On the Fast Track to Sainthood – chapter six

by rthieme on April 21, 2009

the-room“Are you in your office today, Father? I need to talk.”

“I can see you at four,” Adam Reed the pastor, priest or minister said. “Will that work?”

“Yes. I’ll come in the side door. And don’t lock it, for God’s sake. It’s cold out there.”

The side door, however, was always locked. A camera high on the outside wall displayed the sidewalk, mounds of snow, and the door where people rang and had to wait. Plenty of crazies came to downtown churches seeking spontaneous healing, free meals, and money. Most were harmless but not all—a Roman Catholic priest at nearby St. Peter’s was stabbed to death the week before; the gay clergyman, his white hair soaked with blood, was found in the hallway, naked under his black cassock. No sign of a forced entry, no missing items, just Father Sylvester dead in a pool of blood. There was little beside the basics on the news that night, an exterior shot of the building, the entrance to the hallway where the body was found, a voiceover recounting how the housekeeper found him, interviews with two shocked parishioners, a sound bite from Archbishop Feebleman expressing grave concern. The next night, the quarterback said he was thinking of leaving and the lead story changed; video segments showed him passing, jumping into the stands, picking up teammates, horsing around, some interviews with anxious fans, clips from shout shows offering advice. The next night, a series began on deadbeat dads, then one on chemical leaks, then one on dirty restaurant kitchens, then one on internet predators. Somewhere between the dangerous leaks and the rat-infested kitchens, the murder was forgotten.

The Vestry ordered the installation of a second camera in the rafters, letting the clergyman watch callers transit the hall to the office door. Two monitors were mounted behind his desk, both showing static, he noted as he entered his appointment with Parker Brown in his calendar book. The mounts had sharp corners that frequently bruised his leg when he swiveled without thinking as he did when his cell phone rang, playing a Bach toccata. He rubbed his thigh and reached across the desk to retrieve it.

“Hi,” Penny said. “Want to fuck?”

He grinned and looked at his watch. “I might have a minute. Where are you?”

“Look at the screen.”

A grainy miniature image of Penny danced into view. She removed her scarf, revealing a tiny face, a face that he loved to kiss, he often thought, coming along the communion rail, aroused beneath his chasuble. He thought of Penny on her knees, her open palms rising in front of her smile toward his freely-given gift of freshly baked dark bread.

Her screen face broke into pieces, her breath in each one visible in the frigid air like empty dialog balloons in a Sunday comic, the missing words a piece of the puzzle, too.

Reed pressed the release and the door lock popped.

A few minutes later the scarf was on the floor beside her lilac Manolo Blahnik Spoleto heels and Penny was on the desk, her legs up around him, the priest grunting as he thrust, then slowly withdrew, then thrust again then slowly withdraw and thrust again and again until he was finished

A minute was all he had, but a minute, he laughed, was all that he needed. Penny blotted herself and gave him the sticky tips of her fingers to nibble and lick, looking into his eyes as he did, pressing against him, moving in a slow circle until he was stiff again. Then backed away and pulled up her lavender slacks.

“Got to go,” she said, stepping into her heels and swinging her hips toward the office door. “You have fun now, hear?”

“Ah! The girl that Mattie Walker killed, the real Mattie Walker.”

“Ten points,” said Penny. “Very good. Are we still having dinner?”

“Sure. I’ll call when I’m done. I have an appointment at four.” He smiled. “Hey, thanks, lady. That was yummy.”

Her laughter was muffled by the closing door. He watched her move down the hallway from the angle of the camera, then through the outer door, her distorted form an elastic image in a fun-house mirror.

The intercom buzzed. He pushed a button, activating the speaker.

“Yes, Eleanor?”

“Florence Schmitz, your three o’clock, is here.”

“Oh, right,” he remembered. “Send her in.”

A moment later, a knock at the door. He opened it with a smile.

“Florence. How nice to see you.”

Florence Schmitz had gained more weight. Her loose dress, embroidered with shiny purple and yellow flowers, was like an artist’s smock. Her body was hidden by the draping folds but he felt it when she hugged him too tightly and held on too long. He returned her embrace lightly, an A-frame hug, aware of the desperate assurance she needed, her perspiration, and—always, these days—the threat of litigation. Jerry White, the veteran assistant at Holy Redeemer, had been caught in a nightmare that started when a deacon claimed he brushed her breast in the sacristy before the Sunday service. Jerry said he was just helping her on with her alb, but with the new rules, he had to step down while the trial went forward. That would take months and the parish would split into factions, the noise of their warring fluctuating like an oceanic roar.

By the time he was cleared he was broken and quit.

Ironic, thought Adam, that Bishop Wheat directed the lengthy process. The stories about the bishop when he was out of town drinking were legion. Anyway, Jerry was gay—Adam had seen him twice on Water Street late at night, just walking along, whistling, innocent as a lamb, wearing civvies. He cruised events at the Cathedral looking for friends, went to a nearby city on his days off, and quietly with trusted colleagues disclosed his likes and loves without a qualm.

