When I was twelve Father Calise, the Catholic pastor, came to bless our new house. We were sitting around the kitchen table when he raised an empty plastic container about the size of an eye-drop bottle. “I forgot the holy water,” he said. “Realized it on my way over. Want me to go back?”
He wore a black shirt, black pants, black shoes, and a white clerical collar. His wide belly drooped over his black belt. Chain smoking left him with a voice like a pneumatic drill. Dry deep muted pulses strung together. Up close the puffy charcoal pouches beneath his eyes bore the bumpy texture of goose flesh, while from the back pews of the church on Sunday morning they looked like the black eyes from a broken nose.
He had brought a small black suitcase with a gray foam insert. The insert was molded with pockets that held the tools of a blessing: the bottle of holy water, leather-bound prayer book, and silver aspergillum with a beautifully worn wooden handle.
Because we had moved from a magnificent drafty old house, originally a colonial post office built in 1778, my parents savored modern amenities such as safe wiring, snug insulation, and floor boards without cracks, which in the old house allowed us to spy from an upstairs bedroom while they sat downstairs in the family room.
Now a blessing was the final touch.
Did my parents want him to go back for the holy water?
This was a question with only one reasonable response. If Father Calise himself had wanted to go back for the holy water he would have turned around when he realized his mistake. The church was only a dozen miles away.
“Don’t be silly,” my mother said.
“Have a seat,” said my father.
On several occasions I had overheard my mother refer to Father Calise as an alcoholic. Until I met Father Calise my impression of an alcoholic was derived from television and movies and therefore consisted of two stereotypes: a ranting vagrant lurching down a busy sidewalk as horrified pedestrians parted, or a dapper businessman who was on the wagon, but whose recovery was so tenuous that a mistaken nibble of a holiday rum ball would compel him to reach for the nearest bottle. Naturally, Father Calise fell somewhere in between. He was meticulously groomed, his short black hair slicked back and his sagging cheeks smoothly shaved, but still noticeably stricken by his affliction. I would see him leaning against the wall at the back of the church during mass, next to the mounted silver font, wearily watching, like a washed-up ballplayer ceaselessly drawn to the field of his old glory, the familiar ritual led by another priest. He was not old, maybe in his sixties, but he measured each step like a man much older. Sequestered inside his alcoholic shell, he was gloomy and insular and averse to friendly conversation. After mass he would exit by a side door off the sacristy rather than greet parishioners at the proper exit at the back of the church. That he did this without stealth or deception was even more insulting.
For his part, my father, an otherwise freethinking attorney, was a serious and law-abiding Catholic who always deferred to the absolute authority of the church. He would have been undaunted by Father Calise’s failings precisely because he believed that the powers of the priesthood were undiminished by human frailty, held fast by God alone.
“Don’t worry about it,” my father assured him. “We can sit and talk and do it some other time.”
My mother brewed coffee and set out the plate of frosted lemon cookies she had baked for a celebration of the blessing. After a few minutes my father retrieved a bottle of Wild Turkey from the liquor cabinet in his study. He unscrewed the cap and poured two shots. Because my father rarely drank, and almost never at home, the gesture was exotic and thrilling, and even, for a few fleeting seconds anyway, opened the door to the possibility that something raucous and unexpected was about to occur. Father Calise might have been better served without a shot of whiskey, but my father knew it was an offering that would please the priest and make him feel welcome. God was judge, not my father—I am certain that was what my father was thinking. My mother inconspicuously disappeared. I lingered long enough to see the two men share cheers. My father barely wet his lips while Father Calise emptied his glass in one toss, his face tipped toward the kitchen ceiling, eyes closed, and held there too long, as if working a kink out of his neck.