As religious and world leaders from around the globe gathered at the smoothed over crater-like event in Iraq, questions were abounding from so many lips in anticipation of the event just minutes away.
Dateline: Dallas, Texas, October 31, 11:30 p.m.
One question few asked that evening was why Ben O'Fallon, who had never married, did not become a priest. "In the early days I might be ripe for the Lord's harvest, but nowadays, pahdna, I be doin' God's work where I be planted. Ya hear?" he would explain. It was a strange mixture, Irish brogue with a Boston accent and the Texas drawl. When pressed further about "Ya shoulda been a priest, Ben ol' boy." He would flare back with the challenge that he dared say he was reaching more souls behind that bar than the pulpit. "Besides," he was quick to point out, "this modern church of today be havin' it all bass-ackward, by gorra." He would then go into a diatribe about how the old faith was no more and that the Conciliar Church had usurped the Roman Catholic Church. "Hijacked her they did! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, saints preserve us." He was referring to how the much-vaunted Vatican II Council had changed so much and caused the confusion that the world faced today. No one could convince him otherwise and his logic was solid, his facts a benchmark of an intelligent man of the faith. Few there were like him.
The one he cajoled the most was Patrick Gallagher. Ben's chief antagonist, though Irish in name, was nothing like Ben. Young Pat had been born in Shreveport, Louisiana. After getting his degree from Tulane he had signed on for a four-year stint in the Air Force as an Information Officer. There he had been groomed as a military journalist at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, but when his tour of duty was up he had opted for life on the other side. Never liked taking orders. He was a rebellious sort. Called it the U.S. Air Farce. More than a few times he came close to getting censured, but, like a cat, always landed on his feet.
Journalism was in Pat Gallagher's blood and, though born in the era of the Beatles, his interior fortitude belied his age. He was a crack writer. That was what landed him a plum assignment with the Metroplex Mirror in the late 80's. Had to go through several interviews, the last a disturbing one with a man he instantly hated. For the sake of expediency, he hid his disgust well and was hired. Nearly 20 years he had evaded turnover and layoffs. He called it luck that at 38 he had seniority. He was top dog, and he flaunted it. Might have lost his job a few times were it not for the calming counsel of ol' Ben. For fifteen years Pat was drawn back to the Spigot more than a few times a week. At first it was the camaraderie of his fellow workers, then it became the necessity for a drink to relieve the tension. Thanks to Ben that dissolved into Pat's need to retreat to this old bar backing up the Trinity River basin south of the Dallas loop. It had become an asylum from the constant clatter of banality and deadlines. With the advent of the laptop computer, Gallagher found an excuse to evacuate his office and set up shop at The Crooked Spigot. Once he even slipped by the dateline as The Crooked Spigot. Even his keen editor Vic Van Wess did not catch it until it was too late. Inside joke. Journalists were known to do that, especially Pat Gallagher.
As different as Ben and Pat were, they had one common link - both were Catholic. Ben in practice, Pat in name. Many nights, even long after the last call went out, Ben would motion to Pat to stay behind to help put up the chairs. At first Pat did so willingly, but after awhile he grew tired of the ruse for Ben would always bring up religion and morals. Ben was the soothing, but sticking thorn in Pat's live-and-let-live life. It would grate on this closer-to-middle-age reporter, but Ben would extend the carrot cleverly by issuing a challenge and Pat could never pass up a contest. It was his nature to compete. That's all Ben needed. Through well-crafted syllogisms, liberally spiced with idioms and life situations, Ben would draw him in like an angler landing a struggling walleye. He relished displaying that gesture to Pat, who would sit there dumbfounded at the awareness that indeed Ben knew whereof he spoke. Imitating a fisherman reeling in his catch, Ben would hold up his fists rotating them in and then, in that Bostex brogue, "Gotcha good, me boy!"
Most would resent being flaunted, but Ben's manner was always gentle and never personal. If anything it caused Pat to think increasingly, to examine his own conscience. As much as Pat tried to suppress it, that "angel" Ben had introduced him to seven years before was always there to remind him.
