Nick and his two sisters descended the stairs into the basement of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. He looked down at his polished shoes as they hit the pavement next to his sister’s beaded bridal heels. She held onto him at the point where gold brocade wrapped around the forearm of his jacket. Behind them their younger sister, the maid of honor, managed the bride’s train. St. Patrick provided them a crisp, clear midwestern day for a wedding on this, his feast day.
Nick had the honor of walking his sister, Bea, down the aisle. This duty befell him because their parents were dead. Duty wasn’t foreign to Nick. As a retired Lieutenant Colonel who had fought in Desert Storm and saw the horrors of the Middle East in Afghanistan, Nick respected duty. However, heading into the belly of the church made him more uncomfortable than loading ammunition in a bunker outside Gizab. For now he would do his duty and walk his sister down the aisle in the church where they were both raised, but which neither he nor Bea nor their sister Val had set foot in except for weddings and funerals until Bea “came home,” is how she described it after decades away from Catholicism.
As Nick fought fatigue, he was just glad that this morning the hotel mirror revealed a barely noticeable yellow hue to his eyeballs. If he could, Nick would ask God (if he existed), why 15 years ago he was struck with a fatal liver disease that left him in constant pain and forced his retirement. Didn’t he perform his duty for his country with honor? Didn’t he sacrifice so much? Didn’t he take care of his family and make everyone laugh even when he felt despair? As a soldier, Nick nearly died a few times, but those times in the Middle East he understood; slowly dying from a liver disease he did not.
Years ago Nick needed a partial liver transplant, and that duty befell his sister Val, nine years his junior. Uncomfortable with accepting help, Nick’s role in the family had always been one of protector and savior – when his parents couldn’t afford to pay taxes, he saved them from losing the house, not once, but twice, by coughing up money he earned painting offices while working his way through college. His mother had a spending issue, and alcoholism ambushed his father. “Isn’t it ironic,” he thought, “to have a liver disease that had nothing to do with alcohol abuse, yet his father was a raging alcoholic?” Having to rely on his younger sister, risking her life, was something he never fully accepted. Doctors told him that the partial transplant would cure him, well, the percentages were in his favor by a landslide.
The land slid a few months ago when a nice doctor informed him that his bile ducts were failing and he was dying again. This time he would need a complete liver transplant. His name went on the list. He had a MELD number. Now Nick Santorini waited for someone to die, a stranger. He couldn’t think much about that, but knew his sisters were the kind who would and would wonder about the person who would save his life (hopefully). He would count on them to wonder about that when he found the guts to tell them.
“Focus,” he thought. He glanced at Bea who clutched the rosary that their father had left on the coffee table among hundreds of other rosaries he had accumulated for donating money to Catholic charities. The simple rosary with wooden beads almost got lost in his father’s hoarding after their mother had passed away, but his sister was drawn to this one for some reason, and in her hands it seemed to live a second life.
Not long ago it was up to him to don a hazmat suit complete with a respiratory mask in order to clean their childhood home, the place that Nick saved from foreclosure 30 years ago – the place that was mouse infested and filled with evidence of emotional pain through piles of papers, shelves full of statues, and an attic replete with toys from three children. Yet, Nick clung to the little house with all of its nostalgia and the memory of innocence.
Val interrupted his thoughts and pointed at the floor behind him, “Nick, your shoes. . .”
The soles left trails of black foam on white linoleum. Nick shook his head and studied the bottom of his old military issued shoes to discover the soles disintegrating. Their shine reflected Nick’s grimace. He whispered to himself, “I can’t believe this.”
Father Martinez floated in, peppy and whistling, “Time for a wedding!”
Nick knew that the priest held his dad’s secrets. During the final weeks of his life, his dad confided in Father Martinez. No doubt his father, Dino, talked to the priest about him. Dino’s anger toward Nick germinated from the perception that Nick shunned his paltry Italian roots in favor of his wife’s higher social status. Dino’s rage grew incrementally until he exploded and ceased talking to his son. The duty of overseas military life split Nick between his parents and his own family whenever he had leave. Didn’t he have to honor thy wife? And in that, favor her parents?
Suddenly in one of Dino’s final days as he grew increasingly blind, his bony hand crept out from under crisp hospital sheets searching for Nick’s. Dino whispered, “I’m sorry, son.”
It was Father Martinez who moved his dad to forgiveness at the finish line.
Val and Bea scurried toward Nick laughing about the shoes. Their brother always laughed and made jokes about such things.
