Father Mario and Dane
The poetry in writing is the illusion it creates.
(© 2017 by the author)
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Father Mario Luciani shook the hand of the last parishioner leaving St. Teresa’s Church, the congregation he had prayed with and given spiritual guidance to for over 12 years. He stood alone on the veranda watching the departing parishioners. Clare Patterson called Mario the previous day with an invitation to Sunday dinner. He was happy to accept not only because Clare was an excellent cook, but also because she, her husband Charles, and other handpicked guests would offer an afternoon of interesting conversations on a variety of subjects except the one he kept hidden from the world – his loneliness.
In becoming a priest, Mario served God in ways he had not imagined when he began his seminary instruction. In addition to successfully fulfilling his responsibilities to his parishioners, he wrestled with this inner feeling that something was missing.
He prayed and pleaded with God for help. No answer came. Mario had visions of it becoming a millstone around his neck if something was not done to quell the distraction. The question of what should or could be done was ever present and unanswered. Each night his final plea was simple, “Father, please help me.”
Mondays and Thursdays were his free days. Tomorrow he would go to Chicago’s Loop by train to find more treasures for his library. He doted over the library he had created in the rectory, made available to his parishioners or anyone interested in the collection of spiritual books he had assembled. Visitors could spend hours reading in one of the comfortable armchairs provided, or if they preferred, they could borrow books.
Checking a book out was done on the honor system. A card inside the cover of each book was provided for that purpose. The date, name, and telephone number of the person borrowing the book were to be written on the card and deposited in a small wooden box on the library table. It was only necessary to return the book to the table. Someone else would restore the book to its proper place.
This procedure was printed and posted in several places around the library, St. Teresa’s website, and the church bulletin. At the bottom of the post was a REMINDER and a WARNING: If you fail to follow this procedure – GOD WILL GET YOU! The added humor generated interesting comments. No one forgot to return a borrowed book.
Mario was pleased with the attention the library received. He made sure the latest spiritual publications were available along with books by authors who offered insight and direction in achieving spiritual enlightenment. The porch door to the library was never locked, there were no set visiting hours. Folks could come and go as they pleased.
He caught an early train into the city and spent the morning browsing used bookstores in the Loop area. He was pleased with the three books he found. It was almost one o’clock when he stopped at the Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Bar on Lake Street He ordered the Pea Soup and Chicken Sandwich from Claudette, the barista. Over the years, he became friends with Claudette, matching wits with her while he ate his lunch. It was comforting for him to have this friend in a city of so many anonymous people.
He stopped at one more bookstore on his way to the train station and his return to St. Teresa’s in Arlington Heights. As he walked along Jackson Boulevard he noticed The Olde Book Shoppe on the other side of the street. He could not remember having seen it before. He looked at his watch, crossed the street, inspected the display window, and then entered the shop.
A tiny bell above the door jingled as Father Mario entered. The first thing he noticed was the comforting smell of old books, old wood, and dust. His spirits rose as he glanced about the room, filled with hundreds of volumes lining the walls, stacked on chairs, the floor, and a narrow stairway leading to a loft. It seemed as though time stood still here. He was confident a treasure lurked somewhere awaiting his discovery.
He heard someone shuffling across the floorboards of the back room, the curtain parted and an elderly man stepped into the room. “Good afternoon, Father. How may I help you?”
Mario was charmed by the demeanor of this good old soul. “Oh, nothing. I’ll browse if that’s ok?” He was struck by the crystal blue eyes smiling at him over the gold-rimmed glasses perched on the end of this man’s nose.
“Yes, of course, please take your time. If you need assistance, call me. My name is Morris. I’m happy you are here.” He returned to the back room.
Mario noticed a young man standing at the center table examining an old volume. He appeared to be deep in thought and had not noticed Mario entering the shop.
A few moments later he discovered he was wrong. “So, you’re a man of God I take it?” Since they were alone in the room, Mario turned to the young man. “What was your first clue?” Mario smiled his usual friendly smile and waited to see if this fellow had a sense of humor.
