The inspector didn’t want to be here. And he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that surveillance video from the bank. He looked uncomfortably at the crucifix hanging on the wall behind the priest’s head, the anguished face of Jesus lolling to the side. The crucified figure’s forlorn eyes fixed on his own and seemed to ask why he was here. The inspector dropped his gaze to the priest sitting across the desk from him.
“It’s a perfectly simple question,” the inspector said. In his lap, he smoothed a thread along the lightly frayed cuff of his tweed coat. He carefully folded the loose thread over itself and tucked it out of sight beneath the hem.
“So you’ve said,” the priest replied. He had a pronounced Adam’s apple that, as he spoke, bobbed up and down his throat, seeming to bounce off his clerical collar like a pinball. “But I dislike being interviewed. Perhaps my aversion grows out of being the youngest of seven boys, all of us raised by a tanker car welder in northwest Indiana. Well, raised in such circumstances, one is bound to go one of two ways. Tired of constantly competing for attention, for love, or even for adequate food at dinner, one might retreat into a quiet diffidence, an interior life with riches that the chaos of the exterior world denied. I, however, did just the opposite. By the time I was an adolescent, I’d developed an eye keen to detail, a remarkable memory, a facile personality, and a brash and gregarious tongue that I thought could talk me out of just about any situation. As a result, I talk incessantly.
“You can imagine, of course, that in the Polish neighborhoods where I grew up in Whiting, that kind of a big mouth didn’t always win me a lot of friends. I remember one Christmas, in fact, when I was in the sixth grade and I got beat up on the last day of school before the holidays because I had told Bert Krestvski, who’d made fun of my reading test score, that his older sister didn’t sweat much for a fat girl, and he told me to take it back so I said okay, I take it back: she sweats just as much as any other fat girl, and she probably comes by it honestly considering the size and shape of your mom.
“Let me be honest, though. Bert’s mom wasn’t really overweight at all. Or not much anyway. She was a buxom woman, a Rubenesque beauty who kept most of Bert’s school chums enthralled. What’s the line from Fitzgerald — ‘she carried her surplus flesh sensuously, as some women can.’”
The inspector cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you haven’t answered the question.”
“The question?” The words rose from the priest’s lips like a bubble racing for the water’s surface. He blinked three times, then added, “Ah, yes, of course, the question.”
The priest, who had no more taste for the interview than did the inspector, continued, “And here I am, talking of voluptuous women. Hardly the topic at hand, and perhaps not a fitting topic at all. But then again, what would you expect from a man raised in a house absent the refining graces of a woman’s touch?
“Did I mention that my mother died when I was only three years old? I have no memory of her. Well, almost no memory. On the bureau in my bedroom, I have an old black-and-white photo of her and me standing outside the church I attended growing up. It is a summer Sunday morning, and I am dressed in khaki pants, a buttoned shirt, suspenders, and a bow tie. In the photo, I am clutching her hand and staring into the camera, my eyes wide with what looks like surprise. I sometimes think that I can recall going to church with her, the sanctuary’s yellow lights reflecting off the back of the polished pews, filling my eyes as my tired head nests against her arm. She smelled of hyacinth, and even today, thirty years later, a walk through a spring garden brings her back to me immediately. Yet here’s the perplexing thing: I don’t know if I really have that memory or if I’ve made it up based on the photo.
“How do we know what we know?” The priest stopped talking and blinked at the inspector from behind round, black-framed glasses that made his eyes look bulbous as a goldfish’s. “That is the true question, inspector. Correct?”
Rather than reply, the inspector took up his cup and saucer from the desk before him, the cup the priest had set before him only a few minutes earlier, and lifted his eyes to consider the man sitting across from him. The priest’s shoulders were narrow and slumped, his chin weak, his complexion pasty and waxen. His slim and delicate hands moved nervously between the desktop and his lap, neither location offering a place to rest as his Adam’s apple bounced up and down like a walnut on a pogo stick. In short, the inspector thought, he looked like a man who spent far too much of his day bleary-eyed in his study, poring over texts. The priest’s study itself confirmed the diagnosis, with a wall of bookcases jammed full and two end tables piled high with volumes that the shelves couldn’t contain. The priest hardly seemed the sort of man who could do the feats others had attributed to him.
