They were lucky and spent the evening congratulating themselves for it. The bottom of July and here they were eating dinner outside—outside!—on a softly lit screen porch, raindrops pattering overhead, frogs in chorus in the wet dark beyond, this tail end of a quiet storm—a breeze, of all things, arrived like a stranger in the hot and humid week. The remains of dinner on the table—shells of shrimp marinated in a comeback sauce, crab cake crumbs, wilted leftovers of a spinach salad still wet with a mandarin orange vinaigrette. Dessert still plated, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate and, most splendidly, a bottle of reserve port brought from Lisbon, the darkness of sediment lying at the bottom of the bottle. They filled their glasses. They toasted each other. “To old friends and new recipes!”
They were the Pattersons and the Dresslers, Richard and Nell, Leonard and Jackie. They met at least twice a year, if not more, always over a plate, a bottle of wine, a friendship best gastronomically expressed, nearly three decades of these habitual hedonisms, dinners that combined the excitement of an occasion with the ease of routine. Jackie the cook, Leonard and Nell the gossips, Richard the joker, “Did I tell you, Leonard, about the man we bought the port from? We don’t speak a word of Portuguese, of course, so imagine us, hand signing ‘late bottled.’” This particular dinner, this lucky evening together—bugs batting at the screens, desperate for the light inside—at Leonard and Jackie’s summer house on Lake Beaumont, an oxbow lake in Point Bruin Parish, a severed river bend popular among people from nearby cities, people like the Dresslers. The summer house itself an antebellum plantation home Leonard had ordered lifted from its foundations and towed from the country to be refitted, repainted, refurbished—a three-story vessel for the memories he wished his family to make there. It had been Richard Patterson who sold him the plot of land, Richard who arranged for the house’s transport, Richard who owned most of the land that surrounded Lake Beaumont, having built upon the success of his father, a shrewd farmer, Richard a shrewd manager, renter, realtor. But that day—when the great house had straddled a big Mack across seventeen potholed miles, when a shutter had been lost in a ditch on Highway 74, and children had come out of houses to watch it pass—that day was long past. In between were children and close calls, weddings and hospitals and funerals, hurts and reparations and boredom and spasmodic happiness, years between the plantation house being towed down Highway 74 and this July night coming to its end. Dessert nearly finished. The conversation had covered their children—“He’s busy finding his way.”—remaining parents—“I try to get up to see her as much as I can, but you know how it gets.”—and too, the latest addition to Nell’s oyster plate collection, two long and convoluted stories from Leonard about the men and women whose throats he peered down, gossip about the young couple who had bought the property next door. But it was the port—blame the port—that struck a spark in Leonard Dressler's eyes, as he leaned over the table, his face sloppy with pleasure.
“But did we tell you about Fred Burns? Jackie, did we tell them about Fred Burns? You remember Fred Burns?”
“Banker,” Richard said, nodding along. “Or, no, insurance, right?”
“Health insurance. Sure, I know Fred. I’ve met him a few times down in New Orleans. Rob Mackey’s cousin.”
“That’s right. Do you remember his wife? Paula?”
“I remember Paula,” Nell said, delighted at the chance to contribute. “I remember her better than Fred, she went to school with me, if you can believe it, back in Concordia Parish. Paula Wilmington. She was two years ahead of me. Isn’t it funny how small the world is?”
“She died,” Jackie said.
“She died! How?”
“Cancer,” Leonard said quickly, before his wife could. “She died of cancer.”
“Lymphoma,” Jackie said.
“Lymphoma. Right. You should have seen the funeral, Richard, good Catholic boy like yourself. You would have been floored.”
Richard had a piece of dark chocolate in his mouth. When he said, “How so?”, his gums were muddy with it.
“Priests! Priests and bishops and, what was he, Jackie? Cardinal? Archbishop? Is that still a thing? Archbishop?”
“Yes,” Jackie said. “Yes, he was an archbishop.”
“What’s the difference between an archbishop and a cardinal? No, don’t say, Richard, don’t breathe a word, this is a test for Jackie. Jackie, this is for all the nuns that ever rapped your knuckles, what’s the difference?”
“A cardinal has better connections.”
Leonard smiled, pleased. “So cynical,” he said.
“She died?” Nell asked. Her face was still pulled in a mournful pout, well practiced. She was good for a pout, Jackie thought, old Nell, and took another swallow of port as the woman went on, “Paula died? Really?”
