FICTION: Next to Normal by Robert Perron


A click clued me the intercom had opened and he was listening, and watching. I donned a chipper face and said, “Patrick, it’s Bill O’Dwyer, your cousin once removed.” No response. “Grandson to your Aunt Maureen.”

I thought the effort for naught in the dead air that followed and had started to turn away when a lilting voice rolled from the metal speaker. “Who’s your mum, then?”

“Why, your cousin Sarah,” I said.

“And how coomb the visit?” Still putting on the accent though native to and living yet in Providence, Rhode Island.

“To see if you’re doing okay,” I said. “The family, well, you know, they’re still family.”

“Are they then?” But the buzzer sounded and I put a shoulder to the foyer door. As I pushed, a spasm below the beltline sent a dribble of urine into my shorts. I closed my eyes and breathed in. I exhaled. Maybe I should have taken Marco’s advice, brought him along with a length of piano wire. I’m sure he was joking about the piano wire, but there remained this issue: I had no plan beyond getting in.

Upstairs, seventh floor, I looked left from the elevator, saw a door ajar, and approached. The door opened further and I faced Patrick Harrington. The older, angular face, the sparse gray hair, the thin lips, I recognized from news reports and online searches, not from years gone by. He stood an inch shorter than my five nine, shallow in the chest, sloped in the shoulders. He dressed retro, a button-down short-sleeve shirt tucked into brown polyester pants, his feet in brown loafers.

I pushed bull-like across the threshold and Harrington back-stepped with darting eyes and parting lips. “I’m not your cousin,” I said. “I’m Shawn Callaghan.”

He took another step back and raised a finger. “Are you a reporter, then?”

“I’m not a reporter, I’m Shawn Callaghan.” I closed the gap between us. I’m sure my face was red and screwed one side higher than the other. “Don’t you remember me, Father Harrington? Don’t you remember your favorite altar boy from Saint Dominic’s?”

He lowered his hazel eyes to my hands, rough and meaty. He raised his eyes and dropped his finger. “Are you here to pummel me, then?”

“No, I’m here for tea and crumpets.” I lifted my right hand and he threw up forearms—then let them drop to his sides, a missionary at the stake. Unable to follow through, I lowered my hand and we stood several seconds in silence.

“Would you like a cup of tea, then?” he said.

“Aren’t you the smart one?”

“No, no,” he said. “It’s just. While you’re thinking on what to do, we might as well have a bit of something.”

As mentioned, I hadn’t planned, had assumed the words and actions would flow, so maybe tea was the next step. I closed the apartment door behind me not removing Harrington from my sight.

“If it’s not putting you out,” I said.

Harrington about-faced and shuffled to a stove and sink and fridge that formed a kitchen in the left far quadrant of the apartment. To the right of the kitchen, separated by a counter, was a square Ikea table, faux maple, with four chairs, and behind the table, a sliding glass door, open to an early summer breeze. Close by, to my right, hunkered a Morris chair. I walked in a few steps and looked through the bedroom door the other side of the chair. It had the appearance of a monk’s cell: a twin bed with light walnut headboard and footboard, olive blanket pulled tight with hospital corners, and above the headboard, a crucifix, the Lord Jesus in agony. Who was he trying to kid?

Harrington called out. “I’m afraid I can’t offer anything stronger than tea. It would jeopardize me standing with probation.”

“Not even a touch of communion wine?” I said.

“Well, then, Shawn, you must know I’ve been defrocked. So the point is moot.”

Always clever with the words, Father Harrington.

I crossed the dining area, and as the kettle whistled, stepped past the slider onto a narrow concrete balcony. I pressed against the balustrade and looked seven stories down to the miniature roofs and hoods of cars parked in the street. A queasy near-the-edge feeling rose from my knees and passed through my groin. I hadn’t even noticed the balconies when I entered the building.

Earlier that morning, Marco had lowered his sweatpants below his testicles and placed his erect penis against my lips, this while I was sitting at my desk, this after the witticism about the piano wire. I wasn’t in the mood but he wouldn’t be put off. Afterwards, he squeezed and rubbed the back of my neck and said, Shawn, darling, it might be a bad idea seeing this old felony priest—it’s been a long time. Not long enough, I said, and showed him my research. I knew where Harrington lived from the sex offender registry and had scouted the foyer. He hadn’t even bothered to disguise his name—there it lay, P. Harrington, on a rectangular label behind laminate underneath his call button. I had picked up the names of his relations from the news and internet, and had devised a ruse for getting in. Marco said, then what?

“Do heights bother you?” Harrington stood next to me leaning against the balustrade.

“I could do without them,” I said.

