The Preacher’s WifePrint
By Dennis McFarland
September 1, 2006
On a Thursday morning of brilliant sun, the shadow of a passenger jet glided over Mobile Bay, then rippled across the white strip of beach in front of the house, the great oak in the yard, and the several angles of the dark green roof. Bonnie Owen Vandorpe, situated in a rattan chair on the porch and reading a wizened paperback of The Power and the Glory, looked up from the book and squinted at the glare of the bay, dimly aware of some flickering in the natural light and a faraway whisper of displaced air. Her young husband, Pastor, Senior Minister of the evangelical Church of the Blessed Hunger, lay on a matching couch nearby and smiled at her from over the top of a thick spiral notebook, into which he’d been entering thoughts for next Sunday’s sermon. From inside the house there came a heavy crash—Macy, the housekeeper, had dropped a cast iron skillet onto the kitchen floor and let out a whoop, leaping backwards to protect her toes. Cricket, the old family bird dog, bolted from under the kitchen table and into the living room, where he startled China, the orange cat sleeping in an easy chair, who now rocketed through the open window onto the porch, sailing over the back of the rattan couch and upsetting Bonnie’s almost empty aluminum tumbler of tea; a few drops splattered onto Pastor’s notebook and along one leg of his khaki shorts. Bonnie, quickly out of her chair, cried, “China!” and began making a fuss with a paper napkin, but Pastor sat upright on the edge of the couch and waved her away. She knelt near his feet and wiped a puddle from the painted wood floor, sensing, as she did this, his gaze, and when she looked up at him, he leaned forward enough to kiss her brow; he smiled again and said, “The peaceable kingdom.” He kissed her a second time and added, “I think I’ll head over to the church and work on this in my office.”
He stood, slipped out sideways between her and the couch, then stepped to the screen door and shooed the cat into the yard. He moved through the interior doorway, into the darkness of the house, and Bonnie said softly to herself, “Well, bye then . . . ”
Macy immediately appeared at that same threshold, plump, white-haired, and flushed. Macy, who’d lived with and worked for the Owen family since before Bonnie was born, wore a pink candy-striped apron, which she now untied and removed. She was running late for the vet’s, she told Bonnie, Cricket was supposed to get his distemper shot at noon, she would have to race over there pronto, and was there anything Bonnie needed her to pick up in Fairhope?
Bonnie appeared to ponder this question, then sighed and shook her head, as if she wished she needed something from Fairhope. At last she said, with more than a little hopelessness, “Nothing I can think of, Macy.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Macy.
“I don’t know,” said Bonnie.
Macy stepped forward and laid first her palm on Bonnie’s forehead, then the back of her hand. “Hm-m-m,” she said. “Feels to me like there’s something on your mind but you ain’t quite ready to say what it is.”
“I want your opinion about something,” said Bonnie, mostly ignoring Macy’s diagnosis. “Do you think Pastor’s happy living here with us?”
“Oh, lord, Bonnie,” said Macy, “let me get back to you on that. I can tell you he’s plenty happy to have home-cooked meals set on the table for him every day. Now, I’m gonna be late.”
After Macy left, Bonnie remained in the same spot on the porch floor, sinking back onto her heels and feeling abruptly alone. She stared at the threadbare cushions of the couch, at their pattern of olive green palm fronds and red monkeys, and made a mental note to have some new slipcovers sewn for the porch furniture. The past several months, she’d undertaken a cosmetic restoration of the old house, which had not only occupied a good bit of her time and energy, but had also taught her some important lessons. One late afternoon last year, about a month after her father’s funeral, she’d found herself, as she often used to find herself, a little overmedicated. She’d had a day in which she’d felt unusually afraid; she’d swallowed an extra Ativan and then smoked a joint, and as she wandered the rooms of the house at sunset, she’d encountered them so bluntly, so acutely, she’d seen into the heart of their ugly ambiguous character. She’d finally understood their problem and in some critical way even identified with them. The spirit of her mother, who’d died giving birth to Bonnie 30 years earlier, lingered in the house; her mother’s taste had run to a bygone era, which, it now turned out, was timeless and true. But over the years, odd people—Bonnie’s father the oddest among them—had added tacky incongruences, insulting everything good established by the mother. Heavy glass ashtrays and cardboard coasters with advertising logos rested on delicate tea tables of inlaid cherry. A large garish oil painting, a deep-sea fishing scene, occupied a wall of the living room alongside five handsome black-and-white prints depicting the cathedrals of Europe. All that was needed to set things right, Bonnie had seen at last, was to rid the house of what indicated the father and keep what indicated the mother. Over the next few weeks she tossed out yards of revolting shag carpeting and then had the beautiful oak floors refinished; pulled down dozens of plastic mini-blinds and replaced them with white sheer drapes; filled two vans from Goodwill Industries with cheap knickknacks and sorry-looking furniture; she had the wallpaper cleaned in the dining room and other rooms newly painted. She’d purged the house of the recently dead father, and to her surprise, the result was something brighter and broader than improved rooms. She’d been given a sense of her place in the world, a sense that attached to her having “restored” the mother she’d never known. What was more, she’d hit on a principle she could apply to other areas of her life; she began to experiment with going for longer and longer periods without drugs, a phase of her development that happened to coincide with the appearance of a young preacher who approached her one cold January day on the beach and introduced himself.