“She did. And an archbishop gave the homily. Can you believe that, Richard? An archbishop. You sure it wasn’t a cardinal, Jackie?”
“It looked like he was reading off handwritten notes. Jackie? Weren’t they handwritten?”
“They looked handwritten.”
“How did she get an archbishop to give the homily?” Nell asked, because she knew she was supposed to ask—people sometimes thought Nell Patterson slow but she was only ever obedient to the conversation. She had her glass of port near her lips. “Are they well-connected to the, I don’t know, the priesthood? Is that what you call it?”
“The clergy, yeah, you know, they’ve been big supporters of the Church, you know, big supporters.”
“But how big?”
“You know.” And then Leonard did what Leonard often did, which was wave away his uncertainty with a forceful push of his arm, as if going through an invisible swing door, nearly toppling three glasses on the table doing it. Nervous hands, Nell’s and Jackie’s, both at the ready, used to cleaning the doctor’s mess. “Money, I’m sure.”
“They gifted the local diocese a few houses,” Jackie explained, quietly, as she righted a wobbly glass, Jackie always explaining things quietly. “To use as a retreat for priests. And other things. Her father owned quite a few pieces of property throughout New Orleans. She inherited them. One house they use for their youth group, I think. At-risk youth. Something with youth.”
“So money,” Leonard said, “when you get down to it. Money.”
“Her inheritance,” Jackie said, and Nell nodded.
“There aren’t that many people left, that would give to the Church like that,” Richard said. “Considering everything that happened. You know what I mean.”
“Don’t say it.”
“All the pedophile priests.”
“You haven’t heard the best part.”
“The best part?”
“Well, I mean, not the best—ah, screw you guys, you know what I mean.” And they laughed, all four of them, giggled even, these past-middle-age men and women, the childlike power of the word “screw” so delightful in such a mild evening, better than a curse. “Well, you haven’t heard the best part. This is the best part.”
“Fred Burns is joining the seminary.”
Leonard said it leaning over the table, the loose fabric of his sensible button-down touching the remains of his crab cakes, and Nell, always nervous at the thought of messes, had her hand half out, just as Richard, in routine embarrassment of his wife, had his own hand half-raised to hold hers back, so that both hardly heard Leonard. And Jackie, who’d heard it many times, wasn’t paying attention at all, instead looking out at the porch screens, as if she could see the raindrops in the dark. Leonard saw all this and frowned, upset at the spoiled moment, almost petulant as he leaned back, repeating as he did,
“Fred Burns is joining the seminary.”
It reached them.
“The seminary? What do you mean? As in priest?”
“Fred Burns is going to become a priest?”
“Yes!” Delighted now, Leonard clapped, once, channeling the exclamation. “Yes!”
“Isn’t he our age?”
“Doesn’t he have children?” Nell asked, almost frightened, looking to Jackie. “Didn’t they have children?”
“They had two children,” Jackie explained. “Pearl and Bernard.”
“Pearl? They named their daughter Pearl? I don’t remember that.”
“How long does it take you?” Richard asked Leonard. “How long does it take you in the seminary to become a priest?”
“Four years, give or take.”
“Give or take.”
“He’ll be sixty-six,” Nell cried. “He’ll be sixty-six years old!”
“But why?” And so Nell had finally reached the question, obedient Nell, Nell who asked it reaching for the bottle of port, refilling her glass, refilling the glass Jackie offered, Richard offered, Leonard, until the bottle gasped empty. “Why is he becoming a priest?”
“It’s a tribute to his wife.”
“You think,” Jackie said quickly, glancing at Leonard meaningfully, eyes heavy with past arguments. “You think it’s a tribute to his wife.”
“I think it’s a tribute to his wife.”
“A tribute to his wife?” Nell asked, focusing again her question on Jackie, who only shrugged.
“You know,” Richard said, leaning back, assuming the posture of a lecturer. “Tribute, now, what tribute originally referred to was a specific payment of some kind, routine, money, precious metals, you know, something a smaller country would give to a larger country, in exchange for peace, for protection. You paid tribute to the Romans, and they didn’t pillage your cities and rape your women.”
A quiet as the table tried to figure a way around this, one of Richard’s famous factoids, jutting out like a rock in otherwise smooth waters, each mind at the table testing words in their heads, considering Richard’s pride, deciding on the course of the conversation, hoping to avoid responsibility if it went nowhere.
“That head of yours,” Leonard said, and they all laughed in agreement and relief.
