by Mike Palecek
“You get a person lying awake at night wondering if there is a dog,” he recited the sentence as if one word.
Silence hung in the air as the smoke from a rifle.
Snot blew out the priest’s nose as he turned his back and hiked up his robe to reach into his back pocket for a handkerchief.
He wiped his nose, ran the back of his hand across both eyes, stuck the handkerchief back into his pocket and smoothed his hands down his robes as he turned back to the congregation.
When he faced them again his blue eyes in turn showed a pinch of recalcitrance, a dash of mischief and a heaping of dread. He again looked down at the podium, keeping his thumbs hooked to the wood.
He looked up, stood straight and brought his hands together in front of him with the same motion, then slid his hands inside the lectern and pulled out the black frame “nerd” glasses and pressed them on.
April in Minnesota and Father Mars wore a sweater and long underwear under his purple vestments. The altar area smelled of the branches of lilacs curled around the toes of Saint Joseph and Mary on either side of the altar.
Mars looked out at the kids playing in the sandbox in front, the rows of folks in wheelchairs and the few street people who sat in the last pew.
“Well, anywhoo, there was this child I recall, back a hundred years ago, in the past century in nineteen hundred and sixty-three. This young boy was standing by his green table with his Flintstones lunch box on the table. He found his way from home by landmarks each day for afternoon kindergarten at Saint Agnes’ Elementary School, down the street to turn left at the red hunting dog’s place, then past the playground fence turn left to the front door, then the first left again into the big room, then toward the center of the room until he found the table with the green border. There he stopped.
“The morning kids had just left and the boy put his lunch box on the table. The brand new shiny metal box held his banana and his beads for the Christmas tree. On the blackboard, which covered the whole one side of the room, as big as a bus, his teacher had engraved in new, white chalk: President Kennedy.
“Soon all the children were gathered for the afternoon session. They stood beside their tables for the Pledge of Allegiance. Just as they had finished, the principal, Sister Mary, came in and talked to Sister George. The kids remained standing as Sister Mary told the children that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.
“The boy felt a warm stream down his leg as his socks became wet and a puddle formed between his feet.”
He stopped and allowed a sniffler and a cougher to have their say.
“This past week that boy was researching the Kennedy assassination and found a tape recording of attorney Jim Garrison being interviewed by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. They were talking about the shooting of President Kennedy. The boy, now a man, felt an affinity for Mr. Carson be- cause his family had long watched the famous man of late night talk television.
He recalled the hot summer nights, with the windows open to let some air through and the faint breath just stirring the curtains. He recalled walking down the alley to the neighborhood grocery store, which was air conditioned, and stepping into that dark, cool store with the wooden slat floor and the hum of the frozen food machines and the smell of baseball card bubble gum and Popsicles.
“But he also felt an aversion. Because he now realized that while Mr. Carson talked on television and the boy’s parents sat on the sofa and watched with the blue light reflecting off their faces, and the kids scooting over on the floor to get close enough to the screen door to think about asking if they could go out again, terrible things were happening.”
Father Jerry Mars filled his chest with air. He let it out, filled it again and held it. He moved his hands to the front of the podium and smiled while he looked around at his audience.
The homily had once been the bogeyman of his seminary training, and he knew it was only by grace that he was able to stand up there in front of all these good people every week without turning around to run away and join the circus.
“And the boy, now a man, felt again like a child as he listened to the interview on tiny headphones while seated in front of his orange computer, sipping amaretto tea from a white mug with big red letters that read: I Love Mom.
“He wrote a letter to Johnny Carson. He wrote to the great ’Carsoni’ to an address in California as mysterious now as television was in 1963, some forty years ago.
“He wrote: Mr. Carson: My parents and I used to watch your show every night before bed. It was our routine, as it was for many others. Perhaps I saw your interview with Jim Garrison when it first aired, though I do not recall. I must be frank, because I do not feel I will get a second chance to ask you — why did you treat Mr. Garrison as you did, which is to say quite rudely, almost as if you were accusing him of doing wrong by trying to find the killers of President Kennedy.
“Were you protecting the real killers of the President?
“Of course, you were. What else can I say but that it is obvious now with almost forty years of perspective. The Warren Commission was a supreme joke and Garrison was on to something. Something frightening to be sure. But why did you have so much allegiance to the plotters and none to your dead president?
“Are you still afraid? You could do so much good for your country if you would tell the truth, even now, even forty years later. Why not? Who caused you to act as you did on that night?
“Up until now, thanks in part to you, we have been forced to live in Disneyland since 1963, where everything is unreal, everything entertainment and illusion.
“Please tell me, as I will never know myself: Is wealth and power worth the sublimation of the truth?”
“Sincerely, Jerry Mars.”
Like a newscaster with nothing left to do, Mars arranged his papers on the podium. He listened for the signs of disgust: coughs spreading like a grass fire or the hymn books being pounded closed.
Mars held his pause for a count of one-thousand-five.
He let his chin rise. He saw mostly upturned, pleasant faces.
He let a drop of sweat sit on his nose.
