IMMACULATE OF THOUGHT
BY MICHAEL COCCHIARALE

Of all things — mass on TV.

Julian is in Clerestory, Ohio to give a paper on stained glass windows like the ones just flashed on the screen. Three old men will listen, two of whom will nod and pose innocuous questions at presentation's end. The other will sigh and shift uneasily in his chair the entire time, mouth gaping like a gargoyle, and after everyone has had his say, declare himself to be the world's foremost expert on Rheims, Bourges, Soissons — all of the stunning cathedrals in places Julian never could afford to go, all pronounced in such supercilious French that he will want to leap over the table and slam the pretentious bastard good in the stomach. A forty-three year old brawling associate professor. What an image!

Julian lays across the motel bed, remote in hand. He's tuned in at his favorite moment — the consecration. The priest raises the golden dish, and the Pavlovian tinkling of bells can be heard. Ponderous organ sounds accompany a shot sweeping down the nave as parishioners shuffle sleepily from their pews and begin the somber approach to the altar for the body and blood of Christ.

Julian has been in any number of churches throughout this country, but it has been years since he's gone to mass, the last time, an ice-encrusted day in Buffalo, the priest droning, while Julian's legs shook with hunger, his mind profaned by hamburger, crunchy bacon strips, tomatoes, crisp lettuce, and spicy curly fries piled high on his plate, the image of a Bills playoff game just kicking off on a TV behind the bar. There he was, salivating for Christ-a foam slice of the Lord to hold him over. When he arrived at the restaurant, he ordered his burger, as well as a small pizza and a basket of wings, all of which he devoured, wanting to fill himself up once and for all. At halftime, he stumbled from his stool, a twenty on the table before the check came, his intestines violently buckling. On a public restroom toilet, his human stink rising around him, Julian for the first time considered himself lapsed — but not, somehow, in the cavalier way of some of his graduate student colleagues. Even then, he suspected his was not a once-and-for-all tumbling away, but a condition that might work itself out of him, like a sliver in the itchy palm of his hand.

TV mass is always a surprise. It's like bumping into someone at a sunburnt rest stop in Kansas who's also from the hopeless obscurity of Rutland, Vermont. Really, you say, shake your stupidly smiling head because it's too unreal to be true: Two people from nowhere in some other faraway nowhere at the exact same point in time. The someone is not as impressed — shrugs his shoulders as if to say "small world, buddy," but you find the serendipity gorgeous. It makes you think of miracles.

The camera angle changes, providing a shot from behind the altar, over the vested shoulder of the priest. In all his years of attending mass, Julian has never witnessed this perspective. From behind, the priest's motions possess an Old Testament grandeur, something he might have scoffed at ten years ago. Now, a first grade kind of guilt melts through his veins. It's seven degrees outside, and here he is sweating — not because he no longer attends, but because, no matter how hard he tries, he simply fails to believe. He wonders. Suspects. Doubts. Sometimes, Julian thinks his soul is the shape of a wry smile. With mirror shades.

His leather carrying case yawns, exposing the books, papers, and slides he's lived with these past several months. He thinks of all the mental energy poured into his study of church windows — the forces that break them down, the dedicated souls in Boston and New York who attempt to fix them up. In the Medieval period, the lead between sections of stained glass was mixed with copper and tin, but by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, window makers were using pure lead. Now, it was not so much those archaic windows, but the newer — the "pure" windows — that were in need of repair. The irony is talking to him, serving up some coded message from God.

Julian's made a life, a career, of observing windows. When he was a boy, his mind first began to wander away from the droning of the priest, and then, outside, the sun broke through the clouds and beamed through the stained glass, giving them a wild, plugged-in look. In those early days of his life, the figures between the lines of lead had no names, no histories. They were just so many thrilling wedges of reds and blues and greens — a primary world of color enflamed by sun. He burned with something he'd later know was love, a liquid fire lapping against his vital organs. There were times Julian became lost in the wordless beauty of that glass, his brain stunned to stasis, immaculate of thought.

The mass has ended. There is a wobbly close up of a stained glass pieta — Mary, the color of Christmas lights, a luminescent Christ spilled over her, bright gems of blood trickling down his side. Julian sits up for a closer look. It appears as if the Virgin is shuddering with grief. He moves to the end of the bed, notebook in hand, watching, reaching back to his case for a pen in order to scratch a quick note or three, the rough transcript of the odd text in his heart which he's compelled to reduce to words.

Stained glass photo by Chris Coleman