I had been working the evening shift for the past month, and I’d just pulled my first double. I was tired, but needed a bite and something to drink. I stopped at Bronk’s Bar on East Allegheny Ave to get an eye opener, or in my case, a sleep aid. The bar also served breakfast. I needed something to eat. Eggs would go fine for dinner.
I was shocked to see Tommy Monaghan sitting at the bar with a shot in front of him. I had known Tommy most of my life. He was never a big drinking man. He was more the religious type. Always had been. Altar boy. Mother’s pride. He could fight, but rarely cursed. Attended mass most mornings before going to his job at Lucky’s Appliances.
So I asked him, “Tommy. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at Nativity BVM?” Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a Catholic church in the heart of Port Richmond.
Tommy looked up from his drink with eyes red and drooping.
“Oh, Jimmy. It’s all changed.”
“What do you mean?”
I thought he meant the liturgy. I don’t go to church much, but when I do I like being able to go through the routine with my eyes closed. It’s jarring when the familiar words aren’t there, a new version of a prayer or ritual. It’s like when they edit scenes from a movie you watched in the past and show it on cable, the now forbidden lines or gestures removed and replaced with a scrubbed script. It’s just not the same.
“We’ve had a falling out. An argument.”
So it wasn’t the liturgy, I thought. His wife must have left him again.
“She’ll come back, Tommy. She always does.”
“It’s not Abigail. We’re doing fine. Patched up our differences. Renewed our vows. It’s God. We’ve had a falling out.”
Maybe it was the liturgy after all. I asked to be sure.
“Did they change something again with the mass?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s much bigger.”
“What, are you an atheist now?”
“No. I could never be an atheist. It’s just that God and I are no longer on speaking terms.”
“How did this happen?” I asked.
Tommy downed his shot.
“It was a week ago. I was on my way to mass, you know, before catching the bus to work. I had this twitch, the kind you can’t resist, and let out a fart. I think nothing of it, then I hear the voice.”
“Yeah, a voice. Loud and clear. ‘TOMMY. TOMMY MONAGHAN.’ I looked around but didn’t see anyone. Then I heard the voice again. ‘TOMMY MONAGHAN. I’VE BEEN WATCHING YOU.’ I looked around again but still didn’t see anyone.”
“What did you do?”
“I asked, ‘Who are you?’ And the voice said, ‘I AM YOUR LORD, YOUR GOD.’”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I am dead serious. The voice said it was God. It said, ‘YOU ARE A GOOD CATHOLIC. YOU SHOW YOUR LOVE AND DEVOTION FOR ME. THEREFORE I HAVE CHOSEN YOU TO BE MY PROPHET.’”
“Look,” I said, “even I know from parochial school that if a voice says it’s God, it may really be the devil.”
“I know. I know. But St. Thomas Aquinas also taught that if we hear a voice that says it’s God, we have to do what it says if we believe it is God. Or something like that. I can’t remember how Sister Hilda put it. Even so, I asked for proof. The voice showed me visions of my life, secret things, memories I have not shared with anyone.”
“So you believed?”
“I did. I believed and I listened. The voice said, ‘MY CHURCHES ARE EMPTY. MY PEOPLE DO NOT ATTEND MASS. YOU WILL CHANGE THAT.’ So I asked, ‘How can I do that? I am no preacher.’ And God said, ‘WITH THE GIFT I HAVE GIVEN YOU.”
“What gift, Tommy?”
Tommy looked at me with his red eyes, “Just let me finish telling the story. God said ‘THE GIFT YOU SHARED WITH THE WORLD BEFORE I SPOKE.’ So I think, what’s God talking about?”
“Go on,” I said.
“Just be quiet and listen,” Tommy chided me. “The voice said, ‘THE FART. I SHALL GIVE YOU ENDLESS FARTS. FARTS THAT SMELL SO BAD CROWDS WILL FLEE FROM YOU. NO PLACE WILL BE SAFE FROM THE SMELL, EXCEPT IN MY HOUSE. ONLY IN CHURCH SHALL THEY FIND REFUGE. YOU SHALL GO THROUGH THE WORLD RAISING A HOLY STENCH AND DRIVE MY SHEEP BACK TO ME.’”
“Is this like a new plague?” I asked, sniffing the air.
Tommy’s mouth gaped. “That’s just what I asked God. And you know what He said? ‘ONLY IF YOU TAKE IT THAT WAY.’”
“So, I asked God,” Tommy said, “What about me? Does this mean I will never be able to attend mass again? Surely my farts will follow me there and drive the people out?” And you know what God says? ‘THOU SHALT NOT FART IN CHURCH. IT IS ANATHEMA.’”
“Anathema?” I asked.
“It’s like forbidden,” Tommy explained. “Only more formal. You know. God talk. Something really not nice. Can I continue? I need to tell this to someone.”
“Go ahead, just let me order first.”
Tommy waited while the bartender listened to me ask for a shot and beer and a plate of eggs and bacon. When the bartender went back to the kitchen, Tommy resumed his story.
“So I asked God, ‘Do you mean my stench will turn off in church?’ And God says, real clear and emphatic…”
“Hold on,” I said between bites of bacon. “What does emphatic mean?”
Tommy’s brow wrinkled. “I think it means serious. Serious and loud. That’s how I heard it. So anyway, God says, ‘NO. YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO CONTROL IT IN CHURCH.’ Can you believe it? Who can control that sort of thing? I mean, when it has to come out, it just comes out.”
I drank my beer and set the mug down. “Did you tell God?”, I asked.
“Of course I told him. I said, ‘That seems awfully hard.’ I told him farting is natural, uncontrollable at times. And a fart comes out so much easier when you are relaxed in prayer or mediation.”
“Or while exercising,” I added from experience.
Tommy nodded, then continued with his story.
“But God said, ‘THOU SHALT NOT FART IN CHURCH’. So I ask, ‘Why? I can’t understand it. Farting is common in church. After all, you are relaxed and you’re sitting in your own…’ God interrupted, ‘DON’T SAY IT,’ but I had to. You know how I am. Once I starting talking, I can’t stop until I get what I have to say out of my system.”
“DON’T SAY IT.”
“DON’T SAY IT.”
“Then God went all fire and brimstone on me, burning bush, pillar of fire, the whole thing. He told me I was no longer his disciple and I was going to Hell. I suffered severe burns and was hospitalized for two days. So, now we’re not speaking anymore.”
“Sounds harsh,” I said, slurping down the last of my eggs.
“It is. It is so hard to be separated from someone you love. And I love God. I really do, but He can be such a jerk sometimes.”
“I hear you.”
“And no sense of humor.”
“Very little, it seems,” I agreed.
Tommy sighed, “I always thought there should be more jokes in the Bible.”
I agreed, and let out a big one. The bartender scowled and propped open the door.