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The Crooked Heart of Mercy

by Billie Livingston

edited by Kathryn Mockler

We're pleased to present an excerpt of Billie Livingston's most recent novel The Crooked Heart of Mercy, a brave, funny and heartbreaking novel about faith and family, love and forgiveness, and how people survive unimaginable loss. It features an indelible trio of characters who could only come from the imagination of Billie Livingston. Find more info here.

The call display on my cell phone reads Holy Trinity. Francis. My brother is probably the only one I can bear this morning. So I put a finger in one ear and the phone up to the other.

“Hello Maggie, it’s Father Michael, the ah, the rector over at Holy Trinity. I’m calling about Luke.” Luke is the religious name my brother took when he was ordained.

“What happened?”

There is a long pause and my stomach lurches.

“He’s fine,” the rector finally says. “I mean he’s not hurt or anything, but we’ve had another situation. He was arrested night before last. Another DUI.”

“Sonuvabitch!” 

Father Michael gives a nervous laugh. “Ah, well, yes, he’s not handling it very well. He’s locked himself, ah, he won’t come out of his room. He—”

“I thought you said he was in jail?”

“He was. For a few hours. We brought him back here. And, as I say, he’s not doing very well. We wondered if it might be better if he stayed with family for a few days until this blows over.”

“Until what blows over?”

“Ah, well, maybe it’s better if I let your brother explain. Maggie, I’m sorry, but you’re the only family he has. We understand you’ve been—it’s been terrible for you lately, and we think that for this very reason, it’d be a good idea for Luke to be with you.”

Father Michael tells me to take a cab. He’ll pay, he says.

*

Fine, you pay. You pay and you deal with him. You people wanted him, body and soul, so you deal with him, body and soul.

That’s what I should have said. But instead, I sit here in the back of a taxi that is hauling my butt down to Holy Trinitybecause my idiot brother is stuck in his holy-man room with his head up his ass. Barely heard a word from him since the funeral. I have been—my child is—his nephew, his namesake—and Francis is busy getting his wild on. There is real shit going on in this world with real consequences, but no, it’s all about Francis and his little pity-party. I’d like to kick his self-absorbed ass up one side of that rectory and down the other.

As we near Holy Trinity, it’s as if the circus had come to town. News vans are parked out front, there are people milling on the sidewalk, creeping up the church lawn, sitting on the steps. A couple of men in suits are holding microphones and pacing, looking up at the church doors in case something should haul off and happen. Local news, Fox News, Good Morning America, even.

The cab driver slows and then I see chubby little Father Michael on the corner, standing there in his clerics, shaking his head, no, at a couple of scrappy looking reporters who push recorders in his face. His palms are cupped together in front of his belly as if he’s Mother Superior instead of the squirmy little worm that he is.

Seeing the cab, he scurries into the street and pushes his puffy red face in the driver’s side window. While he pays, I get out and gawp at the sight of all the trucks with satellite dishes sitting in front of the church.

The taxi clears off and Father Michael takes my arm as if I’m a geriatric.

“What the hell is going on?” I ask. Wordlessly, he hustles me toward the side entrance. I look over my shoulder at the mess of them. “Did they find another pedophile or something?”

Father Michael closes the door behind us and faces me with a petulant scowl. “No.” 

The relative quiet settles over us. I look behind him down the hall that leads to the actual church. Upstairs is the seminary, the dormitory that houses a mix of priests and students. I haven’t been here in eight or nine years, but the smell of the place, the institutional scent of books and floor wax, mixed with rose-scented incense, raises my hackles instantly.

“Maggie,” he says, “we’re all really worried about him, about Father Luke, ah, your Francis. That video they took is all over the place and those news people have been here since six this morning. We can’t —I mean, you’re his sister.”

“What video? I have no idea what’s been going on around here. So you’ll have to enlighten me.”

Father Michael takes a breath and collects himself. “He was arrested the night before last. The police videotaped his time in the holding cell and then somebody down there put out this thing, this —misleading! —version of what happened. You know, because if you were to look at it—”

“Where is he?”

“Room 309. On the third floor. Thank you, Maggie. This will mean so much to him.”

*

I step off the elevator into a hurricane of music pounding down the hall. Not a hymn, but club music with crashing techno drums and a wailing bass guitar. I suppose that’s him.

Oh, for god’s sake. What is he, sixteen?

I stalk off toward the hell-voice of Marilyn Manson growling about being a personal Jesus.

The lyrics and their promise of someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares, Manson’s roaring command to reach out and touch faith, sends an involuntary shudder down my spine. The song ends abruptly and two seconds later, it’s back to the beginning, thundering into the air once more.

I hammer his door with my fist. “Francis! Open up. Right now.” I can hear myself channeling our mother and that’s not helping. Or maybe it is. “Francis! I mean it. Turn that shit off and open the door.”

I give the knob a try and it turns. The door opens slowly. Now the music is truly head-pounding.

His single bed is crisply made, but I don’t see my brother anywhere. I see only where he lives and I turn in a slow circle, looking into the faces of countless saints. Nearly every inch of all four walls is covered with small wooden plaques, painted in golds and ambers, each one depicting a sacred event or a holy person. For years now, a tiny part of me has wondered if this priest stuff was just an escape for Francis, a costume he was trying on—like a Batman suit for Catholics. Now, staring at the doting eyes in icon after icon, it occurs to me that the man who sleeps here craves salvation the way some crave food or sex.

