By Luke Beling,
Father Sampson took me in after I passed out on the curb near his church. He let me use his shower and gave me a clean set of clothes and a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. Then, when he drove me back to Ma’s house, he told her I’d go to mass if she let me sleep in my old room. He promised her he’d get me on the straight and narrow.
“How many times we been through this now, Billy? Tell the priest, damn it!” Ma screamed as we stood on her porch, my bloodshot eyes burning holes into my dirty feet. Even as a little kid, I never felt like I belonged under Ma’s roof, but it was better than the streets.
Father Sampson squeezed my shoulder. “I’ll get him right, Mrs. Clover. Just you give him another chance. There’s no shortage of second chances in God’s kingdom.”
The first clean day was always the toughest. I woke up early, turned on the TV, sitting on Ma’s big brown leather sofa, only able to make out a snowy mess. The tips of my fingers burned, then spread through the rest of my body until I jumped up and started rubbing myself against the wall like a love-starved cat.
Ma was sipping cold coffee at the kitchen table when she saw me. “You itching for it, ain’t ya, Billy?”
“First few days are tough, Ma. But I’m trying.”
“I smell even a trace of it, and you’re out. Ya, hear me?”
I nodded, not looking at her, afraid of her eyes.
Ma had a nose like a bloodhound. A week without meth was the longest I’d ever gone since getting hooked on the stuff. But I’d never really tried to give it up, and I’d already decided this occasion was no different. That Sunday after my first mass, I got the idea.
Father Sampson invited me into the vestry after the benediction. He told me to wait in line behind a few folks who looked a bit new to church like me. I studied a giant skull tattoo on the scalp of the bald man in front of me but soon got distracted by a woman pacing in circles, whispering, “Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God.”
The vestry was tiny. The walls were an awful cream color resembling unpasteurized milk. A small offering of light spilled through one little shoulder-height window, hardly helping the dull put-you-to-sleep energy of the room. I stepped forward and stood in a corner next to the giant bronze cross the altar boy carried.
“Not as holy in here as we make it out to be, is it, Billy? Now let me just count the collection, and then we’ll get going for lunch.” Father Sampson removed his liturgical vestments and undid a bun holding a swath of thick curly brown hair.
“So that’s why you’re called Father Sampson?”
He laughed, “I guess so.”
“So, where’s Delilah?”
“A student of the Old Testament. Impressive, my boy!”
The offering plate was silver, resembling a giant ashtray, and filled with cash upwards of a thousand dollars. I watched him count the money and retrieve a key beneath the purple flower planter on the window sill.
“There’s a ‘P’ in my name. I like to think of that ‘P’ as representing the promise of God’s grace, keeping me from all nature of vice.”
“What’s that?” I said, bypassing his reply, quickly intrigued by a glass box as he unlocked the cabinet.
“No. That over there,” I said, pointing to the box.
“Oh, well, not many people know about this. But, just between us, it’s worth a whole lot of money. Enough to build five more churches like this, I reckon.”
“Why?” I asked, walking towards the cabinet, eyebrows raised, studying the cork inside the glass container.
“It’s from the bottle of wine that was used for communion when the Pope visited a few years ago. I saved it.”
“They let you do that?”
The glass box rested in his palm, a glint in his eyes. “Why not? I mean, I didn’t really feel the need to ask anyone, you know? I just thought it might be worth a small fortune one day. And an old priest like me has to think about retirement, too, right?”
Father Sampson handed the artifact to me as though it were a bird that had just been born. “Here, have a look. It still has a little wine stain on it. You see that?”
I didn’t study the cork for long, setting the glass container back into the cabinet, pretending to be distracted by the purple flower while stealing quick, serious glances at Father Sampson.
“It’s a violet,” he said.
“The plant you seem so interested in.”
Furling the small leaves in his fingertips, Father Sampson smiled, gazing at the flower as though it were animate. “I suppose, a struggling violet more like it.”
“Oh yes, yes,” I managed, turning my vision from the base of the plant, under which he’d set the key. “My mother has one just like it.”
He sprayed water on the browning leaves. “Is that right?” he said, craning his neck to make eye contact. Then he set the bottle down and approached with sinking eyes and lips pressing into each other like one faint pencil-traced line. “How are things going at home, Billy?”
The grandfather clock chimed. The loud gong made me step back, bumping my head against the wall. “I guess that means it’s time for lunch, Father.”
Father Sampson grinned, halting. “Well, I suppose it is, Son. Where’re we eating? And promise me you won’t tell anybody about that cork? Our secret, okay?”
I watched him put his keys in his coat pocket, the same set of keys he’d later set underneath the lemon tree outside.
“Your secret’s safe with me, Father, but only if you’re buying lunch! Somewhere fancy!” I said, forcing a big smile.
I parked Ma’s old Toyota near an orange dumpster. The stray cats scrambled into hiding. I watched and waited with gloved hands on the steering wheel, then pulled my mask down and readjusted it. “You got this, Billy. You damn well got this.” I took a deep breath through my nose, slowly opening the car door.
Approaching the backside of the church, I stopped near the small lemon tree. The motion light flashed, and I almost fell back down the steep brick stairs. Ducking below a freshly cut hedge, I surveyed my surroundings, my hands trembling slightly. Crawling to the lemon tree, I carefully watched the busy street and nearby houses, comforted by the unchanging veil of darkness. I lifted the potted tree with the tips of my fingers, then grabbed the keys with my other hand, doing so with one quiet, swift motion.
