SONG OF NORWAY
Joey led the boy forward into the cool air. It felt like decades since he’d been inside a church, but he remembered the uneasiness his own father had modeled for him years ago and ducked his head in an almost reflexive genuflection. Behind him the heavy oak doors closed with a gasp.
He tugged Justin’s hand gently. “Just try to hold it for a few more seconds, okay?’’
They walked briskly up the chapel’s center aisle. It was homecoming weekend at the college, and a few of the visiting parents were sprinkled among the pews to either side. Some wore sweatshirts with the college logo on the front. The women smiled knowingly at their matching tuxedos.
“Dad, what –”
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “They’re praying. We’re almost there.”
At the far end of the brass communion rail, he swept aside a curtain of ornate beads. In the side chapel before him was what looked like a large birdbath, and the boy reached up to run his fingers along its rim. The limo guy who’d chauffeured them all to the campus for the photo shoot had said the restroom was inside the sacristy, whatever that was. Joey pulled the boy toward a door on the opposite wall. He knocked uncertainly and, when no one answered, nudged it forward.
A kaleidoscope of stained glass flared on the wall, dazzling him briefly and kick-starting a banging in his head from last night’s drinking, but then he spied through a small closet door a curve of pearl-white porcelain.
“Here we go, big guy.”
He helped Justin twist the cummerbund aside and peeled the stiff fabric around the top two pants buttons. The boy scanned the beige walls as if he were in a museum: the hissing radiator that towered over him like a slab of polished granite, the crucifix near the tiny window, the massive water basin streaked with greenish stains. High above his head a large container was bolted to the wall over the toilet, beads of water dotting the bottom.
“Dad, what’s that?”
Joey glanced up. “That’s what you flush. See?” He shook the long chain dangling along the wall. “I’ll show you when you’re done.”
He paused at the door and left it cracked open a couple of inches. “I’ll be right out here, okay? Checking on Uncle Eric and the rest of them.”
Across the sacristy, a small gray-paned window interrupted a wall lined with fat red books. Satin ribbons stuck out from the base of each binding like snakes’ tongues. He opened the window and tilted the pane horizontal, and found that he could see them all out there: the photographer bossing everyone around, the other ushers resting their beers on the uneven turf beneath the maples, and the bridesmaids shooting looks at them. Eric was walking toward the women and poking at his phone, and immediately Joey heard a chirping in his own pocket. He pulled out his cell.
Joey WTF where r u.
He texted back: Call of nature Justin not me and dropped the phone back in his pocket.
On the wall near the bookshelves was a framed poster: A Madonna and child gazing at each other. The halo over Mary’s head had words curving on it: “SS Mater Boni Consilli Ora Pro Nobis” and the one above Jesus, “Jesum Filium Tuum.” Both Mary and Jesus had tired, sad smiles, yet oddly each looked contented in their sadness.
Outside, the flower girl was scooping up the red and yellow leaves and tossing them skyward. Kelly stood by herself over near the lamppost, her dark hair piled high like it was way back then. Obviously remembering their own, and feeling just as awkward here as he did. Why the hell had Eric let Gina invite her? Dude, grow a pair, why don’t you.
Seeing the limo driver check his watch and glance toward the chapel, Joey said over his shoulder, “You about done, kid?”
“No!” That tone, he thought, like, what a stupid question. And he’s only five. Gets it from her.
He looked outside again. Now it was the parents’ turn to surround Eric and Gina while the photographer crouched behind his viewfinder to capture the fidgeting group. Behind them, a bank of bright-orange flowers swam in the autumn sun. Were they there six years ago? Probably not, he thought. Theirs had been in the spring.
He heard steps behind him. A priest glided into the room, tossing a folder and prayer book onto a bookshelf with one hand and unbuttoning his light-blue cardigan with the other.
“And a good afternoon to you.” Spoken cheerfully yet absently, like a professor entering a classroom after the bell has rung. He was beefy like a wrestler, and his cologne was so strong it filled the room.
Joey edged back toward the restroom, as if he’d been caught straying from his post.
“Sorry to intrude, Father.” He nodded toward the door. “The boy had an emergency, hope it’s OK we came in.”
