DEATH OF A FAVORITE
J. F. POWERS
I had spent most of the afternoon mousing—a matter of sport with me and certainly not of diet—in the sunburnt fields that begin at our back door and continue hundreds of miles into the Dakotas. I gradually gave up the idea of hunting, the grasshoppers convincing me that there was no percentage in stealth. Even to doze was difficult, under such conditions, but I must have managed it. At least I was late coming to dinner, and so my introduction to the two missionaries took place at table. They were surprised, as most visitors are, to see me take the chair at Father Malt’s right.
Father Malt, breaking off the conversation (if it could be called that), was his usual dear old self. “Fathers,” he said, “meet Fritz.”
I gave the newcomers the first good look that invariably tells me whether or not a person cares for cats. The mean old buck in charge of the team did not like me, I could see, and would bear watching. The other one obviously did like me, but he did not appear to be long enough from the seminary to matter. I felt that I had broken something less than even here.
“My assistant,” said Father Malt, meaning me, and thus unconsciously dealing out our fat friend at the other end of the table. Poor Burner! There was a time when, thinking of him, as I did now, as the enemy, I could have convinced myself I meant something else. But he is the enemy, and I was right from the beginning, when it could only have been instinct that told me how much he hated me even while trying (in his fashion!) to be friendly. (I believe his prejudice to be acquired rather than congenital, and very likely, at this stage, confined
to me, not to cats as a class—there is that in his favor. I intend to be fair about this if it kills me.)
My observations of humanity incline me to believe that one of us—Burner or I—must ultimately prevail over the other. For myself, I should not fear if this were a battle to be won on the solid ground of Father Malt’s affections. But the old man grows older, the grave beckons to him ahead, and with Burner pushing him from behind, how long can he last? Which is to say: How long can I last? Unfortunately, it is naked power that counts most in any rectory, and as things stand now, I am safe only so long as Father Malt retains it here. Could I—this impossible thought is often with me now—could I effect a reconciliation and alliance with Father Burner? Impossible! Yes, doubtless. But the question better asked is: How impossible? (Lord knows I would not inflict this line of reasoning upon myself if I did not hold with the rumors that Father Burner will be the one to succeed to the pastorate.) For I do like it here. It is not at all in my nature to forgive and forget, certainly not as regards Father Burner, but it is in my nature to come to terms (much as nations do) when necessary, and in this solution there need not be a drop of good will. No dog can make that statement, or take the consequences, which I understand are most serious, in the world to come. Shifts and ententes. There is something fatal about the vocation of favorite, but it is the only one that suits me, and, all things considered—to dig I am not able, to beg I am ashamed—the rewards are adequate.
“We go through Chicago all the time,” said the boss missionary, who seemed to be returning to a point he had reached when I entered. I knew Father Malt would be off that evening for a convention in Chicago. The missionaries, who would fill in for him and conduct a forty hours’ devotion on the side, belonged to an order just getting started in the diocese and were anxious to make a good impression. For the present, at least, as a kind of special introductory offer, they could be had dirt-cheap. Thanks to them, pastors who’d never been able to get away had got a taste of Florida last winter.
“Sometimes we stay over in Chicago,” bubbled the young missionary. He was like a rookie ballplayer who hasn’t made many road trips.
“We’ve got a house there,” said the first, whose name in religion, as they say, was—so help me—Philbert. Later, Father Burner would get around it by calling him by his surname. Father Malt was the sort who wouldn’t see anything funny about “Philbert,” but it would be too much to expect him to remember such a name.
“What kind of a house?” asked Father Malt. He held up his hearing aid and waited for clarification.
Father Philbert replied in a shout, “The Order owns a house there!”
Father Malt fingered his hearing aid.
Father Burner sought to interpret for Father Philbert. “I think, Father, he wants to know what it’s made out of.”
“Red brick—it’s red brick,” bellowed Father Philbert.
“My house is red brick,” said Father Malt.
“I noticed that,” said Father Philbert.
Father Malt shoved the hearing aid at him.
“I know it,” said Father Philbert, shouting again.
Father Malt nodded and fed me a morsel of fish. Even for a Friday, it wasn’t much of a meal. I would not have been sorry to see this housekeeper go.
“All right, all right,” said Father Burner to the figure lurking behind the door and waiting for him, always the last one, to finish. “She stands and looks in at you through the crack,” he beefed. “Makes you feel like a condemned man.” The housekeeper came into the room, and he addressed the young missionary (Burner was a great one for questioning the young): “Ever read any books by this fella Koestler, Father?”