Now a breeze, warm and damp, came through the porch screens, and Bonnie stood, moved to the screen door, and looked toward the bay. Here was the ancient live oak of her girlhood, the hundred-armed monster erupting from the ground by the brick wall that abutted the promenade, its myriad of long gray beards (Spanish moss) swinging in unison toward the house. Here was the modest lawn, bare and scorched in spots, a patchwork of green, gold, and gray, that stretched between the porch and the wall with its black wrought-iron gate; the blinding strip of beach beyond; the ailing pier that jutted into the water, at its end an empty boat shed with a tin roof so noisy in rainfall you could hear the racket from the house. That day, when she’d first met Pastor, she’d been sitting cross-legged in the sand near the pier, wrapped in an old Army blanket, brooding over, among other things, the pier’s sad state of disrepair. Mid-afternoon, the beach was deserted; a fishing boat appeared now and then far out in the bay and moved almost imperceptibly across the horizon. Huddled in the olive-drab blanket, Bonnie was vaguely contemplating her kinship to the dozen pelicans that perched silent and brown on the southern edge of the pier, when she noticed a figure approaching along the water’s edge. He walked up to her as if she was his intended destination, stopped, and said hello. He was dressed like a cowboy—faded jeans, denim jacket, boots, and a carved leather belt buckle the size of a saucer; his longish black hair tucked behind his ears, his bright blue eyes both guileless and intrusive beneath thick eyebrows, he radiated physical beauty, a thing Bonnie still sometimes felt must be endured as much as enjoyed. His looks had been her chief preoccupation during that first meeting, such that her recollection of what was said remained spotty. He’d told her he was a preacher at a nearby independent church—a surprise, given that she’d already judged him to be in his early 20s—and that he liked to walk along the shore when he was trying to figure out his sermons; he’d said that Pastor had been his mother’s maiden name, that it had put him in the way of a considerable amount of teasing when he was a boy, and that now his mother liked to joke that if she’d known he was going to grow into his name, she’d have named him Doctor. Bonnie in turn disclosed the bare bones of her situation: she’d grown up right there, in the big old house behind them; gone to boarding school and college up North; pursued for nearly a decade a career as an actress in New York, with little success; returned to Point Clear last year to help nurse her father, who’d had a stroke; and stayed on after his death in October. Pastor had sat beside her in the sand and most of the time gazed out at the bay while they talked. He told her he was sorry to hear about her father and then added, “I think I might’ve gone into acting if I hadn’t been strong-armed by the Lord.” He’d turned and looked at her then, quite deeply into her eyes, a moment to which Bonnie had since attached a good degree of mystical import. She believed that he saw her, as no one had ever seen her—partly because he had the eyes for it, and partly because she was for the first time someone definite to be seen.
He can’t work here, Bonnie now thought, standing at the screen door, and then, He’s too young for me, but these fears failed to find anywhere to lodge and died quickly. The last several weeks her mind had been dispensing with most fears in this fashion, an effect, she believed, generated by her happiness. Her happiness—new, admittedly, but also strong, the way some new things could be—didn’t blot out her fears. It simply rendered them (like, as Pastor had said, boiling water did to fat in a pot on the stove), so they might be seen for what they truly were. Then they could be felt thoroughly and do what most fears were supposed to do: pass. Pastor had said to her early on, months before they were married, that if she meant to “get better,” the catchall term he used for every kind of spiritual progress, she would need to give up her long love affair with fear. He’d said, rightly, that she’d neglected herself spiritually, and this neglect had made her vulnerable to whatever powerful force might want to step in to administrate her inner life. Bonnie had recognized “powerful force” as a reference to the Devil, but Pastor had wisely refrained from using the actual word on her. Fear, he’d said, had become her Lord and Master because she’d neglected to nurture any other thing. We belonged to God, he’d told her, and our belongingness to God was the core of our true nature. If we didn’t know that, then everything else we thought we knew about ourselves was but a house without a foundation, a scary place to live. Every time the wind blew, it rattled our walls. Terrified night and day, he said, we stand vigilant at the windows, certain that some bad weather’s going to come along and blow us away. And what chance does a person have, under those circumstances, for any degree of happiness?
