By T.R. Healy

The blue Chrysler slowed down in front of the sloped driveway, and Jess Rudyard hurried across the lawn and crawled into the back seat beside Kevin, who was clawing an electric razor across his dimpled chin.  He greeted everyone, perfunctorily, searching for some place among the papers and bottles on the floor to set his long legs.  He was the last one in the car pool to be picked up when Silas drove and he paid the price, but with Max he was the first, able to sit in the front with plenty of leg room.

“By the way,” Kevin said, pulling out of his briefcase a small package wrapped in silver paper, “Kate said I should give you this.”  He handed the package to Jess.  Max turned around, inquisitively, and Silas looked up in the rearview mirror.

“What is it?” Jess asked, surprised.

“Open it up and find out.”

Eagerly he tore the wrapping to shreds and found a can of foot powder.  “Just what I need.”

Kevin laughed then handed a similar package to Max to give to Silas.  “Sorry,” he said to Max.  “No gifts for those who refuse to see the light.”  He laughed again, louder.

Max smiled.  “Thanks, but I can wash my own feet.”

The others, active members of the same church, were selected to be apostles on Maundy Thursday, which, as part of the service, required them to have their feet washed on the altar by Monsignor Greer.  Both Silas and Kevin had been apostles in the past, but this would be the first time for Jess, who had moved into the parish less than eight months ago.  Silas and Kevin, conspiring behind his back, had volunteered his services as one of the twelve, which he wished now he had refused.  Time and again, he found himself in some corner, having to do something he had no wish to do, yet, foolishly, he complied, pulling on another mask.  He was always making himself up, assuming strange attitudes and postures, to accommodate others, and, he supposed, Thursday would be no different.  He had grown accustomed to being told what to do, forever the pupil, probably because of his cautious father who impressed on him the wisdom of following the example of others, believing it wise to do only what had already been done.

“Some advice,” Silas said to Jess in a serious tone of voice.  “Be sure and trim your toenails.  Last year, one of the celebrants snagged his thumb on a nasty hangnail of Brian Sheed’s.”

“That could have been very toxic,” Kevin cracked, “considering all the beer he drinks.”

They laughed heartily, their shoulders shaking.  Jess kept his silence, wishing he had never agreed to participate in such nonsense, while Kevin went on to detail all the attention he gave to his feet the first time he was selected to be an apostle, wanting them to appear as clean and polished as a new pair of shoes.

Silas glanced around.  “Now you know why he often has his foot in his mouth.  He’s keeping it clean.”

They circled the turnaround, passed the church, and proceeded toward the stone gates that marked the main entrance to the neighborhood.  Within a block of the gates, Silas reduced his speed and all of them glanced down the narrow street on their right, craning their necks, as they crawled through the intersection.  The object of their attention was the yellow house in the middle of the block and the rusted camper in the driveway.

“It’s probably a pupil of hers,” Silas said, referring to the piano teacher who lived in the house.

“She must really like this one,” Max observed.

“She’d like a leper if he rang her doorbell,” Silas snarled.

Through the gates, they continued toward the river, down the increasingly busy thoroughfare, sharing their surprise about the camper being in the driveway three mornings in a row.  Seldom, since they began riding together, some six months ago, had they noticed the same vehicle parked in her driveway for more than two mornings.  None of them knew the piano teacher, although Silas suspected someone at his lodge might; he thought he recognized the guy’s car, a black Impala, in her driveway one morning.

A slight woman with tangled hair touched Jess on the thigh and asked the time.  He looked at his watch.  “Twelve minutes after seven.”

“It’s always twelve minutes after something.”

“Somewhere.”

Coyly she traced a finger along the lapel of her silk blouse, revealing a glimpse of her left breast.  “You look familiar.”

He regarded her a minute.  “Rome?”

“Never.”

“Cabo San Lucas, last summer?”

She shook her head.

Jess smiled at the slight woman who was his wife, Alma.  They were waiting in a pale hospital lounge for their friends, the Stengels, who had invited them to accompany them on a tour of the maternity ward.  Sometimes, for no reason, they pretended to be strangers meeting one another for the first time, and casually introduced themselves, sometimes making up imaginary identities.  More and more, it seemed, they were playing the charade, gradually becoming more intimate in their pretenses than they were as husband and wife.  After the Stengels arrived, they went upstairs to the maternity ward, where the nursing supervisor conducted them and half a dozen other couples around the area.  Everyone, but Jess and Alma, were prospective parents who had been encouraged by their obstetricians to visit the ward, so they would be more at ease when they came to deliver their babies.  For Jess and Alma, however, it was another night out; they often spent several nights out during the week, as Alma, dreading sitting in front of the television as Jess was inclined to do, always tried to arrange somewhere to go in the evening.  Indeed, if he didn’t know better, he might have suspected she had arranged for him to be an apostle.

