If the way I remember differs from how others recall that time at United Methodist, well, memory trains itself—the dumbest, most diligent animal treading a familiar dirt circle, the pony performing its same one trick. Speaking now, who can it harm, with so many vanished, and the rest of them dead?
Our Pastor James appeared one formidable man, a hill to be conquered, an odd duck, a deviant. You wouldn’t think his high forehead could inspire, or dash, a girl’s hopes that way, but it did mine. In a particular light his black hair whispered blue, rendered him comic-book-handsome, lethal and planted quite suddenly in my path. His beauty snapped open my eyes.
This was before I dared call him James. I needed a job; I wanted his housekeeper position to shelter me from the elements, and it didn’t involve cows or horse hide. I’d seen how sun and the seasons drubbed my brother, Den, on his farm, to where I’d been shuttled, only sister of five brothers, me barely school-age after our parents’ deaths. Den and his wife Mary Lee took me in, a sort of indentured servitude for twenty years that felt twice as long.
I glossed over my pathetic history for the pastor, while in my head clanged what was foremost about me—sheltered, voice withered on account of false gratitude, and clawed at by those who could take advantage.
Skin creamy as buttermilk. Den’s foreman nursed a fixation for me, along with his drink. It made me desperate to escape his blunt-tipped fingers. When I told Den he said, “Go, if you got somewhere else to go,” mouthpiece for Mary Lee and her perverse glee at my lack of options. Nowadays women have shelters and advocates and hot line numbers, but in my time we levied food and shelter against black uncertainty, and the wiser girls, we shouldered men’s rude wanderings.
I peeked under the rectory table where the pastor and I sat, saw my feet in their sensible saddle oxfords, swore to myself that I was done walking across Den’s shadowy porch.
“Your experience?” the pastor said.
“Kitchen work, mostly. Feeding crews that come through and scour the orchards.”
“Untouched has suited you to now,” he said.
See how he granted me unspoiled status? Baptism from the man’s lips, a vow. He promised me, and I promised him. I’d bring the scrub bucket; he’d intone the benediction. We’d both sacrifice. A clean path, a fresh start, a man who didn’t treat me like he owned me or like I owed him.
I’d chopped my hair, in my nervousness, immediately prior to the interview, and there in his church kitchen he lifted my chin to the window light and said, “A succinct haircut points up intelligence.”
I’m not afraid to say I know how to lead a man by the noose of his desires, even warmth he’s not yet and maybe never will admit. The pastor touched my jaw a second longer than proper, and I allowed it. In the beginning I thought, I’ll handle this man, the way the last man handled me.
To me the pastor would award the honor of stripping his bed and completing other banalities a single man with spirituality occupying his mind lets slide. Before this I’d only worked Den’s farm, and I’d never met a man of the cloth on his own turf, nor heard a man talk with unerring certitude about any aspect of me. Next to him was the only place to sit, I was convinced, where I had already been so very willing to go, anyplace free of the graspy, raspy liquored tongues.
“Or perhaps,” my employer said, “smartness resides in the cheek bones. The world will tell you. Joy, the world loves your bone structure.”
I let him rattle on with his inane talk; I could not, would not for the world, stop him from lifting any detail of me aloft. He made me matter. Like the Samaritan woman drawing water, he selected me, like Moses hid among the river reeds he lifted me up.
He palmed an orange from the bowl on his table and said, “Shall I peel it for you?” By the end of the interview I was calling him James; he was peeling me fruit. The new stove showed off like a freshly minted automobile. An aroma of scalded milk marred his otherwise sparkling kitchen, and I vowed to myself then and there if he took me on I would watch so nothing ever again boiled into the drip pans of his stove. I planned curtains to brighten his bachelorhood and cut flowers to relieve that burned-milk stench his dreaminess had created.
In our many privacies he extolled my intelligence, he said my refreshing perspective bored into confusion like a star pierces night. He was full of words, he talked too much. Men do, especially men of God.
I’m not afraid to say he bought me things—a piece of beach glass, for one, drilled through so it could be assembled as a pendant around my neck. Forty-five years, and I’ve not removed it. I watched him thread the stems of four gigantic zinnias into a carafe so their color exploded on our table. When he caught me observing, he blushed over me discovering this kindness. Within his heat my world grew rounded and brilliant. He softened the sharp edges I’d cultivated to battle with every bunkhouse jerk who passed through Den’s place when the fruit ripened. The pastor and I endured equal embarrassment over our untapped fires, a friction that turned his kitchen, that innocuous kitchen, all electric. We resisted for weeks, and then there was no more resisting.
