Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Stranger - I

This is the first post of who knows how many (if any more) of a story that is playing my head. Be careful, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, in my head....

Dean Cupp sat on a bench facing the grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. The grotto was adjacent to the Church of St. Michael in Battle, named for the verse in the book of Revelation. As he sat peering up through tinted eyeglasses, the ones that darken due to the sun's rays, he took a long puff on his Carlton cigarette.

No one knew where Mr. Cupp came from nor where he was heading. He was a peculiar looking man. One might call him eccentric if that word were still in use. He looked to be in his mid-fifties and around six feet tall. He had long peppered hair that fell dirtily onto his shoulders. His grey and white beard was not neatly kept and it was stained with tobacco above his upper lip. His usual attire was at least 3 to four undershirts covered by a flannel shirt and a vest. His vest pockets were filled to near bursting and any boy would love the opportunity to rifle through them in search of treasure given the chance. He always sported dark pants and brown leather boots that looked like he had owned them for nearly all of his adult life. On his shoulder, more often than not, could be seen hanging a black leather messenger bag. What treasures it held, no one could tell. Even sitting before the image of Our Lady, Mr. Cupp's appearance concealed much more than it revealed.

He was a walking mystery to the parish and parishioners. Some of the older members of the parish considered him a vagrant and petitioned the parish priest, Msgr. Bertone, to make him go elsewhere. Others, like the good Monsignor, considered him a bit outlandish in his ways but harmless nonetheless. Still, others thought he may be Christ in disguise or a lost soul in search of the love of God.

Many of the parishioners, of those differing opinions, sought to learn more about Dean. These efforts often proved to make him more mysterious than before. There were plenty of rumors to go around about someone who knew someone who knew someone that lived in Mr. Cupp's old neighborhood and found him to be evil incarnate. Others, those who talked to the man himself, found him to be daily balanced on that thin line between genius and insanity, between holy and wholly mad. I say balanced but it would be more accurate to say that he tottered a little but never so much as to make you decide one way or the other. Mr. Cupp was truly a mystery and this is his story.

"Good morning Dean," said a voice from behind the bench. It was Mr. Wood, the janitor and grounds keeper for the parish. Mr. Wood was good natured man and any child would easily mistake him for Santa Claus complete with beard and all, if it weren't for the cigarette hanging precariously from his mouth. Mr. Wood was out taking the pastor's dog for a morning walk.

"Oh, Patrick", replied Dean jumping up from his meditation. "I was just thinking about you."

I must try to explain here the curious motions or animations of Mr. Cupp before we go on. As I mentioned before he seemed either balanced or tottering. It would be more correct for me to say that he was always either balancing or tottering in both mind and body. His tall skinny frame seemed to dance with the electric pulses in his brain. When he spoke you had the impression that he was either practicing some sort of Yoga or he was a marionette on strings.

While speaking he would lift his hands high as if he were looking for an answer from heaven and then stroke his beard is if it were a cat on his chest. At other times he would crouch down to draw something on the ground or he would step back, look you deep in the eyes and point saying, "yes" to some sort of conversation or who knows what going on in his head. And then there was the spinning. He didn't spin like a ballerina but, like his brain, there was always something going on in his body and usually it was spinning. He would step forward, look at you and then step back. Then in one motion the arms would go up and he would spin, half stepping away, and then return to the conversation stroking his beard or pointing.

"Yes, Patrick, I was just thinking of you. Do you remember how yesterday you said that I was like the man on the side of the road in the story of the good Samaritan," said Dean as spun back to his leather bag sitting on the bench and searched until he found his Bible.

Mr. Wood took a long drag on his cigarette as he watched the dog sniff around the shrubs near the grotto. "Yes, I remember. What's that got to do with me," he asked with a puff of smoke.

Dean seemed oblivious to the conversation that he was so involved in mere seconds ago as he flipped through the pages of the well-worn book. "Exodus, no. Psalms, no," said Dean as he flipped feverishly. He looked up at the bell tower as if asking for an answer. He then turned, pointed to Mr. Wood and went back to the book. "Luke, Luke, Looouke", sang Dean as he found the spot.

By now both Mr. Wood and the dog had lost interest and started back toward the rectory. Mr. Cupp ran after them, stopped, ran back to the bench, grabbed his bag, spun round giving the Blessed Mother a slight curtsy and jogged off to catch up with the man and the dog.

"You said I was like the man but I think that maybe I am the good Samaritan. It depends on your perspective. Right?", said Dean as he dropped his shoulders as if waiting for an applause for his performance.

"What the hell are you talking about this time Dean Cupp?"

Dean felt for his vest pockets while staring at Steve. He pulled out some crumpled piece of paper as he spoke in a whisper, "here, look, here." He unfolded an old bulletin from the parish. "Right here, in this section it says, 'Needed: transportation for an elderly lady to and from Mass on Saturday evening.'"

The dog pawed at the door while Mr. Wood looked directly at Dean over the top the wire-rim glasses on his pudgy red nose. It must have looked like Santa giving the scare-crow from the Wizard of Oz a good talking to.

"Look here", said Mr. Wood. "A lot of folks around this place think you've escaped from the hospital and need to go back yesterday! I think they're wrong but when you start jabbering about the Good Samaritan while doing your little dance I start to think they might be right. When you throw in the idea of picking up old ladies from the parish, I think you're looking to cross a line, Dean."

Dean folded the paper again and filed it back in the pocket from which it came. He looked at Mr. Wood, stroked his beard and looked out to the street and then back to Mr. Wood. He began again, trying the patience of the man with the long white beard.

"Well, today's First Reading at Mass said, 'Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow.' The Gospel was the story of the Good Samaritan, "continued Mr. Cupp with his Bible in his left hand and his right going every which way nearly smacking Mr. Wood in the face. "If you put the two readings together plus the bulletin ad", he said as he tapped his vest pocket, "it all seems pretty clear that God, through you, is calling me to help this poor lonely woman. She's probably a widow and that my friend, would make me the Good Samaritan."

Dean finished his performance by closing the Bible and placing it back in his bag. He then gently tapped out a cigarette from it's pack and lit it while leaning on the rail along the sidewalk leading to the rectory. He took off his glasses and let them hang around his neck on a piece of twine taped to the end of the eyeglass legs.

Mr. Wood opened the rectory door and let the dog in. He then closed the door and turned back to Dean producing a cigarette of his own. A long time passed as the men stared at each other. Occasionally their concentration was broken by a car passing by the rectory or a student walking to the playground.

"God speaks to us in different ways Mr. Cupp", started Mr. Wood. "He may speak to you through bulletins or bumper stickers for all I know. But I'll tell you this. Make sure the voices you are hearing are from God before you go answering the call", said the janitor as he headed off toward the parish office. "Or before you go answering any bulletin ads", he added without turning around.

Dean shrugged his shoulders, hoisted up his pack, and walked off the parish grounds and down the sidewalk along the busy street. I followed him as far as I could see from my spot on the front steps of the Church but he vanished out of sight as a large truck separated him from my view.

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Mother's Day Weekend.