Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The hair was the same, you can't really get rid of curls. But she'd probably had laser treatment, because she wasn't wearing glasses any more. Sometimes you can tell when it's more than just contacts. Overall, she looked good.

"So, why come back now?" I asked. "Been, what, eighteen years?"

She nodded, with a slight smile that didn't reach her eyes. They held a familiar speculative look, one which, thankfully not so often now, still intruded into my dreams. She just sat there, her almost-smile playing around her mouth. I thought maybe a little sadly.

There was one of those funky wooden clocks behind her on the wall of the coffee shop. I watched the sweep hand make its standard circular journey. It seemed to take a lot longer than a minute at a time. She lifted her cup and sipped coffee. That gave her almost-smile an excuse to leave.

"Sarah?" I asked eventually.

I'd had it figured from the time she'd made the call. There wasn't any other reason why she might come back all those years. She blinked and put the cup down.

"You remember her?"

Of course I remembered. Well, kind of. Little Sarah had been three when her mother had left my orbit and headed for the other side of the sun.

"You told me not to."

She'd told me much more than that. After the baby arrived, she had made it very clear that what we'd had together was over. I was vulnerable then, not in a position to protest. A pastor's congregation in a small New England town didn't look kindly on his dallying with a married woman. That's why I could only now remember beyond the distance of eighteen years.

"I remember a three-year-old," I said, at the end of another long journey on the clock. "That's all I was left with."

"I'm not going to say I'm sorry. We both know it's too late for that."

Most people figure that the woman hurts most when a relationship breaks up. Something about their being regarded as the softer gender. Truth is, they're an awful lot tougher than men, especially when they're doing the dumping. A woman will generally only break up a relationship after trying hard to keep it together. Trying to mend it, if they can. Or if they want to. When a woman quits, she has normally thought the move through.

So if the guy hasn't been expecting it, it's like he just got a knee where it hurts most. First he's lost, confused and in incredible pain. Then he gets his breath back, and there are probably some tears. Followed by an anger that eventually eases down to a sense of loss. Then, if he's lucky, he goes numb about the whole thing. Depending.

Depending on the fallout.

"I'm not a pastor anymore."

"I know. When I asked in Mayville, most people couldn't remember you."

"Don't want to talk about me, more than likely. I'm a black spot on the town's reputation. Small towns don't like that."

She nodded.

By now I was counting the ticks the clock made as well as mentally pushing the sweep hand around. I found I was waiting for it to reach the top of the hour mark before I spoke again. Clockwork punctuation, maybe you could say.

"Did they talk about you? Remember you?"

She shook her head, her curls remaining tight to the movement. "I didn't say who I was. If they did remember me, nobody said."

"You said 'most' couldn't remember me. Some did?"

"The Chief. He's retired now, but he remembered. He didn't say much, good or bad."

Chief of Police Sam Oates had always been a fair man. A small town cop who knew his people and relied on that knowledge to keep things in order. He hadn't judged me before I left, or said anything that made me think I deserved judgement.

"He found me for you," I said.

"He made some calls. Said it wasn't hard, since you work for the Commonwealth."

Yeah, my work. My church called it repentance. Unlike the Catholics, we do our Purgatory on earth.

Joe was her husband. I knew them as a couple in my congregation. Just faces first, when they came new to Mayville. No kids, so they didn't show up at the family events we ran. She was more regular at services than they were as a pair. It was one of those Sundays, when she'd come on her own, that she started to open up. I was, as usual, outside the church door after service, meeting and greeting.

"He's, ah, unwell," she said when I asked about him.

It was how she said it. You get to tell in the pastor business. I suggested a cup of coffee from the table on the church porch, but she smiled gently and shook her head. "Thanks, but I got to go home and fix dinner."

The next time, though, she did stay for the coffee. We chatted, and she left. It was two or three Sundays after that when Joe next came to service with her.

"I got a drink problem, Pastor," he said straight out when I asked after his health. I hadn't expected such bluntness, but it answered a lot of unasked questions. It also killed any further conversation that day. I made an anodyne offer to listen any time he wanted, and they left.

That's where it should have stayed. But soon afterwards she took up the vacant part time position of church secretary, and it went on from there.

'Working for the Commonwealth' of Massachusetts was a classy description for my very unclassy job.

"How long you been there?"

"Five years, maybe. Hard to tell sometimes."

