By Seth Greenland
April 7, 2009
The door at the rear of the church opened on an alley. Franco had gone out there after leaving Maureen in the garden; he needed some time to think alone, he'd said.
Instead, he'd been sitting on the back steps for 15 minutes, smoking. He drew distractedly on his third Camel non-filter, its nub of ash nearly burning his thumb and forefinger.
He had quit more than 10 years before, but the shocking nature of this new financial cataclysm had propelled him to dig out the cigarettes he kept for parishioners who might need a little of the solace only nicotine could provide.
The derelicts who came to the church soup kitchen would often camp out near the steps, and the alley reeked of their effluvia, but Franco did not notice because he was thinking about Moses.
As a young boy, Franco had liked all of the Ten Commandments, but his favorite was "Thou shalt not steal." This was because he believed it rendered several of the others redundant.
Thou shalt not murder clearly admonished the ancient Israelites to not steal a life. Thou shalt not commit adultery? This was God saying don't steal a wife. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's oxen? There is a consensus among biblical scholars: Coveting is a gateway to larceny.
Franco kept thinking about this because he didn't want to deal with the dark place toward which he found himself reeling. The money might be gone, but the church work could not stop.
Who would pay for the children's programs, the programs for teens, the programs for unwed mothers? Then there was the neighborhood outreach, the ministry to ex-cons and the soup kitchen. Franco knew he had to keep this going -- money or not.
The priest considered a fourth cigarette, but he was starting to feel nauseated. He placed his slender elbows on his knees and stared out over the empty alley. Where were the street people today? It was as if they were staying away out of respect.
Franco felt a genuine connection to the neighborhood because many of its residents reminded him of guys with whom he had grown up. If things in his life had broken differently, he could have been one of them.
Just the other day he had seen a picture in the newspaper of a private home in Beverly Hills that dwarfed Versailles. Some old lady with a little dog and a lot of plastic surgery lived there alone, if you didn't count the servants that surrounded her. She probably had a security system that put the one at the Pentagon to shame.
That didn't bother Franco. It wasn't like he'd have to rob the woman in the big house in Beverly Hills. There were lots of others just like her in Los Angeles. Their money might be gone, but they were still rich in real property.
Rudy Salerno was a guy he knew from his ex-con ministry. He'd been part of a gang that worked the Westside for three years before they'd been busted. Now he was on parole, punching the clock at a carwash on Western and trying to walk with Jesus.
Franco pulled out his cellphone and dialed Rudy's number. He was going to tell him Jesus was a little short this week.
"Rudy, it's Rev. Laguna." Rudy was thrilled to receive the call, which buoyed Franco. "Remember the time you told me to just ask if there was anything you could do for the church?"
Greenland is the author of the novels "The Bones" and "Shining City." He will be appearing April 26 on the panels "Enough About You: Fiction & Humor" at noon in Moore 100 and "Page & Screen" at 3 p.m. in Young Hall CS 50 at UCLA at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
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