Reef Point

Father Watson left the hospital by the driveway entrance and looked up Hill Street for the Rambler. He had called Father Maartens to ask if he could use it, and the silky-voiced parish priest had asked, “Have you met Mrs. Vingaard’s husband?”

It was exactly the sort of thing Father Watson expected. It insinuated something, and to pursue it would be fruitless because Father Maartens would deny anything had been implied. Father Watson had accepted a dinner invitation. Mrs. Vingaard was a parishioner. Mr. Vingaard was not. “Is it okay about the car?” he asked Maartens again. The car belonged to the parish. Father Watson needed permission to use it.

A colder tone came through the phone lines. “Oh sure,” Father Maartens said.

Father Watson squinted up. Lazy flakes of snow drifting from a solid gray sky fell on the windshields of parked cars. If it snowed hard he could call Mrs. Vingaard and cancel. But he knew he couldn’t spin a skimpy fall into a believable storm, so he trudged next door to the hospital’s furnace building to pick up a short-handled spade. He used the spade in snow emergencies. Two years before, in 1955, he’d been stuck for four hours in a drift on North Narrows Road before two husky women, emerging from the storm in a 1949 Oldsmobile, energetically connected chains and towed him free.

Father Watson was sixty-seven years old, a Jesuit, like all the priests in what was then the mission territory of Alaska. Although he’d conquered his drinking with the help of prayer, he was overweight in the puffy way of those who spend a lifetime drinking.

Inside, he wasn’t stout. He was the slender sixteen-year-old who pledged his life to God, who prayed to be sent to pagan China, who instead accepted assignment to Alaska, who learned to drive a dog team, who said Mass in barrooms rented for that service, who comforted the sick and consoled the dying and officiated at weddings and baptisms and funerals before harnessing his dogs again and pointing off across the snow, sometimes under the shimmering northern lights, to yet another distant village with its half-dozen frozen Catholic souls.

In Boon, he was the hospital chaplain. He carried his missal into the rooms of the sick. He lectured them about eternal life. No one who met him ever accused him of having a sense of humor, but by the same token no one accused him of insincerity, either.

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