D. A. Hosek
Saint Anthony in West Hollywood
This is how you imagine his approach. He is dressed, as always, in brown monk’s robes, his head tonsured, his feet clad in sandals. No one gives him a second glance. (This is West Hollywood: weirdness is taken for granted here.) He walks along Santa Monica Boulevard and picks up a keyring lying on the ground. He turns abruptly into a nearby Starbucks and approaches a man sitting at a table inside sipping a mocha grande. The coffee drinker studiously avoids eye contact with the obviously crazy person standing before him.
“You dropped your keys,” Saint Anthony says.
The man does not answer. Subconsciously he reaches to his pocket to verify that the crazy man is wrong. There are no keys there. He looks at the saint’s hand and recognizes the large electronic Mercedes ignition key. “Thank you,” the man says. He reaches for his wallet to give this strange man a reward, but Saint Anthony shakes his head and walks away empty-handed.
In your mind, a scared and lonely kitten approaches Saint Anthony. He bends down, scratches it between the ears and scoops it into his arms, cradling it like the Christ child. He walks up a side street and approaches the door of the third house from the corner. He rings the doorbell. A young girl, perhaps eleven years old, answers, sees the kitten in the saint’s arms and jumps up and down with delight. “You found her!” she cries. She takes the kitten and runs into the house leaving the front door open.
Saint Anthony gently closes the door behind the girl. He continues on his way, eventually finding his way to your door where he rings the bell. Who knows how many lost things he restores in the course of each trip to your home? (Of course, this is all in your imagination. He probably rides the bus and gets off at the corner closest to your apartment.)
Maybe he actually is a monk. (Are there still monasteries?) More likely, he’s a homeless man who takes the bus to West Hollywood from Skid Row on occasion and who has somehow latched on to you. Occasionally you consider the possibility that he actually is Saint Anthony returned to earth. While he hasn’t denied the title when you’ve referred to him as Saint Anthony, he has never used it to describe himself. The main reason you think of him as Saint Anthony is that he looks exactly like the statue your grandmother had on the shelf over the television set.
You open the door to join him outside. He does not come on any sort of discernible schedule, but you still know when to expect him. You have lost nothing, but here he is. (He never brings so much as a dropped receipt to you.) “Aren’t you the patron saint of lost things?” you’ve asked him. He laughs in response. “Then why are you here?” He just smiles and says nothing.
The first time he came to you, he was sitting on your front steps when you came home.
“May I come in?” he asked.
You looked at the bizarre figure of a medieval monk before you. “No.”
He was unfazed by your response. “Then sit here with me, why don’t you?”
And for some reason, you didn’t go back into your apartment and lock the door. You sat down at his side. Maybe it was the element of doubt in your mind. He might be a crazy person. He might be a monk. He might be Saint Anthony. This set up a pattern for all your future conversations with Saint Anthony. You always talk sitting on the steps.
You were Catholic once. You made it through confirmation class every Wednesday afternoon after school with all the other public-school kids in a classroom under the strict tutelage of Sister Mary of Perpetual Cruelty. You learned to keep your head down and to save the snide remarks for outside the classroom beyond Sister Mary’s hearing and her wicked rosary beads which came out of nowhere to sting a misbehaving child’s knuckles.
There was something about you that made you a target for the other children in your life. It would take years to understand what others seemed to know instinctively about you. You developed your own skills, invisibility and sarcasm, as a means of defense against your classmates, to avoid or deflect the torments they would impose on you. (Those skills still serve you well.)
You look at Saint Anthony trying to see if you can see in him what others have always seen in you, that spark of something different. The monk is frustratingly opaque, always deflecting questions about himself while somehow getting you to reveal things to him that even your dearest lovers have never elicited from your lips. (He is immune to both your invisibility and your sarcasm.)
His hairless pate gleams in the sun. You’ve always been attracted to men with shaved heads, but the fringe of hair adds a new dimension to his appeal. But despite his attractiveness, you don’t find yourself wanting him sexually. (You’re not normally like that.)
He never starts the conversation. It’s like seeing your therapist. After the initial pleasantries, he waits silently until you can no longer take the silence and must speak.
“Why don’t you ever talk to me about going to church?” you ask.
“Do you want to go to church?”
You shake your head.
“I’m not here to make you do what you don’t want to do.”
“What are you here for?”
“You always say that I’m here to help you find what you’ve lost.”
