Across the street from St. George’s, the ragged man was thinking: It’s a cold one! I should go in. But the shelter bathrooms are busted, ‘cause they broke in and stole all the copper, and I reek. No fine ladies with boxes of food on 38th . . . not on Christmas Eve on a Friday! Hungry, God! Better walk all night.
He saw people dressed in scarves, overcoats, hats, gloves. Collars up and boots crunching in new-fallen snow, hugging themselves and each other, leaning into the wind; bursts of cloudy talking, laughter; steadying themselves on the icy steps up to the big church doors, which they pulled open, feet stamping. He saw families, he saw couples, he saw men and women alone, but nobody saw him beneath a street light, standing on a sidewalk grate through which the rumbling subway sent up blasts of warmer air. Cheery light from inside the church broke the darkness when the red doors opened. He waited, looking left and right, until he saw no else coming. Why anybody came out on a night like this he didn’t know.
I used to know.
The headlines stacked in newsstands along Broadway were all about a STORM OF THE CENTURY.
It must be near midnight.
He wasn’t sure where he’d walk: east to the East or west to the Hudson; up to the Park or down to the Battery. He thought about sneaking down to the subway, finding some small space in a dark tunnel alcove. But this is dangerous – not just speeding trains or hungry rats, but people who live down there and fight you. He wanted no part of that tonight, with the chest pains flaring, taking his breath. He didn’t want to walk.
He looked over at St. George’s. A latecomer came running, slipping, almost falling, turning to climb the steps, slipping again. The homeless man watched, chuckling, then, quick as he could, followed the clumsy fellow into the church where he knew he’d not be welcome.
I was Catholic once.
Squinting through the flurries, he reached the door before it swung shut. He saw the other man unwind the scarf from around his neck and shake the snow from his hat. The man was looking around the crowded pews, then spotted a woman, mid-nave, waving, and hurried forward, almost slipping again.
Thomas Jonas, the homeless man, looked left and right and met the wary gaze of an usher, a tall, well-dressed white-haired man holding a long-handled collection basket like a halberd, who with a tilt of his head motioned Thomas to an empty bench at the back of the narthex. Thomas was not unhappy; this was a padded bench.
Better than those hard oaken pews.
He’d slept of an afternoon in those pews, usually one of the shorter ones in the north transept, the Gospel side.
O, God it’s warm in here.
Full-throated people were singing the entrance hymn, and the celebrants, with the lector and the servers, were turning to walk down the main aisle towards the altar. An elderly priest, robed in white-and-gold vestments, trailed behind, unsteady on a cane. He stopped to catch his breath. Father Michael, the rector, had insisted Monsignor James enter the altar area directly from the sacristy, but James was sure this was his last Midnight Mass and asked the others (it seemed more like an edict to the rector) to let him reach the chancel unattended and in God’s good time. Now he thought better of it and turned to head to one of the padded benches at the back. He saw Thomas Jonas and hobbled over to join him. The tall usher tried to redirect the old man, but the monsignor pulled his elbow free and even showed him the crook of his cane – a warning, a weapon – and the usher smiled and let the dear man he’d loved for fifty years sit down beside the bum he’d seen (and smelled!) these five minutes.
“Merry Christmas,” James whispered to Thomas.
Thomas was uneasy.
I shouldn’t be here.
Some shard of a thing once learned:
“And also with you.”
Monsignor James, still breathing heavily, looked Thomas squarely in his red-rimmed eyes, his own cloudy eyes laughing, white head nodding.
The Mass went on without them. After he had kissed the altar, Father Michael looked for Monsignor James and saw him sitting way at the back with a scruffy fellow he recognized as one who sometimes sought refuge in church, kneeling in pretended prayer, forehead on crossed arms, until exhaustion collapsed him into the pews and into snoring.
“Where will you spend the night?” Monsignor James asked a startled Thomas Jonas. “It’s a blizzard out there.”
“There are places I can go . . .”
The old man nodded.
Thomas added: “I am a Catholic . . .”
The monsignor smiled: “Me too.” He straightened his crooked body and leaned over to whisper into his bench mate’s ear.
“I’ll hear your confession now.”
What . . . now? Why doesn’t he just . . .
But the old priest had closed his eyes and inclined his ear towards Thomas, who whispered hoarsely: gin and sorrow. His aching heart was ready to explode.
Monsignor James Haloran spoke softly:
“Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”
The old priest’s heart raced too.
The rector broke protocol and hurried between the lines of communicants to the back of the sanctuary, where he found them, Thomas Jonas with his head resting on the shoulder of James Haloran. Both asleep? The monsignor’s face was serene; the bum’s tears had left clean streaks on his cheeks.
Father Michael elevated the host.
“The body of Christ.”