Nice Things

by rthieme on July 15, 2005

[“Nice Things” was published in the summer of 2005 in Red Wheelbarrow, a literary magazine from De Anza College. So nice to have an editor like Randy Splitter who works with you to make the story better. Although written from a different point of view, this story links nicely with “The Geometry of Near.”

Nice Things

by Richard Thieme

The dilemma in which Gertrude Mueller discovered herself was extremely uncomfortable, and if there was one thing Gertrude disliked, it was discomfort.

Thirty or forty years earlier, she might not have reacted so strongly to the young pastor who called to introduce himself; indeed, she would have written him off the minute he took her hand, noticing both the old suit, hopelessly out of style, and a bare wrist instead of a white cuff extending past his jacket. At that moment, the pretender would have ceased to orbit around her psyche, flying off instead into the darkness of irrelevance forever.

Because he engaged in what Henry would have called a bait-and-switch, however, the double-crosser stayed in her brain like the woodpecker in the ash tree on the bluff behind her lakefront home.

Something else had happened over time, too. As Gertrude moved through her sixties and seventies, the tough resilient husk around her feelings had thinned and now, at eighty-six, she was prey to emotions that seldom bothered her before. Her behavior had always been impeccable, but now she felt vaguely threatened by fears that perhaps she was making mistakes and she wished deeply that her Henry were still there to comfort and advise her.

Henry had been dead for seven years, seven long lonely years, and it was difficult to maintain her world view intact, despite reinforcement from friends and the careful preservation of a force field around her life, her comings and goings taking place inside a carefully circumscribed set of environments linked like winter buildings by crossways and walkways, as similar as clones. That secure set of gated communities kept her snug and mostly serene until the bright autumn morning when the half-Jew disguised as clergy invaded her habitat with stealth and detonated like a suicide bomber inside her home.

It should never have happened, Gertrude reflected afterward; friends should have protected her by telling her what she needed to know. They had told her instead that the young minister was breathing new life into the downtown church, a church she had joined sixty-four years earlier when she married Henry.

The church lost most of its real members in the fifties and sixties and was limping along, an aging congregation drawing down an endowment intended to ensure independence. As members died, moved away or were whisked off by children to distant places, a more diverse group was percolating through, signifying, they all knew, the end of something. They could endure that, so long as they remained protected in their cul-de-sac by wardens and clergy who understood their proper function as guards and gates.

the-university-clubthumbnailHe is hasty and impetuous, Sylvia told her over lunch at the City Club – apparently he came of age during the sixties, a decade which for the rest of us was anomalous – still, he seems to be liked by the others, and as long as we have our service, let him do what he likes. We don’t need to attend his self-disclosure sessions and bare our souls to the world.

Readying herself for his visit by putting on one of her nicest outfits, Gertrude nodded in her mind to everything Sylvia said. So long as the institution was kept afloat, she could overlook what was happening to the little world inside the church as she overlooked what was happening to the larger world around her, a world successfully held at bay through a force field of nevers and nots.

That force field was woven tightly through five private clubs, frequent cruises, and periodic visits to the Hawaiian islands where she stayed in the beachfront homes of friends. Those self-similar modules made her bubble life portable.

Gertrude understood that membership in five clubs might be considered excessive but each was an essential component of her psychic life. The Distilleryu-club Club, of course, was the largest piece. Her membership was maintained in the name of her husband Henry and whenever she received mail addressed to Mrs. Henry Mueller she felt comforted and reassured. She dined at the Distillery Club with friends on a regular basis and nothing inside had changed for as long as she could remember. The menu did not vary and she always ordered the same meal. The large wooden staircase to the second floor, although she now took the elevator, spoke of the elegance and grace of an earlier day. The greeting of Carl as he seated her at the same table, the horsy laugh from Hildegarde who waited on her always and spoke with a German accent despite having lived in the city for thirty-two years, made the club indispensable for her feelings of well-being.

