A Good Priest — Emily Glossner Johnson
The gaunt man with parchment skin sat on the orange plaid couch in Father Connall O’Riordan’s office across from where Connall sat in his desk chair. Connall never sat behind his desk when he had a visitor but rather rolled the chair next to the desk.
The man said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Connall prepared himself to hear the man’s confession, for he obviously wasn’t a new customer. Connall folded his hands in his lap and nodded.
But then the man said, “It has been five months since my last confession.”
Connall hesitated and said, “And your penance?”
“Five Hail Marys.”
Connall would have to make it clear to his customers that any referrals had to start with the words, “It has been five months since my last confession.” Nothing before that, not even a greeting. How else could he be sure that they were there for the marijuana?
Connall looked steadily at the man. “How much would you like?” he said.
The man took out his wallet and fished for a few bills. “As much as this will get me.” He handed Connall the money.
Connall unlocked his briefcase and moved a small amount of marijuana from a large bag to a smaller one. He handed the man the small bag.
“Thank you, Father,” the man said. He held out his hand. “I’m Philip Ring.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Ring,” Connall said, and he shook the man’s hand. “If you could do me a favor, if you refer anyone to me, could you make it clear to them that they must start with ‘It has been five months since my last confession’? Those exact words and nothing else until I say, ‘And your penance?’ This must be followed by ‘Five Hail Marys.’ It’s imperative that customers use the correct method.”
“I’m sorry, Father. I started the wrong way.”
“Well, as long as we’re clear now. And please start that way if you come back in case I don’t remember you.”
“I can’t recall ever seeing you before,” Connall said. “Are you a parishioner?”
“No. I’m a Methodist. A parishioner referred me… my neighbor, John Wells.”
“Ah, John.” Connall chuckled. “I can’t say I’m surprised that he forgot the right method.”
“I’ll tell him how it’s supposed to go,” Mr. Ring said.
Connall thanked Mr. Ring. They stood up, shook hands again, and the deal was done.
* * * *
Connall had been placed at the St. Francis de Sales parish a year before when he was thirty-one years old. He lived in the rectory with the pastor of the parish, Father Nunzio Soriano, an ancient man whose masses were popular because of the speed with which he said them. Connall believed that Father Soriano was in a hurry to get back to his wine, his reality television programs, and his naps. The parishioners were eager to hear, “The mass is ended. Go in peace.”
Connall was born and raised Catholic and despite disagreeing with certain doctrines of the church—its position on birth control, the limited role of women—he was at peace with letting these be. He’d always experienced a profound welling of emotion when he attended mass, a vast spiritual fulfillment, and he enjoyed the camaraderie with other people.
Connall sold marijuana in his office at the rectory during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or what most people called confession. He offered the Sacrament on Saturdays from one o’clock in the afternoon until three o’clock, which was enough time for conducting transactions as well as for people actually seeking the Sacrament.
It had started with him buying weed for himself. But then he realized that some of his parishioners might benefit from smoking it, and selling it could produce a small profit for him—enough for his own stash, a good bottle of whiskey every month, and a savings account for his widowed mother.
His first sale was to a tightly wound orthodontist named Will Bobrick who confessed every week to drinking too much vodka and neglecting his wife. “I’m just so stressed when I get home,” Mr. Bobrick had said. “All those mouths, all those teeth. The stink of adolescents. I want to be a good husband, but it feels so much better to be alone with a bottle of liquor.”
Connall said to Mr. Bobrick, “You could try prayer or meditation to calm yourself, and there are, of course, other ways.”
“What other ways?”
“Chemical ways,” Connall said. “The use of drugs.”
Connall read the man’s face. “I’m thinking of marijuana,” he said. He paused. “If you’re interested, I could tell you more.”
“I’d like to hear more,” Mr. Bobrick said.
“You must promise the utmost discretion,” Connall said.
“I promise,” Mr. Bobrick said, “and I would never lie to a priest.”
“I could sell you a small amount of marijuana for a reasonable price.”
Mr. Bobrick, his face flushed, bought the weed. Connall gave him a pack of rolling papers for free.
A few more people whom Connall thought would be interested bought weed as well until he had a small contingent of regular customers as well as the occasional referral. He was content with the arrangement.
