Was it really only yesterday that John called to tell me that my sister was gone again? It didn’t surprise me. She’s always had an aversion to farewells.
“I didn’t notice any lights last night. I wasn’t keeping an eye on her or anything. It was just something I noticed.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“I admire her guts, staying there. The place is full of memories. Not all good.”
“I think she had … companionship … some of the time.”
“I hear you,” I said.
“One of these days … one of these days we should compare notes.”
“We definitely should.”
I noticed the solitary tennis player was walking toward a car. The boat was near a small point just south of where I stood.
I stretched in the sudden chill … the afternoon descending toward the evening? Or could it be the onset of irrelevance? I’ve heard it’s what most people fear, turning fifty. But how can a priest become irrelevant? The needs are never-ending. Every face before me, staring back from the pews, every one is an opaque window on a bottomless pit of anxiety. I represent their hope. How can I feel excluded? I’m sure that even Bobby O. has problems, if I dared to ask. Maybe it was up to me. Maybe I should just invade their unintended privacy. Maybe they’re waiting for some evidence of my concern for them … waiting for me to make the first move.
One last look through the binoculars. The boat was almost gone around the point, the man and woman at the stern now standing apart, facing each other, hands joined as if exchanging vows. The memory of another boat resurfaced, a father and his son. And I remembered what he’d said: You should drop in sometime. Visit.
I’d said I might. Sometime.
t might not be such a bad life, I thought as I drove, head buzzing as the vodka metabolized. People mine their childhood experience to understand the existential outcomes. Sorrow, poverty, disaster. Our personal history on the Long Stretch could have been an exculpatory treasure trove if that’s what we were looking for, a wealth of excuses for all our adult failures. But we seem, somehow, to have survived. Effie even came away with character and curiosity intact, and she has become a scholar of ancient Celtic cultures. I suspect her mission was to somehow dignify our shattered heritage. My mission wasn’t quite as clear. But that didn’t seem to matter anymore. I became … the cloth.
I laughed silently.
It’s all in how we look at things. On a sunny day the clouds don’t matter even if the experts say they do.
I sensed in Bobby O. someone I should really get to know if I had any realistic hope of being useful in this place. He is untypical in his optimistic generosity. He says we can worry about tomorrow when
tomorrow comes. There should be a dozen like him. He’s like the culture in the yogurt, the source of a larger life. A few like Bobby O. and you have community. Through him, perhaps, I could continue what my predecessors started. Obviously someone had had a secret for mobilizing people, for making them care about the parish in a time of secular distractions. What did they expect from me? Was I to be a catalyst? Or is the clergy’s role more passive now: a symbolic conduit to a better place … some reassurance that the here and now is only a beginning?
There was a working parish council again, women engaged in the good fight for family, both living and unborn. Serious talk of a parish bulletin, which would be my responsibility. Editor and censor. I told them up front that I had almost no parish experience other than a spell in Honduras, which didn’t really count. I didn’t tell them why it didn’t count and I didn’t mention my first pastoral assignment, where my priesthood started and almost ended. I told them that in many ways I was a novice.
“Clearly not a nun … but you get my drift.”
Nothing in the seminary or since had prepared me for what I now faced every day. Relating an opaque theology to contemporary circumstances. Seeking guidance in the ruminations of great medieval minds, now rendered unintelligible except in transparently manipulative parables, the old promises and threats designed to sway the superstitious, now empty. I thought of Pat and laughed aloud. I thought of Sextus and my sister. There was nothing in my experience, personal or pastoral, to help me deal with these realities.
But it didn’t seem to matter. It seemed to be sufficient that I was here. It hurts, they’ve told me, when a place loses a school, a post office, identity. Losing the church would be the last straw. I agreed with everything. The church is the guardian of life itself, a lonely sentinel. I didn’t tell them what I really thought: how the spire has been supplanted by the satellite dish. I dared not tell them what I think about the right to life.
They wouldn’t listen anyway.
I realized that I was driving northward, aimlessly. Maybe I could drop in unannounced and share an hour with Mullins in Port Hood. No intransigent anxieties in Mullins, nothing that can’t be handled in the time it takes to pound a small pock-marked ball into a slightly larger hole eighteen times on a sunny afternoon. I could visit Mullins. Catch up on the gossip. Mullins helped with one of my successes. Brendan Bell. The fugitive from Newfoundland. I could have sent him anywhere, but Mullins seemed to like him. God, if he had known why Bell was there, prissy Mullins would have had a fit.
Mullins—someone said at a recent priests’ retreat—Mullins wouldn’t know hot pants from sweatpants!
Then Brendan went away as planned, no harm done, married by now I’m sure. His new disguise.
The image returns. Pathetic Parents Without Partners clutching at each other in the slow dancing, trying to recover whatever thing the missing partner stole. Wounded people limping toward a momentary refuge in a bed. Probably only reminding one another of the fragile joy they thought was permanent in that distant moment when they were all swaying and sweating and singing “Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?”
Pat actually tried to persuade me to join them on the floor.
“No way.” I laughed, appalled.
Whoops. What was this? A sign I’d never noticed before marked a turnoff. Hawthorne Road, a narrow gravelled side road, vanished at a curve. I slowed and turned, a supernatural influence directing me. Or booze. But still I felt like an intruder.
Drop by any time, he said. Danny Ban whom they used to call Danny Bad. Perhaps it was time to visit Hawthorne. Find out why.
I ask my father: Where is Hawthorne?
He just stares.
Is it far?
It’s far, he says.
Who was talking about Hawthorne?
Good. I don’t want to hear any more about effing
I entered the lane with the mailbox marked MacKay fully intending to back out again, turn and retreat back down the gravel road. Then before me was a large split-level house with two cars and a half-ton in front. A dog roared. A door opened. I waved from where I sat then drove forward. There were small fields on either side of the lane, their corners invaded by stumpy spruce trees. Probably vast meadows once upon a time, now shrunken by the creeping forest.
And I suddenly remembered, vividly, the heap of fresh earth, dead flowers scattered. Now there was just Effie and me and our father standing on the side of a narrow road that skirted a shabby section of the city. The vast chaotic steel mill belched smoke and ash and a fine red dust.
“This is where she’ll always be,” he said. “Remember, when you’re bigger. You’ll always know you’ll find her near the smoke.”
Effie was clutching a shabby doll, her expression sombre.
“And over there,” he said, pointing, “that’ll be your grandma.”
“Who was she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was she from here?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The house was relatively modern. Beyond it, a barn leaned perilously, a stout beam propped against one wall to prevent complete collapse. What appeared to be the hull of a new boat rose optimistically nearby, swaddled in tarpaulin.
Danny Ban descended from a high deck at the front of the house. He was moving carefully, one hand gripping the railing. The wary dog stayed close to him.
“The MS is an awful friggin’ nuisance,” he announced.
“You have MS?” I said, surprised.
“Yeeeees,” he said impatiently. “But there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it except take it cool. Live quiet. A big change for me.” And he laughed. “Glad you came by.”
“My first time. Actually, there might have been a family connection here.”
“And what would her name have been?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure.”
“I see.” He looked away for a while. Then, to break the unexpected silence, he said, “Come on. Let me show you something.” And he led me toward the new boat.
He bought the fibreglass hull on the mainland, he said. He and the boy were building the cab, finishing the interior themselves.
“Gonna be like a yacht. Nothing but the best of wood and fittings. Nothing wrong with a little comfort while you work.”
Inside the house I met his wife, Jessie. “I know you from church,” she said. “You’ve filled in once or twice for Father Mullins.”
“I was telling her how I met you at the harbour that morning,” Danny said.
“I guess you’re into boats,” said Jessie.
“Not really,” I said, and laughed.
They’d met in Toronto, where he worked during the sixties. She’d been a secretary. He took hard jobs in warehouses, pick and shovel on construction sites, digging ditches. Thought he’d moved up in the world when he landed work at the Glidden paint factory. Slavery instead. But then he got into the iron-workers’ union and started making decent money. Worked on the TD Centre. The CN Tower. A natural-born rigger, they all said. He was fearless in high places. But when he heard there was an old fellow selling out his fishing gear back east, boat and licences, he decided to come home. Bought everything from old Gillis in Hawthorne. His ticket back.
Everything was tickety-boo for more than twenty years. The young fellow’s arrival was the icing on the cake. Then, just as things seemed perfect, they turned sour. “Isn’t that always the way?” he said.
Jessie left us with our tea and biscuits while he was explaining his illness to me, how he’d felt a sudden loss of energy a few years earlier but regarded it as aging until one morning he woke up and couldn’t see.
“Stone blind,” he said. “I nearly had a shit hemorrhage, pardon my French. It was in Halifax they gave me the news. It was kind of a relief. The blindness was temporary. The MS was permanent, but it couldn’t be as bad as being blind. At least, that’s what I thought … at the time.” He fell silent then, sipping at his tea.
There was a heavy footstep on a stairway leading from the lower part of the house, then the boy loomed. He seemed taller, heavier.
“There you are,” his father said. “Pour yourself a cup.”
The boy had a ball cap in his hand. “I think I’ll go out,” he said.
“Okay,” his father said. I thought the tone was guarded. “This here’s Danny. Danny
Meet Father MacAskill.”
“Call me Duncan,” I said. “It’s been a long time since you’ve been ‘
means ‘small,’” his father said.
“I know,” I said.
“Of course you do,” said Danny Ban. “I keep forgetting you’re a local yokel.”
The boy was anything but small. He shook my hand silently, a coolness in his expression. Interested, but guarded.