A Fisher of Men
A man in black dismounted his motorcycle at the curb in front of the café. He removed his helmet and raked his hand through his graying shoulder length hair before sitting at a rusted wrought iron table at the edge of the sidewalk. He lit a cigarette and surveyed the square, the center of a typical small southern town—a white columned courthouse and clock tower, a cadre of looming oaks, a statue of some forgotten confederate hero.
Unlike the thriving small towns near the city, there were no trendy shops, galleries or sushi bars. This was a town farther south and far beyond the circumference of convenience and suburban sensibilities. The place was in its death-throws, the victim of some Walmart or nearby mall, and an air of decay—warm, thick and humid—hovered over the town like a shroud.
A waitress lingered just inside the open door of the café, and despite the noise made by his motorcycle and his artificial coughs, she took no notice of him. Finally, he called out to her, “Excuse me, young lady!” She looked up from her book and approached his table.
“Afternoon. What I can get for you, Father?”
He pulled at his clerical collar and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Please, call me Collin. Or sir. Mister. Anything. I’m not in much of a mood to be called Father.”
“Sir Collin!” He lowered his sunglasses and smiled. “I like that name. Okay. I’ll have a coffee. On second thought, it’s too hot for coffee. So—a bourbon. A Jack on the rocks, please.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Jack Daniels?”
“Is there another bourbon that goes by Jack?”
She laughed and said, “No, Sir Collin. There isn’t.”
“All right then. Fine. And we are allowed, you know. ”
Only in the South. As a boy in Boston, he’d seen old Father Kilburn deliver many a homily, hungover and bleary eyed following a Saturday night of on-the-house drinks at O’Malley’s. And no one gave it a second thought.
“One Jack on the rocks—coming up,” she said. “You want a menu?”
“Not hungry. Thanks. But can you bring me some ice-water? It’s as hot the devil.”
“Come inside then.”
“Can I smoke?”
“No thanks, then.”
The waitress reminded him of a girl he’d been with while at seminary. For a year, he’d resisted making love to the girl, knowing it would only make leaving her and his vow of celibacy more difficult. But on the winter night before he made his promise of obedience, in the back of his brother's van, he gave in. And she’d used her body in every way imaginable in an effort to keep him from pursuing his vocation.
He could recall how he'd seen her breath as she egged him on with obscene whispers and declarations of love. How the words took form, then evaporated. The contrast of her inner warmth and the cold air. And the unexpected thrill of leaving something of his inside her without taking precaution. As he settled into middle age, he thought of her more often and of the man he might be had she succeeded or if that seed and taken hold—a husband, a father, a cop on the streets of South Boston, like his brothers and his father before them. He shook his head to dislodge the images just as the waitress returned with his drink.
Clearing his throat, he said, “Thanks. Much appreciated.”
“Cool sunglasses, Sir Collin.”
“Why, thanks. They’re the only way I can express my sophisticated sense of style and fashion.”
“You’re not from around here.”
“Well, I am now, actually. I’m the rector at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, here in Towville.
“There’s a Catholic church—here?”
“Of sorts. We meet in the gym at Mid-County High. It’s a very poor parish. Mostly migrants and Hispanic workers from the poultry industry. So there’s no money for stained glass and limestone. Anyway, fancy buildings glorify man, not God. Of course, I say that because I don’t have a fancy building.”
“I guess it doesn’t matter.” She held up a finger. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name...’ What’s the rest?”
“There am I in the midst of them.’ Well—you know a Bible verse. Half of one, anyway. You mustn’t be Catholic. Or you’re half-Catholic.”
“I am Catholic, actually. We used to drive to Elberton for mass. But I haven’t been in a while.”
“Oh. Half-ass Catholic. You're certainly not alone. Anyway, St. Anne’s is a special place. Full of the Holy Spirit. You should come visit.”
“Must be odd saying mass in a gym. Like a pep rally for God.” She lifted a knee and waved imaginary pompoms. “I was a cheerleader at Mid-County.”
“The gym took some getting used to. See, I used to have a fancy building. The parish was quite affluent. I mostly presided over bingo games and played golf with wealthy parishioners. But at St. Anne’s I feel needed—and there are no silly politics. It’s all about doing the Lord’s work.”
