Jay Simons

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Ring Around the Collar

Function over form, the priest told himself as he pulled out onto the street in his old gray Volkswagen Golf. It wasn’t the nicest car he had owned, but it was functional, enabling him to run errands around town and administer the sacrament to housebound parishioners. He was obligated, of course, to be modest in his expenditures, though he had never been one for conspicuous displays anyway. The only adornment hung from the narrow neck of the rearview mirror: a plastic crucifix that suspended itself at impossible angles whenever he made a turn or ran into a rough stretch of road. On this Monday afternoon, the crucifix swayed to the left as he pulled into the parking lot of the religious supply shop. After this stop, it would be on to the grocery store.

In his mid-20s, Father Patrick was three years into the priesthood. He was of slightly above-average height and had jet-black hair that curled about his ears. He possessed a certain stoutness of frame that had made him an early pick for touch football games at the seminary. With eyes that were always smiling, his face seemed to some to broadcast simple-mindedness, though others would insist that he looked naturally benevolent—the bishop, for example, had once described his face as “positively beatific,” proclaiming him to have been born to be a man of the cloth. While just as benevolent as the next priest, he knew that appearances didn’t always reflect inner truth, and he sometimes secretly resented having to live up to expectations created by forces beyond his control. Nevertheless, he tried his best to do so, and generally succeeded.

Father John, his old priest, had passed away not long after Patrick had taken his vows. When the young priest was tasked with taking his place, he had been thrilled at the prospect of serving his hometown parishioners. But when he returned as an ordained priest, it was as though he had grown a third arm. He had expected to find it advantageous to already know many of his parishioners, but he had instead discovered the discomfort of familiarity. Almost everyone was more guarded, more formal, more polite. No more unwary smiles. No more “Hey, Patrick” from his former classmates and teachers. He couldn’t stand it.

As Father Patrick got out of the car, he brushed some lint from his black slacks, trying to ignore the itch enveloping his right arm. His doctor had diagnosed the rash on it as eczema and prescribed an over-the-counter corticosteroid ointment. He had instructed the priest not to scratch the area but conceded that he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t give in and do so every once in a while. So far, he had resisted the urge with the long-suffering grace of a saint—not out of any desire to prove the physician wrong but due to a discipline that had long upheld his sense of self-denial. He had applied the last of the ointment before leaving the rectory; it helped, but there were still times that he had to grit his teeth to keep from scratching. His long sleeves were not doing him any favors in that regard, though the gray cotton shirt was light and loose enough. His clerical collar was threaded through the shirt’s downturned collar, displaying a square of white at his throat. He had left behind his too-small ankle-length Roman cassock—that garment that garnered sideways glances whenever he wore it outside of church functions. After some deliberation, he had decided against blue jeans; that, he knew, would be a bridge too far.

Father Patrick had changed out of his cassock that morning after officiating a funeral for a lapsed Catholic. He had held a mass and a graveside service at the request of the man’s children, who were parishioners of his. The last of the church’s candles had been burned during the mass, which is what brought the priest to stop number one: Divinity Church Supply.

At the entrance, he held the door open for an older woman whose powder-blue perm barely came up to his chest. She thanked him with a smile as she bustled inside. Bless you, Father Patrick mouthed in silent benediction. Save for when he bestowed signs of the cross at mass, he never made an outward show of blessing people. He did it quietly, in the privacy of his heart.

Father Patrick smiled at the pretty, red-haired clerk behind the glass counter against the wall as she welcomed the older woman. Coming in on the latter’s heels, he received, in lieu of a verbal greeting, a polite nod.

Bless you.

In her blood-red blouse and black skirt, the clerk reminded him of Theresa, a girl he had dated in high school. They’d gone on a couple walks in the park, on one of which he had worked up the nerve to kiss her. Not long after, she had dumped him for Robbie Robertson, the biggest goof-off in school. They had ended up getting married and moving to Los Angeles.

As Father Patrick perused the packages of long wax candles, he wondered how his life would have turned out differently if he had acted the clown instead of being the average, quiet, studious child. He wouldn’t be standing in Divinity Church Supply trying to decide between a 12-pack and a 24-pack of candles, that much was certain. He might have been the one to marry Theresa. He might have been living in Los Angeles.

Selecting the smaller pack, he thought about how Robbie’s life had turned out. After graduation, Robbie had continued cultivating his clownish behavior in college—probably because that’s what he had been expected to do—and made a career of it. He was an up-and-coming comedian, or had been, until the day that he sat in a cramped dressing room at the back of a comedy club in California and put a bullet through his temple.

