Proper Place

Paul Maliszewski

The old priest did not seem well. He approached the altar, moving haltingly, pausing sometimes to look at the ground before taking a step. A younger priest went before him. When they reached the front of the church, the old priest sat to the side. It was later, during mass, that he collapsed. He was at the altar, standing beside the younger priest, and then his legs went weak and he fell. Two men rushed over and picked him up. They held him under his arms, helping him to a chair. His face was white, his skin papery. His mouth hung open, slack. He looked bad. My girlfriend sat beside me, our hands clasped. When everyone stood to sing, she leaned close to ask did I think he was okay? I shook my head. I didn’t know.

I’d invited my girlfriend to go to church with me. We were sitting in my car one night. It was drizzling out and we’d gotten ice cream. We were eating, talking about whatever. I was hoping the rain would let up. I wanted options, things to do. At some point I just asked her what she thought about going to church. One Sunday, I meant. It didn’t have to be this Sunday, I said. She asked me why and I said I didn’t know. I’d just been thinking. I couldn’t explain it really. I didn’t go to church myself, not regularly. I did go on the big holidays usually, with my family. I guess I just felt that going to church together, if she wanted to, was something we were supposed to do. Like it served as some demonstration of our seriousness. The next step, or stage, in our relationship. And I was serious about her. We’d been dating for a while. She looked out the window and I went back to my ice cream, scraping my spoon at the bottom of the cup. Everything’s wet, she said. The parking lot lights flickered and then came on.

We’d ended up at this park we went to most evenings unless one of us had to work late. The park people kept deer in a fenced?in field and we fed them because you could and we liked to. Afterwards we walked around. Sometimes we left the car beside one of the picnic areas they had back in the woods and we had sex there. Made love, I always called it. We were living at home with our parents. We had to be resourceful. I kept a blanket in the trunk of my car. There was a basketball court near her house, a half court covered for some reason in Astroturf. We made love there a few times. We tried doing it with me behind her, on my knees, but I couldn’t get it in and so we did it how we always did. Once, we made love on a friend’s waterbed. It was different, I guess. Feeling like you’re sinking, adrift. The friend was out of town, somewhere with her family. In the morning we got up and made the bed and said how nice it was, spending the night together, and how great it would be to do that every night. Just fall asleep next to each other. My girlfriend noticed a skidmark on the sheets. From the sex, all the moving around. It was me, I was sure. I started to apologize but she waved at the air. It wasn’t anything, she said. We stripped the bed, put the sheets in the wash, and got some breakfast—Cheerios and milk. We spoke only of ordinary things.

I heard later that the old priest died. Not that day, but soon after we saw him collapse. What stayed with me was how the priest who was performing the mass, the younger priest, never paused or even looked at the old priest. He had to have known. Had to have seen the men come to the altar. A person would notice something like that. The old priest was dying and everything just went on: we stood when we were supposed to stand and kneeled when we were supposed to kneel and we sang when we were supposed to sing. I didn’t stop believing in God that day. I don’t know when I stopped believing exactly. It wasn’t a sudden thing. I did think about the old priest and how we all acted. I kept coming back to it, remembering him falling, the old priest crumpled beside the altar.

My girlfriend and I split up eventually. This would’ve been a couple years later. We were apart most of the time anyway, going to school. Me in Texas, she in Pennsylvania. We’d see each other on breaks and fall back into the old routines. One night after we had sex I told her that she felt different. I didn’t mean it in some abstract sense; she felt different when I was inside her. I’d sort of convinced myselfshe was cheating on me. And I thought having sex with someone else had altered her. I had strange ideas. I wrote her long letters and got shorter ones back. I called when I could afford it. Once, I asked her what she thought about the concept of original sin. I just wanted to keep talking, about anything. I was interested, I said, in the original part. What if it were a good thing? I said. To be original, you know. To be this original sinner or whatever. Another time I asked her what she thought Lou Reed meant when he sang in that one song, Jesus, help me find my proper place. Did she think he really meant that, what he said? Was he really praying? Part of me was afraid it was a joke, a mockery of thoughts I still had, those times I’d look to prayer, my late?night beseeching. I hoped he was being genuine. I guess because maybe I needed to find my proper place. My girlfriend was quiet. Then she said he probably wasn’t being totally serious. In her opinion anyway. She pointed out some things about other songs of his, how, in one, the music, that ba?ba?ba, it just undercuts whatever there is that’s sincere. While it made sense, what she said, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to believe. This one time she called me and maybe it was late or I’d fallen asleep. She could tell from my voice, from how I spoke. Sorry to wake you up, she said. It was all right, no biggie. That’s when she told me she was there, that she’d come to see me as a surprise. I’m outside your door, she said. Right now. Okay, I said. Hold on. I put the phone down. Then I got out of bed and went to the door, and of course she wasn’t there. The hallway outside was empty. A few trashcans, some pizza boxes. I listened but heard nothing. When I picked up the phone again, she was laughing. I didn’t understand. Sorry, she said. I couldn’t help myself. You just sounded so sleepy.