Anthony Wallace

The State of Grace

Roman Catholics were no longer required to go to Confession, which is a sacrament, (now called the sacrament of Penance), but the Church still offered it as an option.  You could participate in the general Confession during Mass and be absolved in that way: it was the same thing, had the same effect, or at least that’s what they said.  But the old-fashioned way—confessing your sins to a priest and asking for absolution while the two of you sat inside a wooden box that was divided in two, with a black cloth screen to conceal face of penitent from face of confessor—was still offered in some churches.  On Saturday afternoons you could always see a few old women waiting at the back of the church, kerchiefs bound to wooly heads, wrinkled pie-dough faces washed in light filtered through stained glass illustrations of Bible stories.  Shea sat among them, boozy from lunch and with three airplane bottles of Absolut in the inside pocket of his topcoat, admiring the lingering scent of incense toward the front of the church and amusing himself by imagining their confessions, their paltry sins, their shriveled and undoubtedly sinless vaginas clotted with spider webs and dead leaves.

Once, long ago, when one afternoon he’d gotten drunk with his grandfather, the old fellow had told him the story of his own old woman, Shea’s grandmother, more than thirty years in the ground, who had gone to Confession followed by eight o’clock Mass every weekday morning of her life.  The old man had conjured the image of spider webs and dead leaves to describe his dead wife’s shriveled dead cunt, and the image had remained with Shea long after most of the time he’d spent with his grandfather had been forgotten.  Imagine having a grandfather, old and remote and unpredictable as God, an old-school Boston police detective from a time when the boundary between Boston detectives and Boston gangsters was thin as a pencil line, and just as easy to erase.  Imagine barely knowing him, then one day you are around twenty, you go over to the house to see if he needs anything since his wife (your grandmother) has just died and he’s all alone with his carton of Marlboros and his stack of Mickey Spillanes, his service revolver in its sweat-stained shoulder holster still on top of the console television, and you end up getting pissed with him and one thing leads to another.  You ask him about a few things that have been on your mind.

“This priest told her it was a sin—a mortal sin—to touch a man’s prick,” the old fellow explained, and an earnest look came over his face, although “earnest” was the last word Shea would have used to describe his grandfather.  Apparently the old woman had never touched his prick again, if she ever had.  This had all come up in a roundabout way, because it was pretty common knowledge in the neighborhood by then that the old man had led a separate life all those years, had kept a separate family only blocks away from where they now sat drinking Miller High Life.  The old man had offered this story of his old woman and the mischievous priest as explanation; at least, that was the only explanation he offered, at that time or any other time.  Apparently, between men and in the language of men, a sentence like that would be sufficient to explain a man who looked enough like Shea to be his twin.  He’d come across that man one afternoon, long ago, only a couple of blocks from where they now sat, and it was like running into yourself, really like coming across yourself as you were going about your business in the world.  He’d gone home and gotten under the covers with a stack of old New Yorkers.  Running into yourself, Shea discovered, was not something you wanted to do, even once.

He lost himself in thoughts of the long ago—his violent, sadistic father whom he no longer spoke to (also a Boston police detective, a bagman for low-level State House stooges, as was later determined by a Grand Jury); his grandfather of the large and many appetites dead from lung cancer and many years in the ground, hairless and gaunt from chemo the last time Shea had gone to the house to visit; the troubling knowledge of a man his own age and looking uncannily like him having gone about the old neighborhood all these years in a sort of parallel life (my very own Gothic Double, remarked Shea, somewhat amused, for he was an English professor).  During his last visit his grandfather had asked him, in all seriousness, if he liked being a “schoolteacher.”

One of the biddies emerged from the confessional nearest him and, gripping the suitcase by its oily leather handle and glancing ceilingward, he went in after her and closed the door.  He placed the suitcase on the wooden ledge behind him and set the bony points of his knees upon the kneeler, a sensation that still revolted him.  The smell of the confessional was the same as he remembered, like dry fragrant wood, incense, old candles made from animal tallow: funereal, or so he’d considered it as a boy in this very same church, this very same confessional, the one between the Seventh and Eighth Stations of the Cross, “Jesus Falls the Second Time” and “Jesus Meets the Women.”