“Watch this.” Harrington put a palm on the top of the concrete barrier, and with a jump and a twist, reversed direction, seating himself with legs dangling toward the slider and spine resting against nothingness. He leaned back a few degrees, looked over his shoulder, and said, “Is that yours, the blue Toyota?”

Nausea rose from my stomach, like I was near falling myself. I nodded.

“Me da worked the high iron,” said Harrington. “Took me up a few times.” He swung his calves so the heels of his loafers knocked against the balustrade. “I don’t know what it is. Never bothers me, heights.”

Harrington smiled and hopped down. Inside, I found the table set with tea bags in two cups of hot water, sugar and milk on the side. “Red Rose,” said Harrington. He reached across to the kitchen counter and gathered a plate secured by Saran wrap. “Are you partial to oatmeal cookies?”

I scraped back a chair and settled myself. Harrington took the chair across. He removed his tea bag, squeezed it, and set it on his saucer. I followed suit.

His eyes rose to mine. “And so?”

“And so,” I said. I gathered my anger and closed my hands, which rested on the table, to fists. “How could you? I was a lad. I was twelve years old.” Harrington’s lips parted a fraction as he held my gaze. “Not to mention your vow of celibacy. A man of the cloth were you?”

“Let me ask you a question,” said Harrington. Priests loved to do this. Ask them a question, they ask you a question, round and round. Does God exist? Does he not? How come the soul doesn’t show up on an X-ray? Well then, can the supernatural show up on a manmade device? On and on.

Harrington said, “Are you or have you ever been in a gay relationship?”

I lifted my right fist two inches and brought it down on the table. My tea cup rattled in its saucer. “That’s not pertinent,” I said.

“Let me try another question, What is the purpose of sex in the mind of God—or Darwin, if you prefer?”

What pieces of work, these priests.

“It’s not a trick question,” said Harrington.

When I continued to refuse the bait, Harrington said, “Procreation, is it not?”

I must have nodded because Harrington smiled. “And so, in the scheme of the universe, sex that doesn’t lead to—or at least offer the possibility of—procreation is wasteful. Unnatural. Sinful.” Harrington put up a finger. “But the organism desiring sex does not act in the interests of the grander scheme, but in response to the driving force. Which for most men is another woman but for some of us—”

“Oh no,” I said. “You’re not slithering out that way.”

“Slither is it?” Color came to Harrington’s face and the pitch of his voice rose. “I’m not trying to slither out of anything. I’m trying to explain. You yourself know how strong it is, the urge for the so-called unnatural. How—for you—to be with another man’s next to normal.”

“No,” I said. “You’re not doing this.”

Harrington stood. “And for me, I fear, the attraction goes to young boys—”

I rose with my hands flat on the table. “I’m not interested in your how many angels can fit on a pinhead horse shit. We’re talking about real life. About real damage.”

“But Shawn, I’m trying to explain. The urge—”

I was beyond angry, in another space, another time. Harrington talked on about his alternate reality, about the primeval urge that had him by the throat, etcetera, etcetera. As he blathered, it came back, my conversation with Marco some four years ago the night it started. We were lounging on the couch when the television announced yet another indictment of a priest for sexual misconduct. As I watched, my face tingled and my vision blurred. Marco said, Jesus Christ, what is it? I remained silent and Marco said, tell me, Shawn, I’m your partner. So I told him. I told him about the first time, in the sacristy of St. Dominic’s, following Holy Mass, Harrington’s vestments cast aside, him on his knees undoing my belt buckle, unzipping my fly. Marco considered my revelation, sat back, and asked, did you like it? Did I what? I said. Did you like getting sucked off? I was twelve, for God’s sake, I said, and he was molesting me. Marco said, it’s just that I think I was thirteen when I got my first blow job and I really liked it. I liked it better than weed. We went silent for twenty seconds. The news had moved on to another story. Yeah, I said, I liked it, I liked getting off. I took Marco’s hand. But it doesn’t excuse what he did. Marco squeezed.

Marco’s hard to read, I should add. He’s fourteen years younger and missed the worst of the priests, the worst of AIDS. I worry about our relationship—that I can’t keep pace with his sexual appetite. I worry about other things, like late middle age, like death.

Harrington resumed his seat. I resumed mine. He broke off a piece of oatmeal and steeped it in his Red Rose. “Do you like to dip?” he said.

“Father Harrington,” I said, “you’re something else.”

He looked sideways past the slider as he nibbled, two fingers and thumb poised at his mouth. He swallowed with a surge of his Adam’s apple and dropped his fingers.

“I sometimes think of jumping from the balcony,” he said. “It would be easy because I don’t fear heights.” He turned his face to me. “You know what stops me?”