The priest had never played a single round of golf in his former parish. Or presided over bingo. But he had earned a reputation among church hierarchy as a rebel and troublemaker. Without their sanction, he’d roamed the city by night, ministering to the dispossessed—the faceless, his father had called them. With his long hair, the Celtic cross tattoo on his forearm, blunt speech and relaxed manner, the denizens of the street felt at ease in his presence. And rather than preach, he offered compassion, or perhaps a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes or a bus ticket home. He knew his father had done the same on the streets of Southie. “Simple human kindness” his father called it.
His father would say, “Collin, if you see a man on the street, and you ask yourself, if they found that poor bastard floating face-down in the Charles, would anyone give a good goddamn? If the answer’s no, look him in the eye. Shake his hand. Provide a basic need. Let him know he has a face.”
The Church mostly looked the other way at his exploits, but when he diverted funds from a church building project to a home for unwed mothers, he crossed the line and they sent him to the wilderness to do his penance.
“Well, Sir Collin, maybe I'll come see you one Sunday.”
“You really should. The parishioners at St. Anne’s are God’s people. Not Sunday Christians. That's why I feel at home. Otherwise, I’m not thrilled with the small-town in living general. I’m a big city person.”
“The place has its charms.”
“Oh, sure. On certain days, it doesn’t smell like chicken shit.”
“I’m Tina, by the way—if you need anything,” she said, laughing.
He drank half the bourbon, then sat back with his hands behind his neck and waited for the buzz. He heard a car door slam and looked across the street. A woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat and large sunglasses pumped quarters into a parking meter. “Here goes,” he muttered. She crossed the street and approached his table.
“Why are you out here?” she said
“Hello to you also, Kate. Because it’s a lovely day and I needed a cigarette.”
“Could you possibly be more conspicuous? Let’s go inside. And why are you wearing your collar?”
“I guess I shouldn’t have. Of course, no one would recognize me without it. Much like Clark Kent and his glasses.”
“I can see what sort of mood you’re in.”
“Can you blame me? You haven’t called. And you haven’t been by in over a week.”
He gulped the rest of his drink while she pulled at the hem of her denim jumper and looked from side to side. They went into the dark, empty restaurant and sat in a booth at the back. Accordion music crackled over cheap speakers in a room decorated with faded French travel posters.
“When I was a girl we thought this place was quite exotic,” she said. “It was owned by a Frenchmen. As we used say—a real Frenchmen. How he ended up in South Georgia, I’ll never know. Daddy brought us here on special occasions.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you.”
“Let’s discuss business first.” He took a folded piece of yellow legal paper from his shirt pocket and spread it on the table. But when he noticed that he’d written her name several times in the margin, he folded it in half.
“Mrs. Munoz called. Her son’s in the county jail in Macon. Can you ask around and find someone who’d be willing to drive her down there so she can visit him? I’m thinking a couple of times a week. And then if you could arrange a meeting...”
“Let me finish, damn it.”
“Why are we meeting here anyway?” he asked. “Did you have a hankering for second-rate French cuisine?”
“Because. My therapist said we needed to meet on neutral ground. And I knew the place was about dead.”
“You were born and raised here. There’s no neutral ground in in this town; not as far as you’re concerned. And when did you start seeing a therapist?”
“I’ve only been once. I just needed someone to help me sort this out. A sounding board. Who else can I talk to?”
“I can imagine what he said.”
said that people in authority—teachers, ministers, psychologists...”
“They take advantage of helpless women when they’re vulnerable. Right? How much did you pay to hear that gem?
“That was a rhetorical question. Do you really think that of me?”
She sighed and looked at a poster of the Arc de Triomphe. The sky was a ridiculous blue. The accordion music gave way to Edith Piaf singing Non, je ne regrette rien.
“No. I don’t think that of you,” she said. “I wanted to—to absolve myself, I guess. It sounded good when she said it.”
“Did you give your therapist both sides of the story? I mean—you didn’t have to give me that first blowjob. You could have made me cookies or sopaipillas, like the other dear ladies of the parish.”
“Damn it, Collin. It didn’t start with that. And you know it. I really don’t like you when you’ve been drinking. And it is rather early, don’t you think?”
“I’ve only had a bourbon. And I’m not blaming you. I didn’t say, ‘thanks, but no thanks’ did I? It was my responsibility to draw the line. But by then I’d fallen for you. Shit, I fell for you when I laid eyes on you.”
