<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>Priest</b> <p> <p> My lawyer knew what he was doing when he dressed me for my sentencing. He insisted I buy a new shirt, a button-down oxford, and new khakis, both two sizes too large. My neck barely anchored the collar, and my belt was useless. Outside the courtroom, he undid the knot in my tie and ordered a quick, sloppy Windsor. "Good boy," he said, "pants and shirt straight from the dryer. Loafers run down at the toe." I had done as I was told and slept in my blazer. "Pathetic." He laughed as he led me into the courtroom. <p> Just as he predicted, the judge took pity on me, a big, forlorn old boy, so ashamed of my transgressions that it was obvious I was unable to lift fork to mouth these days. I blushed when addressed by the Court. His Honor recognized something familiar in me. A face he might pass on the golf course or at the wine and cheese reception on opening night of the new season at the Performing Arts Center. A face he was startled to see from high atop his bench, out there, adrift in a sea of teenage carjackers in nylon shell suits and crystal meth pushers with frizzy, gray ponytails. A blazing blue Brooks Brothers shirt surrounded by agitated jumping jacks who couldn't sit still and pockmarked cactuses who dozed on the courtroom benches. <p> <p> <i>Probation. One year of counseling, no more arrests, and your record will be expunged. Next case, the People of the State of North Carolina versus ...</i> <p> My record. <p> Can they really expunge my record? I ask my lawyer. How do I know there won't be some ominous criminal sheet stamped RECORD EXPUNGED dogging me for the rest of my life, forcing me to explain I've never been convicted of molesting children or raping old ladies? <p> Well, he says, you can always just pay the fine, forget about the counseling, and spend the rest of your life explaining why you were giving a blow job off Interstate 85 one hot summer night. <p> He's got a point. <p> <p> My counselor lives with three other priests in an old Queen Anne in Charlotte where he sees his private patients. I give myself plenty of time to find the place and arrive forty minutes early for our first session. He's in the driveway, washing a restored 1966 Mustang convertible, stripped to a pair of running shorts, wet black hair plastered to his chest. I introduce myself. Andrew Nocera. The criminal degenerate. He shakes my dry hand with his wet one and tells me I caught him with his pants down, literally, and excuses himself. <p> I wait in the study, listening to the clock mark off the minutes. I finger the silk place marker in the missal on the desk and flip through epistles and gospels, hoping to stumble across a passage to enlighten me about my predicament. Maybe Jesus, dozing on the crucifix on the wall, would have a few words of encouragement if I could rouse Him from His nap. <p> My counselor saunters into the office. His biceps rip against his shirt sleeves and his neck muscles bulge under the Roman collar. Is it Andrew or Andy? he asks. He tells me to call him Matt. I tell him I'm old-fashioned and prefer to call him Father McGinley. Not necessary, he says. <p> "How are you?" <p> "Fine." <p> "Just fine?" <p> "Fine." <p> "Really?" <p> He sees me staring at his hands-the wide span between his outstretched fingers, the balls of his fingertips, the sharp black hairs, the clipped cuticles, and the flat buffed nails. He folds these anointed vessels together and waits for me to speak. Why am I entrusting my carcass, and maybe my immortal soul, to a Black Irish linebacker with a passion for emery boards? My lawyer was skeptical when I told him the counseling arrangements my mother had made. He was afraid of testing the judge's benevolence, knowing the distrust of papists that persists in the glass and steel cities of the New South. He warned me about deep-rooted suspicions that the Romans would connive to circumvent the Court's interest in my rehabilitation. No self-respecting judge was going to let me off with a few sprinkles of holy water. <p> But this time my lawyer was wrong. His Honor never raised an eyebrow. The Reverend Matthew J. McGinley, S.J., M.D., has an unrestricted license to practice medicine in the state of North Carolina, is fully certified in his specialty by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, is credentialed for reimbursement for his services by every major health plan, and is well known and respected by the Court for his work with the abused and damaged boys of the juvenile detention system. <p> And so, with the imprimatur of both Church and State, those well-tended digits are going to peel me like an onion. We're going to get to the bottom of this. We're going to find a rational, scientific explanation why a nice-looking, respectable, barely middle-aged man with a wonderful, loving wife and a glowing future-a man with a mortgage on a beautiful town house with a marble foyer and a stainless steel kitchen, his-and-hers fully loaded sports utility vehicles parked in the garage, linen and alpaca and cashmere stacked in the closets-would drop to his knees in a piss-soaked and shit-stinking toilet and take some burly, sweaty garage mechanic's cock in his mouth. <p> Peel an onion and you find it doesn't have a core. <p> He asks about my new career. <p> "Job," I correct him. <p> "Do you like it?" <p> I tell him I sell display shelving to retail shops. <p> "Well, then you must know how to talk despite the fact you've given me every indication otherwise." <p> "Nope. I