An excerpt from the novel "Once Upon a Time in West Toronto"

A Shout From God

Fiction

Lily doesn’t consider herself religious, but when her mother’s illness overwhelms her, she goes to Holy Martyrs. They have the best music of all the churches in Toronto’s west end. None of that modern stuff; it’s traditional all the way. Tonight the organist plays Bach’s Fugue in G Minor, the torrent of notes cascading out of the loft like a shout from God.

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Lily doesn’t believe in much that the church stands for anymore, but the liturgical music is so powerful that she vanishes inside it.

Her only other escape is physical. As her mother’s body breaks down, Lily builds hers up: weights, crunches, running. Yesterday one of the trainers at the gym took her aside: Lily, you’re overdoing it. Maybe you should see your doctor?

Lily goes to church instead.

 

It’s a Saturday mass on an evening too cold to snow. As the choir warms up, Lily tries to let the music overwhelm her, but tonight, even Bach isn’t working.

Earlier that day at the nursing home, Lily had spread out some family snapshots, portraits of clients, even a photograph from the Oka standoff that won her mother a photojournalism prize.

Yours, ma mère. Remember?

The frozen eyes might as well have been staring at a bedpan. Her mother is only sixty; Lily, twenty years younger. Almost as close in time as sisters.

Soon I might be you, Lily thinks. If she’s inherited the Huntington’s gene from her mother, she’ll get the disease. Paralysis, dementia, all of it. No amount of healthy living will make a damn bit of difference.

Unbuttoning her coat to let in the warmth, Lily watches Marcello steam milk and pour espresso into thick cups, a gold band on his finger catching the light as he places biscotti on a plate. For a big man, he works with surprising delicacy.

Her doctor urges a genetic test. Lily refuses. Knowing her destiny would be like waiting for years to be in a car wreck, watching as her body tears itself apart in slow motion.

 

Tonight, Lily sits near the back where she can listen to the music without feeling she has to give the sign of peace to other congregants.

She picks an almost empty pew. A man sits at the other end, bulky in his winter coat. He doesn’t turn when she slides in. She suspects he’s not the sign of peace type either.

At the altar, Father Silva lifts his hands and says, “Peace be with you.”

“And also with you,” the congregants respond. They trade kisses and handshakes.

Lily glances at the man at the end of the pew. He’s looking at her now, too, his eyes deeply bruised. A white patch on his tangle of grey hair makes him look as though he’s been daubed with paint.

“Peace be with you,” he says. He doesn’t offer his hand.

“You, too,” Lily responds.

 

When mass is over, Lily likes to listen to the processional, alone with her thoughts.

She glances at the man again. Robust, her mother would have called him, with the broad body of a boxer and the High Renaissance profile of a stained glass martyr. Saint Sebastian, after the Romans got finished with him. She imagines the man shot full of arrows, looking down at his bristling coat in surprise.

Lily stifles a laugh but one note escapes up into the apse; she pretends she’s clearing her throat. But the man is on to her, smiling at her, trying to decipher the joke.

She smiles back. “Do you enjoy the music?”

“Very much. My daughter sings in the choir.” His voice carries the cadences of a long-lost accent.

Lily looks up at the choir loft where two dark-haired women, a soprano in her teens, an alto of about Lily’s age, gather sheet music: the bruised man’s daughter and wife, she assumes. The mother tucks in the daughter’s blouse, a gesture that reminds Lily of ma mère.

“I love your wife and daughter’s voices. I’ve heard them sing in duet,” says Lily, searching for her gloves.

The man looks at her in confusion. “Sophia’s not here tonight—she’s on a school trip. Her mother used to sing but she passed away.”

 

All Lily wanted was a quiet moment alone and now she has stumbled into someone else’s grief. As if she needed more.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The correct phrase, all that’s required—but she adds: “Single fatherhood must be a challenge.”

He smiles as if she’s paid him a compliment. “Not at all. Sophia is my life.”

“Well! That’s wonderful,” she says, surprised by the man’s brief show of emotion. “Good night, then.”

“You too,” he says, still not moving.

What is he waiting for? wonders Lily, pulling on her gloves.