Father Patrick walked up to the counter and beamed beneficently at the clerk. Her eyes dropped, down to where he had brought the package of candles to rest awkwardly against his waist. He quickly lifted the package and handed it to her with an apologetic look. Shifting from foot to foot, she tossed it across the scanner and into a plastic bag as swiftly as if the candles had already been lit.

“Have you been having a good day?” Father Patrick tried to keep the embarrassment from his voice.

“Mmm-hmm,” she replied through closed lips, avoiding eye contact as she pushed the bag toward him. When he didn’t take it right away, she picked it up and held it out to him. “Here you are, Father.”

“Thank you, my child,” he said, taking the bag. Her eyes flickered over his, and he felt even more awkward for having called her “child.” He was, after all, probably no older than she. Stepping quietly toward the exit, he wondered if he was blushing.

It was because of their closeness in age, he decided, that the “Father” had thrown him off. The appellation still felt cumbersome to him, like an appendage that had been grafted onto his body. It wasn’t necessary to live, and it could, with some difficulty, be removed, but a horrible scar would be left in its place, inevitably making him appear even less human than before. It was proving difficult to get used to.

These thoughts had become more frequent during his third year as a man of the cloth. Father Patrick hated to admit it, but he was losing himself. The Patrick part was being choked out by a hand that both was and wasn’t his. He wasn’t prepared to die to himself; he wanted to live and be a priest. He was holding onto hope that he wouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. The fact was, though, he was nearing the end of his rope.

As Father Patrick exited the store, he racked his brain trying to remember the last occasion on which he had carried on a secular conversation that consisted of anything more than a couple mechanical remarks. With his mind thus occupied, his feet failed to navigate the curb, and he lost his balance, pitching forward onto the concrete. The bag containing the pack of candles ended up beneath his knees, keeping them from scraping against the cement, though the candles cracked in half as a result. He rose to his feet, unharmed and holding a bag of broken candles. Having no desire to go back inside to purchase more, he decided that he would look for some at stop number two: the grocery store. He mentally reviewed his shopping list—candles, apples, toilet paper, anti-itch ointment. There was something else; he would surely remember it when he got there.

As he guided the gray Golf through the city streets, out of the corner of his eye, he would see the crucifix swaying with every turn he made, a reminder of who he had become. Father Patrick. It was a name that screamed not just “priest” but “Irish-Catholic priest,” though in reality, he was of English stock. His ancestors must have been rolling in their graves at his baptism. Whenever someone erroneously assumed him to be Irish, he usually remained silent. Otherwise, his good-natured correction was typically met with consternation or confusion.

Father Patrick pulled into the parking lot of Fleischman’s Foodliner and found a spot one row back from the entrance of the store. When he turned off the car, the crucifix was still swaying subtly, as though its natural state were one of insensible motion. He reached up to steady it, but when he released it, it started swinging more perceptibly than before. Mildly annoyed, he slid it off the rearview mirror and placed it in the black plastic cupholder between the seats. It was a hot day, and he could feel the sweat on his neck soaking into the soft fabric of his shirt collar and threatening to stain the clerical collar beneath it. After regarding himself in the now-bare mirror for a moment, he removed the immaculate white strip and slipped it into the pocket of his slacks.

As Father Patrick got out of the car, he remembered the first time he had put on the collar. He’d had to take off the faded polka-dot tie that he had worn to his last dinner with some non-seminary friends. The collar had felt so light by comparison, locking gently around his throat. Now, it felt bulky in his pocket, pressing unnaturally against his upper thigh as he walked, forcing him to shorten his stride. He looked like he was either limping or lugging something invisible across the parking lot.

He felt his hand at his throat. It was an unconscious action that he caught himself performing whenever he wasn’t wearing his collar. He thought of it as his “throat-touching habit,” which always brought to mind the nun jokes he had heard at the seminary. He suppressed a smile, remembering the one about the nuns and the blind man. The naked nuns had no idea the man was there to hang the blinds and could see just fine. There were times that he wanted to make jokes, but they never made it past his lips. People just didn’t properly appreciate humor in the clergy; it was like they thought priests were somehow breaking their vow by being funny.

The automatic doors parted before Father Patrick, and cold air caressed his face in welcome, carrying the smells of produce and cardboard. Temporarily intoxicated by the sensuous press of air, he forgot about the step up just inside the entrance that elevated the floor, effectively situating the checkout stands on a platform. He stumbled, eyes widening with the rush of blood into his head as he plummeted. He caught himself with his hands, knees making brief contact with the hard floor and collar biting into his thigh.

