March 2, 2010

His heart was thudding in his chest. Something was coming for him! Don’t think about that, hold on to the woman’s voice. Concentrate! “How many times?” He could only get so many words on the exhale. Three was about right. The panic would build toward the end. Would there be air when he needed to inhale?  

He got the next sip.

“Once. This week.”

Think about something good, something with air. Air! Cool, dry, silky over the lips, oh God, help me! I can’t! Can’t get air!

“Did it hurt?” Sip. “Anyone?” Sip.

The woman paused and thought. “I suppose it made someone mad. “

No, no, don’t go there. Not therapy. Sin. “Anything else?” Sip. Poison air, like melted wax. Nauseous, gonna hurl. Help.

“And, the seventh Commandment.” 

“Yes?” He was drowning. Christ drowned. Couldn’t get air. Way they stretched His arms. There was no air, just her perfume, hair spray, awful. Panic was right there where he could touch it. Something was coming. All he had to do was scream, and then: no air. What happened next? It couldn’t be worse than this. Help.

“The one against stealing, Father.” She sounded exasperated, to have to tell him. It hurt his pride!

“Yes?” Could she hear him panting?

“Oh. Well, I bought some of them pirate DVDs for the kids.”

Restitution, oh Lord. How could he explain in three words? “Any good?”

“What? Good? How do you mean?”

“Good. Catholic.” 

“They’re cartoons, Father.”

“But, good?”

“Yeah, well, a couple. I guess.” 

“Bad ones . . . in trash. Five dollars . . . good ones. . . . Poor basket.  And.”

“Yes, Father?” 

“Read to them. And” — sip — ” work on the gossiping.” He barely got it out. “Penance: decade rosary. Say the Act.”

“Oh my God I am heartily sorry,” the woman began the Act of Contrition. Tim held onto her voice in the dark confessional and tried not to think about air and said the ancient words of absolution as clearly as he could. 

When she was finished, he said, “Go in peace. Pray for me. How many waiting? Please?”

A moment later, she whispered on the other side, “No one left, Father.”

“Thank you,” he murmured, but she was gone. Five more minutes. Just five more minutes in case somebody showed up late. 

Finally Father took off the purple stole. He started to hang it over the back of the chair, but it was soaked with sweat, and he draped it over his shoulder and groped his way out of the confessional. It could use an airing, but not as much as he could.

He knelt to say goodnight. What a relief, to kneel in the open air of the old church. They had designed it for Florida, and the hot air found its way up and out through the steeple, and relatively cooler air was pulled in through the windows. It was still hot, but the attack faded instantly in the wonderful sensation of flowing air. 

Father looked at the tabernacle. He thought of the confessions he had heard that evening and he prayed for them, the straggly men and women who had knelt with him one by one in that hot box: help them to be strong against their sins, Lord. Then he amended it: help us.

He was too tired to pray in words. He was so hungry he was trembling, and he smelled rank, and he had to pee. He offered all that to God, too. He offered it for his penitents tonight, like a chess move, for that’s what St. Teresa of Avila said about prayer, it was like playing chess with God.  If He were a kind God— and while the jury was still out, the evidence pointed toward mercy—His counter move would be help for those who had come and told their sins and hoped for divine assistance in the endless struggle. Just like chess. Or maybe poker. (St. Teresa didn’t say that!)

His penitents! What a struggle, to be really sorry for their sins! And yet that, the only really necessary thing. What did the mass say, when the priest put the incense in the censor? Help me put a wall at the door of my mouth, to not make excuses in sin? 

But ah yes they made excuses! They stole because they were poor or thought they were poor. 

They lied because the truth hurt, and they dodged it like a blow.

They gossiped because no one listened to them otherwise. They dressed immodestly because no one looked at them, really looked at them, otherwise. They committed adultery because they were so lonely in the hell that marriage can be, if it goes bad. And it went bad so often. Because they insisted on contraception, without knowing it’s the death of love. Because they lusted in their hearts.  

Besides, too many men didn’t want to grow up. They secretly hated being the breadwinner and they covered it up with sweet, liberal talk about “equality,” so women ended up doing both jobs, and the marriage died. Or the wives! Couldn’t do a nice thing for a husband if the world depended on it. 50/50 all the way, like a business! And so the marriage died.

Monogamy is so delicate and so difficult. Men could really act like pigs. But women have a trick or two themselves! He’d learned a lot in the confessional. For one thing, he’d learned to appreciate celibacy!

They cheated on their taxes, they littered, they killed other human beings in public, and kicked the dog in private. They found it really hard to stop. He could understand it. He knew them. He was one of them. Our sins are all we have. Seems like. 

Yet God said stop. But really quietly. God knew He overwhelmed men. He could make men love Him, but He didn’t want to, since that wouldn’t be love.  God tried to make up for it by invisibility and He said stop in a tiny voice, like the wind, that anyone could pretend not to hear. So much he wanted the love of free men and women!

The tired people at evening confession hadn’t ignored Him. What a miracle! It moved Father Tim to prayer. He locked his heart on the Presence in the tabernacle and begged, Help us. He wished his heart said that to God with every beat. Help us, or the world will end. Because that was pretty much the way it was around here on earth now — End Game. Extinction.

He walked back to the rectory.  The sky was rich with stars to the east, and in the west towering rain clouds still gilded from the sunset pulsed with energy, full of heat lightning. The smell of his housekeeper’s jasmine billowed all around him, but he was okay now, he could even appreciate it. His claustrophobia seemed a mild penance compared to the problems and sacrifices of some of his parishioners, even though it had kept him at home in Florida all his life while his twin brother was already in outer space.

