Avoid the occasion of sin, that is, all persons, places and objects usually leading to sin. Be temperate in the use of intoxicants. Abstain from them entirely, if harmful to your soul, your family or others. Be fearless in the performance of all your Christian duties; fear God alone. Practice holy prayer. Receive the sacraments frequently. Assist at Holy Mass devoutly on Sundays and holy days of obligation, and hear the Word of God as often as possible. Practice constant devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, if possible, daily recite the Rosary.
—How to Spend the Day in a Christian Manner, Means of Perseverance

The pamphlet arrived in the mail, postmarked from Florida and addressed in my sister Magda’s loopy handwriting. The front: Mother of Perpetual Help—PRAY FOR US.

Inside, a note from Magda read, Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy; deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man. For thou art God, my strength.

She added: We pray for you every day. Yours in Christ, Magda.

Funny thing was, directly across the street was St. Alphonsus Catholic Church. Instead of dismissing my sister as a nut, as everyone had my brother, I decided to go visit the church, even though it was the middle of the week.

Maybe it was the paint fumes.

Let me flee from myself, and turn to You, so that I may merit to be defended by You. I think that’s St. Augustine. My head is filled with Catholicism.

The boarding house was empty. I wended my way down through it without seeing a soul.

I crossed the leaf-covered street. Orange and brown leaves whirled around. A squirrel raced with me over toward the church. I trotted up the front walk, and yanked on the ornate front door, half-expecting it to be locked. Instead it flew open unexpectedly easily. I almost smashed my noggin with it. Inside was dark. The wooden pews were surrounded by old-fashioned Stations of the Cross. Jesus was taking a beating in all the little carvings. I walked through the empty church staring at them, reaching up and touching them with my fingertips. Jesus is Condemned to Death. Jesus Falls. Jesus Meets His Mother. At the front of the church, hovering above the altar, was a crucified Christ. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was different about the statue. Slowly, I realized that this rendering was of Jesus before he died. His eyes were wide open, but calm. The Roman soldier hadn’t chucked a spear at him yet, so there was no red gash in His side. It was eerie. It had a very Catholic influence on me: I wanted to apologize to Him.

I genuflected and sat down in the first row near the center aisle. I pulled out the kneeler, knelt down and crossed myself. I looked up into Christ’s composed eyes. My knees were too tender for this. I winced with the pain.

May I help you?

I craned my neck, still kneeling. An older priest approached me from the back of the church via the middle aisle. Gray wisps of hair covered his shiny head. He had on the priestly black with the accompanying white collar. Brown plastic lenses with turtle-shell frames obscured his eyes.

I’m sorry, Father, I said. I’ll leave.

No, no, he said. I wasn’t trying to shoo you. He hurried over, like maybe this one would get away, and quickly sat beside me.

I lifted myself up on the bench. Hard job, I heard myself say. It was something my father had always muttered when he was doing something he thought was too closely related to manual labor.

We sat for a few minutes together, staring up at Christ.

Finally, the priest said, I’m Father Tom.

Joe Dugan, I said. We shook hands. His was cold. He hasn’t died yet, I said, nodding toward Jesus.

No, Father Tom said. I suppose He hasn’t.

It’s a little unnerving, I said.

Why’s that?

This is the part where He’s suffering, I said.

Indeed.

We sat together for an uncomfortable moment.

When’s the last time you went to church and had a nice conversation like this with your parish priest? he asked, peering over at me through his brown lenses. It had to be like looking at the world through a pint of root beer.

Five years, I said. I wasn’t interested in participating in this sacrament.

And what have you been up to, lo, these past five years?

I’m not a bad person, Father. I don’t need reconciliation.

No one’s saying that.

I have to leave, I said. I need to leave.

I stood up. The priest was between me and the center aisle. I turned and walked all the way to the other end of the pew, by the statue of St. Alphonsus on the wall, took a quick right and practically sprinted out of the church. I turned around at the door. The priest sat in the same spot, his arm hung over the back of the pew, his head aimed in my direction.

I’m sorry, Father, I called over to him.

He lifted his hand up and waved. Or maybe he was shooing me this time.

I left.

This has been another excerpt from Alpha Mike Foxtrot, available now from Paragraph Line Books.

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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