John stared, eyebrows raised, mouth-corners twitching, struggling to seem amused.
“I see you’ve had a head start,” Effie said.
She broiled steaks, assembled a simple salad, and as we ate, we rode the currents of wine back through time to places that were safe. John, who drank only water, was mostly quiet.
Once, he asked abruptly: “Is this the same old table?”
Effie said: “The very one.”
“If it could talk,” he said. And grunted.
After that we all went quiet for a while, each drawn back to memories best not compared. I think there was music somewhere, instrumental music with haunting undertones. Irish, I think.
Then Sextus broke the silence. “You didn’t tell them, did you?” He was speaking to John.
“Tell them what?” he asked.
“My news. I’m staying around, for a while at least. Moving into an apartment in town. John is devastated.” He pointed a finger at his cousin and laughed.
After a few more glasses of wine, I returned to the Scotch. Effie at some point proposed a toast. “So here we are,” she said. “Here’s to the birthday boy. And the best years still to come. Here’s to fifty. They say it’s the new forty.”
“And to all my boys,” she continued, smiling toward her two ex-husbands, raising her wineglass daintily. She too was a little drunk by then. They both sat with slightly foolish expressions on their faces.
And I remember blurting to Sextus later on, “You don’t find any of this strange?”
“Of course it’s strange,” he said softly, leaning close. “It’s twisted. So fucking what?”
I nodded, grasping the simple logic the way that only alcohol makes possible.
“Hey,” he said, “twisted is the new normal.” Then he laughed and grabbed me in a headlock. My drink splashed my lap.
I struggled. “Don’t do that,” I said, the anger like a jolt.
“No matter what,” he said, releasing me, “we’re family, for God’s sake.”
And I felt the unwelcome surge of cheap reassurance.
The rest of the birthday is blank.
But I know that the kitchen was tidy and filled with a pale blue light when I came to on the lounge. It took a moment to remember where I was and then it was as if the old man was there again. A shadow hovering near that door on the far side of the kitchen, where her bedroom used to be.
I found shoes. Carried them into the blaring morning light.
Outside, the air was cool and moist and loud with early birds. Somewhere in the distance, the resolute sound of a large truck, tires ringing on the cold asphalt.
Backing out of the yard, I realized there were still two vehicles parked there. Effie’s rental and the red half-ton that Sextus drives.
August arrives on chilly mornings but softens in the afternoons. On a sunny Sunday, just after lunch, relaxing on the veranda with a Bloody Mary, I was reviewing the words of my morning homily with some satisfaction. A parish, I’d discovered, is a platform. Article Four,
“ … apply the perennial truth of the gospel to the concrete circumstances of life.”
Pat approached me after Mass and clasped my hand a bit longer, I thought, than she should have. Pat is divorced. People talk. But I didn’t really mind the warmth, the graceful touch of a woman’s fingers.
“I couldn’t agree more,” she said.
I saw sincerity in her eyes and it touched off something close to pleasure. I even asked myself: Dare I believe that I’m beginning to feel more positive? Maybe that’s what happens in your fifties.
That morning, working from parables about graven images, I was able to make some points about community. How in the absence of community we become strangers to each other, part of the universal alienation (without using that exact phrase). Alienated from ourselves, we seek to find our identities in what I called the Super Strangers, the phony personalities and fashions of commerce and celebrity. The false idols of the modern world. I took shots at Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan and a lot of other Michaels. The archangels of sleaze, I said, spreading a low, universal vulgarity. Where else would I have been able to do that and be listened to seriously? Certainly not at the university.
“It’s not fit,” Pat said. “The commercial propaganda mixed in with all the other garbage on TV.”
The previous Sunday my sermon had been a thinly disguised lecture about garbage along the roadside. Disorder in the countryside reveals disorder in the soul, I’d said. Perennial truth and concrete circumstances. My mission statement.
I’m told that Father Chisholm at St. Joseph’s often talks of justice. But when I think about justice, I think of Alfonso. Justice for Aguilares, he would say, smiling self-consciously. That was his true vocation and, it turned out, his fate. Justice. It has been a hollow word to me ever since. Father Roddie would say that this has always been my problem, this emotional reaction to a word, part of a banal self-righteousness. Alfonso said it better: words in the absence of action are meaningless. Someday, I’ll dare to say that somewhere.
Summer was beginning to wane, but on that early August Sunday afternoon the sky was a sharp mineral blue and the vast water absorbed it and the sunshine bounced back restlessly.
Pat lives with a teenaged daughter and her widowed mother. She actually asked me out once. A “Platonic” invitation, she called it and I wondered if she really knew its meaning.
“Momma is a big help,” she said. “But having her in the house kind of limits my social life, if you get my drift. So I go to Parents Without Partners in town, mostly for companionship. I wish you’d come sometime. You can be my date.” And then she laughed.
“Why not,” I said.
“I’m being bad. But really … I’d like to take you there to meet our group some night. Maybe you’ll get some ideas for starting something here.”
“Are there all that many singles?”
“You’d be surprised. Tons of singles. Even married people, living like singles … if you know what I mean.”
I noted that my glass had, somehow, emptied. I felt the buzz. Lunch had been a few sandwiches left over from a social function in the hall the night before. An entire Sunday afternoon could melt away just staring at the glittering water. In the distance I could see a small boat approaching from the north, slowly passing the spear tip of land that gives Long Point its name.
Maybe another Bloody Mary.
On the way back from the kitchen with my second drink, I picked up the binoculars a former occupant had left behind. Some past pastor. Some past pastor’s spyglasses. Try saying that after a
Bloody Mary. I have a way with words, I’d discovered since I became a regular homilist. The ideas rise up out of nowhere with startling fecundity and the words just follow, like the wake behind a boat. The key, I thought, standing there peering through the binoculars toward where I thought the boat should be, is to keep your lingo simple. Talk the way your congregation talks.
It was a typical Northumberland fishing boat, raked gracefully from high stem to transom, with the distinctively expansive workspace aft of the cab. Truthfully, I didn’t know a Northumberland from a kayak at the time. It’s something I’ve learned since. There was a froth of water churning at the stern, a graceful wake opening behind her like a bridal train. I could count five people, two men sitting on the washboards, three women who seemed to be in lawn chairs. The men had dark bottles in their hands. Silent mouths moving. Women, heads tossed back in silent laughter, hair fluttering. Men in golf shirts with brown arms. Brown woman shoulders. Long woman throats. I felt an unexpected pang. I could enjoy that, I thought. The boat. The water. There’s something pristine out there, where life originated if Darwin is to be believed. Something like envy swelled within.
It’s a word Sextus used all the time. It’s what you look for at a certain point in life, he’d say. Intimacy. We strive for it because we need it.
Down on the tennis court beside the hall, someone was batting a ball against the chain-link fence, chasing it, whacking it again. I directed the binoculars toward the sound. A woman wearing tiny shorts, scampering after the tennis ball. Alone.
I smiled. Tiny shorts on tennis courts. And a softball diamond. A new parish hall. Somebody accomplished something here. Which of my predecessors was it? The place had come a long way since the fifties and Father Donald Rankin. What does it take to mobilize people?
That was Alfonso’s dream. Mobilize the people, for that’s where the true power lies.
What about the Holy Spirit?
Yes. But where do you think the Holy Spirit lives? In the hearts of the poor, she lives.
Not many poor here in Creignish anymore, I thought. Relatively speaking. Not like in Honduras. Not even like in my father’s time. So many men had to go away back then, like poor Jack Gillis, always in pursuit of wages, leaving sons at home to cultivate anxieties. My father home, anaesthetized by booze.
The woman with the tennis racket runs like a deer, I thought, white teeth flashing like the froth behind the distant boat, chasing the ball with long, smooth strides. I wondered: is she married? Images resurfaced, I felt the gentle movement in my chest. It’s why the poets focused on the heart.
I raised the glasses to the bay again, located the silent fishing boat, wondered where they could be going. Men and women fused in their silent intimacies, going nowhere in particular. The causeway from the mainland blocks the strait. Getting through by boat is complicated by the canal, the swing bridge. They’re nuisances, these boats, when you have to wait in the long line of traffic while they pass. But I could see why people fall in love with them.
Now a man and a woman were standing near the stern, his arm over her shoulder, her face impressed upon his neck.
Once, there were boats and a wharf at the village, before there was a causeway and a bridge. Ocean-going vessels sailed by silent and unhindered, heading toward the bowels of North America. And there were open fishing boats with no instruments of any kind, engines that sat in the centre and made a
kind of sound when running. In the fall, larger boats that looked like schooners came from Prince Edward Island loaded with bags of potatoes and buckets of salt herring. During lobster fishing a large motorboat came round. Men lived on it. I remembered the wharf smells of decayed fish and creosote, burlap and the dank smell of old sweat. And liquor. And the sounds of the men talking on the lobster buyers’ boat.
And a man asking me if I was Angus MacAskill’s.
And I said yes.
Come on down, he said. Meet some people who were with your daddy in the war.
There were men sitting around a small table in the forward cabin staring at me darkly.
This here’s Angus MacAskill’s.
They just continued staring and the look said they knew something I didn’t know. There was a bottle of black liquor in the middle of the table.
One picked up the bottle and held it out. How about a little snort for the young fella?
He seemed to mean it. I declined politely.
If he’s anything like his old man, he’d suck rum out of a cow’s arse.
Somebody behind me laughed. Then they all laughed.
The man and woman on the boat were now embracing.
On the last Sunday of Effie’s holiday at home that summer, I thought I’d surprise her with a visit. She was at the kitchen counter fiddling with a new coffee maker. Sextus was standing behind her, arms around her waist, face buried in her neck.
“I didn’t hear your car,” she said impatiently, patting her hair. Her face was scarlet.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I’ve made some coffee. How do you take it?”
“Milk, no sugar.”
Of course, I thought: she’s sleeping with him again. I smiled.
“What?” she said aggressively. Off balance.
Sextus refilled his coffee cup.
“And how is the new apartment?” I asked.
“Perfect,” he said. “You must come by. I’m still in the process of moving in.”
“So I see.”
Pat talks a lot about neediness. The importance of companionship.
“It’s something you can only understand if you’ve been through the loss of it,” she said. “I envy priests in that regard, your freedom from emotional entanglement.”
The hollow rubber whack of a tennis ball. There is something sad about playing tennis with a fence. Her bare brown legs blurred as she dashed in pursuit of the fugitive ball, full white blouse-front wobbling. I put the glasses down.
This is not a good idea, standing here drinking Bloody Marys, secretly watching wobbling blouses, people going about their intimacies on boats.