But if you had to be somewhere on earth, this was the place. And they left him alone to say the old mass and do things the old ways. He would be so happy, except he missed his brother Tomás on the new space colony, up there with the stars.

He opened the screen door on the back porch quickly, and entered and closed it quickly again, to keep the moths and mosquitoes out. The rectory kitchen was as old as the church and just as thoughtfully designed for the heat. It was a separate wing from the house, with its own porch, so the cooking heat and odor dissipated. A cast-iron wood burning stove dominated one side of the room. An enormous window opened the sink area to a view of the sweet slow creek below where otters sometimes played and water lilies bloomed, and there at the sink his housekeeper Dovie stood firmly planted on her house slippers, washing dishes. She turned when she heard him enter. “I’ll get your supper, Father. You’ll be wanting to wash your hands.”

When he came back from the bathroom, she was standing by his chair holding his dinner plate. She would give him as usual a thorough examination before she put the plate on the table. If he failed any part of the examination, she would return the plate to the counter and set out to rectify whatever was amiss. He hoped he’d pass. He was starving. “You’ve had another attack, from the looks of you,” she said.

“It wasn’t so bad, I got through it. But my stole could use some sunshine, okay, Dovie? Please, thank you.” He seated himself and held his breath to see if she was going to put down the plate. She weighed his words syllable by syllable. Finally satisfied, she placed it carefully before him, and returned to the counter for the hot rolls and the salt and pepper, and his juice. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and collard greens from the rectory garden. Another benefit of living in Florida, if you still lived on earth.

He wondered what Tomás had for supper tonight. So many things were coming online on the colony, maybe they had fried chicken and collard greens by now. He’d have to e-mail and ask, if it wouldn’t be too much like gloating over his own dinner. Many people had someone on the colony who’d been evacuated, and everyone felt sorry for them, the people on the colony. To be living somewhere with just the thinnest layer of air, and no fresh food, and possible terrorist destruction. Just hung out there like a big target.

Dovie interrupted his thoughts, and his dinner. “Well, Father, we’ve had a crank phone call.” She had a slip of paper in her hands.

“How is that, Dovie?” She handed him the slip of paper and he peered at it while he took a bite of mashed potatoes. “It’s long-distance,” he observed. And not even normal long distance, there were too many numbers.

“Well, listen to this, Father: it’s worse than long-distance. He said it’s Rome!”

Father Timothy and Dovie locked eyes for a moment. Rome! She might as well have said, It’s the moon.

“But it has to be fake, Father,” Dovie said. “Look at the name. Isn’t that the Vatican Secretary of State?”

“It is, Dovie.” Father Timothy said. “It is indeed.” He finished his supper, though, before he punched the numbers into the rectory phone. And the call went through to the Vatican Secretary of State, who answered it personally, as if it were his private line, and only then Tim realized how late it was there.

“This is Father Timoteo Monaghan. From St. Anne’s? In Melbourne? Florida?” he ran on, as His Eminence said nothing. “You called here and left a message? You said it was urgent, I know it’s very late there. Or maybe there was some kind of practical joke, and please excuse me, if so. Do you speak English?” he finally wound up as the voice said nothing.

There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line. “No, it is not a joke, Father Monaghan,” the voice said, in perfect English. “I’ve been waiting for your call. You are the brother of Tomás Monaghan, yes? The astronaut, the captain of the Regina Coeli?”

 “Tomás?! He’s alright, isn’t he? He’s on the colony! Has something happened? But he’s not a captain!”

“Well, but he is a captain,” the heavily accented voice continued. “I am sure he will explain it all to you. He is a captain, of a special ship. And you are about to be a bishop.” His Eminence paused to let his words sink in. Then he continued. “You must come to Rome tomorrow. You must be consecrated.”

“What are you talking about?” Timothy said. “Bishop of what?”

“And then you will join Tomás on the Regina Coeli. And you will be bishop of–of everything that is not Earth. You will be bishop of the universe.  I suppose that is how we shall have to put it.” He paused, chuckled dryly. “Or, bishop of at least as far as Alpha Centauri.  Although you yourself will not live that long. But you will consecrate other priests, and other bishops.”

It had entered Timothy’s head when Tomás left earth that this was coming for the Church.  The Church would have to act, for Tomás was Catholic, there surely were other Catholics among the evacuated, and that meant there had to be priests. He had thought they’d come from Earth, of course. Rotate in and out or something. Not that different from missions on Earth. For those who could fly, of course. Never for him, personally.

His Eminence continued. “Your brother has been selected for a special mission for Earth. It is special for the Church, as well. He has been given a ship. There are two others. They will race to Alpha Centauri. There’s a billion dollar prize. Think of that, a billion dollars!  It is believed that in a planet system there, there are carbon dioxide resistant plants.  They know that from the spectographic data, it is a planet with more carbon dioxide that earth has now yet plants have been detected.  Anyway this is how they explained it to me. The Regina Coeli‘s mission is to bring these plants back to earth and graft that tolerant gene to our native plants. As you know, we are losing wheat. “

He paused while that sunk in. They had thought wheat to be among the strongest, most resistant, of plants, but the crops in recent years had been dangerously small. Wheat was losing. It was something to do with the increase in carbon dioxide, Tim knew that much. Without wheat, there was no Blessed Sacrament. There were no substitutions for what Christ had chosen. Not even the Church, not even the Holy Father himself,  had the power to change that. 

“Alpha Centauri,” murmured Father Timothy. “That’s –so far.” He couldn’t remember how far. 

