Rodolph Rowe | A show of strength

Sabine greeted the last of the lingering parishioners at the front door. As she came past the Welcome! kiosk on the way to her office, she picked up a handful of brochures that had been prepared to introduce her to the church and community. She’d meant for many, many months to send some of the extras to her mom in Gainesboro who would distribute them to family and friends with the zeal of a brand new Amway salesman. The reason she’d put it off was because the brochure was still a painful reminder of her first conflict in this new church.

At thirty-five years of age, after serving for a decade in staff positions at large churches, this was her first parish where she was on her own as the pastor in charge.

Clive and Warren Parcher, bachelor brothers, large donors, senior men of considerable influence, had let it be known that they were personally funding the development and printing of this introductory brochure as well as underwriting a mass mailing to every home within five miles of the church. Generous indeed.

***

She had given the introductory brochure committee a nice color photo of herself presiding at the communion table, arms spread in welcome and some basic biographical information.  The catch tag, “Come Home to a New Beginning,” had been readily agreed upon by the administrative board, hoping to appeal to many of the young people buying their first homes, who might consider returning to the churches they’d left behind, as they started families of their own.

She had been pleased with the drafts, but then Clive passed around the final galley like he was giving out one hundred dollar bills at the end of a Staff-parish Relations meeting. She felt a dull ache in her breast when she saw that one word had been added on the front panel underneath her picture. Instead of the agreed upon, “Come meet our new pastor,” it read, “Come meet our beautiful, new pastor.”

She blushed with anger and shame and fought back tears. She had tried to convince herself that the comments she overheard in the first few days were harmless–just people trying to get a sense of her. Yet, the phrase, Moves like a lioness, which slipped free from a group of young husbands loitering outside the nursery as she came past them on the way to the sanctuary, entered her breast like an arrow. Or just yesterday, when she was stopped by laughter outside the door of a classroom room used for a women’s book study, and felt slightly nauseous, when hearing a disembodied voice claim, I’m telling you she’s in the Sophia Loren mold, but tight ladies, eve-ree-thing tight as a marathoner!

Now, as people around the table looked to her and saw her distress, they went very quiet trying to sort out whether she was genuinely touched or very hurt. The only sound was a dry shuffle of the impressive three-fold being opened, smoothed out, closed. After a few moments, Clive moved that the brochure be accepted as is and printed for distribution. His brother Warren offered a friendly amendment. “Let’s print five hundred extra brochures to put in the pews and for people to take home and give to their neighbors.”

Clive nodded and smiled.

“Remove the word, beautiful, and I’ll be fine with it.”  This was greeted with quiet laughter around the table. “I’m serious. It’s inappropriate.”

“Rev. De Luca, surely—.”

“Nonnegotiable, Clive.”

Always the peacemaker, younger brother Warren jumped in. “The picture’s right there. The word is not even necessary. One picture is worth a thousand of them, right? Everyone can see for themselves.”

Clive Parcher was just over five feet tall. Retired now from a long career teaching young women in Catholic day schools, he always dressed like a bank president or Wall Street lawyer, expensive, immaculate. He was tightly wound, supercilious, and like some small men, met every perceived challenge with all out disdain that he only half-heartedly tried to mask as kindly condescension. He was sourly displeased to ever be confronted by an opposing idea, but to be even mildly challenged in public by his jug-eared, lanky, let’s-all-get-along, Up with People, younger brother, made him instantly apoplectic–a state that those who had known him a long time found sadly amusing. Who’s got the nitro? Was code for Clive is about to stroke out over something again.

Struggling for composure, Clive said coldly, “The reason, my dear brother, the word is important, is that to most people, this is junk mail. But beautiful! Beautiful? The soul is hungry for beautiful.”

Warren cringed as usual, but to everyone’s surprise, possibly because he knew something about his older brother’s conflicts with women in his past, murmured, “It’s sexist, Clive.”

“Oh, pleeese!  We are always grousing on about what a grace-based, inclusive, generous, progressive gospel of hope we have. How attractive it would be to new generations of young people if they only knew us, right?  Well, we have “attractive” embodied for the first time in a gifted person. Sabine, surely, I mean honestly. Is it really too much to ask not to have you hide your light under a bushel?”

She wanted to tell them all about the dark side of being female and clergy. Explain how adding “attractive” to that mix often simply made things worse.  She wanted them to know about the man who, when she offered him bread at the Lord’s Table, forced her fingers momentarily into his mouth and sucked. Or several men and even one woman, who used the excuse of needing pastoral care to hit on her in her office, even though her secretary was just a few feet away. Or the series of increasingly explicit, sexually violent anonymous notes left in her inner office mailbox that led to involving local police and the costly installation of surveillance cameras, putting an end to the notes but not the chilling sense of violation. Or just have them imagine what it’s like every Sunday to gracefully disentangle themselves from men who held on just a bit too long at the passing of the peace, and feel cutting into their souls the cold eyes of jealous wives. She wanted to tell them all this as well as challenging their understanding of the community of Jesus. Is our center the Spirit of a present Savior, or a personality cult focused on the pastor?  Instead she just said again, very slowly, very quietly and very clearly, “No, Clive, absolutely not.”