just open the catalogue and point." <p> "What would you prefer doing?" <p> "Sleeping." <p> "Why?" <p> "Is this where you start asking me about my dreams?" <p> "I'm not a Freudian." <p> "Well, then aren't we supposed to be talking about my unhappy childhood?" <p> "Do you want to talk about that?" <p> "No." <p> "What do you want to talk about?" <p> "Let's talk about work." <p> "Do you like selling?" <p> "No." <p> "Why? Don't you like talking?" <p> "No." <p> "What do you like?" <p> "I like listening. You and I should exchange seats. You talk and I listen." <p> "Doesn't work that way." <p> "Figures. Too bad. I'm a good listener. I measure and they talk to fill up the space." <p> "What do they talk about?" <p> "Nothing interesting. Sales are down, wholesale costs are up, rent is up, shoplifting is up, help is impossible, my husband hasn't fucked me in three months ..." <p> "That isn't interesting?" <p> "Nope. You ought to see them. Dry skin and Hostess Ho Ho asses." <p> "You sound angry." <p> "Why would I be angry?" <p> "I don't know. Do you have anything to be angry about?" <p> "No." <p> No, I think, nothing at all. It's a wonderful life. Here I sit on a Friday night, straight from the airport, Johnny Walker Black on my breath, sticky armpits and stinky socks, itchy scrotum (please, not crabs again!), facing a weekend of transcribing measurements onto order forms. I'll wake up tomorrow just before noon, dreading the Saturday phone call from the Vice President for National Sales who's a born-again Christian and spouts <i>Praise the Lord</i> when I give him the weekly sales total. He'll say a little prayer that next week's totals are even better and remind me he's signed me up for a motivational forum at the Greensboro Holiday Inn next month. Oh, by the way, he reminds me just before signing off with heartfelt <i>God Bless</i>, there won't be a deposit to my checking account until the checks I've collected clear. Come Sunday, I'll hide in bed as long as I can and then it will start all over again on Monday. I'll leave my mother's house before dawn because Shelton/Murray Shelving and Display doesn't reimburse for parking and the long-term lot is halfway to South Carolina. I'll take a bite of a dry apple Danish and stare into a paper cup of coffee not hot enough to dissolve the non-dairy creamer, pacing the boarding area because the flight has been delayed again.... Hey, it's a wonderful life! <p> "Isn't the travel interesting?" <p> "Flying to Beaumont, Texas, or Lansing, Michigan, isn't what I'd call travel." <p> "Well, what would you call it?" <p> "Geographic displacement." <p> "Come on. Where are you coming from tonight?" <p> "Memphis." <p> "Tell me about it. Beale Street. Graceland. The Peabody Hotel. You must have seen something interesting." <p> "Am I allowed to smoke?" <p> "Tell me something interesting you saw and then you can smoke." <p> "Hmm. I saw an old lady at the airport tonight. She looked pretty brittle, with one of those old-lady humps on her back, but she was dressed pretty hip. Elvis T-shirt, sweats, black sneakers, Velcro wallet dangling from a string around her neck. Her husband helped her settle into the seat. Then he tucked a paper napkin under her chin and handed her an ice cream cone. She licked it and offered him a bite. Nope, he said, it's all for you." <p> "How did that make you feel?" <p> "Don't get old!" I laugh. <p> He hands me a silver cigarette case and offers me an unfiltered French cigarette. These priests sure know how to live. <p> "Is that really how you felt?" <p> "He's going to die soon. I saw it in his eyes. He knows he's gonna die and she'll be shipped off to a nursing home. He knows she's gonna spend the rest of her life waiting for him to walk through the door. And he's never gonna come." <p> What I don't tell him is that I locked myself in a toilet stall and cried. <p> The doorbell is ringing. "Shit," he says, "excuse me for a minute." I hear him talking in the hallway and then the screen door swings shut. I smell hot grease and tomatoes, oil, and pepperoni. <p> "I ordered this hours ago and it's just getting here. You eaten yet?" <p> He disappears, returning with napkins and two bottles of Coca-Cola. <p> "This is one occasion when it isn't bad manners to talk with your mouth full." <p> He eats like a bear, folding a slice in half and shoveling it into his mouth. He nods at me, his cheeks bulging with pizza dough. He washes it down and grabs a second. A pepperoni ring flips into his lap. He swallows a mouthful and says, "Tell me a story." <p> "About what?" <p> "About you." <p> "I don't know any stories." <p> "Why are you here?" <p> "You know why I'm here." <p> "Tell me about it anyway." <p> "I got caught sucking a cock at a rest stop on the interstate." <p> "Start at the beginning." <p> "I was lying on the couch, drinking scotch, staring at the television, watching a meaningless ball game on the West Coast. American League. I hate the American League. My wife had gone up to bed around eleven and I went outside for a smoke. I saw a light go on next door. My neighbor's son was home from college for the summer. He started to undress for bed. He pulled off his shirt and sniffed his pits. He yanked down his pants, then his shorts. His pecker was already at half-mast. I saw him take one stroke before he turned off the light." <p> My best efforts to make him blush or wince are wasted. He just stares at me, chewing on a slice of pizza. <p> "I waited a few minutes before I went back in. The room was so close I