Apple Crisp

written by Marty Perry

    Father Feldstein finished his benediction then quickly disrobed, leaving his clergy in training to thank the parishioners. It also meant that he would skip the monthly Sunday brunch and Mrs. Brower’s always delicious apple crisp. Such things were unimportant when the Lord’s work awaited and he rushed out of the cathedral’s back entrance.
   Constable Belanger from the Royal Mounted Police entered the smoke filled room first and said “I’ll be just outside. Stay seated in your chair. Raise your hand if you need assistance.” The priest nodded and said “I’m sure everything will be fine, Lord willing.” The constable studied the man sitting behind the table one last time before closing the door.
   “My name is Father Feldstein.” he said, walking to the empty chair. “May I sit?”
   “How ah ya father.” the man said, after pulling a drag from his cigarette. “Be my guest.”
   His accent was as thick and heavy as the bags under his eyes. He dropped all “R’s” from his sentence much like the folks from New England. It had a swagger to it, an attitude.
   “What is your name?”
   “It’s Howard, Howard Driscoll. My friends call me Howie.”
   “Do you mind if I call you Howie?”
   “Nah. It’s nice actually.”
   “Your accent, Chicago. New York?”
   “Boston. Born and raised in Dorchester. Been visiting my sister and her husband out here in the Maritimes for a couple of days.”
   “Before we start Howie, I must caution you that we are not in a confessional and anything you tell me here is not privy between you and God.”
   Howie nodded and inhaled one last drag before crushing it in the ashtray. His tobacco stained fingertips reached for another and he manoeuvred the Zippo lighter with the sleight of hand of a magician.
   “Constable Belanger has called me here because you requested a priest. He tells me you want to confess to a murder. My son, have you committed the act of murder?”
   “I‘ve done horrible things,” Howie said. “Don’t I know it? Came right out of nowhere and I swerved the best I could.
   “You hit someone with your car Howie? Is that it? If there was an accident, It‘s not considered murder.”
   A mound of ash crumbled from his cigarette down the front of his rumpled shirt as he combed back his thinning salt and peppered hair.
    “It’s a lot more complicated than that Father.” He slid the Zippo across the dull finish of the Melamine table and into the priest’s hands. Father Feldstein picked it up and read the inscription on the scuffed brass finish. “Let US win your hearts and minds or we’ll burn your damn huts down.” He turned it around. “Saigon 65-69”
   “The invisible enemy, that’s what we called them.” Howie said. “A war I never asked for and most didn’t trust and I became a cook, wanting to remain out of combat. It was going as planned until the last few months before they shipped me home,” He paused and pulled a long drag while rubbing at the hard stubble under his chin, his eyes uncertain and fixated on him, resolving whether or not to continue.
   “Then it happened and everything went to the pisser.”
   “What was it that happened?” the priest said, gently laying down the lighter.
   “The conversation I had overheard is what happened.” Howie said, leaning in and lowering his voice. “The Army’s got Special Forces and the four zipper-heads sitting at the table were part of the Phoenix Program. Think of them what you will; Central Intelligence, National Security or Secret Police, these boys’s play with a different rulebook. They had been drinking heavily and one of the fella’s couldn’t shut his trap, said a bunch of stuff…in which they reckoned a bit too sensitive for my ears, if you get my drift.”
   Father Feldstein noticed Howie staring past him; his gaze preoccupied and fixated on the one-way window.
   “This caused trouble for you?” Father Feldstein said.
   “Do the Bruins play hockey?” Howie said, out of his trance. “Snitch or no-snitch, squealers tend to disappear with these guy’s. But since I’m here, I figured they liked my mashed potatoes. The Vietcong is a part of a secret network of communists. They number over a hundred thousand in the South part of Vietnam. Every village contains at least a group of these members and that’s a problem for Uncle Sam. Do you follow me so far Father?”

