by William Cass
Embossed in gold on the cover of the new bible in his lap: “Father Paul Sullivan”. He ran a thumb across the raised letters and still couldn’t quite believe that had been his name now for the nearly seven hours since his ordination. After the ceremony, his grandmother had given him the bible at the bus station before he’d departed, as his mother had the heavy turtleneck sweater and scarf she’d knit for him and then adjusted under his chin against the cold. They’d both wept with happiness before kissing him goodbye. His father had kept his own tears at bay after handing him the rosary he’d owned since childhood, but his embrace had been prolonged.
Father Paul had departed on an express at noon that took I-94 out of Detroit. He ate his mother’s sack lunch right away, and then his eyelids grew heavy. He hadn’t slept much the night before, whether from excitement or anxiousness he wasn’t sure, and fell into deep slumber just after they passed through Ann Arbor. He awoke in the late afternoon near Gary, then had time to grab a burger at Union Station in Chicago before transferring to the non-direct whose final destination was Lincoln, Nebraska.
The second bus traveled initially on Route 6, a mostly two-lane serving small towns along that east-west corridor. From his mid-span seat, Father Paul looked out his window at fallow corn fields and early-spring patches of snow holding on grudgingly under the occasional
stand of cottonwoods or sycamores. Telephone lines at the back of the fields seemed to nod in a lolling rhythm as they stretched off into the distance. He supposed the countryside of his new parish near the southern border of Nebraska and Iowa would look much the same. A single-wide serving as rectory awaited him there along with a small, clapboard church and an old, donated pick-up for his use – a “perk”, the bishop had termed it – in that lone-priest parish encompassing forty square miles of farmland he’d yet to see.
There were only fifteen or so passengers on the bus. A large, elderly woman got on at Wyanet and lowered her girth onto a seat a few rows in front of him. A pair of soldiers in camo boarded in Atkinson and clambered back to the rear row where they could stretch their legs into the aisle. Except for the quiet rumble of the engine, the bus was all but silent. Father Paul fingered his father’s rosary in the pocket of his black trousers and frowned over the confluence of circumstances that had brought him to this moment. He was twenty-six years old and had entered the seminary during high school largely, he’d grown to realize, to please his mother who was going through cancer treatments at the time. She’d been overjoyed, as had his father and grandmother; they comprised his entire family and were all devout. He acknowledged it was their ongoing pride in the course he’d chosen, especially after his mother’s eventual remission, that kept him on that path. Over the years, in the dark stillness of many late nights, he struggled with whether he’d ever actually experienced a true calling.
Father Paul zipped the bible into the duffel bag at his feet. Outside, scattered low clouds blanketed a sepia twilight. The chill breeze dipped the tops of trees and tossed an occasional bird in flight. A long freight train passed slowly out on tracks that paralleled the road. The gloaming crept on, and his reflection gradually appeared in the window glass. He regarded its stark image until Davenport where it blinked away as they pulled into the bus station’s brightly lit loading platform, and an exchange of drivers took place.
A pretty, young woman carrying a canvas satchel followed the new driver onto the idling bus. She said something to the driver as he buckled himself into his raised seat, he nodded, and Father Paul heard him say, “No problem.” The young woman’s eyes scanned the bus’s interior. When they met Father Paul’s, they held, a tiny smile creased her lips, and he felt something clench inside him. She tucked a strand of brown hair behind an ear, dropped her doe-like eyes, and settled into the aisle seat directly behind the driver, placing her satchel on the empty space next to her. From where he sat, Father Paul could see her slender side and her hands folded at the waist of her overcoat. He swallowed. The bus eventually merged south onto US-61, while he struggled not to look her way. Instead, he regarded his own hands and tried to concentrate, as he did whenever troubled or disconcerted, on the lives of the saints. In seventh grade, he’d read every biography of them his Catholic school library carried. St. Francis with his animals. Padre Pio’s piety and charity. St. Agnes, protector of young girls and chastity. St. Sebastian’s soldiers, and his own patron saint’s letters that he would soon read from on the altar. Despite his efforts, he found himself stealing glances at the young woman with increasing frequency.
The bus rumbled on through the rural countryside, near-black now outside the window save for a thin cuticle of moon. A few ceiling reading lamps dotted the interior, but many of the passengers seemed to be dozing. Every now and then, someone coughed or cleared their throat, took something down from an overhead rack, or adjusted a seat. But largely, it remained quiet.