Florence released her priest and sat as always to his right. She tried to cross her legs but failed, letting one slide down and cross at the ankle where her thick opaque pantyhose gathered in wrinkles.

She looked into his eyes and his open expression cut through her defenses. Her guard was already down from the fact of entering the warm familiar office, soft red-shaded light from the lamps on the dark wood tables, soft warm air exhaled from the vents. The white ceiling curved like the one in the chapel, evoking a safe haven, a refuge for the weary soul, a shelter from the cold.

Reed waited, watching her face subside. After a final sigh, Florence began quietly to cry.

“Dear Florence,” he said softly, reaching for a tissue in a box on the table between their chairs. She took it and blotted her tears.

“Tell me,” he said gently, leaning and patting her hand. “What’s going on?”

She reached for another, blew her nose and crimped the tissue in her hand. Her eyes moved from her lap to the floor, then back to her lap.

“You know that Paul came home—“

“Yes.”

“And we’re so happy to have him home, oh Father, I can’t tell you! He made us so proud, Leon would have burst with pride, he did his duty and came home in one piece. We’re so thankful.”

“I understand.”

“And Terri, his girl friend—do you remember Terri?”

“I do.” Her dark hair and intelligent eyes, quietly taking it all in, sitting next to Florence in the second pew. She had watched Penny go to the altar rail, Adam noting that she saw how Penny looked at her priest with a guiltless seductive smile.

“Terri was wonderful while he was gone. When he came home, she said he could stay at her place until he was settled. But Paul wanted to be on his own. You know how young men are. So he moved into a little apartment on Tippecanoe. He went right out and got a job and—“ then she was crying again and Reed had to give her another tissue.

Observing her grief but not knowing its source, he stayed as present to her distress as he could. Fucking Penelope left him wide open, rolled over inside and lying on his back, paws in the air. The longer Florence cried, the more it felt like he scraped his knuckle against a grater. He crossed his arms protectively, watching her expressions, searching for pointers and listening as it were with the back of his mind, as if impressions streamed like iron filings around behind to the base of his brain.

He reviewed the history of the Schmitz family. They came to Holy Innocents before he did, changing churches back when the once-beloved Clarence Francis Connolly, the old priest at St. Hilda’s, a nearby Catholic parish, was outed for loving “his boys” neither wisely nor too well. Three victims grew up enough to say what had happened. Thirty more joined a lawsuit and within a year, four other dioceses were involved. The dominoes fell, leading to accusations and confessions, editorials and lawsuits. Then Archbishop Feebleman admitted paying a young male lover to keep quiet and left too, retiring to Arizona, replaced by a glad-handing moon-faced portly prelate whose gee-whiz smile filled television screens with benign reassurance. Just a regular guy, he was, a baseball fan, a clap on the back and a hearty laugh. He sold off buildings, rearranged clergy, gained weight, and told the faithful that, inside their still-secret meetings, their leaders “were doing everything possible to prevent these terrible events from recurring.”

Of two hundred seventy families at St. Hilda’s, half a dozen left. The little ship rocked in the turbulent waves but stayed on course.

Connolly admitted that when he was depressed or bored or excited, he relieved himself by touching, fondling and puffing on little children after he had ejaculated in them or on them. (The word “puffing” became a staple in newspaper stories after a litigant described how the older man exhaled with intense pressure on his cheek when he finished, apparently a common occurrence since others called him The Puffer, too.) For decades, his ministry was littered with tears. He was moved quietly from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, under a cover of silence. When other bishops refused to accept him—word gets around—he was sent to an orphanage for boys in Uganda. After a few years, they sent him back. An outraged bishop objected and was sent to Fort Wayne. The city bishops who sheltered the man were moved to bigger cities, rewarded for being team players and ensuring that the system stayed in place, that the creaking machinery breathed.

It went all the way to the top, Reed knew. But when he looked for connections he could name, he felt as if he was staring at the fine threads of a web against the sun. Close to his eyes, he could see nodes leading to nodes, but when he tried to focus out a little further, all he saw was a bright shining mist.

During the scandal, Florence and Leon Schmitz, concerned for their children, became Episcopalians, sort of. They never formally changed religions but it didn’t matter as long as they attended and contributed. Aside from the fact of the Pope and how some decisions were made, it was similar enough, and the differences seldom filtered down to the pews. That was particularly true under the leadership of Adam’s predecessor, Rogers Cloudbank, who was vicar of the parish when the Schmitz family switched.

When Mister Cloudbank retired after twenty-seven years, Adam applied for the job. They knew Adam because Grace Church, the larger downtown parish where he was assisting, had for years sent staff when counseling or a pastoral visit was needed. This unusual arrangement suited everyone. Young clergy practiced their craft and Cloudbank was able to skip the more odious parts of the ministry like visiting or counseling parishioners. So when he retired, Adam had the inside track.