Shea heard the slat of wood move sideways, a nasty dry sound like the sudden springing of a trapdoor, and through the screen of gauzy black cloth he saw the dark figure of the priest slumped sideways, his head in profile tilted backward.  For a few moments neither man spoke, then finally the priest said in a voice low but full of menace, “Well, what do you want?  Come on, then.  Speak up.  I don’t have all bloody afternoon.”

Shea came to life like a vending machine someone had dropped a quarter into.  “A college professor steals a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses from a display case in the men’s furnishings section of a department store on Boylston Street.  The professor can afford to pay for the sunglasses, but he enjoys stealing them and likes to rationalize that he spends plenty of money in the store and that this is an extra sort of discount, and one he doesn’t take advantage of often enough.”

His voice was loud, his classroom voice that could shift unpredictably into a bray, and the wooden compartment buzzed like a faulty car-radio speaker.  The priest did not seem to think anything of it, though.

“Why does this man come to this church, to this confessional?”

Shea lowered his voice a little anyway, and focused it, like he was siphoning his words into the priest’s right ear as he imagined its location in the backward-shifting silhouette.  He pressed the tip of his nose to the gauzy screen.  “A man grows up in Southie, where good grammar can get you a good beating, becomes a college professor, doesn’t go back for many years, hasn’t been inside the church since his grandfather’s funeral over twenty years ago.  Then one day he feels the need to go back to church, and he goes to the church where he was a grammar school boy, an altar boy.  A man grows up, gets an education, moves away.  A man doesn’t look back, then a day comes when he can only look back.  A man thought he could get away, go someplace else and be free.”

“A man refers to himself in the third person,” the priest replied, and underneath his low voice his lungs rattled, a smoker’s cough.  Shea knew the sound.  “A man who doesn’t want to know himself.  A man who doesn’t want to be on easy terms with himself.  A man who lives a shadowlife, who watches himself coming and going.  I shouldn’t allow it.  The grammatical dishonesty, I mean.  Use the first person pronoun or get out, is what I should tell you.”

Shea could smell a faint odor of whiskey, cigarette smoke, and cheap aftershave.  He thought of these priests all living together, not all of them gays or pedophiles, some of them like old confirmed bachelors, an Irish tradition, crusty men with their cigarettes and whiskey and the cheap aftershave given to them by their shriveled older sisters at Christmastime, all these old confirmed Old Spice-smelling bachelors eschewing the feminine and all that it represented.

“But go on,” the priest said.  “Tell me more about this ‘mahn’.”

Shea could hear the air quotes.  It annoyed him; already this priest annoyed him.  Then again, they always had, even though at one time in his life, in high school, he’d considered applying to the Society of Jesus.  He felt his weight pooling into his knees like something draining from him.

“A man comes to a certain place in his life and considers himself a gentleman.  College professors don’t make a fortune, but the profession itself is highly respected.  Glamorized, I would say.  In the old days college professors could come to class half- drunk once in a while and it was colorful, and they had their pick of the brightest, prettiest coeds.  My own dissertation advisor had some stories—well, I guess this isn’t the place.  But then the day comes when that job is the same as any job, since the day has come when everyone has been turned into automatons.  Beg, borrow, and steal to get a tenure-track job, then tenure itself, then the grind of holding it together, of publishing and teaching, advising graduate students, sitting on committees, of having a career—of living a life based on an intense interest in things one is no longer intensely interested in.  But a larger idea has taken the place of the ideas the man was once intensely interested in.  The idea is that he has earned a place in society, and he doesn’t want to give it up.  Everything he does is merely to keep that place, the perception of himself by other people who look up to him: students and colleagues, people from his past, too, from the old neighborhood, all of it.  He sees that it’s all been for that, although there once was a time when he really was interested in the things he is no longer very much interested in.