Hard to tell, because the old men where I worked as an aide had no sense of time themselves any more. The Alzheimers Ward in the public mental hospital didn't exactly need calendars for its residents. Even clocks were redundant when memory span might be as little as a couple of minutes. The whole place, the whole job, smelled of old men and old age. It wasn't necessary to care. But I did.

"Before that?" She absently pulled at a curl, a habit I remembered from before. I let the sweep hand get back to the top of the clock. Thought about the days I couldn't remember.

"Doesn't matter," I said.

"Maybe it should."

I knew it was wrong. And probably unfair. But I said it anyhow. "Not any of your business, any more, is it?"

Like a slap to her face. Obviously even all those years hadn't killed off my anger completely. I felt momentarily good, even a little triumph. Then I felt lousy and small. As I should.

"Sorry," I mumbled, lifting my cup to my lips to avoid having to say anything more.

She shrugged. "You're right. It is none of my business. Not after what happened."

"Maybe if—" But I let the thought hang. Eighteen years on, maybes are always dead.

"She's gone."

I'd been surprised when I opened the door and saw it was Joe. He hadn't been around much in the last year. She had told me he was much better these days. More content in himself. Off the sauce and working regular at the Jiffy Lube. I'd put it down to the child's arrival.

"Sarah too. She took her away, too."

He just stood in the doorway, looking lost. Weaving a little, as if he was tipsy. But it was middle of the morning, and he didn't have any smell of alcohol.

"You want to come in? A coffee?" I didn't know what else to say.

Joe stayed put, though. His eyes were blank. I'd seen that look before, in the face of a local 'Nam vet. He would always have it, things he'd seen had seared his brain. Maybe things he'd done, too. Killed his soul.

"Upped and gone. Left a note, just to say they ain't never comin' back. Never."

Then he turned and the doorway was empty. I heard his car start up at the road, and he drove away.

I closed the door and walked back to my small kitchen. Making coffee was a ritual, to put off having to think about anything else.

I felt like I'd been kicked. And worse, that I deserved it.

"He came looking for us. I heard he had been asking around. Friends kept me in touch. But he never got close."

The waitress came up with a coffee jug, offering refills. I looked across the table and she shook her head.

"No thanks," I said. "We're about done."

But, of course, we weren't, yet.

I didn't see Joe again for six months. I knew he wasn't around much, though I'd been told now and again that he'd been seen back in town. Always briefly, usually sighted in the bar out on the Boston Road.

I didn't go looking for him, anyhow. I preferred my own company for drinking. And, though it was getting more difficult, for praying. But in the end, it wasn't up to me.

"That coffee still on offer?"

It was a deja vu. He wasn't who I'd expected when I answered the knock. Again he stood there, weaving slightly. No smell of alcohol this time, either. But the blank look was gone. Now his eyes held only a sad resignation.

"Sure." I stood back and waved him through. His timing was good, I'd just brewed. Trying to kick-start a sermon I wanted to prepare. Like the praying, this had also more difficult.

"I knew, you know that?" he said from the couch, after taking his first slug and now warming his hands around the mug.

"You knew what, Joe?" It's always the same, isn't it? Trying to stall the inevitable, even when you know the lie is open between you.

"I knew. But I was OK about it." He was almost talking to himself, really. It was like I wasn't there. "She was happy about the kid. And I was happy because she was."

"A child blesses a marriage, Joe." God should have struck me down as a hypocrite then and there, me playing the consoling pastor.

"Baby Sarah did that," he nodded, gazing into the blackness of the mug. "She made us a family."

Then he looked across at me. "Truth was, she was a miracle, Pastor."

I could have returned with the platitude that all babies are miracles. But something inside had finally given me a little grace.

Joe's expression had changed. Along with the resignation, there was the trace of a lop-sided grin. "Y'see, Pastor, we couldn't have children. Well, I couldn't, anyhows. We'd gone to all the clinics, done all the tests."

I just sat there. A car horn blew outside, jerking the curtain of silence that had suddenly fallen between us. Joe took another sip of coffee, then put the mug down on the low table beside where he sat. "Yeah, Pastor. Sarah was a miracle all right. Your miracle."

He stood up. "I knew it was you, Pastor," he said softly. "But that was OK. I could live with it, as long as we were a family. Like I said, she was happy, I was happy."

He sighed, then walked past me to the door. I didn't turn to watch him go. But I sensed him stop.

"We're not a family any more, Pastor. She's gone, for good. They're both gone. I tried, but I know I won't find them. Ever. Not in this life, anyhows."

