By Attila Zønn
In the second month of my first year in high school, I met Father Unitas.
On a rainy morning in late October, sitting in the cafeteria before school, writing my inane thoughts into my journal, I saw a man in a black tracksuit running around our track. I thought: what a fool, running in the rain.
Then just as much as I’d never seen this man anywhere before that day, I saw him everywhere from that moment on. He was a priest, but unlike the other priests in the school, he wore a black cassock.
Father Declan taught no classes, but he was a constant presence, and when we had mass in the gym, he conducted it. It was from his frequent uttering of ‘unite us, oh Lord’, at all school rallies and masses that he acquired the name ‘Father Unitas’ from the student body.
One day after school, not long after I had seen him running in the rain, as I headed for home, I saw him standing by the exit. As the boys streamed by him, he nodded, did the sign of the cross and said, “Fidelitas in Arduis.” As I approached, I expected the same Fidelitas, but he stuck out his hand and stopped me.
“And where do you think you’re going?” he said.
He was intimidating: this big priest standing there in a black gown.
“Home?” A mouse would have squeaked louder than my voice at that moment.
“Not empty-handed you’re not.” He raised his arm and pointed back the way I had come. His finger resembled God’s finger, pointing at Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
“You’ll go back, find me a good book, bring it here and I’ll show you what to do with it.”
As I hurried down the hall, I looked back and saw him standing there, arms crossed. His voice boomed after me, “An open book leads to an open mind! An open mind leads to empathy, and wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we could all know what the other person is feeling?”
I reached the library and blurted at the librarian, “Mr. Bonfanti! Father won’t let me go home if I don’t have a good book to show him. Please help me find a good book!”
Mr. Bonfanti chuckled.
“Let’s see,” he said and walked to the returned books trolley. He touched the first book then ran his finger along the spines, stopped and pulled one out.
“Here,” he said, and offered the book. “Try this one.”
“But is it a good book?” I said. He brushed his hand over the cover.
“It has good in the title,” he said.
He stamped the card and handed me the book.
I took it without looking at the cover and hurried back to the exit. I rushed towards the priest, with the book in extended hand, and rammed it into his stomach. He groaned and folded backwards. Now I was terrified that I had hurt the priest in the dress.
He didn’t get angry.
He straightened up, gave me an I’ll remember you for the rest of my life look, took the book and focused on the cover.
“Excellent,” he said, then asked, “What’s your name, boy?”
“James,” I said.
“James. Tonight you’ll read the first three chapters. Tomorrow morning you’ll visit me in residence, and tell me all about it. Now, off you go.” He grabbed my shoulder. “No Cole’s Notes. Read it.”
During all my years in school, I tried hard not to be noticed. I sat at the back of the class, hiding behind the kid in front of me so as not to get picked to answer a question, but I was always picked. As time went on, and my vision weakened to where even sitting at the very front didn’t help my seeing words on the blackboard, I realized, if I didn’t want to be noticed, I should have sat in the front, in plain view.
Now I was noticed, by this big priest.
Days when we crossed each other in the halls, he’d smile and say, “Are you saying your prayers every night, James?”
“Good lad,” he’d say.
One morning in English class, he walked in, greeted us, scanned the students then said, “I need a couple of strong lads to assist me.”
I knew—I knew he was going to pick me. He did, along with Steven Dubius. We followed him to the music room, out the back door where an upright piano waited in the sunshine—its black coat glistened.
“It seems they deliver but won’t bring it in if there are steps,” Father Unitas said.
There were five concrete steps onto a concrete landing.
“That looks heavy,” Steven Dubius said.
“It’s only as heavy as the lightness of our motivation,” Father Unitas said. “With a bit of oomph and leverage and willingness, all can be achieved.”
The piano had casters. We rolled it to the first step. I grabbed the handle at the back of the piano, Steven Dubius grabbed underside the keyboard and after a one, two, three, we lifted while Father Unitas pushed forward. We got it on the first step.
“I don’t know,” Steven Dubius said. “I think we need more people.”
“As you can see, Steven, the narrowness of this threshold doesn’t allow for more people. Now lift and I’ll push forward, ” Father Unitas said.
Steven wasn’t trying. I felt he was limp on his side. The piano tipped towards him when I lifted. Father Unitas stopped and glared at Steven. Steven said, “I don’t want to hurt my back. My father hurt his back and can’t work. He’s always angry now.”
Father Unitas’s glare softened and he looked down at the ground. “Very well,” he said. “Back to class then.”
“How about you?” he said.
“I don’t have a father,” I said. “And I don’t know what a painful back feels like.”
Copyright©Attila Zønn 2019