He declared us a match made in heaven, chuckling, chucking my chin, grabbing me. Grabby, in those days when he could be grabby, before the accident. He laid claim, and I saw it as my own victory.
I felt bad continuing to his bed, though I don’t mean to say I was sorry, Lord no. I exclaimed over him and his body and what he made mine do. We were noisy lovers, one big storm.
James kept saying we had to quit, and then he’d reach for me, negating what he’d just vowed. I had to believe a man of God knew right and wrong better than I.
When he yelled, and he sometimes did yell, the next thing to trip from his mouth was, “Why are you crying?” He couldn’t bear ill will, especially in his direction.
I said, “Over onions is all.” My eyes smarted the live-long day.
James said, “Yellow has always been your color,” as he removed my slip, this following his removal of every stitch preceding the slip.
He prayed over me in such a way that I felt exalted.
A neighbor shanghaied me at the church mailbox. I reminded myself retrieving his letters was nothing about which I should feel shame. I’d been hired; I had a right to his envelopes. The neighbor and I talked of the rain, in the rain. We had all kinds of nosy in that congregation. The reverend’s letters were melting in my clutches.
“The stove’s on,” I said. I lifted my one empty hand back at the house, his house, where I lived in the housekeeper’s quarters.
“Oh, don’t apologize,” the neighbor said.
Kitchens and gardens offered me excuse to be rid of these inquisitions. Also laundry. Pot roast in the oven, simmering with roughly chopped onion. Something was cooking and needed watching.
James said, “Sit still,” and “You have such strong shoulders.” He kneaded my tense muscles as if he were care taking instead of me, he priming the dough, and me the bread.
For years my brother had drilled into me that nothing lasts. But humans without hope are nothing but shells. We must hope, all the while knowing nothing adjusts on this hope. For five months James managed the congregation, the synod rules handed down, and petty discrepancies among the nervy and rankled elders, while I managed his rectory. That was daytime. Nights brought celebration that turned me foolish with hope. No one insists Methodists live celibate, but their leaders are asked to abide by God’s law. Only after he began shepherding the little girls in his office following the Sunday lessons did I intuit he had no intent toward the altar.
The first time he led them back I sank into a kitchen chair as I heard the lock twist in his study door. The fruit bowl, as ever, anchored the table’s center. It absorbed my focus.
Oranges are not from clay. The still life on the table exerts its demands while oranges remain orange and bananas yellow and the avocado pebbly black. Divided from the vine or the root or the branch, the fruit still maintains pulse. The brown-fuzzed kiwi thumbs its nose at beauty the way an ogre stomps his favorite farm. Within the range of that ogre’s fury, fruit will splatter the place, so coming on the mess you’ll wonder what crime erupted here, what passion fired, what madness held the mad inside until it was no longer able. A still life can fool you with its beating heart.
When he ushered them free an hour later, when they ran outside to the arms of their mothers and dads, he encountered me palming an orange like a baseball.
I tamped my anger into a most measured tone: “Weren’t we to go on?” Squeezing the orange pained my knuckles, but I did that over pitching it at him.
“What are you implying?” he said.
“Who’s closest to you now, James?” I said.
“Those girls are innocents,” he said.
I said, “And I am not.”
“You and I, Joy, we’ve got to stop.”
As if our physical love had been my perfect idea and he the so very unwilling, he the one cajoled into believing unbelievable things.
“Because I’m no longer young? Not young enough? Not as young as they? Stop what?” I fumed. “Stop arguing, stop accusing, stop carrying on?”
He said, “I’m a minister. I minister.”
As if that was his excuse, his refuge.
I poked at us with a stick to see if we had a pulse. My mind raced to who or where or how I’d locate different employment because rectory housekeeper was a line you mostly get born into and latch onto and die within. It is your shroud for life. I had been lucky; and then misfortune adhered to Luck’s heels like horse shit.
“Tears betray weakness,” he said, exiting the room.
