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FATHER WHITE IN THE TORRID ZONE/ Kris Lackey ONE BY ONE the lepers' tongues slithered for the Host. Father Lawrence White looked down upon the surfacing faces—one without a nose, one without ears, one with a whorled cavity in the cheek. He raised each wafer with an austere flourish, brought it near the suppticant's tongue and then, Uke a deft croupier, tossed it in. He had practiced this shot with poker chips and a plastic cup in his Com-fort Inn room in Freret, Louisiana, the night before he assumed his duties at the Gautreaux Hansen's Disease Center. By the time he had stepped off the plane in New Orleans, Father White knew plenty about Hansen's disease, including the facts that it was no longer caUed "leprosy" by potite persons and that it was rarely spread by casual contact in sanitary environments. But aU the science in Christendom could not dispel the images branded on his imagination: filthy, gaping, cave-dwelling specters lifting their gaUed limbs to an unblemished Jesus. There were no chUdren in Gautreaux. Forced incarceration of lepers had ceased decades before. AU the remaining patients were elderly, long cured or in remission. Father White missed chUdren, but he did not miss them in the way some had likely thought he would when he was sent to a place where there were none. The last child he had touched was perhaps the last chtid he would ever touch. Father White read difficult books. He did not own a television set. When he had bent to tuck in tittle Tim Knudsen's shirttaU, both of them shivering in the foyer of St. Jude's in Fausse Cascade, Michigan, he was ignorant of the nation's latest hysteria. Mrs. WaUy Vloedmann, gusting into the church door with an Alberta clipper at her back, owned three television sets. "But Tm a healthy heterosexual man!" Father White wanted to shout in the foyer of St. Jude's, and on many occasions after that. "I have impure thoughts about women!" In fact, two days before he was caught with his innocent hand down Timmy's pants, he had heard the confession of a young woman who unleashed a pack of impure thoughts. Her name was Simone Caquelin; her voice he knew perfectly by its fickle pitch and girlish hoarseness. What her sins were, he had forgotten. He remembered wiping his wet palms again and again on his black trousers, tugging at his coUar for air, clearing his throat The Missouri Review · 177 and next day going to a strange priest in Menominee to confess himself. He had been sent to the lepers for the wrong sin. "Padre," whispered a short, one-armed Puerto Rican man after the dismissal and blessing, "Yo creo que . . . Excuse me, I think the prisoners are planning to steal Henry from the lagoon." "Henry?" "Our alUgator." Father White stared at him, then saw him. "Tm sorry?" "I think the prisoners plan to steal Henry and seU him to the sausage man. He is, Uke, our pet, our mascot. We feed him." Several other parishioners , overhearing Faustino, gathered around him and Father White. "See?" Faustino thrust his stump forward with counterfeit indignation . The others rolled their eyes, but when Father White grimaced, they tittered. "Can you help us stop them?" "Have you told the warden?" "Not those prisoners, the other prisoners. The ones from the parish." "This parish?" "No," piped a small, intense, white-haired woman from her adult's tricycle. "The other parish. St. Swithins Parish." "I think they're going to do it today!" said Faustino. "On Sunday?" asked Father White. "Big DUI litter-detaU day," said the woman. "I see," said the priest, who did not. "Whom should I inform about this plot?" "The parish deputy," said Eleanor from her hike. "The stout feUow sleeping in the orange truck by the helipad." Father White began dimly to perceive the circles of his new heU. The patients languished in one circle, the state minimum security convicts in another, the community service prisoners in a third. And he had one aU to himself. "Father Discus!" shouted Eleanor archly. The priest looked up. After a beat...


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