She seldom went to the Sport Club, now that Henry was dead, attending dinner parties perhaps once a year. But Henry had loved to lounge naked at the pool, he and his colleagues soothed by the high humidity and dim bare lights like so many flabby pallid mammals, their careless white towels dragging from their saggy bellies to the wet tile. Memories of Henry’s happy times at the pool made that membership essential. She remained on the rolls of the Grand Club, too, because Henry maintained a small office there after he retired. He, Winslow Foote and Harrison Duncan often met there in mid-morning and after attending to their mail remained for a leisurely lunch before going to the Sport Club for a steam and a massage.

hp_538_08universityclubloungeAlmost as much as the Distillery Club, she loved the City Club, a gracious lovely space in which to play cards, where children played tennis and carried on, boisterous and exuberant at the pool, on long summer days. There and the Shoreline Country Club, Gertrude felt at home. Among her select companions, she never felt that sinking feeling of almost being lost, as she did when she agreed in a weak moment to meet a friend at a public restaurant. She had never dined there before and came a little early, entering the large foyer and seeing in the bar adjacent dozens of people laughing, talking loudly and drinking, realizing suddenly that she did not know a single one. She froze, searching their alien faces, feeling a quiet desperation that threatened the sense of homogenous goodness that permeated her people and their places. She did not move until her friend arrived and took her in hand, saying, there, there’s someone you know, do you see? But she never forgot that feeling and did everything possible to ensure that it never recurred.

Gertrude thought of her church as an extension of her clubs. She seldom attended but the church in her head was furnished with the plush sofas and chairs of the locked parlor and its happy faded past as her heart was furnished with the spirit of an Almighty God whose forgiveness and love her beloved Henry had assured her were always hers whenever anxiety threatened. “God asks nothing more,” he told her with confidence, “but that you accept His presence in your life. If you breathe deeply of that forgiveness and love, you will enjoy a life of peace, prosperity and well-being.” Gertrude closed her eyes and breathed deeply of his reassurance until the spells passed. In gratitude for their good fortune, they gave a portion of their surplus to the church and other charities. “When you do well,” Henry said often, “you must do good.” When a little girl, her father had told her the same thing, and the two pastors who preached from the high pulpit for forty-seven years between them proclaimed the same gospel with consistency, powerful but understated conviction, and impeccable taste.

Into this well-shaped, well-maintained world charged that bull-in-the-china-shop minister, Frederick Stauter, a liar and deceiver.

Mister Stauter telephoned and invited himself to her home. Why, yes, she gushed delightedly, feeling like a schoolgirl, she would love to have the new clergyman call. They arranged a ten o’clock time on a midweek morning and Gertrude prepared for the visit with care.

She had Mathilde clean the day before with attention to the parlor and the living room and downstairs half-bath and then Mathilde’s husband Paul washed the windows that faced the trees on the bluff. She had Cook prepare small elegant quiche with puff pastry edges that would capture his heart at first bite.

She lay out nice things the night before. Gertrude loved nice things. It was not a patriotic occasion but she wore a white blouse with ruffled collar, a blue skirt and red and blue jacket which were perfect for morning coffee. She admired herself in a full-length mirror, rehearsing the nice things she intended to say and savoring the rich aroma of coffee brewing when the doorbell rang a few minutes early, closer to four until ten than ten, and she felt the first queasiness, caused by his early arrival. In retrospect, that should have told her something, but without Henry to help interpret she did not realize the significance.

“I get it,” Mathilde called up the back stairs to her dressing room. “Don’t hurry, I get it!” She heard her servant sweep through rooms to the front door and the door open just as she came slowly down the front stairs.

As she descended the spiraling stairs with easy grace, she thought herself a swan on a pond at twilight.

“Hello!” the young minister said with energy, thrusting his hand forward. “How nice to meet you, Gertrude!”

The lack of a cuff on his bare wrist was the first thing she saw. She froze for an instant, her training telling her to withdraw into her safe place and carry on as best she could until he left. At eighty-six, however, she was off her game and shook his hand with a coquettish smile, “Come in! Come in! I am so pleased to meet you!”

It was a chilly October day but he wore no overcoat. He had parked, she saw as Mathilde closed the door, a small dirty Ford in the driveway.

“Won’t you sit down?” she said, turning into the parlor.