She sees now that the man’s eyes are shadowed, not bruised. The mark of a fellow insomniac. His solid presence attracts her like a big planet pulling a smaller one into its orbit. She finds herself wanting to touch that white patch of hair.

Pretending to rummage in her purse for car keys, she says, “Would you like to join me for coffee? There’s a place near here I want to try. Marcello’s.”

“Yeah, sure, I know it,” says the man. “I own it.”

 

Marcello usually goes to Sunday mass. But when he made an appointment to speak with Father Silva, the priest suggested they meet before Saturday service.

Silva led Marcello into an office, all wood and noiseless carpets. He explained that there is no restriction on middle-aged widowers from taking Holy Orders. “But what does your family think?”

“There’s only Sophia and she’s off to university soon.”

Silva ran a finger down Marcello’s life, laid out chronologically in a letter on the desk. No family, except for the daughter: unusual in this neighbourhood.

The priest has had men like Marcello across from him before: aging tough guys who start worrying about their souls. “How long since your last confession?”

“Years,” Marcello admitted. “I’m carrying an unforgivable sin.”

Ah, guilt—the crux of the matter, thought Silva.

“You have to be in a state of grace for Holy Orders. Consider this office a confessional. I can absolve you now.”

Marcello glanced at the bookshelves, the blank computer screen, the contemporary artwork. “I can’t confess, Father. I’m not sorry for what I did.”

“You’re talking about despair, a sin in itself,” Silva warned, checking his watch. “I have to get into my vestments now. We’ll talk again.”

Marcello shook Silva’s hand, suspecting that he will need to find another priest.

 

A chill runs through Lily as Marcello unlocks the front door of the café. She glances around at the neighbouring groceterias, dollar stores, and wedding and Communion dress shops, all asleep and dreaming.

“Not enough business to be open late in winter,” he says, holding the door for her. “How about I make a couple of cappuccinos and we take them upstairs?”

Unbuttoning her coat to let in the warmth, Lily watches Marcello steam milk and pour espresso into thick cups, a gold band on his finger catching the light as he places biscotti on a plate. For a big man, he works with surprising delicacy.

Balancing a tray, he leads her to his flat. An upright piano shines against one wall; speakers dominate another.

A solemn-looking girl stares out of a painting—the daughter, obviously. Next to her are several black-and-whites of a woman with serious eyes. She looks directly at the camera, not smiling, but with noticeable emotion.

She dearly loved whoever shot these photographs, thinks Lily.

“That’s Ida. I took those the year before she died.” Anticipating Lily’s next question, he adds, “Ovarian cancer. It took Ida’s mother, too.”

Lily examines the images. “You have a good eye.”

Marcello acknowledges the compliment with a nod and waves her to the couch.

When he offers biscotti, she shakes her head. He raises his eyebrows at Lily’s refusal to eat.

She crosses her legs. “What was weighing on your mind tonight, Marcello? I could feel you thinking from the end of the pew.”

He shrugs, soaking a chunk of biscotti in the coffee. “I’m considering the priesthood.”

Jesus! Lily tugs down the hem of her skirt.

“What makes you think you have a calling?”

He circles his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “When I was a kid, people were always pushing me toward Holy Orders. Maybe they saw something I didn’t.”

“Any revelations at mass?” She immediately regrets her choice of words but Marcello grins, as if he appreciates not being taken too seriously.

“Not really. Sometimes I just like to sit quietly and listen to God. To Ida, really.”

The offhand way that Marcello mentions his late wife makes her seem alive. Lily feels almost guilty about being alone with her husband. Oblivious to the effect of his words, Marcello starts eating Lily’s untouched food.

“What about you? Why were you there?” he asks, dunking her biscotti in his cup.

Lily considers whether to tell him about her mother’s illness and her own fears of getting sick. She decides: No.

“The usual for a lapsed Catholic. The music.”