“So with all this comes an image,” Shea continued.  “It’s about an image, and the ‘mahn’ has to maintain the image he’s created, since that’s what it’s been about all along.  He sees that, acknowledges it.  As part of the image he buys good clothes, becomes a regular customer in one of the best department stores in Boston.  He waits for sales, of course, but he spends money on clothes.  Not flashy but very good clothes.  Well made, with costly piece goods.  Over time he develops a relationship with a man who works in the men’s department.  This man is in some ways his mirror image, a distinguished-looking black man in his late forties.  Tall, neatly trimmed goatee, impeccably groomed.  Let’s call this man Rufus.  That’s a stereotypical black name, and in some ways this man is a black stereotype even as the man we’re talking about is a white stereotype.  They complement one another.  And so since the man is a regular customer it’s only natural that he and Rufus strike up a conversation, and after that day the man stops to chat with Rufus whenever he’s in the store, which is often, since he likes to browse.  He likes to run Italian silk and lambswool through his fingers.  He likes to touch the merchandise even though he might not need anything or have plans to buy anything.  He likes to pick up ties, try on sports jackets.  It’s around this time that the man begins stealing small objects, first from the men’s department and then from anywhere in the store.  He likes to steal whatever is at hand, put it in his pocket, and then, when the urge to leave the store is strongest—when his fear of being caught is greatest, when he thinks the surveillance camera has spotted him—in a windowless room a plain-clothes supervisor in an ill-fitting blazer peering into a dusty monitor—he gives the signal to the uniformed guard at the door to go and pick up the subject, bring him up here for questioning, try not to make a big scene—to force himself to stand there and talk with Rufus—to ask how Rufus’s daughter is getting on at college, how his wife Alma has been since the mastectomy, and so on.”

“But tell me more about this Rufus,” said the priest on the other side of the box.  And his voice was different.  He was interested now, Shea could tell.  He shifted his weight forward in the creaky chair.  Shea had him now.  Had him going.  “What does Rufus look like?” wondered the priest.  “How does he dress for work?”

“Like a less-famous member of a once-famous soul band,” Shea answered, and he surprised himself.  That was good.  He must have thought it beforehand, somehow.  “Like a man who has performed for thousands, who has made hundreds of thousands but has let it all slip through his fingers.  The crooked managers, the hangers-on, the wives and girlfriends who bled him one after the other.  Then one day he sobers up, dusts himself off, finds a good plain honest woman and a regular day job.  ‘Now I’m through with all that,’ he says.  But he’s still a peacock at heart, has still got to feed his vanity, and so he works in a place where he gets substantial discounts on clothes, his last indulgence.  He raises a family, makes sure the girls get into good colleges and that they stay there.  He wants that for them.  For himself, it’s like he’s finally found his place in the world.  The brief fame, the women and the flashy cars and the money, all that was like something that happened to somebody else.  Standing in the men’s department is real.  Standing in a certain place in society and seeing other men stand in relation to that is real, is what becomes real to him.  Hearing the regular customers talk about their houses on the Cape, their investments, their latest cars and once in a while a few cell phone snapshots of girls they have on the side, girls they keep in apartments that cost thousands a month.  Sometimes coming in late in the day from the bars and flashing photographs of naked women.  ‘You’d like to get a piece of that, huh?  Come on, you can say, any guy would like to get a piece of that.  But you wouldn’t believe the hell she puts me through.  And I’m not just talking about the sixty-five grand I’m already out—’”

Shea had worked himself up, had said more than he’d intended.  He was sitting inside a dark confessional in a church in Southie on a Saturday afternoon in October—a church where he’d spent a lot of time as a boy—and he was telling stories, inventing things.  And the priest had let him go on.  Had encouraged it, even.  Maybe he was making a fool of himself and that’s what the priest was encouraging.  He wondered if the few old women waiting in the pews for their turn to abase themselves could hear any of this.  He imagined them whispering behind their gloved hands, the dry wood of the confessional rasping and creaking.

