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Penance (Part One)

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1.

 What in Gawd’s name was she thinking?  I mean what the Hell was she thinking?”

“Lord knows honey.  Only the Lord knows.  And know you what…”  Helen winks at her sister over the top of her reading glasses.  “…the Lord isn’t talking.”

 That’s the whole truth ain’t it Helen?  He sure ain’t up to talking to either one a us.” 

“Well, Gwendie, He’s certainly not talking to you, you old harpy…”

 They both cackle at this, Gwendie more loudly than Helen.

 “Parson Taylor took it pretty well, considering the circumstances, don’t you think?” asks Helen.

“Damned if he didn’t,” responds Gwendie.  “I would’a thought he’d bust an artery right there in the pulpit, but you know, he just stayed real calm and got himself through it.  That was one swell piece of preaching under pressure, don’ cha think?” 

“Oh yes indeed, especially that part where he was talking about the Lord granting Mary her just reward in the hereafter.  I’m just betting he was thinking something else; something more like: ‘Where the Hell’s my half million dollars, you dried up old crone?’ ”

“Oh yes,” laughs Gwendie and repeats, “Just what in the Hell you think she was she thinking?” 

I don’t know, Gwedie.  We’re just never going to know that,” replies Helen.  “We’re just never going to figure that one out.” 

Helen returns to her crossword.  Gwendie thumbs through an old issue of Us magazine.  The lowering sun passes through a faint scrim of lace curtains.  The pale plaster walls of the parlor turn comfortably amber.  Another sanguine afternoon passes into evening.

Helen will fix them both a light supper of walnut-laced chicken salad, creamed corn, and rice pudding.  As usual Gwendie will turn up her nose at the creamed corn, and - just as she’d done for the past sixty-five years - refuse to touch one bit of the slimy stuff.  Helen will sip a single glass of chilled Chardonnay.  Gwendie will take a shot or two of aged port.  Helen will clean up afterward.  Gwendie will pretend to help.  Later, they’ll argue about what to watch on TV.  Helen prefers the History Channel.  Gwendie, ESPN.  They’ll compromise and watch reruns of Law and Order.  Helen will turn in at little after ten-thirty.  Gwendie will stay up past midnight, down another three shots of port and end up dozing though most of Letterman before crawling off to bed.  The next day, they’ll do it all over again.

Of the two, Gwendie had always been the more outgoing.  Some uncharitably might say “outlandish” instead.  Gwendie always spoke a little too loudly at parties. She always slathered on too much make-up.  It wasn’t beneath her to show some leg, which she did most every opportunity that came her way.  Time had mellowed Gwendie some, but only a very little. Her rouge was still too bright, the mascara too thick, and her skirt length too immodest for a woman of her age.  She had simply never cared what other people thought of her and discovered that among the great liberations of aging was the realization that no one else cared either. 

 Helen was the quiet one, prone to keeping to the back of rooms and speaking in subdued, if not quietly disapproving tones whenever Gwendie took hold of center stage.  Helen wasn’t a prude.  Far from it, but she was just never all that comfortable being out front with her personality.  To this day, she still dresses unpretentiously, preferring a plain, unstructured shift to anything more stylish.  She keeps her long silver hair in a simple bun atop her head.  Everyone assumes Helen is the smarter of the two, but in truth, they’d both been very bright girls, intelligent women, and now, cracker-sharp seniors.

Gwendie outlived three husbands and claimed to have had a terrific time with every one of them.  Helen had outlived only one and never stopped wondering how she’d endured a single day of the misery.

When Gwendie’s last husband died, Helen moved in.  They’ve been together now for almost eight years.  Whatever sibling quarrels had divided them in youth gradually evaporated.   Gwendie no longer grates on Helen the way she once had.  Gwendie discovered a spunk in Helen that had completely escaped her attention when they were growing up.  Sixty-five years on, they’d become very comfortable with one another, so much so that neither knew what they would do with themselves without the other.

 

2.

 “Mary!”