“So,” she said as he plopped himself heavily in the easy chair Henry had favored. “What shall I call you? Mister Whitehead and Mister Rutledge were in the low tradition, but I understand that some call you Mister Stauter and some say Father. I get so confused,” she laughed, “with all these choices!”

She wanted, of course, for the young man to tell her exactly what to call him, but he didn’t. “Call me what you like,” he said. Mister or Father, Frederick or Fred. Or Mister Fred or Father Fred. Whatever is comfortable for you.”

His intensity and energy felt like a large yellow dog jumping up and planting its huge paws on her chest and she pressed back into her chair. “Mister Stauter then. That was good enough for those wonderful pious gentlemen that served us for so many years so it will have to do for you, too.”

“Fine,” he said, looking around. “What a beautiful home you have.”

“Why, thank you” she said. “And you – you are the new minister.” She clasped her hands and smiled. “We are so delighted to have you here.”

“I am glad to be here,” he said. “I love the opportunity to rebuild. I think we can create a meaningful experience for many kinds of people.”

She laughed a little laugh. “Yes, I understand there are more kinds of people than ever before. Everything has changed, hasn’t it?”

“Everything has changed,” he agreed. “The challenge is to maintain the best of the tradition while exploring new possibilities in a radical way.”

“Oh, my goodness! Not too radical, I hope!”

“Oh, no,” he said quickly, “not too radical. Not before I get to know everyone and understand how it works.”

She asked if he would like coffee and a delicious little quiche.

“Coffee would be fine,” he said. “I’ll pass on the quiche. I’m trying to keep the cholesterol down.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well. All right, then, just coffee. No delicious little quiche.” She rang a bell for Mathilde. She believed that once he saw how light and flaky the crust was, he would succumb. So Mathilde brought coffee and sugar and milk on a tray and a plate of hot delicious little quiche.

“Oh my, this is good,” she bit into one. “Are you absolutely sure, Mister Stauter? Mister Rutledge loved our quiche.”

“I am, but please, enjoy yourself.”

So she ate alone, and as she ate a second, then a third, she was overcome by intense loneliness, although there was nothing she could say had caused it. She missed Henry terribly perhaps because Henry never let her eat alone, even when he wanted nothing for himself. She would often say, let’s have a little something, shall we? and he always brightened and if it was late he would fetch a snack himself and bring it upstairs to their sitting room on her favorite tray. After they had coffee she showed him the downstairs and basked in his compliments on her good taste. In the breakfast nook near the kitchen he noticed her grass skirt on a mannequin form and asked about it.

“Well,” she said, “one my great pleasures in life has been dancing the hula. I learned during my first visits to the islands and then I discovered as a young women that I was as fetching as any native dancer.” She tossed her head as if her hair was auburn still and long. “After a few martinis I was convinced by a small group of friends to dance on a cruise and it became a tradition.”

“How nice,” he said. “Where do you go in the islands?”

“We went to Oahu, on the leeward side,” she said. “We usually stayed with our friends the Jessups in their beautiful home. They had a wonderful house on the ocean and there was a long stretch of beach. The air is like velvet,” she hugged herself, “and the water is always so warm.”

They sat again in the parlor and he accepted a second cup of coffee.

“Tell me about Henry,” he said. “You must miss him very much.”

“Oh, I do,” she said with feeling. “He was the most wonderful husband. He took such good care of me. He never troubled me with so much as a word about finances or problems at work. He treated me like a princess until the day he died. We never had children and Henry lavished all his attention on me. I suppose he spoiled me as much as my father. I miss him terribly!” her eyes teared up. “Oh, dear,” she said, blotting her eyes with the back of her hand. “I hope that doesn’t smear.”

“No,” he assured her. “What did Henry do?”

“Do?” she blinked. “You mean his work? I would have thought they told you.”

He shook his head.

“Henry was the president of Kleinsdorf Fittings. His grandfather started the company in the eighteen eighties and remained at the head until his late seventies. Then Henry’s father and then Henry was president for many years. Now, everything has been transferred into a trust. The lawyers at my father’s firm handle everything.”

“That must be comforting. He took good care of you, didn’t he?”

“Oh yes,” she said.