“But wait.” Richard had bright eyes. What people remembered about Richard, all those he had bought and sold to, the ones he had swindled and the ones that took advantage of him, if they thought of him, these people, this great column of lives that had met the face and name at its intersection of man, these people remembered him by his eyes, long after the rest of him had faded. A hard and bright green, they shone particularly when he had an idea, an idea he knew would spark them, these people listening. “Wait a minute,” Richard said. “Fred Burns. He was pretty successful. Am I right?”
“They lived Uptown.”
“Right next to Loyola.”
“And she came from money.”
“Oh, Richard,” Nell said, delighted to play the oracle. “I know where this is going. I know where this going.”
“Now, wait a minute.”
“Richard, you might as well just stop.”
“I’m curious, that’s all. Just a little curious, here. Leonard. How much, really? Come on. Between friends.”
“Is he worth?”
“Is he worth.”
But Nell only played at disapproval. And Leonard was as eager, his teeth displayed in an expression of camaraderie. And Jackie was shaking her head, not acquiescing, but bemused, and permissive of the conversation because of it.
“At least five million. At the very least. I’m talking about everything.”
“Of course, everything. Of course.”
“Five million, maybe even ten million. I imagine. Easy.”
“Let’s say five million. Let’s keep it on the low end. Nice, round number.”
“What’s happening to that?”
Nell looked confused, Leonard still eager, Jackie thoughtful, and wry, she was well practiced in wry, Jackie Dressler, years of her husband’s outlandish and often childish conversations conditioning the ironic twist of her lips.
“What do you think?”
“Surely, it’s going to his children,” Nell said, now looking at Leonard for assurance, for answers, her hands at the dull gold necklace around her throat. “Surely, it’s going to the children.”
“Well, that’s not right.”
“Not right!” People thought of chickens when they saw Nell flustered, not because of her body but because of her voice. She squawked, Nell Patterson did. Not her fault, but she squawked. “Not right! How can you say that? Think of them, Richard. Think of them. Without their mother.”
But Richard wouldn’t be bothered. He’d had one more glass than needed to go beyond his wife’s worry.
“Not right. That’s what I say.”
“What do you mean, not right?”
“Can you imagine what those children are going through, without their mother?” Nell’s voice anxious. “And now their father joining the seminary! My God, how does that conversation go? ‘“Where’s your father?” “Oh, he’s off joining the priesthood.”’ Could you imagine?”
“They were always religious, those Burnses. I remember—”
“What do you mean,” Jackie asked Richard again, “not right? What do you mean?” Her eyes had caught Richard’s fire. Overhead, the rain had slackened; the wet rhythm on the roof was gone.
“I don’t think it’s in the spirit of the thing,” Richard said and took a sip of port as if victorious.
“Not in the spirit of the thing!” Leonard crowed. “Not in the spirit of the thing? Oh, please, Richard, give us more.”
“Not too much,” Nell said, laughing, but hoping her husband heard her voice behind it. “Don’t give us too much, Richard.”
“Listen,” Richard started, as Richard always started when he had something he thought worth saying. Richard said, “Listen.” He said it often. “Listen. Fred Burns, I don’t know him as well you two do, it’s true, but I’ve met him a few times, he seems a good man, and I’m sorry for what he had to go through with his wife. It’s a shame he lost her, the way he did. But you know, it’s just not in the spirit of the thing. He’s had a family. He’s had a wife. He’s had, excuse me, everyone excuse me, but he’s had marital relations. Hasn’t he? He’s had two children. And this, to me, this is most important, he’s made money. He’s a rich man. A wealthy man. And let’s say, I know we’re not sure, but let’s say he leaves it to his children, before he joins the seminary. That’s not right. That’s not Christian. He should give the whole pie away. All of it. To charity. Every cent he’s ever made, before he joined the priesthood. But I bet he doesn’t. I bet it all goes to those kids. Those grandkids.”
“He has to provide for them, Richard,” Nell argued, “isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Provide? Isn’t that the whole point of the thing?”
“Exactly!” And here Richard thrust his finger into Nell’s face, ignoring the warning she gave him around it. “Exactly! You know, ole Saint Pete had it right. He did. They shouldn’t marry, these priests, because you know what Christ said? Do any of you remember? Leave your families. That’s what Jesus told the disciples. Leave your wives, your children, and follow me. It’s supposed to be radical. Jesus was a radical. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle and all that. That’s what Christ said. Christ was a beggar. Christ was a rebel. Fishers of men. And Fred, Fred’s not abandoning his family. He’ll still see them, I bet, all the time, and they’ll have the money and they’ll see him, and the only thing that’ll change is the clothes he wears. It’s not in the spirit of the thing, Fred becoming a priest. He’s a husband. I guarantee you, even with his wife gone, he’s still her husband. I guarantee you. At our age, in his heart. He has children. Does he have grandchildren?”