Such talk revealed him to Bonnie but also showed his understanding of her lifelong trouble. It had for her several startling qualities—she’d found it more comforting than threatening, for example—but most startling was that it often came, not simultaneously, but in conjunction with, lovemaking. Equally startling, the lovemaking itself had comprised for four full months nothing more than kissing and fondling, and the ease with which he moved from physical affection to this other kind, a caring for her soul, made even the novelty of it feel to her like part of the romance. The first of June, they got engaged. Through a ritual of holding hands and joining together in prayer, he’d declared them married in God’s eyes—the ceremony to follow in a few weeks would be the joyous public expression of such. This meant they could have what Bonnie privately thought of as real sex, but when at last it happened—the reservoir of desire so deep, the terrain of friendship already explored so great—it didn’t feel like real sex at all, but something she’d never experienced with any of a half dozen lovers from the past: it felt like real intimacy.
Pastor’s question—What chance does a person have, under those circumstances, for any degree of happiness?—first put to her months ago, returned to Bonnie now in his lovely, calming voice, and she leaned forward and laid her head on the cushion of the couch. She thought, He’s going to leave me, he’s going to leave me for sure, but she recalled without delay that she belonged to God, who would never leave her, and that God was the well of her happiness, not Pastor Vandorpe. Fear, so long allowed to burn unchecked inside her, continued to sputter out these desperate flaming arrows, but the difference today was that they seldom ignited anything. In a way, even their hot little sting served to remind her of how she had changed.
She had changed, though she worried that she had too directly substituted God for the various medications she used to use to stay afloat; she worried about becoming too dependent on God, which was actually a more palatable way of worrying about becoming too dependent on Pastor, God’s resident proxy. Not long ago she’d expressed to Pastor her concern about overdependence on God, and he’d told her that God was not a drug, that a person couldn’t overdose on Him. But secretly she enjoyed thinking of God as a drug—after all, if you couldn’t overdose, what was the harm?—and what she liked most about the God-as-a-drug idea was that you couldn’t run out of it.
Now Bonnie pushed open the screen door a few inches, wondering where the cat could have gotten to, and then she was jolted by the sound of a voice behind her. When she turned, she saw Pastor standing in the doorway. “You scared me to death!” she cried. “I thought you’d left for the church.”
“You didn’t think I’d leave without saying goodbye, did you?” he said, clipping his cell phone onto his belt. “I had to change my shorts. Do you by any chance want to come with me today?”
“Oh,” she said, “do you want me to? I mean, today, especially?”
“Just if you want to,” he said. “How are you feeling anyway?”
This referred to her breakfast-table complaint of queasiness, which she’d felt recurrently the last three weeks or so. Now, however, she felt strangely caught by him at something.
“I guess I’m about the same,” she said.
He looked at her, tilting his head side to side, as if to get a couple of different angles on her, then said, “You probably ought to stay home then, I guess.”
She wanted to explain that this little lie wasn’t the old kind she used to tell: one of the ways she’d “got better” over the past few months was that she wasn’t so prone to maladies brought on by her mind. That old kind of lying—which wasn’t technically lying at all since she experienced it as truth—was the product of her being the victim of what Pastor called a false reality. She didn’t so much bear false witness, he’d said, as she bore witness to something false. She really had been feeling queasy lately but it generally passed by this time of the day and the reason she’d pretended still to feel unwell was because she didn’t right now want to leave the house. But all this was too complicated to explain and she wished he wouldn’t leave either, so she went to him and put her arms around him. As he pulled her closer, she whispered, “Don’t go, Pastor. It’s quiet here now.”
He put her at arm’s length, a hand on each of her shoulders. “You think that’s why I’m going over to the church . . . because the cat splattered my shorts with tea?” he said. “Why, on a different day, that cat flying through the window might’ve been my inspiration, sweetheart. I’m just looking for a change of scenery because I’m not getting anywhere with my sermon.”
To Bonnie’s ears this only confirmed her fear that he couldn’t work at the house, and she figured her disappointment showed on her face, for he drew her to him again and kissed her on the lips, a consolation kiss if there ever was one. “Why don’t you take your book down to the beach and soak up some of that sunshine?” he said. “It might do you some good.”
