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Saturday, March 12, 2005

Justin Martyr

Justin Schimmel stood for a moment staring blankly through St. Blaise's sacristy window. His nerves twitched and jangled. Then with a deep breath and a muttered prayer, the young priest finished putting on his vestments. This was to be only his second wedding ceremony. He reassured himself by remembering how smoothly his first had gone. He hadn't fluffed any words, nor forgotten any part of the ceremony, nor tripped over his chasuble. True, the mother of the bride had been beaned by a falling plastic column at the reception, but that hadn't been his fault. And besides, a few stitches later Mom was out on the dance floor doing the Chicken Dance with the rest of the revelers. Another deep breath. Much better.

As Justin turned to walk towards the mirror, he nearly stumbled over an overstuffed trash bag. "What in the --" A head popped through the sacristy door. "Sorry, Father... I'll take that." It was one of the groomsmen. Justin was still new enough to the priesthood to be slightly uncomfortable with someone nearly his age calling him "Father." He smiled weakly. As the
groomsman lifted the bulky bag, a roll of toilet paper and some sort of noisemaker popped out and landed at Justin's feet. Blushing, the groomsman gathered them up. "Sorry, Father. Just a few, uh, wedding gifts. You know, to make sure that Steve and Annie drive off in style." He flashed an awkward smile, and the tuxedoed youth and his contraband disappeared through the door.

After the prerequisite chaos -- frantic bridesmaids, hungover groomsmen, weeping mothers, and fathers cursing at cummerbunds -- the ceremony finally began. Once the proceedings were underway, all of the anxieties miraculously vanished. Cameras clicked and whirred; the singers warbled Whitney Houston tunes; the wedding party hit their marks; the flower girl and the ringbearer stopped throwing rosepetals at each other; the fathers quit tugging angrily at their bowties. The groom looked a bit queasy and wobbly, but managed to keep his churning stomach in check. The bride was
radiant, having thrown up several minutes before the ceremony began. Justin performed the sacraments flawlessly. He even managed to sneak in a quote from St. Augustine in his homily without getting too many befuddled stares. All in all, the wedding went off like a well-choreographed Broadway play.

Soon, the wedding party and well-wishers were standing in the St. Blaise atrium, squinting at the hot July sun. The atrium was a glass and steel box connecting the church to the elementary school. It contained a large gathering room, several offices, and a modern bathroom. Aesthetically, it was as perfect a non-match to the neo-Romanesque church and the 1950s-style school as could be imagined. But it was functional, practical, and best of all, relatively cheap. Even so, Father Herrmann, the pastor and Justin's mentor, had labored for nearly a decade trying to convince the tight-fisted Dutchmen of St. Blaise Parish that it was a worthy use of parish funds. Now, incongruous at it seemed at first glance, it was an integral part of
St. Blaise, and Father Herrmann's proudest achievement.

Steve, the groom, stood in the atrium beneath an elaborate arch of plastic flowers and crepe paper. His eyes moist, he sighed dreamily, "Isn't she beautiful!" He was not referring to his bride. He loved Annie, no question, but he was gazing through the glass at his first love, a cherry red 1978 Pontiac Firebird. He had bought it when he was in high school,
with his own hard-earned money. All the weekends and summers spent flipping burgers and detasseling corn had been worth it the first moment he'd slid into its faux-leather seat and heard the hoarse roar of its gas-guzzling engine. He and his dad had spent many hours together diagnosing the Firebird's many problems and figuring out the hard way how to fix them on the cheap. The paint was still faded. It still made strange noises, even several minutes after the ignition had been switched off. It still left puddles of fluids each place it stopped. The t-tops still leaked, and the upholstery was still held together with duct tape. No matter. To Steve, each problem was a welcome challenge; an excuse to spend quality time with
his beloved. In fact, what had really attracted him to Annie in the first place was not so much that she had been impressed with the Firebird, but that she had accepted it as a member of his family. It was part of the total package; she couldn't marry him without marrying his obsession. So when Steve had suggested that he and Annie "drive off into the sunset" in
the Firebird right after the reception, she had resignedly agreed. No matter that it wasn't insured. It was only two miles from St. Blaise to Steve's apartment. Besides, the Firebird wouldn't go much further than that without developing some major mechanical malfunction; his Civic would get them to the airport tomorrow. Steve found himself wishing that the reception would be over quickly. The Firebird was waiting, patiently passing the time by making new puddles.

The guests had been coralled from the atrium into the school cafeteria. There they waited for a seeming eternity, growing hungrier by the moment while the wedding party posed for an interminable series of photographs. Finally, the mother of the bride appeared, barked a few orders, and the reception got underway. Justin put away his vestments and liturgical paraphernalia and took his place at the head table. Toasts were made; speeches were stammered; fried chicken was served; the fathers gratefully downed beer. Justin gave a brief blessing, and the meal began. Justin
finished eating and began to work his way around the cafeteria, greeting guests. He noticed out of the corner of his eye the groomsmen, still clad in their rented tuxes, scurrying out the side door with the giant trash bag. They returned a half-hour later drenched in sweat and wearing silly grins.

The reception was a tame affair by German Catholic standards. By eight o'clock, the deejay had already played "Rocky Top," "Wind Beneath My Wings," and "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll," and guests were edging towards the doors. Steve's father took the microphone and announced that the happy couple wished everyone to see them off as they drove away into their new life
together. Dutifully, the guests filed through the atrium and into the still-blazing hot parking lot.

There, awaiting them, was a giant, fluffy mound of toilet paper, crepe paper, newspaper, bows, signs, balloons, and assorted doodads that vaguely resembled a 1978 Pontiac Firebird. Steve had removed the t-tops for the occasion, so his friends had also filled the interior to the brim with toilet paper and leftover decorations. Steve and Annie chuckled good-naturedly and posed beside the papery mess. Cameras snapped, and Steve gallantly opened the passenger door for his bride. Annie jumped a bit as a muffled pop! burst from a Chinese noisemaker the groomsmen had rigged to the
door. She smiled and wagged a finger at the laughing wedding party, then disappeared into a cloud of paper. Steve hopped into his side, tossing out paper products so he could see through the windshield. He started the engine (first try!) and the Firebird slowly pulled past a row of whirring videocameras.

Justin smiled and waved -- and then froze. Was that smoke coming from the passenger door? The other well-wishers froze, too. "The car's on fire!" screamed a frantic aunt. Sure enough, the noisemaker, a leftover from last weekend's Fourth of July celebration, had ignited a bit of toilet paper taped to the door. It was only smoldering at first, but several tuxedoed
men rushed forward to beat out the small but growing flame. The car stopped suddenly, and the bride tumbled out amidst a flood of smoke and paper. As her father drug her away, the panicked groom threw the car back into drive. "I'll blow it out!" he yelled, and began to drive the Firebird in a slow, wide arc. Naturally, this only fanned the flames. Soon, a fiery scrap of
paper floated straight into the air, and gently came to rest in the Charmin-filled back seat. Justin watched helplessly as the car, back seat aflame, coasted through the parking lot, followed by a running mob screaming advice and clutching at the burning paper.

The blaze grew unabated, and soon Steve knew that he had to bail out. He rolled out of the car, T.J. Hooker-style, and landed at the feet of a shocked groomsman (who nonetheless still had the presence of mind to keep taking pictures). The groomsman dropped his camera, helped a singed but unhurt Steve to his feet and rushed off to find an extinguisher. Meanwhile, the driverless car sailed on.

Justin stared numbly at the Firebird as it rolled straight towards him. His first instinct was, of course, to get out of the way. The car was moving fairly slow; it would be easy to move out its path. But almost instantly, a terrifying realization struck Justin's brain. He was the only thing between the auto and the atrium. Father Hermann's atrium. His pride, his joy, his
glass and steel legacy. What would Father Hermann say when he returned from vacation only to find the product of a decade of cajoling, begging these damned hard-headed Germans smashed like a child's piggy bank? Surely the parish's insurance would cover it, but still... Justin had been entrusted with keeping things in order. Father Herrmann loved order. This would kill him.

So Justin stayed where he was, hands out, as if his thin body could stop this flaming phantom Firebird from Hell from careening into the atrium. It made no sense, and Justin knew it. Still, he held his ground, planted his feet firmly, and kept his eyes shut tight, ignoring the cacophany of shouts and screams around him. His mind flashed back to fourth grade at Holy Word, giving a report on his patron saint. It was St. Justin Martyr, a pagan who had converted to Christianity at a time when Christians were a persecuted minority. St. Justin defended the faith by word and by deed, earning his sobriquet after he was scourged and beheaded by the authorities. Little Justin Schimmel had wondered if he would ever have the courage to face martyrdom. Now Father Justin Schimmel faced a sort of martyrdom, not by beheading but by runaway sportscar, and not in defense of the Church, but of a church atrium. Not the sort of thing that got a person canonized, but Justin hoped that there was an absurd nobility to it.

His eyes still squeezed shut, Justin heard running footsteps coming towards him, then a yelp of pain, then a loud thud. His body was tensed, waiting for the blow, but it didn't come. He opened one eye, and saw the father of the groom nursing a wounded hand and the burning car sitting motionless a few yards away. Steve's dad had run up to the Firebird, grabbed the melting steering wheel, and turned it hard enough so that instead of plowing into Justin, it had smashed into the best man's Toyota instead. A groomsman ran out of the atrium, holding aloft a fire extiguisher in triumph, and soon had the fire put out. Justin suddenly felt a bit silly. He looked up to see a sobbing bride, stunned guests, and embarrassed groomsmen exchanging guilty glances. The groom was on his knees, his hands on his head, his face horror-stricken. No one said a word.

The whole thing had only taken a few seconds, but it had seemed like an hour. Justin felt something wet on his neck, and looked up as the sky, bright and warm moments ago, suddenly burst forth with a torrent of rain. Justin put his arms around Annie and her mother, and escorted the bawling women back into the atrium. He asked if everyone was okay, and opened the parish office to get a first aid kit for Steve's dad. As he walked out of the office, he looked up to see Steve, all alone, standing in the rain next to his Firebird, ashy black water pouring out of its doors and onto Steve's rented shoes. Justin was startled as someone pressed something into his hand. "Got it all on video, Father," said a grinning old man. "I'll make
ya a copy. Something to remember today by."

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