“I want to talk about, Jonah.” Howard placed his spoon down that had been stirring his Ceylon tea. His plate was speckled with blinis and wild sturgeon.
“Yes…” The priest sipped his tea. Formosa Oolong. It reminded him of his days working in Taiwan. He willed a smile. A smile full of faux grace. Yes. It was a fake smile. The priest was tired of talking about the Bible. He would have preferred a discussion about the Lord of the Rings or the Game of Thrones. He had just finished the last installment. He did not need to wait for HBO. Parishioners erroneously believed that priests always thought about God or the Bible. Honestly, Father Doherty was trying to remember the last time he thought of God. Really thought about God. At least, two decades.
“Jonah tried desperately to escape God. He went to the end of the ocean. Well, maybe not so far. The Atlantic in those days was wild and unknown. A vast and brutal nothingness. He likely went as far as Spain. And then a great storm came…”
“And Jonah jumped overboard.” Father Doherty considered the shrimp salad.
“And the storm stopped. And he was consumed by a beast. I don’t think it was a whale. It was some other beast.”
“As big as a whale?”
“A beast swallowed him and he lived for three days in the belly and then the beast spat him out. Why didn’t the digestive juices…”
Father Doherty scooped some salad. “You’re taking this too literally.”
“Aren’t I supposed to?” Howard, a Wall Street tycoon with three children and wife who was a former model, looked innocently at Father Doherty. The priest knew from confession that Howard was doing unethical things as a trader and that he was cheating on his wife. Repeatedly. Howard had said he was diagnosed with sexual addiction. Father Doherty found this particularly interesting. To have a thought and then act on it repetitively to your own destruction. The priest was once obsessed but now he was a passionless priest who viewed Christ’s passion with curiosity.
“No, Howard. The story of Jonah is about second chances. Yes, the beast swallowed him but it enabled him to survive the dangerous seas and when he was spat up by the beast near his home he became a recluse and had a branch to give him shade but he did not tend to the shade. He needed the shade from the terrible sun but he failed to care for the shade and a worm ate it and he was left in the scorching heat. Why God? Why? Because you did not tend what you love.”
Howard was crying. “There are second chances…”
There was some commotion in the restaurant. Four men in suits walked into The Russian Tea Room. The locked eyes with Father Doherty.
“Howard Blaisdale…” said the black man in the blue suit and maroon tie. His eyes were now coldly on Howard.
Howard looked up like a baby would. Sinless.
“You’re under arrest for…”
“Fraud.” Howard finished the sentence. He stood calmly and allowed himself to be cuffed. The restaurant was very silent. Even the waiters had frozen in their spots.
“Father.” Howard’s voice was so small.
“Yes, just be sure that when you leave the beast that you take care of what you have or it too will be devoured by evil.”
Howard was crying. “Officer…officer. Would you be so kind as to leave two hundred dollars on the table? You see I had invited the priest to tea. It would be highly improper if I were to leave him with the bill.”
Another officer, probably Latino, reached into Howard’s pocket and pulled out four hundred dollars.
“Here ya go, priest. Any leftover put it in the till. Now let’s go.”
The priest watched Howard leave with mild amusement and a degree of relief. Father Doherty thought of God, Jonah, the whale, and the branch that gave needed shade. Father Doherty was once in the beast. In 1996 he molested two teenagers, parishioners, and they turned to drugs and violence. They said nothing of the crime. However, they created immense storms in their lives. Father Doherty moved from Boston to New York and when he got settled he planted a garden on church grounds and the plants gave shade and the congregation was delighted. But Father Doherty constantly looked for worms. He looked for anything that would destroy Eden. As Howard was led away, Father Doherty realized the evil was in him. He was looking for outside foes instead of the beast that lived within.
“Can I help you?” asked the waiter.
“More tea,” said Father Doherty. More tea. If he went back now he would have to look for worms and he preferred the opulence of the Tea Room than the insidious evil within.