“The idea of being a gentleman is what I’m talking about,” Shea continued.  He wanted the priest to understand him, what he was going through, who he was, but he only fell back on the same old rhetoric, the tired formula stuff he’d used to insulate himself from his students all these years.  “Everything suggested by the idea of a suit of clothes, clothes make the man and all that, a tailor on Saville Row, and how the man has willingly and willfully broken the contract that the salesman Rufus is implicitly living by, Rufus as a sort of Gentleman’s Gentleman of the department store, a willing participant in the class system and the sense of identity created by that system, whether real or imagined.  Rufus and the act of shoplifting as a meditation on the structure and coherence of American society, on the American class system and this man’s place in it, both real and imagined.”

“The shame of his own past,” the priest put in with a hoarse, watery chuckle—a smoker’s laugh that was half a smoker’s cough.  “The shame of growing up in a certain way.  Doing things to punish himself,” the priest went on, but his voice changed yet again, darkened.  “Now you go on and you tell me everything you’ve stolen.  Describe every item to me.”

“I started with sunglasses, Ray-Bans that cost a hundred twenty a pair, and when I had three pairs I moved on to other things.  Beautiful inlaid cufflinks.  Hundred dollar ties.  Hundred and fifty dollar shirts.  Then I just took anything at hand.  The Godiva chocolate bars they always leave out by the register.  Why do all these department stores leave boxfuls of Godiva chocolate bars out by the register?  Are they asking people to shoplift?”  Shea, paused, cleared his throat, imagined a fistful of chocolate bars.  “One day I was wandering around on the second floor and I put a pair of women’s panties in my coat pocket.  A tiny leopard-patterned thong, you could fit your thumb into the little triangle of silk, almost like it was made for that.  I went downstairs and spoke to Rufus with one hand in my coat pocket while—”  Shea laughed.  He’d forgotten where he was for a moment.  “I keep those panties and all the other stuff in an old Gladstone suitcase I’ve had since college.”  He reached behind him and grabbed tightly at the leather handle, ran the back of his hand down the stiff side, like the flank of a faithful animal.  “On rainy days I open the bag.  I plunge both hands in—”

“Who do you think you are?” the priest broke in.  It was a voice Shea was familiar with.  “The things you’ve stolen cry out to be taken to their rightful owner,” the priest continued, and his voice settled into its old familiar groove.  “All the things in the whole of creation scream loud and long to be restored to their rightful place.  We ourselves scream loud and long until the time when we are restored to our rightful place.  Some people scream loud and long for all eternity and are never restored!”

The voice on the other side.  The voice in the dark.  The voice that smelled of dry rosewood and cigarette smoke and whiskey and that stinking cheap Old Spice.  He touched the tip of his nose to the gauzy black screen and peered at the shadow of the priest through the interstices of the loosely woven cloth.

“You’re a lousy, venal prick,” the priest said evenly, almost apologetically, leaning forward so suddenly that the entire box creaked.  “I knew your father and your grandfather, too.  The whole lousy venal prick bunch of you, I’m sorry to say, all that drinking and wifebeating.  Pigshit Irish like it was something to be proud of, selling your souls for a mess of porridge.  Irish Jews, from what I’m told, if you go far enough back.  Sheeny, isn’t it?  Little Billy Sheeny coming round to serve at the eight o’clock Mass and sucking up to every priest in the sacristy, the catamite of Saint Cat’s with his report card full of A’s!  You think you’re living in a Dennis Lehane novel?  What point to come all this way only to do the same things, the same lousy venal prick things?  I know you, I know the lot of you.  Gladstone suitcase indeed, you phony bastard,” the priest hissed.  “Why do you come here?  What is it you’re after?”

“The same thing everyone is after, I suppose.  The same thing everyone wants, if it comes to that, sitting here in this black box.  Listen—suppose I told you I was going to die?”