Mars let his black glasses slip and peeked over them, then pushed them back up to peer out from the “out-of-focusness” he had asked the optometrist to install, as he now felt his lips becoming unsteady.
He did not need the glasses, but used them to hide behind during his sermons.
“The Great Carsoni could make justice appear, poof! Out of nothingness in the palm of his hand. He won’t.
“It, justice, has appeared on occasions in the past because good men went through the fires of hell to make it happen. They fought the bad guys. And let me tell you, people, you hear these cops on these cop shows saying bad guys this and bad guys that, referring to generally underclass people, but that’s not the real bad guys, folks.
“And so, go forth, people, and break windows. Smash the windows of the churches in rich neighborhoods, those who mock the gospel; smash the windows of cars and homes in rich neighborhoods; throw bricks through the windows of the National Guard buildings, the radio stations and newspaper offices, military recruiters, banks and police stations.”
Three eighth grade boys giggled with hands over faces in the third row left, crunched down to escape the looks of their parents seated elsewhere.
“I couldn’t be more serious, friends.
“As the song goes, the revolution will not be televised. You can’t catch it after work or tape it for later. The revolution is live, and it will not happen unless you … do … something.”
The last word hummed like trapped, angry bees inside the microphone.
Mars pushed on the middle bar of his glasses. He looked at the back door for the bishop. Out of his peripheral vision he checked both side doors for the troops that would march him from the altar to the city jail.
“If we do nothing. If we shake hands after Mass and agree that all is well, we mean that all is well with us, all is well in our home and on our block and that is all that matters.
“And then we are the problem.
“We should be cognizant of the possibility of bricks coming through our windows, just as we put up our feet to congratulate ourselves on yet another day well done.”
He paused again, this time looking over the heads of the people to the colored glass depiction of Jesus helping his friends fish — ”on Lake Minnetonka” he had once heard a youngster tell his mother after Mass — Mars made the executive decision to keep this pause shorter than the last.
“When I lived in that nice neighborhood with the soft breeze and the distant call of the train engine, I was certain I was in a good spot. Without ever really sitting down to think about it, I was absolutely sure, before my feet hit the floor each morn- ing that things were in place: everything in alphabetical order, counted and blessed.
“And I was wrong.
“And now, what this country needs more than cheap gas or friendly hometown banking is a Democracy movement. We need someone, some skinny, brave soul, some old man on his way home from Safeway some afternoon willing to sit in Tee-en-a-man Square and say enough is enough.
“One person could do something. For lack of one courageous man on the Warren Commission generations have lived entire lives in a fantasy world of Ferris Wheels and mirrors.
“Kennedy was going to bring us out of Vietnam. Eisenhower before him had warned of the influence of the military-industrial complex, those people who make money from weaponry. And then those forces took Kennedy out as he was making some sort of peace with the Soviet Union as well. And so tens of thousands of young Americans were slaughtered in Vietnam; thousands of American families with a forever thorn in their side.
And Nixon and Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton were able to continue to make money from war, from death, from a slug of metal formed in a young Iowan’s hands heating the cool morning air making its way into the bone and viscera and brain matter and memories of a young man on ’the other side.’
“Lyndon Johnson did it, didn’t he? He wanted to be president so bad he could taste it. And then he saw he was shut out of the Kennedy administration and before him he saw four more years of John, and eight each of Robert and Ted. He had to shit now or forever hold it.”
The priest smiled with his slightly buck teeth and wavy hair that made him look for a moment like Robert Kennedy. He looked right, then left, as if from a whistle stop in Vermont.
“Et tu? Lyndon?” Mars put on a very phony Boston accent and gestured with his thumb inside his bent pointer finger. “We all know that, but nobody has ever actually uttered those words in America. Not the librarian in Bloomington or the produce manager in Barlow’s or the superintendent of the Minneapolis schools.”
He squeezed the wood, smiled and looked up at the ceiling fans twirling as he recalled the quiet, cool evening air.
“I was out walking last night, two nights ago. I strolled past a window. I look in every window with a light when I’m walking, by the way. So be warned. I miss very much not being married and having a family and I can’t help but look to see what I’m missing, as if I could see it through the front window. But I look nevertheless.
Well, I saw very clearly a woman seated in a comfortable chair next to a lamp looking at something obviously the television. Across the room in shade her husband read the newspaper. The woman smiled at the television as the top of her husband’s head was just visible above his paper.
Well, I know there is an awful lot to marriage that I am missing, but that little vignette there — well, I was most satisfied to return home to my little room and put my feet up to read Huckleberry Finn while listening to Jazz Saturday Night and drink my one frosted glass mug of Bud Light in peace.”
Mars paused to allow a gentle ripple of chuckles to pass.
“For there in that room, in the time it took me to walk five steps and stare in at that couple we have seen America: One half lost in entertainment and illusion, the other half studiously perusing something that is not there.
“We watch television and try to escape. We read the paper, perhaps watch TV news magazines to find out “what’s going on in the world.”
Mars put his hands up to mark quotes in the air.