“It’s several generations, in fact, under the best circumstances. I have recently become something of an expert,” said His Eminence. “That’s why there must be a bishop. And so you must come to Rome, and then you will be evacuated.” 

“But I can’t!” Timothy blurted. “I can’t!” 

“Of course,” His Eminence said.  His voice grew gentler. “Of course, you must have time to think. This is very sudden for you. It is true that you will give up many things, and even the saints had time to consider that. But we don’t have time, Father Timoteo. That’s the problem. That’s why I’m calling you, not the Papal Nuncio. That’s why there’s no letter on fine linen, in Latin, Father Monaghan.  Nothing is normal. Our planet is dying.”  The fine, confident, richly masculine European voice faltered for a moment, and then regained strength. “But the Church is not. The ship is leaving. There must be a bishop on it. You say you can’t, but pray first. Because you must. You must! For Holy Mother Church!”

“No, I mean I can’t come to Rome.” Father hesitated for only a fraction of a second before he lied. “I can’t fly. I–I have an ear infection. I’m taking antibiotics. The doctor was very clear.” He bit the inside of his cheek, and felt terrible. Lying!  And for what?  He was only putting off the inevitable. What did he think, there’d be some kind of miracle down the road? He wasn’t, no way, never going to happen, never going to get on a shuttle and fly to the space colony and then put himself in even deeper, in some kind of twenty-first century ark headed for a distant galaxy. Not even for Tomás. Why lie in the first place and lead them on? 

His Eminence hesitated only a moment. “All right, then, Father Monaghan. No problem. If you cannot come to Rome tomorrow, Rome shall come to you. Can you arrange local accommodations for, let’s see, myself, and three other cardinals? We’ll bring everything we need. And call your bishop and let him know I’ll be in touch. He must attend. See you tomorrow.”  

* * *

Albert Taylor got in by mistake. He knew the deal.  He knew the score. Al had gotten in more than a few places in his life by being 6’2 and 250, and being black sometimes helped.

And to get a seat in this bar, this night, in this crowd, you had to be somebody special, and Al was darn sure he was here by mistake. Pretty much like his whole life.

He sipped his ginger ale and scanned the crowd. Everybody here had something in common: they had a report letter or e-mail from EVAC, and the ID to back it up. They were NASA, or medical, or special support, they were young, healthy, educated, no addictions except their egos. Earth was going to miss them.

Whoa! What have we here? A priest?

A priest, young, stood close to the door, worn down by his luggage, and pale as the Holy Ghost. He had on his collar, he had on that old thing they used to wear, a cassock — hey, how would that work in zero gravity? Al felt sorry for him, in spite of himself and his aversion to beliefs of all kinds. But it must be hard to be a priest, the world being what it was. It was hard enough to be an engineer.

The priest glanced at him, caught his eye, and Al could see how really young he was, and scared half to death, damn.  In spite of himself, Al gave him a little wave. The priest looked startled for a second, and then made his way to Al through the thick crowd. 

“Here, stash your stuff,” Al said, and slid the black athletic bag and suitcase under the bench with his own bag. “Albert Taylor, NASA,” he said, extending his hand, and couldn’t resist a little thrill of pride he felt, still felt, every time. He hadn’t added his specialty: civil engineer, specialty: sanitation –the shit detail. He slid over and made room.

“Father Timoteo Monaghan,” the priest said and took Al’s hand. 

“Tim, good to meet you.” Al sized up the kid’s grip. Not bad. “Timoteo Monaghan, you say? McTaco, huh?” 

The priest grinned. “Something like. Mom and Dad.”

“So,” Al said, “you got your papers? You on the shuttle?”

The kid looked thoughtful and vaguely patted the breast pocket of his black jacket. “Yeah,” he said. “I got my papers. I’m supposed to be joining my brother, for this crazy mission. He’s going to Alpha Centauri, he’s got a ship. I mean, he’s not going to Alpha Centauri, but the ship is. He’s going, I mean, but–he won’t make the whole trip and everything.”

It struck Father Tim then, for the first time, that it only made sense if Tomás were married. His kids would have to finish the trip! Was Tomás married, and a captain, too? Because it would have to be, no, not his kids, the kids of his kids who would bring the ship that far, if Tim understood it right. Dear God, they were talking about getting on a spaceship and never getting off, never. That might even give people who didn’t have claustrophobia a moment or two of reflection. I’ll never do it, Tim thought, and sighed heavily. What was he doing here, then? Why had he come here? What the hell did he think he was doing? 

“No kidding! The Alpha Centauri project — it’s on?” Al could hardly believe it. The dream! Mighty NASA’d finally gotten off its ass! 

“I don’t know much about it. But my brother is the captain, Tomás Monaghan. Maybe you know him?”

Al shook his head. “I’m just an engineer.” And not an especially good one, either, he thought. Lost my edge when Mary died, why am I here? When Mary died, everything died. She’d been his reason for doing every hard thing he’d ever done, which included getting up each morning and facing the NASA pressure cooker, and he didn’t have anything to put in her place. Why do any of it? She’d been his reasons, all his reasons.  

He inadvertently pictured the small envelope tucked in his left pocket. The envelope with the special pills he’d been carrying with him ever since the funeral. His back-up, or his back-out. When he just couldn’t stand the emptiness another minute. But he was still afraid. Now he was letting himself be evacuated when he knew he didn’t have what it takes to be a hero. No, to be a man. 

When Mary died, everything just died. She’d been his reason for doing every hard thing he’d ever done, which included getting up each morning and facing the NASA pressure cooker, and he didn’t have anything to put in her place. He shook his head and abandoned his thoughts. They led nowhere. 