“Three,” Jackie said.
“Well, there you go. He’s a goddamn patriarch.”
“Patriarch is a little much,” Leonard said, laughing, tickled by each word Richard released. He was not disappointed. “That’s a little much, isn’t it?”
“This is what I mean. I mean this.” And Richard smiled, the words coming to him clear, as if light shone behind them, a sun. “Fred Burns might become a priest, but he can never be a holy man. He can’t. Don’t laugh, Leonard, I’m serious,” even as Richard himself smiled, “I’m serious. He can never be a holy man. Can you imagine, sitting in the front pew, listening to Fred Burns give a homily? Father Burns? How could you believe him? You’d be thinking, isn’t this the guy who had a stripper at his bachelor party? You can’t be a holy man with grandchildren. It just doesn’t work that way.”
She said without it rancor, without any touch of enmity, her wry smile firm on her face, Jackie Dressler, always, Richard thought, so easy to disagree with. That was her charm. That even when she denied you, you fell in love with her a little. “I think you’re wrong on that, Richard. I do.”
“I do,” she said.
“Are you going to join the nunnery after Leonard here kicks it?”
“Oh, I’m going to outlive her,” Leonard, smiling at Nell, sensing what was coming and joining Richard’s wife at her place in the sidelines. “By at least five years. That’s my goal.”
“Oh, Leonard,” Nell said.
“Grief,” Jackie said, “is powerful.”
“It can change a person.”
“A little,” Richard said. “Maybe.”
“Just a little?”
“You would really join a nunnery, Jackie? If Leonard died? That’s all I’m asking.”
“Why do I keep dying?”
But as Jackie finished her port, they focused their attention on her, all three, they were waiting for her to explain, her words about grief odd, somehow, at the candlelit table, the fresh breeze on the back of their necks. They waited for Jackie to explain herself. And, she, she thought of trying. She thought of explaining, saying, “Look, it took her a long time to die. Paula. Almost a year. She was a ghost before she was gone. I saw her, a few times. I saw him. It wasn’t just that his wife died. He watched his wife die. She couldn’t speak, in the end. She sounded like sandpaper when she breathed. And he was there, at the bedside, watching the body of his wife.” She thought of telling how, near the end, when she had been visiting, sitting near the hospital bed they’d brought into the house, Fred away, the nurse they had hired away, Jackie holding her old friend’s hand, trying to smile past the gray skin and bruised eyes, how she remembered a story that Paula had told her, how her sister long ago had—yes, Richard, indeed—gone and joined a nunnery, a French order in Spain, if you could believe it. They take vows of silence, these nuns. Complete and constant silence. All through their meals, their work. And all the energy it would take to speak, the potential they bind themselves from, they channel all that possibility into their devotion. Make prayers with unsaid words. At the crowded table of their order, heads bowed, praying for a better world, hoping their silence may be heard.
What she said, “I guess it all depends on what you think is holy.”
Richard shrugged; the others murmured assents, noncommital words. It wasn’t raining outside any longer; it hadn’t been for some time. Richard cleared his throat; Leonard and Nell finished their glasses. There were no more answers to be had. And they withdrew into themselves then, for the moment, this one given moment. Nell thinking of the car ride home, knowing she and Richard couldn’t drive at night as well as they once could, how it seemed now, when they did, the night soaked through the windshield. Leonard tallying the wine bottles, coming to a number he could give in proof of the evening’s excess, that the conversation had been worth it, hoping the conversation had been worth saying. And Richard, thinking of Jackie, remembering an evening not unlike this one, decades ago, when, drunk, he had walked up behind her as she washed dishes at the sink and put his arms around her. She had stiffened and then relaxed into him. He breathed in the back of her neck, and she had smelled like, like—what did she smell like, Richard? Nothing had come of it. There had been a noise, he let go of her, and that was it. Though he had nursed a fantasy all the years after, he and Jackie together, the other two, Leonard and Nell, maybe in the other room, maybe dead. He imagined kissing her. It had been long and passionate. Fulfilling.
“Well. The port was lovely,” Nell said. “Wasn’t the port lovely?”