“Very funny,” came a sullen reply.
Mario was cautious but curious. “So why the comment? What did you expect me to say?”
“Nothing. It’s just that you religious people…” he did not finish his sentence.
“You religious people? Doesn’t sound very friendly. If you’re looking for a fight, you’re barking up the wrong tree, my friend.” Mario turned away and continued to browse.
A moment later, “Sorry. I meant no harm.”
Mario turned back to the young man. “So, what’s your gripe with us religious people?”
The young man flinched. He stared at Mario not knowing what to say next. “I … I …”
“Oh come on, you can do better than that.” Mario moved closer and kept smiling. “Cat got your tongue?”
“All this religious stuff is a bunch of crap. I don’t understand how guys like you can fall for it.” He looked Mario in the eyes.
“Well, that’s plain enough. I’m guessing you don’t believe in God.”
“Hell no!” he stared at Mario. “Does that shock you?” Relief and anger edged his voice. Mario knew where he was coming from and had no intentions of fueling that fire.
“Not at all. Good for you. At least you believe in something.” Mario turned away and continued to browse.
“That’s it?” The young man stood staring at Mario.
Without turning around, “What did you expect me to do, try and convert you?” He continued browsing.
The young man sat down in a nearby chair. “I’m sorry. It’s so confusing.”
Mario turned, “Okay, why don’t you tell me what’s confusing you?” He sat down in a chair facing the young man.
“You mean like a confession?”
“Yeah, like you’re gonna fall for that one. No, just two people talking. Who knows, I may have a few ideas on the subject you’ve never considered.”
“I was mean a moment ago.” The young man mellowed. “That’s not like me.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t personal. What’s your name?”
“Dane,” he looked at Mario.
“As in great ….?” Mario smiled.
“Very funny. Yes, as in Great Dane. So, what’s yours?”
“Mario. As in … Mario Lanza.” They laughed. “So, Dane, anything interesting in the book you’re looking at?”
“It’s a strange fairy tale book.”
“In what way?”
“The illustrations. They’re animated. I’m not sure how.”
“May I?” Mario reached out.
Dane turned the book and pushed it toward Mario. “Here, better use these gloves. Morris insisted.”
Mario took the gloves. They were still warm from Dane’s hands.
“Why did you choose this book?” Mario noticed a slight movement in the illustration.
“It was in the window and caught my attention as I was passing. I came in and asked Morris if I could take a closer look.” Dane watched Mario’s reaction.
“This is an odd fairy tale. The illustration is of two young men standing in front of a priest.” Mario gave Dane a questioning look.
“They’re getting married to each other.”
Mario stared at Dane for a second, “You’re kidding?”
“No, I’m not kidding. Read the story.”
When Mario finished reading, he looked at Dane. “This book is ancient, I’m surprised such a story existed when it was manufactured. And you’re right about motion in the illustration. What’s your interest in this story?”
Dane looked at Mario, “I’m gay,” he paused, “Any objections?”
Mario sat back in his chair, “So that’s it. You lashed out at me because I’m a priest, and the Catholic Church is against gays and gay marriage. Am I right?”
“Well, yes.” Dane was not prepared for Mario’s openness.
“I hate being gay. You straights don’t understand the loneliness and the pain of being alone in a world that doesn’t want us. You have no idea what it’s like. I wonder if it’s worthwhile being alive. When I passed this shop earlier I saw the book in the window and the illustration of these two princes standing together, holding hands. I came in and read the story. For a moment, I felt a glimmer of hope for myself. Then you walked in and reality returned. I lashed out at you out of angst. I’m sorry. You seem like a good person.”
The private place deep within Mario’s soul exploded. This stranger had said everything he was feeling, and was unwilling to admit. He had to get out of there. He grabbed his books and left the building without saying a word.
Weeks passed, the drama inside The Olde Book Shoppe plagued Mario. Sleep eluded him. Dane was a soul in as much torment as he, and he did not know what to do about it. He could not concentrate, his homilies suffered. The muses that spoke to him when he wrote were silent. He was on his own, he did not know how to cope.