When they got home he handed Alma the house key and walked down to the corner to mail a letter.  He moved slowly, deliberately, breathing deeply.  All the talk tonight of having children had depressed him.  He needed to get away for a while, to stretch his legs, and walked past the mailbox and crossed the street.  Sometimes, at home, he felt as if a heavy curtain had collapsed over him so that he could scarcely move, then all he wanted to do was leave.

It was a clear, crisp night with a slight breeze.  He turned up the collar of his jacket and drew the lapels together.  Across the dark blue sky, a panther stretched its massive limbs and slowly swallowed the moon.  He passed the Swallows, beginning the short climb up the hill, passed the Sheeds and Blums.  Through their large front window he watched Meg Blum wind away from her husband, in a slow turn, then swirl under his arm as he led her around the room.  They slid past one another, randomly, like leaves in the street.  A trike belonging to one of their daughters lay on its side, blocking the sidewalk.  He stepped over it and, for a moment, imagined he was stepping into his future, surrounded by the glare of television screens, toys on the lawn, couples dancing in their windows.  Soon, he knew, he would be just like them, and the thought startled him, causing his right shoulder to twitch.  Certainly many of his neighbors were very fine people, with qualities he wished he possessed, but he wanted to be different in some way, not just another forgettable member of the community.  He suspected the brief stint he spent in the seminary after high school was not out of any deep conviction to become a priest, so much as it was to do something different from his friends, to set himself apart by going in another direction.

At the end of the climb he stopped and drew a long, slow breath.  Ahead of him, in the distance, stood the stone gates.  He was surprised, not realizing he had walked that far.  He crossed the street then, as he did every morning on his way to work, he glanced over at the yellow house on his right.  It was too dark to make out the driveway so he turned and started down the street, squinting.  He was practically in front of the house before he spotted the red Fairlane in her driveway, just like the one, he thought, owned by Calvin Hanratty, an usher at the eleven o’clock Sunday service.  Then, before he realized what he was doing, he found himself on her porch peering in the window.

It was dark, all he could see was his own reflection, so he crept along to a lighted window on the side of the house.  There, he found a small, olive room where a television shone that no one was watching.  He continued along, from window to window, looking for another light, when he heard voices from somewhere inside the house.  He began to go around then, all of a sudden, a light came on in the house next door and a heavy woman in a quilted robe drifted past a window, carrying a basket of laundry in her arms.  He leaned back, retrieving his breath, and waited until she was gone.  Then her porch light came on, the door scraped open, she was coming out, he realized, and, instantly, he streaked down the driveway, clipping his hand against the side of the car.  Somewhere a dog barked, furiously.  He ran as hard as he could, feeling ridiculous, wondering what the neighbors would think if they could see him running across their immaculate lawns.

Silas swerved through the turnaround too sharply, causing his passengers to slide toward him, grumbling.  Kevin pretended to open the door as if to walk to work, and Silas, laughing, eased to a crawl as they approached the stone gates.

“I don’t recall that one being there before,” Max remarked, spotting the Fairlane.

“Me, either,” Henry said, staring.

Silas grunted.  “I can’t keep track anymore.”

“Calvin Hanratty owns a Fairlane, I believe,” Jess said, hesitantly, thinking about last night.

“You don’t think he’s in there?”

“He wouldn’t dare,” Kevin declared.

“I thought his car was green not red,” Max said.

“Let’s have a look,” Silas suggested, turning down the street and driving slowly past the yellow house.

All of them looked at the car carefully, their faces pressed to the window like postage stamps.

“It’s someone else’s,” Max said, pointing out that Calvin’s familiar fish emblem was not pasted on the bumper.

“Jesus, though, can you imagine if it had been him?” Kevin wondered, aloud.  “He’d have been the talk of the parish.”

They laughed as they passed through the gates.

That evening, a practice was scheduled at the church for the designated apostles.  Driving there, Jess noticed the driveway of the piano teacher’s house was vacant so, on an impulse, he pulled in and walked up to the front door.  He was determined to see what she looked like up close because rarely was she ever outside when he rode to work, and then only for a moment, stepping into a car or through a doorway.  He considered various excuses for pressing her doorbell, but when she answered he explained that he saw her sign in the window and was interested in registering for some piano lessons.