So, you’re what, you’re going along for the ride? I mean, I’m sorry, but really I don’t understand, why would a priest go on a spaceship?” Well, that was pretty rude.

But, think about it, what work did a priest have in outer space?  Space is where we prove there is no God — right? That’s where the engineers are God — right? Priests and all that superstitious crap, that belonged to earth.

Maybe it was what ruined the earth. Might as well say it.

But he didn’t. Because every time he came to that precipice, where he said, We don’t need God, he drew back. For Mary’s sake, for one thing. Because he knew people. He was on the shit detail and he knew people. People need something because people are shady. 

“No,” Father Tim said. “I can’t fly at any altitude. That’s how they made a mistake. I have claustrophobia.” 

“You’re kidding. You’re sure. You can’t fly.” 

“Nope. Had it for years. Had it all my life. But it’s funny, I can drive. Some claustrophobes can’t. I’m okay if I can just look outside, it seems like. And be by an exit door, that helps.”  

The doctors had suggested various reasons for his claustrophobia. Tim had never mentioned to them that he already knew the reason. It was simple. He’d been the littlest twin, stuck in a corner, folded in half, and he had almost not made the journey alive, because Tomás was bigger and took up all the room. Not that he remembered it. But somehow he knew it.

“Well, excuse me for asking, but what are you doing here, then? Why did they make you a bishop, if you can’t fly? The bishop of outer space, you know what I mean?” Al chuckled and rolled his eyes. Those Cat-licks!

“I didn’t tell them.” He glanced up at Al. “They were so — rushed, and they were so sure, and it really is perfect, Tomás being my twin brother and everything. I don’t know why I didn’t tell them. I just packed my stuff and came to Canaveral anyway. Maybe I’m hoping for a miracle.” He shot Al one desperate look and buried his face in his hands.

Al thought about it. Miracle, huh. This dog was barking at the wrong door. Al Taylor was not about miracles. Engineers were not about miracles. “Let me tell you a joke, Father. There was this doctor, this priest, and this engineer playing golf, right?” Father Tim groaned, and Al said, “No, no, you’ll see. So, they were playing golf, and they were behind this group that was going really, really slow. So they ask a groundskeeper, what’s going on, they say, and he tells them they’re behind a group of blind firefighters.  See, they lost their vision saving people in a big fire right there at the country club, so the golf course lets them play for free, anytime they want.

“So the doctor says, ‘Hey, I think I’ll ask this ophthalmological surgeon I know if he thinks anything can be done for them. They call him a miracle-worker.’ And the priest thinks for a minute, and he says, ‘I’ll pray for them.’ And the engineer thinks for a second, too, and he finally says, ‘Well, why can’t they just play at night?'” This still delighted Al, and he laughed at his own joke. “Engineers! No, we’re not much for miracles!  See, Tim, the engineer didn’t think about some medical breakthrough or, uh, a religious miracle. He just thought of how to fix the situation.”  

“Oh,” said Father Tim. “Oh. I get it. Well, how would you fix it? My situation.”

“Well,” said Al, leaning back, glancing around the bar, thinking and watching the bartender, who really was excellent, holding up under the crush, and then it came to him. “I guess I would get you a hell’a drunk, and put you on the shuttle. What are you going to do when you wake up? Die?” 

“I might,” Father Tim said. “I’ve never had an attack before where I couldn’t get out. I don’t know what would happen. It’s pretty fierce,” he said. “It feels like I could die.”

But he was thinking of something else altogether. Maybe the engineer was wrong — maybe God led him right here, after all those doctors, to this person, this engineer who could just fix him. That would be a miracle.  

Tim believed in miracles. It came with the collar.

“Well, you want to try it?” Al leaned back in his chair like a poker player with a good hand–or a poker player trying to bluff he had a good hand. 

“Getting drunk?” Tim looked at Al and hesitated, and dropped his eyes. This might be what confession felt like for some people. It sucked. “I’ve never been drunk. And the thing is, that’s not it, there’s a lot of things I’ve never done. But see, I don’t want to, either. And getting drunk, I mean drunk enough to get on that shuttle, go through that door?  Really really drunk? Well, I might do things that I don’t want to do.  I might — commit sins.”  

Well, this was getting awfully personal with a man Tim didn’t even know, didn’t even know if this guy could possibly understand what it meant when you believed that sin was serious.  “So I don’t want to. When you get drunk they say you give up your faculties.”

“Well, that’s probably why people like it so much, Tim. But, okay. Sure. Easy problem. Simple fix: I wouldn’t let you. What is it, women? Guys?” He was tempted to say, little boys? But he passed on it. The guy just didn’t seem the type. “What else? Cussing? What? Don’t worry. I can get you on the shuttle with everything intact. I’ll stay with you. I won’t let anything—uh—indiscrete happen.” Although how he would get a presumably unconscious man through the checkpoint was going to be a challenge. Nothing, however, he couldn’t handle. Being NFL- linesman-big, it had never hurt up to now. “I’m straight, myself, by the way,” he added. 

Father Tim bit his lower lip and stared at the table. What a mess! Ever since Mom and Dad passed away, Tomás was all he had. He missed him so badly, and now this chance to be with him again, to be on an incredible adventure with him that was part of his vocation, too—it was so perfect. Except for that one little thing. Suffocating.  

Therapy hadn’t worked—it was a joke. Hypnosis, no.  He’d tried the deep breathing during an attack but his body just wouldn’t cooperate and once the panic started, it was over, he had to get out. The best he could do was hold on for a minute with those little sips of air. They’d tried pills, too. But he had to be almost unconscious, and even then, he’d bolted from the Seaworld aquarium and thrown up in full view of the parish’s Sacred Heart Society, whose members viewed him with due suspicion, he felt, forever after.