“Well, that’s always implied, you know,” the priest answered with a dry, airless chuckle, and Shea could hear him pull the cork from the bottle (it had been at his feet or elbow the entire time), take a single long swallow, and replace it with a penetrating squeak.  “Little Billy Sheeny, I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  For your penance—”

But Shea was out of there, pushing through the weightless wooden door of the confessional, then the brass-encrusted oak church doors, crashing into loud daylight, sucking air on the steps of St. Catherine’s, the same granite steps he could recognize without even really looking at them, leaving the confessional before he knew what his penance was, before he knew what he must do in order to be restored to a state of grace.

He walked the old familiar street, fumbling in the pockets of his camelhair coat.  He opened one of the airplane bottles, sucked the vodka through the tiny hole, screwed the cap back on, returned the empty to the inside pocket, did the same with the second bottle, kept the third in reserve.  He exhaled, and light seemed to spool out through his open mouth, luxe calme et volupte.   The day had turned sunny and warm, a perfect afternoon for a college Homecoming.  He felt with the fingers of his right hand for the oily leather handle, the right arm mechanically dropping a little lower with the sagging bottom-weight.  He had left the suitcase in the confessional and would have to go back for it, though he did not turn around.  It had been his high school graduation present, and he had asked specifically for a Gladstone bag to take away to college with him because he’d wanted one ever since reading The Catcher in the Rye.  His father had given it to him, Shea’s initials embossed in gold leaf on the leather tab just below the brass lock, the bag itself tied up in a floppy red bow.  Inside the bag was ten thousand in cash in small-denomination bills.  “That’s it, then,” his father had said, taking him off to the side of the room, which had been decorated with blue and gold streamers, the colors of Notre Dame.  “We’re square now, eh sonny?  You go off and be a writer now.”  Shea had gone away, and had been gone a good long time.

At the next corner he found his car, a vintage black Mercedes 300D that had been vandalized by a graffiti artist with the tag of Old King, his name in Gaelic scrawled in green paint across both windshields.  The punks of the neighborhood didn’t like strangers coming in, driving up real estate prices, changing things.  They gave themselves respectability with a few words of an arcane language and some clichéd rhetoric about saving dear old Southie from the yuppies.  He could picture this fellow who called himself Old King getting pissed in the corner taproom while passing the hat for the IRA.  He could hear him with his fake brogue and his Notre Dame Tam O’Shanter saying to the lousy prick he was getting pissed with, “Well, it was only the windshields, y’know.  Oy’d never heart the paint of a luvely car like tha’.”  The lousy illiterate conscienceless prick would not be caught, Shea well knew, but he would call the police anyway, for insurance purposes.

Shea searched his coat pockets for his cell phone.  High up, in the top floor of one of the paint-peeled wooden three-deckers that lined the street, a man was cursing at somebody named Siobhan to get his dinner on the table.  Shea yelled at the man on the top floor to shut the fuck up.  The man yelled back that he would be down in just one minute.  “Is that you, Billy Dolan?” the man hollered through the open window.  “Is that you, Billy Dolan?”  Shea shrugged off his coat and threw it on the hood of the car and glared up at the window where the man’s round, hairless face had been.  A few people began to gather, then a few more; it occurred to Shea that he was attracting a crowd with his vandalized car and his camelhair coat and his yelling at the man in the top floor of the three-decker to shut the fuck up.  At the back of the crowd was an old priest, flanked by two old women who had him by the elbows, unsteady on his bandy legs and holding up the suitcase in both hands like the Host at the Consecration.  He winked at Shea as he opened the suitcase and, with the broad flourish of a magician, began tossing brightly colored pieces of lingerie, silk neckties, jeweled cufflinks, designer sunglasses, Godiva chocolates in their golden wrappers.  “Just look at all this shit!” cried a grammar school boy with spiky, flame-colored hair.  The boy and his two friends plucked Shea’s treasure from the air, from the street, from one another, and ran with it laughing down the littered avenue.  The old priest dropped the empty suitcase to the ground and hobbled away on his bandy legs, the two women clutching and pulling at his coatsleeves.  A few cars slowed.  “Billy Dolan, Billy Dolan!”  Shea could hear the man’s voice bellowing from deep inside the three-decker house.  He gazed mutely at the painted red door.  He took the third airplane bottle from inside his coat, twisted it open, dropped the tiny silver cap to the pavement, where it went skipping and spinning into the gutter—sipped at his leisure, drop by drop, as he waited for the man with the round, hairless face to come down in just one minute so he could settle things, all the shit he’d spent his life despising, the petty violence and vulgarity, Get my dinner on the table right now, you dumb bitch, and she would do it, too, his own mother—the low behavior, the dishonesty, the layers of false personality—to be free of all that, finally—one time she tried to get away, packed a small cloth suitcase and hurried in tears to a neighbor’s house, but he followed her, busted right in after her, pulled her back outside, pointed his finger down the street like life only goes in one direction, Get home, you—and Shea had stood watching as she obeyed him—Get home—his father undoing his cuffbuttons, first left then right—