The trouble began at The Olde Book Shoppe. He would go back and find the answer. On his next free day, he took the early train into Chicago. Exiting the train station, he turned left on Jackson Boulevard and hurried across the canal bridge. When he reached the other side he stopped. The Olde Book Shoppe was not there. How could this be? He paced the spot where it should have been. The ladies apparel shop was across the street as he remembered it, so he had not mistaken the location. The Olde Book Shoppe was simply not there.
With no recourse, he continued down Jackson Boulevard to the Loop, wandering aimlessly, trying to understand what had happened.
When he stopped, he found himself standing in front of Krock’s and Brentano’s Bookstore on Washington. He did not care for new books. He preferred old, run down used book stores. There was something about the smell of old books, dust, and the predictability of finding a treasure in these long-forgotten collections. Holding a 100-year-old book, feeling its worn edges, reading notes and underscores by former owners, gave a rightness to its content. None of that would be available in this modern establishment.
He pushed the door open, walked in and was hit by the smell of new books, new paper, new printing. The well-arranged aisles with little name tags announcing what each one contained did not generate enthusiasm for Mario.
He browsed the aisles with no expectations — nothing impressed him until he walked through the self-help section. He stopped and stared at one shelf of new books. He did a double take on the spine of one book, A Parenthesis in Eternity by Joel S. Goldsmith. He swore the book lit up and jumped off of the shelf and into his hands. He perused its pages, pausing again, and again as passages jumped out at him, outlining the struggle this author endured in his quest for Truth.
He was shocked at what he was reading. He had never encountered such thinking before. The rightness of what he read was so compelling, he decided to purchase the book.
The clerk who rang up the sale of the book commented, “A good choice.”
“You’ve read the book?”
“Oh yes, most of them. An amazing writer. His spiritual guidance has made a profound difference in my life.”
Mario paid for the book, thanked the clerk and left the store. He knew he would be back for more of this author’s writings.
Walking along Jackson Boulevard toward the train station, he was taken aback when he saw The Olde Book Shoppe was there, exactly where he had looked earlier. Was he seeing things? He crossed the street and walked to the store front. It was real. The little bell above the door jingled as he entered.
Morris pulled the partition curtain aside, “Ah, Father Mario, I’m so glad to see you. I have a little surprise for you.” He turned and called into the back room. “Dane, Father Mario is here.”
“Dane is here?”
“Oh, yes, we’ve been having a little chat – about you,” Morris smiled at Mario.
Dane walked into the room, “Hello Father.”
“Dane, I don’t understand. What are you doing here?”
“You two have a great deal to talk about.” Morris turned and disappeared into the back room.
Mario looked at Dane, “I came by earlier and the bookshop wasn’t here – now it is. Do you know what’s going on?”
“No, I don’t. The same thing happened to me. I stood here like an idiot wondering what happened. I gave up and walked away. I glanced back when I reached the corner and it was there. I could not believe my eyes. Morris greeted me as I entered and invited me into the back room where we had an enlightening conversation.”
“About what?” Mario was confused.
“About you, and me, this place, and the old Fairy Tale book. Did you take a good look at the illustration in the fairy tale book?”
“I saw motion and the three-dimensional quality of the picture.”
“Take another look.” Dane walked to the table and turned the book for Mario. “Look at those two characters?”
Mario moved to the table and looked down at the cartoon. “Jesus,” came a whisper as he understood what Dane was saying. “They look like you and me.”
“And that’s not all. Morris knows all about you, your church, and the library. He explained why you left the bookshop without saying a word. I thought I had done something to offend you.”
“You didn’t, Dane.”
“I know. Morris set my mind at ease.” Dane smiled. “He thinks we should become friends.”
“According to this illustration, we are to become a lot more than friends.” Mario looked at Dane.
“Yeah, I know. I had the same reaction. Morris said the book only supports possibilities. The rest is up to us.”
“Well, that’s comforting to know.” Mario sighed. “Father, I …”
“Dane, will you please stop calling me father. It’s Mario.”