Some doctors thought that if a person with claustrophobia would just suffer through one attack, voluntarily, no running, no hiding, it would be over. But that last extra five minutes in the confessional waiting for a straggler was all he could ever manage and that was only because he knew he could get out, he would get out. There’d be no getting out of the shuttle. No getting out. No getting out. The very idea made him dizzy with dread. It must be what Gethsemane was like for Jesus. 

That thought made the decision for him, because it was the same decision he made every morning when he put on his collar.  This time he’d follow Him into space, which was a funny word for it, because he was pretty sure he was going to feel like there was no space at all, which might be the last feeling he’d ever feel. “Okay,” he looked up at Al Taylor, who was gazing down at him with amusement. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

“You sure, now?” Al said. “What’ll you do when you wake up?”

“I don’t know. I guess, at the worst, could you just knock me out?” Father glanced at Al’s fists. Ouch. 

“Okay. Let’s deal with that when we get there. But, listen: I will if I have to. Give me your papers so I can just get us both on board. How’s your stomach? You got a weak stomach?” 


That ruled out tequila. Vodka? Yeah, that would work. Al caught the barman’s eye. They had about two hours before they started boarding. He had to time it right. “Can you bring me, uh, two ginger ales?” If the kid had soda first, it’d be easier on his stomach.  “And then a vodka martini—Grey Goose—up, and keep them coming. My friend here’s on a mission.” 

“Aren’t we all,” the bartender sighed, and brought the sodas and the martini. “I gotta charge you the up tax,” he said. Al grimaced. “It’s more liquor, man, without the ice” the bartender offered. “And whadda you care, it’s on the company store, anyway,” he added when Al handed him his new, sky-blue debit card.

Everybody in the room had the same debit card since the pre-flight check. Nobody knew exactly how it would work, but everybody was now on the government payroll, at least temporarily. But not exactly. They had done something new there. Or really old, Al wasn’t sure which. They had organized the colony as an old-fashioned cooperative, and eventually the profits would be distributed among them all, as full owners.  And earth’s investment, administered by all the world’s governments, paid back. It wasn’t socialist, it wasn’t capitalist. And it was a big risk. But cooperatives had been done, and overlooked, from early times right up to the twenty first century. And there it was, the cooperative concept, when they needed some new economic vehicle. So the workers wrote their mission statement and their rules of operation (“One man one vote”), bought out NASA with government money, and began to transform the whole debate, from the bottom up. 

As investments went in this day and age, it was an incredibly good one. There’d be no foreseeable drastic social welfare problems, because everyone had a paycheck, there would be no unemployment on the colony, not in the near future, at least. Everybody worked, how not?  They had a whole miniature world to set up. The opposite, probably, a labor shortage, which can be serious, too. 

The first job, along with subsistence, was to provide solar energy to earth via microwaves, and until then everybody got paid just enough to maintain a minimum standard of living. There were very many perks, though! Women got paid time off to raise kids and had opportunities to stay trained in their specialties, for extra pay. Fathers got bonus pay.  Above that, you could get extra through participation in any profitable project you could swing, even using the company resources in development. You got pizza going on the colony, made the connections for somebody with wheat and somebody with yeast and tomato sauce, you got the pizza franchise. 

Up to a point, anyway.  Something they were starting on earth, too. There was a big tax on chains over four franchises. Earth was getting serious about promoting broader ownership of business however way they could. The “Free Market” fake econo-religion had finally fizzled, along with communism. Now earth was searching for a third way, some way to save capitalism from itself. Keep it off the third rail. Some way to keep it young. 

Like take the space colony. How would it work? Who would finance it, who would own the profits? The government? The same big businesses whose concentrated political and economic power was already poisoning the well? That question had finally forced them out of the box.  Anyway, there simply was no company big enough to swing it, and besides, the possibility for revolt was just too great and made those old sub-prime loans look mighty safe indeed, compared. The distance made it, like say the American colonies once were, just about inevitable. What company could risk it? So why not skip the struggle part and let the colony own itself right from the start? 

The arguments that preceded these unprecedented economic decisions were surprisingly short, once Earth’s predicament became clear: conservation alone is not the answer, not enough, got to get some form of alternative energy AND stop the demographic winter and start reproducing, or die, economically first, physically shortly thereafter, by the millions. That the earth was finite was beside the question. To try to go backwards economically, to step it down to a less energy-dependent civilization also meant the deaths of millions. And it was stupid. Then their eyes turned again to the stars, the dream they had abandoned just about the time the world had given up having babies. And hope returned. With some surprising results. 

Thus the cooperative idea happened. Totally new. Not socialism, not imperialism. It sounded good to Al. He was psyched in spite of himself, to be a part of it. His pay was more than fair, and he would be building stock. Management was difficult, but people could manage themselves in spite of their tendency to be douche bags, given the right conditions. At least Earth had quit ducking the question, what conditions are those? Why actually does socialism fail? Why actually does capitalism turn imperialist? 

And the whole new game, new ownership, new opportunities for new capital, and that’s not even mentioning the positive effect on production getting free of gravity caused, once they got used to it and realized how it could be managed, changed the  rules that had been operating on Earth ever since the end of the twentieth century.  Some effects were purely economic, some were social, and surprising for sure! 

