Short Stories

Grail Quest

By Joseph Lisowski - Richmond, Virginia, USA - 3 December 2016



"I really can't bring another one home.  My wife will divorce me," Matt Petrovic pleaded more with himself than with Amy who stood before him, cradling a crying new born in her arms. 


The baby had been abandoned and found on the steps of a church that cold December afternoon.  The police brought it to the CWC (Catholics Who Care) Agency that provided emergency and short term care for abandoned or abused children.


"Of course, Matt.  I wasn't even thinking such a thing," Amy said as she placed the baby now over her shoulder and rubbed its back.  "It's just that we have no one left on our list.  Not one family.  Not one individual that doesn't already have a placement.  It was my mistake in mentioning it to you.  You've done more than any other of our volunteers.  And no, I will not give you this baby even if you ask for it.  Go on home.  And thanks for stopping by.  I'm glad that Latisha and Rory are doing fine.  Rory should be going back to his mother at the end of the week.  She's out of de-tox and the therapy is going well.  Or so we're told.  Now, go on, get out of here."


Matt studied the determined look on Amy's face.  He sighed and then left, not understanding how Amy, an attractive, intelligent woman, could stand the continuous misery of seeing, caring for, and helping the city's most abused and tortured children without the strain showing on her face.  If Matt were in her shoes, he would have had a nervous collapse long ago.  As it was, the two children that he and his wife Rose had taken in were more than he could handle.  And he was at work all day.


Latisha, a three year old, came to the Petrovics two months ago, shortly after Matt and Rose had undergone the four part training session at CWC.  They responded to a plea heard at their parish church for volunteer parents.  Actually, it was more of Rose's idea than Matt's.  They had been unable to have children, and their marital life, satisfying if not happy, was not quite complete without children, or so Rose believed.  Latisha had been brought directly from the hospital where she underwent emergency medical care for a severe burn of her eyes to the Petrovic household by Amy Washburn, director of CWC Agency.  The child's mother, claiming it was an accident, had blinded the girl with a hot clothes iron.  It was the third time the child had been to hospital emergency.


The Petrovics no longer had to dress the child's wound but she was, indeed, permanently blind.  Although Latisha now crawled short distances and spoke occasionally, it was clear that she was still in a depressed condition.  Matt had difficulty looking at her without feeling great anger at her mother.  He rarely voiced this powerful emotion.  It seethed inside him, and he felt all the more helpless.


Rory, on the other hand, was a very active child who came to them three weeks earlier.  A neighbor had found the five-year-old about to break his fourth apartment window. After repeatedly knocking without answer, the neighbor put a shoulder to the door and broke the lock free.  Rory's mother lay on the floor in a drug and alcohol induced coma and the boy had been throwing wine bottles through the glass, presumably trying to get out.  Fortunately, he didn't try leaving by the fourth floor window.  Rose, an elementary school teacher on summer vacation, had tried with only marginal success to teach him numbers and some words.  The boy's attention span was quite short but he apparently enjoyed playing catch or tag with Matt whenever he got home from work. 


"I stopped by the Agency during lunch," Matt said, "and Jeez, Amy has another one she can't place."


"Matt, Matt!  Catch!" Rory shouted as he pitched a rubber ball off Matt's shin.


"Rory, not in the house," Rose said firmly.  "Matt will take you out back soon."  Turning to her husband, she gave him a kiss on the cheek.


"And another thing," he said, "Rory will be gone in a few days.  His mother's out of detox and doing fine, or so Amy says."


That night, once again, Matt had difficulty sleeping.  After lying in bed listening to the quiet of the house and Rose's rhythmic breathing, he got up and went into the children's room.  They, too, were asleep.  He put his ear next to each one's mouth.  The sleep of angels, he thought. 


