Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Title: Between You, Me, and the Stove
Rating: PG
Fandom: M*A*S*H
Characters: Father Francis Mulcahy, Hawkeye Pierce
Historian's Note: Takes place about a year after 'Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen'
Summary: Father Mulcahy hears eight confessions and tries to remember that God moves in mysterious ways. Father Pierce hears one and concludes that God might be drunk.

Chapter 8: As Though We had Never Been Here

oOo  oOo  9: There but for the Grace of Someone  oOo  oOo

Dear Dad,

Isn’t it funny?  I’ve been home almost a year now, and I still find it easier to write you letters than just make my way across town to talk to you.  Maybe it’s habit.  Maybe having unwritten conversations reminds us why we used to drive one another nuts.  We have Sunday dinner together every week, more dinners if I can work it into my schedule at Maine Med.  I see you now more than I have since I was a kid, so why is it that every time I’m around you the only topic springs to mind is the weather? 

There are so many things I still want to tell you, so I guess it’s pen and paper or nothing.  For the past two weeks I’ve been working on one whopper of a letter, telling you about how it’s been to come home.  Coming home has been sort of like Oz: both great and terrible.  The great I’d expected.  The terrible was a shock.  If you had suggested to me that I’d miss one lousy thing about Korea, I would have laughed myself silly. 

I’ve been trying to write this letter explaining everything, but it hasn’t come together.  Every time I think I’ve got it I remember something else I wanted to say, or some reason why the last two pages don’t make any sense.  I’ve been going crazy just trying to express what I think.  You know me, Dad.  This is one problem I’ve never run into before.

If you’re wondering, I’ve scrapped the old letter.  I burned it in my stove and everything.  You see, yesterday I finally had the experience that let me sum up the whole crummy situation, so instead of boring you with sixteen pages of hemming and hawing, I’ll just tell you about yesterday and let you interpret the rest.

You may have heard that a priest visited our little town.  Word travels fast, and I don’t think Crabapple Cove has seen a man of that particular brand of cloth since the French sent explorers through.  I was making my way to the grocery store for a refill on eggs, bacon and booze, and maybe to spend some time rolling around in the fresh produce.  It’s still incredible to me how much fresh fruit exists in one place at one time here.

I was stopped dead on the sidewalk when I saw a man all in black walking down the street.  It wasn’t the collar that tipped me off, but one look at that particular moon face and blonde hair and for a second I was back in Korea. 

I started running before I could think not to, and Father Mulcahy found himself on the receiving end of a hug masquerading as a flying tackle.  Everyone on the street stopped and stared at Crazy Doctor Pierce the Younger (as opposed to Crazy Doctor Pierce the Elder) hugging a priest on a public thoroughfare. 

“Hawkeye!” he gasped.

I barely heard him.  “Father!  You’re a sight for sober eyes!”  I pulled away and held him by the arms.  “Look at you.  I barely recognized you without the olive drab, let alone wearing that very nice … box.”  I stared at the little gadget hooked onto his belt, and followed the cords all the way up to his ears.  “You’re wearing a box,” I said again, and I was definitely back in Korea, Dad.  I remembered that particular feeling of shell shock all too well.  “Is that a hearing aid?”

He glanced to one side, and I noticed that our onlookers were still onlooking.  “Could we perhaps continue this conversation without the audience?”

I shook myself out of at least some of the stupefaction.  “Oh, yeah, sure.  Come on, I got a house not too far from here.”  I started walking, then turned around to be certain he was still there and I hadn’t started going really crazy.  But there he was in black slacks and a black shirt over that white collar.  I recognized the crucifix, though.  It even had the divot in it where it got caught in the door of the OR during one of those twenty-hour marathons.  I grinned at all the other people staring at us, and they hurried back to their business.  I turned to him, but my grin didn’t fool him for a minute.  He’s always been quick on the uptake.  I held out my arms and said, “Hawkeye Pierce.  Still good for starting rumors.”

He gave me that patient smile he always used to when he was trying not to box my ears.  My smile might as well have dropped off the face of the earth.  I got caught up staring at his hearing aid again, but he cleared his throat and got us moving before I could get maudlin. 

You’ve probably heard all of this.  I can’t imagine Mrs. Thomas didn’t tell Mr. Potts, and that he didn’t tell Valerie, who didn’t tell Tom, Dick, and Harry, all of whom told Susie.  And Susie definitely told you all about the company your wayward son’s been keeping.

But the story ends and the rumors begin when the door closed behind us.  Before you start wondering if we eloped—Father Mulcahy both officiating and participating in the ceremony—let me set the record straight.