“I took some for a couple of years as a youngster,” he said, “but I never progressed much beyond a lame rendition of ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’”

She was trim and delicate, a little older than he expected, somewhere in her thirties, with loose brown hair and hazel eyes.  Abruptly she swung open the screen, sweeping her hair over her left shoulder.  “Here, let me see your hands.”  She whisked them out of his pockets, like gloves, looked at them, turned them over, pressed down on the knuckles.  “Firm but delicate,” she assessed, pertly, still holding them.

He felt the blood glowing in his cheeks then suddenly turned her hands over and stared at her long fingers, stroking them gently.  “Firm and sensitive,” he replied.

She grinned and drew away her hands.  “I have an appointment soon, but if you’d like to, you could come in and play something, to see what level of lessons you should begin at.”

He declined, explaining that he had to be going, but made an appointment at the end of next week, which he knew he would not keep.  He had satisfied his curiosity, that was all he cared about, so he left for the practice, convinced she would fade from his memory as quickly as he could pronounce his name.

At the practice he forgot all about her, dutifully concentrating on making sure he grasped all the details of the Thursday service.  Walter, a layman who performed various functions at the church, from unlocking doors to reading the epistle at the weekday Mass, presided over the practice.  He had attended numerous Last Suppers, having been raised in the parish.  Promptly, at eight, he assembled everyone into the east end of the church to march down the aisle in procession and divided them into two files according to height.  One of the men, a novice like Jess, wondered if they would represent particular apostles.  Smiling, Walter explained how, at one time, they used to select names out of a hat, but because no one wanted to be Judas, they quit and now everyone was anonymous.

“Except you,” Silas interjected.  “You have to be Peter.  You’re in charge.”

Walter touched his temple then led them down the aisle to the back of the altar.  They sauntered through the dark church as if they were out on the playground, talking loudly, laughing, clad in jackets and sweaters and scuffed tennis shoes.  A tin of unconsecrated communion wafers pilfered from the sacristy was passed among them as they sat on the long wooden benches around the altar, listening to Walter explain different aspects of the service, in particular the mandatum.  His remarks were crisp and to the point, designed to make sure the laymen comported themselves on the altar with the utmost dignity.  A few of them, cracking jokes, expressed their unease about the washing of their feet, but Walter emphasized it was an example of fellowship that had been set for the apostles to follow, and urged that the men should approach the ceremony accordingly, citing, from memory, John:  “a servant is not greater than his master, nor a messenger than the one who sent him.”

The twelve apostles stood at the back of the church, in a dim hallway, waiting for the service to begin.  They were dressed in starched white surplices and long black cassocks, like the servers and singers at the front of the procession.  In all, there were a couple dozen people packed in the hallway.  The smell of candlewax and smoke, from the burning torches the acolytes held, permeated the air.

Silas, slumped in a corner at the top of the stairs, furtively offered his cigarette to Kevin, who took a long drag.  Walter eyed them, closely, as they passed the cigarette between them.

“My prayerbones are already beginning to ache,” Kevin complained, massaging his knees.

“I’m melting with all these clothes on,” Jess groaned.

Silas agreed, fanning his face with his fingers.  “I almost wish they had assigned us names, and I were Judas, so I could get out of this damn thing.”

Kevin laughed.  “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

In another moment, the altar bell rang.  “Time, gentlemen,” the monsignor intoned, straightening his stole.  Docilely everyone in the hallway stirred into place, the torches were raised, the choir began to sing.  The procession, in a slow, somber curve, followed the crossbearer down the center aisle past the congregation and wound around the altar, slowly coming apart as everyone went to his station.  The apostles, as in the practice the night before, occupied the long benches at either end of the communion rail, sitting erect, with their hands on their knees, as Walter instructed.

“There’s my wife,” Kevin whispered, nudging Jess in the ribs.  “On the left, three rows down.”

Jess glanced at the pallid woman smiling at her husband then surveyed the large congregation, bowed in prayer, and spotted his next door neighbor on the aisle near the side entrance.  Alma was not in attendance, she was at a shower for Evelyn Stengel.  Idly he gazed down the aisle again, past the confessionals, past the large Riordan family, to Calvin Hanratty who stood behind the offertory table, holding in his hands the wicker collection baskets.  He was a pillar of the parish, someone the monsignor was almost as dependent upon as Walter.  The notion of his car being parked overnight at the piano teacher’s made Jess smile to himself.  For if it had been his Fairlane, half the parish would know about it by the following Sunday.  Jess pictured the faces of the congregation then, full of derision and contempt.  Poor Calvin, he thought, a pillar in pieces.

The Host was raised, the bell rang three times, then the chalice was raised and the bell rang three more times.