The young woman turned once, looked back at Father Paul, then quickly resumed her gaze towards the wide windshield where two long headlights pierced the dark. A tingle moved up through the bottoms of his feet.
In roughly twenty-minute intervals, the bus passed through Masculine and Wapello, dropped a passenger in Burlington, then got on US-34 W. A little after ten, on the outskirts of Mt. Pleasant, the driver pulled off the road and into the scarred lot of a kind of roadhouse. He parked, turned off the engine, stood facing the passengers, and clapped his hands twice.
“Folks,” he said in a loud voice. “This here will be the last stop until morning where you can get off for grub or something to drink.” He pointed. “Ticket window and diner on that side of the building are closed, but the bar portion has hot dogs, snacks, what-not.” He lifted his wrist and regarded his watch. “We only got fifteen minutes, so best get a move on.”
Perhaps half the passengers followed him off the bus, the young woman leading the way and Father Paul at the rear of the group. He entered the honky-tonk’s swinging doors in time to see the young woman and a couple other passengers go into the restroom hallway at its rear, and he joined a line with the others in front of the bartender. It was Saturday night, and the small space was packed tight, its stools and handful of tables all occupied. There was a steady din of voices, and several couples danced in front of a jukebox playing country music in the corner. Father Paul had been in only a few bars in his lifetime, and never one like that.
The line inched forward until he was at the front. He ordered a ginger ale, then saw the young woman approaching from the restrooms, worming her way through the crowd. She assumed the position behind him, and he sucked in his breath.
“Shit,” she said. “Shit, shit, shit.”
He turned around, saw her patting the pockets of her overcoat, and said, “Excuse me.”
She looked up at him. The young woman’s skin was the color of cashews, her eyes the same brown as her hair. She said, “I left my wallet on the bus.”
“What would you like?”
She cocked her head, and the same tiny smile as earlier crept across her lips. “I’d take a beer.” She paused. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
The bartender brought over his ginger ale. Father Paul ordered a draft beer and put down money while the bartender poured it. He and the young woman moved a step to the side so the line could advance. The bartender extended the full glass their way, and the young woman took it.
She looked at Father Paul with those eyes, sipped, and said, “Thank you.”
He made himself nod.
Her eyes traveled around the room until they settled on his again. She asked, “Where you coming from?”
“Davenport.” She took another sip. “Been to visit my mother. She’s in a nursing home. I come every couple of weeks, but it’s never enough for her.” She gave a little huff. “Mothers, you know.”
He nodded. “I do, yeah.”
“Where you headed?”
He took an unsteady sip from his own glass, then said, “Dunbar, Nebraska. Moving there.”
Her eyes widened, and she clapped her free hand to her chest. “Good Lord, no. I live in Dunbar. It’s in the godforsaken middle of nowhere.”
At an utter loss, he shrugged. Already, it was longer than he’d ever spoken to a woman his age. The tingle in his feet had moved up into his ankles. She extended her beer, he clinked it, and they both set their glasses on coasters the bartender had slid in front of them. The music on the jukebox changed. Father Paul recognized Willie Nelson’s voice: a slow ballad.
The woman closed her eyes briefly, and her next smile was fuller. She said, “I love this song.”
The bus driver’s voice shouted from near the swinging doors announcing their departure in five minutes, and the crowd grew tighter around them. The young woman was pushed behind Father Paul, and a moment later, he felt her hands slip into his trouser pockets. He stiffened. She lay her head against the top of his back and began to sway with the music. Very faintly, he could feel and hear her humming along with it. The scent of lavender came from her hair. His eyes blinked rapidly in his mirrored image behind the bar, and he kept both of his hands flat on the bar. Ever so slightly, the young woman’s right fingertips began moving below his hip short of the rosary beads, and Father Paul went completely rigid.
The bus blew its horn three times, passengers began moving towards the bar’s doors, and as suddenly as they’d entered, the young woman’s hands left his pockets. In the mirror, he saw her join the retreating travelers. He remained where he was, staring at his startled reflection,
waiting for his breathing and heart to slow. When the bus gave two more urgent horn blasts, he finally pushed his way through the crowd, and trotted out to it.
As he boarded, he kept his gaze down but could see that the young woman had freed up the seat next to her, moving with her satchel to the one on the inside. Father Paul walked quickly to his own seat, took the rosary from his pocket, and began praying. He recited the rote words faintly and without concentration, training his eyes on the rosary’s dim shape draped over his thigh as he moved from one wooden bead to the next.