Corrine Anna-Maria Morelli, an Italian-American beauty, had taken him by storm. Maybe it was those glistening burnt umber eyes, that perky, pouting mouth, that quick-witted dry humor and common sense approach that counterbalanced his own skin-deep cynicism, curbed his quick-tempered irascibility, and tamed his need for wanderlust. Though Corrie could not be said to be the most chaste of single women, she was far more discerning of the moral repercussions than Pat and, at times, it took all her Catholic schooling-conscience to say no to his advances. Oh there were a few times she had succumbed, but she loved him and, because of that, wanted it right. She knew Pat was the one. Pat did too, but with the male there is always hesitation when it comes to commitment.
Some call it preservation of the species, others dub it cold feet. Yet celibacy was not in Pat's lexicon. Ben had several knockdown, drag-out discussions on that topic. Ben had also imparted this wisdom to Corrie and urged her to share it with Pat, until they were married - as if that happy day would ever come. Always Ben was kind but blunt: Noli me tangere! Do not touch me! "Remember it well, lad and lass, and y'all be avoidin' the temptations of sin. God'll be blessin' ya for it."
They were in love. Ben knew that. He intuitively knew it was even more than that. Both of them were being prepped for something yet unknown. Not known as a matchmaker, nevertheless the school of hard knocks behind the bar had given Ben a diploma in human relations. He always felt he was merely an instrument in carrying out his Creator's will. He did not know how or why always, but enough reasons convinced him he did not need to. Just follow that intuition that welled up in his gut and, more often than not it worked out for the best. "God's will be done" or "God be a blessin' ya" were favorite refrains of this likeable old-fashioned gent from the old sod.
Faith was something Ben brought up often with Pat and Corrie, too, on those occasions when she would accompany Pat to this rusty old bar on the inner outskirts of the city. It took faith to keep a level head in these times when the area had been blighted by graffiti plastered on storefronts by ravaging gangs of blacks, Hispanics and, lately, Korean lads. Ben had gone out of his way to offer the olive branch, inviting various members of the community to meet at his place to discuss how to combat these more frequent intrusions into citizen safety. Nevertheless, not all had gone well. The insistence of this old fogey on no rap or hip-hop had not played well with the demands of a radical branch of young dialoguers. Nevertheless, they had forged an agreement to put on a citizens patrol 24 hours a day and add an extra beat cop to the area. That seemed to stay the rash of violence, even on this night of the devils as Officer Ray Carson cruised by in his black-and-white every fifteen minutes while patrolling an area bordering the ever-increasing incendiary community of Oak Park.
The heightened crime rate in the area had forced Ben to hire a bouncer, a Puerto Rican who stood six foot seven in his sandals. Juan Pablo Rivera had added kung fu to his repertoire of self defense arsenal and few messed with this 280 pound mass of flesh who, in essence, was a gentle giant whom Pat had come to respect and kid with.
On this night Juan was slumped by the door, leaning back on a folding chair, headset slightly askew listening to the latest Latin sounds on his Walkman tucked into his low-slung pants pocket.
Against the wall seated at tables and booths with circular glass candles flickering were a various assortment of masquerade characters. Most had shed their masks, some even their costumes for it was hot inside The Crooked Spigot. The rotting pipes were clanging almost in rhythm as the radiators cranked while belching forth all the warmth they still could, surviving on pure resolve and confounding plumbing experts, who had told Ben years ago they would someday burst.
That day had still not come. Ben gave God credit for this miracle of longevity. With the wind whipping strongly against the awning outside and through the ever-widening cracks in the storm window panes, the pipes were getting their strongest test on this All Hallows Eve.
Next issue: First Chapter - Episode Five
"White Smoke, Black Fire!" is an original work, registered with the Writers' Guild and all rights are the exclusive rights of The DAILY CATHOLIC who owns the copyright. Because of the nature of the internet and the importance of sharing, we hereby give the reader permission to collect and disseminate by e-mail each episode as it is presented in each issue of The DAILY CATHOLIC, provided that one includes this 1986, 2001 copyright statement and source - www.DailyCatholic.org - and take nothing out of context, nor reproduce it for profit. This work, fifteen years in the making, is a work of fiction that replicates the reality of today in many ways. However names, characters, places and incidents are used fictionally and any resemblance to actual persons and events, except those recorded in history, are purely coincidental.
WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!