“Watch your step, sir,” he heard from the row of cashiers to his left. By the time he had hoisted himself back up and looked in that direction, all three cashiers were facing away from him, serving customers. The blonde hair piled high on the bent head of the nearest one struck him as familiar, but he continued past the registers, admonishing himself for not paying more attention. At least I wasn’t carrying any candles yet, he thought.

After a brief period of wandering, Father Patrick entered an aisle containing outdoor items where, between some grilling implements and an amply stocked section of flashlights of all lengths and intensities, he found a very small selection of candles. There were four packages, each containing six pieces. He grabbed one pack and was trying to decide whether to grab another when he noticed someone standing just a few feet to his left: a long-haired man in a sleeveless shirt turning a spatula over in his hands. Father Patrick pictured the man with shorter hair, and he realized that this was someone he had gone to high school with.

“Frank! How are you?”

The man turned, surprised. Recognition dawned.

“Hey, man! I mean, Father. ’Cause you’re a priest now, right?”

Yes, he thought, but I’ve always been a man.

“That’s right,” he said.

While Frank looked him up and down through slitted eyes, Father Patrick’s mind swelled with decade-old memories of when he had been just a high school kid. He began to reminisce about the time a mutual friend of theirs had brought his myna bird to school and accidentally let it out in English class.

“And Mrs. Fitzpatrick was chasing it around the room, and the whole time, it was squawking, ‘Bad dog. Bad—’”

“I remember. Hey, did you hear about Robbie?”

“Yes,” Father Patrick said, suppressing his annoyance at the interruption.

“Man, suicide. I’m sorry.”

Why was he apologizing to me? Father Patrick wondered.

“I’ve said some prayers for him,” Frank said. “Oh.” He caught himself. “Is that okay? I mean, considering…”

“Certainly,” Father Patrick said, hastily thrusting his priest hat back on. “There are almost always mitigating circumstances when it comes to suicide. He was a human being, after all. I think about him often, and I’ve prayed on his behalf.”

“Well, if you have, then it must be okay.”

Father Patrick said farewell. His arm itched as he watched Frank walk away, the spatula banging against his leg with each step. The conversation left him with a familiar empty feeling.

He limped to the end of the aisle. A bevy of Mylar balloons emblazoned with “Happy Birthday!” crowded a festive display near the bakery. He stopped. That’s what he had forgotten. He blinked rapidly against the burning in his eyes. With the last-minute funeral that morning, and everything else, he had forgotten that today was his birthday. He’d meant to buy himself a small indulgence—a slice of cake, maybe a donut. Now, though, he had no appetite for sweets.

Father Patrick turned away and wandered through the paper goods, absentmindedly running his fingers along the top of his right arm for a few seconds before he realized what he was doing and stopped. He looked at the nearly bare shelf beside him. The store was almost out of toilet paper. He had intended to buy some, but the only brand remaining was one called Pure Heaven. He couldn’t bear the thought of carrying that around the store, so he moved on.

The itch in his arm reminded Father Patrick that he was out of ointment, so he made his way to the pharmacy section. He was passing the pain relievers when he heard a thud followed by a coarse “Goddamnit!” He didn’t wince, didn’t react, had no impulse to chastise, chasten, or rebuke. He knew that this was something people said.

The exclamation had come from a gaunt-faced man who was now holding a broken bottle, a narrow sliver of missing plastic revealing the contents: a host of slender, circular gummy vitamins. Another man was hissing at him and furtively eyeing Father Patrick; this man the priest recognized as a former member of the Church. The first man turned to Father Patrick with a chastened look.

“I’m sorry, Father.”

Father Patrick grasped at his own throat, through which, he was palpably aware, no words of reproach had passed. His thumb and index finger came away slightly damp. “I forgive you,” he said, feeling chastened himself. His hand unconsciously formed a circle as he rubbed his moist fingertips together. Seeing that the men were standing beside the anti-itch ointments, he abandoned his intention to purchase some.

“Take care, Darren,” he said to the cursing man’s companion, adding a strained mental “Bless you.”

“You too, Father,” the man replied, seemingly surprised by the use of his name.

As he trudged toward the produce section, Father Patrick’s arm was itching fiercely, and he fantasized about rolling his sleeve up and vigorously rubbing a pineapple back and forth between his elbow and wrist. Instead, he allowed himself a quick scratch through his sleeve with two fingers, a single swipe in each direction. I’ll just grab some apples and then go home.

