul’s. They’ve been coming to St. Paul’s since Graham was a baby. It always takes Graham’s family at least twenty minutes to get to their car after mass because everybody has to stop them to say hi.
Father Al walks to the lectern. He reads the Gospel. He starts his homily. Today, he seems to remember the script.
As Father Al gives his homily, he speaks so loudly into the mike that what he says is a rumble, sounds like traffic, instead of words.
Graham is not listening to Father Al’s homily. He is not thinking about Father Al or church or God during mass. He usually doesn’t. He tries to, but it almost never works. Instead, he mostly thinks about superheroes. He makes up stories in his head, stories that he would like to see in comics, but that he knows he never will. He will try to imagine what would happen if Wolverine fought Superman. He will try to imagine what would happen if Captain America turned evil and decided to kill the president.
As Father Al gives his homily, Graham imagines what might have happened if Peter Parker had been stung by a radioactive bee instead of being bitten by a radioactive spider. Graham tries to imagine Beeman, the way he might look, the powers he might have, and then he hears, boom, boom, boom, Father Al’s heavy footsteps as he walks away from the lectern. Graham looks at Father Al, tries to forget Beeman, because, as long as Father Al remembers the script, he will start getting communion ready soon, and there will be work for the alter boys to do.
But then Graham hears nothing, no footsteps, but Father Al still moves across the alter. So Graham watches Father Al’s steps, and they are the same big steps he always takes, his long legs unwinding like whips. But his feet don’t touch the floor.
Father Al flies. For two more steps his feet never touch the shiny marble of the alter floor. They hover inches above it. And then Father Al is back on the ground, and Graham feels in his chest the boom, boom, boom of Father Al’s steps as he continues to walk across the alter. And Graham feels a tingling in his stomach because he has just witnessed a miracle. And Graham’s mother flips through her hymnal, preparing to sing. And Graham’s father twirls the long-handled collection basket he holds in his hands, like a pools shark fiddling with his cue. And Graham looks up at the plaster Jesus hanging on the cross behind the alter, and the plaster Jesus looks down at Graham.
Graham’s Bigger Secret
Graham started thinking about superheroes at mass because he hopes that is better than thinking about women, which used to happen a lot, and still sometimes happens. Mostly, he thinks about Mrs. Harrold, the most beautiful mom at St. Paul’s. She has blonde hair and shiny white teeth, the thin, tight frame of a former pageant girl, breasts that remind Graham of grapefruits. Sometimes when Mrs. Harrold sees Graham’s family leaving mass she’ll stop them to say hi and tell Graham how fast he is growing. Sometimes she will put her hand on Graham’s shoulder, and it always feels warm and electric.
Graham knows that he shouldn’t be thinking about women during mass, but it is hard not to. Graham figures that maybe God is testing him, putting the thoughts in his head to tempt him, to see if they distract him or if Graham will focus on mass and praying.
Graham used to worry that he failed the test, spectacularly, but now knows that God is truly loving, so loving that must grade on curve, because Graham must have passed the test, because God showed him Father Al flying, a miracle..
Graham wants to shout as soon as Father Al settles back to Earth, wants to yell, Hallelujah or Praise God or Holy cow, did you see that? But Graham does not because you can’t do that at mass. Graham has never seen anyone yell inside of St. Paul’s, unless Father Al’s singing with the mike on counts as yelling.
Graham goes straight to his room when he gets home from mass. He kneels by his bed, props his elbows on his mattress, joins his hands, and prays, just as he used to,
many years ago, before he started thinking about women at mass:
Dear God, it’s me, Graham, and yes, I know that you already know that, but it’s really hard to find a good way to start a prayer, but, of course, you already know that too, and you know, of course, that I saw Father Al fly, because you made sure I saw it, because you wanted me to see it.
I’m so grateful that you showed me a miracle. I think that will change me forever, make me a better person. I’m sure when I’m at mass now I will not be thinking about superheroes or anything else that I’m not supposed to be thinking about. I will only be thinking about the mass and about you, God, because you have shown me something incredible. You have called me personally. At least that’s what I think happened, but I also worry that it could be Satan making me see things or maybe this is another test from you that I’m not understanding right now. I’ve got a lot to think about, but I know you’ll help me figure this out and that you’ll help those who help themselves.
