“How would you like to start this?”
Five minutes sober, Phineas sat with his head hanging low, his sloppy wet hair trickling from the rain. Earlier that morning, he had planned it perfectly: arrive at the meeting no later than 7:25 while refraining from the horrendous introductions.
But finding the spotlight on him, it seemed that he had missed the mark.
The quiet, cold church walls remained still as Phineas formed his words, carefully picking them. Anxiously, his hands rubbed together, his dilated pupils staring downward. Fortunately for him, a heavy pair of sunglasses rested on his face. He wore them even though the skies were pitch dark. He felt the room slowly cave on him, each eye digging a dagger into his skull. Even the statues around the church glared at him.
As Phineas spoke up, he lifted his head. His eyes drifted towards the older woman who had led the introductions. His expert vision analyzed her every wrinkle and blemish, even noticing the small warts underneath her ears.
Phineas made notes to himself: 65-69, African-American, history of skin cancer, arthritis, recovered meth addict.
Continuing on, Phineas muttered, “And I’m a drug addict.”
The woman’s face remained emotionless. She nodded solemnly.
“And an alcoholic,” continued Phineas, his eyes scanning the room. Not one person blinked an eye.
“And I’m also a kleptomaniac,
...and a bulimic.”
He could just feel the statue of the Virgin Mary burning through the back of his head.
Phineas scrutinized the expressions of each face, noting their every twitch and blink. Yet every face remained posed, unphased, and someone harsh. In fact, Phineas was certain three of them were asleep.
Is this how all these meetings go? thought Phineas, honestly disappointed in a lack of attention. Shouldn’t there be some gasps or shock? Settling back into his seat, Phineas sighed and said, “And that’s pretty much it.”
From behind him came a voice: “We’re glad you’re here, Phineas.”
Not realizing a person lurked behind him, Phineas jolted from his seat, his head swinging over his shoulder. Phineas caught a glimpse of a young man, perhaps younger than himself, pouring tea at the refreshment table.
He was an attractive and mysterious man. Phineas began to take notes, this time with greater difficulty: 35-39, mixed race (?), well kempt, and…
Wrapped around the man’s neck was a white collar.
Oh God. Is this… a priest?
On instinct, Phineas turned away, averting his direction as the priest approached. Why is the church’s priest here? Is he even allowed here? As thoughts began to rush past Phineas’s mind, a gentle hand grasped onto his shoulder. Once more, like a skittish rabbit, Phineas jolted. The priest stood behind him. Chuckling lightly, the priest slowly scooted a chair beside him. The priest sat down.
He extended his hand and spoke softly, “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a new friend. I hope you’ll feel welcomed here.”
Phineas did not receive his hand.
The priest noticed immediately, but rather than withdraw his hand, he leaned in, “How long have you been clean?”
“Why should it matter?” rebutted Phineas. He readjusted his sunglasses, avoiding major contact.
Within seconds, the priest could tell. Yet without pressing him any further, he said, “Like I said, I’m glad you’re here.”
Phineas muttered, “As if I had a choice.”
Sensing the tension unfolding, the older woman spoke up, “Should we continue with introductions? How about Tarren?”
Phineas had the urge to say it. Normally, Phineas would keep his mouth shut about these sorts of things. But after enduring the priest’s cheery welcome, Phineas couldn’t suppress it, “Sorry, am I missing out on something? Isn’t this supposed to be a closed meeting?”
The room became eerily silent. There was an uncomfortable tenseness when Phineas asked the question. Yet to fill the void, the priest asked, “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean… this meeting is for addicts only, right?”
“Right,” said the priest.
“So… are you some kind of discussion leader?” Phineas shifted his weight, leaning forward in haste, “I didn’t think the Church was supposed to get involved in this sort of thing. Isn’t that against NA rules?”
The priest carried a genuine smile. He responded shortly, “I’m not the leader. Rosé is.” He nodded towards the older woman, sitting rather uncomfortably in front of them. It was at this point that Phineas felt every eye on him. A sudden cloud of embarrassment overshadowed Phineas, who immediately fell silent.
Rosé cleared her throat and asserted herself once more, “I think our last introduction was for Tarren. Tarren, would you like to go ahead?”
She nodded forward. Phineas followed her nod, to find her pointing towards the priest.