She hoped that was the end of it, until three days later when she came into her office to remove her robe after the eleven o’clock service and found Clive tucked into the visitor’s chair. Seeing the dismay on her face, he raised a hand, “I come in peace,” and chuckled. “A compromise, pastor.” He pointed to a copy of the brochure he had laid on her desk.

“Clive, it’s been a long morning—.”

“It’s a way for both of us to win. I mean the church to win. See, it says, come meet our lovely pastor and tour our beautiful facilities. Surely you can’t object to ‘lovely’, for you are lovely.”

“Mr. Parcher, please.”

“Sabine, look. Just take off your robe, sit down and relax a minute.” When she kept still, not bothering to conceal a look of contempt, he said, “You really don’t get it, do you? How very sad.”

“What don’t I understand, Mr. Parcher?”

“Well, for starters that for any man, but especially us older men, even watching you take off your robe is one of life’s rare pleasures.”

She suddenly felt chilled. Wondered for the briefest instant how rage could be so hot and yet so cold. “Clive Parcher, do you. . . . Breathe so you don’t cry. . . .have you any idea at all . . . .breathe. . . . of how that makes me feel? To be turned into an object for your pleasure?”

“Now you are being ridiculous. You’d think you were—.”

“Were what Mr. Parcher? Nude? Nude under my vestments?”

“Now again that’s just—-.”

“Ridiculous, right? What’s ridiculous is thinking this deeply offensive behavior is acceptable. It’s not. Let me inform you of its proper name. Sexual harassment.”

Suddenly, his whole body hiccupped as an electric jolt cut deep into his chest and he made a gargling sound. Then Parcher started to use the arms of the chair to try to rise. “Naaa,” he reached for his throat with both hands as he toppled toward her. She caught him under his arms and helped him to the floor. Then, kneeling beside him loosened his collar button and tie.  Seeing the raw terror in his eyes she said, “Clive, try to relax. I’m calling for help right now.” Then, with trembling hands found her cell on the desk and punched 911.

***

Rehabilitation began immediately at the hospital ICU and, putting personal feelings aside, she visited faithfully. When this initial emergency was followed a few days later by a series of mini-strokes, she organized lay visiting, and a couple weeks of evening meals for Warren, remembering he’d once admitted to her that he was pretty incompetent in the kitchen, and Clive did most of their cooking. By mid-summer, Clive had settled into a private, corner room with a view of the sound in the Fidalgo Nursing Facility and was holding court every day with church friends and business associates.

***

So this morning, she had already removed the large, silver pectoral cross hung from her neck and the green eel grass patterned stole that yoked her shoulders and fell to the bottom hem of the alb, when she entered the outer office absently unfastening the top collar buttons on the robe.  She looked forward, as she always did, to her small, cozy office, a welcome refuge decorated with bright African prints and filled floor to ceiling with her beloved books. The focal center point of the eight by ten room was a battered, wooden end table she had rescued from a dumpster at the end of a college term over twenty years ago. This “old friend” had served since then as a prayer altar, holding her collection of sea shells and antique keys scattered around a palm-sized icon from the Roman tombs depicting Christ healing the woman with the flow of blood.

Though close to eighteen months had passed since the incident with Clive Parcher, every once in a while, like right now, a sense of dread came over her as she approached her office, an adrenaline “flight or fight” rush that made fireworks out of her nervous system. Sabine touched the doorknob to her inner office as if checking to see if it was hot. “Hello?”

“Oh, hello.” A female voice. Then the sound of a chair pushed back. Someone standing. Sabine let out her breath. Put a smile on her face.

“Hello? I hope I haven’t been keeping you long.” Pushing open the partly closed inner office door, she looked down upon a mid-twenties, fair, blue-eyed woman, with a slightly off-center up-turned nose, who gave Sabine an initial impression that each smile or frown would be intriguing. She had clasped her hands tightly in front of her, and colored as she awkwardly stood.

“I’ve startled you. I’m so sorry. One of the ushers said I could wait. Maybe he meant the outer office. Anyway, I’m Carly Soderholm.”

“You’re fine. No apology necessary. Nice to meet you. Please call me Sabine.”  The young woman nodded. “And make yourself comfortable.”  With relief, the young woman smoothed the light blue cotton dress under her as she sat and crossed her long slender legs. “Give me a moment, and then we can visit.” Sabine turned away from her and opening the closet door where she kept her vestments, hung the cross and stole together on a hanger. Then she unzipped the alb from top to bottom, gracefully turned out of it and placed it on a hanger.

As Sabine settled herself in a chair opposite as Carly said, “I love seeing you in the robe! You look so. . . . I don’t know. We’ve always had men pastors and they all wore black.”