Bishop Wheat loved to lecture parishes sternly whenever he had an opportunity, and the transition was a good one. He held forth every Sunday on what they had done wrong, how they failed to live up to their vows, and insisted that they follow an extensive process that mandated detailed surveys, endless self-examination, and interminable committee meetings. The long process, overseen by the Bishop’s staff; appeared democratic, but the end result was never in question. After months of interviews, paring a list of applicants from dozens to a handful, Adam was hired.

After years of Cloudbank’s leadership style, the personality of the congregation had become a bone-in-the socket fit for his neurotic inclinations. Those who wanted something more, better or different had left long ago, while those who stayed, stayed because it suited them. The diocese was full of little parishes like that, and so long as the cash flow was adequate for salary and overhead, a parish could remain locked in that dance for decades. Especially in small parishes, the personality of a congregation mirrored the dynamics of the pastor’s family of origin. Cloudbank’s father was cool and distant, a professor who lectured with erudition and never kissed his only son. Cloudbank accordingly created a community similar to a public library, where people hovered about and occasionally spoke to one another but never came too close. The don’t feel-don’t tell-don’t trust ethos of his family was the unconscious template for parish life. The little fish, already habituated by their own histories to those tepid waters, swam happily about.

Because the clanging symbols of sexual scandal continued to echo, it was a plus that Adam obviously liked women. When one of the few attractive women in the parish walked through the coffee hour, he would continue the conversation in which he was engaged while his gaze followed her to the cookies, her tapping stilettos on the hardwood floor impossible to resist, his eyes rising slowly from her heels to her careful hair. Recognizing his predilections, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, although no one said a word. Cloudbank had been deemed safe because the parish labeled him a “celibate gentleman.” The ruse worked as long as everyone colluded, and everyone did. Well into middle-age, Cloudbank hosted famous parties, but no straight man or woman suspected his secret night-life. They extolled his academic sermons, bound and printed with footnotes for each of the six church seasons, because they conferred status, they believed, on the little parish and more than made up for his shyness: he raced away after the service, disappearing into a room he had built high in the bell tower where he hid until everyone left. Then he tiptoed down the spiral stairs to join his longtime companion Burton Rusk and then to brunch with special friends.

In contrast, Adam was like a large puppy that jumped up and planted its huge paws on a person’s chest. Perhaps, they thought, he would learn to stifle himself – they call it the “shake down cruise,” that period of a year or so when a parish either molds a priest to its style or drives him away. If the pastor bends sufficiently, the ministry is considered a success. If he doesn’t, like a marriage, there are always grounds for divorce.

On Adam’s first Sunday, forty-three attended the late service, seven the earlier, conservative one. The church had seventy-three members on its rolls, mostly women, mostly old. Some had not been seen in years.

“It’s a congregation mostly of elderly ladies,” Reed said, “and their mothers. A few friends will come over from Grace, I imagine.”

“Why in the world do you want it?” Penny asked. They were having lunch downtown, a few weeks into their affair. The trendy cafe, remodeled with a classic bottle-filled bar straight from Manet, was filled with cool modulated light.

“It’s a perfect starter parish,” he said. “It’s short term – no one follows a long pastorate like Cloudbank’s, as a rule, without being transitional—and there’s nowhere to go but up. We’ll pick up some of the disaffected people who float from parish to parish, you lose about ten per cent and pick up the same. They’re easy to spot—they love you, they tell you how incredible you are, but oh, by the way, they tack on what was wrong with the last pastor. If you believe either, the diatribe or the praise, you’re sunk. In another year, you’ll be the one they hate. Their projections turn on a dime. They always think you’re much better than you are or much worse. That’s the essence of ministry, Pen, and the energy of it, too, learning how to handle those projections, not getting sucked in. You put on the armor of righteousness,” he laughed, “but always in the background you better be thinking, fuck them, as my dear mentor says, love them, sure, but … fuck them. If you need them too much, you’re dead. They’ll sniff it out and eat you alive.

“And … it’s a city parish, which I like. And … of course … you’re here,” he leaned and kissed her across their lattes, tasting her coffee and inhaling her pale scent. “And it’s tied into the endowment at Grace Church through a complicated arrangement, wills and bequests and all that, which means the salary and overhead are covered so I don’t have to kill myself generating cash flow. In this market, that matters a lot. It’s a huge relief.“

The year before Adam arrived, Florence became Assistant Director of the Altar Guild when Agatha Cowling died. She worked easily with Miriam Rausch, deferring to the matriarch who, in a rare moment of closeness, confided to Florence that “she and Miriam Spade run this parish.” That was fine with Florence who preferred a subordinate role. The church became her home away from home when Leon died. Some Sundays she attended both services because “they give you different things.” Terri came once in a while when she and Paul became serious, and when he left for the war, the family came for a special blessing. They put their hands on Paul’s head and Adam prayed for his safe return.