“It’s not funny,” he explained and crunched his forehead between thumb and index finger. “This uniform must go with these shoes; it’s required.”
Bea said, “Oh,” and it hung in the air.
Val followed with, “Awe. It’ll be okay.”
Nick addressed the priest, “Father, do you have tape – or something?”
“Hurry it up, will you, Father?” Nick called to the priest’s back.
Bea’s eyes widened at this. It sounded so abrupt. It is just a pair of shoes she thought, and touched her brother’s shoulder as he sat in a blue plastic chair.
Bea handed him a small envelope. “Nicky, here. Read this later, but before the ceremony.”
“Okay.” His eyes met hers. “Is this sister stuff?”
“Kind of,” she smiled.
Nick put the envelope in his interior jacket pocket; his medals jingled.
After a few minutes, Father Martinez approached Nick. “I can’t find anything except this masking tape,” and he tossed it to Nick. “Maybe you could use it to patch up the soles. It might work to get you through the ceremony.”
“No, father. That won’t work. People will see the tape when I walk down the aisle.”
Bea leaned down to her brother. “It’ll be okay, bro – just to stop it from leaving foam on the aisle. After that we dance at the reception, and no one will even notice.”
Nick picked at the foam pieces that would shed eventually. He winced from the constant pain in his right side, glad to be wearing his uniform rather than a fitted tuxedo. The uniform hung on him now in his emaciated state. It hid the drain that pierced his right side with a bag strapped below. “Dance?” he thought. He made sure that she didn’t realize that he wouldn’t have the energy to dance, only to make it down the aisle, and to eat a few pieces of steak.
A ray of sun shot through the glass door and landed on a crucifix hanging over the entrance to the kitchen; it caught Nick’s eye. Before this moment he had only ever noticed the nails. “We’re both pierced” Nick conversed silently with Jesus for the first time since he was a kid and had enough respect for this God-man to realize too that he would have to turn off his cell phone during the ceremony. Nick had no one to monitor his phone for him. His wife didn’t make the trip, and no one else knew.
As Nick watched Father Martinez lead his sister to the confessional upstairs, he wondered, “How do they have faith like this?” He remembered the envelope. He ripped it open to discover a few sentences written by Bea: Nick, I found this while I was cleaning out one of Dad’s boxes. Just think about it Nick. When did we stop believing?
Behind that was an aging piece of yellow paper with wide blue lines. Carefully, he unfolded the paper, having no idea what it could be. Nick recognized his own little boy print. In uneven letters he had written:
Hail Mary, blesed are thou omonksed wemon and blessed is the fruit of the whom Jesus. Holy Mary mother of God pray for are sinners now in thee hour of our death. Amen. And pleas for Charley my dog.
“I was so innocent,” he thought. When did it happen? The loss of it?
The other parish priest walked into the kitchen adjoining the recreation room and started opening and closing drawers replete with utensils.
Nick stuffed the letter back in his pocket.
Behind him, Val primped herself in front of a mirror.
From the kitchen, the sound of a metal drawer closing, clanged like a cymbal.
Nick found himself entering the kitchen. He surprised the priest. “Hello, Father?” How funny to call this man, Father, who was at least 20 years his junior and resembled a young Matt Damon.
Nick wasn’t even sure what he would say, he just found himself there dangling a question mark after “Father.”
The priest slowly turned his head and, through a smile, replied, “Hi. You caught me looking for a spatula; I’m about to attempt pancakes in the rectory and can’t find ours.”
“That’s hilarious, Father. I don’t know, I just never thought about a priest making his own food before.”
“Yep. We’re just men after all, until we put the robe on anyway.”
Nick laughed, “I could go for some pancakes about now.” Walking closer to the priest, Nick whispered, “Father, I have a situation that no one can know about, but I need your help.”
“Do you want to sit down?” The priest closed the silverware drawer and faced Nick.
“There’s no time – just – real quick. Can you take my phone during the wedding?” He spilled it out before he could change his mind. “I – I’m waiting for a call for a liver transplant, but no one knows. I can’t turn off my phone and I just need someone I trust to take it – just for the wedding – just in case the call comes through.”
The priest smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Father Gruenwald.”
Nick sighed. “Right. Uh. I didn’t even . . . I’m Nick.”
The two shook hands and the sound of organ music from above filled the space.
“I sure can take it, Nick. But how about we have a little prayer first? There’s time.”