The second key I tried opened the backdoor to the church. Before locking the bolt behind me, I gazed at the cats for a minute. When an ambulance whizzed by with its dizzying red-white lights, I slammed the church door and tiptoed toward the altar. Two gold-laced candles burned on the table. I grabbed one and walked towards the vestry, careful not to spill any wax on the blood-red carpet. The same key I’d used to open the church back door fit the vestry door. A light turned on from a house across the street, shining like a giant sun through the small vestry window. I shuddered and spilled wax onto the grandfather clock.
Setting the candle next to the clock, I switched on the floor lamp, then drew the curtains shut. The violet looked even less alive in the low light, shriveled brown-grey leaves drooping below faded purple petals. A leaf flaked off the stem and feathered to the floor as I lifted the pot and found the cabinet key.
When I removed the glass container from the cabinet, I noticed the collection plate full of cash. I stuffed a few hundred dollar bills into my pocket, pulled off my ski mask, and studied the cork wide-eyed. The latch on the casing didn’t move as I tugged on it, stuck as though glued to the hinge. I shook the container back and forth, but with measured force, scared the cork might get scuffed. A stone crucifix lay on a pile of papers on the cabinet shelf. I grabbed it and slammed it into the glass container. It shattered, and the cork fell onto the floor. I placed the cork into a ziplock bag, blew the candle out, turned off the lamp, then snuck out of the church, safely back to Ma’s car.
Ma was asleep on the couch when I snuck back into the house. I slipped the stolen cash into her purse, then tiptoed to my room. I closed my eyes but couldn’t sleep the whole night, checking the cork on my bedside table every five minutes.
I left the house early the following day to meet a potential buyer. He was waiting for me under an old oak tree at a park near Ma’s house. I handed him the zip lock bag, pretending to tie my shoelaces.
“Nobody’s watching us, Billy. Stand up, would you!? Let’s see what you got.” He removed his dark shades. “This thing’s nice. I think I can shop it. You got the papers?”
“Authentication! How do we know it’s real?”
“The priest said it is, told me himself.”
The man laughed then his face went tight. “A priest says a lot of things. You wasting my time. I can’t help you if I don’t have papers, kid.” He shoved the bag into my hand and turned for the parking lot.
“Wait!” I whispered as the man kept moving.
I thought about breaking into the church again that night to get the papers, but it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take, despite the itch worsening. I decided to wait three more days to allow the dust to settle.
Three days passed without Father Sampson’s daily call. I wondered if he’d figured it out, giving me space to fess up before calling the cops.
I’d go to Wednesday’s mass, I thought.
Upon walking into the service ten minutes late, I noticed a different priest behind the altar, a much older man. In the front row, I recognized the man with the skull tattoo and the pacing-in-circles lady. My heart beat a hundred miles through all the Hail Marys, then a hundred faster at the end of the benediction. I waited until most of the congregation had left, then approached the old priest as he headed into the vestry. When I entered, the skull-tattoo man and the lady were already in the room.
“Where’s Father Sampson?” I asked.
“Nobody told you guys?” The priest said, looking at us with soft, kind eyes.
“Told us what?”
“Some massive insurance payout came through for him, so he quit- packed up everything in a day. Headed somewhere warm, I think.”
The priest moved to the windowsill, fetched the key underneath the violet then opened the cabinet.
“I heard about that stolen cork. Such a pity.” I stepped closer, in front of the skull-tattoo man, trying to peer into the cabinet underneath the priest’s drooping shoulders.
“What cork?” The priest said.
“The one from when the Pope visited.”
“Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God…” The woman screamed.
The priest chuckled, then turned his head and squinted at me. “The Pope?”
“Father Sampson said he was here a few months ago.”
“Told me that cork was worth the price of five churches at least,” remarked the man with the skull tattoo.
The priest’s chuckle grew into a belly laugh. “That Father Sampson sure had a sense of humor. I’ll give him that! You got a better chance at seeing Jesus himself around here than the Pope, my children!”
“Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God…”
My eyes moved to the collection plate. “Say, Father, you still keeping the church key under the lemon tree outside? Father Sampson would leave it there so I could come and pray during the off hours.”
“Me too,” The tattooed man said, his eyes equally focused on the collection plate as mine.
The priest locked the cabinet, then returned the key underneath the violet. “Strictly against church policy. I’m quite surprised to learn he let you all do that.”
I didn’t say goodbye to the priest, hurrying out of the church with the man and the lady.
“Can I catch a ride, kid?” The tattooed man touched my shoulder while the lady walked in circles behind us.
“I think you can fit through the bars of that window, kid.”
I unlocked Ma’s car, opened the passenger door for the man, then scanned the parking lot for the lady.
The man fastened his seatbelt, saying, “There’s probably a grand in that offering plate. What do you say, kid?”
“When?” I replied, forgetting about the lady, noting the man starting to scratch himself.
I drove to a nearby soup kitchen and agreed to pick him up later that night. I itched all the way back to Ma’s house without any fear of drawing blood.
Luke Beling is a South African-born author and singer-songwriter. He lives on the Big Island of Hawaii with his wife and four daughters.