“Mario, I lied to you the other day, I do believe in God. I just don’t understand. Would you help me?”
Mario began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’m not laughing at you, Dane. Suddenly the whole picture is falling into place. It makes sense now. I would be happy to help you. I wonder . . . Morris, are you there?”
“Oh yes, I’ll be right with you.” Morris shuffled back into the room. “How may I help?”
“Morris, is this book for sale?”
“Oh no, but you may have it for your library collection if you like.”
“This book is worth a fortune.”
“Only to those who have a need for it. And your library is the perfect place for them to find it. It will bring a great deal of happiness. Here, let me give you the protective covering.” Morris picked up the fairy tale book and slipped it into its companion protective sleeve. “Here you are.” He handed it to Mario.
“What will you do without this book?
Morris smiled mischievously, “I have another one just like it.”
Dane laughed, “Yes, of course, why not. Thank you, Morris.”
“You are most welcomed. Now, you two run along. I’m sure you have much more to talk about.”
“We do and thank you … Mr. … ?”
“Liebemacher. Morris Liebemacher.”
Thank you, Morris Liebemacher. God bless you.” Mario touched Morris’ hand.
“Thank you, Father. He already has.”
As Mario and Dane left The Olde Book Shoppe, Morris smiled and rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. When they reached the corner, Dane asked Mario, “You wanna bet the shop is gone?” They turned around and laughed.
“What a blessed man,” Mario looked at the protective covering of the magic fairy tale book, then he looked at Dane. “Come on my friend. Let’s go. By the way, what’s your last name?”
“Yes, really. Want me to spell it?”
“No no, I got it. It’s very lofty. Dane Longstreet. So, Dane Longstreet, what do you do for fun?
“I look for available men in old bookshops?”
Mario laughed, “Is that so?”
“Not anymore you don’t. Hey, have you ever been to the Lola Palooza Soup and Sandwich Shop down on Lake Street?”
“No, I haven’t”
“Well, come on. I think they’re still open. You’re in for a treat. Claudette, the barista, is a friend of mine. You’ll like her.”
“More than I like you?” Dane’s spontaneous question brought Mario to a stop.
“I sure hope not.” They laughed and continued on their way.
The months passed into a year as their friendship grew into a relationship of love and respect for one another. Loneliness became a thing of the past.
Mario found a special place in his library for the old Fairy Tale book. As Morris predicted, only those in need seemed to find the book and the goodness it offered.
Dane’s spiritual understanding grew with the principles Mario explained to him. Mario’s homilies took on a spiritual quality and depth he had never experienced. His parishioners were delighted and told him so. Sunday attendance grew. Mario often considered how God had been trying to answer his prayer for help. Only, he had not been listening. He realized he was living a life that was expected of him rather than a life true to himself.
Dane’s support enhanced Mario’s effectiveness as a priest and guiding spiritual light to his parishioners, and to himself. One afternoon, almost two years after they had met, Dane looked at Mario, “I want more from our friendship, our relationship.”
“You do?” Mario smiled. “What did you have in mind?”
“Mario, I … I …”
Mario looked up, “What is it, Dane? Come on, out with it. We know each too well to be shy.”
“I love you, Mario, will you marry me?” Dane felt more vulnerable at that moment than ever before.
“Dane, you silly goose, of course, I’ll marry you. I thought you’d never ask.” Mario put down his pen and turned to Dane.
“I know the church and your parishioners will object. We can keep it a secret if we …”
“Wait a minute Dane. My life was a lie prior to meeting you. I won’t go there again.” Mario took Dane’s hand across the table. “I would have asked you a long time ago. I wasn’t sure how you felt about doing something like this.”
Dane’s humor took over, “How could you have been uncertain, I practically worship the ground you walk on.”
Mario laughed, “At first I thought you said the quicksand I walk on.” They laughed.
They agreed that announcing their union to Mario’s congregation should be withheld until the right moment. The ramifications on Mario’s career within the church were of concern. All possibilities were discussed and preparations for the worst were considered.
