Socrates the Bear
Jeff W. Bens
I met Father O'Griffey outside a church in Castlemilk, Glasgow when he ran out of the rectory to tell me he'd saved my bicycle from hooligans. "They were going to do you in," he claimed and when I thanked him he asked me to buy him a drink.
"You work there?" I asked. O'Griffey was wearing a brown cardigan and paint-stained slacks.
"I worked there," O'Griffey said. "Until they threw me out."
I thought he meant the church. He meant The Church.
O'Griffey took us around the corner to an empty bar, The Golden Cross, where the TV soundlessly showed the city of Glasgow barricading itself against the upcoming Old Firm soccer match. A dumpster was already on fire.
By the second pint of lager I learned O'Griffey was a defrocked priest. "They fucking skooged me, mate, skooged me so hard I nearly turned Protestant." It couldn’t have been drink -- my Cape Cod family priest began at sunrise and by noon was a bar room -- so it was either money or sex and looking at him looking at the barmaid, and looking at him eyeing the coins on the bar, I guessed it was both. You hear tales. A syphilitic whiskey priest. We had one in Hyannis. He went to the Cape Cod Irish Isle motel and swam in the saltwater pool. Back and forth across the parking lot, from the bar to the pool, bar to the pool, in just a Speedo, his wrinkly old body getting prunier by the minute until the owner of the Isle, alerted by the bartender, personally drove up from Orleans and drove the father home.
I was happy for the diversion. Allison had been visiting for five days and already I wished one of us was back in Massachusetts. Given that we weren't having sex, I figured she felt the same way. Plus, she'd had her teeth knocked out. She hadn't told me. She said she ran drunk into a wall. Where her front teeth should have been were two black nubs, waiting on the crowns.
In the quiet of the Golden Cross bar, I sensed O'Griffey leading up to something. He kept talking-- about his niece who was wasting her life as a nurse, about a trip he took for a priests' convention to Spain, "A greater bunch of horndogs you've not seen in your life. They couldn't keep their hands off the waitresses or each other," about the loneliness of his days now as groundskeeper for "Father Nancy King." But all the while, as he grabbed my knee, as he slapped my back, as he covered the barwoman's hand in his own, he seemed distracted, anxious. I'd bought him his third pint, for some reason I felt an affinity with him. I liked the way he talked about politics, "Dennis Thatcher should be locked in a dungeon with the Archbishop of Canterbury and made to consummate their affair, " and films, fil-ems, "Now your auld Clint Eastwood, he knows how to act. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the finest Catholic movie ever made and don't let the critics of your Jew York fecking Times, or God forbid the London Times which is not even a newspaper but an arm of Nazi propaganda of the most outrageous kind, tell you otherwise."
And he liked to talk about women, but in strange ways -- he liked the barmaid's "healthy ankles" and "sturdy lower back" -- and when we moved into our fourth pint I asked the Father if he'd ever been with a woman before.
"Only Mary," O'Griffey answered solemnly. I didn't know if he meant the mother of, theoretically, his Savior or a remembered girlfriend so I let it go. And in that moment of softness between us, O'Griffey unfolded a newspaper and laid it on the Golden Cross bar.
"You see there," O'Griffey said sadly, "that is what is wrong with this whole fecking country." In the paper was a large photograph of a kilted Sean Connery at a charity golf event.
O'Griffey looked at the paper. He flipped it over. Then he slapped the page with such a thunderous force that I thought his index finger would snap off and flip into his glass. "There!" he cried out. "That Gobshite Bear!"
There was a photograph of a large black bear, Socrates, waterskiing on all fours behind a bright red Scottish speedboat. The caption said the bear would be making his monthly appearance at the Grey Ghost pub for Sunday supper, "suitable for children."
There was an article. Socrates, I learned, had had his bottom teeth and the claws on all but one of his paws pulled out, the remaining teeth and claws spared so they could be featured in movie shoots and Socrates did a lot of them, from butter to beer, and it was on beer commercials that Socrates learned to like his pint. He was a lager bear, the article said, and if you held the glass to his bear mouth he'd lap it straight away. Otherwise, they'd pour the bear's pints into mixing bowls which he could manage to hold himself. Socrates didn't just roam the streets freely, he had two keepers, a married couple who looked on Socrates like a son, the husband having bought him from a circus "because of the way he looked me in the eyes," and seeing Socrates there in an adjacent photo, standing steadfast in a field of Scottish thistles, it was undeniable that the bear had a philosophical way about him, a richness -- even depth -- of expression that made you want to buy him a pint and tell him your weary woes.