   “Yes. Go on.” The priest said. It had been nine months since Howie’s return and for the last few years, Father Feldstein had helped a few American draft dodgers and deserters gain refugee status. Some were college-educated sons of the middle class, others who had been inducted into the service from High School.
   “The job of my newfound pals was to collect information.” Howie continued. “There were people on this blacklist and a preferred tactic was to find certain government officials in order to drive Saigon out of power. The following day, I had finished the dishes from lunch and ready to take my afternoon siesta when they came in wearing full camo and their green berets. Not much was said because I knew when to shut my trap and I followed them to the Jeep. We drove for a bit and picked up a gook informant from other Phoenix members and made our way to a river patrol boat. We travelled along the dense riverbanks to a remote village. They put a sandbag over his head, poked holes so he could see, tied field telephone wire around his neck and we walked him through the village. One of the more decorated berets asked the informant where Nguyen ‘so-and-so’ lived. So we strolled through the village for a while until our snitch stopped, then scratched his head in front of a house.”
   Howie’s eyes were lost again and his thin body struggled to stay upright.
   “They came back for me that night and we stood in front of the hut that had been marked earlier that day. There were no midnight arrests or warrants required when we knocked on the door. When it opened a crack and revealed an old lady, one of the Phoenix members cried, ’April Fools Mothafucker’ and unloaded a full clip through the door. The others aimed for the house, mincing everyone inside into Chop Suey. I was handed a flamethrower and they strapped the bulky two-cylinder device on my back. With the barrel of a Colt pistol aimed at my head (Howie loaded and cocked two fingers at his temple); I fired a stream of ignited flammable liquid and burned it to the ground. Anyone who tried to escape was shot.”
    Father Feldstein was startled and raised his hand when Howie stood half-way up from his chair, leaning for his lighter.
   “Don’t worry Father. I wouldn’t hurt you.” Howie said, sitting back down. “You don’t see a gun aimed at my head?”
   When Father Feldstein turned his body around in his chair to indicate to the constable that things were under control, flickering shadows appeared from the bottom of the one-way window. Small at first, they grew into fierce flames which filled the dark film glass, raging and swirling out of control around what seemed to be the contour of a hut, swallowing it whole. In an instant it was gone, and Father Feldstein found himself staring at his puzzled expression and to the hard bright gleam of reflected light from the ceiling lamps.
   “What I’d like Father is to be baptised. Can you do this for me?”
   The priest turned around to face Howie who crushed and lit another cigarette.
   “I read that you need it to be saved and I’m running out of options here.”
   Father Feldstein searched the walls from the middle to the corners of the ceiling for another window, one that could house a projector. When did the police start using parlour tricks?
   “Father, are you with me?” Howie said.
   “Baptism is believed to be essential for salvation,” Father Feldstein said, looking back behind him again. “But alone, it does not save. It’s about getting right with God. You need to repent your sins my son. I can help you.”
   Unlike his own, Howie’s reflection now appeared contorted in impossible ways in the two-way mirror, an elongated face that belonged in front of a funhouse mirror. Father Feldstein touched his own face.
   “Oh God,” Howie said. “You see them. You can see them.”
   Father Feldstein saw shadows again on the glass. A patch of small spots had formed in the centre, multiplying and growing larger until he made out the contours of shadow-like humanoid figures, a marching horde of phantoms approaching.
   “There’s so many of them now.” Howie cried.
    Father Feldstein whipped his head around this time and saw the terrified look growing on Howie’s face. The trace of burnt grass suddenly nipped at his nostrils. A smouldering butt burned in the overloaded ashtray. The roasted smell intensified in the room like a farmer burning his grass fields in early autumn. He looked at his feet and under the table for signs of fire and smoke, along the floorboards for a grate or a vent, for evidence of a contraption used in interrogation tactics and psychological manipulation. When none was found and a shadowy hand broke through the barrier of reality, Father Feldstein held firm conviction that the police hadn’t evolved in such sophisticated techniques and accepted the truth.
    “It’s you,” Howie cried in disbelief, pointing to the shadows. “But I didn‘t see you.”
    “You need to confess, Howie.” The priest said, his experienced heart pounding immaturely against his chest. If you want to be saved, repeat after me ‘God, I have behaved badly in my past, and I want to live the way that You want me--’”
    “Too late,” Howie wailed. “It’s too late Father. Mother-of-God, she’s brought all of them here.”
    Howie bolted up and kicked his chair away, cowering to the corner wall. “They made me,” he yelled. “I didn’t have a choice.”
    The door burst opened and two constables rushed to Howie who was now screaming and kicking like a lunatic.
    “Repent your sins and believe in Jesus.” Father Feldstein shouted while he did the sign of the cross. When he looked back, the shadows had disappeared.
    Constable Belanger entered and said “You’re done here father.”