Florence found the shallow waters of minimal community just right. If she needed more, the priest was there; he was conscientious and knew how to listen as he did that afternoon, waiting patiently to discover the source of her upset. When she stopped sniffling and apologized for being silly, Reed said she wasn’t silly at all, she was just human.

But he still didn’t know the foundation of her grief.

Crumpled tissues filled the table between them. She said again and again what a good boy Paul was, how wonderful it was to have him home, Adam nodding with what he hoped was adequate empathy, unable to stop thinking of Penny, flashing back on the weekend, how the warm flesh of her thighs squeezed with an irregular pulse the sides of his happily lapping head.

That’s when he noticed the tip of his dick sticking to his shorts, pulling his attention to his lap. He willed for it to release, but it held fast.

He uncrossed his legs, shifting a little, but it didn’t work. So he wobbled between two centers of attention, the unhappy woman talking now about Terri, her change in behavior, her lack of understanding, making Paul think twice—it was like day and night, she had been so helpful, helping in the kitchen, chattering about their future together, and now, when all she had to be was patient and wait until Paul was back in spirit as well as body, why was she making everyone so uncomfortable? Why did she have to keep saying Paul had changed?

The other center of attention was his dick which he tried to dislodge with stealthy gestures. He leaned in his chair, legs crossed and feet flat on the floor, feeling his shorts shift, but stayed stuck. Florence noticed his fluctuating attention—they always do, he thought, they always do—and looked at him queerly. Reed uncrossed his legs, widening his thighs and moving forward onto the edge of the chair, hoping to distract her. In that moment, inexplicably, he was intensely present to Florence and they connected. She felt it too. All of a sudden she felt relieved.

She dabbed her eyes, smiling through tears. “I guess I needed to cry.”

“Florence, I’m still trying to understand, what’s so upsetting … I hear you, Paul and Terri have lots of adjustments to make, which is only natural, right?”

“I suppose.”

“But—what’s really happening?”

She shifted in her chair, Reed feeling her conflicting emotions as distinctly as if they were his. He tilted his head, waiting. Then came free.

“Ow.”

“What?”

He half-rose in his chair.

“I’m sorry, Florence, I was stiff from sitting so long.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s get back to what you were saying. Can you be more specific? Is Buddy OK?”

“Oh, Buddy’s fine, he was angry at Terri, too, last night Paul and Terri came for dinner, we were talking about Buddy’s hockey team, they have a chance to win the league, and Terri said out of absolutely nowhere, so am I the only one who’s worried?

“Everybody stopped talking. What are you talking about? Buddy practically shouted. That’s not like Buddy, you know that. Paul looked at Terri like he wanted to kill her. Terri looked at me like she wanted me to back her up. Of course, I couldn’t. Not with Paul sitting right there”

“How is he different?”

She looked away. She went out of phase. Too direct, he thought. Back up and come around.

“It isn’t easy,” she said. “Since Leon died, nothing is.”

He waited.

“Of course the war affected him. Wouldn’t it affect you?”

“Of course. Is that what Terri’s getting at?”

A cobweb was blowing in a ceiling vent and she watched it flutter. She thought she heard the muffled thrumming of the furnace in the basement. She began thinking of what to make for dinner. Macaroni and cheese, hot and bubbly, filled her mind. She could smell it, she was suddenly hungry, very hungry, and wanted to leave.

“Florence, what do you think she means?”

“Terri thinks Paul was hurt. But the way she says it makes me upset. As if he did something wrong.”

“Maybe it’s affecting her too. These things have a way of spilling onto everyone.”

“And maybe she isn’t right for Paul. Maybe it’s better to find out now.”

“Maybe.”

He felt her coming back into the room. He looked into her eyes, hoping she would feel that he was still on her side.

“I don’t know what’s wrong. She won’t say. All she does is drop hints.”

“Can you talk to Paul directly?”

Imagining the scene, her eyes filled with fear. He felt her recede.

“I could talk to them, Florence. Maybe I can help.”

“Maybe.” Gone. She was out of the room and wasn’t coming back. “I’ll ask.”

But Florence was done. She gathered herself and made a little noise, an “oof!” as she unfolded and rose stiffly.

“Well. Thank you, Father. I feel much better.”

“Good.”

He gave her another hug and she let him, confused by what she had heard herself say. It would take time for her own words to percolate, telling her the truth she already knew.

Reed returned to his desk and watched her shamble down the hallway.

The Bach toccata played in his pocket.

“Hey, your hotness.” said Penny’s playful voice. “Is your three o’clock gone?”

“Yes. I’ve just got a couple of minutes. Another’s due at four.”