One example. Turns out the old, discredited biblical command Go forth and multiply was actually a thoughtful economic strategy!  Except women had stopped buying into it, without some major repositioning of social policy. Surprisingly, they wanted support for traditional marriage, monogamous and life-long, as before. Feminists had found it the most pro-woman, after all, in the end. Somehow in the negotiations with the company women representatives found the courage to say so, and also to demand, off-world, an end to no-fault divorce, and an end to polygamy –the Muslim feminists among them, a sprinkling in their modest clothing, spoke up, reticent at first and then you couldn’t make them shut up. Naturally.  But they all wanted also on-going support for their professional careers, which they planned to resume when their families could manage it. They wanted women’s sports, and increased investment in labor saving household devices, but they wanted to keep cooking, not go to some central cafeteria, and they wanted subsidized daycare, but also the right to stay home. They wanted, as in the early days of feminism, to put porn back in the closet on the colony, no more of it everywhere you turn, shutting women out, making them playthings, making sex a game instead of a life.   

In short, women wanted it all, and in an expanding economy such as could be predicted when humans finally got off-world, their particular product, which was well-nurtured human beings, would be so much in demand that, in a precedent-setting agreement in off-world free enterprise, they got it: everything, motherhood and career and family and r-e-s-p-e-c-t. 

Earth’s big stake-holders, long commited to all policies that reduced conception and birth, wavered for a few months, fighting the temptation.  But their Holy Grail was right there, it was within reach: unlimited solar energy, unimaginable off-world mineral and chemical resources, gravity-free production.  Everything they ever wanted. Nothing so simple as a woman wanting to get paid and be respected for birthing high quality future workers (not to mention human beings)would stand in the way of it. 

So give them their bread and their roses! Let them be mothers and workers too, let them be anything they liked as long as they gave us human capital! Because one little tiny meteor, like Amun, had six trillion US dollars worth of platinum, and once we’re out there, without the expense of lifting into orbit, mining it became feasible. Not that different from mining in the Arctic, say. Very, very difficult, that’s all. That’s not even considering the iron, the nickel, cobalt. And surely somewhere, gold. Oh the possibilities! So give women what they want, and let’s go! 

But that was all theoretical. Had been theoretical. Actually it was still theoretical, but they were just going ahead and doing it. Jumping into the unknown, economy-wise. ‘Cause if they didn’t, they were screwed. Simple economics. Al looked at the card that would take the place of money for he and his fellow NASA owners, and thought how fragile the basics really were. Making the colony work all depended on just s few behaviors, and they had always been, for human beings, the ones under pressure. Showing up. Telling the truth. Not raping. Being a good parent.  Fair prices and a fair day’s work.  Remembering to reproduce, making that particular big sacrifice. “Yeah, yeah, but it’s less labor, and no ice,” Al maintained, late, to the bartender’s back. 

Basics, whether a martini up should cost more or less. Whether you should give women what they wanted. Who should own the company store.

More than a few things about the set up on the colony worried Al, of course, besides the economics. It was so fragile, literally, the skin just a couple of inches thick. But he understood how all that worked, the metal parts, the electrical parts. It was the human being part, the civilizations they built. They would have to build one there, in that huge emptiness. They were just as capable of smashing everything as making it work. Why do we smash things sometimes, and sometimes not? Who are we? 

It occurred to Al that he had just thought of himself as simply human, not as black, and that maybe it could be like that finally, in space. All of us united as a species, out there, looking for other species with awe and dread. What did this mean for him personally? Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. He’d been black for a long time. It meant good things and bad. It meant things he could say and things he could never put into words, things deep inside him. He thought again of the pills hidden in his pocket.

“Let me ask you something, Tim,” while Al slid a ginger ale across the table. “And drink this first. Keep you from puking. Hopefully.” Al rubbed his forehead– how to put it?

“Are you actually going to do some kind of missionary thing on the way to Alpha Centauri? ‘Cause I just can’t see it. First of all, I can see how any human being could offer — what human beings have to offer, the mess we got ourselves in. I mean, let’s face it, we’re fleeing Earth. We’re not reaching out, we’re running! And then, I mean, Jesus Christ was human, a human guy.” And lily white, Al thought, not for the first time. Not for the first time. “What could he have to do with whatever forms of life we find out there?”

Father Timothy was watching the bubbles rising in the ginger ale and enjoying breathing. “Well, back at you. Why are you going, Al? Aren’t you taking human culture out there, too? Crappy as it is?”

Al thought again (what, it was his obsession now?) of the pills in his inside pocket where he was hoping security wasn’t interested in checking. Al had another option and he wasn’t sharing.

“I asked you first,” Al said.

“Okay. Fair enough.” Father picked up the glass and drank deeply as he considered his answer.

“Go easy on that,” Al remarked and laughed. “I mean it. So it’ll go into your bloodstream more slowly. We got time.”

“Who gets saved? That’s the real question.” Father glanced at Al, trying to judge if Al cared about the issue at all, but Al was poker-faced and anyway was making eye contact with the bartender to get those grey geese marching.

“The Church teaches the same as always, you have to believe in God to be saved, and you have to be sorry for your sins.” Al pushed a martini over to Father Timothy and thrust his chin forward: drink up. Father did. “You don’t need the Church to tell you that, St. Thomas taught that God gives every person the grace to believe in One God and the grace to be sorry for your sins.” Father took another drink. It didn’t taste bad at all. It tasted like winter, like he, in Florida all his life, imagined that winter would taste, of bitter berries. (In two years, or three, would he say it tasted like deep space? If he lived?) “Are you sorry for your sins, Al?” The liquor made him dreamy. He’d never ask such a question of a perfect stranger otherwise!

Al didn’t think for a second. “Yeah,” he said, and let it rest there.