“No problem. Happens all the time.” The priest peeled off his white collar and tucked it in his shirt pocket. He turned and held out his hand, crushing Joey’s in a massive damp grip.
“Nice to meet you, Father.”
“Dad, who is that?” Justin sounded faintly alarmed or just curious; his father couldn’t tell.
“Just the priest – the man who works here. We’re okay.”
The priest bent low over a large drawer and riffled through a stack of garments that gave off a smell of flowers. He checked the label on one closely before easing it gently from the others.
Joey sat down near the restroom. His phone chirped again.
Gina’s having a cow, bro.
He thumbed out an answer. She can fucking wait OK.
Eric. Married all of 45 minutes and already pussy-whipped, he thought. Worse, he wants to pull me back into that puddle. Last night at Hooters he and his brother had taken their beers over to the corner of the function room while their cousin was embarrassing himself with the waitress, and he’d told Eric for the hundredth time: I mean, do what you want, but don’t fool yourself, okay? A kid won’t make the slightest difference; if anything you’ll be more miserable. I know what I’m talking about.
But Eric knew better, always had, ever since they were kids.
“The floor in here is the same as at Mom’s house.”
“Huh. That’s cool.”
He glanced up at the priest, who was inspecting himself in front of a full-length mirror as he adjusted the long, flowing garment over his massive shoulders. He caught the guy sneaking a look at him, all sympathetic like, and glared back till the priest dropped his eyes. Not your fucking business, dude.
He tried to remember a time when it was right between the two of them. Good luck with that. The honeymoon was one, of course. It’d be pretty pathetic, wouldn’t it, if you couldn’t enjoy a week of doing nothing but screwing and sleeping late and snorkeling, not to mention the all-inclusive food and booze. Kelly had loved everything about Aruba, especially the swim-up bar at the hotel pool, hadn’t bitched about the drinking then.
The priest pulled out what looked like a long scarf. He swatted a few invisible pieces of lint from it, then kissed it and draped it around his neck.
A loud flushing sound came from behind them.
“Dad, this is cool!”
Joey smiled at the priest’s reflection.
“Yeah? You ready for me to come in, then?”
Inside the restroom, he rebuttoned the boy’s pants and slid the cummerbund back into place.
“Alright, little man. Just wash your hands now and we’re good to go.”
Maybe it would have been different back then if Kelly’s girlfriends had gone down the same road. It’s got to be tough, being stuck at home with the kid while they’re still out living the dream, and you have to scroll through selfie after selfie of The Gal Pals Minus One: Here we are toasting with mojitos at TGIF, and check us out clowning around with the microphone at Karaoke Night. It gets old real quick. Go through day after day of that and who wouldn’t get depressed? “Clinical” was her mother’s term for it, looking at you like: You’ve got to step up, Mister, it’s in the damn vows, just read them, for Chrissake. So then it’s all on you, every night when you get home from work. Make it better, make it better — but you can’t make it better. Oh, and just try to enjoy a beer or two and she’s all over your ass like Manny Pacquiao on that skinny Mexican dude.
No, they’d never had a chance. They just hadn’t known it. It was like that “Gulliver’s Travels” picture book he’d read to Justin, with all those Lilliputians staking Gulliver to the earth with a thousand thin ropes. How the real world drags you down.
He dried the boy’s hands with a wad of brown paper towels. “Justin, one last thing: I have to pee too, so wait out there for me, okay?”
The boy stepped outside, then spoke through the closed door.
“But let me flush it, okay, Dad? When you’re done?”
As he was zipping up, his phone chirped again. He didn’t look at it. He knew it would just be Eric again or maybe Gina, trying to light a fire under his ass. Why were people always trying to hurry you along? He remembered that day in Aruba at the beach: he and Kelly just lying there on towels, their fingers touching, all blissed out, and along comes this dude with a megaphone trying to round up the cruise-ship tourists he’d bused in for the snorkeling. Repeating over and over: “Song of Norway, time to go,” and all these dopes with bad sunburns lumbering in from their water sports to be herded off to the next stop on someone’s idea of a Caribbean bucket list. Kelly had been the first to lose it, then he’d joined in, and before you knew it the two of them were cackling to the point of tears. For the rest of the honeymoon, it became their thing: Whenever something ridiculous happened, they would turn to each other and mouth the words “Song of Norway” and they’d be off again.