Six months passed before they set a date. Clare Patterson invited Mario to dinner on the Sunday planned for the announcement. Mario accepted the invitation with reluctance, not knowing what changes the announcement would bring to their lives.
The agreed upon Sunday dawned a bright and beautiful spring morning. New life was bursting from nature everywhere. Dane and Mario felt this was the perfect moment.
Before the service began, Mario requested the congregation stay a few moments after its conclusion. An audible murmur rose from the congregation. He had never done this before.
Mario completed the service with the usual benediction. Normally he would have moved to the exit door to greet his parishioners as they left the building. Today he remained in front of his congregation. The silence was deafening as they waited. Mario removed his mass vestments, including his rabat and collar, and laid them aside. He stood before his congregation in civilian attire. Whispers filled the chamber as the audience realized something of importance was about to come down.
“Over the last two years, many of you have come to know my friend, Dane Longstreet, whose support has made my responsibilities at St. Teresa’s much easier and more effective. Dane’s and my friendship has grown into a bond.”
Mike Andersen interrupted, “Come on Father. We know what’s going on. We’re not deaf, dumb, and blind.” Giggles and laughter erupted at Mike’s outspoken interruption. “Have the two of you finally gotten hitched?”
Mario laughed, “Yes Mike, we got hitched six months ago.”
“Well, thank God for that.” Mike sat down.
Clair Patterson stood. “Are you still coming to dinner this afternoon?”
“Yes, Clare. If you’ll have us.”
“Well shucks, Father. Where’s Dane?” Clare walked into the aisle and looked around.
Dane stood up, “I’m right here, Mrs. Patterson.”
“Dane, you sweet thing. Of course, you’re invited to dinner.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Patterson.”
Clare began to clap her hands. Everyone joined her until the rafters shook with applause. The parishioners came forward and surrounded Mario and Dane. Hugs, kisses, and handshakes were exchanged with the delighted parishioners.
Clare announced her dinner would be a potluck impromptu celebration for Father Mario and Dane in her back yard. Everyone was invited and had to bring food. She couldn’t feed the whole congregation. Concern for their future began to evaporate in the love flowing from their friends and fellow worshipers.
Clare and her husband were the last ones to leave the church, “And put your collar on. You look naked without it.” Clare laughed and kissed Mario on the cheek.
“I will Clare, gladly, and thank you.”
Mario’s Bishop and the deacons of St. Teresa circled their wagons as protection from the onslaught they expected from the Holy See. It never happened. Life went back to normal at St. Teresa’s. Dane took up residence in the rectory, enhancing his support of Mario’s work while he commuted to his place of employment in Chicago.
One Sunday afternoon, Dane and Mario paused over the magical Fairy Tale book, blessing the changes in fortune it brought to them and so many others.
Mario mused aloud, “This book is like the hand of God, ready to give what is needed.”
“With no questions asked,” Dane added along with a smile.
The library door flew open, “Where’s the book!” Mrs. Mueller shouted.
“She’s a little hard of hearing,” Mario whispered to Dane. “And what book might that be, Agnes?”
“You know which one I mean. Now, where is it? I have a bone to pick with the Almighty.” A tiny smile appeared on Mrs. Mueller’s gruff face.
“Right over here, Agnes.” Mario and Dane stepped aside. “Just open the book to any page and you’ll find the answer you’re looking for.”
“Áh, okay. You two beat it. I wants some privatation with the God.” Mario handed a pair of white cotton gloves to Mrs. Mueller as she walked past.
“Do I have to wear these things?” Agnes looked at the gloves with suspicion.
“Yes, Agnes, the Almighty would prefer it.” Dane and Mario smiled at one another as they left the library and quietly closed the door.
“Tarnation!” Agnes put on the gloves and opened the old magic Fairy Tale Book, laying it flat on the table.
Mario and Dane heard a sob coming from inside the library as they walked down the porch stairs. “Sounds like Agnes found her answer.”
Dane agreed, “It does indeed.”