Garret Keizer

Fiction

Garret Keizer is the author, most recently, of The World Pushes Back (poetry) and Getting Schooled (nonfiction) and is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review. His website is here: https://garretkeizer.com.



Photo credit: Kathy Keizer

Raymond's Bar

About a year or so after my divorce I got it into my head that I ought to go out some night for a drink. Hardly unheard of among the sons of men—but I was never big on going to bars, not even as an undergraduate. I did go a few times in seminary as part of a class whose professor thought Barth and Bonhoeffer went down best with German beer. Usually the closest we got was Dutch, which was a good deal closer than the professor ever got to his subject. The impatience in that remark says more about my professional shortcomings than his. I’m not one to enjoy fellowship for its own sake, a definite liability in a drinking buddy or a priest. I’m prone to restlessness—I’ve never had much aptitude for seated meditation, for example—and am no big fan of spectator sports. I suppose I needn’t say anything about karaoke.

Then, too, there is the matter of “scandalizing the sheep,” not that the Episcopal Church is a dry denomination. For every parishioner of mine who’s a regular at AA meetings, I have two or three others who’d benefit if they were. Overall, though, I suspect most of my flock would prefer to have their rector enthroned at a safe distance from the taps. I could always claim that credential at least.

So it was strange to find myself with a craving—not so much for a drink, or to “go for a drink,” as for a particular corner of a particular bar I happened to glimpse through a bistro window one night as I hurried to the former grange hall where a local arts group was holding its winter film series. I’d been asked to introduce Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, a task for which I was deemed suited by my profession and possibly (though I hoped not) by a visible resemblance between the main character’s bleak situation in provincial France and my own in northern Vermont. After managing to extricate myself from a meeting that had dragged on for most of the afternoon, I drove as fast as the snowy roads allowed to the village where the grange hall was—only to find the parking lot full. I located a space farther down the main street, close to the bistro. The frigid temperature, in the single digits that night, and the stresses of a long day made the bistro look especially inviting.

The front windows were trimmed with white Christmas lights. I peered in at the bar, a small one, used mainly by patrons waiting to be called to their tables. There was no TV to distract from its softly gleaming details, the varnished rim of the counter and the varnish-colored whiskeys in their bottles, a bowl of red cherries, the brand-embossed handles on the half dozen pumps. A couple were seated with their backs to the window. To the left, at the foot of the L-shaped counter, was a single empty stool. This is your seat, Raymond, off to the side here. It’s available if you want it.

I had the same sensation later in the evening when two of my hosts at the film event suggested we go to the bistro for a drink and maybe a bite to eat. They asked for a table in the dining room, as I also would have done for a party of three, but when we passed by the bar I was drawn once again to the vacant stool in the corner. In the weeks to come it became a kind of mental refuge, similar to my vegetable garden and stretches of certain trout streams, a place to send my thoughts when I was bored or blue. I imagined what it would be like to put on my civilian clothes—a sport coat with nothing around my neck, neither clergy collar nor tie—and go there for a solitary drink.

Soon I began showing up on Tuesday nights. Tuesday was one of my “weekend” days and I assumed it would be an off-night for the bar. The bistro was closed on Mondays or I might have gone then, fresh off my busiest day of the week. I usually ordered a beer or glass of wine, seldom anything stronger. I rarely stayed longer than an hour. I always brought along a small notebook or something to read. Once in a while I’d order from the “lighter fare” side of the menu, a few shrimp or a dish of calamari; I came too soon after dinner to want much. I aimed for a fixed time, around 8:30, when I was less likely to share the bar with patrons waiting for a table. Most of them would be seated by then, especially on a weeknight.

My goal was to become a regular, someone known to show up on a certain night of the week at a certain time and to place a roughly predictable order. “Now we see through a glass darkly,” the Apostle says, but then, at the final consummation, we shall “know even as we are known.” I wanted both: the dark glass and the recognition too. I’ve inferred the same desire from certain church visitors, people who want you to say “Nice to see you folks again” after the service but not necessarily to ask for their names. I’ve fantasized about being one of their number someday, in some distant and perhaps impossible year of retirement. For now, this was my version—my bar, my regular seat at a tourist-town bistro forty minutes’ drive from my church.