He closed the door gently behind him. I almost wished that he'd slammed it. Anger would have been easier to take.

I sat looking at my own coffee, black and as impossible to see into as was my own soul. I put the cup down and tried to pray. That God would bring solace to Joe. Also, selfishly more important at that moment, to me.

"You knew he died?"

She nodded. "A friend sent me the newspaper clipping."

I changed my mind. Raised a hand and caught the waitress's eye. She nodded and brought over the coffee jug and two fresh mugs. It gave the sweep hand time to do two full journeys. And gave me time to remember things I didn't want to.

"He came to see me that morning," I said after the waitress had left. "He told me he'd known all along. He told me why."

She hesitated. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen her seem to not know what to do.

"You never told me he knew," I said. "And you knew he did."

Now it was her turn to wait for the clock. Except that she couldn't see it, of course. So I watched it instead.

"It wasn't necessary," she said eventually. "Things were already too complicated."

I shook my head. "I was part of the problem, part of what made it complicated. I had a right to know. And I had to pick up the pieces."

"I just wanted the child," she said, almost too softly to hear.

"Joe ate his gun," Chief Oates said bluntly. "There's no need for an autopsy. The gun was registered to him, was still in his hand. And he left a note."

I wondered what was in the note. Me, maybe? But I didn't ask. And the Chief didn't volunteer.

Joe had no other relations that anybody knew about. So I had to arrange the service and the burial myself. But first, the Chief asked me to make the formal identification. "No kin. Pastor's as close as we'll get," he grunted. There was no discernible irony.

I hadn't seen a gun suicide before. Though the main force had taken off the back of his head, the explosion in his mouth had destroyed most of his face too. But I forced myself to look for a few moments, then turned to the Chief and nodded.

"Over there," he said, pointing to a sink in the corner of the morgue. I only just made it before throwing up everything I'd eaten that day.

"The service was a full house. Joe wasn't the most popular man in town, but I think he got the sympathy vote. Especially when his wife and child weren't there."

She winced. I was getting worryingly good at this.

"I didn't know," she murmured, her eyes closed. "I didn't get the clipping until a month after."

"Would you have come back if you had known?"

She forced her eyes open again then. They were clear of tears. "No."

"At least you're being honest now."

I never did find out what was in the note that Joe had left. And I was pretty sure that Sam Oates didn't tell anyone either. But the good people of Mayville weren't fools. They could get four when they added two and one and then another came along to complete the equation.

The senior of the church elders did all the talking. They'd waited a decent period after the funeral, but now, in my living room, it was showdown time. They'd been true New England polite about it, but there was no mistaking the message.

"It isn't working for me now, anyhow," I said. "It isn't working for any of us. It's time for me to pull back for a while, for everybody's sake."

We all knew, though, that I'd never be back.

"So, did you marry again?"

It could have been her turn to cut me this time. But we seemed to have run out of things to say. Besides, the box of memories had been well and truly opened, the cobweb seals torn.

She shook her head. "No. Didn't feel the need to. I had Sarah, she had me. We made out well enough on our own."

Can't say I was surprised. She had always been capable, could always focus on the things that were important.

"But you came back now."


"You still haven't said why."

She looked at me again. "Sarah's twenty-one soon. Next week, in fact."

I nodded. "I know. I remember every year."

That actually surprised her. Fact was, it was one of only two anniversaries I had ever been able to remember, without fail. For a moment she seemed to lose her direction, but recovered.

"She's been asking. About where she's from. About her father."

"And you said—?"

She shrugged. "Not much. Never have. There was just the two of us. She seemed happy with that, all the years."

I looked in my cup, already knowing it was empty again. Just like part of me inside had been all those years. Knowing, too, that another refill wouldn't be good for me.

I pushed the cup away.

"I go to clean Joe's grave once a year, anniversary of his death," I said. "The newspaper, as you probably saw, reported it as a home gun accident. You can thank the Chief for that."

I stood up then. "Take her to see it, sometime. Nobody'll say anything else."

She got to her feet too, though she seemed a little uncertain. When we had met in the coffee shop earlier, it had been uncomfortable. We hadn't hugged as old friends do, or even shaken hands. Now we stood close together, but apart, wavering on the edge of something.

"Live in peace," I said.

She nodded.

I turned and left, going back to look after my smelly old men with no memories remaining. Reparation, and what the Catholics called penance, until I could be forgiven and become one of them.

©2008 Brian Byrne.

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