The inspector inhaled the burnt chocolate aroma of his coffee, then took a long sip. He set the cup and saucer back on the desk, produced a white handkerchief from his breast pocket, and wiped at his lips. He was a fastidious man. And patient. And tenacious in pursuing what he considered the truth. He smiled at the priest.
“Not quite the question,” he replied. “You are trying to talk metaphysics, a realm I will gladly leave to clerics and philosophers. I am after something much simpler — bare, ascertainable facts. So let me ask the question again, and this time let’s cut the crap and have you give a straight answer, shall we? What happened at the bank this morning?”
Staring at his hands folded in his lap, the priest blew out a deep breath and then lifted his gaze to the inspector’s face. He said, “Very well. I will tell you precisely what happened at the bank this morning, but I do not think, inspector, that you will be satisfied.”
The inspector crossed his legs, plucking the ironed crease of his wool pants into sharp relief. He smiled, and his face reminded the priest of a hungry shark. “Try me.”
The priest smiled fecklessly and began. “So I went to the bank this morning to make a withdrawal to buy a birthday gift for my niece. A line of four people waited for the only teller at the counter, so I contemplated using the ATM, but I do enjoy talking to human beings. I decided to wait.
“Sunlight was pouring through the mullioned windows on the east side of the bank lobby, and the old leaded glass reflected and refracted the light until dozens and dozens of prisms of color splashed the marble floor. I watched the play of light and shadow and found myself reflecting on a few lines of Hopkins: ‘Glory be to God for dappled things — / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.’ Well, apparently I was doing more than reflecting. I’m afraid I was actually reciting because the man in front of me turned to me to ask what I had said.”
The inspector interrupted him. “And that was this man?” He opened a manila folder to slide a photograph across the desk, a black-and-white mug shot of a middle-aged Caucasian with a heavy brow and a flat nose. The priest nodded.
“His name is Arnold Schmidt,” the inspector said as he tucked the photograph back into the folder and closed it. “And did you notice his gun at the time?”
“No, I did not,” the priest replied. “I hardly noticed him, even after he spoke. I had my mind on more important things.”
The inspector cocked an eyebrow inquisitively.
“The play of the light, inspector, as I’ve already told you.”
“Ah, the light,” said the inspector, his voice patronizing. “Right. But when did you notice the gun then?”
The priest folded his hands together with his two index fingers extended and pressing against one another. He rested his chin on those fingertips as he thought for a moment, his eyes drifting toward the ceiling. After a moment, he blew out a deep breath and said, “If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think I ever noticed he had a gun, not until the whole incident was nearly over.”
“But I have three other witnesses from the bank this morning who say that you disarmed him.”
The priest smiled and shrugged. “Very flattering, but not true.”
“You never touched the gun?”
“Well, then, what happened?”
“I’m trying to tell you, inspector. You asked for facts, and I’m giving you facts. Though as I said, I doubt you’ll be satisfied with them.”
The inspector leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest, and told the priest to continue.
“As I was saying, this man may have had the gun in his waistband. He may have already been holding it. I don’t know because I was paying attention to the play of light. There was something of the divine in that play of light and shadow, but to experience it I had to attend, or else miss it. And if I wanted to see it, I was going to have to ignore the distractions surrounding it. The art of seeing anything is tied up intricately and inseparably to the art of not seeing other things. To pay attention to any one thing demands the discipline to ignore one thousand other things that would distract. To know where to look, inspector, is in large part learning where not to look. And the man in front of me was not where I needed to be looking.