When he emerged from the restroom, the priest was sitting down, fingering a set of rosary beads and mumbling rhythmically. Justin stood directly in front of him, watching intently, as if trying to figure out a magician’s card trick.
“Justin, let the man be, pal.”
The priest stopped his prayers and smiled. “Really, it’s okay. Jesus said let the little children come to me. And who am I to argue with Saint Matthew, right?”
He held out the rosary. “Would you like to try them?”
The boy took the string of beads in his hands and dangled them in the air. “How do they work?”
“Well, you go from bead to bead, and you say an Our Father, some Hail Marys, and a Glory Be,” the priest said. “It’s pretty simple, but it helps if you can memorize the prayers.”
He stood up and opened a cabinet high on the wall. “But here’s the most important part: At the same time you’re doing all that, you think of something good that you want God to do, and you ask him to do it.”
Justin swung the beads so they reflected the late-afternoon sunlight.
“So… it’s magic, right?”
The priest stood on his toes to reach far back into the cabinet. “Well, not quite, because you never know just what God’s going to do. But I like to ask him anyway.”
He pulled out a small plastic container holding a new rosary and blew the dust off it before handing it to the boy.
“We gave out a bunch of these at Our Lady’s feast day last week, but there’s lots left over. So now you can learn all about it yourself. There’s an instruction sheet in there with the prayers.”
Joey nudged the boy’s shoulder. “What do you say, Justin?”
“No worries.” The priest took back his own rosary and pulled up the heavy sleeve of his vestment to check his watch. “Look at that. I have to go start the service. You fellows enjoy your big day.” He touched the top of the boy’s head and left.
Joey’s phone chirped again.
“What do you think? Shall we go see how they’re all doing out there?”
Justin walked slowly toward the door, cradling the plastic box in his hand like a compass. Then he stopped suddenly and ran back toward the restroom. A loud flushing sound followed.
Outside, Joey saw that the photographer was screwing around with his lenses, and everyone else was cooling their heels. His cousin was still holding his beer for him, and Joey took a long pull from it as he joined the other ushers.
“I guess you must have fallen in, huh, kid?” his cousin called out as they watched Justin run toward Kelly.
Joey watched as the boy showed off his prize to his mother. She crouched down and admired the beads as he held them before her. As they talked, Kelly tried to press his stubborn cowlick back into place.
Justin came back and tugged on his father’s arm, dragging him over toward the lamppost near Kelly.
“Dad, tell Mom about the priest.”
“Let’s see.” Joey drank from his beer. “Well, he was huge. Think Hulk Hogan in a dress.”
Kelly rolled her eyes and glanced toward the church.
“Okay then. Thanks for that image.”
She looked tired, like she always did when he picked up the boy every other weekend. He had heard that she’d gone out a few times with the shortstop from his old softball team. Guy was a total loser, and she’d find that out soon enough, if she hadn’t already.
Justin pulled out a small sheet of paper from the plastic box. Joey couldn’t tell if his son understood what he was reading.
“So, you been okay?”
She looked back at him with an expression he couldn’t quite read. Maybe that was their problem.
The thing about good times, he thought, is they’re always followed by bad times. But the opposite also had to be true, right? And yet that never seemed to be the case. Maybe, for things to work out, at least one of you has to think that way.
They stood there quietly. After a minute or two, Gina rushed over, her panties all in a twist, and took the boy’s hand.
“Justin, honey, the photographer wants to take some with you and the flower girl. Can you let your mom hold that and come quick with me?”
She looked up at Kelly.
“Sorry, Kell, it’s just that we’re running so late.”
The two of them watched Gina drag the boy off.
He couldn’t help it. He caught Kelly’s eye. He wanted to say it, and he could tell that she did too, but it was scary, what might happen if you did.
David Desjardins is a journalist with roots in Rhode Island, having worked at The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, and other newspapers. His short story “The Sixth Game” was included in the anthology “Further Fenway Fiction” (Rounder Books, 2007).