“Too academic for my style, and to me white hints at all things new.

Anyway, the robe is also supposed to serve a theological purpose as well, masking my individual personality, and reminding everyone that I represent Christ. For women religious leaders that is especially important.”

“Sexism?

“Yes, that, but on a more practical level there’s the whole wardrobe issue.”  Sabine comically crossed her eyes and bobbled her head. Carly, wide-eyed, laughed. “Like this morning. After I spent twenty plus hours preparing my fifteen-minute message on the critical importance of forgiveness, and still I get two comments on my shoes, and at least a half dozen on how nice I look. But you’re not here to learn about the challenges in being a clergywoman.”

“No.” A shiver passed through Carly. She hugged herself.

Sabine saw the change. Felt the young woman’s tension in her own body.

“You know about us? My family?”

“No. But now that I think of it, I saw you, or someone who looks a lot like you with an older man in our Easter crowd.”

“Yeah, that was us. My dad teaches in the English Department at Skagit Valley College. I’m finishing a two-year program with a focus on social work at Whidbey Community College, and now I’ve been accepted at the University of Washington– criminal justice. Actually, we’ve come in, sat in the back, and slipped out quick a few times. Like to keep a low profile. Well, Dad does more than me, because of this other thing, this thing that happened a few years ago. You’ve been here how long?”

“Just finishing my third year.”

“Okay, well this was a little over six years ago.” Carly looked anxiously past Sabine to the inner office door that wasn’t completely shut.  Sabine followed her gaze, got up, quietly pressed the door shut and sat back down. “Trying to put some distance between us and what happened. So have wanted to find a church off the island, where not many people know about us.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Sabine said quietly.

A big sigh. “So, here’s the thing. I had a high school sweetheart named Jason Wentz. First love, earthquake stuff, you know. But once I decided to go to college and he stayed in town and worked for his dad, Chevy dealer, things changed. We grew apart; no longer spoke the same language. Macro cliché right?”

“First love? Very real, very precious, and intoxicatingly overwhelming.”

“Yeah, well anyway, at some point I just realized we were making one another unhappy. I found the courage to finally end it. He dealt with it badly. Things got ugly. My family had to get a restraining order.”

“Oh, Carly, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, so.” Suddenly, Carly stood up, a stricken and confused look on her face.

“Carly?” She had turned away from Sabine. “How can I help?”

Without turning back she said, “I could use a glass of water if it’s not too much trouble?”

“You bet. Just be a sec.” In moments she was back.

Grateful, Carly took a sip and sat back down. “So.  One night.” Then she stopped, looking unsure.

“Take your time. I’m in no hurry.”

Carly allowed a sad smile. A little girl smile, Sabine thought.

“Okay, okay, so, one night my mom and dad were going to go to the symphony. This was the once a year fundraiser that includes dinner and an auction. Anyway, Jason’s mom was in charge of the silent auction part. So, I guess he went through the dinner list and saw both my parents were on it.” Carly’s voice had gone so soft, Sabine found herself leaning forward. “At the last minute, my mom got one of her infrequent migraines and begged off, so I took her place with my dad. Thinking my parents would both be out, Jason took the opportunity to mount one last grand plea. I was nineteen at the time. My mom had me young, so she was only thirty-eight. People were always saying she could pass as an older sister, and she could for sure.” She took another sip and her hands shook.  “Anyway, Jason knew where we kept a spare key. Had a dozen red roses, a ring, brochures of possible honeymoon destinations. So, shit, shit, sorry.”

Sabine stayed very still. Her voice breaking, Carly pressed, “Jason found my mom in the bathtub. Probably thought it was me, at first.” She paused again. Then stood up again and stared out the windows. “Most likely scenario is that pretty quickly things got out of hand.” She placed a hand on her stomach. “He drowned her and then went into my room and left the roses and ring on my pillow. Then went back out to his car and shot himself in the head. That’s how we found them when we got home.”

Sabine stood and started to move to her. Carly hugged herself, and over her shoulder gave Sabine a quick look full of anguish. “No, wait. Sorry, sorry. If you touch me, it’s all over for sure. I’ll start crying and sometimes I can’t stop for a while. I’m almost done.” Sabine sat back down and Carly turned back to face her. “I’m beginning to put my life back together, but my dad. Not so much. And see the thing is, we both like you. Think you’re the real deal. He even said you are a comfort. That’s just huge for him.”

“How old are you now?”

“I’m twenty-five now. Therapy on and off ever since. But this morning?”

“What about this morning?” The young woman’s vulnerability and earnestness touched something deep in Sabine. A trickle of current sparked up her spine as the word daughter entered her mind by a secret wish of a doorway she had always left unlocked.

She came back and sat. “I feel like you wrote this sermon just for me.” She reached into her purse and unfolded the morning bulletin. “See, I made lots of notes.”  Sabine smiled encouragingly.

