James F. Powers (1917-1999)
The story is an episode in Father Firman’s life. It is the evening of his fifty-ninth birthday and he has invited his friend Father Nulty to a dinner party. He has a housekeeper, Mrs. Stoner. When Father Nulty talks about the arrival of the bishop, Mrs. Stoner says that she does not like the bishop because he did not eat much last year at Father Firman's house whereas he ate normally elsewhere. Mrs. Stoner is Father Firman’s housekeeper who helps them, but not without her grumble and complain. Then Father Firman asks for some dessert and Mrs. Stoner brings the birthday cake from the kitchen which she has prepared for the celebration amidst her frown and anger. Mrs. Stoner says that she does not like Father Doolin because he excluded Ellen Kennedy's name from the will. Father Firman says that Doolin went to the cinema with his housekeeper so people defamed him. Then Father Firman lights the candle and blows it out. After having desserts, the priests go into the study.
Father Nulty says that Fish Frawley got rid of the woman he had and has got a Filipino. Father Firman is excited to hear this. Just then a mosquito sits on his wrist. Father Nulty tells him that only the female bites. Mrs. Stoner also comes in. They talk about the converted people and bastards. The conversation proceeds between the two priests about the conduct of some other priests and their relation with their housekeepers. But every time Mrs. Stoner interferes with her talks of the atom bomb, communist converts, bastards and so on. It is already eight o'clock. Father Nulty says good night and drives away.
Father Firman closes the door and goes upstairs. He sits on the rocking chair. Mrs. Stoner prepares tea and lays the table to play cards. She mixes up the cards like a skillful gambler. She smiles at him revengefully. She gets all the cards, but she is not controlled and cunning like him. She wants to attack like a lion. She plays for blood, not for the bones. He excuses her cruelty. He does not sweat and pray over each card as she must. He watches her so that she might not break the rules and secretly hopes for aces. Father Firman knows that she does not have the patience and the craft (skill) that he has but still she dominates the game in her own way. During the game, he meditates his disgust (extreme dislike) about her thinking that she cannot cook well, cannot play the organ, goes to card parties and hides his books. She chooses his friends, does not allow him to smoke and abuses the people who come after dark. She has no humour and over charge people on prayer books and rosaries. She secretly examines the baptismal and matrimonial records. She thinks that people want to enter into a mixed marriage so that the child can have a name.
She has controlled Father Firman very much. She says and does annoying things. But Father Firman does not have the courage to dismiss her. She says she has given him the best years of her life. Father Firman wants to threaten her by telling her about a priest who had dismissed an old housekeeper and hired a new one. But he does not have the courage even for that.
She does not stay in the back room, but she has the guest room. Once the screen in the back room lets in mosquitoes. In the meantime, she took the guest room. At that time she was a girl, or not too old to marry again. It was years ago and he never thought of mending screen. He knows that people are suspicious about his relationship with Mrs. Stoner. His friends talked and laughed at him. Since then nobody has come to see Father Firman or stay overnight there.
He reads the book left open from last night. It says that clerics are allowed to live with women who are close relatives or who are old enough. He reads this passage again and again to find what is missing. Mrs. Stoner is not a mother, not sister not an aunt. And she is younger than him. Now, after all her years of service, he can't dismiss her. Nor can he give her the pension. He shuts the book. Then he sees a mosquito. He wants to kill it because it is the female which bites. He finally tries to express his anger by killing mosquito, but he is unable to do so.
The story shows a Roman Catholic priest in a difficult situation regarding his relation with his housekeeper. She has completely dominated him and in a way taken his place. He wants to dismiss her, but he is unable to do so. The relation between them is also shown to be suspicious. We don’t know why Father Firman lets Mrs. Stoner sleep in the guest room for years instead of mending the screen of the window of her own room and sending her there. It is also equally difficult to answer why she scolds the late visitors. Similarly the way the Catholic priest live, their doubtful behavior with their housekeepers and the dominance of Mrs. Stoner over Father Firman, all these could be seen as criticism of Roman Catholic Church and the priesthood.