A slightly plump middle-aged man with a wave of blond hair that struck a curious contrast with his black clerics, Father Torkel Erlandson sat before the deep dish of steaming penne all vodka, studied it, and then gave thanks to his senses.
“To my eyes for catching the glistening pink cream dripping through the textured tubes,” he whispered as he set his elbows on the table, flanking the plate, and folded his hands, as if in prayer. “To my olfaction for the delightful pungency of acids and bases mingling with the sour yet pleasant hint of liquor rising in the steam.”
He next thanked his hearing for the pleasure of the fork’s clink against the chinaware. He thanked the nerve endings on his fingers and lips – the fingers to feel the texture of the dinner roll serving as soft buttress to the fork’s tensile strength pushing at the payload of penne – the lips to tease the tongue as the penne brushed them like sticky fingers stretching and straining to touch the taste buds…
The taste buds.
No, not taste buds. Bliss-bringing nodules of Nirvana! – Bleb-vessels of Valhalla! – The very Holy of Holies!
Allowing himself a small irreverence, as penne and tongue became one, Father Erlandson paraphrased Solomon… My dove, in the clefts of my palate, in the hollow places of my mouth, show me thy taste!
As he drew in the perfect network of flavors and textures, the priest looked around the restaurant, chewing with heartiness and considering his good fortune.
He had to laugh at himself. Two months seemed like two centuries ago.
When Bishop Linseed told him he was going to be reassigned to St. Florian Parish in Turin, a little town in the northernmost part of the diocese, his heart sank like that gold watch his grandfather had given, slipping through his hands into the tannic murk of the Mississippi backwaters.
It was a sunny September day, as he recalled, and, for late Midwestern summer, unseasonably cool. And it was the colder weather that got his grandfather out there so early – usually they waited until October. He told young Tork – as he was called back then – that he worried about an abridged autumn and wanted to get out on the river pulling the snapper traps before winter had a chance to seal the river.
His grandfather had that morning given him a battle-tested gold watch as a going away present – he was going to start high school seminary in a few weeks. The moment he saw it, he was crazy about the watch – it was his grandfather’s, he knew, when he was a rail man working for Union Pacific on its Mississippi lines, but he only knew it as the watch he brought to Mass. Tork would see it twice during that time – once to untangle it from his billfold at collection time and once at the end of Mass when, after kneeling in the front pew before the tabernacle to say a final prayer, he pulled it out as if he were looking for a polite way to take his leave of the Lord. Well, look at that, Lord, don’t time like to get on a bit?
In all its fazed gleam and heft, the watch was waiting for him on the breakfast table beside his plate of sugar-cured bacon butt and three fried eggs. Inlaid with a silver intaglio of a buff and burly English R-Class under full steam in tandem with its tender, the watch’s case was scratched with a million miles of his grandfather’s watching time, timing couplings, counting releases, recording junctions, scheduling sidings, formulating interchanges, calculating roundhouses and so on… Tork popped open the case and noticed it was one of those watches that had the Roman numeral four written as four I’s – “IIII.” It also had a small crack at the top of the glass protecting its face – such that it blotted out the XII and, he noticed after he wound it up, that whenever the second, minute or hour hand ducked under the crack, it too was obliterated until it came out on the other side, passing on to the first hour.
Later that morning, out on the river, in the course of retrieving the empty wire cage traps, young Johnny started reaching to pull up one of the wire boxes from its stake. In his other hand, dispite repeated gentle warnings from his grandfather, he carelessly held the watch – the same hand that was now gripping the john boat’s gunwale as he cantilevered for the trap. Leaning too far, Tork’s foot slipped from its wedged position between seat and bow. As he recovered his balance, he only had time enough to see the honey glint of the watch’s metal shimmer into muddy oblivion.
He heard a cry and turned to see his grandfather, morose with grief, watching the spot where the watch dropped out of sight. It was a long moment of long silence, broken at last by the chatter of an otter poking its head like a piece of blunt iron out of the water near a fallen log on the far bank and the scything rush of a pair of sand hill cranes’ wings as they loped across the morning sky. Johnny didn’t know whether to speak – and his grandfather only straightened himself up, pulled on the ripcord to start the outboard and winked at his grandson.
“Well, as a priest, I don’t suppose you’ll be worrying much about time anyway.”
Both tried to laugh but knew it was futile. As the gift was given in secret, no one but Johnny and his grandfather knew about it. Afterwards, when others would ask his grandfather whatever happened to the watch, his reply would leave the inquisitor to puzzle it out on his own: “Well, I already put in my time in the Mississippi.”