“Okay, okay,” she said studying her scribbles on the borders of the bulletin. “I get the first two. Forgiveness takes time, maybe a very long time, and is very hard work. I’ve known that in my heart, but it’s a comfort to have it confirmed.”

“Good.”

“But could you say more about it being a strength?”

“Sure. So remember the purpose of forgiveness is not to let anyone get away with abusive behavior. Not to ignore the unfair hurt, but forgiveness is a gift to help put back together people that are broken apart. So it’s a way to leave behind the horror and pain your boyfriend caused you. Not to excuse him, but to no longer let that pain consume your life, or drain your capacity to love so you can enjoy life again.”

“But what to do about the anger? A couple months after the murder Jason’s dad had a new Camaro delivered to our house. Title, keys, free and clear. Dad spent a maniacal day with a sledge hammer and blow torch reducing it to rubble.”

“Wow. What did you do that day?”

“I hid out in my room. Scared to death he was going to. . . .I don’t know. Hurt himself?”

“Oh, sweetheart, you’ve been so brave.”

“It doesn’t feel that way.”

“So, how does it feel?”

“Scary. You know? Really scary.”

“The anger?”

“Yep.”  The sad, little-girl smile again.

“Carly, this was a huge, huge loss. Please know that I think you are doing great. You’re making a future. That’s amazing really, considering what a catastrophic loss you’ve endured, and that’s where anger comes in as a gift.”

“A gift?”

“Imagine what happened as a deep wound, okay? Well anger is a salve for survival no less than the clotting of blood. Imagine forgiveness as the scar that comes later, but anger comes first.” She waited for some sign the young woman got what she was saying. Finally their eyes met. Carly nodded. “So Carly, have you found helpful ways to express your anger?”

“Besides crying forever? Besides screaming sessions in the backyard? I don’t know. I think I’m fine and then I am so not.”

“So. Carly, look at me.” She reluctantly raised her head and met Sabine’s eyes. “I know we’ve just met, and I am so very honored you have chosen me to trust with all this. But before you go I want to ask one more question, and I want you to know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it was important, okay? “

Carly nodded, breaking eye contact, her shoulders falling, her whole body seeming to hunker down.

“So, if your mom was here right now what do you think she’d say?”

Carly took a few moments to think, gather herself. “She’d say she is so glad it was her and not me.” Her voice broke.

“Good. Take your time. What else?”

“And that she just wants me to get over this, have peace in my heart again, be able to be open to new love again.” Then Sabine just let her cry.

After a few minutes, she wiped and sniffed. Took a compact out of her purse and delicately begin to repair the damage. “Thank you. I’m going to share this stuff with my dad.”

“Good.”

“And do you think we can talk again soon?”

“Of course,” Sabine said, smiling warmly

“I’m just waiting for the new college fieldwork calendar to come out. Then I can plan.”

“Just call the office. My secretary keeps my schedule. What’s your field work site?”

“Fidalgo Nursing Center.”

“Really?  We have several people from the church there.”

“Yeah, I recognized a few from the church newsletter. Amy Spring, for one. I got to visit her a couple times before she passed, and I’ve also been seeing Mr. Parcher for about a month now.”

“Really?”

“Tough old guy. Keeps up a good face, but he seems more frail every time I visit.”

“Well, good. One of our male stewards brings him communion every week, and his younger brother Warren is very attentive. He keeps me informed.”

“Oh, Warren! Sweet man. But Mr. Parcher? Well, this might sound terrible, unprofessional and all, but he kind of creeps me out some.”

Sabine smiled. “Perfectly fine. Just be aware of those feelings and maybe something to talk about with your supervisor.” And then she thought, Considering I still feel nauseous at the mention of his name, maybe I too should bring him up with my spiritual director.

***

A few days later, Carly had just finished reading aloud to Mr. Parcher, the second chapter of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and was about to slip quietly from the room as he appeared to have fallen asleep in his hospital bed, when he whispered. “Will you hear an old man’s confession?” He smiled weakly when he said it, as if making a small joke.

“I’ll call Rev. De Luca for you, if you like, Mr. Parcher,” she said, mirroring his enigmatic smile.

“Well, you see,” he said, reaching out a gnarled, liver-spotted, quivering hand, “Not every pastor is the right fit for every parishioner.”

“Ah.”

“Sabine is a wonderful person. Heart for God, lovely, you’d agree and so gifted, but. . . .”

To his apologetic little shrug and sad smile, she reluctantly finished for him. “Not exactly the right fit.”

“No, not now. Not so close to the end. Miss Soderholm. Carly, may I call you Carly? What my soul really needs is empathy, and I think you just might be the one for that.” She slipped her hand across the crisp white sheet remembering a bullet point from class: appropriate touch when used with careful discrimination can be a powerful therapeutic tool.

An innocent enough request it seemed at first, and clever really when she looked back. The quiet old man, wasting away in the “Maple View” room with his windows looking out on the courtyard garden through the rose-tinted limbs of the mature Coral Bark Maple. The Japanese hybrid’s delicate scaffolding fusing the sunlight with a lime green wash making it feel to Carly as if she was visiting a bedroom placed in a forest glade. Artful how this emaciated sketch of an old man with the hungry eyes appealed to her heart, choosing her for such sacred intimacy in his final days.

