The priest peered down the street, the gas lamps just beginning to light above the cobblestones. Away from tight quarters of the rectory, his scope of vision opened and took in every man and woman that passed. A tall, lean man with tight cravat nodded to him. "Father, I have done great wrongs," said his nod.
A woman, arm laced in her beau’s, turned guiltily from the priest but he heard her shame: "Father, forgive me, for I have known lust."
He heard the thoughts, the sins of every passing person. "Father, you are strong and I am weak." "Father, you know God and I do not."
Their thoughts made him sick and he hid from their eyes and their nods. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. Hypocrite - the words thumped in his chest as a pulse.
A storekeeper locked his door for the evening, greeted the wayward priest. “Evening, Father! Just closing up. Can I help you with something?”
“I need some clothes,” he answered suddenly.
The man scratched his head. “What kind you looking for?”
Saliva filled his mouth. “Just plain clothes. Work clothes. Pants, a shirt. That’s it.”
“Sure. Come in.”
The priest paid for the clothes with church dollars and changed in the back room while the owner read the newspaper, his eyes bobbing over tiny spectacles at the tip of his nose. The man put the paper down. “Well, you look like a different man altogether, Father! Guess a priest deserves a holiday like anyone else.”
He was a man now, not a priest and he packed his soutane in a brown paper bag and left the store, the sound of the storeowner fumbling with keys wafting behind. The eyes and thoughts were gone now and he blended into the streets and the town like any other human and with the anonymity he felt invisible and lightened, the burdens left stuck in the black clothes crumpled in the bag.
He entered the Simsbury Hotel, crossed the lobby to the restaurant and sat at the bar. He ordered steak and potatoes and bread and wine. The steak was almost rare and thick, the knife blade hiding in the flesh with each cut. He was starving, hungrier than he had ever remembered. He carved through the fat and soaked up the blood with bread and let the juices drip down his chin onto his shirt and no one blinked an eyed. He drank his wine and asked for another and no brow was raised. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and he was no different than any of the other blurred men along the counter who smelled of gravy and stale drink. And when his stomach was bloated, he paid for the meal with church dollars and went out the hotel again.
The streets were quiet now and the air chilled. He rolled down the sleeves of the linen work shirt and let them stay unbuttoned at the wrist, then shoved his hands in the trouser pockets, the crumbled bag with clothes tucked in the crook of his arm. His neck felt cold and naked without the collar and he rubbed it with his hands over and over again. He didn’t know where he was going and he didn’t care, he just walked from one street to another and then back around to the first.
A dog barked from a side alley. Other barks joined until a man shouted. A yelp cut the night and the air hung quiet again. The streets wrapped in black except for a few gas lamps. He couldn’t hear the crickets or the night birds or the sea and their void accentuated his own. He was tired of walking, tired of the quiet. The meat sat thick in his stomach and cramped his side. He turned to find his way back to the hotel.
As he passed a row of short houses, a woman’s voice carried from the darkness. “The air feels lonely tonight, doesn’t it?”
The man stopped and turned toward the voice.
“Strange thing about the city. All these people, all this noise and still the loneliness creeps in.” The voice spoke from the shadows of a tilted verandah hidden behind two lean cypress trees. “Funny how it only comes out at night, the loneliness. I guess in the daylight people are too busy to listen to the emptiness.”
A woman emerged hazily from the recess and leaned over the peeling banister. “I’ve been watching you coming up and down the street.” She moved to the edge of the steps. She was heavy-set. The top buttons of her dress were undone and the crease of her bosom curved like a black moon. The lamplight tinged her blond hair green. “Come on in, son,” she said gently. “You won’t feel lonesome here, that’s a promise. We’ll make you feel warm again.”
His feet moved without his will to the broken squares of slate between the cypress then creaked up the three bowed steps as he followed the voice, his body seeking the warm glow of the lamps behind the heavy curtains, drawing him in like a moth.
She took his hand and led him through the door and he did not protest as she drew him up the carpeted stairs, threadbare in the center from traffic. Different scents of heavy toilet water – lilac, rose, jasmine – mingled and grew around him and his head dizzied in their garden.
He paid her with church dollars. She lowered him to the bed and he watched her ankles as stockings, lace, corset and skirt fell around them. She handled him delicately and knowingly as only a veteran of the profession could. He panted and writhed atop faded sheets with nose pressed against her perfumed neck. Then, with a wincing cry, he released equally in ecstasy and despair then fell into her worn and handled breasts and wept like a child.