Very soon the pleasure of my visits had a lot to do with the bartender on duty Tuesday nights. A woman called Mel. She never asked my name. She seemed to sense that I preferred to occupy my quiet spot with anonymity. If that was her assumption, I confirmed it by never addressing her as Mel. In the beginning I said “Miss.” Later I would venture a “dear,” the only privilege of age I’ve ever allowed myself with a younger woman. Not even paternally would I have tried to lay a hand on her.

I think she knew that. We both seemed to intuit—and I realize this may all be projection on my part—that we each had a pair of simple needs, hers to be respected and to enjoy a slow night in relative peace, mine to be served, not slavishly, and to be let alone. I resisted any pastoral inclination to ask if she had another job or how her kids were doing. I knew she had children from overhearing her conversations with the wait staff. I also knew she wasn’t married. I’d heard her refer to “my ex” when speaking to one of the cooks. She showed me the same discretion. She never asked what I did for work or where I stood on this or that local issue. It seemed to be her special concern that I be comfortable, at my ease, and this was so even before my tips began to climb beyond twenty percent.

Sometimes a couple of stag skiers or traveling business types would chat her up with that self-important flirtatiousness that I imagine women must hate—or at least I’d hate it were I a woman. “Here’s another remarkable fact about me.” She obliged them with a dignified, good-natured patience I much admired. Within her sphere, she was a minister too. If I’m not mistaken, she threw me a quick glance during one or two of these exchanges, as though we were the sole adults at the bar and bearing with these tiresome boys were part of our duty in life. I found the suggestion of a shared confidence appealing. I doubt it would have occurred had she known I was a priest.

Did I have a crush on her? Possibly, though I may only have been savoring a break from the hardwired loneliness of a profession in which most of the eligible women I meet are rendered ethically ineligible by their presence in my church. She was certainly attractive, dark-haired and slender, with a languid authority in the way she moved. I did my best not to use her movements as a substitute for the missing TV. Sometimes I pictured a young child hugging her legs, but I didn’t imagine hugging them myself. She bared the whole length of her arms even in the cooler weather and was lovely reaching for the glasses above the bar. If ever our eyes met, she smiled. I made sure they didn’t meet too often.

A few times, twice to be exact, she placed her hand briefly over mine when I told her to have a good night. I nearly forgot my scarf once, and she came from behind the bar to give it to me just as I was about to walk through the door, lifting it over my head as though vesting me with a stole.

I’d have liked to come in more frequently, but I was afraid I’d get a different bartender. More than that, I was afraid of disturbing the subtle understanding between us, which I suppose wasn’t an understanding so much as a zone of mutual comfort, something we could each count on that depended on predictability.

I refused to let her come near my thoughts when I masturbated, not that any woman I know personally is granted admittance then, with the occasional exception of my ex-wife. My main objective, after all, is to take down the edge of feelings that shouldn’t enter into certain relationships. No doubt that’s a good part of why I find the act so degrading. What could be more pathetic than a virtuous jerk-off?

It was a different matter when I prayed. She would appear unbidden in my thoughts, sometimes with her children beside her. She knew she didn’t have to knock. My door was always open. Guessing at her wishes, I would pray for her children first. Then I would pray that “she know authentic love in her life,” that “all of her needs as a person, a woman, and a child of God will be met.” Yes, I felt a little tremor at the mention of her “needs,” but it seemed like a liberty she’d given me permission to take.

If all of this sounds just a tad too exquisite, I suppose that was part of its charm. Exquisiteness is not a reliable feature of the clerical life. There’s a line I’ve always loved in Charles Williams’s eccentric history of the Church, The Descent of the Dove. He’s writing about the subintroductae, women in the early Church who lived with their male companions as “sister and brother,” inhabiting the same houses and sleeping in the same beds, enjoying all the graces of coupling while avoiding the complications of sex. Williams refers to the Church’s eventual abolition of the practice in order to avoid “scandal” as “one of the earliest triumphs of ‘the weaker brethren,’ those innocent sheep who by mere volume of imbecility have trampled over many delicate and attractive flowers in Christendom.” I wasn’t looking for an escape from sex—had I been able to make a suitable second marriage, I’d have leapt at the chance—but it does seem I was craving a few “delicate and attractive flowers” in my life. That, and an occasional respite from the hooves of imbecility.