After the first time he had said that he was here to help you find what you’d lost (or was it you who said it?), you tried testing him by hiding your cell phone under the sofa cushions. You told him that you’d lost your phone and he answered that you knew exactly where it was, so it wasn’t lost. He never says exactly what it is that you have lost that he has come to help you find. (He has also never said how he knew that your phone wasn’t really lost.)
“Why won’t you just tell me what I’ve lost?” you ask.
“Part of your journey to reclaiming what you’ve lost is discovering what that is.”
You have your suspicions as to what he’s referring. You wonder if only a recovering Catholic like yourself would have let Saint Anthony continue like this and not given him a conclusive rebuff. (Maybe that’s how he finds his victims.)
“I’m not going back to the Church,” you say.
“I don’t expect you to.”
You wait for him to add “yet” but he doesn’t.
“Isn’t that why you’re here? Isn’t that what I’ve lost?”
“Do you think it is?” Saint Anthony is maddeningly placid.
“Yes, I do.” You are ready to go inside and lock the door on Saint Anthony. But you are drawn to him like an anonymous alcoholic to a bartender. Is this why you always describe yourself as a recovering Catholic and not a lapsed Catholic or an ex-Catholic? Are you, beneath it all, still Catholic? (You reject the idea.)
Your childhood parish was led by Father Connelly, an Irish priest with bloodshot eyes and altar-wine breath. Although he was American born and never left the country, he affected a brogue that made his fire and brimstone sermons more effective than they would have been had he spoken in his natural accent. (Did he still have a natural accent?) Every Sunday he condemned the sinfulness of the world and those who were of the world rather than merely in the world as he insisted all good Catholics should be.
And no sin enraged him more than homosexuality, or “the sin of Sodom,” as he was inclined to term it, his voice hissing with sibilance as he spoke, saliva spattering the ambo. “Do not let the degenerate Sodomites fool you,” he proclaimed to a congregation that assured itself that surely their number did not include any of the aforementioned Sodomites. “Their way is a way of sin, a road that leads directly to damnation. Their unnatural appetites corrupt not only themselves but all those around them.”
Did he look at you as he said those words? It seems unlikely in retrospect, but it’s not easy to slough off the solipsism of youth. You were sure everyone knew or at least that they suspected. Your parents knew. You can remember when you were in junior high hearing them talking in the living room. They assumed you were asleep and couldn’t hear. Your father blamed your mother for raising you to be a “sissy.” “No good will come from that one,” he said.
“He’s our son,” your mother responded. “We have to love him no matter what.”
“No son of mine could be a faggot.”
You didn’t know what a faggot was, but you could guess. You tried sometimes to make your father happy with who you were, but it never was enough.
Saint Anthony looks at you with the face of a saint or the face of an idiot. (It could go either way.) “I would think that you’d consider losing my faith to be my most important loss,” you say.
“I don’t think you’ve lost your faith,” Saint Anthony answers.
You scoff. “I haven’t been inside a church in years.”
“You know very well that going to church isn’t the same thing as having faith. There are plenty of people inside churches every Sunday who lack faith, just as there are many people who never go to church and yet have faith.”
“I don’t pray.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
You find yourself fighting the urge to punch Saint Anthony. It’s an irrational response, you know, and you wouldn’t really do it. (You think you wouldn’t.)
You close your eyes and focus on your breath to calm down. You try not to think about God while you do this. (You fail.)
It’s your mother’s fault. She made sure you went to Mass every Sunday. As long as you lived under her roof, she insisted, you and your siblings would go to Mass with her. (This was part of what inspired you to move far away.)
Your father seldom joined his wife and children at the church, preferring to spend Sunday mornings with ESPN on the television and a cold beer in his hand. You often felt it would have been better for both you and your father to have switched places. He would have better appreciated Father Connelly’s jeremiads against the homosexuals. (Maybe you would have learned to like sports and beer.)
You used to fantasize that your father wasn’t really your father. You liked to imagine that perhaps somewhere out there was a kinder man, a more understanding man, who had met your mother for a brief encounter nine months before you were born. A man who could help you make some sense out of who you are. (Is that what Saint Anthony is to you?)
