The clouds, low-hanging and swollen, were spilling in from the east and purpling the sky over South Mountain and Ahwatukee. They didn’t concern me, though. Phoenix monsoons tend to be parochial affairs, showering one neighborhood while leaving others dry, if slightly sandblasted. Walking west on Van Buren Street, I judged myself and my route to be outside their line of fire by a solid few miles.
I had other things on my mind. First was my shirt, which in certain spots was sweated through and sticking to my skin. All cotton, it was heavy for the weather, but I’d liked how its champagne color matched my favorite tie, which was a rich Harvard crimson. I’m not normally this dressy, but I had decided that morning to take in a Latin Mass. Why I can’t say — I don’t have a taste for them. But I do have a chip on my shoulder where traditionalist Catholics are concerned, and I’d chosen my outfit to remind the locals that we Novus Ordo orcs can blow them off the runway whenever we feel like it.
Now, with three miles left between me and the church, I’d already managed to turn myself back into a slob. Unless I could find a place to freshen up, I’d be lucky to see the reputation of the post-Conciliar Church break even. “See? I told you,” I imagined people whispering as I slithered into the chapel. “Go around saying that religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, and before you know it, human persons are going to start looking totally grody.”
Long ago, before the construction of Loop 202 provided travelers from afar with a quicker route into the East Valley, Van Buren Street was hip. Now, apart from an occasional carniceria or storefront church, it’s virtually empty, a museum of urban blight. For that reason, finding a Circle K, that marker of commerce and civilization, on 10th and Van Buren, felt like a miracle. And maybe it was, because no sooner had I stepped through the door than the skies opened and rain poured down in sheets, hitting the sidewalk with a sound like bacon frying. Through the window, I spotted a billboard with a digital clock underneath. The time was 10:08; High Mass was at 11:00. If the rain stopped immediately, I thought, I could just make it in time.
The rain did not stop. It fell and fell, fogging the windows. Poking my head outside, I saw the vacant lot next door vanish beneath it like a reef under a high tide. I stepped back inside and, already unworthy to commune, fixed myself a hot dog. It then occurred to me that, though I’d run the previous night, I’d blown off eating the whole morning. I fixed myself another hot dog, and chased it with a strawberry and cheese muffin. With this infusion of comfort food came a renewal of serenity, and I found myself able to take stock of my options.
Latin Mass was now out of the question. The clock said 10:28, and there was fat chance of my walking the remaining three miles in 32 minutes. However, the diocesan pastoral center was less than a mile away. It had been built around a neo-baroque basilica which I’d never visited before. Getting splashed on the way was no matter — probably, the place came equipped with some sort of foyer where I could drip dry. In any case, with no traddies around, there would be no fear of losing face before the opposing team. Yes, I might as well run between the raindrops. Bidding goodbye to the clerk, whose name tag read “Frank,” I sallied into the parking lot.
As my foot reached out for the sidewalk, I found myself in a swamp. Twenty short minutes of rain had buried that section of Van Buren Street beneath six inches of water. Sinking ankle-deep, I hopped onto an overturned “ROAD WORK AHEAD” sign. I took a step forward, slipped, and sank calf-deep. There was no sign of dry pavement for 50 yards. I faced the heavens, caught a barrage of raindrops the size of golf balls, and realized that, if I opened my mouth and showed a little patience, I could drown myself like a turkey.
There’s a special kind of forlornness that comes from being stuck in a shitty neighborhood. There’s another kind, equally special, that comes from being helpless in the face of nature’s caprice. In its own way, each feels like a kind of abandonment, but just then I felt the second far more acutely. Finding Noah completely just, God slipped him blueprints for an ark. Jesus walked on water. Even Tolstoy’s three hermits sprint halfway across the White Sea, despite being so badly catechized that they can’t memorize the Our Father to save their lives. Yet there I was, alone in a monsoon rain, soaked through cap-à-pie, my wingtips probably doomed. Dirty water had washed over the place where a thorn from a bougainvillea bush had scratched my leg. It hurt like hell, but the only path back to dry land seemed to run straight through the muck.
At times like these, I know better than to ask “Why?” I probably wouldn’t like the answer. Instead, mutely, I slogged it. At one point, I was submerged almost to my knee. But within a few minutes, I’d gained higher ground, and within a few more, just as I was crossing the courtyard of the pastoral center toward the basilica steps, the rain slowed to a gentle drizzle. It had become, as they say in Ireland, a soft day.
I don’t remember much about the Mass. The hot dogs and muffin must not have agreed with me, because I spent most of the Liturgy of the Word in the bathroom, and emerged feeling almost too drained to keep my eyes open. In fact, fatigue spaced me out to the point where I left my shades, which I’d worn in my breast pocked the whole way, in the pew. I was all the way the light rail station — I’d decided, for once, to relax my boycott of public transportation — before I noticed. I almost decided to renounce them as a votive offering, but in the end I limped back.
The chapel door was locked. I found my way into the cafeteria below, where a slender, silver-haired woman guessed what I was after. “I think I saw a pair of sunglasses on a pile of programs,” she said, and led me upstairs. When we reached the programs, they were gone, but she found them in the sacristy. They were nice shades. I’d been wearing them for over five years, having bought them during my last great gasp of prosperity. I accepted them like an olive leaf.