Once we got inside, I sat him down at the kitchen table and poured us both gin, for old time’s sake.  Then I grabbed my dopp kit and advanced with otoscope extended. 

Mulcahy looked embarrassed.  “Hawkeye,” he said, “you really don’t need to—”

“Humor an old doctor, Father.  Pull out your aid and say ‘ah’.”

Mulcahy pulled the earpieces out one by one, then sat quietly while I poked at him.  He acted like a habitual patient, which I suppose he must have been by then.  He winced a little as I introduced the otoscope. 

“Does that hurt?” I asked.

He didn’t say anything.  It took me a second to realize he couldn’t hear me.  I was glad he couldn’t see my own wince.  I thought we’d all got out of Korea in one piece, you know.  After what happened to Henry that was incredibly important to me.  I knew the Father had stayed behind to make certain his orphans were taken care of.  Whatever happened to him must have happened then.  Dammit.  Of all the people who didn’t deserve this, Mulcahy topped my list.  He was the best of us, you know?  When everyone else was falling apart, Mulcahy carried on without a single complaint. 

Once I was done looking he slipped his hearing aid back in.  “Did that hurt?” I asked again.

“It’s not bad.  It’s really only noticeable when people are sticking things in my ears.”  He gave me a rueful smile.

I smirked back.  “Strictly medicinal sticking, Father.”  I couldn’t help but get serious then.  “The scarring on your eardrum is pretty bad, but I still don’t think it accounts for the degree of hearing loss you’ve got.”

“The doctors at the VA said it was nerve damage.  They fixed the damage to my eardrum and got rid of the tinnitus … more or less … but there was nothing to be done for my hearing.” 

I listened to his voice for the flatness that came with the inability to hear, but he still had his inflection intact.  “Sounds like the aid helps.”

“It lets me do my job,” he said.  “But I don’t like to wear it for more than a few hours.  It starts to hurt, and my tinnitus comes back.”

“I could look into it for you.”  I do have connections in the ENT department at Maine Med.  I don’t have a lot of connections, but I do have them, and I haven’t had better cause to use them since I got back stateside.

He just shook his head and gave me the look that told me I’d missed the bus somewhere.  He said, “I didn’t come here for a checkup, Hawkeye.”

“Then it’s not that I’m not happy to see you, but why did you come?”

Mulcahy took a drink of his gin, and I joined him.  If I was wearing a bathrobe and the room smelled a little more like feet, I’d think that Crabapple Cove had been one big dream.  Then he looked up and said, “I guess I just feel a little lost.”

Well, Dad, I could sure relate to that.  The part of me that isn’t waiting to wake up back at the 4077th is busy realizing that the idealized world I left behind might have gotten a little too idealized for its own good.  It can’t hope to live up to the dreams I had of it. 

Did I say any of this to the priest spilling his guts to me?  No, I just took another drink.

“I’m living in Philadelphia,” he said.  “That’s where I’m from, you know.”

“Yeah, I think you might have mentioned that.”

“I’m attached to one of the larger parishes, but I’m spending most of my time building a ministry for the deaf.”

I almost told him that if that was lost, I took a wrong turn at Main Street and ended up on Jupiter.  But here’s the thing, Dad: for all my complaints, I wouldn’t look lost either.  There I was about to reflexively deride his crisis, when mine came complete with a nice house in my hometown and a job as a trauma surgeon in one of the best hospitals in the country.  Hypocrisy, thy name is Hawkeye.

He went on talking.  The nice thing about Father Mulcahy is that, despite being an uncannily good listener, he’s also an uncannily good airhead right when you need him not to notice your existential crisis.  “I’ve been going to the local deaf clubs to work on my sign language anyway, so it was a logical extension of my efforts.  My bishop certainly supports it, although that may be because it gets me out of his hair for a few hours a day.”

“Someone doesn’t want you in his hair.  Is he crazy?” I asked.

He always looks pained when he gets complimented.  “We have certain dogmatic differences of opinion.  He dislikes how accepting I am about quite a few things the Church frowns on.  I’ve tried to explain that the war changed a great many of my views, but he isn’t that interested in hearing me defend what he must see as second-cousin to blasphemy.”

“Are you worried about him?” I asked.

“Oh, no.  No, we respect one another.  He may not agree with me, but he isn’t going to be writing the Vatican in an attempt to laicize me.  I’m just going to have to learn to sit through long-winded lectures about the primacy of Church doctrine.”  A wicked smile lit up his face for just a moment.  “At least my aid has volume control.”

I laughed until I almost passed out from lack of air.  I’d forgotten how sneaky the Father’s wit could be.  When I finally managed to catch my breath, I said, “Then forgive me for sounding insensitive, but you’ve got a good job in your hometown.  What’s wrong?” 

I really wanted him to tell me, Dad, because maybe we’d come down with the same disease.  I had this crazy idea that if Father Mulcahy, wise man of the 4077th, could articulate his own confusion then he’d somehow manage to explain mine.  What can I say?  Your son is mercenary in his confessions.

And speaking of, it struck me right then what was happening: a confession.  Father Mulcahy, who had all the priests in Philly ready and waiting to bend an ear to a brother in collars, had come to the tiniest of tiny towns in Maine to confess to a doctor with a drinking problem.  I couldn’t help but think, as I have often in the past, that if there was a God he had to be half-gone on Swamp gin.

It was such a shock, I blurted out, “Hey, wait a minute.  Are you confessing to me?”

He looked at me like a deer looks at the oncoming freight train.  “Well, yes.  I suppose I am.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, this is a surprise.  But don’t worry, Father.  Father Pierce’s confessional is always open.”  I leaned on the table next to him and gave him my very best leer.  “Tell me all about it, my son.”

He laughed and said, “You’re the only person I can think of who makes a less believable priest than Klinger.”

“Hey, you ever keep in touch with him after everything?  I know you two stayed together.”

“Well, they found Soon-Lee’s parents, if that’s what you were wondering, but I admit I lost track of him once we both returned to the States.  Last I heard he was going back to Toledo with hopes of running a television repair business.”

“We all kind of drifted apart after the war, didn’t we?  BJ’s back with his perfect wife and their perfect life in San Francisco, Charles is back to drinking brandy and beating the servants, and Potter’s retired.  Of course, that was last I heard, which was within that first month back.  After one or two letters, you realize the only thing you ever had in common with the other people over there was hating the war.”  I looked down at him, and he looked up at me.  “Wow, Father,” I said, “this confession schtick is harder than I thought.  I offer to hear yours and end up telling you mine instead.”

“Actually, your confession wasn’t too far off the mark for me.  I keep turning around, wherever I am, expecting to see you or BJ or Major Houlihan.  It was only three years of my life, but I feel like everything that’s come after and everything that came before are somehow not as important.  It’s very unfair of me, but no matter what I do here, no matter how much good I accomplish, I feel like nothing I can ever do here will be as worthwhile as what I did there.  I spent three years feeling like I didn’t make a difference, only to realize that my contributions to the 4077th may well have been the greatest of my life.  I hated that war.  I hated the death and the senseless loss of life, but I would give anything to feel half as useful as I was there.”

Let it be known that, much as I had hoped he’d say something that approached what I’d been feeling, I didn’t expect him to hit the nail so hard on the head he cracked its little metal skull.  I sat down in my chair and belted the rest of my gin.  When I looked up, poor Mulcahy looked like I’d laid into him instead of wallowing in my own misery. 

“I suppose I am being a bit maudlin,” he said.

I started laughing, and once I started I couldn’t stop.  I was laughing so hard I almost fell off my chair, and had to put my empty glass down before I dropped it. 

Mulcahy started fidgeting.  “Now, I really don’t think it was that funny.”

I waved my hand at him in an effort to convince him it wasn’t him, that it was me quietly going crazy in the corner.  “No, Father,” I managed between laughs and gasps, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing at me.  Okay, maybe I’m laughing at us, because you just managed the double-whammy: two confessions for the price of one.”

He still looked disapproving.  You could take lessons in disapproving from Father Mulcahy.  “I still don’t understand,” he said.

I wiped at my eyes and got my breathing under control.  “Father,” I said, “you managed to sum up in thirty second what I’ve spent the last six months trying to say.  You’re not just good; if they gave out prizes for telepathy, you’d already know you got them.”

“You mean you—”

“Great house, great job, great doctor, great life, and I want to scream the whole thing down around my ears half the time. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Mulcahy put his hand over mine and said, “We don’t miss the war.  We’re not that selfish.”

“Or that crazy.  Yet.”

“But when we came home we realized that some things there were good.  And we want it both ways.”

“We want the cushy life and the job with regular hours here, but we want the camaraderie we had there, not to mention the feeling we could do six impossible things before breakfast.”

“I think the quote was ‘believed’ six impossible things before breakfast.”

“We did that too.”

He worried the mug in his hands enough I was afraid he’d make fire.  “It just feels so ungrateful of me.  I weathered the storm, and this should be my reward: perhaps not what I expected, but every bit as good.  Why can’t I just be content with my … with my …”

“The phrase you’re looking for is ‘happily ever after’,” I said.  

Chapter 9b: There but for the Grace of Someone