But your father is your father. Your father is the man who insisted that you play Little League and would throw pitches to you at the playground in a vain effort to make a ballplayer out of you. No matter how slowly he pitched, how directly over the plate, how hard you tried, you could never manage to connect bat and ball. You stopped going to practices and games but didn’t tell your father. You didn’t want to disappoint him. When he decided to go to one of your games without telling you, he learned that all the time you’d been saying you were playing baseball you were actually at the library reading books about Greek mythology. He didn’t talk to you for days, but anytime you were around, he would tell anyone else how you had humiliated him.
You left home for college. You managed to get a scholarship to Loyola Marymount in West Los Angeles. (As far from home as you could get without leaving the country.) It meant another four years of dealing with Catholicism, but at least you were far away from your father. After the first Christmas break, you stopped going home when school was out, instead visiting the families of other semi-closeted gay students for Christmas, spending summers sharing crowded apartments with other students who chose to find some way to eke out a living under the California sun rather than go back to wherever they came from. It only seemed natural that when you graduated with your bachelor’s degree in English, you’d stay in Los Angeles.
You still talk to your mom once a week, a long-distance call every Sunday evening. She sounds surprised to hear your voice when you call, even though it’s always the same time, nine p.m. on her end, when you call. You tell her the news of your life as an Angeleno, the adventures at the Barnes & Noble where you’ve been promoted to manager, how things are going with your dating life (not very well, of late). She tells you what’s happening back home, how the neighbor’s daughter just had a baby, the scandal at the public library over the firing of the director after just three weeks on the job. She asks you if you’d like to speak with your father. You tell her you have to go but maybe next week. This is the implicitly agreed-upon sign that the conversation is over. You hang up the phone, turn on the television and scoop out a small bowl of gelato as you settle in for the night.
Why have you let your mind wander in this direction with Saint Anthony sitting at your side on the front steps? All because he suggested that you do pray? Fine, maybe he’s not completely wrong about that. You do say the occasional “please, God” or “thank you, God” and once in a while you go beyond that. You hate to have to give him his point. (You don’t need to let him know that he’s right.)
Your phone rings and you excuse yourself to take the call in private. The caller ID lets you know that it’s your mother calling. Something must be wrong. You’re always the one to make the call. The sound of her voice over the phone only confirms your concerns. It’s bad news: your father is in the hospital—a heart attack. She’d like you to come visit. You demur. She offers to pay for your plane ticket. You tell her it’s not the expense (but you can’t afford it). She says you should call him in the hospital. She gives you the phone number to his room. (You consider just pretending to write it down but what can it hurt to write it down?)
You both know the real reason you won’t go home and neither of you will say it. Your mother’s tone says that she would do anything to get you to come home. Her words say she can’t force you to come and if you change your mind you can call any time. You hang up. Your throat feels constricted. You force yourself to swallow a few times until it’s no longer painful to breathe and return to Saint Anthony on the front steps.
“Bad news?” he asks.
And just like that, you release all the emotions that have been dammed within you for years. How you’ve wanted your father to accept you for who you are. How you spent so long trying to be the son he wanted but there are some things you just can’t change and you could never be what he wanted and he could never be someone who could accept you. Even now, you still think of how he’d react with every decision. You’ve told Saint Anthony other things about yourself but never spoken about your father.
Through all of this, Saint Anthony only puts his hand on your arm and doesn’t say anything. You’ve talked about your father before, with friends, but everyone is so interested in condemning him, or else offering solutions, so you find yourself closing that part of yourself off.
“Aren’t you going to tell me, ‘You should go’?” you ask.
“Do you want me to?”
You just stare at the ground.
“Then I won’t say it.”
“You’re not much of a saint.”
Saint Anthony laughs.
You ponder what his reaction means. You’re reminded that he’s never claimed the title for himself. In fact, he’s never claimed any name or title. The strangeness of your relationship with this monk (if that’s even what he is) strikes you in a new way at this moment.
And maybe if you can sit on your front steps with Saint Anthony/some crazy person/just a random monk who comes to your apartment for no apparent reason, you can talk to your father on the phone. Maybe he’s changed. Maybe he’s the same but you’re better able to deal with him. Maybe nothing has changed and you just need to talk to him. You’re almost ready to go inside and make the call, but you suspect that if you do call you will never see Saint Anthony again. (You wonder if you’re ready for that.)
D. A. Hosek’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Switchback, Popshot, Steam Ticket, Blue River Review and elsewhere. He earned an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Tampa. He lives and writes in Oak Park, IL and spends his days as an insignificant cog in the machinery of corporate America. His website is http://dahosek.com.