The bus moved on through the silent, empty fields. By the time they reached Fairfield, Father Paul had finished all five decades, then started over again with the Apostle’s Creed. Eventually, the last overhead reading light blinked off and the interior of the bus fell into complete darkness. He could barely see the rosary beads as he mumbled over them. Nearby, someone snored softly. The elderly woman in front of him huffed dreamily and shifted her weight.
The driver must have turned up the heater because it grew warmer. When Father Paul took off his scarf, dragging it across his face, he could smell the young woman’s hair on it, and he dropped it onto his lap. The tingle in his feet intensified, and he stopped praying. He shook his head, closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he looked for her and could just make out the back of her head and tops of her shoulders in the soft glow of the driver’s dashboard panel. They were held very still, it seemed to him, with intention. Father Paul didn’t fight the memories of the way her fingertips felt below his hip or the sound of her humming or the way her doe-like eyes widened when he’d told her he was heading to Dunbar. He didn’t chase those thoughts away, even though he knew he should. Every now and then, a vehicle passed them going in the other direction on that long, desolate ribbon of road.
No one stirred when a lone passenger got off the bus after midnight in Russell, nor when it took on a new one a couple hours later in Corning. The young woman’s head had gradually tilted against her window by then, too, and he watched the slow, even rise and fall of her shoulders in slumber. He tried to sleep himself, to clear his mind again with the lives of the saints, but finally gave up altogether around four after they left the town of Shenandoah and got on Route 2. Occasionally, he could steer his thoughts to his family – his grandmother’s wrinkled face, his mother’s clicking knitting needles, the smell of sawdust in his father’s workshop – but not often. He mostly just sat and watched the young woman as she slept.
They crossed over the Missouri River and into Nebraska a little before five. A handful of passengers got off and on in the larger town of Nebraska City, but no one else on the bus awoke. Sometime overnight, without Father Paul noticing, the horizon had claimed the moon’s sliver. They continued on as the faintest of pale hues began to emerge over the turned-under fields to the east. On that side of the bus, he could just make out telephone lines again off in the fields and the occasional stand of trees or farmhouse set back from the road.
Perhaps another half-hour passed before the bus eased onto the road’s shoulder in front of a long gravel drive. The driver turned in his seat and gently shook the young woman’s shoulder. She jerked awake, rubbed her eyes, glanced out at the drive, and nodded. The driver clapped the bus doors open. The young woman stood clutching the satchel and thanked him. Father Paul
heard him tell her he’d see her in a couple of weeks, then she nodded again, and descended the steps without looking back. The doors clapped shut behind her.
The driver took a handkerchief from his pants pocket and blew his nose. As he did, Father Paul watched the young woman start up the drive. A small farmhouse and adjacent barn sat at the end of it perhaps fifty yards away with what looked like a kitchen window lit yellow against the inky dawn. A young man emerged from the barn’s opening, his arm extended under the weight of a milking pail, his face in silhouette from the window’s light, his breath in short vapor clouds. He wore a cap with its bill creased crooked, tall black boots, and overalls under a padded denim jacket. He stopped when he saw her; she did, too, and her shoulders seemed to fall. The young man set down the pail, pushed his cap back, and raised a hand to her. She returned an abbreviated form of the gesture and continued more slowly up the drive. A pair of blackbirds flew over her towards the barn and the endless fields behind.
The driver eased the bus back onto the empty road. It gathered speed, and Father Paul turned in his seat to watch the young woman but could only see her take another step or two before she disappeared from his view. He faced forward again and looked down at the scarf in his lap, folded it twice, then refolded it, and smoothed it with his palm. He blew out a long breath. The town of Dunbar itself, he thought, must soon be approaching. He wondered if he would be expected to say Sunday Mass later that morning. He couldn’t remember if a parishioner was going to meet him in greeting when he arrived. It was awfully early for someone to do that. He’d been told the church was located at the end of the main street and that all the keys were under the trailer’s front mat.
He whispered to himself, “I can find my way.” Then he shook his head at that turn of phrase. “I hope so, at least. God help me if I can’t.”
William Cass has had over 300 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. A nominee for both Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net anthologies, he has also received five Pushcart Prize nominations. His first short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was published by Wising Up Press in 2020, and a second collection, Uncommon & Other Stories, was recently released by the same press. He lives in San Diego, California.