Anyway, thanks for a great mass. It was awesome.
Graham uses the computer in the family room. He researches, just like he did for his science project about manatees, when starchy old Ms. Owens kept telling him, Graham, I want you to learn how to find your own answers, every time he tried to ask her something about manatees.
Google Search: “flying priests”
Apr 23, 2008 … Search crews off Brazil’s coast find the balloons that were being used by a missing priest trying to set a flight record.
news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7360416.stm – 51k – Cached – Similar pages
Apr 22, 2008 … BRASILIA (Reuters) – A Brazilian priest is missing after he drifted out to sea while trying to set a record for a flight using helium-filled …
www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSN2228192120080422 – 63k – Cached – Similar pages
Jan 29, 2001 … Coming soon to Alberta are the Flying Fathers, an internationally famous team of hockey-playing priests who over the past 39 years have …
www.wcr.ab.ca/news/2001/0129/flying012901.shtml – 12k – Cached – Similar pages
The sky/ never fills with any/ leftover flying.” -Li-Young Lee, from Praise Them … Priests to purify site after Bush visit. Read all about it. …
paulacisewski.blogspot.com/2007/03/priests-to-purify-site-after-bush-visit.html – 29k – Cached – Similar pages
Graham thinks, nothing good. Graham thinks, it’s all junk.
Mom stands by the kitchen sink. Her hands move furiously. She is a carrot peeling machine. The peeler makes a clicking noise that Graham likes.
Have you ever seen a miracle, Graham asks her.
Mom’s hands don’t slow down for even a second. The peeler keeps clicking, doesn’t miss a single beat.
I think I’ve seen lots of miracles, she says. I think they’re around us everyday. The colors in the sunrise, the laughter of children, all those kind of things, and lots of other things, too. Those are all kind of miracles, don’t you think?
I saw Father Al fly, Graham says.
The clicking of the peeler stops. Mom looks at Graham as if waiting for him to deliver a punch line. Graham feels his face growing hot.
Come on, she says.
For real, Graham says.
You may be spending too much time with your comic books, Mom says.
Graham’s family won’t eat until they pray. Dad leads: Bless us oh Lord and these they gifts. . .
It’s the same prayer Graham has said before every meal since he first learned to speak. It used to be that saying the prayer before eating didn’t even feel like talking for Graham. It was more like just making sounds, something he did not even have to think about, a learned instinct like yelling a warning when you something bad is about to happen.
But tonight, the prayer feels different to Graham. It is as if he I can feel the words in his mouth as he speaks them, vibrating, pulsing, alive.
As soon as the prayer is finished, Dad reaches for the pork chops and Mom reaches for the mashed potatoes, and Graham does what he feels he must do.
What do you think about miracles, Graham says to Dad.
Oh, Graham, not this again, Mom says.
Not what again, Dad says.
I saw a miracle.
Really, Dad says. What kind of miracle.
I saw Father Al fly, during mass.
Mom drops her spoon on her plate. It makes a loud clank, a sound you would expect to hear coming from a restaurant kitchen. Graham, this really isn’t funny.
It’s not supposed to be funny, Mom. It’s a miracle.
Dad leans back in his chair. He puts both hands on his belly, as if feeling it for ripeness. We were all at mass. How come we didn’t notice Father Al flying, he says.
He didn’t fly much. Just for a few seconds, and just a few inches off the ground.
Still, we would have noticed, Mom says.
Maybe the miracle was just for me, Graham says.
If only one person sees it, is it a miracle or a hallucination, Dad says.
Dear God, Help
In the same spot next to the bed, in the same position, Graham prays, again:
Dear God, help.
I need some direction. You showed me a miracle, but I’m not sure why. Why did you pick me to see Father Al fly? There must be a reason—I’m sure you don’t make miracles just for the hell of it. In the Bible miracles are important, and they amaze people, and they change they way people think, and they make people believe and follow you. In the Bible miracles are powerful.
Not that your Father Al miracle wasn’t powerful. It changed me, and it made me believe even more, but it seems like there should be something more. What am I not getting? What am I not understanding?