Collin glanced over his shoulder before reaching for her hand. She took hold, and stroked his wrist with her index finger. He recalled how she came into his life—the day everything changed, how she’d presented her soft, delicate hand to him, and his concern that he’d held it beyond propriety.
He’d placed a notice in local paper asking for a bi-lingual volunteer, someone who could help him translate while he brushed up on his Spanish. She’d breezed into his office, wearing a flower-print sundress and smelling of perfume. She laughed at his jokes and touched his arm periodically when she spoke.
Without hearing her speak a word of Spanish, he took her on. He was willing to overlook that her husband was an executive at the poultry company that exploited his parishioners—that her Dolce & Gabbana shoes were purchased with the tender of their sweat and blood. Only later had he learned she’d volunteered in an effort to do penance for the sins of the Tilson Corporation.
He’d been captivated by her beauty, charm and the nearly extinct southern drawl affected by the actors in Gone with the Wind.
On that first day, when she left his office, he’d let out a high, weak whistle, like the first notes of a teakettle coming to a boil. He was a goner.
“So, what do we do, Kate?” he asked.
“I just can’t leave Dan.”
He crumpled the yellow paper in his fist. She’d confided in Collin, when their relationship was platonic, that her husband had once cheated on her. He’d felt contempt for the man. How the hell could a man cheat on someone as lovely as Kate? But given his own situation, he’d stopped throwing stones.
“So this is really it then,” he said. “Fuck.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“So it’s Okay for us to do it—but I can’t say it?”
“Please. I do love you. You know that.”
“Do I?” He looked at his watch. “Let’s not drag this out then. I knew what was going to go down—why you hadn’t called.”
“I haven’t been feeling well. Really.”
She took off her hat and sunglasses. Her eyes were red, with bluish half-moons beneath them. He cradled her chin in his palm. “God, you’re lovely, Kate.”
“I look a wreck, and you know it.”
He thought of when he’d last made love to her, in the makeshift chapel he’d fashioned in the trailer that served as his office. Her skirt gathered at her waist. Back arched. The sound of her breathing over voices in the parking lot. “Fuck me,” she said, as a statue of the Virgin rocked precariously.
“We’ve been fortunate, Kate—that we haven’t been caught. We’ve been getting reckless.”
“People suspect, but they don’t want to believe. Denial is a powerful thing…”
“Yes. Isn’t it?”
But they were at first cautious. Their dance was awkward, tentative, like teenagers at cotillion; desire and curiosity beneath a veneer of forced civility. In the months before their first indiscretion, she had made herself indispensable to him, and he allowed it—interpreter, driver, secretary, personal assistant. At his disposal. “I simply couldn’t do it without you, Kate.”
Then came the meetings with no agenda, the calls with no purpose and the intimate conversations held under the guise of council. Finally, late one night in his office, tired from making their rounds of sick and troubled parishioners, Kate lit the candles on the plywood altar in Collin's office and turned out the lights. She held her hands out to him, palms up, fingers splayed, as though holding some invisible offering. He came to her. And so it began.
A man in a tall chef’s stood by the kitchen door, scanning the near-empty café. He shook his head and retreated into his kitchen.
“Maybe we should order some lunch,” Kate said.
“For heaven’s, Kate. You’re such a softie. Our lives are in turmoil, and you’re worried about hurting the cook’s feelings.”
“Café de Flore,” she said, in an exaggerated French accent. “We had dinner here on my eighteenth birthday. I lost my virginity that night to Bobby Lee Fortis. All the boys thought Catholic girls wouldn’t do it. But I wanted it—badly. Then he dumped me. He just wanted to see if I’d let him—so he could tell all his friends.”
Collin nodded, but didn’t respond. Instead, he reached across the table and pulled her jumper just to one side, revealing the nape of her neck and bra strap.
“It occurred to me I’ve been denied the chance to see you completely naked. Always a bra, a blouse, high heels, panties ‘round your ankles. Something, damn it. Just once would have been lovely—without so much as a string of pearls. That’s a picture I could keep forever.”
“Collin, listen too me...”
She put her face in her hands and broke into low rolling sobs. He took both her hands in his and shook them emphatically.
“Come on Kate, let’s do it. Let’s get out of this godforsaken place.”
The words smashed the underpinnings of his bold pronouncement. He squinted and leaned forward.
“What the hell?” he said.
He toyed with his crucifix, wrapping the chain around his hand—weaving it through his fingers.