The man with the round, hairless face punched Shea twice in the face to get his attention, two quick lefts, then once in the stomach, a right uppercut, deftly and with full force, as if he’d had lots of practice.  Shea doubled over, dropped to his knees.  Shea rhymes with pray.  An old priest had told him that, smiling his old priest smile, sitting with him on a green velvet sofa.  Now let us pray together.  Let us pray to our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for our sins.  Let us confess our sins and pray for absolution.  You confess it, then I make it go away.  See how it works?  We can have Mass right here in this sacristy, the two of us.  We can have our own Mass, our own consecration and communion.  But first you must be restored to a state of grace.  See?  Ego te absolvo.  There are the kneelers, right over there.  See?  Shea sounds like she.  He braceleted the boy’s wrist with thumb and forefinger.  Shea sounds like shade sounds like shadow.  Come in under the shadow of this red rock.  That’s T. S. Eliot, a very good poet but also unfortunately an Episcopalian.  Now listen here: I am the Father and you are the Son.  I may take this cup from you, but not as you will, but only as I will.  For this cup to be taken away you must drink from it.  See?

Shea thought of the old priest in his sacristy, the musty green velvet sofa with the scratched walnut arms, and while he thought of the old priest he took one hell of a vicious beating.  The man standing over him was laughing and grunting as he kicked Shea with his filthy workboots.  He looked like a pig, his ears folded over like a pig’s ears.  He was wearing a yellowed T-shirt and striped blue pajama bottom.  The workboots were unlaced, and as they struck his head and mid-section made a muffled sound like driving a car on a flat tire.  The man grunted one final time and shrieked, You’re not Billy Dolan at all, you execrable imposter, but let that be a lesson to you, whomever you are! and went back into the house and pulled the painted red door shut behind him.  Why did he stop?  Shea had not asked him to stop.  He touched his face and his fingers came away sticky with blood.  He extended his arms and hugged the warm South Boston pavement like an old friend, the pebbled concrete cutting into his hands, the side of his face, the bridge of his nose.  The Mass is ended, go in peace, said the old priest.  A police car pulled up to the curb and Shea contemplated his own writhing shape in the polished hubcaps.  Shea sounds like shape.  He was a person in the world; a person in the world was shaped like Shea.  They were the same: himself and his shape in the world, the same.  Shea sounds like shade sounds like shadow.  The crowd dispersed and he found himself alone with two uniformed patrolmen who hovered over him like two blue angels, one at the head and one at the feet.

A 1999 graduate of the Creative Writing Program, Anthony Wallace taught in the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at BU from 2001 until his death in 2018. His collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. He published short fiction and poetry in a variety of literary journals and won two Pushcart Prizes, the second one for “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which originally appeared in The Southern Review. That story and other published and unpublished stories, including “State of Grace,” are part of a collection of stories titled The World We Sense is There.