“I told him to let me die,” Father Jarvis said before he took his first sip of wine. He hadn’t had a drink in four months. After my first two weeks of seminary, he asked me to join him for dinner at the nice restaurant the undergrads took their parents to when they came to visit. These places always have wood-paneled booths and old lighting. We sat in one showered by yellow cream. He took the free college shuttle to get there because he commuted from Boston into town each week. I rode my bike. We were the only ones there at six o’clock on a Tuesday night.
He had chemotherapy every other week—on Tuesdays. This was his off week, he said, so he didn’t feel like vomiting all day. That’s why he ordered a glass of the Malbec. He told me a story about being in the presence of thousands every Sunday at his urban parish back in Boston despite an empty nave. “Only ten people showed up,” he said, “but angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven are there.”
Seven weeks later, Father Jarvis punched me on my arm after Morning Prayer in the chapel at school. He did this to people now because he didn’t want to make others feel weird if they didn’t want to shake hands with someone who had cancer. He stopped drinking from the chalice last year for the same reason.
“Stop by. It’s not urgent,” he said with a smile. He scanned the rest of the room of tired faces instead of looking at me.
I wish it weren’t. I knocked on his open office door three hours later.
“Yes! Come in,” he said. He knew it was me without looking. He stopped typing, spun in his chair, and grabbed a teeth-yellow coffee mug behind him. He pivoted toward me.
“They say this is the oldest school room in the world,” Father Jarvis said as he looked at the picture on the mug. It had a computer-printed photograph on it like those custom cakes made at Walmart. The mug could have come from a truck stop at the bottom of the Blue Ridge Parkway back home or the Goodwill in Danville. I wondered why he showed me the mug and why he told me to stop by.
“I cleaned out some of my drawers at home, found this, and am giving it you.” He pushed the mug through the air in my direction. I knew why he cleaned out his drawers, but I pretended he got fed up with not being able to close them because of the junk they held. My mom cleaned out the drawers in our kitchen back home when this happened.
I don’t know why he thought of me when he found a cheap mug with a picture of an empty Eton classroom. He had second eyelids under his eyes. The supple skin pouches were a lighter shade of cancer pale. He handed me the mug and spun back to his computer.
“Hold on to it. It’s worth thousands,” he said.
Win Bassett’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review, Nieman Storyboard, and elsewhere. He serves as contributing editor and interim fiction editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, managing editor of Yale’s LETTERS journal, and assistant for Bull City Press. He’s a former assistant district attorney and is a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. He’s from southwestern Virginia.