She was silent. “Hey, thanks, lady,” he made his voice smile. “That wasn’t bad.”

“But you have to go.”

“I do. Pen –“

The intercom buzzed. “Parker Brown is here, Father. He said you were supposed to leave the door open. He called your cell phone but it’s busy.”

“I can hear,” Penny said. “Bye.”

“Are we still on? Dinner at your place?”

Father,” Eleanor said on the speaker. “Will you buzz him in?”

* He saw Parker on the screen and pressed to free the lock, said “Gotta go,” turned off his telephone and opened the office door.

“Parker, forgive me,” he said, stepping out of the way so Parker could enter.

“It’s cold out there,” said Parker Brown, rubbing his hands together. His face was glowing above the gray lapels of a plush overcoat, a soft gray muffler neatly tucked, his fringe of white hair cut short. Liver spots on the shiny skin of his forehead.

He looked around, still rubbing his hands. “Something’s different.”

“The Miriams.”

The older man laughed.

“Miriam R bought new furniture. Didn’t even ask, just ordered from the store. I asked her to send it back. No one has said “no” to her for years. She went crazy. She called every single member of the Vestry, then each of them called me. Then Miriam S weighed in. A bull in a china shop was one of the nicer things she said. The chairs, as you see, are still here. Geraldine suggested we let the dust settle. What dust? I said. It’s my office and I don’t like the chairs—yes, yes, she said, still, it’s better to wait—“

Parker laughed. “No one said it would be easy, did they?” He sank into the chair and stretched, crossing his legs at the ankle. “You could fall asleep in this chair.”

“You could,” the priest agreed, sitting on the other side of the table. “That’s the problem. Like the Tonight Show sofa. Anyway, how are things?”

Brown thought a moment, looking out the window at a honey locust covered with snow. The window was framed by heavy dark crimson curtains with gold tassels. The church was near a strip of shops he could see obliquely—a Korean nail place, a discount drug store, cell phone shop, a noodle take-out, a cleaners, light from their neon signs illuminating snow banked high on the walk. Beyond the shops, a dark brick three-story walk-up, its windows opaque in the dark afternoon.

A passing truck blocked Parker’s view. He focused after a moment on a branch in the foreground. A small bird, a wren or sparrow, he guessed, some irrelevant nameless small brown bird in any event was perched on a snow-covered branch.

He drew himself up and sat straighter.

“Things aren’t bad,” he said. “Everything is pretty good.”

So they spent the next fifty minutes talking about football, would the quarterback come back, the investments in the endowment, the fortunes of Brown’s investment firm in a difficult economy, his wife Helen who wasn’t well, she had something like lupus but not exactly, Reed couldn’t remember what, she was tired all the time and still depressed. Then Parker talked about Brad, his remarkably dumb son-in-law who married his daughter Marilee, and their new grandson, Fletcher—Parker showed him an accordion folder of photos of a fat baby with Brad’s blank face—then asked Adam about the parish, listening to the priest’s concerns with care and attention. Then he went back to Helen, why she didn’t come to church, how grief never let her go, grief was the field of her life, the frame, and as twilight deepened, despite the heat inside, dry as a desert, Reed felt an inexplicable chill that signaled the onset of night. As he shivered, drawing his arms in closer, Adam tried to find a path through the labyrinth of Parker’s words. Something amplified his anxiety, making Parker hop from branch to branch like a restless bird—Helen perhaps? The economy? His business, his Washington contacts?.

None of his guesses stuck, however, and when the hour was almost over, when Adam had decided that Parker just wanted to bleed off feelings and not address the reason he called, when the clergyman had uncrossed his legs and was pushing back and saying, “Well—“ … only then did Parker say, “Adam, I’m afraid. I haven’t been this afraid in years.”

Half out of his chair, Adam stopped and sat back down. He glanced at the digital clock on the shelf. They always wait until the last minute. They chitchat about this and that, then say over their shoulders when they leave, their coats on, halfway through the door, oh by the way, I got a divorce, I was fired today, I shot my dog.

He heard Penny’s snippy greeting whenever he was late, an anticipatory hallucination, and pushed it away. He looked closely at Parker’s face which was grave, felt his anxiety rising, more than anxiety, closer to dread. Parker’s feelings were suddenly within easy reach of Adam’s antennae. The lateness of the hour, the suffocating warmth of the steam-heated office, the cold twilight outside, all worked on Parker Brown, softening him up, making him accessible.

“OK, Parker,” Adam said, sitting back. “What’s going on?”

Despite his sudden disclosure or, more likely, because of it, Parker quickly covered, turning to abstractions instead of responding to Adam’s question. He liked skirting issues anyway, rambling off on what he called an orthogonal pursuit of unlikely solutions to problems that remained undefined even after he found the solutions, a practice that let him talk on and on without, he thought, having to reveal specifics. Specifics, however, leaked through the cracks, framed by the things he was careful not to say. The more he talked, circling his feelings, the angrier he became. Adam could feel the pressure rising.