“Me too,” Father said. “Because it hurts Him.” Father took a manly drink and he made it seem liturgical. “I guess that’s why I’m in this game. I can’t explain it. I just love Him. Even if God does give every single creature in the universe I don’t care how many arms or heads it has, the grace to believe in God and be sorry for whatever sins the creature managed with all those heads, so that they can go to heaven with or without the Church, I don’t care.” Father threw back a mouthful of the silvery liquid and smiled. “They ought to get to know about Jesus.”

“Jay-sus,” Al murmured and shook his head.

“I don’t care,” Father said. “Go ahead and joke. But Jesus changed the world. Take what he taught about the poor! Do you know how pagans still to this very day care about the poor? They don’t care at all! They still have Untouchables in India, you know that?” Father had sprung to his feet in indignation and the whole packed room was suddenly looking at him. He sat down sheepishly. Al whistled. Alcohol did strange things to people! Al hoped this stage was brief, even though the priest was slight. A fighting Irish drunk, that’s all he needed. Mexican-Irish, even worse!

Father picked up his second Grey Goose and drained half of it like a thirsty man. “But not Christ. Not my man Christ,” he said with satisfaction. “Here’s what Christ said: whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me. For me! That is a real revolutionary for you. And what do you think? The Church has actually walked that walk ever since. St. Paul baptized slaves, and sent them back to their Christian masters to be treated as sons. No other Church has a record like that.”

Al had to slow things down or this kid would be sick before he passed out. He pushed over the ginger ale and slid the martini back and distracted the cleric with a question. “How long you been a priest, Father?”

“Not very long,” Father Timothy replied thoughtfully, his mind elsewhere. “And now I’m a bishop! I’m the bishop of the whole rest of the universe.” He put the glass down and buried his face in his hands. Well, it was a tall order, Al thought. But Father recovered and said, like a man taking up his cross, “So if anybody’s out there, if they don’t know God, if there’s any slavery out there or any stealing or any lying, I’m bringing Christ. I’m bringing the Word.” Father took a sip of the soda. “Baptism by water. By desire. By blood. The whole shillelagh. Human beings without it are just too—dangerous. Probably aliens, too.”

“They’re pretty dangerous with it, Father,” said Al dubiously. But in his heart, he knew how it was. The kid in the Roman collar was right. Pagans were always killers behind their happy salesmen’s smiles. There was something civilizing in that cross. Which was strange, on account of how savage it actually was. Christianity wasn’t so different from any other life, not by that much anyway. It was like an eighth of an inch. Just the tiniest little bit more, saying yes instead of no to suffering. That’s what Mary taught him. ‘Cause make no mistake, suffering is part of the deal. And it’s got plenty to do with not killing. You live long enough, you find that out.

Not that Al had given it much thought in the past, Christianity and everything. Al only had one face to go with the word suffering, her face, and it came to mind unbidden. But that’s what the Buddhists said: heaven was just an eighth of an inch over. An eighth of an inch over from madness. An eighth of an inch of metal skin separating you from space vacuum!

Al slid the martini back over in front of Father Timothy. Finish this one, his gesture indicated. Finish this one and four or five more, and we’ll be getting on that shuttle. You can go ahead and bring that Christ into space. It’s okay by me. Father finished it. Al ordered up, got the bartender to hang on to their seats for a second, and they took a bathroom break to put on the specially designed undergarments required by the trip. The high-tech diapers would eliminate—that’s the word they used in the pre-flight instructions, nobody could say NASA was too dumb for irony—the need to use a flush toilet in the two day trip in weightless conditions, and Al was proud of himself for remembering it even if they were a little early.

The level of frantic merriment in the packed bar seemed to have up another notch. People were saying goodbye to the world. The world was going to let them. Al was counting on it, when he got this little man to the checkpoint. Time for some serious drinking, Father.

In two hours, more or less, the crowd began to drift toward the launch site and Father Timothy was completely soused. Seemed just about right. Al could count on him sleeping for several hours at least, through the launch, if all went according to procedures, which of course he couldn’t count on. Al’s own heart constricted briefly as they left the bar, but he didn’t have time to dwell on the fact that he, too, was leaving earth for what would probably be the last time, no matter what promises they had made to the evacuees. The way things were going, there probably wouldn’t be an earth to come back to, even to visit.

Al picked up Father’s papers from the table and put them carefully in his outside pocket, along with sis own. He gathered his duffle, and Father’s, and finally got his arm around the priest and hauled him to his feet. They joined the staggering crowd. The line went fast enough at the check point, the biological id having been completed outside the main gates. Papers, photo id, scanner wall to walk by. Still, Al had to wonder if they’d let an unconscious guy through. Being hauled by a big black guy with illegal pills in his inside right pocket. Father cooperated, though. He was more or less walking on his own, and singing some Latin tune that sounded surprisingly like a waltz.

“Stay away from the bad angels,” he said to Al, raising his head and looking his straight in the eye, which were only inches from his. “Stay way from those little devils,” he said. Al thought suddenly and guiltily of the pills in his inside pocket. Christ! Ditch ‘em!

And yet the idea of not having that power was really scary. It was life that was scary now. Living. It was like this huge pothole of an abyss. He guessed it was because she wasn’t with him now. How had he never understood who much she meant to him, when she was with him? It was that sweet smile he could count on at the worst moments. The generosity of her, always giving in first and smiling. Why hadn’t he been first sometimes? Why couldn’t he feel sorry that he let her do all the heavy lifting? Why couldn’t he feel anything? Why was he carrying little white pills that would make it all go away forever? Why was he carrying them instead of already dead? And why was he carrying this absolutely useless kid who thought he was some kind of bishop?

