Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
Father Firman celebrates his fifty-ninth birthday by inviting his old friend, Father Nulty, to dinner in the rectory. Their association goes back to their seminary days, and their conversation would turn to sentimental memories if it got the chance. The occasion, however, is thoroughly dominated by the aggressive housekeeper, Mrs. Stoner, who simply does not know her place. Mrs. Stoner has assumed the role of the priest’s wife, although the relationship is innocent of any explicit sexual complications, and she has forcefully extended her authority over his life and society and opinions. She gossips about the bishop—who is not the man that his predecessor was—who cut poor housekeeper Ellen Kennedy out of Father Doolin’s will, who ignored the dinner she cooked for him on his last visit, and who is coming again for confirmations this year. Clearly, there is a society of priests’ housekeepers with their own gossip and social ranking, as is evidenced when she comments about the new Mrs. Allers at Holy Cross, as if she herself were the pastor there. She scolds Father Firman when he strikes a match on his chair to light the candle on his birthday cake. To him, the candle looks suspiciously like a blessed one taken from church.
The two priests have a moment to themselves when Mrs. Stoner returns to the kitchen. Father Nulty is very much aware of Father Firman’s aggravation. He points out that another priest of their acquaintance, Fish Frawley, got rid of his snooping housekeeper with a clever stratagem. He told her the false story that his “nephews” (a long-standing euphemism for the children of supposedly celibate priests) were visiting him, an item that promptly appeared in the paper. Not only did Frawley dismiss her, but he even made a sermon out of the event. Then he hired a Filipino housekeeper; the implication is clear that Asiatic women will be more deferential to male authority.
In laughing about how Fish Frawley painted all the dormitory toilet seats on a New Year’s morning while they were in seminary, the two priests show they wish to return to a time of male bonding, when all women were in the background. When a mosquito lands on Father Nulty’s wrist, he swats it and flicks it away, telling his friend that only the female bites.
Mrs. Stoner returns to the study with Father Firman’s socks and mechanically reviews all the prominent converts in the news. When this subject is exhausted, she prods the others with disconnected bits of information. Do they know that Henry Ford is making steering wheels out of soybeans? Father Nulty has had enough and gets up to leave. “I thought he’d never go,” Mrs. Stoner exclaims. Now that the housekeeper and Father Firman are alone, she promptly sets up the card table for their nightly game of honeymoon bridge. Mrs. Stoner is highly competitive, playing for blood, a need Father Firman recognizes by not trying too hard to win.
As Mrs. Stoner slaps down her cards in triumph, Father Firman daydreams about getting rid of her. What has he done to make God put this burden on him? In charity, he tries to enumerate her good points, but he comes up with nothing except that she is obsessively clean and thrifty. She has run his life, turned away his friends, and intruded into the affairs of the parish. Although pitiable for having lost her husband after only a year of marriage, she settled in with him and never made a further attempt to remarry. Years ago she moved into the guest room because the screen was broken in the housekeeper’s room, and she never moved back. The truth of her assumed position suddenly strikes him, and long after everyone else has seen it—she considers herself his wife. He is shocked and panicked by the realization.
In desperation, he looks up the regulations governing priests and their housekeepers. Clerics can reside only with women about whom there can be no suspicion, either because of a natural bond, such as that of a mother or sister, or because of advanced age. Mrs. Stoner, however, is younger than he is. Is there some loophole in the contract that would allow him to send her packing? He recognizes, however, that she meets the spirit if not the letter of the law, and that he cannot afford to pension her off. There appears to be no way out.
A mosquito bites him in the back. He slaps at it, and it takes refuge in the beard of Saint Joseph on the bookcase. He swats it again with a folded magazine, and the statue falls to the floor and breaks. Having heard the noise, Mrs. Stoner comes to his door. He tells her that he has only been chasing a mosquito.
“Shame on you, Father. She needs the blood for her eggs,” Mrs. Stoner says as the priest once more lunges for the tormenting insect.
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