“So I apologized to him, said I was talking to myself, and went back to studying the play of light and shadow. And it was play. That was what struck me that morning. I don’t pretend to know the cause, but the light, as it washed through the windows and hit in the lobby, seemed to dance. Everything caught and radiated light — the brass stanchions that formed the winding line ahead of me, the silver pens chained to the counter, the hair of a red-headed woman standing near the front of the line, the dust motes swirling in slow ecstasies high above our heads in the lobby — all of it gilded with a molten-gold that ‘flamed out like shining from shook foil,’ to quote Hopkins again. Different poem, of course.”
“Of course,” the inspector granted. A sour smile played across his lips. He looked for a moment as if he’d just burped up gasoline or something equally noxious, but as quickly as the look registered in the priest’s mind, it passed. The inspector nodded for the priest to continue.
“So whoever was with the teller finished, and the line shuffled forward. The woman with the red hair moved up to the desk. I watched her exchange pleasantries with the teller, but then I got distracted by … well, by the light. You see, it was doing something odd. As it shimmered and danced, it grew in brilliance. In fact, it seemed — and I’m not being metaphoric here, but literal — to chase every shadow away until the light filled every crevice, every nook, and every corner. And it just kept growing brighter until one thousand little suns seemed to burn in the building. The burnished brass, the glistening marble floors, the other customers in the bank, all of them swallowed up in the blinding light until I could see nothing but the white hot brilliance of a supernova. It blinded me.”
The inspector, who had been riffling through his file, interrupted. “The security video doesn’t show anything unusual with the lighting in the lobby. Plus four other witnesses at the scene, and not a single one said anything about a bright light.”
The priest shrugged. “I am not speaking for what they saw, inspector. I only know what I saw. And what I felt. For the light that had blinded me seemed now to coalesce about me, as if I were being baptized in it. As my vision returned, it seemed to me that I was glowing almost. No, not glowing. I don’t think I actually looked any different, but it seemed to me like I was absorbing all that light, gathering it into my core. At the same time, I had the sudden sense of arms, strong as iron bands, embracing me from behind, taking my arms, lending me their strength. A sense of calm flooded me even as I noticed now, for the first time, that something had changed in the bank lobby while I was in my reverie. The red-headed woman was sprawled on the floor, pleading as her hands clawed at the marble. The old man behind me also lay face down, his arms crossed behind his head. Behind the counter, the teller had her hands in the air. I was only dimly aware of these things because another man was in my face screaming, his spittle spraying my cheeks.”
“This man was Arnold Schmidt?” the inspector asked. When the priest stared blankly at him, the inspector tapped the manila folder lying on the desk.
“Oh, yes, yes, the man from the photo.”
“What was he screaming at you?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know even then what he was screaming or why. I didn’t care. The whole thing made me so sad.”
“You didn’t care? The man had a gun.”
“I didn’t see the gun. I’ve already told you that, inspector. Clearly he was threatening people. I knew that. But I never saw the gun.”
The priest, whose eyes had drifted from the inspector to stare blankly into the mid-distance, stopped talking. The inspector waited, and after a moment the priest sighed, rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses, blinked, and then refocused on the inspector.
“I know this all sounds crazy,” the priest said. “It’s why I didn’t want to tell you my story in the first place.” He cupped his chin with his left hand, drumming the fingers of his right hand against his thigh. He asked, “Do you believe in God, inspector?”
“I don’t see how my belief or lack thereof is germane to your testimony.”
“Humor me. I’m going to finish my story from the bank this morning, but before I do, I want to try to explain myself so that you don’t think I’m a madman. So I ask again, do you believe in God?”
“I haven’t given it much thought.”
“I suspect most people are in the same boat as you, inspector, but here’s the thing: I don’t know that belief is primarily about thought. The beauty of the world — for example, the play of light in a bank lobby on a sunny February morning — is like a wet finger running the rim of a wine glass. When we open ourselves to see that beauty, when our hearts are set to the right resonant frequency, like the glass we vibrate with the divine. We discover that God is not far from any us, and that in him we live and move and have our being.”