“Stay away from the bad angels!” Father Tim woke up and swung toward Al.

“Who are the bad angels?” Al said to him, and peered over the irregular lines to see how far they had to go yet.

“You have to listen,” Father said after a pause.

“What? Are they singing or something?” Al said absently, watching the youngest guard at the checkpoint, who evidently would be their guard. Too hot on the job, Al thought bitterly. Damn!

“No. Not singing,” Tim sing-songed himself. “God is talking to you. You-have-to-listen,” Father explained, as if giving Al a formula. “God will tell you all the bad angels. But we aren’t listen-ing.”

Al dropped a duffle, and then, retrieving it, managed to slip sideways into a throng that would end up at a different check point guard, a blond woman who Al was hoping could be managed.

They reached the scanwall. The blond held out her hand. Papers.

“Here’s mine,” Al said. “I’ve got my friend here’s, too. He uh he had a couple too many. Guess he’s not real experienced.” Al grinned his best grin and looked at her dead on but only for a second. “Tell me when you want his.” Then he shut up to see if she’d buy it. She hesitated.

“How do you know this guy?” she asked. “Did he ask you to take him across if he got drunk? Did he give you anything to hold?”

“No, no. I just picked up his duffle. He just had a few too many, is all. We were sitting next to each other in one of the bars. The Launch Pad, I think is it. You know it? He’s a priest! See, his collar and all. I’m an engineer. You see on my papers there. ” Al was struck by the feeling that they were the two least valuable members in an otherwise elite bunch: a God-monger and a drainage expert. This could work either way for them. He hazarded a peek at her face. Jeez! An iron maiden! He’d hate to play poker with her! She glanced down at his papers. That’s good. Now, she’d either ask for Father’s, or pull them over for a full search, or reject either or both of them on medical grounds, or the priest for not being able to respond to questions.

“And his papers?” she said and held out her hand. Whew! Al fished them out, put them in her hand.

“Sir? Sir?” she said to the priest. Al shook him a little. “Sir?” The priest stirred, and raised his head. He look straight at her—and smiled.

“Is she one of the good angels?” Father said. “Are you one of the good angels? ” he asked her.

She ignored the question. “Are you Timoteo Monaghan?” she asked.

“Yes, I am,” Father managed to look both lucid and silly. “Are we going to the shuttle? I’m ready,” he said. “You’re a good angel,” he finished, and gave her a final dazzling smile, and went back to sleep on Al’s shoulder.

Al looked at her and tightened just one side of his mouth into a lop-sided grin. Be that angel, he said in his heart. She hesitated just a moment longer, and jerked her head sideways. “Walk the wall,” she said, and strolled down it with them, checking the x-ray. Al tried not to think about the pills in his pocket. There was a lot to see in a short time. She might miss them. She might decide to miss them. Pills were not plastiques. They were a different sin. Maybe she had her own stash. Maybe she could care less for a bunch of privileged assholes earth will never see again, go ahead, kill yourselves, that might be her deal. Al held his breath.

She hesitated, and Al’s heart pounded. This be the moment to step in and give a little push, Al said to God, if you’re listening and haven’t made up Your Royal Mind yet ha ha which is highly doubtful, and why would You care anyway for a couple of losers? Then she simply handed him the papers, and turned back to the next evacuee. And that wasn’t God, Al snorted. No way. That was just picking your battles when you’re processing a couple thousand people. All in a day’s work, Al thought, all in a day’s work, and started shuffling them toward the shuttle doors far ahead. And now here comes my turn to work, he thought, thinking about what would happen when the young priest awoke in a claustrophobic nightmare.

To Be Continued–if someone leaves a comment about why it should be!


One Response to “Confession”

  1. Sister Emily Gallery said

    Dear Janet Baker:

    I LOVED reading all about Father Timothy and I’m intrigued to find out more about his twin brother, Thomas on the Regina Coeli. Will they be the cause of each other’s sanctity because they will suffer for love of one another and for their love of the Church? So many key phrases keep going through my mind, such as: “Our planet is dying but the Church is not.” That’s true of the world around us in 2011, wouldn’t you say? We may be immersed in catastrophe, but Jesus DID say: “I will be with you always, even to the end of time.” I love the good priest for being claustrophobic and yet for hearing confessions anyway, one right after the other. I also admire him because, as the story says: “This time he’d follow [Jesus] into space.” What an original and inspiring story this is! The priest is going to the space colony in order harvest wheat and bring it back to earth so that the hosts can be made and the Sacrifice of the Mass can continue on earth, which is experiencing such severe climate changes that the wheat crops are failing around the world, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make the hosts for Holy Communion. Wow! I’m fascinated with the notion that it is man’s ongoing quest for Jesus in the Mass that impels him to travel from earth into other galaxies. Amazing….And so, there IS hope for the human race, even here on earth. In countries that are persecuted for their faith, the hunger for Christ is a thousand times greater than in local parishes where Mass is frequent but the faithful are indifferent. My favorite sentences in the story so far are:

    “There was something civilizing in that cross. Which was strange on account of how savage it actually was.” OH, and I also got a kick out of the housekeeper who refused to put the priest’s plate down until the dear man had passed her inspection! That he was hungry broke my heart and made me love him even more….Will you keep writing about Albert Taylor, the NASA engineer on the plane with Father Timothy? He’s a likeable and realistic character who will probably be funny now and then and who seems to love the young priest already….I want to read more of your story some day and I thank you for posting it for your White Lily Blog readers to enjoy.

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