“The Jesuit?” the young one asked.
“Hell, no, he’s some kind of a writer. I know the man you mean, though. Spells his name different. Wrote a book—apologetics.”
“That’s the one. Very—”
“Well . . .”
“This other fella’s not bad. He’s a writer who’s ahead of his time—about fifteen minutes. Good on jails and concentration camps. You’d think he was born in one if you ever read his books.” Father Burner regarded the young missionary with absolute indifference. “But you didn’t.”
“No. Is he a Catholic?” inquired the young one.
“He’s an Austrian or something.”
The housekeeper removed the plates and passed the dessert around. When she came to Father Burner, he asked her privately, “What is it?”
“Pudding,” she said, not whispering, as he would have liked.
“Bread pudding?” Now he was threatening her.
Father Burner shuddered and announced to everybody, “No dessert for me.” When the housekeeper had retired into the kitchen, he said, “Sometimes I think he got her from a hospital and sometimes, Father, I think she came from one of your fine institutions”—this to the young missionary.
Father Philbert, however, was the one to see the joke, and he laughed.
“My God,” said Father Burner, growing bolder. “I’ll never forget the time I stayed at your house in Louisville. If I hadn’t been there for just a day—for the Derby, in fact—I’d have gone to Rome about it. I think I’ve had better meals here.”
At the other end of the table, Father Malt, who could not have heard a word, suddenly blinked and smiled; the missionaries looked to him for some comment, in vain.
“He doesn’t hear me,” said Father Burner. “Besides, I think he’s listening to the news.”
“I didn’t realize it was a radio too,” said the young missionary.
“Oh, hell, yes.”
“I think he’s pulling your leg,” said Father Philbert.
“Well, I thought so,” said the young missionary ruefully.
“It’s an idea,” said Father Burner. Then in earnest to Father Philbert, whom he’d really been working around to all the time—the young one was decidedly not his type—“You the one drivin’ that new Olds, Father?”
“It’s not mine, Father,” said Father Philbert with a meekness that would have been hard to take if he’d meant it. Father Burner understood him perfectly, however, and I thought they were two persons who would get to know each other a lot better.
“Nice job. They say it compares with the Cad in power. What do you call that color—oxford or clerical gray?”
“I really couldn’t say, Father. It’s my brother’s. He’s a layman in Minneapolis—St. Stephen’s parish. He loaned it to me for this little trip.”
Father Burner grinned. He could have been thinking, as I was, that Father Philbert protested too much. “Thought I saw you go by earlier,” he said. “What’s the matter—didn’t you want to come in when you saw the place?”
Father Philbert, who was learning to ignore Father Malt, laughed discreetly. “Couldn’t be sure this was it. That house on the other side of the church, now—”
Father Burner nodded. “Like that, huh? Belongs to a Mason.”
Father Philbert sighed and said, “It would.”
“Not at all,” said Father Burner. “I like ’em better than K.C.s.” If he could get the audience for it, Father Burner enjoyed being broad-minded. Gazing off in the direction of the Mason’s big house, he said, “I’ve played golf with him.”
The young missionary looked at Father Burner in horror. Father Philbert merely smiled. Father Burner, toying with a large crumb, propelled it in my direction.
“Did a bell ring?” asked Father Malt.
“His P.A. system,” Father Burner explained. “Better tell him,” he said to the young missionary. “You’re closer. He can’t bring me in on those batteries he uses.”
“No bell,” said the young missionary, lapsing into basic English and gestures.
Father Malt nodded, as though he hadn’t really thought so.
“How do you like it?” said Father Burner.
Father Philbert hesitated, and then he said, “Here, you mean?”
“I wouldn’t ask you that,” said Father Burner, laughing. “Talkin’ about that Olds. Like it? Like the Hydramatic?”
“No kiddin’, Father. It’s not mine,” Father Philbert protested.
“All right, all right,” said Father Burner, who obviously did not believe him. “Just so you don’t bring up your vow of poverty.” He looked at Father Philbert’s uneaten bread pudding—“Had enough?”—and rose from the table, blessing himself. The other two followed when Father Malt, who was feeding me cheese, waved them away. Father Burner came around to us, bumping my chair—intentionally, I know. He stood behind Father Malt and yelled into his ear, “Any calls for me this aft?” He’d been out somewhere, as usual. I often thought he expected too much to happen in his absence.
