It was in September of 1949 that Mrs. Skoda saw Father Guzlowski drop the chalice: a sudden flash of gold, a dull clang. She knew it was a sign that something awful was going to happen. That night, she dreamed that the earth swallowed up St. Conrad’s, the green towers of the church buckling as the broken edifice plunged into a slowly rising cloud of thick, choking dust.
Father Guzlowski was worried. The old priest had been having dizzy spells lately. When the chalice fell from his hands, he wasn’t aware of it, he didn’t hear the sound of metal hitting the marble floor of the altar. All he saw was his altar boy, Billy Koss, asking, “You O.K., Father?” His eyes were big with fear.
When Billy told his mother about the incident, his aunt was over having coffee with his mom. Aunt Helen shook her head. “This is a bad sign,” she said. “Father’s O.K.,” Billy insisted. “Said he just had a spell or something.”
“The holy chalice.” Aunt Helen kept shaking her head. “What do you suppose that priest did for our Lord to punish him like that?” Her furrowed brow showed how determined she was to find the answer.
Billy’s mother lit a cigarette. “It’s not Guzlowski, it’s something else. Haven’t you heard those rumors that the cops are going to break up the numbers racket.” She snorted. “Ziggy Czarnecki won’t be sitting on his high horse much longer. And that wife of his won’t be putting on airs either.” She exhaled and looked into the cloud of cigarette smoke, her mouth curved into a sleepy, contented smile. “Mark my words,” she said. “It’s coming.”
The aunt was playing cards later that week with her friend Lucy. “It’s not about the numbers, it’s something about the church.” Lucy looked at her expectantly. “What I heard, old Guzlowski said something just before it happened, something like ‘It isn’t my sin.’” The aunt’s voice dropped. “This has something to do with Father Baran.” Baran was the pastor. “Everybody thinks he’s going to become a monsignor. Well…”
Lucy’s grandmother was from the old country. “Is sign,” she said. “God not pleased with America. Too much money, not enough prayer.” Her voice trembled on the verge of tears. “I see terrible things happen, like Depression, only worse.”
Lucy’s husband Sam hadn’t been at church that Sunday but he’d heard about it. “They say old Guzlowski was talking in a language nobody ever heard before, talking crazy. I wonder if it has something to do with the Russians, now they got the bomb.” The guys around him muttered something but they wore guarded expressions.
One of them, Eddie Figlak, told his wife, who’d actually been at church and hadn’t heard the priest say anything. “I don’t know about talking in another language, but I know that if a priest drops a chalice, it means something.”
“Like what?” asked Eddie, suddenly uneasy.
“I don’t know,” his wife said. “It could be anything. Somebody’s house could burn down, some perfectly healthy person, like Lewandowski the lawyer, could die in his sleep.”
Eddie pondered that. Lewandowski—the thought brought a shiver. But better Lewandowski than him.
“Think it could happen?” he asked Vince the barber. “Lewandowski, with all his money?” A few weeks had passed since the incident. “In his sleep?” The only response was the steady sound of Vince’s clippers.
People watched Father Guzlowski closely, they flocked to his masses, but he’d visited his doctor and got some pills, he handled the chalice flawlessly.
“God doesn’t work on our timetable,” Billy’s aunt declared when she came over. “Something’s going to happen, that much I’m sure of.” Billy, overhearing this, was nervous. He’d been thinking lately. He was the person closest to Father Guzlowski when he dropped the chalice. Could he be the one God wanted to punish? Because God would know what he did several times a week. It was hard sometimes now to fall asleep at night.
It was almost Thanksgiving when Stan Wujek was killed after he stepped in front of a streetcar. Everybody marveled: up until then, happy-go-lucky Stan had managed to get through many a scrape that could have killed him, crashing his car, getting into a fight with a crazed ex-con and falling off the roof he was trying to repair, drunk senseless each time. Was he hiding some dark secret all the while?
The newly-minted monsignor Baran officiated at Stan’s funeral mass and, after it was over, many of the mourners drifted across the street where Ziggy Czarnecki, the numbers man, bought them all drinks. As Lewandowski told naughty stories in his booming voice, Eddie Figlak went to the window to look through the blinds at the church, lifted his glass, and toasted the departed.
Billy had served at the funeral mass and, when he came home, he found Aunt Helen at the kitchen table with his mother. “That’s what Lucy told me,” she said. “She heard from Sam that Wujek used to talk against religion when he was drunk.” She turned toward her nephew with a knowing look. “Didn’t I tell you,” she said, “that it meant something when Father Guzlowski dropped the chalice? God is not mocked.” Billy felt the sudden lifting of a weight.
And that’s how Stan Wujek, until then just an unremarkable drunk, became forever part of the parish lore.
K. C. Frederick grew up in Detroit and now lives near Boston. He’s published a half dozen novels and a few dozen stories.