“Maybe I will,” she said, smiling and feeling, ridiculously, that she was smiling bravely. Just as he was about to turn, she almost blurted, “What’s it about, Pastor . . . the sermon, I mean?”
“‘Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away,’” Pastor answered, in the special overly enunciated voice he used for quoting scripture. “‘And every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.’”
“Which means?” she asked.
“Well, that’s the very question I’m wrestling with, Bonnie girl,” he said. “What do you think it means?”
Before she could stop herself, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t even know who’s speaking,” she said. “It sounds like a psalm.”
“No,” said Pastor, “not a psalm, but I’ll give you a hint. The verse before it goes, ‘I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman.’”
“Husbandman?” said Bonnie. “That’s a funny word.”
“Well, just plug ‘gardener’ in there,” said Pastor. “I am the true vine and my father is the gardener.”
“Okay, let’s see,” said Bonnie. “If he’s speaking in metaphors . . . and he’s talking about one of his favorite subjects, himself . . . I’m going to have to take a wild guess and say it’s Jesus.”
Pastor laughed, genuinely, she thought, and said, “Bingo. Now talk to me about the next verse. Every branch that beareth not fruit—”
His cell phone went off—strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that indicated Edith Busby, Senior Minister’s Secretary at the church—and he pressed a button to silence it. “She’s probably just calling to remind me about Prayer Team at noon,” he said.
Bonnie, happy to evade the Bible verse question, kissed him and said, “Go. You should go.”
“I’ll be home for supper,” he said. “What’s Macy cooking tonight?”
“I don’t know,” Bonnie answered.
“Well, it’ll be delicious,” he said, “you can count on that.” He gave her one of his big bear hugs and turned to leave. From inside the living room he called, “Be good, now.”
This time Bonnie followed him through the sprawling dark house, past the living room and dining room, down the long hallway past the bedrooms, past the library where her dead father’s ashes rested in an urn on the mantelpiece, and into the kitchen; she stood at the Dutch door of the mud room, at the corner of the house where they parked the cars and where Macy had her small apartment. She called out, “Bye-bye, husbandman. Wifewoman will miss you while you’re gone.”
He waved from behind the steering wheel of his shiny new, fire-engine red, open-top Jeep (her wedding present to him), and it made her think of his leaving on safari. She watched as he maneuvered the car into the driveway with one hand and rigged a headset to his ears with the other. The oyster-shell driveway, which ran nearly a quarter mile from the house to the road, bisected a flat open field, bare and green except for a three-car garage, a gardener’s cottage, and two large islands of azaleas. Bonnie remained at the door until the Jeep disappeared in the distance through the brick columns at the entrance to the property. She then turned away, moved back through Macy’s pristine kitchen and into the dark hallway inside. She paused before a huge mirror in a mahogany frame, thinking, Something’s wrong. In the dim mottled glass she saw, not herself, but her older sister Ellen, and astonishingly, this older, paler, and entirely unglamorous woman burst into tears.
She did not take her book down to the beach to soak up some sunshine. The sun was oppressive this time of year and she was tired of The Power and the Glory, which she used mostly as a prop, something to hold in her hands those mornings when Pastor stayed home to work and she wanted to be near him. She thought the reason he’d suggested the beach was because of how she looked, tired and cadaverous. She decided, instead, to take a long bubble bath and wash her hair, the kind of action her theater friends in New York called changing your energy. The bathroom, attached to the master bedroom, was her favorite room in the house. Its pair of French windows reminded her of her lovely apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, now occupied by a tenant. As Bonnie soaked in the huge old claw-foot tub, she reflected on her morning so far and saw that what Pastor had caught her at, as he’d spoken her name and startled her on the porch, was that terrible skulking peril of 30-year-old, independently wealthy, and spiritually neglectful women who’d failed to find a clear calling: idleness. That moment, and their ensuing bland exchange, she thought, was mostly about sweet, beautiful Pastor, in his new home, trying to work out the mystery of his having chosen her. Always kind, always patient—How are you feeling? Do you want to come with me to the church? Why don’t you take your book down to the beach?—but conveying unintentionally, with kindness and patience, the need for a situation’s improvement. How much longer are you going to continue to feel poorly? When, if ever, will you begin to assume some of the duties of a preacher’s wife? Is there anything you can do about that pasty complexion?
