Stumped for an answer, I let the question drop for the next couple of months, as I searched for friendlier venues. But then I happened to find myself in the neighborhood of Fr. Terrence's parish on the Saturday of the Iron Man triathlon. The route for the runners—or maybe it was the cyclists—cut right through the major north-south thoroughfares. I had, in fact, barely made it out of my house before the streets closed. It was possible they'd been re-opened, but guessing wrong on this score would mean diversion into a crush of cars that flowed like syrup toward the strange eastern wilds of the Valley.
Deciding that the devil I knew was better than the devil I didn't know, I pulled into the church parking lot. Maybe Fr. Terrence wasn't here today, I thought. It seemed unlikely, not to mention unfair, that a priest so close to retirement age should pull duty in the confessional every single week. Once inside, I blessed myself and took seventeenth place on the line.
Unable to bear the suspense, I cleared my throat. The man ahead of me looked up from his pamphlet on devotion to the Sacred Heart. "Any idea who's hearing confessions today?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"Fr. Terrence," the man answered. "You know, the guy who gives everyone a rosary."
Somewhere in my brain, a punch line began to take shape—something about meditating on the wrong mysteries. "Why does he do that? Is he a real fire-and-brimstone type?"
"No, no," the man said. "He just likes people saying the rosary.' He returned to his pamphlet.
With the dull resignation of a lemming, I waited silently as the line contracted. When my turn came, I knelt, blessed myself, and recited my sins. The absence of suspense felt like a positive presence, like a blade above my neck.
"I want you," Fr. Terrence dribbled out, "to do the Stations of the Cross."
Right then and there, I told him the joke of which I was now the butt. I set it up by explaining the shock of the first rosary, the double shock of the second, the false intelligence gained from my interview with the man on line, For the punch line, I ended with the unexpected twist he'd just delivered.
People like to laugh at their own jokes, and Fr. Terrence was no exception. For close to a minute, the man was hooting, and at one point, actually slapped his thigh. I left the booth red-faced over my demotion from comic to straight man, but also oddly elated for having suffered for someone else's art.