* * * *
Connall had found a supplier of weed in town on the St. John Berchmans College campus. One day, he walked to Berchmans and spotted an unremarkable young man in a New York Yankees cap and a Rob Zombie t-shirt looking at his phone. Connall couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about the young man that sang of possible knowledge. Connall approached him.
“Good day,” he said in his most priestly yet friendly tone.
“Hello, Father,” the young man said casually. On a Jesuit campus, it was not unusual to encounter a priest.
“This may seem unconventional, but I’m looking for some information,” Connall said.
“Shoot,” the young man said. He put his phone in his back pocket.
“You see, I’m concerned about a certain parishioner. He’s having problems with drug use. I wonder where he’s buying marijuana.”
The young man shrugged. “Probably from the Happy Man.”
“The Happy Man?”
“Yeah,” the young man said. “He hangs out in the courtyard by the Berchmans statue.”
“Thank you for this information,” Connall said.
“Wait,” the young man said. He held out his hand. “No one’s going to get busted or anything—”
“No, no,” Connall laughed. “I was just curious about my parishioner’s habits.”
Connall sought the Happy Man one Wednesday afternoon. He saw several people whom he thought might be dealers, then he saw an older man, probably Connall’s age, with an army surplus backpack, tight jeans, bright green Converse sneakers, and a black t-shirt—rather nondescript, really, but he looked about furtively, walked in large circles around the courtyard, and seemed to be trying hard to fit in. Connall believed he had his man.
Connall approached him and said softly, “Are you a…Happy Man?”
The man looked Connall up and down. “Who wants to know, Father?”
“For what reason?”
“The usual one.”
The man rubbed the scruff of his five o’clock shadow. “Huh,” he said. “This is not something I encounter every day.”
“So you’re him?” Connall said.
“Maybe. Maybe not. How about you just call me Judas.”
“Okay, Judas. What might this buy me?” Connall discreetly revealed several bills to the man.
“A decent amount. But not here. Meet me at the Starlight Diner tonight, eight o’clock.”
And that was how it began.
* * * *
One Saturday, Officer Ben Kaplan of the Haversville Police Department came to Connall’s office. “It has been five months since my last confession,” Officer Kaplan said. Officer Kaplan was Jewish, so Connall knew he was either there to buy weed, or to arrest Connall for selling it.
“And your penance?” Connall said.
Officer Kaplan stared at Connall. The tension in the room was like a steam bath—hot, thick, inexorable. “Five Hail Marys,” Officer Kaplan said.
Connall folded his hands on his lap. “Tell me what’s on your mind,” he said.
Officer Kaplan looked at him, befuddled. “Something out of the ordinary is on my mind. A priest who may be conducting a bit of business on the side.”
“What business might that be?” Connall said.
“Why don’t you tell me, Father O’Riordan?”
“I can’t imagine.”
Officer Kaplan leaned close to Connall. “You know why I’m here,” he said.
Connall’s heart raced and his palms and underarms perspired. “I’m not sure I do, Officer Kaplan.”
“You’re selling something and I’d like to buy some.”
“For what reason?”
“You have to ask?”
Connall decided that he was already in trouble, so he took out his briefcase and unlocked and opened it. He looked at Officer Kaplan.
The officer smiled. “There’s the stuff.”
“Am I… Am I under arrest?”
“What?” Officer Kaplan said. “Shit, no. I said the right things. I’m here to buy.” He retrieved his wallet and held a few bills out to Connall. “I won’t tell if you won’t. Do we have an agreement?”
“Yes, of course.” Connall counted the money and filled a medium-sized bag with weed. He handed it to Officer Kaplan.
“I thank you, good sir,” Officer Kaplan said. He put out his hand. Connall shook it. Officer Kaplan put the bag of weed in his pants pocket and stood up. Connall stood as well.
“I’m hoping to be a regular customer,” Officer Kaplan said.
“That would be fine,” Connall said, his voice shaking.
And with that, the officer left Connall’s office. Connall sat and took several deep breaths.
* * * *
Connall had decided to become a priest because of a butterfly.
He was a senior in college, unsure of what he was going to do with his degree in theology. He was certain that he loved God and Jesus Christ, and he did have a great interest in serving people.