Like most of his friends, school friends, club friends, client friends, Parker distrusted feelings and approached them obliquely, hating the authority they exerted on his analytical mind. He had learned as a child to fear them, never disclose them, and in the end, deny their influence or existence. The more he resisted, however, particularly when they were pressing and he felt them intensely as he did that afternoon, he literally squirmed in his chair, looking for a way to escape. But his psyche was a closed circle: there was no way out.

He wished he hadn’t said anything at all. He wished he had gotten up and left.

He said suddenly, “Some things are better left unsaid,” as if Adam had suggested otherwise. “Most things, in fact. Most history, you know, has disappeared. The historical record is nothing but graffiti on crumbling walls.

“Look,” he sat forward urgently, “if human memory were a translucent cube,” he went into lecture mode and fashioned an imaginary cube in the air with his hands, “it would be mostly empty space, like atoms. If we rendered memory digitally in the form of a city or skyline, it would look like Hiroshima after the bomb. A few spires sticking up, nothing else.”

Adam sort of nodded, unsure where he was heading, waiting for more.

Then Parker was talking about war. Adam missed the transition, felt as if he were squinting up at a pop fly, losing it in the sun. When Parker talked about war, whether current wars, the wars that were, or the wars to come, he alluded to his experience without ever disclosing what it was. The theme this time was history, again, how history played peek-a-boo with our hubris, our self-deception, the pretense that we could know.

“You can play but you can’t win. Orders aren’t always written, you know. Did you know that?”

Adam half-nodded. “I haven’t given it much thought.”

“Not for the most important things. One person says them quietly to another, aside. When the mission is finished, it didn’t happen. If there’s no record, it doesn’t exist. Oh, I know, Adam, I know, you hate it when I talk like this. You’re always preaching about openness, self-disclosure, everything being above board.”

“I am,” the younger man said. “That’s part of the job.”

“It’s bullshit,” Parker said with intensity. “It’s counter-intuitive, counter-culture even. Things don’t work that way. Who wants openness? Gadflies, malcontents and radicals, that’s who, meddlers who are never successful. So they bite at the ankles of those who are like frustrated middle-aged academics sniping at the people who pay their salaries. They resent our success. They’re never team players. Their power comes from outing people, accusing them, from judgment. But doesn’t the Book say, leave that to God? He’ll take care of it? Every goddamn one of them is so holier than thou, excuse my French. You don’t want to get like that, Adam, find yourself in mid-life making a crappy salary while the people in your parish send their kids to the best schools and take vacations in the Caribbean. You could tend that way, you know. Most of your heroes were whistle blowers, right? Didn’t most of the people you extol get whacked, or, excuse me, assassinated?”

Adam reflected. “Maybe more.”

Parker nodded with a thin smile.

“Right. So there it is. When the mission is finished,” he repeated, “it never happened. It’s impossible to get the whole story. Try using FOIA. All that does is tell the guardians of the interface what you think you know or want to know or where you think it’s hidden. Then they move it to another file. What do you get? Blacked out pages, that’s what. If that. Bullshit bureaucratise after ten months of pretending to look. Never enough ground to define a figure. See what I mean? When I say you can play but can’t win?”

Adam went into the neutral zone. “Are you still talking about war? Or something that happened lately? Or what? What does this have to do with what you said about being afraid?”

Parker frowned. “Everything. Everything connects.”

He sat back, looking at his hands. The knuckles were purple, not bruised. Not like he hit someone. That wasn’t his technique.

Adam tried another tack.

“I’ve noticed,” he told the older man, “at the start of the service, you know where the liturgy says, Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid? Sometimes you start. It catches you off guard if you’re thinking of something, doesn’t it? And you hear what those words mean?”

“It’s not helpful,” Parker said. “A general confession should bleed off feelings, period. Not everything is a big deal. You should be able to talk to God like he’s Chair of a Congressional committee. Skip the fifth if possible but use it if you have to. Never just blurt it all out.”

“In fact, you did testify for a subcommittee, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Parker said. “Once upon a time. That has nothing to do with this.”

Had there been a ticking clock, they would have heard it tick in the silence that followed. But those clocks were gone, consigned to the silence of a history that mechanical clocks had tried to make more orderly. Digital time passed as silently as the night that had filled the window while they were talking. When he looked up, looking past the pastor’s gaze, Parker saw the room mirrored in the window, the back of the pastor’s head with a full head of dark hair, a picture of angels by Chagall, a cheap print, he imagined, high on the wall behind.

“Some of my colleagues talk to their wives,” he said. “I don’t. Helen learned early not to ask. Client communications are always confidential. So is the political stuff. Some go to therapists, I guess” he looked away. “Give me a break. This isn’t The Sopranos. This is real.”