~

The short-lived spell was broken when four of my parishioners happened to come into the bar one night. This was inevitable given that we were only twenty miles or so from my church. Still, it had been close to five months since I’d been coming here and the first time I was accosted. I don’t count the time when a married couple from the parish passed by my perch, recognized me, waved, and continued to their table, seeming to understand, as this particular couple would be apt to do, that I was alone by choice. I’ve remained grateful to them. I’ve heard the tired jokes about “God’s frozen chosen,” the uptight folks who have too much Anglo-Saxon ice in their veins to slobber over every person they meet, but they are my chosen, whether they be God’s choice or not.

The two couples who accosted me this time were by no means frozen, more the thoroughly melted type, gushy and demonstrative. Strictly speaking they were not members of the parish or even of my denomination but seasonal visitors with second homes they occupied during snowmobile season and later in mid summer and sometimes, sans wives, for deer season in the fall. As nearly as I could tell they were drawn to our church by what it lacked, popes and tithing high on their list of yuckies. “I like that it’s a church where you can believe whatever you want,” one had told me. And where it doesn’t cost you much for the privilege.

They came straight to my spot, hailing me as “Father Ray,” a form of address I find tolerable only in the smallest child. I don’t like “Father” in general, as apparently was also true for Christ (“Call no man father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven”), but if a person feels a need to be formal, why not go all the way and call me Father Long? The folksy stuff was especially ludicrous coming from people who liked to make condescending cracks about Christian evangelicals and other “backward” types less sophisticated than themselves. “Father Ray” made me sound a step away from having my own radio pulpit.

As soon as they said it, a change came over Mel’s face, as though I’d just been apprehended by my parole officer. I tried to steer the conversation to the lake scene and their various recreations there but was peppered by jokes about having been “found out” (true enough), about the Communion wine having failed to quench my prodigious thirst, and about my “cruising for some action,” which I found particularly tasteless, not because I was a priest but because I was an involuntary celibate. They probably meant no harm, or no great harm.

The commotion only lasted several minutes. They were called to their table and said their good-byes—along with a very ominous “Maybe we’ll join you some night”—and I was left alone. I finished my drink, paid my tab, and said good night with my face already turned to the door.

~

I might not have gone back, might have been content to reproach myself for naiveté—who but a simpleton could believe in a small-town clergyman having a private life in public?—but when Tuesday rolled around, I determined to keep my custom. Staying away would only make it seem as if I’d been misrepresenting myself, as if, being found out, I had no choice but to hide. This was nonsense.

I also had to be open to the possibility that my clerical status had been revealed for a reason. Yes, I still believe in providence of that kind. Remember, my church allows me to believe whatever I want. I would go as I had always gone and see what came of it. Perhaps nothing. Of course, nothing was what I hoped for.

As I should have realized, my relationship with my bartender was too vague for me to notice any definite changes. What relationship did we have, after all? Still, I looked for the slightest alteration in her behavior. As often happens when we’re keen to discern a difference in someone’s regard, I found what I was looking for. She was as courteous, as obliging, as ever before, but I sensed a thickened buffer of formality between us. It probably wasn’t much different from the way she would have acted and the way I would have felt had I been one of those flirtatious jokers who sometimes sat at the bar and had made a pass at her. Things would have chilled after that.

For my part, I studied to keep all my actions and words the same as they had always been, same drink, same reticence, same tip. It felt silly to be so self-conscious. What had I ever been in this place, priest or no priest, but a plain-faced older customer with gentle manners and an open hand with his gratuities? I meant no more to her than a friendly dog she might have met at the end of her shift, trotting from the garbage dumpsters to her knees for his Tuesday scratch behind the ear.

The following Tuesday—that is, two weeks after my “exposure”—I showed up again, at my usual time, only to find the male halves of the couples I’d met here earlier in the month occupying my usual seat and the one adjacent to it. When the man in my seat saw me, he stood and moved to a seat beside his friend, who turned around and raised a mug of beer and winked. “We kept it warm for you,” he said.