The priest smiled. His hands reached towards his neck, where his fingers unlaced his collar. With the flick of his hand, he tossed his priestly collar to the ground. He leaned forward, slouching his back. In a crisp and unassuming voice, the priest spoke:
“Hey guys. I’m Tarren and I’m a cocaine addict.”
Phineas’ mouth gaped open, an audible gasp heard under his voice.
“And…” Tarren nodded towards the table behind him, filled with delicious treats and teas, “I hope none of you are food addicts, because the Church provided biscuits and muffins.”
The group chuckled, their eyes narrowing on the delightful food. Yet Phineas continued to stare at Tarren, bewildered. He tried to search for the words to say, yet finding none, all he could do is quietly mutter, “Damn.”
Tarren read his lips, smirking to himself. As he heard the group grow restless, Tarren clapped his hands and said, “Let’s grab a bite to eat, guys!”
With the flick of his hand, the crowd dispersed. One by one, the group congregated around the table, rushing past one another to get the first choice. As Tarren stood to serve the tea, he glanced down to Phineas. Softly, he asked, “Finn, do you want to help pour tea?”
Still amazed and quite frankly in disbelief, Phineas nodded and followed Tarren. Without his collar, Tarren blended into the crowd at ease. Phineas could barely tell the difference between Tarren and some other men, besides for Tarren’s well-groomed hair. Standing at the edge of the table, Tarren stationed himself at the coffee pot. He waved Phineas over. Phineas situated himself at the tea pot, but his eyes remained solely on the priest.
The first man came to the table. Gently, Tarren asked, “Tea or coffee?”
“Tea’ll be alright.”
Tarren nodded towards Phineas. Phineas took one of the mugs and began to pour the tea. He left a bit of room for milk and sugar, just like he always liked it. He handed the mug over to the man, who left without a ‘thank you’.
“Tea or coffee?” asked Tarren again, this time to a middle-aged woman. Her face was blotchy and wrinkled, clearly a meth user.
“Of course, ma’am,” Tarren pipped up, pouring warm coffee into a mug. He handed it to her and smiled, “You take milk, don’t you Bridget?”
She grinned, her smile rotting from the core. Although Phineas had seen worse, heh shivered at the sight. She nodded, pouring the milk in herself, “Y’always get that right, Pastor.”
Taking her coffee, she left the table.
As Phineas and Tarren served one by one, Phineas was left with more questions than answers. As the line began to slow down, Phineas bravely addressed him, “Father?”
Phineas was amused by his casual reponse.
Phineas continued, while his hands nervously cleaned the table, “So… you did cocaine, huh?”
“Cocaine, heroin, Adderall…” listed the priest, his body turning towards Phineas. As he looked into his eyes, all he could do was shrug, “I tried every drug that’s out there.”
“You tried every drug out there?” scoffed Phineas, “Like LSD, meth, weed? There’s a ton of them…”
Tarren chuckled, “Yeah, I dabbled in meth. Weed was what got me started. And LSD…? I was looking for energy, not hallucinations.”
Before Phineas could respond, another person came to the table. Phineas was the first to ask, “Tea or coffee?” He didn’t give any time to hyper analyze the person in front.
“Room for milk?” asked Phineas, as he poured the milk.
The person nodded, “Yeah, thanks.”
Once Phineas handed over the drink, he turned again to Tarren. Folding his arms, he scoffed, “How does a priest become an addict?”
“How does a Phineas become an addict?” responded Tarren, who reached to the side of the table. Grabbing a bundle of tables, he handed Phineas a clean towel. Shortly, Tarren said, “Addiction doesn’t discriminate.”
“But you’re… y’know…” stammered Phineas, “Well, aren’t you called to be some higher being?”
With a gentle chuckle, Tarren replied, “Heavens, I hope not. I’m just a human.”
While cleaning the table, Tarren began to share his story. He let it unfold, “I became addicted at the age of fourteen. I wanted nothing to do with God or the Church, anything that my parents raised me in.”
“You were raised Catholic too, huh?” laughed Phineas, “I should have guessed that, I suppose.”
But Tarren shook his head and corrected him, “I was culturally raised Catholic, not spiritually. My parents could care less if I knew God, as long as I looked the part.”
“I wish I had parents like yours,” muttered Phineas, “All my parents do is complain about my salvation or some shit.”
Immediately, Phineas once more stammered, “S-sorry. I know I shouldn't curse in a church.”
Unphased, however, Tarren continued, “My parents could also care less if I was swinging cocaine and heroin at my high school Prom. I don’t think they necessarily deserve the “Parent of the Month” award, either.”