The vision of her older sister in the hallway mirror, and the sudden tears, had undone Bonnie, but only temporarily. The thing itself had nothing other than physical content, based on the realities of chronology and a strong family resemblance; after all, she loved Ellen and wouldn’t have minded “ending up” like her in any of several ways. But right afterwards, she’d been seized by a panicky conviction that her new happiness was already abandoning her. Gratefully she recalled Pastor’s once telling her that happiness didn’t exclude tears—for that matter, happiness didn’t exclude unhappiness—and the lasting result of the horrible moment at the mirror was not only that she’d found her way to the bubble bath, but that she’d now spent some of her time there “with” her sister, the way they might have actually done as little girls if Ellen hadn’t been sent away to boarding school when Bonnie was only three.
Since mailing Ellen the pored-over letter revealing her marriage, Bonnie had thought of her older sister daily. She’d imagined Ellen’s reading the letter, imagined her talking with their brother, Morris, about it, imagined her rushing to the telephone despite Bonnie’s admonishment not to. More than two weeks had passed since then, longer than Bonnie had anticipated, but Pastor had encouraged her to be patient. He’d found it unfathomable that Bonnie would get married and not invite to the wedding her brother and sister from Massachusetts, and he’d worried that Bonnie would regret the decision. But Pastor also couldn’t have begun to understand how confusing her choice of a husband was bound to be to them. Bonnie had told him that she loved Ellen and Morris very much, but that her connection to them was complicated, and she would be distracted on her wedding day by what she imagined to be their opinions of everything. Pastor had said, “Their opinion of me, you mean,” but she assured him that Ellen, and especially Morris, were opinionated on most subjects.
She’d described each of her siblings to Pastor as happily married, but she’d still not told him the gender of Morris’s spouse. She convinced herself that she’d been truthful to Pastor—sadly, she really would have been constantly fretting about Morris and Ellen’s opinions. But she had to admit, too, that her decision also had allowed her to postpone the business of Morris’s sexual orientation; at least she hadn’t had to deal with it on her wedding day. She hated herself for thinking of Morris as a problem, something to avoid or to put off, and she reminded herself that Pastor’s primary message, always, was love love love, and that whatever he believed about homosexuality would be filtered by that. She was enough at peace with all this, she decided, and happy that none of her worries had developed into anything resembling an obsession. She’d felt a reasonable amount of shame since mailing the letter, but she was living with it. She believed she’d made the right decision for herself, and if she couldn’t put herself first on her own wedding day, then when could she? She’d thought off and on these last two weeks of phoning Ellen, but she’d stopped herself. She meant to give her sister all the time she needed. It would be selfish to rush Ellen for the benefit of her own relief.
Soon it became apparent to Bonnie that she’d sufficiently changed her energy, and as she stepped out of the bathtub she had a brand new idea: she would paint her toenails, put on something nice, and walk up the promenade to the Grand Hotel for lunch. After all, she thought, there’s idle and there’s idle—idle doing nothing and idle doing nothing of substance. She dried off, turbaned her hair in the bath towel, and pulled on a light summer robe. At her dressing table in the bedroom she towel-dried her shoulder-length hair and combed it back over the top of her head and behind her ears. She changed into shorts and a tank top, found the nail polish she wanted and a bag of cotton balls, then went barefoot to the screen porch and took a seat on the rattan couch. After she’d placed a cotton ball between each toe of her right foot and painted three nails, the doorbell rang. She thought, paperboy, girl scout, political canvasser, and hobbled through the house, walking on the heel of her right foot. About halfway to the door, she thought, irrationally, Ellen, which made her heart race.
But of course it was not Ellen. When Bonnie opened the door in the foyer, she saw, to her slight horror, a middle-aged woman whom she immediately identified as someone from the Church of the Blessed Hunger. Large and strong-looking, with short, dark brown, tightly permed hair, the woman wore a black-and-white tent dress and shiny pink flip-flops and held with both hands a shoe box filled with peaches. “Hello, Mrs. Vandorpe,” she said, with an apologetic smile, “I hope I’m not catching you at a bad time. I’m just coming back from Hogarth’s over at Daphne and I said to myself I’m gonna take some of these beautiful peaches they had to Pastor and his new wife. I think they call these Majestics, down from Chilton County, and they’re supposed to be real good.”
Bonnie relieved the woman of the box of peaches, thanked her, and then an awkward moment ensued in which the woman took in Bonnie’s wet hair, her shorts and tank top, and the cotton balls between the toes of her right foot; and in which Bonnie saw that the woman meant, despite any deterrent these details might present, to be invited in. At last Bonnie said, “I’m sorry, I know I know you, but I don’t remember your name.”
“That’s all right,” said the woman. “It’s Ruth, Ruth Delk, Mrs. Robert Delk. You can’t very well be expected to know everybody that knows you.”