A moment of silence followed in which her discomfort puckered like a fluffed up pillow. She did not like having feelings brought to the surface like that. When she discussed the subject later with Father Connor, he suggested she might have been a little irritated with the young man’s intrusive probing and it might have spilled over into the next conversation. And who, he assured her, would not have been upset?

Mister Stauter had abruptly leaned forward, speaking eagerly of having met Marian Frist. “You must know Marian,” he said. “I understand she is donating an impressionist collection to the museum. That she and her husband – he was CEO of Northland Hotels, wasn’t he? – had some wonderful Cézannes.”

“Harold Frist?” she sat up. Her discomfort turned suddenly easily into outrage. “Why, that Jew!” she said. “Oh yes, he was so typical of the Jews. They’ll do anything they can to get in, but believe me, we won’t let them. Harold married Marian because she was a socialite and her family had been part of this community for seven generations, just like mine. He thought, I am sure, that marrying her and making all that money, he could join whatever he liked. Well, he couldn’t. They can’t. They never will!” She had spoken herself into boldness and sat back, her eyes averted but her color high.

Mister Stauter sat stiffly in his chair but Gertrude did not notice his expression, so intent was she on discharging her intense feelings about Harold Frist and everything he represented. After a moment, however, breathing deeply and settling down as Henry had taught her, she was astonished when the minister said with a trembling voice:

“Gertrude, I am sure you cannot possibly know how I hear what you’re saying. My mother was Jewish. I think of myself as half Jewish, if not simply a Jew.”

Gertrude apprehended in a rush the full extent of his betrayal then and felt faint. Coming into her home with a German name, looking like a generic European as so many in their city did, he had penetrated her defenses like a spy, then trapped her, trapped her like an insect in a Venus flytrap. Then, instead of graciously allowing the awkward moment to pass without comment, he slapped her in the face as if she were a very very bad child.

“Oh my!” Gertrude’s hand rose, her knuckle in her mouth, her eyes wide above her veiny hand. “Oh my! You should have – if I had only known, I would never have said anything.”

Consumed by a cloud of confusion, anxiety and distress, she was unable to see that the minister struggled to suppress his feelings and re-enter his role. The battle played out mostly in his eyes, but she wasn’t watching or even aware of how the unfortunate interview came to a conclusion or how he made his way to the front door where he left her alone and unprotected in her deep chagrin, having showed the truth of her heart in such an inappropriate way.

“Be assured,” blessed Henry told her often, “God will always find a way.”

The dilemma confronting Gertrude was this: she was eighty-six and the clergyman was in his thirties. In all likelihood she would die during his tenure. He would preside at her funeral. Making her apprehension worse, she heard how in conversations both public and private he disclosed things that did not belong in the open air. He spoke of personal struggles during sermons and expected people to respond with empathy to the spiritual issues of a half-Jew lately come to the church. Of course, the kinds of people he was attracting to the church responded, which was exactly the problem. She heard her church being described as a gay church, that more and more people of diverse races were scattered throughout. She had long followed a traditional pattern of attending twice a year unless a wedding or funeral brought her more often, so her own interface with the congregation was thin and an opportunity to remedy her distress unlikely to surface… until, as Henry said, God found a way.

Gladys Ropp told her that a special fund was being created to restore their gorgeous windows.

Now, the one thing everyone agreed on was that the church had beautiful windows. Adults as well as children daydreamed into the colors and patterns surrounding the worship space during too-long sermons. Gertrude asked who chaired the committee and providentially it was Carl Stimpel. Gertrude requested that Carl call.

Stimpel was glad to call, and he took her hand warmly as she welcomed him to her home. “We had so many happy times, didn’t we, with Henry and Marguerite.”

“Oh, we did,” she said. “Come in, and tell me all about those windows.” The cost of restoring the windows was significant, he explained, going into much too much detail about their construction and repair, but he was such a dear, she waited patiently and then told him how much she intended to contribute.

“Gertrude, that is very generous of you,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.

She anticipated that a grateful Mister Stauter would call and he did, arranging a visit to thank her. But somehow her calendar was confused and when the doorbell rang, he could tell from her expression she expected someone else.

