THE ANGEL’S CHAIR

The Angel's Chair

PART ONE

Perfect Man has visited Earth already, and His voice was heard
The Voice of Imperfect Man must now be made manifest. And I have been selected as the most likely candidate.”– Yesterday’s Wine  -Willie Nelson

1

CHRISTMAS EVE, AUSTIN, TEXAS

Blackstone Smith’s last day as a clergyman dawned cold and gray thanks to the norther that two days ago had howled across the prairies of Saskatchewan and now rode hard and wet into the Texas Hill Country, dispelling any prospect of a Christmas Day barbecue in the park. Until that morning, it had been an unseasonably warm fall and early winter, the morning joggers along the city’s lake shore still attired in running shorts and tank tops

Three mornings a week he walked along the shore while immersing in his daily meditation. Observing all that unbridled athleticism in contrast to his own physical diminishment frequently tested Smith’s tenuous embrace of Zen acceptance, his only recompense the adage popular among some in his age demographic that things such as fine wine, old friends, money, in other words, all the accoutrements and perspective of a certain maturity, were all wasted on the young. Most times, Smith saw it pretty much as an even draw; at other times he speculated as to what Faustian deal he might consider to recoup some of that raw youth.

In more robust times, Smith had been a swimmer, and a damn good one at that; state high school championships and ‘accolades out the ass’ as his father used to put it, and even a shot at achieving All-American by his junior year in college.  He never made All-American, much less his junior year. Forty-five years and thirty extra pounds now precluded him from even attempting to swim the length of the Barton Springs pool. People often asked as to what happened, how he got side-tracked.  Shit happens was his usual rejoinder, and he would leave it at that. 

Smith glanced up from the Elmore Leonard novel in his lap to gaze out the window at the skeletal tree branches framing the fish gray sky. The prediction of rush hour sleet rendered it unlikely there would be a breakout of holiday goodwill amongst the commuters and last minute shoppers, bolstering his decision to avoid the brouhaha and spend the night in his office. An option rendered even more appealing after surveying the cornucopia of holiday leftovers in the staff kitchen.

 He tossed his glasses and the paperback onto his desk and let his gaze settle on the brass paperweight atop his inbox. The quote by Thomas Merton engraved on the surface was worn but still legible.

 “The tighter you squeeze, the less you have.”

He always thought it an apt metaphor for his life. Aimee, his second wife, had given him the paperweight on the day they signed their divorce papers. She always liked inspirational quotes, and had gone through a phase in their last year of marriage during which she plastered the walls of their den with posters bearing upbeat platitudes superimposed over idyllic green pastures and snow-capped mountains. She had always been one to nurture the expectation of happiness, regardless how remote the likelihood. He, on the other hand, viewed harmony as something you beat into submission. This lack of convergence in world views seemed to doom any promise of a long and happy marriage, despite their lengthy acquaintance and undiminished carnal fervor.

His mind drifted back to his dilemma regarding the sermon he proposed to give for this evening’s Christmas Eve service. Earlier that morning, he had alternated between reading Elmore Leonard’s take on the human condition and Thomas Merton’s essays. Smith’s musings had brought him to a point where he now pondered what a sermon might be like that wove together the thematic content from each of their writings. In his mind he was confident Leonard had read Merton, for it seemed many of the protagonists in his novels came off as fairly Zen. Hadn’t one of Leonard’s characters remarked that black and white was a lazy way of looking at the world? Smith figured Merton would likely agree.

He picked up the cup at his elbow and scrutinized the contents, the smell suggestive of some foul witch’s brew. The best herbal liver cleanser there is, his acupuncturist opined. He briefly considered fortifying it with the Grey Goose he kept concealed beneath copies of his old sermons in the bottom desk drawer. Instead, he slurped down the cold dregs and unfolded his lanky, six-foot frame and walked over to the sink to rinse his cup.

In a reflex of vanity, he paused to study himself in the small mirror by the doorway. Often in the midst of shaving or brushing his teeth, he would stare at his image and hardly recognize the face staring back at him. Now, he leaned closer and took stock. At age sixty-nine, an observer might deem his face as handsome, elegant even. It was a well proportioned face with strong jaw lines and cheekbones. The kind Hollywood casting agents might refer to as chiseled.  His eyes, perhaps his best feature, were honey-colored, gold in the right light, though now framed with a deep delta of wrinkles. His wide, generous mouth and narrow, aristocratic nose complimented a full mop of curly, sandy brown hair now shot with gray.

It was the kind of countenance that still drew admiring glances from the parish widows and the occasional predatory housewife, something he noted with a mixture of both vanity and dread. In the past, he had roamed both fields of plenty and fields he knew he needed to flee with due haste. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and environs, he reminded himself, needed to remain a fallow pasture.

St. Mark’s sat perched on the edge of the Barton Creek greenbelt in a relatively upscale part of Austin. Smith’s tenure was less than six months old, a carrot of sorts offered to him after a three year exile in the derrick-ridden Gulag of the Permian Basin. His bishop had extended him one last chance to rein in his intemperance, counseling him that due to his age, one way or another St. Mark’s might turn out to be his last parish assignment; his intemperance consisting of nothing more than an appreciation of good liquor, the usual surfeit of unfounded rumors that invariably involved a member of the female persuasion, and a reputation for off-beat, non-orthodox subject matter for his sermons.