I walk over to his stereo and just as I am about to push the power button, I see my brother on the far side of his bed, prostrate, face to the floor, wearing his cassock. Laid out in front of him is a purple cloth embossed with a gold cross. On it, I recognize the small figure of Saint Francis of Assisi that he’s had since we were kids. It is flanked by candles that cast low toothy shadows on the bedspread and the wall. Beside Saint Francis is another saint I don’t recognize. Luke, maybe? 

I kill the power on the stereo. The sudden silence is like static on the air.

My brother’s head rises so slowly that I am suddenly a little afraid for him. His eyes are red and swollen, and tears track down his cheeks. On the floor in the spot where his forehead had rested is a photograph. It is a picture of a little boy in his puffy snowsuit, knee-deep in fresh powder, grinning and pink cheeked. My Frankie. 

Quiet crackles in my ears. My eyes sting. My guts hurt.

I come closer. Kneeling beside him, I lay my arm across my brother’s back, whisper that I’m here. It’s okay.

It’s not difficult to persuade Francis to come with me. He packs silently and as he does, I glance around at his walls again. Nobody craves this kind of company without reason.

Even the 13-inch television that sits on his bureau has a Madonna and child icon set on top. The baby looks like a tiny, knowing man standing in her arms. One of his hands caresses her jaw.

Francis zips his bag, we turn out the light, close the door behind us, and head down to the underground parking. We don’t stop to talk to the rector.

My brother hands me his keys and I drive his green rust-bucket out the back of church property and over to my place. 

A half hour later we are sitting on my couch drinking tea and making stilted conversation.

“I love these old heritage houses,” Francis says. “How many apartments in here?”

“Five.”

His long black eyelashes flutter about the room. “Is this is all their furniture?”

I nod. Even in the midst of this mess, my brother’s hair is combed and lacquered in place; his shirt, crisp, and clean. 

“The rent is pretty cheap. And I don’t have to share a bathroom, which is a relief.” 

“Right, right. It looks nice, sweetheart.” He nods. I nod. He looks toward the window. “Are you working these days?”

I shake my head. “I went for an interview this morning. It was going great until I started bawling. It’s—Frankie comes into my head. And this stuff with Ben—I just, I feel like a stupid, useless walking sore.”

Francis looks down into his mug for two or three long seconds. “Have you heard from Ben? From the hospital?”

“No. They called when he came out of surgery last week. It’s amazing that he’s okay. Who survives that? Well I guess he survived. He’s in a psych ward now.”

My brother meets my eye for the first time since we got here. “I feel like maybe I should go down and see him.” 

My mouth opens. I don’t know quite what to say to that.

He sighs. “I know. But I’m still a priest. He’s clearly been going through a spiritual crisis of some kind. You both have. Have you—”

“Physician heal thyself,” I mutter. 

He snorts softly and looks into his mug again. After a while he says, “I know it bugged you when I took a religious name. Hardly anyone does it anymore. I picked Saint Luke because he’s known as The Divine Physician. I thought that when I took his name, somehow it might be healing. So… so much for that.”

I watch him and chew at my bottom lip.

Francis pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He lights one and puffs and then leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Have you seen this fucking video or what?”

“No. I didn’t know anything about it until your rector called me. What’s the big deal? A million drunks on YouTube, and yours go viral? What makes you so damn special?”

“Well…” He smirks and bats his eyes. Almost like normal. Almost like we’re “us” again.

“Seriously, are you totally annihilated? Have you got your pecker out or something?”

“No! I had a drink with a couple friends. I actually went home early. And I wasn’t even driving when the cops pulled over. Next thing I know, the headlines are all screaming: ‘Drunk Priest!’ Woop-de-do.”

“I’m sorry they did this to you, Francis.” 

His face softens and his eyes glass up a bit as if he might cry. He reaches for my hand and gives it a squeeze.

“What happens now?”

He stares at his cigarette for a moment. “They have me booked for six months in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Rehab Center. Father Michael and the parish lawyer are trying to get the court date set for after my rehab. Of course the court might refuse. This is my third DUI.” 

His third DUI. I look at Francis. His eyes flick from his cigarette to the floor. He reaches for his mug, I do the same and the two of us sit there quietly sipping.

“I wonder if I’m losing my mind, I say at last. “I feel him sometimes. Usually in bed as I’m waking. Sometimes I’m wide-awake and he climbs into my lap. I can smell his baby smell, his Frankie smell.”

Francis tucks my hair behind my ear. His hand smells of soap and nicotine.

I duck away, fidget a moment, then pick up the remote and turn on the TV. The screen fills with a sitcom. The canned audience hoots as two actors kiss in a kitchen.

“Don’t you ever miss…” I keep my eyes on the screen. “Don’t you want to have a relationship? You could go over to the Episcopalians. It’s the same thing except they’re okay with gay.”

“You know what Bette Davis said?” Francis blinks at the television. “Gay liberation? I ain’t against it, it’s just that there’s nothing in it for me.”

I think of his room at Holy Trinity: saint after saint. Nobody craves that kind of company without reason. For now, as far as company goes, each other is what we’ve got. A wave of loneliness washes over me—loneliness and gratitude.

 

Excerpted from The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston. Copyright © 2016 Billie Livingston. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.