He could either go on for his Ph.D. and teach, or become a psychologist or social worker, or enter the priesthood. One warm fall day, he sat on a bench on campus and watched a purple butterfly flutter around him. Chaos theory, he thought. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings could, much later, cause a hurricane halfway around the world. He thought, if this butterfly lands on my knee, I’ll become a priest. It landed on his hand, touched down next to him on the bench, and then hovered, hovered, and finally landed on his left knee. “That’s it then,” he said.
The following year, he entered the seminary.
* * * *
Connall had sex with many women during his undergraduate years, so he knew what he was supposed to be missing with his vow of celibacy, but he had no intention of keeping the vow, and no compunction about doing so. He believed that sex was as natural and necessary as eating. If the right woman came along, he’d break the vow. Married women would come to see him and flirt heavily, but he would resist. His lovers would have to be free of commitment, whether it be marriage, betrothal, or a romantic relationship. There could be no other people involved in the situation and potentially hurt. This, to him, would be sinful. Not the act itself, but the suffering of innocent people in its wake.
The perfect sort of woman appeared in the form of Theresa McLaren. She came, somewhat to Connall’s surprise, for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (most who came for confession were old ladies who carried rosaries and middle-aged men who had cheated on their wives). She was a pharmacy technician at Kozlow Drugs. She confessed to lying to her mother.
“I’m thirty-four and she thinks I should be married by now,” Theresa said, “so I told her I’m seeing someone.”
“And you’re not?” Connall said.
“No. No one.”
“Would you like to be involved with someone?” Connall said. “Is marriage a goal of yours?”
“I don’t know about marriage,” she said. “But someone to love might be nice.”
“We can talk about this all you’d like,” Connall said. “Why don’t you come back next Saturday and we’ll discuss what you might do.”
“That would be wonderful,” Theresa said.
And so she came the next Saturday, and every Saturday thereafter. Initially, they spoke about Theresa’s mother’s wishes and how Theresa might meet someone, but this quickly changed into discussions about literature and poetry, and films they’d seen, and their histories, philosophies, day to day concerns. With a tangle in his stomach, he told her about his business. She was surprised but not shocked, and she accepted a gift of weed from him. Mostly she was moved that he put away most of his profit for his mother.
Theresa was a lovely woman with light brown hair that she pulled into a ponytail. Wisps of hair framed her face and her green eyes sparkled in a way that made Connall think of Ireland, even though he’d never been there. She’d been there, and one day she told him about her trip. “You ought to go sometime,” she said. She paused and said, “I could be your tour guide.”
“I’m certain you’d be a magnificent tour guide,” Connall said.
They stared at each other until Connall smiled and said, “A magnificent tour guide indeed.”
* * * *
She rushed in the next Saturday, sat on the couch, and began to cry.
Connall got up from his chair and sat beside her. “What is it?”
“I think… I think I’m in love,” she said. “But there’s nothing I can do about it.” She looked at him, her eyes gleaming with tears.
“Oh, my dear, there’s always something that can be done.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s already committed, in a manner of speaking.”
Connall moved closer to Theresa on the couch and squeezed her hand. She kissed him on the cheek, and then their mouths met and they were kissing. They’d come together as naturally as if they had kissed a thousand times before. Connall’s heart beat fast and his stomach flipped. She tasted rich and good and smelled like sweet summer air. They kissed for a long, lingering moment, and when they pulled apart, they continued to hold each other, searching one another’s eyes.
“Father O’Riordan,” Theresa said. “You’re not thinking—”
“I’m thinking quite clearly,” he said. “And please, call me Connall.”
“Oh, Connall,” she said.
He got up, locked the office door, then removed his collar, black shirt, and undershirt, kicked off his shoes, and pulled off his black pants and boxer shorts. Meanwhile, she took off her shoes, clothes, and pink panties. He lay down between her legs.
“My purse,” she said. “In my purse.”
Her purse was next to the couch. Connall unzipped it and looked inside. He found a box of Trojans.
She blushed. “I just thought…” she said, “in case.”
He smiled at her and took one of the condoms out of the box.
“Yes?” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
When it was done, they lay together, holding each other.