 “Yes, Pa.”

 “Git in here!”

 "Yes, Pa. I’m a coming.  I’m coming, straight away.”

Andrew, Mary’s father, works a farmstead three miles past Locust Grove School, down near the hollow of Nishna Creek.  The farm is one hundred sixty acres of bottomland, good for corn and sorghum and on occasion, a respectable stand of wheat.  It can be productive land in a dry year but not worth a spit any time the creek slides out of its banks.  Andrew does well when the weather cooperates, but in a bad year he just barely manages to get by, taking on repair work in town and doing other people’s chores to make ends meet.  It’s a circumstance that hardens a man, without him ever knowing.

“Mary!  Supper!”

 “It’s coming, Pa.  It’s coming.”

 Andrew’s a widower.  The farm came to him from his dead wife’s side of the family.  It was part of a bargain he’d struck with her father who wanted to marry off his only child, a thirty-two year old dog-faced woman, thought by most everyone to be unmarriable.  The old man was happy to be rid of her.  Andrew was happy to get the farm in return.  As a feckless hired hand of no accomplishment, wealth or ambition, the arrangement suited Andrew well and staked him in a way he could have never achieved by his own hand. 

 Of course, he hadn’t counted on raising two children by himself as part of the deal.  Andrew believed it the final indignity his late wife had bequeathed him; a three year-old daughter named Mary and an infant son, Kenneth.

 For fourteen years, Andrew would barely tolerate his children.  As far as he was concerned, they were nothing but a burden to him.  It was something he would never let either of them ever forget.  Mary especially.

 “Mary!  Where the Gawd-danged Hell’s my supper?”

“It’s here Pa.  On the table.  It’s ready for you.”

 Andrew grunts his approval.

After supper, Mary will wash the dishes, a job she begins by pulling a bucket of water up from the well out behind the barn.  She lugs the sloshing pail back to the house, its weight and awkwardness straining the limits of her thin frame.  She’ll pause at the back porch, set down the pail and rest for a bit.  Andrew, who’d been listening to the radio, has fallen asleep in his chair.  Kenneth wandered off after supper and is probably now down by the creek, hunting crawdads and frogs.

 Mary sits on the back porch steps, looks out into the darkness, listens to the faint sounds of early evening, sighs, and thinks, thinks hard.  She thinks about her father and about Kenneth.  And Samuel too.  But mostly she thinks about what she should do next.

 

3. 

“Who’s that?”

 “Johnny,” says Helen, returning the phone to its cradle.

 “Johnny?  Johnny who?”

“Little Johnny,” replies Helen.  “Your second cousin.  You know, Ruth’s boy.  You know who I’m talking about.”

“Well I didn’t, but I do now.  What’s he want?”

 “Says he’s passing through town and says he wants to stop by.”

“Gawd Almighty, that dim-bulb nincompoop irritates the livin’ crap outta me.  Who the Hell does he think he is anyway, coming by unannounced an’ disturbin’ us…” 

“Now Gwendie.” Helen chides.  “He’s a sweet boy.  He just wants to say ‘Hello,’ and pay his respects.” 

“Sweet boy, my hindside.”   Gwendie is, as usual, unflinching.  “You ain’t the one caught him out in the back feedlot, doing a Gawd-forsaken unnatural act with that poor ewe.”

“Oh Gwendie,” replies Helen.  That was a long time ago.  He was just a kid.  Why on earth do you keep bringing that up?”

“I bring it up ‘cause it weren’t right then an’ it ain’t right now.  The boy’s never been right in the head.  Still ain’t, far as I can tell.”

“Oh Gwenie.” responds Helen disapprovingly, “He’s done real well for himself, and besides, it’s not like you never did anything you’d regret…”

 Gwendie cuts her off.  “Hush you.  I never done nothin’ like that…”

“Oh?  Or is it just you never done anything we ever found out about…?”

 “Hush you.”

 

4.

“Mary?”

“Why are you here?”

“I come by to see you,” Katlyn says.  “When you didn’t come to school, I was…well, I was worried ‘bout you.  Can I come in?” she asks. 

“No.” Mary says stiffly.  “Pa wouldn’t want that.”

Mary stands behind the worn, rust-stained screen door of the farmhouse.  She makes no gesture to welcome her guest inside.  Katlyn stands plaintively on the front porch, wondering why her friend is acting so strangely. 

“Then can you come out then?  Talk to me on the porch?”

“No, I can’t do that either.  You need to go.  Pa won’t approve you being here.”

“Mary,” Katlyn pleads.  “What’s happened?  Why won’t you talk to me?”

 I can’t.  I can’t talk to no one.  I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

I don’t understand.  I come all this way.  Daddy gave me a ride part ways, but I walked the rest.  I just wanted to find out what’s happened to you.”

Mary bites her lower lip and glances back into the darkness of the farmhouse, looking to see if her father is listening. 

“I’m sorry you done all that,” Mary says,  “but you just need to go back.  You need to leave me…”  She pauses.  “You need to leave us alone.”

“Mary?”

“I’m sorry.”

 “Samuel was asking after you.  He’s worried too.”

 “Tell him I’m fine.  Tell him he doesn’t need to worry either.”

“But Mary…”

“Please go.  I’m sorry.  You need to go.”

“Mary.  Please, talk to me…”

 Mary turns from Katlyn and firmly closes the worn front door.  Katlyn steps off the porch steps and walks back out into the hard sunlight of midday.  She cannot believe this is the same person she has known for most of her young life.

 

5.

 “Cup of tea for you Johnny?”

“Why yes, Miss Helen.  That would be nice.  Real nice.”

Johnny – John to most everyone else – smoothes the pleat of his wool slacks, brushes at the tip of his polished penny loafers, crosses his legs and leans back into the plump cushions of Helen and Gwendie’s sofa, smiling respectfully at them both.  Nearly forty, John still retains the sallow leanness of youth.  His hair, oily and poorly trimmed, has thinned some over the years and though his face is gently creased from too many long days in the sun, he still looks little different than he had twenty years ago.  Helen hands him a saucer and cup.

“Sugar?”

 “No Ma’am.  Like this will be just fine.”

Helen sits across from Johnny.  Gwedie puts down her down her magazine, sniffs and does her best to appear thoroughly disinterested.  Helen begins the conversation.

“I’m so sorry we didn’t get much chance to talk at the service.”

“Yes,” Johnny replies.  “I looked for you after but you’d gone already.”

“Yes,” says Helen.  “Someone…”  She glances over at Gwendie.  “…had to get home to watch Judge Judy.”

“Shush, Helen.  It weren’t that.  I was just ready to go and that’s all there is to it.”

“Yes,” continues Helen, “as I say, we left early, but it was a lovely service, don’t you think, Johnny?” 

“Oh yes, very lovely.  And well attended too, considering…”

“Considering...” Gwendie interrupts, “…that Mary was crazy as a betsy bug…” 

“Gwendolyn!”  Helen scolds.

Well, damn it.  It’s true.  Ain’t it Johnny?  Wasn’t she crazy as a betsy bug?” 

John takes no offense at this.  He knows Gwendie’s temperament as well as anyone.  He draws a slow sip of tea and continues.  “I was going to say ‘considering’ how few folks really knew my aunt well.”

Of course, John is wrong about this.  Most everyone in the county south of the four lane knew who Mary was.  Most had a story or two to tell about her and her nitwit brother, Kenneth.

“Yeah, I knew her.  She and Kenny’d come by the grocery store once a month, asking for peach wrappers.  They’d take all we had, use ‘em for toilet paper, I hear…” 

“Well yes, one Christmas at the church social, she sat down next to me.  I didn’t know the woman from Adam.  She looked at me and -  and I swear – she said: ‘I didn’t get nothin’ for Christmas.  Didn’t want nothin’ for Christmas and didn’t get nothin’ for Christmas.’  She never uttered another word all night.  Well, I never…” 

After Andrew’s death, Mary and Kenneth would continue to live in the farmhouse down by the Nishna.  The house was never painted in all of forty years, never had electricity or indoor plumbing.  Kenneth worked the farm.  Mary took care of the rest.  They would come into town once a month to do their business, driving Andrew’s ’48 Buick.  When that car wore out after twenty years, Mary bought another Buick used, and drove it for another twenty years.  It was her only concession to modern life.

 It wasn’t like they didn’t have money.  They did - close to a half million dollars if what people said was true.  Of course, there’s no mystery in this.  If you work a farm for all those years, never once spending a nickel on anything you didn’t have to, you’re bound to save few dollars here and there.   After forty years, it adds up.

 Mary and Kenneth came to the Congregational Church every Sunday morning.  Both had been baptized there as children, their mother’s dying wish.  They sat together in the back pew.  Mary always had on the same black velvet dress, worn through in the elbows, its seams pulling apart at the shoulders.  Kenneth’s suit was as old and just as tattered.  After the service, they’d drive off without speaking to anyone, except maybe Parson Taylor if he’d delivered an especially stirring message.  Kenneth would stutter a few words to Taylor as they passed through the narthex: “Good preaching, Par, Par… Parson” he would say.  Mary wouldn’t say anything.

 Mary lived this way four decades, changing nothing about her routine, bringing nothing new into her life, even after Kenneth died.  Long ago, on the day she shut the door on her friend Katlyn, Mary had shut the door on the rest of the world too.

“I suppose you were at the reading of the will?” Helen asks.

 “Why yes,” Johnny responds.  “I sure was there.”

“That must a been some hoot,” Gwendie intrudes.  “You dangle a wad a cash in front of folk, it’s gonna draw’em outta the woodwork, wouldn’t ya say?”. 

“Well, the family was all there, if that’s what you mean…”

“And shocked outta their holy gourds too, I bet, when they heard the news,” squeals Gwendie.

“Well, we were all a bit taken back by it,” says Johnny.

“I just bet you all were.  I just bet.”

Helen shifts in her chair and turns the conversation to the sisters’ real question.

“So why do you suppose she did it, leave all that money to the Catholic Church?”

“Beats me, Miss Helen.  It’s a mystery isn’t it, especially after being a good Congregationalist all her life.  None of us had any idea what was in the will.  We certainly didn’t expect that.” 

“See, I told you,” says Gwendie.  “Crazy as a betsy bug.”

"Maybe Grover took it down wrong?” suggests Helen.

“Oh, I wouldn’t think so, Miss Helen.  Grover Markum’s the best attorney in the county.  He’s written every will in these parts and never got a single word wrong, as far as I know.  If she said ‘Catholic,’ I’m pretty sure that’s what he would have written down. In fact, I’d bet my life on that.  She said “Catholic” and that’s exactly the way he wrote it up.” 

“Maybe she misspoke.”

 “I suppose she might of, but you know, given as my aunt was a little…”  John gropes for the proper word.

“Nutty,” suggests Gwendie.

“… eccentric.”  Johnny corrects and continues.  “As eccentric as Aunt Mary could be sometimes, she was always lucid, took good care of her business and such.  It doesn’t seem like she would make that sort of mistake in something so important as the testament to a will.  And Grover would have seen to it too, quizzed her on her intentions and so on.  He would have made darn sure she knew what she was saying.”

“Still,” asks Helen.  “The Catholic Church?  I don’t think she ever set foot in the place.  Why would she leave them all that money…”

“And the farm, and the house too.” Gwendie adds.

“…and nothing to her family and nothing to the Congregational Church where she’d been a member, for what… seventy years?” 

“Yes,” Johnny concedes.  “It’s a real stumper.  None of us has a clue.  Not a single clue.”

The three of them sit in quiet befuddlement for a spell.  Helen rises and picks up the tea kettle.

“More for you Johnny.” 

“No thank you, Miss Helen.  I best be getting on.”

John stands, nods respectfully to them both and moves toward the front door.  Helen follows behind to see him out.  Gwendie doesn’t move, sniffs again and resumes reading her magazine.  Johnny turns back to her just as he reaches for the door.

“And you know, it didn’t all go to the Catholic Church.” 

“It didn’t?” 

“No.  There was one other bequest.  $5,000 to a woman in Richmond.”

“Richmond?  Anybody we’d know?” 

“Someone named ‘Connell.”

“Connell, you say?”

“Yes.  Connell.  A Miss Theresa Connell.”

 

6. 

It’s late.  Mary drives slowly.  She’d never been comfortable driving –  taught herself to do it, seeing as Andrew never thought showing her how was worth the trouble.  Besides, the old Buick, a lumbering sedan the size of a small switch engine, is a lot for her to handle. 

Everyone’s asleep at this time of night.  Andrew and Kenneth for sure, and likely every other soul in the county.  Certainly, there’s no one’s awake in Riverton.  Mary eases off the four lane and turns up Sheridan Avenue toward the center of town.

Riverton’s never been much to look at.  In 1956, there are a couple hundred stick frame homes, mostly small and dreary, with a few larger houses too, better constructed, perched up on the high ground west of Sheridan.  There’s a grain elevator and a hatchery down by the railline.  There is one general store that also houses a pharmacy and the post office.  There’s a butcher’s shop, a meat locker, a chiropractor’s office, a land office, two attorney’s offices, the police station and the firehouse, and not whole lot else.  Mary cautiously passes by the silhouette of each of these structures, their ghost-like shells illuminated only by the occasional porch light or the soft glow of the Buick’s headlamps.  She approaches Burnham Avenue and turns left in the direction of Five Corners.

True to its name, Five Corners is where Burnham Avenue meets up with three other streets, each headed off to different parts of the county.  It’s as close to being the heart of Riverton as anywhere else in town.  On each of the five corners there’s a Protestant church: one Methodist, one Episcopal, one Christian, one Congregationalist, and one – the largest and most intimidating of the lot - Southern Baptist.  These prideful structures were built with the toil and tithing of the town’s parishioners, looking to outdo one another all for the greater glory of their Lord and Savior.

Each church presses its portico hard onto the street edge, flaunting bucktoothed rows of classically ordered columns crowned with weighty entablatures and neck-stretching steeples.  It’s as though the depth of their respective pieties could be measured by the height to which brick and mortar could be laid up.  This determined self-righteousness, imposing by day, is only more unnerving in the eerie starkness of a deep winter’s evening.  As her car crawls through the intersection, Mary senses their unspoken reproach and crouches further down into the cushion of the front seat, trusting her furtive passage will go unnoted.

There was never room at Five Corners for a Catholic church.  Catholicism had come late to Riverton, brought by the sons and daughters of immigrant Irishmen and Italians, drawn south in the first half of the century to work the barges, build the railroads, clean the houses and do whatever else no respectable Protestant would care to dirty their hands with.  Townsfolk viewed the new arrivals warily, suspicious of their faith’s seemingly mystical sacraments and troubled by a Catholic’s witless acquiescence to the foreigner they claimed as the Holy Father.  It was, in truth, a discrimination borne as much of class distinction as religion.

The Catholics nevertheless persisted and prospered, building a humble sanctuary on the backside of town, quietly practicing their faith and in time becoming, if not respected, then at least tolerated members of the community.  By 1956, it was permissible to be friends with a Catholic, to work amicably alongside one and even to share an occasional meal together.  But, it went no further than that.  A good Protestant girl would certainly never fall in love with a Catholic.  Mary understood this as well as anyone. 

A final turn past the grain elevator and over the railroad tracks brings Mary to her destination.  She stops the car but hesitates before turning off the motor.  She weighs her options, noticing a faint light still burning on an upper floor of the rectory of Saint Mathew’s Catholic Church.

  

7. 

