John-Ivan Palmer

Kissing in Church

     Clair said she would meet him in the last pew of the dim, hushed interior of St. Stanislaus Church in South Milwaukee. She never asked to see his photo.

     He entered the church wearing a photo vest crammed with lenses and attachments. Cameras and cases dangled loosely from his neck. He assumed it was her since she hadn’t provided a picture either. When he presented himself like a little marionette wobbling across a stage, she turned her roundish face and gave him a look, not of disappointment, or even assessment, but of radiance. She wore a low-hemmed dress of plain teal fabric, gray hair pulled back into a bun, and rimless glasses resting on a small nose. They said nothing at first, just sat side by side, two spirits encumbered by a physical self in cavernous silence.

     Latimer Sands made it his role in life to give people what they want. It began when he joined the staff of his high school paper, The Echo. No one wanted much to do with a funny-looking short kid who ran like a goose, but as a reporter, he gained a few tentative allies among the more popular students he wrote about. His real confidantes were girls with malicious nicknames like “High Bones” and “Carp.” Because he mentioned them in The Echo for their backstage role in a school play or entering a spelling bee, these kindred untouchables felt they could get away with passing him a note, back when girls actually wrote notes in longhand. For them, a sheet of paper was a safer venue than the locker-lined corridors of social rejection. After easily gaining his friendship, they invited themselves along on his Echo assignments at science fairs and hay rides.

     His eventual degree in photojournalism gained him no employment. The only way he could eke out a living with his pen and lens was as a freelancer, loading commercial wordage in one place and dumping it in another. The publications that eventually carried his byline, like Event Marketing Journal, Polymer Substrate News, Feed Lot Operator, were mostly advertising media for racks and end tables in offices and waiting rooms. Except for a glance here and there to kill time, no one read them. The only time a supposed “reader” ever contacted him was to buy the print of an image that appeared in one of his pieces so they could use it in their own advertising.

     While working on a photo shoot for Heroes of the Hoop, One Hundred Years of Wisconsin Basketball, he managed to sell a spin-off image to the online Catholic News Service for the equivalent of a light lunch. It showed a small high school building of the 1921 tournament champs that was recently recycled into a convent for the Second Order of St. Francis, an isolated cloister modeled on the Norbertine Sisters in California, dedicated to holiness and training service dogs. After the photo appeared, a woman named Claire Ostrowsky e-mailed him saying she formerly belonged to that order and wanted to know if they still trained hearing dogs for the deaf. Seeing an opportunity for another article, he wrote her back, saying he didn’t have an answer to her question, but he had some questions of his own. Soon they were exchanging e-mails on a regular basis. She said that teaching dogs obedience not only disciplined one’s own soul in the implicit light of eternity but gave the dogs monastic qualities of their own. That is, the ones capable of such. 

I came from an unhappy home like many of the dogs we rescued. Some of them we couldn’t train beyond the basic commands. They could never be service animals, but they made good pets. Those were the ones I identified with.

     She went on to say that the patience it required to train them brought her, as St. Teresa of Ávilla described it, “to ever deeper chambers of the soul’s castle.”

For me, prayer is ritualized thought, which doesn’t have to be about God. It can be in the form of training obedience to an animal. When I write to you, Latimer, I’m praying. When I read your letters, I’m praying. Maybe someday you and I might pray together and it doesn’t have to be to God.

     What better place could there be, she suggested, than an empty church for two people to meet and share their divinity? Latimer wrote that he understood, as he always did, just like he understood Carp and High Bones, why polymer substrates were the future of roofing, why the banquet room head table was obsolete, and the reason why bloating was a problem in feedlot cattle. 

So there they sat together.

     With a rustle from her voluminous dress, stirring up the scent of clean fabric and the slightest hint of feminine warmth, she leaned toward him and said in a well-practiced whisper, “The altar at St. Adalbert’s is the most spectacular gold. Have you ever seen it? We should go there sometime.”

     A few minutes later she leaned over again and asked, “What are you writing down?”

     He turned to the next page of his memo book so she couldn’t see what he’d written, and scrawled across the top, “Prayers.”

     She smiled like she understood.

     He was keeping something from her. Instead of saying what it was, he entertained the thought of simply getting up and leaving, but such an act was against his nature. Even if he did get up and leave, it might not be the end. Finalities are never certain, not even the finality of death. He knew from the interviews he did for Journal of Palliative Nursing (for which he was paid almost nothing) that people die and come back to life all the time. So, they left St. Stanislaus together for coffee at a nearby café.

     Even a short nebbish like Latimer Sands could have his attractive qualities. As an understanding stranger asking nosey questions then patiently listening, he attracted certain women on the outer edge of their reproductive years. It helped that he was no Casanova. When they realized how harmless he was, they made invitations. Lunch. Coffee. Events. He accepted all of them. What was more remarkable than it happening at all, was the frequency with which it happened.

     There was the Wal-Mart clerk in Madison whose daughter was the amputee cheerleader he wrote about for Challenge Today. She let him sleep in her spare bedroom as long as he didn’t get any ideas, which he did not. While shooting photos for The Armstrong Sausage Book, he met a public relations manager at a packing plant. He was intimate only with her couch. There were others in other towns. Many others in many other towns: Cedarburg, Delafield, Pleasant Prairie, Kohler, Keewaukee, Clyman, Muskego, Burlington. They exchanged text messages and e-mails, and whenever he was in the area, they invited him to visit. Instead of their bodies, they gave him cakes, pies, and cookies, more than he could possibly eat.

     Physically, these relationships fell somewhere between abstinence and limited consent, mostly the former. In Racine, while doing a piece on forklift safety, he met a divorced psychic who invited him over for a blender of margaritas, then suggested a movie with no particular one in mind. They arrived halfway through the feature, then she insisted they leave without seeing the ending. “I never watch movies all the way through because I always know what’s going to happen.” In the parking ramp stairwell, she threw her arms around him, then pushed him against the wall and pumped her hips rabbit-like into his.

     “Did you know I was going to do that?”

     “No, I didn’t.”

     “I did. It doesn’t necessarily mean I want to have sex with you.”

     He understood. Just like he understood the widow in Bonduel, who was part of a photo feature for Woman Entrepreneur. She trusted him enough to invite him into her bed on a non-sexual basis. She was still devoted to her departed husband but missed a man’s warm body sleeping next to her. In the middle of the night, he felt her foot creep over and barely touch his leg, which became the extent of their intimate contact.

     All this was unknown to Claire as they expanded their meeting places to include old neighborhood bars near the churches they visited. At one of these bars, not far from St. Adalbert’s, she drank her usual red wine because it reminded her of communion. Since she considered it the blood of Christ, in a manner of speaking, she saw no reason to hold back. Latimer downed a few glasses of Christ’s blood himself.

     “I don’t know what your romantic life has been like,” she said. “But for me, I’ve only kissed someone twice. When I was in ninth grade I went ice-skating with a Catholic Youth Organization group. Without taking our skates off this boy led me through deep snow into some trees and put his arms around me. I remember he spit out his gum and it landed in the snow making a hole. While I was looking at it he put his lips on the side of my mouth. I pulled away and trudged on my skates through the snow back to the ice rink. The other time was after I left the convent. I was with a travel agent who organized Catholic cruise vacations. We took walks together in Mitchell Park and one day when it was raining we ducked under the pavilion. He put his lips on mine for about two seconds before I turned away. When I see people kissing in a movie it seems like something only other people do. Does that make any sense?”

     It made perfect sense to Latimer. But what didn’t?

     After one more wine, they went to see the famous gold altar. As they sat in silence, he pondered how much he might get for a photo feature on liturgical flower arrangements for the nursery market. He shot a couple of frames and made a note in his memo book. They prayed together, not necessarily to God, then got up to leave. On the way out they stopped in the narthex and faced each other. She beamed a rapturous smile.

     It would be difficult to say what Claire Ostrowski’s chances were of ever finding someone to share her soul’s innermost chamber in the hallowed immensity of an empty church, but until something better should come along, she had Latimer Sands.

***

John-Ivan Palmer’s literary work has been widely anthologized in the US, Britain, and Japan. He is the author of the novel, Motels of Burning Madness and has been awarded the Pushcart Prize for fiction. He has recently appeared in Fortean Times, Exquisite Corpse, Nth Position, Shooter Magazine, Vector, Whistling Shade and Guide of Kulchur Creative Journal. The Israeli magazine, Ilanot Review nominated his memoir, “The Forgotten One,” for the Best on the Net Award for 2017.

A Literary Magazine

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