When Gary Met Alice

After the minister’s concluding words, the audience defocused and began to meld into little groups. Alice tried to herd a group or two into the hallway where there were refreshments, but no one seemed to want to make that first step. She also noticed that they were not discussing the presentation: the kids, the health of a former minister at that church, an impending wedding, vacations. No one rushed to shake the minister’s hand, or to get to know his five local actors, who had in any case managed to disappear completely. Alice approached Minister Brown.

“Thank you so much,” she said.

“God’s work is its own reward, but thank you, child.” He looked at her expectantly, and she did remember before it got too awkward. “Here’s a small token of our appreciation and a donation for you to continue the work.” He smiled as he took the envelope.

There was something about the moment that made some who heard it feel uncomfortable. The minister just nodded as he looked in the envelope. “God’s work goes on.” You didn’t know how far he saw his own fortunes hitched to God’s wagon, but it would be hard to doubt that this was an honest sentiment.

Alice looked around to see if she could point out Mr. Valerio, the businessman who had stepped forward to fill the void that had yawned before Alice. “How much do we need to host the minister?” he had asked and written the check right there. Alice had thanked him, with no assumption that there was a personal motivation. She saw him with Mr. Hennessy and April Wilson, then moving over to touch Mrs. Kildare’s shoulder ever so slightly and greet her with a friendly word. Alice told the minister about the generous gift — though not its face-saving emergence — and pointed out Valerio, who just kept sliding between groups, smiling and somehow stealing their attention for a few words, and then moving on.

“And now, I’m tired, I will go to my hotel. Don’t worry about me, Alice, my assistant is outside and he will drive us. You’ve been more than kind. I hope that we have made an impression, but all that is best left with God’s foresight. I don’t pretend to know the whys or wherefores of what we do, I just do God’s bidding.” He saw her look at him with a question. “Believe me, we are all doing God’s bidding, especially when we look around and find that what we have done is better than we thought, but still impossibly little. It is the impossibly little that gives us the ability to imagine God.” He gave her a smile that seemed to say that this was the seed of the answer to a question she could not even ask yet — a seed that could as easily be blown away.

She watched the minister go, heard the chatter and felt a general relief that the event was over, a success, if also a strange event that would emerge in private conversations over the next days and weeks. An evening with impact.

“I really enjoyed the minister, Alice,” a voice said.

She turned to find a balding, plain, middle-aged man — someone she had seen around at bake sales and evening events — but she didn’t know his name and probably found his presence in their church strange, without a connection otherwise to the community of volunteers. She smiled in thanks.

“We need more events like this,” he said, with a little too much force, as if he was telling himself not to let this opportunity go by.

“Thank you for saying so,” Alice said. She may have been tempted to glance around the room, find Mr. Valerio in his progress around the room or see another acquaintance, but in fact she did not. She waited for Gary to go on.

“I feel — challenged,” he said, unsure of the strength of that statement but pleased with how it sounded.

“The minister came highly recommended,” said Alice, “and I think he did not disappoint us.”

“Definitely not.” Gary shook his head thoughtfully. “Definitely not.” He looked around, perhaps embarrassed by his lack of wit, but then said with his eyes diverted back to her, “I bet you’re glad it’s over, though.”

That personal reference took her by surprise — she looked at him for a split second, and then she laughed, a full little laugh that told of letting her guard down.

They looked at each other, both surprised by the reaction.

Gary managed to break the silence first. “In celebration of a job well done, would it be all right if I took you out to dinner sometime?”

“Oh,” she said, “oh thank you. — But I have very hard time arranging for more babysitting for Andrew. You understand.”

“Sure,” Gary replied without delay. Then: “I absolutely want to take you and Andrew out for dinner.”

Alice had expected her statement to end this and found herself looking at him, confused again. There was something incongruous, she felt, but at the same time there he was, looking for all the world like a nervous teenager asking a girl out for the first time. She smiled in encouragement. “All right, then, thank you — ” she paused.

“Gary,” he said, “Gary Corinth.” He put his hand out, by force of habit, and they shook hands, both aware of the ironic reversal this conversation had taken. They parted ways almost immediately thereafter, lest the awkwardness spoil the feeling that the encounter had been a human and successful moment, a culmination of the evening’s message.