Authors: Brendan Kiely
“That's my boy, ever the hard worker.” I shrugged. “I understand, though. I know how you feel.” He gave me another drag. “We've talked about this before,” he said softly. “Hard to have meaningful conversations at these kinds of parties. Conversations that people like you and me are accustomed to having. I rarely see many of these people anymore, except at parties like this one. I don't know when I'd see your parents if they didn't invite me to their parties.”
“Yeah, and then one of them doesn't even show up.”
“There you go,” Father Greg said, nodding slowly as he always did when he listened to me. Father Greg rolled the filter of his cigarette gently between his forefinger and thumb, until the cherry dropped to the ground. He tucked the filter into his pocket and glanced toward the front door. “But you're not alone,” he said. Father Greg often explained that the presence of God in my life was an assurance, the real stability. God was with me, and yet God had to work through people like him sometimes, he had said, in order to remind me of His presence. God wasn't firmly placed in my mind, but Father Greg was actually there, and something tangible and definite was what I needed most. Certainty.
He blew air into his fist to warm it. “You are doing very well, Aidan, for your father not being here. Nobody wants to feel abandoned. We've talked about this. You know how I worry for you.” He breathed softly through his nose and drew that concerned smile again. He sighed. “You're growing up in awfully frightening times, Aidan.” He spoke with the knowing tone of a newspaper article and put his hand on my shoulder. It steadied me against the column. “We can't pretend otherwise. And the last thing we should do in times like these is abandon one another.” He paused and leaned closer. “But God hasn't abandoned you, Aidan. The Church hasn't. I haven't.”
He stepped back. He rubbed at his chin and glanced at the house. “We've been doing a damn good job together,
haven't we? This campaign work. You like it, right? You're not bored?”
“No. I love it.”
“That's what I thought.” Father Greg nodded and turned me back toward the front door. “Strange, then, how your father hasn't given his check yet, Aidan. He usually sends in his gift by now. I'm surprised.”
“He's been in Europe all fall.”
“I know, Aidan my boy. I know.”
He led us back inside and, as we turned in our coats, Father Greg gave an across-the-room nod to one of the men near the library. With a hand on my back, he walked us past the crowd by the center table in the foyer. “Maybe it's not him I need to speak with these days?” Father Greg said. He pushed us back into the thick of the party, to the sitting room. “Let's go find your mother, Aidan.” He couldn't see my face because I was in front of him, but he didn't have to. He spoke down to me, over my shoulder. “Don't worry,” he said cheerily. “We'll have time to talk more soon. You're scheduled sometime over the break, aren't you? We'll catch up. I know it's been a while. I know you need to talk.”
I stopped and turned back to him. He smiled but looked around the room. “We'll catch up over your break,” he said. “Don't worry.” There was a pause for a second or two in which I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. I thought he might have been waiting for me, but his eyes rolled up over my head, and he waved to someone behind me.
Farther back in the sitting room, Mother had her own crowd of admirers huddled around her, friends like Cindy, but also other men and women I didn't know. Mother stood on a footstool and drew her arms up in second arabesque, mirroring an image of a portrait of herself that hung on the wall by the narrow staircase in the library. She stretched her arms as she spoke, and looked around the room. I thought she saw me, but she didn't.
“That's how I had to hold myself,” Mother said. “Otherwise it would have been sloppy.”
“Determination. Stamina,” Cindy said. “That's what class is all about.”
“Class?” Father Greg said to the group as we approached. “Gwen teaches us about class every year.” Mother stepped off the stool, and he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Every year, you set a higher bar. What a party. Only you can outdo yourself.”
“It's true,” Cindy said. “You should plan my parties. I'm serious. Maybe you could consult for my next opening?”
“You make it look effortless,” Father Greg said. “It's more than skill, it's art. I'm sure your admirers would agree.” Mother bowed in pliÃ©. “Some of whom I'd very much like to be introduced to, if you'd be so kind,” Father Greg continued.
“The ones you need to meet are in the sunroom,” Mother said. She and Cindy laughed, and Father Greg mocked a
guilty expression. It made me sick the way they played this game togetherâas if to be earnest means you lose.
Mother offered to lead the way, and Father Greg took her arm in his and followed her into the sunroom. The doors split open and revealed the men slumped in armchairs, smoking their cigars. Father Greg waved as he descended the couple of stairs, and the men roared their greetings to him. Mother pulled the doors closed. A rich tobacco stink lingered in the air, and Father Greg left behind him that charged negative space an animal creates when it flees into the brush with a snap of sticks and rustle of leaves.
Cindy and I were left standing beside each other, and she looked around the room quickly. “I've heard how much you enjoy working for Father Greg,” she said. “I think it's great. James has started working at Most Precious Blood too. He loves it. He's an altar boy now.”
I hadn't seen James working there yet, but it again made me realize how many fewer afternoons I'd been scheduled for at Most Precious Blood recently. Of course Father Greg made time for others. Of course he needed assistance with other tasks besides fund-raising. He was our priest. But my stomach dropped as I thought of Father Greg consoling James. Wasn't it okay that I thought I was the one who needed Father Greg the most? He was the only one who didn't speak to me through bars of gritted teeth, as Cindy was speaking to me nowâsmiling at me in a way that said,
I don't want to be anywhere near you
I cut through the dining room to the pantry. When I came into the kitchen, I saw Elena arguing with two of the chefs by the wall ovens. She waved a wooden spoon that looked like it had been charred. She glanced at me but continued her tirade. The chefs weren't listening, though, and she yelled at their backs as they worked. “Elena,” I said, but I was too quiet. The room was roaring with commotion. I bumped into one of the waiters coming back into the kitchen and upset the tray of shrimp ends he carried. “Shit,” he spat, and I weaved away around the island. I stole an opened bottle of fumÃ© blanc from the ice bucket behind the bartender and ducked out the back door of the kitchen. The noise from inside the house followed me into the backyard, and once I was beyond the circumference of the spotlight over the path, I shouted up into the sky. Nothing responded, and it felt like my voice just disappeared in the darkness.
I made my way across the lawn toward the second garage and walked up the stairs to Elena's apartment. I tried the door. It was locked, but I could still see through the window. Her room was simple and small, like a well-furnished monk's cell: a bookshelf, an armchair, a wardrobe closet, and a crisply made bed. Two frames with pictures of her daughter, Teresa, and her son, Mateo, leaned against the base of the lamp on the bedside table. In the first photograph, her husband, Candido, had his arm around Teresa.
I slumped down, leaned against her door, and drank, staring up into the dark night. I stayed there for a while, and
it wasn't until I saw Elena shuffling down the path behind the kitchen and coming up the stairs that I realized how much I was shivering. I hid the bottle of wine behind the flowerpot on her tiny stoop. I was sure she saw it anyway, but it wasn't in my hands so she didn't have to say anything. Instead, she pulled me up into her arms. “
,” she said. “Don't cry. Please don't cry,” she repeated as she held me.
She let me in, sat me down on her little bed, and continued to hold me. She mumbled in Spanish and, after a little bit, I realized it was the Hail Maryâ
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death
. I don't know how many times she repeated it, but I joined her, in Spanish, although it hurt to pray with a fist-tight throat. “Do not cry anymore,” Elena said. “Please.” Eventually, she got up and moved her packed suitcase toward the door. She pulled out a toiletry bag from underneath the sink in her little bathroom and packed it with what she needed.
“Why can't you stay the night?” I asked. I hated saying it. It was Christmas Eve for God's sake, and her own family was waiting for her in the Bronx. She was already leaving later than she should have. I knew she wanted to make it to the midnight Mass at her church.
When she had finished in the bathroom, she turned out the light. Only the light outside her apartment door lit up the room. “You can sleep here tonight,” she said. “I don't mind. Just please take care of yourself.” She stood by the door, and I couldn't see her face. She was only a silhouette in front
of the lamplight from the tiny porch beyond. “Please,” she said again, and then, without saying any more, she picked up her bag and hustled downstairs to the garage, to get in her car and finally begin her vacation.
A crucifix hung on the wall above Elena's bed, and it focused me for a while as I sat and drank without a glass. Forgiveness, I'd been taught, was the road to peace, but for now, I thought the quiet would do. I felt my tongue go limp and fatten as I lost control. When you drink alone over a long period of time, you're not deluding yourself into thinking you're clearheaded and bright. You're falling apart, you know it, and you just want to slip away, numb as a snowman, melting until you're gone.
hristmas morning, I dragged myself out of Elena's apartment and back to the house to take a shower. I was tender and jumpy, and I stayed under the hot water, hoping I could steam out the toxins. Mother and I suffered our hangovers separately. We had already agreed not to open gifts by the tree. We wouldn't have eggnog at breakfast, or the scones with fresh clotted cream that had been our tradition for so many years before. Pain could strike out from the simplest, most mundane moments, and Mother hid from them under her comforter for most of the day.
I called Father Greg several times. I always got the voicemail but never left a message. It was Christmasâhe must have been invited to someone's house. If he wasn't at Most Precious Blood, whom else could I call? Not that I thought Old Donovan wanted to say hello, but even if he had, I didn't know how to reach him by phone. I never really had.
I remembered the morning a few weeks earlier when I'd last seen Old Donovan. He had come back from another long trip to Europe and arrived after I'd gone to bed on a Friday night. I slept late the next morning, and I found him at the table in the breakfast nook with a newspaper in front of his face and a pile of others stacked neatly across the table from him. The last few wisps of smoke rose from a nearby ashtray. He was still in his striped pajamas. I sat down across from him and picked up a section of the
he had already discarded. He cleared his throat and breathed deeply through his wet and heavy lungs.
“Welcome home,” I said.
“Yes.” He yawned and rubbed his face.
“You missed a lot.”
“Yeah? Well, I was shoring up hope among the Europeans. Oil's down, tourism's down, the GDP sank last quarter and will again. Everybody is too goddamn afraid and playing it too close to the chest. How in God's name do you save an economy? Work. Hard work. It's always about work.” He looked up at me angrily, as if the recession was my fault.
He was sleepy and disheveledâpurple folds sagged beneath his eyes. White chest hair curled around the lapels of his pajamas. He pushed his coffee mug toward the edge of the table. “Mind refilling for me?”
I got up and grabbed the carafe from the island. I poured myself a small cup and brought the carafe over to the table and set it beside his mug. He frowned at me and poured
himself another cup. He pushed the papers toward me. “Jump in,” he said.
At a certain point, I had gathered from Old Donovan that when he said,
You need to participate in the larger conversation
, he was really saying,
It's time to grow up
. But as I scanned the headlines that morning, I wondered what kind of a world I was supposed to participate in: Everywhere I looked, there was something to fear.
“It's depressing,” I said to him at last.
“You sound like your mother. It depends on your expectations. Read your Nietzsche.”
I listened to his mucosal wheeze. “Didn't sleep well?” I asked.
“It's hard to get used to some beds,” he said. He tried a grin on me, and I wondered what was on his mind. “Sometimes I wake up on a plane and forget where the hell I'm going.”
“It's hard to keep things straight sometimes.”
We sipped our coffees. “I can't keep pace like I used to.”
“Damn it, I'm trying to talk to you here, before your mother comes down and starts up. I want you to know something.” He rubbed his forehead. “It's always been important to me to have a son. I've tried to pass things on to you. I've enjoyed that role.” He cut himself off as classical guitar
music came on over the sound system around the house. He shook his head. “It was important to me to tell you that,” he said. “Look. I'd like to be kind for the next couple of days. I'd like for us all to be kind to one another, if we can.”