I wanted to scrape my shoes clean of him. We were still one, no matter what he said, no matter how he tried to turn his righteous, rigid back. He never asked me to leave, but our intimacy vanished. He pointed his most direct loveliness to the little girls he corralled in his office on Sundays.
I made the flavored ice pops he asked me to mix up for their treats, but while the ices hardened I put my head with the treats in the freezer and dreamed of Alaska. The piping young voices two rooms off threaded through his baritone. Suddenly I was no longer hope-filled. My belly pressed against the sink when I washed his dishes.
“Measure the need and the results will be few,” the pastor taught. “Give without thought to the cost of giving. Be brave,” he told them.
Back in the kitchen I mother-henned them, and said, while I dispensed water and fruit: “Crush the rough world to your breast, shed tears over losing it…which you will.”
The girls looked at me like I had three heads, or like I might any minute cluck. They lifted their unspoiled faces to me and I wanted to break them like plates.
My words faded next to his chiseled jaw, his sing-songy play, and his taste for sweets that drew them and focused their little nerve bundles into one conduit. Plain and simple: he adored being adored, and the little ones, they adored best. James’s love revolved among the shades of a bruise; his ache toward those innocents was so palpable I felt beat up in my own gut.
Down the rectory steps, one of the girls ran into the arms of her daddy, who lifted her to his shoulders and walked away. You could watch James and see his heart strangling. He wanted to be who they ran to and leaned beside, which mostly they did because they didn’t know better. All they wanted was love, as children do. Practically babies, they were, when all this started. From his insides crawled fire ants and mealy things, centipedes and larvae, and the white things termites secrete to destroy, which until then I had been unable to see. Now the girls were the blind ones.
From where I stood at the kitchen sink with a bottle brush in my hand, I heard him down in the cellar below me, but I mistook his mutterings for prayer. He did that sometimes—courting attention, I used to think—coughed split verses and language you’d not recognize so you’d imagine the Pentecostal tongues were erupting out of him. I heard him gasp and howl and I rushed the steps to discover him against the tool table, blood letting all over that surface, coloring down his front and his pants legs, across his sharp hips where I’d lain my body, which he told me we’d never do again. But I took him in my arms and he let me. He did not hold back, yet his convulsions wiped away what lingering I wanted to pursue. I couldn’t locate the wound.
“What? What?” I remember saying. What happened, what reason, what were you thinking? But I couldn’t speak more and he only bleated like a small boy among his goats.
“Con,” his dusky lips whispered.
“Damn you,” I said. “This isn’t penance, it’s just stupid. We’re flesh and blood. We bleed.”
It was then I knew those girls were inside him, a sickness beyond him, throughout him, and I forgave his jilting me and his trailing after them like a pet.
His higher orders weren’t saving him that day,I was. From over his shoulder, as I held him to me like the lover I’d known, the two of us shaking like we housed old desire, I saw the imperfections along the cellar’s length. He’d returned to me, the evidence all over the both of us would not wash off. We held while I watched damp marks on the wall appear like cave glyphs, resisting whatever whitewash had been painted to hide them, news ghosting the idea of the impossible baby I’d squelched before it managed to root in.
In his basement, amidst his emergency, with nothing but our fears to guide us, I perhaps paused. A caesura the grammarians call it, in which his sacrifice finally equaled mine.
All this occurred in a blink. I do not mean that I withheld care, but a swift of ideas and emotions flooded me while I staunched his blood with the dishtowel I was forever sporting like a stole over my shoulder. The rescue men came as quickly as they could.
One of them said to me, “You probably saved his life.”
Even so, James lost the hand.
I am ashamed to say his misfortune fueled my jubilance.
During the weeks he recovered in the hospital, I buried the ax head in the backyard, at the foot of the lilacs, where no one would ever think to look or dig. I made believe it was a tiny headstone, which until then had been lacking.
He used to preach: “God will not let us grow complacent, and for this He gives us trials.”
Sometimes I think I wanted those girls more fiercely than he did, and that trumps any guilt over the extra seconds I stood in the basement, shook to my marrow, and enjoying him in my arms.
Donna D. Vitucci - Author
Donna Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. Her stories have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including PANK, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Front Porch, Watershed Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Contrary, Corium Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Change Seven (Yay!) and The Butter. Her novel AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE will be published by Rebel E Press in 2016. Her unpublished novel FEED MATERIALS was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize and waits with other finished novels in a trunk.