But he always thought back to the watch – and the cry. He was never sure – was it he or his grandfather that cried that morning? He never asked him.
It was a similar though quieter cry that he let out in the bishop’s office that day – but since the bishop was speaking at full bore he didn’t notice.
“…and the reason I’d like you to take on St. Florian’s,” the bishop continued, sitting small behind his oak and cherry desk, “is because it had some little trouble up there in recent months and it was too much for poor Father Fisher to handle.”
“Yes, your excellency.”
“Now, Torkel, I know it’s not what you’re used to, but I think a little time with the country folk might do you some good,” the bishop continued, rolling right over Father Erlandson’s squeak of obsequiousness. “Besides, they’re your kind of people, arent’ they? You’re from Norwegian stock, aren’t you?”
“Yes, your excellency – actually, I’m Swed –“
“Well, good,” the bishop said, looking at his ringed right hand as it pretended to feel the heft of the ballpoint pen that was to sign Father Erlandson’s walking papers. “I also hear you’re a bit of a horse enthusiast. Plenty of pasture land to ride your ponies up there, you know.”
So, the village of Turin had a population of 365 people – one for each day of the year. Like a once proud rock formation, its pronunciation was gradually deformed by an epoch of local usage from the original Italian metropolis famous for the Shroud into a word that rhymes with “urine.” It’s people were good and simple and probably had simple tastes.
Thinking of those simple tastes, Father Erlandson found himself in a farewell revery when he noticed that the bishop had suddenly stopped playing with the pen. His face reddened with the effort as he pulled his chair into the desk and leaned over in the manner of a confidant.
“Matter fact, Torkel, you didn’t know this, I know, but my first assignment was in a neighboring parish – a sister parish – Sacred Heart down the road, over in Wynesville,” he said and just as quickly pulling back in his chair.
“Of course,” sitting back now and flashing Father Erlandson that famous Linseed look that always seemed to be saying What I’m going to say next is the most important thing you will hear today if not all week, “Sacred Heart’s closed now. Been so for about 20 years.”
Bishop Linseed was a small barrel-chested man with gunmetal hair and grave features that would occasionally soften into a quizzical smile. It was a smile that an observer would note came from some interior jest or turn of humor rather than external pressures – as it came to life at the most surprising times. When he was delivering a mostly academic and uninteresting homily, it would creep across his face like a basement cat eluding a flashlight beam. When he was at a public function, sitting and listening to the endless palaver of a Rotary speech, it would settle like a lap dog and when the speaker would make the usual attempt at a humorous anecdote it would just as quickly scurry away.
The bishop’s driver, Father Robert Anson, a classmate of Father Erlandson, said the smile would come on almost like clockwork whenever they were driving on the state highway out of Hennepin, heading for a confirmation or a meeting with the other bishops in the province.
“I didn’t notice at first,” Father Anson told Father Erlandson once as they sat in shorts and t-shirts, drinking beers and watching a Sunday football game on TV. “But one day, we were going to the Diocese of Madison for the spring meeting of the bishops, I got enough guts to start a conversation and as I looked over to say the first word I noticed him smiling that smile. Then just like that it was gone again – and it was pure Linseed the rest of the trip.”
Father Anson threw out his lower lip and contorted his face to look as much like an angry turtle as possible and he began aping the usual litany of commands which became the extent of conversation on car trips with the bishop.
“‘Rosary…. Life Savers…..Brevary….Cell phone….Life Savers… Divine Mercy Chaplet…Life Savers.’” Then coming out of character, Father Anson would quickly add, shrugging his shoulders. “Always with the Life Savers – always after prayers.”
Like Father Erlandson, Bishop Charles Linseed was a native of the Diocese of Hennepin, and like the good father he spent most of his seminary days in Rome. His background was mostly citified – the bishop came from a family that made its money in logging – but as the Hennepin diocese was mostly rural – a quiltwork of forests and dairy farms stitched together with cities sustained by paper mills and breweries – even the citified had a secret share of the country.
Most of Bishop Linseed’s priests would be surprised to learn that he loved getting out on a Saturday morning with pole and flies to do some fishing in one of the diocese’s covert trout streams. It was, Father Erlandson knew, a secret that the bishop did not want too many of his priests knowing – and Father Erlandson only knew because he happened to be giving his horse a stretch of the leg one early morning and stopped to let the creature water. As the horse lapped eagerily at the cold current, Father Erlandson looked up and on the opposite bank of the stream he saw – well, what did he see?