“But you said you weren’t…Jesus. How far along? And you're sure it's his?
“Six weeks. And I know it's his because...”
He waved at the waitress and held up his empty glass. “I'll take your word for it. I don't have a choice, really.”
“Collin, I’m so sorry.”
“Save your apology. Shit happens, doesn’t it? The idea that you’d leave him—the whole damned scheme. Delusional. ”
“Please don’t be angry.” She reached for his hand. He withdrew his and slapped the table with his palm. She flinched.
“You lied, Kate. You said you weren’t...”
“We’ve both been lying. To everyone. To ourselves. Did you honestly think it could ever work? Falling in love is one thing. An easy thing. But running off—giving it all up, it’s just...”
“Nonsense uttered in a sate of post-coital bliss. Fueled by the excitement of doing things you shouldn’t. Sin can be exhilarating, all right.”
“Damn it. Don’t make it any harder.”
“Any harder? Come on.”
“And you may hate it here Collin, but this is my home.”
She pulled a tissue from her purse. He took it from her and dabbed her cheek. They sat in silence for a time, while he reviewed the possible scenarios of their imaginary life. He would teach. Or open a halfway house. After a hard day's work, she’d great him at the door wearing a yellow chiffon dress like June Cleaver. He hadn’t really thought much past the delusion, and laughed when he imagined himself selling used cars or life insurance, while Kate brooded over the loss of her credit cards.
“What’s so darned funny?” she asked. “Everything is a joke to you. Ha—ha—ha.”
“Sometimes I look at humorous tableau of my invention, just to make myself laugh. And the cracking-wise, the jokes—all analgesic. But I’m in pain, Kate. Physically. I’ve barely slept or eaten. I ache when I think of losing you.”
“I ache too, Collin. It hurts—terribly.” And then she barely smiled and said, “You are the only one on the planet who can really make me laugh. I’ll miss that, darling.”
“Dahling. I love it when you day that. It reminds me of old black and white movies.”
“The Bells of St. Mary’s?”
“I’m no Bing Crosby. Anyway, I’ll likely leave the priesthood. I might go back home and work construction for my uncle. Or I might go to the monastery in Conyers—get my head together. Then decide.”
“You shouldn’t quit. You have a calling. A purpose.”
“I’m a hypocrite. I’m not worthy of it Kate. Like the book says, ‘A man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself.”
“Quit beating yourself up,” she said. “You’re human. People make mistakes. I can’t stand it when you’re in martyr-mode.”
“I’m sure someone said that to Jesus at some point. Anyway, there’s likely a special place in hell for priests who screw parishioners.
“You can ask God for forgiveness.” She put her palms together and her head down—pantomiming prayer.
“Let’s just leave God out of this, just this once—if you don’t mind.”
“Well, at least I’m a grown-up. And a woman. That’s more than I could say for some of your colleagues. Maybe God will give you points for that.”
He laughed and said, “Now that’s the Kate I know and love.”
The clock tolled noon from the courthouse tower. Collin closed his eyes while the bell sounded, silently counting.
“My God,” Kate said. “I’ve never heard that. The clock’s been broken. It’s been three-fifteen in Towville for as long as I can remember.”
Collin pointed over his shoulder with his thumb and smiled.
“I was thinking earlier—the waitress reminds me of that girl I loved in seminary I’ve spoken of. I really thought I loved her. But if I’d loved her half as much as I love you, I’d be walking a beat in Southy—just like my old man. And she’d likely be a fat shrew by now. Or so I’ve convinced myself.”
“Oh, I’m sure of it,” Kate said.
Collin sat back and crossed his arms. “Go home now, Kate. Back to your husband—the lucky bastard. I’ll drive Mrs. Munoz to Macon see her son tomorrow, and when I’m gone you can go by my trailer and clear out your things. And it would be best if you went back to St. Jude’s. At least for now.”
“You want to end it—just like that?” She snapped her fingers.
Isn't that what you came to do?
"Yes, I suppose..."
There’s no other way. Now I’m going to sit here and finish my drink. Do some thinking. So, I think you’d better just leave.”
“Please—can’t we be...”
“Friends?” He held up his palm like traffic cop. “Not a chance in hell. That’s high school talk. I’m just sorry I let all this happen.”
“Sorry you let it? That hurts, Collin. Why say that now?”