“What is it that stops you?” I said.

“Why, it’s a mortal sin,” He looked at the ceiling and let loose a laugh. He brought his face back to mine. “And since I’m immediately dead, there’s no chance for confession and absolution. I’d be damned to the fires of hell for eternity.” He laughed again. “Did you ever get the story of the gangster and the blasphemous boy from the nuns? You must have.”

There he was, Harrington the charmer.

“A gangster robs and kills people. He’s a horrid man, caught, tried, and condemned to the electric chair. But before the switch is thrown, he makes his confession, receives absolution, and his soul ascends to heaven. Heaven, mind you, a gangster.”

Harrington leaned back and crossed a leg.

“Now a young laddie one day takes the name of the lord in vain, a minor mortal sin, but mortal nonetheless. He’s on his way to confession but before he gets there is struck down by a car and killed. And his soul—his soul goes straight to the furnace it does. Hell, mind you, for one unabsolved spot. Let that be a lesson.”

I reached for a cookie.

“You’ve heard it then, Shawn?”

“Of course, and I’ve taken great care since with the lord’s name.” But I didn’t laugh at my joke and Harrington’s smile dropped away.

I took a bite of the oatmeal, and held the remainder in front of my face. “Home made?”

“Ah, afraid I don’t have those skills. But they’re from a bakery, not the supermarket.”

“Quite good.” I took another bite and looked onto the balcony as I chewed, then turned back with my cheery face.

“Father Harrington,” I said, “I’m thinking that if someone, let’s say myself,  assisted you over the railing, it wouldn’t be suicide, and that upon landing, your soul would ascend to heaven. Assuming, of course, you’ve made your confession and attended to your penance.”

Harrington lifted his arms as if in a pulpit. “‘Tis considerate, Shawn, but I couldn’t do that to you.”

“To me?”

“Don’t you see? The police would surely arrest you for murder.”

I hadn’t considered that aspect.

Harrington added, “Especially if I yelled ‘he-eee pu-uuu-shed me-eee’ on the way down.”

I almost laughed. I said, “You have no remorse at all, you bastard. You think you’ve done nothing more than the odd venial sin.”

Harrington’s lips fluttered. “Not true,” he said. “Not true.”

He twisted his body and opened a drawer in the kitchen counter, and twisted back with a sheaf of white, lined paper and a pen. Cocking his right arm, he applied the date to the top line of the top sheet, right side, dropped two lines, and against the left margin wrote, “Dear Shawn Callaghan,” followed by a colon. Then began the body of his missive in flowing Palmer. I’d not seen handwriting that striking since eighth grade. “I hereby acknowledge,” the letter read, “that I have done you grievous harm of a sexual nature when I was a priest and you were an altar boy. I regret those actions and the pain they have caused. My remorse in that regard is immeasurable. Respectfully, Patrick Harrington.”

Harrington turned again to the counter drawer and extracted an envelope of legal size. He folded the letter in three, placed it in the envelope, and slid the envelope to my side of the table. I made no move and Harrington pointed. “There it is, Shawn. I make no pretenses.”

What was I supposed to do with these crocodile tears? Frame them? Then I thought, I’ll take them for Marco, exhibit them with a flourish, tell him his forebears were not the only ones who could run an inquisition. He’d get a kick out of it.

Harrington edged forward in his chair and said, “Do you want to pray?”

As I looked up from the envelope, he slid off the chair onto his knees.

I jumped to my feet. “Don’t do that,” I said. “Get up. Get up now.”

“Well, then,” he said putting his forearm on the table to assist his rising.


I had exited the foyer and entered the street in quest of my blue Toyota when I looked up and saw Harrington on his balcony, leaning forward, ribs against the balustrade, elbows and arms on top. For a second, I thought he was there to wave me off, but then realized his gaze lay ahead, straight and level.

At this moment, Munch faces materialized in blues and yellows and greens, mouths stretched top to bottom in frantic ovals. I visualized a hundred of them angled at sixty degrees, focussed on the reprobate on the balcony, screaming, “Jump, jump.”

And hell it is for you, Father Harrington.

A horn blared and I leaped back. Jesus Christ, I’d been standing halfway in the street. Harrington must have heard the horn, I thought, but when I snuck a glance up, the balcony was empty.


Robert Perron


Robert Perron lives and writes in New Hampshire and New York City. Past life includes high-tech and military service. His stories have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Korea Lit, The Manchester Review, Pif Magazine, Sweet Tree Review, The Icarus Review, and other journals.
If you enjoyed ‘Next To Normal’ leave a comment and let Robert know.





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