“Connell.  You know anyone by that name from round here?”  Helen asks this as she pulls the car into the handicapped stall of the Pine Bluff Retirement Home.

 “Can’t say that I do.” replies Gwendie.  “Now there might of been some Connells lived down near Glenwood…”

 “They were O’Connells, not Connells.” corrects Helen. 

“Maybe so.  Maybe so.  Thought they was Connells.” 

“No,  O’Connell.”

 “If you say so.” 

“I do.” 

Most Tuesdays, Helen and Gwendie stop by the retirement home to help out with the weekly communal lunch.  Beatrice, an old classmate of Helen’s, runs the home.  After lunch, the sisters stay long enough to play a round of Bingo with the other residents. 

“4B,” Beatrice calls out.

“Look here, Edgar,” says Gwendie, “you got one.  Lookie here.  You got one.  4B.  Right here.  See” 

Edgar, gaunt and oblivious, pays no attention.  Gwendie takes his forefinger and uses it to push a marker to the proper position on the Bingo card.

“Let him do it, Gwendie,” says Helen. 

“Hell, he’ll never get it if I don’t do it for him.”

“That’s not the point, Gwendie.  If they don’t do for themselves, they’ll never be able to do better.” 

“Like he’s ever gettin’ any better.”  Gwendie rolls her eyes deeply.  Helen shakes her head.  Edgar ignores them both.  Annoyed, Helen turns to a younger woman seated to her left.

“Hello there.  I don’t believe we’ve met.  I’m Helen, and this is my sister, Gwendolyn.”

 “6D,” calls Beatice.  Gwendie nods and pushes another of Edgar’s markers onto the card.

“Hello,”  the woman replies.  “I’m Meredith…Wilson.  Nice to meet you.  

“Nice to meet you too.  You must be Miss Katlyn’s daughter, yes?” 

“Why yes, that’s my mother over there.”  Meredith gestures to a wheelchair in the far corner of the room.  A very old woman stares blankly into her lap, mumbling to herself.  “She’s not much for this sort of thing.  In fact, she’s not much up to anything anymore.”

“Well dear, we all have our better days.” 

“I’m afraid she hasn’t had many of those of late.” 

“Still, I’m sure she’s pleased you come by to see her.” 

“Hard to say.  Sometimes I don’t know if she even knows who I am.”

“I’m sure she does, dear. I’m sure of it.  Just you being here’s a comfort to her, even if she’s not up to saying so.” 

“Well, thank you.” 

Gwendie pipes in.  “Knew your Pa back in the day.  Samuel, wasn’t it?” 

“Yes, but I’m afraid I didn’t really ever know him.  I was pretty young when he passed.”

“Yup, I ‘spect that’s so.  I knew him when he ran the feed store.  Long time ago, maybe thirty years back.  Fine looking fellow as I recall.  Too bad him being taken so young.  A real shame.  Your mother never remarried, did she?” 

“No, she didn’t.” 

“Real shame.”

“Well, like I say, I hardly knew him, say Meredith.  "Mother never talked much about him when I was growing up.  I never asked when I could of and…well…”  Meredith glances over at the vacant expression on her mother’s face.  “It’s a little late to be askin’ now.”

 “Right nice looking man though, all the ladies used to say so.” Gwendie continues.  “A bit old for me ya know, but…”

“Gewndolyn!” Helen says.

 “What?” 

“We need to be going.”

I was just sayin’…”

“I know what you were saying, and I’m saying we need to be going.  It was real nice meeting you Meredith.  Best to you and your mother.”

And you too, ma’am, and you too, Miss Gwendolyn.” replies Meredith, not knowing quite what to make of the turn in their conversation.  She looks again at her dear fogbound mother.  The old woman is still sitting in the corner, lost in her tangled thoughts, absentmindedly reciting the words to something Meredith cannot quite hear, a bit of verse, an old children’s verse:

“Samuel and Katlyn

sitting in a tree:

K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

Samuel and Mary

Sitting in a tree…”

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