Then his eyes followed her gaze over his shoulder. Behind him coming up the walk was Father Michael Connor from Waldebert University He was impeccably dressed in a black suit and clerical collar and held in his hands a small box with a golden ribbon and a golden bow.

Gertrude was so taken with the box that she neglected to introduce the two.

“Oh, my!” she said. “What is that?”

2267-little-present_01“Oh,” said Father Connor, “It’s only a box. Only a small box.”

She took it with the delight of a child receiving a birthday surprise. “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” She beamed at the senior cleric. “Oh, Father Connor, have you met Mister Stauter?”

“No,” he said, turning and shaking hands with the younger man. “How are you?”

“Well, thanks.” Stauter turned back to Gertrude. “I don’t mean to intrude –“

“Oh, not at all,” she said. “Won’t you join Father Connor and myself?”

To her surprise, he accepted her invitation and sat awkwardly with them for a few minutes before excusing himself. That afternoon he telephoned to thank her for her donation.

“I can’t tell you how much this means,” he said.

“Why, you’re welcome,” she said. “And did they tell you how much?”

“They did. I understand you gave the fund half a million dollars.”

“That’s right!” she said with a laugh. “All for your church.”

They spoke about the weather and her recovery from the flu. He thanked her again and she fluttered and laughed. But then he sensed from her heavy silence that something more was about to be said and he waited until after a long pause she said in a high plaintive voice:

“Mister Stauter?”

“Yes, Gertrude?”

“You’ll … you’ll say nice things about me at my funeral, won’t you?”

He paused but not for long.

“Yes, Gertrude,” he said, sealing the deal. “I’ll say nice things at your funeral.”

But the ways of God are crooked, and we walk by faith a blind path. Stauter remained at the church for ten more years but Gertrude lived on, her health failing slowly. Then he left for another position and Gertrude felt even more alone and abandoned. She was up and about less and less but because she was a woman of means, did not need to leave her home. She did, however, need care.

Father Connor visited often and became deeply concerned about her well being. So long as she was able, he took her to dinner weekly at the City Club, but as her health declined, he called more often at her home with pastries and presents. One morning she spoke candidly of her need for help and Father Connor found a solution. He offered Gertrude round-the-clock nursing by a team of dedicated nuns. In that moment, Gertrude felt more cared for and protected than ever since Henry had died. She accepted his kind offer. Two bedrooms were converted into quarters for the nuns and they surrounded her with loving kindness of a most impenetrable sort, keeping unwanted visitors from her door.

Sister Katherine became particularly close to Gertrude and sat up late at night reading to her or talking about the past or their Father in Heaven. The medium and the message after a few years fused and at the age of ninety-eight, Gertrude capitulated to Sister Katherine’s fears for her mortal soul and became a Catholic. A special ceremony was arranged and Gertrude was baptized. Thanks to frequent prayer and abundant medication, she spent her last years in a warm haze of benevolent attention.

Gertrude died at the age of one hundred and three. Sister Katherine escorted her to the edge of death and held her hand warmly as she slipped beyond the veil, committing her charge to the merciful care of a constant God.

Father Connor wrote her obituary.

Gertrude Mueller was one of the most generous women in this city, but because of her great humility, her benevolence was not widely known. marquette_university_campus

Gertrude was the daughter of James Parkinson, a founder and senior partner at Parkinson and Kingsley, one of the city’s oldest law firms. Her husband Henry was the President of Kleinsdorf Fittings for many years.

Father Michael Connor, President of Waldebert University, said, ‘Gertrude’s childlike joy was contagious. It was impossible to be in her presence without delighting in her spontaneity and charm.’

She converted to Catholicism at the age of ninety-nine after a brief search for deeper meaning in her life.

Gertrudeliked nice things,’ said John Goff of Parkinson and Kingsley. ‘She liked to look nice. She always looked especially nice at birthday parties hosted by our firm which she attended well into her nineties. She loved to dance and she loved to go on cruises.’

During her lifetime Gertrude contributed eighteen million dollars to Waldebert University, in particular to the soon-to-be-named Henry Mueller Memorial Library and the Mueller Life Sciences Complex. Upon her death, she bequeathed an additional thirty-two million dollars to the university’s endowment.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: