Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott; (A Delta Book) pages 185 - 186
The drinking, down at Quinlan’s, on his walk with her father, downstairs in the kitchen after she had gone to bed, would have been for her as much a part of Billy’s personality as his slow smile, his multitude of cousins and friends, the letters and postcards that seemed to appear beneath his hand, to flow from his fingertips, in a nearly unbidden act of prestidigitation. It was just Billy’s way: this need to keep in touch, to keep talking, to be called by name, when he entered the crowded barroom, slapped on the back, Glad to see you, have a seat. The drink a warmth across the cheeks, a watery veil that only brought into relief the gleam on the bar, the light in the mirror, the sparkle of a bottle, silver-topped, amber-filled, as it was plucked from its spot among the rows and rows of bright, silver-topped bottles and poured out again. The telltale aftertaste in the back of his throat that could only mean the one drink would be followed by another as the talk and the laughter turned, spiraled, not into the heart of his loneliness - he would not mention her now that he was a married man, he was that loyal - but toward the world where that loneliness existed, the world where change and cruelty, separation and loss, pity and sorrow refused to be forgotten, or forgiven, the world seen as it should be seen, through a veil of tears, where Uncle Daniel’s life could be examined, or Bridie’s trouble, his mother’s loneliness and his father-in-law’s grief, where the passing of time, the cruelty of war, the failure of hope, the death of the young could be discussed and examined (a young President, over the years, the young sons of cousins and of neighbors and friends, young children right over here in Kew Gardens, taken from their beds). A world where love (more difficult still) could be spoken of by a hand on the shoulder, a fresh drink placed on the bar, Good to see you, through welling tears, real ones now, Ah, Billy, it’s always good to see you. Dark, sparkling, sprinkled with moments when the sound and smell and sight of the place, the taste at the back of his throat, transported him, however briefly, to a summer night long ago when he was young and life was all promise and she was there to turn to, to drink in, this was also the world where his faith met him, became actual, no longer as mere promise or possibility but as inevitable and true. Not less than the cathedrals and churches and synagogues scattered throughout the city that had once sustained and amazed him, now the various bars he stopped into, for lunch, after work, between calls for Con Ed, and most evenings as the day came to a close, reminded him that what he sought, what he longed for, was universal and constant. Quinlan’s was the best of them, sure, but each bar he went into offered the same familiar light and scent, the same company, the same talk. And in each of them, the force of his faith, of his Church, a force he could only glimpse briefly while sober - maybe for a second or two after Communion when he knelt and bowed his head, or for that brief instant when he pushed aside the heavy curtain and stepped into the dark confessional, or in the first rising scent of the incense at Benediction - became clear and steady and as fully true as the vivid past or the as-yet-unseen but inevitable future. A true redemption - it was a favorite word of his, after a few, Dan Lynch and my father agreed, a favorite topic - a redemption that was not merely a pretty story grown up around a good man but a fact that changed the very fiber of the day, the moment. Drunk, when Billy turned his eyes to heaven, heaven was there. (Dan Lynch himself had seen it in Billy’s eye, he said again, years before, August 15, Feast of the Assumption, when they’d hightailed it over to Mass.) Heaven was there, utterly necessary, utterly sensible, the only possible reconciliation of the way he must live day by day and the certainty he’d felt that life meant something greater. The only redemption, the only compensation for the disappointment, the cruelty and pain that plagued the living, for love itself, because when he turned his eyes to heaven, heaven was there and Eva was in it.
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