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Father Ryan said he feels God’s presence among the people — in bars.
For our group, half among us sneering skeptics, this information became mere fodder for his mockery. That he, like every tottering drunk in history, felt connected to the spirit world when inebriated, was not evidence for his God. And the fact that he seemed to require liquor to feel the presence indicated, at least at first, the inauthenticity of his communion.
But we didn’t think he was lying. We thought his brain was soaked.
Then one day in class, he pointed to Gabe — the shortest among us, son of Kashmiri immigrants who’d quickly climbed the US corporate power pole — and declared that he, among all of us, was closest to Christ.
“That’s what he’d look like!” Father Ryan boomed. “Not one of your lily-white Jesuses with flowing hair.” Gabe shrugged at his gawking classmates. I was chuckling halfway to the floor. Father Ryan’s tone indicated he intended to shock us. And he had. Not in the way he seemed to mean it — as in, you rubes must not know Jesus was a Mediterranean. But rather in that he’d singled out our classmate, a scientific atheist with Richard Dawkins in his backpack, biting his tongue through THL 430: Jesus Today, Jesus Tomorrow.
What shocked us more was what he told us at the bar.
“Yes, yes, he looks more like him,” Ryan said. “But that’s not really what I’m getting at. Not all of it.”
“You mean not just short and brown?” I asked. Gabe raised an eyebrow an inch — half the advantage I had on his height.
“You might see soon,” Ryan took a long swallow of a Guinness, “that he stands above us all.”
We’d heard from our friend Jessie that Father Ryan had a way of divining your future. “He told me I should start saving for a new car,” he said, “and then, what do you know? One month later, I smash my front end on a guard rail.” There was reason to question the veracity of Jessie’s claims. Most of the time when we saw him, he was plastered. And at least one time we saw him, he was asleep naked outside his apartment door atop a nest of his pee-soaked clothes. But several other lesser party animals reported similar feats of prediction.
“You will,” Father Ryan said, catching a belch, “inherit the Spirit, and for you it shall, for a time, grant divine works.”
“What’s that mean?” asked Murphy, who shared an apartment with me. He tugged on the priest’s black shirtsleeve, jostling his clergy collar, sloshing his Guinness foam. Over the summer, one DMT plateau too high had filled Murphy’s eyes with visions of Christ inside our liquor cabinet, spirit dancing blue against gin glass. Since then, Murphy had strained for the wisdom not delivered in his cocktail. “Hey, what’s that mean?”
“Pipe down, son. What I’m saying is he’ll be a miracle man for a while. Now, who’s got the next round?” Murphy whipped out a credit card to keep the beer flowing and find out all the drunken mystic could tell him. Gabe and I snickered over our free drinks. Before we left, Father Ryan whispered another prediction in Gabe’s ear. Gabe shuddered: “What a weird old man.”
But in defiance of our skepticism, the miracles rolled in. After Gabe helped Murphy cram for his sociology exam, Murphy managed a B-minus. Our friend Ron found a girlfriend. After Gabe gave me an introduction, I got a twenty dollar-an-hour editing gig for a group of overstressed pre-med students looking to cut corners on term papers, allowing my broke ass to finally buy a new pair of (off-brand) sneakers. One weekend, for a full thirty-two hours, Murphy’s nose glowed purple. And when Jessie, filled to his eyebrows with whiskey sour, lost control of his car on an icy road and fishtailed, fish after fish after fish down a steep hill, hitting not a single oncoming or parked car, and regained control just in front of his parking space, he swore later that some other power had taken over him, some other hands — soft and brown and coated with thick, dark hair — had rested upon his and guided every turn of the wheel. When Jessie told us this, Gabe simply shrugged.
Soon, though, the miracles shrank to mere parlor tricks. Fingers producing brief bursts of flame like haunted candles at a horror movie séance. His tongue folding Starburst wrappers into waxy cranes. Gabe was more comfortable with this level of divinity, anyway, the kind he could use to entertain the pretty, high-class women he’d invite to parties in our apartment building. This was the way he met Jennifer, who was engaged to someone else at the time but whom Gabe would later marry. Father Ryan had whispered her name in Gabe’s ear that night at the bar. Told him she was the 100 percent perfect match for him. That’s why Gabe had saved up one last big miracle, something way better than a parlor trick or a glowing nose, to show Jennifer on their first night alone together. She left her fiancé the next day. But what precisely that miracle had been, they never told a soul.
James Sullivan is the author of Harboring (ELJ Editions). His stories and essays have appeared in Cimarron Review, New Ohio Review, Third Coast, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, and Fourteen Hills among other publications. In 2022, he was a finalist for the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction.