(Note. Part one has been edited slightly. Part two is new. Thanks)
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 good 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, Gwendie. 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 People 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 softly 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 might uncharitably suggest “outlandish” a more suitable adjective. 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 has mellowed Gwendie some, but only a very little. Her rouge is 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 without the other.
“Git in here!”
“Yes, Pa. I’m coming. I’m coming, straight away.”
Arban, 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. Arban 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.
“It’s coming, Pa. It’s coming.”
Arban’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 mule-faced woman, thought by most everyone to be unmarriable. The old man was happy to be rid of her. Arban was happy to get the farm in return. As a feckless hired hand of no accomplishment, wealth, or ambition, the arrangement suited Arban 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. Arban 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, Arban would barely tolerate his children. As far as he was concerned, they were nothing but a burden to him. It’s something he never lets 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.”
Arban grunts an 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. Arban, who’d been listening to Grand Ole Opery on 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.
“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 around 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 says unflinchingly. “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…?”
“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 acts so strangely.
“Then can you come out? 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.”
“Samuel was asking after you. He don’t know what’s happened either.”
“Tell him I’m fine. Tell him he doesn’t need to worry none about me.”
“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 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.
“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 badly 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.
“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…”
“Yeah, I been out to their place, once to fix a broken well pipe. Went up to the house after to get my pay and, Gawd Almighty, you’d never seen such a place. Plaster pealing off the ceilings an’ walls everywhere. Sad broken down furniture an’ nothing’ but an’ ole wood cook stove in the kitchen. It was like somethin’ outta another century. Gawd knows how people could live like that, but they do, you know. They sure do.”
After Arban’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 week to do their business, driving Arban’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 seven 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 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 pull ’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 it. She said “Catholic” and that’s exactly the way he wrote it up.”
“Maybe she misspoke then.”
“I suppose she might of, 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 sharp-minded, 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. John turns back to her just as he reaches for the door.
“And you know, it didn’t all go to the Catholic Church.”
“No. There was one other bequest. $50,000 to a woman in Richmond.”
“Richmond. Anybody we’d know?”
“Someone named O‘Connell.”
“O’ Connell, you say?”
“Yes. O’ Connell. A Miss Theresa O’Connell.”
It’s late. Mary drives slowly. She’d never been comfortable driving – taught herself to do it, seeing as Arban 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. Arban and Kenneth for sure, and likely every other soul in the county. Certainly, there’s no one awake in Riverton. Mary eases off the four lane and turns up Sheridan Avenue toward the center of town.
Riverton’s never been much of a place. 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 small library, a schoolhouse, 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 leaden entablatures and neck-stretching steeples. It’s as though the depth of their respective pieties could be best measured by the height to which brick and mortar could be laid up. This conspicuous 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 incantations, troubled by a Catholic’s witless acquiescence to the foreigner they claimed as the Holy Father. It was, in truth, a prejudice borne as much of class discrimination as it was 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 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.
“O’ Connell. You know anyone by that name from round here?” Helen asks this as Gwendie pulls the car into the handicapped stall of the Pine Bluff Retirement Home.
“Can’t say I do.” replies Gwendie. “Now there might of been some O’ Connells lived down near Glenwood…”
“They were Connells, not O’ Connells.” corrects Helen.
“Maybe so. Maybe so. Thought they was O’ Connells.”
“If you say so.”
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 any better.”
“Like he’s ever gettin’ any better.” Gwendie looks back at the ancient man sitting beside her. She 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…Olsen. Nice to meet you.
“Nice to meet you too. I’m guessing 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. An 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 lately.”
“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 for saying...”
Gwendie pipes in. “Knew your Pa back in the day. Samuel, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, he was my father.”
“Yup, I figured. I knew him when he ran the feed store. Long time ago, maybe thirty, forty years back. Fine looking fellow as I recall.
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t know, uh.. I didn’t really ever know him. I was pretty young when he passed.”
“Yup, I ‘spect that’s so. Too bad him being taken so young. A real shame. Your mother never remarried, did she?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Well, like I say,” repeats Meredith. “I hardly knew him. 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.
“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 curious 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:
Samuel and Mary
Sitting in a tree…”
“I’m sorry, Mary, but I just don’t believe that.”
“You have to, Samuel, it’s true.”
It’s early November, four weeks after harvest, three weeks until All Saints Day, and a good two months before Mary’s late night drive into Riverton. Samuel’s been shelling corn out behind the crib on his father’s farm. The day is cool but it’s still hot work, loading the sheller with leaden scopes of corn, cranking up the power take off on the old Ford tractor and turning out bushel after bushel of bright yellow kernels into the wagon on the other side. He stops long enough to wipe the sweat off his forehead when Mary walks up from the lane out beyond the family farmhouse. Samuel puts his shovel down and thinks to speak to her. She cuts him off before he gets the chance and makes her accusation - her annunciation. Samuel, never one to take anything from anybody, much less from a skinny, hollow-cheeked Protestant wench, doesn’t buy one bit if it.
“No Mary, that ain’t true. You’re making it up.”
“I’m not and it is true. It is. We done it and this is what come of it. I’m going to have a baby Samuel. Your baby.”
Oh Hell, Mary. You don’t even know what ‘doing’ it is.” Samuel swipes again at his sweat soaked face. “I barely touched you. I sure as Hell didn’t get you pregnant.”
“You did and it happened, Samuel. It’s what’s supposed to happen when you’re in love with someone.”
“Love?” Samuel spits out the word as though it were a slur. “What in Gawd’s name are you talking about Mary? I don’t love you. You don’t love me. We was messing around, that’s all. Love’s got nothing to do with it…”
“But I do love you Samuel. I do. And I know you love me too.”
“Sheet,” Samuel thinks to himself. “What this bitty doin’ here and what the Hell’s she talkin’ about.” He turns away from Mary, picks up his shovel and starts scoping more fat ears of corn into the sheller. Mary, stiff and crossed armed, comes round to the side of the sheller where Samuel’s working. He ignores her. She tries talking to him, pleading directly into his face.
“I still love you, I do, even after saw you with Katlyn. I saw you an’ her together. I did.”
Samuel doesn’t want to hear any of this. He cranks up the power take off, drowning out Mary’s shrill pleas. Overwhelmed, she crumples. He refuses to look at her and keeps to his work. She staggers off in tears. He looks up only after she’s gone and crosses himself, certain he hadn’t gone all the way with her, praying he was right about that.
“Why we stoppin’ here?” asks Helen.
“Thought I’d check out a book.”
“You? Read a book? I never once seen you reading anything but those damned Cee-lbrity magazines you keep gawking at...”
“Well, maybe that’s ‘bout to change. Besides, there’s something I need to look up.”
“Like what?” asks Helen.
“Never you mind,” says Gwendie. “Just never you mind.”
The ladies amble slowly up the staircase to the Riverton Town Library. It’s a Carnegie library, built in the early part of the century; a tiny building with just three rooms: a stack space, a reading area and, in the center beneath a shallow plaster dome, a counter that serves as both reference and circulation. Helen stops in the vestibule to look at a posting or two on the bulletin board. Gwendie steps up to the circulation table.
“You work here, sonny?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” says the scrawny kid on the other side of the counter. He looks to be maybe nineteen with stringy black hair crawling down over his eyes. He’s wearing a black tee shirt. Across the chest it reads: “Whatever.”
“Can I help you?”
“Maybe.” Gwendie says, not entirely certain this kid has what it takes to help her with much of anything, but she pushes ahead anyway.
“I’m looking for somebody. I hear you can look folks up on this dot com thing.”
There’s more than one?’
“Virginia, of course.” says Gwendie, by now growing a bit impatient. “Richmond, Virginia.”
“O’Connell… uh, uh…” Gwendie pauses a moment to scratch her memory. She turns back to Helen. “Helen.”
“Come here. What’s that woman’s name?”
“That O’Connell woman. The one Johnny told us about. You know, the one in the will.”
“Oh. It was Theresa. Theresa O’Connell. What are you up to anyway?”
“Just checking something out. Lookie here young man. Put in Theresa. Theresa O’Connell. I’m looking for a phone number, or some way to get hold a her.”
“Gwendie, you can’t go bothering that woman…”
Can’t I? You just watch me. Get on with it, sonny. What’s it say?”
The kid punches in a few keystrokes and hits return.
“There’s not much here, Ma’am. Mostly looks to be an obituary or two from 2008.”
“Looks that way.”
“Any next a kin? A husband, a kid maybe?”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
“Says here ‘Sister’ Theresa O’Connell. Says she died at the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia Monastery. She was 89.”
“Ain’t that interestin’,” says Gwendie.
Isn’t it?” replies Helen.
“I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do anymore.”
Katlyn holds her pale forehead hard against the heel of her calloused palm. A strand of limp, kettle gray hair falls lamely across her cheek. She can’t look up, even if she wanted to.
“Tell me what I should do. If I only knew what to do, I’d do it. I swear.”
In the next room, an infant cries out.
“Oh Meredith, shush. Be quiet. Mommy can’t now. Mommy can’t.”
It’s past midnight. Katlyn is sitting alone in the kitchen, talking to herself. Blessedly, the baby now only whimpers softly. Samuel is gone again. Gawd knows where.
It’s not as though any of this should have surprised Katlyn. It’s not as though she couldn’t have seen it coming. She could have. She just chose not to.
In the beginning, it was too easy to put it out of her mind. In the beginning, Samuel was her rock, strong and virile and always – always – so firm in his steadfast sense of himself. She cherished the strength of his steely arms wrapped about her. She reveled in the touch of his course flesh pressed tautly against hers. It was as though, amid all else about her life that was uncertain and fleeting, he was a safe, sheltering harbor, her refuge and her redemption.
In the beginning, Katlyn dismissed the inconsistencies of Samuel’s stories, the vague half-truths about where he’d been and what he’d been up to. It had all seemed so easy to accept. She never wanted to not believe him, even when it was perfectly obvious to everyone else what he was up to.
She’d been a fool. She knows this now, an understanding all the more damning for the time it had taken her to recognize the sheer truth of it all.
Meredith whimpers again. Katlyn drags herself to her feet and moves unsteadily from the kitchen into the bedroom.
“Hey hun. Aren’t you sweet?” she says limply. “Aren’t you just so sweet?” she whispers over the crib of her infant daughter. “And innocent,” she thinks, issuing a sigh as dark and damp as swamp water.
“Mary knew better.” she says softly to her daughter, as much as she says to these same words to herself. “Mary knew better than me.”
On this night, a woman who’d given herself up wholly to a man only to be betrayed, now understands the awful scar that she must forever bear for her complicity in his deceit. And another woman, living not so many a mile down the road - a woman who had made so different a choice long ago - thinks just as fitfully about the same man.
Unlike Katlyn, Mary had not surrendered to Samuel’s deceit. Instead, she chose to withdraw from him, and from the child she was certain they together had conceived. She believed she had no other choice. She withdrew; withdrew from everyone she had ever known, from everyone she had ever loved, from everyone who had ever wounded her: her father first and then, Samuel too. She withdrew from everything imaginable in this world, but mostly, Mary withdrew from herself. From own true self. Forever.
As she does every night, this night Mary broods quietly in the dark, sitting in the silence of a wretchedly decaying farmhouse, proud and alone and indignant that no one will ever acknowledge the numbing depth of her sacrifice.
Katlyn is just as alone this night. She pulls a thin blanket up over her daughter’s shoulders. She returns to the kitchen, thinking to herself, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll go see Sister Theresa. She’ll know what I should do.”
Father Hanrahan looks up from his desk, removes his glasses and wipes them with a tissue. He rubs his weary eyes. He picks up his pen and then puts it down again. The eulogy he’s been writing can wait. It wasn’t going terribly well and he’s convinced he’s done about all he can productively do this evening. He’ll scratch on it again in the morning. There will be more time then. And more presence of mind too, once he’s had a stout cup of coffee and maybe a muffin or two.
He leans back in his old leather swivel chair, turns, and stretches his tired limbs. He looks up, to the dark oak bookcase looming behind his desk. Among shelves of dog-eared volumes of theology and philosophy is a small porcelain chest, about the size of a clenched fist, the kind of box in which a young girl might place her jewelry, or something else precious to her. He thinks about this box and about a conversation he’d had many years before, and thinks too about a conversation he’d had just this afternoon.
“Afternoon, Father,” says Helen.
“Afternoon to you, Miss Helen, and to you too, Miss Gwendolyn.”
Helen and Gwendie take a seat behind a folding table, set up in the high school gymnasium. Father Hanrahan is perched on one knee in front of the table, struggling to secure a vinyl banner to the table’s leading edge with a roll of masking tape. The banner keeps slipping out of his grasp before he can get the tape to adhere to it firmly. The banner, printed in bright red block letters reads: “Fremont County Red Cross Blood Drive.”
“Can we help you with that, Father?”
“Why yes.” he says. “You sure could. Just hold on to the edge of this while I spool out a good long strip of tape.”
Helen and Gwendie press the troublesome banner onto either end of the table while the Father puts down the tape, pinching it carefully into place.
“Think we’ll be gettin’ much business today?” asks Gwendie.
“I would certainly hope so.” replies Father Hanrahan as he finishes up. “I made an especially stern plea to everyone at Mass on Sunday. I know Reverend Taylor did the same for his flock, as I imagine did all the other churches. Everyone recognizes how important the blood drive is for the folk in our community.”
“Oh yes, that is surely true,” says Helen “That’s what brought us here. We’re going to do what we can to help out.”
“And we surely do appreciate your ladies/ help every year. Your good work is such a blessing.”
“As is yours, Father,” says Helen. “As is yours.”
Helen and Father Hanrahan nod their mutual satisfaction with one another. Gwendie prattles off to another corner of the gym, looking to find a folding chair more to her liking. The vinyl banner pops out of its tape work corset and sags to the floor.
Prospective donors begin to straggle in. A few are smiling, chatty, and self-assured, knowing they’d been through this routine before and survived. Others are less certain, first-timers for the most and unsure how they feel about giving up a piece of themselves, even if it is for a good cause.
Regardless Helen and the Father help each of them with the paperwork, walking them through the waivers and eligibility questionnaire. Once that’s done, Gwendie escorts each donor back behind a scrim of hospital drapes where the attending nurse will take care of rest of the process.
Afterward, Gwendie will lead the donor out to an impromptu seating area – three rows of uncomfortably stiff folding chairs - and offer them orange juice and cookies or donuts or whatever else they might need to recover their bearings. Some walk straight out of the gym, like it was no different than waking up in the morning. Others sit a spell, socialize, and get their heads clear before heading out to the parking lot. Throughout the afternoon, the line at the check-in table will ebb and flow, sometimes busier than heck and sometimes stalling to a snail’s crawl. During the slow times, Gwendie, Helen, and Father Hanrahan resume their conversation.
“I expect you’re busy these days, Father.”
“Well yes, Miss Helen. There is always something important to be done.”
“I can imagine. I can just imagine.”
“Oh yes. There’s the work of the parish of course, but I like to do things around the rectory too, you know, some painting, some repair work, whatever needs to be done to fix the place up.”
“So you’re good with your hands?” inserts Gwendie. “Don’t see that much in your average parson ‘round these parts.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, Miss Gwendolyn. I find it more relaxation than anything else. It’s a respite, you know. Working with my hands puts my mind at ease when I have much else to think about. I take great comfort in the labor.”
“Still, I’d think you’d letting someone else be doin’ all that now, considering the bundle just come your way..”
“Oh yes, you mean Miss Mary’s bequest. Well, there is much else that needs attention. The sanctuary could use a new roof and we always need more space, in the daycare and the school especially. I’ve been speaking with the parish leadership about this. They have some very good ideas. I’m grateful for their stewardship of her gift...”
“Still, wasn’t you surprised by it?” asks Gwendie. “Wasn’t it kind of a shock?”
“I don’t know if I’d call it a shock, Miss Gwendolyn. It was a surprise, certainly. But a blessing too. A real blessing…”
and you know what…”
“Well, you know the old saying about the Lord and His mysterious ways…”
“Well, I have to say, this was a more mysterious way than most.”
“It just was. I’m not sure I can say anything more about it than that. It just was.”
Gwendie ponders this for a moment, not hearing her sister calling out for her to tend to the business at hand.
“Gwendie. Gwendie! Get over here”
“This woman needs you to take her back behind the screen.”
“Alright. Alright. I be right on it. This way Miss. You just follow me this way, alright?”
Helen pushes her chair back from the table. There’s no one else in line right now. Father Hanrahan excuses himself and in a few minutes, returns from the school kitchen balancing two cups of tea in his hands.
“Thought you might like some, Miss Helen.”
“Why thank you Father. Very kind of you. I surely would.”
“Sugar?” he asks, holding out a handful of small pink and white packets.
“Two please, but not that fake kind. Dreadful stuff. I prefer the real thing.”
“As do I,” replies Father Hanrahan.
Gwendie passes around a plate of glazed donuts. Father Hanrahan sips his tea. Hesitantly, Helen turns to him to ask a question.
“You wouldn’t remember a nun at your parish from way back, would you? I think her name was Sister Theresa?”
“Why yes, I surely do. She was there when I first came to the parish back in, what? ’83 I think. A glorious woman, a real saint. Why do you ask? Did you know her?”
“No. Not really, not personally at least,” says Helen. “You know how we old ladies are. We get to talking about the past, about people we once knew, wondering what ever happened to this one or that one.”
“Yes, I think I understand, but it’s interesting you bringing up her name…”
“Grover Markum asked me the same question a few weeks back.”
“He did. Something to do with Miss Mary’s estate. I told him what I knew. Sister Theresa passed away a few years back, you know.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear,” says Helen, not letting on she was already aware of this fact.
“That seemed to satisfy Grover. I haven’t heard anymore about it since then.”
“Yes, but she was a real saint, you know. Compassionate to a fault and a tireless servant of the Lord.”
“You must have known her well?”
“Well enough to know that.”
Father Hanrahan rises from his chair and plucks the porcelain chest from the shelf. Beneath it is a yellowed envelope. He sets both on the middle of his desk and thinks back to the first time he laid eyes on the box. It was two decades ago, on the day of Sister Theresa’s retirement.
“Is there anything else you need help with, bringing down your bags or anything else really?”
“No, Father. I think I have it all in good order, but thank you. The gentleman driving me up to Richmond will handle all the loading and such. You needn’t worry yourself about any of that.”
Sister Theresa is a slight woman and much younger looking than her true age. There remains a brightness about her, a soft glow that neither time nor hardship nor sacrifice could extinguish. She hadn’t wanted to retire and put it off as long as she could, but finally the diocese had insisted.
“You know, I’ve already said this,” says Father Hanrahan warmly, “but I just wanted you to know how much we will all miss you here and how important you’ve been to this parish.”
“Posh.” laughs the sister. “I don’t remember you saying that when I was after you to do something that needed doing.”
“Yep.” Father Hanrahan laughs too. “You could be a stern taskmaster when there was need. But always all for the good, praise God.”
“Yes, God be praised for that. I always meant it for the good.”
“You did. You certainly did always do that.”
There is for the briefest of moments a small awkwardness between them, neither knowing quite how to end the conversation, neither knowing how to say goodbye for the final time. Father Hanrahan begins to stand, thinking the time right to hug this noble woman. She gestures him back into his chair.
“There is something,” she says. Something you could do for me…”
“What is it, Theresa? Anything. Anything at all for you.”
“It’s this.” Sister Theresa pulls something from her satchel and places it in the center of the desk. It is a small porcelain box and an envelope.
“What’s this?” asks the Father.
“I’m not really sure I know, Father, and even if I did know, I’m not sure I could tell you. It was given to me in confidence. I cannot in good faith betray that confidence, even to you. I made a sacred oath.”
“I understand. I do understand. But you must tell me, what am I to do with it?”
“Protect it Father. That’s all. Protect it, just as I have done for all these years.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nor do I.”
“Can’t you tell me something without betraying your confidence? Something that might help me better understand what I should do?”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Please, try. This seems very important to you.”
“It is. It is, Father.”
Theresa looks away from Father Hanrahan, out through the window of his office to the small cloister that separates the rectory from the church’s sanctuary. She notices that the marigolds are in bloom, brilliant in their golden yellows and oranges. She smiles. “Marigolds,” she thinks. So common and yet so lovely. Named for Mother Mary, she knows them to be symbol of affection and grief, but also one of cruelty and jealousy too. Theresa, still not looking at Father Hanrahan, knows now she must tell her story. She knows she must tell it if she is to ever have peace. She begins, very slowly and softly.
“It was a long time ago. Before you. And before Father Risen. So long ago, but not so long. Not so long when I think back on it.”
“Please, go on,” says Father Hanrahan supportively.
“I was the only one here then. The parish was tiny back then. There was no priest assigned here, just ones who would come by once a week to preside over Mass. The rest of the time, it was just me, tending to the work of the parish. That didn‘t bother me, mind you. It was liberating in some ways. It was what I understood was my calling. To minister to these folk and tend to their needs, as best I could.”
“This young woman, she came to me one night late. It was winter. I remember that clearly. It was a winter night so cold and shrill and unforgiving as I’d ever known, as cold a winter’s night as you could ever imagine. She was a young girl, poor and not dressed warmly enough, distraught and confused. Real confused. Said she didn’t know what to do. She said she’d come seeking absolution.”
“Yes. Absolution for her sins.”
“Had you known her, you know, before this?”
“No. She wasn’t one of ours. I’d never seen her before.”
“I can’t say. It would be saying too much.”
“I prayed with her, and counseled her as best I could. I told her she needed to speak to her family about this, or to someone from her own faith. She said she couldn’t. She said it was more than she could bear, which was why she came to me. She believed she had no other choice. No other option in all of this world.”
Sister Theresa heaves, sighing deeply at the thought of a burden she’d so long held to herself,
It was sad. Someone without hope. Someone without any hope whatsoever.”
“And then?” asks Father Hanrahan.
“She gave me this,” says Theresa, pointing at the small box in the middle of the desk.
“Did she say what was inside…”
“She said it sheltered a soul. A lost soul.”
“And you never looked inside?”
“No, never. It was my promise to her.”
“She said wanted it to be here. To stay here. That it needed to stay here in this church, always. She thought this the one place where it would be safe. And blessed. I pledged to her that it would be so.”
“I do. I do.” says Father Hanrahan.
“Bless you, Father.”
“And my blessing to you, Sister.”
Father Hanrahan looks down again at the small porcelain box and across his desk, to the place where Sister Theresa had sat and told him this story, so long ago. He picks up the old envelope and, believing himself after so long a time no longer bound to Sister Theresa’s pledge, opens it. He reads its inscription, written in the delicately beautiful cursive stoke of someone taught to write in an era long since past.
“Herein lies the unborn child of Samuel and Mary. May its perfect soul rest in God’s care and forever in eternal peace.”
“So,” says Gwendie. “Did ya get anything outta the good Father?”
“Nope,” says Helen. “Not a thing and nothing we didn’t already know.”
“Figures.” says Gwendie, returning to her magazine.
“Don’t it?” concludes Helen.
Father Hanrahan picks up the box and clutches it gingerly in his hands. He examines the tarnished brass latch which holds the chest’s hinged lid firmly closed. He picks at it and it pops open unexpectedly. He raises the lid and looks inside.
The box is empty. Completely empty.