couldn't breathe. I was suffocating in my clothes. I turned off all the lights and stripped, lying on my back on the sofa. I tried to concentrate on the game, as if I gave a damn about the Oakland Athletics. All I could think about was that kid, sound asleep in his bed, snoring, smile smeared across his lips, dreaming of big tits and pink nipples. At two o'clock, I knew I was never going to fall asleep so I jumped up and pulled on my pants. If Alice woke up while I was gone I'd say I'd run out for cigarettes." <p> He licks the grease from his fingers and carefully dries them with the napkin. <p> "Why don't you start at the very beginning?" <p> I don't know how to respond. <p> "I take it that wasn't the first time you'd done something like that?" <p> I laugh. "Well, I knew exactly where to go, didn't I?" <p> "Then tell me about the first time you did something like that." <p> I hesitate. "Time's almost up, isn't it." <p> "We've got a few minutes." <p> "Well, why is it important?" <p> "I don't know that it is." <p> "Then why do you want to hear about it?" <p> "Because you want to tell me about it." <p> Funny thing. He's right. The state of North Carolina can call it therapy. He and I know it's confession. <p> "There's a fine line between the two...." he says. <p> But I didn't say anything.... God, these fucking priests, reading your mind.... <p> "No. I'm not a mind reader. Just been doing this a long time. Go on, then." <p> "Okay. I was eighteen. Grown. At least I thought I was. Jesus, I thought I was hot shit. Hair parted down the middle; long enough that it broke across my shoulders. Drove the old man crazy. He bitched about it a lot but never threatened to banish me from his room and board. Maybe he was afraid I'd take him up on it." <p> "Why do you think he didn't do that?" <p> "Actually, I think he had started to like me. You see, he'd kept his distance since I was young, really young, like maybe five." <p> "That's a common pattern among homosexual men." <p> His words are a punch in the gut. He assesses my reaction. It is the first time in my adult life I have ever been referred to as a homosexual man, at least to my face. <p> "Some believe that the male parent, by some instinct, begins to sense an otherness about the son at around that age. And he begins to withdraw, physically, emotionally. The father doesn't understand his discomfort with the child; the son doesn't understand why he is being abandoned. If you believe this theory ... But now our time is really up." <p> "You call me a fag and then tell me time's up!" <p> I'm practically shouting. I can hear my voice shaking. This son of a bitch doesn't play fair. He offers me the last piece of pizza and shoves it in his mouth when I decline. Through the mush of dough and sauce, I make out the words "next week." <p> <p> <b>The Great Pretender</b> <p> Step right up, folks. <p> Welcome to the greatest show on earth. <p> <i>What you have here works. But there's always room for improvement. What works can always work better!</i> <p> This used to be easier. I don't remember a lead ball swinging from my tongue. <p> <i>Yes, ma'am. Yes, sir. And by the way, that truly is a lovely dress you're wearing today, Mrs. Cleaver.</i> <p> No, I haven't sunk that far. Yet. <p> <i>Competition. It's the name of the game. Too many retail outlets all selling the same things, the same brands. Look at these Maidenforms you've got here. How many places in town can you buy these? A dozen? A hundred? A thousand?</i> <p> I have to remember to customize the sell at this point for the size of the city I'm in. The problem is <i>remembering</i> the city I'm in. Which airport did I fly into this morning? They all look the same. <p> <i>Remember. It's not Maidenforms you're selling. It's you. You are your brand. And your space tells the customer who you are.</i> <p> This is where the architect or the space designer or, God forbid, the interior decorator, intervenes, determined not to lose control, to put me in my place, remind me who I am. Just the fucking salesman. Sorry, the manufacturer's rep. I'm supposed to take the dimensions and answer questions. The "space" belongs to them; it's their prerogative. They are the artists. The sales boy should stick to describing the durability of the wood chip veneer. <p> I've studied my adversaries. I know all the types. <p> The neurasthenic aesthetes of indeterminate gender, swaddled in black turtlenecks regardless of the season, swooning over lighting concepts. <p> The foppish, overweight homosexuals with pinky rings and liquor on their breath, dropping fey hints, trying to figure out if "I am" and if "I'm available." <p> Worst of all are the tweedy first wives of captains of industry, barely sublimating their bitterness, castrating every male in sight, adding penises to their trophy belts. <p> Don't fight 'em outright, my Born Again National Sales Manager advises me, but you gotta resist them. You only have a couple of hours to score. Stay focused. Remember who's paying the bills. And if Miss Snotty Designer convinces the client later that <i>it's all wrong</i>, well, the deposit's been collected and there's no refund on custom jobs. Remember, it's war out there and Shelton/Murray Shelving and Display intends to win! <p> He makes it sound so easy. Why is it so hard? Is it because I'm tired? Is it because I don't care? <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>probation</b> by <b>tom mendicino</b> Copyright © 2010 by Tom Mendicino. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.