 Of course, Smith reminded the bishop of their long friendship, the favors granted, debts owed and such. Besides, Smith also reminded him that everywhere he had been assigned, his parishioners had enthusiastically supported him, even revered him. In the end, Smith offered up his better half, and with the resolve of an inmate serving twenty to life, he toed the line the best he could, thankful to have fled the windswept steppes of West Texas for the Elysian fields of Austin.

 He slipped his glasses back on and glanced at his watch. There would be just enough time to settle in his mind what inspired soliloquy he would offer up. His thoughts were interrupted by Sandy, the church’s secretary, knocking on his open door.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Blackie,” she said, “but there’s a situation.”

Many a caller on the church’s phone menu had been enthralled by Sandy’s honeyed drawl as it welcomed them to choose an option or leave their number, the caller’s imagination forming a mental picture unlikely not far removed from the reality.  Sandy was one of those florid redheads who the Texas sun had not treated kindly, her face a roadmap of wrinkles and furrows. She was nevertheless an alluring woman, and in her youth had been a celebrated heart-breaker who had married three times, all to men entirely undeserving of her offerings.

The two of them had known each other on and off for going on thirty years, a friendship struck when Smith had just begun his seminary indoctrination. By then, Sandy had already been a church secretary for a decade or more. If Smith hadn’t been happily married at the time to Aimee, he might have pursued her. One of many roads wisely not taken, he often reminded himself.

“I thought you’d already left for the day,” he said, settling behind his desk.

“Father Rick wants me to update our rolls before New Years. I’m way behind.” She walked over to his desk and picked up the Elmore Leonard paperback. “This is one of my favorites. It’s got that U.S. Marshal character Raylon Givens, right? He always reminded me of Hank, my second husband.”

“Quick on the draw?”

She shot him a grin. “Hardly. More like always armed and ready.”

“I don’t believe I’ll comment. So what’s this situation?”

“This woman showed up. I tried to turn her away but she’s sort of insistent that she see you. Says she wants to tell you her confession. I told her she would make an appointment for something like that. And she’s Hispanic.”

“What’s Hispanic got to do with it?”

“I figured she was…”

“You profiled her,” he interjected. “You didn’t figure. Remember that sensitivity seminar you were supposed to have taken somewhere along the line? I’d bet the class was held on a Saturday morning when Friday night was still telling you to sleep for another four hours and drink lots of water. Your attention must’ve wavered.”

Sandy rolled her eyes. “I just thought she was maybe Catholic and walked into the wrong church is all. But then she specifically asked for you by name.”

“So is she, or is she not, one of our parishioners?”

“I doubt it. Unless she’s a casual attendee.”

“Did she give a name?”

“Vianey. V-I-A-N-E-Y. Yeah, I had to ask her to spell it. She didn’t offer a last name.”

Smith grunted. “I used to know a wonderful old Cuban woman by that name up in Dallas. She cleaned the church for us. How old is this woman?”

Sandy thought about it and shrugged. “Hard to say. Fortyish, maybe.”

“So what do you think?” 

“What do you mean, what do I think?”

“I mean as a woman. What’s your radar tell you?” he asked with a straight face. “Is it a confession she really wants?”

Sandy laughed and shook her head. “God, Blackie. You men are all like dogs. Sooner or later, you’re gonna all bark.”

“That’s not how I meant it. It’s just that sometimes asking for reconciliation is an opener for something else.”

“You’re digging your hole deeper, buddy. Best you quit while you’re ahead.”

“Okay, how about I propose there’s nothing wrong with some spiritual house cleaning before the holidays?”

“Look, how about I tell her she’ll just have to come back after Christmas.”

“No, that’s alright,” he said, retrieving his clerical collar from the litter of his desk. “I assume no one’s in the side chapel. Take her there and tell her I’ll be there shortly.”

“If I don’t see you later, have a Merry Christmas.”

“You, too, Sandy.”

She started to turn away and then paused. “You know you’re more than welcome to stop by for Christmas dinner. It’ll just be me and the dog. There’ll be more than enough ham and pecan pie for the three of us.”

Something about her smile and the glint in those china-blue eyes made Smith briefly unbraid the possibilities. “That’s awful sweet of you, Sandy, but I already promised an old college roommate of mine I’d partake,” he lied with more than a twinge of regret.

She nodded and shrugged, her disappointment obvious, and walked out. 

As he snapped his clerical collar around his neck, he took a mental inventory for any women with the name Vianey he might know. After drawing a blank, he found himself considering Sandy’s offer of dinner, if that was all it truly was. In another time or place, he would have accepted her invitation in a heartbeat. But now, his thready pulse of libido combined with a healthy dose of new found self-discipline mitigated that option. Or perhaps he had finally learned his life’s lessons.  He made a mental note to thank the Lord for that at the next available opportunity.  He glanced once more in the mirror to adjust his collar and made his way to the chapel.


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