    In the Church basement, Father Feldstein opened the refrigerator door and picked up a plate from the top rack. He smiled and blessed his assistant under his breath as he lifted the Saran-Wrap from Mrs. Brower’s always delicious apple crisp. With his first bite, the sweet sugary apples were overwhelmed by the taste of burnt crust and it invoked sinister images in his mind’s eye, like the one’s which had appeared in the one-way window but in shades of gray. The white of their slanted eyes glowed behind charred skin and bone, clothes cindered into the deeper tissues worse than any third-degree burn he had ever seen, an army of vengeful souls walking on embers of bamboo and bone. Modern folklore called them shadow people. Some believed they were benevolent guardians, angels guiding them through life while others--and Father Feldstein shared this view--as evil spirits. The authorities had told him to come back tomorrow. Howie needed to repent his sins. There was no other way. Rushing to the telephone, he flipped through his agenda and called Constable Belanger’s direct number.
    “Hello.” a girl’s voice answered. She sounded no more than five.
    “Yes, hello.” he said, not sure if he had misdialed. “I need to speak with Constable Belanger.”
    “Is this about Howie?” she said.
    Something felt defiant and unhinged about her voice.
    “Yes it is.”
    “I’m afraid he’s a little busy right now.”
    Father Feldstein remained silent for a moment and then said “Is he alright?”
    “Hum, I don’t think so.” she sighed. “It’s not like you could have saved him anyways.”
    There it was; the sharp taunting, the malicious intent that he felt in his stomach from the first crack of her voice.
    There was a pause of silence and then, static again...
    “It hurt badly at first,” she said. ” And then they came for me.”
    Chatter in the background, voices with a dialect he didn’t understand but recognized as Asian.
    “I saw you twice before” she said. “Once when I was in church with my mommy and today.”
    “When you say today…do you mean when I was with Howie?”
    Static again… voices growing louder, angrier.
    “Uh, huh.”
    “And the other time at church?”
    “My mommy was so sad. But she liked the eulogy and so did I. I found it funny how you knew I liked playing with cars more than dolls even though we had never met.”
    Her name was Jennifer Elizabeth Walsh, Jenna for short and named after her great-grandmother on her mother’s side. She had died less than a week ago from a hit and run. He had delivered the service. Not only did he know she favoured dinky metallic hot rods from dolls that soiled their diapers, but that she picked chocolate mint ice cream over strawberry or vanilla anytime and regarded dandelions as beautiful flowers rather than a bunch of stubborn weeds.
    “I’ve got to go,” she said. “They want me to tell you that the blood of Jesus doesn’t cleanse all from--”
    There was a hang up, then a dial tone.
    “--sin” he finished.
    News had reached Father Feldstein the next day that Howard had died. He had jammed a chair under the doorknob of the interrogation room and doused himself with a flammable cleaner from the bathroom, then set himself ablaze. Forensics matched the blood and bits of gray matter from under Howie’s bumper to that of Jenna’s.
    With Rosaries in hand and the presence of Holy Spirit from St. Jude to St. Michael, Father Feldstein prayed like never before for Howie’s salvation, and also that next month, Mrs. Brower would remember to set the oven timer.

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