Bonnie rather enjoyed the way this remark made her feel like a celebrity, and she sensed that the woman might be accustomed to taking people, including preachers’ wives, as she found them. “Well, Mrs. Delk,” she said, “as you can see, I’m in the middle of painting my toenails. But if you don’t mind, you can come sit with me on the porch while I finish.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” said the woman. “But are you sure it’s not an imposition? I can’t stay but a minute anyway.”
As they moved through the house toward the porch, the woman oohed and aahed over every little thing—the Chinese umbrella stand by the coat closet, the Persian runner and brass sconces in the hallway. At the door to the dining room, she paused, stunned by the mahogany extension table, and said, “Would you look at that table! And all those legs jumbled up underneath it. Don’t tell me you can make it even longer than it already is.”
“I think there are about seven more leaves in the attic,” said Bonnie.
“Well, how much fun!” said the woman. “You don’t run across something like that every day.”
When they stepped onto the porch, Ruth Delk cupped her hands over her mouth and cried, “How do you stand it, it’s so beautiful? If I had something like that to look at all day long I wouldn’t ever leave the house. I wouldn’t get a single thing done.”
Once Mrs. Delk was seated on the porch, Bonnie, still hobbling around, took the peaches to the kitchen and poured two tumblers of tea from a pitcher in the refrigerator. When she returned, she told Mrs. Delk that coincidentally Pastor’s sermon this coming Sunday was going to be about fruit, not realizing until she’d said it how idiotic it sounded.
“About fruit?” said the woman, bewildered.
“Well, sort of,” said Bonnie.
After a pause, Mrs. Delk, as if determined to make some sense of Bonnie’s words, said, “Well, there’s an awful lot of fruit in the Bible.”
Bonnie thanked her again for the peaches and said it was thoughtful of her to bring them.
“Well, you are just quite welcome,” said the woman. “Did you know that up in Chilton County they have a Peach Festival every year? Everything is peaches and more peaches in Chilton County. They have a Peach Parade, a Peach Queen, and a Peach Contest. I guess they had a bumper crop this year since the spring weather cooperated. I’m very grateful for it, too, since it’s my favorite fruit. Do you like them, Mrs. Vandorpe? You can be honest.”
Bonnie said that she loved peaches, too.
“Most people don’t know it about peaches,” said Mrs. Delk, “but they won’t ripen and get any sweeter off the tree, not like apples and pears will. The minute you pick a peach it just stops dead. I understand they’re very rich in vitamin A, too, which I’m told is good for your eyes and also for your digestive tract. I don’t know why I’m yammering on about peaches this way, except that I’m nervous, formally meeting you for the first time in your own home. Tell me about you, Mrs. Vandorpe, that’s what I really want to know about. Is that your very own pier out there I’m looking at?”
Bonnie, who had resumed painting her toenails, suddenly recalled precisely who Ruth Delk was—a soprano who stood in the front row of the church choir and about whom Pastor had said, She’s as good as the day is long but Lord have mercy the woman could talk the ears off a stalk of corn. Bonnie said, “Yes, that’s our pier, and I’m afraid it’s in need of some attention.”
“I can’t begin to imagine how much work it must be to keep a place like this up,” said Mrs. Delk. “I’m told your father died last year and I was so sorry to hear it. I didn’t know him, but I wish I had. I don’t reckon Pastor’s got a lot of time for things like piers, what with the church growing the way it is. That polish is a lovely shade of red. Do you mind if I ask you what it’s called?”
Bonnie had forgotten the name of the nail polish and had to lift the bottle to read the label. “It’s Revlon,” said Bonnie. “‘Forever Scarlet.’”
“Well, it’s pretty,” said Mrs. Delk. “You know, I have a confession to make, Mrs. Vandorpe. Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve wanted to set foot inside one of these houses here on the promenade. I used to think about the people who must live in them and what their lives must be like. And here I am, talking to one, and you’re just as normal as can be. People are just people and houses are just houses, I guess. Don’t bother comparing your insides to other people’s outsides, as Pastor would say. You know, I haven’t even said best wishes on your marriage. ‘Best wishes’ is the right thing to say, did you know that? Not ‘Congratulations.’ My mother taught me that. My mother was the Emily Post of Point Clear before she died nine years ago. Any time anybody needed to know the right way to do something they would call up my mother and she would tell them. And me, I have to think about what side of the plate to put the knife and fork on every time I set the supper table. Of course most people don’t care about such things anymore. We’ve become a very informal society, which is all right, I guess. But, you know, I wouldn’t mind knowing just one woman in my life today that was even a little bit like my mother.”