He stood by the table and held out his hand. She took it and he pulled her up. They both looked around the restaurant. The waitress sat in a booth in the front with her face in a book. The café was empty and so were the tables by the street. So they embraced. He put his cheek against hers and inhaled, taking in the smell of her breath and skin. He fought his tears, but they came. And for what he knew would be the last time, he kissed her.
“You know, for a moment, I was thinking—whishing—that the child was mine. You wouldn’t lie to your husband. And there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that you wouldn’t keep it. So, I thought—maybe it would force things to fall in my favor. Selfish.”
“No. It isn’t.”
“I love you, Kate. And what I said wasn't true. I’m not sorry it happened. I’m not sorry one bit. That’s why I don’t think I can ask for forgiveness and really mean it.”
“You can Collin. You have to. Please. I’d die if I thought you left the priesthood on my account.”
“It would be on my own account. Not yours.”
She nodded, and he watched her walk through the restaurant and out onto the street. He wiped his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Then he sat, drank the rest of his bourbon and thought about having another. The waitress looked up at him and smiled before folding her book and coming to him.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Nope. Thanks,” he said, as he stood and put his money on the table.
“Your money’s no good here,” she said.
“That’s what they used to say to old Father Kilburn at O’Mally’s. Of course, he died of drink. Not much of a bargain, when you think about it. Take the money. I don’t want you in trouble.”
“It doesn’t matter. If this place lasts another week, it’ll be a miracle.”
“Well, I know something of miracles.”
“Maybe I’ll see you this Sunday, Sir Collin.”
She cocked her head, having expected a more enthusiastic invitation. He smiled at her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“God bless you, Tina. Follow your heart—but take care to see where it’s going first. The heart can take a wrong turn, you know. Right off a cliff. The Good Lord gave you a heart, a brain and a conscience. Listen to all three.”
“OK—all right.” She chewed on her pen and absorbed the sentiment. “I’ll try and remember that. Goodbye then—Father.”
Colin left the café and mounted his motorcycle. An old woman walking a dog looked at him suspiciously. In small southern towns, there were old folks who didn’t trust Catholics, never mind priests. He smiled at her and resisted the urge to hold up his crucifix and shout something at her in Latin.
He rode through the town and onto the back road that led to his trailer, past chicken coops, cow pastures and mobile home parks. Just outside the city limits, halfway across a narrow bridge, he stopped and dismounted his motorcycle. Leaning over the railing, he tore off his clerical collar and dropped it into the river below.
He’d hoped for some profound, poetic moment and had imagined the collar floating out of sight, down the muddy red tributary to the Chattahoochee River and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, it went into the branches of a tree that had fallen from the bank. He laughed and said, “Son of a bitch.” And then he heard a voice.
“Father, I’ll get it!”
Collin saw a boy with a rod and reel emerge from the shadow of the bridge abutment. Then the boy waded into the river and retrieved the collar.
“Hello there, Esteban!” Collin said.
The boy waved the collar in the air and smiled, before scampering up the riverbank and running across the bridge to Collin. Beaming with pride, the boy presented the collar to him.
“Thanks, son. I appreciate that. But now you’re soaked. Be sure and tell your mother it was my fault.”
“All right, Father.”
“That’s a nice rod and reel, Esteban. Where’d you get it?”
“Miss Kate. For my birthday. She’s a nice lady.”
“That she is,” Collin said. “And tell your mother I’ve been thinking of her and that she’s in my prayers. And if she likes, I can take her up to Macon tomorrow see your brother.”
The boy nodded.
“Do you like to fish, Father?”
“The Lord called me to be a fisher of men, like Saint Peter—meaning, I’m to bring men to Him, not fish. And I don’t use a rod or real or hooks or worms. I use the Lord’s word, His promise. Does that make sense?”
Collin wasn’t sure if Esteban understood or not, but he was too exhausted from the day’s events to elaborate. He squatted to the boy’s eye level and looked at his face—a face full of joy, expectation and hope. And the priest was reminded of the faceless—those without hope, on the streets of Atlanta and Southie and among the people of his own parish. Collin put his hand on the boy’s head and smiled.
“All right, son. Now, go on. The fish won’t catch themselves.”
The boy ran back across the bridge and down the bank to the river’s edge. Before throwing out his line, he looked up at Collin and shouted, “I’ll see you Sunday, Father!”
“Yes, Esteban,” the priest said, as he brushed the red mud from his collar. “You will. You can count on it.”