Jess closed his eyes, not in prayer but in reflection, trying to imagine himself on the altar consecrating the bread and wine.  The image seemed, now, as fanciful as the notion of Calvin spending the night at the piano teacher’s.  He remembered, one afternoon at the seminary, deciding he had no desire to enter heaven but preferred to remain in purgatory, where he could be at ease and out of the sight of God.  At first, it was only an amusement he shared with some other seminarians, but then he began to take it more seriously until it became a sincere ambition.  Because his motive for entering the seminary was to serve himself, not others, he was not surprised when he left, but still he regretted his failure to become a priest and wished now he had never tried.  He believed, after his experience at the seminary, it was probably better not to try something than to fail; perhaps that was why purgatory had become his ambition:  it was less of a chance.

At the end of the service a wooden clapper was shook, and the apostles assembled in front of the communion gate in their bare feet.  Slowly, one by one, they filed past the silver bowl of water on the bottom step of the altar.  Jess was the fourth apostle to pass.  The subdeacon gripped his right foot firmly, while the monsignor washed and kissed the foot, mumbling a prayer.  He thought how silly he was to worry about the ceremony as he stepped away, one foot cool, one dry, on the hardwood floor.

The supper was generous and authentic, consisting of wine, roasted lamb, and unleavened bread.  The apostles sat with the monsignor at a long table in the basement, surrounded by cardtables patronized by members of the congregation.  Everyone, according to custom, ate with their fingers, rinsing them in bowls of warm lemon water.  After the supper, Jess went with Silas and Kevin to an oyster bar downtown, where they celebrated the end of their discipleship by taking a trip around the world.  The oyster bar offered beers from nearly everywhere in the world, and, at a special price, encouraged its customers to make the journey.

“Where to first?” Silas asked.

Kevin swiveled on his stool.  “The Old Sod, of course.”

Silas, grinning, ordered three glasses of Guinness.

They followed the itinerary of an old train rumbling across Europe, through the Lowlands, over the Alps, to the edge of the Black Sea, then through the Orient.  At each stop they exchanged toasts then resumed their reminisces about favorite old baseball teams as if they were in Silas’ car driving to work.  All they ever talked about were games they played and games they watched.  The service, that evening, was just another game, distracting them from themselves.  Jess felt as if he were going in a circle, moving from one distraction to another in the same still orbit.  He tried to imagine himself again as a priest, aware that he had no desire to assume such responsibilities, but like a priest he wanted to cast his shadow on the altar.  He believed he had to be noticed to acquire an identity; otherwise he was not even there, a transparent figure.

After leaving the Orient, they returned home, ordering Coors, which they consumed in a few swallows, then wobbled out to their cars, still exchanging toasts and laughing.  They raced one another out of the parking lot then headed in separate directions.  Jess, a little light-headed, drove cautiously past the shipyards, over the narrow suspension bridge, down a violet street glaring with advertisements.  In the morning, going to work, he often traveled along part of that street, but at night he hardly recognized it, and, for an instant, wondered if he had made a wrong turn and anxiously stared across the windshield, searching for something he remembered seeing in the morning.  He felt adrift, lost in his own neighborhood; suddenly his home seemed farther away than ever.  Then, after a few more blocks, one as strange as the other, he spied the stone gates in the distance and steered toward them, moving down a street strewn with broken branches.

Through the gates, he cruised past the piano teacher’s, saw the driveway was clear, and circled the block, pulling into the driveway the second time he approached the house.  He switched off the ignition and darkened the headlights, having no idea why he was there, and every idea.  He sat for a minute, listening to the engine tick like a clock.  Gradually he imagined himself as someone else, as Calvin even, someone whose car he might have seen in the driveway before, and became that person, shedding his apprehensions, and strode up to the front door.

He woke early the next morning, in plenty of time to return home to make up an explanation and dress for work, but he continued to lie in bed, with the piano teacher curled against his back, her hands resting against his shoulder.  She stirred slightly, still asleep.  He looked at her a moment, her loose hair spread across her face, and listened to her slow breathing.  Soon, he thought, the Chrysler would be approaching the gates, his friends craning their necks, and he could imagine the astonishment on their faces when they saw his car in the driveway, and all the snide remarks they would exchange.  By the end of the day, no doubt, scores of people would know what happened, including Alma, and he knew he should move his car, but he left it there.  And calmly lay waiting for them to come, figuring he had finally acquired an identity in the neighborhood.

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One Response to “The Ecstasy of the Animals”


  1. […] May 23, 2010 We just posted the short story “The Ecstasy of the Animals” by T.R. Healy. Read it here. […]


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