I’ll call him Will, and my seat-warmer Dave. “Is Tuesday your night here or just one of your nights?” Will asked. With Mel’s eyes on me, I felt I had no choice but to answer, “Yes. Tuesday is my night.”

And what of God’s eyes? you ask. I hadn’t forgotten them. Mostly they factored into my decision to continue coming Tuesday nights, at least for a few more weeks, once it had peremptorily been decided that Tuesday was now going to be “our night.” Or as Dave named it, “Men’s Fellowship Night.” With Will chiming in, “Men’s Full Gospel Drinky-Poo.” Back to Dave: “Tying a Bag on for Christ.” Will’s turn: “Hair of the Dog Ministries.” And so on.

Though neither man said so in as many words, the idea seemed to be that it was a sad thing for me to be drinking all by myself. That I who worked so hard to see that no suffering soul was ever left to bear his cross alone should be drinking his bachelor’s pint in utter solitude—unthinkable. In other words, these guys owed me their companionship. Apparently David’s wife agreed. Will’s was more skeptical, having offered the meek suggestion that “maybe Father Ray needs a little time by himself.”

Will quoted this verbatim as exhibit A for his theory that there is nothing a wife won’t say or do—even to the neglect of basic Christian charity—if it means depriving her husband of a drink. Which might be a wife’s best course if her husband is as keen for a drink as Will is. Anyway, I was stuck. And with more than one irony. It wasn’t just that my attempt to have “a night off” had turned willy-nilly into another pastoral obligation. It was also ironic that my suspicion about my new buddies—that they were using their ministrations to me as an excuse to avoid their wives—was the same one my ex-wife had voiced about my own zeal for the work of the church. To use her exact words: “You’re not following Jesus, you’re running away from me.” By then she was too much out of love with me and had always been too spiritually innocent to perceive that I might be running away from Jesus too. What better place to hide from the Good Shepherd than in the last place he’d think to look for you?

I needn’t have mustered any such cleverness in hiding from Will and Dave. I could have told them that my routine had been amended by a new pastoral obligation, which I would not have needed to elaborate because of its presumed confidential nature. But I didn’t beg off, and I determined I wouldn’t, at least not until I’d met the men several times, or until they got tired of coming. Long ago I learned that although the average human attention span is a pastor’s worst enemy, it can also be his best friend. Even those in a white heat to throw you to the lions are apt to lose focus after a while. In the meantime, I felt there might be some need I’d serve in meeting with these men. Perhaps the need to disclose a problem in the course of our evenings, perhaps nothing more than their need to serve me in my obvious loneliness. It’s a dull priest who thinks his only function is to serve others. A sensible priest also knows how to let others serve him.

All of these concerns were factors, but I was also thinking of my bartender. Much to my regret she had seen her anonymous Tuesday patron unmasked, and I was loath to have her see that new face unmasked as well. Bad enough I’d turned out to be an off-duty priest without my turning out to be a lousy one besides.

~

So Tuesday night it was, for over a month of Tuesdays. If there was any pressing pastoral need I was intended to discover, it was lost on me. Our nights at the bar—and it was all I could do to prevent my former hour at the bar from becoming very literally a night at the bar—were a study in triviality. The talk was a mix of sports and vaguely objectionable political statements (often preceded by the disclaimer “I’m probably wrong to think this way” and the implication that it was my role to referee whether the speaker was indeed “wrong”), a bit of local gossip, and perhaps worst of all, some parish business that was insufferable enough at a vestry meeting but almost nauseating at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night at a bar with individuals who were not even confirmed members of my church.

I’m giving the wrong impression, however, if it sounds as though I didn’t develop a certain fondness, or at the least feel some compassion, for these two men, both middle-aged and each evincing a burden of sadness under his surface jocularity. Life had left both of them generally bewildered, as it seems to do with men our age more than with our female counterparts. We “just can’t seem to get” what women either got or gave up trying to get a long time ago. I offered what encouragement I could.