The inspector grinned and shook his head. “And so you think you can talk me into belief as easily as this?”
“No, inspector, quite the opposite. I just said, I don’t believe anyone thinks their way into belief, and I’m not here to proselytize anyway.”
The two men stared at each other. A self-conscious smile played across the priest’s lips. He shrugged, and, like a man stepping off a high dive into unknown waters, he closed his eyes and took the plunge.
“Here’s how my story from the bank this morning ends. This man, this Mr. Schmidt, was screaming in my face, and everyone around me, including him, was in some pose of tortured terror. The red-headed woman on the floor — mascara ran down her cheeks in black rivulets and she hiccupped the word please. The old man behind me — his chest rattled with every breath. The teller, trying so hard to be brave but her lower lip quivering uncontrollably — she couldn’t push out a word as the man shouted at her over his shoulder to start bagging the money.”
“You never noticed what Schmidt was shouting at you,” said the inspector, his voice incredulous, “and you never noticed his gun. But you noticed all this?”
The priest smiled. “I’m sorry, inspector, but I am telling you the truth. My senses weren’t quite my own at the time, I don’t think. I was still caught up in the divine.”
“In spiritual ecstasy?”
“No, that sounds too like experiences of the saints to describe me. No, I was very much still connected to terra firma. Let’s just say I had a heightened awareness of God, and that for the moment I felt like I was seeing things with his eyes.”
The inspector grinned. “God’s eyes?”
“It’s a metaphor, inspector, to explain my perspective.” For the first time, the priest’s voice grew short. He scowled, but then his face softened, and with it his voice as he continued, “Anyways, seeing things from that perspective just made me so sad. A beautiful morning was filled suddenly with signs of pain and brokenness and injustice. And even the man screaming in my face, the perpetrator of this injustice, was also its victim. As he screamed, he twisted his face closer to mine, and I could see in his eyes, behind the anger and the fear, a deep sadness. I thought, this man was somebody’s child, somebody’s baby, and what had gone wrong in his life, what had happened to bring him to this point?”
“So you blame others for his choices?”
“Oh, no, not at all, inspector. You misunderstand me. You are trying to mete out culpability, but I’m merely observing that nothing in this world is the way it is supposed to be, and that none of us — from the best of us to the worst — escapes the corruption. So as I looked at this man, despite the evil he was doing, I felt a surge of tenderness for him.”
“Maybe it was coming from all the light you absorbed.” A tiny smirk twinkled in the inspector’s eyes.
Ignoring him, the priest continued. He wanted to be done. “I took the man by his shoulders, and I put my face in his. I told him that he didn’t have to do this evil, that he didn’t have to be this evil, that as surely as corruption stains God’s good creation, that creation is stronger, and grace stronger still. He stopped screaming, cocked his head to the side, and stared at me like the RCA dog on the old record labels. Then his brow furrowed, his nostrils flared, and his soul began to retreat from his eyes.
“I was losing him. In desperation, I lay a hand on his cheek. Gently. So gently. But he screamed as if I held fire. I noticed his gun for the first time as he dropped it to the floor. He clutched his hands to his head and twisted his face into a mask of pain as he whimpered. I took his wrists to calm him, but he pulled back at my touch. My hands felt cool and dry, but to him they were branding irons. I lay a hand on his back to console him. He screeched. He fell to the floor, writhing, before curling into a fetal position. And that’s where he was still when your men arrived.”
The priest fell silent and stared at his own hands as if they belonged to a stranger. The inspector picked up the folder and rapped one end on the table to square the papers inside it. He stared for a moment at the priest.
“And what exactly do you think happened to Schmidt? Why did he react to your touch this way?”