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They sip their cappuccinos, Lily watching Marcello over her cup. She picked a priest! Drink up and go, she tells herself. Early tomorrow, she has to return to the nursing home with its antiseptic washes never quite covering the odour of dirty diapers, the crrrkk of privacy curtains, the ring of a catheter hitting stainless steel while a voice sings, Good girl, Ms. Daigle! Lily never witnesses the siphoning of her mother’s bladder. She stands outside the curtain and waits. Waits for the neurologist, the nurse, the physiotherapist. Waits for the first signs of disease in herself.

She’s so fucking tired of waiting.

“Marcello, if you haven’t yet taken a vow of celibacy, I’d really like to sleep with you,” she announces.

He stops gathering their cups. “Lily, you don’t even know me.”

“I don’t want to, except in a Biblical sense.”

“But I could be anybody!”

“You’re an attractive man. I want to go to bed with you. That’s really all there is to it.”

“Lily, it’s flattering to . . .”

“Do you have condoms?” she interrupts.

Marcello shakes his head.

“That’s okay,” says Lily, rummaging in her purse. “I think I do.”

She places two Sheiks on the table.

 

Women have changed, Marcello thinks in awe.

Lily is lovely but she’s also sfacciata. Nervy. That’s the word Ida would use. But his bed has been more or less empty since her death. He senses that she wouldn’t mind him being with Lily. You have a body, yes? he imagines Ida saying with her usual exasperation at Marcello’s cautious nature. So use it! Subito! What are you waiting for?

Marcello moves next to Lily, close enough to pick up a flowery scent on her skin and something strangely sharp and clinical—an antiseptic, perhaps. He takes her hand. Lily moves it to her breast and kisses him. A puddle of clothing collects softly on the floor. Ambushed by desire, Marcello carries her to bed.

Lily’s body surprises him: her muscles are hard as rock and she is almost completely hairless. He strokes and enters her, bringing her to climax, although his mind is unhappily aware that they’re having sex, not making love. An ugly Italian word pops into his head—gigolo—but he swats it away.

Marcello gentles her face with his hand, the gesture so unconsciously intimate that Lily recognizes it as muscle memory. His body thinks she’s someone else.

“Can I get you a sandwich? A glass of wine?”

“Thanks, no.” Lily suspects that Ida must have liked a little something after lovemaking.

“Just thought you might be hungry,” Marcello murmurs.

Lily yawns. Funny, how she can’t seem to put her body in motion. Is this an early symptom of Huntington’s? It takes a heartbeat to realize that she’s too comfortable to move her body away from his.

Maybe I should tell him about myself, she considers, then imagines the look on his face, the concerned tone of voice: You could get sick? Can they do a test? His eyes would brush her with pity, painting out the woman, sketching in a victim. It’s happened before.

She searches the covers for her bra. “Time for me to go, Marcello.”

He rubs his eyes. “Ah, I forgot. You don’t want to know me. Except in a Biblical sense.”

She’s hurt him, the last thing she wanted to do. Trying to lighten the mood, she says, “After what you just did in bed, I think you’d be wasted on the priesthood.”

Lily hopes for one of his embarrassed smiles. Instead he looks distressed.

“You’re right: I don’t have a calling. I’m not even a particularly good Catholic.”

Lily shakes her head, confused. “Then why become a priest?”

Marcello’s hands try to pull an explanation out of the air. “It’s a way to settle up for a mortal sin I’ve never been able to confess.”

“What did you do?”

“I ran away with my stepmother.”

Time slows down as everything in the room—the bed, the discarded condom, even Lily herself—moves slightly out of true. What does she really know about this man?

“Ida was your stepmother?”

Marcello nods, eyes closed.

Lily feels as if she’s fallen into a fairy tale—no, an opera. “All right. I’ll stay awhile and hear your confession in exchange for a glass of wine. Deal?”

He shakes his head. “Wine on its own is bad for the digestion. You have to eat, Lily. I have some beautiful cheese and Calabrese bread.”

Naked except for a tiny crucifix, the image of the suffering man hanging around his neck, Marcello searches the floor. He finds a crumpled robe and sniffs it. “Pretty sure it’s clean,” he says, wrapping it around Lily.