Any ambivalence I felt was matched by their own. It was clear they liked me and were more than casually concerned about my welfare. At the same time, as is often the case with priests, they couldn’t resist trying to embarrass me. Tolerable and even endearing in an affectedly foul-mouthed teenaged girl or in some undergraduate Bambi of an atheist—“Yes, I’ve heard of Richard Dawkins, but please do tell me more about his work”—these attempts to unsettle become altogether tiresome in people old enough to know better. If only these guys knew—if only the majority of humanity knew!—just how banal their most “scandalous” doubts and vices are. If anything made me uncomfortable it was the effort required to treat their remarks as even marginally original. Hannah Arendt spoke of “the banality of evil,” as if evil could claim some distinction in that respect. It’s all banal, lady, everything but the mercy of God.

Speaking of which, Mel remained our bartender for all but one of these nights. But she had slowly ceased to serve as an agent of mercy or to figure very often in my thoughts. At first I was conscious of her as an audience to our conversations; eventually that consciousness began to fade. She was as physically close as she had ever been—and even more present, in that Will and Dave sometimes tried to draw her into our talk—but at the same time she had begun to recede. She was no longer one of the “delicate flowers” of my existence and I had no hope of being any such thing for her. Even my tips were meaningless, being pooled with those of my companions. Had I left a scarf or hat behind, she would not have placed it on me now. I did continue to pray for her, but as a name on my list, not as a palpable presence in my prayers. Probably just as well.

There was one moment, though, during what would be my last night out with the men when Mel came briefly back into focus. I’d already resolved that this was going to be my last night, at least with Will and Dave. I’d fulfilled whatever pastoral obligations were incumbent on me. I’d prayed to know my purpose, if there was one, and to be released from my chore if there wasn’t. As the evening wore on and the conversation became vaguely inebriated, at least in Will’s case, I concluded the latter. This was going nowhere. I’d accepted their company in order to behave like a priest only to feel less and less like one with each successive encounter. It was time to be done.

My determination to break things off grew even stronger when Will began calling our bartender “sweetheart,” something he’d not done before that night. One could argue this wasn’t much different from my occasional “dear,” but it felt different enough to annoy me. Mel responded with her usual aplomb. When Will said “sweetheart” for the fourth time, with the trace of a slur in his voice, I was moved to say, “I believe the woman’s name is”—I looked to her for confirmation—“Mel?”

She didn’t smile when she said, “Melody, yes.” I wondered then if she would have preferred the anonymity of “sweetheart,” if my last attempt at gallantry was in fact a violation. It would be my last attempt in any case. I’d find another bar or choose a different night to visit this one.

~

Melody Marshall showed up at the 8:00 a.m. Eucharist the following Sunday. She sat in a pew near the front. She didn’t take Communion but did come to the altar rail for a blessing, crossing her arms over her chest as directed in the pew bulletin “for those desiring a blessing.” I didn’t say her name when I placed my hand on her shoulder and blessed her. She didn’t open her eyes.

After the service, I noticed that she held back so as to be the last to file from the church. I was thankful that Will and Dave always came to the service at ten o’clock. What a mess it could have been otherwise. Hugs to spare, I’ve no doubt, especially since the woman was all by herself and a few decades shy of menopause.

Though I’d recognized Mel as soon as I saw her in the pew and tried to communicate as much with a smile, I didn’t mention our acquaintance when I shook her hand. She didn’t say that she liked my sermon. At least that much of our prior relationship remained intact.

“So what brings you to St. Thomas’s this morning?” I asked, my standard question for first-time visitors. I thought that best. Maybe she had taken a seat in my church with the same desire for anonymity as I had taking a seat at her bar. I wanted her to know that she could keep the places separate if she wished.

With no preface beyond “hello,” she said, “I have a problem I guess I wouldn’t mind talking to you about some time.”

“Of course.” I nodded. I wanted to seem willing but not overly curious—and not in the least bit worried (though I was) that the problem might have something to do with me.

She let loose a slight laugh, which might have unsettled me further—was she only joking with me? reading my mind?—if I hadn’t noticed that her eyes were wet.

“This probably won’t come out right.” She dabbed at her tears with a tissue, still on the verge of laughing. “But I figured if you could put up with those two bozos week after week you might be able to put up with me.”

We made an appointment to meet that Tuesday afternoon. Her problem turned out to be fairly serious, and we would meet to discuss it several times before I referred her to someone better trained than I to address its particulars. Of course I was free to return to my old bar, if I wanted to, and of course I can never go there again.