Someone approached the table. It was then that Phineas heard a voice mutter, “Dr. Augustine?”
When hearing his last name, Phineas’s face went pure white. He slowly turned towards the front to find a young man standing in front of him. The man’s eyes were also bloodshot, swollen, and bruised. Phineas could recognize him right away: this was one of his patients. Just last week, he had prescribed this man twice as much Codeine than he needed.
Standing in front of this man, Phineas was left with nothing to say.
“Damien,” quickly intervened Tarren, his tone becoming suddenly sharp. His eyes narrowed on the swaying man, “Don’t mention last names, do you understand me?”
“But this guy’s my…”
“I don’t care how you know Finn,” spat Tarren, hushed in anger. He leaned in towards Damien. As he did, his right arm protectively pushed Phineas back. In a vicious whisper, Tarren threatened, “If you tell anyone this man’s last name or his occupation, I will throw you out of this meeting. Is that understood?”
Phineas could suddenly remember why he didn’t like priests: at one moment, a priest could be kind and sweet; but in another second, they could instill the fear of God in you. Phineas averted his eyes from both Damien and Tarren.
Damien took a moment, staring at Phineas. After pausing, he drew a sigh and muttered, “‘Right. I won’t say a word.”
Tarren exhaled, a gentle smile on his face. He patted Damien on the back and said, “Thank you, Dame. Tea or coffee?”
Tarren poured Damien his drink, handing it over to him. As they exchanged a few more words and laughs, Phineas’ eyes remained glued to the floor. His soul had been crushed in two, an overwhelming wave of embarrassment shaking his body. The very last thing that Phineas wanted was for his professional reputation to be tainted. Yet with one glance at a patient of his, Phineas could feel his reputation fall altogether at the seams.
Phineas’s hands drew to his face, where he felt his eyes flowing with tears.
I need to leave.
As soon as Damien left the table, Phineas turned to walk away from Tarren. Yet before making a step, Tarren grabbed his hand. Lowly, Tarren said, “Finn, you don’t need to be ashamed--”
“Who gave you the right to call me Finn?” croaked Phineas, his voice breaking. He threw Tarren’s hand away. Roughly, Phineas began to wipe his face with his sleeves, “I knew I shouldn’t have come here. I ought have stayed home or worked an extra shift or--”
“Being alone or overworking yourself isn’t going to help you.”
“You don’t know that!” exclaimed Phineas. At that point, he recognized his voice level. He diminished his tone into a hiss, “You don’t have any idea what it’s like to have a reputation like mine at stake.”
Tarren rebutted, “I think I know that pretty well, Phineas.”
Phineas hung his head low, digging his feet into the ground. The anger and shame festered inside his lungs. His breathing grew heavy, but he remained in place.
“Can I ask you something, Father?”
“Does your Church know about your addiction?”
Phineas looked up at Tarren. He nodded, “Yes.”
“And…” Phineas faced him, his voice still shaky, “Did you ever relapse as a priest?”
For a long moment, Tarren didn’t say a word.
“Because for me,” Phineas said, tightening his fists, “I don’t have some special blessing from God that can keep me from stealing pain meds from my patients. All I have going for me is my reputation and--”
Phineas raised an eyebrow and stuttered, “Excuse me?”
“June 2016, I overdosed on Fentanyl in my parsonage after a Sunday mass.”
This left Phineas in unbelievable shock. His mouth gaped open, his eyes studying Tarren’s every move. He uttered, “You’re… kidding, right?”
“I wish I was.”
Phineas asked, “How did…? I mean, how did the Church handle it?”
“I was removed from the Diocese and remained in rehab for eight months.”
As Phineas looked into Tarren’s eyes, he could see the tears forming in his eyes. Tarren deeply sighed, “So yes. I know what it’s like to have a reputation at stake and lose it.”
When Tarren looked back up at Phineas, the tears fell down his cheek. And yet, Tarren smiled as he said, “But I’m here now, not because I hid in shame or tried to do busy work… but because I sought help.”
Phineas was still left in utter amazement. He tried to find the words to say, but was left with none.
Phineas leaned in. In an audacious whisper, he said, "I need that kind of help, Tarren."
A smile grew on Father Tarren's face. A gentle arm wrapped around Phineas' shoulders. Tarren's eyes sparkled.
"Then you're in the right place, Finn."