“There was something . . .” said Father Malt, straining his memory, which was poor.
“Now I remember—they had the wrong number.”
Father Burner, looking annoyed and downhearted, left the room.
“They said they’d call back,” said Father Malt, sensing Father Burner’s disappointment.
I left Father Malt at the table reading his Office under the orange light of the chandelier. I went to the living room, to my spot in the window from which I could observe Father Burner and the missionaries on the front porch, the young one in the swing with his breviary—the mosquitoes, I judged, were about to join him—and the other two just smoking and standing around, like pool players waiting for a table. I heard Father Philbert say, “Like to take a look at it, Father?”
“Say, that’s an idea,” said Father Burner.
I saw them go down the front walk to the gray Olds parked at the curb. With Father Burner at the wheel they drove away. In a minute they were back, the car moving uncertainly—this I noted with considerable pleasure until I realized that Father Burner was simply testing the brakes. Then they were gone, and after a bit, when they did not return, I supposed they were out killing poultry on the open road.
That evening, when the ushers dropped in at the rectory, there was not the same air about them as when they came for pinochle. Without fanfare, Mr. Bauman, their leader, who had never worked any but the center aisle, presented Father Malt with a travelling bag. It was nice of him, I thought, when he said, “It’s from all of us,” for it could not have come from all equally. Mr. Bauman, in hardware, and Mr. Keller, the druggist, were the only ones well off, and must have forked out plenty for such a fine piece of luggage, even after the discount.
Father Malt thanked all six ushers with little nods in which there was no hint of favoritism. “Ha,” he kept saying. “You shouldn’a done it.”
The ushers bobbed and ducked, dodging his flattery, and kept up a mumble to the effect that Father Malt deserved everything they’d ever done for him and more. Mr. Keller came forward to instruct Father Malt in the use of the various clasps and zippers. Inside the bag was another gift, a set of military brushes, which I could see they were afraid he would not discover for himself. But he unsnapped a brush, and, like the veteran crowd-pleaser he was, swiped once or twice at his head with it after spitting into the bristles. The ushers all laughed.
“Pretty snazzy,” said the newest usher—the only young blood among them. Mr. Keller had made him a clerk at the store, had pushed through his appointment as alternate usher in the church, and was gradually weaning him away from his motorcycle. With Mr. Keller, the lad formed a block to Mr. Bauman’s power, but he was perhaps worse than no ally at all. Most of the older men, though they pretended a willingness to help him meet the problems of an usher, were secretly pleased when he bungled at collection time and skipped a row or overlapped one.
Mr. Keller produced a box of ten-cent cigars, which, as a personal gift from him, came as a bitter surprise to the others. He was not big enough, either, to attribute it to them too. He had anticipated their resentment, however, and now produced a bottle of milk of magnesia. No one could deny the comic effect, for Father Malt had been known to recommend the blue bottle from the confessional.
“Ha!” said Father Malt, and everybody laughed.
“In case you get upset on the trip,” said the druggist.
“You know it’s the best thing,” said Father Malt in all seriousness, and then even he remembered he’d said it too often before. He passed the cigars. The box went from hand to hand, but, except for the druggist’s clerk, nobody would have one.
Father Malt, seeing this, wisely renewed his thanks for the bag, insisting upon his indebtedness until it was actually in keeping with the idea the ushers had of their own generosity. Certainly none of them had ever owned a bag like that. Father Malt went to the housekeeper with it and asked her to transfer his clothes from the old bag, already packed, to the new one. When he returned, the ushers were still standing around feeling good about the bag and not so good about the cigars. They’d discuss that later. Father Malt urged them to sit down. He seemed to want them near him as long as possible. They were his friends, but I could not blame Father Burner for avoiding them. He was absent now, as he usually managed to be when the ushers called. If he ever succeeded Father Malt, who let them have the run of the place, they would be the first to suffer—after me! As Father Malt was the heart, they were the substance of a parish that remained rural while becoming increasingly suburban. They dressed up occasionally and dropped into St. Paul and Minneapolis, “the Cities,” as visiting firemen into Hell, though it would be difficult to imagine any other place as graceless and far-gone as our own hard little highway town—called Sherwood but about as sylvan as a tennis court.
Excerpted from The Big New Yorker Book of Cats by The New Yorker Magazine. Copyright © 2013 by The New Yorker Magazine. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.