“I would have at least gotten dressed, Mrs. Delk,” said Bonnie, “if I’d known you were stopping by.”
“Oh, honey, did you think I was talking about you? No, no, not at all. I’m the one who broke the rules by not even calling to tell you that I wanted to drop in. Of course that’s changed too, hasn’t it. It used to be you could drop in on somebody if you haCan it be true that you grew up right here in this very house?”
“I did grow up here,” said Bonnie, “but I went away to boarding school in Connecticut when I was 12.”
“Connecticut?” said the woman. “Well, that accounts for how much of your accent you’ve lost. But somebody told me they thought you’d spent time in New York City of all places.”
“That’s right,” said Bonnie. “I lived there my whole adult life.”
“Well, somebody told me that, but nobody said doing what.”
Bonnie, finished painting her toenails, screwed the cap back onto the bottle. “I was trying to be an actress,” she said. “Trying and failing.”
“An actress on the stage?” said Mrs. Delk. “Well, how much fun! You’re certainly pretty enough for it. Practically nobody at church can stop talking about how pretty you are. And you know, I have nothing but admiration for any kind of a struggling artist.”
“It wouldn’t be honest for me to pass myself off as a struggling artist,” said Bonnie. “I always had plenty of money from my family. I never needed to work to put food on the table. I’ve sometimes wondered if I mightn’t have done better—or at least quit sooner—if I’d had the pressure of needing to make money.”
“I think I know what you mean,” said Mrs. Delk. “But what made you pursue a career in the theater. I mean, what gave you the idea?”
Bonnie saw in the woman’s face something more than casual curiosity—she seemed to be wondering how a person gets from Point Clear, Alabama, to a theatrical stage in New York City. “I’m not sure,” Bonnie said. “I imagine it seemed magical to me, the theater. You know, a kind of childish make-believe. Since I’ve come back home here, I’ve started to think I wasted an awful lot of time. And that I was doing it for the wrong reasons.”
“The wrong reasons?” said the woman. “Do you mean vanity?”
Oddly, this idea had never crossed Bonnie’s mind—her reflections on the subject had been tedious and complex. She’d imagined, as a younger person, that if she chased a career that required her to inhabit roles, it might not matter so much that she felt so hopelessly undefined. Over the course of a decade of frustration and disappointment, she’d gradually understood that the truly good actors were those who seemed most thoroughly to know themselves. It was as if they were braver—they had little fear of venturing great distances inside a role, of wholly giving themselves to it—because they were, at some very deep level, anchored. Bonnie had no anchor. She couldn’t venture very far. Now she thought, Ironic, for she had finally ventured far, and look where she had ended up, back in her childhood home. Mrs. Delk’s one-word explanation was suddenly appealing. “Yes,” she said, “vanity and other things, I suppose.”
“I don’t know the first thing about acting,” said Mrs. Delk, “but I have noticed, just singing in the church choir, that I have to . . . well, when I get up there in front of all those people, I have to ask myself, okay, am I here to praise God or to show off my singing voice? Do you sing, Mrs. Vandorpe? I thought, being an actress, you might sing.”
“I can carry a tune,” said Bonnie, “but I’m not ready for the choir, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You’re probably being modest,” said Mrs. Delk, “but that’s okay. The choir’s not for everybody, which is a good thing too. What would we do if everybody wanted to sing in the choir? Where did you go to church in New York?”
“I didn’t,” Bonnie said. “I’m afraid Pastor’s married himself a heathen. I wasn’t really brought up in the church. My mother died when I was born—I mean she died in childbirth—and my father wasn’t a churchgoer. But I was baptized a Presbyterian, which was what my mother was.”
“That’s what my mother was,” Mrs. Delk cried, with delight. “I went to the Presbyterian Church when I was a little girl. My father was like yours, went to services about three or four times a year, but he was such a good man. I don’t think you have to go to church to be good, do you? Well, some of us do, I guess. I think I have to. But I’m just so glad life has settled you down with us at the Blessed Hunger. You couldn’t have picked a better place to light.”
“Thank you,” said Bonnie.
“Pastor makes everything so plain, don’t you think?” said Mrs. Delk. “And him without any kind of formal training too. I bet you must feel lucky indeed.”
“I do,” said Bonnie. “I do feel lucky, Mrs. Delk. With Pastor and . . . well, you see, the thing is, I’m still finding my way around though.”
The woman looked at her, bewildered again, and smiled sympathetically. “Finding your way around?” she said. “You don’t mean Point Clear.”
