(Published in Mojave River Review – Fall/Winter 2018)
The soft flying disc slapped down over Father Joseph’s head. For a moment, the Lord was calling. Then darkness faded as room lights came up through the perfectly window-paned dough. He was alive yet.
He poked a hole for his mouth, and laughing still, pinched holes for his eyes.
In the mirror, he was…a cartoon…Casper! Father Joseph had thrown his first pizza dough to the heavens and but for his big, graying head getting in the way, almost caught it.
He was witness to endless births, deaths, and redemptions. But that first, delicious moment the dough left his hands by some unseen spirit and energy, was just as miraculous and baffling as any of life’s mysteries. It was an ‘Immaculate Ejection’, he’d tell Father Martin: the dough spun off, up, and away from his knuckles in an instant, fluttering at the top of its trajectory in defiance of all earthly bounds, preordained.
As a child, he haunted the pizzerias of Roosevelt Avenue. Legions of young war veterans in crisp white t-shirts showcased in storefront kitchens their hand-eye virtuosity, flying discs of dough and landing them like sweet, obedient doves. These were displays of virile competence, the creation of a celebratory Eucharist for the palate, and its benediction, all rolled into one. Like a Stromboli, if you’d prefer.
These were impossible skills, an assignment by the Almighty gifts of touch and balance and coordination so divine that mere mortals could never possess them. Like those of the other-worldly baton-twirling majorettes in town parades, or the spectral jugglers of Ringling’s.
Hand-eye was never Father Joseph’s strong suit. But he lusted for it like that one pure and chaste penitent.
The hands of this stocky, broad-grinned priest had done nearly fifty years of the Lord’s work, almost all of it at Our Lady of Eternal Comfort Church in Corona, Queens. These were hands that lit votives for souls in need, plunged toilets, baptized in the name of the Father, held spurting wounds shut, swept floors, met palms together in prayer, changed tires in the Parish lot, sifted the Rosary, held a junky’s head clear of his puke.
Hands that would never hold a wife’s face, or an infant daughter’s bottle, or to a young son toss his first baseball.
But that didn’t stop him from dreaming of a few things he could do yet, always wanted, but never got around to really trying. Or likely had no aptitude for.
He wanted to see his pasty ecclesiastic hams command the Wii Classic Controller just once past ‘Rookie’ in NBA Jam.
He longed for his fingers to dance the neck of a Gibson Dreadnought, like Father Jose, and accompany himself in his own cover of ‘Me and Julio’.
And he wanted to master the art of tossing pizza dough, to have it leave his hands and fly to Heaven a sweet dove, a yeasty Holy Ghost of his bidding, to win a new adulation from the parish Sisters in the small dining room of the Rectory on Pizza Night.
Prideful, yes. A sin? Eh.
But he could finally nail that perfect thin, New York style crust for his friends. Add that sauce of Sister Mary Margaret and the homemade Mozzarella of Father Benny?
Emboldened by that short first flight, Father Joseph rehearsed what he’d begun, in every free moment that he had.
And then there was a baker’s strike, and one week’s delivery of altar bread never arrived at the church. For the moment, it was not rescheduled. Father Joseph cleared the prep table in the Rectory kitchen and rolled up his sleeves.
By the time the Crocus in the parish flowerbeds announced the start of spring, the numbers of parishioners, old and new, taking the Eucharist at O.L.E.C. were breaking all records for the Diocese. Lines had extended out the front doors of the church to the Lemon Ice King on 37th. Father Joseph had to call in priests from other parishes to hear confession. Traffic jams were a new blight on neighborhood Sunday mornings. The Diocese sent the Vicar General for a visit. Soon after, the Vatican called the Bishop.
Sometimes, late at night if he can’t sleep, Father Joseph can be found alone in the soft shadows of the nave, and with a mighty heave, send a dough spinning high and away, out of the light, a tiny yeasty Eucharist disappearing up among the rafters where the harmonies of the choir land and the doves are.
“Body of Christ”, he hums.
(Graphic by the author)