“It is,” Adam said. “But what exactly is it?”

This sort of relationship, though, Parker might have said next, instead of just thinking it, this talking with the pastor thing, this can work because it’s nothing, nothing at all, off to the side, it’s there if I need it, I can stop by and see how you’re doing and maybe whatever is on my mind will wander into the open, maybe not, but the fact of a casual chat is nothing. It’s a detour into the cold lake, you jump in, shiver and splash around, then leave, like the polar bear club. Maybe you feel better, maybe not. But nothing, really, has taken place.

Parker suddenly laughed. “Do you remember when I asked, what was your shortest sermon? You didn’t miss a beat. ‘Nothing is what it seems,’ you said.”

Adam smiled. “I remember. And you were saying … ”

“I was looking at that bird.”

Adam turned and looked at the window, It took a moment for the bird on the branch to become visible through the bright reflection.

“How does it live through the winter? How does it survive?”

Adam watched him. Parker did not seem to know he was close to tears. He couldn’t hear his own voice.

“Parker,” he said softly, “you’re not talking about the bird. You know that, don’t you?”

Parker looked at the clergyman’s earnest face. He threw in the towel and sighed.

“That’s the whole thing, right there,” he said. “When one of them falls, does He really know? Does He really care?

“Or not?”

Compared to Parker Brown and his labyrinthine verbal defenses, the Schmitzes were simple people. Florence would never hurt a soul, not knowingly. But Florence loved and protected her own.

Adam respected that, however much it was mired in denial and a lack of awareness. He was learning not to say what he saw clearly because others didn’t see it, didn’t want to see it, either. Saying things outright sometimes made them race into the night with a cry. He knew that Florence would die if she thought someone knew what was said in the privacy of their bungalow. So what follows must remain strictly off the record.

When Florence left the church, she felt uneasy. She thought she would feel better if she talked it out, but when she kept hearing echoes of what she said, it made her anxious, made her, in fact, a little angry. Her opinion of the clergyman, poking and prodding the way he did, making her say those things, went down a whole notch.

She didn’t tell anyone she had seen him. When Buddy came in from school—he was a freshman at the local campus—he turned on his loud music and Florence didn’t object. It was noise, to her, but she welcomed the pounding thrumming bass. She busied herself preparing dinner, making macaroni and cheese from scratch, adding an extra cup of cheddar. She fried some sausage, loving the spicy sizzle and thick sweet-smelling smoke that set off the smoke alarm again, making Buddy get on a chair and shut it off.

They watched Wheel of Fortune, eating on trays in the living room, guessing at puzzles. They liked beating the contestants as much as watching jaywalking. Both shows let them laugh at the LCDs and feel better about themselves. They could not believe that people could be that stupid.

Buddy solved every puzzle. Florence pretended to let him, making jokes to cover how she felt (she missed “blue skies and white sand beaches,” for heaven’s sake, on a prize puzzle) and Buddy rubbed it in. She pretended to feel hurt so he had to get up and hug her and say, Mom, I was kidding, and she said she knew that, sort of.

But she couldn’t forget. Her words were like seeds stuck in her teeth no matter how much she worked them with her tongue. Before she talked to the pastor, she had not known that Paul was hurt. She had not admitted to herself that maybe Terri wasn’t nuts.

The next day, she called Terri and asked her to come over. She said she would make her favorite dessert, hot chocolate bombs. Buddy was off with Kelli and Terri came early and they chatted in the kitchen until the chocolate concoction was done. Florence carried the molten mounds into the dining room and went back for the hot fudge. Terri told her she was going to be on Oprah in a couple of weeks. Florence was not paying attention and let it pass, not realizing then that Terri, as Buddy would say later, was going to fuck over the family.

Florence told her she went to the church. Terri thought she meant to fold linens.

She was well into her chocolate cake, frosting smearing her face, already pouring more fudge from the little blue pitcher, covering every bite with additional delicious addictive dark chocolate, nodding to what Florence said, going into a trance. Florence told her the priest asked about Paul, how was he doing, because sometimes vets had adjustments. Terri nodded, ferrying cake from plate to mouth in a regular rhythm. So how did she, Terri, think Paul was doing? Now that he had his own place.

Terri put down her fork and wiped her face with a paper napkin. Florence was nibbling at her desert, not the way she usually ate.