“I didn’t notice him at first – not as the bishop, anyway,” Father Erlandson said. “Then gradually, it dawned on me … He was all done up in a pair of moldy green hip waders and a red buffalo plaid shirt and fishing vest. He was unpacking his tackle and he had on – Bob, you’re not going to believe this – but he had on a baseball hat that said ‘Las Vegas – Get Lucky!’ across the front. I tell you I just about fell off poor Pedasos seeing him there. And I think Linseed saw me about the same time I saw him.”
“What did he do? – what did you do?” Father Anson asked, recovering from the laughter, now ignoring the crushing offensive drive being executed on TV by the team in green against the team in purple. He grabbed a handful of pretzels from the bowl between them to sustain him for the finale.
“I don’t know – I guess we just waved to each other is all,” Father Erlandson replied, thinking hard because to be honest he hadn’t thought about what he or the bishop did after that. That he knew the bishop’s secret, he thought, seemed enough. “Pedasos was done about that time, too. So we just sorta moseyed off. But it’s funny – because I could have sworn just as I was turning her around to get back on the path – I could have sworn I saw the bishop make a motion.”
“What kind of motion?”
“I don’t know…he was either putting his index finger to his lips or…,” Father Erlandson suddenly tiring of the topic, waved the whole thing off, “Maybe he was going to pick his nose for all I know. Hey, look, they scored.”
Now he watched Bishop Linseed filling out the paperwork that was going to send him far from the 1,200 families of his sweet downtown Hennepin St. Michael the Archangel Parish. It wasn’t that Hennepin was itself any great shakes – it had a modest row of rather good restaurants – but more importantly, a bridge span across the Mississippi and a short shot up the Interstate gave him access to the toothsome possibilities of the Twin Cities.
In little more than ten minutes he could cross over into Minnesota on a Sunday night with none the wiser that for the last ten years Father John Erlandson had been holding back a few dollars – ten here, twenty there – from each of his Mass stipends (of which diocesan custom more than any canonical stricture called for priests to give half as alms to a favorite charity and half to the front porch ministry run out of the cathedral’s rectory.). A priest for the last 15 years, Father Erlandson still got the thrill of administering the sacraments, but he never questioned whether the thrill had lately become somewhat, well – mixed. It never occurred to him that he might be practicing a mild form of simony. For when he heard the phone ring, it triggered a habit in his mind which automatically prepared to triage the request waiting on the other end of the line.
Funerals. Upside: better than a memorial Mass – but only by a little. It meant a good read of the menu from the Tora Tora Japanese Steakhouse instead of the more quotidian Windmill Steakhouse (which is to say, the Tora Tora used imported massaged beef while the Windmill stuck to a choice of Wisconsin grass-fed and Nebraska corn-fed.). Downside: Stipend usually only amounted to what was left over in the family’s budget after the funeral director took his share.
Baptisms. Upside: two or three would fetch pretty much anything on The Blue Dauphin’s menu – including a bouillabaisse worth re-storming the Bastille for. Downside: less common than funerals – usually once every three months.
Weddings (the granddaddy of them all!). Upside: The stipend from one alone meant unobstructed access to Donny DiSciascio’s ingenious menu – anything and everything on it, literally, from soup to nuts. Downside: Least common of all – once or twice a year.
A “white-flight Joiseyite” as he liked to call himself, DiSciascio managed the Playboy Casino’s Atlantic City food service division before moving out to the Midwest. He was first generation Sicilian-American – and it showed. His parents were born and raised in Sicily – and as far as Father Erlandson was concerned there was no place on this side of the Atlantic to match the feats of plate and bowl that Donny’s parents had handed on, simmered, infused or sautéed, in ragu, olive oil or garlic, to their son. His restaurant was, for Father Erlandson, Mecca, Rome and Jerusalem all in one 1,200 square foot eatery, sheated in frayed linoleum and naugahyde, sticking out the back end of Minneapolis’ anywhere.
But now, even after all that had gone away, as if his grandfather’s long lost gold watch were recovered, he was sitting on a throne of contentment in the corner of a Wisconsin tavern, watching patrons push beer into their gullets and offer each other high fives as they watched sports on TV. The tavern was not yet busy – as he always ate early on Sundays to escape the dinner crowds.
He reached for his wine glass – actually a pilsner glass – filled with Chianti and raised it to his nose. In a whisper softer than the sotto voce thanksgiving that opened the meal, he exclaimed. “Now that’s a bouquet!”