When their eyes met his were bright with tears.  “It’s impossible for you to see the man I was now buried in this ruin.”

“Oh, Mr. Parcher—.”

“No, no, please.  I’m not fishing for compliments, child. Only time for the truth now. Could I have drink?”  She brought the tall cup with a straw to his lips. Watched as he struggled to get a sip.  “Thank you.” He sighed as she placed the cup back on the nightstand. “Could you hand me my Bible? I think it’s under the newspaper.” He waved toward the window ledge as if shooing a fly. She reached the newspaper from her seat and found the Bible underneath it as he had said, and placed it gently on his lap. His hands did a palsied dance as he struggled to open the onionskin pages.

“Maybe this should wait for another day?” she said.  “Have you seen your brother today?”

“Come and gone. Come and gone, and I may not have another day. Just let me catch my breath.” He closed his eyes and gulped air like it was something gelatinous. She anxiously waited. After a few moments, he patted the dark pebbled leather of the book cover and said, “I was a teacher, did you know that? Lay brother. Latin. All girls. First in Boston, St. Teresa’s Academy, then Minneapolis, and finally here. Small schools. Just the nuns and me, usually. Oh, priests, yes, the priests. Doing all the sacramental stuff, but overburdened even then. In and out. In and out. Really no time to spend getting to know the girls. There were, in all those years, an exception or two, but not many. So, mostly I was the only man, you see. Great responsibility. All those girls, just coming into their bodies, legs going on forever. Flirting with promiscuity.” He gave a laugh and she sensed a meanness in it.  “The ’60s, early ’70s, flaunting the dress code. Rolling up the waists of their uniform skirts after the nuns had measured them. Sitting in the front seats, letting the skirts ride up. Not caring if I looked or not. Such a funny little man! Having a good laugh afterwards. Oh, I knew what they said.” She felt the heat come into her face, began to rise. The Bible fluttered open. “Here they are. Here’s the worst of the bunch, the ones I made look in their own mirror.”

Carly felt faint. Her heart quaked in her chest. She sat back down and took the half page of yellowed notebook paper from him. There were four names and then the phrase, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.  “Mr. Parcher, I—.”

“Hear me out, please.” He began to speak quickly now, afraid he’d lose her, not bothering to hide the pleading in his voice. “You see, I know about you. Because of what happened to you, to your mother, I know you, of all people, will understand.”

“Understand what exactly?”

“Boys, young men. The danger. How if you don’t handle them exactly right, if they think you are leading them on, if you aren’t exceedingly careful—.”

“Are you saying that what happened to my mother was my fault?” She remained very still, as her wounded mind offered her a saving gift: an image of that innocent young woman she had not been able to protect years ago, now rising up, leaning over this old man, and in a fury beginning to pummel him with her fists.

“No, no, I am asking you…” He stopped. Tried again. “Look child, this all seemed a sensible response back then, but even if we disagree about the ethics of what I did, first let me ask you this. Do you believe God’s grace is freely given, can’t be earned?” Her non-response gave him a glint of hope. “We are all made of darkness and light, but nothing can separate us from the love of God that waits for us, all contrite hearts welcomed home?”

“Mr. Parcher, what did you do?”

“I took pictures. That’s all.” Her brows knit in confusion. “I was kind of a camera bug. Had this little hidden camera.”

Carly struggled to process what he was saying. She ran her finger down the list of names on the yellow pad. And then suddenly she thought she understood. “Showed them a mirror of themselves? What does that exactly mean, Mr. Parcher?”

“Well, I sent them pictures of themselves.”

“Pictures of under their skirts?!”

“Yes, but just to show them, make them see.”

“Really? Really, Mr. Parcher?”

His voice went high and harsh with accusation. “Their shameful behavior was a threat to their souls. I was just….” He was nearly spent.

“What happened to these girls?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Please keep your voice down, young lady. I can’t remember. It’s been so long ago.”

“Bullshit! Mr. Parcher. Bullshit!” Carly’s head was full of white noise.

She had formed the words, Goodbye Mr. Parcher, in her mind, but before she could get them out he said, “Child, please! Wait! Will you fulfill my last wish? Will you carry the cross?”

When she looked up, his face fisted in a pleading anguish. “Do what?”

“In my final instructions I’ve asked that you be the cross bearer at my funeral.” When she just kept looking at him without speaking, he added, “Help me go home.”

Keeping her eyes down, she stood trembling, and as she walked past his bed whispered, “Goodbye, Mr. Parcher.”

When she got home that night to their beach bungalow, she lay face up on her bed, closed her eyes and thought about those girls, girls like her, just beginning to get over the wildly embarrassing and exciting astonishment at their new bodies that seemed to arrive overnight–to begin to find the nerve among fast friends to innocently pose and flirt. Imagined what it might be like to open an envelope and see a photo of herself, secretly taken, shameful.  Suddenly something gave way inside her. An outside door to the back garden was opposite her room in a hallway. She launched herself through it and lost the little she had eaten at dinner in the azaleas. Wiping at her mouth, she headed out onto the short pier her family shared with neighbors on either side. A cutting wind had picked up from shore. It bore to her an icy menthol amalgam of evergreen, wood smoke and tideline decay. Carly stood facing the murmuring sound and screamed her frustration and pain into the night until her voice was raw.

***

The next morning she was up and had the coffee going when her dad came into the kitchen. “Hey, Early Bird, what’s the deal?”

“Just need to get to school to do some research and wondered if you could take me over to catch a town bus on your way to work?”

“Sure.  Special project?”

“Several. But I need the fast network at the library.”

“Ah, yes. No cable. A nearly unendurable liability of living in the country,” he teased.

***

She was impressed at how easy it was. Nothing in Boston, but Google had an index for The Minneapolis Star Tribune and when she typed in “Teacher” and “Illegal Photos.” The story was barely three column inches and spoke of a possible lawsuit concerning unverified charges being made against one of the school’s, quote: “most talented male teachers.” The diocese lawyer for the accused, a Mr. Parcher, made the usual denials, and assured the public that the matter was being taken very seriously by the Bishop. She downloaded the news sections of the Star Tribune for the next few days, but found nothing else.

***

She wasn’t scheduled to go back to the nursing home until Wednesday, but she needed him to know what she knew, make sure he understood he’d have to find someone else to be his cross bearer, and if she waited until her next appointed time, it might just be too late.

As often the case, especially in mid-March, the weather in the Pacific Northwest could be wild and unpredictable because of the Cascade Mountains lying so close to the sea. This arrangement of irregular, high ranges and passes creates many microclimates, and in a hundred miles, you could go from spring to deep winter and back again. This morning she only needed a windbreaker, for the misting of rain, but while she was doing her research inside, the temperature dropped twenty degrees and the mist sealed everything in a coat of ice. Yet when she walked back to Fidalgo Nursing that afternoon the temperature had risen again, so while the roads and walkways were still treacherous, everything sparkled like crystal in the sunlight and began to shed a chrysalis of ice.

She signed herself in, and feeling nauseous, walked to Mr. Parcher’s room, but when she knocked lightly on the half closed door, got no response. Gently pushing it open she saw the empty, unmade bed. Too late!  Then a warm breeze reached her, and peering out the open French doors to the patio, she saw Mr. Parcher in his robe and slippers with his back to her, one hand on his walker and the other holding a lit cigarette to his lips. His face was turned up seeming to study the hard blue sky through the gleaming branches of a centenarian Large Leaf Maple at the boundary to the property.

Just as she got to the open patio doors she heard a loud report and looked up as an ice-encrusted branch the size of a big man’s thigh fell. “Wow!” she said under her breath, stepping out onto the patio. Then with a sinking heart saw the tips of Mr. Parcher’s slippers poking up out of a debris of smaller limbs and leaves the ice had brought down. As she was about to go to him and see if she could help, he rolled over and shakily got to his knees and with the walker for a brace, began to pull himself upright. Clearly the large branch had only come close enough to scare him and make him lose his balance. He looked up and their eyes met. Fear fled and the warm pleasure of welcome came to his face. “Carly, my angel,” he said and before she could respond, the old man’s face changed again, as pain bucked through him. He twisted and went down upon on the ice-crusted grass, clutching at his chest.

She was on her knees and upon him in a moment, reaching out to touch him. Then recoiled, but to her credit, only for a moment. “Hang in there, Mr. Parcher!” Then she leaped up, went back into the room, pushed the call button by his bed and announced a Code Blue. She stumbled back out just in time to watch Mr. Parcher gurgle and writhe on the ground a final moment as if a great hand was pressing him into the earth.

***

“So, will it be an open casket?”

“No. That will happen at the funeral home.” Forty-eight hours had passed since Parcher’s death. Carly had arrived at Tully’s early and secured two overstuffed chairs next to the gas fire, and had a double, tall mocha waiting for Sabine when she arrived. “Visiting hours are two to five tomorrow. The service is at the church on Tuesday, three o’clock.”

“So, have you ever Googled Clive Parcher?”

“No. Should I?”

“There was a case I found. I can show you sometime, but I couldn’t find what happened. Charges. Some indiscretion. Then nothing.”

“What kind of charges?”

Carly made a sour face. “Well, he secretly took pictures of girls who were

flaunting the dress code. Then sent the pictures to them to shame them.”

“Oh, my God! Well, I wish I was surprised, but I’m not. Sadly, most of these things were settled outside of court with cash. Especially if it was a Catholic school.”  They sat quietly together for a few moments. “So, you’ve changed your mind about carrying the cross? I’d surely understand. I’d be glad to speak to Warren.”

“No, I’m fine. Dying man’s request. I’m thinking it will be good for me. Can anyone come to the viewing?  Do I need to call or sign up or something?”

“No, it’s open to the public.” Sabine gave Carly an inquiring look. “How exactly is it good for you?” This was met with a small, tight smile.

***

The Ross Mortuary was designed to exude comfort and calm. Everything tastefully conspired to reinforce the feeling that this would be a good place to take a nice, long nap. Plush carpets, comfortable antiques, muted color schemes, indirect lighting, a crackling fire in a large fireplace to welcome all visitors.

Parcher’s open casket rested on a funeral trolley, below a large print of William Holman’s Hunt’s, Light of the World, which depicts Jesus holding a lantern and about to knock on a door. What charmed mid-nineteenth century Christians and made the work so famous was that Hunt only painted a doorknob on the inside of the large wooden door. Jesus knocks and waits but the sinner must open to him. The small alcove was filled with floral tributes and candles. There was a red velvet prayer kneeler centered in front of the casket. At the other end, was a living room setting of sofas and comfortable chairs where the immediate family could greet guests and chat quietly. To Carly’s relief, one could pay respects in relative privacy. She decided for her purposes to arrive close to the end of visiting hours. Sure enough, only a few friends lingered. Everyone looked weary and ready for this ordeal to be over. She quickly signed the guest book, had a few words with Warren and went and stood beside the casket. It took only moment to slip the sheaf of papers detailing his crimes under Clive’s suit coat jacket and smooth it back down.

***

The participants gathered in the library for final instructions. Sabine and Carly were the last to enter. Both wore white albs and identical crosses. Sabine’s robe was distinguished by a black stole. Everyone stood.

“Please, everyone, sit down.” Four older men took the long couch. The laywomen who would carry the Bible caught Carly’s eye and patted the chair beside her. Sabine remained standing. “So, United Methodists aren’t much for processionals, but Clive loved them, so here’s how it will go. The Ross Funeral Home people just pulled up outside with the casket. They will meet us in the narthex. You won’t need to carry the casket in or out of the church. It’s on a dolly. They will only need your help sliding it from the trolley to the gravesite following the service, which you know is right here, on an adjacent piece of property. So, the cross in first, then Bible followed by the choir, and finally each of you gentlemen with a candle.  Slow, dignified walking pace, please. If you think you might be going too fast, you probably are. The casket comes in right behind you, gentlemen. Wait for it at the chancel. Put your candles in their holders on either side of the casket. I will come in last. Carly, you simply hang onto the cross through the processional hymn. When I seat the community, slip it into its stand by the baptismal font. We recess out, just like we came in, so, Carly, you are first in and out, and lead us to the gravesite. Watch me and I’ll give you a clear sign. The recessional hymn is Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The gravesite is fortunately only a hundred yards or so from the entrance, so the casket will stay on the trolley until placed on the grave. That’s when we will need your muscle, gentlemen. Just do as the funeral director instructs and you’ll be fine. Carly, the cross is quite heavy, but you should have no problem. Any other questions then?”

Carly shyly half-raised her hand. Her heart pounded in her ears. She felt light-headed. “Where should the cross be? I mean,” she stammered, “where should it be in relation to how Mr. Parcher rests in his, uh, coffin?”

“Mr. Parcher will rest with his head closest to the font and table.”

“So he comes in head first?”

“Yes, exactly.” Carly lowered her eyes and tried to concentrate on her breathing. “Okay, we’re close. Gentlemen, get your candles.” She gestured to where four oaken poles with large candles attached were leaning. Mrs. Morley, our Bible-bearer, will light them for you.”

Carly got up and went and removed the large cross from its stand by the library doors. She tested the timber and balance, moving it from hand to hand. Sabine was right. This thing had some serious weight. Sabine had stepped into the narthex to check on the choir, but was back in a moment. “Stand down everyone. The Parchers’ aunt has just pulled in the lot and Warren has asked that we wait until she is seated.”

“Do I have time then for a quick restroom trip?” Carly asked.

“Yes, but be quick.”

She felt great relief that the handicapped powder room was empty. She locked the door behind her, and leaned against the sink to try to stop herself from trembling. She had been fighting tears all morning, and now let them flow for a few moments. Then took several deep breaths, and wiped her wet cheeks and dabbed at her eyes with Kleenex. Finding the little collapsible brush she had stowed in the alb’s inside pocket, she combed her hair in a fury as she stared at herself in the mirror, welcoming the gathering storm within her breast.

***

The sanctuary was constructed of a warm, caramel colored cedar, with the apex of the ceiling at least thirty feet high and formed in the shape of the body of an overturned boat. Thick chunks of stained glass in abstract patterns ran down both sides of the long rectangular room, starting with midnight blue at the back and getting lighter as one came forward with the yellows and golds saved for the last few feet before the altar. From floor to ceiling, the entire outside wall of chancel area behind the altar was clear glass framing a rock-sheltered, mossy, evergreen garden and reflecting pool.

The pews were packed. Parcher’s immediate family and honored friends took up the first two pews on the left side closest to the choir. The rest of the church was occupied by parish and community people. This capacity crowd was causing the room to become overly warm, the air thick with the smell of women’s perfumes in competition with the bold attar of Easter lilies.

The congregants watched as an usher greeted the aunt and escorted her down to the family pews.

When the usher returned, Sabine said, “Okay, I think we’re good,” and gave the organist a wave.

In a moment, the prelude concluded. A subdued fanfare seemed to seep out of the very pores of the building, announcing the opening hymn. The people stood.

A bell began to dully toll, as Carly led the processional in to the hymn. She stopped before the altar, keeping her back to the community and intently listening for the casket trolley to still. When Mrs. Morley came past her with the Bible, Carly turned back to the community. She held the cross steady and watched as afternoon sunlight used the highly polished, silver surface to semaphore blinding swords of white light across the chancel, making the singers hesitate, and some stumble, as they processed past and up onto the choir risers. In that same moment, the anger that had been buried and smoldering in her for days, ignited.

Standing in the chancel, three steps above the casket resting below her in the middle of the aisle on the floor, Carly leaned the processional cross away from her body, feeling the brute load of oak, iron and silver plate. Then she took a last look at Parcher’s coffin, recalculating the distance, and pitched herself forward, letting her whole dead weight guillotine the processional cross down upon the lid. There was a splintering, dull crack. The cross bounced off the split casket top and then fell like a battleax, taking out two candles on the left and guttering wax across the closest worshippers. Carly tumbled head first into the candles on the right. The room erupted with a horror house of sound: bark-like shouts, strangled cries and screams came from men and women alike.

Sabine reached Carly first, sliding to her knees beside the stricken girl, carefully turning her over and pulling apart the snaps on the front of her robe.

“Carly! Carly! Hey, hey now.” She ran her hand gently over the angry place on her forehead where a knot was rising, but saw no blood. Carly opened her eyes and immediately began to sit up. “Whoa! Whoa girl! You just stay down.”

Parcher’s own physician, a Dr. Patrick, now retired, appeared on Carly’s other side, and had two fingers pressing on the side of her neck and the other hand taking her pulse at her wrist. Two ushers had commanded everyone to stay seated and the organist fumbled through the hymnal until she found, “Abide with Me,” which she began to play quietly. The senior of the two ushers said, “Should we call 911?”

“Let’s just wait a moment.” Doctor Patrick spoke without taking his eyes from his patient. “If she just fainted and this knot on the head is the only damage we probably will be okay. Her name’s Carly?”

Sabine nodded.

“Carly, open your eyes. Good. Now, I think you just fainted. Okay? But everything is all right. May have just bumped your head a little. Do you understand me? Can you say yes?” Carly nodded dumbly at Dr. Patrick. “You need to speak child. Use your voice.”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Good, very good,” Dr. Patrick mumbled, as he continued to run his hands along her shoulders, collarbone, down her torso and legs. “Anything hurt? Let me look into your eyes.”

“So, I didn’t eat much breakfast and it’s close to my time of the month, I guess. Besides my head, I think I’m fine.”

“Okay. Okay. Well, Pastor? How do you want to handle this?”

“Carly, the truth now. You okay?”

“Pretty embarrassed, but fine.”

“Right, so how about if I get one of the reception ladies to help her get cleaned up and sit with her in the library a bit. Once we finish the Parcher service, could you come back and check on her?” Dr. Patrick asked Sabine.

“Be glad to, Doctor.”

“Thank you. Carly, you okay with that?” Dr. Patrick asked.

She nodded gratefully. As Dr. Patrick got to his feet, Sabine moved close and gave Carly an assuring hug, and then with mischief in her voice whispered into her ear, “Goodness, Carly, were you trying to wake Mr. Parcher from the dead?”

Carly pulled away smiling. “Oh, no! Absolutely not! It’s me.”

“You?”

“Yes, Sabine, it’s me. It’s me who needs waking from the dead.”

“Oh.” Carly saw the dawn of understanding come across her face. Sabine reached out and laid her hand aside the young woman’s flushed, lovely face.  “Well, just between you and me,” she said quietly, “a truly spectacular and courageous new beginning.”

Rodolph (Rody) Rowe spent forty years as a United Methodist pastor, which involved doing a compelling fifteen-minute stand-up every week, always seeking to be both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Turns out that was great prep to be a short story writer. His poetry has been published in The Potomac Review, The Lucid Stone, Interlace, and The Christian Century. Short memoir pieces have won prizes with Whatcom Writes and three times in The Frederick Buechner Narrative Writing Project Contest sponsored by The Christian Century. He is currently in the process of finishing final drafts of a spiritual memoir and a first novel.

— 

Photo of girl with flowers by Jan Phoenix/unsplash.com. 

 

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