Help me, God. Or at least help me help myself.
Dear Father Al
Confessionals at St. Paul’s require a choice. Walk in the door on the far left, and you’ll sit down right across from the priest and give your confession face-to-face. He will be able to read your body language. He will be able to look you in the eye. Walk in the door to the right, and you’re in a little room, separated from the priest by a yellowish screen that you can hear through, but can’t see through. Confession through the right door is anonymous. Graham chooses the right door, as usual.
Graham walks in and kneels on the kneeler. It squeaks under his weight. The room is small, like a closet, and illuminated by a single odd bulb that fills the space with a dull orange light, light like the glow of a campfire reflected on the faces around it.
The confessional scared Graham when he first started going, back in the fourth grade. But it has not scared him for a while now. Graham now thinks confession is wonderful, if done right. In the confessional, you don’t have to say all of your sins—imagine how long that would take. You just have to mention a few of the biggest sins, but when you walk out of confession, all of your sins are forgiven. This, thinks Graham, is a great deal.
Graham always picks his sins to say carefully, and picks his words carefully when he feels he must say a serious sin. Graham thinks giving a good confession may be a little bit like being a good lawyer, because you have to be honest in the confessional, but you also want to find the best way to present your case. Graham plans to be a lawyer someday.
But Graham knows today’s confession will be different. Today, confession scares Graham.
Father Al clears his throat, loud. It sounds to Graham like Father Al is gargling marbles.
Graham starts. Graham says, Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, and there’s other things Graham is supposed to say—confession has a script, too—but all of a sudden Graham forgets the script. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to remember what should come next, but he can’t. Graham searches inside his own head for the next line of the script, but finds only the five words that make this confession different and scary. So he blurts them out: Father, I saw a miracle.
And then it all pours out of Graham. He is not picking his words it all. They seem to be picking him.
Graham says he was not doing a good job of paying attention to the homily on Sunday, and he is sorry about that. But, Graham says, he did pay attention to the sound of Father Al’s footsteps when he walked away from the lectern, and Graham says he heard those footsteps stop. And then Graham tells Father Al about seeing him fly. Graham gives Father Al all the details about how high and how long he flew, about the light and air between his heavy black shoes and the alter floor.
Graham takes a deep breath. He wants to stop talking, but he does not.
Graham says, Father Al, the miracle was great, but it’s also confusing me. I feel like I’m supposed to do something with the miracle, but I don’t know what, and sometimes I’m scared that I didn’t really see a miracle, that maybe it’s just Satan playing tricks on me or maybe I’m just going plain old crazy, but then when I think these thoughts then I get scared that I’m disappointing God, making him mad at me because he went and showed me a miracle, but I’m too stupid to understand it.
Then Graham’s words stop, and he leans forward on the kneeler and rests the top of his head against the screen that hides him from Father Al. Graham does this because he feels very tired. He feels very tired because he feels empty.
Graham waits for Father Al.
And then Graham hears Father Al, softly but clearly, his snoring surprisingly melodic for a man who clears his throat like as if he is gargling marbles.
St. Paul’s is empty when Graham walks out of the right door of the confessional, the lights are low, his footsteps the only sound. Each footsteps starts like a slap as Graham walks towards the alter, the rubber of his sneaker sole striking the cold floor. But each slap echoes. The sound grows larger and larger, like it’s rippling out and up, like maybe the sounds of Graham’s footsteps are collecting in, are filling, the big vaulted ceiling at St. Paul’s.
Graham stops when he is near the center of the alter, and he looks up. There hovers the big plaster Jesus, hanging from the wooden cross, arms outstretched, drops of blood near the crown of thorns on his head, near the nails driven through his palms. And he is looking down at Graham.
Then Graham jumps. Graham feels his feet leave the ground, feels them churn the air, feels them free, touching nothing.
Then SLAP, like a super footstep, a sound bigger then all of his other steps, a sound so big it just might fill up the whole church.
Then Graham jumps again, and his feet leave the ground, and he feel them churn the air and ripple the light inches above the floor and he feels the plaster Jesus looking down on him, and, at least for that moment, that is enough. [/private]