Marcello’s lack of self-consciousness fascinates her. Unlike Lily, he’s confident in his body, the heavy muscles of his shoulders, the unfashionable tangle of hair travelling from the scarred muscles of his chest, down a belly softening with age, finally nesting around his dangling cock. It’s a body he’s at peace with. Does the job, she can imagine him saying with a shrug.

“I could make us a zabaglione afterwards,” he offers, belting Lily’s robe. “It’ll be a long confession.”

 

In the kitchen, Lily watches the rhythm of Marcello’s hands as he prepares food. On the sound system, two sopranos break the darkness, their voices twining and untwining in “The Flower Duet.” He reaches over and brushes Lily’s cheek affectionately with his fingertips as if they share a meal and listen to opera every day.

“This okay?”

“Beautiful. Sutherland and Berbie.”

“You have a good ear.”

Filling juice glasses with wine, Marcello begins: “My mother died when I was a kid. When I was nineteen, Pop remarried by proxy. His brother stood up for him in Italy and had the bride sent to Niagara Falls, where we lived. Ida was twenty. Beautiful, like you, Lily. I fell in love the moment I saw her. I tried to stay away, even slept in my car. But she kept calling me in for meals—you know how it was in those days. Women cooked, men ate. Every time I sat across the table from her, I fell more deeply in love.”

“Did your father know?”

“All Pop saw was the soup in front of his nose. Ida told him, ‘Give me seven days to get settled, then I’ll share your bed.’ On the fourth night she came out to the car. We made love. Then we ran away. I figured I’d go straight to hell but I couldn’t help myself.” Marcello stops to stare disapprovingly at Lily’s untouched plate. “Mangia, Lily, that’s good cheese! Anyway, we came to Toronto and opened the café. Ida taught me to cook. We had Sophia. A few years later, Ida got sick. It felt like God’s punishment.”

Lily doesn’t see where the story is going. “But why become a priest?”

Marcello hesitates, reluctant to voice what’s on his mind. “So Sophia won’t end up like her mother and grandmother.”

Now Lily understands. He’s trying to trade his life for his daughter’s. She’s tempted to throw words at Marcello like DNA, lethal gene, hardwired, religious superstition. But there’s no comfort in hearing that his sacrifice is pointless. He must know that Sophia will get sick or she won’t. Just like Lily.

“You really believe using yourself as a bargaining chip will help?

Marcello’s bruised eyes find hers in the half-light. “I just want God to leave Sophia the hell alone. If I’m absolved, maybe she’ll be spared.”

Lily places her hand on his forehead, as if blessing him. “I absolve you. Go in peace and never sin again.”

Marcello takes her hand and kisses it. “You’d make a better priest than me.”

 

The opera has ended. The stove clock glows 3:00. Visiting hours at the nursing home will start at six. Rising to leave, Lily is speared by a sliver of cold from a window. The temperature outside must have plummeted.

Marcello comes to her and unknots the robe; she’s simultaneously chilled by the air and warmed by his hands. When they return to bed, he moves slowly, attentive to everything that pleases her. She breathes in the incense of his body, a mixture of lemon, basil and sweat, then dozes with her head on his chest, lulled by his steady heart.

 

Lily leaves through the front door, the Marcello’s sign looming darkly above. A bread delivery truck crawls along, stopping at storefronts on its way to the café. “The Future Is Coming” the truck’s slogan reminds her.

Marcello comes out, shivering in his robe. He tries to embrace Lily but her body is lost inside her heavy coat.

“We could love one another,” he states.

“What about the priesthood?”

“This is holier.”

Lily backs out of his gravitational pull. “Go inside. You’re freezing to death.”

She unlocks the car, wondering whether the battery has died. Would it be a sign that she doesn’t carry the lethal gene? Stay in peace. Now she’s bargaining with God too. When she turns the key, the engine roars to life, forcing her to choose.

Through the frosted windshield, she sees Marcello on the stoop, his white patch of hair reminding her of a tree blazed in the woods.

Opening the door, she asks: “What’ll you do if I come back tonight?”

“Make risotto,” he answers.

She smiles and closes the door.

Arms crossed against the cold, Marcello watches Lily drive away, then goes inside to wait for bread in the empty Toronto dawn.


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Ayelet Tsabari