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Commonwealth(3)
Ann Patchett

“It’s true,” Father Joe Mike admitted, because he’d grown up in Oceanside and couldn’t quite believe the extent to which this guy was going on about orange juice.

The priest, whose mind was wandering like the Jews in the desert, tried to focus again on his sermon: Beverly Keating went to the liquor cabinet, which she had not restocked for the christening party, and what she found there was a third of a bottle of gin, a nearly full bottle of vodka, and a bottle of tequila that Fix’s brother John had brought back from Mexico last September which they had never opened because neither one of them knew exactly what to do with tequila. She carried the bottles to the kitchen, at which point the neighbors who lived on either side of their house and the neighbors across the street and three of the people who lived near Incarnation offered to go home and see what they had in their own cabinets, and when those neighbors returned it wasn’t just with bottles but oranges. Bill and Susie came back with a pillowcase full of fruit they’d run home to pick, saying they could go back and get three pillowcases more: what they gave to the party hadn’t made a dent. Other guests followed suit, running home, raiding their fruit trees and the high boozy shelves of their pantries. They poured their bounty into the Keatings’ kitchen until the kitchen table looked like a bar back and the kitchen counter looked like a fruit truck.

Wasn’t that the true miracle? Not that Christ had rolled out a buffet table from His holy sleeve and invited everyone to join Him for fishes and loaves, but that the people who had brought their lunches in goatskin sacks, maybe a little more than they needed for their family but certainly not enough to feed the masses, were moved to fearless generosity by the example of their teacher and His disciples. So had the people at this christening party been moved by the generosity of Beverly Keating, or they were moved by the sight of her in that yellow dress, her pale hair twisted up and pinned to show the smooth back of her neck, the neck that disappeared into the back of the yellow dress. Father Joe Mike took a sip of his drink. And when it was done the people collected twelve baskets of scraps. He looked around at all the cups on the tables and chairs, on the ground, many of which had a sip or two left in the bottom. Were they to gather up all the leftovers, how much would they have? Father Joe Mike felt small for not having offered to go back to the rectory to see what was there. He had been thinking about how it would look for a priest to show his congregants just how much gin he had squirreled away, instead of taking the opportunity to participate in the fellowship of a community.

There was a gentle tapping against the toe of his shoe. Father Joe Mike looked up from his knee, where he had been meditating on the contents of his cup, and saw Bonnie Keating. No, that wasn’t right. Her sister was married to Fix Keating, which made her Bonnie-Something-Else. Bonnie-of-Beverly’s-Maiden-Name.

“Hey, Father,” she said, a cup just like his held loosely between finger and thumb.

“Bonnie,” he said, trying to make his voice sound like he wasn’t sitting on the ground drinking gin. Though he wasn’t sure that this was still gin. It may have been tequila.

“I was wondering if you’d dance with me.”

Bonnie X was wearing a dress with blue daisies on it that was short enough to make a priest wonder where he was supposed to rest his gaze, though when she’d gotten dressed this morning she probably hadn’t taken into account that there would be men sitting on the ground while she remained standing. He wanted to say something avuncular about not dancing because he was out of practice, but he wasn’t old enough to be her uncle, or her father for that matter, which is what she’d called him. Instead he answered her simply. “Not a great idea.”

And speaking of not great ideas, Bonnie X then dropped down to sit on her heels, thinking, no doubt, that she and the priest would then be closer to eye level and could have a more private conversation, and not thinking about where this would bring the hem of her dress. Her underwear was also blue. It matched the daisies.

“See, the thing is, everybody’s married,” she said, her voice not modulated to reflect her content. “And while I don’t mind dancing with a guy who’s married because I don’t think dancing means anything, all of them brought their wives.”

“And their wives think it means something.” He was careful now to lock his eyes on her eyes.

“They do,” she said sadly, and pushed a chunk of straight auburn hair behind one ear.

It was at that moment that Father Joe Mike had a sort of revelation: Bonnie X should leave Los Angeles, or at the very least she should move to the Valley, to a place where no one knew her older sister, because when not juxtaposed to that sister, Bonnie was a perfectly attractive girl. Put the two of them together and Bonnie was a Shetland pony standing next to a racehorse, but he realized now that without knowing Beverly the word “pony” never would have come to mind. Over Bonnie’s shoulder he could see that Beverly Keating was dancing in the driveway with a police officer who was not her husband, and that the police officer was looking like a very lucky man.

“Come on,” Bonnie said, her voice somewhere between pleading and whining. “I think we’re the only two people here who aren’t married.”

“If what you’re looking for is availability, I don’t fit the bill.”

“I just want to dance,” she said, and put her free hand on his knee, the one that wasn’t already occupied by a cup.

Because Father Joe Mike had just been chastising himself about placing the propriety of appearances over true kindness, he felt himself waver. Would he have given two seconds’ thought to appearances if it had been his hostess asking for a dance? If Beverly Keating were crouching in front of him now instead of her sister, her wide-set blue eyes this close to his own, her dress slipping up so that the color of her underwear was made known to him—he stopped, giving his head an imperceptible shake. Not a good thought. He tried to take himself back to the loaves and the fishes, and when that proved impossible he held up his index finger. “One,” he said.

Bonnie X smiled at him with such radiant gratitude that Father Joe Mike wondered if he had ever made another living soul happy before this moment. They put down their cups and endeavored to pull one another up, though it was tricky. Before they were fully standing they were in each other’s arms. From that point it wasn’t very far to Bonnie clasping her hands behind Joe Mike’s neck and hanging there like the stole he wore to hear confessions. He rested an awkward hand on either side of her waist, the narrow place where her ribs curved down to meet his thumbs. If anyone at the party was looking at them he was not aware of it. In fact, he was overcome by the sensation of invisibility, hidden from the world by the mysterious cloud of lavender that rose up from the hair of Beverly Keating’s sister.

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