Terri said, well, and sat there for a minute, not sure what she ought to say. Florence’s question triggered a memory of Paul sobbing. She hadn’t mentioned that to anyone. She got another piece of cake, but once she had finished that one, too, feeling stuffed, feeling a little sickish, too, once she had scraped the plate with her fork and the sugar rush was ebbing, the memory was intensified by the feeling of emptiness that followed. Would you like another piece? Florence asked. Terri said no, shaking her head, thinking it wouldn’t help. It would make things worse, in fact. Florence was turning her plate slowly clockwise on the plastic tablecloth, not looking at Terri, not looking at anything, really. Terri told Florence how dark it was the other night at Paul’s place, how cold, the heat was off, the furnace wasn’t working, she woke up at three in the morning shivering and went to the window and looked out at the streetlights making the snow look icy and ghostly cold, there was no moon, just low clouds reflecting the dull glow of the city, when behind her Paul suddenly screamed, he cried out, then screamed so loudly the hair stood up on the back of her neck. She rushed to him and held him in her arms and he was sobbing, Terri told her, sobbing like you wouldn’t believe, and she rocked him and said there there, there there, she didn’t know what else to do, and he told her through gasping sobs that he had tortured people Terri he had tortured people he said it like that again and again and she couldn’t understand what he meant, what he had done. Maybe he was confused because it was unthinkable, really, maybe he was saying someone else had done these things and everything was all mixed up. It didn’t make sense. So she held him until he was sleeping again and lay beside him for a long time looking at the streetlight on the shade until she fell asleep herself. In the morning, they showered and dressed and had breakfast and Paul went to work.

She told all this to Florence in a rush. The fact of family made her feel safe. It was such a relief to tell someone. But Florence did a mini-freak, her eyes darting back and forth, she took Terri’s plate and went into the kitchen to rinse dishes, rattling dishes into the dishwasher, slamming it shut, getting a spatula stuck in the holder, having to shake it loose. Then she came back into the dining room where Terri was staring at where she, Florence, had been a moment before and sat down in her chair and then got up and sat down again and said, Things like that don’t happen, Teresa, they do not happen, and Terri was crying and Florence was crying too and they cried in each other’s arms.

Florence stopped crying first. She said, well, so—Paul had a nightmare. Lots of veterans have bad dreams. She heard that on Doctor Phil. That didn’t mean they were real. Terri shrugged and said nothing, and Florence said nothing except, well, so—a few more times, then the women hugged and Terri left.

On Sunday after the service, Father Reed greeted Florence with a smile and asked about Paul. Florence shrugged and said he was fine, Father, thank you for asking. After a pause he said he missed her on Wednesday—their second appointment?—and she looked confused, then laughed and said, oh she must be getting old, she had totally forgotten. So he said, do you want to reschedule? Florence said, no no, that won’t be necessary now, everything is fine, now, everything is just fine.

She went on to coffee hour but it was upsetting, the way he brought it all up again, and pretty soon, everything about the church was boring or upsetting, services were dull, sermons too long, Mildred Pierce was a royal pain, so she went less frequently, sat more often in back, and never called Terri again. She was very busy, but that wasn’t the reason. The reason was, Terri went on Oprah and talked about Paul. Florence knew no one would remember after a while because everything on television blurred into everything else. That’s what Parker was saying, too, maybe, about missing chapters in history, how history books had so many blank pages.

Before he left, Parker did tell Adam why he was frightened, Terri told Florence about Paul, and Florence told the priest as much as she knew. But Adam had no idea what was real. Parker’s story sounded like something out of a movie. Florence’s sounded like a morning talk show. Terri’s sounded like a post on a conspiracy web site—and anyway, he wouldn’t hear it until later, until after Parker. So he had no point of reference. Nothing connected to anything else. He held everything lightly—sometimes it pays to be agnostic—but knew it was real for them, whatever the ultimate truth, so that’s how he approached it. That’s what mattered on the ground. What people thought was real framed their anxieties and fears, or didn’t. Organized the questions they could even think, or not.

In addition, Adam had other things to think about. It was late, it was cold, there were sure to be calls to return that Eleanor left in his box, and then, there was Penny, there was always Penny and what she would say when he tiptoed in, late again, with the same excuse. Telling her someone needed to talk. Never saying who. But it was always someone else, someone not Penelope, who needed his attention.

Florence found herself thinking and saying and doing things in the days ahead that were not like her at all. Paul was her son, so Terri was off-base. Terri was wrong. She had not seen the real Terri inside the fakey friendly act. But now that she did, Terri was damned to hell. So let Terri do whatever she wants. Let her go. She doesn’t belong to us any more. The Schmitz family protects their own.

So it was that Florence found herself saying aloud to no one in particular as she walked to the grocery store, Well, fuck Terri, then. The woman ahead of her turned to look. Thank God she didn’t know who she was. Florence raised her fist in its purple mitten to her open mouth. She felt like a dummy, mortified by the words a ventriloquist put in her mouth. Those were Buddy’s words and Buddy’s voice, not hers, words that were not to be spoken aloud outside the walls of their house. Fuck her, Buddy had said. Fuck her. Kicking the ottoman through the living room into the hall and down the hall to his bedroom. Kicking it and kicking it and kicking it and shouting at the top of his lungs, that fucking bitch! Fuck her! Fuck that lying bitch in the goddamn ass!

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