“Well, we do escape for sure, into a manufactured bubble world. But as for the news … do you think for a moment that if those individuals who put those products together — the products we call the news that are merely vehicles to sell you stuff … if they knew what was really going on in the world do you think they would tell you? Not for one minute. They will tell you what it benefits them to have you believe. Because it is all about money.
“Hemingway once said, in a book about war, about a relationship during a war, that if you are good enough, they will kill you. On this Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the corner post of Christianity. Anybody can be born, but getting resurrected, well. Let’s order pizza.
“Bill Hicks, the comedian who was censored by the David Letterman show for saying things that would not sell stuff, once said he had been in Australia during Easter, and it made him think of the way we celebrate — with giant rabbits and chocolate eggs. He said he looked in the bible and could find no references to rabbits or chocolate eggs in the story of resurrection of Jesus.
“He said it would make as much sense to celebrate with Lincoln logs and cheese balls. He recalled a youngster running to tell his ’mum’ on Eas- ter morning that goldfish had left Lincoln logs and cheese balls in his sock drawer.
“It’s the story of Jesus,” whispered his mother most reverently.
Some of the people laughed loud. There was also an undercurrent of polite snickering. Then the people who had laughed loud, mostly a group of high school students in the back row, laughed again.
“Well, after the long weeks of Lent we are looking for some relief on Easter morning, something to lighten the moment, but we are not looking for lies. We don’t need fantasy. We don’t need ten-foot- tall cottontails when the truth is so exciting!”
He reached into the lectern for his water that was always there, sipped and returned the glass, then dabbed his mouth with the clean dish cloth kept on the ledge of the podium.
“And so I bring up Kennedy on Easter,” he said matter-of-factly, as a shoe salesman saying that brown was the going color this year. “Well, no, he was not Christ and he was not resurrected. And he certainly was not a saint. He was a sinner, through and through, just like me and just like you. He was a Catholic, yes. But no big deal. Again, anybody can become a Catholic.
“I bring it up because it is what is on my mind. Many of you do not remember John Kennedy, many of us remember nothing but.
“Where do these thoughts of John Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. come from? All mortal men, surely sinners. But in my mind heroes, just as Jesus is a hero of mine. And to be a hero of mine you have to do one thing.”
Mars put up his crooked right pointer finger, the finger that had been stomped on. He held it over his head and out toward the congregation.
“You have to go and get yourself killed.”
He held the finger in the air until it became the focus of the room. Couples with their arms interlocked on the pew behind the heads of their chil- dren stared at the finger. Mars meant to be point- ing straight up, toward the ceiling in exclamation, when actually his finger was more of a comma.
“You can’t score six touchdowns on one night and be my hero.”
Mars spoke loudly, pausing, turning this way and that, using all of his homiletics textbook skills.
“You cannot have twenty-inch biceps and thirty-inch waist and be my hero.”
He stopped and estimated three seconds, impatient to keep going.
“You cannot go to work each day and pay your bills and keep your kids in college and your wife happy and play errorless third base for the church softball team and be my hero.”
He put his hand down as parenthesis.
“I see these guys who drive their little cars into the lot at the elevator every morning and leave every night. They do this without fail for ten years, twenty years, thirty years. Maybe forty years! They drive in each morning at the same time, they leave at the same time. Same route, look the same way before turning, park the car in the same spot at work, same place at home.
“Now, to some people that image is one of supreme heroism, the loyalty, the work ethic, the steady nature of the man going to work each day, earning his daily bread for his family, that they may prosper and live and grow and also maintain their routine.
“I am weird. I see it as cowardice. I really do, and I know some of you are going to have trouble with that. That’s okay. I see it as immoral, boorish, dull behavior. Because you see during those years that man is going to work, maintaining a certain lifestyle, people around the world are dying, from poverty, from war, what have you. And on some of those days that man is going to work and coming home while his country is at war, outright bombing people in other countries and they are dying. And yet. And yet he parks in the same spot, goes home at the same time.
“That is nothing unusual. His parents, wife, children and friends expect nothing less. But is it the Christian response? Hardly.”
He paused, shoved the finger again into the air, and turned slowly to the right and then to the left. He put his hand down and gripped the podium.
“You have to go and get yourself killed.
“So Christ, King and Kennedy. They did not just die. They had to be killed.
“If I can say one thing to you this fine morning, my brothers and sisters, it is this.
“Make … the … sons of bitches kill you.”
He leaned forward and whispered like the Godfather.
Now Mars did not care if they liked him.
The bones of his jaws showed like ripples in the water portending a shark below.
He made direct eye contact with three people, as he had been taught, not long enough to confront, but enough to show he was not afraid.
“Don’t seek to live so damned long that you finally have to be unplugged. Make the bastards come get you — make their terrible plans, hunt you down and fill you full of holes, just as they did our Lord Jesus Christ.
“And take that chance. The chance taken by Jesus the skinny guy with no money, no family, no friends, no career — no papers or books published — with only this one desperation shot at redemption, with one card to play that might mean he would ever amount to something. Take the chance that God is God.”
He pushed his papers together, looked up like Walter Cronkite at the end of the newscast, and smiled.
“Now, let us pray.”