The priest said, “I think maybe Schmidt is more like me than like you, inspector. I think he sensed God in the bank lobby this morning. I think maybe he’s got the eyes to see, the ears to hear.”
“How did you say it earlier?” the inspector asked. “Maybe he’s set to the right resonant frequency?”
The priest smiled sadly. “Though I think you mock me, yes, that would be a good way to say it. But here’s the thing: When a glass vibrates at its resonant frequency, it goes one of two ways: It sings, or it shatters. Schmidt shattered.”
The inspector stared at the priest for a moment, and then he began to chuckle. He said, “So that’s it, that’s the story you want me to put in the report.”
The priest’s bulbous eyes widened behind his glasses as a smile of pity pulled at the corners of his mouth. “No, that’s what happened at the bank this morning. I haven’t given a thought to your report. I told you the story only because you asked. Insisted even. You may choose what parts you want to put into your report, all, some, or none of it. But if I am called to testify in court, that is the story I will tell.”
“I still have three witnesses who say they saw you disarm Schmidt,” the inspector said.
“Then why interview me?” the priest asked. “They told you what they thought they saw. Having been the one intimately involved, I’m telling you they saw a mirage. That, as you know, is not an uncommon phenomenon — to see things that aren’t really there. Our eyes aren’t always to be trusted.”
And that’s it in a nutshell, the inspector thought. He’d watched the security footage from the bank a dozen times now, at least, and he didn’t trust what his eyes told him. Because the video footage did not make sense. The priest, despite the eyewitness accounts, had disarmed no one. The video, in fact, outside of the bit about the bright light, seemed to corroborate everything the priest had just told him. But that was impossible. The inspector no longer trusted his own eyes.
The priest continued, “I, on the other hand, am presenting a story that you don’t want to believe because it contains elements that you cannot see. But if we see things that aren’t there, as your eyewitnesses from the bank clearly did, might not the converse also be true: that things we cannot see might very much be there? And so we come full circle, inspector, and I ask again, how do we know what we know?”
The inspector leaned back in his chair and considered the crucifix hanging behind the priest. The nasty, ugly suffering there. A lurid hunk of meat twisting in agony on two crossbeams. No wonder Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays, he thought. It was a wonder they could stomach it ever. Hocus pocus.
He bent over the desk to tidy his papers, already imagining the rest of his day. He’d go back to the department, grab a cup of coffee, and write up his paperwork for the district attorney. The case for attempted bank robbery against Schmidt was open-and-shut, and no one on the jury would give a rat’s ass about how Schmidt had been disarmed. The inspector had come to satisfy his own curiosity, to make sense of what he’d seen on the security footage. Whenever he worked a case, he disliked any gaps in the narrative, but in this case it wouldn’t matter. His trip here had been a waste of time.
The inspector rose to his feet, the manila folder in hand, gestured vaguely behind the priest to where the crucifix hung, and said, “I will leave you to your metaphysical speculations. Thank you for your time.”
The priest rose, they shook hands, and the inspector turned to leave. He was nearly out the door when the priest called him.
“Inspector, it’s all quite disquieting, you know? The thought that our lives are more than just a list of what we do moment by moment, day by day. I am sorry if I’ve upset you.”
The inspector stared at him, a thin and pasty man in a rumpled black suit, staring back at him from behind thick glasses. The priest smiled, and — though the inspector would tell himself moments later and far into the future it was merely a trick of the eyes — he seemed to emanate light, a light so bright the inspector had to squint his eyes shut. When he opened them, the priest was just a priest, a middle-aged man who needed more exercise and a few days in the sun.
And the two men parted, never to meet again.
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A fascinating story that does pose the question of are we really seeing what we think we are, or something metaphysical or supernatural. Was it a grand illusion of both simultaneously? Perhaps something otherworldly, or a naturally occurring trick of the sun’s light at that particular moment in time. I honestly don’t know.
Loved this! That’s all. Just loved it.