“Not literally Point Clear,” said Bonnie. “I mean this is a whole new life to me—the death of my father, me returning to my childhood home, the Church of the Blessed Hunger, my marriage. It’s all happened so quickly. Suddenly I’m married to a Christian minister and I haven’t even been able to muster the courage to stay for coffee hour yet. I’m sure people have been wondering what’s wrong with me.”
Bonnie had been more frank than she’d meant to be, and Mrs. Delk appeared to be at a loss for words. Rather than this seeming to Bonnie like any kind of victory, she felt she’d somehow injured the woman. Mrs. Delk, who had not previously touched her tea, now reached for it and took a long drink. At last she said, “Would you mind very much if I called you by your Christian name?”
“I wish you would,” said Bonnie.
“Well,” said the woman. “I’m sure it’s all very new, Bonnie, and an awful lot to adjust to. And here I am, barging in on you, invading your privacy, poking around like a common busybody. I feel a little ashamed of myself, if you want to know the truth, and if I’m not mistaken you were getting ready to go somewhere before I arrived on your doorstep, so now I’m gonna let you go and get yourself dressed.”
Bonnie said she was glad Mrs. Delk stopped by, it wasn’t an imposition, and that all she was getting ready for was a walk up to the hotel for a bite to eat. It occurred to her to invite the woman to join her, but she could see that it would further disconcert her.
As Mrs. Delk rose from her chair, she said, “I only hope I haven’t made you late.”
“Not at all,” said Bonnie. “I’m going by myself, so it doesn’t matter what time I get there.”
“By yourself?” said the woman, turning to leave. “Now, there’s something I wish I could do, go eat at a hotel by myself. I lack the self-confidence for it and I don’t mind saying so.”
As Bonnie followed Mrs. Delk back through the house, she was suddenly sure that walking to the Grand Hotel to eat by oneself was something preachers’ wives didn’t generally do in Point Clear. Mrs. Delk peered intently into each open doorway along the hall, as if she meant to memorize everything. When she reached the door at the end, the woman turned to Bonnie and said, “Now, I’m not gonna tell a living soul at the church that I visited with you because I don’t want to make anybody jealous.”
Bonnie laughed, and Mrs. Delk reached out, touched her cheek, and looked into her eyes. “You dear thing,” she said, “growing up without the love of a mother. I didn’t know that.”
Surprised, Bonnie felt tears welling in her eyes and only smiled, not knowing how to respond. Mrs. Delk opened the door herself. Sunshine flooded the hall. She stepped onto the stoop outside and into the yard, but when she was only a few feet away, she turned and came back to the door. “Do you mind if I give you one little piece of advice, even though it’s not my place to do so?”
“Of course not,” said Bonnie.
“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you Pastor’s special,” she said. “He’s called by God and anybody can see that clear as day. People are naturally drawn to that in a man, I guess.” She paused, cast her eyes upwards, and shook her head. “Oh, my,” she said, “I’m getting in deep. I don’t know how to say what I want to say.”
“No, please,” said Bonnie. “Try.”
“Well,” said the woman, then paused again and took a deep breath. “Sometimes, with a man like Pastor, people just want to be near him. And wanting to be near him, they can get confused and think maybe he belongs to them somehow. They can start to think they have some claim on him. He doesn’t affect me that way because I knew him when he was a boy. He had a reputation for being wild, you know, a little reckless when he was a teenager. He grew up and answered the call of the Lord, but when all’s said and done he’s still just a man. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
“I’m not sure,” said Bonnie. “But you said you had some advice for me.”
The woman nodded and squinted, pulling a determined face. “You and him are married now,” she said. “You’re his and he’s yours. If anybody thinks different . . . if anybody has opinions about how y’all should and shouldn’t be doing things . . . well, you just don’t pay them any mind. Here’s what I want to say: You take your own sweet time, Bonnie, and you just find your own sweet way.”
An expression of such thorough self-doubt came over Mrs. Delk’s face that it forbade any questioning from Bonnie, who was suddenly thinking again of her apartment in New York, rented by an agency to a stranger, of its tall front windows from which you could see the tops of the trees in Central Park. She watched the woman walk to her car. She expected her to turn one last time to wave goodbye, but she didn’t. Bonnie remained in the doorway and thought, People have been wondering what’s wrong with me, then, after another moment, she peered down at her newly lacquered toenails, so impossibly brilliant-red in the sunshine, they made her feet look fake.
Dennis McFarland is the author of several novels, most recently, Nostalgia. His short stories have appeared in such publications as the Scholar, The New Yorker, and Best American Short Stories.
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