In front of a rack holding Red Delicious apples—his favorite kind—were the only two patrons in the produce section. A bald, middle-aged man was rummaging through the apples, periodically picking one out and handing it to the woman in a beanie cap beside him for inspection.

“I don’t think I want that one,” she said to the latest offering. The man retracted it with a grunt and held out another.

As Father Patrick walked up and stood beside her, he couldn’t resist saying to her, against his better judgment, “Don’t let him tempt you, Eve.”

The man continued scouring the apples, but the woman started laughing. She turned toward Father Patrick, whose cheeks stretched into a grin. He saw the glow of his own face reflected in hers in the instant before she fixed her eyes on the source and abruptly brought a hand to her mouth to stifle her laughter. He didn’t know her; apparently, though, she recognized him.

“I’m sorry,” she sputtered.

“It’s not a sin to laugh,” Father Patrick said, his face possessed by a neutral expression.

“I know. If I’d have known—”

“If you’d have known that it was a priest making the joke, you wouldn’t have laughed at all?” he said, feeling a pang of envy for poor Robbie. The woman squirmed. “I understand,” he added, and she turned away.

He brought his hand to his neck and noticed that all the sweat had evaporated, leaving it dry and cold. With a dull smile, he departed, thinking about his bare Adam’s apple and tasting poison.

As he made his way to the front of the store, taking long, slow, painful strides, the itch reached an unwonted intensity. Casting aside his saintly restraint, he pulled up his sleeve and scratched his arm with the same fierceness with which it itched, not stopping until long after the sensation had subsided. He expected to find that he had bloodied the appendage, but to his consternation, it looked exactly as it had that morning after the funeral. Maybe it will leave a scar, he mused.

He thought about the mistake the woman had made. Jesus, while divine, had also been fully human and, Father Patrick was convinced, laughed as much as the next person. If Jesus could laugh, he wondered, why can’t I? And if flawed Robbie could make people laugh, why shouldn’t I?

After he placed his only item, the package of candles, on the checkout counter, he got a good look at the cashier and was immediately sobered. He recognized the woman, with her high blond hair secured by a large black band, from the funeral; her father was the man they had buried earlier that day.

“Oh,” she said, recognizing him. “Hi, Father.”

“Hello, Renee.” Father Patrick looked into her red-rimmed eyes, searching for priestly words of comfort that he hadn’t already poured into her ear that morning, something other than the cliché of the deceased being in a better place. Finally, he said, “I’ve been thinking about your father all day,” then realized the sympathy he had been feeling for the man had just shifted entirely onto his daughter. He wanted to ask her why she was working on the day of her father’s funeral, but he knew that she probably didn’t have a choice, pitying her all the more.

“It was a beautiful service, Father.”

It had been. “Thank you,” he said, ignoring the impulse to add “my child,” the unspoken words echoing forcefully in his head.

He nervously discerned the drop just beyond the checkout lane out of the corner of his eye, remembering how he had fallen when entering the store. Then, he noticed that Renee was eyeing his shirt with interest. He looked down at his right arm, expecting to see blood soaking through the sleeve, but it remained unstained.

“Father, where’s your collar?”

The question caught him off guard, and both hands went to his neck. He didn’t know what to say to her, so he held out his arms and shrugged.

“Oh, you poor man. You’ve lost it, haven’t you.”

The pity in her voice pierced his heart like a spear, and his sympathy shifted again with a ponderous inward groan. Mere hours before, this woman had wept openly at her father’s funeral. Now she was pitying him, sad birthday boy that he was. Was this the depths of humanity?

“You know, we have construction paper in aisle six.”

Father Patrick was dumbfounded.

“Something to consider. Here you are, Father.” She set the plastic Fleischman’s bag holding the pack of candles on the edge of the counter. After handing him the receipt, she shut off the lamp lighting her register sign and walked toward a door on the far side of the checkout area. On it hung a laminated sign that read “Employee Lounge.”

Father Patrick slowly slid the receipt into his pocket, his fingers brushing against the piece of plastic doubled up there. He removed it from his pocket and threaded it around his neck like a noose. Then, taking the bag of candles from the counter, he turned and stepped off the platform.

Jay Simons received a PhD in English from Southern Illinois University. He teaches college composition and literature classes and works as a Writing Expert for Grammarly. His publications include two scholarly articles and one book on Ben Jonson and Renaissance satire.

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Photo is in the Public Domain.

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