Sunday, 1 July 1979
On a sweltering summer morning, Father James Forester turned onto the driveway of his old parish. He listened as the crunching noise his car tires made rolling onto the dirt lot acted like a nostalgic soundtrack to an otherwise dull drive. As he entered the holy grounds, James turned down his stereo. His long drive from New England to the outskirts of Atlanta had dwindled his radio choices. Perhaps far too used to the college radio stations playing the latest disco tracks, the country tunes of his home state had become unfamiliar. The moment James drove into the Southern heartland his choices became country, country, and sermons. Having never been fond of the southern preaching style, he opted for the serenaded by outlaw cowboys and their guitars. He swiftly parked his car directly behind the church, took his keys off the ignition, and let out an audible sigh.
Shielded from the hot Georgian sun stood old Miss Sharon, a wiry grey-haired woman in a large sun hat, cross-armed on the porch. She tapped her foot aggressively, urging James to hurry his pace. Her presence was domineering—her stare directed to James with pursed lips and impatience.
"Been a long time Miss Sharon," smiled James, with a soft drawl and gentle wave. He walked over, smiling stupidly waiting for the old lady's reply.
"You are thirty-five minutes late, Jimmy!" she retorted in a sharp Atlanta accent.
James laughed "I'm sorry about that. I got stuck in traffic; I am lucky to just be this late."
He walked up the stairs hearing the creaks of the wood responding to his steps. "Crazy heat huh?" he remarked, secretly thanking God to finally reach shade. Trickles of sweat cascaded down his back and stuck his skin to his black shirt.
Miss Sharon with a raised eyebrow stated, "Not for us that live here." With a quick tsk, she shook her head and turned towards the front door. "You should be ashamed Jimmy, you're from here!" She fiddled with a set of keys before eventually unlocking the front door. "Come in, I'll turn on the window unit." Both she and James stepped inside the corridor leading to a substantially hotter living room.
"It's been nearly nine years since my last Georgia summer," James exclaimed, now unbuttoning the top buttons of his shirt. Miss Sharon flicked on the window unit and smiled gleefully.
"Has it been that long? In my eyes you're still that cute little altar boy."
“I am nearly forty Miss Sharon. I look quite different now”"
James stood in front of the window unit to be pelted by cool stale air. Miss Sharon lightly patted his shoulder and sat down.
"Still a baby in my eyes," She said then letting out a noise older folks tend make when moving around. "I gotta say, I am still not used to seeing you as a Priest, Jimmy. You were a baby when you began seminary and now look at you!" James rolled his eyes, instinctively out of Miss Sharon's line of sight. Even at her age and with her faulty sight, James knew fully well from his youth that the old lady could catch any tiny display of disobedience.
"Yeah, dad wanted me to just take on the professorial role without any attachment to the collar, but it just felt right," James replied, carefully constructing words so as not to set on any town gossip before his first sermon.
"Between you and I, I think he's still holding out hope for you to carry on the name, Jimmy," retorted Miss Sharon, now using her hat as a fan. James briefly closed his eyes, knowing she was prying on purpose. He'd had this conversation with her almost every month during his seminary studies either through the phone or in letters. She had abandoned the argument several years before and James thought it odd for her to bring it up once more. He continued to stand in front of the window unit and looked on outside, knowing that saying anything more would welcome Miss Sharon’s further critique.
Sensing the discomfort, Miss Sharon began to rise from the couch, hands on her knees and letting out a low grunt in her efforts to peel away. "Well, I have head on home before my nephew begins to worry," stated Miss Sharon, patting away any dust from her long sundress. James looked at her confused, "I didn't know you had a nephew." Miss Sharon looked away slyly and hurried her steps slightly.
"Would you like me to drive you home?"
Miss Sharon shook her head and smirked lightly, "No it's alright. Walking is good for my age."
She slowly began to make her way to the corridor and James followed her, carefully looking at her movements. She waddled a bit as if her legs were locked from briefly sitting down. James had not realized just how old and frail she had become. The strict librarian who'd often run him out of her peach grove could barely stand without creaking bones. Time indeed had passed, James thought to himself.
“Im old not on death’s bed Jimmy. I can walk within a house" she sharply snapped having caught his contemplative gaze. James lightly laughed; she was still a firecracker woman.
"I know, Miss Sharon but still, it is hot outside. Please let me drive you home." Miss Sharon grew irritated as she regained control of her stride and walked towards the door.
"I changed your diapers and you wanna lecture me?" she swung open the door, " Lord, this boy spreads Your word but can't even listen to his elders here on Earth."
Knowing the battle to be lost, James simply sighed and replied "Well alright Miss Sharon. Please make it safely home." With a trumpeted mouth she handed James the keys and said, "Call me if you need anything." She paused for a minute then suddnely reached over and then held on to James' hand. It was a tiny gesture, but it had been a very longtime since James was touched so sweetly. Miss Sharon smiled gently and with her other hand began to stroke his face.
"The landline has been set so there should be no issues. I left instructions on the desk in the study just in case." She continued to stroke his cheek and quietly said, "I'm so happy you're here. I've missed you." Miss Sharon reached over and lightly kissed James on the cheek before making her way down the steps. The gentle gesture had tugged on his heartstrings and lightly struck upon long submerged emotions. James waved goodbye from his new temporary home and watched her slowly disappear from his line of sight.