“But I’m not – I’m not sure I believe anymore. I just saw too much in my life – the suffering.” Nick bit his lip. “Check out my soles. They’re disintegrating.” He attempted humor, like always.
Father Gruenwald gave him a closed smile and a blink, too long for the moment. “First of all, I think I’ve got something for those shoes. Follow me.”
The two walked into another room, smaller. It had short tables with little chairs and kid’s drawings of shamrocks and lambs on the walls.
Lowering himself into one of the kid-sized chairs, Nick sat and took off his shoes while Father Gruenwald searched through a cabinet.
“Found it.” He held up a tube of Super Glue.
With Father Gruenwald’s help, they put enough glue on the bottom to keep the soles from eroding completely. “It’ll last at least today and tonight,” Father said. “Let me give you a blessing while these dry a little.”
Nick closed his eyes, phone in hand, as he turned up the left side of his closed lips. Can’t stop the guy from doing his job, he thought.
“Father, please show Nick that you love him, and that he is not alone. Bring him peace. And Father, I also ask for Nick to have a successful transplant before his pain is too severe. We pray, too, for the donor, who is unknown to Nick but who is known only to you. In Jesus’s name we pray.” He held his hand above Nick’s bowed head, and made the sign of the cross while saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Nick couldn’t wait to open his eyes. “Thank you, Father. Here,” he said and handed over the phone.
“I’ll find you after the wedding. Don’t worry.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
“If you ever wanna talk, just give me a call at the church.”
“Will do.” Nick exited first.
Val ran up to him as he entered the recreation room, “Where the heck have you been?”
Brother Nick kicked in. He made a sweeping motion with his left arm behind him, and then plugged his nose. “You do NOT want to know.”
She laughed and took his arm.
The wedding coordinator clapped, “Come on, everyone; time to go.”
As the first notes of “Joyful, Joyful” started, Val, Nick, and Bea ascended the stairs. In the alcove they came together, arms around each other, heads together.
Nick: “Game time!”
Val: “I love you both so much.”
Bea: “And then there were three.”
The wedding coordinator whispered, “It’s time.”
Val and the best man stood ready at the entrance. The music shifted to Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Two people swung the doors open and organ music flooded the narthex.
Nick felt the vibration viscerally.
Bea grabbed his arm. “Nick, did you read it?”
“Nicky, believe. Just for today. Try it on like a new pair of shoes. You can always put on the old ones later.”
He couldn’t look at her, and the only other place to look was forward into the church, where the faces of friends, family, and strangers blurred.
“Mom and Dad are here, Nick. Can you feel them?”
He thought about how he had just carried their caskets down this very aisle, just a year apart.
“Just for today, Nick, experience the beauty.”
He nodded toward the crucifix as big as a tank. “Explain that to me, Bea.”
“All I know,” she whispered, “is that when I look around, Nicky, I see more beauty than suffering. And I learned that I’m just a spiritual kid.”
The wedding coordinator waved them forward. “It’s time, you two.”
“Nicky, what’ve you got to lose? Be a kid with me. Just for today.”
He bent his elbow for her to take.
They stepped forward in sync, and he glanced behind to make sure he didn’t leave any foam. The stained glass rectangular windows brought back memories, jewel toned Biblical scenes nestled in sky blue. They filled the church with color like a kaleidoscope. As a kid, he was drawn to them – and the dark, polished wooden benches that creaked and smelled like his childhood home – travertine floors – a high ceiling where a celtic cross in stained glass threw tones of green over everything and everyone – on the altar, ruby red and royal blue candles – the scent of incense floating from the front. His senses flooded with it all. Joy emanated from the faces of a couple hundred people. His eyes fell on a statue of St. Patrick in an emerald green robe holding a bejeweled staff, then to Mary with arms wide open. The music shifted and it sounded like trumpets blew a hole into the floor of heaven. The back of his neck tingled. Hail Mary, blesed are thou omonksed wemon and blessed is the fruit of the whom Jesus – and before he and Bea took their first steps down the aisle, Nick’s eyes turned toward Jesus and he whispered, “Just for today.”
My husband and I reside in Bend, Oregon where I enjoy writing fiction and non-fiction. I rely on attending St. Francis of Assissi Church, co-leading a writing group for the Word on Fire Institute, and hiking in the mountains in order to connect with the Holy Spirit for writing inspiration.
Kim Jacobson, “The Shoes,” An Unexpected Journal: Joy 5, no. 3. (Fall 2022), 157-166.