“Now I have a grave sin to confess,” Theresa said.
“No,” he said. “No talk of confessing. Let’s just… let it be.”
“But I’ve had sex with a priest!”
“A very grateful priest. And it wasn’t just sex…it was making love.”
* * * *
Connall had been in love five times. Once with his fourth grade teacher, and three times with girlfriends he’d had during college. The fifth time was with Theresa McLaren. From the start, he worried about falling in love with her because he couldn’t marry. He would be fine with carrying on an affair without marriage, but what of Theresa? What if she wanted children? He couldn’t give them to her. While the relationship might fulfill him, it might not fulfill her. And with his love for her, the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her.
One Saturday after making love, he said, “There’s so much I can’t give you. I can’t even make love to you on a proper bed.”
“You can if you come over to my house,” she said. “Can you do that? Come to dinner?”
“Yes, of course. I often dine with parishioners.”
“It’s rather a tradition for a priest.”
“Good!” she said. She brushed his hair back off his forehead. “I’m so happy, Connall.”
“But are you? I can’t marry you, can’t father any children.”
“Children?” she said. “I’ve never wanted children.”
“As you yourself said, let’s just let it be.”
* * * *
Connall was an admired and popular priest who carried out his duties with integrity and grace. He baptized babies with gentleness and care, gave small children the Sacrament of Holy Communion, heard confessions with understanding and compassion, welcomed new members into the church with the Rite of Catholic Initiation of Adults, anointed the sick and comforted the grieving, and said mass with the reverence and awe it warranted. He gave meaningful homilies of social significance—not just a rehashing of the gospel. He prayed often and took his promise to live a life of simplicity seriously. He was never much for material things. He knew priests with family money that they never gave up. They belonged to country clubs and played golf, or drove ostentatious cars and collected expensive belongings, but none of this was for him. His office was sparse—the couch a hand-me-down from a parishioner, the walls decorated with a small brass crucifix and cheaply framed posters. His bedroom was more a place that might belong to a monk. His wardrobe, aside from his priest’s outfits, was meager.
His joy in life came from being a priest, partaking of weed and a bit of whiskey, and reading—generally classic literature, collections of poetry, and nonfiction books about science. And now his joy came also, and foremost, from Theresa. In a way, it seemed too good to be true, but he decided the best thing to do was to let it be. This had become something of a mantra for them both, and while the day might come when they could no longer let it be, for now, it was their best option.
* * * *
Connall and Father Soriano ate their evening meal together most nights. Connall did all the cooking unless a volunteer came to cook for them. On Monday night, Connall made meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts.
“You’re a good boy,” Father Soriano said, helping himself to more Brussels sprouts. “But you should know, I know everything that goes on here. I always have.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Father.”
Father Soriano shook one wobbly finger at him.
“Is there a problem I’m not aware of?” Connall said.
“You’re a good boy. A good priest. This I will take to my grave and nothing else.”
“What else would there be?”
Father Soriano laughed. “You think an old priest who watches the Kardashians and drinks the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo knows of nothing. But do for me this. Be modest. Be prudent. Do not let your diversions take the place in your heart that is for God.” With this, he struck his chest harder than Connall imagined he meant to.
“I would never,” Connall said.
Connall disregarded his Brussels sprouts and ate his meatloaf and potatoes. He was distracted by a soft rumbling sound—the sound of snoring. The old man had fallen asleep in his chair. Connall got up and caught him before his head fell onto his plate.
“Perhaps you should rest on the couch, Father,” Connall said when the man opened his eyes.
“Yes, yes.” He got up from the table and wandered into the living room. “This is what I will take to my grave,” he said, “that you are a good priest, and nothing else.”
Emily Glossner Johnson has had short stories published in Postscripts to Darkness, The Outrider Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Sliver of Stone Magazine, Lynx Eye, The Mondegreen, and a number of other literary journals. She has had essays published in The Ram Boutique and Amygdala Literary Magazine, and an essay in the book Parts Unbound: Narratives of Mental Illness and Health, published by Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective. Her story “Santa Lucia” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has a B.A. in English from SUNY Buffalo and an M.A. in English from SUNY College at Brockport. She lives in central New York.