The rest of the afternoon was spent by James trudging his two suitcases, books, and small record collection from his car. After unpacking and sprucing up the house, James lay down on the couch, exhausted from the day's activities. He was lucky enough to not have raised any suspicion. This was a small town after all and snoopy folks had a habit of showing up unannounced with homemade pies and smalltown gossip. Besides, he was only taking on the duties of this old parish for a month. A new priest had been allocated for St. Patrick but would not be able to come until the first of August. It didn't even take long to fill the post, thought James.
For the most part, James did not regularly observe mass. His priestly duties was more aligned within the realm of education where he worked as a theology professor at universities. James enjoyed the role of leadership and parish head but found out later that he preferred molding young minds and discussing the constructions of the world to the repetitiveness of serving mass and entertaining the old ladies complaining about their long-haired grandkids.
Taking on this parish, even if temporarily, was a favor to Miss Sharon and a memorial service to his old priest, Father Michael Stone. Miss Sharon had written to both his home diocese and the Atlanta bishops for James to take it on permanently. All three parties (James included) were opposed to the idea but to stop her incessant letters and pleas, they agreed to allow him to take on the duties for a month before starting his sabbatical.
Father Michael was a young priest who had taken on the parish back in the 30s. James grew up with Father Michael seeing him not only as an old colleague and mentor but as a confidant. His sudden death came on as a shock to everyone in the community. He was James' inspiration to take on the cloth despite Father Michael's initial reluctance. Although he loved James's curiosity during his days as an altar boy and helped him apply for seminary, Father Michael actively discouraged James from joining. Father Michael presented as a recessive Alpha but who could easily control his urges even in the presence of omega parishioners. His self-control was commendable and highly respected by those around him. It was rare to have an Alpha priest and in this small town, that rarity was cause for admiration. James recalled never being able to pick up his scent either. He remembers during elementary school being able to pick up people's distinctive notes, even the betas he went to school with! But never with Father Michael.
James, on the other hand, presented as a dominant Alpha. His instinctual prowess ever-present even during his youth. He exhibited strong pheromones early on during puberty that as he's aged naturally contributed to a rather attractive physique. He was notably handsome with olive skin, dark curls, and a pouty mouth that was often subject of admiration. In fact, James' looks were a sore subject for his diocese. While James' presence could fill pews and collection boxes, he additionally contributed to long confession lines. The Church did not discriminate against Alphas taking on the priesthood but, it did not outwardly encourage it either—Father Michael included. However, James felt an affinity to the Church. He loved the midnight mass that took place during Easter even if he hated the pastel Sunday best. He loved the intimate environment as fluorescent lights were replaced by candle illumination. The darkened silhouettes of congregants, candles in hand singing hymns to the best of their abilities. It felt otherworldly, magical even. The narrative of resurrection, of a new start despite his sins.
James finally peeled himself off the couch and walked over to the kitchen. The interior had remained the same even if the town now looked largely unrecognizable. The once stereotypical baby boomer Americana of his youth had transformed into a ghost town. The kids he grew up with either moved out like James, suffered during the Great Inflation, or had died in Vietnam. The old folks who stayed behind still presented a ‘joie de vivre’ but their homes are left to disarray as they slowly pass away one by one. It was painful to see the lively streets dwindle to weed-covered abandon. However, James took on the post knowing that it would be just several dozen parishioners with an average age of sixty. He knew he'd be the youngest man in town. But Miss Sharon asked for this favor and who was he to deny her? Besides, it would be nice to take a break and be pampered by the little old ladies. James smiled knowing they would likely to flock him with baked goods. "At least I can eat some good peaches for once," James exclaimed aloud to himself.
With the sun quickly about to set, James decided to remove his sweat-covered clothes and run a bath. It had been years since he'd taken one. His accommodation back home was shared with two other priests with only a shower available. James lay in the water and added a bit of suds, partaking in the comfort and silence. He hadn't been alone for such a long time—he saw the appeal of bachelordom. He lay back against the warm tub and closed his eyes. There were little things he'd refer to as heavenly, always carefully assuring that only the Lord could create perfection. This single day was indeed heavenly and perfect.
Afraid of falling asleep, James left his bath and made his way to the bedroom. He reached out for his pajamas and only wore the bottoms. Usually, he'd put on the set to look respectable but between the hot weather and newfound freedom, James simply folded the shirt and did away with this pleasantry. In putting away the shirt, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection on a mirror. It had also been some time since he last saw his physique. Perhaps it was his alpha predilection or his dedicated exercise schedule but his body showed little sign of aging. The hair on his chest was lightly peppered white acting as the only indicator of his physical maturity. His shoulders and chest were quite broad giving him a stocky build that rugby players have. James flexed his muscles, attempting to the Arnold. He laughed and turned away from the mirror. That was enough vanity for the day.
As he descended downstairs, his peace was suddenly interrupted by a knock on the door. Ah, thought James, did the old ladies find me out? He walked over and opened the door. Instead of a little old lady stood a pale young man James had never seen before. His cheeks were flushed, and sweat was pouring from his face. Though barely lit by the darkened porch and absent sun, James could make out that the man appeared to be very beautiful.
"Hi there,” the man stated in a surprisingly low voice that did not match his slender body, “Miss Sharon sent me." He smiled awkwardly with a wickebasket in his hand. James looked on at him, slightly breathless. He'd never been so immideately striken by someone before. James opened his mouth to speak but could not muster any words.
Little did James know this stranger would alter the course of his life.