Not Father O'Griffey. There'd been some kind of fight. O'Griffey did not think it Catholic to let a bear into a pub period, let alone on a Sunday when the ex-father went with his male parishioners for a drink "at the off bars, not the official bars with pictures of JF Fucking K and the old Pope" but at the places a little further from the church, where barmen didn't ask questions and there were no phones.
"Come on," O'Griffey said like the very presenting of the photo had made up his mind. I called Allison from a phone box to tell her where I was headed. She started to say something. I just said good-bye and hung up, with O'Griffey tugging on my sleeve.
At the Grey Ghost, Socrates was surrounded at a respectful distance by well-wishers. He had on a loose collar and chain, but the chain was just slung over the bar and his owners were there, in matching Celtic jerseys, in a booth beneath the Irish tri-color flag, near enough, but not so near that Socrates couldn't have torn some heads off were he in the mood. He wasn't. Socrates had a look of such thoughtfulness about him -- of steady appreciation of his lager bowl, of his fish and chips with mushy peas -- that he would not have looked out of place sitting beside his Greek namesake. Dads were indeed bringing children to sit beside him, mums with babies snapping photos, one kid in a Never Surrender t-shirt pulled the bear's ear and I caught my breath but Socrates didn't even look up. Watching Socrates reflected in the bar back mirror, ten stools down from where we were sitting, beneath the television showing the Old Firm teams warming up on the pitch and a tree of hanging Celtic effigies strung up by their scarves-- and the bear was sitting on a stool as well, a special stool his owners must have made for him but a barstool nevertheless -- it was clear that Socrates wasn't just in some kind of animal food daze, a bloated ex-bear, but rather he seemed to be truly enjoying his food, his lager, his participation in this world of men.
"He knows I'm here," O'Griffey spat. O'Griffey lit a cigarette, his gaze like a gun sight on the bar mirror. He'd refused a drink. He was glaring at the lapping bear. And Socrates' tongue was a thing to behold, lapping his beer beneath his one good row of teeth. When the beer bowl was dry, Socrates merely looked up. If he'd ordered a cordial I would not have been surprised, but this mere raising of his snout -- and the bear's head alone must have weighed 80 pounds -- set O'Griffey to his feet.
O'Griffey barked at the bear in the mirror. "Are you looking at me, cunt?"
O'Griffey's rudeness seemed to take the bear aback. The crowd hushed. "Here, now," one of the dads said.
"I am Father John O'Griffey and don't sit there pretending you don't recall me!"
Allison came in the doorway at just this moment, soaking with Scottish rain. Behind her, I could hear the shouts of football fans and the breaking of glass on the street.
"Father--" I said.
O'Griffey whirled at me, his teeth gnashing. "I'm a fucking care-taker now, sonny," he hissed, "and you, you-- " he spun back and pointed at the bear, "are all that's wrong with this soft-bellied nanny state of former Celtic Kings!"
Socrates' owners jumped up from their booth. O'Griffey lunged at the beast. For a flash, I saw Socrates try to cover what was left of his meal with his paw, and when that didn't work he caught the lunging priest with his other paw and indeed bear-hugged him. The bear's food scattered across the bar and smashed to the floor. The crowd stilled. Socrates looked at the fallen food, at the skinny, greasy morsel he held in his arms.
And then he released O'Griffey, just like that. Looked at him. Looked at him with eyes filled with compassion, even love. For a moment, they just stared at each other, O'Griffey shaking with rage, the bear steady with equanimity and unconditional acceptance. The pub grew quiet. And then O'Griffey stuck his lit cigarette in Socrates' wide brown eye.
The bear erupted to his feet. He was giant. He flung himself onto O'Griffey who hung on, kicking and clawing, as the men piled in with tables and chairs. Socrates' chain rang along the bartop. Glasses smashed up into the air
"My brother, " Allison was suddenly screaming from inside the wet doorway, the crowd of men pushing in behind her from the street. "My brother is the one who knocked out my teeth. It was him. It was him."