Later, he sat in the darkness of the living room with a glass of warm milk.  Actually, the room was partially illuminated by a beam from the streetlight which fell across the floor in a thick band.  He couldn't quite conceive of the pain of these children's childhood.  His apparently was so innocuous that he remembered very little of it.  His mother's smile was always there.  His father's robust laughter was something he could always depend upon.  Whenever he would visit one of his playmate's houses, he'd be aware of something disturbing but paid it no mind.  And he thought about the Jesus that the nuns at school talked about.  They made him sound so right.  Their faces would light up.  And then the pastor in his dark robe would visit the children.  He thought about first being an altar boy, somehow feeling close to the mystery of it all. 


The milk he finished made him not the slightest bit sleepy.  He got a snifter of brandy and remembered his last day in the seminary.


"My son," the rector said, "the priestly life is not for everyone, but everyone is called to God's service.  You will serve God best, I'm sure, in the laity.  Your faith is deep.  Remember, you are called to do God's will.


"Your advisor and I agree to your request.  But you must realize, a year's leave of absence for some is not enough time to make a commitment.  You are now free from any religious obligation to the order.  Some time in the future, however, you may decide that you are ready.  When you do, please contact me or my successor.  Matthew, Godspeed to you."  The rector extended his hand.


"Thank you, Father, for understanding," Matt replied, shaking the old priest's hand, who then hugged him.


"Go with God, my son.  Go with God."


That was more than twenty years ago, Matt thought, and more than once he wished that he had not left.  Even now, as he thought of his wife sleeping and the abandoned children in his care, he longed for something that he didn't have.  He swirled the brandy in front of him and thought of the wine in the chalice the priest would consecrate into the blood of Christ.  It was something he would never be able to do.  He drank the strong liquor and felt its heat.


"Just another dream gone," he said aloud, sighed and walked to the kitchen where he spilled out what remained in the glass and washed it.  Then he trudged back up to bed.


On the following Monday, Amy Washburn came to collect Rory.


"Thank you, so much.  You've made a big difference," she said.  "God knows what would have happened to this little tyke without your care."


"So what's going to happen now.  The kid goes back to his mother and a month later he's back at the Agency," Matt uttered with unaccustomed bitterness. 


"Matthew, how could you!" Rose exclaimed, shocked by Matt's response.  "We've done as much as we could.  The rest is out of our hands.  You know that.  The rest is up to God."


"Yes, you're right," he recanted but thought that God doesn't do a damn thing.  If fact, it seems like he does damned things like creating someone like Rory's mother or worse yet, someone like Latisha's mother. 


After Amy left, he went out for a walk, hoping some fresh air would give him a different perspective.  It was almost dusk when he turned the corner of 44th street, two miles away from his home, and faced Holy Family Church, the parish where he once was an altar boy.  Perhaps he had intended to go there all along. 


He tried the front doors, which were locked.  It had been years since church doors were left open so the lonely, the desperate, the suffering could seek solace in private prayer, if they so desired.  He went to the side entrance and that, too, was closed. 


"Aw, Christ, you too," he mumbled as he walked back out into the street.


Two young boys about fifteen or sixteen years old approached him.  They had a hard, but scrubbed look about them.  Both were fair and thin.


"Hey, mister," one of them said as he reached into his pocket.  "Can you stop in Wimpy's and buy us a couple of quarts of beer?"


Matt glared at them.


"You know," the other one added, "the bar up there."  Matt still didn't answer.  "Come on, man," the boy said to his friend, "this old bum is weird.  Let's get out of here." The other boy laughed.  Matt stared after them and remembered a time when he was their age.


Almost on the exact spot where he stood, he and his friend Billy approached a drunk.


"Hey, mister," he had said, "we're looking for the Holy Grail.  Have you seen it?"


"Yeah, it's about yo big," Billy quickly added, "holds wine that becomes blood, you know."


The drunk began cursing them and they could still hear him as they, laughing, turned the corner. 


So, it's come to this, Matt thought, and he looked at his old, garden stained clothes and then his dirty hands.  Being taken for a bum and a drunk, he shook his head hoping to lose those thoughts, and a short, bitter laugh escaped from his lungs. 


He started his long walk home.  When he got to Allegheny Cemetery, the streetlights came on.  No, he told himself, don't think about that.  You do the best you can.  It’s God’s plan, right?